Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Terms of Awe

I've designed this course in order for us to come to terms with awe, to know it for what it is, where it is potent and active in life, in nature, and in life.

Sometimes, in order to come to terms, you need terms -- a vocabulary to scaffold experience and wireframe understanding. So here is a first stab at exploring awe as a set of terms. These are words that name movements and feelings and a great many things. They will be the first handles we grab onto as we language our way toward awe. So, to begin with, a triad of terms: awe, wonder, and the sublime...

Awe is the anchor term for this quest, but its closest cousins are wonder and the sublime. And while these can be happy states, awe can be sober or even frightening. It suggests the concepts of reverence and fear. Even terror is related, though (like "fear") not every sense of terror is related to awe. Awe always seems linked to the unknown, the transcendent, or the sacred. Obviously religions give to awe a special place, associating awe with worship and devotion of the divine, but awe is also central to drama, connected with spectacle. Spectacle situates awe in the here-and-now, yet awe is often associated with the romantic or the ideal, which is most often at a great distance of time or space. Awe is associated with that which has great scope, either in nature or in art. History provides many points of entry for awe, including great events, epochs, or civilizations. Even though awe is often associated with what is at a distance, awe is also associated with transitional states or with the sense of being on a threshold, in some kind of liminal place or time in a status of expectation for an advent, whether this be an apocalypse or great ending, or some rebirth or grand beginning. Within the arts, certain genres or formats seem associated with awe, such as the epic , or in music, the symphony or the requiem. Awe may come through a torrent of words, or through few, as is evident in devotional writing or even haiku.  We are often in awe of things we know but hardly know -- what lies right before us and yet inscrutably beyond us.  These include our physical selves, which leave their mundane natures when understood scientifically or artistically. Sexuality has evoked many varieties of wonder, terror, and awe, including the tantric. Mysticism and the occult traffic in wonder, seductive with their secrecy. There can be a great humility to awe -- whether of the sacred or secular variety. We pause to take in what cannot fully be taken in, whether this is the size of the ocean, or the great abyss of outer space, or the complexity of biology in its teeming varieties. Great numbers or amounts can put us in awe, whether this is the number of transistors on a chip of silicon, or the grains of sand on the shore, or the multiplicative possibilities of thousands of generations of living things. We are in awe at patterns, at symmetry, and at rhythms or connections, such as coincidences. Awe is associated with surprise but also with familiarity. We find awe in the combination of intimacy and alienation found in marriage, or the other, which evokes concepts of orientalism and the alien. Today, the technological sublime brings machinery and computation into the world of wonder, with algorithms and computer code moving from functionality to higher orders of respect more aligned with the religious. Even data, through visualizations and data aesthetics, becomes more than numbers. Finally, awe seems forever associated with children and in the simplicity of unmediated experience, putting awe at odds with artistically induced wonders.

What can you add to the terms of awe? What is the vocabulary of wonder most familiar to you? What are the sources of the sublime you've known?