The Sublime, the Ineffable, and Other Dangerous Aesthetics

By Lochhead, Judy | Women & Music, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

The Sublime, the Ineffable, and Other Dangerous Aesthetics


Lochhead, Judy, Women & Music


IN THE MID-1980s JEAN-LUC NANCY OBSERVED that "the sublime is in fashion" ([1988] 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)

Sublime Primer

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. …

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