Ivan Iyer

"The Conflicting Interests of the Kantian Sublime:

Agitation and Suspension as Disinterested Affect"

Disinterest forms one of the core aspects of Kant's theory of pure aesthetic judgment owing to his thesis that it does not serve any ends of the senses or cognitive intellect. This disinterest is accompanied by what he would attribute as the “unpurposive” nature of aesthetic judgments that are singular and conceptually indeterminate. That which is charming or agreeable, according to Kant, would not constitute "pure" aesthetic judgment since these are but affective responses that serve the interests of the senses and therefore do not constitute the dispassionate reflection that is required of authentic aesthetic reflection. Consequently, affect occupies a rather marginalized and largely unarticulated role in Kant’s aesthetics, presenting itself not only as unnecessary but as an obstacle to pure aesthetic judgment.

Yet, it is in Kant's 'Analytic of the Sublime' - where the sublime is described as nothing less than the revelation of the supersensible powers of the faculty of reason - that one finds a resurfacing of affect. While Kant would insist that the true sense of the sublime is ultimately described by an aesthetic self-realization of a morality that is disinterested vis-a-vis sensible experience, he will also identify certain "vigorous" affects as "aesthetically sublime" since they signal nothing less than "a straining" of bodily forces through certain ideas. This straining, Kant argues, lends to the mind a certain momentum that is nevertheless without any interest. The sublime character of certain affects, in other words, is on account of an attitude that is disinterested insofar as it is unpurposive. On the other hand, the concept of the sublime itself as aesthetic feeling, is described by a disinterested affect, that is produced by an unresolved "agitation" between contradictory feelings and emotions such as of terror and transcendence.

The Kantian sublime then, which is often articulated as paradigmatic of the faculty of reason and its supersensible moral elevation above the world of sense and affect, is also simultaneously the very site of an intense affect, as it presents itself in the terms of a conflict of thought. To be sure, unlike the judgment of the beautiful, Kant will argue that the judgment of the sublime is not merely without interest but that it is contrary to every interest of the sense and cognition. Hence, while the experience of the sublime may be disinterested insofar as it is claimed to be fulfilling no purpose other than a subjectively purposive aesthetic judgment, this very disinterest is constituted by a conflict between conflicting affects or interests. In this paper then, I wish to explore the notions of affect in Kant's analytic of the sublime and how they are positioned vis-a-vis the more predominant articulation of the sublime as disinterested aesthetic judgment. I will attempt to argue instead, that rather than occupying the status of either disinterested aesthetic judgment or affect, the Kantian sublime in fact represents an affect produced by a suspension of thought and this is what lends it, its disinterested character. In other words, that the sense of "agitation" produced in the experience of the sublime is the affect that also produces its conceptual indeterminacy and therefore, its disinterested character. Concomitantly and contrary to a popular interpretation of the Kantian sublime, I will argue that it is this agitation as affect that does not merely culminate in the revelation of a supersensible faculty but rather constitutes its character as an unresolved vibration.

I propose to explore this thesis of the Kantian sublime as a disinterested affect both through a reading of Kant's own text and Gilles Deleuze's interpretation of the Kantian sublime as a “discordant concord”, which is a disinterested affect insofar as it represents a subjectively purposive agitation. Through this discussion of the Kantian sublime and the simultaneous roles that it seems to occupy as affect and disinterested judgment, I try to explore the idea of the disinterested affect or conversely, the affect that constitutes disinterested aesthetic judgment. I hope for this discussion to productively contribute towards this seminar in thinking about the relationship between disinterestedness and affect in aesthetic experience.