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Clint Burnham: The Sublime Object of Edward Burtynsky

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Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky's images of industrial waste and natural despoilation have shown in galleries around the world and been the subject of books, critical discourse, and a film (Manufactured Landscapes, directed Jennifer Baichwal, 2006). His work is often described as "sublime" for its large-format depiction of landscapes and ecological disaster: but what sublime are we talking about here? Burke's disquiet when confronted by natural disorder, or Kant's absolute breakdown of cognitive faculties? Burnham discussed Burtynsky's pictures first of all in terms of Benjamin's theories of photography (the optical unconscious, aura) and then Žižek's properly dialectical sublime (that which is both Kantian and Lacanian). That is, for Žižek, the sublime object – the "objet petit a," Lacan’s Thing or das Ding – is what structures our desire but also serves as a screen against the abyss of desire, which is to say against the sublime; in a way, for Žižek, Lacan is the sublime object to counter the abyss of Kant. In a similar fashion, Burtynsky's gentrified sublime is what protects us from confronting the disaster that is nature. Finally, as counter-examples to Burtynsky's reified sublime, I will discuss two photographic practices that engage with the sublime of the industrial archive: Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan's "Evidence" (1977) and Bitter & Weber's ”Events are Always Original” (2010).
This video is part of the Simon Fraser University Woodward’s Office of Community Engagement (SFU Vancity Office of Community Engagement) series of public talks and accessible education opportunities.
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