Symposium Introduction

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.

Nadine Hartmann


Che vuoi?

or, A Case for Seduction

Understanding becomes a matter of time. (86)


“What just happened?” Tragedic plots have played out the temporality of a delayed understanding of one’s own actions to great dramatic effect, from Agaue’s slow realization that she decapitated her own son in Euripides’s Bacchae to Penthesilea’s fatal confusion of biting and kissing her lover Achilles. Yet there is a much more mundane aspect to the temporality of a type of impervious aggression hovering close if not inextricably bound to affection: the slow realization, for example, after politely responding “Thank you” to a compliment, that it was meant more as an insult. Calling this complicated entanglement of affection and aggression—or love and the wish to harm—“ambiguous aggression” and locating it in the contexts of flirtation, passive aggressiveness, and domestic violence is a theoretical achievement in itself; taking it as a conceptual outline for reading canonical works of German realism and modernism promises to open up a world of “drama” operating on a much more elusive level than that of the classical tragedies.

“Whereas we only notice domestic violence when it is exceptional, it by definition belongs to the ordinary. . . . The ordinary, however, elides us if we do not pay close attention to it, precisely because it is ordinary” (75). Paying close attention is Barbara Natalie Nagel’s most striking talent, her book contains ample evidence of that. Naomi Schor’s now classic study Reading in Detail might be the most obvious precursor to Ambiguous Aggression insofar as both projects look at works of an exclusively male-authored canon of literature in a feminist attempt to detect the male fears and fantasies via the details, the subtleties, the things easily overlooked, in full awareness that such attention has traditionally been coded as “feminine.” Yet Nagel also explicitly aligns herself with the contemporary discourse around “ordinary affects” (Kathleen Stewart), “ugly feelings” (Sianne Ngai), “quasi-events” (Elizabeth Povinelli), “microaggressions” (Claudia Rankine), and the “female complaint” (Lauren Berlant), thereby, as she declares, resisting “idealist aesthetics and its hierarchizing of what is important or unimportant” (13). She thus establishes herself as a voice in a discussion concerned with challenging the tradition of trivializing the things women deem worthy to speak of, laying the groundwork for what Emily Apter calls “unexceptional politics”—as opposed to the long-established conjuring of the grand “event.” A decisive wager, certainly, but also one that makes for surprisingly amusing reading. Ambiguous Aggression is, in excess of all its scholarly merits, a highly entertaining book—there is plenty of humor, suspense, and surprise to be had—qualities not exactly ubiquitous in publications of (literary) theory. This book will even have something to offer to those outside the field of academia, as long as they have an inclination to follow Nagel into the realms of the quizzical, the absurd and share her enjoyment of staring at familiar words and phrases until they turn bizarre, silly, or monstrous.

The book is also very much of the contemporary moment as it might well be read as one of the early—and still urgently needed—theoretizations of #MeToo. A phenomenon whose exceptional nature arguably lies in just this focus on the ordinary, the domestic, the quotidian, possibly juridically negligible. Let me quote a lengthy passage from the book’s first chapter, “Love Exploded on a Time Fuse,” which opens with a typical post–#MeToo concern:

What people who ask “can’t we even flirt anymore?” have not yet understood is that flirtation is not where you take a break from more serious business; flirtation is not the more innocuous alternative to forcing someone to have sex with you. Do you really think anyone who is after abusing their power will try flirtation instead? Those who impose themselves aggressively upon the Other generally have a terror of flirtation. This is because the real risk in flirtation is not so much to accidentally harass somebody but in fact to crumble under the force of equalization that flirtation brings about—the real challenge consists in being able to endure the (precarious, volatile) balance of terror. (20–21)

Nagel then suggests that flirtation is inherently “anarchic”—that it disturbs hierarchies and binaries and that it crucially differs from sexual harassment in its a-teleological nature: the flirt adheres to the logic of the “purposiveness without purpose” of Kant’s aesthetic judgment (21) and thereby would always resist a capitalist demand for an “outcome” or “surplus value.” Yet, I would claim, it is exactly this ambiguity that characterizes #MeToo on many levels: Who gets to decide whether a flirtatious remark constitutes harassment? How do you know what you are after and when you are “after abusing your power”? Might not one person think they are flirting while the counterpart feels they are being harassed?

In a project that has its origins in the volume she coedited in 2015 (alongside Daniel Hoffmann-Schwartz and Lauren Shizuko Stone), Flirtations: Rhetoric and Aesthetics This Side of Seduction, Nagel sets out to establish flirtation as a term of indecision, as something of a “third term,” following a logic one could hazard to identify as deconstructive (which, for some, will imply “decontextualized,” even “romanticized”). She thus pits flirtation explicitly against seduction, the latter being associated with purposiveness, manipulation, even instrumentalization. The hierarchy is clear, yet I would like to linger with this decision of Nagel’s a little longer.

In employing terms like “latency,” “belatedness,” “deferral,” and after all, “ambiguousness,” the psychoanalytic idiom is tightly woven into the language of the book overall. Yet it appears that Freud stands as somewhat of an antagonist in the discourse on flirtation as well as that of domestic violence. In order to bring into relief what remains largely submerged in the book, that is, the contribution of psychoanalysis, I would like to relate two concepts to the discussion of sexual relation and ambiguous aggression: hysteria, and—hear me out—seduction.

Nagel remains critical of Brian Massumi’s Deleuzian approach to affect and skeptical, hence, vis-à-vis much of what goes under “affect theory” today. She insists that affects “with the nineteenth century become increasingly difficult to read, at least to decode—nevertheless, this does not mean that we could simply stop reading affects, contenting ourselves with ‘The Autonomy of the Affect’” (6). Yet this urge to “decode” is a source of frustration particularly for the male author who implores his romantic other to make herself understandable or to please stop misunderstanding him in his “pleas and mandates for a hermeneutics” (70). Nagel carefully negotiates the difficult task of reading closely without repeating the fury to decode she finds in her male authors. What their attempts at understanding and even the resulting countless misunderstandings ensure is mainly one thing: unlike a punch in the face, they keep the communication alive. As long as there is a “what do you mean?” or “this is not it!” there is need for a response. Jacques Lacan calls this “hysterical intersubjectivity,” as opposed to “obsessive intrasubjectivity,” a form of communication driven by a desire to understand the other’s desire and be understood in return, as well as an enjoyment in maintaining that same desire. The hysteric makes her issues your business, meaning: she will involve others in her conflicts, stage them as a power play and incite just this kind of entanglement that will prolong the exchange indefinitely. Which leads me to the second characteristic: the enjoyment of the hysteric—her desire is never to be satisfied; whatever you give her (attention, a diagnosis, a confession), it’s not “it.” In the chapter on “Twice-Read Love Letters,” Nagel poignantly shows us this in all its tragedy as well as comedy: In Kafka’s case, the pleading is actually quite unambiguously hysterical in the clinical sense; he keeps poor Felice busy with his demands for more and more letters and one begins to suspect—as did quite possibly Felice herself—that there can never be letters enough for Kafka. Fontane seems to be a little closer to acknowledging this dilemma: he is always disappointed in the brevity of his wife’s letters, which, at the same time, “lose their charm as soon as you get to the second page” (Fontane, quoted at 54). Not only does she not have what he wants, she does not even want to give it to him!

In making a striking case for a rhetorical inquiry into scenes of domestic violence, Nagel establishes the hyperbaton as the “master trope of domestic violence” (80). For it is this moment of syntactical suspense, of not-knowing, which encapsulates the “ambiguity of violence as well as the violence of ambiguity” (88)—all the more if it appears on the muddy grounds of love and cruelty where these acts will only have the meaning one is going to ascertain retroactively. Nagel’s contention that “understanding becomes a matter of time” (86), its “belatedness” is the common characteristic of all acts of ambiguous aggression—like poison, they take their time.

Nagel suggests, and she is certainly not alone in this, that Freud’s famous decision to abandon his early theory of seduction might have laid the ground for a questionable definition of ambiguity, one that would today be referred to as “blaming the victim” (cf. 28–29). The Freud of Studies on Hysteria established the affect-trauma model, which interprets symptoms as conversions of affects that accompanied an early experience of sexual molestation the child could not understand at the time. Later, in a phase of sexual maturity, these affects present themselves as somatic symptoms triggered by a recent event with the power to evoke the earlier one. Surrendering this seduction theory, in a famous phrase formulated in a letter to Fliess—“I no longer believe in my neurotica” (September 21st, 1897)—Freud came to shift his focus to the importance of fantasies for the child’s psychosexual development—a move that seemingly opened a Pandora’s Box of “she was asking for it” and accusations of fabulation.

One might wonder why Freud called his early model a “theory of seduction” in the first place and not a “theory of rape,” as John Forrester did in his argument for reading Freud’s move not so much as a break but rather as a logical development of his thought. Or, as Jean Laplanche did, pick up where Freud left off when he abandoned the importance of seduction by reframing seductions as “enigmatic messages” the grown-up conveys to the infant. Laplanche thus insists that while not all fathers may be perverts, all parents will impose their unconscious with its sexual “contaminations,” in one way or the other, on the child. Seduction, according to Laplanche, principally and originally confronts us with a task of translation—a task that, for the child, always comes “too soon.” Both approaches turn away from a limited understanding of “seduction” as a synonym for “rape” or “sexual abuse” and expand the term by formulating a “general theory of seduction” (Laplanche) or by taking a literal approach to the term: Forrester, for example, suggests that the adult is leading the child away in seduction (“Ver-führung”), namely, away from childhood. Jacques Lacan might have added that the traumatic potential of this exchange lies in the fact that the child is here addressed as an object for the other, as an instrument of enjoyment for the other. The famous formula “che vuoi?” thus comes to mean “what do you want?” as in “what do you want from me?” but also “what do you want to do to me?” hence encapsulating the traumatic process of being confronted with an unsymbolizable desire—the desire of the m(Other).

Looking at the word “seduction” and the German “ver-führen,” I would like to suggest to translate it neither as “leading to” or “leading away,” or at least not exclusively in this topological logic marking a starting and an end point, but perhaps rather in the sense of “leading astray.” Then it would not be much of a leading in any strong sense of the word but rather something of a “leading on”—a crime that is, after all, a predominantly feminine one and, one might argue, a more contemporary equivalent of Simmel’s “coquetry.” Simmel’s eponymous essay is indeed one of Nagel’s key texts on flirtation and as such serves as a cornerstone for her insistence on the idiosyncrasy of flirtation. But what exactly is flirtation? Do we know it when we see it? Do we know it when we’re doing it?

Nagel insists that flirtation is a game but a serious one for there is something at stake in it (cf. 20). Flirtation has “a far more radical effect than even the #MeToo movement could dream of: first, flirtation upsets gender dichotomies, which right now return through the back door in discussions around #MeToo that pitch ‘women’ against ‘men’” (21). But does it really upset those dichotomies? Isn’t “being a flirt” the quintessential female crime? Aren’t there sources aplenty, ranging from the Bible to the incel manifesto of Elliot Rodger, agreeing that the female is tempting, seductive qua her physical presence alone? Some doubt remains, to my mind, that flirtation involves a “queer role switch” (22) as Nagel insists, when it renders the man helpless and insecure before the woman’s “imagined . . . control of erotic potentiality” (22) (which is, of course, what many men tell themselves to justify their transgressions). It is rather a confrontation with the desire for the other’s desire which could be taken up in the form of a hysterical interaction in which both parties address this desire for the other’s desire, or, worst case, turn it into a game of “negging”—one of the ambiguously aggressive tactics the mastering of which constitute a whole other type of “game,” namely, the ability to make a woman desire you as it is cultivated in the “seduction community” of “pickup artists.”

And while a woman may be abusing her power in being “a flirt” as well as a man might be, say, Kierkegaard’s paradigmatic seducer in his elaborate trap-setting, the #MeToo scenes, as they have become so ubiquitous since November 2017, seem to have one thing in common: They, however “belatedly,” make too much sense as they suddenly relegate women—often from a perspective of a general accomplishment of “equality”—to their position. This is a position as historically charged as it carries a prospective truth: “this is how it has been and how it will be.” The power women supposedly yield in flirtation might lie in nothing more than the fact that it is impossible to symbolize their desire. A symbolic “lack” of which much has been made in feminist critiques of psychoanalysis and which Luce Irigaray explains by locating its origins in childhood scenes of seduction: “the father forces her [the little girl, N.H.] to accept that, while he alone can satisfy her and give her access to pleasure, he prefers the added sexual enjoyment from laying down the law, and therefore penalizes her for her (or his own?) ‘seduction fantasies’” (Luce Irigaray, Speculum, 60).

The deconstructionist move of defining flirtation by way of its ambiguity and its elusiveness paradoxically brings about a new, more forceful dualism, namely that of flirtation on the one and seduction on the other hand. Flirtation thereby runs the risk of losing its ambiguity by being modeled as an ideal. If I have tried to bring to the surface some of the psychoanalytic preconditions and submerged coordinates of Nagel’s work, it was to insist that psychoanalysis might help to avoid this idealization and purification of the flirt that would remain just as short-sighted as Freud himself was when he famously dismissed the “American flirtation” (in his “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” published in 1915) as a frivolous and ultimately harmless enterprise.


Additional References

Forrester, John. The Seductions of Psychoanalysis: Freud, Lacan and Derrida. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Jacques Lacan. “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis.” In Écrits, 197–268. New York: Norton, 2002.

Laplanche, Jean. New Foundations for Psychoanalysis. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

Freud, Sigmund. The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887–1904. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

———. “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14. London: Hogarth, 1957.

Freud, Sigmund, Josef Breuer. Studies on Hysteria. London: Hogarth, 1955.

  • Barbara Nagel

    Barbara Nagel


    Response to Nadine Hartmann

    Perceptive cultural theorist and psychoanalyst that she is, Nadine Hartmann must have sensed some resistance or fear of commitment on my part—for it is certainly true that I shy away from making certain theoretical alliances public in the book (including to myself). Hartmann invites me to put into words beliefs and convictions that give direction to the currents of my argument. I feel acute panic and I am not sure whether it is my superego or my id that is cross-fading Hannah Arendt’s “One shouldn’t look into one’s own cards!”1 into the megalomaniacal “I would just like to say that it is my conviction . . .”2 from Hair. Given that Nadine Hartmann is also a DJ, I feel uncannily remote-controlled at this moment.

    But so be it: Hartmann asks me to reflect upon, first, why I maintain a somewhat “romanticizing” opposition between seduction and flirtation and, second, why I lean on psychoanalysis throughout the book, yet not in a systematic or really committed manner. In other words: Why am I (too?) rigid in my distinction between flirtation and seduction and not rigid (enough?) in my reference to psychoanalysis? Or again, why am I only flirting with psychoanalysis? For better or worse, these points are interrelated, insofar as in the flirtation section of Ambiguous Aggression, which is mostly in question here, gives preference to critical theory over psychoanalysis (though it also relates to certain parts of the chapter on passive aggression).

    The distinction that underlies the flirtation chapter looks roughly like this: Whereas seduction is infatuated with power and is therefore goal-driven, flirtation is envisioned as an open, equalizing endeavor.3 What remains in flirtation, mostly under the sign of failure, are the aspects of rhetoric and artistic technique. In flirtation, the means becomes an end in itself. Flirtation thus fails only when it falls back into a strategy of seduction. There are however also moments, as Hartmann rightly points out, when the distinction between flirtation and seduction is no longer so clear. This is because flirtation and seduction overlap at times: flirtation turns into seduction; seduction may even have its flirtatious moments (Billy Wilder’s film noir Double Indemnity [1944] is a marvelous example for the undecidability between the two).4

    So why still then focus on the difference between the two concepts instead of their commonalities? Due to our infatuation with power, there already exists a long literary and philosophical history of seduction (e.g., Homer’s Odyssey, Plato’s Symposium, Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons, Kafka’s sirens, etc.). In comparison, flirtation deserves our attention as a rather new concept, the interest in which only really emerges in realism and the Victorian novel and peaks in modernism. In a societal regard, flirtation presupposes a certain degree of democratization brought about by industrialization as well as by the expansion of cities that makes possible for encounters between strangers. What I find so compelling about critical theory’s take on flirtation is that it thinks flirtation as a response to capitalism, even as an attempt to break with the capitalist mode of consumption, of means and ends. Is this approach “romantic”? Maybe. Is it “idealistic”? Probably. What it certainly is: utopian.

    There is, of course, the famous critique by Deleuze and Guattari, according to which psychoanalysis—especially Lacanianism—maintains desire in the capitalist-patriarchal order and normalizes our relationship to money and capitalism at large. I am aware that psychoanalytically-oriented philosophers like Slavoj Žižek or Samo Tomšič have made an effort to excavate commonalities between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxism.5 Still, my question remains: Can psychoanalysis ever be utopian? This is far from presenting an objective criterion for quality—it just so happens so that I would like to imagine the erotic and the social differently from the current status quo. That is why, at one point in the book, I cite the psychoanalyst and cultural theorist Jacqueline Rose who warns that sexual harassment destroys our imagination,6 or why I give the closing word to Jordy Rosenberg’s powerful invocation of how capitalism produces forms of desire that teleologically streamline our desire towards maximum enjoyment.7

    Don’t get me wrong: from the standpoint of women, flirtation as imagined in critical theory is not exactly utopian. Benjamin and his precursor Simmel shrink back from the idea of sexually liberated women and even sometimes express nostalgia for the courtship model. (Bloch is somewhat better on this count.) As a rule, the great literary examples of flirtation punish flirtatious woman for the liberties they take: Two of the most famous female flirts die—Henry James’s Daisy Miller perishes from fever; Ivan Turgenev’s Zinaida dies during childbirth. I could not bring myself to mention that in the prose texts discussed in Ambiguous Aggression (all authored by male writers) each and every female flirt is domesticated in the end: Theodor Storm’s female character Elke drowns; Gottfried Keller’s Züs Büntlin enters an unhappy marriage; Theodor Fontane’s Corinna lets go of her aspiration to ignore class differences and gives in by marrying her cousin.

    The reason why I, nevertheless, cannot and do not want to imagine not working with psychoanalysis is because I cannot think of another theoretical approach (other than perhaps deconstruction, which draws heavily on psychoanalysis) that pays as much attention to the signifier as psychoanalysis; in its best moments, one might say that psychoanalysis has a truly flirtatious relationship with the signifier, which it teases and adores, while granting the same signifier all polygamous freedom imaginable.

    That said, we know that Freud in Thoughts for the Time of War and Death mocked “the American flirt”8 as someone who doesn’t take the necessary risks demanded by love or life. It is actually in his short book on parapraxis that Freud briefly encounters the topic of flirtation playfully and without negative judgment.9 Thus, instead of flirtation, seduction is ubiquitous in psychoanalysis. I do see the benefit of bringing in Lacan and Laplanche’s idea of seduction as “enigmatic messages,” in that it creates awareness of the irreducibility of violence. And yet, as with every expansion of a term (in this case “seduction”), there is a price to be paid—in this case, the reduction of the lexicon to economies of seduction makes it more difficult to distinguish between extreme violence and lesser violence, and ultimately between rape and consensual sex. To be clear, this is not an oversight; rather, psychoanalysts like Insa Härtel argue that all sex is “übergriffig,” which one could translate as encroaching or molesting.10 As someone invested in the problem of literalization, I would argue, against this unifying claim that all sex is an encroachment, that “good sex” should open the imagination and intensify a sense of potentiality. In contradistinction, rape is always a concretization, that is, a closing off of the space of possibilities. I am aware that this critique is not directed at the right person, for seldom have I felt so “calmed” as when following Hartmann’s rather delicious takedown of Freud’s tactics of interrogating “Katharina,” the victim of sexual abuse by her father, in which Freud slyly turns parental sexual abuse into a fantasy of seduction and takes the prize for his self-made “discovery,” as Hartmann points out.11 I am also aware that the question of consent is very much on her radar.12

    To conclude, I would say that there exists a relation of antagonism between psychoanalysis and flirtation. In addition, there is the issue of agency: one could say that flirtation has a technique whereas psychoanalysis is skeptical, claiming the monopoly on technique for itself—that is, technique is analytic technique. But more importantly, psychoanalysis can’t itself be flirtation in that it is necessarily more one-sided: transference is a largely asymmetrical relation of speaking and listening as opposed to the dialogism and equalization of flirtation. The fact that the power is on the side of the mostly silent listener does not alter the fundamental asymmetry of analysis, which is part of what generates transference. In order to function properly—i.e., in order to maintain the structure of transference (not to mention professional ethics)—psychoanalysis can’t turn into flirtation; the threat of turning into “mere” flirtation structures psychoanalysis as a limit. Countertransference is a permanent—one is tempted to say interminable—problem. One could say that in effect flirtation is a form of wild psychoanalysis, in which the roles of analyst and analysand perpetually switch and where there is no clear distinction between transference and countertransference.

    1. Hannah Arendt, Zur Person. Interview mit Günter Gaus (1964),; min. 6:20.

    2. Galt MacDermot and Margaret Mead, “My Conviction,” in Hair: The Musical (1967),

    3. This argument has already been sketched out in the anthology Flirtations: Rhetoric and Aesthetics This Side of Seduction that I coedited with Daniel

    4. See Daniel Hoffman-Schwartz, “Barely Covered Banter: Flirtation in Double Indemnity,” in Flirtations: Rhetoric and Aesthetics This Side of Seduction, 13–18.

    5. See especially Samo Tomšič, The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan (London / New York: Verso, 2015).

    6. Jacqueline Rose, “I Am a Knife,” in the London Review of Books 40.4 (February 2018) 3–11.

    7. Jordy Rosenberg, “The Daddy Dialectic,” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, March 11, 2018),

    8. Sigmund Freud, “Zeitgemässes über Krieg und Tod (1915),” in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 10 (Frankfurt/M.: Fischer, 1959), 324–57, here 343.

    9. Freud, Zur Psychopathologie des Alltagslebens: Über Vergessen, Versprechen, Vergreifen, Aberglaube und Irrtum (Berlin: S. Karger, 1912).

    10. Insa Härtel, “Ästhetische Erfahrung als Übergriff. Tseng Yu-Chin: Who’s Listening?,” in RISS 90, Zeitgemäßes über Leben und Tod: Flirt (2019), 68–85.

    11. Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, Studies on Hysteria, trans. James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 1957 [1895]).

    12. Hartmann, “Hashtag Confessions: What Can Psychoanalysis Say about #MeToo?,” lecture, March 10, 2020, 4:27 min.,; see also Nadine Hartmann, “Geneviève Fraisse—Einverständnis: vom Wert eines politischen Begriffs (Rezension),” RISS 90, Zeitgemäßes über Leben und Tod: Flirt (2019), 176–78.

Michael D. Snediker


Up in the Air

I was ambling along aimlessly. The aimlessness I forgave myself wholeheartedly since I realized that we have reason to treat ourselves with forbearance. An intangible sleepiness came over my most tangled being. A broom is what I ought to have taken to sweep myself forward. I got stuck in the muck while gaping lovingly at the velvet blue of the sky.

—Robert Walser


“Well then, if you like it, I’m more and more unable to see your objection to what I propose.”

“I’m afraid I can’t make you understand.”

“You ought at least to try. I’ve a fair intelligence. Are you afraid—afraid of the climate? We can easily live elsewhere, you know. You can pick out your climate, the whole world over.”

—Henry James


Under sufficient pressure, it’s perhaps impossible to distinguish literal violence from its figurative complement. It’s seemingly in this spirit that Nagel’s eloquent study of German realism ends—quietly, disquietingly—with Paul Celan’s “grave in the sky” (Grab in den Lüften), a formulation whose harrow, Celan insists in a letter to Walter Jens, “is neither borrowing nor metaphor.”1 Appearing stain-like in each of the four stanzas of his searing poem “Todesfugue,” the sky grave’s meditation on the concentrationary universe suggests the paucity of our own terms. If metaphor fails to do justice to the formulation’s vertiginous inversions, the language of literalism no less comes up short. Poetic intensity haunts the interface between these registers. “The evidence for all this,” Allen Grossman writes, “is embedded in poetic discourse itself. Arcadia, like fictional world-systems in general, is always encountered at the point of dissolution. This dissolution is a stage in one of two linear processes. Either (a) the devolution of the ideal into history, that is, into antinomic system; or (b) the evolution of the historical, the antinomic system, toward the ideal or eschatological.”2

Nagel’s text insists on the ambiguity of aggression as a necessary provocation, since to insist on violence’s self-evidence leaves peripheral and therefore unremarked those intensities distributed so thoroughly across the scenic as to seem inseparable from the world itself:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening

we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night

we drink and we drink

we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped. . . .3

Ambiguity isn’t unrelated to the concerns of Celan’s poem, although I’m thinking here less of the unthinkable grimoire alchemy of our “black milk” thirst, what John Felstiner calls the truth claim of its “relentless quotidian cadence,”4 than of a spatial illogic buried within ambiguity itself. After all, the lactary perseveration of these lines doesn’t render choice between mutually exclusive meanings impossible so much as beyond election, much less satisfaction or dissatisfaction. By contrast, the “grave in the air” (in Felstiner’s translation) attests to ambiguity’s implacably unplaceable dwelling. Cramped, but not too cramped: a somatic experience of the sides of the grave, air or sky (in Jerome Rothenberg’s translation) calls our attention to the strange distortion by which ambiguity has come to mean one or the other notwithstanding the boundless surround of its prefixial ambi.5

My preference for “grave in the air” over “grave in the sky” lies in the former’s disabuse of the scenic in favor of distribution beyond normative sensorial apparatus. “We cannot perceive ambiguity,” writes Grossman vis-à-vis Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, “we can only gather or collect it from discrete occasions of manifestation and perception.”6 Emily Dickinson, a poet whose investment in hermetic precision may be only partially gleaned from the appearance of “ambiguity,” in concordances to both her poems and correspondence, exactly zero times (only partially, given the chasm between a desire for or interest in experiencing ambiguity and the relative terra firma of the word itself), appositely ends “I dwell in Possibility” with “The spreading wide my/narrow Hands/To gather paradise.”7 That Dickinson’s “paradise” extends an ironized version of Grossman’s “ambiguity” is suggested in the etymological constraints of paradise itself: “per,” near, against, around; “diz” to make or form (a wall). What paradise names, that is, comes into being only in the “narrow hands” that gather it, designating the already-fallen miniature to which possibility is reduced in our effort to grasp it at all.

As an Emersonian, it’s impossible for me not to understand the phenomenological pathos of grasping apart from Emerson’s heartbreaking meditation on “the evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest” as “the most unhandsome part of our condition.”8 Nagel’s study helps illuminate Emerson’s movement from this awful empty-handedness to the swaddled violence of Nature with which the passage ends. “Direct strokes she never gave us power to make; all our blows glance, all our hits are accidents. Our relations to each other are oblique and casual.” Shifting registers to the quotidian that is her principal subject, I think here of Nagel’s attention to the unspoken hand in Walser’s short story, “A Slap in the Face, Etc.” (1925), a series of detached episodes observed in turn by a narrator serially smitten with the aphorisms to which he reduces the world. To a certain extent, both the intimated hand and the narrator’s aphoristic mode belong to Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan, referenced in the Walser text’s opening paragraph:

Once again I tasted the new Twann wine, and saw an ingenious play at the municipal theater. It was awfully nice, the tiny auditorium. Looked at a new railway station, stroked the chin of a lady bartender. When feeling cheerful, one likes to act like a man of the world. In the play I was speaking of there was an actress who had nothing to say the whole evening except “Yes, Mamma”; she did so in every conceivable key. That was frightfully amusing. I was in the standing room, right behind a young woman. Since I had a suspicion her husband was in the immediate vicinity, I feigned indifference, remaining stoical and at ease. When the husband approached, he probably thought I was being quite proper. The smoothly delivered work comes from the pen of a person whom society let drop because of some faux pas. A peculiar pleasure, to delight in scenes whose inventor came to such grief! The entertainment that his talent affords you makes you drop into the most profound astonishment at the possibility of human metamorphosis. I’m speaking of Oscar Wilde.9

The aloof staccato of the narrator’s disposition registers even nominal experience as indistinguishable from the distilled scenes and epigraphs to which recounting reduces experiential substance. This first sequence of quasi-events (to borrow from Nagel’s engagement with Elizabeth Povinelli)10 ends with the titular slap. “No person on good terms with himself would care to enjoy his existence undeservedly; if things didn’t go badly for him now and then, he would feel he were insulting his fellow men. I asked a woman at an advanced hour: ‘Mind if I take you along?’ By way of answer she said: ‘A slap in the face, that’s what you can take!’ A car drove up, and she stepped in. When accosted, women have, I think, the right to respond with whatever crosses their minds. Plucky [Mutige] words from pretty lips can only sound delightful [anmutig].”11

Given the narrator’s tendency to treat textual and material arrangement as coextensive, it may not surprise us that the story’s slap doesn’t mark the text in any exceptional way beyond the brief lingering of it gestural threat. It’s unclear to what extent the woman’s rejoinder has its intended effect, since the seamless timing of the car removes her with all the convenient alacrity of a trapdoor. At the same time, the narrator’s inexhaustible superficiality makes it all but impossible to distinguish how little the threat seems to affect the course of his performative misogyny from the possibility of discomfiture (embarrassment, rage, etc.) deflected or otherwise obscured—“we lived,” he later opines, “in postered up times”12—by his willful translation of the woman’s aversion into pluck: as though even her disgust were configurable as another fruit for his taking. The ease with which his objectifying gusto converts her threat into the next object of his consumption informs the “Etc.” [Und Sondstiges] of the story’s title, daring us as it does to treat the “slap in the face” as fungibly unremarkable, no more nor less symptomatically expressive than any of the other terms left unnamed in the miscellany.

Not coincidentally, the unrealized hand that momentarily stops Walser’s narrator in his tracks calls back to the opening scene of Wilde’s Windermere:

Lady Windermere:       There is not a good woman in London who would not applaud me. We have been too lax. We must make an example. I propose to begin to-night. [Picking up fan.] Yes, you gave me this fan to-day; it was your birthday present. If that woman crosses my threshold, I shall strike her across the face with it.

Lord Windermere:      Margaret, you couldn’t do such a thing.

Lady Windermere:      You don’t know me!13

Echoing the above passage’s spirited confusion of giving and knowing (as Mrs. Erlynne will go on to say to Lady Windermere, “You haven’t got the kind of brains that enables a woman to get back”),14 the slap in the face at the outset of Walser’s text no less anticipates in its condensation the idiom of taking and being taken to which Nagel’s analysis of Walser will turn. The setup, as Nagel succinctly notes, is “a man and a woman deeply engaged in conversation, a flirtation of sorts, if indeed the sound of lyrical language is to be trusted. . . . He is talking and she is taking in every word of his babbling until, at some point, he utters ‘a certain little word’ (‘ein gewisses Wörtchen’) and the woman almost gives way under the weight of the word” (121). That what transpires suggests a flirtation but only “of sorts” is implied in the asymmetry of the couple’s discursive positions:

The young lady was virtually sagging, was getting noticeably smaller under the load. Under which load? I’ll let you know. She was about to beam. Otherwise quite a nice fellow; she, as I said, charmed. He, full of witty tales; she, full of desire to listen to his fizzing. In her eagerness not to miss anything she practically cocked her ears. Just then that word escaped from his mouth. He meant no harm by it; it popped out quite inadvertently. A quiet, restrained torment twitched across her face.15

Caught in the geometry of not one but two vectors of mansplaining egotism, no wonder the “young lady” sags, at once shrinking and growing further dense as though beneath the ever-expanding load of gravity itself or, at least, the gravity of her companion’s self-seriousness, even in the endless expenditure of his fizzing wit.16 That the man and the woman seem governed by opposing laws of physics seems less astonishing than the suggestion that the scene’s intractable violence is a matter of physics in the first place. Like Deleuze’s study of Francis Bacon, Walser’s narrator attends to the way the body of his fizzing counterpart “exerts itself in a very precise manner, or waits to escape from itself in a very precise manner. It is not I who attempt to escape from my body, it is the body that attempts to escape from itself by means of . . . in short, a spasm. . . . Perhaps this is Bacon’s approximation of horror or abjection.”17

The word that “escape[s]” from the man’s mouth is BEGRIFSCH; in other words, “GOT IT?” For the sake of further teasing the queer resonance of Nagel’s project, I imagine in closing (such as that is) Walser’s amphitheatrical exchange alongside the opening scene of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts:

October, 2007. The Santa Ana winds are shredding the bark off the eucalyptus trees in long white stripes. A friend and I risk the widowmakers by having lunch outside, during which she suggests I tattoo the words HARD TO GET across my knuckles as a reminder of this pose’s possible fruits. Instead the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad. You had Molloy by your bedside and a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall. Does it get any better? What’s your pleasure? you asked, then stuck around for an answer.18

  1. John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 177.

  2. Allen Grossman, True-Love: Essays on Poetry and Valuing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 57.

  3. Felstiner, Paul Celan, 31.

  4. Yves Bonnefoy, “Why Paul Celan Took Alarm,” introduced and translated by John Felstiner, PMLA 125.1 (January 2010) 205.

  5. Karen Pinkus, “Ambiguity, Ambience, Ambivalence, and the Environment,” Common Knowledge 19.1 (2012) 93.

  6. Grossman, True-Love, 55.

  7. Emily Dickinson, “I Dwell in Possibility” (F466a), in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. R. W. Franklin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999), 466.

  8. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (New York: Library of America, 1983), 473.

  9. Robert Walser, “A Slap in the Face, et cetera,” trans. Mark Harman (unpaginated),

  10. Barbara N. Nagel, Ambiguous Aggression in German Realism and Beyond: Flirtation, Passive Aggression, Domestic Violence (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 13.

  11. Walser, “Slap in the Face.”

  12. Walser, “A Slap in the Face.”

  13. Oscar Wilde, Collected Works of Oscar Wilde: The Plays, the Poems, the Stories (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1997), 498.

  14. Wilde, Collected Works, 515.

  15. Walser, “A Slap in the Face.”

  16. One may hear in the text’s sensitivity to discrepant pressures W. G. Sebald’s formulation of Walser’s ideal “to overcome the force of gravity” (“Le Promeneur Solitaire: W. G. Sebald on Robert Walser,” New Yorker, February 6, 2014).

  17. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith (New York: Continuum, 2003), 15.

  18. Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2015), 3. Under the aegis of these tattooed knuckles, the phenomenological brilliance with which Nelson’s opening gambit revises Bersani’s “classic put-down”—“the butch number swaggering into a bar in a leather get-up opens his mouth and sounds like a pansy, takes you home, where the first thing you notice is the complete works of Jane Austen, gets you into bed, and—well, you know the rest”—no less vividly complicates Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s conception of fisting-as-écriture as rhapsodized in one of Henry James’s own scarce chronicles of California. See Leo Bersani, Is the Rectum a Grave and Other Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2010), 14, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 208n33.

  • Barbara Nagel

    Barbara Nagel


    Response to Michael Snediker

    The constellation that Snediker opens up between ambiguity, hands, and arcadia (ending with a vision of Maggie Nelson’s knuckles) recalls Ernst Bloch’s rendition of the tale of the messiah who, ever so slightly, puts the world to right:

    One day, maybe, it will be better outside too, all the way outside. Then hard things will come back to us, or we to them, either way. By themselves they stand askew or confused to us, but one good grip and they fit right into the position that believers mean.1

    The rabbi in “The Invisible Hand” (in German, Die glückliche Hand, i.e., The Happy Hand) is described as “awkward and quite instructively nervous [when he] reaches into the things of this world . . .  with this organ’s quiet sense of touch.”2 But he is also said to be “a very inscrutable ironist”3 and I have thus always wondered about what nonbelievers could make out of this passage, in all its ambiguities.4

    While writing Ambiguous Aggression, there was exactly one section that I was able to write in a flow—and that was the one on Walser’s “The Slap in the Face, Etc.” I remember going up to my partner with an exalted “Listen to this! This is good!” Apparently, it takes a poet’s truffle pig nose to dig out an unlikely passage like that from beneath the dirt. Plus, what I thought I may have mastered on these precious pages, Snediker does all the time: namely, to reinject literary criticism again with the literary. Yet, in order to be able to do so, one must move with ease through a vast body of literature, knowing it by heart.

    Speaking of bodies, Snediker’s perspective on Ambiguous Aggression is phenomenological; he draws attention to the body and its spatiality. How does the experience of ambiguous aggression reconfigure the body? And what kind of “grip” would it take to recompose the body that has been thrown into disarray? Snediker makes clear that there is nothing like one monolithic experience of the body in pain, the body in vertigo. With a certain figurative logic—as distinct from the logic of the signifier—Snediker is able to move with ease from one literary scene to another, generating a panorama of dispositions to the world.

    The German phenomenologist Bernhard Waldenfels recently elaborated on the ways in which everyday violence hides “under inconspicuous but sometimes pervasive forms”; like all other forms of violence, Waldenfels claims, everyday violence does not simply end but extends to an aftermath.5 Snediker zooms in on the experiences of bewilderment and self-questioning triggered by ambiguous aggression: Have I just been subjected to ambiguous aggression? It is this sense of uncertainty, of derealization, which causes the body to lose its bearing. For how can it be that one feels hurt if one cannot even be certain that there is a cause for pain?

    Nobody has evoked this affect more powerfully than Claudia Rankine in Citizen, a poem taking inventory of the aftermath of racializing microaggressions: “What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth?”6 One of the aspects that makes quotidian racism so vile is that nobody takes responsibility for it; in Rankine’s poem, the only response emerges from the body of the racialized Other: “An unsettled feeling keeps the body front and center. The wrong words enter your day like a bad egg in your mouth and puke runs down your blouse, a dampness drawing your stomach in toward your rib cage.”7 In Impersonal Passion, Denise Riley similarly delineates the effect of the malignant word:

    The tendency of malignant speech is to ingrow like a toenail, embedding itself in its hearer until it’s no longer felt to come “from the outside.” The significance of its original emanation from another’s hostility becomes lost to the recipient as a tinnitus of remembered attack buzzes in her inner ear.8

    As writers, we are supposed to avoid mixed metaphor, such as “an ingrown toenail in the ear.” Riley commits a catachresis—but a poignant one, insofar as her formulation makes palpable how the malignant word causes the body to decompose itself into bricolage.

    As soon as one is dealing with bodies, Snediker implies, distinctions between literal and figurative, matter and abstraction, no longer hold. It is Celan’s insistence that the formulation “black milk of dawn” from the “Todesfuge”—a poem from which I cite at the end of Ambiguous Aggression—is not a metaphor that provokes Snediker’s insight. Walter Jens, but actually German (not so) “postwar”-Germanistik more broadly, did its best to teach the Jew Celan that his poetry about the holocaust was purely figurative, abstract, lacking in reality. This episode provides quite a stunning lesson in denial, a timely topic. We know how damaging this imposed derealization of trauma was for Celan’s health (as well as for that of so many others). But I still had students of later, more innocent generations in seminar, who assumed that the “grave in the air” (I agree that John Felstiner’s translation is superior) from the “Todesfuge” was a metaphor for “heaven”—granting these readers a premature or artificial sense of closure. Instead, the reality of the crematoria and the rising smoke of incinerated bodies hits hard in this line—with the caveat that the literal wouldn’t come as much of a shock at this moment, if it weren’t previously mistaken for the figurative.

    Günter Blöcker, member of the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung, wrote a most perfidious review of Celan’s poem collections Mohn und Gedächtnis and Engführung for the daily newspaper Tagesspiegel in October 1959. Blöcker complains that the “Todesfuge,” like Celan’s other poems, lacks “thingly sensuality” (dinghafte[ ] Sinnlichkeit) and—in perfidiously antisemitic stereotypes—continues to describe Celan’s poems as purely “abstract,” “intellectual,” “combinatory,” “empty.”9 Blöcker insinuates that it must have been Celan’s “heritage” (Herkunft) that “seduced” him into believing that he could free himself from all demands of communicability. In his trenchant letter to the editor, Celan employs the technique of citational collage to echo the antisemitic stereotypes and to send them back to their sender, thus finding a form to mimic, by way of citation, what Riley describes as the “remembered attack buzzes in [one’s] inner ear”10 caused by malignant speech. Apparently, ambiguous aggression is no less aggressive on account of its being ambiguous, but rather ambiguity adds to the aggression.

    1. Ernst Bloch, “The Invisible Hand,” in Traces (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 155–58, here 155; in German: “Einmal vielleicht wird es auch äußerlich, ganz außen besser stehen. Dann kehren die harten Dinge zu uns zurück oder wir zu ihnen, gleichviel. An sich stehen sie schief oder verwirrt zu uns, aber ein guter Griff und sie passen genau in die Lage, die Fromme meinen.”

    2. Bloch, “Invisible Hand,” 158.

    3. Bloch, “Invisible Hand,” 158.

    4. It would be interesting to explore this constellation in more detail in relation to Billy Budd. As Daniel Hoffman-Schwartz has argued, the narrator’s “I too have a hand here” in reference to Billy’s stuttering imperfection recalls Poussin’s “Et in arcadia ego” (mediated perhaps through Schiller), thus mirroring Snediker’s limning of the haptic, arcadia, the sexual, and even the literal and figurative. See Daniel Hoffman-Schwartz, “Handsome, Hand,” in Handsomely Done: Aesthetics, Politics, and Media after Melville, ed. Daniel Hoffman-Schwartz (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2019), 224–27.

    5. Bernhard Waldenfels, “The Metamorphoses of Violence,” Studia Phenomenologica 19 (2019) 19–35, here 19.

    6. Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric, 9.

    7. Rankine, Citizen, 8.

    8. Denise Riley, Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 11.

    9. Günter Blöcker, “Gedichte als graphische Gebilde,” in Paul Celan and Peter Szondi, Briefwechsel, ed. Christoph König (Frankfurt/ M.: Suhrkamp, 2005), 79–81.

    10. Paul Celan, “Celan an den Tagesspiegel,” in Briefwechsel, 81–82.

Moira Weigel


Frauen sehen dich an

Barbara Nagel’s rich, deceptively compact book joins a growing body of scholarship on the history of feelings. More specifically, it extends an ongoing intervention within the turn to affect by scholars including Lauren Berlant, Sara Ahmed, Sianne Ngai, Eugenie Brinkema, Mel Y. Chen, and Marta Figlerowicz, insisting that affect can, and even should or must, be read. There is much that one could say about the importance of this intervention for literary and media studies, and for the critical humanities broadly speaking. Among other things, it gives critics something to do. Departing from an ontological strain of affect theory that risks, ironically, reifying the very materiality that it celebrates into yet another abstraction precisely by declaring it ineffable, these feminist and queer theorists adopt the methods of phenomenology and aesthetics. By replacing “openness” with ambiguity, Nagel opens affect itself to close reading. In so doing, she also renders it a fruitful site for reading the social.

Ambiguous Aggression is making at least two innovations within the current that it joins and advances. The second half of its title announces both. First there is its archive. While the scholars I mention above focus primarily on Anglo-American and occasionally French texts, Nagel turns to a different and idiosyncratic corpus: German Realism. She does not simply apply concepts from affect theory to new examples or case studies, however. She makes the stronger claim that German realism helped generate them. “There are, admittedly, more common associations than realism when writing of German emotionality,” Nagel writes, referring to Sturm und Drang, the age of Empfindsamkeit and Romanticism. “But the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth offer more untapped literary resources for thinking about emotionality and affect—the literary contemporaries of Nietzsche and Freud, i.e., of those theorists who are still arguably the main influences for contemporary affect theory” (12).

This brings me to her second innovation. By defining her subject as German Realism and Beyond Nagel asserts a novel approach to the familiar problem of periodization. Against the academic norm of “cutting time into pieces” (3) she insists that “one period only becomes graspable through the next” (4). She is after “something that exceeds realism and spills over into the modernist era, namely a heightened skepticism about the readability of affect and an intensified effort to capture those new, confusingly ambivalent affective constellations” (5). What is striking about this method is how it mirrors her core claims about the processes by which emotions come to be defined: Namely, later. It is a claim that I have found fruitful for thinking about phenomena apparently distant from German realism, in the weeks since I have read Ambiguous Aggression—about ongoing social movements and the proprietary algorithms that mediate them. It is a sign of Nagel’s methodological daring that she herself “goes there,” briefly; her framework points toward many more things remaining to be said.

Within this frame, Nagel makes three broad claims about the history of feelings that strike me as particularly pertinent to the present. They appear tightly coiled in one another in the opening pages. The first, as I have hinted above, is that well-defined emotion, to the extent that it is available to us at all, is always “a phenomenon of belatedness” (1). The second is that this belatedness of emotion plays a special role in relation to three “contested forms of social violence” that Nagel will explore: flirtation, passive aggression, and domestic violence. What does she mean by describing these experiences this way? I take “social violence” to refer to forms of harm that not only arise from social structures but also structure them; that are not deviant but normal, and perhaps even normative. We might think, in light of recent events, of how the ever-present threat of racialized and gendered violence structure public and private space in US American cities, for instance. If we had more time, I might ask whether such violence does not create that distinction itself. As Nagel’s colleague Ruha Benjamin has put it, “racism is productive; it produces.” For now, let’s turn to Nagel’s third claim.

Nagel asserts that we can better understand forms of social violence by examining their mediation by literary form. German realism first registers flirtation, passive aggression, and domestic violence, she writes, not in spite of being a quiet, bourgeois, non-revolutionary style but because it is these things. The authors she examines, in a different way to their French and British counterparts, opened up literature to the everyday. What Nagel does not state explicitly, here at the outset, but strikes me as crucial is the nature of the relationship between belatedness, contestation, and literariness. If (named) emotion is always belated, this means that we are always working out what we feel with other people, including the other people who we ourselves become in time. Emotion is always, therefore, social. It is also always contested and contestable. Emotion is a name given to an affect by a reader, or group of readers, who have agreed on this much, at least for now. The ambiguity of affect can, however, always rattle what has been named out of its fixity. A reader can always take emotion back up.

In this sense, flirtation, passive aggression, and domestic violence constitute epitomes, not anomalies. These forms of interaction are particularly contested insofar as they attract more than average skepticism. The defining feature of at least the first two is plausible deniability. All three bring high risks of gaslighting, if not about whether certain things literally were done or said (although that too, often) then about what those things meant. You know how much I love you. The abuser’s answer to the victim who describes what they just did attempts, above all, to foreclose interpretation. But so does the insistence that, They’re just an X—a colleague, friend, whatever—in response to the (rightly?) jealous partner who has just glimpsed a flirtatious text message sent to somebody else. Literature refuses this kind of blunt assertion of authority over meaning in that it leaves—it is—a public record. It does not settle things once and for all but remains, inviting anyone who cares to come and contest its meanings, back.

What realist literature captures, in particular, is that the most apparently mundane feelings are not exempt from these fights over meaning. Indeed, such feelings may invite particularly intense contestation, in which the forms or threats of violence informing everyday life suddenly lurch into view. Because, in the same way that the abuser who insists they know you know they love you is issuing an ultimatum, the most fundamental exercise of power by the powerful may be to police what can or cannot be taken up. Power includes, perhaps even springs from, the power to decide who is making a big deal out of nothing. That’s just common sense, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro both like to say. It was just a joke. And so in claiming to know the “real” meaning of everyday ambiguities power reveals itself with special force, and reveals its arbitrary nature.

Nagel begins her chapter on flirtation by pushing back against the claim, which became common during the backlash to #MeToo, that her subject is trivial. This is a claim that writers Daphne Merkin and Laura Kipnis, as well as the signatories of a notorious open letter in Le Monde, made: “insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime.” These declarations generally took care to announce that their authors were not defending monsters. But they also said that young activists were overreacting. In the framing that #MeToo had “gone too far,” flirting became shorthand for whole zones of human activity that, these writers argued, young activists were illegitimately trying to politicize.

Nagel pushes back against this tendency to mark flirting as either trivial or obvious. “Flirtation is not where you take a break from more serious business,” she writes (20). Moreover, she points out that there is something dubious, and often a bit hysterical, about the very desire to distinguish between “clearly unambiguous” cases (like Harvey Weinstein) and permissibly ambiguous activities that, by extension or implication, should not end up in shared Google documents or the HR office. What would a “clearly unambiguous” case of “just flirting” be? Flirting is constitutively ambiguous. Once ambiguity is gone, you have moved from flirting to something else. What flirting is is, among other things, a shared state of pleasurable and slightly painful uncertainty.

Biologists have surmised that in flirting humans demonstrate evolutionary fitness by showing off their ability to manipulate complex symbolic systems, connotations, and double entendres. Machine learning engineers know that it is why flirting, like irony, is exceedingly difficult to teach software to do. But I digress. My point is: the constitutive uncertainty of flirting can produce authentic misunderstandings. A person may have thought he was only flirting, while his counterpart experienced the same interaction as threatening. That there will be some misunderstanding is a risk that flirting entails. (One way of seeing cases like the shaming of Aziz Ansari on the website, a friend once suggested to me, is evidence of how digital media have disrupted the prior distribution of risk: Whereas it has long been understood that a woman going alone into a man’s apartment was making herself vulnerable, now the man must recognize the same thing.) By the same token, there are, to paraphrase the comedian Michelle Wolf ribbed at the 2018 White House Press Association Dinner, “#MeToos that work out.” But I am certain that flirting cannot be unambiguous, much less “clearly” so.

In her rather delicious critique of Georg Simmel’s 1909 essay on Koketterie, Nagel shows how the male theorist attempts to overcome the anxiety that the constitutive ambiguity of the act provokes in him by projecting his own confusion onto women. “It is as if the non-mastery characterizing flirtation as such inverts or upsets Simmel’s own argument; that is, as if the basic irrationality and lack of consciousness that Simmel imputes on woman ricochets back upon himself,” Nagel observes (26). The power of the woman in question comes only from the speaker’s desire, and yet Simmel experiences this very having granted power to a woman as an attack. What the female flirt threatens is his—or the idealized male—power to know what he wants. Like many men who were outraged to find themselves described in tweets about taking their subordinates to “creepy lunches,” Simmel objects to seeing himself seen; the experience turns him into a hysteric.

The apparatus that Nagel uses to analyze flirting, and ambiguous aggression generally, helps me make sense of one aspect of #MeToo, and other hashtag activisms, that has long puzzled me. So much of what they reveal, of the revelations that drive them, are not, in fact, news. I write in the midst of an uprising sparked by a viral video that showed an event at once horrific, and ordinary: the police murder of a black man. Other cops shot and killed at least five other men in the United States that day. Police shot and killed Philando Castile in front of his girlfriend, and her young daughter, just minutes north, by car, of where George Floyd died, in 2017. The horror is that these horrors are so ordinary. But then sometimes, a series of contingencies generate a new form of affect, and a different future flashes up.

To return to #MeToo: Even the most shocking details did not surprise you, exactly. They had joked about Harvey Weinstein at the Oscars, and broadcast those jokes to tens of millions of people, years ago. If his predations were secret, they were an open secret. It struck me at the time that what was really happening was not so much a revelation as a reevaluation of how we felt about what we already knew and, maybe, always had. This itself is not new. I Never Called It Rape, the title of the first nationwide study on campus sexual assault, published in 1988, says. If what we are doing in moments like #MeToo is collectively naming that we have never named certain experiences of social violence, then this raises the question: Why do so now? (Or then?)

Liberal disgust with Trump and his shamelessness clearly had something to do with the outpouring in the fall of 2017, although it should not be forgotten that Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly of Fox News took down Roger Ailes more than a year earlier, before even the Access Hollywood tape. But the entire thing was unthinkable without social media and the transformations of temporality, as well as sociability, that social media affected. Nagel argues that, as a genre, literary realism opened up new dimensions of emotionality for analysis by taking the everyday ambiguities as its subject. Ubiquitous, digitally networked computers are creating new forms of feeling by capturing ever more of the data of experience and reorganizing them according to proprietary algorithms.

Critics of #MeToo, and social media movements, often describe them as forms of “mob” behavior. But the digital technologies coordinating them are not, in fact, massifying; they are mass-personalizing. The novelty of the forms into which contemporary platforms are rearranging everyday life, now, is creating new forms of feeling about ordinary social violence. These forms will, in turn, inform new kinds of contests to name what the feelings they produce means—and will mean to the future.

The social scientists danah boyd and Alice Marwick have argued that digital networks produce “context collapse.” Online, various public and counterpublic spheres cross streams with an ease that would have been unthinkable in the print era. A Google Doc that remains up for all of twelve minutes can be screenshotted and shared enough times, during that time, to provoke an industry-wide crisis. The New York Times and the Atlantic can hyperlink easily to The metaphor has been interpreted as, chiefly, spatial. But #MeToo demonstrated that context collapse also happens in time. The combination of asynchrony and algorithmic coordination that characterizes social media produced new simultaneities. Consider the furor that ensued when a decades-old photograph of Al Franken groping a woman resurfaced and was almost instantaneously, globally shared.

Now now now say the screens that we now spend our days on. Nagel helps me understand this: Our reevaluations of what we felt, and feel, about our open secrets, is a way of giving new names to the feelings arising from new genres of writing, and media, giving form to them. I tend to think that one cannot judge past behavior by present standards as easily as software can lift an old photograph into a feed and replicate it across timelines. But the sense of belatedness that many women felt as they reconsidered normal aggressions that they had smiled through long ago does not discredit their reconsideration. On the contrary, it reflects the only way we have to name emotion, which, as Nagel shows, whether we like it or not, is also: together.

  • Barbara Nagel

    Barbara Nagel


    Response to Moira Weigel

    As I was completing the composition of Ambiguous Aggression, I gave a talk at the American Academy in Berlin on “The Terror of Flirtation: From Critical Theory to #MeToo.”1 On a piece of paper with notes scribbled for the Q&A, to save me if I blanked, was written “Moira Weigel, The Internet of Woman.” It is very cool to meet Weigel here in the book forum, if also still in the virtual space. But then again, the virtual world is Weigel’s intellectual hangout place anyway.

    At the onset of #metoo, Weigel’s article drew attention because she was one of the first to reflect in a meaningful manner on the specific mediality of the new resistance formed to address sexualized violence in the workplace, starting with the media industry.2 According to Weigel’s account, the internet is “woman” if one concedes that much work done on the internet is unpaid labor and unpaid labor is female labor (see Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch).3 Thus, the horror that predators in media were facing when #metoo broke loose had something of the anamorphic skull staring at the observer from the bottom of Holbein’s The Ambassadors. As the title of Weigel’s forum response, “Frauen sehen dich an” (“Women Look at You”) indicates, this particular horror is of a structural nature in that #metoo provoked in some male spectators a belated, minimal anagnorisis—the world looks different and pretty scary from a feminine or feminized perspective. Although this insight into positionality is seemingly trivial, it nevertheless poses a challenge to the narcissist’s pathological inability to change perspectives.

    Many men smelled something like the revenge of the repressed and swiftly tried to turn things around by recasting themselves as victims in a “witch hunt,” which is why “Witches of the World, Unite!” became Weigel’s ironic battle cry. But then, why does her battle cry fade away at the end of the article into a quivering “What now? What now?” It is a difficult task to transpose the language of confession and complaint, of grievances and mourning, into a different register and to envision alternate futures, however hopefully or pessimistically one paints them. Two years later, #metoo still hovers between the belatedness of experience, the urgency of the “now,” and a future that is difficult to picture. This is not a critique given that this future would have to address, among other things, female desire—something which has been rendered inexistent for centuries (I just learned two weeks ago that it took until the ’90s for anatomy books to find the clitoris).4 When asked to comment on #metoo in the context of her study The Politics of Humiliation, the historian Ute Frevert, director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, asked people to try the following thought experiment:5

    If future historians should take an interest in the metoo-debate, then they will be able to collect data right away about different sexual positions that men want to try no later than at the first encounter; they will also find information about the preference of certain men to masturbate in front of naked women, and about how much aging men enjoy to touch the intimate parts of young girls and sometimes young men, too. But these historians would hardly learn anything from their sources about what is pleasurable for women. This is because in the debate about #metoo only men appear as agents. Women remain reduced to the position of the one to whom something is done that they didn’t want.6

    In a certain sense, we have a case of what Jean-François Lyotard calls “a differend”:7 We are dealing with a communication structure fostering denial. More concretely, thanks to the internet women are finally in the possession of means of communication to represent their grievances in the most basic manner—to quote Nadine Hartmann: “#metoo facilitated an eruption of voices that via the signal of the hashtag managed to exceed the merely personal in favor of an aggregate, a collective strength.”8 Yet, as soon as a woman’s experience gains more attention, it is translated—however traumatic this experience may have been—into masculinist pornographic fantasy.9 Patriarchy can only conceive of the debased, feminized body as arousing; thus, the structural difficulty with the communication of the grievance. The question is how (and if) we can take advantage of new media and move forward from there instead of being looped back into the old nightmares.

    If this question makes you feel depressed, then please stay with this feeling a moment longer. After all, the discourse of depression proves informative at this point and might actually provide grounds for a certain optimism. I’ll admit that the discourse on depression is an odd choice as an analogue for that on sexual violence, for whereas the latter is gendered predominantly feminine, the discourse on depression is, for some reason, dominated by male voices. This doesn’t change the fact that depression and sexual harassment are bound to each other causally as well as through the feeling of shame, which individualizes and silences. In the discourse on depression, there has been a push to acknowledge the implication of larger, societal structures and destigmatizing forms of protest (such as the debt strikes) that break the affective spell of symbolic violence—something which was central also to the women’s movement of the seventies.

    My oldest friend died last summer of depression, or more precisely of the attempt to self-medicate with party drugs (it is not as if he hadn’t tried “legitimate” medications for decades). About fifteen years earlier, the same friend had recommended the diary of the Italian neorealist Cesare Pavese. Il mestiere di vivere (1952) leads up to Pavese’s suicide; it investigates his depression without ever using the term. I remember vividly how my friend had himself been prompted to read Pavese by Elias Canetti’s diary, where Canetti describes the comfort he found in Pavese’s diary:

    I am happy about my new brother, Pavese. . . . Pavese’s journals: all the things that preoccupy me, crystallized in another way. What luck! What a liberation! . . . Last night, when in my deepest depression I wanted to die, I reached for his journals, and he died for me. Hard to believe: through his death, today I am reborn.10

    Il mestiere di vivere came to mean a lot to me, so much that I subsequently read everything by Pavese. Although one tends to think of suicide (or, as Foucault calls it: “un plaisir si simple”)11 as the negation of relation, these literary reflections on depression and suicide turned into a form of sociality and mutual care. Of course, I thought that my friend was depressed—not me! And yet, around the same time my therapist marked claims to the insurance company for my treatment with a code, which, as I found out a couple of years later, indicated depression. Just as I felt ashamed when finding out about this diagnosis, so Pavese expresses shame at his own perceived inability to live what he imagined as a meaningful, manly life. In his journal, Pavese constantly searches for strategies of the self to both aestheticize and anesthetize life—until, at last, he fears nothing but his inner void.12 To be clear, Pavese had plenty of reasons to be depressed: he lost his father early, had a hard time with relationships, was banished to exile by Mussolini. Still, Pavese blamed himself for everything that he felt was wrong with himself—from political inaction to sexual impotence: “Vergògnati13 (“Shame on you”) or “Soffrire è sempre colpa nostra14 (“Suffering is always our own fault”) read some exemplary entries; another reads: “Thus, I am a man, unemployed, apolitical, a boy, and other things that elude me. It is a beautiful work to examine the effect of this auto-humiliation on all of these states and to find the common denominator.”15 The common denominator for which Pavese is searching could be said to be “depression”—but then there are good reasons for him not to use the term: shame as well as the outdatedness of our emotional vocabulary, which Pavese’s contemporary Michelangelo Antonioni bemoaned when he said that we carry our old concepts of emotions with us like old baggage.16 Then there is the difficulty of admitting one’s helplessness when confronted with more powerful ideological structures, which might actually be more painful than imagining oneself as the source of the difficulties.

    K-Punk, the blog of the British writer and academic Mark Fisher, made this difficult step. Many will remember Fisher’s trenchant post “Good for Nothing” from spring 2014:

    For some time now, one of the most successful tactics of the ruling class has been responsibilisation. Each individual member of the subordinate class is encouraged into feeling that their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment, is their fault and their fault alone. Individuals will blame themselves rather than social structures, which in any case they have been induced into believing do not really exist (they are just excuses, called upon by the weak). . . . Collective depression is the result of the ruling-class project or resubordination.17

    Fisher ends his post by calling upon his readers to “convert[ ] privatized disaffection into politicised anger: all of this can happen, and when it does, who knows what is possible?”18 Thanks to the internet, Fisher certainly reached more readers than Pavese.

    On the other side of the Atlantic, Feel Tank Chicago, instigated by Lauren Berlant, invited people “to think about the political as a space of affective and emotional disruption and attachment in the United States, and to think of the orchestration of emotion as central to the organization of politics and all of the lives affected by politics.”19 I remember laughing out loud with joy when reading that Feel Tank Chicago was responding to feelings of apathy and depression in public political culture by sponsoring the “‘Annual International Parades of the Politically Depressed.’ The slogan for the event, at which demonstrators show up in their bathrobes and slippers, is ‘Depressed? It might be Political.’”20

    Upon rereading my text, I realize that my response has turned into an advice column of sorts, alas one with no good advice to give. Maybe just: experience always occurs belatedly. And: It takes times for an archive to grow and for the “I” to become a “we.” Oh, and let’s not forget: The energy of critique is itself positive and affirmative, no matter how disturbing its object. And now let’s chime in with Elfriede Jelinek: “If nothing changes about humanity and its attitude towards woman—and we are evidently lightyears away from that—, then it should all go to hell.”21


    2. Moira Weigel, “The Internet of Woman,” Logic 4 (April 2018),

    3. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004).

    4. Clara Hellner, “Die Vulva, ein blinder Fleck,” Süddeutsche Zeitung (July 10, 2020),

    5. Ute Frevert, The Politics of Humiliation: A Modern History (London: Oxford University Press, 2020).

    6. Frevert, “Die Scham ist Komplizin der Männer,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (27 January 2018): “Falls sich Historiker in Zukunft für die MeToo-Debatte interessieren, können sie in Null Komma nichts Nachrichten sammeln über diverse sexuelle Stellungen, die Männer bereits bei der ersten Begegnung ausprobieren wollen, über die Vorliebe mancher Männer, vor nackten Frauen zu masturbieren, über die Lust alternder Männer, junge Mädchen, manchmal auch junge Männer an intimen Körperteilen zu berühren. Kaum etwas aber würden sie aus ihren Quellen über das erfahren, was Frauen Spaß macht. Denn in der MeToo-Debatte treten nur Männer als Handelnde auf. Frauen verbleiben in der Rolle derjenigen, denen etwas zugefügt wird, was sie nicht wollen,”

    7. Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988 [1983]), 8.

    8. Nadine Hartmann, “Hashtag Confessions: What Can Psychoanalysis Say about #MeToo?,” lecture, March 10, 2020, 4:27 min.,

    9. See also Weigel, “The Internet of Women”: “Stories of workplace abuse come with a titillating hint of pornography” and are “staged as a clickbait deathmatch.”

    10. Elias Canetti, Notes from Hampstead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 33; originally written in German as Nachträge aus Hampstead. Aufzeichnungen 1954–1971 (Frankfurt/M.: Fischer, 1999 [1994]), 34: “Paveses Tagebücher: alle Dinge, die mich beschäftigen, auf eine andere Weise kristallisiert. Welches Glück! Welche Befreiung! . . . Als ich gestern nacht in meiner tiefsten Erniedrigung sterben wollte, griff ich nach seinen Tagebüchern, und er starb für mich. Es ist schwer zu glauben: durch seinen Tod bin ich heute neugeboren.

    11. Michel Foucault, “Un plaisir si simple [1979],” in Dits et écrits, 1954–1988, vol. 3, 1976–1979, ed. Daniel Defert, François Ewald, and Jacques Lagrange (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), 777–79.

    12. Cesare Pavese, Il mestiere di vivere, 1935–1950, ed. Marziano Guglielminetti and Laura Nay (Turin: Einaudi, 1990 [1952]), February 23, 1946: “Temi il tuo vuoto.” Pavese’s diary was published two years after his death by the publishing house Einaudi (where he was an editor), supposedly with his agreement. I am right now at the seaside and have no access to the English translation entitled This Business of Living: Diaries 1935–50, trans. A. E. Murch (London: Routledge, 2009).

    13. Pavese, Il mestiere di vivere, April 16, 1946.

    14. Pavese, Il mestiere di vivere, September 29, 1938.

    15. Pavese, Il mestiere di vivere, May 9, 1936: “Sono anche un uomo e un disoccupato e un apolitico e un ragazzo e altre cose che mi sfuggono. È un bel lavoro esaminare l’effetto dell’autoumiliazione su tutti questi stati e trovare il massimo com. divis.

    16. In an interview, Michelangelo Antonioni—who turned one of Pavese’s Tra donne sole (1949) into the movie Le Amiche (1955)—bemoans that people are born with heavy emotional baggage in the form of old feelings that are “inappropriate, aren’t helpful but rather stand in the way, without offering a solution. Still it seems that man is not able to throw off this old baggage.” “La Malattia dei sentimenti [1961],” in Fare un film è per me vivere. Scritti sul cinema, ed. Lino Micciché and Giorgio Tinazzi (Venice: Marsilio, 1994), 20–46, here 33: “Oggi nasce un uomo nuovo, con tutte le paure, i terrori, i balbettii di una gestazione. E quello che è ancor più grave, quest’uomo si trova subito alle spalle un pesante bagaglio di sentimenti che non è neanche esatto definire vecchi e superati, sono disadatti piuttosto, condizionano senza aiutare, impacciano senza suggerire una conclusione, una soluzione. Eppure l’uomo pare che non riesca a sbarazzarsi di questo bagaglio.

    17. Mark Fisher, “Good for Nothing,” in K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004–2016), ed. Darren Ambrose (London: Repeater, 2018), 747–49, here 749; also available at

    18. Fisher, “Good for Nothing,” 749.


    20. Ibid.

    21. Elfriede Jelinek: “Wenn sich an der Menschheit und ihrer Einstellung zur Frau nichts ändert—und davon sind wir ja noch Jahrhunderte entfernt—, dann soll besser alles krepieren.” Heinz Sichrovsky, “70 Jahre, 70 Zitate: Die Literaturnobelpreisträgerin Elfriede Jelinek feiert Geburtstag,” News, October 20, 2016,

Paul Buchholz


Response to Barbara Nagel’s Ambiguous Aggression

Even if Barbara Nagel’s Ambiguous Aggression: Aggression in German Realism and Beyond had omitted the “beyond” from its title and focused only on nineteenth-century texts commonly counted as realist, the monograph would still have made an essential and groundbreaking contribution to the study of affect and gendered violence in modern German-language literature. The strength of the concept of ambiguous aggression, and its resonance with theoretical discourses of the #MeToo era, is already proven in the creative and highly convincing close readings of Storm, Keller, Fontane and Stifter. It is a tribute to Nagel’s depth and breadth of insight that, with the book’s final chapter, she moves into the twentieth century and successfully adapts the concept of ambiguous aggression to systematically address of the most vexing aspects of Robert Walser’s prose. In what follows, I will recapitulate and further apply Nagel’s reading of Walser, and so will hopefully preview its potential for future scholarship.

In the opening of her chapter, “‘What Murderously Peaceful People There Are’: On Aggression in Robert Walser,” Nagel takes distance from a common approach to Walser that identifies “sublimated forms” of affect in his writing (103). Some of Walser’s most iconic readers have remarked on the emotional dissonance of his prose: the enthusiastic, joyful, “cute” tone of his prose hints at a concealed inner sorrow. Walter Benjamin, in his highly influential tribute essay, wrote that Walser’s figures have a “festive shine in their eye,” but are “perturbed and sad to the point of tears” (351). Benjamin’s most memorable line on Walser is: “weeping is the melody of Walser’s chattiness” (351). The musical form (melody) of Walser’s prose is sadness; the lingual form (chattiness) is happiness. The oddity of Benjamin’s mixed metaphor suggests a juxtaposition that is very hard to put into words, and actually leaves open the question as to which emotion is more fundamental. W. G. Sebald, himself heavily influenced by Benjamin, writes of Walser in similar terms as an author “who was so filled with shadows, and nevertheless spread the friendliest light over every page, who fashioned humoresques out of pure despair” (132). Here the critic identifies a tone that is at odds with the original feeling that gave rise to the text, a feeling of fear and despair yields a deceptively happy prose. Sebald and Benjamin both intuit something lurking underneath, a dark feeling disguised in jolly, ludic prose. A problem raised by such readings, especially Sebald’s, is that they risk projecting an identifiable psychological state onto the author, which can be retroactively deciphered—and in this way, might fail to capture how the emotional registers of the text actually operate. This is exactly where Nagel’s Ambiguous Aggression intervenes with a novel and utterly convincing solution: “Walser’s texts construct layers of affects—however, these layers are not hierarchized in the sense that one layer of affect would be closer to ‘the truth’ than the other; rather, affects cover each other up or hover between foreground and background” (111). In other words, Walser’s writing is a game of latency. It cannot be simply understood, as Nagel points out, using the paradigm of repression, since it is actually playing with appearances of repression. In the process, Nagel argues, Walser’s prose teaches us a variety of strategies for how affect can be channeled, disguised, spirited away, and smuggled back into language.

Nagel’s understanding of Walser’s game of latency opens up an opportunity to revisit some of the more unsettling and confusing plot points of his final novel, The Robber, which is also the final primary text studied in Ambiguous Aggression. Nagel’s reading excavates a thread of evasive aggression in the novel: the robber-protagonist provokes aggression of those around him by himself refusing to be openly aggressive. With this reading in mind, it is interesting to consider one of the novel’s most disturbing moments: the thematization of the 1922 assassination of the German politician, industrialist, and intellectual Walter Rathenau by antisemitic right-wing nationalists associated with the Freikorps—in short, by proto-Nazis. Walser’s protagonist is apparently overjoyed when he sees a poster announcing Rathenau’s murder: “What did the wonderful, strange rascal do, he clapped his hands, instead of collapsing in horror and sorrow at such devastating news” (20).1 Walser’s narrator, ever evasive and digressive, deflects a political interpretation of the robber’s applause by trying to explain that his joy in that moment can be written up to his happy memory (relayed over the next two pages) of a widow flirtatiously feeding him coffee with a spoon. But this deflection is never enough, and the narrator’s excuses proliferate alongside this longwinded spoon-story; once his “bravo” at Rathenau’s death is excused with a reference to Nietzsche that ostensibly preserves the viewpoint that the murder was a tragedy: “For is not according to Friedrich Nietzsche the witnessing, the experiencing of a tragedy a joy in a finer and higher sense, an enrichment of life?” But the narrator’s words elsewhere are dripping with sympathy for the proto-fascist murderers; Rathenau is a “mighty man” who was “defeated by few underdogs” (21); he was “shot down by very respectably-thinking people” (22). The narrator, however, continues to treat the robber’s applause as an unsolved mystery that cannot be unlocked, an absolutely spontaneous outburst with no discernable cause: “Still the hand-clapping remains a puzzle to us. The bravo-cry we chalk up to his sky-blue shamelessness. Apparently, it was the sunniest thoughtlessness” (22–23). The possibility that the robber shares the political desires of the murderers is brought up only to dismiss it: “Did the death of Rathenau appear to him beautiful, promising a better future? That would be hard to corroborate” (23). The narrator embraces the tactic of plausible deniability: dogwhistling and then gaslighting the reader, and so making intention behind the applause more mysterious than it might otherwise be.

It is no great leap from The Robber to this vocabulary describing contemporary neofascist speech of Donald Trump and the Alt-Right—Nagel aptly introduces the discussion of these in the conclusion, just following her reading of The Robber. She notes that “the rhetoric of white supremacy actually makes ample use of latent aggression,” indulging in “the comfort of engaging in aggression without taking responsibility for it. . . . Ambiguous aggression today means gaslighting and dogwhistling” (139). And indeed, today it is hard to read the circumlocutory discourse around Rathenau’s murder in The Robber without invoking these two terms that capture the venting and masking of fascist ideology. This is why it is so important to follow Nagel’s mildly iconoclastic questioning, at the start of her chapter on Walser, of the “innocence” that so many prominent readers have projected onto the writer (105). As Nagel writes in the conclusion with a citation of the journalist Sebastian Haffner, “ambiguous aggression actually enables denial, i.e., ‘to commit murder but to not know it’” (141). Walser’s robber is not a murderer, but his evasive existence in the equally evasive discourse of his narrator, is nothing if not analogous form of denial that is happy to abet murder.

The Robber almost seems to address and redress such an ethical concern—but it is only a feint. As Nagel notes, The Robber is a work where “ambiguous aggression becomes ubiquitous” (138). Even the characters who seem to explicitly condemn the robber for applauding Rathenau’s murder are themselves bound up in the web of uncertainty. In the novel’s climactic scene, when Edith (non-fatally) shoots the robber at the end of a public speech he has held, which was meant to explain his fickle love for her. When Edith is asked why she shot the robber, she offers a political explanation—and then retracts it:

“Because someone told me that he applauded the death of Walter Rathenau.” This statement awoke a certain admiration in those who had the good fortune to hear it. Edith seemed like the delegate of some committee. “Is that the truth?” proved Frau von Hochberg. “No, I just said it so.” (182)

For a split second, The Robber seems like it is bookended by two moments of recognizable political conflict: assassination and revenge, with Edith inhabiting a proper political position as a “delegate of some committee.” But Edith has only improvised her explanation spontaneously; her act is rendered as opaque and inexplicable as the robber’s applause supposedly was. It is, as Jan Plug writes, “mere saying,” which at most is meant to trigger a positive response in Edith’s listeners but does not represent any political commitment (Plug, 114). There remains of course also a private explanation for the shooting: Edith’s pent-up rage at the robber for (as Nagel notes) himself refusing to get angry (Nagel, 124). But this domestic violence (which is of course also public), remains overshadowed by the political drama that The Robber refuses to take seriously. Nagel’s Ambiguous Aggression points us towards a way to taking it seriously, not by ignoring its ambiguity but by precisely attending to the ways in which ambiguity abets violence.

The reading of this proto-fascist moment in late Walser leads me to consider a key ambiguity, established in the final pages of Nagel’s book, regarding the practice of historicizing literary texts. In her conclusion, in summarizing the historical significance of literary ambiguous aggression, Nagel speculates “that an intensification of ambiguous aggression or resentment could be taken as a litmus test for a more general rise of aggression, an aggression on the verge of eruption”—an eruption that occurred in Germany in the 1930s and is occurring all around us at the contemporary moment (141). In the next paragraph, Nagel makes an intriguing turn away from this contextualization, writing that “After this spirited historicization, it is time to de-historicize the previous claims and to reflect upon language as such and its relation to both ambiguity and aggression” (141). The voice invoked to this end is that of Werner Hamacher, who writes that “violence belongs to the structural unconscious of our language” (142). Nagel does not simply let Hamacher’s quotation speak for itself as the final truth, and gestures towards a possible historicization of his discourse by considering the extent to which Hamacher’s theory expresses a conception of language that is culturally specific German conception of language—a potential re-historicization of the de-historicization. In carrying forward the insights of Nagel’s book, I am inclined to take sides with Nagel’s historicizing path, over the structural one represented by Hamacher—among other things, as part of a citational politics that doesn’t give the last word a patriarch of German philology, who was dismissive of “crude historicization” and lamented the “antiphilological affect” of contemporary literary studies (Hamacher, 138; 109). What I see in Nagel’s book is an opportunity to historicize what has stood as one of the unquestioned desiderata of philological literary studies: ambiguity. Not, of course, in the interest of definitively establishing what every case ambiguity “really” signifies or thinking that we could somehow get rid of ambiguity once and for all, but for highlighting historical cases when ambiguity as ambiguity is a power strategy deployed from a broad spectrum of social and narrative positions to different ends—and not just the inevitable effect of language as such, as deconstruction would have it. Philological forms of literary studies are typically committed to an ethics of reading that vows to not “do violence to the text” through oversimplifying readings, such as vulgar historicizations and psychological projections. “Not doing violence to the text” typically means respecting ambiguity; defending undecidability and semantic openness becomes an ethical imperative. Nagel’s concept of ambiguous aggression—itself grounded in a rigorous ethics of close reading—provides the wonderful and unsettling insight that that ambiguity can itself be an expression of aggression; a sanctimonious insistence that ambiguity be protected at all costs can be a form of passive aggression; and that these forms of aggression are not isolated from the social realm in which, as Ingeborg Bachmann wrote, “war is no longer declared / but rather continued” (viii).


Works Cited

Bachmann, Ingeborg. The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldman. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2010.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminationen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1977.

Hamacher, Werner. Minima Philologica. Translated by Catharine Diehl and Jason Groves. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015.

Nagel, Barbara N. Ambiguous Aggression in German Realism and Beyond. Flirtation, Passive Aggression, Domestic Violence. New York: Bloomsbury, 2019.

Plug, Jan. They Have All Been Healed: Reading Robert Walser. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2016.

Sebald, W. G. Logis in einem Landhaus. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 2002.

Walser, Robert. Der Räuber. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1986.

  1. Translation my own. Because of limited library access due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I unfortunately have not been able to consult Susan Bernofsky’s classic translation of the novel.

  • Barbara Nagel

    Barbara Nagel


    Response to Paul Buchholz

    Yes, the kitschiness of some of the most famous voices on Walser drives me up the wall. Hesse and Sontag laud Walser for his alleged pacifism; Benjamin and Agamben, for the innocence of his creatures; Sebald and Coetzee delve into his suffering. It is as if each and every one of them were trying to cuddle up to an author who famously wanted to be left alone.1 I wanted to do a revisionary reading of Walser, seeking to make it plain that his fiction, against all expectation, offers an elaborate, finely differentiated typology of aggression. This was not about proving that Walser wasn’t such “a nice guy,” but that one should bow down to the amazing affective complexity of his texts—or make a good argument for why not to.

    Speaking of affective complexity, I was relieved to hear that Paul Buchholz would be one of the respondents to Ambiguous Aggression—not just because Buchholz has written on Walser but more importantly because Private Anarchy: Impossible Community and the Outsider’s Monologue in German Experimental Fiction2 is proof that Buchholz is open to the beauty of aggressive forms like rants and tirades. In his response, Buchholz implicitly asks why I didn’t address the Rathenau episode in Walser’s last novel fragment, The Robber. Michael Gamper raised the same question when I presented an earlier version of the Walser chapter at the Freie Universität—I wiggled out of answering this question, more or less gracefully. So, I’d better deal with it now: In the Walser chapter of Ambiguous Aggression, I traverse a wide range of aggressive affects, beginning with an ambiguous plea for cursing in a letter by Walser to this sister Lisa, before moving through teasing, sublimation, resentment, and, finally, ambivalence. What happens in the Rathenau episode did not fit any of these forms—and the reason is, upon reflection, that something more formalistic is going on here, which has to do with Walser’s countenance of amoralism, and which causes the continuous splitting of perspective.

    So, once more the question: how shall one read the fact that the robber claps his hands and cheers “Bravo!” when news of the assassination of the Jewish liberal politician Rathenau reaches him? The most disconcerting question, as Buchholz insists, is whether the outburst is an expression of antisemitism and anti-liberalism. As Buchholz makes evident, Walser’s novel fragment does not make much of an effort to disprove this ugly suspicion; as I see it, the only moderate attempt is the introductory phrase “The robber had many flaws.” That is, the sentence introducing the scene distances itself from what it is about to depict. One can argue whether this makes what follows better or worse, more ethical or simply more cowardly. Of course, one can say in Walser’s defense that his writing at large is not blemished by antisemitism. What is a trait of his style is a general striving to liberate himself from any kind of moralism; as a consequence, there is a whole legion of Walserian characters and narrators who take shocking stances. In this regard, Walser must be read in the tradition of French amoralists like his beloved Stendhal or even de Sade.

    A second plausible way to read the robber’s euphoria about Rathenau’s death is through personal vengeance; after all, feelings of resentment and Schadenfreude are ubiquitous in Walser. Walser’s editor Jochen Greven disclosed previously censored pieces by Walser on Rathenau, which prove that Walser knew Rathenau from his Berlin years and actively disliked him because in his eyes Rathenau was a writing industrialist and an industrious writer (he shared this aversion with as different figures as Walter Benjamin and Stefan George).3 If the offense was personal does that mean that it wasn’t political? Greven cites Walser from the suppressed Rathenau texts stating that it would suit Rathenau to be “more Semitic” and less assimilated.4 Again, there is a certain splitting going on, for even if the content of what Walser’s narrator says appears to be anti-antisemitic, the gesture is nevertheless an aggressive (re-)racialization of Rathenau. The situation is still more complicated insofar as the young Rathenau dabbled in white supremacist ideology; his programmatic Hear, O Israel (Höre, Israel, 1897) is addressed to German Jews who “in the humidity of the ghetto yearn for the German air of forests and great heights” (“die sich aus der Ghettoschwüle in deutsche Waldes- und Höhenluft sehnen”), calling on them to assimilate.5 Moreover, Rathenau published several texts in which he demanded the reinforcement of the “Nordic element,” the blond “man of courage” (“Mutmensch”) in culture and biology.6 So we have an unsavory competition going on here, in terms of who sounds more like a Nazi.

    Third option: the robber is not actually clapping and cheering “Bravo” about Rathenau’s assassination but about whatever he is licking from his spoon. Though this may sound absurd, it is the first suggestion the narrator gives in order to make “sense” of the robber’s erratic behavior. Walser readers have gotten more than just a taste of his great taste for food, which also seeps into his romantic correspondence, as Marianne Schuller has shown.7

    If we go along with some of the exculpatory interpretations and assume that the robber is “really” just excited about a delicacy or about the death of a racist, would the scene then not be aggressive? Of course, it would be—after all, we just had to weigh a human life against a tasty treat and guess who the real Nazi is, as if this were some kind of game: Walser makes us complicit in his protagonist’s amoralism and, by conflating political fanaticism, personal vengeance, and food-induced jouissance, performs a transvaluation of values tending towards nihilism.

    With this, we cannot escape the impression that in Walser everything is personal and nothing is political. In Walser’s world, as in Nietzsche’s, microaffective struggle dominates over self-reflexive rationality. This is to say, if we approach Walser’s texts for the sake of a rational deliberation about moral ideals we will get lost; this is because Walser punctures the fictions of political life—he never aligns himself with a political party and is much more comfortable despising party associations, suspecting everyone of careerism (here, Buchholz’s figure of the solitaire comes to the fore again). From this point of view—and complicating our earlier formulation—Walser shows us that the political is merely personal, a matter, for instance, of petty enmities and resentments, and that this in turn is the problem that demands to be taken seriously. By the same logic, it is the impersonal—affect, rather than subjective emotion—that may deliver us from the illusion of the political.

    The point at which Walser’s amoralism gets too “disturbing” for me, to borrow Buchholz’s poignant qualifier, are Walser’s disgustingly humorous allusions to child molestation. The worst is the euphemizing prose piece “Gilles de Rez” about the child serial killer Gilles de Rais who signifies, in the words of Emily Apter, “the infernal recipe of sadoerotic torturers”8 and in this function appears most famously in de Sade and Bataille, where he becomes the embodiment of a political nihilism that is so extreme that it turns into a utopia of evil. Among the more harmless examples is “Wenn ich bei mir von einer Sehnsucht reden darf” (i.e., “If I May Speak of a Certain Desire of Mine”) which fixates on the space on the leg between bottom-wear and socks, describing how allegedly “a little girl let me see a strip of each of her rosy little legs. Is it my fault that I take notice [wahrnehme] of everything around me?” (SW XIII, 483).9 With this, pedophilia is treated not only as occurring at a child’s invitation (“let me” / liess mich) but also as an index of heightened aesthetic receptivity. Of course, one can always say in Walser’s defense that he plays with voice and perspective, and he might well be doing that here, maybe even putting in scene what Ferenczi calls “identification with the aggressor.”10 Nonetheless, nonetheless it is hard to bear. Maybe this is why these moments are not even addressed in the scholarship. Statements like this one also shed a different light on certain biographical details of Walser, such as his having to move because his neighbors grew increasingly concerned about his disposition towards their little daughter.11

    In terms of a structure for the Walser chapter, I had originally planned to simply move once more through the three forms of ambiguous aggression that my book names: flirtation, passive aggression, and domestic violence. Buchholz’s response makes me realize I didn’t quite stick to this plan, having in fact avoided writing on flirtation in Walser. This seems a shame, because Walser actually writes quite a lot on flirtation—one of my favorite quotes pays tribute to the radical uncertainty entailed in flirtation: “Of course, all of this might be based upon self-deception on my part. One is deceived so easily where one has an interest” (SW XVII, 60).12 This seems like an excellent lesson to keep in mind in order never to go too far. But then there are the instances in which Walser’s narrative voices take advantage of flirtation by using it as a cover-up for the harassment of young girls. In at least two prose-pieces (“Ich ging wieder einmal ins Theater,” SW XVII, 38–41; “Revolvernovelle,” SW XVIII, 33) a narrator reports on his visit to the theatre or the cinema, where he waits until it is dark and noisy enough to impose himself on a minor. In “Ich ging wieder einmal ins Theater,” the victim is pleonastically described as “a teenager [Backfischchen], that is a juvenile lady, a girl in tender age” (SW XVII, 40):

    When one was singing on stage, the orchestra played, the auditorium was nicely dark, I touched my little, young neighbor very, very gently, you should have seen that. It was totally delightful, how she gave me a glance of rebuke. That expression of dignity on an inexperienced being. (SW XVII, 40)

    The narrator first gets aroused by the girl’s young age, which legally disqualifies her from being his object of desire, then treats her as just that, is met with horror, only to take the position of moral authority and take satisfaction in the girl’s moral repulsion. It proves what Michael Snediker wrote in his forum contribution, in reference to another of Walser’s female characters, namely that it is “as though even her disgust were configurable as another fruit for his taking.” I remember how a man once took the same liberty with me in a dark movie theater in Berlin. I took him by the wrist, stood up from my seat, jolting the hand that had attached itself to my thigh into the air, and screamed into the auditorium: “Is anybody here missing a sweaty hand? I just found one on my thigh.” People laughed and the creep golem’d his way out of the dark. At least that’s how I saw it at the time. Little did I know it might have been the ghost of Robert Walser, who slinked away in satisfaction—I would have asked for an autograph on my thigh.

    1. Hermann Hesse, “Poetenleben,” in Über Robert Walser, vol. 1, ed. Katharina Kerr (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1978), 57–58; Susan Sontag, “Walser’s Voice,” in Selected Stories, trans. Christopher Middleton (Manchester: Carcanet New Press, 1982), vii–ix, here viii; Walter Benjamin, “Robert Walser (1929),” in Selected Writings: 1927–1934, vol. 2, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al., ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 257–61, here 258; Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003 [1990]), 31; W. G. Sebald, “Le Promeneur Solitaire: A Remembrance of Robert Walser,” in A Place in the Country: On Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Robert Walser and Others, trans. Jo Catling (New York: Penguin, 2015), 117–53, at 120; J. M. Coetzee, “The Genius of Robert Walser,” New Yorker, November 2, 2000.

    2. Paul Buchholz, Private Anarchy: Impossible Community and the Outsider’s Monologue in German Experimental Fiction (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018).

    3. Jochen Greven, “Die beklatschte Tragödie. Robert Walser und Walther Rathenau—Versuche einer Rekonstruktion,” Allmende 50/51 (1996) 11–30.

    4. Greven, “Die beklatschte Tragödie,” 25.


    6. See Walser Rathenau’s Aphorismen (1902): “The epitome of the history of the world, of the history of mankind, is the tragedy of the Aryan race. A blond and marvelous people arises in the north. In overflowing fertility it sends wave upon wave into the southern world. Each migration becomes a conquest, each conquest a source of character and civilization. But with the increasing population of the world the waves of the dark peoples flow ever nearer, the circle of mankind grows narrower.” Cited after Count Harry Kessler, Walther Rathenau: His Life and Work (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1930), 37.

    7. Marianne Schuller, “Briefe an Frieda Mermet,” in Robert WalserHandbuch: Leben—Werk—Wirkung, ed. Lucas Marco Gisi (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2015), 224–30.

    8. Emily Apter, Continental Drift: From National Characters to Virtual Subjects (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 47–51.

    9. Ein kleines Mädchen ließ mich je einen Streifen von ihren rosigen Beinchen sehen. Was kann ich dafür, daß ich sogleich immer alles wahrnehme?

    10. Sándor Ferenczi, “Confusion of Tongues between the Adults and the Child: The Language of Tenderness and the Language of Passion,” trans. Michael Balint, International Journal of Psychoanalysis 30 (1949) 225–30. I just finished an article on child abuse in Walser dealing with this question.

    11. Werner Morlang, one of the editors of Walser’s microscripts, does not seem to be concerned about this incident, and interprets the parents’ intervention as a reaction to Walser’s childishness: “In April 1926 his sympathy for a neighbor’s girl even seems to have incurred her parents’ disapproval; this made an end to his idyllic Elfenau-domicile.” “Nachwort,” in Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet, vol. 4, ed. Bernhard Echte and Werner Morlang (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 2003), 412–30, here 423: “Im April 1926 scheint seine Sympathie für ein Nachbarmädchen gar das Mißfallen der Eltern erregt und in der Folge seinem idyllischen Elfenau-Domizil ein Ende gesetzt zu haben.

    12. Robert Walser, “Bin ich anspruchsvoll?” in Sämtliche Werke in Einzelausgaben (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 2011), 57–61, here 60. “Das alles kann natürlich meinerseits auf Täuschung beruhen. Man täuscht sich ja so leicht, wo man sich interessiert.” In the following abbreviated as SW, followed by volume and page numbers.