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THE LOGIC OF THE SUBLIME

Alenka Zupancic. The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 1992.Vol.9, Iss. 2-3; pg. 51, 18 pgs
Author(s): Alenka Zupancic

Let us begin this analysis of the Kantian notion of the sublime with a very "sonorous" phrase, with a thought which, in its own structure, inscribes itself into the dimension of the sublime: Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. (Kant 1956: 166) These words with which Kant begins the conclusion of the Critique of Practical Reason were, as it is well known, submitted to a very particular and distinguished fate: they were chosen as the epitaph on Kant's tombstone. It is needless to stress that even words much more trivial than these would gain in such a place a tone of gravity and of a surplus meaning that-to say it in Kant's words -fills the mind with admiration and awe. The tomb, the vault, the tombstone all embody a kind of "boundary stone" between Here and Beyond and have as such an important role in the dimension of the sublime. However, the gravity of these words does not arise solely from the Stone into which they are engraved, it also arises from something completely different: from something erratic, elusive and impossible to fix-from the position that these words impose upon the subject: the fact that he/she must find his/her way in the intersection of something inaccessibly outer (the starry heavens above me) on one side and of something inaccessibly inner (the moral law within me) on the other side. But I began with the citation above also because it delineates perfectly the field on which we are going to conduct our analysis: the field that is marked by the Critique of Practical Reason on one side and by the Critique of Judgment on the other, or, to put it as simple as possible, by ethics and aesthetics. The sublime-and this may be read as an "opening thesis" -is a kind of collision of the two, intrusion of one dimension into the other. I use the expression "intrusion of one dimension into the other" because what is at stake here differs considerably from any sort of "harmony" or "synthesis" of ethics and aesthetics. The point is precisely that one (suddenly) emerges on the territory of the other and that it does so at a very specific moment. I. Let us look now at two very interesting and significant passages where Kant discusses the sentiment of the sublime. The first one is to be found right after the passage we took for the starting point and refers to the starry heavens: The former view of a countless multitude of worlds annihilates, as it were, my importance as an animal creature, which must give back to the planet (a mere speck in the universe) the matter from which it came, the matter which is for a little time provided with vital force, we know not how. (Kant 1956: 166) The second passage is from the Critique of Judgment: Hence if in judging nature aesthetically we call it sublime, we do so not because nature arouses fear, but because it calls forth our strength (which does not belong to

THE LOGIC OF THE SUBLIME


Alenka Zupancic. The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 1992.Vol.9, Iss. 2-3; pg. 51, 18 pgs
Author(s): Alenka Zupancic

nature [within us]), to regard as small the [objects] of our [natural] concerns: property, health, and life . . . (Kant 1987: 121) These two passages must remind us of an episode in Monty Python's film The Meaning of Life, where the contrast between the starry heavens and the feeling of insignificance of our ordinary life also plays a major role. Of course we are dealing here with a caricature, but let us nevertheless examine the episode in question, because it will help us to specify more sharply the logic of the sublime. The scene takes place in the apartment of a couple. Someone rings the bell. The husband opens the door and two men make their entry. They are in the "live organ transplants" business and they demand his liver. The poor man defends himself by saying that they have the right to take his liver only in the event of death, but the two men assure him that in any case he is not likely to survive the removal of his liver. In what follows we witness quite a massacre: blood splashes all around, one of the two "butchers" drags bloody organs out of the victim's viscera and waves them in front of the camera. . . . But what really interests us here is the second part of the story which could be regarded as a veritable "analytic of the sublime". While one of the men continues to chop up the defenseless husband, the other accompanies his wife to the kitchen. He asks her to give her liver, too. Of course she does not want to, and she is afraid. However, she changes her mind when she is brought to the edge of the sublime, that is to say when she "realizes" how insignificant her problem seems to be when looked at from more "elevated" point of view. A gentleman comes out of the refrigerator and escorts her from the kitchen of her everyday life to the promenade across the universe. While they are strolling across the starry heavens he sings about the "millions of billions" of stars and planets and about their "intelligent" arrangement, etc, etc. Thanks to that cosmic (and for her undoubtedly sublime) experience, the woman comes, of course, to the desired conclusion: how small and insignificant I am in this amazing and unthinkable space! And now, when asked again to give her liver, she no longer hesitates. As I said above, this is a caricature. Nevertheless, the logic of this story is precisely the same as the one pointed out by Kant. There are moments when something entrances us so much that we are ready to forget (and to renounce) everything, our own wellbeing and all that is associated with it-moments when we are convinced our existence is worth something only as far as we are capable of sacrificing it. And it is needless to stress that the whole thing seems ridiculous only to the "unconcerned observer" who is not overwhelmed and challenged by the same sentiment of the sublime. This specific mode of challenge is, as we shall see, quite important for the logic of the sublime which we are trying to determine. The two essential points in the cited passages describing the experience of the sublime are therefore the following: i) the feeling of our insignificance as far as the "whole of the universe" is concerned (we are but a speck in the immense universe), and 2) what in our ordinary life functions as the center of gravity of our existence suddenly strikes us as something trivial and unimportant.

THE LOGIC OF THE SUBLIME


Alenka Zupancic. The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 1992.Vol.9, Iss. 2-3; pg. 51, 18 pgs
Author(s): Alenka Zupancic

It could be said that Kant distinguishes two moments in the sentiment of the sublime. The first is the moment of anguish and of discomfitting fascination in face of something incomparably larger or more powerful -anguish that the subject escapes from only by transforming it (in)to the other moment, into the sentiment of the sublime, i.e., of his "supersensible" superiority. (We will return to this "dyad of the sublime" later on.) This is why the pleasure in the sublime is always a negative pleasure, it is the pleasure that takes place of some intensely negative and discomfitting experience (Cf. Kant 1987: 117). At the moment when we "resolve" the feeling of anguish into the sentiment of the sublime (i.e., of the elevated, das Erhabene) we are dealing in the first place with a sublimity (elevation) relating to ourselves and not only to the outer world. In other words, the sentiment of the sublime, the reverse side of which is always a kind of anguish, requires the subject to regard a part of himself as a foreign body, i.e. as something that does not belong to him but to the "outer world". We become aware of our "smallness" and insignificance, but at the same time our consciousness is already "evacuated"-it is already situated in the place of safety, from which we can enunciate this kind of elevated judgment and from which we can even renounce the part of ourselves that we find small and insignificant.-And here we enjoy the narcissistic satisfaction resulting from our being conscious of being able to "elevate" ourselves above our everyday needs. Namely, the sentiment of the sublime is linked, as Kant puts it, with a self-estimation, Selbstschtzung (Kant 1987: 121). The question that arises from all that has been said thus far is the following: what is the logic operating in this shift where the subject converts the feeling of anguish and of some considerable discomfort into a certain gain of pleasure? This logic must remind us of the one operating in the mechanism of humor where, according to Freud, we are always dealing with a pleasure that takes the place of suffering. Humor, as distinct from jokes and the comic, follows exactly the same logic. Let us take an example of humor suggested by Freud himself, which might be classified as well as an example of sublimity. A criminal led out to the gallows on a Monday remarks: "Well, the week's beginning nicely". Jokes, the comic and humor have certain things in common. Nevertheless, humor also possesses a characteristic which is lacking in the other two ways of obtaining pleasure from intellectual activity. It "has something of grandeur and elevation /etwas Groartiges und Erhebendes/" (Freud 1988: 428). And this characteristic, Freud continues, "clearly lies in the triumph of narcissism, the victorious assertion of the ego's invulnerability" (Freud 1988: 428-429). It is difficult not to see here the fundamental frame of the sublime, but the mechanism of its functioning still remains a question. The subject confronted with some traumatic proximity of the Thing responds by introducing a new distance, a kind of unconcernedness in face of something that concerns him dramatically. What we have here is exactly what Kant refers to as the pathos of apathy. But what does this distance rest on? Freud's answer is that it rests on the super-ego. The attitude in question consists in the subject's having "withdrawn the psychical ac-

THE LOGIC OF THE SUBLIME


Alenka Zupancic. The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 1992.Vol.9, Iss. 2-3; pg. 51, 18 pgs
Author(s): Alenka Zupancic

cent from his ego and having transposed it on to his super-ego. To the super-ego, thus inflated, the ego can appear tiny and all its interests trivial" (Freud 1988: 430431). The subject assumes a kind of distant or "elevated" point of view regarding the world and himself as a part of this world. Thus we come to the point mentioned above, the point where in the field of aesthetics emerges an ethical or moral agency-the super-ego. In terms of spatial metaphor it may be said that the super-ego is the birth place of the sentiment of the sublime-a statement that should not really surprise us. The domination the subject feels over himself and his "natural existence" is precisely the capacity of the super-ego to force the subject, in spite of all the demands of reality, to act contrary to his well-being, to renounce his interests, needs, pleasure, and all that binds him to the "sensitive world". However, the sentiment of the sublime consists not only in the indication of the proximity of the Thing (as threatening the subject), it is at the same time a way to avoid the encounter with it. And it is the very "inflating" of the super-ego that plays here the role of the strategy aiming to avoid the Thing (das Ding), the death drive in its "pure state"-even though this "inflating" itself leads, ultimately, straight to death. (Kant, as we saw, claims that the subject is ready to give up property, health and even life.) However, the fact that in the sentiment of the sublime the subject relies, at a certain point, on a moral agency is not at all an indication that this action is a moral or ethical act. The sacrifices the subject is ready to make in the state of the sublime are not of the same order as those required in a pure moral act. To put it as simply as possible: the condition of the pure ethical act taking place is the subject's readiness to "consent" to his own symbolic effacement, to the effacement in the symbolic, i.e., to the effacement that does not concern only his empirical existence. Contrary to this attitude, what we are ready to sacrifice in the state of the sublime serves exactly to avoid "symbolic death"-even if the price we pay for it turns out to be our empirical life. (We sacrifice our "empirical being" that we consider small and insignificant in order to inscribe ourselves in the Symbolic, in History, . . . We want to do something "great" and "important" in our lives and not lose ourselves in the steady stream of the everyday habits.) When the super-ego responds to this challenge-and the challenge is, I think, essential to the sentiment of the sublime-it submits the subject to the dialectic governed by the inexorable logic of the super-ego's law. In his own way Kant himself also comes to the point where moral agency emerges in the sublime. He comes to it when dealing with the problem of universality. When judging some aesthetic phenomenon, I do not postulate everyone's agreement, I require this agreement from everyone (Kant 1987: 60). However, when requiring it, I have to rely on something, and this "something" is in the case of the sublime precisely moral agency: [A judgement about the sublime] has its foundation in human nature: in something that, along with common sense, we may require and demand of everyone, namely,

THE LOGIC OF THE SUBLIME


Alenka Zupancic. The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 1992.Vol.9, Iss. 2-3; pg. 51, 18 pgs
Author(s): Alenka Zupancic

the predisposition to the feeling for (practical) ideas, i.e., to moral feeling. (Kant 1987: 125) This is how in Kant's theory the ethical moment emerges in the field of the aesthetic. But the "super-ego" also has, as we shall see, another role in the sentiment of the sublime. Now we can ask ourselves, what is the Thing whose nearness inspires the subject with anguish and sometimes with horror, what is the thing that makes, in the subject's imagination, certain appearances fascinating and horrifying at the same time? Our thesis is that in the Kantian perspective, the confrontation with something that is "in itself simply thrilling -for instance and to take Kant's own example, "hurricanes with all the devastation they leave behind" - strikes the subject as a kind of bodying forth of the cruel, wild and menacing super-ego as the "real or reverse side" of the moral law (in us), of the super-ego as the place of jouissance. This destructive power is somewhat familiar to the subject. And it is precisely in this point that lies the fascination with this kind of "spectacle". In Kant's words, It is in fact difficult to think of a feeling for the sublime in nature without connecting with it a mental atonement similar to that for moral feeling. (Kant 1987: 128) Previously we took an example of the dynamically sublime (hurricanes with all the devastation they leave behind). However, the relation we are trying to establish here is valid also for the other genre of the sublime (the mathematical sublime). If the dynamical sublime embodies the cruelly inexorable and lethal aspect of the Kantian moral agency, we may say for the mathematically sublime, which aims at infinity and eternity, that it brings forward the dimension of the "infinite task" imposed upon the subject of the moral law. (The fact that all we can do is to approach in infinitum the pure moral act.) Or, if we place this logic in the Sadian perspective, it sustains the fantasy of infinite suffering, the fantasy in the frame of which every body functions as a sublime body. The sentiment of the sublime is possible only on the basis of what is repressed and effaced in the moral aspect of subject's constitution, what could be designated as radical evil - the evil that does not consist in the transgression of the law but which is the evil of the moral law itself. The sublime "thereby reveals itself as something uncannily close to evil: the dimension that announces itself in the sublime chaos (. . .) is the very dimension of radical evil, i.e., of an evil whose nature is purely 'spiritual', suprasensible, not 'pathological' " (Zizek 1992: 164). Let us return to the citation that began this paper: the "starry heavens above me" is exactly the "mirror image" of the "moral law within me". It is not the metaphor of the moral law, of super-ego as an ethical agency; it strikes the subject as its embodiment and its real presence-as real as it could be on the level of images. And we can conclude this line of reasoning by the following statement: the stronger a subject's super-ego (the moral agency) is, the more this subject will be sensitive to the sentiment of the sublime, the more drastically he will recognize the uncanny aspect in this encounter, the more strongly he will realize how very interior this exterior is to him.1

THE LOGIC OF THE SUBLIME


Alenka Zupancic. The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 1992.Vol.9, Iss. 2-3; pg. 51, 18 pgs
Author(s): Alenka Zupancic

So far we have been discussing the situation where in the field of the aesthetic there emerges ethical agency. Let us look now at the opposite case where in the field of ethics there emerges a certain aesthetical category. If we turn to Jacques Lacan's Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1992), the following phenomenon strikes us: in the middle of his talking about ethics, where he is discussing Antigone and the way her act inscribes itself into the register of ethics, Lacan suddenly begins to talk about the image of Antigone and continues to use this expression through the entire analysis. He describes Antigone with words which no doubt belong to the register of the aesthetic: he talks about her sublime beauty, about the blinding and unbearable splendor (clat) her image radiates, the splendor that attracts and frightens us at the same time. He speaks about the image that purifies us (in the sense of catharsis), the central image relative to all the others that suddenly seem to descend upon it and disappear. He defines Antigone as the fascinating image which is absolutely privileged against the rest of the spectacle: To be honest, I'm not sure if the spectator ever trembles that much. I am, however, sure that he is fascinated by the image of Antigone. In this he is a spectator. . . . Let us not confuse this relationship to a special image with the spectacle as a whole. The term spectator, which is usually used to discuss the effect of tragedy, strikes me as highly problematic if we don't delimit the field to which it refers. On the level of what occurs in reality, an auditor rather than a spectator is involved. (Lacan 1992: 252) Furthermore, states Lacan, the whole tragedy "is that which spreads itself out in front so that that image may be produced" (Lacan 1992: 273). In this equivalence between Antigone and the image, in the statement "Antigone is the image", the accent is on what falls out of the equation: Antigone is the image as far as she is the only image, as far as everything else is not the image (but rather something "audible"). And here we come across the moment of the incomparable, so important in Kant's theory of the sublime ("the sublime is that in comparison with which everything else is small" goes one of the Kant's definitions of the sublime). But this is not the only point that Lacan owes to Kant. Kant himself already suggests an answer to the question how it is possible for the aesthetic category to emerge in the field of ethics: The object of a pure and unconditioned intellectual liking is the moral law in its might, the might that it exerts in us over any and all of those incentives of the mind that precede it. This might actually reveals itself aesthetically only through sacrifice (which is a deprivation-though one that serves our inner freedom-in return for which it reveals in us an unfathomable depth of this supersensible power, whose consequences extend beyond what we can foresee). (Kant 1987: 131) The sacrifice is the thing that introduces the aesthetic moment into the ethics, and this is also Lacan's explanation of this phenomenon. Lacan attributes the fascinating character of Antigone's image to the fact that she will be buried alive, situated in the realm "between two deaths", and therefore to her being such a "terrible, self-willed victim":

THE LOGIC OF THE SUBLIME


Alenka Zupancic. The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 1992.Vol.9, Iss. 2-3; pg. 51, 18 pgs
Author(s): Alenka Zupancic

We know very well that over and beyond the dialogue, over and beyond the question of family and country, over and beyond the moralizing arguments, it is Antigone herself who fascinates us, Antigone in her unbearable splendor. She has a quality that both attracts us and startles us, in the sense of intimidates us; this terrible, self-willed victim disturbs us. (Lacan 1992: 247) And we can ask ourselves, what is this aspect of the sacrifice (or the "self-willed victim") which by a certain inner necessity produces the image, the sublime image?2 In order to specify this link between the sacrifice and the image we will demarcate now the main difference between the beautiful and the sublime. Kant associates the beautiful with the so called "purposiveness without a purpose". This is to say that beautiful things have no purpose outside themselves, yet they are structured as if they had one. The simplest definition of beauty could be that it is a sense-full form which draws its fascination from the fact that we know this form is entirely coincidental, contingent, unintentional. If we take, as Kant does, an example from nature, for instance the beauty of a crystal form, we can say that the beauty strikes us as a kind of proof that nature knows (what it is doing). On the other side, the sublime is explicitly a senseless form, it is more like the incarnation of chaos (the eruption of volcano, a turbulent ocean, a stormy night, . . .). It appears as pure excess, as the eruption of "jouissance", as pure waste. In other words, if we said that the beautiful is the place where Nature knows, we can say that the sublime is the place where Nature enjoys and it is precisely this jouissance of the Other, the jouissance that doesn't serve anything, that fascinates us. If we turn back to the sublime that emerges from our being witness to an act of sacrifice (Antigone's, for instance), we can define it as a reply to what appears as "pure nonsense" (in terms of the reality principle). We are talking about an act that lacks a "real" cause as well as a "useful" purpose, or, more precisely, an act that, in its being an act of sacrifice, stages a lack as such (Kant uses the term "deprivation"). This is why this act is presentable only in the register of the image or, more precisely, presentable in terms of the very limit of the image, i.e. as a shine, a glittering, an aura. One of the finest examples of the sublime image's relation to the "abyss of jouissance", on the background of which it emerges, which it announces and at the same time which forbids access to it, is probably Poe's tale The Facts in the case of M. Valdemar. This relation is precisely that between the repulsive and formless mass, the disgusting dissolution, the substance of jouissance into which Valdemar's body is transformed when he is awakened from the mesmeric trance, and, on the other hand, the sublime body of Valdemar, maintained for seven months in a state of mesmeric trance, under the disguise of which it transforms irrepressibly into the Thing (in Freud's as well as John Carpenter's meaning of the word). -"There lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome-of detestable putrescence" (Poe 1982: 164). The uncanny in the sublime image of the sleeping Valdemar's body is his voice, the paradoxical voice, supposed to testify that his bearer is still alive, but capable of pronouncing, and this repeatedly, only three words, "7 am dead!" What strikes us here

THE LOGIC OF THE SUBLIME


Alenka Zupancic. The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 1992.Vol.9, Iss. 2-3; pg. 51, 18 pgs
Author(s): Alenka Zupancic

as uncanny is the inscription, the trace of this intimate liaison, the unbearable identity of the splendor of the sublime image and a pure, nameless disgust. What is uncanny is not simply this repulsive mass but the paradoxical connection of disgust and sublimity. This is also the reason why the phenomenon of the sublime as well as that of the uncanny are related to the phenomenon of anamorphosis, the containing of two images in one. It is important to stress that sublimity, even in literature (as we saw in the case of Antigone), i.e., in the written text, always produces an image. It is precisely the unimaginable of the text that produces the image, and it produces it in the form of das Schein, shine or splendor. The image and its impossibility or its interdiction work together here. This may be one of the reasons for Kant's claiming: "Perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish Law is the commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven or on earth, or under the earth" (Kant 1987: 135). It could be said that the sublime is always something that is situated between reality and the "grimace of the Real" (in the Lacanian sense). In another of his stories, The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe includes a poem which concludes with the following verses: Through the pale door, A hideous throng rush out forever, And laugh - but smile no more. If we add the words of Jean Epstein, who made an excellent film based on this story, the words that go as follows: "The faces of the dead have but a gaze, and no more eyes" (Epstein 1974: vol.1, 199), we come to understand quite well what "the grimace of the Real" could be. The sublime is precisely the place where reality borders on the realm in which the faces of the dead, laughing without a smile, have but a gaze, and no more eyes. II. In paragraph 26 of the Critique of Judgment Kant formulates something that may be referred to as "the first theorem of the sublime". He offers a kind of a scheme, a minimal outline of how the sublime operates. Due to the fact it is found in the section discussing the "Mathematically Sublime", the central point around which the whole conceptualization rotates is magnitude. We are reminded of this already in the title of the paragraph in question: "On Estimating the Magnitude of Natural Things, as we must for the Idea of the Sublime". The estimation of magnitude is therefore the key to the Idea of the sublime. This formulation is not at all obvious, it is rather surprising. However, before we turn to this point and its implications, let us examine what we called the first theorem of the sublime and the way Kant comes to it. First of all he counterposes mathematical and aesthetical estimation of magnitude in order to formulate afterwards the latter as the basis of the former. Briefly: mathematical estimation of magnitude operates with numerical concepts, whereas the aesthetic estimation of magnitude implies a comprehension of the magnitude solely and simply in intuition (Anschauung), and is, as Kant puts it, "nach dem Augenmasse", "cut to the

THE LOGIC OF THE SUBLIME


Alenka Zupancic. The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 1992.Vol.9, Iss. 2-3; pg. 51, 18 pgs
Author(s): Alenka Zupancic

measure of the eye". We can get a determinate concept of how large something is only by estimating the magnitude mathematically, i.e., by using numbers that can progress to infinity. However, for the mathematical estimation of magnitude we need a first or basic measure, a unit that serves as the means of all measuring. And this basic measure can only be comprehended in intuition. All mathematical, scientific calculations are based, ultimately, on the aesthetic estimation of magnitude which represents the irreducible prescientific or "transcendental" moment of mathematical science. The unit of measure, the One (i) upon which all following calculations are based, is always something that can be grasped only in intuition. It is not the "one" of the series of numbers (1,2,3,...), it is tne "one" that precedes any counting and makes it possible. Thereby it is an absolute magnitude: we may not say that it is of some magnitude or other, it simply is magnitude, it incarnates, so to speak, the very being of magnitude itself. Aesthetic comprehension of magnitude is the gesture by which we mark out the basic measure with the help of which imagination operates when presenting numerical concepts. However-and here we are already close to our "theorem"-if there is no maximum for the mathematical estimation of magnitude (numbers can progress to infinity), there is a maximum for the aesthetic estimation of magnitude (Kant 1987: 117). What follows now is a very particular linguistic figure that has to strike us, especially if we are used to Kant's manner of writing according to an entirely different diction. "Und von diesen sage ich:", says Kant, "and regarding this latter I say". -I, Immanuel Kant, call up all of my philosophical authority for the following axiom: When /this maximum/is judged as the absolute measure beyond which no larger is subjectively possible (i.e. possible for the judging subject), than it carries with it the idea of the sublime and gives rise to that emotion which no mathematical estimation of magnitude by means of numbers can produce. (Kant 1987: 107-108) Kant's reasoning as we have followed it so far could be summed up with the "speculative judgement": the absolute magnitude = 1. The "One", the unique one, the unit of measure that precedes any measuring, is precisely the means by which infinitude is "included" into the finite, and by means of which in the most finite and limited thing we come across the paradigm of absolute magnitude (in the case of intuition we are dealing, after all, with the most trivial "physical limitation" -the limit of our field of vision, for instance). The intuition which corresponds to the measure of the eye and whose limit in this case is the limit of our field of vision "recognizes" an absolute magnitude, but an absolute magnitude that is such (i.e., absolute) only for the judging subject. This (subjectively) absolute magnitude incites the idea of the sublime in us, because the idea of the sublime itself is defined as that of absolute magnitude. The nominal definition of the (mathematically) sublime proposed by Kant is this: "We can call sublime what is absolutely large". We will take into consideration one of Kant's examples of the sublime. However, before doing so, we will consider some fundamental features of the mathematically sublime.

THE LOGIC OF THE SUBLIME


Alenka Zupancic. The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 1992.Vol.9, Iss. 2-3; pg. 51, 18 pgs
Author(s): Alenka Zupancic

The problem we are confronted with here is the problem of Zusammenfassung (comprehensio aesthetica), i.e., the problem of the simultaneous comprehension of successiveness. Imagination, states Kant, progresses to infinity when performing the combination [Zusammensetzung] that is required to present a magnitude, and encounters no obstacles. This is because understanding guides it by means of numerical concepts. Here we are dealing with the presentation of magnitude in the time of the successive Zusammensetzung. A problem occurs when we try to estimate the magnitude aesthetically, because this estimation is limited to intuition and has no support in concepts. In fact, as Kant puts it, apprehension is bound to reach a point where the partial presentations of sensible intuition that were first apprehended already begin to fade from the imagination, as it proceeds to apprehend further ones, such that the imagination loses as much on the one side as it gains on the other. A problem thus occurs when, as Kant expresses it, "the mind listens to the voice of reason within itself", the voice demanding Zusammenfassung, "totality for all given magnitudes," it "demands comprehension in one intuition, and exhibition of all the members of a progressively increasing numerical series" (Kant 1987: 111). The problem for imagination occurs where it can no longer regard infinity as an infinitely long succession of individual units, but as a unit itself. And this is what the sublime is all about. The transcendental aesthetics of the first Critique demonstrated that time has no reality in itself, but is the formal condition of intuition in general. The form proper to this condition is successiveness. "Time has only one dimension, different times are not co-existent but successive" (Kant 1991: 48). And what reason demands from imagination in the judgment about the sublime is precisely that it comprehends and makes apparent at once what can not be given but successively. This way, it "does violence" not only to the imagination, but to the a priori form of sensibility itself, the ground of which is, as we saw, successiveness. Furthermore, considering that time is also the form of internal sense, i.e., the mode of our conceiving ourselves, what is at stake here is, as Lyotard has pointed out, the constitution of the (Kantian) subject as such (Lyotard 1991: 176-177). The sublime can be decomposed into two basic moments. The notion and the "mechanism" of the sublime imply a certain dyad. What is this "dyad of the sublime"? What we have here is a specific articulation of what Lacan (1988), in his famous crit, refers to as logical time. The latter, we recall, is composed of three components: 1) the instant of looking, l'instant du regard, 2) the time to comprehend,3 le temps pour comprendre, and 3) the moment for concluding, le moment de conclure. The specificity of what we may call "the logical time of the sublime" consists, briefly, in suspending the second component, the time to comprehend. In the sublime, as Kant points out, there is no time to comprehend, there is no time during which the subject could measure with his eye and comprehend, or understand, what he is looking at. Only the instant of looking and the moment for concluding are left. Kant describes the instant of looking as "a momentary inhibition of the vital forces" (Kant 1987: 98). He also describes it as an agitation "that can be compared with a vibra-

THE LOGIC OF THE SUBLIME


Alenka Zupancic. The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 1992.Vol.9, Iss. 2-3; pg. 51, 18 pgs
Author(s): Alenka Zupancic

tion, i.e., with a rapid alternation of repulsion from, and attraction to, one and the same object" (Kant 1987: 115). The second is the moment when I realize the inadequacy of the presentation, Vorstellung, to embrace the absolute and thereby come to a conclusion about the supersensible in myself. This moment is linked to the mood of the subject that Kant describes as the "self-estimation" and "a liking emotion". It is a moment of "mediated pleasure", pleasure in pain, when the subject enjoys the superiority of his supersensible ground to all that is sensible. Let us look now at one of Kant's examples of the sublime, an example the pregnancy of which lies in the fact that it is not at all as "innocent" or neutral as it may seem at first sight, and thus tells us more about the sublime than do many other examples. The example is mediated by the frame of a narrative, legend that Kant takes over from Savary.4 In his Letters on Egypt (Lettres sur l'Egypte), according to Kant, Savary comments that in order to get the full emotional effect from the magnitude of the pyramids one must neither get too close to them nor stay too far away. For if one stays too far away, then the parts (the stones of which they are built) are presented only obscurely, and hence their presentation has no effect on the subject's aesthetic judgment; and if one gets too close, the eye needs some time to complete the apprehension from the base to the peak, but during that time some of the earlier parts invariably fade from the imagination before it has apprehended the later ones, and hence comprehension is never complete. The spectator, Kant proceeds, has the feeling that his imagination is inadequate for exhibiting the idea of a whole, a feeling in which imagination reaches its maximum, and as it strives to expand that maximum, it sinks back into itself, but consequently comes to feel a liking that amounts to an emotion (Kant 1987: 108-109). This is Savary's narrative, together with some consequences that Kant points out. Already in this basic frame we encounter the air of mystery, of the uncanny, which is quite important in the sentiment of the sublime. The "Letters on Egypt", the narrative, the story-is it not all about passing on a mystery, in this case the mystery of the pyramids? The pyramids, belonging to another time and another place are also catacombs and labyrinths, they always confront us with some enigma. The pyramids have been all along the subject of stories and legends. In his book L'interfrence (1972), Michel Serres interrogates, among other things, one of those "legends" which is closely connected to the issues we are dealing with here: the questions of estimating the magnitude, of time, space and the mysterious. Once more it all begins with a multiplicity of instances of enunciation. Diogenes Laertius says: "Hieronymus says that Thales measured the pyramids by measuring their shadows, after he found out at what time our own shadow is equal to our height." The unique form shows itself for our observation in one and only one moment of the day, when the thing coincides with its shadow (the shadow that Thales marks out), when the inaccessible coincides with the accessible. The main issue here is precisely this play of accessible and inaccessible, variable and invariable.

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Alenka Zupancic. The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 1992.Vol.9, Iss. 2-3; pg. 51, 18 pgs
Author(s): Alenka Zupancic

The invariable is the pyramid that stands for centuries under the Egyptian sun. The variables are the (apparent) movement of the sun, the length and the position of the shadow. Thence the idea of the clock and measuring of time. The pyramid is the gnomon and its trace shows the time. The measuring of space is here the measuring of time. And in this context Thales represents a radical subversion, his basic idea is revolutionary, it brings forward a kind of "sublime inversion". As Serres points out, instead of letting the pyramid speak of the sun and the course of time (where the invariable knowledge would dictate the measure of the variable), he demands that the sun speaks of the pyramid: he demands of the variable that it continuously speaks of what stays unchanged (Serres 1972: 167). The invariable is no more what enables us to distinguish the deviations and divergences of the variable. Contrary to this, Thales descries among the variable the unknown constant of the invariable. In a given moment he marks out the shadow, the passing contour. In other words, he halts time in order to gauge space. In a unique moment he stops the movement of the sun, he freezes time in the instant when the shadow on the sand transforms into the thing itself, when the variable itself hits the constant of the invariable and thereby changes the roles of the variable and the invariable. This second story, the story about Thales measuring the pyramids by their shadows, after finding out when his own shadow is equal to his height, helps us understand the first story by which Kant develops his theory of the sublime. We are standing in front of the a pyramid and we are there as spectators, that is to say we are viewing it as it "manifests itself to the eye". And it manifests itself as too large, inaccessible, and impossible to be grasped in one sole gaze. What else is there for the imagination to do (considering that it is restricted to intuition and can not rely on concepts) but to repeat Thales's "trick": it halts time in order to be able to gauge space. Since the eye requires some time to comprehend the whole, whereby it loses as much on the one side as it gains on the other, imagination realizes, so to speak, that this is not going to work. Imagination "realizes" that it is not made by the measure of the (invariable) idea, but by the measure of (variable) senses. In its effort to expand this frame of sensibility, it sinks back into itself and thereby produces the idea of sublimity. The deciding moment is precisely the moment of effort, Bestrebung. Here imagination "holds its breath", stops time, halts the movement of the sun. In the sensible itself (in the course of time) it demarcates the moment without time, in which it gauges space. Time and space are unique "phenomena" which do not have their correlate "in itself, or more accurately, they each have it in one another: time in itself is space and space in itself is time. This is why they are not, according to Kant, phenomena but the a priori forms of sensibility, they are intuitions that only create phenomena as objects of possible experience. - And "what happens in the sublime? Here intuition while suspending the course of time, while thus suspending its own condition and basis, its own form, in order to accomplish a simultaneous comprehension-sinks back into itself, sinks into time in itself, into non-time, into space. It falls to the point

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Alenka Zupancic. The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 1992.Vol.9, Iss. 2-3; pg. 51, 18 pgs
Author(s): Alenka Zupancic

where it is necessary to begin again, from nothing. It falls to the point of creatio ex nihilo. It falls to the point that is, if we may say so, even "more transcendental" than the transcendental synthesis of apprehension in intuition the results of which are the objects of possible experience. It falls to the point that represents some kind of aesthetic correlate of the Sadian notion of radical crime-crime that would liberate nature of its ties and its laws. In the experience of the sublime, the subject approaches the verge of the second death,5 a death that is not the death of a person, but of the (Kantian) subject as such. In his seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, in the section dedicated to the question of sublimation, Lacan introduces the Thing, das Ding, using the Heideggerian example of the vase, which is precisely "a hole with something around it". What constitutes the vase is just the void in its core. It is at this point that Lacan introduces the notion of creatio ex nihilo, which he states is the essential motive or figure of sublimation. -Is it not possible to say that in the shadow of the pyramid the subject experiences precisely the mystery of creation; he learns that the thing in itself (outside the space and time) is but the nihil, the nothing in the core of phenomena, the nothing from which the phenomena are created in the spatio-temporal synthesis. He learns that the shadow is not only the contour of the "thing in itself" in the light of the sun, but something that bars the very "thing in itself". Thereby, in intuition the relationship is measured between the secret that "sticks" in the pyramid - the enigma of its creation and inaccessible height - and the secret found in the spectator himself, the secret Kant names "supersensible ground" of subject, revealing itself in the sublime.
[Footnote] NOTES 1 We will return to this relationship between the moral agency and the sublime as the ground of the subject's fascination once again later. 2 To avoid confusion we should stress here the difference between the sacrifice we discussed previously, and the sacrifice we are going to discuss now. The difference at stake here is the difference between the "subjective state" (of the sublime) and the "object" in the presence of which the subject is likely to be overwhelmed by the sentiment of the sublime. So far we've been discussing the subject's response to something incomparably big or powerful. Now we are going to show how a sacrifice we see strikes us precisely as the manifestation of this power we find so fascinating. 3 Here I am taking the liberty to modify the established English translation where this moment is translated by "the time for understanding". 4 French general, diplomat, and later minister of police under Napoleon Bonaparte. Savary took part in Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt. 5 Lacan, referring to Sade, defines the "second death" as "The point at which the very cycles of the transformations of nature are annihilated" (Cf. Lacan 1992: 248).

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Author(s): Alenka Zupancic EPSTEIN, Jean. 1974. Ecrits sur le cinma (Paris: Ed. Seghers, Paris). FREUD, Sigmund. 1988. "Humor", in Art and Literature (London: The Pelican Freud Library). KANT, Immanuel. 1987. Critique of Judgment, transi, Werner S. Pluhar, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company). 1956. Critique of Practical Reason, transi. Lewis White Beck, (New York: Macmillan). 1991. Critique of Pure Reason, transi. J. M. D. Meiklejohn (London: The Guernsey Press). LACAN, Jacques. 1988. "Le temps logique et l'assertion de certitude anticipe," tr. as "Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty," in Newsletter of the Freudian Field 11:2. Columbia: University of Missouri Press. 1992. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, transi. Dennis Porter (London: Routledge). LYOTARD, Jean-Franois. 1991. Leons sur l'Analytique du sublime (Paris: Galile). POE, Edgar Allan. 1982. The Complete Tales and Poems (New York: Penguin, 1982). SERRES, Michel. 1972. L'interfrence. (Paris: Minuit). ZIZEK, Slavoj. 1992. Enjoy Your Symptom! (New York, London: Routledge).

[Author Affiliation] ALENKA ZUPANCIC Slovene Academy of Sciences, Ljubljana