The Abyss of Representation: Marxism and the Postmodern Sublime


From the Copernican revolution of Immanuel Kant to the cognitive mapping of Fredric Jameson to the postcolonial politics of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, representation has been posed as both indispensable and impossible. In his pathbreaking work, The Abyss of Representation, George Hartley traces the development of this impossible necessity from its German Idealist roots through Marxist theories of postmodernism, arguing that in this period of skepticism and globalization we are still grappling with issues ...
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The Abyss of Representation: Marxism and the Postmodern Sublime

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From the Copernican revolution of Immanuel Kant to the cognitive mapping of Fredric Jameson to the postcolonial politics of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, representation has been posed as both indispensable and impossible. In his pathbreaking work, The Abyss of Representation, George Hartley traces the development of this impossible necessity from its German Idealist roots through Marxist theories of postmodernism, arguing that in this period of skepticism and globalization we are still grappling with issues brought forth during the age of romanticism and revolution. Hartley shows how the modern problem of representation—the inability of a figure to do justice to its object—still haunts today's postmodern philosophy and politics. He reveals the ways the sublime abyss that opened up in Idealist epistemology and aesthetics resurfaces in recent theories of ideology and subjectivity.

Hartley describes how modern theory from Kant through Lacan attempts to come to terms with the sublime limits of representation and how ideas developed with the Marxist tradition—such as Marx’s theory of value, Althusser’s theory of structural causality, or Zizek’s theory of ideological enjoyment—can be seen as variants of the sublime object. Representation, he argues, is ultimately a political problem. Whether that problem be a Marxist representation of global capitalism, a deconstructive representation of subaltern women, or a Chicano self-representation opposing Anglo-American images of Mexican Americans, it is only through this grappling with the negative, Hartley explains, that a Marxist theory of postmodernism can begin to address the challenges of global capitalism and resurgent imperialism.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The Abyss of Representation is an ambitious and highly illuminating book."—Ernesto Laclau

The Abyss of Representation is an outstanding contribution to a theory of literature and aesthetic philosophy. It is a strong elaboration of the failure inherent in representation and that failure’s relevance to a cultural and political theory.”—Michael Bernard-Donals, coauthor of Between Witness and Testimony: The Holocaust and the Limits of Representation

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822331148
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/2003
  • Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions Series
  • Pages: 360
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

George Hartley is Associate Professor of English at Ohio University. He is author of Textual Politics and the Language Poets.

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Read an Excerpt

The abyss of representation

Marxism and the postmodern sublime
By George Hartley

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3114-4

Chapter One


In his poem "Syringa," John Ashbery stages a double writing of loss. The initial loss is Orpheus' loss of his love, Eurydice. This loss-this irruption of death and disappearance into the fantasy field of love-throws Orpheus out of his customary, everyday existence, characterized by the Imaginary fusion of lover and beloved, into the Dionysian abyss of music. Orpheus' world is rent apart. Curiously, it is not the loss as such that rends his world but his own sorrowful lament in response to that loss:

Orpheus liked the glad personal quality Of the things beneath the sky. Of course, Eurydice was a part Of this. Then one day, everything changed. He rends Rocks into fissures with lament. Gullies, hummocks Can't withstand it. The sky shudders from one horizon To the other, almost ready to give up wholeness. (HD 69, ll. 1-6)

The once comforting, sheltering sky now shudders and threatens to be swallowed up by the abyss opened up by this elegiac voice, the sky ready to give up its wholeness. What the spacing of the poem prepares us for, however, is the fact that this whole was already fragmented, that Eurydice was already "a part /...." The line break suggests what Apollo, the second voice of the poem, then tells us explicitly:

All other things mustchange too. The seasons are no longer what they once were, But it is the nature of things to be seen only once, As they happen along, bumping into other things, getting along Somehow. That's where Orpheus made his mistake. Of course Eurydice vanished into the shade; She would have even if he hadn't turned around. (ll. 11-17)

The Orphic song attempts to freeze the moment of loss eternally through its lament; the Apollonian voice of "reality," on the other hand, continually, even obsessively reminds Orpheus that death and loss are in the nature of things-that nature being one of continuous process and change. The whole is always already a part. What the reader doesn't yet realize, though, is that Apollo's own distanced stance on the eternal round of things is itself the unacknowledged attempt to paste over the abyss opened up through his own loss. This loss, lying "frozen and out of touch," only accidentally comes to consciousness when "an arbitrary chorus / Speaks of a totally different incident with a similar name / In whose tale are hidden syllables / Of what happened so long before that / In some small town, one indifferent summer" (ll. 84-88).

What the poem ultimately records is the breakdown of representation itself: the Orphic song outdistances the "matter," the poem streaking by, "its tail afire, a bad/Comet screaming hate and disaster, but so turned inward/That the meaning, good or other, can never/Become known" (ll. 68-71); at the same time, the Apollonian vision depends on the repression of the traumatic event, which functions in its very repression as the ground for the dispassionate, merely careful, "scholarly setting down of/Unquestioned facts, a record of pebbles along the way" (ll. 62-63). When we attempt to eternalize the traumatic moment of the loss in time and to memorialize its emotional fury, to render it by rending the world that now embodies its absence, we end up streaking right past it all aflame into utter meaninglessness. But when we attempt to explain this loss, to rationalize it, to submit it to the symbolic structure that is meant to domesticate it, this loss only breaks through under the mask of some other body, some other long-forgotten name which, merely in its structural similarity as a forgotten and repressed name, shatters that symbolic structure itself. We go too far, we don't go far enough. Either way, the irruption of this trauma into our Imaginary stabilized existence (the "glad, personal quality" of the sky) sets representation into its own ultimately self-destroying motion.

At such a moment we are faced with the beyond of representation: the point at which the representational apparatus turns in on itself and collapses in its inability to flesh out some adequate embodiment of the loss. But it is this loss itself that is the constitutive element of representation. The beyond as the mirage erected in the place of the always-already lost object is in this sense internal to representation as its condition of possibility. But there is another crucial sense in which these Orphic and Apollonian attempts to confront the loss present the beyond of representation: the beyond as the original Thing behind the surface appearance that representation provides. Or, in other words, the distinction between appearance and its underlying reality, between phenomena and noumena, between image and concept, between the representation and the Thing-in-itself.

I begin with this particular poem because it stages the setting in motion of a metaphor that continues to lie behind contemporary Marxism's response to the postmodern sublime-that abyss as the figure for the breakdown of representation. Any theory of ideology has to come to terms with the problem of representation-a problem that itself has a figurative history. This is the case with Louis Althusser's conceptions of structural causality and ideological interpellation. This is also true of Fredric Jameson's notion of the political unconscious. And this is equally so with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's conception of the subaltern. The figure of the abyss in one way or another imposes itself in these and other Marxist formulations of ideology. This book is an attempt, then, to lay out the terms of the history of this figure as it undergoes various transformations from Immanuel Kant's theory of the sublime to G. W. F. Hegel's speculative reversal to Karl Marx's scientific inversion on up to the Althusserian moment (which I believe we still are coming to terms with despite the forty years that have passed since Althusser's writings on the significance of the passage from the young Marx to the mature one).

Another related figure to the abyss is the beyond-the figure that seems to be pointing to a dimension existing on the other side of the abyss. The key point is that the beyond of representation is representation's own beyond. That is, the beyond is nothing but the effect of the limit internal to representation itself. I stress this in order to avoid the compelling urge to read the "beyond" of representation as that space or operation or adequation that somehow completes or surpasses the limits of representation. It is in this light that the representation/presentation distinction referred to throughout this book (which in German idealism is written as the Vorstellung/Darstellung distinction) should precisely not be seen as that which somehow poses Darstellung as the more adequate mode of doing justice to the concept (Begriff) to be fleshed out. Presentation is not the better mode of developing or elaborating on the concept in the sense of doing something distinct from representation; presentation-at least as Hegel uses the term-is the operative moment at which representation represents its own failure: since no representation, because of its abstract and seemingly immediate nature, can adequately present its concept, representation must mediate itself, must set itself in motion by staging its own failure arising from its own subjection to time. What this means is that, strictly speaking, there is no beyond of representation. Yet the space of incommensurability opened up in the heart of representation-in, for example, the experience of the sublime-projects just such a beyond both as the more adequate operation and as the Thing beyond appearance. This space of incommensurability-the gap or abyss opened up between the figure and the concept-this space of impossibility, is at the same time the space of possibility of representation as such. Without such an immanent limitation, representation could not operate at all.

What this means, in effect, is that the beyond is on this side of appearance. The opposition appearance/essence or sensible/supersensible is the constitutive illusion of appearance itself. As Hegel argues in the Phenomenology of Spirit, "The supersensible is the sensuous and the perceived posited as it is in truth; but the truth of the sensuous and the perceived is to be appearance. The supersensible is therefore appearance qua appearance" (ps 89). The abyss is thus not a problem of the subject-as the result of the subject's limited capacity for knowledge beyond sensory experience-but the very ground of the subject: this paradox of a grounding abyss means nothing more than that the subject is this space of incommensurability as such, the problem residing rather on the side of substance (the network of unreflective relationships and activities against which we pose ourselves as active subjects-for instance, society). The subject is nothing but the gap, the space of negativity, inherent in substance itself. The problem of the political subject's relationship to the social substance, for example, is therefore the problem of the impossibility of society itself: society is impossible in the sense that the social can never be reduced to a given organic being but is rather the scene of antagonism, as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have suggested. In the words of Slavoj Zizek, "The Hegelian 'subject' is ultimately nothing but a name for the externality of the Substance to itself, for the 'crack' by way of which the Substance becomes 'alien' to itself, (mis)perceiving itself through human eyes as the inaccessible-reified Otherness."

It is in this sense that the Apollonian commentary on Eurydice should be taken. The point isn't simply that all things change in time; rather, the Thing that made Eurydice "Eurydice," that intimate kernel "in Eurydice more than Eurydice" (as Jacques Lacan would say), is nothing but a fantasy construct, yet this fantasy is a constitutive one. Orpheus' entire symbolic field of reference is determined by the placement of this Eurydice-Thing in the gap at the heart of the symbolic. Eurydice is the Thing that gives Orpheus' symbolic order consistency. This Thing occupying the abyss of representation is Hegel's transformation of the Kantian sublime (which itself refers to the abyss and its beyond). Once the absolute negativity of death and disappearance intervenes, however, Orpheus' own identity disintegrates, and he is desubjectivized in the process. That is, in his descent into Hades, Orpheus confronts Eurydice in the space between the two deaths: Eurydice's actual physical death and her subsequent symbolic one. In such a state of subjective destitution, Orpheus can no longer allow himself the fantasy of representation: no mere image can survive the irruption of the Real, the point at which representation fails. Yet "Syringa" presents this failure as such: once both the Orphic and Apollonian responses to loss either exhaust themselves or are forced to confront their repressed loss, the poem itself rises up as the record of this failure. Here we have the presentation beyond representation. It is only at this point, with the loss of the loss that the poem enacts, that the initial loss no longer functions as the avoidance of the Real. For the initial loss, in both Orpheus and Apollo, functions as the node or kernel around which their symbolizations organize themselves in order to repress, each in its own way, the radical negativity of the Real. Eurydice vanishes into the shade, the beyond of representation, not in the sense of entering another world (Hades) but in the sense that the fantasy construct that was Eurydice from the start can no longer function since it was nothing more than the split internal to the field of representation in the first place. Eurydice and the lost summer love were nothing but the retroactive embodiments of the negative space of desire itself.

The question of representation and its beyond, then, has to do with a complex of themes that grow out of and receive varying inflections from the seemingly differing theoretical practices of a certain Hegelianism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. These themes work together in different ways in the (re)turn to Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Lacan as exemplified (in distinct ways) in the works of Jameson and Zizek. And for both Jameson and Zizek, this return functions as a clarification and extension of questions raised by Althusser and the various Althusserians and post-Althusserians in his wake. The key problem or obsession motivating this return to figures who seemed safely interred in the aftermath of the poststructuralist moment (which was defined in large part as a rejection of "Hegel," "Freud," and "Marx") is that which obsessed the post-structuralisms as well-representation. But as Hamlet still testifies, the dead have a habit of returning from the grave. The figure of Eurydice still had some work to do in the psychic economy of Orpheus before she would (or could) disappear, traumatically, into her second, symbolic death.

Hence, this book may appear to be somewhat anachronistic. Hasn't time bid farewell to Althusser already, not to mention Kant, Hegel, and Marx (what about 1989?)? But time is by nature out of joint. Representation is by nature a problem of this condition of being out of joint. For if all were immediately and satisfactorily put in place and done with, there would be no need for representation-indeed, there would be no representation. If the concept were ever capable of immediate and successful psychic inhumation, there would be no need for the figure, that material excess that clings like putrid flesh to the sacred soul of thought. Yet the figure is the scene of the concept: the concept is nothing but the retroactive staging of an always incomplete series of figures or images. The Socratic philosopher could discern the Idea as it shines forth in its manifestations among the many; but it is precisely those manifestations that through their constitutive incompletion or corruption project the illusion of the Idea in the beyond of representation. Had we intellectual intuition, Kant mused, we would have no need for representation-for we would be God. But we are not God, and we are thereby free. We are not God, and we are thereby subject to the glories and sufferings of this pathological excess, this human condition whereby every reduction to some pure form is dependent on an excess of desire for its very existence.


The problem of representation is that of the subject. This is the point at which Zizek differs most dramatically from Althusser and the various Foucauldian and poststructuralist moves to locate the position of the subject in the display of various subject-positions. As Zizek rightly argues, the subject and the subject-position must be seen as two quite different moments in the process of ideological construction. The notion of subject-position is related to Althusser's theory of interpellation. As is well known, for Althusser ideology is not a question of false consciousness, at least not in the sense of a simple misunderstanding or conceptual inversion of what should appear as true-that is, nonideological. For Althusser, we are always in ideology. "Ideology," Althusser contends, "is a 'representation' of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence." He elaborates on this definition on several counts. First, it is not "the real conditions of their existence" that ideology represents for individuals. We do not have a one-to-one correspondence between "reality" on one side and its representation on the other. What is in fact represented is the relationship between the individuals and their real conditions of existence. Again, this is not the "existing" relations-that is, the material relations of production that govern human existence-but the "imaginary" ones. "If this is the case," Althusser continues, "the question of the 'cause' of the imaginary distortion of the real conditions in ideology disappears and must be replaced by a different question: why is the representation given to individuals of their (individual) relation to the social relations which govern their collective and individual life necessarily an imaginary relation? And what is the nature of this imaginariness?" (LP 165).


Excerpted from The abyss of representation by George Hartley Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Abbreviations for Works Cited
1 Representation and the Abyss of Subjectivity 1
2 Presentation beyond Representation: Kant and the Limits of Discursive Understanding 22
3 The Speculative Proposition: Hegel and the Drama of Presentation 53
4 Marx's Key Concept? Althusser and the Darstellung Question 84
5 Figuration and the Sublime Logic of the Real: Jameson's Libidinal Apparatuses 127
6 The Theater of Figural Space 182
7 Can the Symptom Speak? Hegemony and the Problem of Cultural Representation 235
Notes 295
Bibliography 319
Index 327
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