The Revolution as the Sublime

The journal’s mission statement opens with several references to death, violence, and terror:

Pero volvamos al uso de la libertad, en poesia / esta libertad tiene las mismas caracteristicas que la / lucha politica / se impone inspirando terror; redescubriendo el Deber (Pasolini).

Acelerar el vector del imaginario en este sentido: “una violencia que debe ser tanto o mas notable cuanto mayor sea el quantum que la imaginacion comprende en una intuicion” (Kant)

[But let us return to the use of liberty, in poetry / this liberty has the same characteristics as / political struggle / it imposes itself inspiring terror; rediscovering Duty (Pasolini).

Accelerate the vector of the imaginary in this sense: “violence must be the more significant the larger the quantum is that the imagination comprehends in one intuition” (Kant).] (Sanchez Mejias 1997b, 1)

“Presentacion” by Sanchez Mejias, the text that opens the first issue, has become the group’s poetic manifesto. The essay begins with two epigraphs embedded into the text announcing the intellectual project of the journal, as the relationship between aesthetics and political ethos. The citation of Pier Paolo Pasolini, which comes from his poem “La restaurazione di sinistra” (“The Restoration of the Left”) is a critique of the Left as a constitutive power.92 The Proyecto Diaspora(s) embraces Pasolini’s heterodox views on the Left. The reference to Pasolini is extremely interesting indeed, not just because of his admiration for the younger generation’s revolutionary zeal but also because of his critique of the eventual generational cycle of embourgeoisement (between revolutionary fathers and sons).93 As a former member of the Partido Comunista Italiano (PCI), he became very critical of May 1968. But his allusion to “terror” is not to be taken literally, quite the opposite. “La restaurazione di sinistra” denounces the Left for ruling as reformists and abandoning its fight for radical change. The Left must embrace its “Duty” to bring about structural change through “revolution” (terror). A critic of the fierce repression by the Italian state during the sixties, Pasolini is not calling for armed political action. Instead, his aim is to reveal and denounce the practice of state terror through its representation qua terror. In other words, state terror has to be combatted with an aesthetic of terror carrying the intensity of political action. Above all, poetics have to move us by causing extreme fear, which will eventually create a political consciousness for revolution.

In spite of Pasolini’s heterodox communism, it is clear that, like the conversationalist Cuban poets, he still believed in the emancipatory role of literature. Unlike them, however, he rejected the melancholic notions of heroism and sacrifice, and he called for a nonconversationalist type of poetry. Sanchez Mejias’s manifesto clearly supports Pasolini’s later convictions and poetics. The second quote that opens the manifesto comes from Kant’s Critique of Judgment, and more specifically from a fragment in which he defines the sublime. Before explaining the sublime, let me summarily gloss the Kantian categories of cognition. Kant’s cognitive process begins with intuitions, which are, phenomenologically speaking, the sensuous experiences that we have in our first apprehension of the world. Concepts help qualify and quantify those experiences, and the imagination is where concepts and intuitions meet. If we go back to the sublime, it is now easier to understand that, according to Kant, the sublime has magnitudes and qualities that challenge our cognitive capacities. In other words, the sublime is a form of cognition that short-circuits the imagination because it cannot be symbolized. The relation between the object of apprehension and thought breaks, causing in the subject a sense of powerlessness. As a result, the subject is at first shocked and anguished: “the mind feels agitated” (Kant 1987, 115). Yet the subject also feels pleased and fulfilled. Although this seems like a contradiction, Kant’s rationalism does away with it. First, he argues that, subjectively speaking, the experience of the sublime produces pain because we cannot comprehend it, so it merely remains as an intuition. But, objectively speaking (“for reason’s idea of the Supresensible” [ibid.]), it also provokes a feeling of pleasure because our striving for it is in harmony with rational ideas (but the judgment itself remains only aesthetic). This antagonistic feeling is very important for understanding one of the aesthetic goals of the Proyecto Diaspora(s) manifesto, as I will explain shortly.

Sanchez Mejias’s citation of Kant thus alludes to the imagination’s inability to capture the sublime. The quotation is just one clause in a longer sentence, but the entire citation reads: “Hence (since temporal succession is a condition of the inner sense and of an intuition), it is a subjective movement of the imagination by which it does violence to the inner sense, and this violence must be the more significant the larger the quantum is that the imagination comprehends in one intuition” (Kant 1987, 116). To measure the sublime from a temporal perspective, Kant argues that the imagination must be able to process a succession of temporal events at once. Our inner sense (our capacity to understand time), however, can only grasp events in succession. How, then, Kant asks, can the imagination comprehend successive events in one instant? To measure the sublime, we (our imagination) must wrestle with our limited capacity to understand time and with our limited perception of it (our intuition). Understanding the seemingly incomprehensible notion of the simultaneity of time requires a cognitive violence. That is, our imagination has to be disrupted with the same proportional force as our disturbing perception of violence. This means that mastery over the sublime requires the disturbing experience of the sublime. What Sanchez Mejias emphasizes, however, is that the representation of the world is the result of the sensuous experience of violence conveyed by the sublime (the Real). In other words, the experience of the sublime requires violence. But what is the origin of that violence? It could be the fear that overcomes us when we face it, as well as the pleasure that we experience when grappling with it: “The object is apprehended as sublime with a pleasure that is possible only by means of displeasure” (Kant 1987, 117). Violence is both pleasurable and disturbing.

In the context of the samizdat Didspora(s), Sanchez Mejias resignifies Kant’s fragment, and what is a cognitive violence for Kant becomes aesthetic and political. The Kantian quote is also recontextualized to define or explain “the imaginary [imaginario],” that is, the weltanschauung or worldview advanced by the samizdat. One must experience violence in order to approach the sublime (the Real), and this experience can only be represented aesthetically through violence. Although Sanchez Mejias does not mention the sublime, it is obviously present between the lines and as subtext. I am arguing this because he places Pasolini and Kant side by side, and Pasolini’s concept of revolution bears that quality of the sublime insofar as it is the most substantial event, that which cannot be measured or compared. But whereas for Pasolini poetics have an essential political function, for the Proyecto Diaspora(s) they bear no relation to a political project. Thus, while both Pasolini’s and the Diaspora(s)’s sublime may be interpreted as the Lacanian Real, for Pasolini the sublime points to the notion of revolution, unlike for the Diaspora(s). For Pasolini a politics of terror leads to the creation of consciousness. Aesthetically speaking, he represents terror with a realist style. But this is not true of the Diaspora(s) and its poetics of defacement. The Proyecto Diaspora(s) responds to violence with more violence, but does it appear as an ontological notion in the Diaspora(s)’s works? This question is key to explaining their poetics, since we need to know the origin of the violence that the Diaspora(s) fights. To answer this question, it is important to discuss the Diaspora(s)’s choice of authors dealing with the same topic. One of the key essays featured in Diaspora(s) is a Thomas Bernhard speech.

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