Hamilton, "The Sublime: History of an Education"

The Sublime and Education

The Sublime: History of an Education

Paul Hamilton, Queen Mary, University of London

  1. Introduction
  2. The sublime, taken as an aesthetic category originating in Kant’s third Kritik, but by no means terminating there, has been read in strikingly symptomatic ways by late twentieth-century theory. To review these different interpretations or uses of its antinomial structure is to appreciate the sublime’s continuing life in the ways in which we think the integrity, limitations and motivations of our contemporary intellectual procedures. I want both to show the varieties of this ongoing education, and then to ask questions about the place of the originally aesthetic function of the sublime which these utilitarian expansions of it seem to entail.[1]

  3. Arguably, for my purposes, at least five main versions of the sublime have lately put themselves forward. In each case, a normal, expected economy of experience is exceeded. In sublimity we appear to be getting something for nothing, or to be re-writing loss as recovery, failure as success. This fantasy or phantasmal structure can take several forms. First of all, remembering that the transgressions of the sublime were described by Kant through a conflict of the faculties, we can look for the obvious re-statement of his psychology in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis of the sublime both addresses a scene which confirms classic oedipal patterns and confronts an aesthetic suspension of the acceptance of these patterns otherwise necessary to a psychoanalytically-viable personality. Secondly, deconstructive criticism following the psychoanalytic venture in the United States (Weiskel to de Man) accepts the sublime as an exemplary catachresis: a misnomer in which the irresolvability of constative and performative utterance is mistaken as a present experience rather than just the difference between the two. This scepticism, though, leads to the materialism sketched in de Man’s late work in which the sublime’s characteristic advance beyond conceptualism is criticised as a deceitful medium, an attempt to pass off what must remain phenomenal as having a higher, noumenal authority; an attempt to suggest a progressive future through what must always remain a memorial to the recurrent linguistic structure of our thought. This move characterizes ideology for de Man. But the different development of this crux in Kant’s thought by his immediate successors, from Fichte to Hegel, helps us see here that de Man arrests an ongoing impulse whose educative process might well continue.

  4. Political readings of the sublime similarly spend beyond their means. Those following Hannah Arendt concentrate on the common sense precipitated by our otherwise ungrounded notions of what is to count as aesthetic experience and what is not. Culture rather than gumption is what is at stake. Negotiation here tends to displace the particular aesthetic judgement on which agreement was originally sought; more important becomes a sense of the common basis discovered in the act of negotiation or judgment itself. Even if we disagree, our differences must be subtended or underwritten by the agreed premises which make the subsequent disparity visible. Schelling’s ontology was the immediate post-Kantian idiom in which this problem was discussed. Fourthly, though, many more historical corroborations loom. It has always proved an intriguing problem to distinguish discourse about the sublime from those which it produces. The turn of sublimity from whatever it was supposed to be into anything that describes it fuels readings of it, from Longinus to Peter de Bolla, as a transformational rhetoric. Then the interpreter’s sense of borrowing against the security of description she was supposedly establishing is at its most palpable. The national debt, which generalized and historically legitimated this kind of economic practice, evolved contemporaneously with renewed interest in theorizing the sublime.

  5. More recently, though, political readers of the sublime (Maurice Blanchot, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean-Luc Nancy and their critics) have, like the post-Kantians, returned to the logic of the sublime rather than its historical pervasiveness to recover its political character. Its suspension of concepts in the service of negotiating a common sense that, existing in dissent as much as in unanimity, can never be accomplished, became a way of honouring the sovereignty of the subject without lapsing into old-fashioned individualism. In other words, outside Arendt’s sphere of political negotiation altogether, the sublime individual — she of the constitutionally conflicted or irreconcilable faculties — defies assimilation in an exemplary way. There is nothing exceptional in such idiosyncrasy; it models the conflicted idiom of our ethnically, religiously, and even secularly mixed societies. Or, put another way, we are all exceptional. In a multi-cultural world, the inoperative or unavowed (inavouable) community is evoked by the subject for whom that community’s actual enforcement would be regimentation and tyranny. Yet such a subject herself sets a pattern to which we might belong, for what we might become in a fantasy of our completion, for a way of being human. The fact that we do not, impossibly, actually become all these differences, sets the agenda for a politics directed at an unavowed or inoperative target different from Arendt’s community of judgement. This sublime politics keeps fiction or aesthetics politically relevant in a different way from the way Arendt describes.

  6. In Kant’s original exposition of the sublime, these individual exceptions to an overall economy were justified not as a condition to be psychoanalysed into the normal and its discontents; nor as a general linguistic condition beset by catachresis; nor as evidencing the flexibility of consensus; nor as revealing an historical permeability of community and individual finally allowing the latter to put the former in suspension. They were justified as aesthetic, that is, as definitively generative of a feeling of pleasure in how we managed to have the experience we did. There is something curiously undifferentiated in this aesthetic sense of our own life — and Rousseau revelled in it — an abstract expressionism that tends to complicate the representation of any discursive society to which we then want to belong or of which we want to be a unit. Symptomatically, abstract expressionist artists of our own day have been interested in the sublime. We must hang on to that original aesthetic charge, in all its new expansions or structural analogues, for there to be any point or politics to the bios to which we belong. That originary but homeless pleasure, mixed with pain as it is, is what the sublime speaks.

    Kantian Beginnings, Post-Kantian Sequels
  7. Kant’s theory of the sublime is the most striking example of an aesthetic supplement actually essential to the coherence of his overall system. Here, at the start of analysis of the sublime, the aesthetic is given both an honorarium and a poisoned chalice. The plot of what follows is to explain this conundrum. The very idea of the transcendental is revealed to have been at stake in the aesthetic. Sublimity establishes content for what had been an empty, formal cipher in Kant’s first Critique. The transcendental ego was logically required as a notional point of attachment for experience to be possible. Experience had to be someone’s in order to be experience. That someone, however, in Kant’s analysis, remained this formal requirement and nothing more. If it were to have empirical or phenomenal content, then it would no longer transcend all individual occasions as it had to do in order to be the subject to which they all belonged. But without any defining individual circumstances, how could the transcendental ego have any content at all? It looked empty.

  8. Kantianism properly understood, according to Kant’s successor Fichte, found substance for Kant’s transcendentalism once it was realised that Kant was actually, properly understood, a complete idealist. In his Wissenschaftslehre, Fichte dismisses Kant’s extra-empirical realm of things-in-themselves, arguing in effect that they can drop out of the Kantian language-game altogether. If, as Kant maintains, experience is necessarily prescribed by what it is possible for us to conceptualise, then what objects might be outside these parameters is unthinkable, even nonsensical. They would not be objects for a start. But since the objects of our experience cannot therefore be contrasted with any other “reality,” their empirical reality becomes indistinguishable from so-called transcendental reality. Objects, on this understanding, reveal the subjective structure of experience we all share. Equally, that universally applicable subjective structure, that transcendental self, is only describable in terms of the objects that reveal it. Fichte unites Kant’s two selves, transcendental and empirical. As Paul de Man was to do much later, he finds an irreducible phenomenalism articulating the possibility of, and so dismantling, Kantian metaphysics. Experience discloses the universal “I”; and this transcendental ego is exactly the consciousness given in experience, hence the famous Fichtean starting-point of “I = I”, or, “consciousness = self-consciousness.”

  9. Unlike de Man, Fichte never discusses the sublime. His initial incorporation of the empirical with the transcendental obviates any need to find a language for what happens when we step outside our own conceptual boundaries to claim as experience what exceeds our power to define as experience. And unlike de Man he is not interested in finding the Kantian attempt to do so ideologically symptomatic. Fichte’s philosophy has its problems. Although he never considers that his difficulties might require him to acknowledge that the Kantian sublime represents one version of a strategy indispensible for handling the subject’s power to step outside any explanatory economy, other post-Kantians —Schelling and Hegel — clearly do see this need. Schelling’s Freiheitschrift, so influential on Coleridge, postulates an original ontology or Absolute lying behind the world made possible by its original repression of its other possibilities. It becomes our human choice gratefully to accept the world we have in the wonder that there is something rather than nothing, or hubristically to undo it in an inappropriately Absolute nostalgia for the other possible worlds it might have been. In both cases, the extra-conceptual dimension beyond our current power to differentiate is acknowledged as an experience which will have its own, necessarily non-objective vocabulary. Comparably, Hegel’s phenomenology reveals a logic premised on the unity of identity and non-identity when, again, the conceptual act of defining any essence is simultaneously a separation from or repression of it. This sundering immediately compels us on the long journey of reconciliation of concept and essence, idea and nature which his philosophy narrates. The repeated vanishings of our mastery of nature, and the consequent stoicism, scepticism and sheer unhappiness with which we negotiate this estrangement again have their own affective discourses which distinctively colour in the formalities of the process. Opposed in many other ways, these two post-Kantians at least share this philosophical appropriation of a vivid usage for a purpose symmetrical with that breach of conceptual economy catered for by the Kantian sublime.

  10. It is important, though, to note that the symmetry is still with something which appears surplus to philosophical requirements. The difference of this usage from a purely logical demonstration of the limits of conceptual schematism is a prompt for the philosopher, not part of his or her philosophy. Nevertheless, the fact that the prompt cues a confrontation with philosophical limitation — the sense of what we cannot differentiate (Schelling) or a recurrent aporia never finally assuaged (Hegel) — lends it a de facto philosophical authority. This is the language philosophy may accredit but not itself supply; this discourse complements philosophical relativism with an Absolute expressed or fantasized in a variety of ways, by no means entirely literary.[2] “Hybrid” might be a better word referring to a time when the literary kinds were themselves being forced by the Jena Romantics at the heart of the post-Kantian endeavour to sacrifice their generic integrity in the interests of a larger, more progressive universal experience. Clearly a performative mode is replacing a constative mode at these moments of philosophical delegation. In her study of romantic performatives, Angela Esterhammer puts the post-Kantian difference, led by the performative force of self-expression, in terms of the socially productive speech-acts it deploys:

    When the term “I” enters into a discourse it breaks the rules of constative statement, deforming analytical sentences by introducing pragmatic issues such as the speaker’s position, status, and frame of reference — which is precisely why speech-act philosophy adopts as its foundational utterance the explicit performative in the form “I promise,” “I order,” “I bet.” (99)

    Whether one takes a dependence on performatives to deconstruct philosophical pretension or to institute a conversation between philosophy and other discourses, one in which philosophy accredits stand-ins for its own authority, continually educating us in speculative possibility, is, it seems to me, the moot question.

  11. Crucial here is the question of mastery. Stepping beyond the conceptual possibilities policed by philosophy, does the sublime let us retain control and re-establish in a new domain the historical version of that self (Eurocentric, male) that otherwise we might have seemed obliged to leave behind. (This, for example, would be the implication of the phenomenalism to which de Man reduces Kant’s sublime adventures.) Or are new possibilities opened up, options even suggesting that we can abandon the notion of a unified self in an experience to which we can still sensibly belong? Can the sublime educate us in ways no longer entailing enlightened self-aggrandisement? Or would such noetic renunciation sever education from the ecstasies of the sublime? Kant’s version of the sublime takes the latter view. The post-modern sublime we are most familiar with in the writings of Jean-François Lyotard, Maurice Blanchot, and Jean-Luc Nancy would beg to differ. To give up the attempt to resurrect an integrated self from its conceptual ruins puts us in contact with other ways of being a subject, previously threatening but now negotiable.

  12. Kant’s higher faculty of reason, which reasserts itself amid the rubble, constructs the sublime not as a delegation of philosophical authority to something else but as an ingenious presentation of continuity when his philosophical project appears to have foundered. We have, using Deleuze’s model for understanding Kant, just been referred to a different committee ruled by a different Chairperson (10). In the new set-up, ideas of reason do not appear to us as categorical imperatives regulating the faculty of desire. In sublime experience, such ideas are aestheticised by the faculty of sensibility in order to acculture us to our rational vocation in another, equally fitting way. A moral and an aesthetic education are equally educative and educate us in the same kind of thing. It is against this uniformity that post-Kantian Jena mergers of philosophy and poetry are directed. Still more generally in Symphilosophie’s even less restricted discursive affiliations, the Jena Fruhromantiker encourage performances uncovering, if you like, the Unconscious for which, just like us, philosophy cannot legislate.

    The Philosophical Unconscious
  13. Kant’s sublimity, then, finds content for experience when the self to whom such experience belongs appears to have passed beyond the (rational) bounds of educational possibility. That very appearance is discovered to educate us negatively in the rational vocation whose unique value is just this refusal to submit to the law of appearance. Post-Kantians rather claim that the Unconscious of philosophy thus revealed requires a different form of interpretation altogether, one in which non-philosophical discourses are recognised to have been cathected with conceptually unmanageable philosophical aspirations, and have to be interpreted accordingly. Philosophy, in other words, is in need of analysis. Slavoj Žižek’s work on Schelling, The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters, exemplifies the easiness with which post-Kantian philosophical schemes lend themselves to Lacanian reading. In particular, Schelling’s extraordinary text, Die Weltalter (The Ages of the World), postulates an original generative moment explaining the fact of consciousness and the coherence of the self. However, since that explanatory moment is by definition anterior to anything that can make sense, a fantasy of the Real, its needful manifestation must occur at a tangent to syntactic normality: an angle demanding all sorts of interpretative resourcefulness on the part of the reader wishing to position herself correctly. A straightforward recovery of “that primordial deed which makes a person (Mensch) genuinely themselves” would deliver us to “boundless freedom,” and “sink into the night of unconsciousness (Bewusstlosigkeit)” (Die Weltalter 183). We cannot bring back the beginnings that account for what we are: they “must not be called back,” because that would amount to having them taken back (zurückgenommen). They remain, “an eternal beginning . . . a continuing, a never-ending act (ein ewiger Anfang. . . ein beständige, ein nie aufhörende That)” (183). As Freud claimed, there is no direct access to the Unconscious.

  14. Education, in this instance, consists in the training to find and become competent in all sorts of alternatives to direct access. In Lyotard’s still more radical form of this transference, we can say that if the dream-work sourcing our grasp of the philosophical Unconscious does not therefore think, we have to devise an openness learned in bodily alternatives to ratiocination altogether.[3] For a Lacanian, the ultimate acceptance of our otherness is submission to be spoken in a language in which we no longer command a unique subject-position. Behind the scenes, this acknowledgement of castration is generalised (and un-gendered) into the ability to use a language without feeling that any of it must belong to me in some irreducible way.[4] Meanings are public and are only changed in a public sphere. The Lacanian cure for despair at the consequent loss of an entire expression of the self or the real is to feel it not as loss but as empowerment or articulation. We have to understand the effect as preceding the cause. In other words, we accept that these absolutes of self and real, defined in opposition to our conscious knowledge of them, are what Žižek calls “retroactive products,” constructed only with hindsight. But we construct them in shapes endowed with active powers which explain further the tools which discovered them, which expose the conscious limits of those tools’ angle of approach or interest, and which therefore stimulate us to make our hermeneutic capable of new constructions that themselves will set in motion further retroactive initiatives. Again we encounter Schelling’s “eternal beginning.”

  15. Post-Kantian philosophical delegation can be made to seem to be a kind of transference. More than this, as Žižek shows, the scene of psychoanalysis can appear mapped already in post-Kantian recoveries of the realms prohibited to Kantian cognition: nature or things-in-themselves and the freedom of the self, or, the real and the imaginary. Before his work on Schelling, he had made equally striking psychoanalytical incursions into Hegel. His spectacular, trademark swoops into contemporary popular culture from pinnacles of the dialectic tend to distract from the ways post-Kantianism itself was trying to maximise philosophy’s discursive potential on its own terms. For Novalis, Der Roman is the exemplary form of writing because it “is intuitive performance, realization of an Idea” (Werke. II. 287). He describes an Idea as “an irrational quantity (Grösse), unpresentable (unsetzbar), incommensurable.” Accordingly, he asks, “Should not the Roman grasp all species of style in a series (Folge) whose common spirit variously binds them together?” (269). Again, this stylistic generosity was primarily in response to the Kantian problem of presenting unpresentable ideas, for which the sublime and its symbols were meant to supplement philosophy’s own limitations. The culture or “common sense” built up in the process projects a community negotiated in good taste rather than via ethical imperatives. While the kingdom of ends posited by the latter has often been linked to historical features of Kant’s Weltanschauung – whether deplorably racist or encouragingly republican[5] – common sense has often appealed, ironically, because of its entirely formal uncovering of a logical space in which community could be constantly re-imagined and reconstituted, independently of the historical baggage one might expect to attach to so practical a prompt. Hence arises Novalis’s freedom of interpretation when working within Kantian terminology. The formation of taste, Bildung, remains empty enough to model a lack of foreclosure arguably exemplary for the formation of a multi-cultural collective.

  16. Hegel, though, as has been indicated, can be argued to conjure repeatedly a sublime scenario of sorts at each stage of his phenomenology. Eventually, though, a definitive breach in philosophical economy is arrived at, one from which philosophy cannot reconstitute itself so as to continue as before. In his psychoanalytic reading of Hegel, Jon Mills writes of this moment,

    What becomes of Spirit when it can’t effect its transition to reason, when it can’t relinquish its quest for unchangeable individuality, when it can’t let go of its being that has vanished – its nothingness? (156)

    I hope this is now immediately recognizable as the recrudescence of a sublime moment exceeding existing modes of explanation. Mills is referring to the last stage of Hegelian self-consciousness: the Unhappy Consciousness, who, incapable of solving its problems on its own, must surrender authority to a mediator, an analyst, and ultimately, in the overall plot of Hegel’s philosophy, must hand over all its individual, self-characterizing to evolving, plural social possibility. Hegel does not think he is squashing individuality here but rather connecting sublimity to political education. The sublimity, as one would expect Žižek to argue, is the fantasy of self-completion, the fantasy of a “Result” which actually “throws us back into the whirlpool, that is nothing but the totality of the route we had to travel in order to arrive at the result” (Tarrying with the Negative 156). Education does not stop. Hegelian education, on this reading, is the unending process whose unrestricted economy Hegel’s recursive philosophy (“retroaction” is Žižek’s word again) tries to figure.[6] Usually the affective content of the sublime, its mixture of pain and pleasure, terror and delight, seems too pressingly symptomatic in a psychoanalytic context to signify something so philosophically considered as the needful multiplication of discursive contexts of self-explanation. The emotions involved sound too painfully and fundamentally contradictory for us to see their irresolvable conflict as an abstract commendation of the virtues of hybrid self-expression and its political implications. So contested a response as the sublime must, as in Kant, be an inescapably polar one. At one pole, the sublime must be definitively negative, at the other it must be positive, and so we stay with Thomas Weiskel’s division into a metaphoric (negative) or metonymic (positive) sublime (31). This means staying with an investigation of specific psychic mechanisms rather than the analysis of the discursive relief available when philosophical self-understanding comes up against its own conscious limits.

    The Phenomenal Sublime
  17. Then, one might say in keeping with Neil Hertz’s famous study, we do reach “the end of the line.” Poststructuralist thought sees here no exit from a rhetorical en abyme and analyses the virtues of romantic literature and philosophy as an expressive encounter with this impasse. Some poststructuralists, certainly, like Maurice Blanchot, stress the possibilities of an “infinite conversation” stemming from the transference of philosophical authority by which Jena post-Kantianism kept its universals progressive. Following Blanchot, Jean-Luc Nancy sees political thought as essentially touched by the sublime. Others, like Paul de Man, are historically selective in their freezing of the development of German idealism in Kant’s third Critique and in a Kojèvian reading of Hegel’s objections to Kant. De Man’s interest in a Schlegelian view of irony as “permanent parabasis” is fed back into his repeated deconstruction of sublime excess. He described not a step out of the text he is reading into an expansive Folge, but simply another oscillation of the figural and the literal contributing to their undecideability. Or, as Hertz elaborates his own de Manian premise, we encounter what de Man calls a “figure of reading or of understanding” in which the “mutual reflexive substitution” of character in an author/reader of a text, when one appears to have blocked further understanding, keeps up the illusion of progress (Rhetoric, 70).[7] This improgressive repetition of “an inherent linguistic structure” (Aesthetic Ideology, 118) that is bound to manifest itself is used against the idea of sublime transgression and crossing in ways that have been deeply influential.

  18. De Man argues that the sublime claims to surpass the phenomenal but in fact perpetuates it in another form. Both forms inevitably belong to the aforementioned “inherent linguistic structure.” Cut adrift from phenomenal experience, the sublime can only perform its own content. Performatives are just as linguistic in character as constatives. It follows that the sublime’s noumenal pretensions, or claims to get on terms with a self-consciousness transcending the phenomenal, empirical self, are specious. In Kant the self is phenomenal through and through because it is linguistic. In de Man’s words, “the term phenomenality here implies not more and not less than that the process of signification, in and by itself, can be known, just as the laws of nature as well as those of convention can be made accessible to some form of knowledge.” It is what de Man calls “aesthetic ideology” to believe that in sublimity some more authentic expansion of our possibilities is sensed that is not reducible to “the prosaic materiality of the letter” (111).

  19. This is de Man’s bottom line. In a way, he can be seen to have transplanted Fichte’s critique of Kant to a moment after the linguistic turn in philosophy. There is nothing which could rationalise philosophy’s delegation of the responsibility for describing an extra-conceptual realm which no more exists than does an extra-linguistic description. The force of de Man’s reduction then becomes political when it hears clearly the dissembled affirmation of philosophical, scientific mastery hiding behind the sublime accents of philosophical self-sacrifice. The only advance on Kant that de Man tolerates is that Hegelian diagnosis of this mastery hidden in slavery. The Hegelian move, though, has itself to be deconstructed. It only becomes an exemplary performance when it proclaims the redundancy of the aesthetic within the total Hegelian project while still, disablingly, allowing the aesthetic’s accordingly enslaved position all the subversive force famously attributed to the slave in the Phenomenology of Spirit (Aesthetic Ideology, 118).

  20. What appears to have been taken from this comprehensive disposal of the Kantian sublime and its post-Kantian future is a lot less refined. For example, there is the assumption that Kant’s sublime dissembling licenses all sorts of unjustifiable aggrandizements of the Enlightenment subject. These outrages happened at the expense not only of unenlightened subjects who could not be expected to keep pace with the advanced culture or ‘common sense’ established by Kantian aesthetics. For the Kantian subject as much as those over whom he extended his authority (women, the colonised, even the environment) also became a victim of high-mindedness that was really high-handedness. In other words, the dialectic of Enlightenment kicked in just as much in the sublime extension of itself as in its ordinary self-defeating exercises of conceptual mastery. If the non-identity, the knowing incapacity to find a philosophical equivalent for reality, which Adorno believed to be the aesthetic negative of this dialectic, is foreclosed, then we are trapped forever. Consequently, fairly empiricist historicizations of the Kantian sublime can look to de Man — or a much less exact assumption that the sublime has been successfully deconstructed — for support. The sublime shows the European sensibility fastened to a damaging exercise in self-consolidation. Its extensions of the techniques of the self repress still further our real nature — that freely self-differing subjectivity whose appearances deconstructions of the sublime have dismissively referred to as aesthetic ideology.

  21. We can agree that this critique may have a point without having to concede that the educational value of the sublime is by definition aesthetic. This, at least, is the post-Kantian thrust of my argument. For the moment we might note that historicization of the sublime need not reveal unbridled imperialism on all fronts. The historical “embodiment” of Kantian reason, as Susan Meld Shell and others have argued, can be committed to a more interesting anthropology in harness to a more sophisticated historical sense than that of unlimited European expansion. And Peter de Bolla’s still classic discussion, The Discourse of the Sublime uses linguistic materiality to keep alive the Kantian subject’s self-difference, not to foreclose it:

    The subject under the sign of the sublime is the excess which theory tells itself it cannot control. It does this in order to disguise the practice it cannot account for, precisely in its own theoretical work. Care must be taken to insist here that the unified subject is not a product of the experiential sublime, but of the discourse of it. It is not a subject in any real sense, not a human agent, but a position within the discursive, a position waiting to be filled, to be made object, which nevertheless resists that objectification in the name of subjectivity. (295)

    This “disguise” is the way philosophy retains its hold on the discourse, aesthetic or otherwise, to which it has transferred authority. That “theoretical work” keeps the accredited discourse in the role of place-holder for a subject which, never objectified, can therefore always renew its story or narrative. Theory as such can never catch up with an educational process it has licensed to be always ahead of it. Hence the sublime remains, in terms of theory or philosophy, a fantasy of ultimate control, entirely imaginary. De Bolla, by the time he reaches this conclusion, has traced such discursive effects to related economic, oratorical and pictorial practices employing the sublime driver of excess. The rationale of the national debt, exploitation of a politically broadcast public persona unsubstantiated privately, licensing of pictorial or readerly transport — all historicize the transcendental core of the sublime. They remind us that many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century histories, characterising what James Chandler more recently called “the vehicular state” of the soul (30-2), tell a typical story of movement in excess of sensible confinement. All these histories assume a return upon an investment before that investment is realised; all are, in their different manners, constitutionally catching up on and in this way fantasizing a security that is theoretically impossible.

  22. De Bolla’s and Chandler’s work usefully variegate historical context, and colour in its formal qualities in different discursive hues. Precisely this pluralism of interpretation supports applications of sublimity in recent thinking about personal identity and political community. While it is tempting to agree with Will Slocombe that “Lyotard appends Levinasian ethics to Kantian aesthetics” (61), contrary to this one could argue that the post-Kantian diversifying of the sublime already offers enough precedents, even if these do not especially grip Lyotard. Presenting the unpresentable, or un-coercively moralizing one’s relation to the other, certainly recall a Kantian problematic. But the point Lyotard takes from Burke, for example, that the sublime shows that words affect us independently of representational power, opens a door to un-foretold innovations “to a lesser degree” implied by Kant’s aesthetics (The Inhuman, 101), but perhaps only properly educed by his successors — and then in the context of the new generic performances to be found in the Mischgedicht or Roman. The Machiavellian republicanism of Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis, tolerant of a mixture of constitutions, appears to compromise their radicalism; but it is just this pragmatic, inventive accommodation (matching the linguistic pragmatism we saw Esterhammer attribute to post-Kantian performatives) of republican with monarchical interests that can model the difficult resolution of competing political views needed by multiculturalism now.

    The Sublime Art of Multiculturalism
  23. This is rather different from the “common sense” or “necessary communicability” built up in the course of agreeing on judgements of the sublime. It lends itself to imagining a context in which incommensurable judgements and the cultures to which they belong could co-exist. By contrast, Kantian aesthetics seem to model a singular subject exemplary for us all. To that extent, Nancy writes, “a certain determination of ‘art’ . . . is perhaps coming to its end, and with it the categorization of the fine arts accompanying it, and with these a whole aesthetic feeling and judgement, a whole sublime delectation” (The Muses, 38). However, the sublime is distinguished for Kant by its rendering of a contrapurposive (Zweckwidrig) purpose as purposive. The sublime disruption of the Kantian system of faculties mapping the logic of possible experience is redeemed by its sublimity, which is pleasurable, and so attuned to our faculty of sensibility, however perversely. This then translates, less peculiarly, into the Jena idea of a genre empowered by the contradictions it can tolerate in rendering the compass of human experience. Common sense, contra Lyotard, is then not a repressive reconstitution of Enlightenment universals but something which can lead to a hybridity that, in turn, leads to post-modern deployment of sublime multiculturalism. And, indeed, the passage from Nancy continues: “It is not an end [of art and sublime delectation], but a renewed demand to grant rights to the naked presentation of the singular plural of obviousness — or of existence: it is the same thing” (38). However, this hybridity, or singular plural, in its turn, houses a post-modern dissemination of the subject that has been suspected of sheer incoherence or political inefficacy. To take a classic example of this hermeneutical suspicion from post-colonial theory, Gayatri Spivak wants her subaltern to speak and not lose her individual voice in the babble of an over-articulate liberalism. However sympathetic towards the colonised, subaltern class post-modern liberalism’s critique of the unified subject is intended to be, it repeats colonial oppression when it refuses to hear that individual subaltern voice (202). As Bonnie Mann trenchantly puts this point of view,

    In the late twentieth century . . . the sublime re-emerges. But today, the ‘others’ of Euro-masculinity seem eager to accept the gift of the fragmented subject as a panacea for the megalomania of the unified rational hero of the Enlightenment . . . without enabling the postmodern subject to build a relation to place. . . .The resultant unintelligibility of the external political world (and others of that world), and of the natural world on which we depend, is the price we pay for a new postmodern fantasy of emancipation. (58-9)
  24. I want to close by considering this use of “fantasy,” intended to be pejorative but actually betraying the link between any political education through sublimity and its original aesthetic status — wondering how, in Nancy’s terms, this might be “renewed.” Fear of fantasy, fear of fiction in the pursuit of a just estimation of other people, might be compared to fear of abstraction in painting. Barnett Newman, in “The Sublime is Now,” describes his art as responding to the irrelevance of traditional artistic subject-matter after the Great War and the Depression. For the narrative of art to continue, for expression still to be possible, there has to be a step into a present, a “now” whose story has not yet been told. The appearance of this expression, therefore, will be abstract, owing nothing to precedent and everything to its own particularity. To abstract is no longer to generalize but to take out of context. Frank O’ Hara’s “personism” captures this fusion of individuality and abstraction (O’Hara, xiii). O’Hara wants his poetry to exhibit “a true abstraction for the first time, really” (xiv). He seeks this through a kind of communicative obstruction, a kind of contrapurposiveness again, saying of one of his love-poems that “while I was writing it I was realising that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem” (xiv). This fantasy of an adequacy to the “now” surpassing even the immediacy of telecommunication is foregrounded by Newman in opposition to other communicative conventions. His abstract expressionism makes something out of what de Bolla called “the absence of a self-narrative of the sublime” which, in trumping phenomenal self-narrative, becomes a fantasy of adequate understanding — “the phantasmic experience of theory” (295).

  25. Lyotard thinks that Newman “breaks with the eloquence of romantic art” (The Inhuman, 92), that Newman’s abstraction indicates a discursive penury imposed by “a professional duty to bear witness that there is” (88). Earlier, though, he echoes even more distinctly than here a most eloquent Romantic, Schelling, when he attributes to Newman’s expression “the wonder that there should be something rather than nothing” (85). The eloquence persists, surely, in the philosophical narrative with which the sublime moment breaks, and for which, as its own unique moment passes, we realise it has been fantasizing a continuation. To say that the moment passes, that Newman’s art takes its place in a narrative, and that, consequently, new approaches to the “now” are required, once more extends Lyotard’s commentary. Lyotard again describes a break with the Romantic sublime in the avant-garde reversal demanded, as he sees it, of Newman’s title from “The Sublime is Now” to “Now the Sublime is like this.” But post-Kantian historicism arguably takes things still further. If philosophy’s accreditation of the aesthetic is to proceed beyond philosophy’s own narrative boundaries, this breach will complicate and disturb the autonomy of the aesthetic as much as that of philosophy. The aesthetic may well have to abandon its own independence, and in pursuit of its philosophical mission delegate its phantasmal mission to other activities, to other spheres of labour—which is perhaps to say no more than that the sublime is the limit case for both philosophy and art? The sublime educates us in the productive insufficiency of both.

  26. Historically the sublime was put in place or brought into play to allow the continuation of philosophy by other means. In its acceptance of this task, though, this aesthetic moment conceded its subservience to another purpose. The politicization to which the sublime submits aesthetics allows other activities to free its phantasmal function from the aura of art. This is the penalty exacted from art for turning the breach in a discursive economy into its own aesthetic success. Once that tactic has been philosophically legitimated, there is no going back, and art itself is subject to the same logic. It must drink from its own poisoned chalice.[8]

  27. The Kantian Friedrich Schiller avoided this Socratic sacrifice. He refused to accept that art is not irreplaceable by making an aesthetic education an education in the aesthetic.[9] Since the aesthetic’s characteristic indeterminacy frees it from any vested interest or specialism, it can encompass everything: its sphere is universal. De Man calls this “a total idealism” (Aesthetic Ideology, 142). But de Man himself regards as “suspended” (184) Friederich Schlegel’s post-Kantian deployment of the non-aesthetic non-understanding (Unverständlichkeit), and de Man’s preference for “Non-understanding” over the usual “Incomprehensibility,” is perfect for keeping the stakes visible here (183). In his 1800 essay Über die Unverständlichkeit, Schlegel uses the hybridity of an irony “that originates in more than one way,” so ironizing itself, to allow the idea of a sublime education to arise from its transgression of its aesthetic original (Werke. II. 207). For Schlegel, non-understanding grounds “the welfare of families and nations” (das Heil der Familien und der Nationen) (208). The dramatic but not necessarily artistic improvisations by which human relationships fruitfully adapt and develop at familial and national levels cannot be prescribed. Unconvinced, de Man calls this the “expectation that one may have that deconstruction might be able to construct” (Aesthetic Ideology, 184). According to de Man, looking back from the sublime vantage-point we can see only the “chaos” (183) into which such exorbitance throws ordinary experience; or else we disguise the past we have supposedly left behind in order to hide from ourselves the fact that we could never have made the impossible step outside its phenomenal context anyway. But it is hard not to think that de Man’s permanent suspense of Schlegelian “expectation” returns us to the Kantian / Schillerian aesthetic whose integrity or non-transferability is, paradoxically, the price we pay for its educative power. The discursive abstinence of Kantian aesthetics leaves us with the two most familiar endgames of art: an art rendered redundant à la Hegel or an art disappearing into its own idealism via its aestheticization of everything. A post-Kantian delivery of sublimity from its aesthetic matrix, such as Schlegel’s Unverständlichkeit, releases the educative power of art. Translated into the critical extension of our self-understanding beyond existing canons, it has perpetuated a core human activity, a fantasy of our completion that, somewhere, is always in credit.


1. The survey of the meanings of sublimity I have found most sympathetic is Philip Shaw's The Sublime. He reaches more pessimistic conclusions, I think, but we agree about the theoretical range any commentary is obliged to cover.

2. Will Slocombe cleverly runs arguments about sublimity and nihilism parallel to each other and summarizes Žižek's aperçu that “Kant argues that sublimity is the failure of the mental object to present itself in language, rather than the failure of language to present the object” (45). He also pinpoints a Hegelian moment in Judith Butler's exoneration of performative contradiction: “performative contradiction is crucial to the continuing revision and elaboration of historical standards of universality” ( 89-90). Both examples show a (not necessarily literary) sublime linguistic performance performing a service for philosophy.

3. See “The Dream-work Does Not Think,” 19-56.

4. See Žižek's exposition of this in The Abyss of Freedom / Ages of the World: An essay by Slavoj Žižek with the text of Schelling's 'Die Weltalter' (second draft, 1813) in English translation by Judith Norman (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 43.

5. See Susan Meld Shell, The Embodiment of Reason: Kant on Spirit, Generation and Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), for encouraging republicanism.

6. Obviously this approach is set against Jacques Derrida's deconstructive reading in “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve” in Writing and Difference.

7. See Paul de Man, “Autobiography as Defacement” in The Rhetoric of Romanticism. Neil Hertz, The End of the Line, 220. That this substitutive oscillation can continue almost endlessly within the same text is shown by Cynthia Chase in “The Accidents of Disfiguration: Limits to Literal and Rhetorical Reading in Book V of The Prelude.” See in particular her remark on 556: “Language ordinarily covers up the effects of effaced figuration; it erases the effacement of the figure. In this text, the cover is cancelled and the erased effacement reinscribed, in an act of disfiguration.”

8. Within this education out of an originally aesthetic moment into its extension in other discourses, still finer discriminations are to be made. Catherine Maxwell, in The Female Sublime (216-21), distinguishes between poems which seek to “enact their own death” and those which, less tragically and daringly, achieve a quieter dissolution better represented as figuring a frequently advantageous sexual surrender of male to female authority. Variations in sublime education can then characterize historical changes, in this case the transition from Romanticism to a Victorian pre-modernism represented by Swinburne.

9. See my explanation in “Schiller's Temporizing,” Chapter One of Metaromanticism: Aesthetics, Literature, Theory (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2003).

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Chandler, James. “The Languages of Sentiment.” Textual Practice 22.1 (March 2008): 21-41.

Chase, Cynthia. “The Accidents of Disfiguration: Limits to Literal and Rhetorical Reading in Book V of The Prelude.” Studies in Romanticism 18 (Winter, 1979): 547-65.

Deleuze, Gilles. Kant's Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. London: Athlone Press,1984.

de Bolla, Peter. The Discourse of the Sublime: History, Aesthetics & the Subject. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

de Man, Paul. “Autobiography as Defacement.” The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

---. Aesthetic Ideology. Andrzej Warminski, ed. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Derrida, Jacques. “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve.” Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Esterhammer, Angela. The Romantic Performative: Language and Action in British and German Romanticism. Stanford: University of Stanford Press, 2000.

Hamilton, Paul. Metaromanticism: Aesthetics, Literature, Theory. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2003.

Hertz, Neil. The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime. New York: Columbia, 1985.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “The Dream-work Does Not Think.” Trans. Mary Lydon. The Lyotard Reader. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989. 19-55.

---. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991.

Mann, Bonnie. Women's Liberation and the Sublime: Feminism, Poststructuralism and the Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Maxwell, Catherine. The Female Sublime. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001.

Mills, Jon. The Unconscious Abyss: Hegel's Anticipation of Psychoanalysis. Albany, New York: State University of New York, 2002.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Muses. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Novalis [Friedrich von Hardenberg]. Werke in Zwei Banden. Rolf Toman, ed. Köln: Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft, 1996.

O' Hara, Frank. Selected Poems. Donald Allen, ed. London: Penguin Books, 1994.

Schelling, F. W. J. Die Weltalter. Manfred Schröter, ed. Munich: Beck, 1966, 1983.

Schlegel, Friedrich. Werke in Zwei Bänden. Ed. Wolfgang Hecht. Berlin: Bibliothek Deutscher Klassiker, 1988.

Shaw, Philip. The Sublime. London: Routledge, 2006.

Shell, Susan Meld. The Embodiment of Reason: Kant on Spirit, Generation and Community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Slocombe, Will. Nihilism and the Sublime Postmodern: The (Hi)Story of a Difficult Relationship from Romanticism to Postmodernism. New York and London: Routledge, 2006.

Spivak, Gayatri. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York and London: Methuen, 1987.

Weiskel, Thomas. The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976, 1986.

Žižek, Slavoj. Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel and the Critique of Ideology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

---. The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters. London: Verso, 1996.

---. The Abyss of Freedom / Ages of the World: An essay by Slavoj Žižek with the text of Schelling's 'Die Weltalter' (second draft, 1813) in English translation by Judith Norman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.