Conversation with Tom Pepper 2: On the Romantic Sublime

Below is an email conversation between Tom Pepper and me from several years ago. I just stumbled across is, and still (4-1-23) found it interesting.

The original note said: It concerns a topic, or really a set of topics, that we want to explore further on Lines of Flight [a now defunct blog]. Broadly understood, the topic is practice or social practice. There is obviously a lot more to be said about it. So, we hope you will join our conversation with your own views, questions, disagreements, examples or anything else you’d like to share.  Thank you.

Glenn Wallis:

This image:

[John Bulmer, Stoke on Trent, 1938]

The figure in Stoke on Trent is standing above a blighted industrial landscape. Sometimes “View Over the Potteries” is added to the title. “The Potteries” is another name for the city of Stoke on Trent because of the pottery factories and trade that originated there in the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution. So, it’s a dystopian scene a long time in the making. I imagine the man having arrived at that spot after walking for a good stretch through the countryside. He’s on his way to meet his date. The flowers, I imagine, give that away. He’s pausing before setting off through the suffocating smog and nerve-crushing racket of the grinding metal. The dog is his road dog. Like the wanderer’s cane it offers him support on his difficult if somewhat romantic journey.

Of course, those flowers could signal a funeral or a visit to the grave. Maybe he’s going to have his dog euthanized and then bury it. But I see the figure in Stoke on Trent as a person whose heart-felt dream of meaning nurtured in the warm bosom of the imagination is finally crumbling before the mocking scene before him. He is now reduced to asking—like I am and like this blog is—what now?

I have just enough self-awareness to realize that my interest in this image, including of course my interpretation of it, stems from my own identification with the scene as I imagine it. So, I confess that the main impulse behind Lines of Flight is my desire to explore action, art or practice (the man must move from that spot, after all) in the grip of neither, in Badiou’s terms, funereal or ludic Romanticism (the first “pronounces the morose end of the human race,” while the second “pretends to celebrate it”).

Casper David Friedrich, Wanderer Abover the Sea of Fog, 1818

Tom Pepper:

These two pictures illustrate the two versions of the Romantic sublime.

On the one hand, the excess of mind over matter, of signifier over signified, in which we feel ourselves float free of the constraints of our social conditions. This is the sublime of Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” where we believe that “the human mind’s imaginings” are not dependent on anything so dreary as the material world, that our mind gives law to heaven itself, and we can find triumph in escape.

On the other hand, the sublime power of the material over thought, of signified over signifier. Here, we have what Jameson describes in Postmodernism as the overwhelming inertia of dead human labour stored up in our technology, our buildings, our man-made world. Implacable and incomprehensible we can only submit passively to the horror.

In either case, we can’t take any action at all. We alternate between exhilaration and despair, but that’s all we have. My concern is to find some kind of art that gives us a less totalizing vision. Instead of grasping the industrial city as a reified monolithic entity, can we see it from closer up, and map out strategies to get around in it? What might we do, if we weren’t imagining ourselves as individuals outside the world, but as parts of some collective subject right there in the middle of it, participating in reproducing it?

I’m not sure if this is a thing that any existing kind of art does, or can do. I don’t want to rule out the possibility in advance, though. There are different ways of thinking the sublime. We can think of it as something that overwhelms and crushes us, forcing acceptance of what is; or, we can think of it as pointing up the details that are left out of the “big picture,” and so uncomfortably suggesting actions we can take—actions that aren’t inevitable outcomes of the way things are, but optional. This kind of sublime is the failure of perfect correspondence between thought and sense, abstract concept and concrete particularity—when suddenly we grasp that there are things in the world not covered by our construal, or way of thinking reality that resolve the blurry distance into constant conjunctions we can interact with.

All of this is too metaphorical, too abstract, because I really haven’t found any social practices yet that are getting beyond the Romantic sublime in its two ideological forms, and offering a possibility for some possible collective action in the world. I’m thinking of something like Robert Tressel’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, where he tries to present the plight of the British working class as something other than a touching and tragic instance of the fate of humanity; instead, he suggests they’re all starving and dying because they won’t do the one thing they could do: get together and form a union and demand better pay and working conditions. Of course, this is bad art, because it’s overtly political, and doesn’t resolve problems into a fuzzy image, but clumsily points out how the problems could be solved by real action.

I guess what I’m looking for, then, might have to be bad art, according to our current understanding of art. It might not sweep us along, capture us, keep us flipping pages, seduce the eye or please the ear. We might have to make an effort with it.

Glenn Wallis:

I wonder if you can say something more about why you think politically galvanizing art is necessarily “bad art.” Could a future Tressel accomplish a result similar to Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but in a manner that gets the reader eagerly flipping the pages? I would also like to hear more about what you mean by “a less totalizing vision.”

Badiou’s 2001 lecture “Manifesto of Affirmationism” tries to offer a solution for “getting beyond the Romantic sublime in its two ideological forms,” as you put it. Postmodern forms of art and practice, with their devotion to a “ludic me-ism” and to multi-faceted “particularities” (communitarian, ethnic, linguistic, religious, sexual), are just our most recent “plunge into Romaticism.” An earlier attempt to avoid this plunge, the avant-garde, similarly failed by, among other things, asserting “their conviction that art should be reborn immediately as absolutist, as integrally conscious of its own operation, as truth immediately capable of reading itself.” The lecture finally articulates a way to overcome the “paralysis of the three inherited schemas (Didacticism, Classicism, and Romanticism)“ and to move decisively beyond a “desire torn between the festival and the morgue.”

Badiou names artists who, he believes, have overcome this paralysis: Fernando Passoa, Osip Mandelstam, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Paul Celan, Alban Berg, and many others.

Anyone familiar with Badiou’s thought will not be surprised at his proposed solution. It basically concerns radical reduction and severe subtraction—the usual mathematizing—in order to once again place the human animal within the real, thereby arriving at universality. “We affirm that this animal, through artistic labor, provides the transfixed foundation for a universal address.”

My interest at Lines of Flight is in looking at examples of such “artistic labor.” But I want to include in that labor much more than the arts per se. Maybe what I mean is simply what you are calling “taking action” and “mapping out strategies.” But I am interested in specific, sustained practices, actions conceived by the actor as both individual self-formation and collective reproduction.

I am, however, thinking about all of this at a point in my life where I am deeply skeptical of any “solution,” of any formulation of a practice or an “art,” broadly conceived, that claims to engender illumination beyond our current construal, as you put it. But that’s an impasse that I don’t want to remain stuck in. The figure in Stoke on Trent can’t just stand there, and neither can we. So, where do you go, even if, especially if, you don’t know where you are going? Deleuze’s image of a line of flight struck me a particularly dynamic way of at least trying something. The well-known passage is:

This is how it should be done: lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times. (A Thousand Plateaus: 161)

The passage, as I read it, encourages vigorous, spiritied encounters with others: “Connect, con­jugate, continue:”

We are in a social formation; first see how it is stratified for us and in us and at the place where we are; then descend from the strata to the deeper assemblage within which we are held; gently tip the assem­blage, making it pass over to the side of the plane of consistency. It is only there that the BwO reveals itself for what it is: connection of desires, con­junction of flows, continuum of intensities. You have constructed your own little machine, ready when needed to be plugged into other collective machines. (Ibid.)

Following a course like this is itself a practice, one that requires commitment and sustained effort. I think this language describes what is happening in those situations that feel like details that were previously left out of what you called the “big picture” are coming into formation. In naming the blog Lines of Flight, I was signaling that I wanted to use the blog to “connect, conjugate, continue.” A dim, residually Romantic hope, probably, was that a more specified practice or art would emerge.

Tom Pepper:

I’m more than a little wary of Badiou’s suggestions about art.

I’ve always objected to this idea that art is a “truth procedure.” I don’t think the ultimate goal of art can be to force a truth. Forcing truth, as Badiou puts it, is an important endeavor, but my position is that ultimately we need to produce some ideology. To put it perhaps too simply, the truth about the world will leave us with no reason to do anything in particular in it. There is nothing in mind-independent reality that demands any particular human project.

On this point, I would agree with Laruelle’s criticism of Badiou, in Anti-Badiou, up to a point. Laruelle insists, I think correctly, that Badiou’s “decision” is the equivalence of mathematics with ontology. This is, in effect, his ideology, then. I’m doubtful that this works as an ideology, so long as we pretend it is not one—that is, so long as we pretend it is ontology and not ideology. My position (and this is one that goes all the way back to Artistotle, but one which certainly Badiou would reject) is that “pure” mathematics is the structure of our human thought; that is, mathematics is the logical structure which underlies our (genetic, biological) form of symbolic communication. So, sure, math has the advantage of stripping away a lot of ideological impediments to our engagement with the world, but it is not an ontological truth, and cannot ultimately decide for us what kind of engagement with the world we might choose.

My position is that the goal of art is to organize and motivate some social project. There is not a final “correct” social project, no sublime transcendental signified, no Big Other. There are only temporary quilting points in our symbolic systems, local and socially produced collective “others,” and if we pretend differently we’re ultimately doomed to the choice Badiou leaves us with in the essay you mention: participate in reproducing the existing social formation, or do nothing at all.

Of course, Badiou’s intent is to suggest that there is a third alternative…but I don’t think he has really offered us one, because of his “decision,” which refuses to accept the production of an ideology. Look at his examples of “affirmationist” art: with the possible exception of Brecht, it is a list of the ideologues of capitalism. Sure, I love reading Virginia Woolf or watching Orson Welles movies, but I know full well they are producing nothing but capitalist ideology. Consider one of Badiou’s favorite examples: Wallace Stevens. Surely, there is no more conservative poet in the history of poetry? He is the ultimate ideologue of twentieth-century capitalism. Badiou admires Critchley’s book on Stevens, and I think Critchley does get Stevens just right: “Poetry,” Critchley tells us, “is life with the ray of imagination’s power shot through it.” Really, can you imagine a more Romantic ideology? What else is poetry but the use of some mystification, some depiction of the world in what Critchley calls “the radiant atmosphere produced by the imagination,” in such a way as to make us feel our world as it is to be eternal, right, and enjoyable. “Imagination” produces a powerful transcendental signifier, obscuring the gaps and contradictons, the brutal oppression and suffering necessary to support our World, making it seem pleasant and appealing. “Art,” as we practice it today, produces what I think Deleuze somewhere calls that “iridescent chaos of a world before man,” the illusion that there is some eternal mystical thing-in-itself that we can only grasp by thinking less clearly, and when we do this we will have some wonderful bliss, some ultimate freeing of desire.

What could be more Romantic than this?

I prefer the Lacanian construction, in which this ineffable cloud is the Real, the leftover of the symbolic order, the excluded, what cannot be thought or said. The Real is not an eternal “before man,” but is created by us, socially, in our symbolic systems.

So, why “bad art”? Because “good art” does only what Critcheley describes. Ultimately, I’m not interested in art that “engenders illumination.” I’m interested in practices that turn off that blinding glow. They may not look like what we call art, though. Deconstruction, as Derrida practiced it, does this—and for some of us, reading an essay deconstructing a literary text can be compelling, engaging, fascinating. For most people though, it clearly isn’t, because it fails to comfort and reassure and offer us passive pleasure. Tressell’s novel demands that we go out and form a union; it doesn’t ask us to put down the novel and sip our wine and contemplate the touching sadness of the fate of humanity.

Some will enjoy a novel like Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but they will be told by the university literature professor that they have bad taste in art. Most will not be able to get through it, and they will be told that is a sign of their aesthtetic superiority. I’d like to find some discursive practice in which to produce more of the kind of bad subjects that will eagerly read a novel like this, and then eagerly go out and try to form collectives.

Glenn Wallis:

In the end, I wouldn’t want to defend Badiou’s views on art either. I find his practice of subtraction and deflation, however, extremely valuable as establishing an in the first instance. And the figures he mentions as examples of this practice just so happen to speak to me. This first instance is, to my thinking, precisely the fact that “there is nothing in mind-independent reality that demands any particular human project.” So, now what? That’s my recurring question, and the one that animates this blog for me. The question becomes particularly urgent when we add to it, as I do, the conviction that “the truth about the world will leave us with no reason to do anything in particular in it.”

I agree that “Badiou’s ‘decision’ is the equivalence of mathematics with ontology,” or mathematics as ontology. I am struck again and again at how difficult it is to find someone, a thinker, free of idealist assumptions. I was hoping to use this blog to explore practices that are committed to what Laruelle calls “the lived” or Marx calls “real interests,” and to do so in a way that is hyper-sensitive to the oozing fetishistic surplus of The Big Idea. I think that it is particularly necessary to be on high alert these days because of the many seductive new forms of thought that appear to be free of idealist (Romantic, transcendentalist, big Other, etc.) operators, but are not. I will name a few so that readers might have a look and see what I mean about the subtly of their idealism: Jane Bennett’s enchantment and vibrant matter; Julia Kristeva’s abjection; Donna Haraway’s naturcultures; Bruna Latour’s collectives; Catherine Malabou’s plasticity; the God of the post-atheist theological turn; and the observing mind of the western Buddhists (maybe not so subtle), to name just a few. We could, of course, add to this list Deleuze’s vitalism of the plane of immanence. His lines of flight procedure, though, works even better without his vitalist ontology. “Engendering illumination” becomes the result not of an iridescent ray of insight bursting out from the vital force of energy-matter, or indeed from the fecund wellspring of the imagination, but instead becomes a feature of conversation—it means you have said something that helps me to see what I had previously not seen (a perspective, a possibility, an angle, a concept, a missing piece). That’s all. I hope we can quickly get past having to address to readers of the blog why Critchley’s notion of, for instance, “the radiant atmosphere produced by the imagination” is such a tedious deadend.

I wonder how literally you mean your example of a novel that inspires its reader to “eagerly go out and try to form collectives.” I somehow doubt you have a Woody Guthrie song or a Jacob Riis photograph in mind, even though they accomplished just that. If I understand correctly, you want an art or a practice that is decidedly political, at least in the actions that it instigates. I am not sure what I want, or what I would settle for. I sat in a two-hour meeting today where people discussed an educational institute, its values, curriculum, standards, etc. I could only think the whole time that they were really discussing practices that served to form an specific type of person. I wouldn’t trust that person. I probably wouldn’t even like that person. So, when I think of art and practice, I am really thinking about basic stuff.

In any case, what we have done in this conversation is, I feel, a good example of lines of flight. We come from different places, and we’re probably headed different places. Via a conversation like this, our individual courses connect, conjugate, and continue on.

Tom Pepper:

What I’m most wary of is the kind of art (or any other discourse) that “speaks to me.” Because all capitalist ideology is addressed to us, subjects of capitalism whether we want to be or not, and tries to “speak to us,” to hail us into the proper symbolic order. I’m just as hesitant to draw a distinction between the “decidedly political” and “basic stuff.” This division is one of the most powerful ways we are kept adjusting the kind of institution you mention, and unable to transform them.

What we do is always political.

So yes, Woody Guthrie, to the extent that the songs actually work to rouse participation in some activity—although I don’t think they do anymore. Or anything that offers us a suggestion to DO SOMETHING but, and this is most important, without the assurance that there is some transcendental signified out there guaranteeing that it is the right thing to do! Some action that knows full well it is not required by the any God, laws of physics, laws of nature, eternal truth, ineffable aesthetic perception, or anything else—some action that we choose knowing full well we don’t have to do it. Then, of course, I want the action to be something that does not require, even indirectly, the furtherance of capitalist oppression or the destruction of the planet. And, even this is not required—we could just as well go on oppressing the majority of the human species, to on making the planet uninhabitable, and enoy ourselves while we do so. There’s no God or afterlife to punish such choices. This is just my preference, and I’d like to believe there are some others who would choose to do such things, again, just because we can.

There is always an affective, and thoroughly ideological, component to such actions. To enjoy them, we have to produce a discourse and practice in which they are enjoyable. So, if art can’t produce such discourses and practices, what can? What would they look like? Do any exist?

These may be political in a traditional sense (I’d like to see collective actions devoted to eliminating capitalist oppression and environmental destruction, actions people can enjoy participant in). On the other hand, just doing something that involves others and doesn’t pass through the circuit of profit would be great, and no less political.

Most of all, though, I am in agreement that it would be great to not have to explain over and over why nonsense about “radiant imagination” is just quietist Romantic capitalist mystification. There must be some artists, composers, writers, filmmakers, etc. who are beyond such Romantic drivel.

Glenn Wallis:


6 responses to “Conversation with Tom Pepper 2: On the Romantic Sublime”

  1. Wtompepper Avatar

    I’d completely forgotten this exchange. My own comments seem so alien to me now—I can’t even remember ever being as hopeful as I was then. “I’d like to believe there are others who would choose” not to destroy the planet and oppress others so they can live in mindless comfort? I certainly don’t believe, today, there are any such people in America—and it’s hard to imagine that I once did believe this!

    Now, I’ve given up hoping that anyone might be willing to unionize. Or seriously try to save the planet from destruction. All I can hope for now is that there might be someone who can be encouraged to think—something the current educational system is working hard to prevent.

    I know far too many people in my age bracket (late fifties) who, like me, lost jobs in the aftermath of 2008 and have been struggling at multiple part-time jobs ever since. Several now work at the largest employer in out county, the Amazon warehouse. The work is brutal, literally crippling them…but none would consider unionizing. Art certainly can’t help here—these folks wouldn’t watch Ken Loach’s “Sorry We Missed You”; in their shrinking free time they watch superhero movies and baseball, reproducing their structuring fantasies and avoiding thought.

  2. MsRhuby Avatar

    @Wtompepper It’s always darkest before the dawn. Florence and the Machine

  3. Wtompepper Avatar

    Yes, this is exactly the kind of avoidance of thought I’m talking about. Taking comfort in vacuous platitudes is as common as iPhone addiction these days.

  4. MsRhuby Avatar

    I had no idea I wallowed in “vacuous platitudes” and I hadn’t even know what that meant! Thanks for making my day!

  5. wtompepper Avatar

    MsRhuby: Sorry, I thought you were joking! I understood the example of a pop song using a tired old cliche as if it were profound wisdom to be an illustration of how people have abandoned real thought. Like when people put examples from Tricycle’s “Daily Dharma” in the comment sections on this blog.

    I have been made aware many times that most people do not know the meaning of the words “platitude” or “vacuous”. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, the phrase seems apt.

  6. MsRhuby Avatar

    Okay, so now I’ll have to go and learn about Tricycle’s Daily Dharma.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: