Ever since my seminar on aesthetics, I’ve been thinking about awesomeness. Awesomeness as its own aesthetic, a distinct artistic urge/dao that is often slavishly followed, draws huge attention, and yet hasn’t really been examined in a way that makes me happy — or if it has, I haven’t seen it.
I’ve been talking about how I’m going to write an article called “On the Aesthetic of Awesomeness” — so here are some notes for me to start with, as building blocks. This is intended to be a work in progress, a making public of my academic process for the purposes of discussion and self-reflection. I’m aware in this discussion of the inherent silliness of talking seriously about awesomeness, but I think there are important points not being explored here.
What do I mean by Awesomeness?
Awesomeness is an aesthetic agenda associated what we call in the speculative fiction field the ‘Sense of Wonder’ — The sense of wonder is revelatory, the amazement that comes from being confronted with something new and striking. I’d say that the Sense of Wonder is one of the modes of the aesthetic of awesomeness.
Other notable moves/moments that would count as Awesome:
- The lobby scene in The Matrix
- Your first glimpse of Iron Man in the 2008 Iron Man.
- Watching Optimus Prime transform in Transformers.
And more generally:
- Stuff Blowing Up Real Good (TM).
- Breathtaking visuals (esp. special effects — practical or digital). The Pod race in Star Wars Episode I, the battle of Pelennor Fields in the film ofThe Return of the King — this is where the Sense of Wonder comes up.
Awesomeness is about potency, strength, competence in action, it’s the stuff that makes you go ‘whoah’ in varying degrees of Keanu Reeves-itude.
Awesomeness vs. ‘literary merit’
Just because something has what people argue over as literary/artistic merit doesn’t mean it’s awesome. Awesomeness has been ignored in aesthetic considerations (and no, it’s not the sublime, though the original meaning of the word awesome would suggest as much.)
‘Awesome’ has experienced a cultural linguistic renaissance in the last few years, with notable champions in popular culture such as How I Met Your Mother, “Captain Awesome” in Chuck, and others.
Often times, films will get horrible reviews in terms of their narrative, thematic, dramatic chops, but are still well-received/popular. Why does this happen? There are a number of explanations, and Awesomeness is one of them.
Artistic paragons of awesomeness who have been critiqued for their lack of artistic merit could include but not be limited to Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon, The Rock), Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Carribean, Top Gun, Black Hawk Down), The Wachowski siblings (The Matrix trilogy, the new Speed Racer), and George Lucas (Star Wars, et al.) These creators make immensely commercially successful works that are often panned by cultural critics/gatekeepers such as reviewers, literary critics, etc. Such films are called ‘childish/immature’ — as their primary aesthetic (awesomeness) doesn’t fit into established and accepted artistic parameters.
Here’s another thing — for most summer blockbusters, the primary intent of the film is to impress the audience, to take their breath away, make them clap and shout. Summer Blockbusters play a simple but potent game of pulling on heartstrings and pushing buttons. Really, the primary aesthetic agenda of the Summer Blockbuster genre is Awesomeness.
This is not to say that a narrative cannot be both awesome and dramatically compelling, beautiful, grotesque, or any other aesthetic. Mostly I just want to identify a chunk of the aesthetic field we’ve been ignoring/spurning.
Thoughts for further investigation
- A more specific articulation of the sense of experiencing awesomeness
- The overlap between awesomeness and other aesthetics
- The negotiation and appreciation of awesomeness in fan communities.