The Chernobyl Herbarium, the Nuclear Sublime, and Progress After an End of the World

  • Daniel G. Spencer (Author)


Philosopher Michael Marder and visual artist Anaïs Tondeur’s The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness (2016) is a hybrid of philosophy, memoir, and visual art, aestheticizing the event and place of Chernobyl as an object of sublime reflection, and offering a creative-critical account of the notion of art’s utility after the end of the world instigated by the nuclear event. As an aesthetic project, TCH renders the futurity of the disaster as an ongoing process whose lack of finality or closure adopts the character of the sublime, mostly notably the Kantian formula of the sublime. Utilizing theories of the sublime—its assessment in Kant, Herder, and its contemporary influence in Morton’s Dark Ecology (2016)—this paper argues that the book has the ability to surpass the restrictions of the sublime formula, namely what is recognized by Marder as the sublime’s complicity in the nature of historical progress toward twentieth-century nuclear culture. The main goals of this article are to outline Marder’s philosophical reading of the sublime, to assess this reading through case studies of individual “artworks” or art-like objects found in the Chernobyl Zone, and to ultimately reassess the uncanny, lingering futurity of the nuclear event not as the ‘end of the world,’ but as progress toward a future aesthetic model in which humanity’s supposed rational hierarchy over nature is exchanged for the hesitant optimism of future ecological art.


Chernobyl, aesthetics, sublime, eco-anxiety, eco-trauma