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.

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