J.F. Lyotard J.F. Lyotard


by Emmanouel Aretoulakis

To forget how to present is normal. To forget how to represent is crucial. Lyotard was once asked by Nicole Loraux and Maurice Olender to contribute to a collection--entitled Genre humain--on the "politics of forgetting": while working on a script about the memorial, the memorial as question, it so happened that I forgot forgetting less than is usually the case. A 'politics of forgetting,' I thought, indeed involved erecting a memorial" (Heidegger and the "jews" 4). It so happens that the act of forgetting leads to the act of remembering. By contrast, an attempt to remember brings about oblivion.

There are some things that remain forgotten because they were never part of any memory data. They used to lie in a formless "immemorial" up until the moment they were granted life and form. Such "things" speak the unpresentable, just as they never existed as presences but were, rather, constituted as presences a bit too late: they were recorded only as representations. According to Lyotard, remembering could be a deterrent against remembering. For example, in literature, remembering to give symbolic value to a word is equivalent to forgetting the word and its value. No matter how paradoxical it sounds, to mourn somebody's death is to start forgetting all about that person. In a historical narrative, events, already represented and inscribed in memory, become falsified. The Holocaust should remain in the forgotten, as an unpresentable fact, in order not to be forgotten:

Whenever one represents, one inscribes in memory, and this might seem a good defence against forgetting. It is, I believe, just the opposite. Only that which has been inscribed can, in the current sense of the term, be forgotten, because it could be effaced... One cannot escape the necessity of representing. It would be sin itself to believe oneself safe and sound. But it is one thing to do it in view of saving the memory, and quite another to try to preserve the remainder, the unforgettable forgotten, in writing.
(Heidegger and the "jews" 26)

Historical writing consists of letters, inscribed words. In Lyotard's sense, the resurrection of history through memory representations will demystify history, given that memory always starts at the end of history, or vice versa--history starts at the end of memory. As a result, history will lose its unpresentability which rendered it sublime. Familiarity with the Holocaust will deprive this "event" of its sublime formlessness and subsequently will reduce it to the level of consciousness or aesthesis.

The unpresentable will be respected as long as it remains in a state of sublimity but not in the classical or modern sense of the sublime; rather as an immanent sublime. This immanent sublimity is located in a sublime space but also within an anaesthetic or unconscious blank where it is inaccessible to the discourse of representation and consciousness that threaten to reduce it to pure form.



The concept of the unpresentable verges on sublimity that is transcendent and simultaneously fully material. Unpresentability consists of a sublime exteriority materializing inside sublim[e]inal processes. In his work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Edmund Burke foregrounds his notion of the sublime as inherently physical and psychosomatic. Sublime is "whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever . . . operates in a manner analogous to terror" (36). Burkean sublimity is not a transcendental ideal--an element standing outside the present moment, on a higher level, or a concept of what is to come in the future--but, rather, emphasizes the immanent, the "ordinary" and calls attention to the experience of terror and other physiological perversions and deviations.

Immanuel Kant, drawing indirectly on Burke, provides, in the Critique of Judgement, a distinction between the dynamical and the mathematical sublime. He calls "dynamical" the sublime in nature, that is, everything that excites us by its "size" and "might" (40) without allowing itself to be understood by the human mind; he calls "mathematical" the sublime that describes "greatness" in an object "among many other objects of a like kind, yet without the extent of this" greatness "being [precisely] determined" (95). Lyotard borrows the Burkean idea of immanent sublimity in order to express his notion of the unpresentable as the simultaneous presentation of mathematical form and dynamical formlessness. A natural disaster is too sublime for the mind to conceive. At the same time, the mathematical sublime deprives an object of its pure formlessness by intermittently assigning it a specific shape through the excessive proliferation, by way of repetition, of imaginary simulations of the same form. In effect we get an oscillation between form and formlessness.

Kant's insight regarding the irreconcilability of imagination and reason is the stepping stone for Lyotard's forwarding of the sublime presence of an unconscious desire to postpone meaning and delay the process of signification. The differend mediating the link between representation and concept unfolds a sublime kind of heterogeneity which breaks down the harmonizing act of representation as conducive to transcendent meaning through language. The differend, to the extent that it creates "noise" and dissension in the communicative act, brings about a formless mass of statements and open-ended signifieds that cannot be unified by a common metalanguage. In a sense, there can be no unified ego or identity for a text insofar as the text itself necessarily bears witness to the irrepressible forces within it: forces that demand a voice.

There lies an unbridgeable gap between the "surface reading" of words and the interpretation of the words of a text, as forces that attempt to make themselves known. However, the accuracy of interpreting is at stake in the process of interpretation itself. In "The Sublime and the avant-garde" Lyotard elaborates the mere fact of the eventhood, the "it happens" of a word: "Letting-go of all grasping intelligence and of its power, disarming it, recognizing that this occurrence... was not necessary and is scarcely foreseeable, a privation in the face of Is it happening? guarding the occurrence "before" any defence, any illustration, and any commentary... (199). The letting-go of all grasping intelligence is to testify to the unpresentable which emerges only when we ask the question "is it hapening" rather than "what is happening," since the latter question has little to do with sublimity, given that it poses an imaginary object into which one is supposedly obliged to peer in order to trace out its meaning. By contrast, the question "Is it happening" concentrates upon the articulation and not the theatricality--that is, the representation and force--of an event. The sublime springs up from the elusiveness or "surface-value" of a phrase rather than its depth of meaning. The difficulty in tracing meaning in mere articulation and the "it happens" grants immanent sublimity to the signifier, as the eventhood of a phrase becomes inconceivable by the mind while, at the same time, residing within the "ordinary" structures of language. This kind of immanent sublimity constitutes an unconscious gap within conscious articulation; the sublime or the unpresentable in presentation itself.

The concept of an immanent sublime as the unpresentable in presentation is exemplified by the conviction that if there lurks a speck of meaning in language, it must be played out in differential interrelations among signifiers--as was argued by J. Lacan in his "Agency of the letter in the unconscious." This differentiality is equivalent to a continuous displacement of referentiality, since words function as metonymies of something which remains unpresentable. Such metonymies testify to the unpresentable not by pointing to clear and independent meanings (signifieds), but rather by constructing differential--in a sense, "sliding"--signs (signifiers) through which the unpresentable may emerge. The notion of "sliding signifiers" resembles the idea of the invisibility of things and the visibility of relationships of things, as announced in Hayden Carruth's poem "The Ravine": These are what I see here every day, not things but relationships of things... (l.16-17). Things arise metonymically as representations of bigger but unpresentable totalities. However, just as metonymies point to incomplete references insofar as they only represent, therefore, in a way, misrepresent a hypothetical hole, metonymic representations of things point away from those things. The "thing" itself defends its inaccessibility by activating mathematically produced (in the Kantian sense) signifiers. Lyotard's sublime displaces totalities by metonymizing them. It constitutes an anaesthetic instant established in the very impossibility of its being encaptured.


Desire in Modern Society

Desire points to an end, a "result" able to fulfill it. We desire "something." In this sense, the act of desiring is bound up with the metaphysics of meaning, the necessity of eliciting signification from desire. As contrasted to modern desire, the desire for the unpresentable could not be further away from the metaphysics of meaning. The work of metaphor--as a simple metaphysical substitution--is incapable of providing an accurate representation in literature or history insofar as it is deeply implicated in the logic of oppositions, "obliged" to signify positive or negative values.

Does history or fiction require the principle of morality as the principle of positivity and negativity? It turns out that such a principle coincides with desire in its metaphysical sense. The ethics of representation should be disengaged from metaphysical desire, as the latter does not allow for the unpresentable. By imagining the unpresentable as formless, sublime, we conceive of its "behaviour" as a desire for the immemorial, the forgotten. Doing justice to historical facts involves the recognition of the impossibility of accuracy in narratives that are immersed in the language of reason, consciousness and oppositional structures.On the other hand, the unconscious could approximate historical accuracy, since it entails an unwill to symbolize, represent, or classify in an either/or fashion. Therefore, we have the paradox of presenting by way of not representing, that is, by not letting the possibility of the "real" sneak into the discourse of consciousness.

(excerpt from E. Aretoulakis' thesis The Unpresentable in Critical Thought, Illinois State U, 1996)


Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Ed. Adam Philips. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.

Carruth, Hayden: Collected Poems, 1946-1991. Copper Canyon P, 1992.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Trans. J.C.Meredith. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1952.

Lyotard, J.F. Heidegger and the "jews." Trans. Andreas Michel and Mark S. Roberts. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990.

______. "The Sublime and the Avant-Garde." The Lyotard Reader. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989. 196-211.


Emmanouel Aretoulakis is a PhD candidate at the English Department of the University of Athens. His dissertation concerns the element of artificiality in Renaissance England. His M.A thesis was on The Unpresentable in Critical Thought. The case of Lacan and Lyotard. He has published articles in national journals and newspapers on Lyotard, Thomas Pynchon, the representation of the Holocaust, and edited two collections of essays on Chaos Theory and on J.Lyotard.