On the Sublime as Deformation Zone?

by on Apr.11, 2011

Sublime Zone as Peripheral Materials

Just now re-reading my grad-students’ excellent workshop submissions (sorry for bragging) I found myself thinking about the Sublime. The Sublime as we receive it through Romantic poetry already amounts to a paradox—beauty and terror, height and depth—but is carefully discussed in terms of polarities and binaries, with the ‘and’ both linking and firmly separating the two poles. Geographically the Sublime occupies both height and depth but separately—both the Pleasure Dome and the deep romantic chasm (Coleridge, Kubla Kahn), both Mont Blanc and the deep ravine of Arve (Shelley, Mont Blanc). In both poems a fluid current runs from one pole to the other; wired like a circuit or a battery with positive and negative poles, the current ‘flows through the mind,’especially through the poet’s mind, ‘and rolls its rapid waves’, generally from high to low.

Reading my students’ work, I wonder if we can imagine a reconfigured or non-configured Sublime, that does not rely on the topographical maps the Romantics configured but exists as obscurity, all inside, inside the atom, say, that is simultaneously also all outside, on the impossible-to-imagine denatured Moebius strip of the ampersand or Lyotard’s libidinal band? What if it were not a circuit but a zone? What if the sublime was the ‘and’ , that is, the charge, the motion, the activity, without the circuit, without the poles? A pole-less Sublime? A distributed (but erratically distributed) sublime? This might be something like the ‘subliminal sublime’ articulated by Daniel Tiffany in Infidel Poetics, or by my student Ji-Yoon Lee in her recent work, or by David Gissen in Subnatures. Of smoke, dust, exhaust, debris, puddles, the heat of crowds, pigeons, mold, mud, and other subnatures generally villified or considered peripheral in comparison to capital ‘N’ Nature, say, Wind, Mountains, the Sun, Waterfalls, etc, Gissen writes

What I identify as subnatures are primarily experienced as aspects of the seemingly subhuman conditions of contemporary urbanization and its subcultural peripheries. They are also those natures that stand against the remaking of the world into a pulsing circulatory apparatus.

He also holds

If the supernatural world is full of miracles, a religious world above nature, and the natural is the world in which human society is located, then the subnatural is the realm in which we can barely exist in the state that we currently conceive ourselves, both socially and biologically. It is that zone that is most fearsome, because it describes the limits in which contemporary life might be staged.

In this re-configuration, the subnatural, zonal sublime brings neither vivifying animation nor absolute obliteration as such, as in the Romantic model, but mutation, corruption, conversion, and degradation to vilified and/or unrecognizable forms of life, life in and as a zone– a deformation zone.

9 comments for this entry:
  1. Janaka

    The Sublime as Miltonic Chaos, weaving Heaven, Earth and Hell together and filling the void(s) between? The Sublime as Derrida’s Différance?

  2. Ronaldo Wilson’s Woundscapes and Racial Deformation Zones - Montevidayo

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  3. Lucas de Lima

    I guess this is why deep cystic acne always seemed sublime, to me, as a condition that deforms the skin, that both penetrates under and swells over it. Also, there’s that alternation between danger and salvation that characterizes the sublime, except it’s more simultaneous, as you say… one feels both relief and shame when a zit leaks or is popped (sorry if that’s gross).

    It seems apt to follow you, Janaka, as we just met this weekend.


  4. Josef Horáček

    What about the subnatural zone as the living space of the urban poor? A zone where the sublime meets the grotesque (in the Bakhtinian, class-conscious sense).

    On that note, it’s also interesting how the concept of the natural world as a pulsating circuit has been successfully co-opted by the world of finance – one of the many ways in which capitalism presents itself as natural. What is its relationship to the subnatural zone?

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  6. Joyelle McSweeney

    Josef, yes, the critiques you articulate are also articulated by Gissen– he critiques the ‘green energy’ movement which conflates these two notions of flow, capitalist and corporatist flow and the ‘flow’ of wind and solar energy over the planet. This may be why we see that asshole swift boater, T. Boone Pickens, supporting wind energy– the two ‘flows’ are the too compatible.

    I would say of Gissen’s book that the intro is excellent and after that there’s a strange sort of money-ism that seems to take over the book– the projects that excemplify subnatural architecture seem to be really richy-rich projects and the whole book is done up in the usual fancy/expensive/tasty production values… The critique is mostly confined to the intro (though his article on ‘debris’ is really good).

    Sarah your comment is amazing, so much food for thought, please post as a stand-alone post!

  7. Monica Mody

    The subnatural – if it’s the accumulating, zonal sublime we’re thinking about – wouldn’t it need to incorporate the impossibilities of miracles as much as “the limits in which contemporary life can be staged”? I’m not sure if Gissen’s three-level separation works for me. In any case, the idea that the supernatural is “above nature” belongs to specific religious traditions such as Christianity and Islam. There exist belief systems where the natural and the supernatural cannot as easily be separated/hierarchized.

    I would also like to imagine/hypothesize that re-configurations brought about in the deformation zone – the mutation, corruption, degradation etc – can at times be forces of good, beneficent. The mutants in science fiction occasionally have superhuman powers that they use to save the world! Dan Hoy had a few weeks ago linked to this article: http://www.softtargetsjournal.com/v11/jason_smith.php

    “In the immediate and sudden mutation of horror into a joy bordering on beatitude, Bataille sees these moments marked less by exclusion than by a mysterious (“inexplicable”) coincidence. This sudden transvaluation illuminates the painting and the figures within it with a flash of unsustainable (or unbearable) grace that Bataille contends is the sole possibility of “human greatness”: “It seems as if human greatness is found at the point where puerility — ridiculous or charming — coincides with the obscure cruelty of adults.””

    It’s a slightly divergent model than the zonal sublime, but I would also root for magical metamorphoses, which are as unwieldy and indigestible as the former.

  8. Joyelle McSweeney

    Hi Monica, love this adjustment. Love the permeation it implies. I’m thinking Artaud, his miracles of the plague, contamination-miracles which happens in dream locations as well as in and through the body, also Genet, the miracle of crime, miracle of the prison cell, prison sex… And yes I surely don’t think mutancy is bad qua bad– nor does Gissen I should say– that’s the point of his bk! J

  9. Joyelle McSweeney

    For some reason that phrase, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’ is coming into my head, also ‘In my father’s house there are many mansions’– not to write this back into Xtianity again, but the ‘scale’ problems of both those metaphors are miraculous and seemingly require infestation or obliteration as methods of miracle…