The Look of Things: Poetry and Vision around 1900

The Look of Things: Poetry and Vision around 1900

The Look of Things: Poetry and Vision around 1900

The Look of Things: Poetry and Vision around 1900


Examining the relationship between German poetry, philosophy, and visual media around 1900, Carsten Strathausen argues that the poetic works of Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Stephan George focused on the visible gestalt of language as a means of competing aesthetically with the increasing popularity and "reality effect" of photography and film.

Poetry around 1900 self-reflectively celebrated its own words as both transparent signs and material objects, Strathausen says. In Aestheticism, this means that language harbors the potential to literally present the things it signifies. Rather than simply describing or picturing the physical experience of looking, as critics have commonly maintained, modernist poetry claims to enable a more profound kind of perception that grants intuitive insights into the very texture of the natural world.


Epistemology is true as long as it recognizes the inadequacy of its own
approach and lets itself be propelled forward by the impossibility of
the task itself. It becomes untrue by pretending it is successful.

—Adorno, Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie 33

Question and Answer, or Aesthetics Revisited

This study examines the relationship between poetry, philosophy, and the visual media around 1900. More specifically, it focuses on questions of aesthetic mediation in the poetic works of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Stefan George. the question of mediation, of course, is central not only to German Aestheticist poetry, but also to literary scholarship and philosophical inquiries in general, which, as Jean-François Lyotard has recently argued, is characterized by its condemnation of all possible answers in favor of ever new and unanswerable questions. If a question can be answered, Lyotard caricatures the philosophical position, it was either not adequately formulated or merely a technical question, meaning that it should not have been asked at all.

Unlike Lyotard, I am inclined to take the issue more seriously. Since the investigation into the essence of things and the concomitant notion of absolute truth is, by definition, located beyond the dichotomy of question and answer, it follows that a true question cannot be answered, or, put differently: its answer would be superfluous, because it would already be inherent within the question itself. “[I]n philosophy,” Theodor W. Adorno remarks, “any authentic question almost always in a certain way includes its answer” (Sondern in Philosophie schließt stets fast die authentische Frage in gewisser Weise ihre Antwort ein) (Negative Dialektik 71). Adorno’s cautious formulation (“almost,” “in a certain way”) betrays a critical distance toward the metaphysical history of this kind of thinking, which he sees exemplified in Martin Heidegger’s ontology. Yet Heidegger is certainly not its only propo-

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