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  • The Art of Erasing Art.Thomas Bernhard
  • Bianca Theisen

If there is an art of erasing art in what have been called the "self-erasing narratives" of postmodernism,1 those kinds of art call attention to the very form of art, as that which differentiates art from everything else, namely non-art. What postmodern art aims at, then, is art's mode of presentation or of observation, which, as Niklas Luhmann has suggested, is to observe the unobservable. Art would be concerned with observing the blind spot or the form of other, first-order observations. For Luhmann, art is thus a second-order observation which unfolds a paradox that itself escapes observation and, especially in modern and postmodern art, aims at being observed as an observer by unfolding such paradoxes of observation.2 Modern and postmodern art does not emphasize what it observes; it wants to show how it observes. These forms of art are no longer referential: they do not imitate nature or the world, they observe observers in a world that in its turn is constructed only through recursive observations. Art's reference to "world" shifts with the transition from "object art," which is still embedded in a representational world view, to what Luhmann calls "modern art," which constructs a world that is contingent on its observations. According to Luhmann, this transition takes effect with Romanticism and its focus on the lacunae of cognizing cognition or presenting its own mode of presentation.3 [End Page 551]

Drawing on the terminological register of the sublime and Kant's notion of negative representation, Lyotard has also foregrounded the particular tendency of postmodern art to present its own mode of presentation, to present nothing but its form. While modern art presents the unrepresentable, while it tries to make something visible which cannot be visualized—while it observes the unobservable, we could also say—postmodern art folds back on the modern, as it were, to present nothing but modernism's mode of presentation, or, as Lyotard says, to put "forward the unrepresentable in presentation itself." Postmodernism thus sets itself up at the heart of modernism, and what it represents is the very paradox of modernism, or "the unrepresentable of the form" of modernism itself.4 For Lyotard, postmodernism is thus not opposed to the modern, it also does not succeed modernism, marking its end, but it paradoxically precedes modernism in the temporality of a future anterior. It is modernism's "nascent state."5 If we define form with Luhmann as the paradoxical unity of the distinction between a distinction and what it distinguishes (or between a representation and what it represents), we can reformulate Lyotard's notion of the postmodern as a second-order observation which observes the form of modernism, the operational distinction between representation and the represented unrepresentable, which for modernism itself remains a blind spot, i.e. remains unrepresentable.

Second-order observation which observes observations and distinguishes distinctions can be seen as the basis of Thomas Bernhard's literary techniques. From his early narratives Frost or Amras to his latest novels Alte Meister or Auslöschung, he creates narrators who, observing others, observe themselves observing and whose observations are finally even framed by another narrator, who, appearing only at the margins of those texts, observes their observations in turn. Bernhard's characteristic technique of narrated monologue is also indebted to this principle: a narrator usually cites someone who has said what someone else has said, and so forth. "In the last instance, everything that is said is quoted," the narrator quotes in Gehen.6 If the narrator [End Page 552] here quotes another character, Karrer, on the fact that everything is quoted, Karrer's statement on quotation must in turn be quoted: and this line of quotations cannot be traced back to an origin, but is circular so as to suspend the distinction between quotation and non-quotation altogether. In addition to this citational technique within the narratives, Bernhard's texts also set themselves up as second-order observations of the literary tradition. Citing and copying other texts, they intertextually reference "world" through recursive observations. Intertextuality in Bernhard does not only indicate such a shift of reference from representation...


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pp. 551-562
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