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  • The Splenetic SublimeAnne Finch, Melancholic Physiology, and Post/Modernity
  • Richard A. Barney (bio)

Postmodernity is not a new age, but the rewriting of some of the features claimed by modernity, and first of all modernity's claim to ground its legitimacy on the project of liberating humanity … through science and technology.

Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman1

During at least the past twenty-five years, we have witnessed a remarkable resurgence of interest in the sublime in philosophy, literary and cultural studies, and also the popular media. To cite only a few examples, Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida have drawn on the sublime to consider topics including the innovations of twentieth-century avant-garde art and the contextual limits of painting as representational discourse. For their part, Frances Ferguson and Slavoj Ẑiẑek, have redeployed sublimity in examining the culture of nuclear threat and the convolutions of capitalist logic. Entering the terms "sublime" and "sublimity" into the online MLA International Bibliography produces a list of more than 1,080 scholarly articles, books, and monographs on the subject published since 1980. And most recently, in the wake of the attacks on the U.S. on September 11, the news media, films, and even U.N. resolutions have frequently deployed terms strikingly reminiscent of the sublime's infinite scale or excessiveness when characterizing terrorism as "without [End Page 1] boundaries" or as "unimaginable."2 Clearly the present moment has been profoundly shaped by both experience and discursive elements of sublime proportions.

In the domains of philosophy and critical theory, this renewed interest in the sublime has been motivated less by a desire to reclaim the validity of an Enlightenment concept in order to understand the present, than by an impulse to reinvent the sublime as one of the markers of a drastically different kind of experience that comes under the general rubric of postmodernity. By this way of thinking, then, for the eighteenth century the sublime may have described the aesthetic experience of confronting a grand physical phenomenon or an imposing art object whose initially traumatic effects on the perceiving individual could be ultimately transformed into self-enlarging, quasi-spiritual transcendence. Under the supposedly more corrosive conditions of postmodernity, by contrast, the sublime has come to designate the inevitability of tarrying with trauma, a lack of faith in subjectivity's prospect for wholeness, and a stoical willingness to suspend the sublime's underlying appeal to metaphysical certainties. Despite Lyotard's readiness, quoted above, to acknowledge some kind of historical continuity between the concerns of the modern and the postmodern, he provides us a good case in point, because overall, Lyotard emphasizes the powerful contrasts between them. For him, while earlier versions of the sublime have been in the grip of metaphysical "nostalgia" for representing "a supposedly lost absolute," the avant-garde focuses on what Lyotard calls "the unpresentable," which "has nothing edifying about it, but which is inscribed in the infinity of the transformation of 'realities.'" By this way of thinking, Lyotard finds greater historical coherence among Surrealists, Dadaists, and late twentieth- or early twenty-first-century philosophers than he does between early modern and postmodern proponents of sublimity, since the work of recent philosophers, he claims, places them "in the position of an unknown avant-garde."3

No doubt the substantial differences in the sublime's more than 300–year history in Europe must always be remembered, but we risk something like historical caricature, of both early modernity and postmodernity, if we overemphasize the post in postmodernity. We risk on the one hand, that is, characterizing early modernity during the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries as an epoch completely committed to rationalism or scientism, without its equally important component of philosophical and social skepticism; and we risk suggesting, on the other hand, that postmodernity has fully resolved or superseded modernity's investment in questions regarding truth, fact, or ultimate origins. In this essay I propose the alternative of exploring how the earliest articulations of the sublime in [End Page 2] eighteenth-century Britain can contribute toward writing a prehistory of the postmodern, a documentation of the occasional and often elusive ways in which early modernity's...


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