In the thought of Jean-François Lyotard, the properly ethical orientation of philosophy consists of continually turning towards that which remains at the periphery of thought itself: to think the unthought. This peripheral domain is the residence of what Lyotard baptizes the ‘differend’, a concept interrogated in his book sharing the same name. According to Lyotard’s own gloss, “the differend is the unstable state and instant of language wherein something which must be able to be put into phrases cannot yet be” (The Differend 13). The impasse of language found within the state of the differend finds its origin in the friction, conflict, and competition between what Lyotard calls “genres of discourse.” Located in neither the desires of particular interlocutors nor produced by the structure of language as such (or perhaps located precisely in the space between them), each genre of discourse is embedded with a singular and mutually exclusive telos or “stake” that prescribes a set of rules for the concatenation of phrases (29). The interrogative and the answering declarative, for example, function differently in the comedic genre of discourse than in the historical genre of discourse because the stakes are different in each.1 Yet, in the absence of a universal rule to preside over genres of discourse—or put differently, a rule over the use of rules—there is always the threat that one genre can unjustly dominate over others, suppressing the actualization of alternative phrases and giving rise to the state of the differend, where the possible can seem impossible and the presentable appear unpresentable.

            Circling around these notions of the impossible and the unpresentable, the state of the differend parallels another concept prominent with the corpus of Lyotard: namely, the sublime. As the domain of aesthetics that has to do with the limits of representation, the sublime is an integral component of Lyotard’s call to responsibly think that which is outside of thought and provoke—according to Lyotard’s analysis of the artwork of Barnett Newman—the question of “Is it happening?” (The Inhuman 82). The sublime testifies to the surprising thought that there is something that has yet to be thought, and for this reason appears as the counterpart to the differend. It can allow us to recognize the state of the differend and that which impels us create the “new idioms” necessary to give voice, so to speak, to the unsaid (The Differend 13). In his own formulation of the sublime, Lyotard turns to both the sublime of Immanuel Kant, with its admixture of pleasure and displeasure, and the sublime of Edmund Burke, with its element of terror, but he gives merely a cursory glance to another major figure of the sublime: namely, Pseudo-Longinus. As this absence is largely left unexplained, this essay constitutes a supplement to Lyotard’s evaluation of Pseudo-Longinus, elaborating on the problematic relationship between the rhetorical sublime, the notion of ékstasis, and the state of the differend.

            Within Lyotard’s philosophy of phrasing outlined in The Differend, rhetoric itself would constitute a genre of discourse. Adorning, shaping, and occulting phrases through a certain understanding of the protean character of language, rhetoric appears to be the genre in which phrases can evade the state of the differend rather than engender them. It enables a phrase to conform to any other genre of discourse through carefully weighed and carefully considered figurations. As Aristotle writes in his treatise on the topic, “rhetoric then may be defined as the faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever. That is why we say that as an art its rules are not applied to any particular definite class of things” (1355b.30-31). Weaving in and out of other genres of discourse with minimal disruption, rhetoric infiltrates at the phrasal levels of syntax, paratax, and lexis without necessarily interfering with the specific finalities of those genres themselves. But rhetoric, because it is its own genre of discourse, must have its own ends, goals, and prescribed means of phrasing. While Aristotle ascribes to rhetoric an almost universal validity, as applicable to “any subject” and “no particular definite class of things,” it is nonetheless bound to a telos of its own: namely, “persuasion.” The supposed universality of rhetoric, rather than allowing the conflict between heterogeneous genres of discourse to be resolved through an unerringly valid and legitimate set of rules, is merely the tin crown of a false king. Rhetoric is not the genre of genres. Like all other finalities belonging to genres of discourse, the stakes of persuasion in rhetoric can only ever supply arbitrary rules for the concatenation of phrases, and Aristotelian rhetoric remains something of a poisoned well from which later rhetorical thought has drunk long and deep (Kennedy 220).

            However, among the range of thought in the classical tradition of rhetoric, there are certainly alternatives to the Aristotelian paradigm: those which are not as burdened with the telos of persuasion and its ensuing differend of phrasing. In pursuing and interrogating these alternatives, we find among them a rhetoric that paradoxically goes beyond rhetoric itself in Pseudo-Longinus and the origins of the sublime. This first extant writing on the sublime comes from a relatively obscure and—at least in our contemporary moment—little-read rhetorical treatise written anywhere from the 1st to the 3rd century CE entitled Perí Hýpsous, or as it is more commonly known, On the Sublime. While the treatise has been praised as a rhetorical masterpiece on its own (Alexander Pope’s famous estimation of Pseudo-Longinus, “Whose own Example strengthens all his Laws, / And Is himself that great Sublime he Draws” (lines 678-9)), its primary focus is on teaching the art of rhetoric—the pedagogical strain within the rhetorical tradition. As a pedagogical tool, however, it is “extremely problematic,” a fact supported by the series of lacunae that surround the work (Shaw 12). Written at the request of a friend named Terentian, the treatise often assumes the intimacy and elliptical character of the epistolary form. Moreover, the treatise was also partially written in response to an earlier work by a person named Caecilius, which is now lost. Wanting to expand on—and not repeat—the work of Caecilius, Pseudo-Longinus often leaves much unexplained and undefined. Even the sublime itself, merely called hýpsous or ‘height’ and generically described as an elevated state of language, remains largely distant from understanding, like a nimbus cloud floating ‘high’ above us.

            Despite this general obscurity of the treatise, Pseudo-Longinus nevertheless manages to teach new lessons. Against Aristotle, the rhetorical sublime displays a singular characteristic in that it resists the determination of a telos and therefore also resists a perfected use of language as a means towards that end. In an early passage, Pseudo-Longinus plainly states that the effect of sublime language is “not to persuade the audience but rather to transport them out of themselves. Invariably what inspires wonder, with its power of amazing us, always prevails over what is merely convincing and pleasing” (1.4). The rhetorical sublime, then, offers a modality of rhetoric that explicitly rejects the Aristotelian view that a perfected use of language entails a convincing or persuasive outcome—but this is not to say that the rhetorical sublime is completely devoid of a telos. Returning to the passage above, what is being rejected in Longinus’ treatise is the rhetorical goal ‘to persuade,’ and in its place is the invocation ‘to transport.’ Or in the original Greek, ékstasin άgei: to lead us out of ourselves. To be out of ourselves, however, remains an obscure state, and Pseudo-Longinus gives no answers regarding where one goes and the duration of the journey. The end that secures the rhetorical sublime becomes—if not “autonomous,” as Ned O’Gorman argues—then at the very least indeterminate, and the result of this substitution is that phrases no longer have an embedded terminus but are now propelled by a movement without coordinates (75). Language becomes movement itself, and we move along with it. With the liberated phrasing, indeterminate finality, and ecstatic interlocutors, there is the promise of a phrasing without differend lying within the rhetorical sublime. But, as will be shown, this promise is merely an illusion, a ghost, a phantasía.


            Throughout the treatise, Longinus emphasizes the state of ékstasis shared between the addressor and addressee in the rhetorical sublime. In Stephen Halliwell’s estimation of this shared experience of ékstasis, there entails a “powerful intersubjectivity, a transmission of heightened consciousness between different minds via the penetrating language of a speech or text” as a veritable “act of communication” (333). Yet, what Halliwell does not point out is that the state of ékstasis and its communication of minds is only possible through a prior event of ékstasis, one that is more occulted than the second: the being beside itself of language. This assertion is elucidated by an example of the rhetorical sublime provided by Pseudo-Longinus himself. Quoting Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, he presents us with a visceral scene:

Seven resistless captains o’er a shield

Black-bound with hide have slit an ox’s throat,

And dipped their fingers in its blood,

Swearing a mighty oath by War and Havoc

And Panic, bloodshed’s lover— (15.5)

            Dark figures, hands dripping with warm blood, an oath securing destruction. It is as if we see shades from the underworld pass before our eyes, and it is for this exact reason that Longinus chooses it as instance of language that can be counted among the most sublime. It is an instance of phantasía. Preceding the passage above, Longinus writes:

Weight, grandeur, and urgency in writing are very largely produced, dear young friend, by the use of “visualizations”… That at least is what I call them; others call them “image productions.” For the term phantasia is applied in general to an idea which enters the mind from any source and engenders speech, but the word has now come to be used predominantly of passages where, inspired by strong emotion, you seem to see what you describe and bring it vividly before the eyes of your audience. (15.1-2)

            The word ‘visualizations,’ as it is translated by William Fyfe translation, is phantasiai in the original Greek, which can also be understood as ‘appearances,’ ‘imaginative displays,’ or ‘images’ (LSJ Greek Lexicon). The ability for a phrase to provoke a state of ékstasis, then, is owed in large part to its power to bring forth an image or scene in our minds. Through the binding of language and the image together, language undergoes its own mode of ékstasis, and words, despite their manifold valence, slips merely into what is seen. The text becomes a panorama of images appearing before us.

            While it distances itself from the finality of persuasion, Pseudo-Longinus’ treatise nevertheless enacts a return to Aristotle with this emphasis on phantasía. Yet, this return is not a simple one. Aristotle’s principle treatment of phantasía is found within the third chapter of Book Three of his On the Soul. While expounding on the dynámeis—or, as they are commonly translated, ‘faculties’—of the soul, Aristotle also attempts to delineate the specific capabilities of every living entity, culminating with the supposedly unparalleled faculties of human beings. In this instance, phantasía appears as a faculty of the soul itself and is traditionally translated as ‘imagination’—rather than a more literal ‘image’ or ‘appearance’—and occupies a position between sense perception and rational thought. Aristotle notes that the “imagination is different from either perceiving or discursive thinking, though it is not found without sensation, or judgment without it” (427b.15-17) and is “that in virtue of which an image arises for us” (428a.1-2). Here, phantasía is still strongly associated with images, but the emphasis is somewhat different. As Anne Sheppard comments: “For Aristotle phantasia remains closely linked to ‘what appears’ and is the power to deal with appearances rather than those appearances themselves” (7). For Aristotle, then, phantasía is not itself a spectral image but is rather a congenial and natural faculty of the human soul that mediates between sense perceptions and rational thought through the production of images. In this role as mediator, phantasía holds an eminently important position regarding thinking in general, for Aristotle stresses that “the soul never thinks without an image” (431a.16-17) and elsewhere remarks that without phantasía “intellectual activity is impossible” (On Memory and Reminiscence 449b.30-450a.1). With this centrality of the phantasmal image, the edges of seeing and thinking begin to overlap.

            Yet sight and image do not belong only to the realm of phýsis, or nature, but also to the realm of tékhnē, or artifice. Using an alternate lexicon to designate this activity, Aristotle discusses the use of visualization in artistic practice. In his Poetics, Aristotle dictates to the aspiring playwright: “One should construct plots, and work them out in diction, with the material as much as possible in the mind’s eye. In this way, by seeing things most vividly, as if present at the actual events, one will discover what is apposite and not miss contradictions” (1455a.20-30). The tragedians’ efforts to bring forth the most intelligible and affective work of art is largely dependent on the activity of visualization, an activity that bears an unmistakable sense of immediacy as if the playwright were “present at the actual events.” Paralleling the activity of the playwright, Aristotle’s Rhetoric points to a similar aspect of visualization on the part of the spectators as well: “And since sufferings are pitiable when they appear close at hand… it follows that those who contribute to the effect by gestures, voice, dress, and dramatic action generally, are more pitiable; for they make the evil appear close at hand, setting it before our eyes as either future or past” (1386a.13-15). What connects these two excerpts—specifically the “mind’s eye” of the first and “before our eyes” of the second—is a shared phrasing in Greek: pro ommatōn or a bringing-before-the-eyes. Sheppard convincingly argues that due to the frequency with which it appears and the consistency with which it is applied, pro ommatōn operates for Aristotle “almost as a technical term for visualization” (23). Because both the creator and the audience engage in the activity of pro ommatōn, the technique of visualization creates a sense of immediacy despite the sinews of language that are suspended between them. The image of the artist touches the image of the audience, ignorant of the distance between them.

            With these two aspects of Aristotelian thought in place, the congenital activity of phantasía necessary for thought and the artifice of pro ommatōn, we can now return to Pseudo-Longinus and rhetorical sublime. In the passage on visualization from Perí Hýpsous discussed above, Longinus delineates two potential meanings of phantasía that seem to correspond to Aristotle’s treatment of the faculty of imagination and the technique of visualization. The first, stemming from “ideas” that “engender speech,” allows speech, reason and discursive thought to come forth and be exchanged congenitally. The second, while appearing to parallel the discussion of the tékhnē of pro ommatōn and visualization, is naturalized within the treatise by ascribing it to a state of being “inspired by strong emotion.” The figurative and artificial dimension of phantasía in Perí Hýpsous is further thrown into doubt by the fact that Pseudo-Longinus treats phantasía, unlike other rhetorical figures, during his elaboration of the congenital sources of the sublime such as nobility of thought and vehement emotion (Malm 5). With this naturalization of phantasía as solely an activity of phýsis, language itself becomes merely derivative of the image and thereby undergoes a state of ékstasis, the being beside itself of language. Sublime phrases move, or are moved, beyond themselves into the realm of the visible. The absence of any place for the rhetorical sublime and its possible phrasings within the task of philosophy, then, may be explained by its inability to neither testify to nor resolve the state of the differend, for it is itself entangled in such a state.


            Yet, besides the lesson that the image is the wellspring of the phrase in the rhetorical sublime, there is another lesson that Perí Hýpsous teaches us, a lesson against his lesson, a lesson seemingly forgotten by Pseudo-Longinus himself. What signals this occurrence of amnesia is a comment regarding the singular relationship between the cause and the effect of the sublime. Pseudo-Longinus writes:

So we find that a figure is always most effective when it conceals the very fact of its being a figure. Sublimity and emotional intensity are a wonderfully helpful antidote against the suspicion that accompanies the use of figures. The artfulness of the trick is no longer obvious in its brilliant setting of beauty and grandeur, and thus avoids all suspicion… Much in the same way that dimmer lights vanish in the surrounding radiance of the sun, so an all-embracing atmosphere of grandeur obscures the rhetorical devices. (17.2-3)

            Pseudo-Longinus undermines his entire treatise with this passage as the whole technical apparatus of the rhetorical sublime becomes irreducibly elusive and occulted, essentially constituting an invisible structure. No figure, phrase, or artifice can ever be fully determined as the progenitor of the moment of ékstasis because the blinding intensity of this moment then reflexively hides the very figures that engender that flash, introducing a radical indeterminacy into the rhetorical sublime. The secret lesson of the rhetorical sublime could be that phantasía is not only the technique that hides itself but is also the technique that hides that there is nothing behind it. There is only a gulf, an abyss. For Pseudo-Longinus, the image must come first because language on its own, without origin and antecedent in thought, bears a certain incomprehensibility. In order to stave off this enigma, he posits the image of phantasía as a ground and situates the phrases as merely secondary. As Michel Deguy argues, the figures of the rhetorical sublime position themselves in a “solar unity which dissimulates them” (17), yet it may be more accurate to say that the solar unity of phantasía dissimulates itself and the enigma of language in the very image of the sun invoked within the passage.

            Despite the occulted character of phantasía within treatise, there is also the sense that Pseudo-Longinus is all too aware of the abyss at the heart of the rhetorical sublime. Between the yawning gap of an indeterminate engendering of words and the positing of a grounding phantasmal image, a certain tension becomes palpable within the treatise: a tinge of anxiety. Against conventional rhetoric and literary pedagogy, Pseudo-Longinus exhibits an uncharacteristic inclusiveness in the scope of the rhetorical sublime by noting that instances of it can be found both within poetry and prose; epic poetry, history, and philosophical dialogue all have equal access to the heights of language (1.3). In Halliwell’s estimation of this aspect of the treatise, he contends that Longinus “assimilates all the texts he deals with, whatever their generic or pragmatic status, to the condition of poetry” (329). This inclusive stance towards the range of works dealt with in the treatise, along with the myriad of examples, illustrations, and specimens taken pulled from them, constitutes what Neil Hertz names “the sublime turn”: “the more or less violent fragmentation of literary bodies into ‘quotations,’ in the interest of building up a discourse of one’s own” (14). These readings of the treatise as an assimilating or fragmenting text are merely aspects of a larger process at work within Perí Hýpsous: the desperate attempt to trace back to the moment of language as such: the time before the phantasmal image.

            However, this can only be a fruitless endeavour due to the forgetting of the origin that occurs in the blinding event of the rhetorical sublime. The self-obscuring movement of the figures within the rhetorical sublime, according to Deguy, is a “crisis… constituting a second beginning, or rather a beginning after ‘the origin… This is indeed a lethal event (lethe), the simulation of a primordial, exalted state of language, the rhetorical operation of which would render itself forgotten in the exaltation it—lethargically—procures” (22; italics in original). What Deguy means here is that in the indeterminacy of language as such, one must replace the unknown first with a constructed second so that there can be a point from which we can attempt to understand the dark movements of language. But in doing so—in making a second beginning and ensuring that it is a beginning—the first must be forgotten, plunged into the river Lethe. What Pseudo-Longinus presents us with, then, with his examples of metaphor, hyperbaton, periphrasis, asyndeton, and so on, are only the stemming from the second beginning of the phantasmal image, which is itself an occulted figure. Language as such within the rhetorical sublime becomes a forgotten event. What truly underlies the advent of the rhetorical sublime, as language, always remains hidden, veiled, and secret. Instead, only the (false) origin of the phrase is knowable through its younger (and discernible) sibling: the figure without figurativeness. One can only know the rhetorical sublime through the images or visualizations that come to stand in for the words themselves. And the effect of the sublime on us, as readers, writers, speakers, and listeners, ensures that any attempt to trace back to the root of the rhetorical sublime itself will result in a misrecognition of the origin. The genesis of rhetorical sublime becomes almost a mysterium tremendum, yet a divine mystery that is not known as a mystery. Therefore it is not a mystery at all; it is like an unfelt wind, a blankness without absence.

            With this, the full impotency of the rhetorical sublime given to us by Pseudo-Longinus in relation to Lyotard’s notion of the differend comes into view. If the differend is the state in which there is “a damage accompanied by the loss of the means to prove the damage,” then there is a differend located precisely at the heart of the rhetorical sublime. Language as such, because it has become secondary to and derivative of the phantasmal image, is neither able to stand on its own apart from phantasía, nor can it find full expression through phantasia (Lyotard 5). The rhetorical sublime, then, is inextricably entangled in the problem of the “situated presentation,” as outlined by Lyotard in The Differend. Unable to give us the origin of language as such in the rhetorical sublime, in its hic et nunc, or here and now, Pseudo-Longinus can merely offer us a belated presentation, one which must necessarily come too late, and in coming too late, present language as other than what it is (77). For the task of philosophy to think the not-yet thought, the rhetorical sublime can only offer us a momentary pause for reflection before we once again continue our search for new idioms for phrasing the differend.

Dylan Vaughan
Western University
  1. Of course a concatenation of phrases can be shared by multiple genres of discourse, but there will always be a phrase before or a phrase after that will endow it with a divergent sense.

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—. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988. Print.

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O’Gorman, Ned. “Longinus’s Sublime Rhetoric, or How Rhetoric Came into its Own.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 34.2 (2004): 71-89. Scholars Portal Journals. Web. 2 August 2015.

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