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The Process of Avant-Garde Practice (3)

Lyotard’s “sublime”

Lyotard’s conception of what is essentially not the sublime but the Kantian sublime, is not initially posited in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime as a development of his earlier work on the sublime and the postmodern and the sublime and the avant-garde. Rather, it is an attempt to read the sublime as a “tautegorical” sensation of pleasure and pain which marks the point where Kant’s critical schema is cut across by the manner of his text. This manner is the way in which we linger over the beautiful, the way in which tautegorical sensation causes us to linger rather than rationally follow through Kant’s heuristic schema, which he lays out for the third Kritik. However, away from the “letter” of Lyotard’s text, which itself purports to stray from the “letter” of Kant’s text, we can find a vital addition to critical theory of the avant-garde. Earlier work has, of course, provided useful clues as to how we might carry out such a reading. “Answering the Question What is Postmodernism?” is the first text where Lyotard indicates the importance of the avant-garde for postmodern theories of art production and reception:

I think in particular that it is in the aesthetic of the sublime that modern art (including literature) finds its impetus and the logic of avant-gardes finds its axioms...I shall call modern the art which devotes its “little technical expertise” present the fact that the unpresentable exists. (Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition 77-8)

This importance lies in the particular ability of the sublime to present the unpresentability of the infinite via the dual sensations of pain (the inability to give a representative case of the infinite) and pleasure (this failure being at least proof that the infinite exists). This definition of the operations of the sensation of the sublime does not differ from his later formulation except in terms of its relative paucity of details. Lyotard is using this “early” sublime to differentiate between modern and postmodern art:

modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one. It allows for the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer the reader or viewer a matter for solace and pleasure. Yet these sentiments do not constitute the real sublime sentiment, which is an intrinsic combination of pleasure and pain...The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself. (Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition 81)

He does not specify here the relative relationship between the sublime and the avant-garde, whether the avant-garde is part of the affirmative consolation of modernism or the radical sentiment of the postmodern. However, it should be clear immediately that the effect of the sublime is to introduce a radical heterogeneity into the affirmative realm of the symbolic order, via the presentation of the unpresentable’s existence in direct accord with Kristeva’s schema.

A second article, written at a later date, returns to these issues and specifically looks at the relationship between the sublime and the avant-garde. In “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” Lyotard departs from his usual Kantian bias to give a second formulation of the sublime through Edmund Burke. Burke was a source for Kant, but the latter dismissed the former’s conception of the sublime as being too psychological. Burke’s use for Lyotard is that he formulates the sublime not merely in terms of presentation but also in terms of time.

Lyotard has always been primarily a philosopher of time. To the Kantian “legitimate paradox” of pleasure and pain, he adds Burke’s bipartite set of “terror” and “delight.” Terror is the feeling of fear of privation that is instigated by the possibility of the that it happens not happening again. This not happening is associated with death, silence, loneliness, the whole gamut of negative associations that go along with the process of closure. The terror is so strong that it leads to the need for the terror-causing threat to be suspended and this suspense, which is also a privation for it arrests the event and is the privation of absence, is delight. Terror of the that it happens not happening is mingled with the delight of the suspension of this possibility, in the lingering of art, and the resultant heady mix of pleasure and pain is the sublime. The second sublime. Why this second manner of the sublime is so important is not merely because it explains further the first manner of lingering and adds a temporal dimension to what was essentially a spatial problem of magnitude. It also further establishes the link between Lyotard’s ongoing dialogue with Kant, and postmodern art, and his wider theory of the event and the differend.

The event is the single most important moment in Lyotard’s work on art. It is, within a wider sense of the loss of faith in meta-narratives that is the postmodern condition, possibly the one thing we can take for granted: that it happens. He is very careful, considering the implications of such a claim, to stipulate exactly what he means by the event, to differentiate it from other similar strategies of the now that particularly obsess modernism:

That it happens “precedes”, precedes itself, because “that it happens” is the question relevant as the event., and it then pertains to the event that has just happened. The event happens as a question mark “before” happening as a question. It happens is rather “in the first place” is it happening, is this it, is it possible? Only “then” is any mark determined by the questioning: is this or that happening, is it this or something else, it is possible that this or that? (Lyotard, The Inhuman 90)

The event is the unpresentable because it is what precedes all presentation, as the question as to whether or not something is happening. Once this question has been asked then another thing has happened, that is the event of the question. It is impossible therefore to give a case of the event, to repeat the event at any time, but it is not impossible to ask about the event. Modern art “fails” essentially by trying to give a beautiful example of the event. The avant-garde is significant because it interrogates the it happens of art by asking the question of the it happens, rather than trying to identify with the event in subsequent representations.

Avant-gardism is the interrogation of the sublime of the event of artistic creation and of art as the institution of creativity. It does not create works which are themselves sublime nor works that talk about the sublime. The avant-garde “work” of art is the question asked which ushers in the sublime. When one asks of the event of art, one first opens up art to the possibility of the event not happening again by merely raising the question, then one arrests this possibility.

Returning to Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime we can now see in the two moments of the causation of the sublime, a wider extrapolation of the avant-garde moment in art. The addition of Burke’s temporal aspect is especially important because it is this aspect that allows Lyotard to move from the sublime in general to the specific import of the sublime for avant-garde and postmodern art. Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime is highly specialised and not really interested in aligning Kant with wider concerns such as the avant-garde, but its detailed analysis of the operations of the sublime add a great deal to our understanding of the avant-garde. The sublime is split into two parts, the mathematical and the dynamical.

This does not mean that there are two sublimes, but that the sublime is essentially a process that allows it to mediate between two heterogeneous realms: understanding and reason. Understanding is based on natural law and is mathematical in make up, reason, on universal freedom and is dynamic. The sublime partakes of both aspects and in doing so opens up completely the relation of the sublime to the avant-garde. The mathematical “family” of the sublime is the unification of homogenous units which, however, do not necessarily belong together.

Thus, the basic model 1+1=2 is the mathematical basis for this theory. It combines two homogenous elements, two ones, in a manner which is not natural or necessary to them, that is, neither of them are two, they are both ones. The mathematical roughly corresponds to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s idea of the aggregating power of fancy, and is the faculty of combination which is limitless as long as it is guided by the finality of nature, which is an organic unity. In other words, this faculty can combine any number of ones, in any number of forms, ones of mountains or ones of animalculae to use two particularly Romantic examples, as long as they are being combined with an aim to their unification as a two.

The dynamic “family” is the connection, not combination, of heterogeneous elements based on a cause-effect model rather than a mathematical model of identity. This faculty is slightly harder to figure. First, the idea of heterogeneity means that the two elements being connected are from different faculties, but while they are heterogeneous, their connection is necessary. Lyotard gives the example of an accident; an encounter, an event. An accident is inconceivable without the substance it affects, nor an effect without the cause of which it is the result.

However accident and effect belong to the realm of understanding, and cause and substance to the more abstract realm of reason. This might be formulated thus: (1+1 : A+A) = Accident, with the colon indicating a connection of heterogeneous elements whose bracketing together equals the accident. If the heterogeneous elements were not connected, they would still exist as they are, as they are unaffected by their connection. But unless they are connected in this manner, the accident cannot occur. Thus, they remain individually unaffected by the accident: it is only their connection to each other that is equal to the accident.

When these two elements are brought together in a synthesis, the resulting feeling of pleasure is equal to the pleasure of the beautiful. The sublime is the dual feeling of displeasure and pleasure. Displeasure comes from the manner in which the mathematical pursuit of forms collapses into formlessness. This occurs at the point when quantity becomes quantum. The mathematical faculty can combine, as I have said, any number of any kinds of unit, but when the mathematical either breaches the limits of apprehension, when a unit is simply too large or too small to “see”, or the limit of representation, when the number of units is so internally or externally “large” it can no longer be given in a single case, becoming infinite, then the sublime occurs.

The sublime is the moment when the faculty of representation, mathematical understanding, is confronted with the infinite of the unpresentable, dynamical reason. This can happen when confronted with the magnitude of natural forms, or with a magnitude of their combination. Initially it is the cause of great pain, the sublime spasm, but because it is the result of a dynamic relationship between two heterogeneous faculties, it is also the cause of great pleasure. The collapse of understanding occurs, because reason, absolute freedom, is always calling out to understanding and understanding is always aspiring toward it. The “two” of the mathematical sublime is the finality of reason, of absolute freedom. This freedom is limitless, and because the mathematical is based on the combination of homogenous forms, homogenous to themselves, this pulling of form into the formlessness of reason, for form is limit and reason is limitless, results in its failure.

The sublime occurs in the middle of the dynamical relation between these two heterogeneous faculties. Between the point where form as organic unity collapses, and where it is re-inscribed in a cause-effect relationship with the infinite via critical synthesis, the immediate event of the sublime agitation based on the incommensurable differend between these two heterogeneous faculties, happens. That this has to happen is also true; reason will always pull understanding beyond its limits. Lyotard calls this the event. An attempt to represent this happening is equal to modernism. The presentations of the unpresentability of this event is the postmodern moment which precedes all forms of modernism. The interrogation of this event of the sublime which preceded the discovery of the postmodern within the modern, this is the avant-garde.

Lyotard is necessary for any student of the avant-garde and here, for us, he is doubly so. His formulation of the sublime first extrapolates the praxis-practice axis, out into praxis-practice-event. This can be immediately presented as the other to the art-work-representation axis of traditional, affirmative aesthetics. Secondly, it re-affirms the importance of heterogeneity for an understanding of the avant-garde. Like Kristeva’s subject in absence, the Kantian subject of the sublime is never attained, only promised.

The heterogeneity of the two faculties that the sublime facilitates, via the tautegorical reflective duality of sensations pain-pleasure, is also the ongoing promise of a final synthesis of the two faculties of the subject. It is a promise that can never be fulfilled because it is a promise based on a demonstration that this will never happen. Because the sublime interrogates the infinite, the unpresentable, it promises it to us; because the sublime interrogates the finite, presentation, it stops us from achieving the unpresentable. Heterogeneity is the incommensurable in art. It does not forbid us utopia (Burger), a transcendental ego (Kristeva), or critical synthesis (Lyotard) absolutely, but is the scene where such promises are made. A promise is the most elusive of (speech) acts. Unlike a gift, it is never fulfilled and therefore requires no retaliation; unlike an interdiction, it does not “kill” us, but keeps hope alive. It makes us linger, happily unhappy, in an eternally renewed event of its own happening. It is in the interrogation of the subject of this sublime promise, that the avant-garde occurs.


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