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On Creaturely Life

Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald

In his Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke suggests that animals enjoy direct access to a realm of being—the open—concealed from humans by the workings of consciousness and self-consciousness. In his own reading of Rilke, Martin Heidegger reclaims the open as the proper domain of human existence but suggests that human life remains haunted by vestiges of an animal-like relation to its surroundings. Walter Benjamin, in turn, was to show that such vestiges—what Eric Santner calls the creaturely—have a biopolitical aspect: they are linked to the processes that inscribe life in the realm of power and authority. 

Santner traces this theme of creaturely life from its poetic and philosophical beginnings in the first half of the twentieth century to the writings of the enigmatic German novelist W. G. Sebald. Sebald’s entire oeuvre, Santner argues, can be seen as an archive of creaturely life. For Sebald, the work on such an archive was inseparable from his understanding of what it means to engage ethically with another person’s history and pain, an engagement that transforms us from indifferent individuals into neighbors. 

An indispensable book for students of Sebald, On Creaturely Life is also a significant contribution to critical theory.

216 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2006

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory, Germanic Languages

Philosophy: General Philosophy


"Santner has many interesting things to say, and works ingeniously to bring this broad range of interests under the single umbrella of the ’creaturely’. . . . A challenging but rewarding attempt to explore the intersection between aesthetic and ethico-political strategies in both Sebald and twentieth-century thought in general."

Ben Hutchinson | MLR

On Creaturely Life will likely be read by those who have read Agamben’s Homo Sacer and The State of Exception. . . . But I would argue, however, that Santner’s book invites a much wider readership. The concerns of the creature presented here open onto other areas of interest, including the extensive and diverse writings on ’animality’ and contemporary philosophy’s engagement with religion . . . as well as the ways in which contemporary art engages the life sciences."

Eugene Thacker | Leonardo

"A sustained meditation on the nature of the ’human,’ the relationship between life and the political, and the possibility of ethical relations in a posthuman world in which life finds itself subjected to particular forms of violence in the political domain. As such, it will be indispensable reading for both Sebald scholars and those intrerested in contemporary critical theory."

Markus Zisselsberger | German Studies Review

"An admirable critical accomplishment, [the book] reveals Santner as a master choreographerof ideas central to the tradition of German (not just German-Jewish) modernism."

Richard T. Gray | MLQ

"A critical masterpiece, which conceives of itself as an ethico-political intervention on the scene of contemporary cultural and literary criticism, a scene that is defined by a complex configuration of diverse material. . . . On Creaturely Life steps on this scene with a fascinating configuration of its own, one that draws upon and draws into proximity a number of famous texts from the German-Jewish tradtion of the first half of the 20th century."

Volker Kaiser | Monatsheft

Table of Contents

Editions of Sebald’s Works
1. On Creaturely Life
2. The Vicissitudes of Melancholy
3. Toward a Natural History of the Present
4. On the Sexual Life of Creatures and Other Matters

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