Lyotard’s idea of the Sublime

In seeking to define the post-modern moment in his essay ‘Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?’, Lyotard uses and extends the Kantian theme of the sublime to serve as an entry point to conceptualize the ‘unrepresentable’, that which is considered a standard feature of Postmodernism. The ‘unrepresentable’ along with ‘experimentation’ is contrasted with the demand for unification backed by Realism in a period of slackening; even the conception of the sublime under Modernism and Postmodernism undergo certain changes. This essay will attempt to examine how Lyotard’s essay, with its emphasis on the sublime, panders out to qualify the nature of Postmodernism, if such an exercise be feasible at all. Moreover, the essay will try to capture the transitions that occur in the means of representations and the resulting changes in their societal positioning (and relevance).

Any investigation into the Lyotardian understanding of the sublime will have to begin with the list of issues voiced against experimentation in the artistic world. As Lyotard terms it, it is a ‘period of slackening’, where ‘the call for order, for identity and for security’ is growing stronger; it is being propounded that the intellectuals should be coerced to follow a ‘common way of speaking, that of the historians’. The reason is quite simple; for many intellectuals (Lyotard primarily quotes Habermas), the splintering of culture and its separation from life has been a problematic move, since it has only left the experts to engage with the ‘independent specialities’. Art in its multiple forms has been alienated from the public, and so, it is imperative to ‘return’ it to the public.

In order to do so, Habermas suggests that arts and the experiences they provide should ‘bridge the gap between cognitive, ethical and political discourses’ and open up the way to a ‘unity of experience’. Here, the transition being sought is from the splintered discourses of the neoconservatives to the project of achieving a ‘unity of experience’; the latter is an attempt to resume the Enlightenment project of knowledge and liberation. For Habermas, there is perhaps no need to abandon the project of liberation but recreate a ‘new liberatory possibility’ by the fusion of the three rationalities (cognitive, ethical, and political).

However, Lyotard questions the possibility of the unity of experience that Habermas suggests; for Modernity had proved that such unity cannot be possibly brought about. Any art that seeks such unity is then a part of the Realist tradition, which has brought about the demands for ‘order, unity and security’. Realism had sought to communicate (‘find a public’) which was itself a farcical exercise, since it didn’t take into account the capitalist effect on human experience. Capitalism had enabled the ‘derealisation of familiar objects, social roles and institutions’ so much so that realistic representations were far away from reality; they only existed to evoke nostalgia and create occasions for mockery to run amok. For Lyotard, even the basic role of Realism is questionable, for if it is to ‘capture reality’, photography can be more “realistic” than a painting and so, be a challenge to the latter.

However, it is not so. The role of Realism is quite different from what it is perceived as; for it is not merely to reflect reality per se. It is a carefully crafted movement where art is modified and presented as reality in a non-volatile ethos and where the audience is coerced into a non-questioning space. Such mass conformism isn’t a desirable state of being; Lyotard would rather than art questions the very rules on which it is based on (received from its predecessors). Similarly, if art were to questions Realism per se, it would require something as simple (and complex) and the Kantian sublime, which helps destabilize and defamiliarize the realistic(real).

One of the disturbing features of Realism is that it cements the real for the audience, where there is hardly any room for further questioning. Similarly, even eclecticism isn’t quite different from Realism and so, has to be discarded though it has been thought of as a feature of Postmodernism. Rather, the sublime works as the key to the problems of Realism and enables us to question it. Lyotard borrows the idea of the sublime from Kant and further its definition for his own purposes. The aesthetic of the sublime validates the form in which modern art (and the avant-garde) exist; it helps qualify ‘experimentation’ and the ‘unrepresentable’ as essentials features of the postmodern.

To begin with Kant’s philosophical concept of the sublime, it is the mixed feeling of pleasure and pain that is experienced by any individual in face of situations termed ‘grand’ or of considerably great magnitude; it is to be contrasted with the idea of beauty, which is related to the form of the objects. On the contrary, the sublime is boundless and formless; it causes pain since it is frustrating to realise the limited capability of our faculties to grasp the sublime object. One also derives pleasure from the attempt made. With this, Lyotard ties together all these qualities of the sublime to term it the ‘unrepresentable’ in terms of its duality and how it opens up new possibilities of thought.

Even the newer form of representation through art isn’t unproblematic, for “how the representation works” changes as we move from the Modern to the Postmodern. Art of the Modern did present the ‘unpresentable’, as by painting a white square on a white background. But it was presenting it negatively as it tried to avoid figuration or representation. It only enables its audience to ‘see’ by ‘making it impossible to see’; there is always a nostalgia attached to it. Postmodern art, on the other hand, looks forward and celebrates what the unpresentable has to offer; it traces its roots from Modernism but constantly questions it. The Modern had ‘allowed the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer to the reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure.’ On the contrary, the Postmodern ‘puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself’ which imparts a stronger sense of the unpresentable.

If so, the way the Postmodern invokes its sublime is the way ahead to ‘wage a war on totality’ and ‘be witnesses to the unpresentable’. Moving away from Art as a communication medium, Lyotard seeks to use the sublime to question pre-existing structures of Realism and to make way for newer ways of thinking. The sublime thus helps validate the form in which modern art (and the avant-garde) exist; it helps qualify ‘experimentation’ and the ‘unrepresentable’ as essentials features of the Postmodern.

Works Cited

· Lyotard, Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism? (Translated by Regis Durand)

· “20th WCP: Lyotard on the Kantian Sublime.” 20th WCP: Lyotard on the Kantian Sublime. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2017