A Capitalistic Sublime?


/1/ – Ontological evacuation and the Sublime

There’s a moment, which I have already mentioned in previous posts, in Alenka Zupancic’s brilliant text Ethics of the Real where she carefully articulates the Kantian sublime. While I will not repeat her discussion in full, what I’ve been endlessly fascinated with is the ontological shift that occurs in order for the horrific to become sublime. As Kant illustrates it – it is not the object or event that decides whether it is horrible or sublime, but strictly the distance that the subject acquires from the horrific that transmogrifies it into the sublime.

The particularly interesting aspect of the shift is that it is fundamentally a narcissistic one. Opposed to popular dogma, narcissism is not about seeing oneself as better than everyone else, it is about seeing oneself as better than oneself, it is about detaching your identity from your body, as seeing yourself as tiny and insignificant. But, as Zupancic makes clear, this insignificance is from the point of view of our own being, separated from our physical body, a bird’s eye view cast upon ourselves. Kant states that the soul’s fortitude is raised, and we think we can match nature’s omnipotence. The kind of ontological evacuation becomes incessantly interesting – how integral is the narcissistic twist to the entire motion? How does the concept of drive relate to the sublime, in that drive seems fundamentally narcissistic (at least according to Zupancic’s argument) but at the same time drive is an internal mechanism, which seems not to be changed or much less effected by outside factors.

Where something like the Freudian Trieb, or death drive more specifically, lends itself to more radical acts, (the Lacanian/Žižekian act, the clearing of the field) it becomes less clear how much the pulsations of drive fuel the quite moments of dissociation. Or, to move to a related Freudian topic, is it the ultimate game of Fort/Da, of the child playing with the spool of thread? To follow the Fort/Da thread, how does the act of self disappearing function? This shouldn’t be confused with sheer apathy, or surrender, but an active motion of emptying yet also surveying, how do we “Turn on, tune in, drop out” or how do we “lay back and just think of England?” Or what about the rough use of the concept of zen?

There’s a Žižekian move that I am tempted to make, but it is one that is ultimately unsatisfying. In The Parallax View, our dear Slavoj argues that the ticklish object is the subject and that the ticklish subject is the object, that, the subject is subjected to the object and the object objects to the subject’s being.

/2/ – An atomized Sublime or The Tribulations of Kanye West

The aforementioned Žižekian move has a strong Kantian feel in that, as Philip Shaw points out in The Sublime, in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason he points out how Copernicus understood the movements of the heavenly bodies by focusing not on the spectacle, the planets themselves, but the spectator. Both strands of thought rely on the notion of the spectator not simply having a subjective or otherwise limited point of view, but that the object observed is fundamentally rife with the concept of perception. Looking specifically at Kant’s definition of the sublime, one can take note of the formlessness that’s imperative in the definition, the way Kant’s definition swings from materialist to idealist – it is an object but at the same time unbound, borderless. Or put another way, as Kant states in his Critique of Judgment, the sublime tests the limits of our imagination

The issue I would like to raise here is the possibility of a capitalistic sublime. The issue in regards to the sublime’s relation to capitalism hinges on the temporality of the sublime or in other words – how long is it expected from the horrifying to become a feeling of the sublime? The other related question is whether capitalism can cause a feeling of the sublime because of it’s extreme size or whether it functions more in terms of an atomized sublime.

In regards to the first point – it has been pointed out in the works of anti-capitalists, how there is an odd kind of fearful awe of the machinery of capitalism. While Marx’s Victorian novel style details of the factory come immediately to mind, I beleive that Antonio Gramsci’s writings reveal a more interesting view. In his prison notebook writings, Gramsci seems to have a strange sense of respect for the mind numbing effect of capitalism. One could argue that the mental deadening of the laborer is the slow transformation of the horrible (one’s working conditions, lack of benefits, low wage etc) to a postponed sublime (one’s ‘eventual’ wealth or at least the American dream of ‘economic security’).

On the other hand, and to address the second point, could capitalism function in a more compartmentalized way that seems so small and petty and necessary that it’s that which deadens us, because it seems beneath us? This leads us back to the problem of narcissism being woven into the concept of the sublime. Let’s take a look at a certain Mr West. In particular lyrics to a recent song ‘Cant tell me nothin”:

I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven
When I awoke I spent that on a necklace
I told God I’d be back in a second
Man, it’s so hard not to act reckless

Later on he says:

Must be the pharaohs, he in tune with his soul,
So when he buried in a tomb full of gold.
Treasure, what’s you pleasure?

Certain themes have been present in many of West’s other songs but, for instance many of the songs on Late Registration, he seemed far more critical of obsessing over capitalistic concerns. Jesus Walks, Gold Digger and the remix of Diamonds from Sierra Leone. The aforementioned clash between capitalism as sublime or an atomized sublime, is raised in these two passages. The first passage seems to contradict the concept of woman as das Ding (the Thing) in that heaven itself (the pre-Oedipal womb time) is being rejected in place of a small trinket. The second passage seems to suggest that greed or the need for wealth is the core of humanity, or simply noting the importance of desire. I will return to desire later on.

/3/ – The sublime through the uncanny

The sublime is heavily indebted to the artistic as is Freud’s concept of the uncanny as he woefully notes his need to dip into aesthetic concerns in the latter pages of his study. The uncanny’s relation to the sublime might be able to cast some light on ontological evacuation. In regards to the earlier mention of temporality, Freud seems to suggest that instantaneousness does not lend itself to a feeling of the uncanny, that the uncanny is more about a resurfacing that Freud often relates to a kind of castration anxiety. In this sense both the uncanny and the sublime are pleasurable but only directly and rise from initial feelings of anxiety or terror. Furthermore Kant argued that due to the limits of thought and the errancy of experience, it does not make sense to try and utilize psychology to understand the feeling of the sublime.

Whereas Kant (and subsequently Lacan) see the sublime as a kind of transcendent object, Žižek argues against this, following Hegel, that the sublime object is simply a stand in for the horrible negativity of being, the impossibility of wholeness, the terrible night of the world. While Žižek’s account is somewhat satisfying, it does not seem to speak to the particular problem of the capitalistic deadening, or does it? If labor allows us to switch our brains off, it seems to be motivated by something orientated towards the future and less connected to a psychoanalytic brand of temporality.

The capitalist sublime, if there can be such a thing, seems more like a false opening (more like the Kantian sublime) then a false covering over of a kind of negativity. Or put another way, it seems more of a concern via Proudhon than Marx. The capitalistic zen, the my mind/soul is somewhere else, seems to function through a kind of atomized sublime, the idea that each screw turned gets one closer to the displaced future where the capitalist realists live. Or back to Mr West: “He got that ambition, baby look in his eyes, This week he’s moppin’ floors, next week it’s the fries.”

So does the sublime have any place in here, in the atomized, bit by bit deadening which we take as a bridge to the capitalist utopia. Whereas the uncanny is an odd return to home, a wishful fear as Freud point out. It seems that while the uncanny fundamentally requires time and the sublime asks for distance, both are rooted in the feminine – the sublime in women as das Ding and the uncanny in female genitalia (as it is for some neurotics according to Freud).

/4/ – That certain longing

One could bring up Žižek’s argument here that capitalism serves as the imaginary real of our time, as that which binds the visible possibility of worlds (as he argues in Contingency, Hegemony and Universality – much to the chagrin of Ernesto Laclau) but still something doesn’t seem to sit quite right.

Also, to follow an idea brought up by Larval Subjects, can bricks of our ontology be deposited into texts, into objects? Following the arguments in Georges Poulet’s article “Criticism and the Interiority of Experience” one could argue that one’s consciousness is effectively invaded by another in the seemingly benign act of reading. The fashionable death of the author (a la Derrida and his cohorts) may snuff out this line of thinking perhaps a bit too quickly (and I myself am tempted to do following my distrust of phenomenology) and we find ourselves back at the place of strange exchanges of idealism and materialism in Kant’s work. Does all text itself illicit a kind of view of unboundness that is found along the sublime path? Or to broaden the question and to return to the atomized sublime – do all material objects have that sublime glow, that warmth of congealed labor, do we arrive back at the stoop of Marx?

The ontological evacuation of the sublime in capitalism seems to not be a sacrificing of the body to alleviate the mind, but the very elevation of the act of evacuation itself which may be the very American aspect of global capitalism at it’s worst. And if, as Žižek argues, the entire capitalistic machinery runs on the concept of the drive, how is it possible to break out a context where we are presently dead (or undead) and the impossible is placed in a constantly postponed dream of a lucrative existence. The feeling of the sublime is not so much postponed but the deadening feel of labor is eliminated as we see ourselves eventually living the good life. Our narcissism is not so much one of survival, of ourselves before the welled up ocean, but of our possibility to stop striving endlessly.

Philip Shaw ends his text The Sublime in a fairly disconcerting way – arguing for a return to the beautiful, that reintroducing desire in the context of the sublime is the only to save ourselves from nihilistic rumination. Following the work of John Milbank (and other Chrisitan figures who see the need to combat ‘postmodern nihilism’) Shaw falls in step with a kind of Levinasian reliance on the other – that the combination of two incomplete beings can give a kind of completeness, bring us back to beauty. Somewhere Lacan is laughing, desire never brings us quiet, it takes us to an empty house where we see ourselves looking in the window, sadly feeling our wallet.


2 Responses to “A Capitalistic Sublime?”

  1. I would like to see a continuation of the topic

  2. 2 gordondouglas

    wow, thats really fascinating, thank you

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