Tag Archives: Benjamin

Andrew Benjamin – Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde (1991)

Benjamin uses art, mimesis and the avant-garde to reconceptualize the task of philosophy out of a ontology of “ontological difference,” which is a constituent component of “existence.” He transforms Heidegger’s division between Being and beings into a division or difference between various modes of being. “This shift has occurred because difference is henceforth differential rather simply marking a negation or non-relation” (3). Adorno lurks in the background. If the history of philosophy is of constantly falling prey to the trap of identification (between concepts and objects, Being and facts, etc.), then Benjamin wants to claim there is always already “plural ontologico-temporal” existing in the primacy of the already present. This temporally produced differential is crucial for Benjamin’s particular take on mimesis. For him, the artwork bears this internal temporal fracture and therefore participates, through its mimetic function, both in the “here and now” and in the past and future that exceed its context.

In chapter 9 “The Decline of Art: Benjamin’s Aura,” he uses Barthes’ theory of “significance” in “Le troisième sens” to explain his peculiar take on Benjamin’s aura. Significance refers to that which exceeds “pure information” and “symbolism.” The former is confined to the semiotics of the message, while the latter is more complex, but solely dependent on context–whose “temporality is therefore inscribed within its contextual existence.’ The third sense manifests itself in the moment that Barthes realizes, “I cannot detach myself from this image.” This “obtuse” meaning “sterilizes metalanuage (critique),” because it is indifferent to history and to the obvious meaning, and facilitates a distance from the referent” (145).  In A. Benjamin’s words, “Significance is a primordial presence occasioning, if not grounding, the possibility of the continuity of interpretation and hence of reinterpretation. Furthermore, it is a presence that can never be included within the temporality of he instance and therefore ontology of place, both of which involve the conceptions of time and being proper to context.” Therefore, “Significance is linked to survival and the capacity of the object of interpretation to live on” (146). Basically, this is what makes the photograph a work of art.

Benjamin’s reproducibility essay claims that experience is in a state of decay. He is ambiguous as to the loss of aura’s negative and positive effects. Importantly, it is not only our ability to experience, but the object of experience’s ability to “look back” that is decaying. A. Benjamin latches onto this intersubjective modality in order to claim that the primordial (which characterizes Barthes third sense) is “an otherness within presence which is part of presence itself” (149), thereby guaranteeing semiotic survival outside of the regimes of history and information.  He argues,

If the aura can be related to the primordial then the experience of aura needs to be understood beyond the melancholy interplay of nostalgia, loss and redemption. (151).

Yes! This adequately accounts for Benjamin’s point: “We define the aura of the latter [natural objects] as the unique phenomenon of distance however close it may be.” This “differential” marks the inherence of the primordial–the guarantee of semiotic survival: “The idea of life and after life in works of art should be regarded with an entirely unmetaphorical objectivity” (from Task of Translator). Which is to say, that metaphor no longer acts as the semiotic structure for understanding the enduring power of art (link to Levinas, de Man, et al). Thus the “truth content of the work of art…becomes its capacity to live on” (153). We need to better understand what this unmetaphorical living is….

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.