Conversations centered on the topic of the sublime as an aesthetic concept, especially with regards to how it differs from beauty, have endured and evolved over the past three hundred years. Immanuel Kant declared, "Sublime is the name given to what is absolutely great." More specifically he theorized, "The sublime is to be found in an object even devoid of form, so far as it immediately involves, or else by its presence provokes, a representation of limitlessness, yet with a super-added thought of its totality."1 These sublime objects were usually associated with natural phenomena; however, during the early to mid 20th century these sublime feelings transferred from natural occurrences to human achievements and technological feats, an experience dubbed the technological sublime. In contrast to the natural sublime, which "concerns a failure of representation," the technological sublime "concerns an apparently successful representation of man's ability to construct an ability to construct an infinite and perfect world."2 However, many technological accomplishments had detrimental effects on the environment and did not always reflect this potential for a "perfect world." More recently, an environmental aesthetic used to describe contaminated landscapes is the toxic sublime, which Jennifer Peeples defines as "the tensions that arise from recognizing the toxicity of a place, object, or situation, while simultaneously appreciating its mystery, magnificence and ability to inspire awe."3 A toxic sublime image draws its viewer aesthetically in through its abstract beauty while simultaneously providing disgust and disillusionment with a society that would allow such a toxic landscape come to be.
The trajectory of the transformation of the sublime provides certain overlap with historical views of nature. In the 1930s, Frederick Kiesler theorized correalism, which consisted of three environments: the natural, the human, and the technological. Through his proposed "continuous construction," Kiesler sought for a building to reduce joints in order to prevent "the process of disruption through natural forces."4 While attempting to simulate nature's continuity, Kiesler was proposing a system that would further the divide between the natural and human environments through a technological one. This divide is also at hand at a smaller scale with regards to the natural sublime where nature is viewed as far superior to man (natural forces infiltrate built forms through joints), but also the technological sublime where nature can be dwarfed by man's technological feats (continuous construction can separate the natural environment from the human one). However, the toxic sublime provides a setting where the divides between these environments is not so clear, each infiltrating and overlapping into the others and withdrawn, never fully revealing themselves. The existence of such toxic places demonstrates the failure of continuous construction, the divide between nature and civilization. The toxic sublime illuminates the existence of a new "total environment," neither totally lauding nor completely condemning the conditions of such places. Yet these toxic sublime images call into question the extent in which humankind has damaged the environment and presses us to question how we should function morally in the future with knowledge of the existence of these places.