At the Limit of the Obscene. Realism, Profanation, Aesthetics

Project description

This project looks at the concept of the obscene and its importance for German-language realist literature between 1855 and 1926. Despite the concept’s sparse but decisive presence in philosophy and theory, most previous work on this concept has been restricted to either cultural-critical provocation or historical-legal studies of pornography, censorship, and changing standards of morality, in which the definition of the obscene is taken more or less for granted as (sexual) taboo-breaking and the representation of lasciviousness.

In contrast to such approaches, the project begins by undertaking a critical genealogy of the concept of the obscene itself. The obscene is a persistent leitmotif of twentieth-century phenomenology and aesthetics that can also be traced — not just implicitly — to the literary criticism and practice of late nineteenth-century Germany and its attempts to fix the world as a product of human making. On the basis of this genealogy, the project argues that the obscene should be understood, not as a mere synonym for the lubricious and the scatological, but rather as a particular mode of representation and knowledge: a name for the disquieting insistence of the material world within an aggressively anthropocentric culture and a response to the perceived excess of phenomenal appearance beyond or outside that which can be assimilated into a framework of meaning.

This reassessment of the obscene as an especially phobic expression of what Friedrich Schiller once called »sensuousness without soul« also allows for a reconsideration of the role of the obscene, beyond questions of improper content, within so-called »poetic realism« and its literary descendants. In chapters on Adalbert Stifter, Gustav Freytag, Theodor Fontane, Arno Holz, Gottfried Benn, and Franz Kafka, the project develops the various ways in which these authors attempt to counter the obscene or to come to grips with it. Through these readings, the obscene emerges as the specter haunting German realism’s aesthetic and epistemological program, the flip side of its humanist promises to capture the outside world’s otherness once and for all.

Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Fellowship 2017–2018
Head researcher(s): Erica Weitzman