Tom Huhn’s review of Afterness: Figures of Following in Modern Thought and Aesthetics

Posted by on Apr 20, 2012 in Faculty, Faculty Writings | No Comments

Recently, VCS department chair Tom Huhn’s review of the book Afterness: Figures of Following in Modern Thought and Aesthetics was published in the online journal Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. In the book, Brown University Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature Gerhard Richter discusses his notion of “afterness,” a word/idea he invented in order to explore our understanding of what the notion of “after” means to us, and the effect that subsequent things have on those that came before. As the description on the Columbia University Press page puts it:

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?

In his review, Huhn evaluates Richter’s application of afterness to the ideas of several influential writers and philosophers, including Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Derrida, Franz Kafka, and others. As his critique unfolds, Huhn identifies some of the potential paradoxes and pitfalls in Richter’s approach, including the conflict between Richter’s presentation of afternesss and things that are merely after:

[I]f the after always alters (whatever was before), what purchase can, or should, a concept of afterness have on experience and understanding? That is, and as I understand Richter’s project, what comes after is always a dynamic, perhaps even destabilizing event, whereas afterness, instead, as a concept and category for the understanding, provides that which seeks to install some measure of stasis and conformity under a stabilizing, comprehensive, and all-encompassing term.

In another passage, Huhn quotes Richter’s assertion that “the after” is to be thought of as perpetually open-ended, and then comments:

Is this category of afterness not itself, as Richter so often writes, always and already, a kind of master narrative?

One wants to suggest that a concern with afterness should instead increase the vigilance toward maintaining distinctions among the varieties of ways and things and events that follow. But Richter’s zeal to collect together and reduce to one name a manifold of perhaps very different things leads him to fail to observe an until now — with the leveling effect of afterness — quite important distinction between two of the most prominent forms of textual following, that between commentary and critique.

Toward the end of the review, Huhn focuses on a chapter in Afterness that deals with the effects of translation on meaning (“Afterness and Translation: The Politics of Carrying Across”), and another that reinterprets Bertolt Brecht’s defense of plumpes Denken, or crude thinking (“Afterness and Experience (II): Crude Thinking Rethought”). As in the earlier sections, Huhn teases out the deeper implications of Richter’s project, some of which seem to have been passed over silently in the book.

You can find the entire review at this link, or by clicking on the image above.

Visual & Critical Studies