The Limit of Representation

A single atom floating in an electric field, large enough to be seen without any kind of microscope.

Laguerre-Gaussian laser modes

To see is to touch.
Nothing is really seen, only represented.

We experience reality through our senses. Through them we are gathering information and interacting with our surroundings. Those senses have been calibrated by millions of years of evolution to satisfy our needs for water, food, reproduction, avoiding danger... We are fine-tuned to see what we need and disregard what is not relevant for our immediate survival or experience.

Our eyes see just a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum, primarily visible light, and even there just a limited frequency range; we don’t see infrared or ultraviolet1. Our senses can’t register radio waves, microwaves, x-rays, or gamma rays. And the fact is, this is not even the most limiting factor. We don’t see with our senses but with our mind. For us to see is to have a comprehension of something, to understand what we are seeing. The act of understanding is an act of seeing. And to understand it is to recognize it. To recognize something means it has already been experienced before. It means that we are seeing new things as old ones, as something that we have already seen.

The quantum realm shows us what really is the act of seeing. As an act of touch, in a sense, it is an aggressive act, an act of bombarding a certain object with photons or other waves. To see something, we need to bounce billions of particles or waves from the object’s surface so we can receive them with our devices or senses. In a way, if we don’t touch it, if we don’t interact with it, it doesn’t register for us, it is not there, it doesn’t exist2. In quantum physics this is called a wave function collapse, when a particle from an undefined state (superposition) collapses into a defined, measured state. Before the collapse the particle’s position wasn’t defined, in a sense, we defined its position by measuring. Physicist call this interaction ‘observation’.

To hear, to see, to sense, to touch are ultimately all the same. To see the unseen and the unseeable, we need some sort of representation. The unseeable is a hypothesis, a theory, a construct that hasn’t been proven yet. When we prove it, when it becomes part of our habitual experience, we can finally see it. But to do so we need to adopt it to our experiential realm, to existing old ideas, in order to construct the new from the old.

Can we see things that are at the verge of our senses or of our mind? What is the limit of representation? Is it a fact that we need to represent the new as the old in order to understand it? Something outside immediate experience is automatically unseeable or unseen. We can only see it through the image of the already seen. We need to symbolically represent it, show one thing as something else, closest to the one we want to show. Something close to our existing experience. The further it is from the accustomed, from our scale, the less understandable it is, the harder it is to see it.

To represent it is to try to see it, and representation is the impossibility of seeing as it really is.

Is this where art comes in? To touch the untouchable, to sense the insensible? Many disciplines are operating in this domain – art, science, philosophy, religion – trying to understand our position in reality outside the immediate environment. What differentiates art then? Should it go further?

I believe we should try to understand the constructs of cultural narratives, shield ourselves from existing ones, from the reflection of the system that we are immersed in. Only then might we be able to see outside of our reality and get a glimpse of what is beyond. Otherwise we will never be free from ‘the game’ we call life. There are too many reflections and feedback loops in it.

…the sentence ‘this is an armadillo’ can be used either to accurately represent anything that is an armadillo or to misrepresent anything that is not an armadillo.3

(This sentence is related to a mysterious book called the Voynich manuscript, which is dated to the 15th century. The text was never deciphered, but drawings represented in it show animals looking like armadillos, which were not known at the time – they were only discovered much later as part of the ‘New world’.)4

People who have aphakia, or the absence of the lens on the eye, have reported the ability to see ultraviolet wavelengths.

Does the Universe Exist if We're Not Looking?
Eminent physicist John Wheeler says he has only enough time left to work on one idea: that human consciousness shapes not only the present but the past as well



Written in 2020