IN THE MID-1980s JEAN-LUC NANCY OBSERVED that "the sublime is in fashion" ( 1993, 25), reminding us that aesthetic categories have a history despite the tendency to naturalize and universalize aesthetic experience. (1) In recent music studies the once moribund concepts of the sublime and its twin, the ineffable, have been resuscitated under the banner of postmodern thought, which in a single stroke claims them as both new and universal. As George Lakoff (1987) has demonstrated in his well-known Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, whose title I invoke here, categories in general are revealing about human understanding. Here I argue that the recent promotion of aesthetic categories of the sublime and the ineffable reveals a disturbing trend toward concepts that are contrary to the philosophical and political goals of feminism. (2) While various other scholarly domains have debated the conceptual value of these aesthetic concepts, such a debate is missing in music studies. This lack is "dangerous" to the extent it masks a regressive longing for an absolute--an absolute that, under the flag of the unpresentable, harbors a hidden and nostalgic return to repressive binaries of gender.
My task here is to historicize briefly the concepts of the sublime and the ineffable and to recount the critical debates concerning these aesthetic categories. Then I'll present a few instances of how these categories have surfaced in recent music scholarship in light of these critical debates. (3)
The first significant use of the term sublime traces back to a Greek treatise on rhetorical technique commonly attributed to Longinus. (4) Writing in the first century CE, Longinus described the sublime as a lofty quality of speech that effected a kind of transport for the audience. For Longinus, sublimity in oration "produces ecstasy" as well as "wonder and astonishment," and, flowing from the orator's linguistic skill, it "tears everything up like a whirlwind." (5)
Longinus's treatise was resurrected in the eighteenth century, and the concept of the sublime became central to the birth not only of aesthetics as the province of artistic experience but also, as Peter De Bolla has argued, of the modern human subject. (6) Turning away from the Longinian focus on the sublime effects of rhetoric, eighteenth-century authors presented taxonomic accounts of those phenomena of the natural or constructed world linked to sublime affect and considered aesthetic issues in the context of ethics and morality. By the mid-eighteenth century, accounts of the sublime had turned away from the ethical and toward psychology, that is, to the experience of the individual as an autonomous subject.
Once this change occurs, discussion of the sublime migrates into writing that is more strictly philosophical, affirming the break between aesthetics and ethics. It is at this juncture also that the binary distinctions of gender play a determinative role in defining aesthetic experience. Specifically, the sublime is gendered male and is opposed to the beautiful, gendered female. As Cornelia Klinger observes, this "polarization of the sublime and beautiful ... take[s] place at the same moment of Western history when gender relations undergo not a real revolution, but a considerable reshuffling in the wake of the Enlightenment" (1997, 194). Beauty is associated with things that are small, smooth, curvy, delicate, clean, passive, and quiet. The sublime is associated with things that are vast, rough, jagged, heavy, hard, and loud.
In his 1757 essay, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, the Irish writer Edmund Burke valorizes the sublime as a superior aesthetic category by virtue of a power that registers in prerational experience. Its association with "pain and danger" and the terrible invokes fear that is at once painful and pleasurable. (7) Beauty, on the other hand, is an inferior aesthetic category associated with "weakness and imperfection." For Burke, women are guided by nature to embody the attributes of beauty in order, presumably, to appeal to men's desire: "Beauty in distress is much the most affecting beauty." (8)
Such gendering of the beautiful and sublime also appears in the thought of Immanuel Kant in midcentury. It is explicit in an early work from 1764, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, and especially in its fourth section, entitled "The Distinction of the Beautiful and the Sublime in the Interrelations of the Two Sexes." Here Kant inscribes gender into the very nature of knowledge, which he qualifies with aesthetic categories: the understanding of women is beautiful, that of men is deep. (9) The ethical cast of the earlier eighteenth-century discussion appears in this Kant work as well: a woman's virtue is beautiful, while that of a man's is noble; a woman's actions are guided by an avoidance of the ugly; and while "there are good moral qualities that are amiable and beautiful ... they can not properly be included within the virtuous disposition" (Kant  1960, 57). In a single stroke Kant both degrades the feminine and the beautiful and elevates the masculine and sublime as superior both aesthetically and morally.
The distinction between the beautiful and the sublime recurs in Kant's later and highly influential works, and while the explicit gendering falls away, the gender-based opposition remains in force. In Kant's Critique of Judgment, the third of his trilogy of works presenting a philosophy of human knowledge and ethics, the dualisms of the beauty-sublime distinction play a significant role in his account of aesthetic judgment.
For Kant, knowledge entails the actions and interactions of the faculties of Reason, Understanding, and Imagination. Imagination synthesizes the sensory evidence of the world, Understanding "thinks through" the syntheses of Imagination, and Reason is our capacity to form pure ideas apart from the sensible world (Shaw 2006, 72-90). All human cognition requires the interaction of these faculties, but the capacity for morality resides solely in the realm of Reason.
In a judgment of beauty Imagination and Understanding are in a harmonious relation, creating a sense of pleasure. (10) So a judgment of beauty assures the smooth flow from the sensible world to conceptual Understanding. In a judgment of the Sublime, however, Imagination is not in accord with Reason. When faced with an object of extreme size or power, the Imagination cannot properly synthesize the sensible evidence--it cannot form a presentation of the object. As an "outrage on the imagination" the sublime is at once a "displeasure" emanating from the "inadequacy of the imagination" but at the same time a "pleasure," since the inadequacy associated with the sensible world makes us aware of the ideas and teleology of pure reason. (11) Because the sublime points to the human capacity for reason and hence morality, Kant asserts that the sublime is not a property of "things of nature" but rather an indication of our "superiority over nature within, and thus also over nature without us." (12) For Kant, the sublime is associated with things that appear unbounded by either form or sheer size, in other words, things that defy our comprehension; yet through this cognitive frustration the superiority of pure reason becomes apparent.
As a concept of extremes the sublime plays a significant role in aesthetic theory and artistic practice in the nineteenth century both because of the strong emotional content of its "negative pleasure" and because of the ideal of freedom it represented--the freedom of the pure reason from the real. Thus, for Schiller, the sublime "overstep[s] the limits of ... sense" in order to bestow freedom from the sensuous prison of the beautiful. (13) While the gendering of beauty and the sublime is just below the surface here, it bubbles up in his appropriation of the myth of Calypso and Ulysses. (14) Beauty, as Calypso, ensnares Ulysses in the sensuous pleasures of the body, but the Sublime liberates him to fulfill a higher destiny. The Romantic …