The Verbal versus the Visual Sublime in Edmund Burke’s Aesthetic Theory
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
Dr. Robert Doran
Assistant Professor of French and Comparative Literature, Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Rochester