Sublime Limits of Representation

Truly interdisciplinary works of high quality are very rare, because they require the kind of intellectual discipline and curiosity that allows for understanding and insight into not one, but many disciplines that are customarily separated by theoretical and linguistic differences. The recently published James Elkins’ Six Stories from the End of Representation is a fascinating look at the limits of representation in art and science with chapters devoted to painting, photography, astronomy, microscopy, particle physics and quantum mechanics.

The motivation for the book is the writing of a work that does not favor either art nor science at the expense of the other – instead of looking at science through the language and methods of the humanities (or vice-versa), each is treated with their respective conventions.


Serious art and serious science remain very different, and people who study their connections end up looking at special cases that can’t, I think, add to a plausible account of wider movements and ideas.

(As usual, Tim Clark has the best phrase for this—it’s somewhere in Farewell to an Idea—he says “art usually dines very poorly on the leavings of science.”)

So my idea in this book is to stop finding causal connections between art and sciences. Instead I’m trying to find ways of talking about scientific and non-scientific images together, without special pleading or popularization.

In terms of the “science wars” (the book’s second ancillary purpose): it seems essential to me to try not to simplify either the relevant science or the art.

There has been a bit too much low-level squabbling recently between scientists and humanists, especially since Alan Sokal’s hoax and his subsequent book, and Bruno Latour’s playful, and, I think, somewhat irresponsible rewriting of special relativity.

source: Report on a Book Project Titled How Pictures Die: Six Stories from the End of Representation by James Elkins


The first chapter begins with the concept of sublimity, most notably, Immanuel Kant. Kant described the sublime as a mathematical or dynamic experience in his Critique of Judgement. Elkins returns to Kant’s theory throughout the book, the dynamic sublime,


One of Kant’s examples, and still the standard one, is a stormy ocean. By sheer force, the ocean denies us the freedom to act or to move as we will. It is Kant’s idea that a person confronting a tumultuous sea will first be paralyzed and humbled, and then begin thinking of how people avoid drowning: how they navigate the ocean, and how they are, in the end, independent of it. That train of thought is essentially a defense, and it brings with it a comforting sense of detachment […] For Kant, the feeling of the dynamic sublime arises from the contrast between two mental states: first the abject dependence on unmasterable forces, and then the freedom that comes with the awareness that thinking is a different kind of experience.

James Elkins’ Six Stories from the End of Representation ( p.28 )


and the mathematical sublime,


Kant defines it as an experience of something unencompassable, so large that it exceeds our capacity for comprehension. His example, the starry sky, is also one of my subjects in this book. At first, confronted with the starry sky, a viewer is dazzled, confused, and – again – humbled. Then she tries to employ some concept to help her comprehend the incomprehensible heavens: say for example the concept of infinity. The viewer says to herself, “This is infinite,” and for a moment she is comforted. But there follows a third moment (Kant’s analysis is typically intricate) when it becomes clear that the “manifold” object is too expansive to be understood. It cannot be gathered under a single concept, a single intuition. And further: the concept itself, in this case infinity, is not directly experienced, but somehow known. There follows a fourth and final moment when the viewer realizes that her innate capacity to reason is what drives the desire to encompass an unencompassable object with an inadequate concept. Even though the attempt to understand the object fails, the viewer becomes aware of a mysterious, inbuilt capacity to try to match her imagination to objects: a capacity that includes the very idea of a fully adequate concept even though no such concept can be imagined. The game is lost, but she knows that she has a “supersensible” faculty, which allows her to think about such things as infinity and the correspondence between inadequate concepts and unknowable objects. “The bare capacity of thinking this infinite without contradiction,” Kant says, “requires in the human mind a faculty that is itself supersensible [das selbst übersinnlich ist].” That is the sublime: a pleasure that comes from displeasure – the displeasure of realizing that the imagination has been, and will always be, defeated.

James Elkins’ Six Stories from the End of Representation ( p.29 )


Elkins emphasizes that the book is philosophy only in the sense that philosophy is sophophagic (“it eats other disciplines”) and the theme of of the book, representation, is a concept of study in philosophy; however, he avoids what he terms “philosophic vocabulary of representation” such as Vorstellung, Darstellung, Idea, simulacrum, eidolon, imago. I can understand the temptation to focus on the language of the philosophy of representation in any attempt to find a connecting principle between art and science – but that would result in another philosophy book to be read by professional philosophers, whereas Elkins intention was to create a book to be read by scholars in the humanities and natural scientists alike. I think that he succeeds in this.

[Photomedia Forum post by T.Neugebauer from  Sept 7, 2008 ]