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Reading the Lisbon Earthquake: Adorno, Lyotard, and the Contemporary Sublime

From: The Yale Journal of Criticism
Volume 17, Number 1, Spring 2004
pp. 1-18 | 10.1353/yale.2004.0007


The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 famously shook the metaphysical optimism of Europe's leading philosophers. Immanuel Kant would eventually manage its threat in "The Analytic of the Sublime" of his 1790 Critique of Judgment. In the twentieth century, human-inflicted catastrophes have supplanted the natural disaster as the source of sublime feeling. Auschwitz, however, is the name of an "event" that permits no compensatory retreat to an ostensible human dignity and is not recuperable within a transcendental tale of progress and greater good. The essay traces the qualitative transformation of the sublime across the texts of Kant, Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, and Jean-François Lyotard.

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