The Cathedral of the Sublime and the View from Nowhere


So how does Meillassoux and Brassier’s non-correlative realism return us to Werner Herzog and his film Encounters at the End of the World? Throughout Herzog’s films he charts the phenomenal dreaming of his subjects, whose visions cannot be made commensurate to the vast extensity of nature, the super-immensity of which exceeds their imagination. This is certainly noted by Deleuze in Cinema 1 in the chapter ‘The Figures of Large and Small in Herzog’. In each of Herzog’s films we encounter ‘a man who is larger than life who frequents a milieu which is itself larger than life, and dreams up an action as great as the milieu’ [C1, p.184] These figures, who are often marked by madness, enact super-feats in an attempt to inflate their hallucinatory dreams to match the expanse of boundless reality; Aguirre in the virgin Amazon; the jungle which serves as Fitzcarraldo’s opera-house; Stroszek’s America; the prophet Mühlhiasl’s mountain; the small-brained Kaspar Hauser’s inquiry into God in the garden; the rapturous ecstasy of the ski-flyer Steiner; Treadwell’s wilderness and so forth. In each case Herzog’s ‘small’ characters –– literally small in Even Dwarves Start Small –– inflate their hallucinations, so that ‘the Large is realized as a pure Idea, in the double nature of landscapes and actions’ [C1, p. 184]. Here visions are synonymous with the caesura of the apocalyptic Idea. Through this characterization Deleuze recognizes Herzog as a filmmaker of the Kantian sublime, his films being an account of how the ‘small enters into a relationship with the Large’ [C1, p.185]. Subsequently, Herzog is rightly identified as the ‘most metaphysical filmmaker’ –– he himself claims to be a filmaker of the ecstactic truth. Herzog’s subjects are dwarfed by this sublime, it enfeebles them, despite their attempts to adequate their visions with the cosmic limits of reality. More often than not, the subject’s idealist thought-world cannot match unbounded nature, resulting in madness, death or a heroic action that sublimates this relationship –– in many cases affirmation is insufficient. For Kant, the sublime is the ‘wide blue yonder’, the substrate of supersensible reality foreclosed to our faculties and beyond experience: a glimpse of the land of silence and darkness. This is the numinous feeling of the sublime experienced by Herzog’s visionaries, the ‘Cathedral’[1] that the McMurdo ice-divers refer to when they swim beneath the polar ice of the Antarctic. As the visionary William Blake describes it in Auguries of Innocence:

To see the world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour. [‘To See a World…’, fragment from Auguries of Innocence 1803]

This unbounded infinity encountered in nature dwarves us, making us feel physically frail, since it is incommensurate with our powers of imagination. This is especially pronounced since, in a Darwinian sense, we are not equipped by evolution to track the essential nature of things. Under such an understanding representation must necessarily return for the subject, in order to cope with the incongruence of the mind and reality, in order to ascribe formlessness a cognizable form. As a result, we could say that the conditions of representation are secreted by the world and reality generates representation in a degenerate form (i.e. metaphor, recognition, identification, equivalence, etc). However, the sublime does allow us to intuit that there is more to reality than the sensorial and the imaginative, beyond our phenomenal ideality. Yet whereas Kant had an inadequate mathematical understanding of infinity, the paradox of infinity has been completed in Cantor’s set theory and made coherent by Meillassoux, making the unthinkable immensity of chaotic reality intelligible to us as the transfinite. Spinoza would have it that the secret of joy is to love something infinite, much like Nietzsche’s affirmation of the eternal return, but joy’s transcendence should not be privileged over woe, since joy is merely the mask for the meaningless and painful condition of the world. Kant correctly realizes that whilst our relation to the sublime can effectuate joy, more often than not it is accompanied by horror[2]. Here we detect a contradictory double economy of the sublime; the differend as Lyotard names it. [3] This negative pleasure, the dissonant tension that we feel in the thrall of the thunderstorm, is experienced by even the most rational scientists in Encounters at the End of the World, who doubly understand the consequences of our relationship to the annihilatory power of the real, both through subjection and in scientifically objective terms. This is precisely the treatment that the theme of the sublime receives in German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Polar Sea (The Destroyed Hope) (1824) in which double-power of beauty and terror are at odds. It is this thrilling dread that Herzog seems to feel lies beneath even the most positivist gloss, which fills him with the suspicion that motivates his enquiry and informs his aesthetic. Despite this, Herzog is vocal in his affinity for the anecdote about Martin Luther, wherein the theologian was asked what he would do if he knew the world was ending tomorrow, to which he replied: ‘I would plant an apple tree today’. However, is this not merely a pragmatic acceptance that the decontraction of death establishes the possibility of being; a ‘purposelessness, which compels all purposefulness’?

Herzog is rightfully suspicious of the idealism and positive vitalism that Stefan Pashov subscribes to at the beginning of Encounters at the End of the World, since such totalizing thought-worlds subordinate the mindless ‘distinct objects’ of reality to the human consciousness. Such exorbitant claims are tantamount to an anthropocentric imperialism that skews man’s position in relation to alien nature; a result of mankind’s misplaced confidence in the consonance of its own thought. In this regard, Herzog is keen to deride the folly of the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and those dreamers who gaze upon the glacially indifferent real and believe we can ultimately master such a superior force. Amusingly, Herzog dramatizes this folly with the depiction of a ‘deranged’ penguin that cannot be persuaded from heading into the interior of the continent and towards certain death. It is here we find an analogy for the delusional character of strong correlationism, exemplified by Hegel’s totalitarianism of the Idea –– the suspicion of which led Marx to his materialist inversion. As Marx observes with regard to Hegel’s methodology in Grundrisse:

[…] Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself, whereas the rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way by which thought appropriates the concrete [and] reproduces it as concrete in the mind. [GR, p.101]

Accordingly, we can say that idealism is the vice of post-Kantian thought, which suffers from a pathological and delusional obsession with the concretization of the correlation –– the ‘philosopher’s syndrome’. Yet whilst Marx and Engels’ dialectical materialism might be assumed to be ‘scientifically’ insufficient to truly overthrow Hegelian absolutism, they and the other philosophers of suspicion, including Nietzsche and Freud, were right to view such philosophical solipsism skeptically. Meillassoux deems these thinkers philosophical secessionists:

Schopenhauer said that solipsism was a fortress impossible to penetrate, but also pointless to attack, since it is empty. Solipsism is a philosophy that no one can refute, but also one that no one can believe. So let’s leave the fortress as it is, and let’s explore the world in all its vastness! [CVIII, p. 423]

Consequently, suspicion of Hegelian idealism only permitted philosophy to step out of the circle of correlation and into the circle of reflection, abstaining from a proper engagement with idealism completely. However, reflection still remained shadowed by enobling idealism. This is why Meillassoux seeks to destroy correlative philosophy from within through the necessity of contingency and why Brassier seeks to annihilate it through a scientific determination-in-the-last-instance. So how might the aggrandizing visions of Herzog’s principle characters be better described by neuroscience, supplemented by the ‘speculative armature’ of metaphysics in a manner that is commensurate with realism proper?

In his book Being No One philosopher of the mind Thomas Metzinger draws heavily on representationalist and functionalist analysis, arguing that no such things as selves exist: ‘nobody has ever had or was a self’. We merely experience a phenomenal self-model (PSM), or variety of selves as they appear in conscious experience; not an entity or essential being, but a process that Metzinger states is the content of a ‘transparent self-model’. This clearly finds harmony with the Badiou’s ontology of subtraction, which we are now able to ratify transcendentally through Laruelle. Metzinger states that neuroscience is approaching a stage at which it can provide specific answers regarding the self-presentational model, or ‘user illusion’ of first-person reality as we experience it, which has consequences for intentionality: ‘The content of the PSM is the content of the conscious self: your current bodily sensations, your present emotional situation, plus all the contents of your phenomenally experienced cognitive processing.’ [BNO, p. 299] Accordingly, the content of the PSM constitutes a metaphorical self that you intuitively experience as you, a system of representation that allows goal-directed deliberate actions. The PSM is valuable delusion that grants us conscious action, yet is absent in unconscious automatic responses to motor-sensory stimuli (e.g. catching a ball thrown in our direction or the ‘telepathic’ group movement of a flock of starlings). This engenders formidable confusion for the folk-psychological phenomenal subject, or self we experience as a unitary whole:

It endows our mental space with two highly interesting structural characteristics: centeredness and perspectivalness. As long as there is a phenomenal self our conscious model of the world is a functionally centred model and usually tied to what in philosophy of the mind is called the “first-person” perspective. [BNO, p. 303]

This is precisely the notion that forms the kernel of most epistemological and metaphysical difficulties in philosophy. Metzinger goes on to say that this centering generates an ‘epistemic asymmetry’ between the recognition of conscious states from the first-person to third-person perspective. This appears to be highly reminiscent of Heidegger’s inability to find being in general coextensive with the specific mineness of Dasein. For Metzinger, the mineness of selfhood that the PSM experiences –– notably in the act of introspective thought –– cannot conclusively be said to belong to one entity. Moreover, the distribution of this property in space can vary considerably and in heightened mental states this phenomenal quality of mineness can exceed the bounds of the physical body, leading to deviant and disembodied self-models.

The florid schizophrenic experiences many extreme and disorientating states of mind, including radical depersonalization in which consciously experienced thoughts are no longer their own; just as Woyzeck experiences when he feels the Earth rise up by touching the wood he is chopping. The schizoid self-model becomes dissociated from the user of the PSM, just as people experience with phantom limbs, alien-hand syndrome or unilateral hemi-neglect (‘my leg is not my own’). Literally, their mind no longer belongs to them and they might even say: ‘My mind is no longer mine’; as if it were an alien appendage. They lose the subjective embodiment or mineness that they are accustomed to. A sense of ownership of mind is essential to the subject’s orderly function and if the subject cannot integrate his/her own self-model with their own cognitive processes they will experience serious depersonalization. Here the entire system of representation may in fact be lost. [4] The result is an altered state of consciousness not of their volition. They might say to a doctor, ‘I am a robot’ or, ‘my volitional acts are not my own’; in short, they feel remote controlled, a zombiefied self-model in which intentionality is diminished. Conversely, through this depersonalization they can also experience an inability to delimit the PSM from the world. They might to say, ‘I am the whole world’. Consequently, the schizophrenic subject might stand at the window all day, staring at the sun, controlling its movement with his/her mind. Or they might look down at the traffic in the street and control the movement of each tiny car; making the puppets walk; turning the traffic lights on and off. In such cases, the self-model expands to the boundaries and every miniscule change in the world is perceived to be self-caused. This is clearly where thought oversteps the threshold of what can be known, such as when the subject is in the thrall of sublime and inflates his/her visionary ideas to match its immensity. This is a mania, a pathology that Aguirre assumes when he declares that he is The Wrath of God, or much like Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of the leviathan, whose monstrous corpus he manages to successfully integrate himself with; a successful binding of organism’s finite being with the infinitude of boundless ocean.

Then can we not say that idealism‘s totalizing thought-world bears a conspicuous similarity to this pathology? More acutely, the reality of the matter is far closer to that which Darwin intuits when he gazes upon the bucolic English countryside, which appears immutable and congenial, and whilst in appearance happy nature is representationally offered as an ordered harmony with man at its centre: ‘One may say there is force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the economy of nature, or rather forming gaps by forcing out the weaker ones’ [OS, p, 67]. It is scientific objectivity that confirms this by providing a perspectival vantage point on the real –– a view from nowhere –– and on the contrary, it is mankind’s delusional self-hood that renders reality opaque by believing itself to be naturalized. This presumption of naturalized consciousness is grounded by evolution in our biomorphic architecture and grants us agency within our own milieu:

Human beings may –– and do –– differ in what they can imagine, in what classes of worlds they can consciously simulate, and in what they find intuitively plausible. We cannot imagine a thirteenth-dimensional shadow of a fourteen dimensional cube or the continuum of space-time, because the visual cortex of our ancestors was never confronted with this type of object and because the brain’s global model of reality is based on three spatial dimensions and one distinct, unidirectional temporal dimension sufficed for surviving in what was our biological environment. [BNO, p.595]

In Metzinger’s view we resemble Plato’s neurophenomenogical caveman; the neural cave being determined by our internal central nervous system. The shadows on the wall are as close as we get to access reality from our subterranean location, the shadows being a ‘low-dimensional projection of a higher-dimensional object’ [BNO, p. 548]. Yet whereas Plato claimed that all we could know was ourselves in the cave, Metzinger departs from the metaphor here to state that there is not even anyone in the cave at all. [5] Or rather, the interior surface of the cave is the ‘physical organism as a whole, including all of its brain, its cognitive activity, and its social relationships, that is projecting inward, from all directions at the same time’ [BNO, p. 550]. There is no homonuculus situated in the neural cave, just a shadow cast from the fire and projected onto the wall. A shadow we identify as us, yet the cave is empty. This excessively selective projection is defined by the contingencies of biological evolution. As such, neuroscience provides an injunction to abandon outmoded conceptions of our access to reality and highlights the timeliness of a metaphysics that seeks to continue to disenchant the world and allow us to think the ‘great-outdoors’. As we witness in Encounters at the End of the World, even the most objective and rational are prone to the mistaking to the flickering of the shadows on the wall of the cave as being meaningful. The decentering of the manifest image has presently become an important task, since it this very egocentric self-delusion that is endangering the future of mankind’s biological environment at a rate faster than we can evolve.


[1] Herzog enhances the tension of sublimity in Encounters at the End of the World with the use of Russian Orthodox music composed for the lowest humanly possible vocal range, the Basso Profundo or ‘Voice of God’.

[2] Kant uses an example from the Bremen Magazine, Vol. IV entitled ‘Carazan’s Dream’ to express the horror of the sublime, in which the author relates a mind-state in which he encounters the Angel of Death who transports him to the outer limits of the cosmos: ‘I soon left countless worlds behind me. As I neared the outermost end of nature I saw the shadows of the boundless void sink down into the abyss before me. A fearful kingdom of silence, loneliness and darkness! Unutterable horror overtook me at this sight. I gradually lost sight of the last star, and finally the last glimmering ray of hope was extinguished in the outer darkness! Mortal terrors of despair increased with every moment, just as every moment I increased my distance from the last inhabited world. I reflected with unbearable anguish that if ten thousand times a thousand years more should have carried me along beyond the bounds of all the universe I would still be looking ahead into the infinite abyss of darkness, without help or any hope of return…’ [OFBS, p. 49]

[3] In Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime Lyotard conceives of the sublime as just such a crisis between reason and imagination, the differend of conflictual anxiety and pleasure, caused by the mind straining at the edges of itself and conceptuality: ‘The admixture of fear and exaltation that constitutes sublime feeling is insoluble, irreducible to moral feeling’ [LAS, p131]

[4] There is a moment in Aguirre when the remaining conquistadores on the raft see a ship in a tree, but are completely uncertain whether it is real or hallucinated and have no way of validating the experience by means of sense-data alone.

[5] Metzinger goes on to replace the limited metaphor of the cave with a further model, the technological metaphor of a total flight simulator, or vehicle consciousness, in which external reality is modelled internally in high-resolution in real-time, yet this phenomenal apparatus us invisible to us [BNO, p. 555].

About andrewosborne

Andrew Osborne has recently completed his MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmith's.
This entry was posted in Deleuze, Heidegger, Kant, Karl Marx, Meillassoux, Nietzsche, Ray Brassier, Speculative Realism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Cathedral of the Sublime and the View from Nowhere

  1. Stefan Pashov says:

    Comment by Stefan Pashov

    If i have to qualify my vews articulated in the “Encounters” i would express them as neither Materialism, nor Idealism, but NON-DUALISM.
    As for “Anthropocentric imperialism”- i aspire to the exact opposite- COSMOCENTRIC SVARAJ.

    Stefan Pashov

  2. Stefan Pashov says:

    Comment by Stefan Pashov

    The colective pronoun “us” in my statements does NOT refere exclusivly to the human, on the contrary “us” neceseraly include ALL BEINGS.

    Stefan Pashov

  3. wow, excellent text. reminds me of Bataille’s Literature and evil and his discussion about the thirst for annihilation.

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