The Power of Wonder - The Instrumentalization of Admiration, Astonishment and Surprise in Discourses of Knowledge, Power and Art.


In seinem Buch Nova typis transacta naviagtio (1621) schmückt Caspar Plautius seine Erzählungen mit Legenden und Wundergeschichten, wie eine Seereise über den Atlantik, bei der ein Schiff auf dem Rücken eines Wals gelandet sein soll.



This project aims to provide groundbreaking insights into the social relevance of aesthetic emotions, by showing that the analysis of the deliberate instrumentalization of wonder (Staunen) in political, scientific, social and artistic contexts casts an innovative light onto the structuring of cultural values, the ordering of knowledge and our practices of governance and domination.

It builds upon the results of a previous Sinergia project, Poetics and Aesthetics of Amazement. As indicated in its title, that first phase of research focused on the fabrication, reflection and function of wonder within literature and the arts, with a significant attention to philosophical thought. However, the new project endeavors to research how these practices and the kinds of wonder they induce are used in the fields of power and knowledge. If aesthetics, rhetoric and poetics investigate and conceptualize the artificial production of wonder in the threefold sense of admiration, astonishment and surprise, these closely related emotions are also put in operation in a much broader range of human activities. They are commonly sought, managed and questioned in, for example, politics, pedagogy and education, polemology, ecological and security issues, (popular) science, advertising and media, when issues of hierarchy, legitimacy and risk assessment, but also persuasion, manipulation and entertainment are at stake.

The project aims to study these instrumentalizations of wonder and to assess their massive cultural importance in a strongly interdisciplinary perspective that primarily joins cultural sociology and literary studies, as well as the history of science, but that will also rely on the collaboration of scholars of educational science, history, art and architecture, musicology, and security studies, who are involved in supervising the doctoral candidates. That said, our methodology is based on the hypothesis that literature, literary studies and the sociological approach of cultural analysis are key tools to understand processes in which wonder is instrumentalized. Literature has not only reflected on its own fabrication and use of this affect; it has also constantly depicted, analyzed and/or criticized the broader social and anthropological utilization of wonder that we want to study, and it therefore forms a rich diachronic archive of relevant observations and assumptions. Non-literary strategies of inducing and appropriating wonder heavily rely on linguistic, discursive and aesthetic tools: their analysis therefore calls for instruments of literary studies, such as rhetoric, poetics, aesthetics, that are to be applied to a meta-analysis of public discourses of knowledge and power, their practices and arrangement in the public sphere. Finally, the sociological approach of cultural analysis allows us to research wonder as a specific form of elicited and orchestrated interpersonal behavior.

Historically, the project focuses on early modern and modern history and contemporary times. This time frame, ranging from 1600 to the present, allows for examining important discursive and historical shifts, which we consider to be crucial for the topic at hand.

If the project at hands endeavors to research the instrumentalization of (aesthetic and poetic practices of inducing) wonder in the fields of power and knowledge, our areas of research can be preliminarily catalogued as follows:

1.  Truth by astonishment. Under this heading, we will research (a) educational practices that induce astonishment in children and adults in order to interest them in or convince them of established knowledge as well as new scientific discoveries; (b) contrary to this view (that astonishment may eventually lead to an academic mindset and to the appreciation of the findings of science), there exists another, phenomenological or rather ontological view, that understands wonder as the royal road to an intuitive and even irrational truth. Thus, we will also research pedagogical and esoteric theories, concepts and practices in which this kind of wonder figures as an argument or as the aim of the pedagogical effort.


2.  Order by admiration. Under this heading, we will research (a) political practices that aim towards producing admiration in the people in order to constitute or strengthen the power of the ruler; (b) medial and communicative practices that aim towards producing admiration in the general public in order to uphold the authority of scientists or the institutions of science; (c) the ambivalent fascination for (new) technological concepts and artifacts that on the one hand increase human power and on the other cause a sense of inferiority in the face of man-made machines; (d) (self-)marketing practices, that aim towards inducing admiration in the consumer / recipient.

3.  Destabilization by surprise. Under this heading, we will research (a) military and everyday strategies of conquering the opponent via surprise; (b) discourses in security studies, epidemiology and ecology that are related to the expectation of the unexpectable (e.g. terrorist attacks, pandemics, natural disasters, accidents in high-risk-technologies), deal with “unknown unknowns”, and promote a culture of resilience and preparedness; (c) artistic practices that aim at inducing surprise or even shock in the spectator, thereby going for a presentist experience in order to irritate conversant modes of thinking and feeling.

Institutions Involved:

  • University of Zurich, German Department, Prof. Dr. Mireille Schnyder

  • University of Basel, German Department, Prof. Dr. Nicola Gess

  • University of Freiburg, Department of Sociology, Prof. Dr. Ulrich Bröckling

  • University of Basel, French Department, Prof. Dr. Hugues Marchal