Rei Terada, Introduction: “Looking Away”

2009

In the introduction to this aesthetic approach to literature, Terada suggests the powerful potential of “looking away” from the main event or spectacle, and towards an inward, removed subjectivity that is individualized because focused on the fleeting ephemera of experience. Terada suggests that direct acceptance of the world “as is” is aimed at managing feelings of dissatisfaction. She points to a number of post-Kantian figures that nevertheless participate in various forms of “phenomenophilia” – the adoration of brief, perceptual experiences that cannot be factually registered – as moments of freedom. Even if we cannot change the world “as it is,” we have a right, she suggests, to desire an “otherwise.”

In its eschewing of popular culture and communal perception, Terada’s argument seems to continue the skepticism of the Frankfurt School towards mass culture, even if she attempts to disclose the self-doubt of many of these aestheticians (her readings include Coleridge, Kant, Nietzsche, and Adorno). Ultimately, this isolation seems fairly depressing to me and does continue the condemnation of communal culture, although it suggests some fascinating connections with other texts I’ve read this year.

In particular, its focus on Coleridge’s “spectra” reminds me of Crary’s focus on the 19th-century body in visual culture, and on the observer as the producer, rather than mere recipient, of aesthetics and images. (Think also of Vivian Sobchack’s reclamation of the body in the cinematic viewing experience.) It also reminds me very potently of Oedipa Maas’ tearful moment in the museum in Mexico City, looking at the paintings by Remedios Varo. In the first of the three triptych paintings, one of the women being carried away to the tower averts her eyes – “looks away.” Ultimately, it seems her desire also affects her production, as she manages to effect her own escape via the surface of the tapestry she and the others are forced to weave. Oedipa’s quest itself hinges on the terrible suspense – whether her search is a “looking away” or merely a “looking in.”

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