16 Dec 2008

Lyotard, "The Sublime and the Avant-Garde," summary

Corry Shores
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Jean-François Lyotard

"The Sublime and the Avant-Garde"

Barnett Newman's works and writings often refer to the sublime as being here and now, but traditionally the sublime is considered as something that cannot be shown or presented. Newman strives to create a new sensation of time in the sense of the Makom or the Hamakom of the Hebraic tradition: "the there, the site, the place, which is one of the names given by the Torah to the Lord, the Unnameable" (89-90).

Newman must not have considered the now as the 'present instant' sandwiched between the future and the past which devour it. This sort of now has been analyzed in Augustine's time as temporal ecstasy, and by Husserl as the constitution of consciousness. But Newman's now does not constitute consciousness, rather "it is what dismantles consciousness, what deposes consciousness, it is what consciousness cannot formulate, and even what consciousness forgets in or order to constitute itself" (90b). Something happens (dass etwas geschieht), better, it happens (das es geshieht). It is not a major or minor event; it is "just an occurrence" (90b).

Before we ask what it and its significance are (before the quid), first it must happen (quod). Its happening precedes the questions asking what happens.

"Or rather, the question precedes itself, because 'that it happens' is the question relevant as 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, is it possible that this or that?"

This even or occurrence (Heidegger's ein Ereignis) has an infinite simplicity approachable only "through a state of privation." We could use academic means to formulate this event, or we "can also enquire about the remainder, and allow the indeterminate to appear as a question-mark" (90-91).

All intellectual disciplines and institutions presuppose that nothing is the last word on a matter, and they prescribe what sorts of sentences are to follow. Likewise for painting. "After one pictorial work, another is necessary, permitted or forbidden. After one colour, this other colour; after this line, that one" (91c).

Painters, musicians, thinkers and so forth face the dread of something not coming next, of the "empty canvas or the empty page" that poses the question, "and what now?" (91-92).

This waiting is associated with anxiety in existential and psychoanalytic philosophies. And yet, suspense can bring pleasure too, for example when we welcome the unknown. Here "the way in which it happens is withheld and announced: Is it happening? The question can be modulated in any tone. But the mark of the question is 'now', now like the feeling that nothing might happen: the nothingness now." (92b)

This mixture of pleasure and pain, joy and anxiety, exaltation and depression, we called sublime in the 17th and 18th centuries.

It is around this name that the destiny of classical poetics was hazarded and lost; it is in this name that aesthetics asserted its critical rights over art, and that romanticism, in other words, modernity, triumphed. (92bc)

Newman criticized Edmond Burke for his surrealist description of sublimity, and also he "judged surrealism to be over reliant on a pre-romantic or romantic approach to indeterminacy" (92d).

Newman breaks with romantic art when considering sublimity in the here-and-now, although he maintains romanticism's fundamental aim of "bearing pictorial or otherwise expressive witness to the inexpressible" (92-93).

So the sublime for Newman is seeing his painting and

"Letting go of all grasping intelligence and of its power, disarming it, recognizing that this occurrence of painting was not necessary and is scarcely foreseeable, a privation in the face of Is it happening? guarding the occurrence 'before' any defence, any illustration, and any commentary, guarding before being on one's guard, before 'looking' [regarder] under the aegis of now, this is the rigour of the avant-garde."

So this sublime is still that of Burke and Kant, although in a sense it is no longer their sublime.


Longinus wrote On the Sublime in the first century AD, and in it he "taught those oratorical devices with which a speaker can persuade or move (depending on the genre) his audience" (94a).

The sublime, that is, the indeterminate, destabilizes the text's didactic aims.

Longinus described the sublime in discourse as being unforgettable, irresistible and thought-provoking, and he located the sublime's sources in rhetorical elements such as figures of speech and diction.

However he encountered obstacles of giving such an exposition.

There is, for example, wrote Longinus, a sublimity of thought sometimes recognizable in speech by its extreme simplicity of turn of phrase, at the precise point where the high character of the speaker makes on expect greater solemnity. It sometimes takes the form of outright silence. (94d)

Such a silence "constitutes the most indeterminate of figures." And the best figures are those that remain hidden. But then there must be techniques to erase figures, and we would have no way to distinguish hidden figures from what are not figures. Moreover, when speech is sublime, it "accommodates defects, lack of taste, and formal imperfections" (95ab). "Grandeur in speech is true when it bears witness to the incommensurability between thought and the real world" (95b).

But can techne bring about the sublime? Longinus even proposes "inversions of reputedly natural and rational syntax as examples of sublime effect," and a 17th century French translator of the text wrote that the sublime cannot be taught, because the audience must have the ability to 'sense what everyone senses first" (95c.d).

At stake in these debates is the status of artworks; whether they are copies of an ideal model, and if we may produce rules of their production by reflecting on ideal cases. The predominance of techne regulated works according to models taught at art institutions. But, "the idea of the sublime disrupts this harmony." (96cd) Instead of being the messenger of glory, the artist is an "involuntary addressee of an inspiration come to him from an 'I know not what" (96d), and the audience now no longer judges the work according to established common criteria; rather they
are "prey to unforeseeable feeling: they are shocked, admiring, scornful, indifferent" (96-97).

Lyotard's above narrative "explains why reflection on art should no longer bear essentially on the 'sender' instance/agency of works, but on the 'addressee' instance;" thus we should "analyze the ways in which the subject is affected, its ways of receiving and experiencing feelings, its ways of judging works." (97c) In this way aesthetics supplants poetics and rhetoric.


Kant says that in his Aesthetica, Baumgarten confuses the judgment, that the understanding uses when it organizes phenomena according to categories, with judgment in the reflexive sense in which it relates to the "indeterminate relationship between the faculties of the judging subject" (98a). So for Baumgarten, there is a conceptually determined relationship to the artwork. "The sense of beauty is for Kant, on the contrary, kindled by a free harmony between the function of images and the function of concepts occasioned by an object of art or nature" (98a). But sublime aesthetics is even more indeterminate; it is a pleasure mixing with and coming from pain. We have sublime experiences when either an absolutely large object or an absolutely powerful object presents itself, and we cannot formulate sensible intuitions about it, while the faculty of imagination fails to provide a representation corresponding to the object's Idea. "this failure of expression gives rise to a pain, a kind of cleavage within the subject between what can be conceived and what can be imagined or presented" (98b). The pain becomes pleasure after harmony is restored. The sublime causes extreme tension between the faculties, unlike the harmony caused by beauty.

At the edge of the break, infinity, or the absoluteness of the Idea can be revealed in what Kant calls a negative presentation, or even a non-presentation.

From this slowly develops minimalist art.

Kant borrows from Burke "the analysis of the characterizing contradiction of the feeling of the sublime," but he strips Burke's aesthetic of its essential "stake": "to show that the sublime is kindled by the threat of nothing further happening." For Burke, "terrors are linked to privation: privation of light, terror of darkness, privation of others, terror of solitude; privation of language, terror of silence; privation of objects, terror of emptiness; privation of life, terror of death. What is terrifying is that the It happens that does not happen, that it stops happening" (99c).

Also, the terror-causing threat must be held back and suspended, for Burke. The pleasure this creates is relief. It is still a privation, because we are deprived of the threat.

We obtain the sublime feeling when "a very big, very powerful object threatens to deprive the soul of any 'it happens,' strikes it with 'astonishment' (at lower intensities the soul is seized with admiration, veneration, respect)." (99-100). This deadens the soul. "Art, by distancing this menace, procures a pleasure of relief, of delight. Thanks to art, the soul is returned to the agitated zone between life and death" (100a). For Burke, the sublime is not a matter of elevation, but rather of intensification (100a).

Burke's theory also suggests a liberation of art from the classical rule of imitation. Painting must imitate and figuratively represent models, which limits the "power of emotive expression since it works by recognition" (100b). However poetry is more free from figuration.

To evoke the sublime, art must "try out surprising, strange, shocking combinations. Shock is, par excellence, the evidence of (something) happening, rather than nothing, suspended privation" (100d).

The artist attempts combinations allowing the event. The art-lover does not experience a simple pleasure, or derive some ethical benefit from his contact with art, but expects an intensification of his conceptual and emotional capacity, an ambivalent enjoyment. Intensity is associated with an ontological dislocation. The art-object no longer bends itself to models, but tries to present the fact that there is an unpresentable; it no longer imitates nature, but is, in Burke, the actualization of a figure potentially there in language. (101a)


Art in the 19th and 20th centuries witnesses indeterminacy.

Cézanne evoked little color sensation underneath the threshold of our awareness. Merleau-Ponty called "Cézanné doubt" his grasping and rendering perception at its birth, perception 'before' perception. (102d) Minimalism carried further the idea of the indeterminate.

Adorno claims that "the thought that 'accompanies metaphysics in its fall' . . . can only proceed in terms of 'micrologies'." (103c).

Micrology inscribes the occurrence of a thought as the unthought that remains to be thought in the decline of 'great' philosophical thought.

Like micrology, the avant-garde is not concerned with what happens to the 'subject', but with: 'Does it happen?', with privation. This is the sense which it still belongs to the aesthetics of the sublime. (103)

The avant-garde no longer tries to create works that audiences may identify with, which leads to their neglect, leaving the avant-garde vulnerable to repression. Overcapitalization as well threatens the avant-garde search for the artwork event. Market economics is in a perverse relation with the aesthetics of the sublime.

And yet there is a collusion between capital and the avant-garde, because capitalism's destruction leads to "mistrust of established rules and a willingness to experiment with means of expression, with styles, with ever-new materials" (105b).

Control and manipulation of information has resulted in the "disappearance of the temporal continuum through which the experience of generations used to be transmitted." Information is transient, and expires as soon as it is transmitted, becoming quickly already something we know.

It is put into machine memory. The length of time it occupies is, so to speak, instantaneous. Between two pieces of information, 'nothing happens', by definition. 105-106

Novelty might be confused with Ereignis; "The secret of an artistic success, like that of a commercial success, resides in the balance between what is surprising and what is 'well-known', between information and code." 106c

This is how innovation in art operates: one re-uses formulae confirmed by previous success, one throws them off-balance by combining them with other, in principle incompatible, formulae, by amalgamations, quotations ornamentations, pastiche." 106c

But this is merely reflecting the spirit of the market, not the spirit of the times. However, Ereignis has nothing to do with the cheap thrill of innovation, hidden in which is the fear that nothing further will happen.

So innovation gives the sense that much is happening, and by means of it, "the will affirms its hegemony over time." But then we no longer wonder, Is it happening? But with the occurence, the will is defeated.

The avant-gardist task remains that of undoing the presumption of the mind with respect to time. The sublime feeling is the name of this privation.

Lyotard, Jean François. The Inhuman.



  1. Quick question. Here is how I've summed up Lyotard's "quid-quod" argument in a paper:

    Because, for Lyotard, an image is an event, then to see is to do. And that "doing" is namely participating in the event that the image creates. Such participation thereby renders the spectator open to a kind of temporal judgment about how timely or untimely he or she reacts in relation to the image.

    Is that right?


  2. Thanks for your question! But to be honest, I am not a Lyotard expert. I have really only read this text and no other ones by him. I will try to find someone who has studied him in depth, but it might take a little while to find her.

    So far as I know, what you say sounds right.

    I personally read Lyotard as following some of Heidegger's ideas.

    There are primarily two that I found useful: reality as THE EVENT, and the concealment of reality.

    1) Event: The match becomes fire. The fire becomes ash. Things are always coming into being and passing out of being. But do we know precisely when the wood has first become fire, and when the fire first becomes ash? Usually these changes blur into each other. So we have no way to say that the spark is spark and not yet flame. For its being a flame is already coming-through the spark, even before the fire erupts. Without boundaries between these phases of changes, we can see everything as being an event. For, there are no stable things. There are only happenings. And through these happenings, indeterminate phases of change come to be. So, there is the event of sparking. As an event, it is not a spark. It is the event of sparking, which is all together match, flame, force, heat, light, danger, and so forth. Now we can think more generally. If everything around us is always in these indeterminate states of becoming, then there is an underlying Event that places all beings into existence while at the same time taking them out of existence.

    2) The concealment or mystery of reality.
    So the fire already is coming-through the spark even before the flame erupts. We hear thunder. In that instant, no lightning shows. But the lightning flash "declares" itself even in its absence. The bolt is no less there than the rumble. If all we cared about was the "now," then there is no lightning when we hear thunder. But we cannot deny that the lightning is already coming to appear before us, even before it actually does. What makes the event of thunder is also its hidden flash of lightning.

    In this simple case of thunder, we know two things:
    1) there is something that is concealed, namely lightning, and
    2) this concealed thing (lightning) will appear quite soon.

    So in a sense, the moment of 'now' in our awareness is partly made-up-of something that we expect. The present moment always has a "horizon." Just past that horizon is what is already coming-to-be. It is what is on the horizon, so to speak. So even though we do not see the lightning, we know it is on the (temporal) horizon.

    But this example is too simple to explain all of reality. Technology created the internet. This is a new world that sprung up. Technology is always creating new realities that we never expected. We know that today's new scientific discoveries will lead to technological advances that will create new worlds. But this is not like thunder. We know specifically that lightning will appear in seconds. In contrast, we do not know what, when, and how the new technological worlds will appear. So we know there is something that is coming-through what now is appearing to us. But we do not know what it is.

    Yet we do know, from our first point, that whatever it comes to be, it does so by means of an event. We see now that this event involves two things, a showing and a hiding. Lighted revelation, along with mysterious concealment.

    If we knew what was coming, then the moment of "now" would have a certain stability and knowability about it. But the real now is not like this. It is happening now. But it is incomplete. It's boundaries are indeterminate. And whatever it is, we cannot know it now as it is happening, because half of it is always concealed. It is coming-into-being. But what is coming-into-being is no less now. It is fully now. But it is concealed.

    So we never know fully what is before us in the real 'now.' In a way, this disrupts our sense of time's continuity. There is always something 'now' that is discontinuous with what appears to us now. But this discontinuity is no less now. It's merely concealed.

    Hence we cannot now say what is real. We always are only experiencing that the elusive event of reality is occurring.

    We said that science and technology create worlds that appear before us. Now consider when we look at a powerful work of art. It too raises worlds before us. But also it leaves so much concealed and mysterious. This is why it can be so difficult to explain what a work is "saying." But we know it is saying something to us. Exactly what it says remains unclear. And also what it says to us is never the same from moment to moment. So artworks, like technology, are locations where much reality is passing-in-and-out of being in the dually revealing and concealing way. Thus we cannot try to grip the painting with our minds and say what it is. For we know that there is something not there in the painting that really is there, only it is concealed and unknowable. The painting has a "nothingness" and a "not-present" that is essential to its being there and being now.

    So regarding your formulation, I do not know if I can comment on the last part where you speak of temporal judgments. Lyotard is far outside my field of research. But whatever else we can say about our participation with the sublime artwork, I think we can at least say that it shatters our sense certainty about what is going on and how things will continue. Although, it leaves us with no doubt that something is going on and that unknown things will come to be.

  3. I spoke with someone who published an article on Lyotard's sublime (in Turkish). She agrees with your formulation. She also explained to me what you mean in the last sentence, and I see now that I was missing something obvious. So good luck!