Figures of Absence: On Austerlitz, Adorno; Quotation, Coincidence (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of my post on Adorno and Sebald’s Austerlitz. In Part 1, I talked about Sebald and Adorno’s (negative) aesthetics, and challenges the latter presents to the former. Here, I discuss quotational technique as a form of coincidence, and how Sebald uses coincidence to introduce history without being didactic. I discuss quotation’s use in a reading of the scene in the Liverpool Street station, Adorno’s Minima Moralia, and end with a reading of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France scene.


Part 2

It may seem like an obvious observation, but Sebald must disguise and compensate for authorial arbitration. The goal of liberating content from such arbitration, Adorno argues in Minima Moralia, is a necessary & impossible fictional standpoint the philosopher must take for the sake of resistant thought (MM 247). Both he and Adorno share the desire to reclaim for their subjects the capacity for experience, but an Adornian mode risks segregating Austerlitz from the present and thereby fixing him into the past and hence foreclosing that very capacity. We will return to the “Finale” of Minima Moralia shortly, but I would first like to talk about the emergence of history as coincidence in the opening passages of Austerlitz.

Coincidences, the unplanned contact between two mutually exclusive objects which does not promise meaning, are enigma’s second cousin, and enable the emergence of history to appear natural because they are especially adept at disguising arbitrary decision. Coincidences don’t occur in literature, but they are engineered to happen.

What follows inside of the Salle de pas perdus (Hall of Lost Steps) is a series of coincidences that lead to Austerlitz’s expositions on capitalism, industry, and time, laying foundation for the book’s thesis. It enables Sebald to signal to the reader that something on the order of European historical trauma is on his mind without once reproducing the word “Holocaust” or “Shoah.” Language, however, must continually negotiate representation with phenomenal experience. It is a tension between event and interpretation. This coincidental tension is collapsed into the mode of quotation. Austerlitz’s dialogue is presented to us without quotation marks, and we would be liable to forget that there even was a first-person narrator quoting him if it weren’t for the regular reminders that he speaks through the narrator.

Within any text, quoted material happens to the reader for the first time, but also indicates that it is a (re)presentation of a past. Despite the past tense, the representations in quotation behave as presentation; here, event and interpretation are co-incident with one another. Benjamin argues that quotation is “the only power in which hope still resides that something might survive this age,” ironically because of its capacity for destructive recontextualization and -materialization. The two nows of event and interpretation coincide within quotation, in the moment when an experience is wrenched from its original context in the past and re-placed in representation. The past and present become coevals in the experience of the present. In the Salle de pas perdus, coincidence obscures the fact that the narrator decides Austerlitz is enigmatic. He generalizes about “types” of strangers like Austerlitz, “who so often … are glad to be spoken to,” establishing a norm against which Austerlitz can do nothing but break. The seeming typicality of Austerlitz, despite his outdated suit jacket, entices the narrator to approach. Arbitration is soon inverted into an enigma because of the narrator and Austerlitz’s meeting, Austerlitz deliverance on the narrator’s obscured desire for him to be strange. It disguises an authorial desire to see Austerlitz as an enigmatic representative of historical trauma. Representation is inverted into presentation; the event of coincidence obscures the narratively convenient exegeses on the so-called deities of modern industry that quickly follows the characters’ initial meeting.

Engineered coincidence in fiction is nothing new, but I focus on it here because it enables history to emerge “organically,” as it were, without the insincerity of didactic polemics. The impulse to convince, however, is still present — because the debt to Benjamin’s writings on quotation is large, because that mode of composition shuttles in a revolutionary moment in the aesthetic, and because art can be nothing but social, Sebald’s overall “goal” may be to craft a temporal paradigm that also collapses the moments of remembrance and forgetting in the dimension. That is, forgetting is only the only temporal paradigm if capitalism continues its destructive progress. Quotations are thus glitches in the system, a motif we will return to shortly.

The moral need to restore meaning to Austerlitz’s experience looms behind the quotations, as we watch Austerlitz discover (or re-member) his murky origins in England. At the end of the novel, something like redemption is accomplished, but one that is cracked and imperfect, carrying none of the utopian connotations seen in Adorno’s understanding of it. In Adorno, redemption is the accomplishment of knowledge, free from arbitration, experienced as event, but the co-incidents of past and present produced by repeatability do not invest Austerlitz with any affectively positive meaning. Moreover, we can see even in this early Adorno a strict separation of temporal dimensions — past and present — that can be only reconciled through an enigmatic figure. An enigma in Aesthetic Theory, and a consummately negative mirror-image in Minima Moralia (247).

This all comes to a head in the Liverpool Street station scene. Now a forgotten corner in the station, the room where Austerlitz arrived to England from a Kindertransport, tragically cites a past that could have been different. Like an actor who has “completely and irrevocably forgotten not only the lines he knew by heart but the very part he has so often played,” Austerlitz is transfixed by the “icy gray light” descending from the windows that runs down in “black streaks,” intersected by other beams of light which violate “the laws of physics.” He describes the room as expanding “in an improbably foreshortened perspective,” only possible in a so-called “deranged universe.” How can light run down in black streaks, and how can the room it alights expand and compress simultaneously? Quotation privileges the metaphorical imagery here more than what it references, and if we follow the content of those references, they point to impossibility, improbability – nothingness. A loss of experience. In other words: History cannot be reclaimed save for the self-conscious experience of loss.

Whereas Adorno’s enigma obliquely coordinates the past and the present, Austerlitz seems to hover near his past through the co-incidental, quotational present of the past. The emergence of history is supposed to restore meaning to Austerlitz’s experience, but that meaning is derived from a poverty of remembered content. That is, the knowledge Austerlitz attains is the gap engineered by quotation, a vertigo of content. The moment of quotation obscures the fact that there is no way Austerlitz could have experienced, for the first time, the “physically impossible” visual phenomena that quotation suggests he did. The space is disfigured, distended; he has already interpreted what the moment means for him, thus what we experience in quotation’s presentational mode is allegorical. What the allegory presents to the reader is Austerlitz’s loss. If the image that is summoned forth through quotation “bears to the highest degree the imprint of the perilous critical moment on which all reading is founded,” says Benjamin, what is actually referenced in the “imprint” of the physically impossible imagery is Austerlitz’s realization that whatever past moments which could have been rejuvenated are lost. Wrested from extermination via the Kindertransport, he is damned to continually experience that destruction of context in his everyday reality as Jacques Austerlitz. It is a bitterly ironic survival. Benjamin’s understanding of allegory suggests that the phenomenon of quotational experience is one that always supposes a missed event as event, something on the order of Kafka’s statement to Max Brod: there is an infinite amount of redemption available, but not for Austerlitz.

I don’t think the correspondence between this scene and Adorno’s “Finale” is accidental or genuinely coincidental. The object of Adorno’s reclamation can be seen only through a form of redemptive light, a light which is possible only through an impossible negativity that is foredoomed to incompletion. If it could be completed, it would form the “mirror-image” of the false world. The imagery recalls the Hasidic aphorism retold by Gershem Scholem—in redemption, everything will be as it was, only a little different. In Adorno, contents of pre- and post-redemption appear to be exactly the same, but the form of experience is privileged over content once again. The reconciliation would achieve something like Hegelian Spirit, a total transparency between the two realms of the philosophically possible and materiality. But what happens when that content is already forgotten, or it is precisely transparency which enables re-materialization and -presentation in the first place?

Austerlitz survives as a quotation flickering between worlds. Though this could hardly be called a rescue, Sebald does wrest his protagonist from the violence of positivist abstraction and enigmatical arbitration. It is no surprise, then, that the novel ends with a dirge against late-twentieth century media technology; the speed of the Kindertransport is recapitulated as the processed data of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France which hastens to forget that it stands on the grounds of the Nazi looting of Parisian Jews. Experience progressively becomes obscured with each new microchip. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young notes in his translator’s introduction to Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter that current (as of 1999) trends in scholarship aim to show how related the previously unrelated Foucault and Frankfurt School modes are, but they do converge in Sebald. The homogenization of History into language and hence privileging of literate populations compresses and stores experience into disciplined content; Kittler transposes this episteme into the digital age when he writes that “Bits reduced the seeming continuity of optical media and the real continuity of acoustic media to letters, and these letters to numbers” (243). The transmogrification of (hand)writing into mediated marks – all the way from the gramophone to film – removed the human from its experience of self into an object of data processing. In our Algorithmic Age, we are not too far off from Horkheimer and Adorno’s thesis in Dialectic of Enlightenment that the means become their own ends. We come back to the beginning of Part 1 of this long post — the material conditions required for utopian existence are everywhere, but those technologies become their own means, automatons for each other. Experience disguised as process for its own sake.


I came to the conclusion that in any project we design and develop, the size and degree of complexity of the information and control systems inscribed in it are the crucial factors, so that the all-embracing and absolute perfection of the concept can in practice coincide, indeed ultimately must coincide, with its chronic dysfunction and constitutional instability.


Sebald, eerily, predicts our contemporary Algorithmic Age – there is no experience to be had inside an algorithm that, with its mechanisms of machine learning, progressively quotes copies of itself. Loss becomes the well from which Sebald pulls Austerlitz out from complete absence into figured absence, thereby rescuing him from both the regimes of sentimental narrative, willed forgetting, and data processing. Quotation is the glitch in the “absolute perfection of the concept” of capitalist time.


2 thoughts on “Figures of Absence: On Austerlitz, Adorno; Quotation, Coincidence (Part 2)”

  1. I am very happy having found your extraordinary blog. In comparison to other blogs this is really a hightlight, not this mindless texts full of platitudes. I have to admit that I never thought about quotation techniques. That has changed now. Thanks a lot.
    All the best
    (of The Fab Four of Cley)


    1. Hi Klausbernd,

      Thanks for your kind words, and I am happy to hear that you enjoyed reading.

      To read more about quotation, Patrick Greaney has written a compelling study of in his latest book, Quotational Practices: Repeating the Future in Contemporary Art. Two chapters are dedicated to the work of Marcel Broodthaers and Heimrad Backer.

      One thing that I would’ve liked to include on this topic are Sebald’s use of altered photographs, how photographs themselves are quotational, and Sebald’s inclusion of photograph’s as quotations of quotations (as they are reprinted copies of the ‘original’ photos).

      Judith Ryan has some very compelling insights into Sebald’s technique w/r/t photography and perspective in this video, if you are so inclined.


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