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The Bohrer Challenge


By Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

Although there is much talking about "aesthetic autonomy" in the Humanities (above all in Literary Studies), humanists normally do not deal with "aesthetic experience" as an autonomous phenomenon. But this is not a paradox, probably not even a contradiction. For when humanists write about "aesthetic autonomy," they mostly do so from a historical angle and in a historiographical discourse. They are then describing a movement of literature and the arts toward greater institutional autonomy, a movement that is supposed to have occurred between the 17th and the 18th centuries, within increasingly "bourgeois" societies -- a development also which many humanists, while they acknowledge that it is irreversible, find utterly deplorable. In contrast, when humanists speak about "aesthetic experience," they normally do so from a pedagogical perspective (although they are often embarrassed to use the word "pedagogical"), from a perspective that thematizes certain expectations, often normative expectations, attached to aesthetic experience as it occurs in our present and as it may occur in our future.

Whenever they write in this second, pedagogical and normative discourse, humanists seem to be incapable of thinking aesthetic experience other than in a subordinated function. They either see aesthetic experience as furthering and deepening the understanding of history -- in this sense, for example, it has been a foundational myth of Marxist criticism that Balzac's novels do more for our understanding of early capitalist society in France than any history book -- or they claim that aesthetic experience will sharpen our ethical judgment and intensify our awareness of moral problems. For example, to be able to feel the injustice to which African Americans have been exposed it is better to read Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison than to follow the press coverage on national politics.

I know of no other critic nor philosopher in the contemporary intellectual scene who, against this double pedagogical subordination of the aesthetic experience, has insisted more than Karl Heinz Bohrer on the autonomy of the aesthetic experience as it occurs in the present and as it may occur in the future. This is what I call the "Bohrer challenge" and this, above all, is why I think that it is important for our American discussions to be exposed to the provocation of Bohrer's work. For good reasons (i.e. with the obvious intention of avoiding potentially misleading terminological overlapping with other authors), Bohrer himself hardly ever uses the word "autonomy." Nor does he ever "evaluate" the independence of aesthetic experience which his philosophy claims. The independence of the aesthetic experience, for Bohrer, is neither something glorious nor something deplorable. It simply is the claim of a radical incompatibility between aesthetic experience and all other modalities of experience. To mark this incompatibility, Bohrer often recurs to Friedrich Nietzsche's description of the "Dionysian" mode of experience without necessarily buying all the other implications of Nietzsche's philosophy. The Dionysian mode of experience, then, the mode of experience that Bohrer identifies with the aesthetic experience, is characterized by three components: by its abruptness; by its capacity to evoke feelings of terror in the recipient; by the de-individualizing effect that is has on the recipient while his or her reception of the work of art is happening.

Among these three aspects which, for Bohrer, describe and explain the incompatibility between the aesthetic mode of experience and all other kinds of experience, he has primarily (although not exclusively) developed over the past twenty years the aspect of the "abruptness" of aesthetic experience, i.e. the aspect of its temporal discontinuity. Suddenness (Ploetzlichkeit), his only major book translated into English so far (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), elaborates the observation that aesthetic experience is inevitably disruptive, in the sense of not being something to ever be expected, anticipated, or even planned. In Das absolute Prasens: die Semantik aesthetischer Zeit (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1994). Bohrer first tries to analyze what seems to be a precondition for the existence, or for the assumption of the existence, of any "canon," namely the presupposition that the capacity of an artwork to become an object of aesthetic experience is not limited to the historical context of its origin. Greek tragedies still trigger reactions of terror in us, and in this sense objects of aesthetic experience are always "present." Secondly, Bohrer argues that the imaginary and the sublime, as key modalities of aesthetic experience, "are only in the now" -- in other words that they occur in discontinuity from any past nor any future. Most recently, in Der Abschied: Theorie der Trauer: Baudelaire, Goethe, Nietzsche, Benjamin (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1996), Bohrer has tried to show that since Baudelaire the specific mode of presence (characterizing the aesthetic experience of Modernity) is a presence that is always already lost; a presence, therefore, which causes the desire, particularly strong in Benjamin's work, of redeeming from the past such always-already-lost presentness.

For me the strength of Bohrer's philosophy is that instead of praising aesthetic experience's potentially intrinsic advantages or denouncing its potentially intrinsic shortcomings, he has simply concentrated on the description of its incompatibility with all other modes of experience. What Bohrer calls "aesthetic nihilism," therefore, should not be confused with the predominant English meaning of "nihilism" as a philosophy rejecting all positive values. Bohrer is much more modest. He simply claims that aesthetic experience cannot be "redeemed" or "cashed in" on the basis of non-aesthetic "values" or a non-aesthetic "currency." In this sense, for example, when Bohrer speaks (with Baudelaire) of "the evil" ("le mal") in aesthetic experience, he does not refer to any substantial negative value. "The evil" ("le mal," "das Boese"), for him, simply marks the impossibility of thematizing ethical (moral, political) issues on the basis of a mode of experience, i.e. the aesthetic mode of experience, in which the present is disconnected from any possible future -- we need the future dimension if we want to discuss ethics or politics.

Are there any "positive" aspects (or any "values") in Bohrer's aesthetics? He would find this question suspiciously academic. But before I try to explain why Bohrer would find this question so, I should insist, once again, that his central topic is the discontinuity, the incompatibility which aesthetic experience establishes between itself and all other modes of experience and not the glory nor the misery of this incompatibility. There are indeed only a few remarks concerning the specific "intensity" of aesthetic experience in Bohrer's work, and, more interestingly perhaps, short reflection on the potential of aesthetic experience becoming foundational for "a humanism without gods," i.e. an experience of what it may mean to be "human" that does not draw its legitimacy from "higher" values or principles. Bohrer associates this (yet underdeveloped) motif of a "humanism without gods" with a memory of his adolescence: "when the American soldiers suddenly emerged before them [before the German soldiers] out of the water like young Gods: the German soldiers did not yet understand that it was jazz music which revealed the superiority of the enemy. They [the Germans] still believed in other Gods, which were also the Gods of Fascism. Now something incomprehensible occurred in front of their eyes: the triumph of secularization, to be human without Gods!"

Bohrer's Stanford lecture, on November 9, 1998, will add one new aspect to his philosophy. Perhaps I should say that it will focus on an institutional problem that he has not thematized thus far as an insight made possible by his philosophy. This aspect is the incommensurability between, on the one side, aesthetic experience the way Bohrer describes it and, on the other side, the academic institution which cannot help but be committed to the transmission of ethical, political, and even national values (and Bohrer does certainly not blame the academic institution for this commitment). Nevertheless, he makes it clear that the questions of whether aesthetic experience is "teachable" and whether the university is a place where aesthetic experience can occur at all, are real questions, urgent questions, and I would not hesitate to say: the most important and the most provocative questions that the Stanford Presidential Lectures have produced so far.

One of the reasons why aesthetic experience may not be "teachable" has to do with Bohrer's insistence on its presentness. Perhaps the best that we (the poor "academic instructors") can do, is to provide situational circumstances in which the presentness of aesthetic experience can happen. Nothing, however, seems to be more counter to this presentness than interpretation, the core practice on which the Humanities as an institution have been hitherto based. For the "interpretation" of an artwork is the attempt to transform the presentness of its experience (the experience of an interpreter) into the timelessness of it's meaning identified, a timelessness which, if it were possible, would allow the interpreter's experience to be transported into the future and to impose it upon other potential interpreters. Bohrer, I suppose, would say that we should not even try to engage in such pedagogy. His potential reluctance might have to do with the biographical fact that before becoming a professor of Literature Karl Heinz Bohrer was an outstanding cultural journalist (he is already part of history as the leading non-academic literary critic of the 1970s and 1980s in Germany). Outstanding cultural journalists, however, do not interpret artworks. They make their readers envious of the presentness of their own aesthetic experience -- an experience that they can neither teach nor "share."


Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is Albert Guérard Professor of Literature, Department of Comparative Literature and of French and Italian, Stanford University. He is also Director, Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts.

© 1998, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht


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