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Inconceivable Effects

Inconceivable Effects: Ethics through Twentieth-Century German Literature, Thought, and Film

Martin Blumenthal-Barby
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Inconceivable Effects
    Book Description:

    In Inconceivable Effects, Martin Blumenthal-Barby reads theoretical, literary and cinematic works that appear noteworthy for the ethical questions they raise. Via critical analysis of writers and filmmakers whose projects have changed our ways of viewing the modern world-including Hannah Arendt, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, the directors of Germany in Autumn, and Heiner Mueller-these essays furnish a cultural base for contemporary discussions of totalitarian domination, lying and politics, the relation between law and body, the relation between law and justice, the question of violence, and our ways of conceptualizing "the human."

    A consideration of ethics is central to the book, but ethics in a general, philosophical sense is not the primary subject here; instead, Blumenthal-Barby suggests that whatever understanding of the ethical one has is always contingent upon a particular mode of presentation (Darstellung), on particular aesthetic qualities and features of media. Whatever there is to be said about ethics, it is always bound to certain forms of saying, certain ways of telling, certain modes of narration. That modes of presentation differ across genres and media goes without saying; that such differences are intimately linked with the question of the ethical emerges with heightened urgency in this book.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6739-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Prologue. Ethics and Poetics: An Uneasy Affair
    (pp. ix-xxxiv)

    A book including the word “ethics” on its cover invokes, for better or for worse, a certain professional affiliation with the field of philosophy and, more specifically, the philosophical branch of ethics. This book, however, is neither written by a philosopher, nor is it, strictly speaking, written for philosophers. As a matter of fact, philosophers, especially those who professionally concern themselves with questions of ethics, will likely perceive this book to be a great disappointment. The book will disappoint professional philosophers because it conceives ethics in an extremely flexible sense as it arises out of the reading of individual texts...

  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    A monograph that encompasses such different genres as political theory (Arendt), fiction (Kafka), cultural criticism (Benjamin), film (Germany in Autumn), and drama (Müller) raises questions: Why these thinkers, writers, and filmmakers? What could a configuration of Arendt, Kafka, Benjamin, German film, and Heiner Müller possibly show that cannot be shown within the confines of existing disciplines? What is the advantage of aligning political theory, fiction, cultural criticism, film, and drama? How can one account for the peculiar constellation of different genres and media, different modes of presentation? To answer these questions, it might serve us well to digress for a...

  6. 1 “The Odium of Doubtfulness”: Or the Vicissitudes of Arendt’s Metaphorical Thinking
    (pp. 16-39)

    Pondering the question of “style” in historiographical narration, Hannah Arendt notes: “The question of style is bound up with the problem of understanding which has plagued the historical sciences almost from their beginnings.”¹ What is the “style” of Arendt’s monumental Origins of Totalitarianism, the text we are primarily concerned with here? And how does its efficacy relate to the problem of understanding totalitarianism? In her response to political philosopher Eric Voegelin, one of the first reviewers of Origins, Arendt elaborates on her decision to, as it were, allocate more historiographical legitimacy to the valences of metaphorical thinking than to statistical...

  7. 2 Why Does Hannah Arendt Lie? Or the Vicissitudes of Imagination
    (pp. 40-55)

    When explaining what she was doing, Hannah Arendt typically provided the term “storytelling.”¹ The storyteller, Arendt writes in the essay “Truth and Politics,” confronts the seeming arbitrariness of the facts presented, constructing certain configurations of “brutally elementary data” that eventually transcend the “meaning” of the chaos of sheer events; the task is to “tell…a story.”² The writer and the historian share this task of bestowing meaning—the art of interpretation: “The transformation of the given raw material of sheer happenings which the historian, like the fiction writer (a good novel is by no means a simple concoction or a figment...

  8. 3 “A Peculiar Apparatus”: Kafka’s Thanatopoetics
    (pp. 56-80)

    “It’s a remarkable [eigentümlicher] piece of apparatus,” reads the first prophetic sentence of Kafka’s 1914 story “In the Penal Colony” (161, 140).¹ It is the officer who speaks this first sentence to the explorer, and in a way, Willa and Edwin Muir’s mistranslation in the Schocken edition is “remarkable” in itself in that, though wrong, they got it just right. For ein eigentümlicher Apparat is, of course, not a “remarkable” but rather a “peculiar” or “singular” or “specific” or “idiosyncratic” apparatus. Yet in the eyes of the officer, the apparatus is indeed not peculiar but simply remarkable—there is nothing...

  9. 4 A Strike of Rhetoric: Benjamin’s Paradox of Justice
    (pp. 81-100)

    Before beginning, a few prefatory remarks appear necessary to maintain at least the hope for what Benjamin would have condemned: communication. Call it an act of violence, an act of communicative violence, if you will. But is not all language, that is, “impure” language, all language after the Fall, as Benjamin would say, violent? And does he himself not battle and ultimately fail in the face of language: fail either by instrumentalizing it as a tool for communication, or fail in failing to communicate, fail as a communicator, so to speak?

    Given this aporetic situation that guarantees failure no matter...

  10. 5 Pernicious Bastardizations: Benjamin’s Ethics of Pure Violence
    (pp. 101-121)

    The pronounced inauguration of “the task of a…presentation” (Aufgabe einer…Darstellung) in “Toward a Critique of Violence” (179) positions Walter Benjamin as an author engaged in the scholarly tradition of the philosophical treatise. While “presentation,” on the one hand, generates the transience of the present rather than re-presenting the pre-existing and pre-dictable, on the other hand, it carries the weight of a philosophical genre and the aura of a scholarly habitus that seems to foreclose the true possibility of presenting, that is, generating the new.

    Among all the forms of violence permitted by both natural and positive law, not one is...

  11. 6 The Return of the Human: Germany in Autumn
    (pp. 122-150)

    Terrorism in postwar West Germany culminated in a series of traumatic events during seven weeks in the autumn of 1977.¹ On September 5, Hanns-Martin Schleyer, chairman of the Daimler-Benz Company and president of the Federation of German Industries (Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie) was kidnapped by members of the Red Army Faction (RAF) in a gun battle on the streets of Cologne.² His four companions were shot to death. In a videotaped statement, Schleyer was forced by his kidnappers to appeal to the chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, for his release in exchange for that of eleven imprisoned terrorists. In contrast to a...

  12. 7 A Politics of Enmity: Müller’s Germania Death in Berlin
    (pp. 151-180)

    Germania Death in Berlin (1956/1971), together with The Battle (1951/1974), Life of Gundling Lessing’s Sleep Dream Cry (1977), and Germania 3 Ghosts at the Dead Man (1995), testifies to Heiner Müller’s intense occupation with German history, particularly the history of violence. The play, which consists of thirteen miscellaneously interrelated scenes, generates a certain politics of enmity—a politics whose poetic itinerary has neither an evident beginning nor an end. We thus may well begin in the middle of the play, in a scene titled “Hommage à Stalin 1,” and we shall, for the time being, “imagine” (vorstellen) “Snow. Battle noise....

  13. Index
    (pp. 181-188)