This is the last class-related post you’ll have to read. Thank you for hanging on, and here we go…
The feminine sublime “designates a position of facing the irreducible alterity of the terror instead of controlling the feeling of terror through material obstruction or mental distance.” –Jui-Ch’i Liu
No… No, no, no. There’s no place for gender in sublimity, just as there’s no place for gender in algebra. Any sort of argument to the contrary takes away, leaches from, distracts. Whenever we try to see something as profound as the sublime through some sort of filter like gender, we only see part of the whole, and this week’s reading took a frustrating turn because everything narrowed down; everything started to focus in on a little part instead of the whole and all of it was awash with human fallacy.
Let’s start with the quote. Just like any other argument, we’d need to asses Liu’s premises before we can figure out if her conclusion is valid, and that’s where things start to fall apart. Seriously, who the hell said that men control “the feeling of terror through material obstruction or mental distance”? Burke, maybe? And if so, does just that one Irishman who died when this country was thirty years old get to decide what sublimity is for the rest of us? Is Liu honestly saying that there isn’t a woman out there who likes to put a blockade or two in between her mind and danger? Anyone who says “women do this, and men do that” is failing to see that humanity does something entirely different.
It’s super annoying. For this post, we were supposed to “reflect on gender and how it relates to the sublime,” and to that, I’d say that gender-based descriptions of the feeling are nothing more than subsets—little half-truths that don’t do anything other than keep us from looking higher because they distract from the thing that lives above masculine or feminine sublimity: holistic sublimity itself.
But you know what? It’s not Liu’s fault; she just took the bait, and I can’t blame her. Because when you think about it, it really was all those wig-wearing men from Western Europe who set us off on the wrong course with all their misogynistic idiocy. I’ve never liked Kant, and really, he’s to blame. Smart women like Liu can take only so much of that bullshit before the polarization pushes them to the other side, and then they start to see things as if there really were sides. There aren’t. Rage is rage. Woe is woe. And sublimity is sublimity, whether it’s felt by a man or a woman or a Yorkshire terrier. When we start to look at a gender’s take on some sort of emotion that is in and of itself a contradiction, we miss things. And this week, we missed things.
As to the photography in Liu’s essay, I’d argue that there’s just as much “mental distance” in Lee’s Dolphin Court as there was in Herbert Mason’s cathedral picture, and I hate to say it, but I think Liu cherry-picked a woman’s photography to prove a point. Yes, in that last horrid picture of the stacked corpses, Lee definitely faced “the irreducible alterity of the terror,” but so did the countless male photographers who also took pictures of bodies after and during WWII. There just isn’t much logic in the argument, regardless of how beautiful and intelligent it was, and I stick by my guns:
Sublimity persists in as many different ways as there are people who feel it, and it matters not if they’re men or women. Infinite, mind-blowing things happen all the time and everywhere, and if these things are described from a feminine or a masculine point of view, the describer has failed, and they’ve only told half the tale. Good writing, good art, good photography: these things need to be free and unfettered from gender, because if they aren’t, they’re trapped just below where they could be ultimately, and they fail to reach the potential of true sublimity. In the end, you need it all, positive and negative, distance and immersion. That’s where balanced contradiction comes from, and frankly, that’s the definition of sublimity.