Cultures of Madness. Liminal Phenomena of the Urban Modern Era (1870–1930)

This research network aimed to establish and develop a cultural history of madness in the modern era. We examined the period between 1870 and 1930, investigating the cultural discourses, practices and techniques of the time, which together fostered and led to a modern, pluralistic, and polymorphic understanding of madness.

The focus of our research project was on the historic-epistemological topography of modern-era liminal phenomena, which display madness as an urban phenomenon through discursive, institutional, and media-related dimensions. We traced and investigated the interferences between subjective and cultural history, knowledge and illusion, visibility and invisibility. What comes to light are quite variable modes of explanation, interpretation, representation, and meaning, depending on the different cultural milieus they grew from. This variety of paradigms formed the overall semantics of madness within budding metropolitan culture.

Partner Institutes:

  • Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin
  • Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
  • Technische Universität Berlin
  • Universitätsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf
  • Zentrum für Literatur-und Kulturforschung Berlin

2009–2012 (Phase 1), 2012–2016 (Phase 2)

Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) 2009–2016

(extensive information in German)


Narratives of Madness in Metropolitan Areas between 1900–1930

Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) 2009–2012 (Phase 1)
Head researcher(s): Armin Schäfer

The transformation of traditional narratives and the formation of new modes of representation in the literature of classic modernity attests to the decisive role assumed by madness and the metropolis. Literature on life in the metropolis is stamped by a knowledge of madness that pervades scholarly treatises, essays, and literary texts in equal measure, a phenomenon that the distinction between literary and scientific culture fails to entirely apprehend and describe. This project examines an ensemble of rhetorical strategies along with narrative forms and procedures in the effort to comprehend madness and link the distinctive qualities of the mad individual to the generality of disease. At the same time, it analyzes the ways in which a knowledge base that approaches madness as an incomprehensible reality is overlaid with literary depictions of the city as itself incoherent and incomprehensible: What psychiatric texts define as pathological behavior emerges in literary texts as a basic experience of urban modernity. By integrating the hermeneutical perspective of psychiatry and then superimposing other forms of knowledge onto the analysis of narratives of madness, the project seeks to develop conceptions of the psychopathic personality and psychopathic characters. It thereby highlights the new modes of narration that emerge in the literature on madness that, in turn, prove foundational to representations of urban modernity.

The Sick Generation. Medicine and Prostitution in Early-20th-Century Berlin

Dissertation project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) 2009–2012 (Phase 1)
Associate Researcher(s): Stefan Wünsch

This dissertation pursues many objectives. One is the examination of medical police controls on prostitution in the early-20th century that drew attention to and enforced sexual differences through venereological inspections. The interest lies in the contact between the inspector and the inspected, the moment when the disciplinary knowledge systems of gynaecology and criminology interlock with modern urban planning. The figure of the prostitute brings a specific type of narrative into focus that is then examined in terms of its distribution and circulation within a historical set of ideas about knowledge. The central question, therefore, becomes: How does the sexual self orient itself in regards to venereal disease? Or more generally, how are people made into subjects in our culture?
In addition to concerns based on questions of content, the study also thematizes the question of form, namely of the form of knowledge that the project itself participates in. The project explicitly asks about the possibilities of writing an academic work that does not just aim to reconstruct a discourse and its various formations, but also invariably reflects on research writing as a process of generating knowledge. In so doing, the project strives to apprehend the modes of representation that contribute to the construction of disciplinary claims to truth. The principle objective is to configure a textual collage that encourages a step beyond the confinements of disparate disciplines. In this manner, the project endeavors to engage with texts as material that is open for dialogue and further reflection and research.

Documents of Madness. Fabulieren and Querulieren in Literature and Psychiatry

Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) 2012–2016 (Phase 2)
Head researcher(s): Cornelius Borck, Armin Schäfer
Associate Researcher(s): Sophia Könemann, Sonja Mählmann

Using ego-documents in addition to literary and psychiatric texts that were written between 1870 and 1930, this project examines how Fabulation and Querulation were established, differentiated, criticized, and finally rejected once again as two categories of madness.
The first step of the project is to show that Fabulation and Querulation follow discrete rules, laws, and principles, whose own logic can be attributed to medial requirements, the process of writing itself, and cultural factors.
The second step involves reconstructing the transformations literature and psychiatry experienced in their engagement with Fabulation and Querulation, which includes both the genesis and practice of a fabulative writing style in literature as well as changes traced through the discourse and the practices of psychiatry.
The third step demonstrates the relevance of this theme as part of a theory of modernity. With Fabulation and Querulation psychiatry explored phenomena that it also in fact created, which demanded second-order observations and a conceptualization of systemic processes.
While psychiatry’s dealings with Fabulation and Querulation presented a problem that it was unable to solve, new developments in literature and the sciences were initiated by Fabulation: on the one hand, literature cultivated a specific modern narrative through Fabulation, which weakened the schematic distinction between fiction and reality; and on the other hand, psychology gained a new understanding of the relationship between reality and language in its study of Fabulation.

›Total Strangers‹? The Figure of the Autistic in Science and Literature

Dissertation project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) 2014–2015 (Phase 2)
Associate Researcher(s): Novina Göhlsdorf

Autism was coined in 1910 by psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler to describe a symptom of schizophrenia. Then, in the 1940s it became the term used for an entire syndrome that afflicted children. It took some time before it gradually became disassociated from madness. Now, autism is understood in a new light as a complex »developmental disorder«. Not only is it the subject of intense research in psychiatry, but also in biology and the neurosciences, among other disciplines. Furthermore, autism has gained the attention of the public sphere in many countries around the globe. It  frequently makes headlines in the daily papers and is discussed in online forums. In fact, today people with autism are considered ideal candidates for employment in the IT sector, and it is not uncommon to find autistic protagonists in films and novels.

This project will culminate in a history of knowledge that sheds light on a range of historical conceptions of autism with the aid of scientific, literary, and popular sources. It also posits the question of which epistemic effects various methods of representation (in texts, films, and images) have on specific concepts of autism and how interactions between different discourses impact them as well.

These concepts will be regarded in their cultural-historical context as driving forces behind and expressions of significant cultural debates in the 20th and 21st centuries. Conceptions of autism always already involve negotiating models of subjectivity, communication, or empathy, and of childhood and family. Representations of autism, which often portray it as an interpersonal disorder per se, elucidate historically variable understandings of the ›social‹. It is precisely through its constitutive intangibility that the figure of the autistic often makes visible that which it is not – and thus often occupies a position in the vacuous center of social self-descriptions.


Cornelius Borck, Armin Schäfer (ed./eds.)

Das psychiatrische Aufschreibesystem

Wilhelm Fink Verlag, München 2015, 271 pages
ISBN 978-3-7705-5773-8

Armin Schäfer

  • Franz Biberkopfs Wahnsinn, in: Volker Hess, Heinz-Peter Schmiedebach (eds.): Am Rande des Wahnsinns. Schwellenräume einer urbanen Moderne. Wien: Böhlau 2011
  • Das molekulare Unbewusste. Bemerkung zum Anti-Ödipus, in: Christine Kirchhoff, Gerhard Scharbert (eds.): Freuds Referenzen. Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos 2011, 231–249
  • Die Archivfunktion in der Psychiatrie (Kraepelin, Jaspers), in: Burkhardt Wolf, Thomas Weitin (eds.): Gewalt der Archive. Konstanz: Konstanz UP 2011
  • Die Wörter ihre Arbeit tun lassen: Jelineks Stimmen, in: Thomas Eder, Juliane Vogel (eds.): Lob der Oberfläche. Annäherungen an das Werk Elfriede Jelineks. München: Fink 2010, 7–16
  • Erschöpfte Literatur. Über das Neue bei Samuel Beckett, in: Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 32.4 (2009), 329–344
  • Biopolitik, in: Roland Borgards, Harald Neumeyer (eds.): Büchner-Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung. Stuttgart, Weimar: Metzler 2009, 176–181
  • Existenzmöglichkeiten: Versuch über die Auflösung des sensomotorischen Schemas in Thomas Bernhards ‘Amras’, in: Modern Austrian Literature 42.1 (2009), 45–61
  • Souveränität und Moral im barocken Trauerspiel, in: Maximilian Bergengruen, Roland Borgards (eds.): Bann der Gewalt. Göttingen: Wallstein 2009, 387–421
  • Spur und Symptom. Zur Erforschung der Handschrift in der Psychiatrie, in: Barbara Wittmann (ed.): Spuren erzeugen. Zeichnen und Schreiben als Verfahren der Selbstaufzeichnung, Berlin. Zürich: Diapahnes 2009, 21–38


Abschlussveranstaltung der DFG-Forschergruppe
03 Jul 2015 · 4.00 pm

Kulturen des Wahnsinns

Ambulatorium, RAW-Tempel, Revaler Str. 99, 10245 Berlin

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03 Jul 2014 – 04 Jul 2014

Figurationen der Störung

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et.

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Internationale Konferenz mit Filmreihe
15 Nov 2013 – 16 Nov 2013

Spekulantenwahn zwischen ökonomischer Rationalität und medialer Imagination

Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum, Geschwister-Scholl-Str. 3, 10117 Berlin und Kino Arsenal, Potsdamer Str. 2, 10785 Berlin

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Workshop der DFG-Forschergruppe Kulturen des Wahnsinns
21 Mar 2013 – 23 Mar 2013

Wahnsinn und Methode. Notieren, Ordnen, Schreiben in der Psychiatrie

Institut für Medizingeschichte und Wissenschaftsforschung der Universität Lübeck, Königstraße 42, Hörsaal

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19 Nov 2010

Am Rande des Wahnsinns. Aus der Werkstatt einer kultur- und medizinhistorischen Forschergruppe

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Seminarraum 303

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