File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0103, message 57

Date: Mon, 12 Mar 2001 20:14:08 -0600
Subject: Re: Terror & the Sublime

Julie, Hugh et al.,

First some pedantic comments relative to Kant.   There seems to be some
conflation here between beauty and the sublime.  As I read Kant, they
remain two very distinct moments of the aesthetic judgement.

Beauty gives us disinterested pleasure based on a reflective judgement
without a concept, that  judges "x is beautiful".  As such, it is a
universal statement of taste concerning a particular object.  Anyone,
without bias, should make the same judgement, upon encountering that x.

The sublime is a very different kind of aesthetic judgement.  While the
beautiful concerns the form of the object, the sublime can also be found
in a formless object.  It is characterized by a certain boundlessness.
Kant distinguishes two kinds of sublime - mathematical and dynamic. The
former is concerned with infinity; the second with power and might. (It
is only in the second that terror plays a role.  Hence, terror is not a
necessary component of the sublime.)  

Kant completely rejects the empiricism of Burke.  For him, the sublime
is not found in nature per se, but rather in the conflict of the
faculties.  At first this conflict is experienced as painful since the
imagination strives in vain to present itself with an Idea of reason. 
Ultimately, this is transformed into sublime pleasure because reason
comes to realize itself as a supersensible power standing above nature
and beyond the productive imagination as well.   

I believe the key move that Lyotard makes regarding the sublime is to
remove it from the Kantian faculties and situate it into a heterogeneous
and incommeasurable phrase universe - from the subject to language.

This move has several aspects.  Julie referred to the figure as being
sublime, but the figure retains a certain form, even though it resists
absorption into discourse.

Jeremy Gibert-Rolfe has made the following comments that bear on this.

"Beauty, on the other hand, is surely nothing of the sort.  Along with
Lyotard, Michael Fried and Steven Bann have also pursued the
distinction- also eighteenth century in origin - between an art in which
one looks at something and an art which would be about that act of
looking, an art in which one would look at oneself looking...Beauty, in
contradistinction , would have to be visible from the first.  It was
never other than visible, never needed to be brought into view.  Except,
of course, when it had been suppressed.  In this formulation, beauty
would be that which cannot be reduced to its critique, to the sublime
that  is realized in critique and in the object of self-consciousness,
in the self that finds itself in wondering about what it means to be or
have a self."

"it's that beauty is not critical nor a product of criticism, and, as
such, can only undermine that regime of good sense that is criticism's
search for meaning. Beauty, in being frivolous, and in that trivial and
irrelevant, is always subversive because it's always a distraction from
the worthwhile, which let's us know it's worthwhile by not being

What I find remarkable about this passage is that in the guise of
critiquing Lyotard, Gilbert-Rolfe appears to be describing the same kind
of ambiguous relationship that Lyotard himself made between discourse
and figure, although Lyotard does not necessarily privilege the figural
as beauty.

As far as the sublime is concerned, both the incredulity towards
metanarratives and the feeling of incommeasurability brought about by
the differend are unbounded signs that the sublime is being felt.  Here,
however, it is not found in the play of the faculties, but it the
heterogeneous phrases themselves.  These must be linked, but no rule or
genre allows them to be linked necessarily.  Thus, there is a referral
back to the reflective judgement which experiences this
incommeasurability itself as an alteration of pain and pleasure, filled
with libidinal intensities.  This feeling is sublime, but different in
many respects from the way it was previously situated by both Burke and

I agree the art can paradoxically "present" this unpresentable sublime
and even what is commonly referred to as "postmodern art" attempts to do
this, somewhat intentionally, by mixing genres and being self-reflexive.

However, much of the value of Lyotard's reworking of the sublime points
as well in the rudderless direction of ethics and politics.  (Which is
not to say that there is a politics of the sublime.) 

Art is related to politics because both are concerned with the
articulation of affects, although the consequences of this may differ





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