The Computational Avant-Garde and the Postmodern Sublime



Upon first glance, it is perplexing to consider that the postmodern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard chose to resituate the sublime as the locus of his aesthetic theory, in his books The Inhuman: Reflections on Time and Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime. He recruited an enlightenment era thesis of the sublime from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement as a basis for his argumentation, a surprising move considering Kant’s impact in shaping the trajectory of modern philosophy. In this text, Lyotard’s sublime will be used as a framework in which to analyze forms of contemporary computational and musical arts. However, because of its assailable positioning between theories of the modern and postmodern, Lyotard’s sublime is prone to criticisms from multiple perspectives, and some of these will be explored as well. 

Sublimity, Here and Now

Lyotard’s move towards Kant marks a shift in interpreting modern philosophy, as Lyotard identifies postmodernity as a  continuity of the modern era. Lyotard reminds readers that any era can experience a modernization and that this isn’t limited to what we consider the “modern period” (Livingston, 33). Of this he says, “The sublime is perhaps the only mode of artistic sensibility to characterize the modern” (Lyotard The Inhuman 93). It can be speculated that this might explain why Lyotard chose Kant’s aesthetic theory as a foundation for his own. Through Kant, Lyotard distances himself from Hegelian philosophical attempts to overcome the object/subject divide (109). 

Lyotard makes clear his intention to engage what might be considered to be sublime in a contemporary era is a critical approach to the tradition of the sublime (93). Lyotard’s position focuses on the temporality of the sublime experience; that of an ecstatic experience of timeliness that sets it apart from the usual flow of linear time (90). Rather, he suggests that his formulation of the sublime embraces the modern anxiety of nothing happening, nothing progressing, and the eternal present that is often associated with a higher consciousness, and thus a mixture of pleasure and pain is created. This contradictory sensation is what has rebirthed the concept of the sublime over and over again in Western aesthetic theory, as an indeterminacy which remains eternally unresolved (92).
Lyotard relegates things of beauty to a status of mastery of taste and of technical achievement. Beauty, according to both Lyotard and Kant, is a “free harmony between the function of images and a function of concepts occasioned by an object of art or nature” (98). Sublimity stands apart from this; one can never become complacent in the sublime experience as it remains open in form (96-97). The sublime is exactly that which remains a dualistic “kind of cleavage within the subject between what can be conceived and what can be imagined or presented” (98). The sublime outlined by Kant was an account of how some forms of expression attempt to bear witness to the inexpressible; that which is too enormous in its totality and it can only be understood conceptually through its fragments. 

Lyotard criticizes the accepted formulation of linear progress of artistic production, of both the avant-gardes and the art institution (91). He discusses how innovation in art operates as re-using “formulae confirmed by previous success, and throws them off-balance by combining them with other, in principle incompatible, formulae, by amalgamations, quotations ornamentations, pastiche. One can go so far as kitsch or the grotesque.” (106) He strikes down almost all art production when he claims that contemporary art that expresses the spirit of the times, is in fact merely reflecting the spirit of the market economy (106). In light of this, Lyotard claims that a study of the avant-garde is imperative, as their movement is in reaction to Hegelian absolute idealism and the refusal to accept the given conditions of a horizon that supposedly mark the end of art (114-115). 

Dissolution of the Cleavage

As Thomas Huhn points out in a review of “Lessons on the Analytic Sublime,” Lyotard has limited his reading of Kant to less than forty pages of Kant’s Critique of Judgement. This implies that the lessons drawn from this text was broad and sweeping (Huhn 90). Lyotard reads Kant’s Critique as a problematic attempt to universalize subjectivity itself. In his text, Lyotard responds to this by claiming that the sublime is a failed attempt at unity, and “is the uncanny attempt by subjectivity to feel something other than itself” (91). Huhn’s generous reading of Lyotard’s usage of Kant is not accepted across the board; In “The Postmodern Sublime?” Timothy H. Engström criticizes Lyotard’s rejection of Kant’s conception of “the transcendental Subject, the disinterestedness of the aesthetic, and most of the theological echoes used to humble the ambitions of narrative” (Engström 192). These attacks on Lyotard’s unorthodox interpretation of Kant are not uncommon. 

Besides being charged with claim of misrepresenting Kant, Lyotard has also been challenged by writers who point out that the sublime is not always an effective artistic maneuver. In Bonita Rhoads and Vadim Erent’s text “An Aesthete’s Lost War: Lyotard & the Un-sublime of New Europe,” they analyze contemporary art in the Czech Republic  in order to dispute Lyotard’s conception of the sublime. One example that challenges the universality of Lyotard’s theory is Vratislav Karel Novak’s 1991 Metronome that sits atop Letna Hill in the city of Prague. The Metronome came to take the place of the 30 meter tall granite Stalin Monument built in 1955 by Otakar Švec and it confirmed “the Czech nation’s official passage from the repressive era of compulsory socialist realism to the democratically-sanctioned modernism” (Rhoads 97). It supersedes the totalitarianism of communism through the “infinite sublime of time’s ‘natural’ current’” (99). Through its attempts at assimilating all historical epochs within monumental time, it might “somewhat to the contrary, simultaneously suggests the enforcing rhythm of the new capitalist order in a manner reminiscent of the chronometer’s introduction to quicken the pace of performance…” (100) This disputes Lyotard's assertion that the sublime challenges the art’s complacency in free-market economies. 

In Rhoads and Erent’s text, they illustrate what they consider to be the subterranean strata of master-narrative within Lyotard's sublime (87). They suggest throughout their text that Lyotard does not extend his incredulity towards master-narratives to his own aesthetic theory as he holds that “the task of art remains that of the immanent sublime” (Lyotard Inhuman 128). Through their proximity to “the geopolitical cusp where authoritarianism surges into late capitalism,” they conjecture that artistic practices “follow a different orientation, [than the postmodern sublime] that of prodding the public, plumbing the issues, discoursing with the media, baiting the conventions" (Rhoads 112). I would suggest that through extending Lyotard’s method of incredulity and skepticism, we might find that his approach to the sublime might make room for those artistic practices that evolve through different cultural and political environments from his own. 

The Computational Avant-Garde

Although Lyotard had a great admiration of modernist painters such as Barnett Newman, Paul Cézanne and Wassily Kandinsky, the legacy of his postmodern sublime might be more astutely applied to current contemporary art forms such as computational art and musical composition. These disciplines are especially relevant to both Kant and Lyotard’s assertions of the mathematical attributes of the sublimity of reaching the human limit for comprehension (Lyotard Analytic 99).

Cecilia Livingston is a Canadian composer whose master’s and doctoral research explored the “sublime in twentieth-century opera, with a particular focus on the connections between the sublime, the grotesque, minimalism, and musical silence” ("Cecilia Livingston: Composer."). In her paper titled “A Leap of Faith: Composing in the Wasteland of Postmodernism,” Livingston broaches the topic of Lyotard’s sublime as an aesthetic modality that at once embraces and challenges both modernist and postmodernist artistic frameworks. Her paper is premised on the statement, “artistic expression is not self-expression” (Livingston 35). She considers Lyotard’s sublime to be a merry loophole in a “degraded” postmodernism that “only purports to be revolutionary. [It is] collapsing in upon itself, crushed to dust under the weight of it’s own meaninglessness” (36). She attempts, through the sublime, to find a delicately balanced paradoxical symbiosis between modernism and postmodernism. (38). Of her own work she says that she has moved from focusing on technical precision towards works that begin as emotional expression and then “abstracted from my individual experience as they must when they are realized musically, become something more universal, something ‘up for discussion’ in the give and take between the composer, the performer, and the listener” (37).

It comes as a surprise that Livingston, as someone who values mathematical virtuosity in composing, does not contemplate the ways in which sublimity can be achieved through technological means (35). She holds the position that, under Lyotard’s sublime, a post-postmodern mode of creation might emerge. Of this she says, “while young composers use pop music and world music and pop culture references throughout our work, it seems to be with purpose now, a purpose deeper than a stale collage game, the rather elderly shocking-adolescent pomo-punk-fuck-you or the cerebral escapism that just avoids the issue altogether” (39). Surely, Livingston has considered that her purchase on traditional compositional technique biases the way she treat those practices of electronic composition with such brevity. She fails to recognize with superior technological tooling, the electronic composer may be able to approach the mathematical sublimity of music with not only more ease, but to surpass analogue methods entirely. 

The element of sublimity in electronic music has grown with technological development since Lyotard wrote his works on aesthetics. Here, I would like to suggest the composer Nicolas Jaar (son of Chilean-born artist, architect, and filmmaker Alfredo Jaar) as an excellent example of sublime in contemporary music. He is prodigious in not only producing original tracks and concept albums, but also as dj remixing others music and creating mixes that range from cerebral works of technical achievement to downtempo psychedelic dance music. His range and deftness is astounding. In a review of Jaar’s latest album, Sirens, music journalist Jonah Bromwich says: 

The most useful words to describe this are the silliest and most hyperbolic: awesome, transcendent, timeless or more accurately, out-of-time. It begs for pretension, for the vocabulary of divinity and “high art,” for references to religious philosophers and poets of the West… (Bromwich)

Jaar comfortably fits the criteria for sublimity. Like Bromwich’s review suggests, Jaar’s work is on the edge of comprehension; any description risks debasement through exaggeration. His complex use of technique in his form, and the carefully selected palette of content are composed by means of sampling, replicating, selecting, distorting and producing. His approach avoids the pitfalls that Livingston warns are inescapable in a postmodern of pastiche, parody, and irony, through alignment with the sublime.

In “Kinetic Architectural Skins and the Computational Sublime,” architect Jules Moloney argues for the use of the sublime in computational art practices and kinetic architecture. He claims that sublimity in these areas hinges on how data is mapped to output, as this is crucial to differentiating it from work that is purely technical fetish or fascination (Moloney 65). Within his field, he endorses urban, generative installations that are digital-analogue hybrids, allowing for engagement with a wider audience, outside of the timescale limits of the gallery. His eloquent interpretation of Kant’s mathematical sublime, as “mapping of something beyond the scale of human comprehension,” (Moloney 65) leads him to propose that “the computational sublime cannot reside solely in contemplation of code - we would require some output to provide a measure by which we can extrapolate variation and unexpected outcomes possible with emergence of computation” (66). He describes this as practices in which viewers are intrigued by an evolving output, and upon inspection, realize that neither the beginning or or end of the process is tangible; the artwork momentarily condenses before reforming into endless permutations. The generative function of the installation, code or program producing output continuously ad infinitum can be considered manifest of what both Kant and Lyotard describe as “formlessness” that “arouses  the feeling of the beautiful come to be lacking” (113). 

As an example of sublime architecture, Moloney mentions Ned Kahn’s Wind Veil, a 80x15 metre kinetic facade comprised of 75 mm2  aluminum discs that transform a nondescript concrete parkade into undulating, fine-grained metallic liquid as wind blows across it’s surface. In it’s realization, this architectural feature harkens to the sublime as a control system that generates permutations based on specific local input.  In addition to Wind Veil, Moloney features a rendering of an unrealized project proposed by Jon McCormack called Future Garden. Since the time of publication, McCormack has had success in realizing other computationally sublime artworks such as Colourfield an “evolutionary software ecosystem” ("Jon McCormack."). 

In this work, McCormack utilizes genetic programming to simulate a Darwinian evolutionary system, in which artificial lifeforms are represented to the viewer as horizontal bars of colour. This software is described as an environment:

determined by the other agents and the colours they produce. Entering into complex feedback cycles, Colourfield presents an evolving palette of shifting colours. Different configurations emerge based on the strategies the ecosystem discovers for co-existance and co-dependency. Harmonious configurations often remain stable for a short while, before eventually being replaced by new relations, better able to survive in the ever shifting environment (Jon McCormack).

This mapping of extremely complex mathematics is sublime as the viewer can conceptually understand through visualization, yet not be able to take it in the magnitude of the mathematical process as a totality.  


If we are to take seriously Lyotard’s postmodern convictions, we must then extend a skepticism to the modernist undertones in his aesthetic works. Lyotard’s intentional taking up of Kant should be read as strategic. Kant’s dualistic approach to philosophy and his assertion of distinct phenomenal and noumenal realms was in direct response to the Enlightenment empiricist claim that all things can be measured. According to Stephen Hicks in his book, Explaining Postmodernism, he claims that “Kant’s innovations in philosophy were the beginning of the epistemological route to postmodernism” (Hicks 28). In this understanding of Kant’s philosophy, Lyotard and Kant can be rendered as parallel figures in their self-awareness at the precipice of new eras, both attempting to obstruct new philosophies from following unselfconsciously destructive paths. 

At once, Lyotard wages war on the master-narrative, and protects the locus of aesthetics from militant fallout by aligning it with a millennials-old tradition of sublimity. Upon a superficial reading of Lyotard, one can pass judgement of his supposedly prescriptive stance on aesthetics. While taking into account both the content and form of his work, it becomes apparent that he is, through example, extending an invitation to the reader to critically engage with the sublime.

Through Lyotard’s subjective approach to the sublime, we might be able to consider how the achievement of this state is dependant on the subject’s ability for cognition. The sublime remains forever on the edge of comprehension. From this, we can contend that what constitutes as the sublime in any historical period will be conditional on those things that bring humanity into contact with what is at the same time horrible and pleasureable; unintelligible, unassailable, and just beyond the horizon of reason.  

Works Cited

Bromwich, Jonah. "Nicolas Jaar: Sirens." Nicolas Jaar: Sirens Album Review. Pitchfork, Sept. 29 2016. Web. Apr. 11 2017.
Engström, Timothy H. “The Postmodern Sublime?: Philosophical Rehabilitations and Pragmatic Evasions.” Boundary 2, vol. 20, no. 2, 1993, pp. 190–204.,
Hicks, Stephen R. C. Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Scholargy Custom Publishing, 2004. 
Huhn, Thomas. “Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime of Jean-François and Elizabeth Rottenberg.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 53, no. 1, 1995, pp.  89–91., 
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Polity Press, 1991.
Lyotard, Jean-François. Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime. Trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford University Press, 1994. 
Livingston, Cecilia. “A Leap of Faith: Composing in the Wasteland of Postmodernism.” Tempo, vol. 64, no. 253, 2010, pp. 30–40.,
"Cecilia Livingston: Composer." Cecilia Livingston. Web. April 11, 2017.
"Jon McCormack." Jon McCormack, 2017. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
Moloney, Jules. “Kinetic Architectural Skins and the Computational Sublime.” Leonardo, vol. 42, no. 1, 2009, pp. 65–7.,
Rhoads, Bonita & Vadim Erent. “An Aesthete’s Lost War: Lyotard & the Un-sublime of New Europe.” Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under "Post-" Conditions. Ed: Louis Armand. Prague: Litteria Pragensia, 2006. Print. 85-113.

Works Consulted: 

Carroll, Jerome. “The Limits of the Sublime, the Sublime of Limits: Hermeneutics as a Critique of the Postmodern Sublime.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 66, no. 2, 2008, pp. 171–181.,
Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement. Trans. Werner s. Pluhar. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987. 
Merritt, Richard K. “From Memory Arts to the New Code Paradigm: The Artist as Engineer of Virtual Information Space and Virtual Experience.” Leonardo, vol. 34, no. 5, 2001, pp. 403–408.,