On the Sublime

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Trans. James Creed Meredith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973. --

"instead of the object, it is rather the cast of the mind in appreciating it that we have to estimate as sublime" (104)

The sublime is contemplation of the fearful from a position of security, given our possession of ideas of reason, such as infinity against which all else can be compared, hence we find "in our minds a pre-eminence over nature even in its immeasurability"; despite our helplessness "as beings of nature," we find "at the same time . . . a faculty of estimating ourselves as independent of nature" (111). "This saves humanity in our own person from humiliation, ever though as mortal men we have to submit to external violence" (111). The sublime shows us how "the mind can make itself sensible of the appropriate sublimity of the sphere of its own being, even above nature" (112).

Our superiority to nature: in the feeling of astonishment "is a might enabling us to assert our independence as against the influences of nature, to degrade what is great in respect of the latter to the level of what is little, and thus to locate the absolutely great only in the proper estate of the Subject" (121).

And some brief notes on two of Lyotard's books, as promised:

Lyotard, Jean-François. Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime. Trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994. --

Evading materialism: in analysis of taste "the privileging of form protects thinking from any interest in the 'material' of the object and consequently from any interest in its real presence. Desire or need does not linger over forms." (77-8)

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

Kant's sublime: the inadequacy of the imagination is "a negative sign of the immense power of ideas" (98); that "the question of time, of the Is it happening?, does not form part -- at least not explicitly -- of Kant's problematic" (99). Whereas in Burke time is central: "the sublime is kindled by the threat of nothing further happening" (99). Terror -- is linked to privation (of light, of others, of silence, etc.).; it stops happening; but the sublime threat is suspended, kept at bay, hence our delight, a kind of relief (99).

That the sublime of Burke and Kant anticipates the avant-garde. Defamiliarization: "The art-lover does not experience a simple pleasure, or derive some ethical benefit from his contact with art, but expects an intensification of his conceptual and emotional capacity, an ambivalent enjoyment. Intensity is associated with ontological displacement." (101).

On Kant's imagination: "the sublime depends on the disaster suffered by the imagination in the sublime sentiment." It establishes "a knowledge of experience", but so that "the disaster suffered by the imagination can be understood as the sign that the forms are not relevant to the sublime sentiment. But in that case, where does matter stand, if the forms are no longer there to make it presentable? How is it with presence?" (136) Hence the absolute of an idea of reason. "The principal interest that Kant sees in the sublime sentiment is that it is the 'aesthetic' (negative) sign of a transcendence proper to ethics, the transcendence of the moral law and of freedom." (136). Thus "Nature is no longer the sender of secret sensible messages of which the imagination is the addressee. Nature is 'used', 'exploited' by the mind according to a purposiveness that is not nature's" (137). The sublime happens "via a lack or even a disappearance of nature" (137).

Matter as only a vehicle for form, form being privileged in aesthetics. This downplays the individual, essential matter in favour of merely comparative judgements: how one colour relates to, or is positioned in opposition to, another. This "means approaching presence without recourse to the means of presentation" (139).

That apprehension of matter involves "suspending the active powers of the mind . . . for at least 'an instant'." "there is a state of mind which is a prey to 'presence'." Matter is designated as "'that there is', this quod, because this presence in the absence of the active mind is and is never other than timbre, tone, nuance in one or other of the dispositions of sensibility" (140); the moment of "a passion, a passability for which the mind will not have been prepared, which will have unsettled it, and of which it conserves only the feeling -- anguish and jubilation -- of an obscure debt" (141).

Matter as The Thing, existing outside and prior to the mind. Equivalent in thought is perhaps words, in their pre-conceptual mode as nuance, timbre (foregrounding in language): "Words 'say', sound, touch, always 'before' thought. And they always 'say' something other than what thought signifies, and what it wants to signify by putting them into form" (142).

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Document created September 19th 2003