The Literacy of Violence
A compelling intervention in feminist literary studies, this is a book which comes at the right moment, but I am sure is here to stay: avoiding the contemporary inclination to moralize aggressive behavior, Nagel instead dismantles the structural bearings of such exit strategies. The book is a lesson in comparative studies—not as an academic discipline but as a consciousness aware of the ways in which violence simultaneously entangles and undoes language. In that, it serves as a compass for reframing canonical German Studies from within. Even more importantly, it provides a reality check for each of us as social animals.
To be sure, the irony was not lost on me when I assembled these four commentaries on Nagel’s book, since the academic review itself remains a genre which more often than not gets caught up in ambiguous aggressions. However, there is no better place for this book to be discussed than in a symposium, where comment is to inspire response rather than bring conversation to a halt.
The breadth of Nagel’s project is reflected in the manifold reactions her book triggered in the symposium. Nadine Hartman agrees in her review that the theoretical achievement of Ambiguous Aggression lies not only in opening up a novel perspective on the intricacies of affection and aggression, but also in pursuing this constellation within the context of German modernist literature. She highlights the attentiveness of Nagel’s close readings which, apart from their scholarly contribution, spur an inspirational amount of humor—inspirational insofar as the framing of the book leaves no doubt about its feminist thrust. Zooming in on Nagel scrutinizing flirtation as a disturbance of power and gender relations, however, Hartmann adds a caveat to Nagel’s book, namely not to favor flirtation over seduction. Seizing the psychoanalytic stakes of Nagel’s project, Hartman draws on the gendered speech manifest in the #metoo movement and uses Nagel’s readings to warn against a normative understanding of flirtatious ambiguity.
Michael Snediker equally draws on possible deadlocks in light of the ambiguity of aggression. Picking up a thread that Nagel leaves behind at the end of her book—Paul Celan’s Death Fugue—he extends Nagel’s frame of reference from prose fiction to poetry. Poetry, for Snediker, bears the mark of violence where literal and metaphorical discourse collapse, where ambiguity is indiscernible from its disambiguation. He highlights the degree to which even quotidian chitchat, as analyzed by Nagel within the context of Robert Walser, may fuse the textual and the material in a similar way. Even worse, Walser exhausts any attempt at dialogue and women defending themselves therein, by subsuming these attempts under the register of male policing. In Snediker’s reading, the fact that Nagel’s thinking allows the physical tension of implicit verbal aggression of the likes of Walser to resonate with other forms and instances of ambiguous speech (he quotes Celan, Emily Dickinson, and Maggie Nelson) makes for the queerness of her study.
Moira Weigel turns to the shifting of gears that the field of affect theory experiences with Nagel’s book. In her view, Nagel does not simply add a selection of case studies to the canon of affect theory but explains how elements of German realism helped pave the way for this turn in the first place. As the title suggests, however, the book goes beyond its historical claim, a daring move for Weigel insofar as it resists the temptation to provide a final answer to the ambiguities of literary history and the nature of the affect alike. In this way, Nagel’s methodology stipulates a number of reverberations in the present moment with respect to structural racism and gender discrimination. Weigel sees a confirmation bias at play in which contesting the emotional involvement in flirtation, passive aggression, or domestic violence typically underscores the offense rather than undoing it. Especially in the digital era, Weigel concludes, a book like Ambiguous Aggressions accentuates how the genuine ambiguity of literature offers a space to defy the sedimentation of a supposed real meaning of things which risks making violence the norm.
Finally, Paul Buchholz equally stresses the impact of Nagel’s study on the field of German Realism, as well as the manifold resonances that a concept like ambiguous aggression triggers with contemporary debates, first and foremost the #metoo movement. Buchholz’s critique centers on Nagel’s assessment of Robert Walser which he finds to rightfully take distance from a traditional approach (Walter Benjamin and W. G. Sebald, for instance) which tends to insinuate an affective rift between superficial happiness and profound sadness in Walser’s prose. Instead, Nagel brings to the fore the various layers of affects in Walser and the textual patterns of their mutual interplay. Controlling or concealing affect is thus primarily a question of language. Buchholz acknowledges how Nagel draws a line between Walser’s suggestive prose that downsizes the violent effects of proto-fascist ideologies, and the logic of latent aggression in the neofascist rhetoric of white supremacy. For Buchholz, Nagel’s focus on the ambiguous nuances of language which is fully aware of the respective historical charge of these ambiguities, gives her study political meaning, helping us gauge the current climate of uncertainty and its various eruptions of violence.