Monday 1 September 2008

Cultural Sublime (2008)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVI No.2

Or ... Immanuel Kant watching the 9/11 attacks on TV 
By Rob Leurs 

The sublime refers to our responses to everything that is too overwhelming to comprehend, for example, forces of nature such as volcano eruptions or man-made objects like pyramids. According to Immanuel Kant, the observation of such overwhelming matter leads first to a feeling of insignificance and speechlessness, followed by the experience of a feeling of rising above the overwhelming matter.

Kant has always used the sublime to understand responses to singular objects or events. But in our time it is also important to understand responses to media representations, in other words: responses to a multitude of coherent texts and images. As distinct from the classical use of the Kantian sublime we can rename it as the cultural sublime. In this way we can understand, for instance, responses to reports of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The experience of the sublime has been well described by the Dutch cabaret performer Freek de Jonge. Without theorising it or even calling it sublime, he vividly recalled the attacks on the Twin Towers. He described how he was watching television at home and how he experienced the moment in which two airplanes destroyed the World Trade Center in New York. About that moment he said:
Try to recall that moment. It was an almost religious moment. It was an orgasmic instant. For a brief while there was no past, there was no future; one stood there completely empty in 'the now'.

Cabaret performer De Jonge illustrates what can by understood by the sublime: it is a discontinuation of the narrative of our life course. There is something that breaks through all normal human boundaries. The common forms are broken through. In that instant there is no longer any grip, or as De Jonge puts it: 'one stood there completely empty in the now'. But besides the possibility of being disturbed (in the breaking of the forms), the sublime has a second aspect: it also includes the possibility of overcoming the disturbance. De Jonge powerfully sums up that second aspect: 'It was an orgasmic instant'. For those safely seated behind their television screens it was an orgasmic instant, but not for someone on the sixtieth floor of the WTC; he or she would only experience real fear of dying, which does not qualify as sublime because it is not followed by relief.

The sublime therefore consists of two aspects: a disturbance and the overcoming of that disturbance. We feel powerless or small because of something that is stronger or larger than us. But we also experience a feeling of pleasure which is sublime when it results in happiness or understanding. Sometimes this pleasurable feeling produces an abstract experience of 'the otherness'.

Kant discusses the sublime in his third Critique (The Critique of Judgement). According to him it comes in two ways: as mathematical (a form of immeasurability) and as dynamical (a form of powerfulness). The mathematical sublime is an experience of overwhelming vastness; it is caused by objects that appear infinitely large. The dynamical sublime is an experience of overwhelming power brought about by objects that seem to have absolute power over us.

The mathematical sublime

Kant discusses the mathematical sublime more extensively than the dynamical sublime. He illustrates the mathematical sublime with the example of a pyramid: it takes time for your eye to go from the base to the top (if you are near the object). During that time some parts of your observation will disappear from your imagination. And as you still have to observe later parts you can never fully comprehend the pyramid. The imagination has to completely perceive an object that is too large to observe as a whole. The normal functioning of bringing order and consistency to the sensory perception fails: a pyramid crosses the limits of what the imagination can perceive in one go. We cannot get an overview of the pyramid. This brings about a feeling of displeasure; imagination is confronted with theoretical Reason. Theoretical Reason regulates: it marks the rules that direct our experiences so that we can achieve absolute unity in our knowledge. Theoretical Reason is not constitutive: it cannot produce experience itself. (This is contrary to practical Reason: this is constitutive as it is itself capable of calling the reasonable reality into being.)

The feeling of displeasure is succeeded by pleasure: although we cannot perceive a pyramid as a whole, we are still able to think it as a whole. We can overcome this flaw in sensory perception as theoretical Reason can think the absolute totality. We are above the sensory world due to theoretical Reason. In short, the mathematical sublime is about Reason, which is in contrast to the dynamical sublime.

The dynamical sublime

Some examples of the dynamical sublime are overhanging rocks, volcanos and thunderclouds. We experience these objects as frightening. This time imagination is not confronted with theoretical but practical Reason. This is the moral aspect of Reason. A feeling of displeasure arises because we perceive the frightening phenomenon as something that can destroy us. But then pleasure occurs: although a volcano can physically destroy us it can never endanger our humanity: we are rational beings and therefore, in moral respects, we are free. Fear caused by, for instance, volcanos makes us realize that we are more than nature; nature can bring about fear but because we are morally gifted we are superior to nature.

Although not everyone experiences the feeling of a moral destination - according to Kant you have to be morally cultivated in order to experience that feeling - the foundations are present a priori in every human being. Where the mathematical sublime is about reason, the dynamical sublime concerns respect for the moral law. (The moral law is our knowledge of the difference between good and evil and our inner conviction that we must do what's good. It is located in practical reason.)

The mathematical sublime occurs when an object is too large to be perceived as a whole, while the dynamical sublime is caused by frightening phenomena. In both instances displeasure is succeeded by pleasure: the mathematical sublime indicates that we can make use of theoretical Reason and the dynamical sublime reveals a respect for the moral law within us. In both cases we are superior Reason-able creatures: subject to Reason and to moral law.

In considering the sublime responses to media representations of e.g. 9/11, it is appropriate to rename the concept of the Kantian (aesthetic) sublime as the cultural sublime. This is an analogy: it both resembles and differs from Kant's sublime. It is similar in that it makes shocking experiences bearable by adopting an attitude of moral superiority. It is new, however, in that this process takes place within the media instead of within the arts or nature.

The most important difference is that Kant's aesthetic sublime is an experience brought about by a singular object e.g. a pyramid, a volcano or an ocean. The cultural sublime is the consequence of coherent texts and images or a media discourse. Nietzsche (in The Birth of Tragedy) already describes this functioning of culture in other terms. He understands the Dionysian dimension to be the terrible subsoil of existence. The Apollonian dimension, made up of art and culture, functions so as to create a protecting Schein (appearance) against the Dionysian terrors: the terrible is transformed into beauty. Beauty is then what has become bearable. This way one can argue that there are degrees to the terrible: the entirely terrible (the unbearable Dionysian dimension), the little less terrible (the sublime that makes the terrible just bearable by adopting an attitude of moral superiority) and the least terrible (artistic and cultural beauty as a counterbalance to the terrible, in other words: the Apollonian dimension). In short, the cultural sublime is at the centre of our media society: by definition media will turn the unbearable terrible into texts and images that are just bearable, simply by providing us with representations of an event instead of the event itself.

Bronowski: Enduring Optimism (2008)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVI No.2

An Appreciation of Jacob Bronowski

By Anthony James 

An article by Matthew Reisz, in Times Higher Education (23.1.2008),  about Lisa Jardine and her father Jacob Bronowski, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, gave some very welcome attention to a great intellectual who has been too often ignored in Britain since his death in 1974. Bronowski's contribution to contemporary philosophy has been particularly underrated in this country, despite the fact that his optimistic scientific humanism remains with us like a mountain in the shifting mists of intellectual fashion and taste, largely because we have never really found a tenable philosophy to replace it. However much science and scientific endeavours are misunderstood by the public, our world cannot dispense with science, and the life of society and most individual lives cannot continue without some idea of ascent, adventure and improvement, so that even politicians, pessimists and cynics have to pay lip service to these ideas.

In America, Bronowski's reputation stands much higher and his book of essays on epistemology, The Identity of Man is still in print as a volume in the Prometheus Books (New York) series of philosophical works. Here, Bronowski is quite explicit about his intentions:
'In this form, what I shall construct by way of an answer is a philosophy for modern man ... I mean a total philosophy which shows how a man thinks and feels, how he makes his values, what man is which integrates afresh the experiences which always have been and are human.'
We may now regret his gender-biased language but delight in how clearly and engagingly he writes. Throughout The Identity of Man, Bronowski is concerned with describing his radical concept of the self. Bronowski sees the essential self of each human being not as a static thing, but as a process, a process of accumulating experience arranged toward future action that is, knowledge. He shows us that both science and literature originate in the imagination; however, scientists try to minimize ambiguity when they record their findings, while literature relishes and exploits ambiguity. Further, the human capacity to produce literature and to respond to literature opens another mode of knowledge, which we do not know how to feed into any machine whose principle of operation we can now conceive. We learn from it an enlargement and a sharpening of our sympathy; we enter the contraries of the human predicament more fully. This distinction between human beings and machines seems to me a real and profound one, even in these days of advanced artificial intelligence, over forty years after Bronowski wrote these words.

Reading Bronowski as a philosopher reminds us how science is too often ignored or misunderstood in modern philosophy, though Karl Popper is among the honourable exceptions to this tendency. The idea that induction in science consists of repeated observations of a phenomenon, heaped up until a generalization can be made, often assumed, is a notion that Bronowski exposes as false. Science is not like this, scientists do not predict that the sun will rise tomorrow because they have observed it rising on many previous occasions, they try to formulate profound laws that will include and explain the rising of the sun. Every scientific experiment worth making forms part of a connected view of the world and the results of the experiment will be judged by referring to that connected view.

We may guess that Bronowski would have had little sympathy with the suggestion made by Colin McGinn recently that the way in which our physical, material brain tissue can give rise to our consciousness, our sense of self, may be something that we are simply unable to understand and are not equipped to understand. Undoubtedly, Bronowski would remind us that we do understand something about how consciousness and sentience are related to material brain tissue (although we understand very little at present) or there would be no phenothiazine tranquillizers to treat psychosis and no drugs that act on the acetylcholine and glutamate levels to treat Alzheimers disease. He would also have reminded us that science is a language for describing the world just as poetry is, but no language is free from ambiguity, therefore, we will never know with certainty how the brain works, but the scientific pursuit of truth will yield a richer, more detailed, more inclusive description of the brain in the future.

The author of The Identity of Man would have had no sympathy whatsoever with postmodern notions of relativism, so wittily dealt with by another intellectual celebrity who came to Britain from central Europe, the historian Eric Hobsbawm. This fashionable notion urges us to accept that objective reality is inaccessible to us and therefore every view of the world and every view of the past is a mental construct, one construct being as valid and as factual as another. A view of the world according to which the Holocaust never happened, Elvis Presley is still alive, and the earth is flat is no doubt real enough to those who believe in it, but as a description of reality it explains very little and excludes a great deal. Certainty is beyond us, as Bronowski kept reminding us, and every account of the world contains a fair amount of uncertainty, but it in no way follows that one account is as good as another.

In the last chapter of The Ascent of Man, Bronowski strikes an uncharacteristic note of caution and alarm. 'And I am infinitely saddened to find myself surrounded in the west by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into ... into what? Into Zen Buddhism; into falsely profound questions about, Are we not really just animals at bottom; into extra-sensory perception and mystery.' Today, he might add religious fundamentalism, neo-conservatism and falsely profound questions about whether objective truth is attainable to his list. The world of 2008, a hundred years after his birth would also have saddened him, but we get the sense from everything he wrote that his optimism would not have been quenched. He could be direct and brilliant in his insights in a way that might (and should) make some of the historians and political commentators of today feel ashamed. Of course, it is tempting to close ones eyes to history, and instead to speculate about the roots of war in some possible animal instinct: as if, like the tiger, we still had to kill to live, or, like the robin redbreast, to defend a nesting territory. But war, organised war, is not a human instinct. It is a highly planned and co-operative form of theft.

The Identity of Man not only sets out a radical concept of the self, but also an ethical approach to life based on science. Bronowski points out that scientists have a common duty to seek the truth, though they arrive at knowledge and never at certainty, and he also reflects that for the first time in history there is a professional body of individuals within society, doing practical and indispensable work, to set an example of integrity in seeking the truth. It is upon this example that Bronowski's ethical approach is based, as well as upon the other mode of knowledge that comes from literature and art, an equally important knowledge, an enlargement and sharpening of our sympathy. Science, and modern physics particularly, shows that there is an element of uncertainty in every description of the world, and a certain tolerance in the engineering and scientific sense of the word must be built into every scientific statement. Bronowski urges us to look to science and to literature as constant reminders of the need for tolerance in its social and ethical sense.

No loyalty is enough, no bright sense of mission, no righteous conviction that our opponents are not merely wrong but perversely wrong they really know better. A nation cannot be run that way, and the world cannot. We cannot personify states as if they were men, and have them treat their rivalries as if they were love affairs ... There is another set of virtues, which is founded on the central value of truth, and which is denied when truth is denied. But there is this disparity: that in our culture, truth does not carry the passionate assent that the intimate values do. We live by human links, and it matters more to us that others share our beliefs than that they be true. So somehow falsehood (and even deception) does not have the personal air of outrage that, say, disloyalty has; perhaps, we say, it is only an error. We are willing to treat a lie in private life as an act of kindness, and in public life as an act of policy. Written, as they were, by a man born in Poland in 1908, these words are unnervingly relevant to our world of today.

The Bones of Buddha (2009)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVI No. 2


Six Aphorisms from Joseph Reich

Joseph Reich: is a social worker who works out in the state of Massachusetts; A displaced New Yorker who sincerely does miss diss-place, most of all the Thai Food, Shanghai Joe's in Chinatown, the fresh smoothies on Houston Street, and bagels and bialys of The Lower East Side...

  Aphorism #3
existence eventually becomes
who can cope and adapt the
best with the emptiness
the psychologists like to
refer to this as growth
and development
i'm not
so sure i
agree with this
most people fail 
greatly at this endeavor
and try to one up their neighbor.
Aphorism #4 it is only when we are constantly
surrounded, overwhelmed by these
vampires and vultures (of pure self-interest,
petty people with weak egos playing see-through 
roles, and absolutely no code of ethics or morals) 
that we are forced to question the overall meaning, 
point and purpose of our existence, our time and 
place on earth, feel excruciatingly lonely, and
start to naturally conceptualize from all these 
transparent lies and soulless crimes our 
eventual mortality and ultimate demise.
Aphorism #15 i always got caught somewhere
between 'psychology' and 'philosophy' 
between the way things are and the way
things should be, what do you call that? 

Aphorism #16 so hard to keep up these games
of sanity, of vanity, pretty
unconvincing role-play
from the hole
of humanity.
Aphorism #22 i used to have this philosophy professor back in college
who on the first day of class came in without his shoes on
looking like he had just got off some bad trip and mumbled -
i couldn't seem to locate my sneakers this morning -then
proceeded to make this half-crazed declarative statement
something like -almost everything we think we think of
is wrong -and if in fact that is true then should we not
then put far more credence and meaning on natural instincts,
attraction, intuition, premonitions, feelings, beliefs, physicality,
hunches, spirit, smells, sounds, images, memories,
moods, and most important of all, our dreamworld?
he was a pretty decent guy
and said -i'll try to find
my shoes for next time -
my wife pokes her head out the door -
i think everyone blew out their pumpkins.
Aphorism #47 my fiddle has shattered!
they bring up the blinds 
of the blindfolded castle 
and like some miracle 
a shaft of sunlight breaks
through the big windows
of the n.y. public library 
bathing the long honey 
mahogany tables while
some wino naturally lifts
weary eyes to sunlight
providing a long sigh of
relief from life breaking
up the miserable every-
day rituals and routines.
your light comes up on
the great big scoreboard
and you get all excited like
you have finally been called
after several years of being ignored
picking up your shrink-wrapped scrolls
to help piece together pieces of your shattered
soul as though you are the big winner at bingo.

The Bones of Buddha (a longer collection of aphorisms) was written specifically in the genre of one long philosophical poem, set up or structured in a cluster of poetic 'aphorisms,' most notably, pithy psychological and philosophical proverbs, addressing the often perverse and paradoxical nature (confounding and contradictory ways) of man, who's philosophical origins and style derived and can be traced to the great French philosopher, La Rochefoucald ('Maxims'), who's common subject and theme touched on the natural 'self-interest' of man, and later on in the twentieth century, profoundly influenced and picked up by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzche with his clever, acerbic, but nihilistic 'will to power' grouping of aphorisms.

About the author:

Joseph Reich: is a social worker who works out in the state of Massachusetts; A displaced New Yorker who sincerely does miss diss-place, most of all the Thai Food, Shanghai Joe's in Chinatown, the fresh smoothies on Houston Street, and bagels and bialy*s of The Lower East Side...

Address for correspondence: