Afterness
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Afterness

Figures of Following in Modern Thought and Aesthetics

Gerhard Richter

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Afterness

Figures of Following in Modern Thought and Aesthetics

Gerhard Richter

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About This Book

Gerhard Richter's groundbreaking study argues that the concept of "afterness" is a key figure in the thought and aesthetics of modernity. It pursues questions such as: What does it mean for something to "follow" something else? Does that which follows mark a clear break with what came before it, or does it in fact tacitly perpetuate its predecessor as a consequence of its inevitable indebtedness to the terms and conditions of that from which it claims to have departed? Indeed, is not the very act of breaking with, and then following upon, a way of retroactively constructing and fortifying that from which the break that set the movement of following into motion had occurred?

The book explores the concept and movement of afterness as a privileged yet uncanny category through close readings of writers such as Kant, Kafka, Heidegger, Bloch, Benjamin, Brecht, Adorno, Arendt, Lyotard, and Derrida. It shows how the vexed concepts of afterness, following, and coming after shed new light on a constellation of modern preoccupations, including personal and cultural memory, translation, photography, hope, and the historical and conceptual specificity of what has been termed "after Auschwitz." The study's various analyses—across a heterogeneous collection of modern writers and thinkers, diverse historical moments of articulation, and a range of media—conspire to illuminate Lyotard's apodictic statement that "after philosophy comes philosophy. But it has been altered by the 'after.'" As Richter's intricate study demonstrates, much hinges on our interpretation of the "after." After all, our most fundamental assumptions concerning modern aesthetic representation, conceptual discourse, community, subjectivity, and politics are at stake.

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1
Afterness and Modernity
A Genealogical Note
In our interrogation of the variegated conceptual aspects of afterness thus far, the words “modern” and “modernity” have made more than one appearance. In fact, one might say that by retroactively glossing terms that already have been in circulation, my sentences in this chapter perform a kind of afterness of their own. That is, what the following sentences introduce and attempt to justify already has preceded them, even haunts them, and my elaborations here, in a sense, chase after what they will have been meant to inaugurate. Afterness, as I wish to understand it, should be conceptualized first and foremost as a structural phenomenon, but its historical dimension should not be repressed or ignored. While the structural specificity of afterness will become clear, in ever-shifting modulations, over the course of the chapters that follow, an appreciation of its historical inflection requires a slightly different, more genealogically oriented account. For this reason, it is appropriate to explain, if only in a rather elliptical way, the general sense in which the historicoepistemic terms “modern” and “modernity” frame the structural problem of afterness.
To be sure, afterness as a category hardly can be confined to any single historical episteme or narrowly defined cultural “period.” Its particular logic and structural reach are at once too heterogeneous and too historically persistent for such a delimitation. By the same token, the very notion of modernity, like all forms of periodization, is problematic not only because so-called periods always are retroactively constructed by the historiographer’s gaze, but also because any such historical invention must of necessity remain both over- and underdetermined, at once including and excluding too much. In the case of modernity in particular, intellectual and cultural historians’ various designations of the term compete. One of the most well-articulated characterizations of modernity is provided by the political theorist Marshall Berman in All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity:
There is a mode of vital experience—experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life’s possibilities and perils—that is shared … all over the world today. I will call this experience “modernity.” To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology…. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, “All that is solid melts into air.”1
Berman ultimately anchors his thoughtful account of modernity, which emerges in constant dialogue with the work of Marx, first and foremost—and perhaps at times too single-mindedly—in the political economy of early capitalist development and the earliest versions of something like a world market in the sixteenth century. What is to be gained from this articulate account is not only a politically mediated insight into the dialectical workings of modernity but also an appreciation of a methodological difficulty. For, like any account of modernity, Berman’s ultimately cannot fully embody the complexities and internal contradictions that any use of such a term must necessarily gloss over.
As Berman implicitly agrees, the sometimes overly triumphant claim that the inventions and allegedly progress-driven changes that took place between feudal or medieval cultural structures, on the one hand, and those associated with the emerging bourgeoisie in the eighteenth century, on the other, deserve to be subjected to a far-reaching semantic, political, and ideological critique.2 Indeed, if “the modern” can be regarded as a cultural and historical category at all, it would have to be situated somewhere within the matrix of irreconcilable assumptions that range from French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s deceptively simple statement in Une saison en enfer (A Season in Hell, 1873) that “il faut être absolument moderne,” via the more recent influential meditations on the so-called postmodern condition by Lyotard and Fredric Jameson, all the way to Bruno Latour’s sentiment, We Have Never Been Modern.3 Yet my wager here is that modernity, if this category retains any use value or conceptual specificity at all, could be thought as the philosophical and cultural-historical episteme in which the experience of afterness acquires an unprecedented urgency, even an obsessive quality that inflects philosophical and aesthetic discourse in decisive ways. Viewed from the standpoint of its imbrication with afterness, the term “modernity” might best be conceived along the lines of what Derrida once termed a paleonomy—that is, the “maintenance of an old name in order to launch a new concept.”4
The philosophy and culture of modernity, on the most general level, are conceived here as problems that follow from Kant’s so-called Copernican turn in thinking in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), where he proposes that consciousness and its cognitive faculties be called on to provide an account of the ways in which the world of phenomena becomes the object of a consciousness’s mental representation that cannot be fully understood as such. Critical philosophy, as Kant conceived it, thus was required to distance itself from precritical modes of dogmatism and skepticism in order to confront reason as a form of the radical self-critique of reason. As the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason explains, philosophy “demands that reason should take on anew the most difficult of its tasks, namely that of self-knowledge, and to institute a court of justice [einen Gerichtshof einzusetzen], by which reason may secure its rightful claims … and this court is none other that the critique of pure reason itself.” He further explains that, by this, he does not “understand a critique of books and systems, but a critique of the faculty of reason in general, in respect of all the cognitions after which reason might strive independently of all experience, and hence the decision about the possibility or impossibility of metaphysics in general.” Such a thinking can be set on its way only “after discovering the point where reason has misunderstood itself.”5 In this self-critique of reason, the object world can be thought but ultimately not cognized (erkannt), which is to say that “things-in-themselves” are unknowable to us except as cognitive appearances, mental presentations that answer to the precepts of mind and intellect rather than to those of the world of things. These presentations may or may not correspond to the actuality of an object realm. Kantian philosophy therefore investigates the a priori conditions of cognition and experience—that is, the cognitive structures, suppositional necessities, and forms of judgment whose analysis is required even before their actual encounter with this or that idea, thought, or experience. Kant calls this form of inquiry transcendental philosophy, setting it apart from the sensuous philosophy of such early thinkers as Epicurus, empiricists such as Locke, and skeptics such as Hume. If, for Kant, a critique of pure reason always is a transcendental critique that is not based on experience but rather investigates the conditions of possibility of experience prior to any actual experience, then this critique can be said to withdraw the world from the modern subject, a subject that has become rich in Geist but, in a certain sense, “poor in world.” It is with this fundamental “inward” turn that the subject of modernity is confronted not only with the requirements of its own possible freedom (since, for Kant, the project of critical philosophy is inseparable from the experience of freedom) but also with the sense of its inability to inhabit the object world fully and transparently. The world has become, quite radically, a question of interpretation—and of interpreting even the question of the question of interpretation—so that this world’s truth has become the erratic movement of an ever-shifting hermeneutic investment.
The modern, post-Kantian subject acutely feels that it lives after the inherited certainties of traditional metaphysics, even—and especially—when it strives to cope with this felt experience of afterness by erecting magnificent systems of conceptual containment, as in the Idealism of Kant’s successors: Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. Being, in the world of modernity, is haunted by a fissure in the concept of origin, structured instead by forceful experiences of finitude, loss, mourning, and irrecuperable memory. The experience of modernity is the experience of afterness, of tradition fading away, of modes of life disappearing for good—whether it be the falling away of traditional metaphysics in the wake of critical philosophy, the Marxian notion that early capital has transformed the entire mode of human existence in a way that necessitates a “ruthless critique of everything that is,” Baudelaire’s melancholic evocations of life in the modern metropolis, the devastation of an entire generation with previously unheard-of technological devices during World War I, or the state-sponsored industrial killing associated with the Shoah. The sense of an irretrievable passing, an absolute mourning without measure, is staged with remarkable literary subtlety in such paradigmatic modern novels as Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain (1924), a text interrupted by, and rewritten following, the trauma of World War I, and Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1930–1942), with its evocation of the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even the various historical avant-gardes of early-twentieth-century European art hardly can be thought and understood without the concept of a philosophical and aesthetic imbrication with a felt afterness. The experience of afterness in modernity encompasses not only the notion that something has been outlived or survived by something else, but also the realization that what has been outlived or survived no longer belongs to the structural possibility of experience of that which is to come. It is no accident, then, that the German word modern has two different meanings, as has often been pointed out (by, among others, Friedrich Engels): when stressed on the second syllable, it is congruent with the English adjective “modern”; but when stressed on the first syllable, it becomes a verb meaning “to decay” and “to rot.” Just as in the case of Hans Castorp—the quintessentially modern protagonist of Mann’s Magic Mountain, who falls ill with tuberculosis while visiting a sanatorium where he ultimately is forced to remain for seven years, “decaying” as it were—the double valence of the German modern encrypts the dialectic of the modern experience.
While the experience of afterness in modernity, as a capacious philosophical, cultural, and aesthetic category, touches all the Western traditions in one way or another, it inflects the German intellectual tradition with particular force. Already one of Kant’s earliest readers, the playwright and author Heinrich von Kleist, experienced Kant’s Copernican turn as a fundamental trauma. The afterness of this trauma precipitated what has come to be known as his “Kant crisis.” In a famous letter to Wilhelmine von Zenge dated March 22, 1801, Kleist writes that he “recently became familiar with the newer so-called Kantian philosophy,” the reading of which had “painfully shaken [schmerzhaft erschüttert]” him. He explains:
If all humans, instead of eyes, had green glasses, they would have to conclude that the objects which they perceive through them are green—and they would never be able to decide if their eye shows them the things as they are or if it adds something that does not belong to the things but to the eye. So it is with the understanding [dem Verstande]. We cannot decide if what we call truth is truly truth or if it only appears as such to us. If the latter is the case, then the truth that we gather here is no longer after our death—and all striving to acquire property that also follows us to the grave is in vain…. My only, my highest goal has sunk, and I now have no more.
For, since this conviction, namely, that there is no truth to be found here, stepped before my soul, I have not touched a book. I have been pacing in my room; I have sat at the open window; I have run outside; an inner unease has recently driven me to tobacco stores and coffee houses; I have been attending plays and concerts looking for distraction; in order to sedate myself I even committed a stupidity that Carl may wish to tell about rather than I myself; and yet, the only thought that worked on my soul during these outward commotions with burning anxiety was always only this one: your only, your highest goal has sunk.6
While it remains a matter of dispute whether Kleist’s crisis was precipitated by an unusually rigorous reading of Kant or by a misreading—does Kant really abandon the concepts of truth and understanding in the ways that Kleist imagines here?—what is culturally significant about Kleist’s reaction to Kant is that it stages the radically transformative nature of Kant’s critical philosophy as it came to be inherited by German and European thinkers and writers in the mode of mourning and loss. Just as, from the perspective of the writer, there is a Kleist before and a Kleist after the experience of Kant, so there is a modernity before and after the intervention of Kant’s critique. It is perhaps this critical perspective on the before and the after that propels Hölderlin, in a remarkable and difficult passage from a 1799 letter to his brother, to write that “Kant is the Moses of our nation [der Moses unserer Nation] who leads it from its Egyptian exhaustion into the free, solitary desert of speculation.”7
But it was not only the poets of the age who responded to the fundamental challenge of Kant’s critique. It was, above all, the German Idealists—Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel—who saw themselves, in more ways than one, as living and writing in the afterness of Kant, seeking to develop speculative systems that would take up and, in significant ways, work to recuperate the subject of modernity. They all implicitly shared Hegel’s sense of a post-Kantian modernity, a thinking that is both an afterness and a beginning. As Hegel argues in The Phenomenology of Spirit, it “is not difficult to see that ours is a birth-time and a period of transition to a new era. Spirit has broken with the world it has hitherto inhabited and imagined, and is of a mind to submerge it in the past, and in the labor of its own transformation.” He continues: “The frivolity and boredom which unsettle the established order, the vague foreboding of something unknown, these are the heralds of approaching change,” a change that “illuminates the features of the new world.”8 This new world, this birth time of a new era, is the image of modernity itself, which now must consider itself rigorously in terms of the fundamental afterness it has entered.
In response to this gradual yet irreversible birth of modernity, in which, as Hegel puts it, “the Spirit in its formation matures slowly and quietly into its new shape, dissolving bit by bit the structure of the previous world,”9 Fichte developed a system of transcendental philosophy he termed Wissenschaftslehre, in which a renewed emphasis on the distinction between the “I” and the “Non-I” was to address the challenges of reason as the self-critique of reason. Schelling wished to articulate a philosophy of nature that would provide an account of nature and its necessary delimiting function in relation to Geist, transcending its Kantian limitations while serving as an important counterpart to the seemingly self-containing operations of the intellect as posited by Kant. Most importantly, Hegel’s dialectical model of absolute knowledge, developed in the Phenomenology and elsewhere, worked to call into presence a system of cognition for which—through the movement of Aufhebung (a “sublation” that is at once a cancellation, a preservation, and an elevation)—everything is potentially a matter of recuperation and indirect, or mediated, rescue. A discarded, refuted, or lost object, idea, or experience always potentially can be retrieved in the service of an Aufhebung that feeds on what is lost or discarded in the relentless striving for ever-higher planes of cognition and the integration of knowledge. As Hegel famously puts it in the Phenomenology, the dialectical, mediating power of what is sublatable is founded on a concept of Geist in which “Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it [dem Negativen ins Angesicht schaut, bei ihm verweilt].”10 To be su...

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