The Verbal versus the Visual Sublime in Edmund Burke’s Aesthetic Theory

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This paper discusses how Edmund Burke theorizes the sublime in medium-specific terms. The way in which he privileges the sublime in the verbal arts, while denigrating the capacity of the visual arts to express the sublime, is instructive, for it allows us to speculate on how different mediums affect us in ways that are specific to that medium. I will ask whether considering the verbal arts to be more conducive to the sublime is merely a proxy for a more general argument for the superiority of the verbal arts over all other art forms (Kant held a similar view); or whether, in fact, there is something to be said for the notion that the concept of sublimity is more appropriate to the verbal arts, particularly since the very first articulation of the concept, in Longinus’s On the Sublime, is centered on the arts of speech. I will also engage with contemporary visual studies theorist W. J. T. Mitchell, who devotes a chapter to this question in Burke’s aesthetic theory in his Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology.


Keywords: Sublime, Edmund Burke, Text and Image, Aesthetics
Stream: Literary Arts Practices
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Dr. Robert Doran

Assistant Professor of French and Comparative Literature, Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Rochester
Rochester, New York, USA

Robert Doran holds a Ph.D. (2004) in Comparative Literature from Stanford University, and a Ph.D. in General and Comparative Literature from the Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris III. He is currently Assistant Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Rochester, and his research interests include critical theory, aesthetics, nineteenth-Century French literature, film studies, and inter-art theory. He has edited and introduced volumes of essays by René Girard, Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005 (Stanford UP, 2008); and Hayden White, The Fiction of Narrative: History, Literature, and Theory, 1957-2007 (Johns Hopkins UP, forthcoming). He has also edited a special issue of the journal SubStance entitled “Cultural Theory after 9/11: Terror, Religion, Politics” (March, 2008). His current book project is The Sublime: Cultural Aesthetics from Longinus to Nietzsche. Recent articles include “Erich Auerbach’s Humanism and the Criticism of the Future” (Moderna, forthcoming) and “Literary History and the Sublime in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis” (New Literary History, 2007).

Ref: A09P0408