Annual Theme 2023/24: Activism and Academia

Current debates on political activism and academia seem to hark back to the old opposition of “ivory tower” and engaged commitment that has shaped many debates throughout the 20th century. Considering this long, eventful, and productive history, one should think it possible to approach the current discussions around activism and academia in a somewhat more relaxed fashion than today’s agitated tone suggests. In her essay on Eastern European studies in times of war, Nina Weller is also surprised that these fronts, which were long thought to have been overcome, are reemerging. Henning Trüper reminds us that modern science has always depended on the state and thus on political entities. Patrick Eiden-Offe shows how the Frankfurt Hölderlin edition, whose political motives brought about a paradigm shift in edition philology, exemplarily demonstrates the compatibility of politics and science. However, he points out that the project’s academic success came at the expense of its political motivations. While new principles of critical editing were implemented, its original political-activist impulses were left behind.

Could it be that today it is the other way around, that it is scholarship that gets left behind? And if this were so, could it have to do with the fact that, on the one hand, both politics (national and EU-wide) as well as many funding organizations demand a “transformative research”? And that, at the same time, more and more young people put their academic development in the service of one form of activism or another? Are we witnessing a formerly unknown convergence of an activism “from above” and one “from below”?

This has to be phrased so tentatively because one risks falling into the prevailing pattern of stimulus and response. As both sides often put it, the universally lamented polarizations are supposedly the product of acute threats, hardships, and crises that must be addressed immediately. But one could ask whether climate change can be stopped by continuously founding new subject areas within the humanities and cultural studies, areas such as ecocriticism or animal and plant studies. Be that as it may, Henning Trüper suggests the existence of a dynamic of proliferating single-issue activisms that has long entered the canon of academic subjects and disciplines. Since such a multiplication of single issues might also be ruinous in several ways, and not exclusively in academia, the journalist Knut Cordsen recently asked: “How much activism can our society take?”

In this regard, the late 1960s controversy between Herbert Marcuse and Jürgen Habermas may still be instructive today. In his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man Marcuse, a Marxist, proposed the radical view that, under capitalist conditions, science will inevitably be the system’s ideological accomplice. A revolutionary upheaval of the existing power relations must also “affect the very structure of science.” In a postrevolutionary, peaceful state of the world, science would “arrive at essentially different concepts of nature and establish essentially different facts.”

Jürgen Habermas, who did not believe in disinterested knowledge, not in science or anywhere else, relativized Marcuse’s utopian claims by naming the historical contexts of a supposedly “free” science. For it was only during the transition from the 19th into the 20th century that exacerbating crises summoned the state and the modern social and science policy, based on scientific knowledge, to act as a corrective, resulting in the formation of what Habermas, in his 1968 essay on Science and “Ideology”, calls the “glassy background ideology, which makes a fetish of science.” In the light of the simultaneously occurring scientization of technology, this development had led to a technocratic understanding of politics and a corresponding practice of avoiding conflicts, a practice which was opposed by the generation of 1968. Habermas saw the protesting students of 1967 as “activists” who had the potential to work towards a “repoliticization of the dessicated public sphere.” The special protest potential of this group was also due to their academic experience. Since their representatives came “relatively frequently from social sciences and humanities,” they happened to be “immune to technocractic consciousness”; their “primary experiences in their own intellectual work did not accord with the basic technocratic assumptions.” It seems that academic scholarship is (or at least once was) able to self-immunize due to its intrinsic logic which, in turn, enabled it to perform emancipatory social actions both within and outside of academia.

But do such observations from a different time suffice to explain the current debates surrounding activism and science, especially within the humanities and cultural studies? What role does so-called cancel culture play, or discussions of cultural appropriation within the arts? Those are just some of the questions the ZfL wants to address over the course of the next three semesters.

Eva Geulen

This text initially appeared in German as editorial in the brochure of the annual theme of the ZfL 2023/24: ACTIVISM AND ACADEMIA.


Fig. above: Modernization of a lecture hall in the Ernst Ruska Building at TU Berlin, 2017
© TU Berlin/PR/Groh.

See also

Brochure [in German]:
Order your printed copy for free!


  • Editorial: ZfL-Jahresthema 2023/24 – Aktivismus und Wissenschaft
    Eva Geulen
  • Aktivismus und Kulturgeschichte des Moralischen
    Henning Trüper
  • Editionsphilologie als Aktivismus: Der umkämpfte Hölderlin
    Patrick Eiden-Offe
  • Wissenschaftsaktivismus und Osteuropaforschung in Zeiten des Krieges
    Nina Weller



27 Oct 2022 · 7.30 pm

Aktivismus und Wissenschaft heute. A conversation with Armin Nassehi and Eva von Redecker

ICI Berlin, Christinenstr. 18–19, Haus 8, 10119 Berlin

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Conference | ATTENTION: Changes in the program!
27 Oct 2022 – 29 Oct 2022

Aktivismus und Wissenschaft I: Zur Theorie, Geschichte und Aktualität einer Provokation

Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL), Schützenstraße 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Etage, Trajekte-Tagungsraum

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Media Response

08 Feb 2024
Was Wissen schafft

Op-ed by Christa Roth, in: Der Freitag 6 (8 Feb 2024), 15