Research Topic 3:

Destabilization by surprise

The concept of surprise (see Addendum I) 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. This dual relation is a key component of the art of war; however, it has a broader anthropological significance. Whether the opponent be another person, a group, society, the State or even the way things go, the tactical management and agonistic use of surprise, which imply scheming and calculation, appear at many levels of our economic, political and social activities. 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. Literary studies and cultural sociology can shed significant light on these processes for three main reasons. First, strategies that use surprise or aim to prohibit negative surprises cannot be separated from the notions of storytelling and fiction (in order to anticipate, one envisions several series of actions and circumstances and tests their probability; in order to manipulate, one induces misreading; when surprise happens, it forces its victims and beholders to create a retrospective narrative in which the unexpected event makes sense) as well as from technologies of forecasting and risk-assessment. Second, speeches, texts and other carriers of meaning belong to the arsenal of surprise, so that strategy and tactics meets the rhetorical categories of ethos, proof, deliberation, etc. Finally, the interaction between writer and reader, or artist and viewer, can be understood as a competition in which the former has to bypass the latter’s ability to predict the unfolding of the work(s).



Strategies of the Everyday. Surprise in Balzac's Comédie humaine (Dissertation)

Alexandra Delcamp

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. Polemology (Bothoul) will be used to describe and analyse these military strategies applied to surprise. The emphasis will then lie on the dialogic order/disorder. 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). Thermodynamically speaking, Balzacian characters are led to their entropy. In order to understand the role that surprise plays in this process and the forms it takes, thermodynamics will be used as a tool of analysis.  
As far as narratology is concerned, this research will focus on the ambivalence between predictability and unpredictability that surprise involves. Indeed, Balzac and his reader know what the main character is ignorant of (Umberto Eco, 1989 et Wolfgang Iser, 1974). Once again, Balzac plays with the dialogic order/disorder. 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.


Expecting the Unexpectable. A Genealogy of Resilience and Preparedness (Dissertation)

Wibke Henriette Liebhart

“How does it feel to inhabit the ruins of the future?” (Evans/Reid 2014, 98). In contemporary western societies, modern faith in progress and planning has been widely replaced with a catastrophic imaginary of terrorist attacks, pandemics or ecological disasters. Though there are still threats that can be known as well as threats that are imaginable as known-unknowns, there are threats that are unknown-unknowns – because they are simply unthinkable. These catastrophes – and the crises they potentially lead to – cannot be foreseen; they are neither predictable nor calculable. As a consequence, societies, politics, and sciences have to deal with the unexpectable, and the “nonknowlegde that cannot be known” (Gross 2010: 54) turns into a key category of contemporary theory of knowledge. In this context, surprise in the sense of future shocks is becoming a fundamental precondition of governance: Political administrations as well as non-governmental organizations and even individuals must prepare for incidents that are unexpected, disruptive, and immeasurable in their consequences. Security can no longer be guaranteed, insecurity and nonknowledge have to be managed.
Against this background, the dissertation project aims at contributing to the theorization of the unexpectable in society by investigating the concept of resilience as multi-figured relations between an incident and an entity. From a Foucauldian perspective of governmentality, this project analyzes governmental documents and research literature focusing on the conceptualization of resilience. What are the theoretical implications of resilience: its logic, its rationality, its normativity and its paradoxes? What are the specific constructions of time that underpin the technologies and strategies of resilience, e.g. observation of currently resilient entities, analysis of crises, and catastrophic events in the past, as well as anticipation of future shocks and unpleasant surprises? The contradictory demand of expecting the unexpectable is based on the anticipation and imagination of potential surprises in order to make them less surprising, and at the same time on an increase in the ability to absorb the disruptions and irritations they generate. Preparedness for catastrophes and constant alertness for crises are the central maxims of the principle of resilience. Instead of being characterized by openness, the future turns into a pragmatic projection of former catastrophes – that is how it feels “to inhabit the ruins of the future”.

(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).