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Abstract

In modern Western aesthetics, terror and the sublime go together. For canonical theorists and commentators of the eighteenth century, the sublime encounter with nature renders terror delightful, or at least enjoyable, through a “negative pleasure” variously derived. After the violence of mid-twentieth century, critical theorists of the sublime were more certain than ever about the involvement of terror, but some accounts of the negative pleasure did not survive the Second World War. Renewed reflection on the sublime after 1945 has clarified the social context and historical character of this aesthetic category. The feeling has changed,as modernity has unfolded, and as the relations and interactions between society and nature have come to impact planetary climate and ecology. There are, evidently, many kinds and qualities of terror ; and different terrors, it seems, produce different sublimes. Today, in the so-called Anthropocene, a new planetary context of terror is emerging. While one contemporary philosopher reflects on “the sublime Anthropocene” (Williston), a cultural theorist writes about “the Anthropocene sublime”(Horn). This paper engages with contemporary reflection on the sublime, in the context of socially driven climate chaos, toxification, and extinction. I review the history of the sublime in modern and contemporary aesthetics, explorethe emerging context of terror today, and ask how this context may be shaping new aesthetic experiences of terror and the sublime.

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