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This review appeared in Volume 8 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

SRB Insight: The Unrepresentable

by Thomas Kemple

Of all our experiences of otherness, death is usually counted as the most intense and extreme. And yet the fact that death can be "counted" at all already indicates the extent to which it is itself an integral part of life, indeed, a culturally and historically specific dimension of existence which can be investigated with some degree of empirical and interpretive rigour. Like other figures of alterity, such as pain and hope, or risk and trust, the transcendent character of death typically constitutes an unknowable -- or at least unrepresentable -- element of our sense of the sublime. As such, the experience of otherness in death has lent itself as much to the enumeration of its circumstances as an episodic event as to the interpretation of its symbolic forms as a cultural universal.

Max Weber was among those modernist thinkers concerned with the general impact that the historical transformation of modern life in Western society has had on our experience of the meaningfulness of death. In a famous passage from "Science as a Vocation" (1919), he considers Tolstoy's broodings over whether a world disenchanted by the (un)predictabilities of science and technology may ultimately inscribe both life and death with the signs of their own absurdity:

[Modern man] catches only the most minute part of what the life of the spirit brings forth ever anew, and what he seizes is always something provisional and not definitive, and therefore death for him is a meaningless occurrence. And because death is meaningless, civilized life as such is meaningless; by its very "progressiveness" it gives death the imprint of meaninglessness (Weber 1946: 140).

In Weber's view, what holds for life and death is even more true of the ultimately sketchy and fleeting achievements of science. Thus, insofar as science can give no answer to the questions which bestow meaning to life -- namely, "what shall we do and how shall we live?" -- it is itself "imprinted" (stampelt) with the character of meaninglessness. Though science may help us to investigate the interrelated causes and consequences of these ultimate problems, it is hardly able to prescribe standards for their evaluation or to provide principles for their practical solution. In contrast to the religiously musical man like Tolstoy who may continue to hope against hope in a prophetless and godless age, the scientifically disenchanted man can at best aim for self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts about the presuppositions and outcomes of his decisions. Weber's choice of a scriptural and mechanical metaphor to express this dilemma graphically emphasizes his somber sense of the fateof a humanity unredeemed by the charismatic powers of the spoken word.

What is at issue in "framing" the meaning of death -- and thus of life -- in this way? Weber, of course, has only bracketed these questions by raising them from within the confines of a science whose tasks and vocation (Beruf) he himself has defined. In the context of his methodological writings, for example, he explains that the search for clarity and correctness in the empirical sciences, which include history, economics, and sociology, must be distinguished from the objectives of metaphysical truth and validity pursued in the "dogmatic" sciences, such as philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics (Weber 1978: 4). Thus, questions which may well be asked within some disciplines (and which may ultimately be forced on us by the practical application of such knowledge to life) may only be answered or even addressed outside of their frame of reference. By contrast, in an early fragment, "On the Metaphysics of Death" (1906), Weber's friend and fellow sociologist Georg Simmel explores what is at stake in the sociological fact and cultural experience of "modern" death as an aesthetic and philosophical problem: "At each moment of life we are those who must die, and each moment would be different if this were not our predetermined condition. As little as we are already present at the moment of birth, rather as something in us is always coming to birth, as little do we die only in our last moment" (Simmel 1957: 31). Thus, the Christian notion of the absolute transcendence of life through death conceived as immortality, like the conception of the meaninglessness of death within a scientized culture, should be understood as so many ways by which death gives form, shape and colour to all of life's contents, which in turn determine the significance of death.

Simmel's speculations are all the more interesting for the way they address the form-giving meaning of death in terms which he elsewhere uses to describe the stylizing and individuating functions of framing in art: "In the case of the natural entity, boundaries are simply the site of continuing exosmosis and endosmosis with everything external; for the work of art they are that absolute ending which exercises indifference towards and defence against the exterior and a unifying integration with respect to the interior in a single act" (Simmel 1994: 11). Just as the spatial and temporal boundaries of organic life are radically fixed at the moment of death (though fluid and variable in life), so the frame of a picture functions both to unify the distinctiveness of what is inside and to separate it from what exists outside. To put it briefly then, we can say that for Simmel there is some sense in calling death that aesthetic frame of life which Weber's reflections have left unnoticed or at least uncommented upon.

In what follows, I would like to explore how these philosophical and aesthetic issues are graphically displayed and problematized in a piece by the artist Max Klinger (1857-1920), whose early sketches Max and Marianne Weber owned and exhibited in their home for a number of years (see Figure 1 below). In particular, the work titled "Tod als Heiland [Death as Saviour]," which is the last in the first part of a series of etchings collectively titled "On Death" that Klinger worked on from 1882-1889 in Rome, takes the manner (or in German: Form ) of death as its principal theme, which it then complicates by framing various images of death in a number of interesting ways. As such, it violates one of the cardinal rules of modern framing as identified by Simmel: namely, not to allow for any gap or bridge through which the world can enter into the picture or from which the picture can flow out beyond its own boundaries (Simmel 1994: 12-13). Klinger's use of archaic and architectural framing devices, which he incorporates into the etching itself and which thereby serve both to intensify and to mute the reality-effect of the images depicted, is thus designed to contrast with what Simmel takes to be the superior quality in the "mechanical uniformity" of modern frames which tend to preserve the self-sufficiency and autonomy of the aesthetically contained world of the picture.

figure 1

Figure 1.

Klinger achieves this effect through the deployment of several unusual contrivances which raise questions about how we represent death in particular and more generally about the process of representation itself. The image as a whole depicts a wall tomb (a suggestion even more pronounced in the rough sketch for the etching by the antique columns flanking the central image -- see Figure 2), but with the predella in the foreground opened to reveal an emaciated and anonymous corpse, an apparent reference to Holbein's "Dead Christ in the Grave" of 1521-1522 (an image given a more human and lifelike appearance in the earlier draft; see Varnedoe 1977). The Christian implication of this otherwise neutral image is itself overlaid with the figures in the main picture which symbolize both reverence for and fear of death (i.e. the worshipping man and the fleeing family, respectively), and then by the allegorical commentary and quasi-narrative interpretation provided by the figures depicted in the margins: thus, the preying vultures and the owl, the twisted vines, and decaying, dismembered, tortured, and withering bodies, some of which are pursued by monsters and demons taking human and animal form, further divide the visual narrative and detract from the apparently religious focus of the "main" picture. The effect I think is that in the arrangement of these competing and contradictory images various strips of meaning or frames of reference are laminated with one another in order to highlight the artificiality of the images depicted while clearing a space for our perception of another reality. As Goffman might put it, the multiple framing of images in and on other images (themselves depicted against the background of a wall like the ultimately "real" one on which the picture itself might hang) are designed to display and draw our attention to the special vulnerabilities to which both "out-of-frame" activities and "in-frame" experiential realities are subject (Goffman 1974: 201-246).

Klinger himself comments on the meaning he wishes to convey by these devices in the line of text inscribed at the base of the "altar" image which also forms the edge of the ceiling of the "tomb": "We flee the manner [die Form] of death, not death; for the goal of our highest desire is: death." This aphoristic script, which appears to be adapted from Mendelsohn's Phaedon and Schopenhauer's Parerga (as noted in Dückers 1976), contrasts the manner of death -- the manifold ways in which the moment of death arrives in any given instance (as depicted in the other sketches of the series, for example) -- with death as the desired aim or ultimate goal of life itself. As the title of the work indicates, death is conceived here as salvation from the struggles and agonies, as well as the joys and pleasures of life from within and not beyond the confines of this world. Thus, Klinger invites us to consider death beyond the orthodoxies of Christian teaching, as Dücker remarks: "The saving power [Heiland] of death is not a symbol for the overcoming of earthly life in favour of an other-worldly existence in God; it is the personified annihilation of the will to life which redeems sorrows and brings peace, as signified by the palm branch [held by the hooded figure to the left]" (ibid.: 95). By raising questions about the frames and forms in which death is experienced, Klinger both invokes and challenges the traditional symbolic figuration of death in images of terror and redemption which transcend earthly meaning and human comprehension. Thus, what I think he achieves here is as much a compelling allegorical depiction of various attitudes toward death as a meditation on and dramatization of the experience and mortality of the viewer (and thus of the artist).

In a theoretical essay he wrote shortly after completing these sketches titled "Painting and Drawing" (1891), Klinger himself provides some support for this interpretation. In it he describes the modern graphic artist's expressive vocation as a minor craft for depicting the private conventionalities of everyday life against the background of the greatdramas of existence: "The graphic artist is faced by the eternal gap between what we want to do and what we can do, between what he longs for and what he achieves,... [and by] the monstrous contrast between the beauty that we seek and imagine and the horror of existence" (in Beaucamp 1977: 7). Black and white prints seem well-suited to embody the suggestive, incomplete, and dreamlike domain of fantasy, he argues, while the use of what might appear to us to anticipate photographic "stills" and cinematic "cycles" implies a kind of disjointed unity between interconnected aspects of real life with its fluctuating forms and fleeting ideas and moods. The appeal here to an intimate rather than a monumental style in art, which is certainly an important part of what attracted the Webers to Klinger's work, situates the etching not as a grand masterwork dealing with an exalted theme but as a minor mode and method for revealing the truth of Being, including the Being-in-Life of Death.

In bringing Klinger's sketch and Weber's essay together in this way, I am not just arguing that "Death as Saviour" in some way illustrates one of the more memorable meditations in "Science as a Vocation," but that Weber's theory is itself a form of picturing just as Klinger's picture can be read as a form of theorizing: it is the gap between the images and the text within each work that frames a scene of insight and blindness, of fear and longing that exceeds what either is able to achieve through the specialized conventions of a single discipline. For this reason, I have tried to provide an interpretation of Weber's discourse by treating Klinger's sketch as a kind of metapicture , that is, what W. J. T. Mitchell has brilliantly discussed as the self-referential and ekphrastic procedure by which images display text and texts speak through images so as to expose the heterologous and complicitous practices of each:

Metapictures elicit, not just a double vision, but a double voice, and a double relation between language and visual experience. If every picture only makes sense inside a discursive frame, and "outside" of descriptive, interpretive language, metapictures call into question the relation of language to image as an inside-outside structure. They interrogate the authority of the speaking subject over the seen image (Mitchell 1994: 68).

If Klinger's sketch in some sense "reflects" on or "resonates" with Weber's essay (and vice versa), this is at least in part because each draws from a common stock of conventions of representation for depicting or evoking an experience-beyond-experience which is conventionally assumed to be unrepresentable.

I have argued that insofar as they inhabit a common historical and cultural context, Klinger's meditations on the meaning of death as an aesthetic puzzle of frames and figures ultimately intersect with Weber's theoretical questions concerning the meaning of modern life in a world disenchanted by science and technology. To use Heideggerian terms, where the essence or coming-to-presence (Wesen) of the work of art is the unconcealment of the truth of Being, including the Being that is sheltered through our own mortality, such a work is not simply animated by any attempt to re-enchant a damaged world, to evoke dormant feelings, or to reinstate some lost aesthetic aura (Heidegger 1971: 79-81; cf. Benjamin 1968). In our day, the ancient era in which the clearing or bringing-forth of truth through the work of art was called techne meets with the challenge to truth posed by the epoch of technology , that intellectual and practical conception of the world as a calculable coherence of forces, an ordered distribution of resources, and a regulable system of information. In other words, technology entraps and "enframes" Being not as an aesthetically complete or self-subsisting Thing existing in its own right, or as a discrete Object (Gegenstand) standing over and against us, but as massive and constant raw material, the alien stuff of manipulation and control: "Enframing [Gestell] means the gathering-together of that setting-upon which sets upon man, i.e. challenges him forth to reveal the real in the mode of ordering as standing-reserve [Bestand]" (Heidegger 1977: 20). At stake in this historical project is the future of our hope of finding in the terror not a means for representing death so as to transcend it, but the signs of its form-giving power as redemption:

But where danger is, grows

The saving power also.

(Hšlderlin, in Heidegger 1977: 28).

The challenge of the technological age forces us to think beyond the tentative speculations of Weber and Klinger on the potential absence of our humanity in a rationalized world stripped of magical and poetic meaning. As in the nightwatchman's song from Isaiah's oracles which Weber quotes in the peroration to "Science as a Vocation" (1946: 147), only we are left to keep vigilant watch (wahren) over the unconcealment of truth (Wahrheit) brought to light by the powers of scientific and technological enframing, and to respond to the ethical calling (Beruf) of others for the safe-guarding of our freedom: perhaps this is what constitutes the modern task of reframing "death as saviour."


1. The ideas in this essay were originally presented at the session on "Sociological Interpretation" at the Canadian Sociology andAnthropology Association meetings at Memorial University, St. John's, Newfoundland, June 10, 1997. I am grateful to the participants in that session for our stimulating discussions concerning some of the issues raised here, and particularly to Paul Bouissac, whose suggestion for the title helped me to take my thoughts a step further.

2. In her biography of her husband, Marianne Weber reports that Max presented her with "the almost complete etchings of Max Klinger" near the end of their first year of marriage, that is, in 1894 as they were leaving Berlin for Freiberg. As she notes, "the symbolic content greatly moved them at that time," and even inspired Max to compose a poem in her honour which he attached to the sketch "Death as Saviour":

Once I had hoped to be vouchsafed an early death in the full vigour of my youth. I no longer desire such a death, for I have found here below what gives human hearts eternal youth. When one day the end of our life approaches, my child, we shall lay down our work and cheerfully walk together on the dark paths of death into an unknown land (in Marianne Weber 1988: 201).

In 1906, "pleased to help spread German culture," the Webers sold the etchings to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Posen so they could afford more luxurious accommodations south of the Neckar river in Heidelberg (ibid.: 359). The artistic development and legacy of Klinger, who exerted a powerful influence on such modernist painters as Edvard Munch, Giorgio de Chirico, and Salvador Dali (see Beaucamp 1977, Dückers 1976, Varnedoe 1977, and Winkler 1984), as well as the treatment of the etchings as a device for interpreting the intellectual and personal lives of the Webers, indeed, the whole character of Weberian theorizing as a work of mourning (for which Klinger's painting provided such an exceptionally poetic and personal occasion for Weber): all of these issues are unfortunately beyond the scope of the argument presented here.

3. As the rough draft of the etching indicates (see Figure 2 below), Klinger had at first experimented with using a line from King Lear (scene 2, lines 9-10) for this inscription: "Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither; Ripeness is all" (see Winkler 1984: 87). As Dücker notes (1976: 95), by modifying this idea through Mendelsohn's comment on "the end-purpose," "the ultimate goal," and "the highest good" of life, and through Schopen-hauer's aphorism that "man has above all the moment of passing away to fear, and not death itself," Klinger transforms only the outward reverberations or ring (der Klang) of the words and not their inner content.

figure 2

Figure 2.


Beaucamp, Eduard (1977) "Introduction." Max Klinger 1958-1920: Printed Graphic. Stuttgart: Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations.

Benjamin, Walter (1968 [1936]) "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (trans. by Harry Zohn). in Illuminations . New York: Schoken Books.

Dückers, Alexander (1976) "Vom Tode." in Max Klinger . Berlin: Rembrandt Verlag.

Goffman, Erving (1974) Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience . New York: Harper & Row.

Heidegger, Martin (1971 [1936]) "The Origin of the Work of Art" (trans. by Albert Hofstadter). in Poetry, Language, Thought . New York: Harper and Row, Publishers.

---. (1977 [1950] "The Question Concerning Technology" (trans. by William Lovitt). in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays . New York: Harper and Row, Publishers.

Mitchell, W. J. T. (1994) Picture Theory: Essays on Visual and Verbal Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Simmel, Georg (1957 [1906]) "Zur Metaphysik des Todes" (translations by Ulrich Teucher). in Brücke und Tür . Heraus. von Michael Landmann. Stuttgart: K. F. Koehler Verlag.

---. (1994 [1902]) "The Picture Frame: An Aesthetic Study" (trans. by Mark Ritter). in Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 11. London: SAGE. pages 11-17.

Varnedoe, J. Krik T. (1977) "Introduction." Graphic Works of Max Klinger . New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Weber, Marianne 1988 [1926] Max Weber: A Biography (trans. by Harry Zohn, with a new introduction by Guenther Roth). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

Weber, Max 1946 [1919] "Science as a Vocation" (trans., ed. by Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills). in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology . New York: Oxford University Press.

---. (1978 [1918-1920]) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, Part I (ed. by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Winkler, Gerhard (1984) "Klinger als Graphiker." in Max Klinger . Gütersloh: Prisma Verlag.

Thomas Kemple is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia and author of Reading Marx Writing: Melodrama, the Market, and the 'Grundrisse' (Stanford University Press, 1995). He is currently at work on a book dealing with the aesthetic dimensions of Max Weber's conception of scientific politics.

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