Tag Archives: Mourning and Melancholia

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.

Sigmund Freud – Mourning and Melancholia (1915-17)

Drawing heavily from the Narcissism essay, “Mourning and Melancholia” is an attempt to understand the rare times when an ego “[overcomes] the instinct which compels every living thing to cling to life” (584).Whereas in mourning, the lost object, though repeated reality-testing, is successfully identified and then replaced with another object-cathexis, in melancholia,the unknown loss results in the free libido being “displaced on to another object,” but rather being “withdrawn into the ego” (586), which results in “an impoverishment of the ego on a grand scale” (584). “In this way object-loss was transformed into an ego-loss.” Put otherwise, this is the mirror-image of the “On Narcissism” essay, in that his return to the self represents a violent (not erotic) “regression from one type of object-choie to original narcissism.” Identification with the love-object supersedes object-love:

The ego wants to incorporate this object into itself, and, in accordance with the oral or cannibalistic phase of libidinal development in which it is, it wants to do so by devouring it. (587)

Freud goes on:

The difference, however, between narcissistic and hysterical identification (melancholia) may be seen in this: that, whereas in the former the object-cathexis is abndoned, in the latter it persists and manifests its influence. (587)

In other words, the melancholic does not properly digest the object of mourning. It gets stuck. The processes of reality-testing–going out into the world and coming back to the self–is stunted. In extreme form, the melancholic subject develops sadism directed at the ego, because the ego is thought to be responsible for the lost object. This is the crucial point that turns the ego against the drive for self-preservation:

Owing to the return of the object-cathexis, [the ego] can treat itself as an object–if it is able to direct against itself the hostility which reates to an object and which represents the ego’s original reaction to objects in the external world. (588)

So whereas in mourning, time is needed for reality-testing to free the ego of its libido of the lost object, “the complex of melancholia behaves like an open wound, drawing to itself cathectic energies…from all directions, and emptying the ego until it is totally impoverished” (589). This image, besides bearing an uncanny resemblance to Merleau-Ponty’s “flesh,” totally disrupts the metaphor of diachronic digestion–it is directionless and therefore dangerous. [See Deleuze “Body Without Organs” for reading of this topography as potentially liberating.]