‘Culture’ should be understood in this context not as a specialized field strippped of all function, separated from social functional systems such as science, economy, law or politics. Much more, culture is the zone of exchange between the distinct modern worlds of knowledge – that intermediate space where the different rationalities first emerge by encountering one another, merging, strengthening or diminishing one another. The crucial processes here don’t operate according to a schema of fixed codes, because precisely these codes are at stake and both in their conception and range of application are themselves matters for negotiation: should conflicts of norms, such as arise through advances in biotechnology be resolved morally, scientifically, legally or politically? Which reference system dominates, and why? How are transitional forms and hybrid accountabilities managed? This space of cultural improvisation, in which stable reference systems dissolve or fail to take effect, is characterized by the conflict of narratives dealing with foundation, antiquity, (de)legitimization, border security and crossing of borders, colonization, emancipation, etc. And such narratives in turn obey certain textual patterns and laws. To this extent they belong to the ‘jurisdiction’ of a literary theory which is interdisciplinary, opened up to the history of science and knowledge, aware of processes of cultural semiosis and thus politicized.
Theory of the political imaginary:
For a long time imaginary processes were relegated to the history of ideas and at most considered to be complementary phenomena to processes of ‘hard’ social materiality. The most important recent theories (Castoriadis, Marin, Iser etc.), however, show that the social and political order rests on an order of the imaginary, which dissolves alternatives of the type base/superstructure and neighbour/following dichotomies. This realization assigns a key role to the text and image sciences, also with respect to the analysis of political events. Why is it that imaginary entities are perceived and credited as indisputable social reality? How can the textual, rhetorical and iconographical strategies be deciphered which are able to guide the production and maintenance of social real-fictions?
No society exists without institutions, and institutions in the sense used here are imaginary. Merely representing a collection of individuals as a collective agent, to enable their functioning as an institution requires a whole series of genuinely aesthetic procedures. Imaginary integrals must be created in which the parties involved reflect themselves while at the same time retrospectively finding their way to a (new) image of the self, a new relationship to themselves. This is true even of smaller social units such as the ancient polis, but in particular for primary political categories such as ‘people’ or ‘nation’, which justify their internal/external border with literary or iconographical means (myths of foundation, exclusional narratives). The metaphor of the social body is particularly effective, with a history of use stretching from Plato and the Apostle Paul to the bio-politics of the 20th century. The fact that such aesthetic constructs gain entry to the system management of societies is not least visible in the legal discourse, which has successfully translated these ideas of the collective body and its fictive person into operative legal mechanisms.
Along with the study of institutions, the theory of the political imaginary includes the wide field of the politics of the past, that is, the retrospective creation of tradition and legitimization of political organizations, as is currently being done for example with respect to the European Union. But no less imaginary than providing images of the self is the construction of the other: the foreigner, the enemy. Current world politics offers sufficient illustrative material on the power of the imaginary. It also presents the opportunity to focus theoretically on the renewed connection between politics and religion since the failure of the secularization thesis.
Analysis of Narratives
Programmatic elements stemming from the working context of the research program have become part of the Center of Excellence “Cultural Foundations of Integration”. They are here considered in a broader framework, above all in the “Narrative Theory as Cultural Theory” research area. But as an independent and flexible unit, the research program is meant to pursue its own agenda; at present, its focal point is the analysis of cultural narratives. The hypothesis that cultural narratives are media and instruments of social self-steering offers a working foundation. The research will concentrate on the following thematic complexes:
- Narratives of Conflict. The main question explored here is the role played by cultural narratives in processes of solidarization and rejection, hence in the formation of lines of social conflict. With what means do such narratives have an effect on the hardening of social boundaries, and, inversely, where can they organize a “narrative border exchange” enabling mediations and translations and thus contributing to a mental de-escalation?
- Narratives of Reference. The commonplace distinction between factual and fictional narration obstructs a clear view of the fact that the referentiality of orders of knowledge can itself be an object of the narrative arrangement. The main problem at work here is thus identifying the narrative techniques through which various discourses assure themselves of their grounding in the world and sense of reality. Put even more generally, the intention is to work toward a theoretical model for explaining how cultures referentially organize their sense of the alien or “other” and what culture-specific mechanisms are at work in this process.
- Indeterminacy. What is generally considered as a defect in the merely narrative linkage of data, its failure to follow any strict criteria, can be understood from another perspective as a cultural achievement in its own right: otherwise than is the case with strictly coupled, highly formalized and specialized sign systems, the plasticity of narration is able to cope with a high degree of ambiguity and indeterminacy. This offers a connection with other research fields centered around the functionality of, precisely, vagueness and both weak and multiple codifications.
- Narratives and Law. An exemplary case of the organizational power of narratives is offered by the law, and this in at least three areas: case narratives, in which literary and juridical modes of representation merge; instituting processes, with one or another narrative of origin serving as a legitimating basis; and finally, located on the legal periphery or “forecourt,” makeshift narratives supplementing and as it were cushioning the legal rules.
- Self-Narrations of Europe. In conjunction with the newly established study-program on the “Studies in European Culture,” this research-area is concerned with the master narratives unfolding in the process of Europe’s cultural and political self-definition. These include the distinction between the one true God and many idols (reference point: Jerusalem); the distinction between civilization and barbarism (reference point: Hellas); the model of translatio imperii and its various historical configurations (reference point: Rome); finally the asymmetric modernity-narratives through which Europe has staked a claim to distinction from the rest of the world: Enlightenment, secularization, human rights, democracy, but also colonialism and racism.