During the weeks of March when the Syrian refugee crisis dominated headlines, I had a run of nightmares about drowning. I had read a glut of awful reports about the sabotage of refugee boats, shot at and sunk by coastguards unwilling to accept the victims of war. My brain interpreted this overwhelming horror as an opportunity to drop me in the middle of the ocean at night, to thrash about in the abyss. I woke up out of breath, and for the rest of the day remembered the pity and grief and despair and rage I felt in the water, in powerful, blinding bursts.
These unintended, ephemeral horror-LARPs seemed a kind of necessary shock, wrought through a switch between geopolitical scales. I was irrelevant along the long time scale of history, in which a slight shift in circumstances could have meant immense suffering. I thought of my parents, who fled the start of a bloody war. They were lucky. They made it across the ocean. On the smaller but no less terrifying experiential scale of being a flailing body in a tumultuous sea, I was irrelevant, too.
At one point during this week of night terrors, a friend shared a short film titled Where Land Meets Sea. It was a lushly detailed 3D rendition of Lesvos Island in Greece, where many migrants and refugees end up on their journey to Europe. The camera pans along reconstructed topography of the shore, then slides past the woods, filled with crowds of ghostly, stateless bodies, frozen briefly in anxious milling and waiting. It dances around and over rescue boats, aid workers, and the detritus left on the rocks. The view moves seamlessly between detailed close-ups (boat interiors, tents) and the panoramic (rushing through a landfill of orange life vests piled fifteen feet high).
This toggling between scales made me hopeful, though the context of tragic crisis remained the same. The artists who made the film intuitively understood that a simulation can both convey and demand care and empathy. The simulation made me feel as deeply for refugees as any hard-hitting journalistic narrative about the life of a single refugee family could, if not more. The faces of the migrants were cleared, blank, abstracted into groups of vulnerable human bodies. I felt our similarity, our shared hopes for safety and stability. The island is Lesvos, but it is also any intimidating, unfamiliar new land.
I am left energized, compelled to protect this feeling of commonality. Instantiated into a visual framework of controlled remove, I am offered the space to develop an intentional empathy. I visualize crossing that space on a bike: I cycle from the local, quotidian, and easy-to-understand milieu, out to the abstract, uncanny, and grander-than-human framework, and back again to the local. This simulation’s narrative eye plays with focus and distance and snaps between tonal registers. The act of ratcheting between micro and macro perspectives develops a new relationality between self and others, and an added moral dimension.
Shuttling back and forth between scales demands a cognitive flexibility which arises from considered, careful practice. Throughout his biography of Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Lawrence Weschler describes the artist’s practice as one shaped around rituals of sustained looking. Life can be built around the cycling ritual, riding between “sustained looks” at vastly conflicting scales, choosing the tunnel from self out to a crowd, to historical and geographical context, to deep time frames.
Being unable to switch scales, by contrast, poses grave dilemmas. I recently met a Lyft driver who owns a company producing women’s underwear. He described visiting the underwear factory in China. He could only observe the floor from a balcony. From his vantage point, he saw women sleeping on cots next to the sewing machine tables. He told me he worried that he “couldn’t really tell” their age.
Training in scalar flexibility might help us do necessary ethical work. This past fall, the design studio Metahaven, speaking alongside political theorist Jodi Dean, described drone footage of conflict zones as an insidious cinematic reimagining of the other. Viewers experience the land from a heroic, godlike vantage point, while the reality of victims remains obscured. In this case, it is vital to acknowledge what distance and remove allow us to think, and to then zoom in on the ground.
Seeking out radical shifts in perspective replicates the overview effect on a smaller scale. Astronauts often insist that the effect’s mental reorientation is so unique that you need to be in space to truly understand it. Hundreds of websites, and even an institute, are dedicated to experiencing the effect directly. However, astronauts’ descriptions of the effect give us some clues. Sally Ride, the first woman to fly in space, describes the moment as a shift from being human to something else. The shift involves such an “element of the unknown” that “all we can try to do is convey the surreal quality” of the movement. Astronaut Edgar Mitchell says the “sensation of physically and mentally extending out into the cosmos” was “a biological response of my brain attempting to reorganize and give meaning to information about the wonderful and awesome processes that I was privileged to view.”
Mitchell’s struggle to hold macro- and micro-scales in his mind at once, and Ride’s struggle to articulate her awe and the quality of distance, point to issues of aesthetic representation. Multiscalar travel can be conveyed through film, through simulation, and perhaps best through poetry. Kant, Byron, and Wordsworth described human confrontation with the abstract terror and pleasure of the unknown as the sublime. Facing the sublime, and being able to articulate that sight, changes the subject’s mental and moral life in a fundamental way, arcing her toward Good.
As art historian Godfre Leung writes, art history posits (as do literary theory and philosophy) that material life under early capitalism can be escaped, “transcended,” through “Baroque ecstasy” before the sublime; this ecstasy is often triggered by an encounter with art. The sublime allows the viewer to transcend the banal material, political, and cultural circumstances of her life. But the conditions of contemporary technocapitalism, it seems, make for a slightly different confrontation with the sublime. In the case of digital technologies, we are often in thrall to the very systems and networks we are instantiated and imbricated in.
In the fall of 2014, during a performance of Ryoji Ikeda’s Superposition, I found myself teary after being besieged by two hours of images set at blistering speed: high-resolution maps, satellite shots of deserts, mountains, and oceans, and detailed scientific renders of cells, genomes, and other microcosmic forms. Superposition is an unusual piece for Ikeda, as it features performers. A woman and a man were seated onstage, silhouettes before the screens. They were bent over work at their desks. Within the overwhelming show of constellations, sonar maps, and unidentifiable geographic zones unfolding behind them, we got respite through momentary glimpses at their work. They typed assiduously; they searched through microfiches of New Yorker articles; they sorted code ephemera, recorded waveforms, catalogued signs, and tapped out Morse code messages.
The juxtaposition of the smallness of the performers against the intense cycling of the images cut very deep. Their little, earnest attempts at cataloguing and ordering in a chaotic, vast universe seemed like a heroic and tragic act. I cared for them, by which I mean I cared for myself. I forgot who my friends in the museum auditorium were; I forgot I was in a museum, in New York, in 2014.
I was embarrassed then, but I now see my tears came from happiness, a certain sensation of encountering whatever the sublime must have felt like to one of the old poets. In the tension of scale, I felt a naive, and, yes, spiritual, sense of the irrelevance of borders and of our power and future promise, all in an instant. And this awe largely took place within a digitally produced frame, within my reciprocal relationship with a simulation. The sublime, it seemed, did not need to be an escape from material. It could be experienced within a bounded system. We can find aesthetic potential in mass computation as it organizes every field of social life, from complex derivatives trading to manufacturing logistics to dataveillance. That digital simulations, by the sheer fact of their potential scale, force us to evolve cognitively and perceptually, is crucial.
As I was inundated by simulated, crystalline images—and concepts—switching at unmanageable speeds, my eye and processing power were overrun. I was fully aware of the pressure Ikeda’s simulations placed on my perception; I felt my active cognitive struggle to form a sensible framework for what I was seeing. I was acutely aware of my own position within the frame, and my similarity to the small performers. The sensation of a digital sublime made the effort of humans, creating meaning within chaos, seem itself sublime.
Cycling between scales in simulations could help humans develop care for other humans. Describing novel multiscalar movements—leaps constructed, sought out, or happened upon—could help in future navigation. Bring others on board and help them to see what is outside the bay portal. Gazing at the ocean below, a boat becomes visible.
 Godfre Leung, “Jeremy Shaw: Attention, Oblivion, Jubilation,” C Magazine 125 (Spring 2015) <http://cmagazine.com/issues/125/pdf>.