From edition

Sean Saraka, George Hartleys The Abyss of Representation: Marxism and the Postmodern Sublime

The privileged relationship between Marxian theory and the real is first suggested by Marx himself in early texts such as the 1844  Manuscripts and the Theses on Feuerbach,  and is carried over into the methodological reflections of the 1857 Introduction and the first volume of  Capital.   It not only informs claims regarding the methodological distinctiveness and analytical superiority of Marxian theory, but also forms the core of Marxian concepts such as ideology and commodity fetishism, which both presuppose a dissonance between appearance and reality, and suggest the ability of a properly constituted theory to overcome the same.  Perennial attempts to definitively elaborate a Marxian practice of  ideologiekritik  are thus the counterpart to establishing, if not the scientificity of Marxism, certainly its paradigmatic singularity.  As such, Marxian theory has forever been implicated in debates regarding the nature of representation, an issue that emerged long before the encounter with structuralism or poststructuralism.


For thinkers within the Germanic tradition in Western Marxist thought, the problem of the relationship between representation and the real has typically taken the form of the problem of abstraction.  In  The Abyss of Representation  (2003), George Hartley returns to the staging of this problem in Kant’s critical philosophy, where  Darstellung  and  Vorstellung , or presentation and representation, constitute two different modes of the “psychic inhumation” of concepts (6).  Western Marxist claims for the distinctiveness of Marxian theory have typically been advanced, implicitly or explicitly, in terms of the former, which denotes the dynamic and immediate presentation of content to thought, while representation is understood as a second-order, flat, abstract, and reifying formalization of content associated with ideological thinking.

The origin of these concepts in Kant’s critical philosophy, if nothing else, raises the problem of the limits to thought:  the notion of thought as concrete experience that forms the kernel of Kant’s conception of  Vorstellung  simultaneously raises the problem of the physical limits to human cognition.  For Kant, this problem takes the form of the sublime, of the unrepresentable as such.  The encounter with the sublime is the opening up of an abyss between presentation and representation which thought is unable to bridge.  According to Hartley, to side with presentation over representation in this context is strictly impossible, not only because the tension between the two defines the gap between the signified and the signifier, or the concept and the figure, but because “the abyss of the representation” is the ground of subjectivity itself.  Nevertheless, this is a theoretical position taken up variously by Marxian thinkers such as Althusser and Jameson, whom Hartley considers at length, and also by others such as Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, whom he does not.

For Hartley, the attempt to cover over the abyss of representation is an act of subjective disavowal which, although he does not put it exactly this way, infinitely defers the possibility of conceptual adequation (what he terms “the vicious circle”), and at the same time fails to recognize the way in which limit-figures are seized upon to fill this gap (“the stupid Thing”) (11).  The claim of unrepresentability thus perpetuates itself in denial of the conditions of its own existence.  Seizing upon presentation as a remedy to the limits of representation, it remains mired in what Hartley terms “representationalist thinking.”  The deficiency in this lopsided dynamic is the presumption that the limits to representation are external to subjectivity, the failure to recognize that they are both internal to the subject and constitutive of subjectivity itself.  According to Hartley, what should emerge from the interplay of presentation and representation is not a presentiment of the superiority of the former with respect to the latter, but an encounter with the radical negativity which makes subjectivity possible.  It is precisely this encounter that representational thought seeks to disavow by seizing upon an object to cover over the gap in representation.  In so doing it perennially fails to comprehend the significance of its own gesture, according to which the symbolic order is founded on the excluded object.

This disavowal comes at the price of political misdirection.  If, on the one hand, Hartley takes Kant, Althusser, and Jameson as exemplars of those who, failing to appreciate the link between representation and negativity, skirt the Scylla of endless postponement; on the other hand, there is Charybdis of totalitarianism, which aggressively asserts the dominance of the master signifier and engages in the politics of demonization that is its coeval.  For the counterpart of the master signifier is the abject other, which is both excluded from and grounds the symbolic order:  the supplement or the symptom in Derridean or Zizekian terms, which is central to the constitution of subjects, but which can accepted into the symbolic order only at the price of its disintegration.

Because she takes the abject as her object, Hartley apprehends Gayatri Spivak’s work as a prime example of this dilemma of theoretical representation, decidedly more on the side of Althusser and Jameson than Stalin and Il Duce.  Spivak declines to represent the postcolonial other because any such representation can only bring this other back within the fold of the same.  But the unrepresentability of the other, her wish to leave the other as pure heterogeneity, Hartley claims, shows Spivak at her most Kantian, where the assertion of the unrepresentability of the negativity of the subject leads her to revert to a figure of subjective plentitude, the concept of moral love (254-6; cf. Spivak 1999, 310).

According to Hartley, the correct strategy of representation is what he terms “speculative identification” with the symptom:

[T]he statement of identification must function as a Hegelian speculative proposition—a proposition, that is, according to which the subject (“We”) is nothing but the empty point of universality that must be filled out by some particular content (“the symptom”)…  What we identify with, then, is this point of exclusion as the rock of our very being, as that which fleshes out the negativity at the heart of our existence (269).


By supplementing this Zizekian psychoanalytic formula with Laclau and Mouffe’s concept of articulation and Jameson’s notion of the ideological dominant, Hartley is able to delineate a theory which, unlike Lacan’s and Zizek’s, is able to account for a multiplicity of symbolic orders.

What is perhaps most admirable and valuable about The Abyss of Representation is the focused attention, not to say the breadth of knowledge and the theoretical imagination, that Hartley brings to bear on his subject.  Proceeding from Kant and Hegel to Jameson and Spivak, the persistence of the question of representation and the continuity of its key terms proves striking in itself.  At the outset of the book, Hartley is at pains to excuse his prosaic expository style, but this is in fact one of the book’s central virtues.  Hartley offers a comprehensive view of the thinkers in his purview, synthesizing a wide range of material with considerable insight.  His chapters on Kant and Marx are notable in this respect, explaining often misunderstood, canonical theoretical positions with clarity and considerable originality.  In terms of the latter, Hartley presents a rigorous account of the representational dynamics of Marx’s exposition of the value-form in Chapter 1 of Capital in view of both Hegelian speculation and Althusserian  Darstellung,  a discussion characterized by a rare combination of breadth and precision.  Similarly, Hartley’s chapter on Jameson is a singularly definitive attempt to synthesize and evaluate what has become a large and somewhat unwieldy body of work.  Hartley’s facility with his material may leave the reader wishing that he had included yet more thinkers in his purview.  For example, Derrida (for whom Spivak serves as something of a proxy), Lukacs, Benjamin, and the members of the Frankfurt School (especially Adorno) are thinkers crucially engaged with the problem of representation whose complex works could benefit from Hartley’s canny parsing, and whose inclusion might further enrich the narrative here.

If there is a difficulty with Hartley’s style of argumentation by exposition, it is that his organizing presuppositions are not offered up for the same inspection as the claims of Althusser or Spivak.  Zizek is the principal omission here, whose work is adopted throughout as the standard against which other theorists are examined, but which is not subjected to the same examination in itself.  That Hartley interrogates his favored sources less closely than those he wishes to critique is exemplified by a minor point that he makes in Chapter 6, where he invokes the work of John Sallis to argue that Plato is not in fact an idealist.  Such a claim may indeed be correct, but this idiosyncratic reading calls for more extensive justification than is given here.  The same can be said of Hartley’s adoption of a Zizekian position throughout the book.  Resourceful and compelling though Hartley’s reading may be, the Hegelian-Lacanian conception of subjective lack on which it is founded is generally asserted rather than justified.

Hartley makes explicit his claims for the superiority of the Zizekian position in the final chapter of the book, but by this point a series of displacements have unsettled the putative distinctions between Zizek and his others.  Althusser, Deleuze, and Foucault, all infamous critics of the concept of representation, serve most consistently as foils against whom Hartley defines his thesis, yet their presence here also underscores the contentiousness of Zizekian claims regarding negativity and subjective lack.  The hostility of each of these thinkers to the concept of representation is well known, but it is less certain that their opposition necessarily entails a conception of “presentation beyond representation” in Hartley’s terms.  For example, in Chapter 6 Hartley endorses Thomas E. Lewis’s (1985) claim that Althusser’s position regarding representation and quasi-conceptuality should not be understood as a simple prejudice against metaphor, but rather as a theory of metaphor as concatenated or mystified metonymy.  While Althusser’s argument may yet warrant criticism, it can no longer be the case that he has simply opposed  Darstellung  to  Vorstellung .  While Hartley addresses Althusser most extensively, he offers no sustained treatment of Deleuze and Foucault; for all three of these thinkers the encounter with negativity suggests a rather more complex topology than his treatment permits (for example, see Montag 1994; Coole 2000; Widder 2004).

Etienne Balibar (1994) has observed that Marxism is perennially constituted in a denial of the metaphorical dimension of language.  What Hartley’s assiduous work demonstrates is that one consequence of this originary equivocation is that no one theoretical lineage can claim a privileged relationship to the Marxian legacy.  Just as the vacillation of representation remains ineluctable, so too are the strategies which seek to negotiate this vacillation ultimately undecidable.  In these matters no single solution is preferable, but only a continual displacement between and the terms in play.

Works Cited

Balibar, Etienne.  1994.  “Politics and Truth:  The Vacillation of Ideology II”

              In Masses, Classes, and Ideas.  Trans. James Swenson. 

              New York:  Routledge.

Coole, Diana.  2000. Negativity and Politics:  Dionysus and Dialectics

               from Kant to Poststructuralism. London:  Routledge.

Hartley, George.  2003.  The Abyss of Representation:  Marxism and the Postmodern Sublime.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

Lewis, Thomas E.  1985.  “Reference and Dissemination:  Althusser after Derrida.”  Diacritics 15.4 (Winter):  37-56.

Montag, Warren.  1995.  “‘The Soul is the Prison of the Body’:  

               Althusser and Foucault, 1970-1975.”  Yale French Studies

               88: 142-65.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty.  1999. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Widder, Nathan.  2004.  “Foucault and Power Revisited.” European Journal of Political Theory  3.4 (December):  411-32.


This entry was posted in Miscellaneous and edition . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Pages

  • Categories

  • Issues