The sublime nature of politics

Featured in

  • Published 20061205
  • ISBN: 9780733319396
  • Extent: 266 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

KARLHEINZ STOCKHAUSEN, THE controversial German composer, once described the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as “the greatest work of art ever”. Notoriously shocking as this description may be, it captures an important aspect of human life and experience. We not only respond to rational calculations or sober moral dictates; we also have an aesthetic faculty – one fascinated with fear and horror as much as with beauty and harmony.

The aesthetic concept of the sublime captures an odd and seemingly contradictory phenomenon: fascination, awe and even delight at events that are inherently painful and horrific. Such apparently misplaced feelings are not meant to spill into the political realm. They tend to be quarantined to avant-garde art galleries, or to the appeal of a nightly television diet of gruesome crime shows.

Aesthetic impulses and feelings are, in fact, dominant forces in human life. We constantly seek out experiences that lift us out of the humdrum of the everyday. The pursuit of transcendence is constant, and it can be exciting, humbling and even dangerous.

The pervasiveness of the aesthetic tends to be ignored because variations on rationalism dominate the public cultures of most countries. Media and academic commentary offer critiques of rationalism, but generally consider it to be the only possible approach to policy and debate. Yet events such as 9/11, and the reactions they provoke, are key examples of political phenomena that can better be understood with the help of aesthetic notions such as the sublime.


THE SUBLIME COMES into being when our minds clash with phenomena that transcend our cognitive abilities. We are overwhelmed by something that shatters our sense of autonomy and control. Modern philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Edmund Burke and Friedrich Schiller formulated the concept ofthe sublime in contrast to that of beauty. They defined beauty as something that brings pleasure and comfort, associating it with a calm sense of harmony. They saw the sublime as something quite different, provoking astonishment, respect and even pain.

These philosophers referred mostly to natural occurrences in their elucidation of the sublime. They wrote of encounters with thunderstorms, mountains and earthquakes. However, they also referred to human phenomena, such as church and state. Burke, in particular, saw these collective institutions as a critical component of human wellbeing, for they worked to humble our otherwise outrageous sense of egoism. Natural or otherwise, the sublime brings about a strange mixture of terror and delight at the shattering of our sense of selfhood. It isolates that peculiar fascination with being overpowered by the world.

The analytical and political significance of the sublime derives from the way it opens a window on to the significance of emotions. Ancient philosophers understood well that the body politic is governed primarily by emotion and sentiment. People are driven to think and act by powerful undercurrents of feeling and passion. The conscious rationalisation of their behaviour only emerges much later. Aristotle believed that, since “pleasure and pain permeate the whole of life”, morality and political science need to teach people to “like and dislike the right things”.

In the modern West, there has been a strange reversal of thought, coinciding with the rise of liberal democratic government. As we gained the freedom to choose our likes and dislikes, the Enlightenment began extolling the virtues of rational thought and conscious action. We became exhilarated by the idea that we could direct and mould our will and passions. Widespread and serious misunderstandings follow on from this misguided assumption.

Experiences of the sublime hit us with the deficiencies of rationalist modes of perception and remind us of their normally hidden emotional building blocks. Generally speaking, we move about in a familiar manner, adhering to routine habits of viewing the world. The sublime moves the earth from under our feet. We are plunged into the unknown, into a field of disorientation.

The sublime can overwhelm us with feelings we thought we had mastered but which had been bubbling under the surface all along, waiting for an opportunity to dislodge our comforting outlook. How should we react? What should we do? If you are shocked out of your mind, it is only natural to want to return home, to return to the bright lights of rational understanding. Is it any wonder, then, that events such as 9/11 have called forth a political logic which seeks to master and obliterate the fear and awe opened up by such a sublime experience?

The potent emotions unleashed are fair game for power politics. In countries such as the United States and Australia, foreign policy has become caught up in the slipstream of the sublime. With citizens confused by a strange mixture of pleasure and pain, politicians have seized upon a simplistic distinction between good and evil as a way of restoring order and harmony. There is no need for further discussion or reflection.


YET MORALITY IS not the only game being played. An elaborate aesthetic is strategically employed to provide colour to an otherwise insipid, moralistic politics.

Consider how the BBC televised the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the lead-up to the World News, the program regularly broadcast a few minutes of highly romanticised images of war, presented to the tunes of seductively rhythmic music: silhouettes of soldiers strolling towards a desert sunset that could have come right out of a cigarette advertisement clip; missiles erotically gushing out of aircraft-carrier silos, elegantly piercing the night and then spectacularly raining down on Baghdad in a manner that looked far more like a New Year’s Eve celebration than a brutal war.

Even the short intermittent scenes of wounded and dead bodies seemed distressingly appealing when presented to the pulsating tunes that accompanied them. No scent of burning flesh. No screams. No shrill voices. No drowning noise. No deadly silence. Only the dangerous seduction of aestheticised pain and suffering. The deliberate aestheticisation of politics, first described by Walter Benjamin in connection with the Fascist regime of Germany in the 1930s, lives on in the supposedly mature liberal democracies of the twenty-first century.

But there were other aesthetic responses. Countless artists around the world tried to deal with both the tragic nature of 9/11 and its implications for the future. They painted and filmed, they wrote poems and novels, they composed and performed music. This wave of creativity can be seen as a way of dealing with the sublime in its own terms rather than reverting to the comforting moral logic of good versus evil. Importantly, it constitutes a recognition that prevalent faculties, such as reason, are unable to comprehend the terrifying event in its totality.

Aesthetic creativity responds where conventional words and concepts are left dumb. Indeed, the sublimereminds us that our conceptual means are always deficient, that “authentic representation” of the world is never completely possible. Our understandings and explanations are always only interpretations, even though their tireless repetition makes them seem like unavoidable facts.

Politics is a contest of interpretations, and it is a battle waged with every means available. Should it really come as a surprise, then, that convincing refutations of the entire pretext of the continuing war in Iraq are having little or no effect on policy? The war itself has become sublime in the sense that it defies all reason.

Modern Western politics, as a whole, has long been convinced by its own interpretation of the world. It is based on the belief that the world is structured in a way that responds consistently and predictably to the intervention of rationality and logic. It refuses to accept that there are limits to its quest for control.

History refutes this assumption every day. The sublime happens constantly with the disruption of plans and ambitions. But if we are failing, so the story goes, we need to try harder. We are not to reflect upon what the sublime means, but instead embark on yet another “round of reform” for the sake of future peace and prosperity.

We fumble around, producing more problems as we seek to resolve others. The early twenty-first century is marked by ever more frenetic attempts to mould the world into an image drawn from the shallowest regions of the human intellect.

We are spurred on by apparent successes, too blinded by rationalist hubris to see the full significance of the looming challenges on the horizon. Climate change, energy, water and other resource crises, the implications of China and India – each of these (along with many other issues) points to the fundamentally sublime structure of nature and politics, to the fact that they will always, and often tragically, overpower human ambitions.

Sublime events seem only to accelerate the logic of mastery and control. Each experience of dislocation and disruption, whether at the level of world politics or the everyday, push will and conscious effort to new heights.

Experiences of the sublime could lead to a quite different reaction if our hold on rationality loosened even a little. The confrontation with overpowering forces could provoke a humble acknowledgement of inevitable limits. It might help reconcile us to the unavoidable experience of contingency, encouraging us to live with uncertainty rather than getting lost in futile attempts to overcome it.

Some scientists estimate that conscious and rational awareness accounts for only around 10 per cent of our potential brainpower. We receive extraordinary amounts of information at any one point in time, but the conscious can only process a very small fragment. It throws out most data as either false or irrelevant, retaining only that which accords with what it already knows via tradition and experience. The tradition and experience of the West is now a lengthy history of exploration and conquest. Policy is attempting largely to use the logic of this approach to solve the very problems it has produced.

Yet we need to employ the full register of human intelligence, sensitivity and creativity to deal with major political challenges. Aesthetic forms of expression are one method for accessing the non-conscious parts of this register. For example, Burke and Kant believed that poetry, because of its very obscurity, is particularly well suited to engaging the sublime. The obscurity of poetry, the fact that it breaks with the complacency of everyday language, means it is well placed to capture inexpressible feelings and reactions.

At a time when visual images increasingly dominate our perception of political events, one would be hard-pressed to maintain that the poetic is the prime site for investigations into the sublime aspects of politics. The key is more likely to lie somewhere in the complex interstices between words and images. Can fiction, for instance, express emotional and subliminal dimensions of politics better than, or at least differently from, a straightforward factual account? Can we visualise things through art that we cannot express through textual analyses? Can we hear something that we cannot see?

Aesthetic feelings and explorations can themselves be understood as forms of morality and ethics. They point to an ethics that is mindful of the inherent violence of human thought and representation. They acknowledge that most views and understandings reflect a cutting down of the world into the shape of our fears and desires. They explore possibilities beyond all too common human responses to the world’s indifference to our fate.

Aesthetic sensitivities, as in admiring a work of art, teach us to “hold back” and appreciate things in a more disinterested fashion. They can make us mindful of how conscious and impatient attempts to understand conceal more than they reveal, and purposeful efforts of progressive change may engender more violence than they erase. They can encourage us to wonder and thereby ease the resentment of an intellect angry at its own limitations.

Democracies worth the name cannot do without these kinds of aesthetic reflection if they are to face the problems of globalised politics successfully. Media commentary, scholarly inquiries and policy formation can all gain from engaging with the type of question an aesthetic approach generates.

It is time that we saw rationalism more clearly, as an anxious reaction to undercurrents of fear and horror. We need to re-engage with these undercurrents without running back into the small and limited chamber of conscious understanding. The regularity of sublime happenings provides us with plenty of opportunities to take up the challenge. 

Share article

About the author

Martin Leet

Dr Martin Leet is Senior Research Officer with the Brisbane Institute. He studied political science at the University of Queensland and was awarded a...

More from this edition


FictionBEN BASTER ARRIVED mid-afternoon in the city that his guidebook called an "exotic and teeming tropical metropolis". After a long stopover at Changi Airport,...

Yangon in shades of grey

ReportageIN ONLY ONE South-East Asian city I have visited can visitors walk around without fear of crime. The streets are paved with classic restaurants...

Stay up to date with the latest, news, articles and special offers from Griffith Review.