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Reading the Lisbon Earthquake: Adorno, Lyotard, and the Contemporary Sublime

  • Gene Ray
Part of the Studies in European Culture and History book series (SECH)

Abstract

That Auschwitz and Hiroshima are sublime is an assertion that, while never quite attaining full articulation or acceptance, seemed always to have been on the verge of becoming a commonplace of late-twentieth-century thought and theory. That critics and philosophers could have found it appropriate to link the twentieth-century historical “events” condensed in these two place-names to an aesthetic category of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is, upon reflection, not so astonishing. In the extremity of their violence, in their intractable core of incomprehensibility, and in their fateful legacy for the future, these massively traumatic genocidal catastrophes mark a radical break in historical consciousness. Once upon a time, encounters with the power or size of nature defeated the imagination and moved us to terror and awe. After Auschwitz and Hiroshima, however, we have had to recognize such sublime effects among our own responses to this demonstrated human potential for systematic and unbounded violence. After this history, human-inflicted disaster will remain more threatening, more sublime, than any natural disaster.

Keywords

Human Dignity Aesthetic Judgment Transcendental Idealism Aesthetic Theory Fateful Legacy 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    On this debate, see Dominick LaCapra, Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), pp. 43–110; Enzo Traverso, Understanding the Nazi Genocide: Marxism after Auschwitz, Peter Drucker, trans. (London: Pluto Press, 1999), pp. 63–78; and Saul Friedlander, ed., Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 1–21.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Norman G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (London: Verso, 2000). For Finkelstein’s account of his book’s comparative international reception, see his foreword to the 2001 edition.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For a survey of the historical literature, see J. Samuel Walker, “The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Historiographical Update,” in Michael J. Hogan, ed., Hiroshima in History and Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 11–37.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, Hiroshima in America: A Half-Century of Denial (New York: Avon, 1995); See also Richard Minear, “Atomic Holocaust, Nazi Holocaust: Some Reflections,” in Diplomatic History 19 (Spring 1996), pp. 347–65.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    On the Enola Gay controversy, see the essays in Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, eds., History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past (New York: Henry Holt, 1996); and in Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, eds., Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy (Sony Creek, CT: Pamphleteer’s Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), hereafter cited by page number in the text.Google Scholar
  7. 14.
    Herbert Marcuse, “Über den affirmativen Charakter der Kultur” [1937], in Schriften, vol. 3 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1979); in English as “The Affirmative Character of Culture,” in Jeremy J. Shapiro, trans., Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (Boston: Beacon, 1968). Texts, David Wooton, trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000), p. 98. The latter also includes relevant excerpts from Leibniz, Pope, and Rousseau.Google Scholar
  8. 24.
    Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute [1983], Georges Van Den Abbeele, trans. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), p. 56. See also his 1980 lecture “Discussions, or Phrasing ‘after Auschwitz’,” which registers one stage in Lyotard’s confrontation with Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, as well as underscores the role of Auschwitz as an ethical impetus shared by critical theory and so-called poststructuralism: in English in Andrew Benjamin, ed., The Lyotard Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), pp. 361–92.Google Scholar

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© Gene Ray 2005

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  • Gene Ray

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