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Reviewed by:
  • W. G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity
  • David Cockley
J. J. Long. W. G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity. New York: Columbia UP, 2008. ix + 224 pp.

In much of the criticism focusing on W. G. Sebald's work, the Holocaust figures as the primary point of departure, and little work has been done to dispute its centrality to his texts. While not disagreeing with the indelible influence of the Holocaust, J. J. Long attempts to resituate Sebald's work inside a modernist context by arguing that it is modernity that forms the central focus. Long understands modernity to mean the "seismic social, economic, political and cultural transformations that took place in European societies from the eighteenth century onwards" (1). He charts how these transformations manifest themselves in Sebald's novels in order to observe how the technologies that come to prominence in modernity reshape memory and, subsequently, contemporary identity. Long argues that the photographic image, the archive, and the critique of power developed by Michel Foucault play prominent roles in Sebald's novels, essentially questioning how modernity implements new challenges to the contemporary subject.

The Holocaust still plays a large role in Long's argument, but not as the starting point from which to study Sebald's work. Rather, the Holocaust becomes an example of the relationship between modernity and the contemporary subject. Long follows the lead of prominent scholars such as Zygmunt Bauman and Tzvetan Todorov who argue "that the Holocaust was an event whose very conditions of possibility lay in the technological rationality and bureaucracy characteristic of modernity itself" (2). In essence, one cannot study the Holocaust without considering the modern technologies that made it possible. Trains for transportation, modern bureaucracy in the form of record [End Page 869] keeping, and the horrific technologies that made mass killing possible all enabled one of the worst tragedies of the twentieth century. Furthermore images and archives, both characteristic of modernity, are essential to the formulation of cultural memory of the Holocaust and to Sebald's work.

Long argues that modernity instituted a crisis in memory due to the technological changes that occurred, and Sebald's central questions focus on these issues in order to foreground their effect on the contemporary subject through the way they construct cultural memory. Postmemory, as it derives from both images and archives, plays an essential role in these questions. Even the museum plays a role in constructing a dominant narrative that shapes individual perceptions of the past. For Long "consciousness is always already infected by external mnemotechnical supplements; the artifacts of modernity are permanently lodged in the psyche as a kind of internal prosthesis" (4). Thus, the artifacts that exemplify modern technology link memory and modernity through the technological processes that recontextualize the past. Sebald uses these ideas as broad themes that reappear throughout his novels in the form of reprinted images and archives of all kinds. Long provides various examples from all of the novels in order to show the repetition of the theme and develop the way Sebald questions the processes that reshape memory in the modern world.

The technologies of memory amount to a question of power in which the image and the archive institute a normative gaze. Images, for example, provide a view of a single moment in time that is then taken as evidence for how conditions were in that context. Alternatively, scholars have discussed the incomplete and constructed nature of an image. Sebald's use of images in his novels attempts to question the certainty of the viewer and bring to light the partial nature of any photograph. By using real photos that force the reader to question the authenticity of both the narrative and the image, Sebald challenges the authority of photography to construct memory. The same question relates to the archive in the example of the museum. Long examines how "museums in particular construct the illusion of adequate representation" through a "process of decontextualisation and recontextualisation" (28). The museum takes objects out of their natural context and replaces them in a new one where a different relationship between artifacts is established that conveys the sense of full representation. Sebald calls these representations into question by demonstrating...


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