Ars Disputandi

Volume 7 (2007)
issN: 1566–5399
Alyda Faber
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On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin,
By Eric L. Santner
Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006; xxii +
219 pp.; pb. $ 20.00; isnN: 0–226–73503–6.
In a book co-authored by Eric L. Santner, Slavoj Žižek and Kenneth Rein-
hard, the authors introduce their project as follows: ‘it might well seem to be a
fool’s undertaking to attempt to make psychoanalysis a key resource in the project
of reanimating the ethical urgency and significance of neighbour-love in contem-
porary society and culture.’
Yet this is precisely the ‘fool’s undertaking’ that the
book takes on. In his most recent book, On Creaturely Life, Santner continues this
project with an intricate exploration of ‘creaturely life’ or ‘creaturely expressivity,’
animportant concept for 20
centuryGermanauthors (manyof whomare Jewish),
including Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Rosenzweig, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin,
and Martin Heidegger. These authors, along with Sigmund Freud and contempo-
rary interpreters of psychoanalysis (including Jacques Lacan, Jonathan Lear, Jean
Laplanche), and other poets, literary critics and philosophers, are drawn upon to
elaborate Santner’s contention that ethical and political life cannot be adequately
assessed without attentiveness to ‘creaturely life.’ Santner’s careful reading of
the semi-documentary literary work of Winfried Georg Maximillian Sebald (de-
ceased 2001), has two aims: to explore Sebald’s work as ‘an archive of creaturely
life’ (xiii) and so as a practice of neighbour-love, and to introduce a new way of
interpreting literature. Both aims develop aspects of Santner’s other recent book,
On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig (2001).
Chapter 1 introduces the primary concept of the book, ‘creaturely life,’
and clarifies that Santner locates this term not in any opposition (or merging) of
human and nonhuman, but rather as a persistent feature of human political life.
Chapter 2 examines the ‘mood’ of Sebald’s fiction as a manic sort of melancholy
withreference toWalter Benjamin’s sense that melancholyexpresses animmersion
in creaturely life. Santner asks how a melancholic gaze on human social arrange-
ments relates to redemption, or, in other words, to ethical and political thought
and action. Chapter 3 begins a close analysis of Sebald’s work, illuminating how
creaturely life features in his writing in the form of excess agitation, or ‘undead-
ness’ (Santner) along with a Pauline understanding of hope, as the possibility of
intervention into ‘undeadness’ through its ‘deanimation’ (thus giving a different
1. Eric L. Santner, Slavoj Žižek, and Kenneth Reinhard, The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in
Political Theology (Chicago and London 2005).
c August 28, 2007, Ars Disputandi. If you would like to cite this article, please do so as follows:
Alyda Faber, ‘Review of On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald,’ Ars Disputandi [http://www.ArsDisputandi.
org] 7 (2007), paragraph number.
Alyda Faber: Review of On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald
understanding of resurrection). Chapter 4 engages Sebald’s use of photographs
in his work, and the hitherto neglected critical analysis of gender and sexuality in
Sebald’s writing. Here, Santner brings the various ways ‘creaturely life’ has been
traced throughout the book into conversation with Freud’s interpretation of the
‘uncanny’ as a condition of compulsive repetitiveness. Finally, Santner develops
in his epilogue a practice of openness and attention to the creaturely singularity of
the neighbour, who exposes us to something in excess of any ‘available categories
of sociosexual organization and who provides us with an ethical material we have
only begun to explore’ (xxi).
Santner refers to W. G. Sebald’s work as a ‘poetics of exposure’ (49). He
interprets Sebald’s literary practice of attention and exposure to creaturely life as
akin to the Judeo-Christian commandment of neighbour-love, and as an interven-
tion within creaturely life. ‘Exposure,’ understood here in both psychoanalytical
and philosophical terms (for the latter, with specific reference to Heidegger), un-
derscores two important aspects of the view of subjectivization that Santner sees
at work in Sebald’s writing: as continuously incomplete and dynamically consti-
tuted in relations, especially unconscious, enigmatic ones; and as ateleological, or
infinitely singular, exposed to chance and contingency. Such exposure opens us
at once to what is unchosen but meaningful in social relations, and to stubborn,
asocial opacity and muteness in the neighbour with an unconscious. The uncon-
scious is the expression of creaturely life in its excess animation, a paradoxical
‘stuckness and agitation,’ an ‘undeadness’ constituted through exposure to the
sovereign exception.
In this way Santner makes an important ‘slight adjustment’ to Foucault’s
influential understandingof the transformationof power fromsovereign, juridical
power into a more diffuse ‘disciplinary power’ or ‘biopolitics.’ Santner argues for
the necessity of retaining the notion of sovereign power, or ‘the politicotheological
dimension of the subject’s inscription into power relations’ (183–184), that Foucault
assumes has disappeared. Following Walter Benjamin, Giorgio Agamben, and
others, Santner contends that persons in modern capitalist society still feel the
effects of sovereign power’s dependence upon the ‘lawless law’ of sovereign
exception, the power tosuspendthe rule of lawinorder topreserve law(a dynamic
explained in Carl Schmidt’s political theology). These effects of sovereign power
– experienced as ‘deposits’ of creaturely life with its excess animation – ‘disperse
andproliferate along newpathways andrelays’ (183), into practices of commodity
exchange and sexual practices, among others.
In what Santner calls the ‘spectral materialism’ (xvi) of W. G. Sebald’s
work lies another index of creaturely life, and ‘proximity to the “neighbour”’ (58),
or neighbour-love. ‘Spectral materialism’ refers to responsiveness to past suffer-
ing as it persists inthe ‘setting’ of humanhistory, incities, inruins of buildings (57);
as well as the capacity to stay near the unredeemed suffering, the material haunt-
edness of another person’s ‘spirit world’ that remains unarticulated, enigmatic,
and thus inaccessible to empathy (58). Santner develops Sebald’s ‘spectral mate-
rialism’ as an act of bearing witness to the perpetual ‘mythic violence’ (Benjamin)
of the rise and fall of states, institutions, commercial trades, each of which leaves
Ars Disputandi 7 (2007),
Alyda Faber: Review of On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald
enigmatic material deposits inpersons, as their ‘signifyingstress,’ their distortions,
woundings, disfigurations, or ‘cringe’ (Kafka) effect. Santner elaborates Sebald’s
literary practice of witnessing and transmission, his ‘spectral materialism,’ with
reference to Walter Benjamin’s idea of ‘natural history,’ Freud’s understanding of
sexuality as drive (compulsive repetition) rather than (animal) instinct, Marianne
Hirsh’s notion of ‘post memory,’ and Roland Barthes’ distinction between the
studium and punctum of photographs. A number of literary themes that mark
Sebald’s ‘spectral materialism,’ discussed with reference to Vertigo, the Emigrants,
The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz, include his use of photographs, his repetitive
inclusion of ‘undead’ characters aimlessly wandering somewhere between life
and death (Kafka’s Hunter Gracchus and Balzac’s Colonel Chabert), and the com-
pulsive, yet aimless, psychic pressure experienced by his characters. The sexual
practices anduncertainsexual orientationof numerous Sebaldcharacters function
as a site of particularly insistent hauntedness by the peculiar ‘undead’ pressures
of the sovereign exception. Santner’s interpretation of gender and sexuality in
Sebald’s work leads to his assessment that psychoanalysis, and its concern for the
intimate secrets of sexuality, is ‘always already a “social science,” always already
deeply engaged with the texture of social bonds’ (196).
A question that informs the entire argument of On Creaturely Life is
the relation between melancholy as a practice of attention to creaturely life (a
‘mood’ that Sebald’s work intensifies into pleasure for the reader) and political
and ethical thinking and action. Does Sebald’s literary melancholic immersion
in creaturely life avoid quietism? Here it becomes evident, once again, that in
Santner’s reading of Sebald, the ‘slight adjustments’ are the important ones. The
‘slight adjustment’ (rather than any escape from the creaturely life ‘cringed’ by
the lawless law of sovereign exception) involves the possibility of a suspension
of creaturely life through neighbour-love within these social dynamics. Sebald
explores possible sites of neighbour-love, and enacts attentiveness to creaturely
forms of life through acts of witnessing and transmission. This intervention
(admittedly a literary aesthetic intervention rather than a political-ethical one)
allows us to imagine and enact newpossibilities for solidarity precisely at the sites
of creaturely life ‘that materialize the persistence of deep structural stresses in the
social body’ (91). Santner therefore considers Sebald’s literary work analogous to
psychoanalytic and religious liturgical practices. He also relates Sebald’s literary
intervention to what Walter Benjamin calls ‘weak messianic power,’ elaborated in
a key passage (cited twice by Santner): ‘This little man is at home in distorted life
[des entstellten Lebens]; he will disappear with the coming of the Messiah, who (a
great rabbi once said) will not wish to change the world by force but will merely
make a slight adjustment in it [nur um ein Geringes sie zurechtstellen werde].’
Sebald’s character Austerlitz says, ‘We take almost all of the decisive steps in our
lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious.’
2. Cited in Santner, 25, 130, Walter Benjamin, ‘Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of
His Death,’ trans. Harry Zohn, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 2, 1927–1934, ed. Michael
Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA 1999), 811.
3. Cited in Santner, 132, W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, Trans. Anthea Bell (New York 2001), 134.
Ars Disputandi 7 (2007),
Alyda Faber: Review of On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald
On Creaturely Life is a difficult book. It is also a very compelling book.
I attribute this to the way its argument works on the reader, which is not unlike
Santner’s discussioninthe epilogue, of Rilke’s poem, ‘the Archaic Torsoof Apollo,’
in which the one looking at what is a fragment also becomes implicated within
the address of the poem: ‘you must change your life.’ The narrators of Sebald’s
novels make similar precarious efforts in response to historical fragments and to
persons in all their insistent, haunting, disoriented particularity that shifts the
writing of history into the writing of the past and the risk-filled present, a practice
that implicates and destablizes the narrator. Characterizing Sebald’s work as
neighbour-love, and thus as an ‘ongoing research project’ (141) of ‘sustaining
fidelity to such encounters’ (141), it seems to me that Santner has committed to
something similar in his own work: to enact for the reader the risk and effort
of aesthetics and literary critical-psychoanalytic argument as always constituted
in response to creatureliness, and as able to generate new forms of ethical and
political thinking and acts of solidarity through exploration of possible sites of
Ars Disputandi 7 (2007),

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