Tag Archives: impressionism

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.

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Virginia Woolf – “Modern Fiction” (1919)

Woolf rejects the idea of scientific or industrial progress being applied to literary history. “We do not come to write better; all that we can be said to do is to keep moving.” Nevertheless, she wants to mark out the difference between an older generation of writers (Bennett, Galsworthy, Wells) from the new (Hardy, Conrad, and most recently and importantly, James Joyce). The former are what she calls “materialists”: “they write of unimportant things…[spending] immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.” This is peculiarly close to Woolf’s own methods of composition–one immediately think of the many trivial objects in the Ramsay’s empty house which bear the imprint of human form, the history of life itself. Nevertheless, the problem with materialists is that “life escapes.” Woolf believes that this is because of an unfortunate dependence on convention (social and formal), which restricts the means by which “impressions” are converted into representational forms: of a writer were a free man and not a slave….there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest,” etc. A strange claim: where are these conventions located and who is imposing these forms of repression on the writer-slave? But Woolf insists that these conventional forms do an injustice to Life: “a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Writers that are able to convey this halo are what Woolf calls “spiritual”

Paradoxically, the writer achieves this by way of the ordinary:

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives myriad impression–trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms. (106)

Modern fiction, especially the work of Joyce, is atomic-spiritual. There’s a problematic conflation of the material and the spiritual, but the idea is that by disregarding convention, writes are able to get “closer to life.” Can we think about his in terms of ontological proximity (Levinas) and, at the same time, the discourse of life that runs through Victorian literature (the Brownings, Eliot, Bram Stoker, etc.)?

She concludes with an underhanded jab at both formal and legel censorship, which has been latent throughout.

‘The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss. (110)