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  • Abschied von der Wirklichkeit. Probleme der Darstellung von Realität im deutschsprachigen literarischen Realismus by Christiane Arndt
  • Vance Byrd
Christiane Arndt. Abschied von der Wirklichkeit. Probleme der Darstellung von Realität im deutschsprachigen literarischen Realismus. Reihe Litterae, vol. 168. Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach, 2009. 270 pp. 48.00 (Paperback). ISBN 978-3-79309-573-6.

What is the nature of realism? Christiane Arndt’s impressive study draws upon Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory to describe a long goodbye from a belief in mimesis, “die unproblematische, idealisierende Abbildbarkeit der Welt” (249). For Arndt, a series of cultural practices and technical innovations are caught up in a change in how authors began writing about reality in this period. Realism, then, is not only about the observation and interpretation of an exteriority. It, too, is concerned with the representation of the process of observation and [End Page 258] its depiction as narration instead of coming to final conclusions, reaffirming indexical status, authenticity, or fact (12).

Her main claim is not exactly new, and her introduction, which lacks a systematic overview of the texts included in the book, their selection, and the claims she will make in the subsequent chapters, is not especially helpful for the reader. Furthermore, there are no deeper connections to earlier literary periods or historical moments—continuities instead of ruptures—and other means of representing reality that preceded or were contemporary with the cultural practices she considers. It is clear to the reader that Arndt is most comfortable when she writes about literary texts, theories of narrative, and select chapters from the history of representation. It is apparent, as well, that this work showcases her extensive knowledge of German realist fiction, which extends well beyond the authors treated in detail in this book. But it is equally clear that when Arndt addresses the history of media and block quotation replaces her excellent analyses that her arguments become more tentative, as if she is reenacting a second-order representation of her own in which she grants the reader access to her hermeneutic process. Indeed, and perhaps appropriately for her project, Arndt states that she is more interested in presenting a process rather than a verifiable thesis: “Meine Arbeit ist also ebenfalls notwendigerweise nur als Prozeß möglich lesbar, ihre Thesen ergeben sich im Durchgang durch die einzelnen Kulturpraktiken und durch die Analysen der Texte, an denen sie abgelesen werden” (25–26). But its articulation in insightful discursive and textual analyses of criminal narratives (Fontane), photography (Raabe), the museum and archive (Stifter and Keller), and the framework novella (Keller and Storm) help her convincingly argue that observation, collection, and the organization of information as a narrative were attempts at reestablishing a new relationship to mimesis through second-order observation (215–16). Death is central to the cultural practices she examines, and a few words about detective fiction, photography, and the framework novella illustrates her point.

There is no way to objectively account for the entirety of reality, and this holds true for crimes and stories about them. For Arndt, detective fiction mirrors developments in nineteenth-century criminology in which the collection of evidence— the establishment of an archive—became more important than a confession. A crime scene is a corpus, a text, and the detective selects evidence much like the realist narrator seeks to present a coherent picture of reality (70). Arndt insists that the genre, like real-life detectives, manifests a fundamental skepticism toward criminal science. More often than not, detective fiction is about the impossibility of the verification of facts and guilt remains uncertain even after evidence has been gathered. The detective’s interpretation—not the scientific methods of criminology and the efforts of police authorities—reveals the relation between crime, evidence, and truth. Furthermore, the detective often observes better than the reader, who sifts through networks of suspicion and probabilities. Detective fiction, she concludes, isn’t about solving a crime but about the reproduction of observation. [End Page 259]

Postmortem photography, to name another example, is an attempt to document the improbable—life after death. These photographs posit the extension of life and point to the limits of representation at the same time, for their fictional...


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