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

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


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.


Human Dignity Aesthetic Judgment Transcendental Idealism Aesthetic Theory Fateful Legacy 
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  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
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    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
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© Gene Ray 2005

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