The Sublime in the 21st Century (edited collection)

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January 14, 2016
Ontario, Canada

The Sublime in the 21st Century

The sublime has a long history - from Longinus through Burke, Hume, Kant, Schiller and the 19th sublime to the postmodern sublime in its various incarnations. Longinus initiated the structure of the dichotomy between the terrifying sublime and the beautiful that would be passed down through Burke and Kant to more recent theories of the sublime. The 18th century tried to revive Classicism by relating the sublime to Nature or landscape. Burke’s 1757 work on the sublime identified the terror provoked by the sublime—the terror caused by obscurity, vacuity, darkness, immensity, solitude, and silence—as its principal characteristic. Breaking away from Longinus and Burke, who construed sublimity as a property of objects, in the Critique of Judgment (1790) Kant located the sublime in the subject, defining the sublime as a feeling that provides access to higher Reason.

Modern and postmodern aesthetics have been concerned with the ethical evaluation of the aesthetic reconciliation of Reason and Nature. In Aesthetic TheoryAdorno criticized the Kantian sublime as a manifestation of bourgeois delusions of grandeur inasmuch as it is not aroused by phenomena in their immediacy but by Spirit’s resistance to Nature. Kant attempted to ground aesthetic objectivity in the subject and he believed reason to be the unifying moment: reason is both a subjective faculty and the prototype of objectivity since it is necessary and universal. However, Adorno argued, Kant’s subsuming of particulars under universals (‘common sense’) violated the notion of grasping things from the inside, the need for which he had introduced with the notion of purposiveness: for instance, the beautiful must please universally and without a concept, but universality and implicit necessity are conceptual. Kant’s formal conceptualization failed to do justice to aesthetic phenomena, which are, by definition, particulars. In The Truth in Painting. Derrida carried Adorno’s critique further, arguing that Kant’s quasi-reconciliation of nature and freedom was based on a mere analogy between reflective aesthetic judgments and logical judgments. Kant argued that even though an aesthetic judgment is not a logical one, it is still related to the understanding. Accordingly, he imported the four logical functions from the Critique of Pure Reason (quality, quantity, purpose, necessity) into the Critique of Judgment. Thus, according to Derrida, Kant did not articulate an aesthetic theory but only the formal conditions for the possibility of aesthetic judgment in general. While Adorno’s and Derrida’s critiques of Kant centered around Kant’s failure to distinguish reflective aesthetic from logical judgments, Lyotard’s critique in The Inhuman: Reflections on Timewas concerned with the ethical implications of Kant’s aesthetics, which sacrificed the aesthetic in the interest of Reason, subordinating the aesthetic of the beautiful to the aesthetic of the sublime. Lyotard tried to rehabilitate the aesthetic of the beautiful by restoring the value of contemplation (what he calls the mind’s passability to the aesthetic object). 

Discussions of the sublime have infiltrated discourses beyond that of art and aesthetic theory. Michael Shapiro’s Cinematic Geopolitics imports the discourse of the sublime into a discussion of national and post-national (diasporic) cinema to explore the ways in which the Kantian sublime has shaped the politics of aesthetics, aligning the Kantian sublime with the end of the national and the rise of the post-national subject. For F. Jameson, in The Geopolitical Aesthetic, the centrality of conspiracy in late capitalist culture (e.g. in cinematic conspiracy thrillers) as a symptom of our failure at “cognitive mapping” in a globalized world (the subject’s inability to position herself in the economic system of late capitalism) intersects with the Kantian sublime marked by a similar failure to grasp the sublime object in its totality. The sublime figures prominently in discussions of cinematic technology and the science fiction film. For Scott Bukatman the use of a “virtual camera” provides the viewer with experiences that clearly transcend the physical limitations of his point of view but which are still experienced subjectively. To theorize the contemporary sublime one would have to consider the ways in which ‘the digital revolution’ has reshaped ontological theories of the image in terms of indexicality and medium specificity. Are digitally coded images capable of producing the sublime or is cinema now associated with trickery and the spectacular—a sort of bastardized sublime? The difficulty of locating the sublime today has prompted scholars to speak of a post-sublime, in which “every otherness is sublime” (McEvilley 78). In an age dominated by novelty, intensity, and the uncanny—shock values associated with the sublime—the idea of beauty no longer seems vital. At the same time, the sublime in the old Burkean sense of the term no longer exists. As Nature proves less and less likely to provide us with sublime experiences—the disappearance of savage landscapes leaving only Deep Space as the Sublime’s last refuge—the sublime “seems mostly to have survived…in commercial media [e.g. in American comics like Superman and Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics or in Japanese anime movies like Akira] rather than in ‘high’ art” (Haden-Guest 53).

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

Indexicality and the sublime

The transcendental sublime

The poetic sublime

The chemical sublime

The pathological sublime

The CGI sublime

The gothic sublime

The techno-sublime

The sublime and the subliminal

The prosaic sublime

The neural sublime

Terror and the cinematic sublime

The spiritual and the sublime

Nature and the sublime

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Temenuga Trifonova

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