This paper seeks to demonstrate that in Lyotard’s later works, the sublime is posited as a response to nihilism. This demonstration is significantly complicated by the fact that while Lyotard frequently gave the sublime a positive valuation, he also identified it with nihilism. The paper charts Lyotard’s confrontation with nihilism throughout his career, showing how the themes with which he characterizes nihilism in his earlier works are repeated as characteristics of the sublime in his later works. It then argues that for Lyotard, the sublime acts as both a characterization of the nihilism of contemporary cultural conditions, and as a resource with which to respond to nihilism. Lyotard’s deployment of the sublime as such a response can be understood as an instance of his use of the sophistical strategy of retorsion, finding from within nihilism itself the potential for resistance. Moreover, this position may be understood as motivated by a rejection of revolutionary programmes for changing social conditions, and by the desire to preserve a space for justice – understood as respect for difference. For Lyotard, the abyss between meaning and existence which characterizes both nihilism and the sublime preserves this space better than any attempt to close or bridge it.
- Lyotard, Jean-Francois