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Represent or Re-Present? An Important Distinction in Literature and Art

Updated on July 17, 2016

What to We Mean by "Representation"?

Representation is central to many aesthetic theories, from classic painting to contemporary film and media. It's also a concept explored in political philosophy--a seemingly different context than art and literature. However, there are important ideas artists can learn from political theorists, and vice versa.

In his book-length essay Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte ("The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte"), Karl Marx discusses the ways in which dictatorial power operates. Specifically, he is referring to the ways in which the struggles in French society--especially between classes--led to a caustic atmosphere and, eventually, to a coup.

Within this work, Marx makes an important distinction between darstellen and vertreten, words translated as the infinitive "to represent" in English. Gayatri Spivak picks up on this distinction and relates it to marginalized figures in her famous essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" to make a compelling argument.

Essentially, the distinction is made between darstellen as "to represent" like a portrait, and vertreten as "to represent" like a proxy. In the first scenario, something may be re-presented (like a portrait) without standing in for the original. The latter, vertreten, stands in place of the original (as a proxy).


Different Types of Representation

Let's think of it this way. The word "to represent" has at least two different meanings. For example, a photo can represent a landscape, just like a portrait can represent a person that is its subject. This is darstellen, or re-presentation for Spivak.

On the other hand, "to represent" can also refer to a political representative. For example, your congressperson is a proxy (or stand-in) for a specific group of people. This is vertreten, or representation, in Spivak's terms.

Why Does it Matter?

For writers like Spivak and philosophers like Marx, it is important not to mix up these two ideas. Referring to a conversation between the philosophers Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, Spivak notes the tendency of certain people to inadvertently switch between various meanings:

[T]he small peasant proprietor class finds its “bearer” in a “representative” who appears to work in another’s interest. “Representative” here does not derive from “darstellen”; this sharpens the contrast Foucault and Deleuze slide over, the contrast, say, between a proxy and a portrait . . . Beyond this concatenation, transparent as rhetoric in the service of “truth” has always made itself out to be, is the much-invoked oppressed subject (as Woman), speaking, acting, and knowing that gender in development is best for her. It is in the shadow of this unfortunate marionette that the history of the unheeded subaltern must unfold. (29-30)

When referring to the subaltern, a figure that is wholly ostracized, it is easy to see how the blurring of words like "to represent" can redistribute power. This redistribution almost always privileges a certain dominant group or groups.

How Does This Relate to Art and Literature?

For many postmodern authors and artists, absence takes on different meaning in light of the distinction between representation and re-presentation. When an artist addresses the lack of a certain perspective or voice, this can actually be seen as an engagement with this political and philosophical issue of representation. Instead of appropriating, or co-opting, a voice or identity to serve the purpose of the artist, loss is understood as a loss in the first instance.

In other words, by "loss as a loss," I am referring to the ways in which some identities and histories cannot be written from a wholly unbiased or objective perspective. If, for instance, historians choose to write about life during the Stone Age, they should let readers know that there is virtually no way they could be 100-percent accurate. There is always a gap in the record, and any attempt to make history "transparent" is likely an attempt to promote a certain ideological perspective.

In another example, an artist may point to the act of painting to refer to the very nature of mediation, or a filmmaker may turn the camera around to face the crew to show that the image on screen is manipulated. The Modernist concept of "breaking the fourth wall" is a good example of a technique that refers to issues of representation (Brechtian theater and Verfremdungseffekt, for example).

Many writers--including A.S. Byatt, Julian Barnes, Jean Paul Sartre, Gabriel García Márquez, Githa Hariharan, and Salman Rushdie among others--take this concept as a central theme for their work. This concept is crucial for understanding political rhetoric in everyday situations, as well as on the campaign trail. The next time someone claims to be speaking for others, you should seriously consider whose interests such a "representative" is actually serving.

© 2016 Sebastian A Williams


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