Part One: Kant, Lyotard, and the sublime


Immanuel Kant’s formulation of the sublime in the Critique of Judgment is a sketch of our relationship with the absolute. It points to our strongest aesthetic and moral feelings: our relation to that which overwhelms our cognitive faculties; to that which could destroy us. The relationship, for Kant, makes us aware of our strength and freedom as rational, moral subjects. The feeling of the sublime activates in us the knowledge that we are free and able to push the limits of our minds in thought, speech, and aesthetic expression. The feeling of experiencing the beautiful is pleasing and instils in us a sort of peacefulness; the sublime, on the other hand, confronts us, impels us to move, and leaves us feeling exhilarated. Jean-François Lyotard appropriates the Kantian sublime, characterising it as the emotion of trying to cross the chasm between representation and the unpresentable. It is frustrating, jarring, and supremely difficult. Lyotard preserves the theme of pain and displeasure linked to elevation and respect found in Kant. Lyotard associates this with our continued response to being unable to represent the absolute. The absolute, of course, is that which grants us no access: death, the ‘outside’ of language, absolute disaster (the Holocaust). These are things that outstrip our ability to apprehend them in a representational way. It is possible to imagine them abstractly, but we can come up with no way to relate, represent or cognize them. Words fail, images fail, thought fails.

Yet we do not turn away from these things. As Kant would have it, the uplifting feeling we experience when we realize that we ‘think’ the infinite, or that we can contemplate something that would destroy us without quailing in front of it, is the recognition that we as rational subjects are superior to the conditions of nature. We have within us the strength to face them and continue to encounter them, even if this activity is always futile. Attempting to think impossible thoughts, embracing paradox, facing inconceivable disaster: these are themes often taken up by so-called post-modern thinkers. Among them, Jacques Derrida and Maurice Blanchot write of encountering limit-experiences that produce sublime emotions. Derrida often speaks of the aporias of justice or of hospitality; for him, these are spectral. They are never fully present and never fully absent. To experience or realize them, we have to make a movement toward infinity and impossibility, a movement that can never be completed. Maurice Blanchot focuses on thoughts of death, the disaster (often associated with the Holocaust), and the impossibility or futility of writing. Both of these thinkers find an ethical importance in these things. For Derrida, we try to make the impossible actual; for Blanchot, we attempt to bear witness to something that exceeds our ability to represent it. In taking up the task of representing the unrepresentable, the Holocaust, we are making an impossible ethical move. Neither of these writers, however, find this futility or impossibility a deterrent.

I would like to suggest that it is the very experience of the sublime that keeps this kind of task alive. The ethical job of approaching the absolute requires new forms of expression that do not try to overcome impossibility, but rather embrace it, while always skirting its borders. There is, then, a way in which aesthetic expression goes beyond the limits of logical proposition and philosophical argument. Aesthetic expression does the job of bringing the absolute closer to the sensible. In this paper, I will be dealing specifically with literary writing (or at least philosophical writing that is literary); namely, that of Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrida, in trying to bring out the significance of the sublime for ethical thought. I would like to tie their ideas back to Kant’s notion that there is a moral aspect to the sublime, and argue that this experience invites and even compels us to relive it again and again. We will consider the Holocaust in this essay: it is often considered inconceivable, yet it is something that must be approached and represented as well as is possible. Its ethical import is of unparalleled magnitude; it demands that we try to grasp it so that it will never be forgotten, even if this is ultimately futile. First, though, I will turn to Kant’s account of the sublime so that the stage may be properly set.

Kant’s Sublime

Kant’s aesthetic theory is divided into two analyses: that of the beautiful and the sublime. First, the beautiful is that which is universally liked according to indeterminate concepts and a priori principles. It arouses in us feelings of pleasure and the desire to have everyone assent to our judgment that something is beautiful. In other words, we cannot expect that everyone will agree with us, but we make the judgment, as it were, on behalf of everyone. In experiencing the beautiful, there is a harmonization between the free play of our imagination and our understanding that occurs in our apprehension and cognition of an object. Freedom in accordance with lawfulness is an important theme for Kant. Our cognitive powers must not be constrained by determinate concepts that force and idea of beauty upon us.

There can be no objective rule of taste, no rule of taste that determines by concepts what is beautiful. For any judgment for any from this source {i.e. taste} is aesthetic, i.e. the basis determining it is the subject’s feeling and not the concept of an object. If we search for a principle of taste that states the universal criterion of the beautiful by means of determinate concepts, then we engage in a fruitless endeavor, because we search for something that is impossible and intrinsically cont- radictory. {CJ Ak. 232}
The beautiful is found a subjective experience that nonetheless points to something universal. Because of this, all judgments concerning beauty are reflective rather than determinate; that is, they cannot be fully articulated according to logic or determinate concepts. The sublime shares some attributes with the beautiful:
we like them both for their own sake, and both presuppose that we make a judgment of reflection rather than either a judgment of sense or a logically determinative one … the liking is connected with the mere exhibition or power of exhibition, i.e., the imagination, with the result that we regard this power, when an intuition is given us, as harmon- izing with the power of concepts, i.e. the understanding or reason, this harmony furthering {the aims of these}. {CJ Ak. 244}
Both the beautiful and the sublime refer themselves to the same types of judgment, the same faculties, and the same sorts of experience.

The sublime is also vastly different from the beautiful. While the beautiful is experienced in and of particular objects, the sublime is related to the unlimited or the unbounded {Ibid.}. Kant notes that the experience of the beautiful is connected “with the presentation of quality,” while the sublime is connected “with the presentation of quantity” {Ibid.}. What he means is that the beautiful is found in attributes of objects, and that the sublime is experienced because of the magnitude of objects or events. In the case of beauty, we experience pleasure directly and harmoniously; in the case of the sublime, we experience pleasure in what Kant calls a negative way {CJ Ak. 245}. The way that we experience the sublime lies in the fact that there is a disjunction between our faculties of reason and understanding. When we observe something absolutely large, reason can think its infinite magnitude, but understanding cannot cognize it. Kant says that the liking of the sublime “is a pleasure that arises only indirectly: it is produced by the feeling of a momentary inhibition of the vital forces followed by an outpouring of them that is all the stronger. Hence it is an emotion, and so it seems to be seriousness, rather than play, in the imagination’s activity” {Ibid.}. So the sublime is felt as an overwhelming of our faculties. It seems to be “contrapurposive for our power of judgment, incommensurate with our power of exhibition, and as it were violent to our imagination” {Ibid.}. Something greater, however, belies this initial impression. Kant says that while the beautiful begins and mainly remains in nature, the sublime actually points to something inside us. The basis for the sublime is “within ourselves and in the way of thinking that introduces sublimity into our presentation of nature” {CJ Ak. 246}. The sublime is experienced in two ways. There is the mathematical sublime and the dynamical sublime {CJ Ak. 247}. The mathematical sublime refers to things that are absolute in the magnitude of their size, that which “is large beyond all comparison”. Essentially, we are talking about the infinite. There is no way that we can come up with a concept that represents it; however, we can still think it. When we try to cognize or present that infinity, we feel the sublime. Kant says that

our imagination strives to progress toward infinity, while our reason demands absolute totality as a real idea, and so {the imagination}, our power of estimating the magnitude of things in the world of sense, is inadequate to that idea. Yet this inadequacy itself is the arousal in us of the feeling that we have within us a supersensible power; and what is absolutely large is not an object of sense, but is the use that judgment makes naturally of certain objects so as to {arouse} this (feeling), and in contrast with that use, any other use is small. Hence what is to be called sublime is not the object, but the attunement that the intellect {gets} through a certain presentation that occupies reflective judgment {CJ Ak. 250}.
The disjunction occurs in reason’s demand and the imagination’s inadequacy to keep up with that demand. We feel overcome, disoriented, and ill at ease.
In presenting the sublime in nature, the mind feels agitated, while in aesthetic judgment about the beautiful in nature it is in restful contemplation. This agitation (above all at its inception) can be compared with a vibration, i.e., with a rapid alternation of repulsion from, and attraction to, one and the same object. If a {thing} is excessive for the imagination (and the imagination is driven to {such excess} as it apprehends {the thing} in intuition), then {the thing} is, as it were, an abyss in which the imagination is afraid to lose itself. {CJ Ak. 258}.
This is the sensation of trying to conceive of the absolute on its own terms. It is a strong emotion that leaves us reeling, yet for Kant, it points to a power in us: the power of reason, which can think such things even though our faculties of sense cannot keep up with it. Reason is the supersensible in us, and it exceeds the constraints of our empirical existence. The dynamically sublime refers to things that are absolute in the magnitude of their might. It occurs when “in an aesthetic judgment we consider nature as a might that has no dominance over us” {CJ Ak. 260}. When we experience the sublime in this way, it is when we witness something absolutely catastrophic and disastrous that would no doubt annihilate us; however, we are in a safe place when we witness it, and are therefore able to contemplate it without being threatened by it. Despite this safety, though, we are fully aware that in the face of such a threat “our ability to resist becomes an insignificant trifle” {CJ Ak. 261}. Yet we can contemplate resisting and standing up to such a threat; for Kant this once again points to something in us that is superior to nature. We “like to call these objects sublime because they raise the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range and allow us to discover in ourselves an ability to resist which is of a quite different kind, and which gives us the courage {to believe} that we could be a match for nature’s seeming omnipotence” {Ibid.}. For Kant, we can look at nature and judge nature without being terrified and overcome by its might; we can rise above it and experience fearfulness without fear. Because of this, we can “think of our vocation as beings sublimely above nature” {CJ Ak. 264}. So in both cases of the sublime, we feel a kind of agitation and limitation, but again, this brings to light our superiority over nature, both in terms of nature’s might and our natural faculties of sense and cognition. We experience the sublime as a liking, but it is negative and occurs retrospectively. After we have been struck by the initial unpleasantness, we are uplifted by the realization of what lies within us. Therefore, we feel a certain enthusiasm for the sublime that is greater than what we feel in relation to beauty. Whereas the beautiful brings us to peace and rest, the sublime spurs us on, incites us to move, and makes us feel more alive. Since it arouses in us the awareness of our abilities to transcend nature, it is a compelling experience that always produces a strong reaction and which ultimately makes us feel strong.

Lyotard and the sublime

In appropriating Kant’s notion of the sublime, Lyotard highlights some things and downplays others. He focuses on the feeling of the sublime rather than what Kant thinks that feeling says about us as free subjects. He is interested in the emotion of the sublime and what is bound up in that emotion.

The sublime sentiment, which is also the sentiment of the sublime, is, according to Kant, a strong and equivocal emotion: it carries with it both pleasure and pain. Better still, in it pleasure derives from pain … (it) develops as a conflict between the faculties of a subject, the faculty to conceive of something and the faculty to ‘present’ something. {PC 77}.
Of course, this is familiar ground. We see the rupture between the reason and the imagination described by Kant. Lyotard characterizes it as the inability to present the absolute. Absolute size, absolute power: the imagination can present no object for them. So they are essentially without an object and therefore without instantiation. When we conceive of ideas that have no objects, we are working with a negative space. Again, we can think of infinity as such, but our imagination cannot furnish an infinite object to correspond to that concept. Accordingly, we cannot have a stable concept of infinity; it will always be incomplete and fragmented. “The beauty of a form,” he writes, “is an enigma for the understanding. But for one to be able to be moved by the ‘presence’ to the senses of a ‘thing’ that the senses cannot present in the shape of forms is a mystery inadmissible in good logic. Every description of the sentiment of the sublime converges, however, on this aberration” {PF 240}. We are starting to see a greater emphasis on the object of the sublime experience rather than the subject who has the experience. The relationship is still important, though. It is not all about trying to describe the “sublime” object; indeed, this would be ridiculous, because there really is no object there. Or, to put it another way, the object may be there, but it is not fully present. It is available to us as a concept, so it is an object of thought to some degree; however, it is absent in that it does not and cannot appear to us as an object of sense. At this point, language reaches its limits: it has nothing left to say. We are struck by an antinomy here. How can something be present and absent at the same time? We feel this doubling effect when we reach that limit point that causes the sublime emotion. Lyotard describes this as an “incommensurability of reality to concept which is implied in the Kantian philosophy of the sublime” {PC 79}. Kant believed that this incommensurability could not be reconciled; hence the separation between phenomenon and noumenon. But where does this leave us, according to Lyotard? As Geoffrey H. Hartman puts it, Lyotard “does not view the gap between representation and the unpresentable as a defect but as a value” {BD 321}. Art plays an important role here, where philosophy has exhausted itself. He argues that the task of art (be it visual, literary, or what-have-you) is not to present the unpresentable in itself (that is to say, to come up with an adequate representation of the unpresentable object). This would of course be a futile attempt to capture the absolute, to make a total and final statement. The task of art, for Lyotard, is to convey the notion of the unpresentable itself. By this I mean unpresentability, the disruption of the sublime, the impossibility of completion. Attempting to reconcile reality to concept has very serious consequences, according to Lyotard. He writes that
It must be clear that our business is not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented. And it is not to be expected that this task will effect the last reconciliation between language games (which, under the name of faculties, Kant knew to be sep- arated by a chasm), and that only the transcendental illus- ion (that of Hegel) can hope to totalize them into a real unity. But Kant also knew that the price to pay for such an illusion is terror. {PC 81}
Terror occurs in what Lyotard identifies as the move to create totalizing systems. These are fascist, they cannot help but be fascist. When we present an idea or an answer to a question as the only one possible, we have already done violence to freedom and possibility. Kant himself stressed in Critique of Judgment the importance of remembering that, in making aesthetic judgments concerning the sublime or anything else, we are making reflective judgments rather than determinate ones. In other words, there are some questions which we cannot finally or fully answer, but which we must proceed to approach nonetheless. In making this distinction, he refers to the limits of sense, of language, of scientific enquiry, and so on. To try and trangress these limits will ultimately show our inability to do so; this will in and of itself produce sublime emotion. We can conceive of something that we cannot present or make fully present to the senses.

But this does not preclude, for Kant or Lyotard, the possibility or necessity of asking these questions and speaking of these things. We can do both, but we must accept the limits that we cannot transgress. Again, this is where, especially for Lyotard, art becomes important. Art can play with and work outside (to some degree) the constraints of logical language and representation. Literary writing can bend language in order to create imagery, make allusions, play with concepts, and work outside of the rules of argumentation, logic, and so on. Through literature, we can point to what cannot be said; as Lyotard puts it, “a poem retains the unspoken within its words” {PF 244}. It is a sublime experience to try and write at that limit, to try and feel for “the ‘presence’ of what escapes sensation” {Ibid.}, and that is exactly how Lyotard frames the task of writers, as well as artists and some philosophers {Ibid.}. Where most philosophy tries to escape from illusion and plant everything firmly in reality, we should perhaps realize that not everything can be brought into reality (that is, the reality of our senses). It is perhaps better to leave certain things as they are: inconceivable, paradoxical, excessive, and productive of the sublime. Certainly, when we are speaking of themes that are significant for us all, such as death, the shipwreck of language and knowledge, terror, and destruction, it does not lessen their importance to let them stay beyond the limits of sense.

Part Two: Derrida, Blanchot and the ethics of the sublime