The Neural Sublime

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The 18th century tried to revive Classicism by relating the sublime to Nature or landscape. Burke's work on the sublime identified the terror provoked by the sublime—the terror caused by obscurity, vacuity, darkness, immensity, solitude, and silence—as its principal characteristic. Breaking away from Longinus and Burke, who construed sublimity as a property of objects, in the Critique of Judgment Kant located the sublime in the subject, defining the sublime as a feeling that provides access to higher Reason.

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Modern and postmodern aesthetics have been concerned with the ethical evaluation of the aesthetic reconciliation of Reason and Nature. In Aesthetic Theory Adorno criticized the Kantian sublime as a manifestation of bourgeois delusions of grandeur inasmuch as it is not aroused by phenomena in their immediacy but by Spirit's resistance to Nature. Kant attempted to ground aesthetic objectivity in the subject and he believed reason to be the unifying moment: reason is both a subjective faculty and the prototype of objectivity since it is necessary and universal.

However, Adorno argued, Kant's subsuming of particulars under universals 'common sense' violated the notion of grasping things from the inside, the need for which he had introduced with the notion of purposiveness: for instance, the beautiful must please universally and without a concept, but universality and implicit necessity are conceptual.

Kant's formal conceptualization failed to do justice to aesthetic phenomena, which are, by definition, particulars. In The Truth in Painting Derrida carried Adorno's critique further, arguing that Kant's quasi-reconciliation of nature and freedom was based on a mere analogy between reflective aesthetic judgments and logical judgments.

Alan Richardson, the Neural Sublime: Cognitive Theories and Romantic Texts

Kant argued that even though an aesthetic judgment is not a logical one, it is still related to the understanding. Accordingly, he imported the four logical functions from the Critique of Pure Reason quality, quantity, purpose, necessity into the Critique of Judgment. Thus, according to Derrida, Kant did not articulate an aesthetic theory but only the formal conditions for the possibility of aesthetic judgment in general.

While Adorno's and Derrida's critiques of Kant centered around Kant's failure to distinguish reflective aesthetic from logical judgments, Lyotard's critique in The Inhuman: Reflections on Time was concerned with the ethical implications of Kant's aesthetics, which sacrificed the aesthetic in the interest of Reason, subordinating the aesthetic of the beautiful to the aesthetic of the sublime. Lyotard tried to rehabilitate the aesthetic of the beautiful by restoring the value of contemplation what he calls the mind's passability to the aesthetic object.

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Discussions of the sublime have infiltrated discourses beyond that of art and aesthetic theory. Michael Shapiro's Cinematic Geopolitics imports the discourse of the sublime into a discussion of national and post-national diasporic cinema to explore the ways in which the Kantian sublime has shaped the politics of aesthetics, aligning the Kantian sublime with the end of the national and the rise of the post-national subject.

Richardson presents six exemplary studies, each exploring a different intersection of Romanticism and the sciences of the mind and brain: the experience of the sublime and the neuroscience of illusion; the Romantic imagination and visual imaging; the figure of apostrophe and linguistic theory; fictional representations of the mind and "theory of mind" theory; depictions of sibling incest and neo-Darwinian theories of mental behavior; and representations of female speech and cognitive developmental psychology.

Richardson's insightful analysis opens fresh perspectives on British Romanticism, pointing scholars to new developments in cognitive literary studies. He combines elements of new historicist analysis with original--and much-needed--models for understanding language, subjectivity, and social behavior.


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Far from signaling a departure from the prevalent critical approaches of new historicism, Richardson argues, cognitive theory presents an essential complement to them. The Neural Sublime features an array of cognitive and neuroscientific approaches, providing an engaging and readable introduction to the emergent field of cognitive literary studies. Here at Walmart. Your email address will never be sold or distributed to a third party for any reason. Due to the high volume of feedback, we are unable to respond to individual comments.

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