Monday, October 15, 2007

Why the ocean is sublime (and why it isn't)

I went to a roundtable the other night on "The Aesthetic" hosted by our English department. As you might expect, much of the discussion was guided by Kant's Critique of Judgment, supplemented with the requisite considerations of Baumgarten and Burke. At one point, the discussion turned to the "sublime" and, of course, to the ready-to-hand example of sublimity, the ocean.

I wasn't as familiar with Edmund Burke's work on the sublime, so I was interested to learn that Burke (who also, naturally, finds the ocean sublime) argues that the feeling of "terror" or "fear" inspired by the sublime involves some speculation about the possibility of one's own death. That is, we find the ocean sublime partly because its vastness exceeds the powers of our understanding, but more so because that vastness prompts us to imagine our own death by drowning in it. This marks an interesting difference between him and Kant. For Kant, judgments about the sublime (qua aesthetic judgments) must be universal and necessary, which would preclude any considerations of the subject's (particular) death. The sublimity of the ocean is an instance of what Kant would call the "dynamical" sublime, that is, a judgment about the magnitude and might of the ocean, which exceeds human understanding, and not about the particular threat that magnitude and might poses to me. I think Kant might also describe the sublimity of the ocean as "terrible"-- inasmuch as he recognizes that the "feeling" inspired by the sublime is the opposite of the feeling inspired by the beautiful-- but that terror cannot be grounded in any particular empirical psychology.

In the past, I have often heard people talk about Kant's sublime, though explain it in a way that is much closer to Burke. The reasons why these two ideas may be potentially confused seem obvious, but since the distinction between the two is so significant, it seems crucial to try to situate Kant's sublime far, far away from Burke's.

This led me to wonder: is there another (perhaps, better) example of the sublime that doesn't allow for this confusion between Kant's description and Burke's description? In other words, can we think of an example of sublimity that would still inspire the negative feelings that Kant associates with the sublime without those negative feelings being potentially associated with our own death, even if only in a latent way?


Daniel said...

Geeze, that's tough. My first reaction was the night sky, but it lacks the negative feelings of the sublime, at least in my experience. (Boundless but not spooky = "splendid"?)

I think that Schopenhauer also strongly associates sublimity with pleasure derived from observing stuff that can hurt you.

Doctor J said...

Yeah, daniel, I was thinking along the same lines. My first thought was "deep space" but either (1) it lacks negative feelings in the same way that the night sky does or (2) it *does* carry with it negative feelings, but they seem to be prompted by the possibility of death.

Anyone else got any ideas?

Em Ryall said...

If the ocean can be considered sublime in part because of our vulnerability if we find ourself within it, then wouldn't this hold for the desert too? But I don't think this is the case; we wouldn't normally associate the desert with the sublime in the same way as we would with the ocean or outerspace.

Doctor J said...

Interesting point, em. My first reaction was to say that (a la Burke, and not Kant) the desert is sublime in the same way the ocean is... but I think you're right that no one ever calls the desert "sublime." I'm not really sure why that is. Maybe it's because the relationship between my death and the desert isn't as direct as the relationship between my death and the ocean. That is, when I think of drowning in the ocean, I can think of the ocean itself as causing my death. When I think of dying in the desert, it seems like the "desert" is only the place where my death happened, and not it's direct cause.

Of course, I'm speaking hypothetically. I have no firsthand knowledge of either of these...

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...


John says hello.

I always tell my students that the best way to understand the beautiful and the sublime in Kant is to think about the two different modalities of the human form: the visible form of the body (the beautiful) and the invisible form of the soul (the sublime). Now, this admittedly depends on reading the subject into the formalism that Kant espouses (and that depends, in part on a reading of Derrida's interpretation of Kant) --- but I think that both these readings are warranted.

So I would argue that Kant's sublime still has an indirect relationship to my death to the exact same extent that the immortality of the soul has a relationship to the death of the finite body. Thus, when I look at the ocean for Kant, it is probably more precise to say that the ocean arouses in me feelings of sublimity because, despite the ocean's being able to kick my ass, I derive comfort by knowing that I am still morally superior to it (doesn't Kant say that the sublime has a more direct connection to the good than the beautiful does? My memory on this point is fuzzy). And sense morality pertains to reason here you can quickly get into the sublimity of technology (as in Heidegger) --- I give the example (which happened to me when I was a teenage and thus at the height of my belief in sublimity) of being caught in a thunderstorm in a mountain near the tree-line. The sublime isn't just the terror evoked by the experience. It's also the feeling of superiority of having "beat" nature through my ingenuity. Thus, also, the aptness of Denny's example of Moby Dick: Moby Dick is much more powerful than Ahab, but Ahab is (or thinks he is) more clever --- thus, the struggle between them is sublime.

There's a great essay by Lyotard, originally in Artworld, I think, but collected now in Clive Cazeux's Continental Aesthetics Reader which takes up the sublime in the context of modern art, esp. Newman (where for Lyotard the commonality in Burke, Kant et al is that the sublime in some way pertains to the fear that nothing will happen --- the fear of the end of the event). The emptiness of form in Newman is somewhat like the deep space example given above...

And, as a kid from red desert country, I will always insist that the desert is beautiful in a rigorously Platonic sense.


kgrady said...

First of all, I think it's necessary to return to the distinction that Leigh raises between the mathematical and the dynamical sublime—even if the ocean is capable of being judged sublime in both of these ways. To put it as simply as possible, the mathematical sublime is about the failure of our ability to comprehend a magnitude that exceeds the power of our imagination, while the dynamical has to do with the fear that we feel before a power whose might we are helpless to resist with our own. In other words, the mathematical sublime is occasioned by a kind of intellectual failure, the dynamical by a practical or moral failure. So, to Ammon's point, the association between sublimity and morality is especially strong in the latter case. Kant argues that the sublime has a more direct relation to morality than does the beautiful, 1) because its basis lies entirely in us, rather than in nature; and 2) because it teaches us to approve even what is contrary to our own inclinations, or "contra-purposive."

So Leigh, the thing is that Kant says we must find nature fearful in order to experience it as sublime—and it is fearful only insofar as its power greatly exceeds my own—but he adds that we must not actually be afraid, or our fear overwhelms our capacity to judge nature in a pure manner. That is, it's a kind of detached, reflective fear, but one that is nonethless based on the possibility of my own destruction. You're right to point out that the sublime, as an a priori feeling, cannot have an empirical basis, but this is where things get tricky, to say the least.

If we again consider both the mathematical and dynamical forms of the sublime, it is clear that both depend, to some extent, on the body—in one case, on the sensory apparatus, and in the other on the body's overall size and power. These are purely empirical conditions of the sublime, but only in the sense that they condition which particular things a person finds sublime. A person with a much wider field of vision and a much more powerful brain, capable of holding together a much greater portion of the temporally processed manifold of intuition, would be much less likely than you or me to find the great pyramids sublime; just as, say, David Levy would need a much larger predatory animal than you and I would, in order to be in awe at its power. But what is not emprirically determined is the potential to turn either of these "defeats" into a kind of superiority, insofar as we realize in either case that what prompts the failing is not nature, but reason, which demands that we compare ourselves to what is greater than us, and therein reveals its supersensible destination.

So I think the ocean is (dynamically) sublime, in the Kantian sense, insofar as it makes us fearful, though not necessarily of death, and certainly not of our own death. What we fear is the threat to our freedom that comes from the confrontation with a power capable of taking it from us, and of squashing our efforts to resist it. But—to agree with Ammon again—this fear is converted into the sublime when we recognize its source in our own superiority over nature, and thus the ocean (or anything else in nature) is not itself sublime, it is merely the occasion for the experience of the sublime. Sublimity has its basis in human reason, though we need an experience of nature to bring out our awareness of this basis.

As to the question of examples, I think one reason this is so difficult is that the sublime is a highly rare experience—especially, I would argue, for the modern sensibility. The examples Kant gives: St. Peter's Cathedral, lightning, volcanoes, hurricanes. These are all certainly capable of prompting sublime feelings, but I think we're pretty good at keeping these feelings at bay, maybe just because we're presented with so many images of such phenomena that we'd be overwhelmed if we opened ourselves up to them.