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)”

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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.

“Authenticity’s Wiped Out” — A Passage from William Gaddis’s Last Novel, Agapē Agape

William Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape is a bitter, funny rant, a monologic stream-of-consciousness that, through its extreme powers of synthesis, spills over into heteroglossic eruptions, a carnival of erudite voices. Driven by terrible physical pain, hints of madness, and, most of all, the need to “explain all this” before he dies, the voice of the novel (surely Gaddis himself) channels cultural historian Johan Huizinga and philosopher Walter Benjamin into a conversation about the conflict of art and commerce set against the backdrop of the rise of mass culture:

. . . falls right into line doesn’t it, collapse of authenticity collapse of religion collapse of values what Huizinga called one of the most important phases in the history of civilization, and Walter Benjamin picks it up in his Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in this heap somewhere, the authentic work of art is based in ritual he says, and wait Mr. Benjamin, got to get in there the romantic mid-eighteenth century aesthetic pleasure in the worship of art was the privilege of the few. I was saying, Mr. Huizinga, that the authentic work of art had its base in ritual, and mass reproduction freed it from this parasitical dependence. Ah, quite so Mr. Benjamin quite so, turn of the century religion was losing its steam and art came in as its substitute would you say? Absolutely Mr. Huizinga, and I’d add that this massive technical reproduction of works of art could be manipulated, changed the way the masses looked at art and manipulated them. Inadvertently Mr. Benjamin you might say that art now became public property, for the simply educated Mona Lisa and the Last Supper became calendar art to hang over the kitchen sink. Absolutely Mr. Huizinga, Paul Valery saw it coming, visual and auditory images brought into homes from far away like water gas and electricity and finally, God help us all, the television. Positively Mr. Benjamin, with mechanization, advertising artworks made directly for a market what America’s all about. Always has been, Mr. Huizinga. Always has been, Mr. Benjamin. Everything becomes an item of commerce and the market names the price. And the price becomes the criterion for everything. Absolutely Mr. Huizinga! Authenticity’s wiped out when the uniqueness of every reality is overcome by the acceptance of its reproduction, so art is designed for its reproducibility. Give them the choice, Mr. Benjamin, and the mass will always choose the fake. Choose the fake, Mr. Huizinga! Authenticity’s wiped out, it’s wiped out Mr. Benjamin. Wiped out, Mr. Huizinga. Choose the fake, Mr. Benjamin. Absolutely, Mr. Huizinga! Positively Mr. Benjamowww! Good God! a way to find a sharp pencil just sit still avoid stress stop singing what, anybody heard me they’d think I was losing my, that I’d lost it yes maybe I have . . .

“Rites of Melancholy” — W.G. Sebald

This realization of the impossibility of salvation matches the unrelated condition of melancholy which, in developing its own rituals, promises some relief but not release from suffering and the “feral deseases” so often mentioned in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Among these rituals, in the narrator’s case, are the nocturnal reading of telephone directories and timetables, the unfolding of maps, and the making of plans for imaginary journeys to the most distant of lands, countries that might well lie beyond the sea shown in the background of Dürer’s Melencolia. Like Robert Burton, who was familiar with melancholy all his life, the narrator is a man “who delights in cosmography … but has never travelled except by map and card.” And the summer bed with room enough for seven sleepers where he meditates on stories such as that of the Black Death, with all its paths and coincidences, is of the same century as Burton’s compendium, an era of anxiety when the fear was first uttered “that the great mutations of the world are acted, or time may be too short for our designes.” The narrator’s digressive excursions from the starting point of this realization open up the view—again, a reminiscence from Hamlet—of a world lying far below melancholy, a “dead globe crawling with parasites” whose power of attraction is spent and forfeit. The icy sense of distance as the narrator turns away from all earthly life represents a vanishing point in the dialectic of melancholy. However, the other dimension of the Saturnian circumstances responsible for melancholy does point, as Benjamin has said and in the context of the heavy, dry nature of that planet, to the type of man predestined to hard and fruitless agricultural labor. It is probably no coincidence that the narrator’s only utilitarian occupation seems to be growing herbs. He sends these herbs, dried and in carefully adjusted mixtures, to various delicatessens in Milan and Amsterdam as well as to Germany, to Hamburg and Hannover. Perhaps they bear the words “Rosemary, that’s for remembrance” written in Ophelia’s hand.

From W.G. Sebald’s essay “Constructs of Mourning,” collected in Campo Santo.

 

Ten Inspiring Quotes from Ten Inspirational Writers

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“Authenticity’s Wiped Out” — A Passage from William Gaddis’s Last Novel, Agapē Agape

William Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape is a bitter, funny rant, a monologic stream-of-consciousness that, through its extreme powers of synthesis, spills over into heteroglossic eruptions, a carnival of erudite voices. Driven by terrible physical pain, hints of madness, and, most of all, the need to “explain all this” before he dies, the voice of the novel (surely Gaddis himself) channels cultural historian Johan Huizinga and philosopher Walter Benjamin into a conversation about the conflict of art and commerce set against the backdrop of the rise of mass culture:

. . . falls right into line doesn’t it, collapse of authenticity collapse of religion collapse of values what Huizinga called one of the most important phases in the history of civilization, and Walter Benjamin picks it up in his Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in this heap somewhere, the authentic work of art is based in ritual he says, and wait Mr. Benjamin, got to get in there the romantic mid-eighteenth century aesthetic pleasure in the worship of art was the privilege of the few. I was saying, Mr. Huizinga, that the authentic work of art had its base in ritual, and mass reproduction freed it from this parasitical dependence. Ah, quite so Mr. Benjamin quite so, turn of the century religion was losing its steam and art came in as its substitute would you say? Absolutely Mr. Huizinga, and I’d add that this massive technical reproduction of works of art could be manipulated, changed the way the masses looked at art and manipulated them. Inadvertently Mr. Benjamin you might say that art now became public property, for the simply educated Mona Lisa and the Last Supper became calendar art to hang over the kitchen sink. Absolutely Mr. Huizinga, Paul Valery saw it coming, visual and auditory images brought into homes from far away like water gas and electricity and finally, God help us all, the television. Positively Mr. Benjamin, with mechanization, advertising artworks made directly for a market what America’s all about. Always has been, Mr. Huizinga. Always has been, Mr. Benjamin. Everything becomes an item of commerce and the market names the price. And the price becomes the criterion for everything. Absolutely Mr. Huizinga! Authenticity’s wiped out when the uniqueness of every reality is overcome by the acceptance of its reproduction, so art is designed for its reproducibility. Give them the choice, Mr. Benjamin, and the mass will always choose the fake. Choose the fake, Mr. Huizinga! Authenticity’s wiped out, it’s wiped out Mr. Benjamin. Wiped out, Mr. Huizinga. Choose the fake, Mr. Benjamin. Absolutely, Mr. Huizinga! Positively Mr. Benjamowww! Good God! a way to find a sharp pencil just sit still avoid stress stop singing what, anybody heard me they’d think I was losing my, that I’d lost it yes maybe I have . . .

Book Acquired, 9.27.2011

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I’m psyched about this one—Uncreative Writing by Kenneth Goldsmith, who you may know as UbuWeb.  Here’s the description from the publisher, Columbia UP

Can techniques traditionally thought to be outside the scope of literature, including word processing, databasing, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, inspire the reinvention of writing? The Internet and the digital environment present writers with new challenges and opportunities to reconceive creativity, authorship, and their relationship to language. Confronted with an unprecedented amount of texts and language, writers have the opportunity to move beyond the creation of new texts and manage, parse, appropriate, and reconstruct those that already exist.

In addition to explaining his concept of uncreative writing, which is also the name of his popular course at the University of Pennsylvania, Goldsmith reads the work of writers who have taken up this challenge. Examining a wide range of texts and techniques, including the use of Google searches to create poetry, the appropriation of courtroom testimony, and the possibility of robo-poetics, Goldsmith joins this recent work to practices that date back to the early twentieth century. Writers and artists such as Walter Benjamin, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Andy Warhol embodied an ethos in which the construction or conception of a text was just as important as the resultant text itself. By extending this tradition into the digital realm, uncreative writing offers new ways of thinking about identity and the making of meaning.

Hitler’s Private Library — Timothy W. Ryback

In Hitler’s Private Library, Timothy W. Ryback works from Walter Benjamin’s assertion that “a private library serves as a permanent and credible witness to the character of its collector.” Ryback delves into the books–the actual, physical books–that Hitler studied and pondered, paying particular attention to the dictator’s annotations and marginalia. To be sure, there are plenty of political tracts–especially anti-Semitic writings, such as Henry Ford’s The International Jew–to be found in Hitler’s library, but far more fascinating is Ryback’s analysis of Hitler’s love for Robinson Crusoe, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, of all books. Hitler’s taste was varied–there’s an early infatuation with Max Osborn’s Berlin, an architectural guide to that city, an obsession with Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, and Hitler’s final day’s poring over a biography of Frederick the Great (he also comforted himself in the final days of his regime by rereading his boyhood favorite Karl May).

The Nazi party’s lurid mania for occultism is well documented, but Ryback brings a fresh perspective here, eschewing tabloid histrionics in favor of a measured approach to Hitler’s volumes of bizarre and arcane works. More troubling is the public misconception that the works of Schopenhauer and Nietchzsche some how gave philosophical weight to the Nazi’s crime spree; Ryback eliminates that notion:

For all the talk of Hitler’s exploitation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concepts of the “master race” or Arthur Schopenhauer’s notion of the “will to power” that Hitler used to headline the 1934 party rally and Riefenstahl cribbed as a title for her cinematic chronicle of the event, we have little credible evidence of Hitler’s personal engagement with serious philosophy. Most of what we know is tenuous and at best anecdotal.

In short, Hitler was a poseur who recontextualized bit parts of great thinkers into mind-numbing sloganeering for his own ends (luckily, no politicians today would be so crude). Ryback’s even-handedness here is indicative of the project of his book: his is not a psychological study; he never seeks to explain the motivations for Hitler’s evil actions, but rather report what Hitler read closely. What we get in the end is an historicized, contextualized account of a bibliophile who initiated book burnings and mandated reading lists.

Hitler’s Private Library is really a book about books and how what we read shapes and then testifies to who we are and what we did in our life. I am not particularly interested in Hitler or the (well-documented) history of WWII, but I found in Hitler’s Private Library both a fascinating dialogic analysis as well as a new narrative take on some pretty stale material. The philosophy of Walter Benjamin permeates Ryback’s book, which is also a big plus. I’m not sure if the world needs another book about WWII, but I’m always a sucker for books about books. Recommended.

Hitler’s Private Library is available in hardback and ebook on October 21st, 2008 from Knopf.

Ways of Seeing

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger riffs off of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” calling into question how and why images are used and disseminated; in particular, Berger discusses capitalism, the female body, and “fine art.” The internet is clearly the next step in a series of progressions of how information is transmitted, and has been held up as a bastion of information democracy. The personal computer has revolutionized how we view, read, and create images and documents.

Look at the following images. What authority, if any, is present in each image? Who authors the picture? How do history, original context, and cultural paradigms play into how the viewer “reads” the image? What questions do these images provoke?

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