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Gerhard Richter. Afterness: Figures of Following in Modern thought and Aesthetics.

Gerhard Richter. Afterness: Figures of Following in Modern thought and Aesthetics. New York: Columbia UP, 2011. 272 pp.

Gerhardt Richter's Afterness is a series of meditations on the indeterminacy of language and experience. As the title's neologism indicates, one of the most conspicuous forms of this indeterminacy emerges from our experience of time. Like Jacques Derrida, Richter believes that we live in memory of a past that was never fully present or accessible and in anticipation of a future that may never come. Because we can neither recover and retain the past nor break with it by bringing it to some kind of conclusion or resolution, it haunts us like a ghostly apparition. Yet, Richter cautions us, afterness is not to be identified too narrowly with "a teleo-chronological succession of afters" (2). His concern is with its structural and conceptual features as "a rhetorical, intellectual, and experiential phenomenon that emerges from our understanding of lateness, supersession, and posteriority" (9).

Richter believes that there is something characteristically German about afterness, and most of his subject matter is taken from the canon of German literature and philosophy that has been established over the past two hundred years, although not to the exclusion of other work that falls within the European continental tradition. From Goethe and Kant to Mann and Adorno and beyond, the essays in this collection move effortlessly between genres and centuries to impart Richter's sense of a German cultural legacy. Richter also claims that afterness is an essential feature of post-Kantian modernity, although, as he himself admits, this claim is more difficult to defend, since most of the features that he attributes to afterness are ubiquitous and not the exclusive properties of a period or epoch. Because afterness is a constituent part of thought, language, and experience, it can be ignored, suppressed, or misrecognized but not simply eliminated, or that, at least, is the thrust of Richter's arguments. Afterness is always with us. Like mortality itself, it presents us with a kind of test of character in which we succeed to the extent that we can acknowledge and engage its disturbing implications. In Richter's words, "the experience of afterness gives expression to a largely unconscious ideology of suppression that warrants critical examination" (21). This unconscious ideology of suppression commonly takes the form of an Enlightenment metaphysics that renders the world transparent, present, and knowable and that brings narrative coherence and closure to the chaos of history. In opposition to such closure and coherence, afterness keeps things open; it is "the site of competing significations and claims that have a capacity to surprise us in their idiomatic singularity and in their refusal to be absorbed without remainder into the master narratives, valuable and reassuring as they are, of causal and linear unfolding" (21).

In defending idiomatic singularity against conceptual leveling, Richter finds natural allies in thinkers like Adorno and Benjamin, both of whom receive considerable attention in this book. Richter argues that the value of Adorno's work is its difficulty, its refusal to accept the consolation offered by various attempts to resolve the contradictions of modern life. One of the ways that this difficulty is expressed is in the hybrid form of Adorno's critical writing, a form predicated on an unstable mixture of philosophy and literary art. This generic impurity does not transcend the limitations of either philosophy or art but forces us to think critically about these limitations, and this is its power: "Adorno's faithfulness to a perpetual engagement with the radically opposed yet interdependent requirements of philosophy and art, enabled by the aesthetic form, continues to be a thorn (a-Dorn) in the side of those ideologies of the end of history that have resigned themselves to mere mimesis and a tireless affirmation of self-identity" (70). Richter faults both the interpreters and translators of Adorno who suppress his difficulty out of the need for consolation, and he sounds a similar theme in his discussion of Benjamin's notion of rescue (Rettung). According to a familiar deconstructive logic, when we attempt to preserve and maintain something from the past, we inevitably alter its identity. In Richter's terminology, when we attempt to preserve and maintain an object's identity, we discover its "non-self-identity." The very concept of rescue is then compounded of contradiction. Rescue must both preserve the concept of the object that it would protect from oblivion and show the limitations of that concept. Most conspicuously, we often gain access to the contents of a cultural heritage by prying them loose from the conceptual framework that identifies them as a too-familiar part of our cultural legacy. A similar kind of logic, Richter observes, applies to the act of translation, to the attempt to preserve the meaning of an original text as it is transported into a new and foreign language. In a discussion of Heidegger's thoughts on translation, he tells us that to translate is to discover the strangeness, the otherness, both of a new language and of the text which is to be translated. Richter discovers yet another form of afterness in the photographic image. When viewed through the lens of afterness, the photograph can only dramatize its failure to be about something, its failure to reproduce the self-evidence of an original scene.

In his introduction, Richter warns his readers that "Any thinking of afterness may ultimately very well require the 'dark patience'" that is mentioned in a poem by Georg Trakl, and this is apt (19). In deference to their subject matter, the essays in this volume are rigorously inconclusive. That is, they avoid the linear logic that the author so distrusts by adhering closely to the paradoxical language of the texts that they are exploring. Since moving toward a conclusion would constitute a kind of performative contradiction, these essays tend to move laterally by multiplying examples or downward by excavating etymologies and historical precedents. Their labor is a work of patience that, paradoxically, leaves us longing for a more lively sense of the satisfactions that, we are told, we must abjure.

Allen Dunn, University of Tennessee
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Author:Dunn, Allen
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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