Research Topic 1
Truth by Astonishment
This research topic examines the use of wonder in discourses of knowledge, truth and authenticity. The topic can build upon research in the first Sinergia project, which, taking up other scholarship, managed to trace the trajectory of the Aristotelian understanding of astonishment as the beginning of philosophy and knowledge well into the 20th century, but also demonstrated that the influential (Platonic) concept of wonder as a means to glimpse into eternal ideas can be found in epistemic as well as religious and poetological discourses. Thus, on the one hand, the topic of truth by astonishment looks at the instrumentalization of wonder to gain and promote knowledge and to establish its pertinence. On the other hand, it examines truth-claims that consider wonder to be a naïve or an intuitive approach to the world that may however grant access to a higher truth. Depending on the various possible critical viewpoints, the latter understanding of wonder stands in contradiction to enlightened, cognitive, rational, or technocratic ways of dealing with the world. In this way, wonder connects cultural patterns, religious, scientific, or political interests and explanatory models to both an anthropological essence and a truth of experience, in a legitimizing and affirming way. While this concept of wonder is of special importance to the anti-Enlightenment movements, its relevance can also be shown for an earlier phase, namely political and social utopias of the 17th century.
Utopia Knowledge (Dissertation)
(Image: Visualization of Johann Valentin Andreae's Christianopolis (1619); engraved folded plate attached to the first edition. Artist unknown. (c) Getty Research Institute)
The project aims to elucidate the function of wonder in utopias of the seventeenth century. By linking German studies, the history of science and the history of architecture, this dissertation project is interested in forms of legitimization and hierarchization of knowledge and truth. To this end, the utopian texts are inquired as epistemological documents within the context of early modern experimental cultures. The role of wonder is of particular interest not only concerning the acquisition of knowledge, being depicted as a means of generating curiosity and an urge for insight, but also in regard to the materialization of wonder in the structuring of space and architecture envisioned in utopian texts. While the spatial structures both potentially overwhelm the subject and control perspectives, they are also designed to induce admiration for the well-organized utopian society. Against this background, this project will explore how wonder epistemologically and spatially shapes practices of representation and (de)legitimization of knowledge and power. One key question of the project is then: How do the utopian texts proceed in making truth claims about the good society, in defending or establishing certain values and in legitimizing the possibility of another marvelous reality?
(Advisors: Prof. Dr. Mireille Schnyder, Prof. Dr. Philip Ursprung)
Henrike Gätjens studied Philosophy, History, and Sociology in Freiburg and Paris. During her studies, she worked as a teaching assistant in both Philosophy and History and as a coordinator for the “Erasmus” mobility program. She held a scholarship of the “Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes”. In Freiburg, she organized lecture courses on the topics of identity, language as well as on the question of what philosophy is good for. Since May 2018, she is working on her dissertation within the framework of the SNF Sinergia project The Power of Wonder, and she is also a member of the doctoral program “Mediality – Historical Perspectives” at the University of Zurich. Publications: Günther Anders, Die Weltfremdheit des Menschen. Schriften zur philosophischen Anthropologie, München 2018 (co-ed. together with Christian Dries); Heidegger und Husserl, Husserl und Heidegger. Interpretationen einer Konstellation, in: Philosophisches Jahrbuch 121 (2014), pp. 333–350 (together with Tobias Keiling).
Quadratures of Amazement – Philosophies of Wonder in the Interwar Period (Dissertation)
(Image: László Moholy-Nagy, Photogram, 1922–26)
The dissertation project explores the construction of the figure ‘infantile wonder’ in pedagogical, philosophical, aesthetic and literary discourses of the early twentieth century – a period that was shaped by substantial reforms in almost all societal and cultural areas and by a re-emergence of the concepts of child and wonder. Against this background, the project aims at studying the semantics of ‘child’ and ‘wonder’ in philosophical concepts (e.g. Nietzsche, Heidegger, Fink, Bloch), aesthetic theories (e.g. Ruskin, Baudelaire) as well as pedagogical writings, particularly those related to practices in art education (e.g. Hartlaub, Sully, Key). The project starts from the hypothesis that, in these concepts and texts, the infant and ‘infantile wonder’ are not represented as a stylized ideal (e.g. in Romanticism, esp. Novalis). Rather, they are conceptualized in a very concrete manner and, as such, transferred to other practices (of education, art production, and epistemology). The variations of the figura (in the sense of a changing terminological construct) of the ‘infantile wonder’ will be examined with regard to their relevance in literary texts around 1900. The question why authors of literary Modernism extensively drew on texts from the field of progressive education and furthermore stepped into a personal exchange with each other (e.g. Rilke, Kafka, Benjamin, Musil) is crucial here. How can the apparent affinity between both discourses be explained? Has there been a consensus concerning a common project along the lines of a cultural criticism? In which ways does the ‘infantile wonder‘ act as a concept vague enough to be compatible to different cultural fields? Does it stand for a detachment of conventionalized ways of perception and thinking? Or was it rather an activist concept? Beyond these questions, ‘infantile wonder’ will also be considered as a concept relevant to the formulation of a theory of aesthetic experience, particularly due to its specific temporality or instantaneity, its aesthetic effects as well as to its object.
(Advisors: Prof. Dr. Nicola Gess, Prof. Dr. Meike Baader)
Tim Hofmann, born in Villingen-Schwenningen, studied German Language and Literature, Philosophy, and Political Sciences in Heidelberg and Freiburg. After successfully completing a compulsory educational intership in Singen (Hohentwiel), he attained his Master of Literary Studies degree from the University of Basel in 2017. Whilst engaging in several cultural fields of interest, he also worked as a bookseller and acted as elected board member for the German Bookstore Prize in 2015 and 2016. He has been a member of the doctoral program at the University of Basel since 2017 and is the student representative on its managing board. As a doctoral candidate, he is a member of the SNF Sinergia project The Power of Wonder since May 2018.
Research Topic 2
Order by Admiration
This research topic examines how effects of wonder function in discourses and dispositives of power and order. It analyzes practices that produce admiration, sometimes verging toward awe, overpowerment or even stupefaction, in political and scientific fields. Three levels of observation are crucial to this topic. A first emphasis will lie on the interrelation between the aesthetics and rhetoric of admiration and the establishing of political power. A second emphasis will lie on the interrelation between the aesthetics and rhetoric of admiration and the evaluation and justification of scientists and scientific inventions, particularly technological artifacts. Thirdly, close attention will be paid to the diverse strategies of the economy of attention, our ways of promoting and advertising ideas, products and individuals (particularly in self-fashioning), and their medial, social, economic, artistic and not least linguistic means. At all three levels of observation, a special focus will lie on the ambivalence of admiration that, on the one hand, attracts people enthusiastically to the admired person/institution/object and, on the other hand, makes them feel small and disempowered in front of this unreachable greatness.
Ecologies of Mind and Behavior.
Discovering the Human Psyche in its Environment 1900 – 1960 (Dissertation)
This dissertation project aims at bringing together and analyze developments in early psychology that relate to a common theoretical and practical problem for the human being in the twentieth century: being in an environment. Modern psychology evolved out of different and sometimes contradictory scientific paradigms, such as Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism and Gestaltpsychology, each of which provides different answers to questions relating to the human psyche and behavior. Despite putting forward disparate approaches to an understanding of the human being, the role of the environment became a central problem for all these branches of psychology. Taking into account the decentration of subjectivity, this project will explore the question of how cognitive affects were not only involved in, but also shaped the psychological inquiry of this unexplored territory. In which ways did astonishment at the dynamic realities that were found beyond the concept of the superior, rational, and humanistic subject facilitate or even produce these scientific debates? Or did they, on the contrary, provoke narratives of shame and mortification by illustrating the ordinary status of human being? These questions become even more relevant for the era of cybernetics, when the original human properties of thinking and mind were definitely transposed into the technological environment of information processing and computing.
(Advisors: Prof. Dr. Ulrich Bröckling, Prof. Dr. Stefan Kaufmann)
Ole Bogner studied Sociology and Philosophy at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena (B.A.) and holds a Master’s degree in Sociology (from University of Freiburg). In 2016/17, he served as a Scientific Assistant (in the field of sociology of culture) at the University of Freiburg (in proxy) and, from 2017–2018 he was a researcher in the collaborative research project EVADEX at the Centre for Security and Society, University of Freiburg.
Admiration and Overwhelming on the Theatre Stage in the Second Half of the 19th Century (Dissertation)
(Image: Mass scene in Act III of the Meiningen production of the play Julius Caesar; wood engraving by Johannes Kleinmichel after a drawing by Georg II of Sachsen-Meiningen)
This project investigates the various strategies of creating wonder used in stagings of historical dramas in the second half of the 19th century. Wonder is conceived as an aesthetic and political emotion in which both epistemic and sensual components are intertwined. Under the generic term WONDER (STAUNEN), the project subsumes different affects including amazement, wonder, admiration, fascination, overwhelming. For the project, however, the emotions of admiration and overwhelming will be central. The selected dramas will be analyzed regarding the text of the play, their staging(s) in theatre and their reception. In particular, the project will focus on selected productions of the Meininger Hoftheater, performed during the tours in Berlin between 1874 and 1887. Historical dramas experienced a heyday at the end of the 19th century in Germany, especially in Berlin, due to a previously unknown multitude e of staging possibilities. Against this background, the project will examine the development of the performance and staging practice of historical dramas in Berlin before, during and after the Meininger guest performances. In the analysis of the selected plays, attention will be paid to the interrelationship between the production/staging/reception of WONDER and the constitution and representation of power. Central in this context are the conceptions of heroes presented in the selected historical dramas. To what extent are these conceptions produced and staged through strategies of WONDER (admiration dramaturgy, overwhelming aesthetics, fascination, etc.)? And in which ways does WONDER organize the relationship between the presentation of grand individuals and the audience/masses?
(Advisors: Prof. Dr. Nicola Gess, Prof. Dr. Anselm Gerhard)
Benjamin Dinkel studied German Philology and History at the University of Basel and attained his Master's degree in May 2018. From January 2017 to May 2018, he worked as a student assistant to Prof. Dr. Alexander Honold. During his studies, he taught languages and history at various schools. Since June 2018, he is a PhD student in the SNF Sinergia project "The Power of Wonder" under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Nicola Gess.
The Staging of the Self in Early Modern Literature (Dissertation)
(Image: Anonymus, “Simplicissimus is being portrayed”, pen and ink drawing, between 1670–1700)
In recent years, historians have shown increased interest in the early modern period, especially the seventeenth century, for its concern with “ego-documents”, personal testimonial, and autobiography. With regard to the history of mind, society, religion and piety, their approaches aim at understanding the transitional period as a prehistory of the modern, autonomous subject. A persistent theme in these research contributions is the textual figure of a living, experiencing, and acting subject. Against this background, it is remarkable that literary texts in a narrower sense have – with few exceptions – been largely excluded from the corpus under consideration. This is all the more surprising since the literature of the seventeenth century is well-known for its sudden and massive outbreak of first-person narratives, such as Grimmelshausen’s ‘Simplicianischen Texten’, the writings of Johann Beer and others. The purpose of the dissertation project is to close said research gap by drawing on methods of literary studies (e.g. ‘close reading’) and by exploring processes of imagination as well as complex forms of self-conceptions. Special attention will be paid to the role of astonishment and admiration since the specific ‘I’ in first-person narratives is often staged by using moments of wonder; be it that the narrating ‘I’ turns into the object of wonder, or that it itself experiences astonishment while perceiving the world.
(Advisors: Prof. Dr. Mireille Schnyder, Prof. Dr. Rudolf Schlögl)
Sarah Möller recently received a Master’s degree in German Language and Literature and Film Studies. During her studies at the University of Zurich, she worked as a teaching assistant in German Literature. In 2018, she received a semester award for her MA thesis on the imagined artwork (‘Opus-Phantasie’) in Balzac’s novella Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu and Rivette’s Film La belle noiseuse. She is a member of the doctoral program “Mediality – Historical Perspectives” and her research interests involve aspects of mediality, poetology, and self-staging as well as the relationship between literature and visual arts.
Research Topic 3
Destabilization by surprise
The concept of surprise combines the idea of unexpectedness with that of a trap. To take an opponent by surprise, one has to control information (one’s knowledge, resources and actions are to be concealed) and time (one must outpace the adversary). Here, surprise is not only deployed as a weapon in itself: it reinforces other weapons, and serves as a major tool of discrimination because, once it is completed, it reveals who was best at anticipating and organizing the future. The surprise-maker manages to minimize the unexpectedness that could threaten his or her project, and to maximize the unforeseen for the opponent. Beyond its tactical uses, surprise has turned into an inevitable component of contemporary risk-societies, where the threat of incalculable catastrophes is ubiquitous. Security and ecological policies have to deal with “unknown unknowns” and to prepare for incidents that may occur at every moment but at the same time must be prevented by any means. Surprise is also a widespread aesthetic principle in modern arts, that use irritation, shock and enigma in order to breach familiar habits of perception.
Strategies of the Everyday. Surprise in Balzac's Comédie humaine (Dissertation)
(Image: Honoré Daumier, “Nous sommes tous d’honnêtes gens, embrassons-nous, et que ça finisse, lithography, 1834)
This research topic focuses on the instrumentalization of surprise in Honoré de Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, from strategy to entropy. Balzac’s work stages a great range of tacticians whose the victims, in most of cases, are condemned to physical or psychical death by a process of exhaustion of energy in which surprise plays a key role. As tactics is an overarching theme in Balzac’s work – military metaphors are extended to numerous areas of social life (Frappier-Mazur 1976) – this research intends to focus first of all on the plots, the manipulations and the stratagems used by Balzac’s characters to surprise their victim and reach their goal. By paying close attention to the causes of exhaustion of energy in La Comédie humaine, one could notice that this dialogic order/disorder is systematically involved: the more disorder expands in the story, the more characters come closer to the irreversible exhaustion of their own energy (they die or go mad). As far as narratology is concerned, this research will focus on the ambivalence between predictability and unpredictability that surprise involves. Finally, since the author of La Comédie humaine adopts a medical approach of surprise (or at least physiological) that clearly appears in many digressions, and which is conceived as an energy expenditure, this research will rely on this fact to compare Balzac’s medical approach of the use of surprise – and the relation between order and disorder, human nature and action –, with his military approach.
(Advisors: Prof. Dr. Hugues Marchal, Prof. Dr. Caroline Arni)
Alexandra Delcamp is a researcher, translator, columnist and journalist. She studied at the University of Perpignan and the Paul Valéry University in Montpellier (France) and holds a Master's degree in Humanities (French Literature, Latin and Ancient Greek) as well as in Foreign Languages, Translation Studies and Modern Greek. In 2015, she also received a diploma in Modern Greek Language from Kapodistriako University in Athens (Greece). Since May 2018, she is a doctoral student in the SNF Signergia research project "The Power of Wonder" at the French Department of the University of Basel.
Strategies of Disruption and Disruption as a Strategy in the Political Sphere (Dissertation)
Wibke Henriette Liebhart
In today’s political sphere, “a specific ethos” (Mühlhoff 2018: 76) of disturbance and interruption is discernible. Formerly established procedures and prevailing rules are being systematically disregarded by certain actors, shifting the boundaries of the ‘sayable’ and ‘doable’ to a new (extremist) extend. This project will seek to investigate this attitude of “not be willing to fit in the political system” (ibid.) as political disruption. In economics, disruption has been used as a concept to describe and analyze the gradual transformation of power structures in markets (Christensen 1997). The process of disruption neither meets the existing expectations nor does it try to exceed them. On the contrary, a disruptive technology (or product or innovation) creates its own catalogue of demand and output on the basis of which it transforms the market step by step. Not only in economics but also in politics, there are strategies of disruption as well as the disruption as strategy. In this context, the notion strategy implies a relationship and interdependence between the perceived circumstances/conditions and the chosen actions. Against this background, the project will explore who and what are disruptive actors and elements in the contemporary political sphere. What are the performative, rhetorical, and technical means that initiate, advance, and maintain disruption? In which ways are people and positions, appearances and statements strategically staged in order to shift the political and social forces in the long-run? Which affective dispositions and “authoritarian sensitivities” (Mühlhoff 2018) are addressed and activated?
(Advisors: Prof. Dr. Ulrich Bröckling, Prof. Dr. Stefan Kaufmann)
From 2011 to 2015, Wibke Henriette Liebhart studied Cultural Studies and Philosophy at the University of Leipzig and received her Master’s degree in Sociology from University of Freiburg (2015–2018). She has been engaged in several editorial activities, for the Soziologiemagazin, since 2015 (Link) as well as for Behemoth – A Journal on Civilisation, since 2017 (Link)