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Lyotard on the Kantian Sublime

Anthony David
Blinn College
ABSTRACT: In this essay I explicate J.F. Lyotard's reading of the Kantian sublime as
presented in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1994) and in "Answering the
Question: What is Postmodernism" (1984). Lessons articulates the context in which
critical thought situates itself as a zone of virtually infinite creative capacity,
undetermined by principles but in search of them; "Answering the Question" explores
how the virtually infinite creative capacity of thought manifests in the avant-gardes.
Essentially, in both works Lyotard understands the Kantian sublime as legitimating
deconstructive postmodernism.

In the Critique of Judgement Kant defines the sublime as "that, the mere ability to think which
shows a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of sense." (1) Such striving for absolute
comprehension beyond what the imagination is capable of representing in a simple perception or
image may be occasioned by the "rawness" of scenes like the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the
magnitude or immensity of which alludes to the Idea of absolute greatness. (2) Imagination's failure
to contain this Idea understandably results in pain. (3) But pain is not the end-point; characteristic of
sublime feeling is a "movement" of pain to pleasure: "the feeling of a momentary checking of the
vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them." (4) In other words one is awestruck:
nature appears as a "mere nothing in comparison with the Ideas of Reason." (5) From this we realize
our superiority to nature "within and without us" and our supersensible destination beyond nature.
(6) In this paper I wish to explicate J-F. Lyotard's reading of the Kantian sublime. There are lessons
to be learned here, as the title of his recent work (1994), Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime,
Essentially, the heuristic function of the sublime is to expose reflective judgment (of which sublime
feeling is a species) as the context in which the critical enterprise functions or as the "manner" in
which critical thought situates its own a priori conditions. (7) The Kantian sublime may teach us
something else: In an earlier work (1984), "Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?,"
Lyotard views the sublime as legitimating the avant-garde as way of extending the critical enterprise
to the arts. The method behind the madness of the avant-gardes, Lyotard contends, is
incomprehensible unless one is already familiar with "the incommensurability of reality to concept
which is implied in the Kantian philosophy of the sublime." (8)
I. Critical Thought
Lyotard describes the incommensurability of imagination and reason as a "differend" which is "to
be found at the heart of sublime feeling: at the encounter of the two 'absolutes' equally 'present' to
thought, the absolute whole when it conceives, the absolutely measured when it presents." (9) The
situation is analogous to the collision of two different language games, each absolute in the selfenclosure of its rules. Imagination speaks a language of forms, of measures; reason speaks a
language of the without-form, of infinitude. The differend between them is irresolvable: "This
conflict is not an ordinary dispute, which a third instance could grasp and put an end to, but a

'differend'." (10) Sublime feeling thus sensitizes us to an "outside and an inside" in thought, or to an
"abyss" separating imagination and reason. Sublime feeling becomes, as a result, "the transport that
leads all thought (critical thought included) to its limits." (11) As such, Lyotard considers it (and
reflective judgment in general) to be central to the critical enterprise, going so far as to say that
"with reflection, thinking seems to have at its disposal the critical weapon itself. For in critical
philosophy the very possibility of philosophy bears the name of reflection." (12) The importance of
reflective judgment becomes apparent once we recognize what Lyotard calls the "enigmatic"
character of the critical project:
The reader of Kant cannot fail to wonder how the critical thinker could ever establish
conditions of thought that are a priori. With what instruments can he formulate the
conditions of legitimacy of judgments when he is not yet supposed to have any at his
disposal? How, in short, can he judge properly 'before' knowing what judging properly
is, and in order to know what it might be? (13)
Somehow the critical thinker must formulate the proper conditions of judgment "before" he has the
right to make use of them in validating those very same conditions. Added to this justification
paradox is the inability of the understanding to conceive of its own constitutive limiting principles
in the first place. In much the same way that teeth cannot bite themselves, conceptual thought is
blind to its own limitations or a prioris: "It is the limit itself that understanding cannot conceive of
as its object. The limit is not an object for understanding. It is its method." (14) Reflective
judgment, and sublime feeling in particular, however, make the critical project possible. In the first
place, reflective judgment is pre-conceptual and brings with it not method but manner, a kind of
"pre-transcendental logic" which situates the critical faculties. As pleasant and/or unpleasant, it feels
critical a prioris without determining their objective use and thus is capable of validating or
invalidating them without falling into the justification paradox mentioned above. "Reflection," says
Lyotard, "is the (subjective) laboratory of all objectivities." (15) In particular, sublime feeling as
complex subjectivity is essential to revealing the a prioris constituting conceptual thought; in the
imagination's attempt to supercede its own capabilities in order to represent the Idea of totality upon
the occasion of raw magnitude or power, the consequent movement of pain to pleasure reveals to
thought (in "tautegorical" fashion) the limits to which it is itself blind.
The "movement" in sublime feeling, from pain to pleasure, is particularly evocative of the manner
of critical thought. Lyotard points out that its project is to stake out the territories of the true, the
just, and the beautiful-"The project seems modest and reasonable. However, it is motivated by the
same principle of fury that the critique restrains." (16) That is, reflection feels the critical
boundaries set for nature and freedom beyond which legitimate judgment cannot go; indeed
reflection is responsible for situating such a priori conditions. But it is nevertheless intrigued by the
nothingness beyond such limitations:
[S]ublime feeling is analyzed as double defiance. Imagination at the limits of what it
can present does violence to itself in order to present that it can no longer present.
Reason, for its part, seeks, unreasonably, to violate the interdict it imposes on itself and
which is strictly critical, the interdict that prohibits it from finding objects
corresponding to its concepts in sensible intuition. In these two aspects, thinking defies
its own finitude, as if fascinated by its own excessiveness. (17)
Thus critical thought is ensnarled in what Lyotard calls its "neurosis" or "masochism", (18) its
"spasmotic state." (19) Thomas Huhn, in a recent review of Lyotard's Lessons on the Analytic of the
Sublime (1995), puts it this way: "The sublime ... is the uncanny attempt by subjectivity to feel
something other than itself." (20) Yet this pleasure-in-pain, this "recoil" of thought against its
limitations, may also be viewed as a "secret euphony of superior rank", (21) suggestive of thought's

"supersensible" destiny. Kant sees a "negative aesthetic" in sublime feeling, one in which nature
"does violence to the imagination" and so contradicts the fitness or propriety that nature has for our
powers of judgment in experience of the beautiful. (22) As Lyotard puts it,
In sublime feeling, nature no longer 'speaks' to thought in the 'coded writing' of its forms. Above
and beyond the formal qualities that induced the quality of taste, thinking grasped by the sublime
feeling is faced, 'in' nature, with quantities capable only of suggesting a magnitude or force that
exceeds its power of presentation. This powerlessness makes thinking deaf or blind to natural
beauty. (23)
Lyotard goes on to say that in sublime feeling "thinking becomes impatient, despairing,
disinterested in attaining the ends of freedom by means of nature." (24) But in this estrangement of
thought from nature, in this disconnection from the seduction of natural forms or of limits in
general, suddenly thought realizes its true vocation. The "momentary checking of the vital forces"
yields to a "stronger outflow of them" in the pursuit of the absolute:
[I]t is because thought recognizes in [the sublime] the truth of what it is in itself 'before'
it was opposed by givens that had to be grasped by forms of sensibility, assembled in
schemas, known by concepts, or estimated according to the good ....Limitations, forms,
schemas, rules of concepts, illegitimacies, illusions that the critique constantly opposes
to this power make no sense if one does not first accept the presupposition of Kantian
thought-which is no secret-that 'there is thought,' and this is absolute. This is what the
'voice of reason' says in sublime feeling, and this is what is truly exalting. (25)
In sublime feeling thought recovers what in Zen circles is called "beginner's mind"-an infinite
inventive capacity undetermined by principles but in search of them. In turn invention is felt by
thought as incredibly joyful, as homecoming. Thus Lyotard speaks of Kant's Analytic of the
Sublime in general as "finding its 'legitimacy' in a principle that is expounded by critical thought
and that motivates it: a principle of thinking's getting carried away." (26)
II. The Avant-Garde
Lyotard articulates the connection between the avant-gardes in the arts and the sublime in
"Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism," where he states that "it is in the aesthetic of the
sublime that ... the logic of avant-gardes finds its axioms." (28) But it is in this same aesthetic that
the avant-garde finds its relevance to postmodern culture, and so the sublime ultimately mediates
between the avant-gardes and postmodern culture in a way which, interestingly, parallels its
supplementary status (as a species of reflective judgment) in the critical enterprise.
In so far as a work of art resists or confounds sense-perception and thus enables reason to become
the primary means of enjoyment, it borrows from the aesthetic of the sublime. In this, says Lyotard,
Kant himself shows the way when he names 'formlessness, the absence of form,' as a possible index
to the unpresentable.... He cites the commandment, 'Thou shalt not make graven images' (Exodus),
as the most sublime passage in the Bible, in that it forbids all presentation of the absolute. Little
needs to be added to those observations to outline an aesthetic of sublime paintings. (29)
Painting, then, will avoid representation: "It will be 'white' like one of Malevitch's squares; it will
enable us to see only by making it impossible to see." (30) Literature (Joyce, for example) will
challenge conventions of narrative unity, even of grammar and vocabulary, so that the reader's
preconceptions are blunted and pain is felt-only to lead to greater pleasure in the free play of the

But Lyotard points out that there are modes of sublimity in art, different ways of emphasizing the
unpresentable alluded to by means of technique. On the one hand, emphasis is placed on "the
powerlessness of the faculty of presentation, on the nostalgia for presence felt by the human subject,
on the obscure and futile will which inhabits him in spite of everything." (31) Lyotard labels this
mode "melancholia," in which a Romantic striving for communion with Nature or Absolute Spirit
always falls short but nevertheless persists. Regret is the characteristic feeling of the melancholic
sublime, and therefore Lyotard considers this mode of sublime sentiment as not the "real" sublime
sentiment "which is an intrinsic combination of pleasure and pain." (32) and which underlies the
avant-garde. So, on the other hand, we have the mode of sublimity in art which Lyotard calls
"novatio," which places emphasis on "the increase of being and the jubilation which result from the
invention of new rules of the game, be it pictorial, artistic, or any other." (33)
The melancholic and novatio modes of the sublime are distinguishable in a related, yet slightly
different, way. Both, says Lyotard, allow the unpresentable to be put forward, but it is the
recognizable consistency in form of artworks in the melancholic mode that "continues to offer to the
reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure" (34) and thereby reinforces the Romantic nostalgia
for Nature or Absolute Spirit. But genuine sublime sentiment "denies itself the solace of good
forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for
the unattainable." (35) In this way, the avant-garde is analogous to reflective judgment; in situating
the critical schema while being outside of that schema, reflective judgment goes in search of rules
which it does not presently have. Lyotard picks up on this connection when he says, A postmodern
artist or writer is in the position of the philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not
in principle governed by preestablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining
judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are
what the work of art itself is looking for. (36)
Avant-garde art, exemplifying the novatio sublime, is the possibility of infinite experiment and
development which, by virtue of being infinite, is itself unpresentable. The nature of art, in other
words, becomes problematic. Painting, for example, is no longer a mere reflection of the sociopolitical and religious order of things; rather, it becomes solely a reflexive endeavor to determine
what painting is. (37) In this way the avant-garde resonates with the larger situation of postmodern
culture. Postmodernity, says Lyotard, "cannot exist without a shattering of belief and without
discovery of the 'lack of reality' of reality, together with the invention of other realities." (38)
Proceeding at a dizzying pace of change which is simultaneously a collapse of metaphysical,
religious, and political certainties, postmodernity becomes a quest for what's next and in itself lacks
any stability.
The impact of one product of technoscience, photography, is an interesting, if not paradoxical,
source of the postmodern sensibility. Images produced mechanically, like photographs, achieve a
degree of verisimilitude that outmatches practically anything hand-produced, and for this reason
one might conclude that photographs reinforce a sense of stability or reality to cultural forms better
than "realist" styles of painting since the quattrocento. Yet photographs also have the potential for
infinite production, and it is this sublime gesture itself which undermines any stability that their
"hardness" of imagery might suggest. (39) Before mechanical reproduction, it could reasonably be
claimed of a hand-produced painting like the Mona Lisa that it is absolutely unique and tied to a
certain context of meaning, thus unambiguously authoritative. But after mechanical reproduction,
leading to the Mona Lisa's appearance on billboards, magazine advertisements, and T-shirts, unity
and stability of meaning are no longer possible. This is emblematic of what Postmodern culture has
both lost and found. It has lost its sense of presence or originating certainty, and it has gained
infinity. Therein lies its sublimity.
The aesthetic of the sublime, then, serves as a mediating link between the avant-garde and

postmodern culture. Lyotard also portrays it as the means by which art may find its true destiny in a
way similar to how thought finds its destiny in criticism. The aesthetic of the sublime, first of all,
reclaims art from its merely documentary function. Rather than reflect the accepted order of things
and dodge what Lyotard calls "the question of reality implicated in that of art," (40) avant-garde art
acknowledges and plays with the constructed nature of perception and worldview.
The aesthetic of the sublime also recovers art from its more melacholic mode. Rather than
emphasize human lostness and yearning for presence employing regular forms that indeed reinforce
such nostalgia, avant-garde art delights in constantly challenging received forms: it "flushes out" the
"artifices of presentation" which attempt, in bad faith, "to present the unpresentable." (41) Though
initially painful, the rebound to pleasure, so characterisic of sublime feeling, is all the more intense
and is felt as an "increase of being" and "jubilation." (42) So in the avant-garde, as in critical
thought in general, the "supersensible" destiny of thought in absoluteness is fulfilled. Therein lies its
III. Conclusion
We have paid a high enough price for the nostalgia of the whole and the one, for the reconciliation
of the concept and the sensible .... Under the general demand for slackening and for appeasement,
we can hear the mutterings of the desire for a return of terror, for the realization of the fantasy to
seize reality. The answer is: Let us wage a war on totality ... let us activate the differences and save
the honor of the name. (43)
Lyotard's strident call for the realization of sublime feeling in the avant-garde is ultimately a
preventative against a return, which he deems fatal, to old Enlightenment metanarratives. In the
technology of the atom bomb, in the polished steel of concentration camps, humanity's selfimprovement through reason and science somehow and inexplicably culminates in the terroristic
dictum, "Be operational or disappear." (44) Thus we must reclaim the nature of critical thought as it
was "before" situating principles constituting the critical schema: "Thought must 'linger,' must
suspend its adherence to what it thinks it knows. It must remain open to what will orientate its
critical examination: a feeling." (45) By its endless inventiveness, limiting and yet fulfilled only in
exploding limits, thought recognizes its destiny-not in the full commensurability of language games
but in their heterogeneity and difference.

(1) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard (London: Macmillan, 1914), 110.
(2) "Idea" here is capitalized to distinguish it as transcendental, what must be the case in order for
science to be possible. The Idea of absolute greatness has only a regulative or heuristic function,
meaning that it is not factually informative but rather guides our investigation of the facts.
Specifically, in the light of transcendental Ideas of absolute greatness scientists act as if it were
possible, though they do not know this for certain, to unify knowledge in terms of a single
principle-"Grand Unified Theory," if you will. See Frederick Copleston, Vol. 6 of A History of
Philosophy (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1960), 279-307.
(3) This is an example of what Kant calls the "mathematical sublime," in which absolute greatness
takes the form of measure. It may also take the form of might, which Kant memorably dramatizes
as follows: "Bold, overhanging, and as it were threatening, rocks; clouds piled up in the sky,
moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in all their violence of destruction;

hurricanes with their track of devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty
waterfall of a mighty river, and such like; these exhibit our faculty of resistance as insignificantly
small in comparison with their might. But the sight of them is the more attractive, the more fearful it
is, provided only that we are in security." (Kant, Judgement, 125). Kant's message here is
reminiscent of Pascal's: "Man is only a reed, the weakest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed ...
if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his destroyer, because he knows
that he dies, and also the advantage that the universe has over him; but the universe knows nothing
of this." (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, trans. J. Warrington (Dent: London, 1973), 110.
(4) Kant, Judgement, 102.
(5) Ibid, 118.
(6) Ibid, 129.
(7) J-F. Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1994), 6-7.
(8) J-F. Lyotard, "Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?" in The Postmodern Condition:
A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1984), 79.
(9) Lyotard, Lessons, 123.
(10) Ibid, 124.
(11) Ibid, x.
(12) Ibid, 31.
(13) Ibid, 32.
(14) Ibid, 59.
(15) Ibid, 26.
(16) Ibid, 56.
(17) Ibid, 55.
(18) Lyotard, "Answering the Question," 77.
(19) Lyotard, Lessons, 56.
(20) Thomas Huhn, Review of Lyotard's Lessons in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 53
(Winter 1995), 91.
(21) Lyotard, Lessons, 24.
(22) Kant, Judgement, 103.
(23) Lyotard, Lessons, 52.

(24) Ibid, 52.

(25) Ibid, 122.
(26) Ibid, 55.
(27) Lyotard's use of the term "avant-garde" can be problematic in that whereas it is commonly used
to designate 20th century painting (especially abstract painting), Lyotard sometimes employs it to
mean something more general, as in an underlying approach to the arts that applies to the
Romantics as much as it does to 20th century artists. However, Paul Crowther notes that "this,
interestingly, is not a wholly arbitrary usage, in so far as the term 'avant-garde' seems to have been
first used, in relation to the arts, in the 1830's." See Paul Crowther, Critical Aesthetics and
Postmodernism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 155.
(28) Lyotard, "Answering the Question," 77.
(29) Ibid, 77.
(30) Ibid, 78.
(31) Ibid, 79.
(32) Ibid, 81.
(33) Ibid, 79.
(34) Ibid, 81.
(35) Ibid, 81.
(36) Ibid, 81.
(37) Crowther, Critical, 154-155.
(38) Lyotard, "Answering the Question," 77.
(39) J-F. Lyotard, "Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime," Artforum (Apr. 1982), 3.
(40) Lyotard, "Answering the Question," 75.
(41) Ibid, 79.
(42) Ibid, 80.
(43) Ibid, 81-82.
(44) Ibid, xxiv.
(45) Lyotard, Lessons, 7.