by Emmanouel Aretoulakis
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
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
(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
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.