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The Sublime and Education

Afterthoughts on the Sublime and Education;
"Teachable Moments?"

Ian Balfour, York University

  1. Aristotle says of metaphor that it is the one thing that could not be taught. To judge from a good many accounts, had he added a second, it might easily have been the sublime. The sublime seems to be something one experiences or not, one feels or not, at the same time as it is peculiarly resistant to language and to conceptualization, with so many treatments of it having to resort merely to negative characterizations of it or characterizations of it as negative: a failure of this or that, an inability to do this or that, most of all to represent what happens or happened, or even just to express what one has felt.

  2. The terms ‘sublime' and ‘education,' on the face of it, then, might most plausibly be "defined by their contrast," as Frances Ferguson phrases it at the outset of her essay. "The Sublime" conjures up visions of the Alps, the loftiest poetry, or threatening storms at sea. "Education" summons rather different pictures: children in a classroom, a scholar or student poring over a text, an experiment in a lab. As such, the sublime and education are strange bedfellows, even if we know that without learning something about the sublime, a student of Romanticism would be rather clueless about significant aspects of the era's culture. The sublime should be part of every Romanticist's ongoing "history of an education," in Paul Hamilton's phrase. The authors gathered here make the case variously for the value, perhaps even the need, to think the two—the sublime and education—together, probing their articulations about as well as anything, so far as I can tell, that has been written on this doubly elusive topic. Drawing on a wide range of expertise that overlaps, in the manner of a Venn diagram, in aesthetic theory, the authors (eminent, underground famous, up-and-coming) tend to explore charged instances of sublime scenarios that have consequences for education or often themselves engage education directly. Certainly the sublime as a topic lends itself to a kind of prismatic investigation, not least because, as Paul Hamilton shows, there are, as of late, close to seven types of sublimity (he isolates at least five for us) as refracted through different sorts of intellectual formations for which schools would be too strict a term. Hamilton demonstrates how interestingly symptomatic are late twentieth-century accounts of the sublime, with the topic being something of a cipher in which divergent investments can be inscribed. This in part responds to the cipher-like quality of the sublime in the first place, as elaborated by the canonical and not-so-canonical theorists. Something has happened but we don't know what it is, do we? And so we grope for explanations, we make up more or less compelling stories: speculative, empirical, pseudo-empirical. In the thinking of the sublime there have come to be important differences of emphasis between Longinian transport or ecstasy (ekstasis), Burkean terror and Kantian unboundedness (Unbegrentzheit) and even when there is a good deal of overlap in the predicates of the sublime invoked, there can be signal differences in the aesthetico-political or moral frameworks or narratives into which the sublime is convincingly—or not—inscribed. And even when the wide array of theorists and critics agrees on the broad outlines of what constitutes it, there is often a good deal of difference at the level of the example, where, in writing on the sublime, a lot of the action is.

  3. Though the authors have their historical center of gravity in Romanticism, the essays often lead helpfully outside of the era, not just to theorists roughly contemporary with us but back to Longinus and forward to the likes of Wilde and Benjamin. Furthest afield from Romanticism proper, perhaps, is Deborah's White's careful analysis of Derrida and the ‘menace' to philosophy, with her (and his) locating something sublime—are you sitting down? — in the university (which gives a whole new resonance to ‘higher' education). Yet White's entrée into our topic comes via Derrida's various readings of Kant who thought seriously—perhaps the most seriously—about the sublime and the very idea of the university at more or less the same time and at the onset of Romanticism (we sometimes forget that The Critique of Judgment was not published until 1791).[1] And Christopher Braider, best known as an analyst of European Baroque culture, occasionally goes back to the Baroque as a prelude to Enlightenment and Romanic configurations, though his focus on the latter perhaps is an implicit argument for thinking of the Baroque, as some have done, extending up to somewhere around 1800, not least because the over-the-topness of the Romantic sublime surely harkens back to the extravagance of various Baroques.[2]

  4. The sublime is not easily categorizable or contained as a historical phenomenon: the concept (or its terms: hypsos, sublimitas, sublime, das Erhabene) has a very discontinuous history. It has its ups and downs, its vogues, its exits and entrances. Discourse about the sublime is more "dateable," as Braider terms it, than the thing itself (which is not exactly a ‘thing'). For modernity, it emerges rather precisely through Boileau's translation of and then commentary on Longinus's treatise that had languished in manuscript form for centuries and then did not make much of a splash on its publication in the Renaissance.[3] Arguably it reaches its high-water mark—or is it high-mountain mark?—in the decades before and after 1800 when the word and the concept verge on the ubiquitous. The collective enterprise realized in this volume illuminates especially Romantic versions of the sublime (and they are by no means of a piece in this one period) but not in a way that loses sight of other historical formations, not losing the forest for a few of its trees, as it were. Such forays can only deepen one's sense of the historical specificity of the various ‘sublimes': if one stays confined in a single period one risks losing just what is historical (and not) about it. And within one and the same period, it is not quite as if everyone is on the same page, either.

  5. One can see why of late any number of intellectuals, especially those writing in the mode of a loose or severe post-structuralism or those even just indebted to it, would have been drawn to the one moment in high philosophy (in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) when, if only in the ‘circumscribed' domain of the sublime, the possibilities of representation were scrutinized most rigorously and found to reach their limit, indeed to fail. Perhaps with a little too much glee and with a tendency to generalize a tad hyperbolically—or perhaps one should just say ‘speculatively'—the crisis of representation once located in the sublime was somehow, in the last decades of the twentieth century, absolutized to inform a critique of the representational character of language as such and, to some minds, as a way to characterize no less than all, grosso modo, of twentieth-century art, as was the case for Lyotard. Sometimes it doesn't take much effort to sympathize with Adorno's suggestion that we might as well abandon the category of the sublime altogether—and especially for a culture that has outlived the pertinence of the concept that tends to come with so much idealist(ic), moral(istic) baggage. (Adorno prefers to speak of the "shudder".)[4] But Lyotard is extreme in his treatment of the sublime character of twentieth-century art and even the sometimes extravagant thinkers that Hamilton associates with a political sublime (Blanchot, Nancy and company) are actually relatively sober when it comes to keeping the sublime in its place. The essays in this volume together and individually prove that the sublime is still very much a category to reckon with, and not just for historical reasons. As is the case with the great Enlightenment thinkers on the sublime, we have to try hard to be clear about what is often the very opposite of clear.

  6. If late-twentieth-century thought returns repeatedly to its great forerunners in (the age of) Kant and Hegel, it is not as if the later intellectual formation collapses back into the former. A good many of the distinctions between Deleuze and Kant, or Lyotard and Kant, are palpable and profound. The poststructuralist maître-penseurs might take their orientations from Kant but they rarely rest content to remain within his frameworks, much less accept the content of his claims. We might say that these thinkers are fascinated by the sublime without having any commitment to the transcendence that is almost always thought to be an integral part of the experience of the sublime, or at least its outcome. Not every older version of the sublime was quite so triumphant in its march toward the transcendental and the moral as was Kant's: Burke's, for one, was far more a matter of the sensorium, of nerve fibers and other bodily registers of feeling. One felt elevated, in Burke's scheme, after the usually terrifying (or quasi-terrifying) experience but without quite the vocation of the sublime called attention to by a number of the authors here, Kant's being the most resolute version of it.[5] But Kant, bolstered somewhat and popularized by Schiller, has carried the day rather more than Burke in this regard, and so the shadow of the moral hovers over (or under) the sublime more often than not, which is one of the reasons it can and perhaps has to be linked with education.

  7. The fact that the astonishing moment of a "blockage of the vital forces" in Kant can lead, so swiftly, to an assertion of a person's newly elevated self and at least an opening to the domain of the moral shows how a lot can depend on whether one construes the sublime primarily as a moment or as a sequence (as a trajectory or even a plot). The canonical theorists are (implicitly) divided on this matter. For Longinus the sublime tends to occur suddenly, in an instant, something like a thunderbolt, or if in a text, then a striking passage rather than the text as a whole. Longinus may well think of The Iliad, despite Homer's nodding once or twice, as sublime in general, but he demonstrates its sublimity via selected quotations, by parts. This is so even if the force of that instant depends on its placement in a whole, sometimes modeled on the organic totality of a body. And even when Longinus cites what might look like a ‘whole' poem by Sappho (which is also presumably a fragment) it is a poem about a whole body perilously dispersed into its parts, to the point of figurative death and disarticulation.[6] For Burke too, the sublime seems more a momentary phenomenon than not, sometimes predicated by ‘suddenness,' as opposed, say, to the ‘gradual variation' of beauty. (As Frances Ferguson reminds us, boredom, in the scheme, would be a pretty sure sign that one is not experiencing the sublime.) The force of the trajectory of the sublime, or one imposed on it, is clearest in Kant with the posited sequence of breakdown (of imagination) and recovery (by reason) after a somewhat mysterious sacrifice of the imagination to reason.[7] The moment of blockage in Kant is followed so immediately by a resurgence of them and a turn inward to recognize one's surpassing power of reason to think beyond the senses that various and arguably distinct moments are thought of as of a piece. And it is not just any narrative, but one that turns from one state to its opposite, from a subject being enthralled or violently jolted out of oneself to a state of exalted freedom.

  8. The fraught relation of a sublime moment to the larger narrative whole that would encompass it is a central preoccupation of McCarthy's telling analysis of Coleridge's Christabel and its reception. McCarthy cannily focuses on the event and idea of suspension in Christabel by the author famous for formulating the notion of the "willing suspension of disbelief" as a requirement for reading a good deal of literature. In Christabel our possible suspension of disbelief isn't quite enough to suspend all our problems in interpreting the poem or even to know the essentials of what happened. Riddled with gaps, hesitations, and then spectacularly lacking an ending, the poem poses more problems for the reader than even other fragmentary enigmas by Coleridge, such as "Kubla Khan." Schleiermacher's doctrine of the hermeneutic circle dictates that we make sense of the whole from the (ongoing) succession of the parts but in Christabel the whole is so lacking in its implicitly projected parts (as indicated too by Coleridge's repeated, unfulfilled desire to finish the poem) that interpretation finds itself in a kind of permanent abeyance. McCarthy aptly enlists Avital Ronell's pioneering work in what we might call "stupidity studies," proposing that Coleridge's poem makes us, as Hazlitt's early reviews suggest, stupid. This runs contrary to most literature, which tends to flatter the reader into thinking that she or he knows what's going on and usually knowing more than the characters inside the fiction—dramatic irony thrives on this. This sort of readerly knowing is far more muted and intermittent in the experience of Christabel than in most poems. Coleridge, as some of the drafts show, deliberately withdraws or withholds major ‘evidence' that he had planted in earlier versions, evidence that would help explain things. The ‘final' unfinished poem rests on or perhaps even revels in what is not spelled out and yet around which everything turns, such as the precise sort of character or creature Geraldine is and what happens (and why) in those moments (forest, bed, etc.) that so determine the rest of the action. McCarthy helps recall the character and texture of the sublime that entails the dumbstruck subject, thus marking a perhaps surprising affinity between stupidity and sublimity.[8] Even Kant's poet is rather like the ordinary wide-eyed merely perceiving, non-conceptual, non-conceptualizing subject who registers things "as they strike the eye." This non-comprehension in the moment and this inability to "tell" prompts attempts at comprehension or some sort of intellectual recovery in its aftermath.

  9. To the extent that Christabel is structured in terms of enigmatic moments followed by attempts to account, more or less, for those enigmas, it has something of the structure and texture of allegory, which Paul de Man defines, as in his Pascal essay, as the sequential unfolding of a narrative whose referent is not in itself historical. These moments in Christabel are so disruptive as almost to fall outside of the poem's temporality except that they determine the stupefied responses that try to come to terms with them. The narrative points, disjunctively, back to these moments without exactly comprehending them. A number of critics have rightly drawn attention to the proximity of the sublime and allegory or at least a certain mode of allegory, characterized by the non-coincidence of text and meaning.[9] And Coleridge's allegorical mode in Christabel is not of the sort that even tells us what the allegorical referent in question is, the way, say, Spenser spells things out in the titles of each book of The Faerie Queene or Coleridge himself does in the odd lyric, such as "Time, Real and Imaginary: An Allegory." In the face of Coleridge's allegory, criticism resorts to suspensions of its own, a discourse of ‘if, and, and buts,' reproducing the suspension(s) of the poem in trying to come to terms with it, a kind of sublime non-comprehension that is folded back into the poem. All this is set with exemplary clarity in McCarthy's essay.

  10. Moments of more purely lyric intensity are the focus of Forest (‘Tres') Pyle's magisterial analysis of the Shellyean sublime and some related post-cursors in what he provocatively calls ‘radical aestheticism.' Here too the specter of allegory hovers over the proceedings, as we are witness, via his reading, to Shelley's attempt to point, in textbook deictic fashion, to something that positively eludes representation. Pyle offers us valuable lessons from his own pedagogical experience regarding the possibilities and difficulties of teaching the sublime and its ‘experience.' In the classroom he draws on numerous examples that post-date Romanticism to which students might more easily relate, as foils to Shelley and the Romantic sublime. For a good many undergraduates these days, Romanticism is something of a foreign language and so—aside from the intrinsic value of Velvet Underground and Patti Smith (a high canon of its own!)—if it helps to induce or seduce students into the sublime that way, there is no possible downside to such traffic between (roughly) contemporary culture and the literature of two centuries ago. And yet the goal is clearly Shelley (and company) where the stakes are as enormous as the Alps about which he writes.

  11. Of all of the major Romantics Shelley seems most heavily to rely on the simile more than metaphor: it becomes virtually his signature figure of speech. Pyle's painstaking analysis of the opening sections of both "Mont Blanc" and "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" lays bare the vertigo of likeness and likenesses that permeates these poems.[10] Different in texture from most instances of simile by virtue of multiplication and imbrication, the Shelleyean simile is as perplexing as it is illuminating. Sometimes it even has the effect of troubling for us any clear sense of what is the figure for a corresponding ground and vice versa, a relation on which the coherence of figural meaning—and just plain meaning proper—would seem to depend. One often encounters what looks like a simile within a simile, which is hard to unpack at any pace other than what Nietzsche called "slow reading." If in Christabel it is an enigmatic event or two that punctuates the action, in the relatively uneventful poems of Shelley, it is the figure that, à la Longinus, tends to prompt and arrest understanding.

  12. Pyle charts the striking importance, even at the heights of the sublime in "Mont Blanc," of the simple, insistent act of linguistic pointing. Shelley's elder contemporary Hegel had demonstrated, in the chapter on "Sense-Certainty" from the Phenomenology of Spirit, some of the complexities involved in writing some of the most common instances of deixis, such as ‘now' and ‘this.' "Now," for most intents and purposes, is one thing in speech and quite another in writing. Pyle's masterful reading of "Mont Blanc" especially attends to the centrality and complexity of the deictic gesture in Shelley, the moment when language seems to strain to point, in an analogue of physical finger-pointing, to things in the world and perhaps beyond: "the power is there." Can language do this? It's a measure of the power of Shelley's writing—a kind of writing not simply divorced from speaking—that he achieves something like it. And yet the poem is also informed equally by a powerful sense of the limits of such language, pointing to the failure of pointing.[11] Pyle underscores how these failures are linked explicitly, in Shelley, to teaching, poetic versions of the "education of error" invoked in "On Life."

  13. But even if this dynamic were not explicit, the related pattern of positing and erasure, of setting things up only to have them or make them tremble, is well schematized by Pyle, in "Mont Blanc" as well as in "The Trimuph of Life," with its conveyed sense of meaning as an "ever receding horizon," not allowing much to settle, not even on or with a bedrock category such as "life." Pyle highlights Shelley's recasting of Rousseau's vision of history and "a shape all light," a blindingly dark correlative of the fiat lux set-piece from Genesis that the tradition had generally promoted as the paradigmatic example of the sublime. It is no wonder, one gleans from Pyle's reading, that (literal) questions figure so prominently in Shelley, and especially at the end of poems and when they do so, they are not the sort of questions that are easily resolved: thus real rather than (merely) rhetorical questions. It is an analysis indebted to and worthy of de Man on Shelley and Yeats (who had learned a thing or two from Shelley.)

  14. Pyle's text inscribes itself into a long and lofty tradition of letters on aesthetic education (Schiller, De Quincey, etc.). The letters seem not casually dated: one of the last is dated November 4, the day of the American presidential election, and another is assigned the day before the anniversary of 9/11 (and maybe we should also recall that September 11th is Adorno's birthday?). Pyle shows, not unlike Hamilton, how the sublime as aesthetic exceeds itself, often spilling over into the ethical and into the political, though without any political future programmed or set out in advance. In the poems in question, "Mont Blanc" and "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," the political is invoked but in an abstract way. (What exactly does Shelley have in mind by speculating on the repeal of "large codes of fraud and woe"? What do we know from the poem itself about those politics, even if we know from any number of other Shelley texts, including poems, very precise things about his political stances and general orientations?) The sublime stakes out the stakes of power, and thus Shelley via Kant can lead easily to Spivak, to say nothing of matters of power in his own time. This trajectory can't simply be ascribed to Pyle's having been a student of Spivak, as powerful a formative influence as that must have been. The sublime here, far from being a hoary category of bygone, exploded systems, is a provocation, though a curiously open-ended one, as is already the case in Kant.

  15. The skeletal sinews of Shelley's sublime coincide with an inspired phrase of Paul Hamilton's to characterize the sublime: "abstract expressionism." Seemingly anachronistic, the phrase gestures toward the divided character of the sublime. On the one hand, it suggests the irreducibly singular character of each experience of the sublime, first, if we are to believe Kant, as a feeling, and then followed by a judgment or articulation of that feeling. As such, it can be considered an expression of a subject. On the other hand, the dynamics of the experience vault one out of and above oneself, a movement of universalization achieved partly by way of the generality of a shared language and a putatively shared judgment, even if, according to Kant, we can only, by subreption (that is to say, improperly) call something sublime. At once expressive and abstract, the sublime then is primed to be filled in again, in our intellectual coming to terms with it, by something a little less abstract: hence the considerable variety of ways of configuring the sublime in the heyday of its rediscovery in the late-twentieth century.

  16. To my mind, Hamilton's central question arising from the confrontation with late twentieth-century understandings of the sublime and the canonical theorists in the age of Kant is this: "Can the sublime educate us in ways no longer entailing enlightened self-aggrandisement?" It is both hard to accept and hard simply to dismiss the arch-Enlightenment determination by Kant of the sublime as entailing a movement from the failure of the subject at one level (a breakdown of the imagination) to a subsequent sense of what might variously be called elation or even enlightenment and an expanded sense of one's powers. Any number of testimonies—a crucial factor in Burke, as Frances Ferguson showed long ago—assert some kind of restitution and expansion of self as a consequence of undergoing the sublime. Who are we to doubt this? And yet it is not hard to see how the experience of the sublime in some formulations of it shows, as Hamilton observes, "the European sensibility fastened to a damaging exercise in self-consolidation." At their worst, accounts of the effects of the sublime are starkly self-congratulatory and they often rest on the rather flimsy basis that the self has survived a kind of fictitious threat (not real terror but a distanced, aesthetic version of it). Thus if, as Hamilton notes, de Man is guilty of "freezing the development of German Idealism in Kant's third Critique and in a Kojèvian reading of Hegel's objections to Kant," it is perhaps because Kant did not exactly earn the right to go from his account of the sublime experience proper to its subsequent self-aggrandisement, with reason patting itself on the back, which follows almost instantly upon the breakdown of imagination. In de Man's reading, it's not clear that Kant or Hegel (though the primary targets of his critique are commentators on them) really left behind the "prosaic materiality of the letter" they seemed to. (And Hegel arguably freezes his own sublime by virtually confining it "in the strict sense" to ancient Judaism and so to a certain, if once exalted, dustbin of history.)

  17. Yet Hamilton (in a way that parallels the way Spivak, as recalled by Forest Pyle) sees in the sublime a "lever," admirably explores the ways in which the sublime, thanks to its shaking up of the self, creates the conditions for new configurations of subjecthood that are freer and more open to a world far more multi-cultural (and thus less solipsistically ‘subjective') than could have been imagined even in the wannabe-cosmopolitanism of Kant. We still need to be wary of the grandiose fantasy of emancipation that is the seductive side of the sublime, but, in Hamilton's view, the sublime, in exceeding the aesthetic, educates us of the "productive insufficiency" of both philosophy and art —which can only be a good thing, ‘now' and again.

  18. Refusing to choose between the only seemingly opposed poles of history and theory, a posture that helps do justice to both, Hamilton finds a pertinent model for a post-Kantian treatment of the sublime in Jena Romanticism's elaborations of literature, language, and the self, with the somewhat unlikely source being Schlegel's notion of Unverständlichkeit that de Man renders as "non-understanding." It is this non-understanding, Hamilton contends, that "releases the educative power of art." For Schlegel, the absence of a certain understanding is the very ground for "the welfare of families and nations," a productive tension for ‘subjects' in more ways than one. One can't quite say what the future of this non-understanding will be, but it looks likely to surpass its totalizing competitors.

  19. For Christopher Braider, the supposedly non-totalizing character of the sublime has a tendency to turn into its opposite: despite the vagaries of its history, it now seems as if "we never talked about anything else." The sublime does indeed have a tendency to take over, to trump anything in sight. In the third Critique the sublime started out as a "mere appendage" to the beautiful, but Kant ended up writing way more about the sublime than the beautiful, dividing his analysis into two substantial parts and making it into the lynchpin in the whole system of the critical philosophy—the ultimate linking of imagination with reason. And yet, from Braider's point of view, all this "talk of the sublime never gets anywhere." In this, the discourse on the sublime is like (the sublime) Milton who "has only one thing to say, endlessly repeated in different words." But there is, despite all this, a way forward, which he characterizes as the way "back out."

  20. Braider is attentive to all this talk that gets us nowhere, recalling the structure of especially the Kantian sublime in its contrast with the beautiful. About the beautiful, "we" tend to disagree (despite the Kantian imputation of universal agreement) but "in the case of the sublime, we never argue." We either get or feel the sublime or we don't. End of story. Except that stories, and different stories, tend to fill up the chasm that opens up on the far side of the sublime experience. In this sense the sublime "demands a pedagogy." I'm not sure I agree, to judge from the canonical or other theorists, that "you have to be taught to feel it," as Braider contends. People might be differently acculturated or educated or experienced such that a prior knowledge/experience prepares the ground for the ungrounding that is the sublime, but is this to say one has to be "taught" to feel it? Braider, however, does instantly revise himself: "or better, you have to be taught that you already feel it." Certainly arbiters of discourse, such as Coleridge, do this as literally as possible: telling people precisely what language, what aesthetic vocabulary to employ in rendering their feelings. Braider's contention seems in line with the dynamic implicit in aesthetic experience for Kant, that feelings prompt or even demand a language responding to them, though in Kant the scene of pedagogy is sometimes internalized, as a kind of tribunal of the mind, with one faculty of mind prodding another. Braider recalls for us, somewhat in the mode of Kant, that the sublime does indeed find its vocation not in the moment of failure, enthrallment, dislocation, transport, or disarticulation but in the telos of the making-sense of what had momentarily precluded it. It is the après coup that defines the coup for what it is/was.

  21. Braider rehearses a disparate canon of sublime possibilities from Shelley's Frankenstein to Benjamin's parable about theology and historical materialism that inaugurates the "Theses on the Concept of History," all of which he opposes to that singular voice of the anti-sublime: David Hume. Whereas Hume might now and then acknowledge an instance of the sublime (the literary Ajax, for example), he is officially opposed to the discourse of the sublime to the extent that, as Braider says, "the sublime just is metaphysics." Braider also contends, of the sublime, that "people only start feeling it, or at any rate only start claiming they feel it, in moments of generalized crisis of faith." There may be some counter-examples (Auerbach, in a neglected essay, could talk about various medieval sublimes when a generalized crisis of faith was not at all operative[12]) but Braider certainly points us to an important aspect of the sublime's profile in the Enlightenment. Yet even Hume, who certainly participated in and helped cause a "crisis of faith" turns out, despite being an anti-sublime thinker, to embody for Boswell a serene, dignified sublimity when the philosopher is on his death bed, without any ‘faith' to comfort him. The great philosopher of a certain subjectivity (as in Deleuze's understanding) has gone beyond the petty confines of his single self. It's a teachable moment.

  22. Braider's adducing of a famous passage from Benjamin, the first of the "Theses on the Concept of History," is perhaps the most counter-intuitive example from his wide array of sublime instances. Not featuring a volcano or an abyss, it is a brief, abstract allegory featuring a puppet in Turkish attire, an apparent automaton capable of defeating any opponent in the chess game—of history, presumably. One reason it makes sense for Braider to invoke this extreme little story is that it crucially engages the relation of the material to the spiritual (or at least what is beyond the senses) so central to the discourse and perhaps the experience of the sublime. The automaton wins every game because the puppet called ‘historical materialism' has his hands guided by a wizened hunchback named theology. Braider acknowledges that "theology is by no means an unequivocally pejorative term" for Benjamin, though he thinks that Benjamin is "sneering at" theology's "grotesquely wizened shape." My own sense is that Benjamin is referring rather to the unwarranted dismissal of theology, to the fact that it is sneered at by, among others, any number of materialists with feet of clay.[13] It is the striking, if complicated, collaboration of historical materialism and theology that wins the game of history, having joined the forces of spirit and material so often thought to be opposed. And the cunning of Benjamin's reason places theology in the supposedly subordinated position, slave to the master, only to have it revealed later to be the master from the start. The sublime can have it all, and perhaps only the sublime can have it all, in its relentless self-totalizing, well charted by Braider, even as it or after it experiences a profound kind of failure.

  23. Braider's essay is valuable for the way it refuses to be held hostage by the inherited terms of the tradition or, more precisely, by all that accompanies these terms. To think the sublime, whose discourse, even just in Longinus, appears torn between imagining it as teachable (the how-to side of Longinus) and unteachable (since it seems to require genius or momentary, unbidden enthrallment), we have to be willing to unlearn what we think we know, a difficult task but all the more necessary in the face of the most bewildering mode of the aesthetic. One has to try to be truthful to the experience of the sublime, now and again. A salutary effect, and I take it one of the points of Braider's wide range of examples, in and out of Romanticism, is to suggest that there are more modes of the sublime than have been dreamt of in Kant's philosophy and in a good deal of Romantic criticism. We need a supple, flexible discourse of the sublime that does not necessarily bring with it a whole host of values once, but no longer, taken for granted.

  24. The vexed transition from the material to the spiritual, in Kant and even via Saint Paul in the landmark distinction for Christianity between the letter and the spirit, is at the center of Deborah White's articulation—on the face of it, unlikely—of the university and the sublime in her searching reading of a number of Derrida's texts, primarily those responding to Kant. Her starting point is Derrida's apparently non-casual invocation of "a certain terror" in the face of the intellectual trajectory of his doctoral thesis. For Derrida the prospect of not knowing where one is going can be terrifying, but it is, intellectually, really the only way to go. The figure of ‘terror' sounds like just that: a figure. Isn't it rather hyperbolic to speak of terror when one is just talking about an academic thesis, however difficult the work of thinking and writing might be? But if Derrida can say in general, notably, in Of Grammatology that "[t]he future can be anticipated only in the form of absolute danger,"[14] then even the future of academic work would be encompassed within that universal horizon of scariness. It does seem that other terrors (war, perhaps death) might rank so far above academic futures that the term ‘terror' would lose most or all of its force. And yet …

  25. Most universities are very far removed from the cliché of the ivory tower: the image barely even applies to a dozen or two of the world's universities, the vast majority of which are public, government-supported institutions with non-elitist admissions and roughly affordable tuition. Because the university tends to be public and exposed, implicated in and responding to societal and governmental forces, it is by no means entirely a safe place. Relatively un-terrifying in physical terms and once in a while even beautiful, the university nonetheless, in Derrida's understanding and as elaborated by White, opens itself up over a certain abyss of reason, reason that posits an ideal that cannot be realized in actuality, and imagines itself a totality that cannot be grasped as a totality.

  26. One reason that reason faces something like a sublime threat has simply to do with the character of language, that language itself constitutes an abyss. This is precisely how Heinrich Wölfflin, the great and rather sober art historian characterizes the word as opposed to the image:

    One apprehends (empfinden) a work of visual art in general as a much more determinate communication (Mitteilung) than the written word, for which to a much greater extent there is (always) something polysemous. Schiller would on occasion say that when he thought about the indeterminacy (Unbestimmtheit) of linguistic expression he stood before an abyss.[15]

    It's noteworthy that Wölfflin appeals to the Kantian Schiller to enlist the rhetoric of the sublime (the ‘abyss') in order to gloss the nature of language. Edmund Burke had his treatise on the sublime and the beautiful culminate in an account of how words were the principal locus of the sublime, the place where syntax and indeterminacy could combine to intimate things of great power beyond the phenomenal, and to be far more affecting than mere images. White recalls Derrida's insistence on how language or representation has so often been perceived as a menace to philosophy, a discipline often in denial about its own medium of presentation. The young Walter Benjamin followed Kant's contemporary Hamann in thinking that the great lacuna of Kant's philosophy was its near-total neglect to analyze language. Indeed there is not a lot of explicit talk of it, aside from some rather perfunctory remarks in the Anthropology. Yet the abyss surfaces not least in Kant's thinking of the imagination from the first Critique through the third, the imagination being a faculty Kant would call, in the Critique of Judgment, "the faculty of representation" (Darstellungsvermögen). Allegorical of language insofar as it constitutes the passage from the sensible to the intellectual, to say nothing of its products often being glossed by Kant in terms of writing, the imagination is a problematic faculty for the project of the critical philosophy. Heidegger's trenchant analysis of imagination in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics suggests that it constituted an abyss (Abgrund) from which Kant had to step back, assigning a lot of powers to the understanding and some to reason that were initially in the bailiwick of the imagination in the first version of the first Critique. Thus Kant fully participates in the fraught engagement-cum-disavowal of language present in philosophy at least since Plato, though not always so starkly as that.

  27. Yet it is the particular form that Kantian thinking takes in response to the sublime that gives White, even more clearly than Derrida, pause. White distances herself from the claims of Kant to put the sublime moment in its putatively proper place in the narrative destiny of the moral subject. One can't necessarily get there from here. Like McCarthy in her analysis of Christabel, White worries about the enforced narrativization of an event that can scarcely be contained in a logical (more or less vaguely Aristotelian) plot.

  28. White also productively rehearses for us the importance of Derrida's insistence that ‘deconstruction' or even just thinking needs to take account of the institutional frame or setting of its topics at hand. One can't say, of course, that the sublime is merely an academic matter, but the university is one of the conspicuous loci of its thinking. One of Derrida's essays on reason and the university, "The University in the Eyes of its Pupils," was delivered at Cornell, the literally gorgeous campus in which abysses lie side by side with buildings housing professors and students dedicated to one or another practice of reason, and which, as it happens, has a distinguished tradition of thinking about the sublime. Here too, in a more than playful way, the thinking of the subject is implicated in the subject matter as it is elaborated, a relation that yields some surprising insights, not least about the sublime character of the university and its limits, for the institutional embodiment of reason is called up to think reasonably about what is by definition beyond it.

  29. Of all the authors in this volume Frances Ferguson has the longest-standing commitment to the theory of education in the long eighteenth century, in addition to having written one of the handful of essential books on the sublime. Of late devoting more of her attention to the question of education, she is as well primed as anyone to tackle both sides of the equation, which turns out not to be an equation.

  30. Ferguson would not be alone in thinking, as we noted at the outset, that the sublime and education are, in numerous respects, poles apart. When Plato's cave-dwellers crawl up to the real light and have their heads turned violently around by the sudden enlightenment they have undergone, that is a rather exceptional scenario in the history of education and in thinking about it. Sure, students and the odd professor have moments of illumination and maybe even an epiphany or two, but those moments are exceptions to the rule (of the rule) of education. In Ferguson's informed account of the (largely opposed) temporalities of education and the sublime, education seems closer to the model of gradual, incremental progress of knowledge and modes of thinking. The sublime, as we have been taught partly by Ferguson in her earlier studies, is far more a matter of the moment and tends, as in Burke's influential version, to entail a subject something like a man in his early maturity, not too old to be jaded by experience, not too young to have his almost consolidated self elevated by aesthetically distanced terror.

  31. The sublime and education do nonetheless sometimes meet or touch up against each other when one considers the character of relations to power, freedom, and morality, to say nothing of God or the divine, especially in the mode of providential force. Ferguson recalls for us the usually too blithely cited peroration from the end of Kant's Critique of Practical Reason: "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me." Note that Kant doesn't just refer to his mind but the mind, as if everyone would come to his same conclusion were she or he to reflect on the same matters. Yet it can't be empirically true that everyone has the same admiration as Kant for the moral law within. Kant, in the Critique of Practical Reason, considers "personality" to be sublime (and not just great men!), "personality" being the locus of freedom and the seat of the moral law within. It's interesting that the sublime, for Kant, and even more so for his disciple Schiller, takes what appears to be a matter having precisely nothing to do with freedom, because of the violent incontrollable force of the source of awe (a volcano, a great epic, or whatever), and converts it into a source of the self's assertion of its own power, the exercise of its freedom to think, and to think beyond the realm of the senses. But the slow burn of education can accomplish something of the same: a more or less forced regime of learning that sets free the child or even (according to Ferguson's interesting emphasis on Barbauld) the adult.

  32. For better or for worse, both the sublime and education, in many accounts, have the effect of lifting the individual beyond herself or himself to the transcendental or something like it. Hence, the figure of God (or someone or something like him, if indeed there can be anything like god) that pops up in so many accounts of both. Burke omitted God from the first edition of his Philosophical Enquiry even though, at one level, God fit rather neatly in with kings and other lofty figures culled from the pages of Milton, Shakespeare, and Homer. Barbauld in her educational scheme wants to harmonize nature, education, and God, seeing a providential force operating at all times, though this gets her into some logical and other problems regarding actually existing religions, to say nothing of the fact that providence's trumping of all individual decisions risks rendering the whole project moot. Nonetheless her faith in society to correct itself, providentially, is not shaken. Attention to the world outside the self should do the trick for any subject supposed to know or be in the process of knowing. Yet Ferguson can rightly show that education presented for Barbauld "the same sort of problems that sublimity had for Burke," namely the compromise of individual freedom—the very value so prized by so many late eighteenth-century theorists of education (of various political persuasions). Providence makes choices look like pseudo-choices rather in the way that sublime violence makes ‘freedom' look like pseudo-freedom, no matter what the self tells itself.

  33. Officially, Jeremy Bentham, on whom Ferguson is one of the best contemporary readers (not least because she actually reads him), is an atheist and thus far removed from Barbauld's providentialism. Critics like to find crypto-theistic structures in his work, as in the Panopticon writings (which seems to be about all most people read by Bentham—or read about—these days, an unfortunate legacy of Foucault's influential analysis). But Ferguson stresses Bentham's concerted attempt to rein things in to the realm of the finite, especially when it's a matter of practical matters.[16]

  34. Kant emerges as something like the dialectical Aufhebung of Barbauld and Bentham, with one fixed firmly on the transcendental and the other on the pragmatics of everyday life. It is in the thinking of Kant that the sublime and education seem to connect most profoundly insofar as moral judgment or the capacity to be moral is central to both, and it's of some interest that the dynamics of both turn crucially on examples. In both domains the singularity of the example leads to the moral: in the sublime, to the (increased) capacity to be a moral being, via the articulation of imagination with reason, and in education via the exercise of moral judgment. Despite the finitude of the examples, the dynamics of judgment lead in both domains to the infinite. As we saw in Ferguson's invocation of the famous passage about "the starry heavens above and the moral law within," the Kantian person is the site of an infinite subjectivity (not unlike that of Descartes and of Hegel but differently textured) whose profile is that of moral judgment. And the good exercise of moral judgment, as is clear in the long example Ferguson cites from the second Critique, prompts our amazement and admiration. In Kant, perhaps more than in any other thinker, we witness the unlikely combination of the sublime and education, and the most powerful entanglement of their endless provocations.


1. Derrida cannot be pinned down to one historical period of interest or expertise, though it would be hard to overestimate the importance of Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel for his thinking. On Derrida and Romanticism, see two issues of Studies in Romanticism 46:2 and 46:3 (Summer and Fall 2007), both edited by David L. Clark.

2. The rediscovery of Longinus launched by Boileau's translation (1674) marks the sublime of European modernity as initially a Baroque event, even if its full-fledged philosophical treatment comes at the end of or after the Baroque as understood in terms of most periodizing schemes.

3. Explicit discourse about the sublime, however, postdates the experience or performance of it. That the sublime was not a prominent category in Milton's time did nothing to prevent him from writing what many would consider the most sublime poem in the English language. Samuel Johnson (when the category was much in fashion) thought sublimity to be the defining characteristic of his poetry.

4. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997), 194ff.

5. Christopher Braider notes most pointedly the conjunction of related terms Bestimmung (vocation, determination), Stimmung (mood, sentiment) and one could add Stimme (voice) not least in Kant where the remarkable thing about feelings in the experience of the beautiful and the sublime is how quickly they get translated into or at least prompt verbal judgments of the sort "X is beautiful," "Y is sublime," even if Kant specifies that one cannot properly call anything sublime.

6. For the classic analysis of this, see Neil Hertz's superb essay "A Reading of Longinus," in his The End of the Line (New York: Columbia, 1985) or in the new expanded edition of that book (Aurora, Co.: The Davies Group, 2009).

7. For Paul de Man's analysis of this "complicated and somewhat devious scenario," see "Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant," in his Aesthetic Ideology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 86.

8. In this McCarthy runs parallel to Siane Ngai's explorations of what she calls "stuplimity" in her Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2005) and earlier in Sianne Ngai, "Stuplimity: Shock and Boredom in Twentieth-Century Aesthetics," Postmodern Culture 10.2 (January 2000) un-paginated.

9. See Nicholas Halmi: "From Hierarchy to Opposition: Allegory and the Sublime," Comparative Literature, Vol. 44, No. 4: 337-60; Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1964), esp. 243-252; Gordon Teskey, Allegory and Violence (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 47 inter alia.

10. Shelley is distinctive for not insisting on a Burkean, or early Kantian, sharp distinction between the beautiful and the sublime —not everyone would be able to invoke "awful Loveliness" the way he does—because the intensity of the experience of beauty easily tips over into its supposed opposite or quasi-opposite.

11. In a good deal of ‘sublime' European art one sees an insistence on this pointing motif, from Leonardo's "St. John the Baptist" to Jacques-Louis David's "Napoleon crossing the Alps."

12. Auerbach, Erich. "Camilla, or, The Rebirth of the Sublime." In Literary Language and its Public in Late Antiquity and in the Middle Ages. Trans. Ralph Mannheim (New York: Pantheon, 1965), 181-234.

13. I broached a reading of this thesis and the "Theses" more generally in "Reversal, Quotation (Benjamin's History)," in MLN (Modern Language Notes), German Issue, (April 1991), 622-45.

14. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology. Trans, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. [Corrected Edition] (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 5.

15. Heinrich Wölfflin, Kleine Schriften (1886-1933), ed. Joseph Gantner (Basel: Benno Schwabe & Co, 1946), 165.

16. It's not as if Bentham, however anti-sublime like Hume, is a pure empiricist of the sensual. In his thinking on language, for example, he emphasizes the pressing need for names for "immaterial or pneumatical objects," even if they all have their roots in materiality.

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