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The Beautiful and the Sublime

The Aesthetics of a Permanent State of Exception



More than 200 years ago Immanuel Kant took on the task of theorizing the sublime and the beautiful in his Critique of Judgment. In contrast to the beautiful, which is immediately pleasurable and harmonious, the sublime proceeds from impressions of overwhelming magnitude that at first induce a feeling of discomfort in the viewer. Giant pyramids or mountains, raging storms, and vast gloomy seas all astonish us because they seem to exceed any measure. This is the initial effect of the sublime: a painful sense of the viewer’s inadequacy that works to “exhibit our faculty of resistance as insignificantly small.” Yet in a second moment, the sublime produces an awareness of our internal spiritual capacities that go beyond all sense perception: an awareness of “supersensible Ideas” such as those of freedom or totality.

History would determine that Kant’s considerations on the sublime in his Critique of Judgment were to have an influence far beyond that of most other passages in the book. Kant, it should be noted, was not alone in his endeavor to think the sublime. In fact, the 18th century witnessed something of a cottage industry that churned out tracts on the subject. Perhaps most important among these was the essay of Irishman Edmund Burke who, though much weaker than Kant as a theorist, intuitively included a political dimension to his account of the sublime. From Burke’s perspective, liberal and continental ideas were unavoidably sublime and fearful, as his treatise indicates (somewhat in spite of itself) through its obsessive turning to examples such as “the ruin of monarchs,” “unfortunate regicides,” and “revolutions of kingdoms” to illustrate the aesthetic category.

These days the sublime, as a political and especially as a pseudo-political category, has become our daily fare. It has more or less chased away the beautiful from the public realm. Surreal and horrific assassinations, such as that of journalist James Foley, terrorist attacks and (more often) terrorist hype, to say nothing of natural and not-so-natural disasters such as the ebola epidemic, tsunamis, chronic flooding, earthquakes, and the recurring problem of airplane wrecks and disappearances have replaced Kant’s giant “pyramids of ice” and “gloomy raging seas,” but the fundamental mechanism remains the same. First, a sensation of fear that rattles our very being, then a falling back on an internal capacity that is greater than our imagination: Homeland Security or a similar idea. (As one can see, an aesthetic category can be linked, in a relation that surely operates bidirectionally, with state institutions and policies.)

I tend to believe that the sublime is an essentially modern and also a characteristically Northern category; also that it is one that has gained force and centrality in the modern imaginary with every decade, tending to displace the older, more “Mediterranean” and classical values of proportion, dialog, and reason. Faced with the fearful objects that correspond to the category of the sublime, there is no time for dialog or reason: brute irrational force is what is called for, and the sooner the better. Reason, which Voltaire aptly described as that which all human beings have in common when in a state of tranquility, simply evaporates in this kind of context. There is neither time nor space for it.

The suspension of rationality produced by the sublime is a key theme in Edmund Burke’s essay: “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible forceNo passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear” (emphasis mine, CG).begging slogans6

Without going into the difficult question of whether the sublime events that now populate our perceived world – especially the world presented by the mass media – really exist, are exaggerated, or sometimes might be actually conjured into being by the press itself, one can often be surprised by how convenient it is for some (and inconvenient for others of us) that there is no time to think about so many contemporary occurrences. In any case, it is now overwhelmingly clear that the sublime, which was once considered a rare experience (Kant indicates that it is far less important than the beautiful), is now normalized. The most negative consequence of this is that a sense of proportion and a positive appreciation of interchange with the other is perpetually marginalized by what amounts to a permanent aesthetic state of exception.

To take a current-day example: Is there time to ask questions about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the beheading of James Foley? Can we pause to ask who funds ISIS and to reason about it? In fact, ISIS is in a great measure funded by the Gulf States and especially Saudi Arabia, historic allies of the United States in the region. It is also interesting that the US government and mainstream press has generally sided with ISIS’s activity in Syria, although in the past months, confronted with its rapid advance in the north of Iraq, the tone has changed. The press now offers daily reports of massacres that are horrifying but also awe-inspiring. Fox News refers to ISIS’s “chilling blag flag” before which, one commentator argues, “freaking out” is the correct response, while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said that ISIS is “beyond anything that we have seen”… pure sublimity, in brief. If “Shock and Awe” is supposed to define an important part of the US’s post-Cold War military strategy, then ISIS´s tactics would be the chickens coming home to roost, the students outdoing the teacher, sublimity heaped upon sublimity.

More generally, we are told that in the Middle East and many other parts of the world there exists a sphere that completely defies Marxist and other scientific historiographical categories. Whereas once upon a time the key motors of history were class struggle, geopolitical positioning, and strategic resource grabs, in these mysterious lands the mainspring of human activity is alleged to be “ethnic and religious violence.” Bands of “anti-Americans” cook up comic-book “Messages for America” which require a suspension of disbelief exceeding that of any theatre viewer. The principle of cause and effect is thought to have no bearing in these territories in as much as our best allies such as Al-Queda – so useful in the struggle against the Soviet Union and more recently Bashar Al-Assad – miraculously engender our most feared enemies. Here Dorothy would be right: We are not in Kansas anymore.

It makes sense that when reason and proportion are chased from the public sphere, they take refuge in the more serious literature and art of our time. In my view, Nobel prize-winning novelist José Saramago stands out in this respect. An essentially Mediterranean author, Saramago often depicts a human, communal mode of life that is almost forgotten. For example, the marvelous 1998 novel The Cave has at its center a relation between a potter and his daughter who, between the two of them, face the difficult world outside and try to work things out. The novel is carefully crafted around the evolving relationship between father and daughter, who form a dramatic triangle with the latter’s security-guard husband. I would venture that The Cave’s subject matter, though not exactly the beautiful, is the mode of life based on proportion, interchange and relationality that is beauty’s eternal context and precondition. Loosely paraphrasing Walter Benjamin one could say that when politics becomes so sublime that it ceases to be political, it falls on art to recover politics under the aegis of beauty.

Recovering a sense of proportion, a respect for dialog, and the use of reason – all of those values that are constantly threatened by the whipped-up gusts of the sublime – should be our political project. In fact, the foregoing is a gross understatement, inasmuch as today the category of the sublime-made-quotidian is precisely what keeps us from having a political discourse at all, what maintains us perpetually in a prepolitical or extrapolitical condition. For it is precisely our cult to sublimity that keeps our eyes fixed, for example, on whatever mishap may befall Latin America more than the historic dialog between the FARC-EP and the Colombian government. It is also what maintains more or less under wraps the fact that the television personality Pablo Iglesias seems to have recently put in check (with mere words!) the whole Spanish governing class. Finally, in the Middle East the assault of questionable and cheaply sublime “news items” is what pushes our attention away from Israel’s perennial attack on Gaza and more generally works to preclude our understanding of the fundamental aspirations of the whole region’s denizens that surely, as in other parts of the world, turn around social justice, material well-being, and human dignity.

Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.