Research Stream


Ben Gook (2015)
The University of Melbourne


Splendour of the impersonal: Ecstasy, transcendence and a pre-history of the late twentieth century

Where does the hunger for ecstasy come from and in what forms has it been found? Why have people sought for centuries the splendour of the impersonal? And why has it taken its aesthetic, religious and social forms?

Splendour of the impersonal: Ecstasy, transcendence and a pre-history of the late twentieth century

Image: "Angel in ecstasy" Photo by Eke Miedaner, Feb 10, 2007. 

“Ecstasy” is an everyday description of a heightened emotional state. Its contemporary usage often misses its long cultural and philosophical history. Ek-stasis is the term’s Greek root and refers to turning inside out and the experience of being beside one’s (former) sense of self; it signifies a moment of standing outside oneself or the putting of something (typically, the self) out of place. Nietzsche described ecstasy as liberation from stasis and sameness, and he explored aesthetic, erotic and sacred expressions of rapture. How have these liberatory experiences and understandings shaped our modern feeling for ecstasy?

This project began by tracing “ecstasy” as it circulated to describe the experience of the Berlin Wall falling – a moment of absolute liberation for many, a release from stasis that would be rediscovered in cultural forms and drug use over the coming years. “Ecstasy” emerges as a figure of music subcultures that flourished in Berlin—and that now form a huge part of the local tourist industry and the city’s self-image as a place of ecstatic weekend encounters. This contemporary manifestation of ecstatic experience can be linked to the long history of ecstasy, including its religious history, such as that of mystics and pilgrimages, as well as its link to aesthetics and intoxication.

Further, ecstasy goes to some key concerns about transcendence and immanence, interiority and exteriority. This form of emotionality is a limit case of internal withdrawal and external extension. Ecstasy is an excellent model of the ways distinctions can be unsettled between inside and outside, as well as within and between subjects. It opens the subject and can make them vulnerable, disorganising and re-organising senses of self. This opening onto new shapes of the self is, it would seem, the draw of ecstatic experience. Ecstasy opens barriers and removes borders for individual subjects—and spontaneous communities, such as those at a musical performance.

The Berlin Wall’s fall saw the rise of techno tourism,” The Conversation, November 2014.