The unpresentable, and various forms of abstraction

Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950)

Project: to articulate and express the sublime feeling via experimental short film. Abstract here.

One element of the sublime, especially in contemporary understanding, is the idea that it is “unpresentable.” The sublime exceeds human understanding, and defies any attempts to represent it in any medium; it’s inconceivable and therefore impossible to depict or describe.

This goes back to Immanuel Kant, who explained the experience of the sublime as an encounter with our own limitations — the realization that an experience is wholly outside your ability to understand it. “We are made aware, Kant observed, that sometimes we cannot present to ourselves an account of an experience that is in any way coherent. We cannot encompass it by thinking, and so it remains indiscernable or unnameable, undecidable, indeterminate and unpresentable.” 1

Probably the best-known expression of this idea is an ancient one:

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
 The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

— Tao Te Ching 2

Unpresentability is an abstract 3 concept, and art that addresses it tends to be abstract. In his influential 1982 essay “Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime” Jean-François Lyotard writes that “one cannot represent the absolute, but one can demonstrate that the absolute exists — through ’negative representation’, which Kant called the ‘abstract’. 4

A Romantic lanscape painting, with gloomy, craggy mountains or crashing waves, is an attempt to represent its “sublime” object, the threatening greatness in nature; something like Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (above) concerns the impossibility of representing the object of sublime experience; in abstraction it presents an idea of unpresentability. (Robert Motherwell’s Elegy series probably has something to say here as well, as well as many paintings of Mark Rothko, who often comes up in writing on the sublime.) As Lyotard writes, “the stake of art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to be the witness to the fact that there is indeterminacy.” 5

In other media: writers can rely on abstract language to discuss the sublime. But this is a something different from abstraction in painting; abstract language allows a writer to describe an unvisualizable concept more or less directly. In “It Must Be Abstract,” from Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction, Wallace Stevens writes of “the inconceivable idea of the sun”:

Phoebus is dead, ephebe. But Phoebus was
A name for something that never could be named.
There was a project for the sun and is.

There is a project for the sun. The sun
Must bear no name, gold flourisher, but be
In the difficulty of what it is to be.

To be “inconceivable,” to “bear no name”: abstract concepts told in abstract language, to say nothing of being “in the difficulty of what it is to be.” Stevens uses concrete images and ideas (“the sun” and “Phoebus” for example) but also depends on complex unvisualizables such as “the difficulty of what it is to be.”

Actually this might be the opposite of ‘abstraction,’ now that I think of it. An ‘abstract’ poetic treatment of a concept like sublime unpresentability might try to use only concrete images, pieced together to hint at its ‘point’ — so far I haven’t found a poem that does this. Many use a high amount of concrete imagery or symbols, peppered with complicated, abstract phrases describing the concept of unpresentability (AKA indescribability, inconceivability, unutterable, etc.) This is not to say that a concrete image is superior to an unvisualizable concept; images are just more visceral — just as the massive size of Vir Heroicus Sublimis contributes to its effect (and, therefore, its theme).

Film can combine words with images (as well as sound, rhythm, narrative…) so ‘abstraction’ might describe any one of those elements, or some combination of them. Probably the most relevant to the theme of “unpresentability” is Pi (1998, dir. Darren Aronofsky). A mathematician uses a supercomputer to try and determine the true Hebrew name of God. It doesn’t work; a divine truth cannot be described in human terms, for their understanding; the implication is that some truths are so great we simply cannot fit them in our heads. The film employs a recurring metaphor for these un-knowablilities: here’s a clip.

You might call the film visually abstract due to its high-contrast black and white images which are sometimes hard to decipher until they change, the partial frames, quick camera movements and disorienting, choppy editing that don’t build the space as much as break it up. But despite the unique visual style — which of course is integral to the story — the film gets to rely a lot on fairly complex, high-minded dialogue and a lot of voice-over narration to help explain the complicated stuff.

Another, very well known, example of a film depicting a human experiencing the sublime is the Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, dir. Stanley Kubrick). Couldn’t find a good clip of this online though. (Is the whole thing too obvious here even to mention?) Besides the brightly colored ‘tunnel’ abstractions, what’s interesting about this to me are the freeze-frames of Dave Bowman’s face in various expressions.

And let’s not forget this.

I’ve been thinking so much about abstraction and unpresentability because they relate to directions I’ve taken with the film that comes from this research. They’re also more contemporary approaches to the sublime (unlike those Romantic mountains). Unpresentability has been a defining aspect of my creative process because the film’s indirect topic (the sublime) is obviously very, very difficult to render with a DSLR. From the beginning I’ve focused on showing human responses to / emotions incurred by the sublime; to portray the sublime experience. It’s hard to go about this with the method that a film like Pi uses, because the latter is feature-length and has the running time to build a unique individual character whose specific experiences and perceptions inform our understanding of the topic. And it has enough time to use a lot of rather explanatory dialogue and voice-over narration in a way that doesn’t totally overwhelm the film. (in my opinion, being explainy in a short film can easily make it boring, although there are a lot of counterexamples.) My film has a narrative to it, so it is not visually ‘abstract’ in the way of abstract expressionism — it has what I might call ‘abstractions’ or paradoxes of space….


Morley, Simon. “The Contemporary Sublime.” Introduction. The Sublime. Ed. Simon Morley. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010. 12-21. Print.

A clarification, just in case: My understanding of ‘abstract’ is: things which are removed from the concrete, physical world. An ‘abstract’ word is one that describes an idea, a concept, something with no physical ties — e.g the word ‘abstraction’ itself. Also: to make something ‘abstract’ is to remove it from an established way of perceiving it — it invites the viewer to look at the subject differently, to reconsider it.

Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime’, trans. Lisa Liebmann, Artforum (April 1982); reprinted in Simon Morley, ed., The Sublime (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010).

Jean-François Lyotard, extract from L’Inhumain: Causeries sur le temps (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1988); trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991). First published in Artforum (April, 1984); reprinted in Simon Morley, ed., The Sublime (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010).


  1. rdthaxton says:

    That was a great read! you have a very succinct and clear writing style which I especially appreciate given how you are (literally) dealing with abstract concepts. One thing you mentioned briefly that caught my attention was your mention of all the various ways a film can convey the idea of ‘abstraction,’ whether that be through the use of the music, visuals, etc. I’m curious if one type of abstraction can convey the idea better than another in a certain circumstance or if takes a symphony of those different art forms to achieve the desired level of abstraction. As an extension, and because you mentioned filming other’s reactions to the sublime, I was also curious if you gave any thought to the sublime in video games, if there is any. Much like how a film is composed of many different art forms, I’ve always considered video games to be much the same way except with an emphasis on the experience. Thanks for your post!

  2. Sara Suarez says:

    Thanks for the comment 🙂 I’d say that the conveyance of abstract concepts is something like a “symphony.” For film, it’s definitely the case. (E.g. not just the specific soundtrack elements, but also relative attention they command, will affect how we read a scene.) There are a million little ways that you could change a detail and have it affect (or kill!) the mood. The most important part of it, besides knowing what you’re doing, is knowing what effect you want.

    I haven’t thought much about video games w.r.t this project, because I’m not very familiar with them! I’ve played a bunch, but I’ve yet to encounter one that addresses the sublime! (suggestions welcome)

    It seems that when people speak of video games as an ‘art’ they usually refer to the artistry involved in creating the game. But so much player interaction is involved that I imagine it’s hard to control any artistic expression like you can in poetry, painting, music, etc. For example, game soundtracks often run on loops while the player continues working in a certain section of the game. I’m not really sure what a ‘video game sublime’ might be, maybe something to do with control (or lack of control), or the disconnections of time and space a player might sense between the physical world and the world of the game. Just a thought.