Student Journal

Introduction: A Geneology of the Sublime

Within the history of Western thought, the evolution of the discourse of the sublime offers a potential framework within which to open new pathways of inquiry revealing the underlying nature of being. Understanding shifts in the definition, function, form, and promise of the sublime is critical in order to manifest this contribution in a contemporary way. The sublime, for purposes of this discussion, refer to the unknown, unknowable, limits and the transcendent. The various iterations of the sublime are predicated on historical frameworks that are ideological and cultural in nature. While informed by scientific and technological advancements, these frameworks are themselves evidence of a certain kind of developing consciousness, the platform upon which my project rests, as seen through historic and developing power structures that informed various phenomenological and ontological horizons of thought will reveal the complex nature of our relationship, uses, and understanding of the sublime. Thus, I argue that the sublime is the ontological ground on which the changing horizons of the discourses of becoming originate, evidence of which can be found in aspects of art history, contemporary philosophy, culture, and the ongoing milieu of the social and psychological strata. When viewed in this light, the sublime is not merely an experience but it is a relationship with the unknown, the unattainable, and a mirror of the inner self, which becomes other for itself.

In the writing of this text, I have relied heavily upon previous and ongoing discourses; primary among these are the current skepticism of western metaphysics, the shifting and dynamic nature of the discourses of the sublime, the failure of materialism to resolve the problems of metaphysics, and a view towards an emerging horizon and potential of the sublime. The complexity and deep interest in the sublime and its interpretations and utilizations in discourses historically have, in many ways, reflected the ‘spirit’, as Martin Heidegger describes it, or as we now call it, the zeitgeist. The spirit and the sublime have a close relationship in interpretation and in how hermeneutics arise in any given cultural dialog or proposed ontology. [1] The genealogy that follows will examine the sublime and its interpretive utilizations as well as the psychological mapping in order to establish, in part, the possible misreading’s and re-readings of the sublime, and to reveal the sublime as something both necessary and sufficient in the formation of the ontological, phenomenal, and existential understandings and interpretations of being. To begin, I will break the problem into three parts: 1) the subject as in the world, 2) the subject as central and becoming, and 3) the subject as contingent. By relating the sublime to these three concepts of the subject via a Lacanian lens, I develop a discourse and genealogy that reveals the importance of the sublime and perhaps why it has continued presence and significance. This triangulation of the subject, object, and Lacanian psychoanalytic position locates my interrogation in the fabric of the discourse of the sublime, and it is from this mapping that I reveal the sublime’s nature. I then posit a view of the contemporary sublime operating at various junctures, the exploration of which comprises the chapters to follow.

The first notice of the sublime in philosophic tradition is impossible to determine, either through lack of texts or through misreading and or interpretive discordance. We could speculate that the sublime is a remnant of the split of the spiritual from reason during the middle ages and the reformation and that the sublime continues to haunt the ontological.  What is known is that ideas of the beautiful and subjective relationships to the world began with the very earliest thinkers for whom we have record.  It is perhaps interesting to note the first associations with the sublime came to us via language; so it is with language that I begin.

The Subject in the World

As I am addressing a person so accomplished in literature, I need only state, without enlarging further on the matter, that the Sublime, wherever it occurs, consists in a certain loftiness and excellence of language, and that it is by this, and this only, that the greatest poets and prose-writers have gained eminence, and won themselves a lasting place in the Temple of Fame (Longinus sec.1.3) .

 Early in the history of western thought, Socrates and Plato established the links between consciousness, objects in the world, and the subjective relationships that would color the discourses to the present. In Book III of The Republic, Plato, in dialog with Adeimantus, argues against imitation and for true forms, which he believed were the only true reality and that the objects we sense are merely copies of the ideal objects that exist in our minds. This relationship was enhance by Aristotle who refuted Plato’s ideas by suggesting that art does not imitate but instead represents what is really important in the world. The changing discourses of the sublime and of the subject /object relationship over the history of western thought is central to the aesthetic encounter but has also effected the ontological, phenomenal and existential relationships to the subject as well. Having been shadowed by these ideas and relationships with consciousness, subsequent refutations by philosophers have been similarly colored. The establishment of these early ideas and relationships as well as the distinct favoritism for language and language-based art can be part of the problematics of the sublime as we know them today. If we model culture based on the belief systems handed down to us, then these systems are subject to critical analysis based on our understanding of history and their genealogy as well.

The first noted discourse of the sublime was presented by a writer known to us as Longinus. Although his true identity is still in question, his essay, On the Sublime, remains a hallmark of the topic. In beginning the discourse of the sublime, Longinus focused on the use of language, specifically, rhetoric and oratory. In ancient Greece, where rhetoric and oratory were the pinnacle of art, to be able to speak and sway the crowds conferred upon on an individual an almost demigod status. That Longinus associated feelings of the sublime with rhetoric had much to do with the effects that language has on the recipients of that language. Longinus sees the sublime as an unreachable, untouchable transcendent experience provided through the use of language. In section one of On the Sublime Longinus writes:

A lofty passage does not convince the reason of the reader, but takes him out of himself. That which is admirable ever confounds our judgment, and eclipses that which is merely reasonable or agreeable. To believe or not is usually in our own power; but the Sublime, acting with an imperious and irresistible force, sways every reader whether he will or no. Skill in invention, lucid arrangement and disposition of facts, are appreciated not by one passage, or by two, but gradually manifest themselves in the general structure of a work; but a sublime thought, if happily timed, illumines an entire subject with the vividness of a lightning-flash, and exhibits the whole power of the orator in a moment of time (sec. 1.3) .

 It is clear that the sublime for Longinus is important and very close to the concept of genius; to wield language is to wield great power, a power to transform the listener through a sublime experience and to transport one out of his or her normal state of consciousness to a place of the orator’s design. The ability expressed by the speaker in this case cannot be fully understood by the masses yet can draw the masses in and sway them to a direction in which the speaker hopes the masses will support, thereby furthering the ideological necessities of the Greek culture.  The appreciation for the heroic, political, and masculine in Longinus’s description of the sublime aligned nicely with the development of the phallocentric world that was ancient Greece. By the discourse of the sublime beginning in this way, a tone is set, which established a trajectory of thought and response to the sublime that continues to the present. Through an examination of this lineage, I expose the limits of the sublime thus constructed.

By positioning the sublime in the transcendental, Longinus, in the only way he could at the time, sets the direction of the sublime as a something beyond the percipient. In this way, the relationship of the sublime is cast: it is the unknown, the beyond, the mystical, and the unknowable. In addition to the relationship to the sublime, the relationship of the subject and to the objects in the world is also in the established logo-centric and phallocentric hierarchies. The relationship of the subject to the sublime and its interpretations is deeply related to the basic conditions of the subject and object as informed by the ideological positions at large. The relationship to the sublime, cast in this light, would position the psychological state of being and set the interpretative strategies of the world and the sublime. The psychological position in ancient Greece would establish the functioning of an individual in a relationship with his/her subjective consciousness as the subject encountering objects from an external point of view and separate from the subject in a way that the encounter would have a particular kind of ontological perspective. We can posit this kind of perspective to be one in which the world, being separate from the subject, is seen as a kind of thing or things which have meaning that have supporting functions in the Greek culture. One question that arises from this point is: Does the culture support the objects or do the objects support the culture, or can we think of these as a dynamic system in which both are required? Further, what are the implications of these perspectives? The use of the sublime in the Greek culture, as it was defined by Longinus and understood by the Greeks, was stimulated by language and, in practice, through great rhetoric. As Jacques Lacan will posit, the unconscious is structured like a language; it seems reasonable then to assume that the beginnings of the sublime and the immersion into language would have a deeply psychoanalytical connection to the state of being and being’s relationship to the culture it formed through the language (203). It is also interesting to note that the use of language in the sublime was closely associated with the early belief that language is what separated humans from animals. In this way, the culture, at the time, established itself as well as the ontological perspectives that were the basis for the sublime and for life in ancient Greece. Since Longinus, we have come to see the multiplicities of the use, understanding, and application of the sublime. Michel Foucault will challenge the discourse from Longinus to the 20th century, but not before Lacan, following Sigmund Freud, concludes that consciousness is structured like a language, as just noted. For Longinus, the use of language gave us access to the sublime; however, for the modern theorists, language itself is problematic. I interrogate the foundations of both psychology and language to show the necessity of the sublime by asking: How, then, can we trace this operative genealogical notion of the sublime if it does indeed become a language-driven, conceptual chameleon and a philosopher’s and theorist’s problem child?

Beginning with Longinus, there was a desperate attempt to describe the sublime by using language that refers to something beyond, outside of, and foreign to the normal condition of being human; in essence, to describe something that is understood as outside of language.  Longinus states, “It is natural in us to feel our souls lifted up by the true sublime” (Introduction) , thereby revealing that feeling is important element of an encounter with the sublime, a notion upon which Burke focuses and launches his discourse of the sublime. In the late 1700’s Edmund Burke wrote, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Feelings of the Sublime and Beautiful, which supported the notion of a language-centered idea of the sublime much as Longinus before him. However, Burke moves the sublime into a nexus with feeling, which suggests a certain kind of consciousness in the percipient, a generally overwhelming feeling. He states, “Whatever is in any sort of terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (36) . We can begin an interrogation of Burke’s assessment of the sublime with the question: Why terror? Why place the sublime in this association with something so terrible and that does such violence to our senses? In truth, we can already see that the attempts to understand the sublime place it intentionally in an unreachable state. This state seems to always expand to meet the expectations of the percipient no matter the culture or conditions in which s/he is immersed. The relationship to the sublime is a dynamic one, one in which its purpose is central to its existence. In the pre-psychological moment in which Burke and Longinus lived, emotion was the closest tool to use in description of a state of mind of an individual. The fact that Longinus and Burke both associate the sublime with an emotional or psychological state will become more important to my investigation. If consciousness is structured like language, as Lacan reasons, then the psychological states in which we find ourselves could also be looked at via the kind of structure we find in language. This structure, however it is envisioned, shapes the sublime and is shaped by the sublime as it becomes constructed and understood.

So, why is the sublime associated with terror? Terror is a feeling, an experience that completely overwhelms the percipient. The feelings of terror as they are instilled in us via many experiences place us in a position in which most of what we believe of the world and of ourselves become nil. For instance, before Galileo plotted the movement of the planets, a total eclipse would have been much more terrifying than it is today because our increased scientific knowledge informs us about the mechanics of an eclipse, thereby removing the element of terror associated with its event. Generally speaking, the challenge we find of ourselves facing in the sublime moment is a psychological state in which we understand and come face-to-face with our limits. If it is the sublime’s place to reveal our limits, and if for this alone it exists, then we are in a healthy state. The sublime provides a never-ending antagonist to existence, the always out of reach, the always out of our control, the always unknown.

In defining the sublime in relation to the terrible, and in describing the result as a strong emotion that is out of the scope of the mind’s ability to understand it, philosophers, theorists, historians, and artists have grappled with attempting to clarify what the sublime is and how it functions as it appears again and again. Burke’s characterization of the sublime is clearly one in which the subject is separate from nature and from reality. As such, Burke situates the sublime as a physiological event centered in the body and feelings which create a certain set of ideas in the mind, making it difficult to find a conclusion, its function, or its purpose. If instead, we try to determine and understand the sublime not from the emotional but from the intellectual, we would potentially find our way to a different kind of result. Burke steers us in this direction by making the origin of the sublime in the mind of the one experiencing. This shift of focus regarding the location of the sublime from an object of nature to that of the mind is the point from which Immanuel Kant launches his discourse.        

The Subject as Central and Becoming

Longinus, Burke, and Kant disagree on the factors that produce the sublime, but they do agree that the sublime is a part of the human experience. Kant’s shift of perspective, from a purely experiential world to a world in which the individual subjective self becomes the center of discourse, became known as Kant’s Copernican Revolution, and informed the age of enlightenment to the late 20th century. With Kant’s Copernican Revolution, we see a return to the platonic world of the mind as locus for the experiences of the sublime and of beauty. [2]  This shift, as Kant saw it and as it has come to be understood, reforms the ideas of the sublime as relative to our perceptions and hence to our interpretations of the sublime in our use and understanding. Kant’s Copernican Revolution would stand, and still stands as a hallmark of the sublime in the ongoing discourses. The relationship changes motivated by this shift in cognitive emphasis as they relate to the objects in the world are key to the means to understand how the use and meaning of the sublime can be practiced. If the objects in the world conform to the mind, as Kant suggests, then the mind is indeed in control of the world and of what we see and how we see it. The sublime then becomes something very different, for it is not merely an object imposing itself on us but we are, in part, responsible for its creation. If we are, in part, responsible for the creation of the sublime, then what is it we are creating, and why? The relative associations of the sublime to our own minds suggest that we have a relationship to the unconscious, as Freud and Lacan would have it, and that this association is more relevant than we can understand at this point. Kant concretizes the sublime and suggests it is a transcendental and universal object, unchanging and existing in the mind as in the platonic forms. I will examine the possible implications and relations of these ideas from the triangulation of Lacanian analytic theory and the metaphysics of the subject and object through the evolving ideological relationships.

Kant, like Burke, describes the notion of terror and the sense of being overwhelmed as effects of the sublime, however, Kant posits our reasoning mind as its ultimate location. For Burke, the idea of the sublime became much more of a sensation and a mode of consciousness examined via experience, not as a mental object, as Kant claims.  The notion of the sublime as mental state or existing, in part, due to a mental state suggests a relationship to consciousness. If, as Freud would suggest, we do not have direct access to the unconscious, the sublime would seem to have some similar characteristics to the unconscious. Or rather, the sublime as constructed has a particular kind of relationship to the conscious and unconscious mind.

For Burke, the sublime remains a physiological problem, which he does not solve; however, he leaves a legacy of the separation of the beautiful and the sublime upon which Kant will interrogate in his aesthetic discourse. Kant saw the beautiful as “the freeplay of the imagination and senses”; in other words, something was beautiful if it stimulated the senses and the imagination into a playful interaction of the body and mind together in a mental state. The sublime, for Kant, was something entirely different. Kant separates the beautiful and the sublime in his discourse in order to establish the power of the mind in conclusions of the beautiful and the sublime, bestowing upon the sublime a power to elevate the mind to a higher power, a power he would call the ‘super-sensible.’ [3]   Kant returns the sublime to a central location within the individual mind based on rationality and imagination. Kant defines the sublime thusly: “The sublime is that, the mere capacity of thinking which evidences a faculty of mind transcending every standard of the senses” (88) . In doing so, he is indicating something phenomenologically and epistemologically important about the sublime: that it can be more than merely a phenomenal or purely physiological experience.  Although Kant does not fully elucidate these ideas, his discourse nonetheless indicates a shift in ideas about what the sublime could or should be. In The Kantian Sublime, Paul Crowther clarifies, “Kant, in other words, implicitly construes the sublime as occasioned by powers which transcend the self, in some specifiable way” (15) . Given Kant’s predilections for reason and clear thinking, one would think he would have had more interest in the sublime based on its capacities as he saw them. Indeed, he states, “On the other hand, the feeling of the sublime is a pleasure that only arises indirectly, being brought about by the feeling of a momentary check to the vital forces followed at once by a discharge all the more powerful, and so it is an emotion that seems to be not play, but a serious matter in the exercise of imagination” (Kant and Meredith 75-76) . Yet for Kant, the sublime was something more than beauty; it was a unique experience that indicated a unique characteristic in the individual. This characteristic was one in which we could sense our ability to transcend the common place, to sense our imaginative powers, and move beyond the everyday. In Kant’s transcendental idealism, the sublime was what indicated what he called the ‘supersensible’ in us, the idea that the within the subject existed something greater than the object of nature that promoted the feelings of the sublime to arise. Reason, for Kant, can be thought of as having a synonymous relationship with the sublime; it is the power of reason that confronts us when the feelings of the sublime arise and it is through reason that we extend into the ‘supersensible’.  Therefore, it is the ‘supersensible’ abilities of the mind that are sublime and not something external. Unlike Burke’s analysis of the sublime as empirical, for Kant, the sublime can provide both an immanent and transcendental function that reminds us of our greater abilities and, in turn, our greater moral responsibilities: “The sublime may be described in this way: it is an object [of nature] the representation of which determines the mind to regard the elevation of nature beyond our reach as equivalent to the presentation of ideas” (98) . This other, as other, presented as the sublime, this unreachable, ‘super-sensible’ Kant describes must then be a part of the psychological state of being in the world and must then also have an impetus and place in the ontological interpretation of the subject with objects.

Kant’s philosophy would bring a focus to metaphysics and to the problem of metaphysical split between objects in the world and the observing subject. This continuing problem of the subject and object, or what has become commonly know as the western metaphysical tradition, lies at the heart of many of the discourses since Kant and still remains an important element in contemporary discourses such as feminism, deconstruction, post-culturalism, and the post-human. In essence, the intellectual rift between the subject and object can be traced to the pre-Socratics and then to Plato who inferred that the world of the forms as concepts was the real truth and that the objects we see are merely imitations of the true forms. This created the metaphysical problem that still exists today, the old brain in a vat question, from David Hume’s radical skepticism, which Kant responded to by creating a new metaphysical platform centered on the human ability to reason. [4]

The question of what subjective position to take has been a central problem of many of the questions philosophy has attempted to answer. For Plato, the objects in the world that the subject encountered were just copies of the ideal objects found in the mind; for example, a chair is just a copy of the perfect chair existing in the mental concept of the chair. Plato’s position for the relationship of the subject to object asks us to always measure the object by this ideal really never satisfied with the existing everyday chair, and by extension, our phenomenal reality. One can speculate much on this premise and derive many pathways and conclusions; the truth, for Plato, is in the heavens, the mind, and with reason. Aristotle’s materialism colored objects and the relationship with the subject as a synergistic dynamic process in which the objects had their own reason for being. Aristotle was much more interested in the natural world and his relationship to objects offered a scientific utility. The exchange between Plato and Aristotle and the distinctions they created are still in operation and play a large part in our associations to the world as we understand them. The relationship to the objective world is, has, and remains in question; it is only left to ask which possible associations offers the best way through a problem. Kant’s discourse, seen as failing to ground philosophy in subjectivity, created an aporia, which the idealists and romantics of the 18thcentury sought to connect. 

Romantic notions are situated within a certain kind of vague and unstructured metaphysical idealism straddling a notion of mind and nature that creates the platform on which the Romantics rest the Romantic ontological position, which splits consciousness as well as engages the emotions. Both the Romantics and the sublime seem to indicate leanings towards the unstructured and non-materialistic as basis for reality. The Romantics and the sublime are similar in the fact that the vision of what can be is not a determinable fact; the future can be something in which the subject can envision and create. Arthur Schopenhauer states:

Yet, as long as her personal plight does not predominate, but we continue an aesthetic contemplation, the pure subject of knowing, unshaken and unconcerned, looks beyond that strife in nature, be on that image of the broken well, and quietly comprehends the ideas even in those very objects which are threatening and terrible for the will. It is in this contrast that the sense of the sublime lives (128) .

Schopenhauer, like Kant, places the sublime between two opposite and paradoxical psychological objects, between disaster and recovery via reason.

For the Romantics, the sublime was a touchstone of utility, the catchall of the psychology and ontology and escape from the common place. However, after World Wars I and II, the world lost its innocence and taste for the romantic. With the rise of the industrial age and its movement of people and commerce, as well as the way of life for many, the perspectives and feeling surrounding the romantic had changed; the relationship between the subject and the object was questioned from a scientific materialist perspective. In the early 20thcentury, the world turned towards the writings and thinking of scholars such as Karl Marx, Freud, and Freidrich Nietzsche. Marx and Freud saw the world as a place of order and structures. The notions of subject and object and the sublime were beginning to change. This change was turning in favor of what would be called materialism, and would dominate the discourse for many years and take precedence over the metaphysical and the sublime. [5] Materialism is an intellectual framework based on the scientific method and through which causality and material connections become the primary determining factors for progress and understanding. Neither Marx nor Freud would mention or include ideas of the sublime in their writings or teachings. In Freud’s later writings, he began a discourse of what he called ‘feeling of the oceanic’, a notion suspiciously similar to concepts of the sublime. Freud seemed to deny the sublime by using the term oceanic but it’s difficult to read his discourse without associating it with the sublime. For example, he writes, “I can imagine that the oceanic feeling became connected with religion later on. The ‘oneness with the universe’ which constitutes its ideational content sounds like a first attempt at a religious consolation, as though it were another way of disclaiming the danger which the ego recognizes as threatening it from the external world” (727) . Perhaps through Freud’s denial of the sublime via language and through the later lens of Lacan, an illumination of some pathways on how the sublime may be seen in a new light can be traced to the contemporary moment. Much like many of the original philosophic ideas throughout history, no clear position on the sublime exists today; this is not a case of failure to define but an impossibility to define. This impossibility to define, I suggest, is part of what the sublime provides. If we were able to access the inaccessible, such as the unconscious, and resolve the complex psychoanalytic conditions, which according to Freud and Lacan make up our psyches, what would the resulting ontology be? As the 20th century closed and we entered the 21st century, the nature of the subject as revealed by the post-modern lens became something much less stable and secure than previously conceived. The suspicion of language and of embedded patriarchal structures laid bare the problems of the subject and, in turn, the problems of the subject in relation to the world in which this new self would exist. The expanding understanding and realities of the world radically challenged the existing ontological and existential structures and forced phenomenal questions to be reasserted in new ways and with fresh perspectives. In this new world, the subject is contingent, existing in a dynamic ontology that is itself uncertain in its possible horizons. The sublime has traced our path through time and through the differing ontological settings constructed by the situations and conditions we created; it is a stable and yet mystifying part of the human experience. This mystery deserves scrutiny as one of the most lasting and tenacious of partners in the phenomenal ontological existential conditions we find ourselves confronting.

The Subject as Contingent

In Being and Time Martin Heidegger suggests that the subject is in a state of ‘thrownness’ and becoming in the world and, through this becoming, is forever evolving towards an ontological horizon. [6]  Unlike Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel’s dialectic materialism, which supposes that we are in an existence with an inherent dualism with history, suggesting our ontology is conditioned by our relationship to our history, Heidegger saw becoming as an ongoing and forever evolving process. This subjective uncertainty, unlike the universal subject Kant suggested, would depend upon becoming as central to the being or the Dasein, and would change the ontological perspective and would ask questions about the sublime from an existential phenomenological position. [7] The questioning of the foundations of thinking and being in the west via the developing discourses of phenomenology and existentialism as well as an emerging awareness of the subject through these discourses shifted the ground of sublime as well. How the subject understands itself within the ontological ground in turn conditions the way in which the sublime is interpreted as well as the potential resulting discourse. Heidegger introduces the existential phenomenology to the world and the sublime discourse changed to a subtext. Heidegger and existential phenomenology would change the centrality of the subjective self and the subject’s relationship to the sublime by de-centering the subject’s fixed stability with dynamic change. The relationship to the sublime in this case seems less remote from the subject and can be considered central in the dynamic becoming suggested.

Structuralism would establish a link between language and function in the social roles of culture and would prompt the responding theories of post-structuralism and deconstruction. Both post-structuralism and deconstruction would look upon language with suspicion and, indeed, Lacan’s theory would also bring into question the relationship to language in ways that will effect ideas of the sublime. The shifting natures of the subject’s relationship to the world and to the sublime via these theories have, in turn, changed the relationship to the sublime in ways not yet explored or questioned.

Thinkers in the 20th century will press the suspect nature of language and of many societal and cultural apparatuses and ideologies. The sublime, however, remains as it has: the perpetual question without answer, the unknown. Jean-François Lyotard focused on the sublime in his work on his discourse of the post-modern. In The Postmodern Explained, Lyotard associates the sublime with theunpresentable, “But how do we show something that cannot be seen? Kant himself suggests the direction to follow when he callsformlessness, the absence of form, a possible index to the unpresentable” (11) . The idea of an index of the unpresentable having efficacy is interesting and would suggest that the sublime and the unpresentable are cohabitants in the concept. The idea of the unseen or unpresentable becomes, in the contingent self of the 20th century, an ongoing discourse of the sublime of the subject.  The subject,itself, becomes contingent and this contingency is an instance of the sublime experience. Through his discourse in The Archeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault would reveal the failings of knowledge so constructed and, in turn, bring notions of the understanding of the sublime under the same type of scrutiny. Similarly, Jacques Derrida would not interrogate the sublime directly, however as a founder of discourse on deconstruction, he would bring to bear a great deal of interest in the fundamental questions laying at the heart of the sublime. Likewise, Jean-Luc Nancy would also not address the sublime in a direct fashion but write a great deal about the negative and difference which re-situates the relationship of the subject in an immanent course with concept of the sublime. Thus, I suggest, that these thinkers and the discourses they founded are, in part, at the heart of the relationship we have to the sublime today. In examining these discourses through the analysis I suggest, the underlying prospectus of the sublime and the possible reason for its tenacity throughout the history of western thought may be revealed.

Towards the Contemporary Sublime

The art historian James Elkins takes a position on the sublime unlike any other. His is tied to a kind of interpretation, one that changes over time, and one that serves to do the kind of work necessary at any given moment. In Against the Sublime, Elkins frames the challenge thusly: “In the end, the sublime is damaged goods. It has been asked to do too much work for too many reasons, and it has become weak” (Whyte 88) . He suggests that if the sublime is indeed, still as powerful as one might suspect, then the resulting effects in the discourse would be obvious. However, as he points out, the sublime has continued to lose its impetus, its efficacy, and its power is, therefore, merely as an old worn out concept that has lived long past its necessity and now needs to be set aside. What can we take away from the challenge presented by Elkins? The sublime has been part of philosophical discourse historically and has risen at times in which the necessity of the question of the sublime is required for the discourse to navigate its way through the challenges it faces in each period; the fact that the sublime is again under scrutiny should come as no surprise as we face a time of great change and uncertainty once again. I argue that the sublime still holds as powerful a conceptual efficacy in the changing and dynamic nature of discourse as is possible, and that Elkins’ essay and interest in the sublime is perhaps, in itself, an indication that the concept of the sublime is just reemerging and the culture is once again asking the questions it asks around the sublime as part of a certain kind of necessity.

Elkins observes, “‘He threw a porcelain plate onto the slate floor’ reads better than ‘he was very irritated.’ The same strategy – preferring the particular, focusing on the event rather than the emotion – can convey many nuances of the sublime” (Whyte 88) . This observation clearly comes from an understanding of Burke’s separation of the beautiful and sublime and in the way Burke described the sublime as having reference to pleasure and pain. By inverting Burke, Elkins shines some light on the problematic of the sublime and how its use has been affected by it being considered a purely emotional operative. If we look at the problem of the sublime, not from the emotional but from the rational, the sublime becomes something much different and potentially more useful. Yet, Elkins suggests that the discourse surrounding the sublime has in some way been disempowered and sapped of any efficacy. Although he doesn’t offer any suggestions on repair of the sublime directly, he does offer an introduction to a discourse that may lead to a better understanding of the sublime and how it may function contemporarily. Elkins may be attempting to open up the discourse of the sublime in a way that would include more contemporary thinking however, the sublime is still with us and continually returns again and again in art, criticism, theory and philosophy, as I will demonstrate further in subsequent chapters. Unless one interprets Elkins to mean that he is interrogating the language used around the sublime, then we must ascertain why contemporary theorists continue utilizing this concept and terminology. Elkins argues that there is no way to prove the sublime as being true without any historical qualification. One could suggest that this is true of anything, and that in order to make sense of things, we continually attach reference of one kind or another the different concepts in different historical periods. Next, Elkins argues that the experience of the sublime is impossible to understand yet at the same time we attach the concept to seemingly more and more experiences and even create these experiences more readily in the contemporary moment. This need would seem to suggest that the sublime is and will remain an important part of any possible ontology. For example, in the preface of Beyond the Finite, Roald Hoffman and Ian Boyd-Whyte write that, “The sublime is broad enough in its many definitions to stimulate new thinking both in the arts and in the sciences. The sublime has meant many things over its long history as it has been applied to the emotional impact of that which is beyond the beautiful”(vii). The text, which the editors admit is intended to look at the sublime as it relates to science, is yet another expression of the sublime doing the kind of work necessary to discover the questions necessary to move a discourse forward. If the sublime is something that is useful, we must seek out that usefulness and understand the possibility of the sublime and what it does that can perhaps open a new set of ideas and concepts that will motivate the discourse to new levels.

How did something, which at one time represented a very important element in experience, become something that we distrust and question? The applicability of the sublime and its difficult and complex nature leave us, as many things, with a very complex job. How can the sublime, which is by definition, the unknowable, be applied and understood as necessary when we can’t parse an unknown? The sublime displays a classic paradox of thinking and of being; perhaps that is the function and necessity of the sublime after all.

So the question remains: in what way does the sublime continue to function in contemporary culture and philosophy?  Conceptually, the sublime is a unique and interesting tool that can position the discourse of the subject in a unique ways. This unique positioning facilitated by the sublime is a necessary and powerful epistemological tool that allows for continued discourse without restriction. The theories of Lacan and the psychoanalytic lens reveal aspects of the sublime and its changing moments. As stated earlier, the sublime is somehow related to a psychological state, call it emotion, call it terror, call it a mental state. The sublime, as Kant stated so long ago, depends upon the mind. Lacan will give us a chance to unpack the sublime in a way that can perhaps lead to new insights on why the sublime is so tenacious in its refusal to depart, even upon the requests of art historians who have so favored it over the years.  Some would argue that the notion of the sublime is merely an unknown or that it represents something that cannot be known or understood. But for something to be unknown, there must be something known, and it is the necessity of both that drives the process and understanding/misunderstanding of the sublime. I argue that the sublime makes room for additional thinking and concept creation via open space or emptiness, a space of infinite potential. In other words, it is a space where anything can happen. I argue that the space where anything can happen is necessary for anything to happen and that this has always been its core purpose in the functioning of the ontological. So what is the epistemological efficacy of the sublime? What is it to attempt to know something when the concept itself is considered always unknowable? What can the process of ideation of the concept of the sublime reveal to us? What is knowing? Is it merely a set of guidelines and generally accepted notions agreed upon by divergent groups? Or is knowing something else entirely?

I have already suggested that the sublime is, in essence, the transcendental not-knowing. The conceptual object that we have burdened with the intellectual weight of carrying the perpetually unknown. But why is something like this necessary? What efficacy can a concept such as the perpetual unknown provide that would not be as well described as the variable x, such as in x=2, or any other scientific or mathematical expression? One suggestion could be the historic connection in relation the mystical and religious aspects. It’s not likely that a symbol or mathematical expression would do in the place of the sublime to serve the flourishing linguistic traditions in describing religious and mystical experience. But why not? What is it about these particular experiences that press the necessity of such poetic and expressive displays? Could it be that the human story requires that the language and the concepts surrounding it be greater than they are and that the stories hold greater impotence than the story a scientist tells of genetic mutation under some experimental exposure to radiation or chemical compound? We certainly would not be willing to accept a scientific description based on the poetic flourishing as we do with the description of the sublime. In his discourse on the unseen, William James describes the way in which we lean upon the abstract conceptual notions in order to not slip into the void of the unavailable, the realm of an inability to clearly consider what is around us, before us, surrounds us, and that for which, we have no words or expression. In his essay The Reality of the Unseen, James states, “Such ideas, and others equally abstract, from the background for all our facts, the fountain-head of all possibilities we can conceive of” (57) . Lacan expresses a similar notion via his complex triadic association of the ‘real, imaginary, and symbolic’ (Wake and Malpas 246) . The structure functions as a framework upon which to challenge the current perspectives of the sublime.  For Lacan, the sublime is an important element in the discourse of the function and understanding of the psychological event. He does not directly interrogate the concept; yet, in his triadic notion, the unknown is a crucial element in the understanding of how consciousness works, for, like Kant’s notion of the ‘thing in itself,’ Lacan’s ‘real’ remains beyond our reach. These notions would suggest to us that part of very being is a sense of being lost in someway, and we often operate with the feelings of being lost. The sublime reminds us that we are, indeed, in a certain way, lost. The question is: What is it to be lost, to have the feelings of being lost, and how does this operate within our consciousness and within the abilities we have to understand? What is the phenomenology of being lost?

We use words like lost to indicate a feeling, a certain sense about a situational totality in which we find ourselves. We have the sense of something present in the darkness, hidden from our view, and making us aware of our challenge. Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes the experience of the invisible thusly:

The “great unpenetrated[sic] and discouraging night of our soul” is not empty, it is not nothingness’; but these entities, these domains, these worlds that line it, people it, and whose presence it feels like the presence of someone in the dark, have been acquired only through its commerce with the visible, to which they remain attached (liii) .

Lacan’s theory of identity formation is helpful to unpack this sensation of groundlessness further. I argue that the feeling of a shift during what he calls the mirror stage, in which a subject comes into contact with itself as separate, can be an original sublime moment, for the subject is at first introduced to itself as other, thrust into subjectivity, and forever defined by this subjectivity. [8] An interesting question in relation to Lacan and the mirror stage might be: Are we living in the sublime prior to understanding ourselves as self? Being and or feeling lost sends the mind and body into primal activities in which the heart rate quickens and the mind sharpens and focuses; this feeling may be only the remnant of the primordial brain and an instinctual reaction left over from our animal past but it is something we experience nonetheless. I submit that the sublime is similar to an experience of being lost and that we often make the effort to be lost, seeking the sublime, looking into the mirror of existence, so to speak, in order to test and reset ourselves in ways that I will explore in more depth in the following chapters.

The sublime has a long history, a history that has been associated with many different ideas, concepts, philosophic positions, and creative and religious movements. Yet, the basis for the sublime remains a mystery, and perhaps that is its ultimate purpose. Having explicated its genealogy, I posit that an intertextual, inter-disciplinary interrogation reflecting the contemporary moment may yield some of the potential of the sublime. The notion of the sublime as being something beyond is, for better or worse, part of our ‘being in the world,’ our presence, and it is not understandable from a singularly unique perspective. Thus, we must take a meta-perspective and meta-philosophical look at the sublime. The sublime has been called by many names; as such, indications would lead us to believe it is far too complex to find. I suggest that this complexity is precisely the reason for its relevance. It can only be interrogated via the field from which it arises, and, as we have seen, it manifests in a vast enormity of ways and from tears in the ontological, whatever its current form. In the following chapters, I establish a ground upon which this interrogation can take place and provide an inquiry that could open the way to an understanding of the sublime as fundamental to our ontological landscape. The sublime, I argue, moderates and conditions the understanding of our ontology, our epistemological outlook, and our existential/phenomenal reflections. This moderating functioning provides the operation lost by the split between reason and faith and that this function, although beleaguered by history, still has importance in whatever ontological platform we construct. If the history of the sublime could be isolated, it would indeed be only an idea. However, the impossibility of this isolation is obvious; even though attempts are made at regular intervals, the sublime remains. That is because the sublime is not merely a concept, it is not merely an idea, it is something we reference from the deepest parts of our minds and emotions and use to measure the fact of our existence. The sublime is a necessary reference point upon which our being rests, even if it is only a distant reference. Without the sublime or the knowledge and or experience of the sublime, being, as being, would not be able to construct itself via existential conditions. I suggest that a fuller understanding of the conditions of existence may be found through the sublime experience insofar as it enables us to reclaim a relationship with the mystery of existence. Therefore, in the coming chapters, I construct a discourse of the sublime from the perspective within which it arises: the developing state of being itself. I develop a discourse of the sublime around the past philosophic positions evident in aesthetic articulations. However, these renderings and interpretations have been delivered through the lens of the times in which they functioned and in a way that the times desired or found useful. The sublime is, in some way, a universal functional concept that can serve to explicate and resonate with a multitude of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual attitudes and expressions.

Works Cited

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. London: Printed for R. and J. Dodsley. 1987. Print.

Caygill, Howard. A Kant Dictionary. Blackwell Philosopher Dictionaries. Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell Reference, 1995. Print.

Crowther, Paul. The Kantian Sublime : From Morality to Art. Oxford Philosophical Monographs. Oxford, UK; Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.

Freud, Sigmund, and Peter Gay. The Freud Reader. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. An Introduction to Metaphysics. New Haven,: Yale University Press, 1959. Print.

---. Introduction to Metaphysics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Print.

Hoffmann, Roald, and Iain Boyd Whyte. Beyond the Finite the Sublime in Art and Science. 2011. Web.

Honderich, Ted. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. 2nd ed. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Inwood, M. J. A Heidegger Dictionary. The Blackwell Philosopher Dictionaries. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. Print.

James, William, and Bruce Kuklick. Writings, 1902-1910. The Library of America. New York, N.Y.: Literary Classics of the United States : Distributed to the trade in the U.S. and Canada by Viking, 1987. Print.

Kant, Immanuel, and James Creed Meredith. Kant's Critique of Aesthetic Judgement. Oxford,: Clarendon press, 1911. Print.

Longinus. On the Sublime. Ed. Havel, H.L. 2006. Web.

Lyotard, Jean François. The Postmodern Explained : Correspondence, 1982-1985. North American ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Print.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, and Claude Lefort. The Visible and the Invisible; Followed by Working Notes. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology & Existential Philosophy. Evanston Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1968. Print.

Schopenhauer, Arthur, Richard Burdon Haldane Haldane, and John Kemp. The World as Will and Idea. London,: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1883. Print.

Wake, Paul, and Simon Malpas. The Routledge Companion to Critical and Cultural Theory. Routledge Companion Series. 2nd edition. ed. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Whyte, Iain Boyd. Beyond the Finite : The Sublime in Art and Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.


[1] “Spirit is not empty astuteness, nor disengaged play of wit, nor the boundless pursuit of intellectual analysis, nor even [Hegelian] world reason. Spirit is attuned [gestimmte], knowing [wissende] resoluteness for the essence of being.” (Heidegger An Introduction to Metaphysics 37-41) Spirit in this senses is of decisive importance for the salvation of the world” (Inwood 201) .

[2] Kant’s Copernican revolution was described as shift of cognition from minds conforming to the objects in the world to objects in the world conforming to the mind and to cognition (Merleau-Ponty and Lefort liii) .

[3] Immanuel Kant used the term ‘supersensible’ to indicate the power of the human mind to transcend the everyday through the use of reason and imagination(Caygill 401) .

[4] “Philosophical skepticism questions our cognitive achievements, challenging our ability to obtain reliable knowledge” (Honderich 838) . Hume was known for applying this approach.

[5] Materialism is based on science and the idea that everything functions much in a causal and physical way.

[6] “For throwness is not a fact this is over and done with, like details of one’s ancestry which one can discover by research. It is a constant accompaniment ofDasein’s existence” (Inwood 219) .

[7] In the Translators Introduction of Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, Gregory Fried and Richard Polt explain the term ‘Dasein’ thusly, “The root meaning is usually rendered in English as ‘Being there,’ but when Heidegger hyphenates Da-Sein, we have employed the equally valid translation ‘Being-here’. Dasein is the being who inhabits Here, a sphere of meaning within which beings can reveal themselves as meaningful, as significant” (Heidegger Introduction to Metaphysics xii) .

[8] “Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage . . . is far more than a mere experiment: the mirror stage represents the structure of subjectivity” (Honderich 467) .