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Christine Battersby. The Sublime, Terror and Human Difference

London and New York: Routledge, 2007. 226 pp. $35.95

Reviewed by Matthew Harris

The sublime is an increasingly important topic in the wake of September 11, the shock of which has transformed the way many people see and understand the world. In relation to the political ramifications of aesthetics, Battersby investigates modern understandings of the sublime in the works of Arendt, Derrida, and Lyotard, as well as taking in the development of the term’s meaning, paying particular attention to the contributions of Kant, Burke, the German Romantics, and Nietzsche. Different approaches to the sublime are outlined using the latter, older set of thinkers, culminating in what could be interpreted as an inversion of the over-simplistic and now outdated view that construes Kant as a pioneer of equality and Nietzsche of its opposite. The contrast between these views is used by Battersby as the locus within which she locates her own position in relation to current cultural and political issues encountered among the perspectives of modern thinkers concerning the sublime.

Battersby follows Arendt in “finding an implicit politics in aesthetic judgement” (p. 206) and argues against interpretations of the sublime that are either ahistorical or set up a self/other dichotomy which is prejudiced, adversarial, and appropriative. Kant, often seen “as a simple defender of reason” (p. 16), is reinterpreted as constructing a notion of the sublime that embodied the values of the “male, Westernised ‘I’” (p. 16). This understanding of the sublime excluded women and certain races, as well as not factoring in bodily—and thus historical—differences. Given that the Kantian self creates nature, the sublime is not an external event impinging on a passive self, but “a kind of thought experiment” that involves interplay between the faculties of imagination and reason. The imagination breaks down “trying to grasp an infinity or a power that is too great for comprehension” (p. 32), leaving reason to take the “step back towards order” (p. 32), gaining pleasure through reasserting control by realizing one’s limits, transcending the fear generated by failing to grasp infinity. Battersby thinks Kant denied this pleasure of the re-assertion of the “I” both to women and to certain races (especially “Orientals”). Concerning the latter, “Kant seems happy to leave woman at the level of the ‘asthenic’, responding to emotion in a merely passive manner…leaving them incapable of…full moral personhood” (p. 63). It is appropriate, Kant thought, for the female sex “to be timorous in the face of physical danger” (p. 61), for women have to be concerned for the safety of the children they are bearing: “As Nature entrusted to woman’s (weiblichen) womb her most precious pledge, namely the species (Species)...so nature...planted this fear into woman’s nature” (Kant, Anthropology, 7/360 corr.; quoted in Battersby, p. 62, her italics. Battersby attempts to provide an in-text reference to an existing translation into English, but corr. indicates where she has “made corrections to the cited text”, ix). Therefore Kant thought women should not transcend or attempt to transcend terror through the assertion of reason, even if they could. Although the language of the feminine (such as Isis) was used by Kant and the Romantics to express “male alliances with the sublime” (p. 16) through the rise of reason, the sublime was debarred to fleshly females.

Unlike Kant and the male Romantics (such as Schiller and Schelling), Battersby sees Nietzsche as not couching the pleasure of the sublime in terms that pertained to transcending the limits of the senses and the imagination. In other words, Nietzsche reacted against a conception of the sublime that was ahistorical, anti-matter, and appropriated to it what was foreign. Later in his career Nietzsche would reconfigure the sublime, removing the term’s spiritual connotations and instead linking the sublime to a physiological conception of health. This Nietzschean sublime is “a product of bodily energies, rather than a question of the self and its transcendence” (p. 183). Battersby thinks Nietzsche’s drive for “three hundred foregrounds” (BGE 284; quoted in Battersby, p. 184), rather than a ‘beyond’ which negates what is foreign and ‘other’, is a “less appropriative” approach “to surfaces and the foreign” (p. 184). The shock of the sublime will challenge the values one has imposed onto the world, but, for Nietzsche, these come from a genuine other rather than Kantian self-generated nature, and can also eventually be incorporated into one’s own imposed values geared towards one’s health (p. 185).

Although Nietzsche became “untimely” later in his career, he was nevertheless initially influenced by, among others, Schopenhauer, as is often noted. Already going against the grain somewhat in The Birth of Tragedy by substituting the temples of Apollo and Dionysus for the Kantian non-spatio-temporal noumenal characterized by Schiller et al as Isis, the Nietzsche of this early work still saw the need to follow a master (Apollo and Dionysus) rather than moving “truthfully inwards into [one’s] own sun” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra: 228-30, corr; quoted in Battersby, p. 175). Battersby is right to show how Nietzsche’s differing stance with respect to the sublime came as a result of a process, from The Birth of Tragedy (dealt with in ch. 8) through to Nietzsche’s confident and distinct position in Beyond Good and Evil (in ch. 9).

Nietzsche appears more useful than Kant to Battersby when it comes to resources from the history of philosophy. This is because “the need for a multiplicity of historical narratives of the concept of the sublime remains urgent if the trauma and terror linked to twenty-first century representations of ‘difference’ and the ‘other’ are to be addressed” (p. 205; why this “multiplicity” should be regarded as important will be addressed later). However, Nietzsche’s conception of health can be understood in one sense as addressing concrete differences rather than pushing them aside, and as “Social Darwinism” on the other. Battersby writes that Nietzsche’s conception of the individual in relation to the other was that the former should open up to the latter “in a non-appropriative way” (p. 185), yet on the very next page she quotes Nietzsche arguing that “‘life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, over-powering of what is alien” (BGE 259; Battersby, p. 186). Battersby buries this quotation in a more particular discussion of the mother’s relation to the foetus. Similarly, one might argue Battersby takes very select passages from Kant’s works when she portrays him as harbouring misogynistic and possibly racist views. It should be said, though, that Kant’s apparent “racism” remains largely separate to his assessment of Islam. Battersby does well to show Kant’s ambivalence to Islam, seeing it on the one hand as “arrogant” and overly reliant on customs (p. 74), but on the other as “intelligent” (p. 73). Nevertheless, from the evidence she presents it is difficult to agree fully with Battersby that Kant had a “predominantly positive” analysis of Islam (p. 75).

Battersby thinks Nietzsche falls short of an adequate conception of the sublime for today because “he remains unable to think the bodily in ways that can adequately register female embodiment or the female subject position” (p. 15). Nietzsche, although re-describing the sublime in more physiological terms, remains in the Kantian and post-Kantian mindset of barring women access to the sublime. Against conceptions of the sublime that exclude women, Battersby turns to poetry and art created by women which ‘contribute to a tradition of “the female sublime” (p. 15). Of these, arguably the most interesting is A K Dolven’s DVD “between the morning and the handbag II” (2002), which depicts, from behind, a nude, bald, young woman sitting calmly, gazing out over an expanse of water, sitting beside a battered handbag. Undeniably a challenging piece, Battersby sees its power to disturb coming from the confidence of the young nude woman in this setting, rejecting the handbag (a potent image for the baggage modern women have to carry around with them), for “we still find it difficult to think autonomy and personhood in terms of naked female flesh” (p. 155).

Whereas Nietzsche’s refusal to allow women access to the sublime may have been symptomatic of his time of writing, the same cannot be said of Lyotard. Battersby thinks Lyotard does not single out women as not having access to the sublime, but, more broadly, in interpreting the Kantian sublime, ignores individual differences. In regarding the mind as “the exertion of thinking thoughts” (Lyotard, Peregrinations, p. 6; quoted by Battersby, p. 193), Lyotard bypasses the both the ‘I’, and, consequently, real embodied differences, the neglect of which has—as Battersby has shown—been a consistent trait of Western philosophy (p. 204). Battersby draws on Arendt to show how lack of attention to differences can lead to concepts becoming “frozen thought[s] that thinking must unfreeze” (Life of the Mind, part 1; p.171). Neatly linking the ‘sublime’ and ‘terror’ of the title of her book, Battersby draws attention to “the American military appropriating the language of ‘Shock and Awe’” (p. 205), which has in former times been part of the semantic field of the sublime. ‘Shock and Awe’, a phrase that once conjured up the sublime, is today linked to “endless repetitions and replays of gross acts of violence [that] have made terror seem everyday—producing neither ‘shock’ nor ‘awe’” (p. 205). Engaging with multiple, cross-cultural narratives may enable us to unfreeze this way of thinking about the sublime and terror (p. 205).

Battersby’s book is a penetrating, subtle, and scholarly contribution to the history of ideas. Especially noteworthy is her masterly and nuanced treatment of Kant’s indecision and confusion concerning the issue of the status of women as rational moral agents, such as whether or not Kant thought women “surrender personhood as they enter the marital state” (p. 55), were true moral persons in the first place, or merely “passive” (p. 63). Equally impressive is the amount of ground Battersby covers, taking in Kant, Nietzsche, the German Romantics, as well as Lyotard, Arendt, and Derrida. As a result, Battersby’s book is going to become essential reading across many disciplines.

Regent’s Park College, Oxford