The Bacterial Sublime

The following paper was originally presented at the Mutamorphosis Conference in Prague in 2012.

There is a sense that the world is heading towards a new pandemic, that an unknown disease will emerge or that an existing pathogen will evolve strategies to resist our limited antibiotic cures and strike us down. At the heart of this a sense of the bacterial sublime, combining terror and awe as we reflect on the impact of these minute life forms, whose complex behaviours we are only now beginning to understand. New developments in whole genome sequencing of microbes now offer us hope, potentially enabling doctors to diagnose and precisely treat diseases in a matter of hours. But the implementation of whole genome sequencing (WGS) technology in microbiology raises a number of complex technical and ethical issues from processing and understanding vast amounts of data to potential privacy issues revealed by the specific organisms an individual may be carrying and passing on, and even in the way genomic data is pieced together jigsaw puzzle-like. The cost of WGS technology is continually being reduced whilst processing speed is increasing exponentially at an unexpected rate, and it will begin to be implemented across healthcare providers worldwide within the next five to ten years. We are in the midst of a quiet revolution that may have as big an impact on our lives as the industrial revolution had on our ancestors’ lives. Here I attempt to investigate our aesthetic relationship to bacteria and the cultural impact this co-evolution has had on mankind.

Edmund Burke, Contagion and the Sublime

To begin it is necessary to define what is meant by the term ‘bacterial sublime’ in order to understand how we might indeed confront it. In investigating the meaning of the term ‘Sublime’ I intend to primarily focus on Edmund Burke’s classic text “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” (known hereafter as the Enquiry), which inspired not only the Romantic Movement but also Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Judgment”.

The Enquiry was first published in 1757 when Edmund Burke had reached the age of 27 but he had commenced work on it at least 10 years prior to that, at just 17 years of age, whist he was a student at Trinity College in Dublin. It is undeniably the work of a young writer, full of passion and drama but the themes laid out in the text not only continue to reverberate through Burke’s own later political texts but also throughout the arts, right up until the present day.

“The passion caused by the great and sublime…is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degrees of horror…Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force”. (Burke, 1757, p. 57)

The Cult of Romantic Terror

In his 1935 book “The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England” Samuel H. Monk describes the powerful impact of Burke’s Enquiry on the artists, writers and philosophers around him. Up until the first half of the 18th Century all preceding critics and theorists (such as Dennis, Jacob and Lowth) took their ideas directly from “Peri Hupsou”, known as “On the Sublime” by Longinus, continuing to preserve the rhetorical tradition by relating the sublime to the pathetic. For them the sublime was above all an emotive force that harnesses the power of the emotions through use of the grand style. But Boileau’s work in the area had enabled critics to consider the sublime outside of the grand style and in England they began to do just that. The earlier ‘rhetorical sublime’ gave way to the early 18th Century ‘pathetic sublime’, where, in the former the emotions are manipulated for a practical purpose “to persuade against the will and reason of the audience” and in the latter they are considered to be basis of aesthetic experience and therefore can be found in the arts, this led theorists to question why particular objects and subjects elicit a pleasurable response.

The sublime became employed as a method for the increasingly urgent task of making the less neo-classical aspects of the art objects of the period more reputable (as styles and tastes changed), a means of categorizing the emotions of terror, horror and ecstasy they elicited alongside the vastness and awe of dramatic scenes of nature, and bringing the emotions under the Longinian tradition.

The increasing attention being paid to the idea that objects arouse emotional responses suggested the importance of an individual, personal reactions as opposed to aesthetic rules that could be applied from outside. This led to the problem of how objects (in nature, art etc) stimulate the emotions and elicit pleasurable sensations.

A young Edmund Burke made it his task to deal with the lack of clear definition between the nature of beauty and the nature of the sublime, stating that there was: “No exact theory of our passions, or a knowledge of their genuine sources” (Burke, 1757, p. 1). He sought to rectify that situation and attempts to make a truly original investigation, having found that many had his predecessors (including Longinus) had failed to make clear distinctions, having: “comprehended things extremely repugnant to each other under one common name of the Sublime” (Burke, 1757, p. 1).

In the Enquiry Burke insists that an expression of the sublime is dependent on qualities that can be found in the object but seems to allow space for an examination of the potential psychological and physiological causes of aesthetic pleasure. In many ways Burke takes a novel and seemingly far more rigorously analytical approach to the problem and one that was to have a far-reaching impact. His text became one of the most important 18th Century works of aesthetic theory, built on the effects of the emotions and founded on an analysis of terror. It appears that, like Wordsworth, Burke was attracted to “that beauty… that hath terror in it” (Wordsworth, 1888, Book 13)

Monk describes Burke’s enquiry as being caught the spirit of the age and became an attempt at understanding it, as emotion was becoming far more important in art, especially in the moralising tales of the graveyard poets and their stories of terror and horror. They based their works on the lists of ‘sublime objects’ that had been supplied to them by critics such as Burke and his predecessors, but in the later Gothic novels, terror was no longer used to prepare the reader for the writer’s moralisations but for its own sake, a kind of pleasant terror.

We owe the value of terror as an aesthetic pleasure in art and nature to Burke’s enquiry. The opposition of pain and pleasure is central to Burke’s whole system. He sees pain as the basis for the sublime and pleasure as being the basis for beauty. Earlier theorists had suggested that pain and pleasure were caused by the effects of ugliness and beauty but Burke differs in his reading, being fascinated in the way that pain can be a source of pleasure, if judged aesthetically. In opening up the nature of aesthetic judgment in this way and showing pain to be the foundation of the sublime he allowed room for many aspects of art that could not have previously been viewed as a source of aesthetic pleasure.

Prior to Burke no theorists had contrasted the sublime and the beautiful so distinctly although some had compared them. However Monk sees problems with Burke’s dualism and how some things fit poorly into either category, making the system attractive in theory but difficult in practice. Nevertheless he includes in his text a categorisation of ideas that are sublime and a description of their sublimity. An important quality for Burke’s sublime is obscurity; he seems fixated on the non-rational aspects of art: “It is one thing to make an image clear, and another to make it affecting to the imagination”. (Burke, 1757, p. 55)

Burke goes on to try to explain the effects of these ideas, which he sees as possessing sublime qualities through psychology and physiology, in order to work out the “efficient cause” of the sublime. He uses a strongly analytical, empirical method that has strong relations to contemporary psychology, which is made clear by his assertion: “When we go but one step beyond the immediate, sensible qualities of things, we go out of our depth” (Burke, 1757, p. 117).

This then forces him to restrict his enquiry to the physical and emotional effects of sensation. He contends that fear and pain affect the body in the same way, causing the muscles to tense, the heart rate to increase, the skin to perspire. He presents the mind and body as being a tightly coupled feedback loop; terror acting on the mind through the body and on the body though the mind (Burke, 1757, p. 119). He shows that sublime objects work in this way, for instance an extremely large-scale simple object is impossible to hold in one’s vision in a satisfactory manner, forcing the eye to work overtime, finding no focus, creating a kind of ‘artificial infinite’. Burke concludes that both the beautiful and the sublime operate on the nervous system in a direct way through the senses. Even though Burke (because of the essence of his argument) cannot allow that beauty and sublimity exist only in the mind experiencing them (as Kant would later do) he does focus on the effect of the ‘sublime object’ on the physical and psychological state of the perceiving subject. In many ways this was an extremely novel approach, but critics argued that by linking his definition of the sublime only to terror was too restrictive and did not allow room for the consideration of other emotions. Nevertheless his treatise had a huge and ongoing impact, particularly in the way it aided in: “…spreading the cult of romantic terror throughout the literature of the era that just precedes the rise of romantic art” (Monk, 1935)

The Injured Body and the Sympathetic Sublime

In Luke Gibbons’ groundbreaking review of Burke’s life and work “Edmund Burke and Ireland” he demonstrates how interlinked Burke’s aesthetic theory was with his political life and how much impact the political climate of his youth in Ireland impacted on his worldview.

Gibbons’ text shows that Burke’s elaborate and deeply felt concepts of violence, terror and sympathy, which were sketched out in “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”, formed a methodological framework for him to evaluate and criticize the more dishonourable aspects of the Enlightenment, in particular colonialism and authoritarianism. These ideas were strongly influenced by his Catholic upbringing in Ireland and the political troubles that directly impacted on his own childhood.

An overarching subject in Burke’s enquiry is that of ‘the body in pain’, whether in the case of a single subject’s injuries (both mental or physical) or allegorically in the case of Ireland under colonialism and Burke, through his writing, aims to bring these injured bodies out into the public world, rather than hiding them away in shame and creates a sympathetic sublime which enables the ability to relate to the suffering of others (Gibbons, 2003).

Burke discusses at length the reoccurring theme of capital punishment and public execution in his work, believing that, although the aims of these state sanctioned processes were to terrorize the audience, they had a contradictory effect. As the penalty was so dreadful it led to a transfer of sympathy from the baying crowd to the unfortunate prisoner, weakening the power of the state through its own display of strength, an effect of the sympathetic sublime. Burke’s aesthetic theory seems to often work in this way, acting in conjunction with his political writings, to deal with ideas and sensations beyond the scope of normal political discourse. For Burke the illegitimate terror induced by a tyrannical state one of the most powerful expressions of the sublime and his philosophical enquiry can be viewed as a troubled reaction to the colonial world he inhabited.

Gibbons describes how Burke’s childhood was deeply overshadowed by political anxiety as his father was a prominent solicitor in Ireland and it appears he acted as attorney for the ill-fated Jacobite sympathizer James Cotter (of Anngrove), on trial ostensibly for rape, some nine years before Burke’s birth. Many believed Cotter’s execution to be a judicial murder stemming from his political activities rather than any sexual assault he had committed. This dramatic set of events event affected Burke’s family and also Ireland itself long after his birth and led to a huge outpouring of public grief. Cotter was executed in what L. M Cullen described as:

Easily the most traumatic political event of the first half of the century in Ireland, having in no parallel in the rest of Ireland and providing in recollection on both sides the spark which set alight the sectarian tensions in Munster in the early 1760’s. (Cullen, 1981, p. p.199-200)

It seems that the numerous mentions of capital punishment in Burke’s Enquiry are deeply personal in their drama and morbidity and make his arguments around the nature of genuine tragedy and fear all the more powerful. However sensitive or poetic a work of literature, art or drama may be for Burke they are weak representations compared to genuine pain and suffering:

“…unite the greatest efforts of poetry, painting and music; and when you have collected your audience, just at the moment when their minds are erect with expectation, let it be reported that a state criminal of high rank is on the point of being executed in the adjoining square; in a moment the emptiness of the theatre would demonstrate the comparative weakness of the imitative arts, and proclaim the triumph of real sympathy”. (Burke, 1757, p. 47)

He shows his distaste of catching himself being swept up by portrayal of violence in the arts which he views as disconnected from genuine tragedy and deeply offensive, stating: “I should be truly ashamed of finding in myself that superficial, theatric sense of painted distress, whilst I could exult over it in real life.” (Burke, 1790, p. 175)

His use of the word ‘exult’ seems bizarre but demonstrates his notion of the sublime as being a pleasurable form of terror. However he seems to find theatrical representations of tragedy and terror to be somehow ridiculous and highly grotesque. It may be that the ridiculous graphic representations Burke despises contradict his view that obscurity is a key aspect of the sublime and somehow that can be better enabled in art or literary works that allow space for the imagination of the viewer, in order to enable a sense of sympathy rather than through grotesquely mawkish gestures that try to tug at our hearts. However Burke has no misgivings in calling attention to genuine agony, above all in the case of colonial injustice. He does however have strong misgivings about the sentimentalized notions of sympathy that were considered to be a very refined aspect of 18th Century bourgeois life, which sets him at odds to Adam Smith’s approach where sympathy is considered to be a social activity, aimed at a third party observer and designed to show the sympathizer as a person of good refined character. For Burke sympathy should be based on compassion and a positive desire to act in the interests of others through being fully engaged in society.

In spite of Thomas Paine’s criticism of Burke in “The Rights of Man” that he had “reduced ethics to mere aesthetic effects” (Gibbons, 104) by focusing so strongly on the role of the imagination in sympathy rather than being: “affected by the reality of distress touching his heart” (Paine, 1791, p. 61) Burke’s concept of the sublime was revolutionary in terms of Enlightenment thinking. His frequent use of the word ‘contagion’ (Burke, 1790, p. 175) in his description of sympathetic sublime implies an immediate transfer of feelings, as if it were a physiological process however the inverse is true as it is far more to do with obscurity: ‘metaphors, and allegories’ (Burke, 1757, p. 18), the sublime is a kind of rupture in one’s experience producing a visceral sensation ensuring that: “we are alarmed into reflexion” (sic) (Burke, 1790, p. 175).

Burke proposes a kind of profound “contagion” that can cross cultural as well as individual somatic divides, enabling “an intersubjective sharing of pain between individuals” (Gibbons, 116) through which humanity can be brought together. Unlike Adam Smith who saw somatic boundaries as insurmountable, Burke’s coupling of mind and body allows that one can experience the inner emotions of another through the simulation of their outward physical expressions.

The Sublime Germ: Plague, Consumption and Gothic Literature

The full impact of disease on humanity is only now being recognised as whole genome sequencing allows us to look at the minute changes made to the human genome through out interaction through disease since the beginning of mankind. Our changing behaviours: our original decent from the trees, our domestication of animals, changing diet (from herbivore to omnivore), and the forced and voluntary large scale migrations, led to exposure to unfamiliar diseases or zoonoses and transported them in to fresh populations of victims without any form of immunity.

But it is wrong to think of disease as something outside of our selves, as the ‘other’. In fact our co-evolution with disease it is an integral part of what it means to be human. Diseases that arise and cause serious pandemics such as The Great Plague (also known as the “Great Mortality” of London in 1665 have their virulence reduced over time, all but dying out naturally even without any effective treatment offered by mankind as our diverse immune systems co-evolve, attempt to out compete or incorporate each other.

One third of the world’s population are currently infected with Tuberculosis (TB), and it is currently the largest infectious killer on the planet, with around two million deaths per annum, but just ten percent of carriers actually become ill, even without treatment (with treatment it can be effectively cured). The history of TB is so closely linked to the history of the human race; it is the earliest disease found in ancient remains as far back as 9000 years ago in the Neolithic era, and later in Egyptian mummies, including the mummified body of Akhenaton (the father of Tutankhamen). It is a form of Mycobacterium, similar to Mycobacterium leprae, which causes Hansen’s disease (previously known as Leprosy) and Mycobacterium vaccae, a soil bacterium now thought by some scientists to act as an antidepressant.

TB, popularly known as ‘Consumption’ in the past (because the body appears to be literally consumed from within) was described at ‘the romantic disease’. It was actually believed to be a cause of extreme creativity in the form of the ‘Spes Phthisica’, a form of euphoria brought about by the latter stages of pulmonary disease, leading the poet Byron to declare: “I should like to die of a consumption”. The controversial “genius germ hypothesis” published in 2009 continues to argues a similar point, that:

Infectious agents may be involved in the chain of causation of schizophrenia – a disease characterised by abnormal lipid metabolism in the brain and increased creativity. Manipulation of host lipid pathways represents a significant mechanism for Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Mycobacterium leprae to cause and sustain infection. Leprosy and tuberculosis epidemics endemic to Europe but not to Asia are therefore speculated to positively select for schizotypal genes or alteration of the lipid metabolism phenotype in this population resulting in “evolutionarily disproportionate” increases in cerebro-diversity and cognition beyond the threshold required to affect scientific or technological paradigm change – as occurred in the Renaissance and during the Industrial Revolution. (Apte, 2009)

Throughout the ages a diverse number of causes have been blamed for TB from demonic dogs (whose barking could be heard in the coughs of sufferers) to vampires, with ritually buried corpses being found in New England, USA from as late as the 19th Century.

The New England vampire belief in based on a folk interpretation of the physical appearance of the tuberculosis victim and the transmission of tuberculosis. As the name consumption implies, the disease caused sufferers to “waste away” and “lose flesh,” despite the fact that they remained active, desirous of sustenance, and maintained a fierce will to live (Brown, 1941). This dichotomy of desire and “wasting away” is reflected in vampire folk belief: The vampire’s desire for “food” forces it to feed off living relatives, who suffer a similar “wasting away.” The vampire folklore tradition is also consistent with modern knowledge of the transmission of tuberculosis. Many of the historic accounts indicate that family members living in close association became infected with the disease before or soon after the death of the vampire. (Sledzik and Bellantoni, 1994)

In fact throughout history the folk myth of the vampire has been a popular explanation of disease and to stop an epidemic, vampires might be sought out and “killed” by various methods (Perkowski, 1989). So the wasting diseases, which infected many romantic poets and gothic novelists, may have also been their inspiration, such as in John Keat’s “Lamia”. Even Bram Stoker, the writer of “Dracula” is suspected to have died of Syphilis, another bacterial infection, which also produces ‘vampire-like’ symptoms, such as swollen gums, causing prominent teeth, sensitivity to light and a pale complexion. (Krumm, 1995)

The ‘Black Death’ or ‘bubonic plague’ is in many ways the most sublime pandemic. It led to the death of an estimated 30-60% of the population of Europe and took over 150 years for levels to recover (Austin Alchon, 2003, p. 21). The aftermath of the plague has a deep effect on the history of Europe and led to a series of religious, social and economic upheavals. It led to the persecution of minorities such as foreigners, Jews, lepers, and beggars; and to massive religious outpourings such as the rise of the Flagellants, radical members of the Catholic Church (later condemned as heretics) who believed in an extreme form of penance, including public flagellation and other forms of self-mortification which they believed would atone for the sins of the population which had brought the epidemic about. Somewhat in contradiction to the Flagellants the ‘Great Pestilence’ also led to a mood of morbidity causing people live hedonistically for the moment, fearing they might die at any time. However Yersinia pestis as it now known is a far less feared pathogen, and can be treated successfully with antibiotics. The disease still has reservoirs in rodent populations, notably in the USA, and unsuspecting campers occasionally fall prey to the microbe, which is often misdiagnosed nowadays in the early stages due to its rarity.

Confronting the Bacterial Sublime

Anna Dumitriu working with Yesinia pestis bacteria

In my own artwork which combines practical microbiology with performance, textile crafts and technology, I often find that I embed myself in physical situations in order to learn, understand and experience (often things that others are intrigued by but would not themselves do). I am interested in engaging the public in microbiology through my artwork and I was awarded the Society for Applied Microbiology Communication Award in 2012.

A life long fascination in plague, borne of a childhood fear led me to attempt to confront this terrifying, and world changing organism at first hand, through the support of Novel and Dangerous Pathogens Training at HPA (Health Protection Agency) Porton in the UK, the highest security microbiology labs in the UK. I had previously, through my role of artist in residence on the Modernising Medical Microbiology Project, experienced Biosafety Level (BSL) 3 Containment (the highest level for bacteria) in order to work with TB in a hospital laboratory setting however the experience of working with a number of BSL 3 ‘potential deliberate release’ agents such as Bacillus anthracis and Yersinia pestis in such a high level lab was very different. Due to the nature of the work I was unable to create any practical artworks using the organisms that could leave the lab space, apart from photographs (the camera is fumigated before the memory card can be removed) so instead I created a written description of the experience.

I was glad I wore layers that morning. The day had started early, shivering. Then the long drive through an icy landscape, which became increasingly stranger as the sun slowly rose to its watery height. Finally we turned up a tree-lined avenue, laid out to military precision. A jolly security guard took my camera phone away for safekeeping, “you can’t take photos inside” he told me. This wasn’t strictly true, I’d been given special permission to do so, but not here, they would supply the camera.

Inside they told me stories of the past; a deadly feast dropped from the clouds, baked by ladies in hairnets; salad leaves with a fatal dressing. The easiest ways a person might use to cause panic, to kill fewer but to incapacitate a population.

The stories should have been frightening, but they were funny, somehow comforting. Then on to the details, the symptoms and effects, like something from a film. My mind strained at the edges of its ability to hold this information, it should have been terror that I felt, but it was fascination, a kind of thrill.

Then followed an unexpectedly normal canteen lunch, peppered with unusual conversations, hot European fields with hidden dangers, methods of decontamination for Scottish church halls, and strangest of all, an artist in the group. How did I come to be there? What would I do?

Stripped down to short sleeves for the afternoon, hair scraped back into a ponytail. Then in through an airlock, lab coat on, buttoned right up and, “what size gloves do you need?” Everyone had a the answer ready, but “er, I’m not sure, medium maybe? Can I have purple ones? I like the purple ones best, more aesthetic. Do we double glove?”

“Pull them over the cuffs of the lab coat, so they are tucked in, you can tape them if you want to Then we can go through into the lab.” Air filtration system, sealed floor, under negative pressure, glove boxes filled with brightly coloured plates of jelly, blues, reds, some like peacock plumes, confronted us. Unwieldy air filled thick yellow gloves were our way in to the boxes; all my dexterity was lost.

“We have the camera for you, but it can’t leave the lab; we can fumigate it and get the memory card out after. We pass it through like this”. Opening a door into a kind of airlock into the glovebox, “we can send you the pictures you take.”

“Look at the plates, note down what you see. Umbontate colonies, that means in the shape of a fried egg.” A new word for me.

And I held it in my hands, the most terrifying of all ills. Its name rings out like the bells they would have used to warn of its arrival. I tried to think, of Samuel Pepys on the way to visit his mistress and fearful of the coughing boatman, or that woman in Eyam who drank a jug of warm bacon fat and survived her (almost) self inflicted quarantine. I tried to commune with the organism, with the enormity of what I was doing, but could only hold that sublime thought it my mind for a few seconds at a time. Then the practical work of handling and identifying these monstrous forms of life took over, the role of microbiologist I was attempting to play to a T.

The modern procedures of the lab, the way my enquiry was structured did not allow room for me to experience the aesthetic sensation of the sublime I was seeking; however a whole range of other sensations overwhelmed me, from a sense of privilege, of being allowed to enter this secret world and to share it with others, of clumsiness (or fear of clumsiness at least), to inadequacy and achievement. But some sense of the ‘bacterial sublime is still within me every time I step inside a microbiology lab and it is an experience that I would like to be able to share, through my own art practice with others (Dumitriu, 2012).

This paper was presented at Mutamorphosis 2012 Conference organised by Ciant and taking place at the National Theatre in Prague, Czech Republic.


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