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  • Looking Away: Phenomenality and Dissatisfaction, Kant to Adorno
  • Jan Mieszkowski (bio)
Looking Away: Phenomenality and Dissatisfaction, Kant to Adorno. By Rei Terada. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. 240 pp. Cloth $49.95.

Looking Away opens with the observation that conventional epistemology, far from merely identifying the conditions of knowledge, has enjoined us to endorse its claims about experience and the world. The barest of facts demand to be sanctioned by a value judgment, especially when they are being presented as uncontestable. What would it mean, asks Terada, to resist this coercion and reserve the right to be dissatisfied with claims about existence—even those that seem to stand beyond dispute—or simply not to have a position on them at all? Following a trajectory from Kant and European romanticism through Nietzsche and Adorno's analysis of the artwork, this book describes an alternative epistemological tradition of efforts to respect discomfort with the inevitable and to avoid submitting to a particular view [End Page 469] of the world. "It isn't a new norm that's being sought here," clarifies Terada, "only a vacation from orchestrated affirmation" (32). Although in the first instance the focus is on the philosophy of perception and cognition, the political stakes of such a discussion should be clear. Terada identifies queer theory as a discourse that contests social obligations to supposed "givens," but one will also recognize the significance of these arguments for gender studies more broadly, as well as for a wide range of ongoing work in ethnic and critical legal studies.

The core concept of Looking Away is "phenomenophilia," the embrace of ephemeral perceptual experiences that may offer relief from the normativity of "fact perception," which is always a judgment about both what is and what ought to be. In the simplest terms, "looking away" means momentarily glancing at something—an optical illusion or a passing play of light—that is too fleeting or insubstantial to demand affirmation of its status as a proper feature of the world. The suspensive, metaperceptual character of this evanescent freedom recalls a number of other romantic and postromantic topoi—for example, Fichte's Schweben or Benjamin's self-affection—that potentially disrupt the hegemony of dialectical sequences of positings and negations. The desire to look away can also be understood as a wish to withdraw from the social realm and to have perceptions that make no claims on what others perceive and how they perceive them. The singularity of such an experience would thus have to do with the way in which it would fail to become the grounds for a new perceptual norm.

Phenomenophilia is an inherently conflicted passion. Looking Away opens with a reading of Coleridge's Notebooks and his extensive descriptions of "spectra" (optical illusions, hallucinations, and sensory oddities). While Coleridge tries to relieve his discomfort with phenomenal norms by indulging in alternative ephemeral experiences, his reflections are marked by a profound guilt about his perceived lapse into empiricism. Describing the difference between Coleridge's spectra, which he feels no obligation to treat as facts, and his "spectres," obsessive thoughts and memories that do exert a profound hold over him, Terada shows that looking away is invariably distinguished by an elaborate interplay between a phenomenological event, the psychological drives that motivate it, and the resulting rhetorical effects. The consequence is that competing ethical claims emerge within even the most limited of cognitive moments. In this context, Terada's contrast of the perceptual experiences of Coleridge and Wordsworth is particularly helpful in illuminating the fragile relationship between privacy and the ironization of the social that informs such reflective exercises. [End Page 470]

Chapter 2 focuses on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Judgment. On the one hand, Terada is concerned to show that Kant's philosophy is understood by his inheritors to establish normative standards for the limits of knowledge: "By normalizing appearance (Erscheinung) and requiring its acceptance, Kant unwittingly encourages fantasies of aberrant perception that might escape his strictures and hence his recommended path to world-acceptance" (6). On the other hand, Terada argues that even if Kant errs in suggesting that we will be able to avoid feeling...


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pp. 469-472
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