Programm und Ziele des Forschungsprojekts (english version)

Graduate Research Program on
Figures/Figurations of the Third
University of Constance
Department of Literature
(Short Version)

1. Summary

Triadic constellations play a striking role in much twentieth century writing of relevance to cultural studies. The spectrum extends from Georg Simmel's sociological arithmetic and psychoanalysis as a theory of affective triangulation to our contemporary theories of difference (Luhmann, Derrida, Serres). These latter theories introduce third quantities that undermine prevalent dichotomous schemas for drawing distinctions and shaping orders. In order to overcome sexual polarities, gender theory makes use of the concept of the third sex; likewise, the debate over globalization and postcolonialism has endowed actuality to the concepts of "third space" and cultural hybridity. Despite differing contexts, a commonly held double conditioning of the third is manifest here. It is a hybrid being that both separates and fuses--that both disturbs and mediates, thus being, as it were, both excluded by and included within the established order. This quality allows us to speak of the figure and figuration of the third.
Literature has been concerned with this phenomenon in a double manner. On the one hand, it has always confronted double-faced personae such as rivals, messengers, interpreters, as well as the wider field of verbal techniques involving "both this and that," in other words, ambivalence and paradox. It thus invites inquiries linked to a historical semantics of triadic figuration. At the same time, the subversive effects produced by interventions of third instances emerge within orders of knowledge located outside literature. They reveal general mechanisms of cultural semiosis that can be explored with the tools of literary studies. The theme consequently ties two dimensions together: Studying the suitable literary narrative allows a rhetorical-narratological analysis of the way cultures approach categorial intermediary zones and mixed forms.
Through cooperation with the Universities of Zurich and Basel, the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago, the planned project has an international dimension. Beginning with a set of problems tied to literary studies, it is meant to introduce participants to the basic problems of culture-theoretical research. This comprises transdisciplinarity grounded in a specific discipline and maintaining one central purpose: moving beyond the participants' core academic specialties, to reflect on the way cultural codes function in our present knowledge-based society.

2. Research Program

2.1 Overview

The twentieth century's epistemological stage was the venue for a significant recasting. Facing the footlights of theory, a figure emerged who had previously been condemned to a widely off-stage existence. If she was ever allowed to perform, this was only for brief guest appearances, usually ending in a scandal. With new theories now determining the repertoire, the situation has altered. The former spectral presence has now become a key figure, and while she continues to make her fellow players uneasy, she is nonetheless recognized by them in nearly reverent fashion.
We are referring here to the figure of the third. The classical occidental episteme was binarily organized; it was only capable of regularly conceiving the third in the form of a transition or linkage to a higher unity: not as a quantity persisting, on its own accord, alongside both terms in semantic dualisms such as true-false, spirit-matter, God-world, good-evil, culture-nature, inside-outside, and one's own-the strange. In contrast, all the newer theories unfolding on the plain of cultural semiosis grant the instance of the third a decisive role. This is the case for the concept of the "parasite" in the writing of Michel Serres; for deconstruction's introduction of third quantities undermining the binarism of metaphysics (différance, play, and so forth); and for Niklas Luhmann and his logic of cybernetic systems--a logic attempting to conceive a tertium datur by way of an expansion or even overcoming of Aristotelian logic, in this way making possible a new approach to systemic "reports of error" (paradox; tautology).
On a less abstract level, this change of epistemological regime also embraces current theories of the psychic and the social. For the world of intersubjective relationships no longer consists of oppositions and the dynamic of their mediation, but of persistent triangles. These are self-similar and self-propagating, hence irreducible to a unit. And here as well, the demon of the old world is the hero of the new--which does not mean that its demonical origins are to be forgotten. Yesterday's disruptive factors have simply been transformed into today's social operators.
The list of the new protagonists is long. We thus find the trickster--that sly and unreliable, sometimes wicked, sometimes roguish double agent between two worlds, whom every even partly well-ordered godly regime has tried to eliminate--now granted iconic status within the paradigm of interculturality. The messenger, who acts on his own authority, in this way arriving on the scene as a falsifying third party between sender and receiver, has received an honorary position in current theories of media. The interpreter, whose translations insist on their own meaning, thereby endangering the intended understanding, can now count himself among the avant-garde of linguistic theory. And finally, the rival, traditionally the source of discord in the lovers' duet, a function for which he usually pays with his life, has received the central position in the theory of desire. Each love-alliance and all erotic desire is now processed through a triangular dynamic in which the figure of the amorous rival has the main role. Meanwhile, psychoanalysis has been pushed forward theoretically in the direction of a general theory of triangulation; and with René Girard, the rival has stepped into the socio-anthropological model's center.
With his first book, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Paris 1961; published in English in 1965 as Deceit, Desire, and the Novel), Girard has pointed to the literary genealogy of such a logic. And in fact, there is a striking affinity of this hybrid creature, polluting the great systematic constructs, with literary-artistic modes of representation. This is because, on the one hand, the transitions between discursive and narrative languages become fluid on the borders of systematized knowledge; and, on the other, a considerable poetic productivity has always inhabited all sorts of triangular constellations. When treating complex triadic structures, literary history has at its disposal its own, rich treasury of experience: a factor that has always motivated other fields of knowledge exposed to the epistemological irritation of third instances of order/disorder to "import" its linguistic-narrative procedures. And the procedures at work in literary analysis are here likewise required.
As is the case in the field of theory, the literary third represents both a productive and precarious figure. For this reason, s/he (or it) serves particularly well as a central category for the detailed reconstruction of relations of desire and transference in narrative works and drama--such interpretive activity unfolding within a comparative and diachronic interpretive framework. The planned graduate program’s main research focus will thus be on examining triadic constellations present in literature, graphics, and the aesthetics of media. It will consider not only the art work's level of action, but also its structure and its medial constitution. It is intended to offer advanced training in methods of textual analysis, thus facilitating the development of interpretive skills applicable to broader cultural-semiological contexts.

2.2 Epistemology. Historical Semantics of the Third

In the context of differential theories, "third-party effects" emerge whenever intellectual operations no longer simply oscillate between both sides of a difference, but the difference itself becomes both object and problem. The fact of the difference thus joins each of the different quantities, like a third quantity possessing no position of its own but setting both sides of the difference into a relationship: this through simultaneously joining and separating. The third, then, makes binary codifications possible in the first place, while it itself normally remains hidden as a constitutive mechanism.
Such a shift in perspective toward the constitutive third, located between binarily related quantities--in other words, the problematization of difference qua difference--furnishes the project with one of its working hypotheses: that the shift represents a phenomenon emerging with particular force in the modern epoch. Considered in terms of systems theory, what is at issue here is second-order observation, which is to say the observation of ways of observation--also a characteristic of modernism in the Luhmann school's periodization. This in no way means that pre-modern semantic systems did not have their own high degree of sensitivity to the propensity for paradox of binary systems of order--to problems of demarcating borders, points of transition, and the blending of opposing significatory fields. But it remains the case that such systems' general, as it were official, mode of integration would seem not to have raised the problem of the third in a differential-theoretical sense--as the included-excluded element of a difference--to the same degree.
Traditionally, dual semantic systems effectuated the unity of their differences through each side's co-representation of the whole: the apparent parity between the oppositions (which would move into indeterminability) is broken by a functional asymmetry, to the extent that one of the two values figures as a larger term encompassing, at the same time, the other, smaller opposing term.
Hence in a theological framework God arrives from Himself on the scene as the world's creator, thus generating the possibility of difference--that is, of the existence of discrete entities--in the first place; but in God's universality, the split between creator and creation is transcended from the beginning. Correspondingly, classical moral doctrine is grounded in the mutual relativization of good and evil being encompassed by a good and orderly arrangement of the world: an arrangement to which human behavior is normatively obliged. In the same manner, metaphysical systems assure themselves of the unity of the world by privileging one term of their conceptual dualities. Spirit, for instance, is understood as embracing its opposite, matter; it thus keeps the world from splitting, manichean fashion, into two irreconcilable counter-forces. For its part, the German Idealist dialectic continues to understand difference as the unfolding of a (preceding) unity that, potentially, is already contained in one side of the dialectic conflict--reason, ego, subject--and as consequently completing itself in actu after running through a spiritual or world-historical assimilative process. At the latest, such forms of conflictual establishment of unity become virulent when they are applied to the difference between one's own and the strange. The cultural confrontation between Europe and the non-European world was modeled on this schema, manifest in a discourse of colonialism extending from Christian missionizing to persisting normative ideas of civilization and "development." A semantics that takes the heterarchic and polycentric character of modern societies into account can no longer ground itself in such hegemonial unifications. For if it maintains the underlying binary model of codification, it cannot construct a synecdocal relation between one term of each difference it encounters and the unity of the difference. And in this manner, the inherited schema of inclusion of the parts in the whole is rendered invalid. The question of the constitutive third--the third that both unites and sunders--now emerges all the more sharply.
From Christian dogma of the Trinity to neoplatonic triads that took on renewed significance in the Renaissance (Samsonow), the semantic systems of old European dualism were always accompanied by a highly elaborated triadic metaphysics: Within this number symbolism, the triad was usually chosen to overcome the world's division and to restore a unity understood as originary. This is true, as well, for the foundational three-step models stretching from the Enlightenment to--in temporal (meaning philosophical-historical) extension--Marxism. But alongside such models, the third was very much present as a critical quantity threatening the world order: wherever mixings and bastardizations of binary categories of judgment, grotesque malformations, monstrous hybrid creatures appear on the scene (Bachtin). Through the construction of "third cases," certain currents and epochs, especially the epoch of European mannerism, appear nothing short of obsessed with driving the organizational capacity of dualistic conceptual and valuational orderings to their boundaries and beyond.
All in all, however, these were exceptions in a universe of rules whose persistence remained unthreatened--or was only threatened in sporadic crises. In this regard, the forms of conceiving the third emerging in the twentieth century reveal a different pattern. Here, we find the state of emergency endowed with something like permanence. It can happen that in a meeting of two parties, neither can assert a claim to hegemony: a claim that brings the other back to what is one's own. In that case, a new grammar of cultural and epistemological negotiation is necessary, a grammar not to be obtained from the traditional sources. A comparison from the field of semantic history helps demonstrate a central postulate: that the late twentieth century's proclaimed "epistemological state of emergency" cannot be conceived as merely a transitional state between one identitive order and another. Categories such as monstrosity or grotesqueness derive their sense or nonsense from stepping outside the order of things (in the form of taxonomical confusion or a carnevalesque intermezzo). In contrast, the etymologically related concept of hybridity, as discussed at present all over the world, has an entirely different nature: on all sociocultural levels, it understands "being between" as sign of a paradoxical, because no longer normatively accessible, "normality" of the (post)modern.
The degree of abstraction and complexity of the theoretical models shows how basic this transformation has been. These models attempt to trace out something like a transbinary grammar of third spaces. There are reasons to suspect that the decisive epistemological fault-line is located somewhere between Hegel and Marx, on the one hand, and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, on the other. When it comes to the reconstruction of hierarchically graded categorial systems into models of a plural and heterarchical cognitive landscape, Wittengenstein's theory of language-play takes on importance. (Lyotard is in its debt in his programmatic Postmodern Condition.) In the Anglo-American arena, translation theory (Quine) and, especially, Peirce's semiotics take on significance--Peirce has even recently been charged with "triadomania" (Spinks 1991). Among the various drafts of a tri-valued logic, Peirce's logic of quantification may well be most easily assimilable with the approaches prevalent in cultural studies. Finally, the density of references to figures and structures of the third is particularly high in poststructuralism's theoretical orbit: from Lévinas's meditations on alterity through the numerous critical concepts regarding identity and metaphysics currently prevalent in cultural-theoretical reflections on method.
But to avoid the risk, inherent in the very topic, of a theory fruitlessly circling around itself, it is necessary to take into account both the range and concrete findings of the various epistemic regimes haunted, as it were, by the ghost of the third. Promoting greater innovation, such an approach involves a historical inventory of various fields of research and knowledge--all of them presumably addressing a highly similar set of problems, despite the diversity of individual cognitive milieus.
With little exaggeration, sociology--a discipline constituting itself at the twentieth century's start--can be described as owing its realm of study to the triad. Published in 1908, Georg Simmel's "Soziologie. Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung" ("Sociology. Investigations of the Forms of Socialization") is a foundational document for the sociological figure of the third. Simmel sees the two-party relation as a presocial relation. Only the arrival of a third party allows society to emerge as society; it sets in play processes of social objectification moving beyond the sphere of a reciprocal interaction always attributable to persons. Simmel's typology of the third encompasses the Non-Partisan, the mediator, the tertius gaudens, the principle of divide et impera in view of the "numerical aspects of sociation" (Simmel 1950, p. 140). The typology has served as an impetus for studies of group and family sociology, as well as--most recently--work in the history of mentalities (Fett 2000).
Still, Simmel's "Investigations" are not only of special interest on account of their substantive findings, but because as a text, they are part and parcel of the movement of the third they attempt to describe. Namely, while on the one hand Simmel marks the threshold to the social as a step from the double to the triple, on the other hand he has to concede that marriage, which he considers a prototype of the societally relevant yet presocial relation of two, is for its part regularly founded by a third: a fact that has offered literature a plenitude of narrative possibilities. In this manner, the threshold construction turns into a circular structure that can only derive the third by already presuming it: an indicator of such triads' irritatingly self-involutive character, repeatedly manifest in the context of narratives of origin. That the third disturbs not only the societal but also the logical order, and that a corresponding theory is concerned with new potentials for subversion having an effect on the theory itself, is not the least of the insights Michel Serres offers in The Parasite. Also containing far more radical theses, this book carries forward the approach of Simmel.
The triad is also essential for the analysis of affective structures. Psychoanalysis opens a tradition of knowledge within which human ontogenesis, to the extent it is concerned with the mind and feelings, is presented as a result of triangulations. In his construction of the Oedipus complex, Freud largely limited himself to the realm of the family. As a critical reader of Freud, René Girard defines the mechanism of mediated desire as the affective mechanism of sociogenesis in general. In doing so, he inverts the Freudian affective grammar, rendering what for Freud was the son's aggressive desires--incest and parricide--into the paternal myth of the persecutor. In exemplary fashion, this theoretical reference and inversion makes clear that triangulations represent restless formations, affectively exchangeable and hermeneutically reinterpretable--this because they themselves can be dissolved, according to perspective, into three opposing 2+1 relations. It can be no coincidence that precisely this restlessness has become a basic catalyst of experimental literary groupings--narratives involving erotic triangles, the familial triangles of bourgeois tragedy, the expressionist parricidal dramas, enacting the psychoanalytic Oedipus-myth with and against Freud. Some theoretical reflections have meanwhile pointed to the triangular schema's extension beyond the narrative plain to the text-reader-author triad (Bentz).
It should be made clear that when one speaks of the figure of the third, "figure" is not to be understood in a personal sense. It is the case that figures of the third can be embodied as literary heroes; but what is at play here on a more basic level is the formation of foundational cognitive, affective, and social structures. Such structures are characterized by not only being restless in themselves, but by pressing shifting vantage points and hence an irreducible multivalence upon the observer. This effect of polyvalence and polyglossia unfolding under the sign of the third has become particularly important in the theories emerging toward the twentieth century's end. Hence when one speaks of the figure, figuration is always also present. Present-day debates about concepts such as "third space" (Homi Bhabha), hybrid cultures (Elisabeth Bronfen), and the utopia of the third sex outlined within gender studies point to the actuality of this figuration. They open the concept of the figure in itself to comprehensive rhetorical analysis.
Thirdness and third space are political phenomena, emerging from burgeoning streams of migration, the problem of interculturality connected to this, and the dissolution of national and ethnic identities in the wake of globalization. At the same time, legal developments themselves reflect a phase in which, as a result of the disintegration of normative legal hierarchies grounded in the nation state, previously hidden paradoxes are coming to light, and the "excluded third party...makes himself distinctly noticeable" (Teubner 1996, p. 236; cf. Luhmann, "The Third Question"). Characteristically, the law reacts to this with procedures stemming from the rhetorical arsenal: the manufacture of analogies, the "dirty practice" of persuasive self-validation, audacious if groundless as-if constructions, linguistic dissimulation, and so forth.
This process is equal to an involuntary culturalization of a strictly systematic cognitive edifice. In the meantime, it has come to include the self-description of the natural sciences, previously appearing safe from such hybrid forms thanks to the theory of two cultures. Bruno Latour has connected a theory of transfer between different objective worlds and orders of knowledge with what he terms "immutable mobiles" (Latour). From his field research on communication between natural-science laboratories, Peter Galison has developed the concept of the "trading zone": a third realm, located on the borders and transitional points of each disciplinary system, in which knowledge is exchanged under conditions that, even ad hoc, first need to be negotiated (Galison). These are only two examples of the way the historiography of the natural sciences has been infiltrated by a vocabulary of displacement and dislocation, transposition and translocality, along with the general fashion for the prefixes "inter ," "para," and "trans."

2.3 Narratology of the Figure of the Third

To some extent, the material covered in 2.2 is in contact with the objective fields of literary studies, media studies, and art history in an indirect manner. Social and emotional triangles have always been a prominent object of textual and graphic production, and the "third space" of postcolonialism has produced a rich literature. (In the latter field, we hope for cooperation with the Munich graduate research program on "Postcolonial Studies.") But few artistic works will be found that are concerned with, for instance, the particularities of postmodern labor communications and their hybridization effects--which is not to marginalize existing work such as Matthew Barney's video installations. In any case, the subject's very nature discourages any limiting of analytic interest to thematically relevant works of art and literature. To the contrary: the theme of "the figure of the third" invites elucidation, through close readings informed by cultural studies, of the medial, textual, and narratological composition of non-literary complexes of knowledge as well. The study of such complexes itself contributes to a direction in research concerned--to cite Foucault's discourse-analysis--with the "poetology of knowledge," that is, with the po(i)etical conditions making knowledge possible (Vogl).
It is not necessary to appeal to the "culture as text" debate (Clifford Geertz, James Clifford, George E. Marcus et al.) to become aware of one factor: the stimulation of forms of epistemological improvisation often having a disguised narrative character through the opening of third, mediatory spaces, incapable of being regulated by a uniform technical code, within and between the most various domains of knowledge. It is possible to understand culture as a space in which not only numerous acts of communication take place, but in which the communicative codes are themselves objects of negotiation. If this is so, then the triadic zones emerging along the validity-borders of cultural normativization and scientific systematization are neuralgic production sites of culture (Link). If the specific accomplishment of texts is their capacity to organize complexity in conditions of multiple codifications and mixed or hybrid formations, it will be rewarding to link procedures of literary study to nodal points of societal text production, even outside such procedures' inherited objective realm. With the "figure of the third," mechanisms of cultural codification come into view that, to the extent they contain a narrative core, fall within the natural competence of genuine literary analysis. On the one hand, the theme is firmly anchored in literary phenomenology, and invites the most rigorous literary analysis: neither Goethe's novels nor the incestuous utopia projected in Musil's Man without Qualities can be adequately understood without considering such ternary relational processes. On the other hand, the theme moves toward the center of a cultural theory facing questions of social intelligibility.
In many fields of social semantics, use is made of aesthetic motifs that set a multivalent third quantity into play: wherever there are references to thresholds, origins, ends, and borders, and whenever the question of mediators, discursive double agents, and border markers is posed together with the formation and dissolution of polarities of the type inside-outside and before-after. It is no coincidence that over recent years, in order to take such phenomena into account, discourse analysis has been enriched by the concept of "trickster discourse" (Vizenor et al.).
While the trickster may be a subversive figure, the need to politically-juridically legitimize social conditions produces narrative promenades through border regions. Rousseau's Social Contract, for example, is a masterpiece of narrative overcoming of a problem that strictly logically has no solution: the need of the legislator responsible for the human transition from the state of nature to the state of society to precede his own time in order to fulfill his office. The doctrine of the social contract in any event produced an entire series of excluded/included third parties avant la lettre. Located in its immediate vicinity, the same can be said for the regulative fictions of politics. Like the legislator, the sovereign is a figure of the third, in so far that he acts simultaneously inside and outside the political order--not dissimilarly to the trickster, although he in fact has to play a completely contrary role. A political reading of the seventeenth and eighteenth century European dramas of royalty could show that upon this field, literature unfolds paradoxes hidden by contemporary theories of law and state for the sake of their functioning. By virtue of its apparently function-free fictionality, imaginative literature here produces a yield of precision that cannot be aimed at by any other sort of text. This raises the hope that an analysis of various texts using the methods of literary studies can trace out the self-replicating fictionalization effects of present-day systems of social regulation.
With a reconstruction of "cryptoliterary" textual strategies within nonliterary discourse, only half the research project's purpose has in fact been realized. Such a reconstruction gains its importance for actual literary studies above all from being linked, once more, to the reading of poetic texts. Since poetry prefers establishing its experimental order by way of epistemologically open or even indeterminate situations, the view of fictional structures can be sharpened by the practical experience with the "involuntary" literary contents of functional discourse. The problems of performative self-validation and circular forms of verification, of inclusions/exclusions and other "seats of infection" for the third in literature itself, will need to be considered more closely than has been the case until now. Hence an exchange in both directions exists between narratives inside and outside literature. When Michel Serres develops his theory of the parasite--also an economic and monetary theory--from a (willful) interpretation of Lafontaine's fables, then the concept of the parasite is inversely suitable for uncovering new aspects of literature's economy of symbols. And in an even more extensive manner, categories of deconstruction developed in the framework of a philosophical critique of metaphysical binarism have resonated back upon various processes related to the poetic sign, facilitating their deeper understanding. In the end, threshold, liminality, rite de passage, hybridization, mediator, trickster, are all circulating captions producing multiple resonances in the triangle between ethnology, the self-description of modern societies, and literary narrative techniques. In an estranged light, which is to say operating partially "out of area," the field of literary studies can here rediscover its most suitable analytic instruments.

Translated by Joel Golb