‘To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary’ – Edmund Burke’s description of the Romantic sublime has never been more pertinent as this article suggests parallels between both this and the EU.
One of the Romantic period’s greatest philosophers, Edmund Burke, in his celebrated discourse A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, attempted to articulate the nature of the sublime. This sensation, which today we take to describe a state of almost transcendental perfection, held a different meaning for Burke and his contemporaries and is encoded in much of the great poetry and writing of the period.
In essence, the Romantic sublime is at once the combination of fear and awe. In our own time, we might suggest that some of the natural disasters we see on television, like those powerful images of the tsunami in Japan in 2011, provoke in us a feeling of awe at the power of nature and fear of that very power. More specifically, the Romantic sublime suggests that it is to be within the proximity of like danger (real or imagined) but to be just safe from harm that we recognise the unquantifiable and the reconciliation of the individual self to it. In this spirit, Wordsworth wrote that in his youth he was ‘Foster’d alike by beauty and by fear;’ and ‘sanctifying by such discipline | Both pain and fear until we recognise | A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.’ 
The sensation of the sublime is not restricted to encounters with the natural word. Indeed, Edmund Burke notes that the sublime can be used to political ends and that obscurity is key to power:
To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. 
To offer a more recent frame of reference, one need only consider the figure of Big Brother in Orwell’s great novel; whether he is real or not is immaterial, because he is unseen (obscured) save for propaganda, he can be both everywhere and nowhere, obliging the citizens of that dystopia to normalize and regulate their behaviour in the most oppressive fashion. Thus the figure or idea of Big Brother elicits both awe and fear alike.
Away from literature, this idea of the sublime conveniently translates into both the perception and the reality of the EU. Its governance operates remotely (literally in another country) and its politicians and bureaucrats are, too, remote. They are unknown, indeed, obscure quantities ruling from afar; because they have not been voted in, they cannot be voted out and so they are utterly unaccountable.
Generally, those in awe of the EU are not experiencing a pleasant sensation, rather they are struck by the self perpetuating bureaucracy, the job justification and the disparate often vested interests at work within this institution. So, too, one has a legitimate right to experience fear; those making laws, those passing legislation or enacting are doing so without the mandate of the people, let alone their consultation. Indeed, professional obscurity is no bar to occupying professional office: look at the example of the European Court of Justice. As Daniel Hannan remarks ‘it doesn’t require its members to have served on the bench in their home countries. Many of them are academics, politicians and human rights activists who happen to have law degrees. And some are quite blatant about using the institution to advance an agenda that would be rejected at the ballot box.’ 
Time and again, when those such as Mr Farage remind the likes of Mr Barosso, Mr Van Rompuy or Mr Schulz that they have not been elected by the people to hold the offices they hold, they respond that they were voted for by colleagues and peers within the EU as if this equates to the same thing. At the most fundamental level, therefore, democracy is replaced by obscurity, since there is no correlation between the electorate and the people who claim to rule in their name.
The fear of the EU is not just in its meddling and efforts to standardize and legislate, it is, most obviously, to be see on the world stage where the effort to salvage the credibility of it economic prowess have floundered. Yet, day in, day out, it issues face-saving propaganda to claim success – but success for whom? Generations have been saddled with insurmountable debt to prop up countries that should have never joined this ill-conceived economic project. The EU’s own ideology has, therefore, become obscure, yet it still wields ‘fearful’ power over the nations and peoples it claims to serve (cf. ‘Weltanschauung: The Destructive Nature of the EU’s Ideology’). It is, in the Romantic sense, sublime.
The list of likenesses between the EU and Burke’s understanding of the sublime are many and varied. Perhaps the most potent sensation is the fact that in giving away practical powers to an unknown quantity, the UK has lost something far more worrying: its own symbolic value. Just as the idea of Big Brother or omnipotence is powerful enough to regulate and normalise the actions of citizens, so we forget that the idea of the UK, with its independent, individual, pioneering and innovative spirit is more powerful than the sum of its policies. The economic or political ends of a nation state are never as valuable nor as powerful as its symbolic value. When one talks of the UK government failing to stop its ceding of powers to the EU, we cast our politicians as the victims of some obscure plot – but make no mistake – these are powers that have been given away with alacrity to serve an ideology conceived of by the passions of men.
What the obscure EU has to fear is exposure. It is sensitive at precisely the point where normal democracy should be strong – it is neither open, nor democratic, nor accountable – which is why it is necessary to cast a floodlight over the shadowy machinations of this institution and its politicians, the men and women who keep themselves as much as may be from the public eye.
© thepanopticonblog, 2012.
- 1. William Wordsworth. The Prelude. Book 1. l.13-14.
- 2. Edmund Burke. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. <http://www.bartleby.com/24/2/203.html>
- 3. Daniel Hannan. ‘We make the law up as we go along,admits Britain’s new Euro-judge’. The Telegraph. 28 June 2012. <http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/danielhannan/100167991/we-make-up-the-law-as-we-go-along-admits-britains-new-euro-judge/>