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.

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


Figures of Absence: On Austerlitz, Adorno; Quotation, Coincidence (Part 1)

This is part of a conference paper I presented in the spring. I’m dividing it up into two posts. I’ll post the next part tomorrow. 

This section establishes the connection of Sebald’s Austerlitz to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. It proceeds to argue that the text’s Adornian valences, both aesthetic and ethical, present problems for Sebald. It also introduces Patrick Greaney’s work on quotational technique, and sets up Part 2 as an analysis of it as Sebald’s clever workaround for Adorno’s impossible demand to witness but not to rehearse.

Part 1


In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, W.G. Sebald describes the need to represent the Holocaust as a practically impossible necessity. Sebald’s investment in first-generation Frankfurt School aesthetics, especially Adorno’s and Benjamin’s, is well-documented in his early work across his myriad reviews and essays. How do we square this interest with Sebald’s creative pursuits when Adorno’s aesthetics are so forthrightly opposed to positivist representation? Located between a narrative art and a document of witness, this Adornian mode in Austerlitz reveals an irreconcilable conflict between concealment and the difficulty of representation. This conflict forces Sebald to find means of convincing the reader that the novel is defined by, yet not confined to, the Holocaust. Using techniques of dislocated narration that find their strongest effect in the mode of quotation, Sebald pursues a method of simultaneously presenting and re-presenting events that renegotiate the negative terrain set out by Adorno. Ultimately, what is drawn out by Sebald is not the Holocaust, nor simply the poverty of representing it, but the inability to represent and reclaim experience in a narrative that draws its significance from that poverty.

Adorno argues in Aesthetic Theory that the “real possibility of utopia converges with the possibility of total catastrophe.” The material possibilities of utopia are everywhere in popular media, and underneath our fingers – possibilities which are still repressed under the culture industries. Such apocalyptic images (and technological means), Sebald says in an interview with Michael Silverblatt, “militate against” the capacity for “discursive thinking,” and enable the unconscious subject to abet the continual destruction of her environment. Sebald’s project of approaching the verboten past is an ethico-aesthetic attempt to return to the reader a capacity for a specific aesthetic experience that unchains her from the machinations of destruction, what Ranciere might call a redistribution of the sensible. Though, in that same interview, Sebald contends “it’s practically impossible to do this,” a notion that James Wood echoes in his introduction to the English edition of Austerlitz. The novel’s attempt to restore to the eponymous character the individuality of his name and experience is foreclosed, argues Wood, and the challenge Sebald sets himself with the practical impossibility of the literary witness of European historical trauma is to be ethical, to refuse the sentimental commitment of mere witness, mere reproduction, and model in literature what actual experience might be for Austerlitz in the ecology of absent-minded media.

Sebald’s technique of dislocated narration collapses the moments of presentation and representation through quotational coincidence, a means of re-presenting that, in the same moment of destroying original context, presents the phenomenon of that moment of destruction. In Quotational Practices: Repeating the Future in Contemporary Art, Patrick Greaney argues that

[Quotational texts] indicate the repeatability of the moment of emergence of the original, the moment of the original’s origination … Quotation repeats this authoritative, authorial act and thereby indicates the possibility that this coming-into-being could have been different and could be altered in its repetition (6).

Quotational ethics are impelled by Adorno, but underwritten by Benjaminian technique – moments of the past are wrenched and re-placed in the present in order to dialectically realize untapped potential in the former, endowing it with new meaning in the present. Thus quotational power is allegorical; Benjamin writes in the German Tragic Drama that allegories present precisely that which is not there, and mean precisely what they do not present to us (296). If the ethical demand is to witness but not to rehearse, Sebald’s Adornian aesthetics hit a brick wall, as he must perform precisely that which is impossible. He is forced to contend with an inescapable authorial sovereignty and its complicity with forgetting. Faced with the impasse of Adornian aesthetics, Sebald then leans on the messianism of Benjamin to suggest that the emergence of history in the midst of an apocalypse of experience is one of realizing the extent of one’s loss of experience in a history of humanity that has still not happened yet.

The goal to liberate content from arbitration betrays a desire to maintain the critic’s sovereignty. It is this irreconcilability that plagues Adorno’s concept of the enigma and his thesis of the negative artwork in Aesthetic Theory. Enigmas invite yet defy interpretation, or at least obfuscate their enunciation. An enigma could have some, none, or all of the meanings the viewer is struggling to project onto it. When Adorno writes that enigmatic artworks are picture puzzles to be solved (AT 121), he privileges the form of the enigma over its ostensible content. Composition of content is largely irrelevant to a puzzle – the interpreter (or the one who completes the puzzle) doesn’t need to know how the original was composed in order to complete her task.

Yet so much of Aesthetic Theory is seemingly dependent on a hyper-deliberate content – I’m arguing that it’s a hyper-deliberate arrangement of content, the situation of content (The section “Situation” in Aesthetic Theory focuses on the socio-cultural contingencies of modern art). The form of an enigma, on which the crux of Adorno’s argument stands, is posed as an irreconcilability as a means of disguising the positivism of negative artworks, something they are supposed to resist. Enigmatic form delays positivity and obscures Adorno’s logic. A metaphor is used to symptomatically define the undefinable metaphor “enigma.” Too, Greaney’s book on quotational technique focuses on arrangement and context in contemporary trends in conceptual poetics and visual art. Both Adorno and Greaney, however, seek to critique the contingencies inherent in the tethering of content to a linear-progressive idiom of history.

Maintaining this ambivalence is necessary for Adorno, for not only does the enigma help stall the dialectical synthesis of Enlightenment, it also preserves the negative relationship to the social, a crucial condition of Adorno’s thesis. The ideal Adornian artwork presents a negative yet refrains the social meaning from ever being naturalistically represented in the artwork; the form must re-route the viewer or reader outside into the Social. There is, then, a stark delimitation between Art and the Social via the cracked mirror of the enigma.

This enigmatical separation—between subject and object, form and content, the past and present—has ethical consequences for Sebald. If we remember Adorno’s infamous claim about poetry, the enigmaticalized referent of the Shoah must remain firmly in the past, lending itself too easily to the maintenance of a melancholic haunting that precludes any form of resolution, ethically negative or not. The Adornian goal is always to expose the violence inherent in the social formation via the negative, and Adorno’s thesis is the key. Someone must decide on the irreconcilable conflict, and his argument ends up preserving the sovereignty of Adorno’s decision more than the autonomy of the artwork. It allows Adorno to have his cake and eat it too, and greatly challenges those who are influenced by his thought.

This is perhaps more of a failure of Adorno’s aesthetics than Sebald’s, and I am aware that the jury is still out on whether or not Sebald should be read more as an Adornian (recall that Adorno was not receptive to Sebald’s scholarly work) or a Foucauldian. Despite this seeming irreconcilability, I think it is still worth thinking about Sebald’s work as deeply tied to the legacy of the Frankfurt School. Both Foucault and Adorno offer little to no practical remedies for the social disorders they analyze and diagnose. To me, favoring a discursive analysis ignores Sebald’s dialectical style, and his debt to Benjamin’s style.


In Part 2, I discuss how quotational technique is 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.

A Conversation about Evan Dara’s Novel Flee (Part 2)


[Context/editorial note: I’d been meaning to read Evan Dara’s latest novel Flee for a while, and when Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang told me he’d be reading it as part of a contemporary literature class I decided to join him. This is the second part of a two-part discussion which took place over a few weeks of emails. We discuss the book’s conclusion, including what some people might think of as “spoilers.”

Read part one of our discussion of  Flee.

The tl;dr version of all of this: Both Ryan and I loved Flee, a 2013 novel about the citizens of a New England town who, uh, flee, for reasons never made entirely clear I claim that “Flee is maybe the best novel (so far, anyway) to aesthetically and philosophically address the economic collapse of ’08.” Ryan called it a book “for people who like books to fuck with them and then be their friend.” And I agree with him. — ET]

Ryan Chang: Right–Flee doesn’t prescribe a future, or at least an alternative future. “841” testifies to this. The A-burgian upstakers are no different from the new settlers, rejoicing in the bargains to be had in the town. Carol and Marcus quietly disappear (Spoiler alert). Flee is overall hesitant to prescribe, I think. In my previous e-mail, I was thinking out loud a bit, trying to see if something in the book was pointing to these spaces of the “nonidentical” as Adorno calls it; that Flee as an aesthetic object figures, in exactly what isn’t said, the suffocating presence that squeezes the life out of A-burg, could figure a moment of possibility in absence. Some kind of fracture that, even if it is a failure (as A-burg is, I think), is a temporary moment of reprieve from the administered life.

I’m not sure what the forms of Kimball’s “radical forgiveness” and “hospitality” would be, if he points to them — especially of the former. And is it only that the literary artists get to have all the fun of democracy? Exactly where does democratic critique happen off the page? I’m wondering because it seems that the form of popular critique — save from public protest and other distortions of space — are infected with exploitative capital, with ideology, unwittingly going along with the system that saves the banks before humanity. Additionally: to whom–or what–is forgiveness granted? Hospitality seems more tangible to me, but the phrases Yes? Who’s There? imply exclusion rather than inclusion to me. As if at the door of democracy, the speaker hesitates. Should not a radical affirmation continually say yes rather than no at the door? The questioning yes is skeptical. I wonder if a self-consciousness and -becoming out of administration is required. The molectular make-up of the present absence that suffocates A-Burg and, implicitly, whatever other small town, would have to be transposed, if you like, into another key. To mention Lerner again (briefly) — do you remember that scene in the book, with the first hurricane, the (eventually fictional) threat of Irene destroying the infrastructure as a moment when disparate communities — who would otherwise keep to themselves, much like the voices in Flee — begin convening? That was just a way of getting to the epigraph of the book: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” Continue reading “A Conversation about Evan Dara’s Novel Flee (Part 2)”

A Conversation about Evan Dara’s Novel Flee (Part 1)

[Context/editorial note: I’ve been meaning to read Evan Dara’s latest novel Flee for a while nowand when Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang told me he’d be reading it as part of a contemporary literature class I decided to join him. This is the first part of a two-part discussion which took place over a few weeks of emails. — ET].   

Edwin Turner: So you’re reading Evan Dara’s Flee for a class, right? What’s the name of the class again? What are some of the other texts in the class?

Ryan Chang: Yeah, a class called 21st Century Fiction: What is Contemporary? We started out reading Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and Acker’s Empire of the Senseless. We just finished reading Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad (awful), and we’re moving onto Chaon’s Await Your Reply and Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. Everything, up to Pynchon, has as its central conflict the dissolution of the subject vis. the postmodern. Perhaps because of the spatialization of time (Egan, Reed) or a steroidal fungibility of a self because of technology (Chaon). The awareness of how deeply we are disciplined by master narratives (Acker). We’ve yet to get to Blake Butler’s There Is No Year and Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, which I’m looking forward to after the Chaon and Egan who, in their attempt to write novels critical of the contemporary (more so of Egan, who does nothing but neuter the very real state of late capitalism’s terror into entertainment), do not make it past the merely interesting. I liked the Egan much less than the Chaon; part of the problem is the prose style, I think — it’s characteristically white American, shaped by sentimentality and preoccupied with the syntax of conventional form. In other words, the blueberry muffin prose styles betray the experimental forms in which they’re enveloped.

ET: I always have to look up the word fungibility. Dara’s Flee seems to fit into that early theme you mention, the conflict of the dissolution of the subject, which is both the book’s formal rhetorical strategy, but also its plot program, encapsulated (maybe) on page 45: “What is the weight of we?” What do you make of Dara’s style here? Like initial impression?

RC: I’m about ~40 pages in. I think I mentioned in the Books Acquired thing I wrote that Dara, stylistically, is hitting hard on Gaddis. Admittedly, I’m most familiar with the late Gaddis — Carpenter’s Gothic. (Agape Agape, too, but this is, of course, his letter to Bernhard.) I like that both focus on voice, on streams of speech that collide or blur into each other. The Gaddis influence is more of an echo than anything.
Specifically re: Dara — the interruptions, digressions and hesitations immediately struck me as something like a Tragic Greek chorus that, having incurred some sort of its own trauma (and not acting only as the all-knowing unconscious of the play), is completely disoriented, confused of its own purpose. But amidst the cacophony–or something like a directed cacophony towards the reader–they are still unwittingly functioning as a chorus. They’re giving us the stage for Flee’s story, hinting quietly at the book’s central plot conflict. Also naming characters (Carol, Rick, Marcus, etc), which is now more intriguing to me at the passage from p.45 you mention. What’s also different in Carpenter’s Gothic is, while that whole book remains on one diegetic level (as far as I can remember, it’s been a few years) because no narrator ever announces itself, in Dara, there’s a blurring of diegetic arenas, a refusal to centralize any narrative authority. Ok, so, re: dissolution of the subject: It seems that not only are the chorus members interrupting themselves, but they’re also interrupting the narrator as well. Each left-margin emdash cuts the narrator off, in a way, if you will. That scene when they’re pitying Rick, acting as a narrator with dialogue tags. The commonly individuated voice of the narrator is subsumed into the characters’ diegetic arena; a tension between the collective and individual implicit in prose structure alone. It also seems, by “36,551,” that whatever the population is fleeing from is not collectively driven (ie., the pity for Mark’s poorly planned meetings for something, we don’t know what yet), but selfishly driven. And in the flattening power of numbers, that selfishness — a hermetic individuality — becomes collective. There is a kind of infinite distance between I and we that, perhaps, the book is trying to trace? Or its relationship in the temporality of the novel is a perpetual expanding/contracting relationship, like a rubber band?

As far as I am in the book, the interruptions and digressions also have a hysteria to them that points to something the chorus is ignoring even in the face of the beginnings of a series of rude awakenings. Each voice just bemoans this dissolution of themselves; but, especially in the scene where Rick is, like, torn apart for his idea in service of the township, each voice is just narcissistically concerned with how it’s going to inconvenience them, rather than the potential worth of Rick’s idea.

ET: I teach an introductory American lit class, and today we were talking about Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily,” which I think offers this wonderful example of a first-person plural narrator, this kind of limited chorus that is not-quite omniscient, not-quite omnipresent, and hardly omnipotent. It’s this weird we that seems able to transcend time, but not space—it can live for more than eighty years but it can’t see into Emily Grierson’s house. Its limitations are human; its limitations are the limitations of all the members of a community. I had your email in the back of my head while I was riffing on all this today—that, yes, the we is this fiction that we all subscribe to (hey look, I just used it!)—it’s our linguistic tag for culture, religion, whatever—but it requires some other—a you, I guess, that we can all point to, an Emily Grierson that’s only part of the we by paradoxically not being a part of the we, by defining the weFlee doesn’t seem to have that other, at least not in the first seven chapters anyway, although it does foreground two protagonists in Rick and Carol—something that Dara’s first novel The Lost Scrapbook does not do. The Lost Scrapbook is far more polyglossic than Flee also, which again reminds me of Faulkner’s story in its unified we-ness—Flee‘s narrative voice somehow unifies entropy, breakdown, the chaotic rumbling becomes this throbbing tone of dissolution (“There’s no here here,” page 79), where the narcissistic flight of each member of the community paradoxically underwrites the viability of a community, the possibility of a community… Continue reading “A Conversation about Evan Dara’s Novel Flee (Part 1)”

Theodor Adorno Shows Off His Sexy Legs

Poetry After Auschwitz and Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil

Right after WWII, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared that to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. Adorno later recanted on his knee-jerk reaction, stating that “‘Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream… hence it may have been wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz.” Still, his initial proscription is often invoked as something of an imperative, or at least guiding principle, in 20th and 21st century art. Often stated boldly as “no poetry after Auschwitz,” it’s usually taken to mean that, after the horrors of the Holocaust, art has no valid aesthetic response to history, or perhaps even humanity, at least not in any of its traditional forms. Even more tricky, of course, is just how to represent the Holocaust itself. The severity of the event seems to call for a witnessing limited to facts alone, one devoid of any artifice or metaphor.

Over half a century later authors still wrestle with this issue. I just finished reading Yann Martel’s forthcoming novel Beatrice and Virgil, his follow-up to 2001’s Booker Prize-winning book club favorite, Life of Pi, a novel I’ve never read. (Beatrice and Virgil comes out mid-April and I’ll run a full review then). Very early in the book the protagonist Henry, a successful author, describes the book he is writing, a follow-up to his bestseller. It’s about:

the ways in which that event was represented in stories. Henry had noticed over years of reading books and watching movies how little actual fiction there was about the Holocaust. The usual take on the event was nearly always historical, factual, documentary, anecdotal, testimonial, literal. The archetypal document on the event was the survivor’s memoir, Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, for instance. Whereas war–to take another cataclysmic human event–was constantly being turned into something else. War was forever being trivialized, that is, made less than it truly is.

After waxing a bit more on artistic representations of war — romantic, epical, comedic, etc. — Henry seems to come about to Adorno’s point (never named in Martel’s text, for what it’s worth):

No such poetic licence was taken with–or given to–the Holocaust. That terrifying event was overwhelmingly represented by a single school: historical realism. The story, always the same story, was always framed by the same dates, set in the same places, featuring the same cast of characters.

Henry concedes a few exceptions to this rule, like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, before wondering:

why this suspicion of imagination, why this resistance to artful metaphor? A work of art works because it is true, not because it is real. Was there not a danger in representing the Holocaust in a way always beholden to factuality? Surely, amidst the texts that related what happened, those vital and necessary diaries, memoirs, and histories, there was a spot for the imagination’s commentary. Other events in history, including horrifying ones, had been treated by artists, and for the greater good.

Henry’s desire to write an artistic account of the Holocaust, or to write about how one writes about the Holocaust–to write a poetry (of sorts) after Auschwitz–does not, significantly, derive from any personal, historical, or cultural impetus. His concern seems, in many ways, an academic’s regard for aesthetic theory, leading him to envision his book as a split between fiction and essay, with the pieces being published in one book at “opposite” ends (i.e., one would have to flip the book upside down and over to access the text on the other side). What Henry fails to see–Henry, not Martel, let’s be clear–is that he has no legitimate response to the Holocaust. When pressed by a gang of editors, along with a bookseller and a critic, to answer the simple question “What is your book about?”, Henry retreats into a series of wonderfully vague literary generalities:

My book is about representations of the Holocaust. The event is gone; we are left with stories about it. My book is about a new choice of stories. With a historical event, we not only have to bear witness, that is, tell what happened and address the needs of ghosts. We also have to interpret and conclude, so that the needs of people today, the children of ghosts, can be addressed. In addition to the knowledge of history, we need the understanding of art.

But just what “the understanding of art” might mean here, Henry is unable to say. His book is shot down, and, thankfully, Martel’s book Beatrice and Virgil manages to be a novel-about-not-being-about-the-Holocaust-but-being-about-the-Holocaust-but-not-really-being-about-the-Holocaust, which is all for the better, really. (Did that sentence make any sense? No? Sorry. I promise to (attempt to) clarify in my full review of Beatrice and Virgil). Otherwise, Henry might have fallen into the sweet lull of what critic Lee Siegel has described as Nice Writing. Here’s an excerpt from Siegel’s 1999 essay Sweet and Low”:

For at least the past decade, American writers have been pouring forth a cascade of horror stories about their condition or the condition of their characters. The Holocaust, ethnic genocide, murder, rape, incest, child abuse, cancer, paralysis, AIDS, fatal car accidents, Alzheimer’s, chronic anorexia: calamities drop from the printer like pearls. These are elemental events of radically different proportions, and the urge to make imaginative sense of them is also elemental. Some contemporary writers treat these subjects strongly and humbly and insightfully, but too many writers engaged in this line of production turn out shallow and distorted work. They seem merely to be responding to a set of opportunities created by a set of social circumstances. In their hands, human suffering goes unimagined, and the imagination goes hungry and deprived.

To return to Adorno’s dictum–no poetry after Auschwitz–the grim spectacle of history should not be fodder for “a set of opportunities created by a set of social circumstances.” Henry, a young French Canadian with no Jewish roots is utterly divorced from any authentic response to the Holocaust. He could write an academic essay on the subject, or a navel-gazing bit of metafiction that dithered over storytelling itself, but he essentially already has an answer to his own question of why there are so few artistic responses to the Holocaust–that to re-imagine or re-interpret or otherwise re-frame the real events of the Holocaust in art is to, at once, open oneself to dramatic possibilities of failure. Failure would derive from the radical inauthenticity of having merely used, rather than illuminated, one of history’s worst horrors (my verb “illuminate” here stands inauthentic, I admit). Henry–and perhaps, implicitly, Martel–eventually manages to respond to the Holocaust in his art, but I’ll save a discussion of that for a full review of Beatrice and Virgil.