This essay argues not only that Wilhelm Worringer’s concept of the urge to abstraction from his work of art history Abstraction and Empathy (1908) prefigures Sigmund Freud’s notion of the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) but also that Worringer’s aesthetics of nonrepresentational art solves in advance some key problems that Freud had in accounting for the modernism of his day. Though Worringer and Freud did not appear to ever engage with each other, their two central concepts share a high degree of compatibility, and it is possible to think of Worringer’s urge to abstraction as an aesthetic death drive. But because Freud argues that art is fundamentally pleasurable and rooted in mimetic representation, his own aesthetics remains insistently Aristotelian. By rejecting an Aristotelian paradigm, Worringer provides a modernist aesthetic theory of the death drive that Freud himself was never able to envision.
The Aesthetic Death Drive of Modernism
matthew gannon is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Boston College. His research investigates the politics of aesthetics and pays particular attention to questions of form in modernism. He is especially interested in aesthetic autonomy, literary responses to major political events like general strikes, and the politics of historiography. Matthew’s dissertation, “Modernity against Itself,” is predominantly informed by the theoretical intersection of Marxism and psychoanalysis. Focusing mainly on Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Hope Mirrlees, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce, “Modernity against Itself” traces the ways that modernism was simultaneously related to and antagonistic to capitalist modernity.
Matthew Gannon; The Aesthetic Death Drive of Modernism. differences 1 September 2020; 31 (2): 58–85. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-8662174
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