Negativity, iconoclasm, mimesis: Kristeva and Benjamin on political art

Idealistic Studies 38 (1/2):55-74 (2008)
Abstract
I argue that in Julia Kristeva’s concept of negativity, conceived of as the recuperation, through transformation, of a traumatic remnant of the past, we can find a parallel to what Theodor Adorno, following Walter Benjamin, calls a mimesis that in its emphasis on non-identity is able to remain faithful to the ban on graven images interpreted materialistically rather than theologically. A connection between negativity and the theological ban on images is suggested in Adorno’s claim that a ban on positive representations of utopia leads to a practice of negating the negative, that is, of exposing the injustices of modern life. Both Adorno and Kristeva discern in contemporary art a capacity to critique modernity and envision a better world, but insist that this art must not represent what it indicates. I also examine Benjamin’s writings on photography in order to argue that a mimesis that respects the ban on graven images moves us beyond the systematic optimism of the Hegelian dialectic, and extends the philosophy of history into the unknown of the unconscious
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