In: KulturPoetik 2012, Heft 2


Hans Rindisbacher


Das Sehen lernen: Literarische Strategien zur Sichtbarkeit der Welt
Friedmar Apel, Das Auge liest mit. Zur Visualität der Literatur. München: Hanser 2010. 190 S.




Written as a plea for seeing and believing (again) one’s own eyes, Apel’s slim book is both a microthematic literary history and a philosophy of the visible, of visuality, vision and seeing as manifested in literary texts since the late eighteenth century. Apel’s approach is comparative, with a slight preponderance of German authors. Goethe’s visions provide the classical point of departure.

Visualität, visuality or more commonly, visibility, is used here as a comprehensive term that subsumes all aspects of the visual world, from objects to subjects, from the apparatus of perception to the act of perceiving, as well as internal, imaginative visions and the ›big picture‹, as it were, the gestalt of whole landscapes and cultures (Greek antiquity, Goethe’s Italy). Apel examines and presents these in their literary manifestations by canonical writers, from Goethe to Peter Handke via William Blake, the Romantics – both German and British – Baudelaire, Stefan George, Hofmannsthal and others. Textuality makes vision permanent but not unproblematically so as it adds the complexities of language and the analytical layers of various modes of representation – realist, symbolist, metaphorical, ironic. Hans Blumenberg, Gottfried Boehm, Karl Heinz Bohrer and other thinkers therefore provide theoretical concepts that in turn often take their primary cues from writers, such as Goethe or the Romantics whose visions are themselves often shaped by profound interdisciplinary interests. One corollary can already be drawn here: vision and text are inextricably linked; in literature as their medium they penetrate many social realms, from the political to the aesthetic, the historical, the biological and the neuroscientific.

The analysis of this many aspects of visibility amounts to a tall order for a short book, and in his effort to keep all the balls in the air, Apel’s treatment is exemplary and illustrative rather than exhaustive, with each of the authors receiving not much more than an illuminating vignette of a dozen pages or so – even fewer for contemporary authors. This requires concise, sparse writing, which Apel provides beautifully and elegantly; it naturally also leaves a lot open. But to Apel’s credit it can be said that his account is infallibly stimulating and, well, eye-opening rather than restrictive. In limiting himself to classical-canonical authors, his study forms a broad, even if conservative, historical arc which only falters a bit as he approaches the present: why, for instance, Hertha Müller and Peter Handke but not the interesting case of Patrick Süskind’s bestseller, Perfume that puts, if nothing else, an intriguing twist on the interplay of the visible mode of seeing and the invisible mode of smelling, mediated in the realms of both text and film?

In lieu of a foreword or introduction, Apel starts out with a survey of the conceptual frameworks that guide his analysis. This first part, »Toward a theory of literary visibility«, spans almost two and a half centuries and develops the key terms, such as visibility, intentionality, attention, readability and topography as well as the interrelation of reading and seeing. It locates their manifestations in various disciplines and schools of thought, from literary scholarship to philosophy, aesthetics, art history, and social theory and on to the cognitive and neurosciences. This first part is a veritable tour-de-force of western philosophy and literary criticism, a problematization of Autonomieästhetik and a critique of deconstructivism. It ends with the endorsement, made explicit in part four, of »Welthaltigkeit«, the rediscovery of and return to an »Auseinandersetzung mit der Sichtbarkeit« that the »jüngere deutsche wie europäische Literatur« finally has embarked on (179). The »autonomieästhetisches Paradigma« which saw the »Beziehung auf die Gegenständlichkeit der umgebenden Welt« as a fall from grace has often served in German literary scholarship as a refuge from the »ideologischen Verirrungen in die Wirklichkeit des Politischen« in the 1960s and 1970s (13) and thus helped to cement the alleged impossibility of simple representation and promoted deep distrust in the ability of literature to develop »Fähigkeiten zur adäquaten Wahrnehmung der Wirklichkeit«. This conceptual stranglehold on literary writing has been waning now for some time. Apel seems to agree with Blumenberg in the latter’s suspicion that the idea of unrepresentabilty of the world in text, »der Weg in die Unendlichkeit des Möglichen« instead of the actual was in fact »die Ausflucht aus der Unfreiheit der Mimesis«. Now that the tide is turning and writing becomes more »realistic« again, it raises the possibility that the »hochfahrenden Kühnheiten der Moderne« might all have been in vain (14). Apel’s examples support his point in reverse: in its greatest representatives, literature has always maintained a concrete and sensory dimension vis-à-vis the world of the visible and the real, that is to say, it retained at least elements of mimesis. The trend of autonomous aesthetics toward »Weltlosigkeit«, the abandonment of the whole spectrum of visuality to the sciences that in Apel’s view has dominated and impoverished German literature since WWII figures as an aberration. The same goes for the corresponding trend in literary scholarship to adopt the patterns of inquiry of the natural sciences and their quintessential focus on the invisible. Apel notices with a degree of relief that in the present »Zeitalter der Virtualisierung und des mechanischen Prozessierens« literature and the arts have begun to return toward the visualization of real space (15). This aligns with his goal for literature to serve (again) as a true hermeneutic system:

Literatur hat aufgrund ihres genuinen Anteils am allgemeinen Verständigungssystem auf metaphorischem, also auf dem Wege eigentümlicher Übertragungen, vielleicht mehr Anteil an der Konstitution von Wirklichkeit und damit auch am Zusammenhang naturbeherrschender Technologie und Ideologie, als ihr sowohl Verfechter des gesellschaftlichen Nutzens wie der Autonomieästhetik zubilligen möchten (16).

In its reclaiming and recommitment to vision and the visible in a new poetics of seeing, literature takes a stand against the dominant »Virtualisierungs- und Simulationstheorien« and the »multikulturell und transgressiv inspirierten Raumvorstellungen« (41). To put this a bit polemically, Apel reclaims for literature a new »realism« not as an ideological program but as a counter-position to the relentless deconstruction of meaning and more in tune with the dawning insight from the neurosciences that the human brain exhibits an innate reality-bias: »Das Gehirn versucht offenbar unter allen Umständen etwas Gegenständliches zu sehen und trachtet nach kohärenter Wahrnehmung« (12).

Apel aims to re-center the individual in a literary-aesthetic universe located at the intersection of language and the visual that modernity has rendered vastly complex. In the melding of seeing and reading, language adds past and future to the inevitably present moment of perception and provides, beyond the sensory pleasure of seeing, referentiality and metaphoricity, the quintessential linguistic structural elements of meaning. This reaffirms the trust in seeing and believing (again) one’s own eyes, but does so far from simply or naively! For Apel, literary facts are, as Ronald Schleifer puts this, »not necessarily observed particulars« but more often »systematically modeled and thus exist[ing] at one remove from what the eye can see«.(1) Apel’s story is thus a critical narrative of modernity focused on the changes of vision and the visual when vision (observation) lost its hermeneutic naiveté and came to be understood as requiring systematic modeling through language. This development was clearly anticipated, among others, by Friedrich Schlegel who, at the very outset of this trajectory toward the modern, inextricably linked image and text:

Das Bild, wenngleich nur ein Gegending, ist doch eine Hervorbringung des Ichs, ein erster Schritt zur Freiheit; das Wort aber ist gleichsam die Bestätigung und Bekräftigung der im Bilde gewonnenen Freiheit. Es ist dem Menschen die Bestätigung, daß er bei der Anschauung doch nicht ganz der Tyrannei der Dinge unterliege (9).

For Schlegel, »Bild« is already at that time not a simple representation. »Anschauung« and »Einbildungskraft,« the imagination that is so much part of literary vision, underpins his (Romantic) view and pushes vision itself into the direction of »künstlerische Selbstbehauptung« as an »Anderssehen der Dinge gegen ein zur zweiten Natur gewordenes Gesellschaftliches, gegen die Wahrnehmungsverordnung einer nur allzu siegreichen Rationalität« (9). This understanding of art convincingly connects with Adorno’s »Autonomieästhetik« that posited the artwork as a locus of resistance against the progress of technical and capitalist rationality. As this view has weakened, notably by the sciences’ retreat from the idea of an »Idealsprache« to seamlessly represent the structure of reality (11), literature has adjusted accordingly and is now, this is the core of Apel’s study, in a position again of contributing crucially to the representation of the real.

The most recent twist with theoretical implications in the seesaw of scientific progress and aesthetic representation is provided by the neurosciences which draw on both fields in a dialectical sublation without, however, themselves being able to escape the interdependence of visual reality and discursive analysis. On the contrary: this interdependence is at the heart of the problem that neuroscience faces in its quest for representability. This issue is deeply entwined in both the visual and the discursive. This is pointed out by Joseph Dumit in his study, Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity (Princeton University Press, 2004). He takes the brain scan, so ubiquitous in our age, and seemingly easy to understand, as an example. First, there is the historical development of the technology itself, which is ongoing and which involves myriad elements as Dumit shows in a list of the disciplines involved in PET experiments (positron emission tomography): »physicists, chemists, nuclear chemists, biologists, computer scientists, electrical engineers, psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, oncologists, nuclear medicine specialists, neuroanatomists, mathematicians. These specialists must cooperate extensively with each other to understand how each area of expertise depends on the results of everyone else’s areas« (Dumit, 54). Out of their close cooperation emerge the actual scans. These, in turn, now require mathematics and statistics, as each scan produces what is essentially a large amount of numerical (computerized) data whose interpretation requires processes of visualization, i.e., a shift from quantitative to qualitative representation. On the way there, difficult decisions of a statistical nature have to be made, standards established, calibrations put in place – each of which may result in vastly differing visual images in the end. One of the keys is to generate a standard, a »normal« brain, against which the one under investigation can then be analyzed, measured, and mapped. The image that is ultimately created is in effect a representation of the differences to the »normal« brain, the statistical chimera created at the outset. Let us also not forget that neuroscience does not really observe or measure anything directly, but always only indirectly within a pre-set interpretive structure, where the flow of a traced molecule indicates glucose or oxygen consumption, which in turn signals activity in a certain part of the brain, which in turn is associated with whatever the inquiry aims at – for instance where language is processed or a tumor grows. Instead of causation there is only correlation and association, a nexus with clear visual-aesthetic qualities.

While these complex structures of creating meaning are not, of course literary, the idea of »defining personhood«, Dumit’s title, is. Max Frisch, for one, had »defining personhood« always on his mind – but approached it textually, narratively, privileging the story as the locus of definition. In Mein Name sei Gantenbein (1964), stories pre-exist even experience: »Ich probiere Geschichten an wie Kleider«. This steers us back toward text and literature and its central function of modeling reality for that »inner eye« that both sees and interprets. Neuroscience has already begun to understand the human need for story not only as culturally conditioned but biologically and neurologically grounded.

In slanting this review toward the widening intersection of recent literary theory with the neurosciences, I am pushing Apel a bit. Neuroscience itself problematizes the link of the visual and the discursive – just as literature and literary theory do. The old saying that a »picture says more than a thousand words« is truer than ever – but even more so is its opposite: that any scientific visual representation without at least a thousand words of interpretation remains opaque, illegible. Apel gestures toward this nexus from the literary shore and does so very usefully. The eye reads along, but the eye itself is being read. When both narrative and physiological paradigms are brought to bear on the question of literary visibility, the neurosciences form the new frontier of interpretation. Apel’s stimulating account only knocks on the door of that realm – but it provides an astute and highly readable account of the prehistory of this unfolding inquiry as reflected in the work of great authors.

Hans J. Rindisbacher, Prof. of German, Pomona College – Dept. of German & Russian, 550 N. Harvard Ave., Claremont, CA 91711, USA; E-Mail:


1) Ronald Schleifer, Intangible Materialism. The Body, Scientific Knowledge and the Power of Language. Minneapolis, London 2009, p. 11. [zurück]