“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Speculative Sublime

Kant limits the sublime to an experience happening in the subject. An experience that can't be probing or cognitive. You can't, for instance, experience the sublime when you look at the ocean if you begin to think about all the lifeforms that swirl and thrash around in there. If you look at space, you can't think about the planets and black holes and possible “rational beings” up there.

In short, you can't speculate in the Kantian sublime.

This is the subject of my Speculations essay. Kant polices the sublime, saying that if you speculate with it, you become a fanatic, mad with reason. And we wouldn't want that! Too revolutionary? I like Kant enormously more than Burke, for whom the sublime is just shock and awe (to use Bush II's phrase for the bombing of Baghdad): the terrifying might of authority. At least Kant supported the French Revolution.


Eric said...

Hi Dr. Morton,

One way of reading Kant's "policing" of the sublime might be to say that it is the only way to put the breaks on runaway speculation, or the bad infinity/circulation of dead concepts or cliches. In the experience of an intuition for which no determinate concept is adequate (the Kantian sublime), conceptual domination encounters its limit. I'm curious to see if you might address this issue in your essay.

Timothy Morton said...

Hi Eric. Yes, I do, but somewhat indirectly. It's less of a problem for me than for Kant, because Kant forbids us to think outside of the correlationist circle. Nonhuman entities do contact us all the time and that contact is responsible for my version of the sublime. So there is no problem with adequacy--our perception of these entities is always something like a cartoon. So the lack of a problem retains something of Kant's notion of breaking through dead concepts, but in a slightly different way.