Feel beauty supply, post 6

Burke’s sublime; or a white boy sees a black body

Readers, in my last post I took us through Edmund Burke’s definition of Beauty in his Philosophical Inquiry. I showed how he arrived at the notion that we find those things beautiful that appear as if they would “submit” to us. That his examples of beautiful “objects” over and over again include whole or parts of the female body, I argued, implicitly works against his stated intention of elucidating a “logic of taste” universally shared by all humans. Burke’s examples reveal to the reader that he is only ascribing human subjectivity to men.

Burke further limits his definition of the human subject, this time by race, in his discussion of the Sublime. Where the Beautiful is the love we have for something which “submits” to us, the Sublime is defined as threat: “Besides these things which directly suggest the idea of danger…I know of nothing sublime which is not some modification of power.” (59) The Sublime, as Burke’s examples show us, is that which we cannot dominate, that which may never bend to our will, that which may be capable of dominating us. “Look at a man, or any other animal of prodigious strength,” Burke writes, “and what is your idea before reflection? Is it that this strength will be subservient to you, to your ease, to your pleasure, to your interest in any sense? No; the emotion you feel is, lest this enormous strength be employed to the purposes of rapine and destruction.” (60) What’s interesting in this passage is the way the vocabulary of subservience is an economic one:  “ease” = leisure and “interest” = returns on capital investments. Power may be “employed” elsewhere. It may seize your property (“rapine”). And the object being assessed is a man. These words suggest that at some level, to judge something Beautiful is to understand that the object will be of economic service to you. Sublime objects threaten your economic interests.

This logic is echoed in Burke’s comparison of an ox and bull. Here Burke wishes to make the point that not all objects of strength are Sublime. If the strength of an object can be harnessed for the benefit or use of the subject, then Sublimity is lost:

An ox is a creature of vast strength; but he is an innocent creature, extremely serviceable, and not at all dangerous; for which reason the idea of an ox is no means grand. A bull is strong too; but his strength is of another kind; often very destructive, seldom (at least amongst us) of any use in our business; the idea of a bull is therefore great... (60)

 The “brute” that can be domesticated becomes an economic asset for the subject, a piece of property. As such the beast no longer inspires respect. The Sublime beast, conversely, by retaining self-possession appears “great”—remains an object worthy of awe. The difference, of course, between an ox and a bull is that the bull has not been castrated. Burke is continuing, then, a narrative of masculinity here. Only the feminized brute can be domesticated, can be put into service for the subject. What Burke is constructing here is a rather Hobbesian universe, where every relationship between the subject and the world is defined by the subject’s ability or inability to dominate an other. To conquer the other, is to feminize it.

In reading Burke’s description of the ox versus the bull I cannot help but be reminded of the famous scene in Frederick Douglas’ narrative where Douglas transforms himself from a “brute” to a “man” by violently beating his master. Read against Burke we see Douglas, the slave, undoing a symbolic castration, transforming himself from a piece of property into a man, from a domesticated animal to a human subject. Placing these two texts alongside each other allows us to elaborate what it has meant historically for lynch mobs to castrate and hang black men in America. To castrate a man is to domesticate him, is to return him at least symbolically to the status of chattel. Castration is an attempt to once again possess the man as a docile “brute.”

If this insertion of race appears tangential to Burke, it’s only because I haven’t yet discussed Burke’s own associations with Blackness and the Sublime. The black body becomes an explicit threat for Burke, albeit the threat he names is a black female body. Once again here Burke appears to be giving us an abstract and ahistorical list in his list of Sublime qualities. He writes: “All general privations are great, because they are terrible; VACUITY, DARKNESS, SOLITUDE, and SILENCE.” (65) Oddly, however DARKNESS quickly acquires the subcategory of BLACKNESS, which then as a quality can be attached to a human body. Darkness for Burke is sublime because it deprives us of the power of our vision: “In utter darkness, it is impossible to know what degree of safety we stand; we are ignorant of the objects that surround us; we may every moment strike against some dangerous obstruction; we may fall down a precipice the first step we take…” (130). This seems reasonable enough. Who would want to walk along a cliff during a pitch dark night?  Two paragraphs later, however, Burke argues that “the ideas of darkness and blackness are much the same” and then relates the history of a British boy, who born blind recovers his sight as a young teen. Blackness for the boy becomes a terrifying reminder of his blindness so “that the first time the boy saw a black object, it gave him great uneasiness; and that some time after, upon accidentally seeing a negro woman, he was struck with great horror at the sight.” (131) Burke argues that the fear had nothing to do with any racial prejudices, what he calls “any other disagreeable ideas,” but rather suggests that blackness itself had become a terrifying reminder of the darkness inherent to blindness. (131)

What’s interesting here is that the black female body, a body that in Burke’s England represented both the alien and the colonized or to-be colonized, becomes a threat to the white boy’s sight.  If the black body can exert power over Burke’s universal human subject, it is because the black body becomes a threat to the subject’s vision, the faculty through which he decides what he can dominate in the world and identifies those things that may threaten this domination. If Burke’s subject is the white European male, the black woman represents a world that he wishes to conquer, but that may also prove him too weak to do so. Curiously, the examples for both the Beautiful and the Sublime thus far have been either elements of the natural world or female bodies. Sight captures land or bodies. Here the black woman suggests a colonial anxiety, the possibility of a body that threatens the very vision of the European, the sense that assesses what bodies, what lands can be captured. Here the very act of capturing through the eyes threatens the eyes. To absorb blackness through sight as a white European boy is to in some way “blind” oneself, or at the very least remind oneself of one’s previous blindness. The black woman reminds the boy that without sight a subject is only an object. Where the white woman is a domesticated creature who suggests to the subject his omnipotence, the black woman becomes a kind of dark continent reminding him of his impotence.