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Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2002) 397-404

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The Sexist Sublime in Sade and Lyotard

Caroline Weber

In this case the masculine returns to haunt the place of the feminine like a ghost. . . ., bloody and inhuman, in order to manifest and to root unforgettably in us the idea of a perpetual conflict and a spasm in which life is constantly being cut short.

Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double

"VIOLENCE," JEAN-FRANÇOIS LYOTARD ASSERTS in a recent article on Kantian aesthetics, "is necessary to the sublime." 1 More precisely, the sublime, held to transport an individual beyond his or her "ordinary" register of aesthetic responses, may do violence to a person's faculty of imagination, by shattering the accepted limits of sensory experience. Lyotard explains:

In the sublime, the imagination must be subjected to violence, because it is by way of its suffering, the mediation of its violation, that the joy of seeing—or almost seeing—the law can be obtained. . . . This "joy" [here Lyotard cites The Critique of Judgment] "is only possible by the mediation of pain." 2

Indeed, students of Kant's work have long been familiar with the exclusion of sentiment, pathos, and personal interest that he posits as a requirement for exalted status in the aesthetic and the moral sphere. For Kant, the law is precisely about the painful suppression of pleasure-seeking impulses for the sake of a disinterested, higher good. To achieve the transcendental perfection of the law, typically understood to be the domain of God alone, one must, godlike, overcome the [End Page 397] limitations of human nature and human feeling. And this effort—of which the Passion is just one vivid example—can be extraordinarily painful. In this context, Lyotard's formulation of the problem may not strike us as particularly startling. In contending that the Kantian experience of the sublime requires the mediation of pain, the French poststructuralist appears simply to be reminding us that the law, whether aesthetic or moral in nature, always demands some sort of discomfort, some kind of sacrifice.

We might be more inclined to accept this last statement if Lyotard's own work hadn't already taught us to think otherwise. For as he demonstrates admirably in The Differend, his 1983 meditation on testimony and the Holocaust, there is always a winner and a loser under the law; its attendant pains are always selectively applied. From a discursive point of view, this asymmetrical relationship manifests itself in a differend, a situation where two parties find themselves in dispute, and "the 'regulation' of the conflict that opposes them is done in the idiom of one of the parties, while the wrong suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom." 3 According to Lyotard, the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis exemplifies this pattern. In a strict juridical sense, any attempted protests by concentration camp prisoners had no meaning, and no right to mean anything, in Third Reich Germany:

In the differend, something "asks" to be put into phrases, and suffers from the wrong (tort) of not being able to be put into phrases right away. This is when the human beings who thought they could use language as an instrument of communication learn through the feeling of pain . . . to recognize that what remains to be phrased exceeds what they can presently phrase. . . . 4

Here Lyotard reveals that an encounter with the law, mediated by pain, inevitably creates injustices and wronged parties. In this paper, I will draw on this insight from The Differend to point up the ethical deficiencies or torts inherent in his own ruminations on the Kantian sublime—and in those of another philosopher whose thinking closely resembles Lyotard's on the subject, the notorious Marquis de Sade. To limit the scope of my inquiry, I shall focus in this brief essay on the differend to which each thinker's writings subject the figure of the mother.

For Lyotard and Sade alike, the mother represents first and foremost the capacity to reproduce. With this capacity...


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