Monday, August 20, 2007


Adorno sometimes conveys art’s negative gesture through the figure of optical illusion, calling the artwork an “afterimage” (Nachbild). “Artworks are afterimages of empirical life insofar as they help the latter to what is denied them outside their own sphere” (Aesthetic Theory 4); they are “to the disenchanted world . . . an afterimage of enchantment” (AT 58); they are afterimages of nature’s communicative silence (AT 74), “of the primordial shudder [vorweltlichen Schauers] in the age of reification” (79; see also 80), and of reality itself (AT 103). The afterimage can seem to be the trace of the lifted weight of things. In Adorno, that weight can be almost missed (when it belongs to premodern, enchanted nature), or its absence felt as a relief, when it belongs to the effective reality of capital. Considering the quality of the “is” in Georg Trakl’s poetry, Adorno observes that “it expresses no existential judgment but rather its pale afterimage qualitatively transformed to the point of negation” (AT 123). Here the “is” of the afterimage is not something, but only “not nothing,” and fails to trigger at full strength the belief and obligations that go with fact perceptions, whether of natural or social facts. The judgment of the lyric poem, modeled on that of the afterimage, is only an afterimage of a judgment. The afterimage-like artwork mirrors and reveals the dubious ontology that social facts actually have: the question it inspires—“’What is it?’” (AT 121)—is the one social facts should inspire. So Trakl accomplishes what Hegel does not, a dialectical revision of “is” that both expands and loosens it, creating a free inquiry zone: “the assertion [in Trakl] that something is amounts to both more and less and includes the implication that something is not” (AT 123).

The artwork’s problem, though, is that it isn’t an afterimage, but can only try to be like one while actually being an object. Unlike optical illusions that can only be experienced by one person, the artwork is a “thing that negates the world of things” (AT 119). Again, only letting go of art would really relieve its contradiction. The afterimage is a good figure for what art isn’t (as well as of what it would like to be like) because it’s a visual experience that can’t be photographed: we can be given a prompt for the production of afterimages (stare at this colored square, then look away) but cannot share one, or even, as in Kant’s definition of aesthetics as what is both nonconceptual and can be imagined to be shared universally, imagine sharing one. Because it has such slight positive being, the afterimage doesn’t negate the social fact, but also isn’t in danger of becoming a social fact. By falling below the threshhold of the shareable, the afterimage is super-aesthetic.

Image: August Strindberg, cameraless photograph (thank you to The Art of Memory)

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