Jon Roberts was Professor of English at Saint Thomas Aquinas College in NY State and was Fulbright Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Szeged, Hungary, for 2002-2003. Having earned his M.A. and Ph.D. at Rutgers University, he offered courses in classical and contemporary American fiction as well as pragmatism and poetics. He continued to lecture at Szeged especially on literature and terrorism. Roberts widely published on 19th and early 20th century American literature, pragmatism and modernism, literary theory, Shakespeare and 17th century English literature. His novel, A Life Less Damnable, was published in 2013, and Having Said That, his collection of a short story and twenty-nine poems, in 2014 (as Jack Roberts).
A Note on Jon Roberts’ Draft “Rethinking the Sublime: Is There an Aesthetics of Terrorism?”
Fragments are not always related to death. Whether Jon Roberts’ work-in-progress essay “Rethinking the Sublime: Is There an Aesthetics of Terrorism?” would still be a fragment, had the untimely passing away of its author not made any completion impossible, will remain a question. But even if he had undertaken the work to complete the analysis (both of contemporary artists like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Damien Hirst, and of philosophical classics like Kant, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer), the final outcome might very well have attained a different outlook.
What follows here is a fragmentary draft he gave me in print during the spring term of 2010, on occasion of our joint course on “Terrorism and Aesthetics” at the Department of American Studies in Szeged. To be sure, Jon Roberts had serious reservations concerning any easy linkage between the central concepts of our common project. Throughout the course, he was grappling with the all too quick affirmation of any idea of “aesthetic terrorism” or “terrorist aesthetics.” More importantly, however, he also thought that linkage to be inevitable, and was trying to elaborate a critical response to the question of “why it is intellectually and historically legitimate to offer aesthetic judgments on terrorism.” As readers will see, Jon Roberts personally felt that such a provocative investigation could more calmly and scrupulously be pursued in the more peripheral atmosphere of a Hungarian university than at his home institution in the United States.
The seminar culminated in a one-day workshop in May 2010 which brought together scholars not only from other departments of the University of Szeged, but also from other universities in Pécs and Budapest. A year later, in September 2011, the project grew into an international conference on “Terror(ism) and Aesthetics”, comprised of nearly 50 presentations by scholars from 15 countries, and organized with the assistance of colleagues from the departments of French, English, and Visual Culture. Jon himself planned to give a paper titled “Terrorist Aesthetics in Tom McCarthy’s Remainder,” but since, for lack of funds, he could unfortunately not make it to Szeged, this time he had to remain a distant supporter of the event, with a commitment, however, to contribute to our prospected volume. Haunted by the ghost of his unwritten paper, the collection of essays is now in the final phase of its making, soon to appear in Et al. – Critical Theory Online.
I would like to thank Lilla Farmasi for the typing and Ágnes Zsófia Kovács for her minute proofreading work. Apart from minor grammatical corrections, the text has not been edited or rectified in any substantial way.
Rethinking the Sublime: Is There an Aesthetics of Terrorism?
In 1735, A. G. Baumgarten used the word “aesthetics” to refer to a discipline which would bear the same relation to objects of perception as logic could bear to objects of intellection. One phrase among many that Baumgarten uses as an apparent synonym for aesthetics was to think beautifully, though he does not spell out if he means to have beautiful thoughts or whether he has something more complicated in mind. For some 18th century aestheticians, to think beautifully was to think sublimely, to think the sublime, though of course for others the two activities would be different or even opposite activities. Could these phrases be ways of referring to a coherent activity, as to think beautifully might, whereby we adjust ourselves so as to maximize the probability that what we perceive or imagine either (1) meets the conditions of an identifiable season and/or impression; or (2) is an object of a certain quality; or both depending on your theoretical orientation. Immanuel Kant would hold only the first, since unlike judgments about the beautiful in nature, he restricts judgments about the sublime in nature to subjective aesthetic experience. Edmund Burke would emphasize the first thought assent to the second as well. Others would subscribe only to the second, like Joseph Addison, who uses the word sublimity as a term of praise, usually speaks of greatness when he means to evoke the sublime.
In light of these reflections, we might frame the inquiry we will undertake during this course in this form: if we could learn to teach ourselves how to think the sublime, that is, to organize our critical faculties so as to be fairly certain that we can identify the sublime or the feeling of the sublime when we experience it and can understand what it means to experience it, in other words, that we can count on responding to it emotionally/psychologically in well-defined ways, that we can count on the object possessing a well-defined character, then we might be able to think clearly about the role that aesthetics and aesthetic discourse properly play in the analysis of terrorist performances such as those of 9/11, Madrid, Bali, London, Moscow, Beslan, and, most recently, Moscow again.
I would argue that aesthetics has a crucial role to play in our thinking clearly about terrorism, but we have to establish that role on a far more solid basis than an intuition that since terror is a term shared by the discourse of aesthetics and terrorism, the two discourses must be linked meaningfully by something more than a common term. This task, moreover, is made more difficult not only because of largely ideologically inspired efforts to prevent the valorization of terrorism by conferring upon it or on its performances the title of the sublime, but because the aesthetics of the sublime has traditionally been grounded in moral reasoning since Kant’s Critique of Judgment became the gold standard of modern aesthetic and moral thinking. I hope to show how Nietzsche offers a way out from under the Kantian restraining order, but also how the author of Beyond Good and Evil creates other problems in doing so.
At the risk of sounding very foolish, I am going to venture that two of the most significant developments in our aesthetic thinking about the sublime really seem to owe their existence to a bout of indifference in one case and, in the other case, to a reckless assertion of will. To those of us who continue to insist upon the indispensability of aesthetic judgment for analyzing acts of terrorism, these two developments could not be more suggestive, and yet, they are, in a real sense, the intellectual products of inattention and disengagement on the one hand, and on the other, of the wholesale rejection of disinterestedness as a critical value and of the wilful failure to read another’s words and arguments sympathetically in an effort to represent the thoughts of another mind to oneself and others accurately. Both intellectual attitudes and the practices they engender, I have come to believe, result in deeply productive “errors” in the works that result and embody these attitudes and practices. Both of the “errors,” however, are not errors in the usual senses of either involuntary missteps or lapses in judgment. Both errors represent active choices made in full knowledge of the desired and positive consequences of those choices. They are “errors,” then, only in the sense that they have real and negative consequences for the future of the aesthetic discourse in which we are engaged at present. And I would stress that by negative I intend only those consequences of thinking through a conceptual problem all the way to its solution which are both unintended and for which the thinker cannot be said to be in any way responsible — unintended actions, after all, often place their minimal “authors” in legal and final jeopardy. In brief, a philosophical argument or position may be said to have negative consequences if their production could not have been anticipated with reference to the immediate considerations and circumstances attending the intellectual problem at hand and its solution.
Briefly, then, the “errors” I will address are: (1) Kant’s decision, in the Third Critique, not to return to a discussion of the sublime as it relates to aesthetic judgments concerning artificially created objects, events, performances, etc.; and (2) Friedrich Nietzsche’s decision, in The Birth of Tragedy, to misread (in other words, to misinterpret) Schopenhauer’s reflections on the absence of the will during aesthetic contemplation as warrant to ground that activity on an entirely new set of terms; to justify the world and our experience on the basis of art alone as the only possible bestower of meaningfulness. It is my hope that a close reading of both moments, along with brief consideration of clarifying instances in other philosophical and literary texts, will help to establish a stronger conceptual connection between the aesthetics of the sublime (specifically, aesthetic judgments grounded in the sublime to which Kant denies validity) and terrorist performances than any we have in our intellectual arsenal at present.
I would begin with a question: Why do we need such a connection, such a conceptual tool? For three reasons that I can see. And I feel slightly embarrassed that I have to present the first reason as if it were in any way legitimate. I hope in any case that the first is culturally specific. The second reason I have already alluded to when I suggested that the current arguments for such a connection seem to me conceptually weak. Both these reasons can be addressed quickly. The third, I believe, presents a serious conceptual obstacle to the thinking of the sublime about acts of terrorism. Though its objections are based, like the first, on moral considerations, it is a strictly intellectual, as opposed to a merely ideological, conception grounded in the history of modern philosophy and the origin of aesthetics as a (semi-autonomous) branch of philosophical investigation. I think it will be most useful to discuss this third reason in the context of a discussion of Kant’s Critique of Judgment.
But briefly to the first and second reasons:
In American life, there exists, even in serious academic circles that do not usually express sentiments that, to my mind, come rather close to being reactionary, a tremendously negative response to any effort to consider terrorism and its actions in the light of aesthetics. You got a taste of this here after 9/11, when German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who called the attacks “the greatest work of art ever” only days after the event, and British artist Damien Hirst, who made similar remarks a year later, were excoriated in Europe and the US for their remarks. Here is what Hirst said in a “video essay” aired by BBC News Online on the eve of the first anniversary of the attacks: he began, much as Stockhausen had begun, by saying that the September 11th hijackers had created a “’visually stunning’ work of art.” He continued by repeating his premise, this time emphasizing the autonomy of the “work” rather than its perceptual force:
The thing about 9/11 is that it’s kind of like an artwork in its own right. It was wicked, but it was devised in this way for this kind of impact. It was devised visually… You’ve got to hand it to them on some level because they’ve achieved something which nobody would have ever thought possible, especially to a country as big as America. So on one level they kind of need congratulating, which a lot of people shy away from, which is a dangerous thing.
The media and public reaction attending the reception of these remarks was so hostile and negative as to compel an apology from the artist within mere days. I think that, given the climate, given what had happened to Stockhausen after he expressed nearly the same sentiments in nearly the same terms a year before, Hirst was foolish to accept the BBC’s invitation to record a statement about the 9/11 attacks. He compounded this foolishness with a rhetorical blunder: that of not knowing his audience and their passions. Even so, I think Hirst tried to address that audience with honesty and circumspection about the aesthetic demands the world and experience make on the artist. I do not think he meant to provoke anyone. Hirst is a talented provocateur in the world of contemporary art – much of his work seems designed to shock if not disgust the viewer: “Two Fucking and Two Watching,” included a rotting cow and bull. The work was banned from exhibition in New York City by public health officials.
I might want to press Hirst somewhat on what he meant when he said that it is a “very dangerous thing” to “shy away” from praising excessively violent actions when they come off as visually powerful. Would he say with Kant that we must maintain a habit of disinterested viewing at all costs? Does he think we are in danger of losing our capacity for aesthetic judgment altogether if we find we cannot respond to terrifying spectacles without falling back on our subjective interests? It wouldn’t surprise me. Most of the aesthetic values embedded in Hirst’s remarks are those that any art school graduate might have picked along the way and his verbal manner is awkward, but I think the case can be made that Hirst does a credible job looking at a visual performance – which in this case happens to be an act of terrorist violence – in the way an artist would. Once again he stresses the traditional aesthetic values of the autonomy/integrity of the individual work of art, its authority or power to influence the way we look at things. Perhaps it is with this value in mind that he later adds: “I think our visual language has been changed by what happened on September 11: an aeroplane becomes a weapon – and if they fly close to buildings people start panicking. Our visual language is constantly changing in this way and I think as an artist you’re constantly on the lookout for things like that.” Hirst alludes to the action’s purposiveness as well, one arising from a carefully devised means of achieving the planners’ goal. He clearly acknowledges the moral demands that certain kinds of performances make on us as well: “It was wicked…” The grounds of Hirst’s aesthetic analysis seem so traditional that we might even forget that he is analyzing a staged event or performance that killed three thousand people.
Finally, while I don’t find Hirst’s remarks particularly insightful or original as aesthetic judgments about terrorist performance – once again, Karlheinz Stockhausen said roughly the same things in roughly the same tone – I admire Hirst’s attempt to make a case for looking at the world aesthetically, especially when the fact of suffering makes it difficult to do so. What I find even more admirable about Hirst’s stance is that he rejects the simple equation of looking at the world aesthetically with looking at the world as an artist looks at it. “I think the idea of looking at the 11 September attacks as an artwork is a very difficult thing to do. But I don’t think artists look at it in a different way.” Hirst is reasonably clear on this point, but the point is unexpected and one should forgive oneself for overlooking the “don’t” in the second sentence because we tend to think that artists do think differently about catastrophes than ordinary people. And yet, if most people think that artists think differently about the world and our experience of it than they do, why are they so outraged when the artist expresses that difference verbally?
I think Kant can help here. At one point in his discussion of the sublime in nature in the Third Critique, Kant tells us that coming face to face with experiences such as natural disasters in which we become deeply aware that others’ lives have been lost or are in danger, even though we ourselves are in no immediate danger, we respond with moral feelings of fear (for these others) and pity. What’s more, and this is a point I will return to below to treat more fully, we demand that all others who find themselves in a similar relation to the victims of disaster should respond with the same expressions of fear and pity as we do. In other words, our experience of the sublime does not direct us toward aesthetic or imaginative contemplation of the scene of disaster or its natural causes but toward heightened moral feelings of sympathy and compassion for its victims — and for Kant, moral feeling is always synonymous with practical reason, a cognitive/rational activity. Kant will go on to argue that precisely the sublime is subject to the demands of reason and moral feeling, we cannot any longer conceive of it as a grounds for aesthetic judgment since such judgments depend wholly on imaginative apprehension. But for our present purpose, Kant’s argument may take us some of the way to explain why disinterested remarks about the aesthetic character of terrorist violence are liable to evoke an emotional reaction. By not throwing in with the victims at once as the proper objects of one’s attention, one is in effect denying the ordinary person’s demand that their subjective feelings of fear and pity be elevated to universal status as they would be, in effect, if everyone directed their eyes at the same object. The ordinary person, thus, becomes enraged with the aesthetically-minded person because he refuses to gaze on suffering without trying to see it in the light of the aesthetic.
In the cases involving Stockhausen and Hirst it was and is legitimate to point, as some did, to the lack of an artistic purpose on the part of the terrorist perpetration. But this objection is answered by pointing to examples of ritual objects in primitive cultures and saying that the creators of at least some of these objects had no artistic purpose in mind, which is not to say that they engaged in no thinking about form, but only that they felt themselves engaged in a ritual activity rather than a predominantly artistic one. And yet, what Schiller described as the lack of an impression of artistic mediation in artworks he called “naive” has never discouraged the specialist in primitive art form considering ritual object aesthetically. It would seem that nothing, in principle, should bar us from aesthetic discussion of other kinds of cultural objects and performances which likewise give no impression of being artistically mediated productions. But the actual form and tone taken by negative responses to attempts to think about terrorism aesthetically were rarely of the sort just described. The response I am speaking of takes any discussion of aesthetics in reference to terrorism as the intended or unintended (it seems to make no difference which) valorization of terrorism and terrorists. I will relate one recent experience of mine to let you know, in the interest of full disclosure, that I may be subject to personal biases in my reflections, and to give a sense of the tone of this response.
Shortly before I left for Hungary, a colleague, with whom I am generally on good terms, asked me what the subject of my course on terrorism would be. When I told him that I was interested in the way our aesthetic theories since classical times seem to have failed us in accounting for the spectacular aspects of terrorist actions. After all, I added, very little can be said to mitigate, at least conceptually the horror of a 9/11 or Bali, Madrid, London, you name it. I thought this was a non-provocative answer but I underestimated the cultural and political pressures felt by American academics in the age of the Patriot Act. His response was unequivocal. He said: “Why don’t you suck their cocks for them?” that is, for the terrorists. Perhaps he meant his tone to sound ironic. If so, he should have done a better job concealing his disgust and anger. Since I was in an ironic or rather in a contentious mood, I heard only contempt and provocation. Apparently, I was also in a childish mood, since I told him that he should go and kill an Iraqi grandmother. I should add that my colleague, on deeply moral and logical grounds, was not unsympathetic to US domestic opposition to the Iraq war and that the remark intended to hurt him back probably did so. End of discussion. This episode does not speak particularly well of some American academics who ― and I include myself in this verdict ― are regularly guilty of acts of verbal terrorism.
I think you see my point though: that even some ostensibly liberal intellectuals seem to believe that we must not utter “aesthetics” or the “aesthetics of the sublime” and “terrorism” in the same sentence or we risk legitimizing the horrific actions associated with the former. I am describing an instance of a more general response here. I have no intention of legitimizing that response and cannot imagine how one might do so. I do not think that we owe those who offer this sort of response a carefully worked out, serious intellectual answer any more than we are obliged to say that we believe to be true to the stupid — even the temporarily stupid — or the dangerous — whether temporarily or congenitally so. I do think, however, that the anticipation of such responses and what follows from them has inhibited aesthetic discourse with regards to terrorism. We must never allow these responses to alter the course of language either of our investigations or our findings, though we must acknowledge that there are those from whom we will never get a fair hearing. It is precisely for other parties who might be inclined to give us that fair hearing if the pervasive stupidity of attacks from the right on such intellectual discourse did not go unanswered, that we should conscientiously frame a positive response to the question of why it is intellectually and historically legitimate to offer aesthetic judgments on terrorism.
And yet, turning to the second reason, what are our grounds for linking the two discourses, “the aesthetics of sublime” and “terrorism,” so powerful as to seem obvious and warranted? Has such a connection been rigorously established or is it just academic fashion to link sublimity and terrorism? Without wishing to diminish the horrors attending Hitler’s death camps in any way I would say it is mere academic fashion in some quarters to use the term “sublime” or the phrase “negative sublime” with reference to the Holocaust, without expanding the notion of the sublime or sublimity so far beyond the fields of their standard signification as to render both terms meaningless. For those who think otherwise concerning the latter, I would refer them back to Theodor W. Adorno’s deeply ambivalent attitude toward “the negative sublime,” adding that regardless of this I think that Adorno has a great deal to tell us about both the Kantian sublime and Auschwitz. I would then ask them to say whether or not in speaking of “the negative sublime” with reference to the Holocaust, they think their fellow academics mean to imply that they experience an “indirect” or “negative” pleasure when they think of Auschwitz.
Since I doubt this, I assume that those who speak of it intend “negative sublime” impressionistically to signify something of the vastness and incomprehensibility of that horrific final solution. If this is what they mean, then I would like to recommend they read Raul Hilberg’s three volume The Destruction of the European Jews [or any other credible work on the logistical, technological, and bureaucratic foundation of the Nazi genocide]. Despite Hilberg’s nonsense about a death wish harbored by the Jews — passivity has many causes and the passivity of many Jews, especially in the face of a hostile process that did not immediately betoken extermination, does not amount to a death wish — his work amounts to a thorough and scholarly analysis of German documents aimed at establishing the Holocaust as a historically explicable event by laying out in detail the intelligible state-controlled mechanisms that resulted, through a series of carefully thought-out stages, in persecution, ghettoization, concentration, and mass murder as well as the bureaucratic organization that supported them and made them possible. Whatever it may be, I would ask you: does our notion of a sublime event entail such detailed operations over a long period of time resulting in a process whose outcome — the death of a large number of targeted individuals — are successfully concealed for a much shorter, I grant you, but still significant period of time. I would suggest that our notion of the sublime coincides with a sense of the instantaneous (meaning that only the planning has been concealed) as well as a sense of immediate (meaning that the results of the event are immediately known and not revealed by careful examination, again, over a relatively long period of time). And I would note, prospectively, that terrorist actions meet both of the criteria.
So I ask you, beyond saying that both discourses share the word “terror,” then, what reasons do we have for making a discursive connection between the two? Literary historians point out that beginning in the mid-18th century — they are thinking mainly of Burke and his proponents but the observation is nevertheless accurate in terms of social and cultural influence — the discourse treating the sublime became narrowly associated with states of terror to the exclusion of other states such as wonder, elevation, intellectual scope, to name a few. Are we to explain our own efforts to link “the aesthetic of the sublime” and “terrorism” as a product of a grantedly overdetermined process of intellectual association that occurred two and a half centuries ago? Does our reasoning which may turn out to be only an intuition that the two discourses have much to say to each other amount to more than a cultural hangover? I like to think that we have something better to go on. In other words, can we not find something in some major reflections on the sublime since Burke and Kant, in Adorno or Jean-François Lyotard or Frederic Jameson or Frank Lentricchia, a better reason for the purposed connection, something specific and persuasive?
I do not know but I tend not to believe that we can find in the history philosophy a strong and specific connection made between aesthetic judgment and terrorism unless we make one ourselves. What I propose is that a possible blueprint for this connection may be derived from certain reflections on Kant’s treatment of the sublime as noted above followed by a reexamination of what Arthur Schopenhauer — with Kant’s help — does to banish will during aesthetic contemplation combined with what Nietzsche does to readmit the will as the most important entity and only possible candidate for the rather high-stakes assignment of making sense of the world when the latter founds that activity on an entirely new set of terms. In brief, he would justify the world and our experience in it on the basis of art conceived as the only possible bestower of meaning. Once you bring in unmediated will as Nietzsche does early in The Birth of Tragedy and then permit it to occupy the site for aesthetic thinking formerly occupied by the interested but highly normalized (read: reasonably well-behaved) will of Schopenhauer, new and interesting conceptual possibilities appear, possibilities that may lay the groundwork for the conceptualization and analysis of certain kinds of actions born of that will. My argument about Kant might succeed in loosening whatever moral restrictions his aesthetic discourse of the sublime place on our discussion. My argument about Nietzsche might succeed in tightening the conceptual linkage between aesthetic judgment based on the sublime and the peculiar manifestation of the political will we have come to know under the name of terrorist violence. Let me go on now to do what I proposed earlier to offer a third reason why we need a stronger conceptual justification for linking aesthetic discourse about the sublime to that of terrorism even as I try to see — oddly enough with Aristotle’s help — a way out from under Kant’s effective disqualification of the sublime from the activity of making aesthetic judgments about both natural and artificially-made (man-made) objects and events.
As I said, Kant’s “error” in the Third Critique is not an error in any obvious sense of that word. Kant was careful and decisive at every stage of the exposition and analysis that make up the aesthetic sections of the The Critique of Judgment. I will suggest that Kant erred when he left off writing about aesthetic judgment about the sublime in natural objects and gave no space to judgments about depictions of the sublime in art, in created or artificial objects when he treated these objects in his continued reflections on the beautiful. But I offer no criticisms of the logical power or persuasiveness of his argument. In saying that Kant errs, I mean only that his argumentative choices, the ways he chooses to conduct a book length argument about the beautiful, and to a slightly lesser extent, about the sublime, create argumentative opportunities for the rest of us. He made no positive mistakes that I can see; he erred only in that he left certain routes open for me to explore, routes that if I followed them might enable me to question, rather timidly at first, if Kant had not been too quick to jettison all remaining aesthetic issues concerning the sublime. Kant to my mind left some things undone with respect to the sublime. If I can point to those things and convince other critics and theorists that even if Kant himself did not choose to do so, he placed no bar between us and the sublime when he said all he wanted to say of the latter.
Let me say almost from the start of my remarks about Kant’s remarks on the sublime that I think I know what he might have said about the sublime as represented in works of art, though it did not occur to the one to whom it occurred to say everything. Presumably Kant would argue that moral demands would never subside in the contemplation of the sublime in nature or in art so that interest-free aesthetic contemplation could never occur.
Irrespective of whether we consider the sublime in nature or in art, we are never free of the rational demands that the sublime places on us. Nietzsche will make a contradictory use of the insight later when he insists that will is in no way subject to such claims.
His argument that the sublime, unlike the beautiful does not occur in nature in the sense that the beautiful does — that is, beautiful things exist in the world and in the mind as embodiments of a kind of order that we find incredibly pleasurable, while we only confer the term sublime of certain experiences we have in the world, experiences characterized by total formlessness — is persuasive and the conclusions that he draws from it are sound. If he then argues that the sublime unlike the beautiful needs no a priori justification since our experience of it is enough to justify it, he has gone as far as he can to offer a comprehensive account of the sublime in its capacity as a meaningful part of our experience. When he grounds the beautiful in the imagination and the sublime in cognition and practical reason (moral thinking and feeling), he bestows on the sublime a moral component that the beautiful does not invite. This moral component of Kant’s discussion of the sublime determines that, for the next few hundred years or so, the question of the aesthetic of the sublime must ever be conducted under the lens of the ethical. I argue that Kant’s failure to treat of artificial representations of the sublime once he disposed of the sublime in nature, allows us to invoke a new notion of a sublime that attends created works, performances, etc. The sublime is a thing represented and thus Kant can no longer dismiss it on the grounds that it is not a thing in the natural world. He can no longer say that the sublime in nature is characterized by an unreality that disqualifies it as a basis for aesthetic judgments.
If Kant skimps is his treatment of the sublime as he works up an a priori justification for aesthetic judgment in his Third Critique, he is utterly silent both on the conceptual challenges the sublime poses for “imitation” and mimetic theories of artistic creation and representation and on the role the sublime should play in aesthetic judgments about visual and literary works of art. Some of Kant’s indifference to questions about the sublime after Chapter Thirty of The Critique of Judgment should not be taken as a sign of contempt for an aesthetic category that for most of the 18th century rivalled beauty itself for philosophical and literary interest. The sublime effectively disappears from Kant’s book at the very point he takes up the topic he calls “The Analytic of the Beautiful” and, for Kant, analytic means one thing and one only. It stands for Kant’s intention to recommence his signature intellectual activity, the derivation of the a priori or analytic proposition.
In a far too influential reading of The Birth of Tragedy, Paul de Man’s analysis relies heavily on his detections on aporia, that is, points in a text characterized by the involuntary production of insoluble problems. It is fair of me to call the late professor’s reading far too influential? Probably not. But in my own defense, I would say that for someone who justly prided himself on his sensitivity to rhetorical structures in literature, de Man takes seriously arguments that Nietzsche seems, for the most part, to have deployed tactically, even if, or especially when, he did not intend them to be taken that way. And, I would add, again in my own defense, that Paul de Man’s decision to make his reading turn decisively on the existence of aporia in The Birth of Tragedy has always struck me as bizarre. After all, wouldn’t Nietzsche, in his official capacity as a professor of classical philology at Basel, have spent much of his time poring over ancient texts, ever on the lookout for involuntarily produced, seemingly or actually insoluble textual problems?
Still, if de Man chooses to write as though the young classical scholar cannot be counted on to recognize innumerable aporia in his own text, is that de Man’s prerogative? It is my prerogative to suggest that one with Nietzsche’s professional training and rhetorical genius was probably quite able to produce at will textual contradictions and problems with all the appearance of being involuntary. Just as it is my prerogative to suggest that it would not be wise of us to assume that we are encountering the involuntary productions of Nietzsche’s text when so many of the “insoluble” contradictions in The Birth of Tragedy my with some confidence be said to be voluntary. Nietzsche lets nothing stand in his text that he does not want to stand. Throughout his text, such seemingly involuntary contradictions, rhetorically, if not logically, act as warrants for unwarranted claims about metaphysics (the will and its role in aesthetic contemplation), about cultural politics (Wagner and the German spirit), and about ancient literary genres (Greek myths, the cult of Dionysus, and the origins of Greek tragedy). Nietzsche’s metaphysical claims are grand perhaps, though no more extravagant than those about Wagner or Greek tragedy, the most compelling reason to this being that art is the highest task in life and that only through the aesthetic contemplation of the world can we hope to justify its existence. But Nietzsche’s success in bringing a thoroughly abstracted and inert sublime from out of the Kantian equivalent of Guantanamo and restoring its vitality turns on his alternately, though without logical consistency, embracing and distancing himself from the positions of his two most important philosophical forbearers and from his own positions as these reflect or reject the former.
So I will, not as some do, charge Nietzsche with the unconscious adoption of a straight-line Kantian or Schopenhauerian position on the will-lessness of aesthetic contemplation at the beginning of section 5. There Nietzsche writes: “We know …” it might be all well and good to see this as an instance of involuntary inconsistency if he not just two pages later celebrate “the miraculous fusing of willing and pure [aesthetic] contemplation.” No one’s memory of one’s own argument is that bad. On second thought, I will take that back. But I could as easily have drawn your attention, which I do now to a passage just before it in which he explains that while Schopenhauer believed he had found “an escape route” with regard to a particular problem in the “philosophical consideration of art” — not surprisingly the problem concerns the role of will in aesthetic contemplation — that this escape route is not one along which Nietzsche might follow Schopenhauer. And he sounds earnest. But if he was truly earnest, he would have gone about it to purge his text, which existed in several previous versions of which the 1872 first edition was not the least, of any passages recording his early enthusiasm for an agreement with Schopenhauer’s account of will-less aesthetic contemplation in The World as Will and Idea, less their survival produce embarrassment and inconsistency when read alongside his later repudiations of the positions contained therein — later here may be taken spatially or temporally according to whether the passage occurs later in the first edition of The Birth of Tragedy or whether it represents a latter development in his thought on the matter in spite of appearing at an earlier point in the argument.
But Nietzsche did not reconcile his contradictory positions toward Schopenhauer that appeared in his text, nor did he square his earlier stance toward Schopenhauer with his later repudiation of it. It is too much to conjecture that by never clarifying the progression of his own ideas out from under Schopenhauer’s influence, Nietzsche intended to portray Schopenhauer’s position as evolutionary, as if it were the older philosopher who came to believe along with Nietzsche, at least with respect to music, that the will has a proper role in aesthetic contemplation. In other words, Nietzsche has come too far in his thinking to turn back, but through his placement in his text of various passages from Schopenhauer, the older philosopher can be seen at points in his analysis to be moving toward Nietzsche’s position. He lets stand the impression that he has not so much moved beyond Schopenhauer as Schopenhauer, through the implication of his positions that Nietzsche alone could have seen, seems to be moving closer to Nietzsche’s position.
But why must we take Schopenhauer’s “concession” that music is the voice of the will to mean, that the will should be the object of aesthetic contemplation, that the sounding of the voice constitutes the will’s return as if representation did not just imply but insisted on presence?
Another problem with these passages (30ff 77ff) is that in them Nietzsche completely represents Schopenhauer’s tone and attitude toward the will and its working. And it is not long before we come to see something as true that I have already suggested, namely that Nietzsche’s concession to Schopenhauer in the form of linking de-individuation to the development of the tragic chorus is a hollow one. His insistence that the dissolution of the individual will into the choral will is the outside sign of a metaphysical process is opportune. But his point is to leave the will in the driver’s seat of the highest expression of truth in art: tragedy.
By the time we get to 77, Nietzsche has Schopenhauer joining him in celebrating the return of the will, though what Schopenhauer seems most concerned with is establishing that the composer’s analogy between a musical composition and a perceptive representation arises from the direct knowing of the inner nature of the world not knowable through reason.
In invoking will as the highest object of aesthetic contemplation despite Kant’s argument that only by setting aside the claims of the will as one of horror and disgust at the sight of its destructive power, as the cause of suffering, Nietzsche releases the will and its productions from all demands placed on them by reason or moral feeling. To the extent that the will is the highest end of aesthetic contemplation it is self-justifying by reason of Nietzsche’s formula whose implications we now come to understand fully; that the world and existence are justified through the will itself, though Nietzsche has the tact to pretend that art, not will, is the directly justifying agency.
While I would concede that Nietzsche’s representation of Schopenhauer’s arguments tend to be accurate, he more often than not misrepresents the latter’s emphasis and he rarely attends to the tone of the original but instead he would have believe that its tone and his are consistent. The notable exception suggested by “almost never” in my previous sentence is his rejection of Schopenhauer’s pessimistic tone as not fit for his purposes.
Nietzsche celebrates the development of the chorus in tragic drama as the externalization of the process by which individuation gives way to the unitary will. But while Nietzsche found a historical process that symbolically parallels the metaphysical process of de-individuation we must congratulate Nietzsche on his rhetorical skills if we are inclined to accept the historical process as corresponding to the metaphysical process described by Schopenhauer. In fact, I would suggest that Nietzsche’s main purpose in drawing the parallel is to quiet any doubts that he might be parting ways with Schopenhauer. He cannot be perceived to be doing so until under the cover of the older philosopher’s discourse he can slip unmediated will back into the aesthetic equation.
Sublime the taming of horror through art. Tragedy as a cognitive affair.
The contemplation of the will is thus always already an aesthetic act, the highest imaginable; it is always justified since self-justifying; it unfolds beyond all claims of practical reason, that is, moral feeling. All productions of the will are aesthetic productions whether or not they give the impression of being mediated by artistic consciousness.
I am troubled at having arrived at this conclusion since for most of my life as a student and teacher I have tended to deny, I thought with good cause, that Nietzsche warrants the destructive uses of the will to power, and that the power he celebrates is limited to that of aesthetic creation. I still believe this, but I can no longer defend against many who would argue that Nietzsche can be used to justify even the most violent exercises of the will. He has placed us in a tough position and things will only grow tougher when he comes to repudiate openly and categorically disinterested aesthetic contemplation.
I have tried to elucidate conceptual grounds for making aesthetic judgments that comprehend both our efforts to think the sublime and our analysis of terrorist performance. I have tried to show how we might think the sublime and activate it for use in aesthetic judgments outside of Kant’s restrictions. I have tried to do so with reference to a conception of the sublime that Kant does not address explicitly: this conception grants the sublime that purposiveness which the sublime in nature lacked.
Nietzsche, as we have seen, finds another escape route out from under Kant’s restriction through a formula that recasts problems usually associated with morality in terms of aesthetics: the world and existence are justified through art alone. But what interested me was his rhetorical manipulation of both his own representation of Schopenhauer’s philosophical positions and his own stances with reference to those positions. The end of this constant repositioning of himself with respect to Schopenhauer and to himself at different stages of his evolution as a thinker — the end of Nietzsche’s juggling in which he both celebrates the destruction of merely apparent individual identities in the collective identity of the chorus in ancient tragedy even as he refuses to follow Kant and Schopenhauer in their demand that pure aesthetic contemplation is only possible in the absence of the will — is to have us present at the rebirth of the Dionysian, the tragic voice of the resurgent will combining pleasure with pain, with pain ever dominant. What Nietzsche would make possible conceptually by his rhetorical effort to establish will as the indispensable term in aesthetic contemplation as if Kant and Schopenhauer had never banished will from our efforts to think on the beautiful and the sublime, but some weaker version of the will. After all, different forces drive music and tragedy with its chorus than those that drive visual art and no dramatic poetry.
Schopenhauer’s point was for the artist to arrive at a state of will-less contemplation after the individuated wills had melted back into the universal will. Ostensibly, Nietzsche is following Schopenhauer’s reflection on the will when he points to how individuation gives way to a shared choral identity. But the music of the chorus, the music of tragedy, the highest art, is nothing if not the voice of the will itself announcing its return to the center of aesthetic activity from which Schopenhauer had banished it. Of course, Schopenhauer opens the door for Nietzsche’s project of restoration when he argues that music is the direct experience of the will. But Nietzsche is elated by this whereas Schopenhauer is deeply ambivalent about the power of the will.
Having reestablished the sublime as a freely operating aesthetic category and warned of the potential dangers of self-justifying actions that the return of will brings with it, I leave it to others to judge whether terrorist performances are probably considered to partake of the sublime.
Nietzsche wanted to establish artistic activity as the highest human faculty. He wanted to insist that the world and its existence are justified through art alone. From Schopenhauer he learned that the highest activity associated with the highest human faculty is aesthetic contemplation. Schopenhauer’s notion of a state of pure perception achieved through will-less aesthetic contemplation, Nietzsche wanted to claim that the world and its existence are redeemed precisely through aesthetic contemplation. The moment of aesthetic contemplation is in Nietzsche a space of self-justification. I think Nietzsche is earnest when he argues that the will returned to the site of aesthetic contemplation is that of an artist, one of those who make illusions that spare us pain. The problem is that by allowing will to occupy a space that is in effect justifying, the will becomes self-justifying.