A post at Pinocchio Theory reminded me that I’d been wanting to slap something up here that I wrote last fall. I do so now with much trepidation.

In what follows I begin to address Immanuel Kant’s reflections on the sublime in relation to Alain Badiou’s reflections on truth. For Kant, the sublime reminds the subject of its own sublimity and freedom despite the presence of overwhelming nature. For Badiou, truth founds a subject which bores a whole in knowledge defined as a determining structure. I believe that Kant’s sublime can accomplish much of what Badiou’s truth accomplishes while avoiding certain problems.

Kinds of Concepts

Kant identifies two kinds of principles of thought: concepts of nature and the concept of freedom. (Immanuel Kant. Critique of Judgment. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hacket 1987. Page 9.) Concepts of nature are used in addressing nature, in the sense of natural science: finding explanations for things, seeking to be able to predict outcomes, manipulating objects. The concept of freedom is used in morality: creating principles for making decisions, maxims that guide action. Between these two types of concept “an immense gulf is fixed.” (Critique, 14.) The two form incommensurable modes of operation, it is “as if they were two different worlds.” (Critique, 15.)

The two types of concepts can be considered a distinction between two senses of what it is to be subject. On the one hand, the subject is an object of causality: the subject is subjected to causal processes as when, for instance, one is is the object of a physical or mental health procedure. Problems which arise at this level are not moral problems but natural phenomena or technical problems. As horrible as cancer is, a tumor is not immoral. A genuinely accidental error in removing a tumor is not a moral failing but a technical failing. On the other hand, the subject is a subject of causality: the subject is able to freely produce new causal processes. Problems which arise at this level are moral problems. Deliberately denying cancer treatment to those who need it, or knowingly exposing someone to carcinogens, these are moral failings.

[The body is the site of a co-existence of freedom and nature in one location, such that both concepts of nature and the concept of freedom are required to think the subject. Kant takes a monist and materialist perspective on the body and mind. He suggests that we posit that “all out thoughts are (…) in a harmonious connection with some agitation in the body’s organs” as a supposition which helps us “grasp how, as the mind suddenly shifts alternately from one position to another in order to contemplate its object, there might be a corresponding alternating tension and relaxation of the elastic parts of our intestines that is communicated to the diaphragm.” Kant takes rapid breathing to be salutary, as it gives rise “to an agitation that is conducive to our health.” He even goes so far as to suggest that “this agitation alone, and not what goes on in the mind (…) is the actual cause of our gratification in a thought by which we basically present nothing.” (Critique, 205). In other words, for Kant, an action of the mind causes a reaction of the body, which results in a feeling of pleasure. The difference between the domains of the concepts of nature and the concept of freedom does not match any difference between corporeal and mental. The example of cancer was chosen in order to address this point as well. Illness makes clear that Kant treats his two types of concept, concepts of nature and the concept of freedom, only “as if” they were two discrete worlds. The “as if” in Kant is another topic worthy of sustained, as itself another mode by which thought breaks from established orders, via suspending the established in a conditional or hypothetical positing. Kant’s “as if” is, among other things, a mode of suspending or withholding judgment.]

The example used above of cancer and surgery demonstrates that concepts of nature and the concept of freedom are aren’t actually two different worlds. Using concepts of nature to consider cancer, one finds technical problems of how to diagnose, treat, cure, and prevent cancer. Much research in the sciences and medicine is dedicated to these matters. This research is research into technical matters, how to do things, such that mistakes made or shortcomings are not moral failings. Using the concept of freedom to consider cancer, one finds moral problems of resources should be distributed, what type of care is deserved, how to maintain oneself as an active subject while still suffering from the ailment. Cancer is a non-moral and non-free thing which impacts humans and can limit – by causing death – human freedom. The concept of freedom seems to be thus subordinate to concepts of nature. On the other hand, at least until a very late stage in terminal cancer, a person is still a full subject capable of the free actions that humans are capable of. In that sense, the concept of freedom seems to be autonomous from nature.

The two types of concepts are co-existing modes of operation that subjects can deploy. There can be a passage from freedom to nature, “i.e., the concept of freedom is to actualize in the world”. (Critique, 15.) This happens when decisions made based on the concept of freedom become the foundation for or begin to order the deployment of concepts of nature in technical procedures. The passage from freedom to nature maintains the integrity of both domains or perspectives. For Kant, the passage is unidirectional, from freedom to nature but not the reverse. The example of terminal illness suggests that there is a possible reciprocal action from nature to freedom, but also suggests that when such a passage from nature to freedom occurs freedom is destroyed.

Since concepts of nature are concepts of causal determinedness, at best the manipulation of material in line with an end which is decided elsewhere via a decision made employing the concept of freedom , one could say that for Kant nature is a wholly causally determined realm. Kant does not believe that there is a subject in nature, that nature has a goal or a purpose. Indeed, human subjects are only partly subject, being also objects. This is why one needs both concepts of nature and the concept of freedom to consider humans, because humans are, paradoxically, both free and unfree, both causally determining and causally determined. Neither can be subsumed to the other or rejected, but the two are incommensurable.

Kant does hold that to some extent we must impute ‘purposiveness’ to nature, since for Kant some things don’t make sense if we don’t treat nature as if it had purposes and the power to (freely) posit ends. [Purposiveness and treating nature as-if it is purposive while recognizing it is not purposive, is yet another topic which requires an extensive inquiry to treat adequately. As such, I only mention it here for the purposes of addressing the sublime.] At the same time, Kant bars any imputation of a purposiveness to nature. For the purposes of this paper, “purposiveness” can be understood as the power of the subject to posit purposes toward which the subject acts. That is, it is another version of the subject understood as subject, as the source rather than receiver of causal processes. Nature is not a subject in this way for Kant. If it were, the original distinction between concepts of nature and the concept of freedom would be erased. Furthermore, if nature was a subject then humans would not be subjects. “[I]t is we who receive nature with favor, not nature that favors us.” If nature was a subject, then that which we find favorable in nature would not be the result of our finding-favorable, it would not be a subject disposition or action. If that were the case then our judgement of nature “would not be free and based on autonomy.” (Critique, 224.)

Events in nature occur exclusively under the concepts of nature. That is, they can only be understood in a way which appeals to causal determinations. We may employ the concept of freedom to understand nature on occasion, when we treat nature as if it were purposive, as if it were subject, but this treating as if is not a claim that nature is a subject. Nature could be said to be exclusively technical, in the sense that things that go wrong in nature are not the result of decisions in nature, nor do they have a moral valence. To speak for a moment of nature as if it were purposive, nature’s “ability”, so to speak, to do things it “wants” to do, is exclusively a sort of technical facility on nature’s part. Kant refers to this facility as might.

Might and the Sublime

Kant begins paragraph 28 of the Critique of Judgment saying “Might is an ability that is superior to great obstacles.” Nature’s might is the “ability” of nature to do things. In terms which impute less subjectivity to nature, might is a name for the force in action which is the operation of causally determined elements impacting each other in a series or ensemble. A wind which knocks loose a tree branch has might, more than the tree branch’s might in adhering to the tree. A tree branch which is not knocked loose from a tree by a wind can be said to have more might than the wind. If the fallen tree branch knocks a small stone down a hill, which in turn knocks loose other stones, resulting in a small avalance, there is a series of operations of might as objects strike objects.

Humans have might as well. The surgeon who removes a tumor exercises a certain force to lift and hold a scalpel, and presses the scalpel to pierce the patient’s skin. Those are operations of might. A person who walks through a strong wind pushes against the force, the might, of the wind using their own might. Might is a technical matter, understandable under a concept of nature. Might is of the realm of causal determination, such that a failing or lack of might is not a moral failing.

Might “is called dominance if it is superior even to the resistance of something that itself possesses might” (Critique, 119). The term for “might” is “macht.” This same term is translated as “power” in Nietzsche’s “Will to Power.” The term for “dominance,” “Gewalt,” is variably translated as “violence,” “force,” and “power” in Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “Critique of Violence.” [It would be interesting to stage another encounter, or rather, pair of encounters between philosophers and concepts: Benjamin’s discussion of Gewalt with Kant’s, indexing law-making and law-preserving violence as operating with concepts of nature, and divine law-destroying violence as a figure of the concept of freedom. After that, a dialog between Benjamin and Badiou, using the series Divine Gewalt-Sublime-Truth in order to put Benjamin’s Sorelian and dialectical figure of rupture in relation to Badiou’s Althusserian and Maoist figure of aleatory event. That encounter, not yet staged, will not reduce Kant to mere stage dressing, but rather take his work as the constitutive element for the theater in which the encounter may take place.]

In this paragraph of Kant’s, Gewalt is a relationship between two different M‰chte, and thus between two different holders or sources of Macht. Gewalt is a net greater Macht, a differential in Macht. Gewalt, then, is different from Macht encountering and overcoming an obstacle. If one person wrestles another to the ground against that person’s will, there is a moment of dominance: the might of the first person overcomes that of the second person. The same occurs in the case of the person who walks through a strong wind or if someone is knocked over by a strong wind, an earthquake, etc. In the latter case, the might of the person is overcome by the might of a natural phenomenon.

I said a moment ago that a failing or lack of might is not a moral failing. This is true in the sense that to genuinely not have might is not a moral failing, just as to make a genuine mistake in the execution of a technical procedure is not a moral failing. On the other hand, for Kant the realm and concepts of nature should not predominate over the concept of freedom and the free human subjects. Thus, while being knocked to the ground by a wind or dying of cancer is not a moral failing on one’s part, it is not simply the same as when a tree branch is knocked loose or when an avalanche occurs when no human is present.

When human might is overcome – is dominated – by another might, whether human or natural, the freedom of the one overcome is subordinated. If this subordination is subordination of one person to another, then this is morally suspect (at best) but freedom still exists: the one who dominates is still free even while limiting the freedom of the dominated. If the subordination is subordination to a natural phenomenon, however, then freedom is subordinated to nature: causally determining power is subordinated to or dominated by the realm of the causally determined.

Thought about using a concept of nature, the subordination of freedom is not a problem. Indeed, from a perspective which use a concept of nature, freedom does not exist. That is, judged from the standards internal to a technical practice – such as the techniques for the removal of a tumor – a technical failing is just that: only a technical failing. The technical procedure does not consider moral consequences or freedom. Of course, humans who carry out technical procedures are often concerned with moral consequences and freedom, but they are moving between or perhaps simultaneously occupying multiple positions – those of nature and freedom, the technical and the moral, the carrying out of a procedure based on a determined end and the positing of ends. To put this another way, from the point of view of the tumor, so to speak, there is no judgment admissible upon the goodness or badness of either the success or failure of the surgeon’s attempt to remove the tumor. Winds do not care whether or not they knock down tree branches and humans.

Thought from the concept of freedom, however, the domination of the might of humans by the might of nature is a problem. Indeed, much of human social organization is spent working against this domination or its possibility. Humans generally oppose the loss of other humans to cancer and other natural phenomena. In a sense, the dominance of nature’s might over human might is a passage from the natural to the free. This dominant passage subordinates and threatens to extinguish human freedom, at least the freedom of the individual human(s) so dominated in any given instance of such domination. Since humans aim to continue to exist as free, we judge the times when nature’s might dominates human might as fearful.

The quality of something being fearful is what makes possible what Kant terms the sublime. Kant writes that whatever has a might greater than our comparative might, our “ability to resist it” (Critique, 119), is fearful. That which has a greater might than ours is that which has the capacity for dominance. In other words, what we fear is that which can dominate us, overcoming our power with a greater power. This differential in power is what makes the experience of the sublime possible.

The sublime is that which is judged as fearful without one being afraid of it, that which is judged as fearful when judged from a safe distance. “We can (…) consider an object fearful without being of it.” (Critique, 119.) That which can be judged fearful is or has dominance or the capacity to have dominance over us, by overcoming our might. One of the results of the sublime is a reminding or a foregrounding of the ways in which the subject is (or has the capacity of faculty to be) superior to the might – and thus to end the dominance – of nature. That is, the sublime reminds us of our capacity for subjective freedom, which is never exhausted prior to death.

The sublime or the judgment of the sublime is the ability to not be fully causally determined (to not be fully exhausted or overcome by might or domiance) but to be – or to subjectively exercise a subtactive operation which renders – an underdetermination within the regime of the determined, and from there to operate a determining power. We call nature sublime “not because nature arouses fear, but because it calls forth our strength (which does not belong to nature within us), (…) because of this we regard nature’s might (to which we are indeed subjected in these natural concerns) as yet not having such dominance over us”. The sublime elevates one above nature, in the sense of rising above the subject as – or considered as – the object of causality. In doing so, “the mind can come to feel its own sublimity.” (Critique, 121.) Safety is a precondition for all of this.

Pleasure and Distance

Kant’s discussion of safety and the sublime explains the source of the pleasure we find in the sublime. Kant’s remarks on nature are not a priori confinable to the natural world. They can be extended to anything which operates on and is cognized via concepts of nature. This means that what Kant depicts as the experience of the sublime could occur in relation to any situation of dominance. Rather than experiencing the sublime exclusively in witnessing a possibility for nature to dominate humans, one could experience the sublime in the face of depictions of the domination of humans over other humans. This proposition appears highly problematic if it is not properly understood.

Kant holds that the sublime is pleasurable because it reminds us of our subjective freedom. For this experience to take place, two conditions must obtain. First, we must be in some way in the presence of a might capable of dominating us, capable of putting us in danger. Second, we must not be – or we must as if we are not – actually in danger. We must be at a safe distance. The sublime is the fearful which is not feared. If actual genuine fear is present then one is not experiencing the sublime. One is rather in a condition of real peril from which one must attempt to escape.

In viewing an instance of nature capable of dominating us, we are not necessarily viewing others who are actually currently being so dominated. If one sees an image of a tornado one experiences one’s current safety in relation to a possible danger and thus is reminded of one’s freedom from – and thus in that instance relatively greater might than – the tornado. This is what makes the sublime pleasurable. If the image of the tornado includes people being killed or thrown about, the image may well still serve as an instance of the sublime and thus be pleasurable but this is problematic on two counts. First, it is morally problematic to experience pleasure in the displeasure or destruction of others. Second, this hypothetical experience would be paradoxical in terms of Kant’s categories.

Experiencing the image of others being dominated by nature, if such an experience was an experience of the sublime, would remind the viewer of the viewer’s own power over – that is, the viewer’s not being exhaustively dominated by – nature. It would thus remind the viewer of the power of freedom to escape from unfreedom, of the un(der)determination of the subject in relation to what can appear as a fully causally determined and determining field. This is what every experience of the sublime does. The experience of the image of people being thrown about by a tornado would be an insufficiently universal affirmation of the concept of freedom. It would be the positing of the individual viewer’s freedom against nature, but the image itself would affirm the power of nature against freedom. The full experience of the sublime should not be a particular quasi-universality, but should be the affirmation of the power of (the concept of) freedom to relative (concepts of) nature as such.

It would be even more problematic to render a purely social case of dominance as sublime. That is, one can view nature capable of dominating humans and find that pleasurable. Said viewing does not require viewing any actual domination of humans. It is not clear that one can, however, view a situation wherein one human or group of humans is capable of dominating others without the existence of actual domination of humans by others. One might, for example, view a prison or a warzone from a safe distance (that is, from the outside as someone who is neither prisoner nor fugitive, soldier nor refugee), and thus experience some pleasure in viewing something which is fearful but which one does not actually fear. It is difficult to separate this pleasure from being essentially pleasure in an institution of human domination of other humans. At the same time, one can read narratives of human imprisonment (for example, Alicia Portnoy’s The Little School or Luz Arce’s The Inferno, harrowing memoirs of imprisonment and torture under the Argentine and Chilean dictatorships) and experience a pleasure at the freedom that prisoners manage to maintain in the face of powerful domination. This is not the same as the sublime, however, where one takes pleasure in the safe sighting of the fearful. The fearful aspects of imprisonment stories is not – or certainly should not – be what is pleasurable in reading those stories. In any case, Kant focuses on nature in his discussion of the sublime and the important aspect is that the experience trains or cultivates one into being aware of and exercising one’s freedom.

Is the sublime then an experience which is incompatible – either conceptually or morally – with the social? That is, must the sublime be experienced solely in relation to a nature free of humans? I believe this is not so. The way to resolve the dilemma of find human suffering – that is, the submission of freedom to nature – pleasurable is precisely to consider the status of pleasure in the sublime.

The pleasure experienced in the sublime in the sublime is a result. It is not an operation. That is, the pleasure does not do anything but results from the act of relativizing – the discovery of the mind’s own sublimity in the sense of the subjects power to disentangle itself from causal determinations. This pleasure results from the relation of the viewer to that which is viewed as sublime. This relationship is one of safety and distance, as I have already discussed.

The distance which creates the position of safety in the face of danger is not an objective factor. Kant’s emphasis on fear makes this point. The index of whether something is sublime is not the presence of actual danger, but the presence of actual fear. The sublime is the experience of lacking fear while encountering the fearsome. If one feels real fear then one is not experience the sublime. The criteria for testing the presence or absence of sublimity are entirely internal to the subject. Put another way, safety is the result of distance. Distance, in turn, is the result of – or, is – a procedure which the subject enacts: the subject distances the fearsome, takes the fearsome as if it were not dangerous. That this occurs in the encounter of representations of the fearsome in literature and visual art is no surprise. One expects a reader or viewer to not genuinely fear the representation of a tornado. It is, however, perfectly possible to be genuinely frightened in what turns out to be a non-threatening situation. It is also possible, though much more rare, to treat danger as if it were not dangerous, to put a higher force at a distance. [Badiou makes putting at a distance a key category of his reflections on politics, as the necessary relationship between forms of power and the subject which seeks to undermine them.]

Truth and the Sublime

Kant’s sublime is akin to truth in Badiou’s sense. Badiou displaces the production of truth to locations outside of philosophy. Philosophy does not produce truths. The truths which philosophy has are truths produced elsewhere, in the four fields which Badiou identifies as the conditions for philosophy: politics, love, science, and art. Badiou displaces the relationship with truth a second time, by making truth into a negative function. For Badiou truth is are not a proven fact, a correct body of knowledge, or a property of facts and knowledge. Truth for Badiou is “making a whole in knowledge,” a “hole-piercing.” (See Alain Badiou. “On A Finally Objectless Subject,” In Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean Luc Nancy, Who Comes After The Subject?, New York, Routledge, 1991. Page 25. See also Alain Badiou. Being and Event. London: Continuum, 2005. Page 327.)

For Badiou, a truth pierces a body of knowledge. A knowledge for Badiou is an established doctrine, a body or structure which is full and fills up discursive space. Knowledges can be thought of as know-how, the procedures and competencies by which established routines and actions are carried out. Truth, boring a hole in knowledge, create an empty space which is no longer dominated by pre-existing discourse, and so allows for the production of something new. Badiou here in many ways parallels his one time teacher, Louis Althusser.

Althusser conceived of the production of the new in science – or rather, the production of science from out of ideology – as a process of break. For Althusser, innovative thought accomplishes a rupture with established contents of – and ways of proceeding in – thought, a rupture which Althusser called an epistemological break. Later in his life, Althusser would make this breaking-with into the paradigmatic action of philosophy. Philosophy “makes a void,” clearing a space in which new production can happen. (Louis Althusser. Philosophy of the Encounter. Translated by G. M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 2006. Page 174.) [There is a tension here between Althusser and Badiou. For Althusser, philosophy – at least, Marxism as philosophy – is a science. Philosophy as a science makes the void in which encounters can occur. For Badiou, philosophy is distinct from science. Science is one of the four truth procedures which condition philosophy. It is the truth procedures which make a void and produce encounters. Philosophy’s truths depend upon this, but philosophy itself does not perform this operation.] Kant’s sublime has parallels with Badiou’s negating function of truth and Althusser’s breakage or void-making on the part of thought.

Kant’s sublime, Badiou’s truth, and Althusser’s philosophy each open up a space. Badiou’s truth and Althusser’s philosophy makes a hole in a causally determined field, which allows something new to be produced. Kant’s sublime lifts the subject up above the space wherein the subject is causally determined. The experience of the sublime is the subject’s own lifting up of the self over natural (and, perhaps, social) domination. This lifting up reaches a site where one is aware of and can exercise one’s freedom, at least to some extent, a site which preserves the possibility of breaking down domination.

It is important to reiterate that for Kant sublimity is not a quality of nature but rather is something in the subject or something which the subject does. The sublime is in a way a treating “as if” sublime. This is the meaning of Kant’s requirement that one be at a safe distance from the fearful in order not to fear it. The safe distance is not knowable in advance so much as it is the distance at which one encounters the fearful without fear.

Kant’s placing of sublimity firmly in the subjective arena is superior to the placement of this operation by Badiou and Althusser. For Kant, the subject makes itself aware of its capacity to be free or to make itself free. Badiou and Althusser are much more unclear on this. Althusser insists on what he terms processes without subjects. Badiou holds that a subject is generated by a truth (“On a Finally Objectless Subject,” 25).

Badiou and Althusser attempt to render the subject an effect, but without adequately answering what the subject is an effect of. In so doing, they are left with two options. They could displace the subject’s freedom onto something prior or “larger” than the subject. This would not solve anything, however, for the something prior or larger would be subject to the same questions as the initial subject and would essentially be to preserve the problem of the subject in a slightly different location. This displacement would amount to an infinite regress. Or, they could attempt to derive freedom from nature, to derive the power to causally determine and the condition of not being fully causally determined from the existence of causally determined conditions. The second is barred as far as Kant is concerned, and I am skeptical that Badiou and Althusser could square the Kantian circle in this way.

Kant’s sublime, as the subject’s discovery of its own sublimity, avoids displacing the origin of the subject onto something outside of and foundational to the subject. The subject, so to speak, is its own foundation, or treats itself as if it is its own foundation. This is compatible with Badiou’s view that an evental truth founds the subject, in the sense that these two views may be differences of perspective. Badiou’s claim about the foundation of the subject occupies a theoretical position which views the subject from outside the subject. Kant’s sublime in which the subject takes itself as if sublime, is a view of the subject from within the subjective field. The former takes the subject as grounded on something beyond itself, which can either result in an infinite regress or the assertion of something – the supernumerary event – as logically primitive. One can, however, still become entangled in questions of what is and is not an event, which reintroduces the types of technical and counting procedures characteristic of thought via concepts of nature.

The sublimity of the subject breaks infinite regress by taking the subject and its sublimity as itself logically primitive, and not subject – qua free subject – to interrogation via concepts of nature. The subject is a figure of and which operates the concept of freedom. It must be presupposed. One can then no longer ask questions about the subject’s origin and its conditions of freedom. Kant, then, enacts the philosophical decision which Badiou takes as axiomatic, the choice to focus on rupture and aleatory freedom over structure and determinedness, but in a way which is superior to Badiou’s own enactment of this decision.