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The Myth of Otherness: Goethe on Presence
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The Myth of Otherness:
Goethe on Presence

Western culture is dominated by representation—however, in 1993 in a series of essays, Jean-Luc Nancy counters this paradigm of all signification processes from a culturally critical perspective with a new paradigm, and proclaims “the birth to presence.”1 In the course of this paradigm shift from representation to presence and as a consequence of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s work, contemporary literary criticism has also taken an interest in “what meaning cannot convey.”2 Yet, to speak of a “new” paradigm implies a kind of mastery, since presence basically represents an outdated paradigm in two respects. In the hermeneutic tradition, whose roots are deeply grounded in the philosophical aesthetic of the nineteenth century, the concept was, first, used for the direct experience of meaning, most importantly in the realm of art. Second, as understood by poststructuralist thinkers—especially in the field of deconstruction—hermeneutics was then seen to be motivated by a disproportionate or even false desire for presence. Since the 1960s, in the wake of these investigation into representation, the paradigm fell into oblivion or even disrepute. Hermeneutics seemed to be a mode of engaging with texts that sought to secure the full presence of signification, a pleroma of meaning. In contrast, the emphasis among poststructuralists was on the dark stain of the signifier, the operation of the trope, the play of textual signs deferring any arrival at a fullness of meaning.

If, in the age of post-hermeneutics,3 presence is now invoked as a counterforce to hermeneutics, there seems to be a peculiar anti-deconstructive twist at work in much of this new thinking. To the extent that the return to presence employs a concept that deconstruction has deemed obsolete, the new focus on presence entails neither a turn nor a return leading into the past. Instead, this return opens up a future potential without requiring or anticipating any dialectical reconciliation in the synthesis of hermeneutics and deconstruction. The new paradigm is not only outdated in two respects, but the return to presence is in two respects also a defensive gesture. On one hand, this gesture is directed at hermeneutics, which, at the expense of meaning, excludes everything that cannot be converted into meaning. On the other hand, the defense is directed against the poststructuralist interpretative practice of deconstruction, which in itself is not less obsessed with meaning. In order for the unlimited semiosis process to unfold smoothly, deconstruction also has to exclude all other material aspects of such processes that then become the focus of attention with the return to presence: I [End Page 49] would like to call this phenomenon, which has been integrated into the theoretical settings of various disciplines since the turn of the century, “the other of meaning.” With this in mind, and considering the broader context of the material turn, cultural theory puts a fundamentally new orientation related to the history of ideas on its agenda alongside the new paradigm which already integrates considerable research.

In the new discourse of presence, then, the deferral and difference to which poststructuralists have drawn their attention become the very site of an encounter with presence as radical otherness. Presence cannot be thematized or converted into what is familiar—“semblable”—and it is located not so much in the “thickness” of the sign, but rather in a semiotic and sensual surplus that inheres in aesthetic and ethical experience. This new form of attentiveness plays out against the backdrop of twentieth-century theory, established above all by Martin Heidegger, and calls upon the entire retinue of philosophers, psychoanalysts, and cultural theorists from Jacques Lacan to Emmanuel Lévinas. In particular, Dieter Mersch has integrated this semiotic approach and thereby has set an important cornerstone for the revision of the new paradigm in aesthetics and ethics: in the poststructuralist tradition, his considerations are based on the negativity of the sign. Signs are, in short, neither what they stand for, what they clarify, present, or identify, nor are they that with which the signata demarcate or differentiate themselves from one another. The reverse side of this negativity is the affirmation of phenomenal individuality that comes into view with...