The Sublime and Education
"Romantic Training" introduces this special issue, which is devoted to exploring some of the ways we can think the entanglements of two concepts that are constitutive to Romanticism but are not often thought together, education and the sublime. As a means of introduction, this essay defines what has been a significant inspiration to me in putting together this special issue, both in terms of its topic and its contributors: the possibility of an immanent pedagogical sublime. Theorization of this structure of possibility includes the analysis of Immanuel Kant’s pedagogical theory in relation to the critical philosophy; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s theorization of Kant, specifically the third critique, in her own pedagogical theory, which foregrounds Romantic poetry; the work of Romantic poetry in itself theorizing a Romantic pedagogical sublime, particularly Wordsworth; and finally, a figuring of an immanent pedagogical sublime through the example and theorization of the equine sport, Dressage.
Pyle's epistolary essay approaches the topic of a sublime education first as a particular pedagogical assignment: just how does one teach the sublime as a mode of aesthetic experience as well as a question posed for and by philosophical aesthetics. This directive prompts readings of two poems by Shelley which explicitly link aesthetic experience to forms of instruction: "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" and "Mont Blanc." He argues that one lesson to be learned from Shelley's poetic teaching is an aestheticism. Subsequent sections in the essay address the implications of this aestheticism for those who resist it (de Man, Spivak) and those who don't (Wilde, Foucault). He concludes the essay by turning to a passage—at once sublime and pedagogical—from The Triumph of Life which arrives at what he calls a genuinely radical aestheticism.
The essay argues that, if the sublime continues to fascinate scholars and philosophers long after the critical dismantling of its metaphysical underpinnings in Kant, Hegel, and Romanticism, it is because it has found a refuge in the topology of critical thought as such. The solution of the ongoing problem of the sublime accordingly lies in investigating the afterlife this topology grants not only the sublime itself but metaphysics even (if not especially) for writers like Benjamin, Derrida, Agamben, and Zizek committed to the skeptical and/or materialist deconstruction of the transcendental pretensions the sublime keeps alive. The investigation begins with close analysis of the grounds on which, for Kant, the sublime requires no transcendental "deduction" or justification of the sort he provides the beautiful. What emerges from this analysis is the fact that, where the beautiful ultimately falls under the net of empirical (historical, ethnographic) skepticism, the sublime is naturalized as an expression of a structure of feeling to which most critics and philosophers remain wedded despite their programmatic hostility to the idealist patterns of thought they keep reproducing. As a probative case in point, the essay analyses how Benjamin's critique of historical materialism in the parable of the chess-playing automaton in "Theses on the Philosophy of History" betrays the more worldly and humane vision of human experience outlined in his earlier essay on the Storyteller. This in turn sets the stage for discussion of the lessons to be learned from Hume's refusal to talk about the sublime at all and from Kierkegaard's "leap of faith" construed less as a gesture of blind faith than as what he himself described as a dance step the whole art of which consists of coming gracefully back to earth.
Readers since William Hazlitt have commented (often with some anxiety) on the ability of Coleridge's Christabel to give rise to the experience of stupidity. This essay argues that rather than being an index of readerly or authorial failure, stupidity provides the grounds of sublime experience. The sublime, for Coleridge, consists in the "Suspension of our Comparing Power," a phrase which evokes Kant's description of the "momentary inhibition of the vital forces followed immediately by an outpouring of them that is all the stronger." This inhibition or suspension is, McCarthy argues, analogous to the state of not being able to "tell" that is so pervasive in Christabel. Within this context, McCarthy proposes a broad reconsideration of Coleridge's famous "willing suspension of disbelief" as a posture of radical receptivity to the unexpected, one that risks stupidity and the failure of the sublime. What we "learn" from the sublime, she concludes, is not how to replace stupidity with knowledge but rather to "comprehend" (in a broad sense) the "experience of stupidity ... that goes beyond confusion and ignorance or even the knowledge of what we do not know."
This essay explores how Derrida’s writings on the institutions of philosophy (primarily in Du Droit à la Philosophie) draw on the discourse of the sublime to rethink the university as a site of institutional responsibility. In the university, philosophy undergoes "the risk of presentation"—at once exposing itself to and yet shielding itself from an apparently menacing exteriority. In the ironically sublime setting of "The University in the Eyes of its Pupils" a sublime temporality, the chance of an instant or the blink of an eye, is allegorically represented and extended through a temporally enduring institutional norm. A similarly allegorical structure shapes Derrida’s portrait of the professorial body in "Where a Teaching Body Begins and How it Ends," a text in which the teaching body is the focal point of incommensurabilities of letter and spirit or institution and idea that are directly characterized as sublime. In both cases, philosophy undergoes a "risk of presentation" that it cannot avoid. The sublime also recurs in more oblique fashion throughout Droit in the text’s many references to "menace"—as it were, the underside of the quasi-messianic promise so often invoked in Derrida’s writings. What is at issue throughout his writings on the university is the feeling of menace against which a certain discourse of the sublime and a certain allegorical (re)presentation seek to erect an institutional and disciplinary shield as if in defense of (the right to) philosophy. Yet that same shield, in its very defensiveness, may be what menaces philosophy most of all. Through a sometimes ironic figuration of the sublime, Derrida thus considers how one can defend a right to philosophy and yet still strive to leave philosophy without defenses or defensiveness—that is, open to exteriority and to "the entirely other of a terrifying future."
This essay argues that at least five main versions of the sublime have recently tried to account for its excessive or transgressive structure. Psychoanalysis, taken generally, is committed to explaining the phantasmal structure by which we typically compensate for otherwise unsustainable losses of psychic integrity by educational or progressive advances elsewhere. But the sublime’s aesthetic component allows it an opt-out clause freeing it from complete imprisonment within a psychic economy. The same goes for its putative escape from normative linguistic patterning. The paper defends the sublime’s irresponsibility here against the scepticism of critics from Weiskel to de Man. The same exorbitance is then investigated in political and historical contexts, again reading these with or against a tradition of commentary on the sublime. Finally, the post-modern sublime’s attempts to conceive of a politically exemplary but unavowable community is considered, and this final harnessing of the sublime to further an educational impetus evaluated.
Like a modern writer like Pierre Bourdieu who is continually looking at the ways in which it is possible to draw distinctions between apparently identical terms (as he does when he notes the different values of the same gift given at different times), educational writers like Rousseau, Barbauld, Bentham, and Kant portrayed education as a process of recognizing the difference between apparent similarities and identities (and the identity of apparent contrasts). They were, that is, shifting attention from the notion of content and the transmission of a body of knowledge to a more insistent attention to context and relationship—the perception of relative value. For a certain strand of thinker (such as Joseph Priestley) this constant attention to shifting values leads to an insistence on the idea of progress itself (rather than attaining particular goals). A writer like Kant, however, reverses this forward-lookingness, to discover in the young and virtually untutored child the foundational importance of practical reason—in the form of an interest in gossip, which is in his account a benign activity of moral entertainment.
This essay provides a commentary on and critique of the other essays in the volume. It tracks the claims of the several essays with attention to the status of the examples adduced and the give and take between examples and theoretical paradigms. There is also some consideration of the historical continuities and discontinuities of the theory and the productions of the sublime.