[T]he most important and vital distinction between the sublime and the beautiful is certainly this: . . . whereas natural beauty . . . conveys a finality in its form making the object appear, as it were, preadapted to our power of judgment . . . that which . . . excites the feeling of the sublime . . . may appear . . . to contravene the ends of our power of judgment . . . and to be, as it were, an outrage on the imagination . . . (Critique of Judgment, I, ii, sec. 23)

If Kant’s analysis of the beautiful depends implicitly on the paradoxical relationship between representation and its object, in his analysis of the sublime, the paradox is made explicit. Although the beautiful object cannot be subsumed under a concept, its contemplation provides a pleasurable stimulation to our cognitive faculty, which grasps beautiful form as something meant to be perceived and cognized by it. The sublime, on the contrary, makes us realize the limitations of this faculty. The pleasure provided by this initially unpleasant realization is of a moral nature; the experienced excess of nature over our power of judgment makes us aware of the transcendent relationship between our reason and the everyday world.

The feeling of the sublime is . . . at once a feeling of displeasure, arising from the inadequacy of imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude to attain to its estimation by reason, and a simultaneously awakened pleasure, arising from this very judgment of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense being in accord with ideas of reason, so far as the effort to attain to these is for us a law. It is, in other words, for us a law (of reason), which goes to make us what we are, that we should esteem as small in comparison with ideas of reason everything which for us is great in nature as an object of sense; and that which makes us alive to the feeling of this supersensible side of our being harmonizes with that law. (ibid., sec. 27)

Kant’s “mathematical” sublime is a reaction to purely quantitative greatness of physical magnitude, which, by showing us the inadequacy of our “faculty of sense,” reminds us of its “smallness” in comparison with “ideas of reason.” The conceptual movement from displeasure to pleasure may be understood from the perspective of originary anthropology as describing the passage from the conflict occasioned by the excess of desire for the object to the peace provided by the promotion of this object to a sign of transcendence. What we experience as too great for our (collective and individual) desire gives us pleasure as a sign pointing to the “supersensible” domain of signification that defers our conflict over desire. Kant’s statement that this experience “makes us alive to [rege macht] the feeling of this supersensible side of our being” is tantamount to the claim that this experience generates this feeling.

Where the mathematical sublime triggered by quantitative magnitude merely negates our faith in the understanding, the infinity of power (“quality”) we experience in the “dynamic” sublime provides a transcendent object of faith. The mathematical sublime is a negative moment between two forms of order, that of the understanding and that of reason, between the beautiful, which finds satisfaction in form, and the dynamic sublime, which substitutes for formal order that of an all-powerful divine will.

But we may look upon an object as fearful, and yet not be afraid of it, if, that is, our estimate takes the form of our simply picturing to ourselves the case of our wishing to offer some resistance to it, and recognizing that all such resistance would be quite futile. So the righteous man fears God without being afraid of Him, because he regards the case of his wishing to resist God and His commandments as one which need cause him no anxiety. But in every such case, regarded by him as not intrinsically impossible, he cognizes Him as One to be feared. (ibid., sec. 28)

Kant’s exposition of the relationship between the fearful and the sublime clearly owes much to Burke; but where the latter (as Kant points out) remains within the realm of empirical psychology, for Kant the dynamic sublime defines our relationship to transcendence.

Kant’s categories of the beautiful and the sublime correspond to the two relationships between representation and its referent that make up the paradox of signification. On the side of form, representation is a (beautifully) adequate substitute for its referent, just as the originary sign was an adequate substitute for the inaccessible central object; on the side of content, representation is a (sublimely) inadequate substitute for its referent. The sign can function to defer mimetic rivalry for the central object only if it is an acceptable substitute for it. But the very peace brought about by this substitution transforms the relation to the central object and makes possible its appropriation within the framework of culture.

Unlike the beautiful, which inheres in an object whose formal adequacy to our cognitive faculty is embodied in a universal judgment of taste, the sublime is a subjective attitude not inherent in the (natural) object that inspires it. But the preceding passage suggests that this “subjectivity” defines a relationship to a necessarily inadequate figuration of an unfigurable divine transcendence. The experience of the sublime reflects the Judeo-Christian rejection of idols that cannot incarnate the sacred but at best suggest it by their very ontological distance from it. The object that provokes the experience of the sublime is not a “graven image” but something that resists being experienced as a sign and is for that very reason experienced as a sign of the limitations of signification.

The concept of the sublime has played an eccentric role in aesthetic theory since pseudo-Longinus in the first century; yet the opposition between the sublime and the beautiful is an artificial one. Aesthetic experience is an oscillation between the sign and its referent caused by the necessary inability of either representation or imaginary reality to create a stable plenitude of signification; the experience of beautiful form includes the sublime within it as the moment of the representation’s inadequacy. Kant describes this oscillatory movement, but only with respect to the sublime, which he contrasts to our “restful contemplation” of the beautiful:

The mind feels itself set in motion in the representation of the sublime in nature; whereas in the aesthetic judgment upon what is beautiful therein it is in restful contemplation. This movement, especially in its inception, may be compared with vibration, i.e., with a rapidly alternating repulsion and attraction produced by one and the same object. The point of excess for the imagination . . . is like an abyss in which it fears to lose itself, yet again for the rational idea of the supersensible it is not excessive, but conformable to law, and directed to drawing out such an effort on the part of the imagination: and so in turn as much a source of attraction as it was repellent to mere sensibility. But the judgment itself all the while steadfastly preserves its aesthetic character, because it represents, without being grounded on any definite concept of the object, merely the subjective play of the mental powers (imagination and reason) as harmonious by virtue of their very contrast. For just as in the estimate of the beautiful imagination and understanding by their concert generate subjective finality of the mental faculties, so imagination and reason do so here by their conflict—that is to say they induce a feeling of our possessing a pure and self-sufficient reason, or a faculty for the estimation of magnitude, whose preeminence can only be made intuitively evident by the inadequacy of that faculty which in the presentation of magnitudes (of objects of sense) is itself unbounded. (sec. 27)

The beautiful creates “concert” where the sublime generates “conflict.” This contrast, which effectively trivializes the beautiful with respect to the sublime, has been revived in the postmodern era. The sublime retains its prestige in intellectual circles, whereas the beautiful is considered an outmoded category, a quasi-synonym for kitsch. What is at stake is clarified by Burke’s psychological analysis, which associates the beautiful with the feminine and the sublime with the masculine: the greater spiritual resonance of the sublime would reflect the fact that culture privileges the deferral of violence over the fulfillment of desire, since without the former there would be no opportunity for the latter. Yet it is desire itself that inspires the violence; literature celebrates the sublimity of female desirability from Helen of Troy to Laclos’ Mme de Merteuil. This artificial segregation of the sexes guarantees the metaphysical firewall between the “supersensible” world of the arbitrary sign and the world of sensuous forms, natural or man-made.

As an experience of transcendence cut off from its immanent basis, the sublime is a psychological effect divorced from any cultural context; the violence of storms and crags becomes a substitute for the human violence crystallized in the sacred. This was already the function of the sublime in antiquity; where Aristotle saw no need to separate off the experience of transcendence from aesthetic experience in general, by Longinus’ time, the old gods had lost their credibility, not least in contrast with the God of Christianity, and could no longer implicitly guarantee this experience. The Enlightenment’s rediscovery of the sublime reflects its ambition to put away the Judeo-Christian God as well and construct a wholly empirical anthropology.

Thus modern aesthetics is born in the conceptual splitting of its object into two parts, neither of which is complete in itself. In the place of the sublimely beautiful, we must choose between the pretty and the monstrous, between the sign that loses itself in mimetic identity with its worldly object and the sign that bears its inadequacy on its face; the first provides a pleasure of the understanding, the second, the transcendent joy of reason. These dichotomies, and those of Kantian thought in general, situate within the categories of culture the split that culture is designed to mediate, and, in so doing, display the limitations of the Enlightenment’s scenic imagination. For Kant, the aesthetic scene is either charmingly pacific or fearfully agitated. That the peace of the former is the product of the fearsomeness of the latter is too radical an idea for even the greatest thinker of an era that could understand the deferral of human violence as the source of human institutions but not of the human itself.