Like other spaces of the Enlightenment, the sublime was what Michel de Certeau might have called “a practiced place.” Its rhetorical commonplaces, philosophical terrains, and associated physical environments were cultivated, shaped, and framed by human action and habit. But can the sublime—epiphanic, quasi-spiritual, unmasterable, extraordinary—ever really become a habit? Is it possible, even natural, to become habituated to sublimity? Taking as its point of departure the Aristotelian claim that “habit is a second nature,” this article explores the counterintuitive relationship between habit and the sublime. It focuses not on that eighteenth-century “cultivar,” the natural sublime, but on sonic sublimity, exploring on one hand overwhelming sounds, and on the other a conceptualization of sound itself as a sublime phenomenon stretching beyond audibility to fill all space. As this exploration shows, both the sublime and habit were seen as capable of creating a second nature, and prominent writers connected habit, practice, or repetition to the sublime. Equally, however, there are points of friction between the aesthetic of the sublime and philosophies of habit, especially in the idea that habit dulls or removes sensation. This is a prominent idea in Félix Ravaisson's landmark De l'habitude (1838), a text currently enjoying renewed attention, and one that apparently stems from Enlightenment attempts to explain sensation, consciousness, and freedom. Similar concerns inform the eighteenth-century sublime, yet the logic behind the sublime is at odds with the dulling of sensation. The article closes by touching on the reemergence of “second nature” in contemporary art oriented toward the sublime, and on the revisions of Enlightenment nature this involves.
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Research Article| September 01 2021
Miranda Stanyon; Second Nature and the Sonic Sublime. Eighteenth-Century Life 1 September 2021; 45 (3): 178–196. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00982601-9273041
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