Paper Abstracts

Tidyan Bah (FU Berlin)

Genus or Genre? Reflections on the Concept of the Precariat in Light of Thomas Mann’s A Man and His Dog

The notion of a “precariat” remains unclear today, provoking fear of the social exclusion of people living in precarity and those they make responsible for their situation. It also creates unease among those worried about becoming one of the aggrieved. Perhaps the precariat is simply a dark fantasy? Or perhaps it is realized only through the foregone evocation of its class-consciousness? Reading an idyllic narrative may shed some light on this question. Turning to Thomas Mann’s Herr und Hund, I ask what the conceptual genealogy of the precariat as a new species of modern existence might be. I will read Mann’s text as an allegory of modern life and juxtapose the human condition outlined therein with Georgio Agamben’s analysis of the state of exception in Homo Sacer. I will show that Mann’s work anticipates the idea of a precarious existence of constant biopolitical integration and exclusion as the paradigm of modern life. This I will support by exploring the concepts of biological genus and literary genre in Herr und Hund, which I believe reveals reactions to Darwinism as a main source of a romantic resurgence of ideas predominant in modern essentialist ideology. I then argue that the imposition of homogeneity upon the human condition is key in evoking a precariat’s class-consciousness today. After discussing the motif of genre in Herr und Hund, I will conclude that Mann’s work is an attempt to overcome the aforementioned romanticism by pairing literary with philosophical realism. This leads us beyond the novella, since our ability to tell and interpret stories has generally become paramount to human understanding, whether of the precarious or the idyllic aspects of our lives.

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Laura Goldblatt (Virginia)

Resisting Precarity

Though the recent academic focus on precarity and precariousness has served as the catalyst for numerous articles, monographs, presentations, and conferences, too often these scholarly inquiries into the dark side of neoliberalism remain disconnected from material investment in the lived experiences they study. But the invocation of objectivity, of being on the outside rather than the inside of a crisis, risks reproducing the very oppressive forces such inquiries decry. Too often, the process of designating certain groups, behaviors, actions, and occupations as precarious—and therefore tacitly assuming others to be “safe” by fiat—reaffirms the conditions of alterity that created social, economic and professional divisions in the first place. The increasing focus within the academy on adjunct professors and graduate students as precarious laborers par excellence is an object lesson in this trend and its pitfalls: academic workers get to be precarious, while the university’s service workers are merely poor. What we see, then, is a scholarly praxis that capitalizes upon the subject position of one oppressed group as a strategy to ensure its own recognition.
If, as Richard Seymour argues, precarity cuts across class strata rather than representing a new class formation, then the invocation of precarity carries both possibilities and risks. On the one hand, the term works to unite diverse constituencies around what is increasingly a common condition; on the other, it risks concealing the very real material (and immaterial) differences between the positions of, say, a “precarious” web designer and a “precarious” migrant worker. In order to overcome these limitations, we argue, two things are necessary. First, we must work towards an understanding of precarity which both acknowledges these differences and actively constructs a meaningful commonality. Second, and relatedly, we must overcome the ossified division between theory and praxis—mental and manual labor—which posits theorizing precarity on one side and contesting it on the other. Taking the university as a site of struggle, we will examine how this work has been carried out by projects such as the UVA living wage campaign and the MLA Subconference, and will give further indications towards a future politics of precarity.

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Michaela Hartl (Kassel)

How not to become a Bourgeois – Robert Walser and the Bildungsroman at the Beginning of the 20th Century

Current working conditions marked by ”The New Spirit of Capitalism” (Boltanski/Chiapello 2007), have been a highly discussed issue within the last decade. A general loss of social security, acceleration and burnout are also the keywords that contemporary German novels such as Thomas von Steinaecker’s (2012) concentrate on. However, discourse on work-related debility, insecurity and nomadism has not only been a phenomenon of the past 10 years, but a paradigm of early 20th Century (Martynkewicz 2013), and since then a privileged literary subject as well. In my talk, I would like to address the character of the precarious employee in Robert Walser’s first published novel, Geschwister Tanner (1907/2008). Its main character Simon Tanner is shaped as a vagabond and fails constantly in facing a permanent breadwinning position. Since labor constitutes gender (Wetterer, 42, 2009), Simon’s failings in the realm of gainful employment also implies a deficiency in achieving bourgeois masculinity. Finding one’s place as a man in society by means of work has been the key issue of the canonical German Bildungsroman since the late 19th Century (e.g. Gustav Freytag’s Soll und Haben, 1855/2004). Walser’s novel is to be interpreted as an ironic reference to the bourgeois Bildungsroman and its work ethic based development model, which establishes labor as a motor of masculinity. Walser inverts this narrative pattern into an absurd series of temporary, precarious and mindless jobs. Simon Tanner declaredly refuses to manage a career and become a bourgeois. In this way, Robert Walser’s Geschwister Tanner demonstrates that male subjectivity cannot be formed by means of work under the circumstances of modern society. But how can we link Walser to ongoing debates about work and gender and their literary manifestations? Can his strictly hierarchically painted labor relations be compared to contemporary representations of employees as managers of their own working capacity? This is the aim of my talk.

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Philipp Hubmann (Innsbruck)

Moral Desertification: Precarity & Concealment in Andres Veiels Documentary Play “Der Kick”

“In the night of the 13th July 2002 the brothers Marco (twentythree) and Marcel Schönfeld (seventeen) and their fellow Sebastian Fink (seventeen) brutally abused and finally killed the sixteen-year old Marinus Schöberl after the example of a curb-kick in the film “American History X”. Although there had been witnesses and confidants the crime had been undetected for months.” — Andres Veiel, Der Kick (2008)

After this short summary of what happened during the crime, Andres Veiels experimental play starts with the echoing of statements made by parents, teachers, social workers, the prosecutor, the major and psychological consultants as well as declarations of the offenders themselves, who take stand for the incident that happened in Potzlow, a village in the German region of Uckermark. From the first moment, the text distances itself from media coverage, which, only shortly after the discovery of the crime, brought stereotypical explanations for a “right-wing extremist” action in the “economically underdeveloped” province in East-Germany into play. Even the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution felt the need to defend the community members against such defamation. Against the background of the alleged motives of poverty and xenophobia, Andres Veiel exposes a type of precarity in his play and film which is based on a deficit of communication as well as on “shame and devaluation”, passed on over generations through the continuous experience of violence and disappropriation.4 After collectivization in the GDR in 1991, Potzlow was almost completely taken over by an investor. Hence the standard of living is comparatively high. Additionally, in 2003 the settlement was awarded the title of “Germany’s most beautiful village”, which – apart from the economical factor – seems to be in conflict with the cliché of a community of “losers of the war, losers of the ‘Wende’ and the ones lost in the present”, as proclaimed by media in the meantime.

It is the aim of Veiels play to “give the perpetrators a biography without neglecting the obscene brutality of the crime.” Above all, his dramatic montage tests the thesis of the concealed transmission of traumata, which results in what might be called a “syndicate of silence” in the village. The community mistrusts public institutions and therefore even balks at charging the murder of Marinus Schöberl – the “village jew”, as he is referred to by the local priest. In my talk, I will conceptualize Veiels “archaeology and genealogy of the crime” as an attempt at depathologizing the perpetrators. I will demonstrate how, on the one hand, structural and psychological aspects create a situation of absolute disintegration and, on the other hand, the great potential of the contextualization of crimes from a historical perspective as presented by documentarian artists such as Andres Veiel. Alain Ehrenberg entitles depression as the “disease of responsibility”, in which the “sentiment of inferiority” dominates. Read as a history of apathy, Veiels “Kick” can be understood as a contemporary contribution to the discussion on “collapsing regions” and the cultural origins of an atomistic radicalization in postmodernity.

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Jonathan Kassner (NYU)

Hang in there! On the Motif of Suspension in Adorno

In Theodor Adorno’s writings, the motif of suspension is bound up with the Hegelian absolute. The philosophical system, once it has elucidated and integrated its own presuppositions, autonomously sustains its own circular movement, “keeps itself up in the air,” as Adorno writes in Hegel: Three Studies. This moment of suspension connects philosophy with music and literature around 1800 and involves a dialectic of work, which, I hold, anticipates current neoliberal modalities of labor. The common denominator of absolute philosophy and music is ‘work’ as conceptual exertion (Hegel) and thematic work (Beethoven). The dialectic that Adorno delineates from here, however, consists in the culmination of strain and exhaustion, for which both Hegel and Beethoven are exemplary as historical figures, in productions that make it seem as if the compulsion to produce was suspended. Metaphorically, Adorno refers to a ‘floating’ or ‘murmuring’ element, which he finds characteristic for Hegel, Beethoven, and Goethe. In Minima Moralia, he similarly claims that the promise of dialectical logic to return to its origin would truly be kept if we were to float idly, like animals on water. Along the same lines, he deems Goethe’s Iphigenie emancipatory in that the play “orders a halt to the making and producing.” Art and philosophy around 1800 imagine a way to escape the compulsion to be productive by way of intensifying precisely this productivity.
In the conclusion to my paper, I want to elucidate the proximity of Adorno’s theory of suspension, of keeping oneself up in the air, to contemporary modes of precarious labor. According to Diedrich Diederichsen, the former ‘exceptional’ precarity of the free artist and writer has become the model of the worker in the neoliberal era. While I believe that the promise of overcoming the toil of work via its unleashing is still operative in contemporary ideology, the impasses of precarity shed light on the aporia barring the dialectical reversal of work into its suspension envisioned by Adorno.

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Anne Mulhall (King’s College)

The Bloom Effect: Tiqqun’s precarious subject and their fidelity to Joyce
Tiqqun is a semi-anonymous philosophical collective operating in France. Their journals, Tiqqun 1 (1999) and Tiqqun 2 (2001), give a searing diagnosis of the present state of the alienated Western subject. Beyond any pessimism, Tiqqun offer a solution- to practice acts inspired by Tikkun Olam, an ancient Hebraic concept of ethical destruction and world repair.
Their diagnosis of this precarious mode of being is mobilized into a conceptual persona, the “Bloom” figure, who for Tiqqun,  embodies the impoverishment of experience commonly associated with living in modernity. Of course, this diagnosis has been presented countless times in literature and philosophy, but using a conceptual persona to embody this is mood is quite radical. Their text, Théorie du Bloom, makes it clear that their creation owes much to the original Joycean figuration, one that perhaps most strikingly embodied the vulnerability of the subject of modernity in literature.  My work speculates on how, in re-presenting the Bloom figuration, they enact a fidelity to the radical political event of Joyce’s creation, an antidote to the recuperation of the original figure by anti-political readings.
My reading hinges on a crucial sense of liminality in both Joyce’s Bloom and their own. Joyce’s Bloom figuration vacillates between representing the victim of spectacular modernity, and embracing the embodied corporeality of its opposite, the critical metaphysics that Tiqqun, eighty years later, point out is in “in everyone’s guts.” Joyce’s character is, on the one hand, a casualty of (Adornian) estrangement, one who cannot understand the “mrkgnao” of the cat, but he is also one in touch with his corporeal possibilities.  Tiqqun’s re-presentation of Bloom mirrors this dichotomy, showing us a way of sublating it, through the reinstatement of the body into a critical political position via a range of possibilities, including the human strike.

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Mathelinda Nabugodi (UCL)

Precarious Harmony: Poetry, Music, and Meaning after the Fall of Language
It is a commonplace to say that poetry has a privileged relationship to music. On Lessing’s influential distinction between temporal and spatial arts, poetry sits comfortably alongside music amongst the former since both unfold in time. Percy Bysshe Shelley goes so far as making musicality the sole arbiter of poetic language; for him the musical measure of poetry compensates for the poverty of everyday speech and goes some way towards atoning for the fall of language. Even Walter Benjamin, who often makes an axiom of linguistic fragmentation, alleges music to be ‘the last universal language since Babel,’ which is perhaps confirmed by the absence of any serious theory of translation that calls for a transposition of the musical elements of a literary text. Through its musicality, then, poetry participates in a universal language. Yet, as Paul de Man has argued, musicality also risks to extinguish a work’s ‘philosophic light:’ when words are chosen because they rhyme and fit a rhythmic pattern, the semiotic content becomes as precarious as the relation between the signifier and signified. Thus, there is a paradox inherent in poetry’s apposition of music and meaning: while musical measure indubitably enriches poetic language, musicality is also that which shifts the ground under its feet. Drawing on some examples from Shelley and Benjamin, this paper explores how harmony of expression turns into precarity of meaning, and why this is a good thing.

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Jensen Suther (Yale)

All That Has Already Fallen: The (Un)Truth of “Precarity”

In the Marxist-Critical Theory tradition exemplified by thinkers like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Walter Benjamin, the conceptual categories whereby the abstract social totality was conceived and delimited historically had an essentially critical function: to point up not only the way in which the totality is constituted, but also the way in which it points beyond itself. The aim of this essay will be to show that the contemporary categories of “precarity” and “precariat” fail to demonstrate the self-critical nature of modern capitalist social life, and instead conceal it. On the one hand, “precarity” papers over one of the defining characteristics of capitalist society, that, as Walter Benjamin wrote, “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule”; on the other, it fails to show that overcoming such a state is not a question of just reform, but also, and more significantly, of revolution. Joblessness, potential joblessness, and crisis are conditions inherent in the dynamic of capital, which simultaneously strengthens and undermines itself by displacing the labor force it commands. While Marx’s thesis of “immiseration” may not have come literally true, it has, Adorno argues, become true in a quite different sense: the class of individuals that once stood in revolutionary readiness has been assimilated to capitalist bourgeois society, and thus has, in a sense, dissipated as a class, even as its now-atomized members continue to commit their lives to the same forms of drudgery. Finally, the term “precariat,” a buzzword denoting, in Richard Seymour’s words, “a populist interpellation” aiming for maximal inclusiveness, is symptomatic of the dissolution of a proletariat class, veiling through its vagueness the disparate political realities of the varied classes it spuriously attempts to reconcile.

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Nathan Taylor (Cornell)

Narrative Precarity after the New Economy in Kathrin Röggla

My paper examines how vicissitudes of financial capitalism find formal expression in contemporary Austrian author Kathrin Röggla’s 2004 novel wir schlafen nicht and her 2005 play draußen tobt die dunkelziffer, both of which address parameters of precarious social life under the regime of a globalized economic system of finance capitalism. I argue that these works by Röggla stage a partial breakdown of an earlier project of narrative as sense- making, a project made acutely unstable in an economic system increasingly described by scholars such as Joseph Vogl as not making sense and by Fredric Jameson as decidedly disorienting for a subject whose relationship to the social whole or totality takes on excessively complex contours.

Röggla’s texts, as I read them, develop a sophisticated repertoire of narrative and rhetorical devices—which take forms of descriptive protocolling, apostrophe, and subjunctive voice— that blur any stable distinction between narrative and poetics, as well as between narration and performance. Focusing on how Röggla’s pieces replace, for instance, plot with parataxis, narration with protocol, character with symptom, I attempt to situate her search for modes of storytelling adequate to the financialized lifeworld of our contemporary moment in relation to recent theories of daily life under late capitalism such as Maurizio Lazzarato’s work on indebted man, Michel Foucault’s work on neo-liberalism, and Jonathan Crary’s work on sleep and capital.

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Jakob Vetter

The Masculine Risk of Poverty in Gottfried Keller’s Bildungsroman Green Henry

[This talk will be in German] Der Vortrag mit dem Titel Männliche Armutsrisiken in Gottfried Kellers Bildungsroman ‚Der grüne Heinrich‘ stellt das mittlere 19. Jahrhundert ins Zentrum der Untersuchung, das in Mitteleuropa als Zeitalter der Massenarmut (Pauperismus) in die Geschichtsbücher einging. Dabei wird zunächst anhand einer thematisch markanten, exemplarischen zeitgenössischen Publikation (J. J. Vogt: Das Armenwesen 1853/54) gezeigt, dass Armut im historischen Diskurs als soziales wie persönliches Risiko wahrgenommen wurde. Diese Herangehensweise schließt an ein langläufiges, interdisziplinär vernetztes Forschungsprojekt der Professur für Neuere deutsche Literatur- und Kulturgeschichte der TU Dresden an, das ‚Risiko’ als gendercodiertes Konzept literarischer Wirklichkeitsdeutung untersucht.

Im Theorie-Rekurs auf Niklas Luhmanns Soziologie des Risikos und mit Fokus auf der zeitgenössisch hochvalorigen, rezeptionsstarken, zugleich aber ‚männlich‘ semantisierten deutschen ‚Meistergattung‘ des deutschsprachigen Bildungsromans wird dann gefragt, inwiefern hochkulturelle deutschsprachige Literatur die diskursive Wahrnehmung von Armut als ‚Risiko‘ aufgreift, gegebenenfalls genderfiziert und ästhetisch (insbesondere gattungsspezifisch) vertextet. Exemplarisch wird dazu Kellers Der grüne Heinrich (erste Fassung 1854/55) auf verschiedenen Kommunikationslevels (Figurenebene, Erzählerebene, Werkganzes/Textsubjekt) analysiert. Der litertaurwissenschaftliche Zugang ist einem funktions- und kulturwissenschaftlichen Literatur- und Gattungsverständnis verpflichtet.

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Julia Vomhof (Düsseldorf)

Unforeseeable, Contingent and Productive: Tempting Precarity and Precarious Temptation in Goethe

In my presentation, I would like to discuss the hypothesis that precarity can be a productive moment in aesthetic processes. For example, it is inherent to aesthetic phenomena such as seduction as can be shown in literary texts. By analyzing Goethe ́s poem “Der Fischer” in focusing on the literary motif of seduction within the relation between the fisherman and the mermaid, I intend to investigate the relevance of precarity within seduction by working on some characteristics of the phenomenon of seduction, such as its idiosyncratic timeliness. Seduction rests upon a promise of which one never knows whether it will be kept or not. It plays with expectations, with imagination and uncertainty. Characteristic for the process of seduction is its particular timeliness: While promising something, which in terms of J.L. Austin is a performative term that realizes itself in the moment of its articulation, as for example promising would normally do, in the act of seduction that which is promised is paradoxically postponed ad infinitum. It offers a glimpse into the future of which one cannot be sure whether or not it becomes true. The precarious condition of that which is promised is a constitutive premise the enticement ́s success. More than that, precarity is essential for seduction and is precisely what gives it its strong aura of fascination.

Seduction sheds light upon two sides of precarity: On the one hand and in a rather positive sense, precarity is elemental and constitutive for the dynamic of seduction because without it, seduction – which needs the ambiguity, the uncertainty and the play with expectations – wouldn ́t be possible, since what is tempting is only what is possible, but uncertain, imponderable and precarious, whereas that which is certain und forseeable is not. On the other hand, seduction also abuses the precarious condition of the subject that is being seduced since it doesn ́t know whether or not it gets lured into a trap or if that which is promised, be it the prospect of a certain situation, of a materialistic good or else, will come true. Seduction plays with precarity in different ways. I would like to offer a reading of Goethe’s “Fischer” by showing that the notion of “precarity” not only concerns working conditions and social life but is also a relevant concept for an aesthetic motif such as seduction and its role in literature.

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