Negative Seeing: Benjamin's Dialectical Image in W.G. Sebald's "Austerlitz"
Esser, Mary Elizabeth Regina "Gigi"
This thesis uses the aesthetic properties of the photographic negative as a means for thinking about Benjamin’s concept of the dialectical image. I begin the thesis by re-defining the encounter with the dialectical image as an act of successful “negative seeing,” an act of ignoring that which is traditionally given substance and instead looking for meaning in the margins or in that which is no longer present. Using W.G. Sebald’s "Austerlitz" to put this notion into practice, I argue that, despite the apolitical characterization of the novel, the narrative structure of the text, in its use of interruptive pictures, aligns quite nicely with Benjamin’s more revolutionary understanding of aesthetics because it reverses our understanding of narrator-reader positions. Ultimately, the result of what I call Sebald’s “negative” aesthetics and narrative structure is a text that pulls readers away from the passive position of an outside bystander. By offering readers fragments and voids where they might usually find an organizing narrator, the text forces readers to start seeking substance and order beyond the text itself, much like Benjamin encourages audiences to fight political passivity by remaining actively alert to the traces of history that lay behind the present scene.
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