Tag Archives: Adorno

Gerhard Richter – Afterness (2012)

Richter identifies his neologism afterness as a near universal trope in modern aesthetics and thought. The German word for after “Nach” gets at the dialectical nature of this temporal progression:

To live nach does not mean to emancipate oneself fully from ongoing proximity. O live nach does not mean to emancipate oneself fully from what went before but, on the contrary, to be subterraneously determined by it to a greater or lesser degree.  (10)

This afterness manifests itself in trauma, dreams, echoes and repetition. In this, way that which comes after, that which “ends” a certain moment, also acts a productive mechanism in the realms of thought and art. Quoting Hegel:

The question should rather be whether this end, incapable as it is of being an end, could possibly be the beginning of something.

Thus every discourse of “ends”–end of art, end of history, end of the human, end of taste–must always be conjoined with a discussion of the reorganization of conceptual paradigms within an emerging discourse. Using Dasein as an example, he notes how various tropes of withdraw simultaneously attempt to name the space that remains to be thought–so a leave-taking entails a conception of a future that has yet to be realized. Thus afterness, as Richter will repeat again and again, holds us in its grip. It materializes as something atemporal–as an experience that is lived.

Richter’s short chapters all take similar form. He clusters three or four thinkers around the relationship between Afterness and some other term: aesthetics, modernity, critique, etc. He uses afterness as a way to unlock the kernel of key theoretical texts, such as Negative Dialectics:

Afterness can be understood here as the affirmation of a dismantling that does not merely destroy its object, but liberates what previously had remained unthought within that object precisely through its dismantling. (52)

Adorno becomes a key figure for Richter, since Adorno so relentless theorizes the anxiety and stagnation produced by mere repetition–a sort of “bad,” ahistorical, reified afterness that is alien to all forms of authentic subjective experience. “Philosophy misses its purpose,” Adorno writes “when it already exists in the realm of repetition, of reproduction” (54). Adorno’s closing words in Mimima Moralia most famously lays out the importance of assuming a position of afterness (of redemption) in relation to the things of the world. Correct perspectives on the world can only be gained from “contact with the objects,” yes, but paired with a cognition that determined these objects as bearing the semblance of the already-redeemed. Here we begin to glimpse the elective affinities between art and thought–in Richter’s words, “the fragile promise of any negative dialectics” (69).

If this sounds like Benjamin, it’s because Richter’s Adorno is shot through not only with Benjamin’s influence, but also with the theological predilections of Heidegger, who is brought in (sometimes uncritically) as unproblematic interlocutor in almost every chapter. “Appearance” becomes a crucail phenomenological terrain for Richter’s arguemnt. Benjamin writes, “That of which one knows that one soon no longer will have it in front of one, that becomes image” (GR 143). [NB: could be linked to the genealogy of impressionism, but also to a description of life without material guarantees…where food becomes image the moment it is cognized. not sure…back to marx]. To solve the problem, Richter reads Heidegger-Deleuze to claim that the path thinking must take is one that is free of image all together–or, more precisely, an image of imageless thought, of image in perpetual withdraw. Adorno silently drops out in moments like this. Would have been nice if Richter had more clearly staged where Adorno would no longer agree with a tradition more comfortable with this passivity/fluidity/ontology/etc….

In perhaps the most compelling chapter, “Afterness and Experience (II): Crude Thinking Rethought,” Richter uses Brecht’s term “Plumpes Denken” to put forth a program for thought in the humanities today:

The task–an infinite task, to be sure–would be to engage in an articualtion of dialectical concepts and deconstructive moments of thought that would remain faithful to their radical singularity, autonomy, nd otherness and at the same time break with that fidelity to allow us to relate to the possible and nonnaive transformative reverberations of the material inscriptions that these thoughts and movements leave in the world. (174)

One feels the convergence of many realms of thought in this passage–deconstruction, marxist critique, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, Deleuzean mondaology–which is precisely what makes this book so compelling. Its lose paratactic form, familiar from Adorno’s “Essay as Form,” allows for maximum capaciousness. Derrida makes a late entrance that feels perfectly in line with the group of thinkers that current critical practice tends to pit against deconstruction. Derrida llows us to think memory as future-oriented–memory is always the memory of a future that is for us (yes, Kafka’s notion of hope is hovering here).


One also registers Adorno’s influence in the more or less paratactic, “constellated” style of Richter’s book.

Oscar Wilde – “The Decay of Lying” (1891)

An essay on the relationship between art and nature, it is staged as a Socratic dialogue between the naive but curious Cyril and the dismissive, articulate, intelligent aesthete Vivian. Vivian believes that Art does not imitate Nature, but that Nature imitates Art:

Art is our spirited protest, our galant attempt to reach Nature her proper place. As for the infinite variety of nature, that is pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her. (970)

He critiques the “realists” strain in modern literature (Zola, Eliot, everyone else) as being either non-art or a fasle romanticization of working class conditions. He therefore rejects what he calls “modernity of form” (976). He exclaims, “Certainly we are a degraded race, and have sold our birthright for a mess of facts” (977). His description of how Art incorporates nature is Adornian to the hilt:

Art begines with abstract decoration….Art [then] takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style…The third stage is when life gets the upperhand, and dries Art out into the wilderness. This is the true decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering. (978)

This defense of beauty and of “decadence” more broadly can be related to Pater’s writings in Renaissance, as well as to, perhaps, Aurora Leigh’s stuff on life. Perhaps read Wilde as a response to that vitalist strain. At any rate, makes an interesting capstone text to a 19th century discussion of fact. Transitioning to the 20th-century, one could talk about “Ithaca” chapter in Joyce as yet another step, a fourth stage, in the play between nature and art.

This essay also has the reference to the “cracked lookingglass,” which Stephen will pick up in the beginning of Ulysses. Can connect to Sargasso Sea, perhaps, and to DeKoven’s work on mirrors and water.

The essay ends with four precepts:

  1. Art never expresses anything but itself
  2. All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature
  3. Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life
  4. Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art

It’s curious that the form of the essay loses it dialogic character and becomes a treatise of sorts. 

Jane Bennett – “The Force of Things” (2004)

Bennett proposes a phenomenology of non-human recalcitrance read as vitality, which she calls “thing-power.” She proceeds to give an alternative (to Marxism, Foucault) genealogy of materialism. This contradicts Adorno’s non-identical warnings by proposing a naïve realism—where concept and object are at least heuristically consonant—that helps us to imagine more ethical relationships to the non-human. Thing-vitality is that which stands in excess of material reference to human projects (be they failures (trash in Baltimore seen as mise-en-scène or assemblage) or success (monuments)).

“A material body always resides within some assemblage or other, and its thing-power is a function of that grouping. A thing has power by virtue of its operating in conjunction with other things.” (353-4)

This is derived via Deleuze via Bergson via Spinoza. [It should be connected to Esposito.] But this also leads to Latour’s notion of an actant (not actor) as way of describing a middle zone in the horizontal continuum between human and non-human (not a vertical chain of being).

Against Marxist (Adornian) critiques, Bennet asserts:

While humans do indeed encounter things only in a mediated way…a moment of [naïve relaism] is necessary for discernment of thing power…A naïve realism…allows non-humanity to appear on the ethical radar screen. (357)

Bennet accuses the fetish of mediation of a prejudice against things in favor of the subject (exactly what Adorno wants to avoid, btw). In contrast, Deleuze, Lucretius, Negri (and Bennett) presume to speak from the object’s position (which is also problematic).

Bennett does an extended reading of Adorno’s negative dialectics, and proposes joy as a way of responding to the non-identical, of motivating social awareness and change (ecological, political, etc.). While Adorno assigns the non-idenitical dark utopian (spiritual) forebodings—the thing materialist describes these things but they offer no promise, but rather hopes to make them more awake to us.

The ecology that emerges is not one of “organic wholes,” but one of participation in collectivities (not harmony, but participation—which is what Nietzsche advocates in Beyond Good and Evil).

Thing-power is an alternative to both historical materialism and body materialism (cultural studies, etc.).