‘presence’ and representation

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‘Das Chor it eine lebendige Mauer gegen die anstürmende Wirklichkeit, weil er – der Satyrchor – das Dasein wahrhaftiger, wirklicher, vollständiger abbildet als der gemeinhin sich als einzige Realität achtende Kulturmensch’1.


There are no dictionary meanings, or authoritative discussions of ‘presence’ fixing the significance of this word in a way that ought to be accepted by anybody using it. So we are in the welcome possession of a great freedom of manoeuvre when using the term. In fact, the only feasible requirement of its use is that should maximally contribute to our understanding of the humanities. When trying to satisfy this requirement I shall begin by expounding how I propose to relate ‘presence’ to representation. My argument will be that we remain with representation still in the empire of language, whereas ‘presence’ suggests how to move beyond it, and why it would be a good and timely idea to try to do so. In short, we really need this run-up of representation in order to be ready for the take-off of ‘presence’. I shall have recourse to the notion of sublime experience in order to move from representation to ‘presence’ and make use of Nietzsche’s Die Geburt der Tragödie for explaining all this. Finally, I shall discuss how Gumbrecht’s and Runia’s conceptions of ‘presence’ can be integrated into my argument.

1. Introduction

Etymology already requires us to relate ‘presence’ to representation. For ‘representation’ literally means to make something present again. Or, to be more exact, to make something present which presently is absent. So the notion of representation somehow ties together those of ‘presence’ and of ‘absence’. This should awaken our interest. For the notions of ‘presence’ and of ‘absence’ clearly exclude each other mutually. Things cannot be both at the same time. So why should this funny concept of ‘representation’ deliberately provoke this open confrontation between ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ - and how could it possibly survive semantic suicide when doing so? More specifcally, what could it possibly mean to ‘make present again’ what is ‘absent’. How can we say of something which is absent ‘that it has been made present again’? Or that something is ‘present’ in its ‘absence’? These are difficult questions and this essay is, in fact, an attempt to answer them.

So one thing will be clear at this early stage of my argument already. For, obviously, any answer to these questions must succeed in re-defining the notions of presence and absence in such a way that semantic suicide can be avoided. In the course of my argument I hope to offer such re-definitions of ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ mainly by an investigation of Nietzsche’s Die Geburt der Tragödie and I shall try to make clear how this can deepen our understanding of both the notions of representation and ‘presence’.

One last remark before embarking on our philosophical journey. I mentioned above these two notions of ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ together, suggesting thereby that there should be a certain symmetry in the kind of philosophical problems occasioned by each of them. But this suggestion is wrong. For it is ‘presence’ rather than ‘absence’ which is the real trouble-maker. Think of the three paradigmatic cases of representation: aesthetic representation, historical representation and political representation. In each of these three cases the meaning of the term ‘absence’ is fairly straightforward: the sitter for a portrait is clearly ‘absent’ - he may have been dead for centuries already -, furthermore, it will need no clarification what we mean when saying that the past it ‘absent’, and obviously the electorate itself is ‘absent’ when its representatives assemble in our parliaments. But what could it mean to say that, after all, the sitter for the portrait, the past or the electorate are, nevertheless, somehow ‘present’ in such cases? How could they manage to perform such a feat of magic? That’s not an easy question to answer. So it need not surprise that my essay will be far more circumstantial about ‘presence’ than about ‘absence’.

2. Theories of representation

We had best start with having a quick look at the theories of representation that are en vogue nowadays. There are two of them, the resemblance theory of representation and the substitution theory of representation.

According to the resemblance theory a representation should resemble what it represents. A drawing is a good representation of a tree or a house if it resembles that tree or house. It follows as a matter of course that the criteria for resemblance must then also be our criteria for ‘presence’. A representation has ‘presence’ if it resembles what it represents. Surely, this undoubtedly is a clear and unambiguous definition of ‘presence’. On the other hand, I expect that most people will have some misgivings about the definition. Fir it seems to miss what we intuitively associate with ‘presence’: is ‘presence’ not suggestive of a fascination, of a being tied somehow to what we see etc.? And it seems unlikely that mere resemblance might succeed in achieving this. Think of the photos of politicians in our newspapers: the fact that they closely resemble whom they represent, does not compensate in the least for the sad lack of ‘presence’ of most of those politicians themselves. There is little auratic2 about mere resemblance. So our reaction will probably be that the definition fails to explain how the drawing of a tree may make that tree present (again). The definition therefore seems to beg the question of what ‘presence’ really is. But then the protagonist of the resemblance theory will probably disdainfully riposte that our misgivings only prove how much we still are the captives of unsustainable illusions, and that we should be grateful to the resemblance theory for having dispelled our semantic confusions about ‘presence’.

But intuitions are remarkably resistant to argument – and often have good reasons to be so unamenable to Reason. So let’s now investigate whether the substitution theory might be kinder to our intuitions. According the substitution theory a representation represents a represented if it can function as a substitute for the represented. In Gombrich’s well-known example a hobby horse is a representation of a real horse, since for the child playing with it, it may function as the substitute of a real horse3. The idea is clear enough and will need no further clarification. There is an epistemological and an ontological dimension to the substitution theory of representation.

The epistemological dimension can be re-phrased in terms of a fairly decisive critique of the resemblance theory. In his Languages of art Nelson Goodman famously pointed out that the resemblance theory is essentially incomplete since it fails to define the notion of resemblance. To use Goodman’s technical terminology, we can only properly speak of resemblance if we have at our disposal a ‘notational system’ fixing what is to count as resemblance. Think of maps. A map is reliable representation of part of the globe if the rules of cartographical projection have correctly been applied. Now, the crucial fact is that these notational systems cannot be determined on the basis of what the world is like. They have no fundamentum in re, so to say. Take, again, maps. There are many different systems for cartographical projection – but the globe itself is supremely indifferent to what system we shall adopt. It is merely a matter of tradition, of elegance, of convenience or of practical concern whether we prefer one system to another. Thus, we may have sound and excellent reasons for whatever choice we make here – but whatever these reasons may be, it will by now be clear that resemblance could not possibly be one of them. So that must inevitably mean the end of the resemblance theory. Moreover, the resemblance theory is helpless if we have to do with words and texts. For words and texts do nor resemble what they stand for – and any attempt to define resemblance in such a way that it explains how words or texts relate to things will be either circular, or nonsense (or both).

Two conclusions follow from this. In the first place, that the substitution theory is more convincing than the resemblance theory of representation. But of more significance in the present context is a second conclusion. The substitution theory defeated its rival by making clear that each epistemological account of representation is doomed to failure. It follows that epistemology can be of no use for clarifying the relationship between representation and presence either. So we had now best turn to the ontological dimension of the substitution theory and see whether this may offer some better prospects.

The crucial datum here is the following. Things represented such as sitters for a portrait, the past or the people belong to the domain of things; ontologically they are part of the world, not of language. Wholly unproblematic, of course. But this must then also be true of their representations, if these are to be believable substitutes of their representeds in the way required by the substitution theory. For if representations would not satisfy this condition of being part of the world as well, we could impossibly regard them to be believable candidates for being substitutes of what they represent. It may be helpful to remind here of a certain ambiguity in the word ‘representation’. We can say that this house ‘represents’ a value of a certain sum of money. But the sum of money does not ‘represent’ the house as meant by the substitution theory. The money is not such a believable candidate for functioning as a substitute for the house, in the way that we can say this of a picture of the house. And the explanation is that there is an ontological gap between the money and the house which is somehow bridged by a painting of the house. So the substitution theory rightly requires us to attribute to representations the same ontological status as to what they represent. Gombrich’s hobby horse is no less one more item on the inventory of the world than a real horse.

This will probably not yet sound too provocative. More surprising is, however, that the ontological pull of representation can be so strong that it even succeeds in pulling certain uses of language over the gap ordinarily separating language and the world. Think of historical representation. We have historical texts, historical representations in order to compensate for an absent past – if the past were as real, if it were just as much of an ontological given for us as trees and houses, we would not need historical texts. They are, for us, the really indispensable substitutes for the past itself and this is why they tend to acquire the ontological status of the past. To put it metaphorically, the absent past creates an ontological vacuum so strong that historical language is sucked into it and truly becomes part of the ontological domain of trees and houses4.

This is an interesting fact from the perspective of ‘presence’. For this ontological pull of representation, so strikingly manifesting itself when the historian succeeds in adding new items to the world’s inventory with his historical language, can painlessly be rephrased in terms of ‘presence’. For then language, in its representational use, apparently has acquired an aura that it always lacks as long as it is at home with itself. Under such circumstances, it succeeds in combining the effects that both language and the world may have on us. It may then affect us in the same way that poetry sometimes does – and who would object when we then attribute to language this quality of ‘presence’? So if language crosses this threshold between language and the world, who would deny us the right to speak of the ‘presence’ effects of historical or poetic language5? And would that not entail that we should relate ‘presence’ to the ontological dimension of representation, that is, to its capacity to confer on representation the same ontological status as what it represents?

3. ‘Presence’ and representation

Or, so it may seem. For perhaps we have been moving a bit too fast here. Let us have a look again at the substitution theory. We should primarily think here, of course, of one thing (the representation) taking the place, or being exchanged for another (the represented). And this suggests a picture of what representation ideally is like. For let us for a moment take seriously Leibniz’s talk of the identity of indiscernibles, hence the idea that we could have two specimens of a certain type of thing, say T1 and T2, that are completely indiscernible. The substitution theory then seems to suggest that T2 is T1’s best representation – and vice versa. But this would involve us into an absurdity. For if T2 is T1’s best representation and since, next, T2 and T1 are indiscernible, it would follow that we must hold that T1 is T1’s best representation. But this is at odds with the definition of representation as the exchange of one thing (a represented) by another thing (its representation). So the substitution theory entails a conception of what representation ideally looks like conflicting with how it defines representation.

Now, one the (many) nice things about the notion of ‘presence’ is that is may help us out of this unpleasant impasse. Suppose we have a landscape and a painting of that landscape. In whatever way we define the notion of ‘presence’, it cannot possibly be doubted that we will apply this definition in a different way to either the landscape or to its representation. What grants ‘presence’ to a landscape will differ from what grants ‘presence’ to a painting of that landscape. For example, the landscape depicted by Karel Dujardin on his painting called ‘Le Diamant’ since the 18th century6 – supposing the landscape to be real - is without much interest; in fact, it is decidedly dull with its long straight and bare slope at the background. Yet Dujardin’s tiny painting of only 20.5 by 27 cms possesses a ‘presence’ making it into a rival of some of Ruisdael’s most majestic canvases. Even a wall of many yards in length and height will be ‘crushed’, as it were, by the painting’s sheer ‘presence’, if we hang it there. Still more telling is sculpture. Think of all the representations of the human figure, male and female, that have been made from Donatello and Michelangelo, down to Rodin and Moore. Many of these sculptures have a truly overwhelming ‘presence’, outweighing by far that of the human individuals presumably used as models by these sculptors, and whom we would not bother to look at twice if we happened to encounter them in real life7. Taking into account these indubitable facts about aesthetic representation, we will begin to surmise that there is something peculiarly ‘asymmetric’ about ‘presence’, in the sense that the degree of ‘presence’ we may ascribe to representation exceeds by far the amount of ‘presence’ we are willing to grant to what these representations represent. Apparently ‘presence’ is a quality of the representation rather than of the represented.

This observation may help us out of the impasse of the substitution theory we encountered a moment ago. This impasse originated from a conflict apparently inherent in the substitution theory. For on the one hand the subsitution theory seemed to require the obliteration of all differences between the represented and its representation ultimately giving way to their being completely identical, whereas, on the other, it compelled us to uphold the represented and its representation being different from each other. But the notion of ‘presence’ will make all of the difference here, in the true sense of that expression. For ‘presence’ is something we ascribe, or grant to the representation, rather than that ‘presence’ should be one of a representation’s constitutive features. ‘Presence’ comes from the outside, as it were, though it certainly is a kind of compliment we pay to a representation only on the condition that it possesses certain qualities itself. So it may well be that there are little, or even no material differences between a represented and its representation so that they ultimately are truly identical – and, yet, this need no longer involve the substitution theory into nasty problems. For the asymmetry between the represented and its representation due to the preference of ‘presence’ to attach itself to the latter, will be sufficient to distinguish between the representation and the represented, even if the two of them are materially completely identical. One is reminded here of Danto’s well-known argument about the Brillo boxes and that one could rephrase by saying that Warhol’s Brillo box possessed a ‘presence’ that its counterparts in a grocery shop lack – even though there are no differences between them.

In sum, the substitution theory got into trouble because of its uncertainty about whether a represented and its representation should, ideally, be identical – but the notion of ‘presence’ helps us out of this impasse, since it makes clear that there should be such a difference even if the two are identical. Moreover, the notion of ‘presence’ also makes clear why we got lost in this impasse at all. We believed, initially, material similarity or difference to be decisive. And, indeed, as long as we do have only material similarity or difference in mind, the substitution theory will be in trouble. However, as soon as we see that ‘presence’ is a supervenient property, something that we may ascribe to representations (or not, of course), we will recognize that material similarity or difference is immaterial here.

Nevertheless, there is something odd about all this. For we may well ask ourselves: if ‘presence’ is something we ascribe to representations, if ‘presence’ attaches itself to representations rather than to its representeds, if it therefore seems to come from somewhere outside the interaction between a represented and its representation, what, then, is its source?

Let me put it this way. Initially, we will be inclined to relate ‘presence’ to the being present to us of the things in the world, or their ‘Vorhanden-sein’ to use Heideggerian jargon. The ‘presence’ of the chair on which I am now sitting, or of the keyboard on which I am writing this essay seem to be the prototypical examples of ‘presence’. What could be more ‘present’ to us, in the sense meant here, than this kind of things? And, yet, I argued above the profoundly anti-Platonic position that representations are typically more ‘present’ than what they represent. So where does this ‘presence’ come from if the represented, if reality itself, does not endow it with its credentials? Could there be anything that is more ‘real’, and more present than even reality itself? And, if so, what, then, is this ‘anything’ and where should we locate it?

4. Nietzsche on tragedy

Having arrived at this stage, I propose to consider what undoutedly is the locus classicus of the notion of representation, that is, Nietzsche’s Geburt der Tragödie. When commenting on that book, Arthur Danto discusses:

‘that sort of magical re-presentation paradigmatically exemplified in the Dionysian rites charcterized by Nietzsche, where the god is actually invoked into re-presence by the appropriate religious technology. Each appearance of the god resembles each other, and an imitational representation of the god’s appearing resembles this again, except that in this instance the epiphany is denoted by the tragic structures. And so again if statues of kings and gods were originally set up in the spirit of making the kind or god present wherever this form was present – the statue would have to be believed to resemble what was believed to be the king or god re-presented. And when this magical relationship of complex identity was dissolved, and statues were interpreted merely as representations of the gods and kings, they did not have to undergo change in form to undergo change in semantic function. (…) All I wish to stress at this point is that what we would call statues, gravures, rites, and the like, underwent a transformation from being simply part of reality, itself magically structured by virtue of the fact that special things, regarded as possessing special powers, were capable of multiple representations, into things that contrasted with reality, standing outside and against it, so to speak, as reality underwent a corresponding transformation in which it lost its magic in men’s eyes. Artworks became the sort of representation we now regard language as being, though even language – words – once formed a magical part of reality and participated in the substance of things we would now say merely form part of their extensions’8.
Danto’s complex argument is, in fact, an argument about the origin of the work of art and about its ontological status. The idea is, roughly, as follows: in Greek antiquity, at the time when Sophocles and Aischylos gave birth to tragedy, gods and kings were believed to be present themselves in the artworks representing them, regardless of whether these artworks were tragedies, statues or rites; and this endowed these artworks with their unique ‘presence’. At a later stage, however, these works of art lost again this ‘presence’, gods and kings were now separated from their representations. And in this way the work of art came into being as we presently conceive of it.

However, as Danto emphasizes at the end of the quote, this is only part of the whole story. For something of the work of art’s former ‘presence’ was preserved, after all. This ‘presence’ was now attributed to the category of works of art as such: works of art were granted an ontological status of their own, setting them, as a specific category of objects, apart from the more pedestrian objects in our world, such as trees and houses. Danto perceives here a parallel with the fate of language. Just like art, language began with being part of a magical reality and, again just like art, it emancipated itself from that magical reality that, in both cases, lost its previous magical features in the process. And, again, in both cases a new domain came into being as opposed to reality, namely, the domains of language and that of the work of art9.

Danto presents all this, more or less, as a ‘just so story’ and refrains from a discussion of how Nietzsche came to these insights and what is their validity. Since this essay focuses on ‘presence’, on how it relates to representation and on what meaning we should give to this notion of ‘presence’, we cannot afford here ourselves Danto’s somewhat lackadaisical attitude. So in order to gain more insight into the notion of ‘presence’ we had best take a closer look at Nietzsche’s first born. And it will then become clear that the Schopenhauerian inspiration of Nietzsche’s argument is quite helpful for obtaining a better grasp of ‘presence’.

In order to grasp Nietzsche’s argument, we should start with focussing on what he writes on the role of the chorus in the tragedy of Sophocles and Aischylos. He opposes here the view of Schlegel to that of Schiller. According to Friedrich Schlegel the chorus is meant to destroy the barrier between the spectator and the scene10. As a result what happens on the scene becomes part of the spectator’s own reality; the tragedy no longer is merely a representation of some story – no, the gods, kings and heroes are now as real as anything else in the spectator’s reality. They are now really there themselves. As Schlegel put it himself, the tragedy is ‘leibhaft empirisch’, and not merely an aesthetic phenomenon11. But Nietzsche prefers Schiller,

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