- Against Exemplarity:W. G. Sebald and the Problem of Connection
[I]n a world reduced to a multiplicity of chaos, it is only the formal structure of the work of art, insofar as it does not refer to anything else, that can serve as unity.Gilles Deleuze, Proust and Signs
Exemplarity is a conceptual relationship in which the parts of a work are linked to a whole. The “whole” in this formulation is not just the whole of the work but that of a world of which the work is a part, and to which the work and the exemplary instance within it are tied by the work’s claim to relevance, to legibility. Exemplarity is the fabric of connectivity in which the literary work has its being. It is the always-unstated logic according to which readers identify with the characters of a work, or by which they may search in it for indications of how to live. Exemplarity is a bridge between the world about which we read and the world in which we read; it links the sensuous and the conceptual. By its means, as Alain Badiou says in Logics of Worlds, “We simultaneously think the multiplicity of worlds and the invariance of the truths that appear at distinct points in this multiplicity” (18). Badiou is evoking a continuity between the painted horses in the [End Page 1] ancient cave of Chauvet and the horses in Picasso’s work, a continuity that assumes a relation in common. Exemplarity presupposes the existence of a conceptual whole (for example, Horseness), its divisibility (or exemplification), and our dwelling “not only amid things, or bodies” but “in the transport of the True, in which it sometimes happens we are required to partake” (20).
Exemplarity borders on, and overlaps with, a number of other ways of conceiving this logic of relation. Agustín Zarzosa, for example, addressing Gilles Deleuze’s film theory, distinguishes six possible “relations that films may entertain with concepts” (41). He names these, respectively, instance, allusion, example, illustration, exception, and case—the last being, in Zarzosa’s typology, the privileged “monadic” form that comprehends the others, transcending the “spatiality” (and hence hierarchy) that is implicit in them (50). The most important distinction Zarzosa makes, for my purposes, is one he derives from Immanuel Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals, between an instance and an example. An instance, says Zarzosa, merely “unif[ies] various particulars by expressing their common properties”; an example “prove[s] its force by acting upon particulars” (41). In a 2007 introduction to a special issue of Critical Inquiry, Lauren Berlant also privileges “case” in a way that recalls the Kantian distinction. Case, she says, is an “actuarial” relation, rather than “a merely gestural” one: “[T]o ask the question of what makes something a case, and not a merely gestural instance, illustration, or example, is to query the adequacy of an object to bear the weight of an explanation worthy of attending to and taking a lesson from” (666).
In the present essay, however, “exemplarity” will be used to denote both what Zarzosa calls an “instance” and what Berlant calls a “case.” I have not found it necessary to make a theoretical distinction between a “merely gestural” and an “actuarial” example. My assumption is, first, that in an aesthetic context, an example always “act[s] on particulars” simply by its instantiation; and second, that it is precisely such action or “force”—again, in the modern, aesthetic context—that is the ground for a kind of refusal of exemplarity that I am locating here in the work of the writer W. G. Sebald. This is not to say that instance and example are identical. Pace Kant, instance, in my usage, signals nothing more than the invocation or [End Page 2] appearance of the term in question, while example denotes the meaningful, normative connection that accumulates around it or is attributed to it. In practice the two are inseparable; nevertheless, the distinction between instance and example will be important in what follows.
The context of my discussion is the work of a writer, Sebald, for whom connection seems possible only on the basis of a suspension...