Sublime Palmyra: Violence, Perspective, Mediation, Jonah Siegel

Sublime Palmyra: Violence, Perspective, Mediation, Jonah Siegel


16/05/2019 -


Msh-Paris Nord (auditorium)

Infos pratiques


The destruction of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra in August 2015 was relayed to the world with astonishing speed and effect, as ISIS (with its sophisticated sense of how to manipulate modern media) had clearly intended. And yet this ready visual access to the moment of violence has not resulted in culture being able to process the act or even to put it into relation either to other instances of damage that have characterized world affairs in recent decades or to the long-standing traditions balancing injury and preservation that make a distant ruin such as this city in the Syrian desert matter. The challenges presented by the act are indications of the unresolved nature of the modern relationship to antiquities and to damage itself. As I will be suggesting in this talk, the unstable blend of destruction and loss on the one hand, and displaced survival on the other puts an old topic—the sublime—along side some of the newest kinds of technology.

The question of the relationship between the experience of the sublime and the possibility of arriving at ethical or political judgements that do justice to the intersection of social complicity and estrangement arises with special force at a juncture of history and violence that forces us to attend to antique ruins with sudden and renewed urgency. My presentation traces the methodological and conceptual challenge of achieving a perspective on damaged objects to some important historical antecedents even as it illuminates recent accounts of the ethical claims at stake when the sublime is evoked. The Comte de Volney’s use of Palmyra in his seminal Reflections on the Revolutions of Empires (Les Ruines, ou méditations sur lesrévolutions des empires,1791) offers an opportunity to explore the implications of a question that has never been more pressing: is the surveying of damage always only synonymous with losing sight of what matters about it? Responding to the acute pressures of contemporary violence, Volney enjoined his readers to consider how looking over ruins might become a new mode of seeing. The much publicized situation of antiquities at risk in zones of conflict today, and the challenges posed by the movements of displaced peoples in (and out of) those same regions have made the ethics of over-looking suggested in his work a topic of only more pressing interest.

My talk will move between the sublime ruins represented in Volney’s work and the overwhelmed distanced view of the world afforded us by modern technology in order to raise a pressing modern question that I frame by juxtaposing controversies about the ethical force of the sublime in critical work by Jacques Rancièreand Jean-François Lyotardwith reflection on the visual mediation of moments of violence (through satellite imagery, virtual reality, etc.). In my analysis, the aspiration to see the world from above becomes as much a symptom of the urge to escape as a practical or structural necessity. The sublime nature of Palmyra can be an occasion to rediscover the ethical limits of the contemporary sublime, and to reflect on the ways in which media has not so much moved beyond those limits as reinstated them as inevitable.


Jonah Siegel est professeur de littérature anglaise du XIXème siècle à Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA. Né le 14 avril 1963, il a également enseigné à Columbia University et à Harvard.

Ses recherches portent sur la naissance du domaine de l’histoire de l’art, de l’institution des musées et des concepts modernes de l’art dans la période allant du néoclassicisme jusqu’au modernisme.

Il a publié deux livres d’histoire et d’esthétique littéraire : Haunted Museum: Longing, Travel, and the Art-Romance Tradition (2005) et Desire and Excess: The Nineteenth-Century Culture of Art (2000). Il a coordonné un volume collectif intitulé Emergence of the Modern Museum: An Anthology of Sources (2007) et il est l’auteur de chapitres concernant des ouvrages sur l’art, l’esthétique et la poétique archéologique pour le volume Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature, Vol. 4 (2014) et sur l’esthétique victorienne dans Oxford Handbook of Victorian Literary Culture (2016), ainsi que de nombreux articles sur des personnages et figures majeures au XIXe siècle et après.

Sa recherche se concentre maintenant sur deux projets différents : une étude sur le matérialisme dans l’art et la littérature du XIXe siècle, et une étude sur l’histoire des collections d’art à l’époque napoléonienne.

Le professeur Siegel a remporté le prix Sonya Rudikoff pour le meilleur premier livre d’études victoriennes. Il a également reçu une bourse du Centre national des sciences humaines (1999-2000), une bourse ACLS / Burkhardt et une bourse du prix Rome Prize Fellowship (2003-2004).

Il a été président de la Northeast Victorian Studies Association et directeur du département d’anglais de Rutgers. Il est actuellement le représentant de l’histoire de l’art du Conseil consultatif de l’American Victorian Studies Association et co-directeur du Rutgers British Studies Centre.