Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sublime Subliminal Messages

After reading On the Sublime by Cassius Longinus, I couldn't help but make the connection in my mind of the sublime to the concept of subliminal messages. Longinus defines the concept of the sublime as he writes, "Sublimity is a kind of eminence or excellence of discourse. It is the source of the distinction of the very greatest poets and prose writers and the means by which they have eternal life to their own fame"(347). Although definable, as we can see here, an actual definition of sublimity is hard to grab onto, as it deals with ideas of eminence, excellence, and eternity.

Marking a piece of writing as sublime requires a great deal of authority and knowledge of the subject, but it also has a transcendent quality that Longinus hints at, which allows audiences to understand sublimity as more of a feeling, going beyond words into writing that has life of its own. The sublime therefore acts like a subliminal message, transporting a feeling, idea, or message to the reader that will inevitably produce a prescribed effect as the nature of the sublime is inherent. Longinus hints at this quality as he writes, "It is our nature to be elevated and exalted by true sublimity"(350). Sublimity in its raw and true form appeals to what already exists, catering to the subconscious just as a subliminal does.

Longinus continues, "Real sublimity contains much food for reflection, is difficult or rather impossible to resist, and makes a strong and ineffaceable impression on the memory. In a word, reckon those things which please everybody all the time as genuinely and finely sublime"(350). The universal quality of the sublime is also linked to subliminal messaging. The classic example of subliminal messaging was the use of videos before movies in the 1950's of dancing popcorn and coke cartoons. While I doubt Longius would mark this as sublime, there is a message to audiences that is undeniable: you are hungry an thirsty and you will be happy if you go buy our products. Writers are nothing if excellent product-pushers, only the product they are pushing is their own. They want audiences to be moved by their writing and persuade them to feel a certain way. Sublime writing does this without a question, almost without control. The author illustrates this as he writes, "I should myself have no hesitation in saying that there is nothing so productive of grandeur as noble emotion in the right place. It inspires and possesses our words with a kind of madness and divine spirit"(350). Like subliminal messaging, the truly sublime inspires action, though largely emotional. The connection is interesting to consider both linguistically and theoretically.


  1. This is a really interesting connection, and I like the idea of a link between advertising and the sublime that Longinus describes. It makes me wonder what Longinus would say about modern advertising, and/or if advertising is our modern equivalent of the sublime...Obviously, Longinus is referring to literature, but I think his rules could be applied to other texts as well. For instance, advertising copy can use metaphors and other "figures of thought and speech" to sway audiences without their realization. Longinus states that "A figure is...thought to be best when the fact that it is a figure is concealed" (358). This seems to tie in directly to the way that ads often manipulate the products they are selling via emotional/logical appeals (or subliminal messages!). They are using language to create a response that is not the one that might be expected if they just came out and said, "Buy our product so we can make money." In this way, I think advertising does ultimately have quite a bit in common with the way that literature sends messages coated with metaphor and suggestion.

  2. This is quite an thought provoking connection with sublimity and subliminal in the fact that it somewhat gives a wider scope to the sublime. The advertisements you mention add an interesting twist to what Longinus would think to be sublime. Companies attempt to use sublimity to sell their products in commercials. Longinus would see something like this as a failure of sublimity, but they really do not fail at all. Subliminal messages, in theory, affect whomever is experiencing them to buy into whatever thought is being advertised. Something as trivial as a soda or popcorn is in some way associated with sublimity, which is something that Longinus would say is impossible. Subliminal may just be another facet of the sublime which widens its scope of effectiveness. It is rather interesting.


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