Maurice Blanchot considered ‘literature’ as generic writing, meaning that it’s uncontained within genres. Any writing might be literature, so long as reading becomes an unanchored, drifting experience of the sui generis where the faculties of sense are abandoned to their free play. This is an experience where writing and reading converge and lose their distinction in the process of composition. This can mirror what anthropologists called the sacred. Where transcendent forms are normally imposed on the world from beyond, in literature those forms are exposed immanently in their contingent becoming. This is where the symbolic ordering of the world becomes vulnerable to altercation.
This vulnerability could never be popular, and literature always remains an exclusive experience appreciated by only a few. There is a question of why anyone would seek this experience of vulnerability, though this is not such a difficult question to answer. The appeal concerns the self-creation of the world, where there is joy in experiencing the emergence of an epoch. This also implies an ethical sense of responsibility, where the reader/writer of literature becomes a custodian for a process that we could call sublimation. But what do we mean by sublimation?
The long history of this term ‘sublimation’ leaves it with a multiplicity of senses. When considered as an aesthetic process, the term has polysemy due to its equivocal position between dialectics, psychoanalysis, chemistry, alchemy and rhetoric. This uncertainty of what we mean by ‘sublimation’ de-operatizes the concept into a suspended cloud of multivalent potentials. This concept is essentially bifurcated.
During the previous century, there were debates over the high-culture which would be more sublimated versus the low-culture which would be less sublimated. These debates often naïvely assumed that the sense of this term sublimation was already given. But by suspending the sense or direction of this concept, we allow it to withdraw into polysemy, which leaves it free to take on a singular sense at some instance (augenblickt) where it could become operatized and then de-operatized. This instability of sense corresponds with the vital oscillation of the aesthetic.
A sublimation then is something that happens in a flash, and it is not conceivable outside of the instant where it occurs. There is no general schematic of what takes place. This is an esoteric event, and so we are not obliged to explain what happens there. But if this event is truly effective, then it means that something did occur which is in some sense irreversible.
This term expresses a physical metaphor which allows some limited conceivability for processes which might otherwise be entirely inconceivable. Perhaps some neuroscientists would attempt to describe these processes in non-metaphorical terms, but to speak of sublimation is to continue using a traditional metaphor which allows us to glimpse some assumedly intangible processes of the noumenal. In scientific terms, this physical model can be described as a change in viscosity – a movement between fluid and solid states. This event could include evaporation, freezing, condensation, melting… a shift that affects a systemic economy of physical codes.
This metaphor expresses a dynamic change in the system of memory, perception, expression and action. These levels are all effected because they are structurally interdependent, so there is simultaneously a change in what can be remembered, perceived, expressed and done. This kind of change is periodically necessary, whether in response to external changes in the environment, or just to revitalize an internal system that would otherwise succumb to entropy.
This event of sublimation alters space-time relations. This includes expectations of timing, such as the habitual sense of what comes before and after, as well as spatial orientations, such as directions and sense of distance. This is a shift in the aesthetic apriori, which is the passivity of habit. This is the unattended ground of assumptions on the basis of which one might remember, think, speak or act.
So sublimation is this mandate of literature to alter passivity. These are altercations of a dimension which can never become an object of attention, because attention is only possible on the basis of that dimension. Literature is able to alter passivity by causing disruptive interference between genres. Passivity assumes the separation of genres as clichés, and literature disrupts their distribution through translation. The event of sublimation takes place where one genre comes into an unnatural communication with another. Sublimation is this contamination which moves symbolic borders.
The mandate of literature in this regard is similar to psychoanalysis. The Kleinian therapist Jessica Benjamin (2015) recently defined psychopathology as the failure to contain sexuality. She describes a condition where sexuality is an overwhelming source of anxiety, as an external pressure that destabilizes the patient, and makes it impossible for them to love and work. The course of therapy then is the process whereby this alien flux is somehow brought into containment, and the important question seems to concern how there is containment between symbolic coordinates and more corporeal aspects.
The Kleinian clinic is conceived as a dyadic dynamism between analyst and analysand, where this uncontained sexuality passes back and forth between them. This dynamism is analyzed in terms of partiality and wholeness, and along vectors like introjection, incorporation, projection, expulsion, and disavowal. Through a rhythmic repetition of experiences in transference and counter-transference, sexuality gradually receives new determination, it becomes contained in a new way. What was uncontainable becomes more containable, and the individual becomes able to love and work.
There is a question about how such spillage of sexuality arises in the first place. This is a familiar question: is sexuality originally uncontained, or is this pathology an historical condition? This question has been taken up many times over the past century. It has been suggested that sexuality should be considered somehow uncontainable in essence – it has always been an alien spirit that possesses the body and eclipses any representation of subjectivity. A person who is aroused or sexualized is not symbolically themselves. This was Bataille’s point. Sexual relations exclude symbolization, and so sexuality implies the abandonment of the symbolic.
It seems that pathology could be defined as a condition where sexuality fails because symbolic identities are insufficiently abandoned. Sexuality produces anxiety where it disrupts a symbolic identity which it should instead temporarily abolish. The pathological individual is one whose symbolic identity has been only partly abolished by sexuality, so they are caught in an intermediary condition between the sexual and the symbolic.
If sexuality only thrives as a non-symbolic alterity, then pathology might be considered an historical condition of overly tenacious symbolization. So, what historical condition might give rise to such a pathology which is treated in the psychoanalytic clinic? The answer to this question would concern the way that sexuality is symbolized through the institutions of the expanding market economy. In its proper unsymbolic position, sex can only be represented as a sublime act. The sublime is the proper way of representing the unrepresentable.
Market institutions pathologize because they deprive sexuality of its sublime independence from the social-symbolic. The sexual act gets inscribed at the kernel of the market institution, where it forms the speculative identity of the two sides of the economy, as an ideal event that unites consumption and labor in the mystery of reproduction. Symbolic relations within market economies operate according to this Neoplatonic idealization of the sexual act.
So we could hypothesize that clinical pathology occurs because sexuality gets disrupted by the encroachment of the symbols of market exchange. Markets expand through competition. Companies struggle to attract workers and consumers into their commodity circuits, and for this they construct webs of symbolic association – spider webs – which are assembled around ideals of sexuality. Pathology arises because companies are competing to symbolize sexuality, robbing it of its sublime alterity, and creating a morass of debased pseudo-sexual symbols and images. By incessantly attempting to capture sexuality in symbolic representation through pornography, there results a pathological condition where sexuality bleeds into the symbolic, and identities erode into obsessional erotomanias. The clinic then is where individuals learn again to relate to sexuality as a sublime other.
Conceiving the clinic in this way allows us to appreciate why Lacan invoked the tradition of troubadour courtly love. But this also highlights congruencies with broader religious tendencies like asceticism and iconoclasm. An ascetic or celibate is commonly considered as one who does not engage in sexual relations. But if we are to radicalize the sublimity of sexuality, then the celibate might conversely be the only one who engages in sexual “relations”, in that one only relates to the sexual by not relating to it symbolically. This of course could lead into the mute mysticism of Witgenstein’s ‘remain silent’, but that of course is not where we are going.
The symbols of language have largely been reduced to marketing clichés, and we reach impasses where our words are powerless to refer to the sublimely Other. This is where Jean Laplanche’s ‘enigmatic signifier’ becomes indispensable, along with Walter Benjamin’s ‘auras’. These signs refer to sexuality as machinery which is independent of the market, which stirs within the archive, and also in the geographical distance. Where the financial markets have trapped populations in narcissistic ethnic spectacles, free sexuality is expressed in the enigmatic symbols of a planetary literature.
This literature of sublime sexuality maintains a mediation with the psychoanalytic clinic. The clinical discourse on the tenuous sexual relation can serve as an intuitive thread. World literature provides a choreography of the geo-historical pulsation of sexuality, and this dance is tenuous in a sense like the maternal relation which the Kleinian analyst seeks to maintain. The clinical sublimation proceeds by holding split apart pieces together, and enduring their painful unification though different phases and perspectives. In a similar way, capitalism splits the earth into phallic ethno-nationalist part-objects, while world literature is the painful work of establishing planetary continuities.
The sublime sexual symbols are of a radically different order to the monetary symbols of ethno-nationalism. They do not adhere to the monetary logic, and are likely to remain obscure within the optics of the monetary regime. But there emerges interference between these two orders wherein we locate a rhythm. There is a rhythm of love and money which is a contest between alternate orders of existence, and there is a struggle over which side is autonomous. This way sublime sexuality alters the symbolic form of the commodity.
Sexuality may accept being trafficked as a whore, but there is the question of whether this acceptance is active or passive, and whether the trafficker comes under her spell. The question is whether sexuality remains a power reserved from the market – a suspended power of non-action which reserves itself in potential. Where the Kleinian clinic treated containment as a maternal relation, containment can also be considered as this potential for sexuality not to act sexually. This reservation can deliver sexuality back into the infinite of the dimension of the sublime. This way desire is liberated for the infinity of a planetary alterity – behind the mountains, across the sea, when the spring returns.