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Modem Theology 21:3 July 2005

ISSN 0266-7177 (Print)

ISSN 1468-0025 (Online)




Then Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, "What is your name, so that
we may honor you when your words come true?" But the angel of the
Lord said to him, "Why do you ask my name? It is too wonderful."
Judges 13:17-18
That the power of rhetoric often eclipses the power of thought in the history
of philosophy and theology is no surprise, especially after Nietzsche, when
one can dispense with all pretensions to the contrary; when the most elabo
rate systems of thought no longer manifest the "cunning of reason" in its
world-historical adventure, but simply various brute assertions of the will
to power. That being said, the doctrine of the analogy of being did not die
easily, but required a secret alliance to abet its destruction: that of Martin
Heidegger and Karl Barth.1 In the case of Barth, there is little attention to
detail: the analogy of being is the invention of Antichrist. In the case of Hei
degger, it is uniformly classified as a relic of "onto-theology", a hold-over of
the same "metaphysical" thinking that has dominated the West since Plato.
One will need to point out, of course, that the doctrine was already under
mined by Scotus, not to mention Ockham;2 that Cajetan's attempts at clari
fication were overshadowed by the Reformation's polemic against natural
theology;3 and that the doctrine virtually disappeared with the twilight of
scholastic theology in Suarezin spite of Suarez's extensive treatment of the
subject.4 One could even say that Suarez himself was in some measure
responsible for the doctrine's demise, at least to the extent that his theology
can be viewed as preparing the way for the modern separation of theology
and philosophy.5

John R. Betz
Theology Department, Loyola College, 4501 N. Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21210, USA

Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2005. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford 4 2DQ, UK and 350
Main Street, Maiden, MA 02148, USA.
368 JohnR.Betz

Of all the factors prior to Nietzsche, however, surely none was more con-
sequential and inimical than the rise of modern philosophy itself, in par-
ticular, its reduction of being to the self-certainty of the cogito (in Descartes)
and, later, to a species of modality (in Kant). This is not to deny the popu-
larity of the doctrine during the eighteenth century, chiefly among English
divines (though in a rather etiolated form, which made it susceptible to
Hume's critique of natural theology). Nor is it to deny its importance in
the revival of Thomism at the end of the nineteenth century, which gave it
new life, culminating in Erich Przywara's Analogia Entis6the book that
prompted several years of inter-confessional debate among Barth, Shngen,
and von Balthasar, to name but a few.7 But this was its curtain call. And
while it lingered in the writings of Gilson and Maritain, its fate was to meet
with afinalirony, a coup de grce at the hands of Aquinas scholars who claim
that Thomas never had a doctrine of the analogy of being in the first place.8
At face value, such a position is highly debatable, and one is inclined to say
that it is an anachronism of the first order, namely, to suggest that Aquinas
was a proto-Wittgensteinian, who did not have a "theory of analogy" or a
"metaphysics of being".9 But even more so, it is beside the point. For the
demise of the analogy of being has had extraordinarily little to do with
medieval exegesisfor what could this mean in an age that is beyond the
exigency of interpretation, when fidelity to the text can be understood only
as submission to the force of its own agenda, when interpretation is hence-
forth an arbitrary construction, a countervailing assertion of the will to
power?and everything to do with a calculated series of rhetorical associ-
ations that have proven so successful that few would think to challenge
Perhaps it is to be expected that one remembers the "prophets of extrem-
ity" and not the genius in their midst; the rhetoric of the hour, and not the
quiet work of a lifetime. Thus it happensas a testament to Barth's and Hei-
degger's successthat Erich Przywara, S. J., the revered mentor of Hans Urs
von Balthasar and Karl Rahner, and perhaps the greatest Catholic theologian
of his generation, is now all but forgotten; that metaphysics, once called "first
philosophy", is now a term of opprobrium; and that "onto-theology"that
magical formulais now considered a sufficient summary of, and cause to
dismiss, two and a half millennia of thought. Indeed, Barth's and Heideg-
ger's authority has been so entrancing, so mesmerizing, that contemporary
theology can envision only a "non-metaphysical theology"one that takes
its philosophical bearings either from the late Wittgenstein or from the coun-
sels of deconstruction.10 Of course, risking stupefaction, it is worth asking
whether this is a wise move for theology: to cut itself loose from Plato and
Aristotle in the manner of Tertullian, as if Athens has nothing to do with
Jerusalemas if Christianity has nothing to do with metaphysics, in spite of
the apostle's dictum that "'in him we live and move and have our being'"
(Acts 17:28). In the meantime, upon foreign directive, many a Catholic the-
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Beyond the Sublime 369

ologian has willingly abandoned as "metaphysics" much of the tradition the

Church holds to be inspired. As Heidegger tells us, the analogy of being
"belongs to metaphysics", belongs to the epoch of Being's concealment by
beings, and it is henceforth the task of philosophy to remain attuned to this
differenceand listen to Hlderlin.11 Whether or not we are swayed, it is
also worth asking whether this is an accurate account of the matter, whether
the analogy of being really is "metaphysical" in the sense that this term is
consistently employed. But we digress; the rhetoric of the hour is sufficient,
as it was for Barth: "I consider the analogia entis to be the invention of the
Antichrist and think that because of it one cannot become Catholic."12 Perhaps
the world did not hear the guns of August, 1932, but they served their
purpose: they answered the Catholic tradition with a single volley; they
spared legions of theologians (and philosophers) the labor of interpreting
Przywara's difficult book; and they enshrined for theology the triumph of
rhetoricand prolixityover the quiet labor of thought.
Of course, as a Reformed theologian writing in the tradition of Calvin, it
is not altogether surprising that Barth should have rejected the analogia entis;
nor, as a Reformed theologian writing in the tradition of Zwingli, that he
should have done so with such fervor. More surprisingand of relevance
for present purposesis the similarity of his thought to Heidegger.13 For
example, despite their obvious differences, both could be regarded as
prophets who were calling for a new beginning in response to the cultural
destitution of post World War I Europe. Moreover, both had legitimate con-
cerns: Barth, the reduction of God to anthropological terms, leading to a
Promethean glorification of humanity; Heidegger, the objectification of
Being, leading to the forgetfulness, historical estrangement, and technolog-
ical delirium of the West. But if they were prophets, they were also icono-
clasts, inasmuch as the renewals they sought could be accomplished only
through a radical deconstruction of the philosophical and theological tradi-
tion. Thus Barth inveighed against a theology that was ultimately complicit
in the rise to power of the Nazis; thus Heidegger called into question a philo-
sophical tradition that had forgotten the question of Being (and time). In
short, both were contending (in William Placher's phrase) against the
"domestication of transcendence", i.e., the codification into manageable
presence of what was no longer allowed to be absent (or in Barth's case sov-
ereign), whether at the hands of ex opere operato or "onto-theology".14 And to
this end they waged an allied war against representation: for the sake of the
event (whether of divine revelation or Being) that disrupts all conceptual
attempts to determine it in advance and scatters them in its coming. Cer-
tainly, there are differences between them, say, the difference between a
sublime God and a sublime abyss (das Nichts); and certainly there are dif-
ferences in style: where the one thunders, the other calls into question. But
both oblige us to listen. Moreover, both play force against structure (to
borrow a phrase from Derrida), and in each case the force of their rhetoric
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370 JohnR.Betz

is an intentional reflection of the sublime and irruptive content they wish

to disclose. The only difference is that Heidegger's destruction of "meta
physics" is intended as a propaedeutic to the disclosure of Being, whereas
Barth's polemic against "religion" is intended as a propaedeutic to God's
self-revelation in Christ. But here again they are similar, inasmuch as "reli
gion" and "metaphysics" are similarly constituted by an economy of repre
sentation that both are at pains to deconstruct.
For both of them, in any case, the analogy of being presented an obvious
target, because it seemed to represent a chain of reasoning to God, moreover,
a fixing of God as the supreme referent within an intelligible, if prodigious
economy of similitudes. In other words, it seemed to ensconce a thoroughly
ontic deity atop a pre-established hierarchy, and thus to confuse the God of
the philosophers (the causa sui) with Seyn or, in Barth's case, "the one who
loves in freedom". Whether or not this is an adequate picture and, hence,
critique of the analogy of being (as Przywara understood it) remains to be
seenthough let me already suggest that it is not, and that what generally
passes for a critique of the doctrine is a critique of something to which it
bears scarcely any resemblance at all.
In the following, therefore (in Part of the present essay), one of my aims
will be to clarify the maligned doctrine in order to re-present it for discus
sionbeyond all distortions of it. In order all the more to defend the analogy
of being, however, I wish to suggest (in Part I) that the polemics against it
are motivated not so much by any particular reasonsfor after Nietzsche
and Heidegger we have taken the leap, the Satz, beyond themas by an
unacknowledged aesthetic prejudice that has haunted modernity since the
eighteenth century, augured the aestheticism of the nineteenth (since beauty
no longer discloses depth), and left the twentieth century in the throes of a
nihilism to which postmodernity is simply a footnote.15 Briefly stated, I mean
an aesthetic prejudice for the sublime against the beautiful, for that which
shakes the foundations of metaphysicsand Rome.16 It is the prejudice, for
example, behind Barth's Reformed distrust of pipe organs and stained glass,
and Heidegger's predilection for domestic austerity; it is the prejudice that
informs Barth's rejection of philosophical ontology, and Heidegger's pecu
liar version of it; and it is the prejudice that has been inherited by any
number of postmodern authors, who have found in the sublime everything
from a glorification of the indeterminateand hence a philosophical justifi
cation to reinstate the cult of Dionysusto the figuration of ontological dif
ference. To be sure, following John Milbank, one may identify a common
discourse of the sublime, running from Burke and Kant through to the various
postmodern philosophies of todaya "master" discourse in which the analogy
of being figures, if it all, either as a Promethean attempt to lay hold of God
through concepts (Barth) or as the regulative principle of a metaphysical tra
dition that must be overcome if Being is again to be disclosed (Heidegger).19
If, therefore, one is to defend the analogy of being, one must perforce come to
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Beyond the Sublime 371

terms with this overarching discoursea discourse that is itself susceptible to

deconstruction, as we shall see, given that what it denominates as sublime is,
in its philosophical variants, ultimately nothing of the kind.
My dispute, then, is not merely with Barth and Heidegger (and with those
who follow them in rejecting the analogia entis), but with an overarching
discourse of the sublime, of which they are tokens, and which culminates in
the ever more strident declamations against analogy that are the hallmark
of French postmodern philosophy. The French avant-garde would deny, of
course, that it represents any overarching discourse, claiming that its rela-
tionship to tradition is that of a bricoleur, and that diffrance unmoors it from
any final allegiance (whereby it simply perpetuates in a new guise the
Enlightenment myth of autonomy).20 Nevertheless, one will find within its
ranks a regular fascination with the sublime as an aesthetic and philosoph-
ical topos, and a corresponding quasi-religious devotion to Kant, the new
Moses, and his analytic of the sublime, the sacred text and touchstone of
postmodern sensibility. There is also the irony that, in going back to Kant,
French "posf'-modernism shares a common point of departure with German
idealism, which discovered in the Kantian sublime the aesthetic mediation
of absolute knowledge. Admittedly, given its programmatic deconstruction
of all universal systems of reason (in the name of a still more radical
freedoma freedom now stripped of any teleology whatsoever), the con-
cerns of French postmodernism would seem to be worlds apart from those
of German idealism. Nevertheless, this apparently trivial connection is
revealing. For it shows that both modern and postmodern philosophy are at
root philosophies of the sublime; that both are guided by a metaphysical prej-
udice for the sublime against the beautiful; and that both are, in this respect,
utterly and intractably modern. The only difference is that modern philoso-
phy tends to construe the sublime in terms of an ultimate presence and iden-
tity (following Parmenides), whereas postmodern philosophy construes the
sublime in terms of an ultimate absence and difference (following Heracli-
tus). In either case, however, the beauty of being disappears, because it is
ultimately an illusioneither of the One (or Absolute) or of Nothing at all.
Indeed, whether along the lines of Parmenides or Heraclitus, both modern
philosophy (e.g., in German idealism) and postmodern philosophy end up
collapsing the native tension of the analogia entis (as Przywara understood
it), and thus both end up denying the Christian doctrine of creation.21 In any
case, far from surpassing modernity (or even antiquity), "posf'-modernity
simply repeats an ancient dialectic between Parmenides and Heraclitus at
the site of the sublime. But, of course, such repetition has proved rhetorically
convenient: for in the absence of any stated foundations, weary of wander-
ing the wasteland, postmodern authors have found in the sublime a kind of
Archimedean point from which to critique all forms of representation
theological or otherwiseand to advance in their place a univocal ontology
of difference.
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372 JohnR.Betz

Presumably Barth, who was known to have an ear for Mozart, could not
have foreseen the consequences of his complicity: the ossification of the
analogy of being and its dynamic rhythm into a stable dialectic (which
effectively undermined the Christian doctrine of creation); the concession
thereby, whether to modernity or to postmodernity, of an autonomous
secular sphere; and the inevitable reduction of theology to a regional, ontic,
andneed one even say?irrelevant science. Then again, perhaps he
assumed that theology could afford such losses, inasmuch as its investiga-
tions are determined not by philosophy but by Scripture, the Protestant
canon of which speaks of an analogiafidei(Rom. 12:6)albeit in a sense com-
pletely different from Barth's understanding of this termbut not of an
analogia entis (Wis. 13:1). But how will theology respond to postmodern
authors who are less reverent of boundaries, and who invoke the sublime
not only for the purpose of deconstructing analogy and the "four iron collars
of representation", but expressly for the purpose of destroying theology
altogether?22 Presumably, in face of such a challenge a strict, anti-meta-
physical Barthian, if he or she is not altogether speechless, will either accept
this criticism as applicable to Catholic theologydenying that an analogi-
cal ontology has any role to play in Protestant theology to begin withor
simply retreat into the "comfort zone" of narrative theology. One is free, of
course, to abandon metaphysics and hole up in narrative theologynothing
could be easier.23 To do so, however, is not only to deny the metaphysical
implications of Scripture itself, which apply beyond Christian discourse
to the entire universe we inhabit, but to blur the distinction between logos
and mythos, indeed (as Reinhard Htter has suggested), to make theology
indistinguishable from "theofiction".24 A further consequence, aside from
effecting theology's general impoverishment, denying reason its proper
fulfillment in thinking the Logos, is that theology is left without any
response to a virulent brand of philosophy that would gladly destroy ita
philosophy that seeks nothing less than the "deconstruction" of Christian-
ity, and to this end invokes the sublime (according to the terms of its par-
ticular aesthetic sensibility and metaphysical prejudice) as its ultimate
resource and "god" of appeal.25 In the unambiguous words of Jean-Luc
Nancy, who seeks a "sense of the world" that is unburdened by an economy
of representation: "That which we have to think henceforth under the title
of sense can consist only in the abandonment of Christian sense or in an
abandoned sense. Which one can also put like this: sense... can proceed
only from a deconstruction of Christianity."26 For whereas Christianity, as
another postmodern legionnaire puts it, "remains under the hegemony of
habitual or classical ways of looking", the sublime is a liberating experience
of "ontological dislocation", which discloses a sense of the existence, the
sheer facticity, of the world.27
More than anything, such rhetoric would seem to suggest a simple mis-
understanding of the Christian tradition; in which case one is obliged to
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Beyond the Sublime 373

point out that a pre-conceptual sense of the world as radically given, i.e., its
"thatness", has long been a feature of the Christian doctrine of creation (the
distinctio realis of Aquinas and the positive philosophy of the late Schelling
would be a few examples of this). At the same time, if the transcendentals
are related, if aesthetics is not entirely disconnected from ontology, then the
ology should not be surprised to see the debate with its critics carried out
on aesthetic groundscertainly not after Nietzsche, for whom there are no
other, and who turns the tables on Hegel to announce the aesthetic fate of
philosophy itself.28 Whether or not one agrees with Nietzsche, and whether
or not he himself is simply a footnote to the eternal return of the transcen
dentals, one avenging its historical neglect upon the other,29 it is a sobering
reality that the philosophical contest of the ages is largely reducible to a ques
tion of taste, to an aesthetic option between the beautiful and the sublime. For
example, whereas in Plato being is viewed as the beautiful, as form, as eidos;
in Heidegger it is viewed in terms of the sublime, the absence of form, and
the twilight of representation.30
The question, then, which is addressed equally to philosophy and to the
ology, and which frames the contemporary debate between theology and its
critics, is not whether aesthetic questions inform ontological considerations,
since they expressly do, but rather how one is to interpret this difference
between the beautiful and the sublime (a question that involves a host of
related distinctions, e.g., between the determinate and the indeterminate, the
finite and the infinite, form and formlessness, not to mention act and potency,
concept and will, necessity and freedom). In other words, the question is not
whether the beautiful and the sublime are different instances of aesthetic
feeling, which is obvious, but whether one is to interpret their difference as
continuous or as utterly discontinuous, as one of degree or one of absolute
rupture. In Nietzsche, for example, this difference is hypostatized as a war
between Apollo and Dionysus, which mirrors the fateful violence of the
cosmos itself (a move that would seem to confirm Heidegger's reading of
Nietzsche as the last metaphysician)and it is this same chronic metaphys
ical dialectic (between the diachronic and the synchronic, force and struc
ture) that informs the whole of postmodern thought.31 But here again,
according to Nietzsche's own terms, there is no reason why this must be so:
why the difference between the beautiful and the sublime should be inter
preted as one of conflict, or why postmodernity, following Nietzsche, should
align itself with Dionysus and declare war against the "oppressive" regimes
of Apollo and (by implication) theology.32
In response to postmodern attempts to deconstruct theology on this basis,
one might begin by pointing out that Christianity is not coterminous with
Platonism (i.e., any stable economy of representation), whatever similarities
there may be; that, unlike Platonism, it does not fear the sublime ocean of
the infinite ( ), but subverts Platonism's metaphysical categories
in order to speak of God's infinite beauty (as David Hart, following Gregory
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374 JohnR.Betz

of Nyssa, has recently argued).33 In addition, given that much of the debate
between Christianity and "posf'-modernity comes down to what one under-
stands by freedom, one must reaffirm that for Christianityhowever unin-
telligible this may be to those outside of the Churchit is precisely obedience
to love that leads to freedom,34 even to ecstasyadmittedly, not the ecstasy
of Dionysian frenzy, which is the terminus ad quern of postmodern autonomy
(though postmodernism claims to have no teleology), but rather the ecstasy,
beyond all violence, of loving union with God.
In the following, however, my principal response to postmodern philoso-
phy will be to argue that the postmodern "deconstruction" of theology, inas-
much as it rests upon an aesthetic prejudice for the sublime against the
beautiful, rests upon one possible interpretation of this relation and nothing
more. Hence, theology need do no more than assert its own interpretation
of the relationship between the beautiful and the sublime (in accordance
with its own proper metaphysics): not in terms of violence, but in terms of
proportion, which is to say, in terms of analogy. Or more to the point, theol-
ogy can simply contend (as charitably as possible) that postmodern philos-
ophy (following Nietzsche, aesthete though he was) is tone deaf: that it
cannot hear in the rhythm of aesthetic experience (between the beautiful and
the sublime) what a trained ear should hear. What a trained ear hears is not
a chthonic discord, a grating strife, but a proportion between the similar and
the dissimilar, between what we can comprehend and what we cannota
proportion that witnesses ultimately to the proportion of revelation: between
what John meant by the tangible clarity of the Word made flesh (John 1; 1
John 1:1) and what Paul meant by the "inscrutable depths of God" (Rom.
11:33); and thus to the analogy of being as Przywara found it summarized
in the language of the fourth Lateran council (1215): O n e cannot note a sim-
ilarity between Creator and creaturehowever greatwithout having to
note an ever greater dissimilarity between them."35
To be sure, for theology no less than for postmodern philosophy, the rela-
tion between the beautiful and the sublime points beyond aesthetics to ontol-
ogy (in keeping with an ultimate coincidence of the transcendentals).36 For
theology, however, in contrast to postmodern philosophy, which refers every-
thing either to a primordial violence (following Nietzsche) or to an ultimate
banality, a terminal nothing (following Heidegger) and interprets aesthetics
according to one or the other metaphysical dogma, the relation between the
beautiful and the sublime pointsfirstto an ontological tension native to crea-
turely being as such: between the "beauty" of its formal essence and the "sub-
limity" of its existence (which defies representation and rests solely in the
sovereign will of the Creator). But then, inasmuch as this aesthetic-ontological
tension of creaturely being cannot be reduced to a tensionless immanence (as
much as postmodern philosophers may try), it points beyond itself to the tran-
scendent source of its rhythms, of which it is an analogy: to the triune rhythm
of an ever greater God, whose beauty is sublime and whose essence is to be.
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Beyond the Sublime 375

Theology and postmodernity can be agreed, therefore, that the sublime

is an aesthetic passage to ontology, which takes one beyond the essentialist
discourse of the modern subject to the unfathomable factic-ontic event of
existence. The question is whether the sublime is a passage to a real
transcendence or simply a final seal upon immanence. And here, inevitably,
one is presented with a choice. Either one refers all essence to the pure poten
tiality and nothingness of the creature (following Heidegger), whereby the
pure potentiality and nothingness of the creature supplants the pure act of
God as the first term of postmodern philosophy; or, in the flipside of this, one
celebrates the sublime irruption of existence in the violent differential energy
of the surface (following in the bacchantic-Nietzschean train of Lyotard and
Deleuze); or one hears within the tension of creaturely being (between its
formal essence and its fathomless existence) the distant echo of a real tran
scendence, a real, rhythmic identity of the beautiful and the sublime in God.
At which point the most one can ask is: Can you hear it? And the most one
can say is: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Nietzsche, of course, was
not the first to demolish idolshis own philosophy being, at root, a secular
adaptation of the prophetic office. Perhaps the task of theology (on this front
at least) is to show that the postmodern sublime, as a surrogate transcen
dence (i.e., just another idol), ends up being little more than a neo-pagan cel
ebration of an eternal worlda world of undying strife (cf. Plato's
), a Hobbesian universe with no escapeand that, to this extent,
"posf'-modernity remains, like the modernity it claims to surpass, a dis
course of pure immanence, which ends in nihilism. Positively stated, the
challenge is to see whether the sublime can be reclaimed for theology;
whether the sublime, the moment of representation's collapse, rather than
deconstructing analogy, as is commonly supposed, in fact witnesses to
analogy as the rhythm of the being of the world.
To this end, given its genealogical relevance to the discourse of the
sublime, I begin in Part I with a consideration of Kant's analytic of the beau
tiful and the sublime in the Critique of Judgment. My intention here is twofold:
1) to show how in modern philosophy, as represented in Kant, the beautiful
and the sublime are viewed not in terms of proportion or harmony (in spite
of the fact that they work together for a common purpose), but in terms of
a productive conflict (which in postmodernity is then stripped of any teleo-
logical dimension and driven to an extreme); and 2) to show that, despite
Kant's manners of expression, the sublime represents not a frightening abyss
for the modern subject, nor even a fissure in Kant's thought, as postmodern
authors are wont to claim, but simply a momentary detour in an ineluctable
return to pure immanence. In this respect, I challenge the view of philoso
phers like Jean-Luc Nancy, who see in the Kantian sublime everything from
a passage beyond the modern subject to a prefiguring of "ontological dif
ference". Then, turning to the postmodern sublime as typified in Nancy, I
suggest that, for all its novelty, it too is a seal on totality, i.e., yet another con-
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376 JohnR.Betz

strual of the beautiful and the sublime in terms of pure immanence. The only
difference is that the sublime is no longer a cipher for reason (an auto-affec-
tion of its will-to-power of self-legislation), but a cipher for the ultimate
nullity of everything. Finally, at the close of Part I, given its profound con-
ceptual relevance to postmodern discourse in general, I consider how the
sublime figures as a topos of "post"-modern philosophy: how it defines its
various permutationsfrom Nietzsche and Deleuze to Lvinas; how it, in
any case, is posed in drastic opposition to the beautiful (continuing the prej-
udice of modern philosophy); and how it radicalizes the choice for modern
theology (and philosophy) between an aesthetics (ontology) of violence and
an aesthetics (ontology) of peace.
In Part II, in an attempt to present a positive, non-violent model of the
relation between the beautiful and the sublimein response both to modern
and postmodern philosophyI turn to the analogy of being as it was under-
stood by Erich Przywara, the brilliant Jesuit whom von Balthasar called "the
master", and whose subtle thought was monstrously reduced to a byword.37
In so doing, I hope to show not only that the doctrine is not what its critics
(Barth, Heidegger, Deleuze, et al.) have made it out to be, but that, as an
alternative ontology, "so old and yet so new", it is uniquely able to lead the-
ology out of the strictures of modern and postmodern immanence to a true
theological sublimeone that does not stand in conflict with the beautiful,
but in proportion to it.38 According to such a reading, the sublime is neither
dualistically and violently opposed to the beautiful, nor collapsible to it, but
remains within an interval of true, irreducible otherness, which is to say,
within the space offered by an analogical understanding of being as a pro-
portion of mutual otherness ( , as Aristotle puts it in the Meta
physics).39 For it is analogy alone, I would argue, in the fullest sense of the
word, that guarantees not only the determinate actuality of the creature (the
beautiful), but a real infinite and a real transcendence (the sublime). Indeed,
it turns out that analogy, rather than compromising difference, actually
makes it possible; and that the sublime, rather than overturning the analogy
of being, in fact demands it.

Kant: The Specular Sublime

Among the oddities of postmodernity, one can scarcely ignore the fact that
the time-keeper of Knigsberg has become something of a cultfigurein con-
temporary French philosophy.40 Indeed, one wishes to know what interest
the French academy could possibly have in this father of the Enlightenment,
whose ideology is otherwise so alien to its own. Initially, and without
attempting to provide a complete account of the matter, one might cite the
following reasons: (1) the importance of the sublime to the avant-garde (inas-
much as the sublime not only disrupts the mimetic economy of the beauti-
ful, but enjoins the artist to present what cannot be presented, i.e., the
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Beyond the Sublime 377

event-character of existence itself);41 (2) the corresponding importance of

Kant's Critique of Judgment (which, next to Burke's Enquiry, provides one
of the most extensive discussions of the subject in the history of modern
philosophy); (3) Kant's radical distinction between the beautiful and the
sublime, which is virtually canonical to every postmodern discussion of aes-
thetics; and (4) the importance of the sublime, as an aesthetic trademark, to
the general practice of deconstruction. Of course, whether Kant's cult status
is legitimate can only be decided by a careful reading of his actual text, and
so I begin with an account of Kant's aesthetics as found in the Critique of
What immediately strikes one about the beautiful, according to Kant's
interpretation, is that it discloses a pleasurable accord between nature and
mind, and to this extent holds the promise of connecting two spheres that
hitherto he had left, or so it seemed, hopelessly divided. Indeed, with his
analytic of aesthetic (and teleological) judgment Kant hopes to complete his
system and to bridge the gap between the theoretical philosophy of the first
Critique and the practical philosophy of the second. As he puts it in the intro-
duction, the role of the beautiful consists in that it discloses a certain subjec-
tive purposiveness in nature (and, hence, the glimmer of freedom in what
otherwise seems to be a fated and meaningless series of appearances). By
their very nature, therefore, reflexive judgments of the beautiful do not pre-
scind from the realm of the aesthetic but discover therein the desperately
needed transition from the real to the ideal. This, in any case, is the intended
yield. But even on those rare occasions when Kant surprises us with an
almost Romantic sensibility (as, for example, when he presents us with a
notion of the world as a work of art),42 it is clear that the value of the aes-
thetic is for him ultimately negative, i.e., that even the art of the world fails
to present the ideal. For the world does not participate in the objective beauty
of God, according to a Platonic model of participation, but only bears on
"occasions" of beauty subjective traces of a free design and teleology that
provide a deposit on the possibility of our own moral freedom. To be sure,
aesthetic and teleological judgment provide the understanding with hope
and a sense of something that transcends its conceptual grasp, but the beauty
perceived and the purposiveness discerned are, for Kant, purely subjective
determinations that say nothing whatsoever about the nature of things them-
selves. As he puts it,

An aesthetic judgment is unique in kind and provides absolutely no cog-

nition (not even a confused one) of the object, which takes place only in
logical judgments. An aesthetic judgment, on the other hand, refers the
presentation, by which an object is given, solely to the subject; it brings to
our notice no characteristic of the object, but only the purposive form in
the [way] the presentational powers are determined in their engagement
with the object. Indeed, the judgment is called aesthetic precisely
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because the basis determining it is not a concept but the feeling (of the
inner sense) of that accordance in the play of the mental powers.. ,43

Such a conclusion is understandable, of course, given the demands of Kant's

theoretical philosophy, i.e., once objectivity is no longer a quality of the
world, but a product of the imagination, which schematizes the categories of
the understanding and represents them to a transcendental unity of apper-
ception. In the words of Nancy, "In aesthetic judgment I do not depend at
all on the existence of the object... what is important is merely 'what I dis-
cover in myself' on the occasion of this object."44 And, true enough, accord-
ing to Kant's own terms, which underscore the narcissistic reflex of his entire
philosophy, what one discovers on the "occasion" of beauty is a certain sub-
jective dynamic between the imagination and the understanding. Specifi-
cally, the imagination, which otherwise serves the understanding in the
schematization of its concepts, applying them to the manifold of sense expe-
rience, is on this jubilant occasion given manumission to associate freely, in
short, to play. What, then, is beautiful about afireor aripplingbrook? Kant's
answer is unambiguous: they are not in themselves beautiful objects, but
they "charm the imagination because they entertain [unterhalten] its free
Of course, this "free play" is not without purpose inasmuch as it awakens
the self to a hitherto uncultivated capacity for disinterested judgment, and to
this extent it provides a needed transition from the particularity of aesthetic
feeling (the beautiful) to the disinterested universality of practical reason (the
good). But the cost of this revolution in aesthetic theory is rather high,
namely, the loss of transcendence and the reduction of desire to pure imma-
nencein spite of the apparently self-transcending move to universal, dis-
interested judgment. For what used to be the visible manifestation of divine
glory is now but a home-screening of one's own subjectivityone that
scarcely admits any wonder over the sheer gratuity of being, which Plato
and Aristotle considered to be the beginning of philosophy; or over being's
remarkable tranquility of order (tranquillitas ordinis), which inspired Augus-
tine's reflections on peace; or over the light metaphysics of Dionysius, Eriu-
gena, and the Chartres Platonists; or over the proportion, clarity, and
integrity of being, which defined the aesthetics of Aquinas.46 In short, the
other-signifying beauty of the world is reduced by Kant to an aesthetic occa-
sion for auto-affection. But his transcendental project does not stop here.
Forin a move that signals the Promethean tone of his entire oeuvre and his
radical, subterranean proximity to Nietzschethe philosophical value of
beauty lies in that it adumbrates yet greater capacities and powers of the
subject itself as deus artifex, as a pure act offigurationand presentation.
This outcome is not surprising, however, on three related counts: 1) given
the breakdown of the ontological order that Kant's theoretical philosophy
entails; 2) given the corresponding urgency to posit something in its place;
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Beyond the Sublime 379

and 3) given that Kant himself is singularly fascinated by the power of the
mind to configure reality and to legislate for itself (which is borne out in that
he finds a certain autonomy at work at every level of his investigations,
whether he is speaking of reason or taste, understanding or imagination, aes-
thetic or teleological judgment). Indeed, from the start of his critical philos-
ophy, it is Kant's abiding concern to establish the nature of subjectivity as
a concord of various autonomous powers. In his concluding remarks con-
cerning the analytic of the beautiful, for example, he writes: "In a judgment
of taste, the imagination must be considered in its freedom. This implies, first
of all, that this power is here not taken as reproductive, where it is subject
to the laws of association, but as productive and spontaneous [selbstttig]/'47
In other words, the value of aesthetic judgment lies in that it momentarily
disengages the understanding (i.e., its immediate need for a determinate
concept) and allows the self to taste imaginatively its own power of presen-
tation. Nancy is therefore right to say that in Kant the beautiful "arises from
the enjoyment of the subject, and indeed constitutes the subject as enjoying
itself, its unity and its free legality, as that artist-reason which insures itself
against the chaos of sensible experience and clandestinely re-appropriates
for itselfthanks to its 'hidden art'the satisfaction that it had lost with
God".48 Indeed, rather than reflecting the beauty of God and so drawing the
self outside itself toward the One who is ever more beautiful, beauty is now
the occasion for a reflexive movement back to the self, which is given a fore-
taste, in its capacity for disinterested judgment, of its own practical freedom
over nature. In short, beauty is now an occasion for the self to delight not in
the handiwork of God, but in the spontaneity of its own powers: "It satisfies
itself with and is satisfied by its power to present and to present itself. It
admires itself on the occasion of its objects, and it tends . . . to preserve the
enjoyment of its proper Bild and Ein-bildung."
The apparently disinterested nature of the beautiful thus turns out to be
an entirely self-interested affair after allone that entails, as John Milbank
has argued, the complete de-eroticization of the beautiful.50 For once beauty
no longer inspires a sense of transcendence, a love for an other, it can only
conduct one more deeply and despairingly into the chambers of the modern
subject and its "horizons", i.e., into the bad infinite of its "mirrored halls".51
The result, as Oswald Bayer has pointed out, is that Sophia gives way to
Narcissus as the symbolic figure of modern philosophy.52 Accordingly, it is
no longer wisdom or the beautiful in itself that satisfies, but rather a specu-
lar experience that redounds to the subject, which is given to feel (in an
accord between the active powers of the imagination and the understand-
ing) a pleasurable disinterest vis--vis nature altogether.53 The fate of beauty,
once the glory of the transcendentals, thus terminates in the truth of the finite
subject, whose creative powers it revealsamong them, the great work, the
ars magna, of the imagination in the "continual and uniform production of
reality in time".54 The greatest service of beauty, however, is that it makes
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380 JohnR.Betz

room, through conceptual repose, for the imaginative mediation of reason

and its supersensible ideas. For, inasmuch as it disengages the limitations of
the understanding, beauty effects a dim awareness (a preliminary revelation
of the outer court) that the archetype of the subject's various autonomous
powers is none other than the capacity of reason to legislate for itself
which, for Kant, ultimately means its capacity to initiate in a phenomenal
series the practical (unlimited!) ideal of transcendental freedom.
There is an undeniable speculative grandeur to Kant's thought on this
pointas Schelling, for one, rightly perceivedsince it is here, in the idea
of freedom, that nature and mind are seemingly reconciled. But if this pro-
vides a basis for a Romantic philosophy of nature, it is clear that Kant's
concern is primarily ethical. Indeed, the freedom and purposiveness one dis-
cerns in nature as subjective principles of teleological judgment have but one
purpose: to awaken the self to its own freedom as a rational being capable
of fulfilling the moral law it itself provides. In sum, the purpose of art (and
any apparent objectivity) is to anticipate the unveiling of subjectivity as prac-
tical freedom. That Kant should sound so similar to Fichte and Hegel is not
surprising. After all, for him aesthetic experience is but an occasion for prac-
tical education (Schiller), for a homecoming of Spirit to itself (Hegel); and in
this respect Nancy speaks of the philosophical end of art.
Once upon a time, the beautiful was 'the splendor of the true': by a sin-
gular perversion, which it is difficult to consider without unease, the
splendor of the true has become the self-enjoyment of reason. This is
perhaps the philosophic fate of the aesthetic as well as the aesthetic fate
of philosophy. Art and beauty: presentations of the true, which uses
them for its own enjoyment, anticipates itself in them, andfinishesthem
To be sure, whether Kant is speaking of nature or the beaux-arts, in his
philosophy the experience of beauty ultimately reduces to a kind of self-
mediation, to a particular (albeit preliminary) self-presence of reason, and
thus serves to confirm the modern subject (and the modern metaphysics of
subjectivity and presence) rather than to open it to anything beyond it.561
therefore concur with Nancy's interpretation, and with his legitimate criti-
cism of this aspect of Kant's philosophy. I cannot, however, concur with his
(and the standard postmodern) interpretation of the Kantian sublime, which
presumes to find in the Kantian sublime (against Kant's explicit intentions)
an aesthetic break with reason, and thus a point of departure from the
modern metaphysics of subjectivity. That being said, my present concern is
not to defend Kant's doctrine of the sublime, but merely to distinguish it
from what postmodern authors tend to make of itwhereby it will become
clear that one is dealing not with one, but two versions of the sublime: a
modern sublime (represented by Kant) and a postmodern sublime (repre-
sented by Nancy and others).
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One of the most salient features of postmodern readings of the sublime is

that the sublime figures as a kind of "promised land", a place of prophetic
refuge, because it registers an aesthetic break with every economy of repre-
sentation. In the dramatic words of Lyotard, "Sublime violence is like light-
ning. It short-circuits thinking with itself. Nature, or what is left of it,
quantity, serves only to provide the bad contact that creates the spark. The
teleological machine explodes."57 One can sense here something of the post-
modern sensibility and its interest in the sublime: its rage against the
machine, against representation, and its corresponding predilection for the
rhetoric (and aesthetics) of violence.58 Thus he goes on to say that "violence
. . . is necessary to the sublime" and that "the imagination must be subjected
to violence, because it is by way of its suffering, the mediation of its viola-
tion, that the joy of seeingor almost seeingthe law can be obtained."59
Admittedly, this is a reading of the Kantian sublime in relation to the moral
law, not a definition of the postmodern sublime as such. But it is from this
well, and from this patented interpretation of Kant, that postmodern authors
draw their water; and while it is not always possible to distinguish Kant
from his interpreters (for, like Lyotard, they may largely be correct), one can
readily detect a predilection for those passages in Kant's text which speak
of the sublime in terms of "violence", "abyss", and "sacrifice"terms that
clearly designate a radical break with the imagination and (by implication)
the beautiful.
The postmodern interpretation may be peculiar, but it is not without merit.
For whereas, in the case of the beautiful, nature delights the faculties, i.e.,
occasions a harmonious interplay of the understanding and the imagination,
in the sublime nature would seem to raise its ugly head, to disrupt any pre-
established concord between nature and mind, and to occasion a reciprocal
violence: wherein nature threatens and the subject is invigorated with a
feeling of its own superiority, its own capacity for dominion over nature.
Thus, there is clear warrant for the postmodern attention to violence in
Kant's text and for a corresponding separation of the beautiful from the
sublime. There is also some justification for seeing in the third Critique a pos-
sible passage to a post-metaphysical ontology. For whereas beauty serves to
stimulate a delight in the concord of the faculties and to present the subject
to itself in its active powers of presentation, the sublime would seem to rep-
resent a breach in transcendental immanence, an aesthetic occasion of the
infinite (to thought), and thus a negative presentation of something greater
than can be conceived. Indeed, it would seem that in his analytic of the
sublime, Kant manages to touch upon the transcendence of Descartes' third
meditation, to free himself from the a priori confines of transcendental phi-
losophy, and to offer a rite of passage to ontologyto a horizon of being as
the antecedent mystery of thought. Of course, if this is true, then it would
make Kant a forerunner of Heideggerand this is precisely how postmod-
ern authors (Nancy in particular) would like to read him.
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382 JohnR.Betz

It is highly debatable, however, whether this accords with the spirit of

Kant's thought: whether the sublime really represents a fissure in his phi-
losophy, a disruption of the metaphysics of the subject (and of presence),
and, thus, a postmodern opportunity.60 For whatever postmodern interpre-
tations may suggest, the Kantian sublime remains bound to the metaphysics
of subjectivity it supposedly displaces (since it ultimately reduces to an aes-
thetic mediation of reason's own potential). Moreover, it turns out to be
about presentation after all, i.e., the practical (phenomenal) realization of
reason as (noumenal) freedom. The difference between the beautiful and the
sublime is, consequently, not nearly as disproportionate as is claimed. For if
the sublime turns out to be a rite of passage, an aesthetic judgment that
reflexively mediates the supersensible ideas of reason, then it is not only not
wholly dissimilar to judgments of the beautiful, but would bear some
analogy to the "self-enjoyment of reason" that was noted above. This would
seem to be supported by Kanf s claim that the imagination, upon its failure
to present the idea of the whole, "sinks back into itself" and is "displaced
into a moving satisfaction" [rhrendes Wohlgefallen].61 Admittedly, this was
said of the imagination and not of reason per se. But, as we shall presently
see, Kanf s meaning is plain: the sublime does not lead beyond the cogito,
but simply mediates the subject to itself in a negative presentation of its own
supersensible ideas, in particular, those of the world and freedom. And, curi-
ously enough, Nancy himself poses this very question: "... since there
is satisfaction or enjoyment here, why is this not a mere repetition of
Unfortunately, Nancy's answer is unconvincing. On the one hand, he says
that "presentation does indeed take place but that it does not present any-
thing. Pure presentation (presentation of presentation) or presentation of the
totality presents nothing at all. One could no doubt say, in a certain vocab-
ulary [presumably Heideggeriani, that it presents nothing or the nothing."63
Whether or not this has anything to do with Kant's text, the question is
not whether the infinite is capable of positive presentation (it clearly is not),
but whether the sublime is a useful feeling that somehow mediates the
subject to itself. If it does, it is ultimately no different from the beautiful and
belongs squarely within the metaphysics of subjectivity. But since the
sublime is the designated exit from the beautiful and the economy of repre-
sentation, this is a conclusion that Nancy and nearly all postmodern inter-
preters are desperate to avoid. The result is a series of novelties. Thus, in
spite of all equivocations, the sublime turns out to be no feeling at all, since
"there is no longer anything to feel"; and since there is no longer anything
to feel, the sublime can be said to represent the very "reversal of both feeling
and subjectivity".64 Finally, in his effort to distinguish the sublime from the
beautiful (understood here as "the mere accord of presentation"), Nancy
interprets Kant's use of the term "negative presentation" to mean nothing
more than that presentation takes place.
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Beyond the Sublime 383

While it is true that in the sublime nothing is presented according to a

stable economy of representation, and that the imagination is carried
"beyond the image" where it is "sacrificed" at its limit, it is also clear that
for Kant something conceptualalbeit negatively with respect to the sensi-
bleis in fact presented. In a key passage, which directly controverts
Nancy's reading, Kant writes:
One need not worry that the feeling of the sublime will lose [anything]
by so abstract [abgezogen] a mode of presentationwhich is entirely
negative with respect to the sensible; for even if the imagination can
find nothing beyond the sensible to which it can hold, it feels itself
unbounded by this very removal of its limitations: and this separation
[from its own limits] is [at the same time] a presentation of the infinite.65
Clearly, for Kant, the sublime does not spell the end of feeling, but the begin-
ning of a higher kind of feeling: a feeling of reason's native powers (which
forms a connecting thread to Nietzsche, as we shall see). Furthermore,
according to Kant, the sublime is not a presentation of presentation, but a
negative presentation of the infinite, which is introduced to the imagination
at the point of its greatest distension. It is negative,firstly,because the imag-
ination leaves the sensible behind altogether; secondly, because the imagi-
nation proves inadequate to the idea. In the words of Lyotard, this means
"neither the absence of presentation nor the presentation of nothingness. It
is negative in the eyes of the sensible but at the same time is still a 'mode of
presentation' [eine Darstellungsart]".66 One is free, of course, to interpret the
infinite according to the language of ontological difference (as Nancy does
and which I will discuss at greater length below), but Kant's own concern is
unmistakably with the negative mediation of reason and its ideas. As he says
in another key passage, "All we are entitled to say is that the object is suit-
able for exhibiting a sublimity that can be found in the mind. For what is
sublime, in the proper meaning of the term, cannot be contained in any sen-
sible form but touches only upon ideas of reason."67
For Kant, then, the sublime corresponds to no sensible intuition (e.g.,
not even the ocean is, properly speaking, sublime), nor does it belong within
the realm of representation as suchso far modern and postmodern inter-
pretations can be agreed. But given the interest of the avant-garde in the
sublime as something that defies representation (not to mention the self-
mediation of reason), postmodern interpreters are inclined to ignore some-
thing equally obvious; namely, that even if no presentation is adequate to
the idea encountered in the sublime, this very inadequacy mediates another
higher presentation. In a passage that has received little attention from post-
modern exegetes, Kant writes: "This striving and the feeling of the imagi-
nation's inability to attain the idea, is itself a presentation of the subjective
purposiveness of our mind."68 Thus, negatively, the sublime presents the
inadequacy of nature and the imagination with respect to the ideas of reason.
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Positively, however, and to the very degree that it presents nature's inability
to present ideas, the sublime presents the subject with an enthralling sense
of its own superiority over nature, i.e., a feeling that it is more than nature and
that it possesses a supersensible destiny.69 Indeed, what we mistakenly call
sublime in nature is that "power of the mind to soar above certain obstacles
of sensibility by means of moral principles".70 Whether or not such moral tri-
umphalism agrees with postmodern sentiments, it was so obvious to Kant's
contemporaries that Schiller could begin his essay on the sublime by saying:
"We can an object sublime if, whenever the object is presented or represented,
our sensuous nature feels its limits, but our rational nature feels its superi-
ority, its freedom from limits. Thus, we come up short against a sublime
object physically, but we elevate ourselves above it morally, namely, through
ideas."71 Accordingly, the aim of aesthetic education is "to abandon sensi-
bility and occupy [oneself] with ideas containing a higher purposiveness".72
And once this elevation is achieved, the aesthetic ladder can be kicked away;
for nowto phrase the matter in the form of an Enlightenment slogan"the
mind listens to the voice of reason in itself".73
It would therefore be no exaggeration to say that for Kant nature exists
solely for the mediation of rational ideas; that the object (which had been
on progressively shaky ground since Descartes) exists solely for the subject
(Fichte); and that truth is simply the homecoming of reason, the enthralling
discovery of one's rational destiny by way of a detour through nature and
self-alienation. Indeed, one can see here, in types and shadows, the very
logic of German idealism: nature is no longer a manifestation of the divine,
but a necessary detour on the way back home: its smallness demonstrates
the greatness of reason; its resistance, reason's superior pleasure; its mechan-
ical necessity, reason's freedom. In words that point directly to Fichte and
confirm what Hegel meant by the Enlightenment's discovery of the for itself
of Geist, Kant says: "The sublime consists merely in a relation, wherein we
judge the sensible in the presentation of nature to be suitable for a possible
supersensible use."74 What is more, he says that the imagination is con-
strained to think of nature as a schema for ideas and that the development of
practical ideas does violence to sensibility: ".,. it is a violence that reason
exerts upon sensibility, only to expand it according to its own domain (the
practical) and to let it look out upon the infinite, which is for it an abyss".75
One must emphasize that it is an abyss for sensibility and the imagination,
not for reason. For by way of its own inadequacy, the imagination delivers
unto reason that to which reason alone is adequate, namely, the ideas of reason
itself, e.g., that of totality, the absolute whole, which gains admittance to
thought by the idea of magnitude (the mathematical sublime) and which
marks the beginning of respect for the ideas and capacities of the subject.
Properly speaking, such respect is owed not to theoretical reason, however,
whichfirstprovides the understanding with a world, but to practical reason;
for here one is led to a recognition not only of reason's freedom over nature,
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Beyond the Sublime 385

but of its sublime power to present, i.e., to enact (and, hence, to make appear)
ideas that are otherwise entirely negative with respect to the sensible.76
In any case, rather than constituting a fissure in Kant's system, the sublime
thus turns out to be an aesthetic passage to the practical. Indeed, for Kant the
sublime is no abyss that reason is unable to vault, but the very bridge to
reason itself: the point of departure from the sensible, the sublime point of
contact with rational ideas, the vantage from which nature, even in its grand-
est scale, appears small. Moreover, it is here that the needed transition is
made from nature to freedom, from reflexive to determinative judgment. For
whereas, in the case of the beautiful, judgment was still looking for a sub-
jective principle a priori, which it presumed to find in the concept of purpo-
siveness, in the case of the sublime, judgment has arrived at its very source:
the idea of freedom, the capacity of the subject practically to determine itself,
which is the ratio essendi of all the mind's operations. As Kant puts it, "The
moral law in us is in itself sufficiently and originally determinative, so that
it does not even permit us to cast about for some additional determinative
basis."77 Thus, it is here, where aesthetics and ethics coincide, that one arrives
at the pinnacle of Kant's system. For just as nature (through the feeling of
the sublime) leads to the moral law, the moral law turns out to be what is
truly sublime. Indeed, the moral law is finally given in the feeling of the
sublime the requisite power to bend the will to its demands: "It follows from
this that (the moral) good . . . must be presented not only as beautiful but
even more so as sublime, so that it arouses more the feeling of respect (which
disdains charm) than of love and familiar affection."78 Clearly, Kant is happy
to speak of the beautiful in connection with the moral law, but the sublime
serves a far higher purpose. "For human nature", as Kant puts it, "does not
of itself harmonize with that good, but only through violence, which reason
exerts upon sensibility."79 Thus, at the very point where the beautiful and
the sublime would seem to coincide, the moral law calls for their separation.
Indeed, rather than be sullied by any affection, any form of eros, it demands
the sacrifice of the beautiful in an offering to its own sublimity. But such
sacrifice is acceptable, aufgehoben, because it is precisely the rejection of love
(of charm, of affection) that mediates a new and superior sense of self, an
inebriating sense of the power of the will to forge a rational destiny.
In this last respect, therefore, postmodern interpretations are right to
detect in Kant a radical, even violent sundering of the sublime from the beau-
tifulas well as a founding moment in the genealogy (and ontology) of post-
modern philosophy. For once reason no longer has an objective coordinate
(e.g., Plato's Forms), and once the order of the soul's faculties no longer
reflects a beautiful and harmonious cosmic order in which the soul partici-
pates, then the submission of the will to reason can be secured only through
a vague intuition of reason's "greatness" and a corresponding will to be
swayed by reason's ideas. At which pointcould Kant fathom it?ever so
little was required for reason's "greatness" to collapse into the "greatness"
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386 JohnR.Betz

of the will, and for reason to become a cipher for the "will to power". To be
sure, already in Kant a vista opens to Nietzsche: from reason (exalted to the
point of a necessary collapse) to the will (subterranean, but on therise),from
rationalism to an incipient voluntarism, where the connecting thread is vio-
lence, in this case, a violent imposition of practical laws.80 But even if Kant's
rationalism ultimately collapses into voluntarism, even if the feeling of the
sublime ultimately amounts to a Dionysian intoxication of the will to power,
and even if Kant's entire critical philosophy as a last ditch effort to save
reason only accelerated its demise, one should be honest enough to admit
with Clayton Crockett that this is to read "Kanf s latent implications against
Kanf s manifest conclusions".81 And Kanf s conclusions are plain: the feeling
of the sublime is an aesthetic passage, by way of the idea of the infinite, to
the idea of freedom, which is the very idea that reason posits to fulfill its
ends; and in this respect Kant is utterly and intractably modern. Admittedly,
the imagination touches upon its limit, but once again it is a limit for the imag-
ination, not for the subject qua reason, since what the imagination touches
upon at its limit is precisely the beginning of reason's proper domain. What
is more, the sublime turns out to be the aesthetic judgment most intimately
connected with a subjective teleology, since it is this judgment (more so than
judgments of the beautiful) that mediates a sense of freedom as the consub-
stantial idea and eternal image of reason itselfan idea that is offered by
reason to reason in an internal dynamism that is external only to an imagi-
nation that has not yet arrived, by way of a pleasing resistance, at its prox-
imate source.
In fact, squarely in the face of postmodern interpretations, one can speak
of the beautiful and the sublime in terms of various (somewhat analogous)
levels of self-mediation: whereas the beautiful unveils or mediates the imag-
ination and its own power of presentation, the sublime unveils or mediates
the ideas and proper autonomy of reason itself. Specifically, in the case of
the beautiful, the concepts of the understanding are disengaged so as to
induce an auto-affection of the imagination, which grants a vague intuition
of reason's practical freedom over nature. In the case of the sublime,
however, it is not the concepts of the understanding that are disengaged
(giving room to the imagination), but the imagination itself and its capacity
for schematization. Yet it is precisely at this point, when the imagination is
foundering in the abyss of presentation, that a bridge is crossedby a com-
pleted abstraction from the sensibleto the ideas of reason itself, i.e., to the
domain of the subject proper.82 Thus, the sublime signals no ultimate rift, but
simply a moment within a well choreographed dance of the various facul-
ties: in the beautiful the understanding makes room for the imagination, and
in the sublime the imagination makes room for reason. In any case, the value
of nature (the outer court) lies not in any objective quality, but merely in
those instances of the beautiful and the sublime that provide occasions for
auto-affection, culminating in a sacred intimation, a veiled prophecy, of
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Beyond the Sublime 387

reason's ability to legislate for itself and practically to fashion the world in
its own image (cf. Gen. 1:26). But if the beautiful leads into the temple
through a vague intuition of disinterested, universal judgment, the sublime
leads into the holy of holies: for here the imagination is no longer engaged
with the regulations of the understanding and the servility of schematization
(i.e., the outer court), nor even with its own freedom from the understanding
(i.e., the sanctuary), but with the freedom of reason, a freedom that is beyond
beauty and surpasses all imaginative powers of presentation. Indeed, it is
precisely at this point, when the imagination is disengaged in perplexity, that
it experiences under the form of a negative presentation a sign of the pres-
ence of the Absolute; at which point dizziness gives way to euphoria, and
the imagination is inebriated with a sense of reason's own infinity.
The role of the aesthetic in Kant's philosophy, we may thus conclude, is
to provide a propaedeutic to a system of freedom (and, as such, his entire
philosophy is the praeparatio evangelica of German idealism). Accordingly, the
value of aesthetic experience consists not in disengaging the self from itself
so that it can sing pieni sunt caelum et tena gloria Tua, but precisely in bring-
ing the self back to itself: from a "fallen" state of self-alienation to a medi-
tative contemplation of its own native powers. The contrast between Kant
(on this point at least) and Descartes' third meditation (as understood by
Lvinas) could not be more clear. For the occasion of the infinite, understood
according to the latter as an incision in the body of thought, a falling into
that is also a killing (occidere), an ideatum that exceeds its idea and opens out
into transcendence, is here incorporated by reason into reason as an idea that
it always already possessed.83 Thus, by means of the anamnetic discovery of
its own universality, reason heals itself of the wound of transcendence, "the
delirium that comes from God", and in so doingin the name of an ethics
built on human autonomysuccessfully relieves itself of the burden of
communion.84 As such, the Kantian sublime entails not only the reduction
of transcendence to immanence, a gathering in or recollection (anamnesis) of
anything foreign to reason and its domain, but the very confirmation of the
stable subjectivity it is supposed to displace.85 It is, therefore, most decid-
edly, not the precocious intimation of a postmodern fetish, but the familiar
tale of Narcissus played out in terms of a philosophical obsession with iden-
tity. It is, for all its grandeur, a Prussian fantasia: an adventure, seemingly
perilous, that never leaves home.

Nancy: The Postmodern Sublime

At the beginning of the foregoing section, I asked why Kant should have so
many devotees in Paris and then turned to Kant's analytic of the sublime for
a possible explanation. Now, however, his popularity is even more perplex-
ing given that the Kantian sublime ultimately mirrors nothing but the infi-
nite, self-determining power of reason itself and therefore belongs clearly
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388 JohnR.Betz

and unmistakably within the metaphysics of subjectivity, i.e., within the

"limits of reason alone". Indeed, given that postmodern authors are gener-
ally suspicious of the modern subject, what could they possibly hope to
salvage from this iron-clad system of reason's imperturbable sovereignty, a
system in which the "appendix" of the sublime, which seemed to be on the
verge of "rupture", is readily incorporated by reason into reason as an index
of its own infinity, as a feeling that empowers it to subjugate nature (which
is no real limit) and to fulfill its proper projects? For that matter, if the
sublime turns out to be somewhat analogous to the beautiful insofar as it
too is an affective mediation of the subject to itself, in this case as a rational
agent capable of realizing (i.e., presenting) phenomenally the transcendental
idea of freedom, how can postmodern authors insist that the sublime is not
only not about presence or presentation, but that it takes one beyond the
metaphysics of presence to the horizon of ontological difference? The sim-
plest answer to these questions is that the postmodern sublime, while based
upon interpretations of the Kantian sublime, departs significantly from it
(largely under the tutelage of Heidegger). Thus, whereas the Kantian
sublime terminates in the subject qua reason, the postmodern sublime
explodes this terminal point, indeed, all teleology, taking one beyond the
modern metaphysics of the subject and, more fundamentally, beyond every
metaphysics of presence. Furthermore, whereas Kant already radicalized the
difference between the beautiful and the sublime, the postmodern sublime
exacerbates this difference in order to inveigh all the more fiercely against
representation (and analogy) as that which occludes the revelation of the
surface and the void.
At the same time, as the foregoing section also intimated, while the post-
modern sublime departs from Kant's teleological rationalism, at a certain
level it represents a genuine fulfillment of Kant's implied (Nietzschean)
teaching. Indeed, there is an affinity here that reaches back to Kant's under-
standing of the theoretical, which forever joins the "post" to the "modern"
it never gets past. It is an affinity for the play of the surface, for a lack of
reality, where the only thing left is the triumph of the will and the world of
our creation.86 It is where theoretical philosophy, which had been on shaky
ground since Descartes,finallycollapses; where philosophy and poetry, after
centuries of conflict, finally join hands; where philosophy can finally affirm
with Shelley that the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
Whether one stops the simulacral flux through transcendental artifice (and
assumes the role of deus artifex) or through poetic license (assuming the role
of deus poeta) is therefore of little account; for philosophy, which once prided
itself on its distance from poetry, is now indistinguishable from it. Such is
the unwitting legacy of Kant's critical project: wishing desperately to provide
philosophy with a sure transcendental foundation, he ensured that philo-
sophy would henceforth have no other foundation than a faith in its own
productions. Hence, the final outcome of the Enlightenment is, ironically
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Beyond the Sublime 389

(because it believed to surpass it), a secularized Reformation: a faith that

mirrors darkly the faith of Luther, which clings tenaciously, wild-eyed, in the
absence of reasonin the face of the terrifying, groundless will of the deus
absconditusto the goodness of God. The only difference is that here, in the
absence of God (considered a mere idea of reason), one trusts in the final,
"transcendental" unity of apperception (cf. omnia opera Trinttatis ad extra indi
visa sunti), the "god" who dwells behind the trinitarian veil of imagination,
understanding, and reason (Kanf s Eckhartianism) in equally inaccessible
At first glance, the nihilism that this implies would not seem to threaten
the integrity of Kant's system, for he does say with remarkable candor that
the ideas of practical reason are fictions. Then again, one cannot help but
wonder whether Kant's equanimity was a bluff, whether the beautiful, in the
form of , had not, in fact, gained the upper hand (over the true and the
good). For what he fails to point outand with good reason, because it has
the potential to destroy his entire systemis that a certain faith is required
on the part of reason, which is suddenly forced to believe in itself as the creator.
Indeed, as the late Schelling keenly observed, it is precisely at the point of
its apparent historical triumph that reason discovers its utter groundless
ness, its own faith (sapere audel), at which point philosophy is brought to a
crossroads: either it bends the knee and acknowledges its dependence upon
something beyond reason (in which case the late Schelling, and not Schleier
macher, proves to be the better alternative), or it reverts to a secular faith in
its own creativity (in which case it follows Kant and heads inevitably, per
ilously, toward Nietzsche). To the extent that it chooses the second option,
however, i.e., the logic of the Enlightenment, philosophy foreshadows its
own twilight, because it has opened the door to the final triumph of the will;
and to this extent the Frankfurt school is right in seeing the despotism of
Kant's categorical imperativewhich is the only thing left, a sheer assertion
of poweras the secret bridge to the overman.87
What otherwise seemed to be a frightening abyss (prophesied by Hamann
and Jacobi, and vividly portrayed by Jean Paul), is thus filled by the spon
taneity of the subject (which makes Nietzsche the aesthete's version of
Fichte). Indeed, for the poetics of nihilism, i.e., the final chapter in the dis
course of the subject, the loss of transcendence presents no crisis of meaning
(despite Nietzsche's madman), but a moment of liberation, an opportunity
for Prometheus unbound. For now the chains of mimesis are finally broken;
now the subject is free to determine itself, to create itself, what is more, to
find nothing but itself amid the ruins of an objective world. In the words of
Novalis, "One succeededhe lifted the veil of the goddess of SaisBut
what did he see? He sawwonder of wondershimself."88 In this regard,
postmodern nihilism not only continues German idealism and its meta
physics of the subject (which here already is the creative source of any
value), but represents the last aesthetic vestiges of the Enlightenment's myth
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390 JohnR.Betz

of autonomy. As Frederick Bauerschmidt puts it, what is supposedly the

death of the modern subject is "actually the triumph of the modern narra-
tive of emancipation", which makes postmodernity "simply the intensifica-
tion of modernity's quest for autonomyfreedom without terminus or
But if the genealogy of Radical Orthodoxy (and Louis Dupr) isright,one
can trace the origins of postmodern nihilism past the Enlightenment back to
late medieval nominalism.90 Indeed, here already the stage is set for a com-
plete reversal of priority in the history of philosophy, from rationalism to
voluntarism, which parallels the aesthetic shift from the beautiful to the
sublime. For once one is presented with the possibility of a God who has no
necessary connection to his goodness, a God who can appear henceforth only
in the terrifying proportions of Luther's Deus absconditus, then reason is
almost forced to discover itself, in the form of the good will, as the only good
to be found (of which Kanf s Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten is the most
obvious example). In other words, once a vacuum is created by the rational
rejection of Luther's God, coupled with the reduction of phenomena to a
transcendental something = x,91 reason is suddenly forced to posit itself, i.e.,
to will itself, into the void, whereby the will becomes the first term in post-
Kantian philosophy. (Thus Schopenhauer could claim with utter sincerity
that his doctrine of the will was the true successor to Kanf s Ding an sich;
thus Nietzsche, the "last metaphysician", could define truth as the will to
power.) In sum, once a rigorous rationalism collapses under the weight of
its own groundlessness (an eventuality that Hegel only delayed), the will is
necessarily inflated to the point of absolute vanity in order to make good on
the loss (which makes Schopenhauer and Nietzsche simply voluntaristic ver-
sions of Fichte and Hegel). As a result, the subject is no longer defined by
virtue of its relation to an eternal Logos, but by its relation to an absolute
Will. In which case the subject can either sink into passive resignation (fol-
lowing Schopenhauer) or affirm itself in a wild, Promethean parody of
Lutheran faith (following Nietzsche). In the face of the second option,
however, it is given the inhuman, demiurgic task of world creation, of span-
ning the abyss with decorative illusions, and of maintaining them according
to its own myth of an eternal returnwhether along the lines of Nietzsche
or Gilles Deleuze; all of which is aptly summarized by Nietzsche when he
says, "All possible superstitions are posited into the void."92
Admittedly, Kant is hardly responsible for the origin of nihilism, which,
according to Conor Cunningham, can be traced back as far as Plotinus. Nev-
ertheless, as the source of a distinctly poetic brand of nihilism, he stands at
the beginning of a new age: the age of Bismarck and Nietzsche. The only dif-
ference is that whereas in Kant the sublime is an aesthetic mediation of
reason to itself (and hence a veiled ruse of the will to power), in Nietzsche
it is an undisguised affectation of this same will.93 But here again, inasmuch
as the projects of reason are already groundless, maintained only by the faith
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Beyond the Sublime 391

of reason in itself, there is arguably little difference between them. True, Kant
makes an admirable attempt to construct a sure, transcendental edificeas
if the future of philosophy depended upon it; and this is his explicit inten-
tion. But inasmuch as this edifice rests ultimately upon the transcendental
imagination (which Heidegger is right to identify with the transcendental
unity of apperception),94 it is an edifice that is built upon the power of the
subject to posit itself and its world, i.e., to create time and its own secular
space ex nihilo.95 And in this respect his system was implicitly, from the begin-
ning, a fragile structure destined to be swept away by the void it had created.
For the will is suddenly given the impossible task of generating a world and
a self out of itself, moreover, of founding and fashioning the very transcen-
dentals themselveswhereby, as Kojve keenly recognized, pure rational-
ism and pure voluntarism turn out to be flipsides of the same coin, mirror
images of the poetry of nihilism.96
But if the postmodern sublime develops out of Kant-Nietzsche, whom we
may now treat as one, it is scarcely less informed by Heidegger, who was
acutely aware not only of the problem of nihilism, but of the connection
between nihilism and the metaphysics of subjectivity. This is not to say that
Heidegger was not a nihilist. On the contrary, it is precisely in Heidegger
that nihilism receives its most thoroughgoing justification: when Being,
ipsum esse, is equated with das Nichts, when the transcendental something =
is finally stripped of every determinationexcepting, of course, the theo
logical traces of apophaticism, gift, revelation, kenosts, etc., which show his
philosophy to be at root a secularized theology, and which shows the trace
of theology to be inscribed, moreover, in every fugitive discourse of post
modernity (hence the apparent need for Derrida's "acts of religion", "cir-
cumfession", etc.).97 Indeed, if Kant and Nietzsche are nihilists of the
Enlightenment tradition, who depend upon nothing but the groundless
autonomy of their own productions, Heidegger baptizes the transcendental
abyss as the void, as the peculiar measure of history itself. The postmodern
sublime is thus constituted by these two strands: the poetic nihilism of Kant-
Nietzsche and the ontological nihilism of Heidegger. And because both can be
found in the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy, it is to his understanding of the
sublime that I now turn.
To focus a discussion of the postmodern sublime on Nancy cannot help
but seem arbitrary given the attention that has been devoted to this subject
by other members of the French academy such as Lyotard and Lacoue-
Labarthe. Nevertheless, Nancy is a more suitable representative because he
interprets the sublime so singularly in terms of ontological difference, and
thus witnesses to the fact that postmodern aesthetics is ultimately, if not
obviously, connected to postmodern ontology. Indeed, his philosophy is a
case in point that any theological debate with postmodern philosophy
(ontology) is, invariably, also an aesthetic one. Accordingly, what is at issue
here is not simply how his reading of the sublime informs his ontology, but
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392 JohnR.Betz

how it is played against representation, analogy, "onto-theology", the "meta-

physics of presence", etc. That Nancy should follow Heidegger's critique of
theology is to be expected: it is a postmodern commonplace. What is dis-
tinctive to his reading, however, is that he differentiates between the beau-
tiful and the sublime in virtually the same way that Heidegger differentiates
between beings and Being. Indeed, what is interesting about his reading is
not so much what he has to say about Kant (which is largely subversive),
but that he draws out the aesthetic implications of Heidegger's thought. For
example, while Heidegger rarely speaks of the infinite (or, for that matter, of
the sublime), Nancy aligns this concept with the sublime as an aesthetic ren-
dering of Being; so that whereas the beautiful is understood in terms of form,
contour, and limitation (and hence according to an economy of representa-
tion), the sublime is understood as an instance of "the unlimited" or, more
precisely, as an experience of the event of the "unlimitation" of all form. In
any event, for Nancy, the infinite qua unlimitation is not an idea of reason
(which readily recuperates the momentary foundering of the imagination
in order to mediate a sense of reason's freedom over nature, as in Kant's
dynamical sublime), nor is it an infinite regress or excess (as in the case of a
mathematical sublime), but rather an un-limiting of every limit, an undoing
of all form.
At face value, Nancy's distinction between the beautiful and the sublime
bears a certain analogy to the dialectic between day and night (Novalis),
form and chaos, Apollo and Dionysus, etc. But for Nancy the difference is
not reducible to such terms, nor is the sublime "a particular kind of presen-
tation", not even a "negative presentation" of the infinite; for it is precisely
"no longer a matter of (re)presentation in general".98 Instead, it is a tran-
scendental question of the possibility of presentation as such:
In the sublime, it is not a matter of the presentation or nonpresentation
of the infinite, placed beside the presentation of thefiniteand construed
in accordance with an analogous model. Rather, it is a matterand this
is something completely differentof the movement of the unlimited,
or more exactly, of 'the unlimitation' (die Unbegrenztheit) that takes place
on the border of the limit, and thus on the border of presentation.99
Inasmuch as it transcends the economy of representation, the sublime is thus
beyond all beauty and analogy; it concerns neither an infinite that adds to
finite being (such would be Hegel's bad infinite), nor a determinate infinite
in whose goodness and beauty all finite beings participate (as one finds in
Gregory of Nyssa). Rather, it is merely an experience of the limiting and
unlimiting of beings understood as an aesthetic "syncopation" that takes
place along the border of presentation.
Of course, little did Kant know that he was actually promoting a post-
metaphysical account of ontological difference, or that his analytic of the
sublime would one day be correlated with Heidegger's phenomenology of
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Beyond the Sublime 393

anxiety as an experiencea feelingof das Nichts.100 But this is plainly the

direction in which Nancy takes him. "The unlimited as such is that which
sets itself off on the border of the limit, that which detaches itself and sub-
tracts itself from limitation (and hence from beauty) by an unlimitation that
is coextensive with the external border of limitation. In one sense nothing sets
itself off thus."101 Thus, as with the phenomenon of anxiety, the sublime is
understood here in terms of a "syncopation" whereby nothing is revealed to
the degree that the eidetic order (the world of beauty, of forms) slips away.
But if the sublime is initially associated with a feeling of loss, it turns out to
be equally positive (as in Kant). For as with Heidegger's anxiety, the sublime
also gives something back, namely, an experience of the world as the gift of
form, as Lsmos. In fact, according to Nancy, it is the unlimitation of beings
as experienced in the sublime that first cuts the figure of the world. "In the
sublime, it is a question of the figure of the ground, of the figure that the
ground cuts, but precisely insofar as the ground cannot constitute a figure
and yet remains a 'raising that razes' [un 'enlvement'], an unlimiting outline,
along the limited figure."102 In sum, the sublime concerns an infinite qua
unlimitation that is hidden in the limit of every figure as the ground of its
possibility. And in order to distinguish this version of the sublime from a
mathematical sublime, Nancy says, "The unlimited is not the number but the
gesture of the infinite (CJ, 27). That is, the gesture by which all (finite) form
gets carried away into the absence of form. It is the gesture of formation, of
figuration itself (of Ein-bildung), but only insofar as the formless too stands
outwithout itself taking on any form .. ."103
The "infinite", then, has no ontic dimension, nor is it "the infinite sprawl
of a pure absence of figure", nor is it a Kantian idea of reasonsince the
sublime is the designated exit from the metaphysics of the subject. Rather, it
is nothing but the gesture of figuration, the es in Heidegger's es gibt, which
Nancy calls "the offering". As such, it does not register what is presented (in
scholastic terms, quiddity or essence), but simply the fact that presentation
occurs (in scholastic terms, existence as such). As he puts it, "The sublime is
that there is an image, hence a limit, along whose edge unlimitation makes
itself felt."104 Accordingly, the difference between the beautiful and the
sublime is that whereas the beautiful witnesses to a stable economy of rep-
resentation, the sublime witnesses to the unsettling fact of figuration itself,
in short, to the gratuity of any presentation whatsoever. "Sublime greatness
is that there is such a thing as measurable, presentable greatness, such a thing
as limitation, hence such a thing as form andfigure."105And it is in this sense
that the sublime concerns the "infinite"an infinite that is kenotically
hidden in what it gives, to the point of retaining nothing beyond this gesture;
and so an infinite that is, like Heidegger's Being, a generous nothing: a
giving without a God.
The only difference between Nancy and Heidegger on this point is that
the theme of ontological difference is played out here in aesthetic terms, at
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394 JohnR.Betz

the site of the sublime. Otherwise, the pattern is identical. Whereas in Hei-
degger the Being of beings does not appear until the stability and every-
dayness of beings is undone by an experience of anxiety, here it is not until
representation is "unlimited" by an experience of the sublime that the sheer
gratuity of form (of beauty) appears. In both cases, however, it is crucial to
note that while Being (the infinite) cannot be found among beings (or by rep-
resentational consciousness), the experience of Being (the infinite) does not
refer to something beyond beings (or presentation). For the experience of
Being (the infinite) is precisely an experience of nothing beyond beings (pre-
sentation)which is why Heidegger speaks of the Being of beings, and why
Nancy says that the beautiful and the sublime "take place on the same site,
and in a certain sense the one upon the other, the one along the edge of the
other... in such a manner that the beautiful is the presented in its presenta-
tion, whereas the sublime is the presentation in its movement.. ,"106
But if Nancy's version of the sublime takes its bearings from Heidegger,
it remains rooted in an interpretation of the Kantian sublime. In particular,
Kant's understanding of the impasse suffered by the imagination (in the
experience of the sublime) is seen to correlate with anxiety's peculiar lack
of a determinate object and a corresponding experience of nothing at all.
The only difference in this regard is that in Nancy the imagination is con-
fronted with nothing qua the "totality of the unlimited". As he puts it, "The
imagination can still feel its limit, its powerlessness, its incommensurabil-
ity with relation to the totality of the unlimited. This totality is not an object,
it is nothing (re)presented, neither positively nor negatively, but corre-
sponds to this: that presentation takes place."107 A further similarity is that
while the Kantian sublime (like Heidegger's Nichts) is disruptive of repre-
sentation and carries with it a certain negativity for the imagination, the
disruption it effects carries with it the possibility of a higher, positive
awareness. Admittedly, the awareness that is mediated in each case is quite
different, and it is precisely this difference that would seem to underscore
the difference, generally, between modernity and postmodernity. For
whereas in Kant the sublime mediates an awareness of the self-determin-
ing power of the subject qua reason, in Nancy the sublime exposes one to
the ontological horizon of any presentation whatsoever. Furthermore,
whereas Kant emphasizes the mediation of reason's ideas as the raison d'tre
of any sacrifice on the part of the imagination, Nancy emphasizes the sac-
rifice of the imagination at the limit of presentation, because it is here, along
the contour of every figure, that representation is undone, intentionality
is unsaddled (to borrow a Levinasian phrase), and one is exposedin a
mutual offeringto the ontico-ontological differing of the world. "What
comes to pass at the limit is the offering. The offering takes place between
presentation and representation, between the thing and the subject, else-
where. This is not a place, you will say. Indeed, it is the offeringit is being
offered to the offering."108
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Rather than mediating reason to itself (as in the Kantian sublime), the post-
modern sublime would thus seem to be precisely a case of dispossession and
"exposition"an exposition neither to an object of thought, nor even to the
absolute whole conceived as "the totality of the unlimited", but rather "to
the possibility of involving oneself in the union of a totality, the possibility
of beginning, along the edge of the unlimited, the outline of a figure".109
Indeed, it would seem that precisely here, at the site of the sublime, ratio-
nalism is replaced with an existential ontology; for one is no longer con-
fronted with the demands of reason, but liberated "to begin" somewhere in
"the union of a totality", i.e., somewhere along the differing border of Being
and beings. And yet, this shift from epistemology to ontology, from the
subject qua reason to the non-object of the voidand thus from modernity
to post-modernityremains fundamentally a shift within immanence: a
shift, namely, from the apex mentis of reason to the depths of the creature's
own nothingness. Granted, the sublime, as a revelation of the void, is said
precisely to "dispossess" the subject and to "expose" it to something beyond
itpostmodernism's token gesture at transcendence. But the potentiality of
the void is ultimately nothing other than a specular fiction of the potentia
pura of the creature itselfan anthropomorphism, one could say, indeed an
idolatry, of the most inferior sort (even as it purports to be the most delib-
erate iconoclasm). Accordingly, what is revealed in the sublime is ultimately
nothing other than one's own possibilities of being (just as the revelation of
Heidegger's Being, for all its emphatic alterity, is ultimately nothing other
than the revelation of the Being of beingswhich is the odd univocity
running through all postmodern talk of ontological "difference").110 In fact,
so intractably modern is "posf'-modernity on this score that, like the Kantian
sublime (and like the homecoming logic of German idealism!), it recuper-
ates everything alien and gives something back: perhaps not a renewed
sense of the freedom of reason, but a renewed sense of liberation all the same,
a liberation to "begin somewhere" unburdened by anything foreign to one's
own possibilities of being. And in this respect the secular "religion" of the
postmodern sublime (in precisely the disputed etymological sense of re-
ligare) is no different from that of the modern sublime. Neither knows any
true ecstasy; both return one by way of a brief detourthrough some form
of "dispossession"to oneself.
For all its supposed novelty, the postmodern sublime thus turns out to
be a radicalization of the Kantian sublime (and, hence, of the Enlightenment
project in general); for whereas, in the latter, the subject is confronted with
its possibilities as a free, rational agent (bound by the claims of no par-
ticular tradition), the postmodern sublime is the aesthetic passage to the
absolute autonomy of Heidegger's ethical nihilismthe mirror image of
his ontology of nothingan autonomy no longer constrained by reason
and its demands, or burdened even with the "fiction" of transcendence,
which Kant maintained, but an autonomy that revels in a world that is
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396 JohnR.Betz

now purged of all transcendence, because it is precisely the gift of nothing

at all.

In order to be understood as a world of senseof "absent sense" or

exscribed sensethe world must also be understood in accordance with
the cosmic opening of space that is coming toward us What is coming
toward us is a universe that is unique insofar as it is open on nothing,
its "something" having been thrown there from nowhere to nowhere,
infinitely defying all themes and schemes of "creation"all representa-
tions of production, engenderment, or mere originationand nonethe-
less not a mere, self-posited, sempiternal, inert mass, but, rather, a
coming more extended and distended than the coming of all origins, a
coming always pre-vented and preventing, devoid of providence and
yet not deprived of sense.111

Whether or not this makes any sense, i.e., a postmodern "sense" without
beginning or end, a postmodern "world" that comes to us "from nowhere
to nowhere", Nancy's intention (following Nietzsche and Heidegger) is to
recover a forgotten and displaced sense of this world, which is supposedly
occluded by every metaphysics (or theology) of transcendence. "As soon as
the appearance of a beyond of the world has been dissipated, the out-of-
place instance of sense opens itself up within the world."112 And in this
respect he repeats Nietzsche's call for an inversion of the "real" world, which
is perhaps the gesture of postmodern philosophy. At the same time, by
repeating this gesture, he again shows how inexorably modern "posf-
modern philosophy really is: how it simply repeats Hegel (and Feuerbach),
inasmuch as the meaning that an "unhappy consciousness" once projected
beyond the world is now discovered within it. The only difference in this
regard is that Nancy (following Heidegger) maintains an eschatological
moment that in Hegel is robbed of any existential import (by virtue of the
proleptic reach of absolute knowledge). Thus he speaks of a sense that
"arrives", but in the absence of any teleological dimension; indeed, of a sense
that reveals no new content from beyond the world, i.e., nothing transcen-
dent, but simply the hitherto undisclosed being of immanence as imma-
nence. "It is transitively the there, that is to say, it entrancestraverses and
partitionsthe taking-place of the sense of being as the event of a being-
there, the spacing of an arrival."113 Needless to say, such formulations are not
meaningful in any conventional sense of the word (and, for his part, Hegel
would remind us that any attempt to describe existence pure and simple
cannot do so without recourse to universal abstractions anyway, a fact that
postmodern authors do not seem to consider). Then again, from a post-
modern perspective, such formulations are meaningful precisely because
they mean nothing at all. For inasmuch as they mean nothing, inasmuch as

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they bracket the evident meaning, the "whatness", of every essential deter-
mination, they succeed in indicating what defies all representation: the sheer
"thatness", the existential bruteness of being as such.

At this point it is worth noting that, as an attempt to get beyond essence and
to illumine the sheer facticity of the world, the postmodern sublime bears a
certain similarity to the positive philosophy of the late Schelling. Yet, unlike
Schelling, whose genial thought required faith in God as the Creator, one is pre-
sented here with a vision of the world as an artifact without a maker, floating
upon a void: the attempt of an existential ontology to do justice to the singular-
ity of the world without reference to a cause of any sort, in short, the attempt to
speak of its positivity without its being posited from anywhere by anything. For
the late Schelling, certainly, this is nonsense. To which Nancy would undoub-
tedly respond that this is precisely the point. The task of philosophy is no longer
to reveal a transcendent sense, but the very breakdown of sense, which "comes
and goes" within an entirely immanent plane. "The there of being, its taking-
place, insofar as it is also a ravishment and a distancing (a coming and going of
sense), takes place neither anywhere other nor toward anywhere other than the
here of this world here. And this world here is not to be distinguished from
another world there."114 But, of course, as this statement shows, the more de-
cidedly postmodern discourse rejects theological content, the more surely does
it repeat its forms. Thus we have a "rapture"without God; a "coming and
going"without a Spirit; and a creatio ex nihilowithout a Creator. There is even
a "sense" in the absence of sense. To be sure, what postmodern philosophy prof-
fers, throughout its variations, is, at the end of the day, a formal "theology" in
the absence of theological content. One could go on to identify this formal
repetition in the apocalyptic of Nietzsche, the kenotic understanding of Being in
Heidegger, and the indefinite "deferral" of meaning that constitutes Derrida's
own peculiar brand of "eschatology". But in every case, such repetition perse-
veres, in true Promethean fashion (by means of stolen goods, of which nega-
tive theology is the most refined), in the most adamantine resistance to
transcendence, as evinced most notably in Deleuze's (and Guattari's) "pure

For all its novelty, the postmodern sublime, like the Kantian sublime, is
thus a discourse of pure immanence. The only difference on this point
indeed, the most basic similarity-in-difference between modernity and post-
modernityis an aspectual shift from the noetic (or epistemological) to the
ontic (or ontological), from the immanence of the rational subject to the
immanence of being as such. Thus, whereas Kant speaks of "greatness", of
"magnitude", but ultimately of nothing beyond the subject qua reason,
Nancy speaks of "greatness", of "magnitude", but of nothing beyond this
world here (since the "greatness" that is felt in the sublime is nothing but
the "greatness" of "unlimitation" that is felt in every figure.)115 To be sure,
the postmodern sublime is said to take one beyond the metaphysics of sub-

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398 JohnR.Betz

jectivity and thus, in a sense, beyond Kant, inasmuch as the subject is pre-
sented not with an idea that it itself conceives as a necessary demand of
reasonhowever bewildering to the imaginationbut with an ontological
horizon of the void, into which things vanish and from which they cease-
lessly return. As Nancy puts it, "In the sublime, it is a matter of the synco-
pated rhythm of the trace of the accord, spasmodic vanishing of the limit all
along itself, into unlimitedness, that is, into nothing."116 But it does not break
freefromthe bounds of immanence. On the contrary, it confirms them with
a shocking finality, so that, as in the case of Kant, no transcendence can
appear that is not transcendental; so that the infinite, which even in Descartes
is the signal of transcendence, is here reduced to the pulsation of immanence,
to the transcendental music of nihilism, to "a syncopation at the heart of the
schematism itself", which is to say, a "simultaneous reunion and distension
of the limit of presentationor more exactly, and more inexorably: reunion
and distension, positing and vanishing of simultaneity (and thus of presen-
tation itself)."117
Considered from the standpoint of feeling, one can only reiterate that
Nancy's version of the sublime is an aesthetic rendering of Heideggerian
anxietywithout Kierkegaard and without the dread.118 And inasmuch as it
offers no transcendenceto the point of explicitly refusing it in order to
reveal the "offering"it functions, in spite of Nancy's claims to the contrary,
as a seal upon totality.119 For unlike a theological sublime, it has no id quo
nihil maius cogitan possit; instead, it only feigns transcendence in a gesture
toward the void before settling into a comfortable transcendental vantage
on immanence. Furthermore, while it supposedly dissipates the modern
subject, in the end it only reifies the modern subject through an unsettling
exposure to the "infinite" qua unlimitation as the peculiar measure of its own
freedom.120 Likewise, while it wants to do justice to the radical "thrownness"
of the world, here again it achieves only another totality, because it has no
true infinite or exterior, only one that is collapsible into nothing but what
transcendental artifice is able to affirm: a nothing that is the mirror image of
its own groundlessness, its own potentia pura, its own "freedom".121 Such,
then, is the ultimate similarity between Kant (modernity) and Nancy (post-
modernity). Both are transcendental philosophies that play out between a
groundless subject and the empty horizon of its own possibilities. The only
difference, in this regard, is that in Kant the sublime (and the freedom it
reveals) mediates reason to itself as the highest, quasi-divine faculty of the
human being, who is still in some sense the imago Dei, whereas in Nancy it
mediates no possibilities of reason (much less anything divine), but simply
the brute, chthonic freedom that is one's inverted analogical birthright, as it
were, as the imago nihili. In either case, the experience of the sublime is not
a transport toward an inexhaustible goodness (as in Christianity), but a final
seal upon an immanence that has been purified of all transcendenceand
can therefore offer no additional promise, but only more of the same,
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Beyond the Sublime 399

whether it be an auto-affection of the rational subject or a syncopated repe-

tition of "the sense of the world".
Thus, whereas a theological sublime (sub-limine) runs up against tran-
scendence as a new possibility, the postmodern "sublime" is characterized
by a Kantian-Nietzschean celebration of immanence, which goes hand in
hand with a Heideggerian celebration of Nothing. Such are its defining para-
meters. But inasmuch as it is defined by these authorities, the postmodern
sublime is also defined negatively by its relation to theologyby a dogmatic
rejection of what is termed "onto-theology".122 Thus, in place of an infinite
God, who is curiously reduced in postmodern philosophy to a supreme ontic
hinge of the universe, postmodern authors turn to Heidegger's under-
standing of event [Ereignis] for an understanding of presence without origin,
hoping to justify thereby thefinalturn of the Copernican revolution: a brave
new world without hierarchy and the dreaded heteronomy of any respon-
sibility to anything or anyone but one's own possibilities of existence. In
order to achieve this goal, howeverin order to be free once and for all from
the threat of love and from any burdensome obligation to love in return
presence is made to turn on a series of tautologies that are doubtless more
fantastic than any God they are supposed to replace: "In the event, time
comes-up to time, time happens as time (as present), without happening in
time or temporally. The birth of time that would also be the time of birth:
time withdrawn from time, the time of a passage without present, the
passage from nothing to nothingbut the delivery of existence."123 But once
again, if the postmodern sublime is an expressly anti-theological aesthetic,
it is nevertheless determined throughout by the evacuation of theological
content. Thus one is proffered a form of "mystical experience", even a
"rapture", without God; a "coming and going" without a Spirit; and a creatio
ex nihilo without a Creator; moreover, a "sense" in the absence of sense. And
yet, is it not possible, following Augustine, that even this need for a "sense",
however bare; this need for a "mystery", however empty; this need for a
"rapture" that goes nowhere is a sign of an inextirpable affection for the
Good? Indeed, is this not a sign of the excess, the unsurpassability, the true
sublimity of theology after all?
Before turning to theology proper, and to the topos of the theological
sublime in particular, the question to be asked at this point is simply to what
degree Nancy's interpretation of the sublime is shared by other postmodern
authors; and, at least initially, one need look no further than to Deleuze's
(and Guattari's) express glorification of immanence. But if the postmodern
sublime goes hand in hand with an ontology of immanence, it is also and
perhaps even more recognizably advanced as an ontology of difference
(which is understandable, of course, once transcendence is construed as
a timeless identity, and immanence is affirmed as the flux of difference).
Accordingly, the postmodern sublime is neither recuperated by reason, nor
gathered within the confines of the same (as with Kant), but on the contrary
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400 JohnR.Betz

"solicits" the panoptic tower of the subject (as exemplified in Kant's Babel
of the faculties) and "proclaims liberty to the captives", i.e., the differences
that have been held in check by the "metaphysics of presence" since Plato.124
Forgetting for a moment that nothing could be (or in fact is) more identical
than a univocal "plane of immanence" (the pure irony at the heart of the
matter), this notion of difference is something that is shared by nearly all
postmodern philosophers. It is also here that postmodern philosophy
betrays its common antiquity as part of the insurrection of the many
against the One, of difference against identity, of play against structure, of
Heraclitus against Parmenides. It is, toframethe matter in political terms, a
"slave revolt" (led by Nietzsche) against the aristocracy of representation,
but one that remains enslaved to the ancient dialectic it ceaselessly repeats
a dialectic not even Derrida can escape, who in the name of libert and
galit drags the sovereignty of the self-identical (the concept of God) from
its timeless, empyrean tower into the contingent flux of difference. At which
point there arises the Promethean need to claim for immanence what
was previously ascribed to transcendence: the seal of eternity. Thus, in a
second, regicidal move, postmodern philosophy longs to baptize difference
with the very identity it opposes, to grant an aura of permanence (being)
to becoming, to eternalize "nomadic distribution", in short, to "crown"
anarchy, which, according to Deleuze, is the essence of Nietzsche's eternal
return.125 All of which goes to say that deconstruction, as a discourse of
the sublime, is ruled by a discourse of power; and to this extent, post-
modernity is faithful to its ontology and its genealogy, i.e., to an (egalitarian)
Of course, once postmodernity has adopted a fateful, Nietzschean ontol-
ogy of violence, rather than a Christian ontology of peace, it is no wonder
that this choice should be reflected in its aesthetic ideology as well. For if
Being has fallen prey to the necessary violence of becoming without the pos-
sibility of a redeeming Aufhebung, then it is to be expected that the same fate
should befall the beautiful and the sublime. And so it is. Beauty no longer
signifies Being, but simply various representations of power; the sublime no
longer signifies an excess of beauty, but the chthonic irruption of existence.
Needless to say, this is not the Christian story of proportion and harmony,
but a pagan story of power and strife (which is also, one could argue, the
final word of Heidegger's own philosophy).126 This is not to say that the post-
modern discourse of the sublime is without a sense of ethical propriety (at
least in the case of Lvinas). For whereas beauty, once it is evacuated of tran-
scendent eros and can be viewed (on a Kantian reading) only as confirming
the self in its active powers of presentationand can figure, furthermore,
even in the service of injustice, namely, as the decoration of terrorthe
sublime not only transcends political abuse but dethrones intentionality alto-
gether. It effects what the face does for Lvinas; it is at once the "solicitation"
of totality and the promise of transcendence, the foundering of the theo-
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Beyond the Sublime 401

retical and the passage to the practical. And here the postmodern sublime
reaches the highest intensity of its ethical pathos. But once it ceases to be
governed by the Good, i.e., by Kant's prioritization of the ethical and the
rabbinic temper of Lvinas, it collapses directly into immanence, beneath
the limits of "metaphysical desire", leaving no trace of transcendence
beyond the brute, self-transcending assertions (ex nihilo) of the will to power.
In the words of Antonin Artaud, the aerial spirit of postmodern sensibility,
"Really, things are without profundity, there is no beyond or hereafter and
no other abyss than this one into which one is put."127 Such is the minimal-
ist logic of postmodernity, which refuses transcendence and terminates not
surprisingly in the "theater of cruelty" (not to mention the "permanent law
of evil").128 And inasmuch as it adheres to this logic (this ontology), the post-
modern aesthetic is almost of necessity one of violence. The sublime is not
only opposed to the beautiful, but can appear only through its destruction
just as the God of Barth's second Rmerbrief can appear only by way of
The postmodern sublime thus presents two basic options: either it codi-
fies the political as a sphere of ineluctable violence, as the play of energy
throughout an entirely immanent surface (e.g., Lyotard, Deleuze, et al.), or
against this conclusion it posits the Other and transcendence out of moral
and practical exigency (Lvinas). In the first case, the sublime turns out
to be the point of eternal return to pure immanence and the nihilism that
this entails (despite the usual attempts by Lyotard, Nancy, et al. to say the
reverse: that transcendence and semeiosis are by definition nihilistic given
that they construe the immanent in terms of lack). In the second case, the
sublime turns out to be equally nihilistic, however, inasmuch as the imma-
nent is viewed with a Gnostic eye and transcendence is viewed as nothing
beyond the infinity of the ethical obligation. In short, whereas in the first
case "pure immanence" is baptized with infinity; in the second case, infin-
ity is evacuated of being.129 As John Milbank puts it, the postmodern sublime
either eroticizes the void as the nihilistic glaze on pure immanence (in which
case it follows Burke), or it ethicizes the void (in which case it follows the
explicit intentions of Kant).130 In other words, one is either suspicious of the
will and the conatus essendi, in which case one recoilsfromit in ethical pathos
(as does Lvinas, following Kant), or one glories in it, in the indeterminacy
of libidinal energy, and meditates consistently upon the sacred texts of Niet-
zsche, Freud, and Spinoza. Such are the alternatives. What they share is a
radical sundering of the beautiful from the sublime. What ostensibly sepa-
rates them is that one is a metaphysics of the sublime (Lvinas) in explicit
contradistinction to ontology, and the other is an ontology of the sublime in
explicit contradistinction to metaphysics (Lyotard, Deleuze, and Nancy). In
the case of the former, the sublime is invoked in the name of transcendence,
ethical obligation, and the Most High (the last glimmer, however Gnostic, of
the Good). In the case of the latter, the sublime is invoked in the name of
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402 JohnR.Betz

pure immanence, where nothing is left but theflickeringof simulacra on the

surface of the Void (the Nietzschean inversion of the real world). To reduce
the postmodern sublime to such terms is, of course, to defy its own prohi
bitions against representation; nonetheless, whatever permutations it may
engender, it remains caught within this dialectic: between the sublime as a
Nietzschean affirmation of the an-archic event of existence, and the sublime
as the crushing weight of an infinite ethical obligation, beneath which the
beauty of being disappears, never to be enjoyed.

1 This strange alliance is more than fortuitous; for what theologian was more willing to
fill with volumes the cubicle Heidegger carved out with indifference in his 1927 essay
"Phenomenology and Theology"? Indeed, Barth tacitly accepted Heidegger's delimiting
of theology as a regional science of faith. Thus, however much he may have affirmed the
objectivity of revelation against Schleiermacher, his own theology ironically accomplished
the opposite; namely, the reduction of Christianity to a subjective wager and, hence, to
a species of subjectivity. For a critique of Barth in this regard, see W. Pannenberg,
Wissenschaftstkeorie und Theologie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1987), p. 278.
2 One must bear in mind, however, that Scotus never asserted anything but a univocal
concept of being; that he did so largely in order to avoid the agnosticism he believed Henry
of Ghent's position entailed; and that he never denied a real and absolute difference
between God and creatures. See Op. Ox. 1,8,3 no. 11. For this reason, any erosion in the
doctrine of the analogy of being is to be attributed more to his (and Ockham's) denial of
the real distinction than to his doctrine of the univocity of being per se. See Catherine Pick-
stock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998
pp. 121f.
3 De nominum analogia et de conceptu entis, ed. P. . Zammit (Rome: Angelicum, 1934); Th
Analogy of Names and the Concept of Being, trans. E. A. Bushinski and H. J. Koren (Pitts
burgh, PA: Duquesne University, 1953). For a synopsis of Cajetan's understanding of
analogy, and for one of the best recent treatments of analogy in Aquinasand the rele
vant debates concerning itsee Gregory P. Rocca, O. P., Speaking the Incomprehensible God
Thomas Aquinas on the Interplay of Positive and Negative Theology (Washington, D.C.: Th
Catholic University of America Press, 2004).
4 Francisco Suarez, S. J., Disputationes Metaphysicae, in particular, Disputatio XXVIII, section
5 See John Montag, S. J., "The False Legacy of Suarez" in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology
John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward, eds. (London: Routledge, 1999),
pp. 38-63.
6 Erich Przywara, Analogia Entis, in Schriften, vol. 3 (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1962).
Hereafter cited as AE. (Note: an English translation of Analogia Entis, translated by myself
and David Hart, is soon to appear with Eerdmans.) The original text of Analogia Entis:
Metaphysik, which is reprinted here with a few emendations, was published in 1932. As
Przywara explains in the preface to the second edition, however, the Analogia Entis was
originally conceived in two parts, of which, for various reasons, only the first was com
pleted and published. In an attempt to fulfill his original plan, therefore, the second edition
complements the original work (Part I) with a collection of relevant essays written
between 1939 and 1959 (Part II). The second edition also provides new subtitles. The orig
inal work (intended as volume I) was subtitled "Prinzip" but is now titled (as Part I) "Ur-
Struktur", while the new addition (Part ) bears the title "All-Rhythmus". This change
was meant to correct any misleading impressions made (evidently on Barth) by the word
"Prinzip" in the subtitle of the original work. In any event, Przywara considered Part I
incomplete without Part II, which not only deepens the meaning and broadens the scope
of Part I, but represents Przywara's response to earlier criticisms of the analogia entis as a

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Beyond the Sublime 403

fundamental form of Catholic theology. For a recent introduction to Przywara, see Thomas
E OTVeara, O.P., Erich Przywara, S.J.: His Theology and His World (Notre Dame, IN: Uni-
versity of Notre Dame Press, 2002). For helpful bibliographical information, especially
regarding translations and secondary literature in English, and the previous work on Przy-
wara done by Niels Nielsen and James Zeitz, see pp. 245-247.
7 Barth wasted no time in throwing down the gauntlet. See the preface of the Kirchliche
Dogmatik, 1/1, p. viii; cf., p. 257. See, among the Catholic responses, Gottlieb Shngen's
perhaps too conciliatory, "Analogia Fidei: Die Einheit in der Glaubenswissenschaft",
Catholica Vol. 3 (1934), pp. 176-208; and Hans Urs von Balthasare Karl Barth: Darstellung
und Deutung seiner Theologie (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1976), translated as The Theol-
ogy of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation by Edward T. Oakes, S.J. (San Francisco, CA:
Ignatius Press, 1992). On the Protestant side, see Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Habilitationsschrift
from 1931, Akt und Sein: Transzendentalphilosophie und Ontologie in der systematischen The-
ologie (Mnchen: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1956); and Emil Brunner's balanced response to
the whole affair in Dogmatik, Vol. 2 (Zrich: Theologischer Verlag, 1950), pp. 32ff.
8 I mean here the view shared mutatis mutandis by Herbert McCabe, Ralph Mclnerny, and
David Burrell that Aquinas had no "theory of analogy", moreover, that he had only a
"logical" ("grammatical") understanding of metaphysics. As McCabe puts it in his trans-
lation of the Summa Theologiae, Vol. 3 Knowing and Naming God (London: Eyre and Spot-
tiswoode, 1964), p. 106: "Analogy is not a way of getting to know about God, nor is it a
theory of the structure of the universe, it is a comment on our use of certain words." Cf.
Ralph Mclnerny, The Logic of Analogy (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1961) and David
Burrell, Analogy and Philosophical Language (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973).
In this dispute I thus side with H. P. Owen and W. Norris Clarke et al. See, for example,
the latter's Explorations in Metaphysics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press,
1994), p. 45. "It is a strange fact, well enough known to Thomistic scholars familiar with
the whole of St. Thomas's thought, that the great underlying themes, the central struc-
tural principles organizing his philosophical worldview, are not ordinarily highlighted
explicitly in their ownright,as a modern philosopher would tend to do. The explicit focus
of his writing [...] is directed toward the solving of an integrated series of key problems
in a given area [...]. The central governing principles are used constantly, and indeed quite
explicitly, to solve these problems, but St. Thomas does not ordinarily thematize them
directly in a full-fledged exposition of them in their own right as universal principles."
To be sure, Thomas's entire understanding of the relation between God and creation is
implicitly governed by the principle of analogyunless creatures are either wholly alien
to God or identical with himand for this reason his doctrine of analogy cannot be
limited, in light of his explicit treatment of the subject in ST I, q. 1, a. 13, to a mere matter
of judgment (not even for Gilson), and thus to a merely intra-narrative semantics con-
cerning the proper application of human language to the divine. Even Burrell seems to
acknowledge as much when he says in a recent essay, "Yet since any warrant we have for
using human language at alleven perfection termsturns on the grounding fact of cre-
ation, such terms cannot be univocal, since they must be able to span 'the distinction' of
creatures from creator without collapsing it." See his "Analogy, Creation, and Theologi-
cal Language" in The Theology of Thomas Aquinas, ed. Rik van Nieuwenhove and Joseph
Wawrykow (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), p. 78; cf. p. 83.
9 A corrective to this view is offered by Kenneth Surin, "Creation, Revelation, and the
Analogy Theory" in The Turnings of Darkness and Light (Cambridge: Cambridge Univer-
sity Press, 1989), pp. 1-19, where he makes a helpful distinction within Aquinas's theory
of analogy between a linguistic subthesis (regarding the rules of proper theological pred-
ication, as governed, respectively, by an analogy of attribution and an analogy of proper
proportionality) and a metaphysical subthesis, which is the ground and sine qua non of the
former (and consists, ultimately, in an analogical "isomorphism" between God and cre-
ation on the basis of divine simplicity and causality). Indeed, as will be argued in Part II,
theological discourse (if it is to be more than an inter-subjective "language game" that is
ultimately meaningless to anyone but academic theologians), is possible (whether at the
level of conscious reflection or not) solely on the basis of a metaphysics of creationwhich
is not to say that it is possible solely on the basis of natural theology, since such a meta-
physics is, after all, implied in the revealed doctrine of the imago Dei.

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404 JohnR.Betz

10 Thus, notwithstanding the importance of Auerbach (and Barth), the narrative-linguistic

theologies of Frei and Lindbeck stem ultimately from Wittgenstein, whereas the theolo-
gies of John Caputo and Mark C. Taylor derive from Derrida. For a positive, but not un-
critical view of theology's relation to deconstruction, see Kevin Hart, The Trespass of the
Sign: Deconstruction, Theology and Philosophy (New York, NY: Fordham University Press,
11 Martin Heidegger, Schellings Abhandlung ber das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit (Fra
furt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1971), p. 233: "Das Seiende 'entsprichf, leistet in dem,
was und wie es ist, Folge, fgt sich unter die beherrschende Ursache als Verursachtes...
Die Analogie gehrt zur Metaphysik, und zwar in dem doppelten Sinne: 1. da das Seiende
selbst dem hchsten Seienden 'entsprichf, 2. Da auf Entsprechungen hin, hnlichkeiten,
Allgemeinheiten gedacht und erklrt wird. Wo dagegen vom Seyn selbst aus gedacht
wird, hat die Analogie keinen Anhalt mehr." Cf. Heidegger's 1941 lecture on the same
topic, "Die Metaphysik des deutschen Idealismus: Zur erneuten Auslegung von
Schelling" in Gesamtausgabe, Vol. 49 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1991), pp.
188-191. For Heidegger's hyperbolic estimation of Hlderlin's importance to the history
of philosophy, see especially his Beitrge zur Philosophie, in Gesamtausgabe, Vol. 65 (Frank-
furt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1989), p. 422.
12 KD, I/l, p. viii.
13 It is surprising, certainly, given that one was a Christian theologian, the other a post-
Christian philosophernot to mention that Barth was a co-author and signer of the
declaration of Barmen, and Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party.
14 Granted, in Heidegger's case it is precisely "transcendence" in the conventional, theo-
logical sense that is under attack, and so I use the term only in the loosest sense. Cf.
William Placher, The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking About God W
Wrong (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1999).
15 I am indebted here, and in general, to John Milbank. See his essay, "Sublimity: The Modern
Transcendent," in Paul Heelas (ed), Religion, Modernity, and Postmodernity (Oxford: Black-
well Publishers, 1998), pp. 258-284. For a discussion of the eighteenth century context, see
Peter de Bolla, The Discourse of the Sublime: Readings in History, Aesthetics and the Sub
(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989).
16 This is not to deny Barth's inspiring coda on the beauty of God at the end of 11/1; or that
he helped to restore the beauty of God as a topic in Protestant theology; or that the Church
Dogmatics was originally conceived as an explication, following Anselm, of the pulchritudo
fidei: "The ratio, which the intelligere seeks and finds, possesses in itself as such not only
utilitas... but also pulchritudo." See Fides quaerens intellectum (Zurich: Theologischer
Verlag Zurich, 1986), p. 13.
17 As Jim Buckley has pointed out, this is not to say that Barth fails to speak of being (since
he does so explicitly in The Church Dogmatics, 11/1, 28, where he criticizes the two
"errors" of Melanchton), but simply that he refuses to do so apart from God's self-reve-
lation. In this connection see KD 11/1, 26, p. 89. Cf. Eberhard Jngel, Gottes Sein ist im
Werden: Verantwortliche Rede vom Sein Gottes bei Karl Barth, fourth edition (Tbingen: Mo
Siebeck, 1986), p. 75. "Barth's dogmatics makes ontological assertions throughout. But it
is not an ontology...." See also Barth's 1929 essay, "Schicksal und Idee in der Theologie",
where it is clear that he wishes to move away from all theologies that begin with con-
sciousness toward an objective theology of the being of God. The issue here, of course,
which lies at the heart of Barth's debate with Przywara, is to what extent one values the
being of creation as revelation, not whether the analogia entis is conceived independently
from revelation as such. Indeed, Przywara is explicit that the analogia entis is a second-
order reflection that follows from the prior fact of God's revelation in creation. Thus, in
no way is it a neutral "principle" by which reason is able to capture God in conceptsas
a matter of "principle" it expressly prohibits any such attemptsbut simply the appro-
priate metaphysical articulation of the Christian doctrine of creation.
18 Of particular note in this regard are the essays by liane Escoubas and Jacob Rogozinski
in Of the Sublime: Presence in Question, trans. Jeffrey S. Librett (Albany, NY: State Univer-
sity of New York Press, 1993), pp. 55-70; 133-156.
19 I am indebted here and generally to many a conversation with David Hart. For a corol-
lary account of this discourse and its "differential", "cosmologica!", ontological", and

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Beyond the Sublime 405

"ethical" permutations, see his The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth
(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), pp. 43-93.
20 I am indebted here and in general to Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt. See his essay, 'The
Theological Sublime" in John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward (eds).
Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), pp.
21 A further, inevitable consequence of this collapse is nihilism. For in thefirstcase, the reality
of the creature is ultimately an illusion, indeed, no thing at all. In the second case, it is
likewise an illusion, not, however, due to an absolute identity, but due to an absolute flux,
which proves everything to be a function of differencewhich is to say that everything,
in itself, is no thing. It is by analogy alone, therefore, that one can speak of the reality of
the creature and of creation. For an important account of the genealogy of nihilism and
of the corresponding need for analogy in theology, see Conor Cunningham, Genealogy of
Nihilism: Philosophies of Nothing and the Difference of Theology (London: Routledge, 2002).
22 See Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York, NY: Columbia
University Press, 1994), p. 262.
23 Not all advocates of narrative theology are necessarily escapist, however. As Nicholas
Lash, for one, has argued, the tension between the philosopher and the story-teller is
intractable because each stands in need of the other. Indeed, the philosophical theologian
is obliged to exercise "critical control" over the Christian narrative, so that metaphysics
would seem to have a place after all. Nevertheless, he shares MacKinnon's resignation
and Burrell's Kantian view of Aquinas as an "agnostic", whose treatment of God is "reso-
lutely grammatical", and so accords to metaphysics nothing more than a regulative
status. See his "Ideology, Metaphor, and Analogy" in Stanley Hauerwas and Gregory
Jones (eds). Why Narrative?: Readings in Narrative Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B.
Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), pp. 113-137.
24 See Reinhard Htter's review of Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and
the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) in Pro Ecclesia Vol. 14 no. 1
(Winter, 2005), pp. 108-110.
25 Of course, the ultimate resourcethe "god"to which postmodern philosophy appeals,
though it bears the name of the "sublime", turns out to be "Nothing" but the "sublimity"
of the creature's own pure potentiality (potentia pura), and hence the final glorification of
the creature, which refuses to acknowledge anything beyond itselfwhereby the dis-
course of the sublime turns out to be a subtle form of Prometheanism: the most recent
intellectual attempt of the creature to draw upon its own resourcesin this case its own
ultimate nothingnessin defiance of heaven.
26 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Sense of the World, trans. Jeffrey S. Librett (Minneapolis, MN: Uni-
versity of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 54.
27 Jean-Franois Lyotard, "The Sublime and the Avant-garde" in Andrew Benjamin (ed), The
Lyotard Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), pp. 206-207.
28 See "Of the Sublime Men" in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (New York,
NY: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 140; Kritische Studienausgabe, ed. G. Colli and M. Montinari
(Berlin: de Gruyter, 1988), Voi. 4, p. 151. Hereafter cited as KSA.
29 An example of this, as Jean-Luc Marion has pointed out, is the way in which the Good
(Lvinas) has avenged its neglect at the hands of Being (Heidegger).
30 Cf. John Milbank, "Sublimity: The Modern Transcendent" in John Milbank, Catherine
Pickstock, and Graham Ward (eds), Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, (London and New
York: Routledge, 1999), p. 259.
31 See Die Geburt der Tragdie, KSA, vol. 1, pp. 25ff. For Nietzsche, arti.e., the realm of a
chronic opposition between the pictorial and plastic arts (under the sign of Apollo) and
the intoxicating imageless sublime of music (under the sign of Dionysus)is at once a
reflection of this primordial conflict and the "illusion" of its reconciliation.
32 Milbanc, "Sublimity: The Modern Transcendent", p. 259.
33 See David Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, pp. 104ff.
34 Such freedom does not mean "choice", i.e., "freedom" to enact one's will, whatever it may
hold in store at the given moment and however corrupt it may be, but freedom precisely
from sii (cf. John 8:34)that true freedom that Evagrius calls apatheia and whose daugh-
ter is love. In other words. Christian freedom (unlike modern freedom) means freedom

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from sin, from the passions, so that one is free to loveanything less than this is some
form of slavery, which operates under the illusion of freedom.
35 For a discussion of the analogia entis in these terms, see Erich Przywara's entry on the
analogia entis in Karl Rahner (ed). Theologisches Taschenlexikon (Freiburg im Breisgau:
Herder Verlag, 1972), Vol. 1, p. 98; see Denzinger-Schnmetzer, p. 806: "Inter creatorem et
creaturam non potest tanta similitudo notori, quin inter eos sit dissimilitudo notanda."
36 By ontology I mean here, in the general sense, any doctrine concerning the being of beings,
which is to say (without the need for any Heideggerean equivocation) metaphysics. See,
for example, Nietzsche's late reflections on The Birth of Tragedytitled,"Versuch einer Selb-
stkritik" (1886), KSA, Vol. 1, p. 17. "Already in the foreword dedicated to Richard Wagner
artand not moralityis proposed as the genuine metaphysical activity of the human
being; the book itself frequently returns to the offensive claim that the existence of the
world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon. In point of fact, the entire book knows
of nothing but an artisf s sense andunderlying sense behind all events,a 'God,' if you
will "Of course, this "God", Nietzsche's metaphysical Urdatum, is not the Christian
God, but a perverse and even more anthropomorphic transmutation of Luther's dialecti-
cal God of wrath and mercy into an "immoral artist-God", who creates and destroys in
order to relieve (redeem) itself in the realm of illusion from the excessive contrariety and
contradiction of its own native dialectic. This may be a fabulous mytho-cosmology, as
Nietzsche himself admits, a mythological covering for the primordium of a brute meta-
physical dialectic (as metaphysical as Hegel's own, but without any positive Aufhebung),
but it is proposed in all sincerity as an antidote against every moral interpretation of
the universe. Thus, in Nietzsche, the founding father of postmodernity, the coincidence
of the transcendentals goes only so far: aesthetics witnesses to the being of things, but not
to the Good. This hitherto inconceivable denigration is then furthered by Heidegger's
reduction of the Good to the Ursache, i.e., to the status of a merely ontic functionality (as
in his essay, "Piatons Lehre von der Wahrheit") and, among postmodern philosophers, is
scarcely called into question until Lvinas. The real-life ethical consequences of this
tradition of philosophy go without saying.
37 This comes from von Balthasare introduction to Leo Zimny (sic), ed. Erich Pryzwara, Sein
Schrifttum 1912-1962 (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1963), p. 18.
38 For just as creaturely being participates in the Being of God, the beautiful participates in
the sublime as what is ever more beautiful. But while an interpretation of the beautiful
and the sublime in terms of a proportion overcomes, by a Platonic model of participation,
any strict dualism between them, this does not mean that they are collapsible (any more
than the real distinction between essence and existence). For in this case one would be left
with immanence just the same, i.e., the mirror image of the postmodern sublime.
39 Aristotle, Metaphysics TV 6,1016 b; see Theologisches Taschenlexikon, Vol. 1, p. 97.
40 As William James once observed, "Think of the German literature of aesthetics, with the
preposterouness of such an unaesthetic personage as Immanuel Kant enthroned in its
center!" See A Pluralistic Universe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977),
p. 14.
41 As Lyotard puts it, "I think in particular that it is in the aesthetic of the sublime that
modern art (including literature)findsits impetus and the logic of the avant-gardes finds
its axioms." See The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington
and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 77.
42 See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis, IN:
Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), p. 99. "Even though this beauty does not actually
expand our cognition of natural objects, it does expand our concept of nature, namely,
from nature as mere mechanism to the concept of that same nature as art "
43 Ibid., p. 75. Emphasis mine. Thus Kant claims, quite consistently, that we simply talk as if
beauty and purposiveness were objective and is careful to avoid any suggestions to the
contrary. See p. 54; p. 58; p. 75.
44 Jean-Luc Nancy, "The Sublime Offering" in Of the Sublime: Presence in Question, p. 31.
45 Kant, Critique of Judgment, p. 95.
46 See Umberto Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, trans. Hugh Bredin (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 66.
47 Kant, Critique of Judgment, p. 91.

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48 Nancy, "The Sublime Offering", p. 32.

49 Ibid., p. 33.
50 See Milbank, "The Soul of Reciprocity (Part One)", Modern Theology Vol. 17 no. 3 (July,
2001), p. 378. "The worldly horizon is complete in itself, and does not subserve a divine
eros which would conduct us, interestedly, above this horizon."
51 How different this is from Augustine. For in his case it is not a conversio ad intra for the
sake of erecting a stable subjectivity, but rather for the sake of discovering its utter ground-
lessness. Indeed, for the Augustinian tradition up to Bonaventura, the conversio ad intra is
precisely not a resting place, but a detour on the way to the God who is higher than the
mind. Nor does the conversio ad intra entail the shutting out of the world in the way that
this takes place in modern philosophy. For even if Christianity spells the end of the Greek
cosmos, and the conversio ad intra does seem to negate a world that is (in comparison to
God) unreal, this conversio ad intra is precisely the route whereby the world is opened anew.
In fact, this is as true of Plato (in spite of what he says in the Phaedo) as it is of John of the
Cross (in spite of the dark night of the senses).
52 See Oswald Bayer, "Der Neuzeitliche Narzi" in Gott als Autor: Zu einer poietologischen
Theologie (Tbingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999), pp. 73-85. One may even go so far as to say that
modern philosophy, inasmuch as it has abandoned Sophia, is no longer philosophy in
the proper sense at all. See Erich Przywara, "Philosophie als Problem" in Schriften, Vol. 3
(Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1962), pp. 303-312.
53 See Kant, Critique of Judgment, p. 72. As Kant puts it, "a pure judgment of taste has as its
determining basis neither charm nor emotion [Rhrung], in other words, no sensation." Or
again, "any judgment from this source is aesthetic, i.e., its determining basis is the feeling
of the subject and not the concept of an object. Its determining basis, that is to say, is "the
feeling of the subject and not the concept of an object" (p. 79). Revised translation.
54 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp-Smith (New York, NY: St.
Martin's Press, 1965), p. 184 (B 183).
55 Nancy, "The Sublime Offering", p. 32.
56 One can already see here a direct connection to Nietzsche, who reduces beauty to the
feeling of delight in the world as our world, i.e., a delight that we areridof the fear of any-
thing alien to our own creativity. See Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol. 1 (Pfullingen: Neske Verlag,
1961), p. 132.
57 Jean-Francois Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime: Kant's 'Critique of Judgment/
23-29, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp.
58 This is perhaps nowhere so evident as in the postmodern interest in Antonin Artaud and
the "theater of cruelty". See, for example, Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass
(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 232-250. Cf. Lyotard's depiction of
the sublime as an authoritarian father figure in 'The Interest of the Sublime", in Of the
Sublime: Presence in Question, trans. Jeffrey S. Librett (Albany, NY: State University of New
York Press, 1993), p. 124. "He scatters all forms, or forms scatter themselves, tear them-
selves asunder, and become unmeasured in his presence. He fertilizes the virginal devotee
of forms with no regard for her favor. He demands that all have regard only for himself,
the law, and its realization. He needs imperatively a violated, exceeded, exhausted imag-
ination. She will die in giving birth to the sublime, or at least she will think she is dying."
59 Ibid.
60 Among such postmodern interpretations, see Clayton Crockett, A Theology of the Sublime
(London and New York: Routledge, 2001). "The disappearance of the understanding in
the Kantian sublime testifies to its ultimate failure even in the First critique, and inaugu-
rates a desperate struggle between reason and imagination (which Lyotard calls a diffr-
end), from which struggle I have attempted to cast doubts on whether reason necessarily
emerges victorious" (p. 99). Furthermore, he claims, 'The sublime marks a radical dis-
continuity or break which could be characterized as death. The sublime represents terri-
fying excess, loss of control, and in-breaking of imagination beyond the ability of reason
and understanding to bring it to order...." (p. 100). As Crockett himself admits, however,
this is "in some ways a reading of Kant's latent implications against Kanf s manifest con-
clusions" (p. 4). To which I would simply addto draw out a mystical-religious motif, an
implicit theology in Kanf s philosophythat even if the sublime can be construed in such

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radical terms as a kind of "death", it is for Kant a death that leads to "new life"admit-
tedly, not a new, supernatural birth from abovebut a new life nonetheless. It is the life
now elevated enough (through aesthetic education) to be lived in accordance with reason
and to be sacrificed upon the altar of its universality, which makes Kant a forerunner of
Hegelian "religion" which sacrifices the individual not to reason in the abstract, but to
reason in the concrete form of an omnivorous historical dialectic.
61 Kant, Critique of Judgment, p. 109. Revised translation.
62 Nancy, "The Sublime Offering", pp. 40f.
63 Ibid., p. 47.
64 Ibid., p. 46. "If feeling properly so called is always subjective, if it is indeed the core of
subjectivity in a primordial 'feeling oneself' of which all the great philosophies of the
subject could provide evidence, including the most 'intellectualisf among them, then
the feeling of the sublime sets itself off... precisely as the reversal of both feeling and
65 Kant, Critique of Judgment, p. 135. My translation.
66 Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, p. 151.
67 Kant, Critique of Judgment, p. 99.
68 Ibid., p. 128. My emphasis. In Kanfs more jumbled terms it is that, "the presentation of which
determines the mind to think the inadequacy of nature as a presentation of idea" (p. 127). A
Derrida has put it, "Presentation is inadequate to the idea of reason but it is presented in
its very inadquation, adequate to its inadquation. The inadquation of presentation is
presented." See Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian
McLeod (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 131.
69 Cf. Kant, Critique of Judgment, p. 106. 'This inadequacy itself is the arousal in us of the
feeling that we have within us a supersensible power; and what is absolutely large is not
an object of sense, but is the use that judgment makes naturally of certain objects so as to
[arouse] this (feeling)."
70 Ibid. As Vincent De Luca has put it, "[for Kant] Nature must first tower grimly over the
perceiving subject before it finally dwindles in the blazing recognition of the subject's own
inner glory." See V. A. De Luca, "A Wall of Words: The Sublime as Text" in Unnam'd Forms:
Blake and Textuality, Nelson Hilton and Thomas A. Vogler (eds), (Berkeley, CA: University
of California Press, 1986), p. 239.
71 Friedrich Schiller, Essays, Walter Hinderer and Daniel O. Dahlstrom (eds), (New York, NY:
Continuum, 1993), p. 22.
72 Kant, Critique of Judgment, p. 128.
73 Ibid., p.m.
74 Ibid., p. 126.
75 Ibid., p. 124.
76 Ibid. See p. 133.
77 Ibid., p. 136.
78 Ibid.
79 Ibid., p. 132.
80 That this is no exaggeration, that Kanf s entire philosophy is in some sense built upon a
founding violence, is evident in the language of domination at the very heart of his epis-
temology. See, for example, his division of the elements of knowledge into "those that are
completely a priori in our power [Gewalt] and those that can be taken only a posteriori from
experience". See Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 871. Incidentally, among the German
words for power, none carries more overtones of violence than the word "Gewalt". Thus
von Balthasar, in agreement with Horkheimer and Adorno's critique of instrumental
reason, objects that knowledge is henceforth understood "as a form of domination, as
a categorical ordering of phenomenal matter, without consideration of what it is that
'appears' (since this in itself is unknowable) or why anything should appear at all". See
The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. 5, The Realm of Metaphysics in the Mod
Age (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1989), p. 483. Following Horkheimer and Adorno,
one could even go back to Descartes and see the founding gesture of modern philosophy,
the act of violence whereby knowledge is secured, in the opening self-mutilation of his
81 Crockett, A Theology of the Sublime, p. 4.

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82 Kant, Critique of Judgment, pp. 115-117. 'That which is sheerly excessive for the imagina-
tion . . . is, as it were, an abyss in which it is afraid to lose itself; and yet, at the same time,
it is not excessive as far as reason's idea of the supersensible is concerned. It is rather in
accordance with its laws to elicit this striving of the imagination... [and] this displeasure
with respect to the necessary expansion of the imagination accords with that which is
unlimited in our faculty of reason, namely, the idea of the absolute whole, wherefore the
unpurposiveness of the faculty of imagination is, in fact, perceived as purposive for ratio-
nal ideas and their arousal."
83 See Emmanuel Lvinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis
(Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969), p. 50. "The Cartesian notion of the idea
of the Infinite designates a relation with a being that maintains its total exteriority with
respect to him who thinks it." Cf. Eberhard Jngel's Schellingian observation that reason
is only rational to the extent that it realizes its own incapacity for the thought of God, i.e.,
its own hingewiesensein auf the concept of revelation, in Gott als Geheimnis der Welt, sixth
edition (Tbingen: Mohr (Siebeck), 1992), p. 211.
84 Lvinas, Totality and Infinity, p. 49.
85 In the words of Lvinas, "That reason in the last analysis would be the manifestation of
a freedom neutralizing the other and encompassing him, can come as no surprise once it
was laid down that sovereign reason knows only itself, that nothing other limits it" (Total-
ity and Infinity, p. 43).
86 In the words of Lyotard, "Modernity, in whatever age it appears, cannot exist without a
shattering of belief and without discovery of the 'lack of reality7 of reality, together with
the invention of other realities" (The Postmodern Condition, p. 77). Cf. Bauerschmidt, "The
Theological Sublime", p. 203: "The postmodern shares with the modern a sense of the lack
of reality of all representation, but it is no longer suspicious of received representations,
for it realizes that a lack of reality only warrants suspicion if one presumes that there is a
'real' to which one has some sort of (at least negative) access."
87 See Marx Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklrung (Frankfurt am
Main: Fischer Verlag, 1969), p. 123.
88 Novalis, Paralipomena to "Die Lehrlinge zu Sais" (1788), quoted in O. Bayer, Gott als Autor:
Zu einer poietologischen Theologie (Tbingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999), p. 74.
89 Bauerschmidt, "The Theological Sublime", p. 202.
90 For a corresponding account of this development, see Phillip Blond's introduction to Post-
Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 8-9. See
also Louis Dupr, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993).
91 See Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A 251.
92 See "Nachgelassene Fragmente" in KSA Vol. 7, p. 466.
93 As Nietzsche puts it, "The excess of the will produces sublime impressions..."; which
allows him to speak along the same lines of "the eerie sensation of the immeasurability of
the will". See Nietzsche, "Nachgelassene Fragmente" in KSA Vol. 7, p. 149.
94 For a helpful account of Heidegger's interpretation of the transcendental imagination in
Kant, see Crockett, A Theology of the Sublime, pp. 39-43.
95 Theologically speaking, of course, this is the proton pseudos of Kant's philosophythe
attempt to be God without God, to stand in principio (cf. Gen. 1) and to establish the foun-
dations (cf. Job 38).
96 See Stanley Rosen, Nihilism: A Philosophical Essay (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
1969); Hermeneutics as Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
97 In other words, for all its defiant posturing, postmodernity cannot get along without some
form of God, some implicit "theology" after all. For instance, the substitute "God" of Hei-
degger, his Seyn als Nichts, though it allegedly does nothing, and is therefore not to be
confused with a causa prima, nevertheless does something quite theological: it gives. Thus,
as Przywara already pointed out in 1932, Heidegger's nothing is a "productive nothing",
which is to say, not a true nothing, but a nothing that functions as God without God. For
an extensive account of the logic of nihilism, understood as the logic of "nothing as some-
thing", see Conor Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism: Philosophies of Nothing and the Dif-
ference of Theology (London: Routledge, 2002).
98 Nancy, "The Sublime Offering", p. 37.

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99 Ibid., p. 35.
100 See Martin Heidegger, "Was ist Metaphysik?" (1929), in Wegmarken, second edition (Frank
furt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1978), pp. 103-122.
101 Nancy, "The Sublime Offering", p. 35.
102 Ibid.
103 Ibid.
104 Ibid., p. 38.
105 Ibid.
106 Ibid.
107 Ibid., p. 39.
108 Ibid., p. 48.
109 Ibid. As Nancy goes on to explain, "If it is a matter of the whole, then as 'the fundamen
tally open' of which Deleuze speaks with respect to the sublime."
110 Cf. David Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, pp. 41f.
111 Nancy, "The Sublime Offering", pp. 37f. Needless to say, this is little more than a tran
scription of Heidegger's philosophy, including his secular eschatology, his doctrine of
truth (), his theme of Geworfenheit, and his overt antagonism toward every scheme
of creationhowever prodigal in love.
112 Ibid., p. 55. Of course, is it not precisely the opposite? Is it not the denial of transcendence
that rids this world of any intrinsic value? Or are we seriously to believe that Nothing can
bestow meaning? Such, in any event, is the faith of postmodern philosophy.
113 Ibid., p. 56. To which Nancy adds, "The taking-place or the existing takes place here, in the
world hereor, rather, because the world is not the container of a content, the totality of
existences qua totality of signifyingness constitutes the being-here of being-there."
114 Ibid., p. 42.
115 Ibid. "... this tiny infinite, rhythmic burst that produces itself continuously in the trace of
the least contour and through which the limit itself presents itself, and on the limit, the
magnitudo, the absolute greatness in which all greatness (or quantity) is traced, in which
all imagination both imagines and... fails to imagine".
116 Ibid. My emphasis.
117 Ibid., pp. 42f.
118 Cf. Hamann's letter to Herder (ZH IV, p. 301f.), quoted by Kierkegaard in The Concept of
Anxiety, ed. and trans. Reidar Thomte (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980),
p. 162. "This anxiety in the world is the only proof of our heterogeneity. If we lacked
nothing, we should do no better than the pagans and the transcendental philosophers,
who know nothing of God and like fools fall in love with lovely nature, and no home
sickness would come over us. This impertinent disquiet, this holy hypochondria is
perhaps thefirewith which we season sacrificial animals in order to preserve us from the
putrefaction of the current seculi (century)."
119 Nancy, "The Sublime Offering", p. 40. As he puts it, it is "the contrary of a totalization or
of a completion and instead a completing or dawning".
120 Indeed, as John Milbank has argued, the postmodern sublime (especially in the case of
Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe) serves not only to dissipate the subject, but also to confirm it,
since it is precisely the mdeterminacy of the sublime that mirrors and lends peculiar
definition to the mdeterminacy of the subject itself. See Counter Copernicus: Transcendence
and Transcendentalism (manuscript), p. 2.
121 Cf. Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy
(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1997), pp. 101-118.
122 Perhaps the currency of this "magical" word would be justified were it directed against
the crude, mechanistic cosmologies of the Enlightenment, but it can scarcely apply to the
theological tradition for which the apophatic maxim would always hold true: Deus non
est in genere. See Heidegger, "Die onto-theo-logische Verfassung der Metaphysik" in Iden
titt und Differenz (Stuttgart: Gnther Neske Verlag, 1957).
123 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Experience of Freedom, trans. Bridget McDonald (Stanford, CA: Stan-
ford University Press, 1993), p. 113.
124 For a clear reading of the Kantian sublime in terms of its connection to Heidegger, see
Jeffrey Librett's afterword, "Positing the Sublime: Reading Heidegger Reading Kant" in
Of the Sublime: Presence in Question, pp. 193-219.

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Beyond the Sublime 411

125 Deleuze, for instance, simply reverses the order of identity and difference. "Such a con-
dition can be satisfied only at the price of a more general categorical reversal according
to which being is said of becoming, identity of that which is different, the one of the mul-
tiple, etc. That identity not be first, that it exist as a principle but as a second principle.
..." (Difference and Repetition, p. 40). Such is the logic of the eternal return, of the repeti-
tion of the being of difference against representation. To be sure, Deleuze criticizes Hegel
for his empty affirmation of difference, because it is affirmed only in relation to an essen-
tial and prior identity, but Deleuze's own ressentiment is itself bound to the identity it
126 See "Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes" in Holzwege, sixth edition (Frankfurt am Main:
Vittorio Klostermann, 1980), p. 41 (44). "Es ist das Gegeneinander des ursprnglichen
Streites. Das Wesen der Wahrheit ist in sich selbst der Urstreit, in dem jene offene Mitte
erstritten wird, in die das Seiende hereinsteht und aus der es sich in sich selbst zurck-
stellt . . . Welt und Erde sind je in sich ihrem Wesen nach streitig und streitbar. Nur als diese
treten sie in den Streit der Lichtung und Verbergung." (emphasis mine). The alternative,
then, as Milbank has decisively formulated it, is clear: either a pagan ontology of inevitable
discord and strife or a Christian ontology of analogy, peace, and love.
127 Antonin Artaud, Oeuvres compltes, Vol. XIV, ed. Paule Thvenin (Paris: Gallimard, 1978),
p. 80. Quoted in Deleuze and Religion, ed. Mary Bryden (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 127.
128 See Derrida, Writing and Difference, pp. 232-250.
129 In the second case, the result is a rather odd transposition of the sublime to the face of
every other. But in the face that cannot be seen, that does not fall within the intentional-
ity of the gaze, one is unfortunately left with little more than a residual trace of a God
who is ever absent, a will-o'-the-wisp who is little more than a transposed reflection of
one's own invisibility. One would do well to make certain qualifications on Lvinas'
behalfand there is certainly a noble pathos in his critique of transcendental philoso-
phybut in the end he argues so vehemently against Hegel and Heidegger only to
embrace Kant and a characteristic prejudice for the sublime, which would seem to differ
from Hegel's bad infinite only in that it effects a breach in immanence and leaves a trace
of its otherwise tangential infinity.
130 See Milbank, "Sublimity: The Modern Transcendent", p. 271.

Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2005

^ s
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