In the introduction to his book on Sebald, W.G. Sebald, J.J. Long rather amorphously states that his intention is to discuss how Sebald’s works deal with the problem of modernity. This is quite definitely a vague summation of what’s to be found in W.G. Sebald, but the problem is, I’m not sure that the thrust of Long’s book can be any better condensed. You can look to the subtitle, "Image, Archive, Modernity," for a little more detail, but it remains that this short book (200 pages, a lot of which is eaten into by foot- and endnotes) is rather sprawling, much like modernity itself.
A partial list of major topics will bring more detail if not more cohesion: (post-)colonialism, photography, the gaze, maps, archives, police/nanny states, the Holocaust, passports/travel, taxonomies, World War II, memory, identity, Foucault. In other words, the raw material of Long’s book is the raw material of modernity itself, which, Long contends, is also the major ingredient in Sebald’s literature. And so, modernity being a difficult bag to grasp, it’s hard to get too tight a hold on what sits between the covers of Long’s book.
Perhaps the best way to sum it up is to say that Long discusses how Sebald’s books attempt to bring together the disparate aspects of modernity through the technology of the archive, much as the modern state tried to do. Long contends that Sebald’s books are archival in nature, and he attempts to show how Sebald’s archival books present aspects of modernity ranging from wonder and spectacle to migration and dislocation.
What’s nice about W.G. Sebald being so fundamentally amorphous is that, since Long’s book touches on so many aspects of modernity, a reader ends up getting a lot of incidental cultural information about the subject. For instance, on page 42 one learns that
Zoos are ideological machines that participate in structures of power/knowledge. . . . It is not merely . . . that zoos valued animals according to their usefulness and docility, privileging the industrious "servants" of makind over those that not only refused to serve but challenged human dominance. It is also that zoos represented this hierarchical and utilitarian view of nature as, precisely, natural. . . . Secondly, collecting animals is the archetypal act of "marking-off . . . a subjective domain that is not ‘other.’ . . . The privileging of Western knowledge over local knowledge legitimizes the capture and transportation of animals in the name of scientific progress, which also implying a paternalistic view of native populations."
This comes in the context of a reading of an episode from Austerlitz involving the zoo in Antwerp. There is much, much more just like this all over W.G. Sebald. This is clearly a book with an academic tilt, but it is far from unreadable if you have a decent education and aren’t afraid of a man who likes to use the verb thematize. (I found all this cultural studies-type information to be valuable context for understanding Sebald; however, if you do not share my favor for this kind of contextual information and prefer criticism that sticks more to the text, this book is probably not for you.)
I particularly enjoyed Long’s reading of Sebald’s photographs. These have, of course, most often been linked to memory, and many commentators are happy to leave them right there, but Long seems to take this up as a challenge, and if it is a challenge he greatly succeeds in overcoming it. Although photographs are found throughout this book as part of the grand archiving that Long holds is at the center of modernity (there’s a nice bit about how passport photos bring one within and power of the state), the photos are also dealt with in and of themselves. Long sees Sebald’s photos as part of the power of the Western gaze, which in turn is emblematic of how colonialists appropriated the people and landforms the encountered on their way to building empires. Of a photo of an Arab boy found in Vertigo, Long explains it is
an image that encodes the power relationship between the tourist and the indigenous populace. The child poses stiffly, arms locked by his sides, and gazes frontally and expressionlessly into the lens. . . . His smallness relative t the image as a whole combines with his position in the very center of the frame to emphasize the fact that he is exposed in more than just the photographic sense: he has nowhere to run or hide, but has to yield to the photographers gaze, offering himself up for later visual consumption.
From there Long jumps to photographs taken of colonizers by colonizers, arguing that they encode power relations and social status of the time. And then after that, Long gets to the idea of Sebald’s photographs as emblems of postmemory, which he quotes Marianna Hirsch to define as:
a powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation
an investment and creation which can be based in part on material objects, like photographs.
All of the foregoing is covered in Part I, which discusses the fundamental concepts most important to Sebald’s work through four themed essays. Part II provides a reading of each of Sebald’s four novels, focusing on specific aspects: Vertigo (wonder and spectacle), The Emigrants (family photographs), The Rings of Saturn (walking and the narrative), and Austerlitz (the archive). Needless to say, these readings are much like the essays in Part I, with the major difference that they stick a little more closely to the text than the previous, more discursive essays.
Long is the editor of a collection of Sebald criticism (improbably enough, reviewed at PopMatters), and here he demonstrates the great familiarity with and sensitivity to his subject that his position of editor of a collection on Sebald would suggest. I’ve found this book to be greatly useful in developing a more thorough approach to Sebald (as well as a number of authors with whom Sebald shares several affinities), and I think this will be a book I’ll be returning to often.
More on Sebald:
- Conversational Reading’s Sebald posts
- Eurozine on Sebald’s book On the History of Natural Destruction
- My own response to Sebald’s History of Natural Destruction
- My commentary on Rings of Saturn
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