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

The project researched the concept of the obscene and its importance for German-language realist literature between 1855 and 1926. Despite the sparse but decisive presence of the term ‘obscene’ 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 this respect, they require a definition of the obscene as a (sexual) breach of taboos and as a representation of lasciviousness.

In contrast to these approaches, the project worked on a critical genealogy of the concept of the obscene. The obscene is a persistent leitmotif of 20th century phenomenology and aesthetics that can be dated back—and not just implicitly—to the literary criticism and literary practice of late 19th century Germany and its attempts to define the world from the perspective of human knowledge. On the basis of this genealogy, the project argued for a new understanding of the obscene as not just a mere synonym for the lubricious and the scatological, but as a particular mode of representation and knowledge. Therefore, it is both a name for the disquieting persistence of the sensual world within an aggressively anthropocentric culture as well as a response to the alleged excess of appearance beyond anything that may be included in a framework of meaning.

This reassessment of the obscene as an especially phobic term for what Friedrich Schiller once described as “sensuousness without soul” allowed for a reconsideration of the role of the obscene—a reconsideration beyond the questions of indecent 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 analyzed the various ways in which these authors attempt to counter or confront the obscene. In these readings, the obscene emerged as the specter haunting the aesthetic and epistemological program of German realism—the flip side of its humanist promises to capture the strangeness of the outside world once and for all.

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


Erica Weitzman

At the Limit of the Obscene
German Realism and the Disgrace of Matter

Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL 2021, 282 pages
ISBN 978-0-8101-4317-3 (Cloth Text); 978-0-8101-4316-6 (Paper Text); 978-0-8101-4318-0 (E-Book)


22 Jun 2018 · 5.00 pm

Erica Weitzman: Theorien der »Theorie«

Freie Universität Berlin, Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195 Berlin

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