j_spot the Journal of Social and Political

Volume One, No. 3 | June 2001

j_spot online edition ISSN 1481 8 5842


Sublime Speculations: The Economy of the Gift in Feminist Ethics


Joanna Zylinska

Cultural Studies
Bath Spa University College
United Kingdom
hands framing body


    The thought of life is capable of thinking the loss, capable of knowing that life does not advance by means of a system in the Hegelian way of reinjecting, reincorporating what it could leave. On the contrary, the thought of life is capable of accepting that something cannot be capitalised. That is the thought of Derrida, a deconstruction, a critique; a denunciation of the spirit of capitalisation which is purely artificial and produces nothing but death.

    Hélène Cixous, ‘Interview’


    The sublime is currently undergoing something of a renaissance in contemporary theoretical debates. Jean-François Lyotard even goes so far as to suggest that the sublime is the only possible mode of relating to, or coming to terms with, the experience of modernity. This article offers a feminist questioning of the economy of proportion perpetuated by what I term ‘the masculine tradition of the sublime.’

    The term ‘sublime’ was introduced by Longinus in the first century and then developed by, among others, Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. Drawing on Derridean deconstruction, perceived here as a way of reading based on an economy of the ‘unspent’ in which ‘something cannot be capitalised,’ I intend to demonstrate that capitalisation was the underlying principle of the traditional discourse of the sublime. As a result of this capitalisation, the self-reflexive theoretical ‘excess’ of this discourse - whose emergence I will discuss below - produced the cornerstone of modernity: a self-sufficient universal subject. But this rigid gendering of Western aesthetics and its repression of inaccommodable alterity resulted in the simultaneous weakening of both capitalism (as a system that calculates precisely all gains and losses) and the modern subject. Against the sublime annulling any form of excess so as to enhance modern subjectivity, I therefore want to set the notion of the feminine sublime, born out of the excess that the defensive principles of decorum ruled out of eighteenth-century aesthetics.1

    Unlike the traditional sublime, the feminine sublime, as I see it, does not domesticate the object that might be a source of threat. Instead, it accepts the relationship of both pleasure and pain, or life and death, and the potential dispersal of the self. The term ‘the feminine sublime’ does not stand for an encounter with the magnificence of mountain peaks and ‘piling-up clouds’ - as it did for Burke and Kant - but rather for a meeting with the incalculable alterity of the other. This other pleads with the self to respond to its alterity with respect rather than violence. In this way, the apparently neutral aesthetic category of the sublime reveals an ethical dimension, if ethics is understood after Levinas as respect towards the absolute otherness of the other, his or her magnificence and irreducible difference. Challenging the two main aspects of the traditional sublime - i.e. the capitalisation of excess and the fear of eruption - the concept of the feminine sublime enables me to introduce a new set of questions regarding aesthetics and ethics, their alleged separateness and their justification. But my sublime speculations are also an attempt to trace a feminist ethics, an ethics which would spring from the aporias of capitalism and the precarious foundations of modern subjectivity.

    The fear of excess in the ‘masculine’ sublime

    Even though it is inscribed in the paradigm of ‘femininity,’ the ‘feminine’ sublime I speak of does not reflect the traditional gender binarism. Instead, ‘femininity’ is to be read here as a marker of irreducible difference, represented here as it is for Luce Irigaray, whose thought has strongly influenced my own sublime adventures, through the figure of sexual difference. Drawing on the economy which denounces "the spirit of capitalisation which is purely artificial and produces nothing but death,"2 I do not intend to master the feminine sublime, although this term serves as a (necessarily precarious) foundation of the feminist ethics I develop here. The discussion of the feminine sublime will thus be more spiral than linear, and will consist of a number of illustrations, ‘probings’ and shifts in meaning. It will, hopefully, save me from capitalising on the discourse of feminist aesthetics or feminist theory for the sake of the erection of a rigid academic argument. This does not mean that my argument will be unfounded: but it will be based on an economy "that upsets the linearity of a project, undermines the goal-object of a desire, diffuses the polarisation toward a single pleasure, disconcerts fidelity to a single discourse…."3

    Before I move on to discuss the transformation of sublimity by affection which it tried to tame and suppress, I want to delineate briefly the significance of the term ‘sublime’ in Western aesthetics. My intention in doing so is to demonstrate how the authors of the sublime were seduced by the discourse they tried to elaborate and master. This resulted in their attempts to annul the power of the sublime by describing it in feminine terms. The first theorist of sublimity, Longinus, draws attention to the sublime’s element of unexpectedness, resulting in violence and turmoil, but also evoking ecstasy in the hearer. In his treatise Peri Hypsous he writes: "Sublimity ... produced at the right moment tears everything up like a whirlwind and exhibits the orator’s whole power at a single blow."4 In his influential Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful first published in 1757, Edmund Burke focuses on the reception of sublime phenomena by the bewildered self, whose peace of mind is threatened by the excess of power and terror it cannot master. Immanuel Kant, in turn, defends the supremacy of the mind, which can always think the infinity imagination fails to grasp. As he argues in The Critique of Judgement, pleasure resulting from the correspondence of the sublime feeling to the law of reason clashes with pain caused by the impossibility of balancing the judgement of different faculties. Kant allows reason to triumph over senses, thus claiming man’s (sic) power over the insurmountable and unlimited.

    The coherence of this brief ‘history of the sublime,’ usually demarcated by the names of Longinus, Burke and Kant, is nevertheless problematic. Challenging what he perceives to be the unfounded unity of theoretical speculations on the sublime, Peter de Bolla, in his book entitled The Discourse of the Sublime, insists on the recognition of the historical specificity of this concept. Working in the liminal space between what he terms the discourses on and of the sublime, de Bolla also investigates the discursive (or textual) excess produced by the discourse on sublimity. In other words, in his study he sets himself an ambitious task of ‘theorising theory,’ that is demonstrating how the discourse on the sublime (i.e. eighteenth-century descriptions of the sublime) resulted in the production of another discourse, the discourse of the sublime, which was a critical reflection not only on the issue of sublimity but also on the whole question of self-reflexivity, or theorisation, as such. His study "begins with the assumption that the human subject is not the same through history, and that, furthermore, the modern subject, the subject generated in, by and through the age of reason, is the result or product of a particular discursive network not uniquely present to the years 1756-63, but largely initiated and substantiated during this period."5 This is the strongest, perhaps even most important, claim in his book: the discourse of the sublime is not, for de Bolla, confined to the realm of aesthetics. Its theoretical self-reflexivity gives rise to a discursive excess, which is then regulated to produce one of the cornerstones of the modern age: the idea of the rational, self-reflexive subject. But the autonomous subject is also described as an outcome of the good management of capital, i.e. of transforming debt into surplus. Exploring the link between the discourse on the sublime and the discourse on the national debt, both of which emerged during the Seven Years War, de Bolla explains how one can manage the discursive excess produced by these two discourses: "the discourse on the debt effects the capitalist description of the subject - still very much with us and under which we are represented - in which the discursive excess is identified as the mark of individuality; it brings about the field of representation in which difference determines and ratifies person; difference in and to excess becomes the defining feature of the individual and sanctions the subject."6 This kind of transaction reflects the overall way of thinking about identity in Western culture: the capitalist logic, which is based on the exact calculation of gains and losses, always reduces excessive, incalculable alterity to sameness.

    Another important point which corresponds to the production of individual subjectivity through the discourse of the sublime is that this discourse relies on ‘woman’ as its cornerstone and reference point. But ‘woman’ is usually disempowered in the discourse of the sublime (i.e. reduced to the images of weakness, submission and beauty), a manoeuvre which allows its practitioners to reassert their masculinity. Significantly, Barbara Clare Freeman defines the sublime as an "allegory of the construction of the patriarchal (but not necessarily male) subject, a self that maintains its borders by subordinating difference and by appropriating rather than identifying with that which presents itself as other."7 In a similar vein, de Bolla concludes,

    [T]he discourse on the sublime produces and examines subjectivity in gender-specific terms, thereby signalling its participation within the larger set of discourses determining sexuality for the period.... [This discourse] is faced with the product of its own analysis, which we will here label as the sexed subject, with which it is both uncomfortable - an unwanted product - and hopelessly drawn to, fascinated by. The discourse on the sublime recognises this sexed subject, but refuses to theorise it, refuses its distances.8

    Analysing the production of gendered subjectivity in the discourse on the sublime, de Bolla highlights the fear of sexual difference accompanying late eighteenth-century theorists of sublimity. It is interesting that the figure of distance, which Jacques Derrida describes in Spurs as standing for, but also protecting against, femininity in Western thought,9 is mentioned here in a similar context. The gendering of the sublime, manifesting itself as an emphasis on the indubitable difference between masculinity and femininity, allows the male subject to maintain a distance from ‘woman,’ i.e. from distance itself, which occludes, as well as presents, the instability and arbitrariness of the truth of gender polarity. De Bolla explains further that even though the discourse on the sublime eventually turns towards the examination of subjectivity, it "continually forecloses on the possibility of the subject; it constantly sees it in terms of an unlegislatable, an unthinkable."10 The subject matter of that discourse - the sublime experience - ‘leaks,’ however, into the subject position, whose very constitution is always threatened by the eruption of the difference it tries to tame and annul. This raises the question of whether this discourse forecloses on the possibility of the subject for the fear of sexual difference? Is subjectivity a terrifying concept precisely because of its links with sexuality and femininity, which in the gendered theories of the sublime are reduced to sameness, obedience and beauty? If identity cannot be thought without difference, the theories of the sublime construct a male subject position which is to be a defence mechanism against the irreducible difference of the other. In this way subjectivity is both asserted and denied, which explains the reluctance to acknowledge the excess of the subject de Bolla detects in what he terms ‘the discourse of the sublime.’

    The feminine sublime: from aesthetics to ethics11

    In the eighteenth-century political tradition, which refuses to conceptualise identity though sexual difference, the elevating moral aspect of the experience of the sublime does not apply to women (even though ‘woman’ constitutes an unspoken foundation of this discourse). As a consequence of this way of thinking, women, as Christine Battersby observes, "have traditionally been confined to the stage of consciousness that post-Kantian philosophers termed 'the aesthetic.'"12 This has allowed the male theorists of the sublime to perceive women as situated outside the ethical sphere and thus as being excluded from the universal concept of ‘personhood.’ But if we expose femininity as the feeble foundation of the discourse of the sublime, we can then revisit the radical separation between the domains of aesthetics and ethics in the eighteenth-century. The feminine sublime, which I develop in response to this aesthetic tradition, does not, thus, have to be confined to the darkness of the pre-ethical, if femininity is understood as a marker of difference which can open up the rigid boundaries of the discourse of Western philosophy. What I will further call ‘the ethics of the feminine sublime’ springs from the respectful recognition of the power of the sublime, and from the acknowledgement that the aesthetics of the sublime was constructed upon the negation of the ethical impulse and the suppression of sexual difference. Thus, even though the sublime has always been ‘feminine,’ the recourse to aestheticism, perceived as the subjective realm of the representation of an object, ensured that the excess of difference the theorists of sublimity feared and avoided was strictly controlled.

    The shift from aesthetics to ethics I am proposing here should not, however, be perceived as absolute. Ethics should rather be seen as an extension (or perhaps ‘inversion’) of aesthetics, defined as an independent realm of judgement about art and beauty. The recognition of an ethical impulse in aesthetics results from directing attention to the inaccommodable alterity within the experience of the sublime. This alterity can be approached from a distance which protects the self’s identity, an attitude which was adopted by both Burke and Kant. However, the self can also show respect for this otherness, without an intention to control or master it. The alterity of the other, both fascinating and threatening to the unity of the self, is the starting point of the ethics of the feminine sublime. Opening oneself to the alterity of the other is a highly ethical gesture. The self no longer remains ‘at certain distances’ from its source of enticement and fascination, but rather embarks on a fearful encounter with the other who poses a threat to its integrity but also offers a promise of bliss. Ultimate responsibility for this event rests with its participants. As Emmanuel Levinas states in Totality and Infinity, an individual has an ethical choice to either welcome the stranger and speak to him or her, or to remain in isolation and seclusion. But when the encounter eventually does happen, it collapses the subject-object division maintained in traditional encounters with sublime grandeur. When I open myself to the infinite alterity of the other, "the proximity of the neighbour in its trauma does not only strike up against me but exalts and elevates me, and, in the literal sense of the term, inspires me."13 Levinas’s description of this encounter is embedded in the rhetoric of the sublime, emphasising pain mixed with pleasure, elevation and greatness. The ethical relation with the other transforms the everyday and the commonplace into a most significant event, whose importance is stressed by the upward movement the self experiences when confronted with the other’s alterity. However, as elevation goes hand-in-hand, or rather, to quote Levinas, face-to-face, with proximity, the self needs to risk and reveal its incompleteness for the sake of experiencing the infinite jouissance, a feeling which results from a direct contact with alterity.

    Defined as ‘respect for the alterity of the other,’ Levinas’s ethics signals a departure from Kant’s ethical solipsism, in which the sublime, in the last instance, aggrandises the self. Even though Kant professes that "the feeling of our incapacity to attain to an idea that is a law for us, is RESPECT,"14 it is reason that is ultimately respected because of its ability to transcend the limits of imagination. Excess resulting from an encounter with the unpresentable and the threatening is thus absorbed by the mind, which wards off the danger of encountering alterity in the self. The moral sentiment is thus awakened as a response to the break-up of imagination. As Lyotard points out, "the Geistesgefühl, the sentiment of the mind, signifies that the mind is lacking in nature, that nature is lacking for it. It feels only itself. In this way the sublime is none other that the sacrificial announcement of the ethical in the aesthetic field" (sacrificial in that imagination needs to be sacrificed in the interests of practical reason, and the mind can attain its final destination of freedom).15 While Kant’s ethics finds its origin and justification in the self, Levinas points to the arrival of the other as the source of an ethical sentiment. Refusing to assert the self’s primacy, Levinas focuses on the vulnerability of the self when facing the other, who is always already ‘absolutely other.’ The sublimity of an encounter with alterity opens up a chasm between the self, which is never present to itself, and the other, whose arrival brings both the sense of incompletion and the promise of bliss. In this way, the allegedly impersonal aesthetics of the sublime creates an opportunity for ethical involvement, an involvement which I am investigating under the name of the ethics of the feminine sublime. Open to both thought and desire, to the expelled and the maternal, the feminine sublime presents itself as always already polyvocal and plural. It also allows us to revisit the concepts of aesthetics, ethics and politics from a feminist perspective and to delineate a new economy of the relationship between the sexes, one which does not depend on the capitalisation of excess.

    After the subject

    Taking issue with the solipsism of Heidegger, who insisted that "each age has one issue to think through, and only one,"16 Irigaray claims that it is the issue of sexual difference which in our age "could be our 'salvation' if we thought it through."17 But Irigaray is not merely replicating the authoritarian philosophy of the German thinker, whose ideas have strongly influenced her work. She also seems to be poking fun at Heidegger’s rigidity and his elevation of Being as the most important issue of ‘our age.’ By proposing we turn our attention to sexual difference, Irigaray in fact abandons the singular focus of Heidegger’s optics. This ‘only one’ issue of sexual difference she promotes is itself fragmented and multiple, and thus its rethinking will be a long-term process. In this way, Irigaray’s ethics of sexual difference denounces ‘the spirit of capitalisation’: it accepts that in the relationship between two selves ‘something cannot be capitalised.’

    This opening towards the difference of both the self and the other allows us to look for new forms of identity and selfhood. The title, Who Comes After the Subject?, of the 1991 collection edited by Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor and Jean-Luc Nancy, indicates the need to rethink the Cartesian-Kantian-Hegelian model of subjectivity, which has dominated Western philosophy. The question itself has a sublime character: it points to the unexpected arrival of the unknown (‘Who comes?’), which may or may not happen. But rather than either simply abandon the notion of subjectivity or proclaim ‘a return to the subject’ as if the critique of subjectivity had not happened at all, perhaps we should accept that the question of the subject can be approached only as a question, demonstrating the need for the permanent investigation of subjectivity. As Derrida observes in his interview with Jean-Luc Nancy entitled ‘Eating Well,’ which has been included in this collection:

    If we still wish to speak of the subject - the juridical, ethical, political, psychological subject, etc. ... , it is first of all necessary to submit to the test of questioning the essential predicates of which all subjects are the subject. ... It is necessary to question this authority of the being-present, but the question itself neither offers the first nor the last word. … This vigil or beyond of the question is anything but precritical. Beyond even the force of critique, it situates a responsibility as irreducible to and rebellious toward the traditional category of ‘subject.’ Such a vigil leads us to recognise the processes of différance, trace, iterability, ex-appropriation, and so on. These are at work everywhere, which is to say, well beyond humanity. A discourse thus restructured can try to situate in another way the question of what a human subject, a morality, a politics, the rights of the human subject are, can be, and should be. Still to come, this task is indeed far ahead of us.18

    We should not be misled here by Derrida’s prophetic ‘to come,’ indicating the future of subject politics and ethics. Rather, this ‘to come,’ which reappears in his discussion of ‘arriving democracy’ in Politics of Friendship, is permanently deferred. Even if one is prompted to respond to the question of the subject and his or her rights and duties, the moment of arrival at the correct answer gives way to an act of ‘arriving,’ i.e. being on-the-way to the subject, ethics and democracy. Therefore these new forms of subjectivity should be seen as constantly contested, setting off the machinery of differentiation which breaks through fixed definitions. Derrida argues that

    Something of this call of the other must remain nonreappropriable, nonsubjectivable, and in a certain way nonidentifiable, a sheer supposition, so as to remain other, a singular call to response or to responsibility. This is why the determination of the singular ‘Who?’ - or at least its determination as subject - still remains problematic. And it should remain so. This obligation to protect the other’s otherness is not merely a theoretical imperative.19

    My reason for turning to Derrida is that Derridean deconstruction seems to me to provide a useful means of explaining the ethical dimension of the sublime. In particular, deconstruction can offer us an ‘ethical’ way of thinking about difference, since its constant exploration of meaningful entities prevents them from fossilising into the totalities Levinas fears. By revisiting the notions of otherness, selfhood and ethics itself, deconstruction creates a radical investigative territory on which the principle of undecidability serves as a guarantee that ethics will always and continually take place. As Diane Elam notices, "this search [for the rule] is necessarily endless."20 Derrida confirms the ethical character of deconstruction in the following terms:

    In order to recast, if not rigorously re-found a discourse on the ‘Subject’… one has to go through the experience of a deconstruction. This deconstruction (we should once again remind them who do not want to read) is neither negative nor nihilistic; it is not even a pious nihilism, as I have said. …[T]here is a duty in deconstruction.21

    This duty springs from the call of the other, whose otherness can never be ultimately grasped, and whose arrival is not guaranteed. And yet the mechanism of deconstruction is activated whenever an event occurs; whenever the other speaks to me and initiates an encounter. As Simon Critchley puts it in The Ethics of Deconstruction, "Derrida writes, paying careful attention to the reflexivity of the statement, Ça se déconstruit ("It deconstructs itself", the Ça being a translation of both Freud’s Es - the Id, the unconscious - and a homophone for Sa - savoir absolu, absolute knowledge…). It deconstructs itself whenever something takes place."22 This is not to say that deconstruction is a passive enterprise, but rather to foreground a certain unavoidability of a deconstructive event, which can either be acknowledged (just as the other can be welcomed in his or her otherness) or can be overlooked and ignored.

    Ethics can thus be understood here as a response to the voice of the other. This voice can only be heard from far away or perhaps merely imagined as a promise of an encounter that may or may not take place. This form of ethics - which I describe as the ethics of the feminine sublime - is not reduced to the code of moral behaviour. It produces an ethical situation not only in every singular act of waiting for the other, but also when his or her voice addresses me and I accept (or reject) this call. Here, the sublime springs from uncertainty. The ethics of the feminine sublime can therefore be described as ‘wandering ethics,’ being permanently ‘on-its-way.’ Denying capitalisation, the ethical encounter with the other, which has not been underwritten by the promise of success or gain, is marked by both excess and lack. Consequently, it evokes sublime feeling, which for Burke results from the "terrible uncertainty of the thing described."23 But it is the ‘denunciation of the spirit of capitalisation’ that differentiates the ethics of the feminine sublime, (mis)guided by deconstructive signposts, from the ethics which de Bolla associates with the early discourse of the sublime:

    [T]he repositioning of moral economy takes into account both the fact that bankruptcies occur in the individualistic pursuit of profit, and that society becomes corrupt through the degeneration of morals brought about by selfish profiteering. ... It follows from this that great pressure must be placed on the conjunction between the individual and the state, between public interest and private gain, in order to create the discourse within which its revalued ethics of collective individualism can be read as an ethics, not as the more brutal vicissitudes of economic pragmatism. ... This production of the body of the state should be seen in terms of the legislation and control of a discursive excess.24

    The discursive excess of eighteenth-century sublimity, which I discuss in previous sections, is eventually converted into ethics. Excess is legislated and, effectively, annulled by representing public debt within the bounds of control. It is seen as a regulated quantity within the economy, rather than as a superfluous one. Ethics thus comes in place of excess, ruling out the instability of the subject that has emerged as a side-product of the discourse of the sublime. In this context, however, ethics signifies nothing more than a codified collection of morals, warding off disturbance or ‘overspilling’ on the level of both the individual and the state.

    And yet Derrida indicates that "the sublime, if there is any sublime, exists only by overspilling: it exceeds cise and good measure, it is no longer proportioned according to man and his determinations."25 Debt and loss should not thus be seen as unnatural and unwanted products of a miscalculated business transaction. If, as Derrida claims in The Post-Card, "to borrow is the law"26 of the economic order which depends on speculation, then moral economy - imposed in order to cover up individual and social corruption - in fact reveals what it intends to hide: that debt is an intrinsic feature of an economic exchange. Derrida argues that "without borrowing, nothing begins, there is no proper fund/foundation [fonds]. Everything begins with the transference of funds, and there is interest in borrowing, this is even its initial interest. To borrow yields, brings back, produces surplus value, is the prime mover of every investment."27

    The ethics of the feminine sublime is, therefore, not the exact opposite of the moral economy de Bolla describes. Instead, it should be seen as a recognition of the principle of debt and the experience of loss, which are at work in any transaction with the other. Rather than guard against corruption, the ethics of the feminine sublime springs precisely from corruption, alterity and foreignness perceived as an intrinsic part of the experience of the self. In this ethics, the acceptance of corporeality and desire, born out of the respectful recognition of the other’s difference, will result in the annulment of the subject’s secure distanced position. The preservation of this distance is for Burke a guarantee of maintaining the subject’s integrity and of controlling the excess that the sublime event could unleash. But in this ‘new’ model of subjectivity, the subject is not formed a priori: it is a product of the event in which it participates. The subject only emerges as a response to the coming of the other. The word ‘response’ refers us to the concept of dialogism, preparing the grounds for the emergence of the self before the other, whose coming-into-being is a recognition of, and a response to, the alterity against which the self’s own difference can be formulated. The subject can thus be described in Derrida’s words as the "finite experience of nonidentity to self, as the underivable interpellation inasmuch as it comes from the other."28 It is produced only in the meeting, and this very meeting is an indication and a confirmation of the subject’s precarious status. The chance of nothing happening at all and of an instant termination of the event - the fears that Burke associates with the uncertain arrival of the sublime - erase the possibility of returning to the Enlightenment model of subjectivity.


    The economy of the gift

    The madness ... is a certain excess of the gift.
    Jacques Derrida, Given Time

    A sexuate encounter is initiated by the other’s call and established by the self’s response to it. As a consequence, both the other and the self can emerge as separate and different, though never ultimately fixed, entities. By opposing the dialectical logic of capitalist exchange, the ‘economy of desire’ regulating this encounter remains open to the untamed and insubordinate circulation that can always be interrupted by some form of either lack or excess.

    This economy, defying the principles of capitalist exchange, is frequently represented through the figure of the gift, a concept which is evoked by a number of thinkers who investigate alternative models of discourse and subjectivity. Desire can be likened to a gift because of its immateriality. Hovering between the promise of its arrival and the impossibility of its fulfilment, desire - like a gift - can never be retained or possessed. As Derrida observes, a gift is antithetical to the principle of exchange: "it must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure."29 Working against the logic of debt and gratitude supporting the circle of symbolic exchange, the gift disrupts traditional economy. To retain its status of a gift, it has to remain unspeakable, or even inconceivable, which saves it from being reduced to the familiar economy based on an exact calculation of gains and losses.

    The flickering presence of the gift evokes permanent uncertainty. The event of the feminine sublime, based on the withdrawal of the promise of the other’s arrival, obeys the logic of donation and generosity that the gift calls for. As Derrida argues in Given Time, the gift, sublime in its sudden arrival, ‘must be irruptive.’ Violence is the condition of the gift, as a donee is often taken by surprise, against his or her will, and transported beyond him- or herself. In The Gift of Death, Derrida writes that in Judeo-Christian cultures being presented with the gift of one’s identity (i.e. being called in and recognised as the subject by the other), remains inscribed in the parabolical gift of the Christian offering, the shared mysterium tremendum: "the terrifying mystery, the dread, fear and trembling of the Christian in the experience of the sacrificial gift. This trembling seizes me at the moment of becoming a person, and the person can become what it is only in being paralysed [transie], in its very singularity, by the gaze of God."30

    The height and indescribability of God for Levinas represent the absolute alterity of the other, who deserves to be answered as if he were God. The ethical character of this act results from the fact that the call of the other can be rejected. An act of taking responsibility for the other, encouraged by the promise of bliss and fulfilment, must result in an overcoming of the paralysing fear of nothingness. And yet, this ethics is premised upon unavoidable danger and risk. As Derrida explains, "[responsibility] must always run the risk of conversion and apostasy: there is no responsibility without a dissident and inventive rupture, with respect to tradition, authority, orthodoxy, rule, or doctrine."31 The initial decision that is handed to the other as a gift carries with it a threat of eruption and destruction: communication can always turn into chaotic babble and its discursive overspill can invade and shake up the self’s identity.

    Abolishing the logic of practical reason and economic exchange, the gift of an ethical response to the other demands therefore a different logic. This particular logic goes against logos, "which means at once reason, discourse, relation, and account."32 The ethics of the feminine sublime thus inscribes itself in the economy of the sacrifice that, paradoxically, keeps what it gives up. However, we should distinguish here between the precalculated sacrifice upon which Kant’s sublime rests and the sacrificial aspect of the feminine sublime which goes beyond capitalisation. As Barbara Freeman observes,

    [T]he attainment of the Kantian sublime is dependent upon a sacrifice; its cause is the collapse of the imagination’s capacity to connect empirical reality with the realm of abstract ideality, and reason’s subsequent amplification occurs only because the imagination has been unable to comprehend reality. Indeed, Kant links the defeat of the imagination to the very possibility of representing what had belonged previously to the domain of the unrepresentable.33

    The association of sublimity with both femininity and monstrosity in Burke and Kant is an attempt to tame the discursive excess which is a threat to the subject’s self-identity. However, Lyotard points out that there is "something of the sublime in capitalist economy,"34 which means that the logic of calculation produces its own bastard child, the unspent, and thus undermines the circularity of its own principle of perfect exchange. This is why I keep emphasising that the feminine sublime should not be seen as another ‘version’ of the sublime, but rather as a reexploration of ‘the unspent’ in the discourse it produces and reflects. It thus demands an ultimate offering to the other, to whom I owe absolute responsibility, but it also denies the sacrificial aspect of this offering: the gift, to retain its status of a gift, has to be immediately and absolutely forgotten. We are faced here with the il-logic of extremes, alluring with blissful excess but also threatening with void and perdition. The feminine sublime calls for a radical gift: an ultimate spending of the self. "What is given - and this would also represent a kind of death - is not some thing, but goodness itself, a giving goodness, the act of giving or the donation of the gift. A goodness that must not only forget itself but whose source remains inaccessible to the donee."35 Burke’s fear of death, inherent in the sublime experience, will not be annulled by consolation resulting from the performance of a merciful act: though the goodness which is required here is to amount to infinity (i.e. total expenditure, without capitalising anything), it has to remain unmentioned, secretive and silent. This is the meaning of the self-sacrifice that foregrounds the irreplaceable singularity of both the donor and the donee. Answering the question: ‘On what condition does goodness exist beyond all calculation?,’ Derrida justifies the madness of the ethics of the gift as follows:

    On the condition that goodness forget itself, that the movement be the movement of the gift that renounces itself, hence the movement of infinite love. Only infinite love can renounce itself and, in order to become finite, become incarnated in order to love the other, to love the other as a finite other. This gift of infinite love comes from someone and is addressed to someone; responsibility demands irreplaceable singularity. Yet only death or rather the apprehension of death can give this irreplaceability, and it is only on the basis of it that one can speak of a responsible subject, of the soul as conscience of self, of myself, etc.36

    It is this link between love and mortality - understood as singular events and not ‘cultural universals’ - that justifies the positioning of the feminine sublime under the aegis of ethics. The deadly aspect of the sublime event, which testifies to its singularity, is also a guarantee of its ethical character. As Levinas argues, it is only in the face of death that the other and the self are confirmed in their singularity and irreplaceability. The scandal of the gift of death can be redeemed by and through affect, generating a different logic from the capitalist economy of exchange. But sacrifice is not motivated here by prospective gain or reward; on the contrary, the possibility of the repayment of this sacrifice has to be ruled out. Following Derrida’s speculations on goodness, we can conclude that the ‘mad’ economy of the feminine sublime can be justified through love, which cannot rest on the promise of the other’s arrival. Amorous spending threatens to disrupt the progress and development of a sexuate encounter - i.e. towards matrimony, child-bearing and family genealogy - with its demand for absolute consummation.

    This economy of infinite spending calls for a rethinking of the gender laws which underwrite it. Derrida notices that the biblical parable of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac in accordance with God’s orders, and thus trying to reconcile affect with responsibility, functions on an exclusive father-son level. Woman features here only as non-presence. Abraham’s wife, Sarah, is deprived of the possibility of challenging the extremity of the laws imposed by God and followed by his patriarchs. This prompts Derrida to ask, "would the logic of sacrificial responsibility within the implacable universality of the law, of its law, be altered, inflected, attenuated, or displaced, if a woman were to intervene in some consequential manner? Does the system of this sacrificial responsibility and of the double 'gift of death' imply at its very basis an exclusion or sacrifice of woman?"37 Derrida leaves the question is suspense, to which he frequently takes recourse when faced with ‘the woman question.’

    Trying to imagine Sarah’s horror and awe resulting from the impossibility of understanding the logic of the male hierarchy, but also from being excluded from this logic which was both kept secret and exposed on the altar on Mount Moriah, I want to open this ethics of sacrifice and the gift of death to femininity. This amounts to revealing sexual difference where it surreptitiously manifests itself. Hence the feminine sublime can be read as a counter-logic of infinite expenditure, motivated by the infinity of love which suspends the restraint of certain social practices based on mutuality, avoidance of risk, distance and non-involvement. It also involves the acceptance of what Sylviane Agacinski calls "the experience of weakness" associated with falling in love, i.e. with the recognition of the self’s need for the other.38 This is not to confirm the misogynist association between women and affect, as opposed to men’s rationality and self-guard. The sacrifice does not amount to one person sacrificing herself for the sake of the other and thus perpetuating the social power structure. On the contrary, sacrifice is situated here beyond the gender dichotomy, although femininity as a mark of difference, excess and ‘the non-truth of truth’ helps to open the rigidity of the unfair model of relations between the sexes. Infinite spending, therefore, does not conform with the old cultural model of domesticised womanhood, which has to be controlled in order to maintain patriarchal dominance: it signifies rather a different economy that regulates the relations between the sexes without capitalising on them (e.g. in the form of socially prescribed aims of the relationship, strict birth control policies, anti-abortion legislation, the policing of gay lovers or gay parents, etc.).

    This economy which is not one

    Irigaray identifies the source of this economy of excess, which overcomes the opposition between the linguistic and the material, in women’s plural sexuality. Against man’s dominant phallic economy, she opposes women’s autoeroticism, represented by the two lips constantly touching and caressing each other. Here, woman is no more seen as lacking a sex organ; on the contrary, "she has at least two of them, but they are not identifiable as ones. Her sexuality, always at least double, goes even further: it is plural."39 In the past, women functioned as objects in man’s symbolic exchange. Passed from fathers to husbands, they were not granted a subjectivity of their own. Instead, they were reduced to a symbol, while at the same time themselves remaining outside symbolisation, for the simple reason that the language which regulated their social position did not belong to them. And yet women were also able to forge insurgent unions within and among themselves, taking recourse to madness, mysticism and other forms of implosion or explosion, which Michel de Certeau has described as "the right to exercise language otherwise."40

    We can find the source of this economy of the unspent which underwrites discursive transactions ruled by ‘implosion or explosion’ in the relationship of non-identity and alterity between women, relationships in which there is always room for the trace of the corporeal other. According to Irigaray, "woman always remains several, but she is kept from dispersion because the other is already within her and is autoerotically familiar to her. Which is not to say that she appropriates the other for herself, that she reduces it to her own property. Ownership and property are doubtless quite foreign to the feminine."41 Woman’s sexuality thus allows us to think identity beyond and outside sameness. The feminine sublime, which springs from this relationship of non-identity between the sexes, breaks with the logic of sacrifice promoted by patriarchy. In phallogocentric, patriarchal economy the gift element of the relationship between the sexes is reduced to ‘natural duty,’ which could be read as a version of the Kantian moral law. In the figure of the colossal, which for Kant represents the sublime (prevented from overspilling by the rhetoric of proper measurement and distance), the naturalness of erection is merged with the cultural representations of its potency and value. "The more or less exclusive - and highly anxious - attention paid to erection in Western sexuality proves to what extent the imaginary that governs it is foreign to the feminine."42 The colossal, whose elevation is constantly threatened with a phantom of detumescence, can thus serve as a representation of the prodigious unpresentability and vulnerability of patriarchy, elevated on precarious foundations and wounded by the incision of feminist critique. As Derrida writes in The Truth in Painting, "the cise of the colossus is neither culture nor nature, both culture and nature. It is perhaps, between the presentable and the unpresentable, the passage from the one to the other as much as the irreducibility of the one to the other. Cise, edging, cut edges, that which passes and happens, without passing, from one to the other."43

    The feminine sublime invites women to in-cise the foundations of the colossal, allowing for the production of another economy and another discourse of exchange. It accepts the irresolvable character of the sublime experience, in which the exact balance between pain and pleasure cannot be reached, and in which the self’s security and solipsism are threatened by the intrusion of the other. It thus challenges that reductive logic of the binary system, which reduces woman’s sexual pleasure to the reproduction of the species. However, as Cixous argues in "The Laugh of the Medusa," woman refuses to be constrained by the traditional perception of herself as mother and ‘a source of goods’: "the woman arriving over and over again does not stand still; she’s everywhere, she exchanges, she’s the desire-that-gives."44 According to Cixous, woman "doesn’t 'know' what she’s giving, she doesn’t measure it; she gives, though, neither a counterfeit impression nor something she hasn’t got. She gives more, with no assurance that she’ll get back even some unexpected profit from what she puts out. She gives that there may be life, thought, transformation. This is an "economy" that can no longer be put in economic terms." 45 She is a giver, "the locus for the other," and thus she participates in this discourse of unrequited exchange. This does not mean that she does not receive pleasure, but rather that this flow of pleasure exceeds the linear logic of the masculine economic exchange. Cixous points out that man can distribute his ‘gifts’ only in meeting the other. He needs to enter another space to leave his gift there but what he takes in return is pleasure. This questions the nature of his gift, which is always an item of exchange, or often it is the way he pays for his pleasure. But woman’s pleasure defies the economy of capitalisation. For both Cixous and Irigaray, woman’s sexual pleasure is irreducibly plural and cannot thus be restrained by any regulatory discursive practices. The ethical encounter occurring under the aegis of the feminine sublime cannot thus escape sexualisation. It also opens up residues of unconstrained excessive pleasure, in which the economy of desire undermines the logic of exact calculation. Perhaps this will create a means of bringing about what Irigaray has called a ‘fecund exchange between the sexes’?



    1 My concept of the feminine sublime is partly indebted to Barbara Claire Freeman, who in her book The Feminine Sublime (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1995) discusses the work of the earlier theorists of sublimity and their wary approach to what was excessive and threatening to the stability of the subject. Another feminist critic whose work on the feminine sublime has played an important role in undermining the tenets of the masculinist aesthetics is Patricia Yaeger, author of "Toward a Female Sublime," Gender and Theory, ed. Linda Kauffman (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989) and "Toward a Maternal Sublime," Genre XXV (Spring 1992). [return to text]

    2 "By Definition, Art Is a Gesture of Repair: Tomek Kitlinski’s Entretien with Hélène Cixous," Magazyn Sztuki/Art Magazine 4/96, 193.[return to text]

    3 Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), 30.[return to text]

    4 Longinus, "On Sublimity," Classical Literary Criticism, eds. M. Winterbottom and A. D. Russel (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 144.[return to text]

    5 Peter de Bolla, The Discourse of the Sublime: Readings in History, Aesthetics and the Subject (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 18.[return to text]

    6 Ibid., 14-15.[return to text]

    7 Freeman, The Feminine Sublime, 4.[return to text]

    8 de Bolla, The Discourse of the Sublime, 56.[return to text]

    9 Analysing the representation, or, indeed, constriction, of ‘woman’ in the discourse of philosophy, Derrida writes: "Perhaps woman - a non-identity, a non-figure, a simulacrum - is distance’s very chasm, the out-distancing of distance, the interval’s cadence, distance itself, if we could still say such a thing, distance itself. … There is no such thing as the essence of woman because woman averts, she is averted of herself. Out of the depths, endless and unfathomable, she engulfs and distorts all vestige of essentiality, of identity, of property. And the philosophical discourse, blinded, founders on these shoals and is hurled down these depthless depths to its ruin. There is no such thing as the truth of woman, but it is because of that abyssal divergence of the truth, because that untruth is <<truth>>. Woman is but one name for that untruth of truth." Jacques Derrida, Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), 51.[return to text]

    10 de Bolla, The Discourse of the Sublime, 65.[return to text]

    11 For a detailed discussion of the relationship between aesthetics and ethics see my article, "Between Aesthetic and Ethics: the Feminine Sublime," Women: A Cultural Review, Vol. 9 No. 1, Spring 1998.[return to text]

    12 Christine Battersby, "Stages on Kant’s Way: Aesthetics, Morality, and the Gendered Sublime." Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality: the Big Question, eds. Naomi Zack et al. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 227.[return to text]

    13 Emmanuel Levinas, The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 113-14, emphasis added.[return to text]

    14 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), 105.[return to text]

    15 Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 137.[return to text]

    16 Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill (London: The Athlone Press, 1993), 5.[return to text]

    17 Ibid., 5.[return to text]

    18 Jacques Derrida, "'Eating Well,' or the Calculation of the Subject: An Interview with Jacques Derrida," Who Comes After the Subject?, eds. Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor and Jean-Luc Nancy (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), 109.[return to text]

    19 Ibid., 110-11.[return to text]

    20 Diane Elam, Feminism and Deconstruction (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 108.[return to text]

    21 Derrida, "Eating Well," 107-8.[return to text]

    22 Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 22.
    [return to text]

    23 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967), 63.[return to text]

    24 de Bolla, The Discourse of the Sublime, 134-5.[return to text]

    25 Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 122.[return to text]

    26 Derrida, The Post-Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 384. [return to text]

    27 Ibid., 384.[return to text]

    28 Derrida, "Eating Well," 103.[return to text]

    29 Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 7. [return to text]

    30 Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 6.[return to text]

    31 Ibid., 27. [return to text]

    32 Derrida, Given Time, 35.[return to text]

    33 Freeman, The Feminine Sublime, 69-70.[return to text]

    34 Quoted in Freeman, ibid., 59.[return to text]

    35 Derrida, The Gift of Death, 41.[return to text]

    36 Ibid., 50-51, emphasis added.[return to text]

    37 Ibid., 76.[return to text]

    38 Sylviane Agacinski, "Another Experience of the Question, or Experiencing the Question Other-Wise," Who Comes After the Subject?, 15-17.[return to text]

    39 Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 28. [return to text]

    40 Michel de Certeau, Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, trans. Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), 81.[return to text]

    41 Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 31.[return to text]

    42 Ibid., 24.[return to text]

    43 Derrida, The Truth in Painting, 143.[return to text]

    44 Hélène Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa," Feminisms, eds. Robyn Warhol and Diane Price Herndl (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993), 348.[return to text]

    45 Ibid., 348.The concept of woman as the repository of gifts should not be understood in essentialist terms. In the Afterword to The Hélène Cixous Reader, ed. Susan Sellers (London: Routledge, 1994), Mireille-Calle Gruber writes: "the human which Hélène Cixous explores has nothing to do with 'humanism' nor with any anthropocentrism. What she places on the scene are the perspectives of a ‘human better’ (recent interview) by which all frontiers are crossed. The being human enters in floods and expands from its others, vegetal, mineral, animal: knows itself to be dust, convolvulus (Dedans), butter (ibid.), air (L’Ange), body-fruit (Vivre l’orange); recognises its arch-vegetal kinship (La), its wounds of terrible meat (Dé luge), and that it is necessary to have brushes to clean shoes. The souls too (Beethoven a jamais). So it is, doubtless, that the reader has the feeling of emerging strengthened by the crossing of these texts: we are strengthened by our weaknesses, by our dichotomies, by our censures. By our lacerations. Hélène Cixous gives us these. Let us make no mistake: she does not reconcile us. She gives us the gift of the irreconcilable," 210. [return to text]


a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

*editorial and table of contents *the j_spot collective *call for submissions *
*contributors *manifesto *guestbook * home



j_spot online edition: ISSN 1481 8 5842


[ Social and Political Thought main page ]