'Something stirring in them' : an object-oriented reading of W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz



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W.G. Sebald’s final novel Austerlitz is often framed as a work of “postmemorial” Holocaust fiction. While trauma theory has generated valuable insights about the novel, its emphasis on witnessing (or failing to bear witness) tends to elide other important aspects of the text, most notably the careful attention Austerlitz brings to bear on physical things, spaces, and structures. This essay draws on recent work in object-oriented philosophy to suggest a new theoretical framework for reading Sebald’s last novel. Taking Austerlitz’s meticulous descriptions of the physical world as my starting point, I trace how the text cultivates what Jane Bennett calls a “vital materialism,” or a theory of matter that attends to the vitality of nonhuman objects. Instead of reading ‘through’ these descriptions for what goes unrepresented (“the main scenes of horror,” in Sebald’s phrase), I examine how the novel’s attention to physical surfaces troubles the distinction between material things and immaterial processes like subjectivity, memory, and affective response. Viewed in this light, I suggest that we might understand Sebald’s ‘surface readings’ not as a failure to get beyond the surface to the depths, but as part of an alternative archival practice—one that facilitates, in turn, different modes of ethical engagement.