Interstices of the Sublime – Chapter 1 – On Sublimation



Psychoanalysis and theology have never seen eye to eye. Many religious thinkers find psychoanalysis to be threatening and ultimately reductionistic in explaining religion. Crockett wants to offer a psychoanalytic intervention of theology that does not merely explain away religious beliefs as a byproduct of wish-fulfillment. In fact, he attempts to offer a re-reading of sublimation that does not reduce religion to a simple sublimation of more primal, instinctual needs.

Vicissitudes of Theorizing Sublimation

Before, I begin delving through the complex relationship between drives and sublimation I want to clarify a common misunderstanding of the Freudian unconscious. Some people speak of the unconscious as a static thing. In reality the unconscious is a dynamic process that only manifests itself through breaks and disruptions in conscious discourse. Sublimation has classically been understood as converting instinctual impulses into more acceptable activities. However, sublimation also requires that satisfaction is always partial because of the limitations culture imposes on our desires. Lacan understood that language was always a mediating element to the satisfaction of the drives. “The immediacy of satisfaction of a need implies that it does not undergo any vicissitudes, and yet consciousness implies the mediation of language, which is already a vicissitude that forces one to negotiate satisfaction rather than instinctually actualizing it” (25). Hence drives must pass through the various vicissitudes to achieve satisfaction. Crockett goes on to argue that all forms of vicissitudes are affected by sublimation.

Ideality of Materiality of Affects

Freud once argued that affects could never be unconscious. Rather, only the ideation of these affects can be repressed. Hence, affects do no undergo the various vicissitudes of the drive. Crockett would have us understand that the interweaving of both forces (affects) and meaning (ideational representations) are already embedded in our religious traditions. If this is the case, then this disrupts any simple understanding of intention. Crockett wants us to understand sublimation as being a “redirection of repetition of a primary drive” (29).

Sublimation as Repetition of Difference: Deleuze

This is by far my favorite section. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze opposes Freud’s understanding of the relationship between repression and repetition that he mapped out in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Deleuze reverses the Freudian relationship by arguing that “we repress because we repeat”. Repetition is primary, and repression is secondary. Deleuze understands repetition as a repetition of difference not of the same. This Deleuzian repetition does not assume “an original essence to be repeated, but rather conceives identity as constructed out of the different repetition or iteration” (31). Crockett wants us to think of sublimation as repetition of difference in which the various drives are redirected in such a way that the hierarchy between material reality and spirituality is itself problematized. This leads Crockett to critique strict materialism not because it undervalues spiritual reality, but rather because it undermines the complexity of material reality. Of course the spiritual was always already material. This re-defining of sublimation as a productive repetition challenges the typical understanding of the return of the repressed. This Deleuzeian understanding implies that meaning and drives are not static but rather they errantly wander, which can lead to extreme anxiety. Ultimately, we must understand that motivations are complex and constituted by a multiplicity of different forces that can never be reduced to wholly spiritual or material explanation.


In this final section Crockett maps out a modern genealogy of theological developments from Descartes to Freud. He begins by reviewing Marion’s essay entitled “Descartes and Onto-theology. In this essay, Marion argues that Descartes’ God cannot cogitate, but rather Descartes’ God is simply a non-thinking omnipotent being. For Kant, as the subject approaches the sublime a struggle between imagination and reason occurs. Kant wrote that, “if a thing is excessive for the imagination and the imagination is driven to such excess as it apprehends the things in intuition, then the thing is, as it were, an abyss in which the imagination is afraid to lose itself” (34). This abyssal negative experience is what orthodox theologians fear. Radical orthodoxy restores God to his proper transcendent place where he is both rational and powerful. Crockett charges those from the RO camp for failing to recognize that sublimity is internal to the individual’s consciousness. Analogously, the logic of the Freudian unconscious can be understood as uncanny. Freud understood the Kantian sublime as the alienation of the ego from itself. In fact, the “uncanny perception or feeling produces a negative pleasure, just like the Kantian sublime” (35). After Freud, we become aware that the uncanny disrupts the conscious thinking from within the subject’s mind. Theological thinking must reckon with these challenges presented by the uncanny. Crockett concludes this chapter by arguing that theological thinking must understand itself as a productive sublimation of religious experience. Religious experience in and of itself must be understood as sublime. However, this sublimation is not guaranteed to return the theological utopia for which the orthodox theologians yearn. This productive repetition of difference makes no such promises for theological thinking.

7 Responses to “Interstices of the Sublime – Chapter 1 – On Sublimation”

  1. cmoody91 Says:

    just so you know, i know just enough about psychoanalysis to know i have no business commenting on it. but i’m looking forward to these posts and will be reading!

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Feel free to comment on whatever you find interesting.

  3. Book Summaries: Link Post « An und für sich Says:

    […] Theology, starting off with two posts Clayton Crockett’s Interstices of the Sublime (1 and 2). And Dave Mesing examined Richard Kearney’s Anatheism in three posts (1, 2, and 3) […]

  4. Robert Minto Says:

    When Crockett says that RO fails to recognize that the sublime is internal to the individual’s consciousness, is he saying that this is a particular failing of that group, or is he just contrasting that (common) failure to their success in “returning God to his properly transcendant place”? If I’m understanding you correctly (which is slightly more probable than not), then shouldn’t that be a failing of pretty much all theologians (apart, perhaps, from radical theologians of the kind you’re exploring)?

    Thanks for this series. It’s fairly mind-expanding for me to struggle through very succinct summaries of someone interacting in a unique, new way with a subject that I’m not really that familiar with yet in the first place… Keep it up.

  5. Jeremy Says:

    I would suggest reading Crockett’s Theology of the Sublime. This is a strong work that grapples with re-reading Kant’s sublime against radical orthodoxy while appropriating sublime insights from the likes of Lyotard and Deleuze.

    Let me try and respond to your question. Crockett argues that RO theologians conceive of the Kantian sublimity as located outside the subject in God. For instance, Blond claims that the sublime for Kant makes God “both unknowable and deeply feared”. However, Crockett understands Kant as saying that sublimity is already in the subject. So RO merely counters Kant’s terrifying God, but they fail to account for the sublimity within the subject that disrupts reasoning in and of itself. Similarly, RO won’t engage psychoanalysis because it is atheistic. However, I suspect they fear encountering the problems the unconscious raises to any discourse that fears negativity or ambiguity.

    So, while other theologies don’t address these issues either I believe RO is under fire because they skirt the issues that both Kant and Freud raise to theology. Not to mention, RO is one of the more sophisticated theologies because they actually engage continental theory.

  6. Damon Darsow Says:

    Hello can I quote some of the content found in this post if I provide a link back to your site?

  7. Jeremy Says:


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