Joanna Zylinska (2001) On Spiders, Cyborgs and Being Scared: The Feminine and the Sublime (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

This was my first book: it was also my first attempt to combine the theorisation of culture (via a passage from aesthetics to ethics under the aegis of the figure of the sublime) with technological thinking and conceptual experimentation. The book is now out of print: you can download a free copy (pdf download) by clicking here or on the book cover above.


Introduction: ‘a point of view’


Without trying too much to verify, my sights always set on convincing you, I will tell you a story and describe for you a point of view. Indeed a point of view will be my theme.

Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind


The experience of writing a book on the sublime itself creates a certain sublime feeling, a feeling of negative pleasure which mixes fear with delight. Exposed to an overabundance of thought on the subject, one has to find one’s own way of managing its vertiginous excess. First of all, a sense of academic duty, which prompts me to provide a historical presentation of the body of knowledge on the sublime, has to be reconciled with a desire to develop my own ‘extension’ to that tradition. However, numerous analyses of the concept of the sublime, from that of Longinus through eighteenth-century aesthetics and the Romantics to the present, have already been conducted: I am thinking here of Samuel H. Monk’s The Sublime, Paul Crowther’s The Kantian Sublime, Thomas Weiskel’s The Romantic Sublime or Peter de Bolla’s The Discourse of the Sublime, to name but a few. This is why I have opted for a more contemporary reading of the sublime, a reading which, nevertheless, draws heavily on the historical tradition of sublimity.


Why the sublime?

What has ‘the sublime’ to do with us? In common parlance, ‘sublime’ is one of those diminished words (like ‘fantastic’ or ‘terrific’) used to exclaim at anything from the delights of a certain kind of ice cream to the skills of a foreign footballer. It seems, banally, just to mean ‘much better than usual’. But if we can rescue its older, deeper meanings, ‘the sublime’ catches an experience that we still recognise in a post-modern world, glimpsed in the dizzying reaches of interplanetary space or the vertiginous spirals of the human genome.

John Mullan, ‘A Terrible Beauty’, The Guardian


This book is not only intended for those who have systematically traced recent developments in the areas of aesthetics, art and sublimity. By orientating my argument around the concept of the sublime, a concept which has undergone something of a renaissance in contemporary theoretical debates, I intend to introduce readers to a number of current events and issues. The sublime refers here to what Edward Rothstein describes in his 1997 contribution to The American Scholar as a ‘relationship between disorder and order’. It is the effect that this relationship between order and disorder has on the mind, which is trying to create one out of the other, that sums up the experience of sublimity. As Rothstein puts it, ‘the sublime provides an important model, an extreme case, of how we come to understand the world’.1 The sublime is thus a particularly useful concept when it comes to describing the fears, anxieties and fascinations connected with the technological age. This sense of simultaneous confusion and enlightenment, the contradictory feeling of frailty and elevation, is associated with the broadly conceptualised condition of postmodernity.

Although I am reluctant to rely on ‘postmodernity’ as my reference point, precisely because of a somewhat frivolous use this term has enjoyed in both academic and non-academic discourses, I want to focus on the feeling of saturation, or excess, that characterises our everyday experience of being-in-the-world. Put crudely, for me the sublime names a certain sense of confusion, which is caused by what David Harvey calls ‘space-time compression’, resulting from progressing globalisation, increased communication and general acceleration of life.2 I do not argue that we all experience these phenomena in the same way or with the same intensity, but rather that changes in the world economy, including the transformation of the cultural domain and the commodification of knowledge, are affecting our sense of identity, belonging and ‘connectedness’ in one way or another. As well as depicting the emergence of new, multiple, but also fragmented, identities, the sublime represents the waning of knowledge about what is going to happen: it is a sign of opening oneself to the future, which, in Derrida’s words, ‘is necessarily monstrous’3 and thus unpredictable and perhaps also scary. However, like a good horror story, the sublime combines the conflicting feelings of terror and delight: it both frightens and offers a promise of relief. 

One aspect I am particularly interested in when it comes to managing what I term the excess of the everyday is the possibility of making judgements. And even though the sublime was traditionally associated with aesthetics and art, it is not only judgements regarding artistic value that I want to investigate in this book. I am more concerned about the ethical dimension of the everyday, recognising at the same time that everyday life is not ultimately prescribed by any authority, be it divine or political. The sublime is therefore a term which is useful in bringing aesthetics, with its canons of perfection, and ethics, with its postulates of what it means to live a good life, together. It allows me to foreground the tension between pleasure and pain, or jubilation and horror, which is evident in every act of making a decision about value. But it also indicates that it is impossible not to choose, even if we are deprived of the ultimate guarantee regarding the rightness of our choice. I am thus interested in developing an ethical proposal outside a strictly delineated domain of philosophy, a proposal which responds to the (re)awakening of an ethical impulse in contemporary cultural studies and cultural theory. But I hope to do more than merely expound my ‘theory’. Inspired by the spider’s work, I want to weave my text together from a web of seemingly heterogeneous discourses - Orlan’s carnal art, philosophies of the everyday, the French feminism of Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, as well as the gender theory of Judith Butler, the European philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida, and the music of Laurie Anderson. Through the actual ‘performance’ of my argument (with all its accompanying first night nerves, stage fright and fear of forgetting my lines), I hope to go some way towards blurring the boundaries between cultural theory and textual practice.


The feminine and the sublime

What I have found particularly fascinating when it has come to writing my own study of the sublime is the discovery that most theorists of the sublime attempt to control or even annul the discursive excess evoked by sublimity. This excess is often described in sexual terms, usually through images of disempowered and feeble femininity. As a consequence of this shrewd management of gains and losses, the self-reflexive theoretical excess of the discourse of sublimity is converted to produce the idea of a self-sufficient universal subject. The sublime thus serves as a means of strengthening the precarious foundations of modern subjectivity, whose universality is acclaimed at the cost of the suppression of sexual difference. As a response to this systemic restrictiveness of the aesthetic tradition of sublimity, I want to propose in this book a new discursive arrangement, which I term ‘the feminine sublime’. Embracing that excess which is restrained and controlled in the sublime of Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, for example, the feminine sublime opens itself to an incalculable difference which threatens the stability and self-sufficiency of the modern subject. I am particularly interested in exploring a number of gender-specific mechanisms which many earlier theorists of the sublime shared and which they employed to achieve a certain sense of self-preservation or self-aggrandisement. The feminine sublime which I delineate here does not, in turn, capitalise on difference in order to enhance modern selfhood with its founding institutions and economies; instead, it constitutes an ethical moment in which an absolute and indescribable otherness is welcomed. My understanding of ethics as a ‘calling into question of my spontaneity’ by ‘the strangeness of the Other’ is derived from Emmanuel Levinas, for whom ethics is the first philosophy, even preceding ontology.4 The feminine sublime I develop here is thus not only a new aesthetic arrangement but, first of all, an ethical proposal.5

Situating my sublime investigations in an ethical realm allows me to introduce a new set of questions regarding identity and difference (including sexual difference). It is in this sense that my project of the feminine sublime can be perceived as feminist. But what I call ‘the feminine sublime’ is by no means another grand narrative of feminist ethics or feminist politics. As the French philosopher Jean- François Lyotard observes, the sublime does not necessarily have to involve grandeur. When pointing to the legacy of the sublime which for him is ‘perhaps the only mode of artistic sensibility to characterise the modern’,6 Lyotard abandons the traditional search for the sublime in celestial heights. Instead, he argues in The Inhuman - a book which constitutes a decisive moment for contemporary studies on sublimity - that ‘What is sublime is the feeling that something will happen, despite everything, within this threatening void, that something will take “place” and announce that everything is not over. That place is mere “here”, the most minimal occurrence’.7 In his other writings, including The Differend and Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, Lyotard explains how the concept of sublimity can be seen as a (somewhat unsteady) bridge between the domains of aesthetics, ethics and politics.8 By displacing it from its elevated position, he awards the sublime a new validity in contemporary debates on culture and philosophy. Now, the uniqueness of the sublime event does not spring from its scale, but rather from the recognition of the fact that something is actually taking place in the world, no matter how inconspicuous this event might be.

The feminine sublime I develop here responds to this ‘displacement’ initiated by Lyotard, allowing me to conceptualise aesthetics beyond grandeur and might, and to search for wonder in the most minuscule spaces of the quotidian. This experience of wonder - for Burke, the first condition of the sublime - underlies the amorous encounter which I see as a paradigm for the ethics of the feminine sublime. It is this possibility of an encounter with the alterity of the other, which for a moment suspends Burke’s fear of nothingness and death, that gives the feminine sublime an ethical character.


Desperately seeking novelty

A desire to come up with an entirely ‘new’ discourse, a discourse taking issue with the past but also distancing itself entirely from the past’s achievements, has always been an ambition of Western logocentric philosophy. As this book is intended to take issue with what Derrida calls the logocentrism, or even phallogocentrism,9 of Western thought, any attempt to think of a new discourse of the sublime has to acknowledge the problematic status of ‘novelty’. The discourse of the feminine sublime I elaborate here can therefore be seen as a ‘point of view’, or a different way of looking at the sublime, rather than as a new ‘corrected’ tradition of aesthetics and ethics. The ‘novelty’ of this discourse lies in its rewriting of an aesthetic tradition which is nearly two thousand years old. Indeed, as Lyotard explains in The Inhuman, the act of rewriting is always aimed at discovering some hidden, ‘forgotten’ aspects of the area in question, i.e. of acknowledging the things that are already there but will only become visible when looked at from a different angle:

Essentially linked with writing in this sense, the ‘re-‘ in no way signifies a return to the beginning but rather what Freud called a ‘working through’, Durcharbeitung, i.e. a working attached to a thought of what is constitutively hidden from us in the event and the meaning of the event. … Rewriting ... concerns the anamnesis of the Thing. Not only that Thing that starts off a supposedly ‘individual’ singularity, but of the Thing that haunts the ‘language’, the tradition and the material with, against and in which one writes. In this way rewriting comes under a problematic of the sublime.10

 As we can see, this method of working through a tradition of thought (in this case, the tradition of the sublime), leads to the experience of sublimity. We seem to find ourselves on a dangerous precipice: the area of investigation - the discourse of the sublime - itself has a sublime character, offering us the promise of ‘what is constitutively hidden from us in the event’ but also haunting us with the horror of nothingness. And yet there is no end to this ordeal. As Lyotard recognises, Durcharbeitung, the process of rewriting, must be interminable, always open to the possibility of new associations and unexpected connections. The newness of the discourse I weave from the threads of the past is therefore both provisional and tentative: ‘It is “new” in so far as it is felt as new’.11 The discourse of the feminine sublime is constituted by an open-ended sequence of occurrences, or events, which take place in my encounter with what I describe, somewhat tentatively, as ‘the masculine tradition of sublimity’. In this project, I acknowledge my debt to both earlier theorists of sublimity, including Longinus, Burke and Kant, and the feminist critics of this tradition, among them Barbara Claire Freeman and Patricia Yaeger. As a result, the discourse of the feminine sublime I expound in this book can perhaps best be described in Derrida’s words as ‘the invention of an other inscription, one very old and very new’.12  


On the brink of feminism and deconstruction

I want to embark upon this process of rewriting the tradition of the sublime by drawing on two discourses that have been, in a somewhat sublime way, particularly alert to the incommensurability of ideas, faculties and meanings, namely: feminism and deconstruction. As Hugh J. Silverman observes, ‘The sublime is that which marginalises the literary text, takes it out of what it literally says and gives it another dimension, renders it more than “literary”’.13 What makes feminism and deconstruction such propitious figures for the exploration of the sublime is a kind of excess - this ‘more than’ Silverman mentions - which they produce not only in their encounter with each other but first of all in any textual intervention they are engaged in. As Diane Elam points out in Feminism and Deconstruction - one of the first books in critical and cultural theory that proposed such a straightforward alliance between the two ‘approaches’ - ‘The political effectiveness of feminism and deconstruction, their critical force as events, has most readily been understood through narration, through the possibility of linking events’.14 Clearly, then, the idea of the event is a defining moment for both the sublime and deconstructive feminism. Indeed, Lyotard has drawn our attention to the possibility of the sublime occurring in the most minuscule perspective: it is the fact that something (rather that nothing) is actually taking place that for him is the source of sublime feeling. Similarly, feminism and deconstruction cannot be described as coherent ‘theories’: they can only be grasped in an infinite number of events or interventions, which in turn produce the discursive excess that is also associated with the sublime. It is through these multiple and indeterminate interventions that I want to revisit the magisterial tradition of the sublime in an attempt to look for what Lyotard identifies as ‘the Thing that haunts the “language”’.


Unweaving the spider’s web, or, a summary of chapters

The spider’s web is one source of inspiration for this book. It allows me to open the linearity of the argument to a certain circular, or perhaps spiral, movement. My three main chapters are thus linked with, but also separated by, two parts I call ‘Webwords’, a term which corresponds to both the spider’s activity of spinning and the modern technologies of networking. The ideas presented in the main chapters are expanded upon in the Webwords and tested against the web of theoretical, literary and artistic discourses and practices. The spiders and cyborgs of my title can be seen as harbingers of unprecedented couplings and unwanted connections. In this sense, the spider and the cyborg are next of kin, inhabiting both the natural and the technological world and transgressing the distance between human and inhuman. The respective feelings of arachnophobia and technophobia they evoke reflect a broader anxiety at the heart of the modern world, which both bemoans the loss of the natural and passionately yearns for the alien. We can see these anxieties in recent controversies over genetically modified food, organ transplants, plastic surgery, cloning  and ‘foetus personhood’, to name but a few of the aspects of the battle for (or against) the control of Nature. These fears and desires, often formulated in clearly polarised, dialectical terms, seem to me to be also representative of the negative pleasure that is associated with the sublime, i.e. ‘a strong and equivocal emotion [which] carries with it both pleasure and pain’.15 By constructing the book around the metaphors of spiders and cyborgs, I want to draw attention to what Lyotard calls the ‘incommensurability’ of feelings about the modern world, in which ideas, identities and spaces can no longer be seen to constitute a totality.

In chapter 1 I discuss the aesthetics of the sublime, its organising principles and silences. I start by looking at the similarities between traditional theories of the sublime as worked out by, among others, Longinus, Burke and Kant. Demonstrating that the traditional discourse of the sublime depended on capitalisation, I then introduce the notion of the feminine sublime, which is born from the excess that the earlier theorists sublime attempted to tame or annul. I am not interested, however, in determining whether or not there is a sublime which is specific to women. Instead, I use this term to explore instances in which absolute and incalculable alterity can no longer be housed by the discursive restraints of traditional aesthetics, leading, as a consequence, to the eruption of affect and the weakening of the idea of the universal subject. What starts in this chapter as an elaboration of the practice of écriture féminine collapses the traditional opposition between affect and thought, and supports the possibility of thinking through affect and suffering. Open to sexual difference, the discourse of the feminine sublime I propose can be perceived as a certain (per)version of eighteenth century aesthetics. This mutation ‘from within’ is also an attempt to preserve the tradition of the sublime, a tradition which, paradoxically, can only perhaps survive by revealing its weaknesses and limitations. My sublime speculations are thus intended as a non-lamenting funeral rite. If death is the ultimate source of fear in the experience of the sublime, the feminine sublime can be interpreted as a recognition, rather than denial, of mortality and finitude to which the self is exposed it its encounter with absolute difference. In the light of the gravity of the affairs happening under its aegis, the feminine sublime takes responsibility for the inaccommodable otherness that many theorists of the sublime have attempted in one way or another to deny or tame. Thus it situates itself in an ethical, rather than aesthetic, realm.

However, chapter 2 traces the impossibility of the exact separation between the realms of aesthetics and ethics in British political history. This is why, instead of attempting to accomplish a decisive shift from an allegedly disinterested aesthetics to an engaged ethics, I postulate that the sublime, at least since Kant, has always had ethical underpinnings. Referring to the writings of Emmanuel Levinas and Luce Irigaray, and emphasising the need for the recognition of sexual difference in an encounter with the other, I position the feminine sublime as an exploration of an ethical dimension in the discourse of sublimity. One of the ways in which the alterity of the other can be appreciated is by applying a principle of the gift, which transgresses the rules of capitalist exchange and the equal calculation of gains and losses, to the relationship between the sexes. In this way, the ethics of the feminine sublime can be justified through a-rational acts of infinite expenditure. According to Derrida, ‘Only infinite love can renounce itself and, in order to become finite, become incarnated in order to love the other, to love the other as a finite other’.16 Rather than as a cultural universal, I perceive ‘love’ here as an enactment of the principle of infinite spending in numerous encounters between two singularities, encounters which I see as paradigmatic of the ethics of the feminine sublime. Tracing the emergence of the discourses of friendship and love in Western philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle through Bacon and Nietzsche to Derrida, I investigate the possibility of the overcoming of the economy of proportion in relationships between the sexes. Amorous spending threatens to disrupt the progress and development of a sexuate encounter - i.e. towards matrimony, child-bearing and family genealogy - with its demand for absolute consummation. This leads me to question the traditional concept of the ‘consummating gaze’ which was the foundation for ideas of selfhood and difference in our culture. Unlike the traditional sublime, the feminine sublime does not accept the gaze with its active/passive dichotomy as the principle of the perception of otherness. Instead, it opts for a less fixating interaction, allowing for a form of ‘visual caress’ which involves more than the eyes. Revealing the masculine bias inherent in the Enlightenment ‘ocularcentric’ discourse on the sublime, I then go on to propose an ‘ethics of blindness’ (which is inspired by the writings of Derrida, Cixous and Irigaray). Blindness here is understood not as a disability or anomaly but rather as a choice. The ethics of blindness does not denigrate sight as opposed to the other senses, but rather creatively explores the crevices and gaps resulting from the imperfection of representation.

Since I maintain throughout my work that the feminine sublime should not be perceived as a grand project of redemption, I devote chapter 3 to the problem of the minimal perspective in which this ‘new’ discourse of the sublime can be situated. The minimal perspective guarantees that the ethical event taking place under the aegis of the feminine sublime will not be judged according to a pre-established, general moral code. Inspired by Wittgenstein’s philosophy of ordinary language and the attitude of ‘Critical Regionalism’ in postmodern architecture, I follow architectural metaphors to trace the limits of sublime micro-spaces. Mapping them onto the versions of the spider’s web represented by the postmodern metropolis and the technological information network, I use the concept of the cybercity as an example of a space in which the singular ethics of hospitality and respect towards the other can best be explained. The experiments of the Australian performance artist Stelarc, which I discuss in this chapter, illustrate new ways of establishing connections between the self and its surroundings.

The two linking, but also disjoining, chapters entitled Webwords, provide a space where the feminine sublime, discussed in the three main chapters, can be encountered, contested and expanded in the network of artistic practices such as literature (Lisa St Aubin de Terán), music (Laurie Anderson) and art (Orlan). I hope in this way to have composed a web of discourses which will serve as both an illustration and a germinating ground for the working of the feminine sublime. By looking closely at selected artistic examples, I want to expose the traditional discourse of subjectivity underpinning the sublime to a new politics of self-fashioning and self-fragmentation. Informed by different strands of feminist and gender theory, the Webwords explore the possibility of developing alternative forms of identity and identification.



1 Edward Rothstein, ‘Contemplating the Sublime’, The American Scholar, 1.09.1997.

2 David Harvey, ‘The Time and Space of the Enlightenment Project’ in The Condition of Postmodernity, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989).

3 Jacques Derrida, ‘Passages - from Traumatism to Promise’, in Points … Interviews, 1974-1994, Jacques Derrida, ed. Elizabeth Weber (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 386.

4 Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht, Boston, London: Kluwers Academic Publishers, 1969), 43.

5 As I will demonstrate in chapters 1 and 2, the sublime has always had ethical implications. Therefore, rather than propose a straightforward shift ‘from aesthetics to ethics’, I am interested in rethinking the ethical principles upon which the sublime was traditionally based.

6 Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 93.

7 Ibid., 84.

8 See Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988) and Jean-François Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, Sections 23-29: Kant's Critique of Judgement, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994).

9 This is how Derrida defines ‘phallogocentrism’ and the possible ways of overcoming it: ‘The truth value (that is, Woman as the major allegory of truth in Western discourse) and its correlative, Femininity (the essence or truth of Woman), are there to assuage such hermeneutic anxiety. These are the places that one should acknowledge, at least that is if one is interested in doing so; they are the foundations or anchorings of Western rationality (of what I have called "phallogocentrism" [as the complicity of Western metaphysics with a notion of male firstness]). Such recognition should not make of either the truth value or femininity an object of knowledge (at stake are the norms of knowledge and knowledge as norm); still less should it make of them a place to inhabit, a home. It should rather permit the invention of an other inscription, one very old and very new, a displacement of bodies and places that is quite different’. Jacques Derrida and Christie V. McDonald, ‘Choreographies: interview’, Diacritics, 12: Summer (1982), 69-70.

10 Lyotard, The Inhuman, 26-33.

11 Ibid., 31.

12 Derrida and McDonald, ‘Choreographies: interview’, 70, emphasis added.

13 Hugh J. Silverman, The Textual Sublime: Deconstruction and Its Differences (New York: State University of New York Press, 1989), xii.

14 Diane Elam, Feminism and Deconstruction (London and New York: Routledge: 1994),13, emphasis added.

15 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), 77.

16 Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 50-51.