The sublime is a concept central to aesthetics. As such, it describes how a wide range of sensory mediations impact observers, both emotionally and cognitively. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "sublime"-when it applies to "things in nature and art"-as "affecting the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; calculated to inspire awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur." The word comes to English from the Latin sub, meaning "up to," and limen, meaning "lintel"; liminality plays a crucial role in the analysis of sublimity. Though theories of the sublime have been applied to a wide array of media-from Greek tragedy to computers-two millennia of thinkers have not developed consensus on the logic behind sublimity. Theoretical debates continue over its affective impacts, its cognitive structure, and its meaning when used to describe an object.

Early writings on the sublime offer foundational precepts for later models but are not of themselves central to current media theory. The earliest extant treatment is a fragmentary Greek essay entitled On the Sublime, dated to the first century C.E. and popularly attributed to Longinus. Modern translations of this text derive "from a tenth-century medieval manuscript that offers conflicting statements as to the identity of the treatise's creator"(Leitch 135). It attributes the essay to "either...Dionysus of Halicarnassus or Cassius Longinus, the third-century pupil of Plotinus"; but scholars have compellingly argued that neither of these men wrote On the Sublime. Most still refer to Longinus as the author, but only "as a matter of convenience," and those seriously engaged with the treatise call its author Pseudo-Longinus for clarity. On the Sublime is a rhetorical analysis of how writers achieve the effect of sublimity; it thus offers little substantial characterization of the sublime itself. The author defines sublime feeling as "the presence of noble passion," qualifying as sublime any literary works exhibiting "an elevated and lofty style." He offers numerous examples of sublime writing, from Homer to the Greek tragedians and, most interestingly, the book of Genesis, an unusual reference suggesting that the author may "have been a Hellenized Jew." Pseudo-Longinus's writing often sacrifices analytic rigor in favor of awe before the sublime. Largely "content merely to enact the sublime and work intuitively," this early treatment lacks the incisiveness of later theories.

The next durable work on the sublime appears some sixteen centuries later, in Edmund Burke's Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). Here for the first time, the sublime appears explicitly in contradistinction with the beautiful, its partner in aesthetics. Burke deploys a taxonomy of sublime objects and modes of sublimity, thus risking superficiality. Nevertheless, he opens lingering questions about the affectivity of sublime experience (terror versus joy) and about sublimity's location (in art, nature, or both). His casting the sublime as "an experience bordering on terror...of what [is] so enormous as to crush human life"(Jameson 34) exerts significant influence by emphasizing sublime emotion's terrible aspect and by suggesting that sublimity inheres in objects of nature but not in artworks. This effect appears especially in the Romantic tradition in literature and painting, which often turns to nature as a source of sublime transcendence beyond human finitude. Emphasizing "the physical incommensurability of the human organism with Nature" may appear historically contingent today, but it combines with Burke's taxonomic method to open the way for recent historicist analyses of the sublime.1

Burke's influence has diminished in the shadow of Immanuel Kant's definitive "Analytic of the Sublime," part of The Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790). Kant also wrote the earlier Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764), but Kant scholars and aestheticians agree that this short treatise appeared too early in Kant's career to offer mature thought. Most subsequent models of sublimity have relied, however explicitly, upon Kant's analysis in the Critique, which makes several important claims. First, Kant diffuses Burke's query as to whether sublimity inheres in objects of nature or in art. He attests that an object in the world, natural or artistic, "serves for the presentation of a sublimity that can be found in the mind; for what is properly sublime cannot be contained in any sensible form"(Kant 129). Objects may arouse sublime sentiment, but sublimity itself "concerns only ideas of reason" and thus inheres in the mind. Kant finds natural objects more adept than art at arousing sublime feeling, since "a human end"(136) interferes with art's sublimity; but ironically sublimity aroused by nature "expands...our concept of art"(130), as purposively directed, like art, towards our powers of judgment. Secondly, Kant clarifies the affectivity of the sublime, tempering Burke's terror with a strange form of joy. Unlike the beautiful, which results in pure pleasure, in sublime feeling "the mind is not merely attracted by the object, but is also always reciprocally repelled"(129). Sublime feeling thus works as "negative pleasure."2 Third and most importantly, the theory of sublimity is "refined by Kant to include the question of representation itself"(Jameson 34), and Kant's clearest definition of the sublime relies upon the logic of representation. "That is sublime which even to be able to think of demonstrates a faculty of the mind that surpasses every measure of the senses"(Kant 134). Sublimity awakens a suprasensible idea through the failure of its own representation; perception reveals "the paradox of an object which, in the very field of representation, provides a view...of the dimension of what is unrepresentable"(_i_ek 203). This crisis of the faculties of representation causes terror, but the revelation of the mind's power to transcend phenomenality leads to joy. This perspective has far-reaching consequences. It reveals sublimity's importance in understanding the limits of phenomenal representation, a media-theoretical concern spanning from Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" to current debates over the simulacrum and the hyperreal. Also, viewing the unrepresentable as the referent of sublimity secures a central place in aesthetic theory and practice for phenomena that appear "contrapurposive for our power of judgment, unsuitable for our faculty of presentation"(Kant 129)-a central value of avant-gardism.3

Often contrasted with Kant, G.W.F. Hegel makes little explicit mention of the sublime, but his aesthetic theory in the Lectures on Fine Art (1835-38) modifies the Kantian model in a manner crucial to the second major wave of discourse on sublimity. Hegel follows Kant in arguing that the referent of sublimity "is...indeterminate and unshapable"(Hegel 641), incommensurate with the determinacy of phenomenal representation; but his higher regard for art replaces the artistic/natural debate with focused attention to sublimity in works of art, a posture that recent theories largely maintain. In one of his few explicit references to the sublime, Hegel states that because of its indeterminacy, the idea to which sublime experience refers "persists sublime above all this multiplicity of shapes which do not correspond with it." Hegel differs from Kant in emphasizing the idea's "absolute inwardness"(643), its belonging to the space of "infinite subjectivity," not to outward objectivity. He thus views the sublime relation between phenomenon and idea as a purely "negative one"(641). In contrast to the positivity of a phenomenon arousing sublime feeling, the idea itself becomes "a space devoid of all positive content"(_i_ek 194). Although Hegel attends to the sublime only briefly, his casting the referent of sublime experience as a pure negativity has crucial influence upon more recent models.4

Though innumerable treatments of the sublime follow Kant and Hegel, several since 1950 take particularly fruitful approaches. These analyses show that sublimity shares formal features with many other theoretic fields, offering a more rounded and dynamic media-theoretical framework.

In Postmodernism (1991), Fredric Jameson uses sublimity in a historical symptomatology of the postmodern condition. Following Burke's taxonomic method and his emphasis upon sublime terror, Jameson identifies as postmodern the "moment of a radical eclipse of nature itself"(Jameson 34), which he views as "the result of the development of capital"(35) into a globalized system. Because of capital's proliferation, "the other of our society is no longer Nature," as with Burke, but is instead "that enormous...power of human labor stored up in our machinery." Hence technology functions as a "shorthand to designate" the new other from which the "postmodern or technological sublime"(37) derives.5 Machines represent synecdochically an "immense communicational... network" which is itself merely "a distorted figuration of...the whole world system" under capital. The object arousing postmodern sublimity thus makes us "attempt to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system"(38), and it is this impossible totality that appears "enormous and threatening" in the same way that nature does for Burke. The crisis of mapping one's position within such a vast and intricate system typifies postmodern experience for Jameson, and the logic of sublimity thus plays a central role in his analysis of postmodernity.

Next, French theorist Jean-Fran¨ois Lyotard writes on the sublime in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984), The Inhuman (1988), and Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1991). Like Jameson, he sees the fact that "we have an Idea of the world (the totality of what is), but [not]...the capacity to show an example of it"(Lyotard 78) as a sublime case; and he also shares with Jameson a concern for defining the postmodern sublime in contrast with the modern. Lyotard focuses, however, upon Kant's concern for representation instead of Burke's taxonomy. Modern art is for him "that which devotes its 'little technical expertise' present the fact that the unpresentable exists," whereas the postmodern "puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself"(81). Unlike modernist art, the postmodern "denies itself the solace of good forms" by attempting directly to show the unpresentable, instead of casting it "as the missing contents" of a formally graceful artwork. Lyotard's distinction between modernist and postmodernist sublimities offers a powerful tool for parsing representational strategies within a single medium-Gertrude Stein's sublimity as postmodern, Faulkner's as modern-and for characterizing the presentational methods of whole media types. Lyotard's revision of the Kantian sublime thus offers a powerful means of understanding a wide array of media technologies and strategies of mediation.

Lastly, Slavoj _i_ek's treatment of sublimity in The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) and other works offers a penetrating critique of the Kantian sublime that reveals sublimity's affinities with other theoretic fields and defends the sublime against skepticism towards the transcendentalist metaphysics underlying Kant's model. _i_ek follows Kant by noting that in the sublime moment "the place of the Thing"(_i_ek 204)-of Kant's suprasensible idea-"is indicated through the very failure of its represenation"; but Kant "presupposes that the Thing-in-itself exists as something positively given beyond the field of representation"(205), a supposition that makes the Kantian position a "prisoner of the field of representation." Defining the Thing towards which sublimity gestures "as a transcendent surplus beyond what can be represented" relies on "the logic of representation" and therefore fails to achieve radical transcendence. By contrast, _i_ek holds that "there is nothing beyond phenomenality." In response to this conundrum, he casts pure negativity as an 'outside' of representation, suggesting, in place of Kant's positively given idea, that "the Sublime is an object whose positive body is just an embodiment of Nothing"(206). This Hegelian stress on negativity reawakens the possibility of speaking about a sublime object, rather than the sublime mental state that Kant emphasizes: "the phenomenon's...inability to represent the Thing adequately is inscribed in the phenomenon itself"(203). Moreover, the sublime "essence"(206) that a phenomenon gestures towards is a pure nothingness and consequently "is nothing but the inadequacy of the appearance to itself." _i_ek's negative inflection of sublimity allows him to claim that in sublime experience "we are already in the midst of the Thing-in-itself," rather than never quite there, "for this Thing-in-itself is nothing but this radical negativity" that is inscribed in the phenomenon.

A negativistic model of sublimity thus eschews the critique of metaphysics and reveals sublimity's similitude with other theories of mediation. For example, _i_ek is an expert on Jacques Lacan and explains that the sublime object "In Lacanian the objectification of a certain lack"(208). In the same way that the sublime object embodies radical negativity, so does Lacanian psychoanalysis view "the phallic signifier as the signifier of lack"(154). In analyzing how sublime objects mediate political ideology to us, _i_ek shows that in both the sublime object and the law of the Lacanian phallus "lack is localized in a point of exception which guarantees the consistency of all the other elements." Thus the sublime object's embodiment of pure negativity acts as an exception to prove the rule that nothing lies beyond the field of phenomenal representation. _i_ek also relates the negative sublime to Hegelian theories of the subject, observing that for Hegel "the subject is nothing but the impossibility of its own signifying representation"(208), so that the "negativity"(207) embodied in the sublime object "coincides with subjectivity itself." By this logic, _i_ek's sublime object appears as a means of mediating subjectivity intact between individuals, the transference of subjectivity being a perennial problem in the theory of mediation.

Recent analyses of the sublime resemble Kant's model only vaguely and Longinus's hardly at all, but early theories of sublimity have led to the elaboration of powerful rubrics for analyzing the logic of mediation. These analyses expose a structure of mediation so pervasive that their insights cut across boundaries between disciplines and address central problems in media theory-from the question of mediating subjectivity to that of metaphysical transcendence itself. Though recent political critiques of aesthetics by Terry Eagleton (1990), Alain Badiou (1998), Jacques Ranci¸re (2004), and others have threatened the future of aesthetics as such, the theory of sublimity has contributed to and illuminated many other theoretical fields, so its legacy will undoubtedly live on, under whatever name. Such a dehiscent fate seems wholly appropriate for a concept that over the course of its long life has never permitted consensus about its meaning or implications.


Seth Perlow
The University of Chicago :: Theories of Media :: Keywords Glossary ::  sublime