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AfternessFigures of Following in Modern Thought and Aesthetics$

Gerhard Richter

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780231157704

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231157704.001.0001

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Afterness and Empty Space

Afterness and Empty Space

No Longer and Not Yet

(p.199) 11 Afterness and Empty Space

Gerhard Richter

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter tackles the question of whether afterness can be thought to have a space, a Zeitraum, in which its movements can be thought. The German word Zeitraum, idiomatically translated, indicates a period of time but literally means “time-space”; it suggests that time not merely is related to space but also can be thought, somewhat curiously, as having a space. This chapter asks if the after is situated not only temporally but also spatially. More specifically, it considers whether afterness can have a space, and if so, how its space could be thought. Focusing on Hannah Arendt’s notion of “empty space,” a historical and experiential no-man’s-land in which what lies between the after and the before cannot be reduced to the presence of a “now,” the chapter explains how we may interpret afterness as both an openness and a form of traumatic survival.

Keywords:   afterness, Zeitraum, time-space, time, space, Hannah Arendt, empty space, after, before, openness

As the German word Zeitraum, which, idiomatically translated, indicates a period of time but literally means “time-space,” suggests, time not merely is related to space but also can be thought, somewhat curiously, as having a space. Having come in the course of this book on a long journey through heterogeneous engagements with and articulations of the after—from the Greek krinein via the rhetoric of Nachfolge in Kant’s third Critique and the afterness of translation in Heidegger all the way to Derrida’s analysis of mourning and the fictions of anteriority—we might now ask if the after is situated not only temporally but also spatially. Can afterness have a space? If so, how could its space be thought?

In her 1946 review essay, published in the Nation, of the English translation of Austrian modernist Hermann Broch’s magisterial novel The Death of Virgil, Hannah Arendt seeks to articulate, in relation to a literary text, the peculiar logic and unsettling experience of an afterness that feels itself toreside somewhere in between the past and the future, in a peculiar space that nevertheless cannot simply be considered the presence of a now or the prelude (p.200) to what is to come. She names this scene of abandonment “empty space.” Evoking David Hume, Arendt writes:

Hume once remarked that the whole of human civilization depends upon the fact that “one generation does not go off the stage at once and another succeed, as is the case with silkworms and butterflies.” At some turning-point of history, however, at some heights of crisis, a fate similar to that of silkworms and butterflies may befall a generation of men. For the decline of the old, and the birth of the new, is not necessarily an affair of continuity; between the generations, between those who for some reason or other still belong to the old and those who either feel the catastrophe in their bones or have already grown up with it, the chain is broken and an “empty space,” a kind of historical no man’s land, comes to the surface which can be described only in terms of “no longer and not yet.” … All the loose talk of intellectuals about the necessary decline of Western civilization or the famous last generation … has its basis of truth in this break, and consequently has proved much more attractive than the corresponding triviality of the “liberal” mind that puts before us the alternative of going ahead or going backward, an alternative which appears so devoid of sense precisely because it still presupposes an unbroken chain of continuity.1

If Arendt here refers to Hume’s striking figure of silkworms and butterflies, a metamorphic image of generationality that also has occupied thinkers as disparate as Karl Mannheim and François Mentré in their engagements with the Scottish philosopher, she does so in order to emphasize the inextricable interlacing of so-called generations and even historical-epistemic successions that cannot be reduced to the determined and clear-cut model of replacement that governs the relation of a being’s earlier instantiation, the silkworm, and its subsequent, seemingly independent version, the butterfly. The silkworm and butterfly are incapable of existing at the same time; the latter replaces the former by having emerged from it and by having left behind the forms of its previous modes of being in the world. To argue that the succession of human generations and the concept of continuity within a subject’s experience could be thought according to the model of a determined and “clean” break akin to the one that exists between silkworms and butterflies would be highly questionable, because the overdetermined experience of a human psyche hardly would allow for this kind of a categorical break. In fact, it is one of (p.201) the major tenets of psychoanalysis to insist on the peculiar simultaneity of various historical and experiential layers of meaning that can and do inhabit one and the same psychic space at once. To recall Freud’s example in Civilization and Its Discontents. while the various historical and archaeological sediments of the city of Rome allow for only one structure, even a ruin, to occupy the space at the top of the earth, thereby relegating into archaeological obscurity all the previous buildings that over the centuries have occupied that same spot, the psyche alone is capable of providing the space for several localizations of the meaning of an experience at the same time.2 The psyche is an active simultaneity of various historical and structural determinations, a living palimpsest more than an orderly archive of succession. Freud’s insistence on this active simultaneity conforms, in the realm of psychoanalysis, to Hume’s epistemological view that decouples the silkworm—butterfly model from a more human-specific movement of succession and tacit replacement.

Yet, as Arendt’s reference to Hume’s image suggests, at certain moments in one’s experience, such as historical catastrophes or traumatic events of a more personal nature, there is a scission or rupture in what is no longer simply an after or a before. She gives this scission the name “empty space,” a noman’s-land in which time is out of joint and in which there no longer can be a question of returning (as in the recuperative movement of nostalgia) or of leaping forward into futurity (as in the hopeful movement of various utopianisms). Because under certain extreme conditions there can be no credible continuity, not even the kind of continuity that assures us that it works to break with continuity in order to continue differently (but still to continue). A new space of experience opens up, an empty space in which the relationship between the “no longer” and the “not yet” has not yet ossified into legibility—and therefore predictability. This empty space is devoid of determined meanings; in fact, not even its emptiness can be fully “filled” or comprehended after the fact. Empty space, the one that unfolds after the after and before the before, incessantly calls attention to itself, wishes to be read as something while at the same time resisting any such efforts at conceptual and experiential translation.

Locating one iteration of empty space in the margins between the literary creation of Proust and that of Kafka, Arendt works to articulate the aesthetic contours of this space. According to her reading, Proust and his incessant melancholic farewells to the nineteenth century are “written in the key of the ‘no longer,’” while Kafka’s creation speaks to us “as though he wrote from the vantage point of a distant future, as though he were or could have been at home only in a world which is ‘not yet.’”3 It is here, between Proust (p.202) and Kafka, that Arendt locates the achievement of Broch, who emerges as “something like a missing link between Proust and Kafka, between a past which we have irretrievably lost and a future which is not yet at hand.”4 By extension, The Death of Virgil “is, by itself, the kind of bridge with which Virgil tries to span the abyss of empty space between the no longer and the not yet.”5 Broch’s novel, which chronicles with a singular philosophical rigor and lyrical beauty the last twenty-four hours of Virgil’s life, is concerned with the last things, with giving an account of oneself, at the end of one’s life, primarily to oneself. For Arendt, this “judgment is not self-accusation, for it is too late for that, nor self-justification, for it is, in a way, too early for that.”6 This state of affairs in Broch’s novel “makes of the last judgment a human affair, to be settled by man himself, though at the limits of his forces and possibilities—as if he wanted to spare God this whole trouble.” She continues: “The ‘no longer and not yet’ on this level means the no longer alive and the not yet dead; and the task is the conscious achievement of judgment and truth.”7 According to the logic of this perspective, Broch creates an aesthetic form in which the empty space between the no longer and the not yet is staged as a struggle with questions of judgment, justice, and the truth of a life. Unlike a prayer, which cannot simply be true or false, the possibility of a life’s truth or falsity is to be negotiated, in an exasperated yet ethically inflected register, in the empty space of language itself.

Yet, Arendt is no literary historian, nor does she wish her argument to be understood in literary-historical terms. Rather, Broch’s lyrical prose serves her as the rhetorical condition of possibility that propels into thinkability certain aspects of the empty space or no-man’s-land of the no longer and the not yet. To have experienced a coming after always also is to have experienced oneself as a survivor, as the one who was alive at the time, witnessed something there and then, yet, unlike so many others, is still alive here and now, after the fact. It is no accident that Arendt’s friend Benjamin emphasizes the concepts of Überleben. or “surviving the death or loss of something,” and Fortleben, or “simply living on, continuing to live.” In his final interview, Learning to Live Finally, Derrida returns to this Benjaminian distinction, calling attention to the idea of “this theme of survival, the meaning of which is not to be added on to living and dying” but rather is “originary: life is living on, life is survival [la vie est survie]. To survive in the usual sense of the term means to continue to live, but also to live after death.”8 Evoking the ancient Greek view on philosophy, that it is a learning how to die, he states: “Learning to live should mean learning to die, learning to take into account (p.203) absolute mortality (that is, without salvation, resurrection, or redemption—neither for oneself nor for the other). That’s been the old philosophical injunction since Plato: to philosophize is to learn to die. I believe in this truth without being able to resign myself to it.”9 If, for Derrida, speaking from his deathbed, “survival is not simply what remains but the most intense life possible,” he can admit that he is “never more haunted by the necessity of dying than in moments of happiness and joy. To feel joy and to weep over the death that awaits me are for me the same thing.”10 To live fully and intensely, then, is always already to experience life in terms of a survival. The experience of survival not simply is derived from this or that actual death or loss, but is originary to the extent that mourning and finitude are inscribed in every moment of existence, will inflect every stance that could be assumed in relation to what is. Even, and especially, in moments of happiness and joy, their future absence is intuited as a constitutive element of what first makes them possible.

Is the self that inhabits Arendt’s empty space between the no longer and the not yet not also the subject of survival? Is the experience of a coming after—in which one cannot have emancipated oneself fully from what one has left behind without belonging to it any longer, and in which futurity nevertheless remains out of reach—not also a way of articulating an important dimension of survival, both before and after loss? Is afterness itself, in all the ways in which it has been articulated in the course of this book, not always also a name for the impossible possibility of survival? To survive, to live on, to come “after” in an afterness that cannot be fully after—are the lessons of these peculiar forms of afterness not also the lessons of survival? In the end, is the empty space of afterness a form of survival?

To survive loss, departure, and mourning can be a crisis beyond and after crisis. As Cathy Caruth puts it in relation to Freud’s explication of the shifting psychoanalytical relations between trauma and survival, “for those who undergo trauma, it is not only the moment of the event, but of the passing out of it that is traumatic; that survival itself, in other words, can be a crisis.”11 If survival, whether understood in the more usual sense of surviving a particular traumatic event or in the extended sense as an originary and abiding experience of the thrownness of Dasein, can be a crisis, we might ask to what extent afterness is always also a crisis, a crisis of and in survival. To experience afterness—whether in the aesthetic terms of Adorno’s philosophy of art; the language of the image in Benjamin, Derrida, Deleuze, Blanchot, and others; or the problems of translation in Heidegger, to recall just a few of the instances (p.204) of afterness that we have encountered—is always also to be a survivor and to have encountered a certain crisis. But this survival and this crisis, too, always will have been a matter of yet another afterness, not the one that gave rise to them but the one that they will in turn engender. This latter afterness, the afterness to come, the afterness that is therefore both after and before, regardless of whether it is experienced first in the empty space of the no longer and the not yet, is eminently future-directed, as though it conformed to the sentiment that Derrida expresses in his final conversation, when he states that “it’s utopic, but I’m already setting a date!” 12 The afterness that engages survival, the incomprehensible form of living on, even within the fundamental incomprehensibility of our finitude, continues to question, lives on in a kind of vigilance that will not rest and that will continue to refuse to take things for granted or assume them to be self-evident. The empty space of the afterness of survival allows for an experience of freedom in which the last word has not been spoken. Not content to affirm the “logic” by which a disfigured world perpetuates the injustices of unfreedom, unnecessary human suffering, superstitions of various stripes, and habitual environmental catastrophes, an opening up to the unsettling experience of afterness as survival and crisis, and, by extension, an opening up to critical survival and the survival of critique, still remains to be thought.

This remaining to be thought, especially when read through the lens of Arendt’s reflections, extends both forward to the unthought of the not yet and backward to the no longer (for the no longer never will have been able to be “understood” once and for all, finished and closed, safely archived in personal or cultural memory). The not yet of which she speaks also resonates, in spite of all her differences from this contemporary, with Bloch’s philosophy of the not yet, des Noch-Nicht-Seins, as he puts it, in which one’s move into the open, what Bloch calls das Offene. cannot be thought in isolation from the promise of the not yet. “The not as a not yet moves across that which has become and beyond [Das Nicht als Noch-Nicht zieht quer durchs Gewordensein und darüber hinaus],” we read in his Tübingen lecture on the ontology of the not yet.13 The not yet, for both Bloch and Arendt, is charged with future possibility precisely because it remains out of reach for now. By resisting our hermeneutic efforts, the not yet refuses to betray that in whose name it deserves to live on, to survive as its own afterness and therefore as the name of a radically unknown futurity to come. Unwilling to betray by affirming too quickly, this afterness of survival and the survival of afterness cannot do (p.205) without the Hegelian labor of the concept, just as it cannot do without the articulation of that which, within the conceptual, is irrevocably at odds with it.

To return, one final time, to the orbit of Arendt’s empty space, this time to her exposition of the extended dialogue in Broch’s novel between Virgil and Octavian around the question of sacrifice, we, the survivors of afterness, understood in the double sense of the preposition “of,” become witnesses of an end without end, an appropriate breaking off without closure, that makes afterness what it is:

Then comes death, the boat ride down to the depths of the elements when gently, one after another, the friends disappear, and man returns in peace from a long voyage of freedom into the quiet waiting of an inarticulate universe. His death seemed to him a happy death: for he had found the bridge with which to span the abyss that yawns between the “no longer and not yet” of history, between the “no longer” of the old laws and the “not yet” of the new saving word, between life and death: “Not quite here but yet at hand; that is how it has sounded and how it would sound.”14


(1.) Hannah Arendt, “No Longer and Not Yet,” in Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1993), 158–162, here 158–159.

(2.) Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1989), 17–18.

(p.244) (4.) Ibid.

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Ibid., 161.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Jacques Derrida, Learning to Live Finally: An Interview with Jean Birnbaum, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Hoboken, N.J.: Melville House, 2007), 26.

(9.) Ibid., 24.

(10.) Ibid., 52.

(11.) Cathy Caruth, “Trauma and Experience: Introduction,” in Trauma: Explorations inMemory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 3–12, here 9.

(13.) Ernst Bloch, “Logikum / Zur Ontologie des Noch-Nicht-Seins,” in Werkausgabe, vol. 13, Tübinger Einleitung in die Philosophie (Frankfurt am Main: Surkamp, 1985), 210–300, here 219. See also Bloch, Philosophische Grundfragen I: Zur Ontologie des Noch-Nicht-Seins: Ein Vortrag und zwei Abhandlungen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1961).