Sublime borders: modernism, music and the negative

Mauro Fosco Bertola


 “After the fall of formal beauty, the sublime was the only aesthetic idea left to modernism” (Adorno 1997: 197). Positioning at its core the category of the sublime, the modernist aesthetic famously engenders a problematic relationship between music – characterised as an autonomous, self‑relating agent of nonrepresentational negativity pursuing on its own terms a powerful critique of the Western metaphysic of presence – and its embeddedness in cultural contexts. At its most radical, like in Lyotard’s aesthetic, music’s ‘immaterial matter’ becomes a traumatic, ‘in‑human’ Otherness, a sublime, otherworldly sound-event, “which is not addressed […and] does not address” (Lyotard 1991a: 142). The musicologist Susan McClary recently highlighted how in the last few decades a new generation of composers has arisen, which by still drawing on the modernist tradition nonetheless engages more directly with signification and the cultural inscription of music. On this basis McClary calls for rehabilitating the allegedly feminine category of the beautiful, thus relocating music’s essence within the anthropological boundaries of pleasure and opening it for cultural diversity and contextuality. Yet, is the beautiful the more apt category for aesthetically framing this artistic development? As Catherine Belsey has pointed out, the specific twist at the core of Žižek’s philosophy consists in its conflating Lacan’s psychoanalytical theory of sublimation with Kant’s concept of the sublime (Belsey 2005: 141). Žižek’s sublime object thus intermingles not only pleasure and pain but also the absolute negativity of the Lacanian Real and the positive features of its cultural inscription. In my paper I explore the potential this theoretical frame offers for reading these recent artistic developments neither in terms of a domesticated modernism nor as a return to the aesthetic category of beauty as a culturally embedded fit between form and content. Instead, I will propose that we read them as the exploration of a specific, twisted space at the crossroad of the ‘meaningful’ positivity of culture and that ‘sublime’ negativity that the modernist aesthetic sees as the nonrepresentational essence of music.


Adorno. Negative Aesthetics. Music.

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