File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0111, message 61

Date: Sun, 11 Nov 2001 10:50:12 -0600
Subject: Re: The Sublime

The Shock of the Event

I hope we can connect two of the trends here.  One is the discussion
among Glen, Hugh and Steve about the definition of the sublime.  The
other is the discussion between Reg and Walter about whether or not
events such as Hiroshima, the Holocaust and 911 can be called sublime.

While agreeing somewhat with Reg's formulation that the sublime is an
"aestheticisation of terror" I think it also remains true that for both
Kant and Lyotard historical events can be felt as "sublime affects." 
For Kant this was linked to the enthusiasm experienced in connection
with the French Revolution.  For Lyotard, especially in his book
"Heidegger and 'the jews'" it is the Holocaust. 

What is this sublime affect that can be experienced both aesthetically
and historically? Lyotard points out that the question of the disaster
is that of the insensible, of what might be called anesthesia.  Lyotard
writes: "I have invoked briefly such an occurrence in Kant's analysis of
the sublime: the incapacity into which the imagination is put when it
has to produce forms to present the absolute (the thing).  This
incapacity to produce forms inaugurates and marks the end of art, not as
art but as beautiful form.  If art persists, and it does persist, it is
entirely different, outside of taste, devoted to delivering and
liberating this nothing, this affection that owes nothing to the
sensible and everything to the insensible secret. Kant writes that the
sublime is a "feeling of the mind."

For me, this is a good summary description of the sublime and it also
helps point the way to how the sublime is experienced in connection with
historical events and some of the possibilities this offers.  

As Lyotard points out, "the sublime such as Kant analyses it in
"Critique of Judgment" offers, in the context of quite another
problematic, some traits analogous to those of the unconscious affect
and of deferred action in Freudian thought.  It introduces what, in
Benjamin's reading of Baudelaire and in the later Adorno, will be the
aesthetics of shock, an anesthetics."

This connection between Freud and Kant is an illuminating one.  "In
primary repression, the apparatus cannot at all bind, invest, fix, and
represent the terror (called originary, but without orgin, and which it
cannot situate), and this is why this terror remains "within" the
apparatus as its outside, infuse and diffuse, as 'unconscious affect.'
In the sublime feeling, the imagination is also completely unable to
collect the absolute (in largeness, in intensity) in order to represent
it, and this means that the sublime is not localizable in time.  But
something, at least, remains there, ignored by the imagination, spread
in the mind as both pleasure and pain - something Burke called terror,
precisely, terror of a "there is nothing" which threatens without making
itself known, which does not realize itself."

Lyotard, as a philosopher of the event, invokes the question "is it
happening?" Underlying this question is the fear, angst, dread that
perhaps nothing will happen. This sublime terror can be called an
aestheticisation, but it is really closer to an anesthesia.  It numbs
the minds of those who survive and the forms which might be used to
reconstitute the event, lie on the groundless ground like a debris of

We survivors mark the event on the grid of time - 8-6-45 - 8-9-45 -
9-11-01 - yet the event itself is extra-temporal, approaching the
ontological.  It evokes the feeling that history might undo itself, that
we ourselves might end.  This nameless terror cannot be signified, yet
it remains as a "feeling of the mind."

In the face of these sublime events of history, Lyotard calls for
anamnesis, an act of remembering what can never be presented and what
must never be forgotten.  Lyotard writes: "It follows that
psychoanalysis, the search for lost time, can only be interminable, like
literature and like true history (i.e. the one that is not historicism
but anamnesis): the kind of history that does not forget that forgetting
is not a breakdown of memory but an immemorial always "present" but
never here-now, always torn apart in the time of consciousness, of
chronology, between a too early and a too late - the too early of a
first blow dealt to the apparatus that does not feel, and the too late
of a second blow where something intolerable is felt. A soul struck
without striking a blow."  


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