the sublime idea as static or dynamic

One topic we began discussing on Monday might be termed the “dynamic” aspect of sublime aesthetics:  the notion that we call an object sublime because what it communicates to us is an irrepressibly active kind of power, a power than can’t be reduced to a static concept but instead is implicitly animated.  Such a sublime object is not merely an object, then:  more essentially it is the intractable movement–what de Bolla terms “agitation,” many romantics call “pleasure” and might also be termed chaotic energy–that “overflows” any attempt to objectively contain it (it’s like a piece of music we might sing along or dance to but can’t objectively expound without eliding its most salient characteristic, its contagious expressiveness:  its communication of an energy that, although its commonly shared, can also seem to be uniquely expressive of individual selves).

This notion changes the normal model of our cognitive relation to objects.  Loosely speaking our normal relation to objects is a consumerist one:  we process (or “digest”) the world around us by subsuming the contingent, particular objects of our experience under abstract general-purpose concepts.  We consume the radical particularity of our experiences by transforming it into mere instances, examples or illustrations of relatively abstract, static, universal concepts of understanding.  (This transformation is what is called “reification” in the reading for next week).  We cannot opt out of this consumerist relation to the world, because we could not try to do so without first forming an abstract concept of the radical particularity we would retrieve.  Abstract concepts are the condition of the possibility of the world as we know it.  This is not to deny that we have any experience of a radical particularity before or beyond conceptuality, but it is to say that, whatever experience we have of such particularity, this experience stands at best in a dynamic, dialectical tension with the conceptuality that consumes it.

In the section we read for last class on “the logic of sublimity” Zizek uses this point to draw a distinction between Kant’s and Hegel’s notions of the sublime.  Don’t worry about remembering all the details of the Kantian and Hegelian positions.  The key point to remember is that although Kant describes the sublime in terms of the unknowability of “the thing in itself” (i.e., the radical particular as it is “in itself,” before or beyond how we conceptualize it “for us”), we should not let the rather static and objective connotations of the word “thing” mislead us. A better term for the thing in itself would be flux:  the essentially chaotic substrate of reality, like that of quantum particles:  the stability and understandability of the world we appear to inhabit would not be possible without radically distorting–freezing and chopping up–this primal flux.  Zizek emphasizes that the we miss this point if we think of this flux as a true world behind the apparent one because the whole logic of the dichotomy of truth and illusion, essence and appearance, only makes sense in a constructed world of appearances like ours.  the primal flux, which knows nothing of appearance, likewise can have nothing to do with what we think of as the essence beyond appearance.

So, when it comes to overcoming the illusions of appearances, the best that we can hope for is to open up those illusions to dialectical interplay with the idea of essence to which they’re opposed.  But this is an utterly distinct objective from that of returning to an essence per se beyond all appearance.  Indeed, as Zizek emphasizes, to hold out for the latter objective is just to keep falling for the key deception of appearance, which is its claim to reveal definitive and unadulterated truth.  we extricate ourselves from this deception not by demanding the truth it conceals but by attending instead to the dialectical interdependence and interplay of truth and illusion.

The related point Zizek makes in this section is that this dynamic interplay is actually best revealed not by the kinds of objects traditionally thought of as sublime (objects suggesting the overwhelming power of nature, church or state–i.e., objects that seems to suggest such power is a god-like thing in itself), but rather “in some miserable, radically contingent corporeal leftover” (234).  It stands to reason that the objects that are most revealing of specifically sublime power will be objects most lacking in power that is positively recognizable and understandable.  Instead of offering us an objective explanation for our experience of sublime power–of suggesting an objective, static ’cause’ to which we might attribute the effect of such power–such humble objects instead just implicate us in the indeterminate, unregulated movement of such power itself.  This movement is what Zizek following Hegel calls “the absolute negativity of the Idea:”  “The Sublime is an object whose positive body is just an embodiment of Nothing.  This logic of an object which, by its very inadequacy, ‘gives body’ to the absolute negativity of the Idea” (234).

Here are two poems by Mark Strand that I hope help illustrate in simpler terms this extremely abstract and nuanced argument.  I’d especially draw your attention to the pun with which the second poem ends:  “that was the idea” contains two key levels of signification.  On the one hand the poet refers to the idea as the idea of the cabin, or in other words the conceptual abstraction/reification of the experience of being in the cabin.  But, in addition to this abstract conceptual meaning, “that was the idea” also has the rather practical meaning of:  “that was the plan,” “that was our intention,” “that’s what we were after,” “that was our desire.”  The pun, confounding these two meanings into a single usage, unlocks the “movement” Strand expressly invokes in “Keeping Things Whole”:  the idea, in its very abstraction, becomes visible also as an act of desire; of movement and agency. Thus something like a non-conceptualized particularity of dynamic, autonomous experience gets unlocked not by escaping the conceptual illusion but by resolute insistence upon and devotion to illusion despite its emptiness.

Keeping Things Whole

by Mark Strand

Mark Strand

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.


When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.


We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.


Mark Strand, “Keeping Things Whole” from Selected Poems. Copyright © 1979, 1980 by Mark Strand. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., a division of Random House, Inc.


The Idea

by Mark Strand

for Nolan Miller


For us, too, there was a wish to possess
Something beyond the world we knew, beyond ourselves,
Beyond our power to imagine, something nevertheless
In which we might see ourselves; and this desire
Came always in passing, in waning light, and in such cold
That ice on the valley’s lakes cracked and rolled,
And blowing snow covered what earth we saw,
And scenes from the past, when they surfaced again,
Looked not as they had, but ghostly and white
Among false curves and hidden erasures;
And never once did we feel we were close
Until the night wind said, “Why do this,
Especially now? Go back to the place you belong;”
And there appeared , with its windows glowing, small,
In the distance, in the frozen reaches, a cabin;
And we stood before it, amazed at its being there,
And would have gone forward and opened the door,
And stepped into the glow and warmed ourselves there,
But that it was ours by not being ours,
And should remain empty. That was the idea.


“The Idea,” from The Continuous Life: Poems by Mark Strand, © 1990 by Mark Strand. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

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