systemic sublime

By September 13, 2016Uncategorized

Wikipedia = NONE

The systemic sublime:

Prompted by this piece by Rob Meyer on what it takes to ship a Thermos full of coffee, Tim Carmody coined the term ‘systemic sublime’ for one of my favourite genres of non-fiction writing, which he describes (in part) as “stories that excavate the hidden infrastructure that make everyday experiences possible”. It also put me in mind of Paul Graham Raven’s injunction from his talkabout infrastructure fiction at last year’s Improving Reality conference: “Don’t think outside the box. Think about the box.” A couple of other examples popped up on my feed this week, including Alexis Madrigal on Blue Bottle iced coffee and, via Charlie Loyd, a 1993 Atlantic piece on the banked turn. I’ve been thinking for a bit about doing a Newspaper Club project, and I might create an anthology of the systemic sublime (if I did, it would be necessarily samizdat, as I doubt I could get many of the rights). Pointers to favourite pieces, ideally from 2014, are welcome.



Meyer’s essay is part of what seems like a still-developing genre–Paul Ford’s essay on “the American room” is another example–of stories that excavate the hidden infrastructure that make everyday experiences possible. These systems are utterly prosaic exactly because they’re the product of huge amounts of manpower and material working according to painstakingly developed protocols. The author’s motivation for exposing them seems to be to both demystify and reenchant the world, and the attitude expressed is a mixture of admiration, awe, and dread.

Neal Stephenson’s classic Wired essay “Mother Earth, Mother Board” might be the model for the genre, like Tolkien is for epic fantasy. Let’s call it the “systemic sublime.”

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