Home | Veranstaltungen | Ausschreibung |Profil/Programm/Geschäftsordnung | Personen/Projekte





Research Program:

1. Research Program

1.1 Subject und Method

On the Epistemological Situation in Cultural Studies

Truth and Reality in the History of Science

1.1.3 The Problem of Reference in Modernity

The Unavoidability of the Real

The Distinction between Culture and Nature

1.1.6 Metaphorology: Resistance, Irruption, Mystique of the Rea

Realism, Materiality, Everyday Mundaneness

1.1.8 The Problem of the Real in the Economy

The Cultural Organization of External Reference

1.1.1 On the Epistemological Situation in Cultural Studies

In cultural studies and related disciplines, theory-formation confronts an epistemological dilemma. The “linguistic turn” and subsequent developments foregrounded the semiotic processes at work within cultures, generating increased insight into the linguistic constitution of orders of knowledge, the rhetorical nature of the production of evidence, and the autonomous laws at work in representation, symbolic systems, and discursive fields. In recent decades, approaches of this sort have attracted a highly significant research dynamic, revealing a “common sense” shared by the different orientations within cultural theory 
  Nevertheless it is also clear that the accent placed on the side of the signifier in cultural-scientific production has led to the side of the object—in other words the sum of what is referred to in representation and discourse—being largely outside the focus of the relevant theories. That is not simply a question of selective assessment, rather lying in the mutual exclusiveness of the two perspectives. From a certain point onward, semiotic approaches (those related to the sign) and realistic approaches (those related to things) are incompatible with each other.
  The idea that reality is not something at hand but must be constituted through signs, and that consequently signs do not exercise a simple mimetic function vis-a-vis denoted things, forms a common denominator for reflections on culture influenced by post-structuralism.  Despite all their differences, discursive analysis, deconstruction, and constructivistic approaches share the feature of rendering the structure of objects dependent on the structure of one or another signifying system rather than vice versa.
  Both inside and outside the debate in cultural studies, this one-sided emphasis on the activity of signifying has encountered increasing resistance. Frequently, the discomfit voiced in this context has amounted to a general settling of accounts with postmodernism and its diminished contact with reality. The excessive use of the catchphrase “cultu­ral con­struction” has sparked responses of varying degrees of sharpness..
  Some critics have called for a basic revision of the postmodern program, proclaiming a “return of truth” and—as is the case with Paul Boghos­sian—have tried to confront constructivism with what they understand to be its absurd consequences. On the level of cognitive theory, this is usually tied to a rehabilitation of the correspondence-theory of truth, on  the level of academic politics with an appeal for a restoration of professional standards. (We may here recall Alan Sokal’s now famous hoax, which succeeded in  painfully underscoring the mathematical-scientific dilettantism of leading poststructuralists.)
  Other voices concede that there are good reasons for having turned away from cognitive-theoretical realism but at the same time are not content with the sweeping reduction of facts to cultural constructs.  They point out that even a socially constructed world needs some substrate of reality if the constructions are not to be completely contentless and arbitrary—otherwise no distinction would any longer be possible between ideology and scientific knowledge. This position of moderate relativism has led to proposed com­promises such as an acknowledgment that  while facts are made (factum), they are not invented (fictum). We find a broad spectrum of such mediating approaches in both philosophy (Put­nam, McDowell, Abel) and theory of science (Hacking, Latour, Rhein­berger). And in the field of cultural studies itself, there are increasing calls for renewed attentiveness to real-world materiality, things, practices, and evidence—in short for a regained sense of reality.

  Briefly summarized, the methodological clash at work here has unfolded along the line between two parties that can be described as constructivist and realist (or naturalist). For the former, the cultural dimension stands at the forefront of the process of generating and structuring knowledge; for the latter it is the factual dimension. The problem lies in the two approaches not complementing each other but, much to the contrary, cutting away each other’s ground. Those considering natural processes as facts uninfluenced by human beings will only grant their cultural symbolization peripheral interest. And those casting doubt on the evidence of natural occurrences with the argument that what they simply represent is an effect within certain sign-orders will have the extra-linguistic reference of such a construction recede into the background or suspend it entirely. It is the case that “fabrication of facts” has become common currency within theories of science; the difficulty lies in invocation of one term, “fabrication,” making the meaning of the other term, “facts,” unclear. It is evidently impossible to grasp both sides with the same degree of sharpness.


1.1.2 Truth and Reality in the History of Science

Within “science studies,” the expression “fabrication of facts” is tied to a direction receiving strong impulses from Thomas Kuhn’s classic Structure of Scientific Re­volutions (1962). Kuhn’s own arguments were grounded in Ludwik Fleck’s pioneering study Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache (1935), which demonstrates the dependence of scientific observation and theory formation on a collective “style of thinking,” more precisely: on what the extant style allows individuals to perceive and think in the period of their work.  “Cognition,” Fleck argues, “is the most socially-conditioned activity of man, and knowledge is the paramount social creation.” Those things conceived under familiar epistemic conditions are what seem true and well-founded; and findings emerging from the outside are regularly rejected. Fleck thus calls for a comparative theory of knowledge—a theory not normatively privileging one’s own system.
  By Kuhn as well, fundamental scientific change is not caused by theories being refuted by their own objects. Rather, he sees scientific thinking as taking place in the framework of paradigms normally considered unquestionable by the relevant “scientific community.” “As in political revolutions,” he writes, “so in paradigm choice—there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community.” Different paradigms are incommensurable, meaning that the history of science cannot be described as a continuum of rational argumentation but as a sequence of radical shifts. It is thus impossible for Kuhn to speak of scientific progress—in his view paradigm shifts do not lead us “closer to the truth.”
  Nevertheless the relation of science to reality remains a key facet of Kuhn’s writing, although this reality does not take on positive shape “as such.” Recent approaches in constructivistic theory of science have taken a similar direction. In the wake of both Fleck and Kuhn, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger has thus  developed a theory above all addressing the material equipment comprising the reality of the laboratory. Rheinberger arguments are supported by the concept of the “experimental system” as the actual work-unit of natural-scientific research, the scientific object and technical conditions of its emergence here being indissolubly linked. An experimental system, he observes, is a dynamic formation in which so-called “episte­mic things” can take shape. Scientific innovation here emerges as the material effect of such a system, which has to be aimed at generating difference in order to be able to create space for the appearance of unforeseeable events. Hence following Derrida, Rheinberger understands experimental research as a process producing differences, traces of something that in the end does not come out even. Within this interpretive framework, new ideas consistently appear only on the edges of the symbolic or within its fissures—that is, as a disturbance of the symbolic order (in the sense of Lacan). Correspondingly, the epistemic thing has the fragile status of “in a certain manner being absent in its experimental presence.…as an object of science it is first comprehended in the process of its material definition, not before.”
  At the core of the debate about constructivist theory of science is lies the relationship between factual and social dimensions. According to Kuhn’s controversial idea of the paradigm, all objective scientific descriptions have to be stamped by the laws of social interaction. But, as Ian Hacking has suggested in an effort at conciliation, this assumption only applies for a certain objective realm and is thus only relevant for a portion of the sciences. “The classifications of the social sciences are interactive. The classifications and concepts of the natural sciences are not.” When it comes to research on natural laws, in the course of time social and historical circumstances are washed away “like slag from ore.“
  According to such a model, the factual dimension is the dimension of a truth that in the end cannot be overshadowed by social contingencies. The alter­na­tive between constructivist and realist approaches is then brought to a head as a cluster of interconnected questions: Is truth social or extra-social? Does it rather divide itself into social and extra-social realms of application? Put more precisely: are there zones in which truth is only comprehensible relative to prior cultural understandings and other zones in which human cognition steps away, as it were, from the gravitational field of culture and arrives at a complete or at least progressive adequation with the nature of things? But in case such a dividing line can be drawn, what determines its precise course? And above all: What is the character of this distinction itself—where is it located, in culture or in reality?


1.1.3 The Problem of Reference in Modernity

As the debate in the theory and historiography of science has shown, the above-described epistemological difficulty cannot be ascribed  simply to a syndrome of postmodern decline. The fact that the difficulty extends to theoretical traditions already falling outside the poststructuralist and postmodernist framework on chronological grounds itself speaks against this. Starting with Quine at the latest, the problem of reference is one of the major themes in analytic philosophy; and similarly with semiotic theory: as Umberto Eco indicates, the “fatal referent” has been a source of considerable vexation to that discipline, which has worked hard to liberate itself from its “leaden burden.”
  This points to a second reason for not attributing the “crisis of the real” to postmodernist cognitive theories alone. Nearly all theoretical developments meriting discussion in this context have their roots in modernity itself. On very good grounds, the epoch described itself as stamped by a meta­physical upheaval rendering doubtful all earlier foundational certainties regarding the human place in the world. Postmodernity might thus be described as the provisional last in a series of epistemic breaks marked out by the epochal thresholds around 1800 (Kant) and 1900 (Nietzsche, Freud, Saussure).
  From the perspective of the longue durée, the problem of reference attached to all prevailing methods in cultural studies merely constitutes a follow-up to the Kantian question of how spatio-temporal phenomena can be tied back to the thing-in-itself. Hence what is involved here is something like a hereditary burden of transcendental philosophy, but with the difference  that the Kantian a priori (as present, for instance, in the foundation Dilthey wished to establish for the Geisteswissenschaften) is “folded back” into the historical-social world. The condition for the possibility of knowing is here no longer localized in the categories of understanding as such, but in the historical  and discursive predispositions of knowledge, in  the laws of signification and cultural symbo­lization.


1.1.4 The Unavoidability of the Real

This—necessarily very rudimentary—overview has underscored the very difficult position of the real in modernist epistemology: it is almost as if theories of knowledge had no real use for the concept at all, rather securing their inner coherence at the cost of their relation to an authenticated external reality, or in any event through the exclusion of a gesture intent on penetrating so to speak vertically into the reality they refer to. This is connected with the often-discussed mutual irreducibility of consistence theories and correspondence theories of truth; arguments stemming from one theory are difficult to use in the other. For this reason, it will only be at the price of a frequently practiced but rarely acknowledged methodological impurity that a semiotician, an observer of language games, an analyst of  discourse, a (de)constructionist, a diagnostician of medial simulacra will step out of the world created by semiotic connections and take on an omniscient standpoint: a standpoint from which they align what cultural semiotic orders achieve with a “real being” of things outside such prefigurations. (The use of quotation marks when speaking of reality and truth is not the least of the expressions of this difficulty.) Nevertheless—and this is crucial—one of these methods gets by, de facto, without such a stepping beyond its own realm of application: sooner or later they all make a detour over the border–fence of semiosis, since otherwise they cannot critically observe its effects.
  Nearly every lexicon-article on philosophy documents the difficulty of managing concepts of the real. This is grounded in the ambiguities of the concept itself: “the real” suggests, precisely in this form of grammatical hypostasis, something authentic, essential, and fundamental, while nonetheless appearing only in the mode of denial and withdrawal. The real is a massive presence that cannot be represented and that vanishes to the extent it is evoked. Not to be reached by the ideas one has of it belongs to its very definition. To summarize: in modernism, reality has become epistemologically uninhabitable—as Marshall Sahlins has put it, “a nice place to visit (philosophically), but no one ever lived there.” Even programmatic counter-movements such as literary realism cannot escape this experience—such movements, in fact, fall straight into the counter-tow of a de-realization of language. For this reason the nineteenth century’s  realism debate and its later reprises merit special attention.
  As paradoxically as it sounds: as an eccentric quantity, the real disturbs the consistency of linguistic and cognitive systems struggling to define it. Nevertheless it can never be banished. It regularly resurfaces after the fading of a new paradigm’s phase of fascination—an effect that seems to have stamped the present assessment of postmodernist theory. No time after efforts to anchor knowledge of the real world have been cognitively disavowed as naïve naturalism, no time after the vocabulary of performancehas stylistically prevailed in respect to the cultural use of symbols,  an evidently inextinguishable need makes itself manifest to also do some justice to the dependency of signifiers on the realities they try to describe.  In this manner the real can be portrayed as a sort of revenant that survives every symbolic death—whether through idealism, symbolism, or twentieth century semiologies. Like a goblin, it peers around the corner as soon as the repressive energies of this or that paradigm fade.


1.1.5 The Distinction between Culture and Nature

Clearly, supplying a philosophical solution to the problem of reality-reference in cognitive and semiotic theory cannot be a goal of the proposed research program; any such plans would be presumptuous and indeed impossible to realize. In any event the proposed program is not meant to center around either philosophy or the history of philosophy, but rather around ongoing problems in cultural theory emerging from the demarcating conditions of modernist cultural semiosis. The methodological focus is here on the cultural theory emerging from the Constance tradition of general literary studies.  The project’s starting point is awareness of a striking fact: that a modernist epoch marked by such remarkable success in the technical and natural-scientific permeation of reality is also marked by an epistemology so strongly estranged from that same reality. We thus are faced by the paradox that the epoch has seemingly been incapable of cognitively reflecting and justifying its own pragmatics: on the one hand, it has used technology to change the earth’s surface to an unprecedented degree, split the atom, and genetically alter life; on the other hand, in a parallel universe within the same culture, it has placed itself under the sign of a deep skepticism, declaring itself convinced of the impossibility of objective knowledge and a progressive de-realization of the experienced world.
  The paradox gains sharpness when we recall that modernism’s scientific-technical impetus is grounded in the same ideal constellation as is its negative self-diagnosis regarding its relation to reality: the idea of a subject that appropriates the world and is thus already active in the act of cognition. But the spontaneity of the cognitive subject (in the eighteenth-century philosophical sense) diminishes the space available for its receptivity; it becomes increasingly impossible and implausible for the subject constituting himself as autonomous to embed his receptive side in a provisional relation to the world. Later, this split in the determination of the subject’s position will be transferred to the order of cultural signs as a—collective and anonymous—organon of the human relation to the world. For in a very similar manner, the performance of symbolic orders finds itself in conflict with the old idea that the sign is simply the passive copy or impression of a provisional fact. (This conflict seems to re-enact the poiesis-mimesis opposition in the broader Western debate about art.) In both cases, we face the paradox of modernism as an epoch that only gets hold of the real through appropriation, alteration, and just so, necessarily, misperception.
  Tracing the split between the relation to the sign and that to the fact back to the great divide between culture and nature here seems to suggest itself—for after all,   that divide is itself a product of the self-description of modern societies. In such a framework, the field of cognition would divide itself along a line between reference to nature and reference to culture, with natural-scientific explanation facing its own hard test vis-à-vis “outside” reality and humanistic understanding (in line with Dilthey’s distinction) being subsumed to historical and social premises within the world of meaning created by human beings. In the end, two types of truth would here be in play, a truth oriented toward natural facts and a social truth, hard factographic science on the one side and soft hermeneutics on the other.
  But with closer scrutiny, the dividing line between nature and culture cannot be drawn so cleanly. To start with, the “theoretical milieu” cannot itself be simply divided into a polarity between natural and cultural spheres—as shown in the emergence of constructivistic approaches within cognitive biology and neurological research. But there is an even weightier objection to fixing a nature-culture binarism. If we define “nature” as the realm lying before and outside of what can be culturally shaped, then an analogous liminal dynamic emerges regarding the real. (The expressions “nature” and “reality” in fact are often used more or less synonymously.) Even a brief overview of the different formulations the concept of nature has received in its double origin from Greek physis and Latin natura suggests that the concept represents no essence but is the product of a cultural imagination subject to specific historical, technical, ideal, and even political conditions. But against this culturalistic argument, naturalists would protest that at every step of this conceptual history, the concern is with something lying outside the reach of culture; and this argument could again be distilled into the paradoxical observation that in their concept of “nature” societies seek access to something that is by definition not at hand. Hence what surfaces in the concept is the paradox of a symbolic making available of something that is not.
  If in this context we argue not ontologically but cultural-semiotically, the questions of whether this non-available entity exists and how we know it is “out there” can remain unresolved. Instead we can concentrate on observing how the nature/culture distinction is processed, or how it conveys its contradictions and paradoxes and the demarcating line it follows under different discursive conditions.
  What is at work here is at least as much a problem of daily social practice as one for cognitive specialists, since the continuous fresh definition of the demarcation between nature and culture penetrates deep into the organization of societies: themselves already a nature-culture hybrid in that, despite all artificial regulation, they rest on the foundation of sexual reproduction. What here passes as a natural, immutable fact and what is ascribable to cultural clas­sifications cannot be decided once and for all, but is rather the effect of permanent processes of negotiation, with kinship terms forming something like the relay within the nature-culture dichotomy: ancestry, inheritance, marriage, family, together with derived concepts such as generation are richly preconditioned cultural constructs serving, however, at least in their self-understanding, to ratify natural relationships. To this extent their function consists less in drawing a border than in an exchange between the epistemic regimes of nature and culture. These are loci where cultural semiosis encounters some­thing independent of and inaccessible to it—or put otherwise, where the cultural sign system externalizes things as inaccessible and thus withdraws from the grasp of human caprice. For as we can see in the career of concepts such as race, ethnos, and nation, or in the question of defining “life” in general, what is defined as timeless nature and what is left to free cultural negotiation is an eminently political matter.
  Such processes could only be meaningfully treated in the framework of a cultural-semiotic field theory not limited to analyzing binary opposites with its own binary concepts. Within such a framework, instead of confronting the imperative “nature!” with the im­perative “cultural construction!” (or vice versa), processes of naturalization and de-naturalization, together forming the consistency of social reality,would form the focal point. Here the real always maintains a presence, and it always reveals itself in two incommensurable perspectives: on the one hand as a substrate fully out of bounds to cultural semiosis; on the other hand as the effect of cultural strategies of verification, authen­ti­fication, externalization, reification, collective certification, and the skillful manufacture of evidence.


1.1.6 Metaphorology: Resistance, Irruption, Mystique of the Real

Within modernism, the real represents a border-figure at home neither entirely inside nor entirely outside the symbolic order. This situation also stamps the metaphors through which it is expressed—at least in all those cases where it reveals itself not as everyday normality but as a problematic quantity and a generator of insecurity, on the one hand, of emphatic experience, on the other hand. These metaphors can be roughly divided into two categories, defensive and aggressive: On the former level, the real constitutes an indissoluble remainder of every conceptual order. It cannot be represented, enunciated, or fixed, withdraws or else is present as mere difference or a trace, or offers resistance. On the latter level, the real gains notice as disturbance, collapse, or catastrophe. In this case reality is understood to irrupt or intrude.
  We are thus faced with the challenge of exploring the imagistic-associative space suggested by the idea of an “intrusion of the real”—of asking ourselves from where, under what circumstances, and to what effect it “intrudes”. These questions need to be addressed within the different fields of modern culture, with literature, art, and film offering a particularly productive venue for analyzing both irruption of the real and its phenomenological premises. Two questions that here need clarifying are when the “irruptive reality” metaphor first became possible and where it began to spread. One likely scenario is that it inherited older phenomenologies of collapse and irruption. What here comes to mind are both the complex of religious experience in European culture—at least formally, reality’s irruption has characteristics similar to that of the numinous in moments of epiphany—and, related to this, the eighteenth century’s aesthetic of the sublime, which in respect to space, landscape, and natural forces configures itself around a moment of cognitive overpowering and reality-shock. Again, the real can take the form of ghostly horror presented in the Gothic novel and literature of the fantastic. This seems to suggest that irruption of the real in modernism supersedes irruption of the imaginary in earlier epochs. The obscure real of the sort referred to here would then stand at the end of a process in which the agent plunging into the established cognitive-symbolic order becomes increasingly shapeless and faceless, finally transforming itself into a cipher of the unimaginable. The articulated other of cultural semiosis will thus have turned into nothing less than articulation’s completely other.
  The “intrusion of the real” no longer takes place between two spaces or orders, but on the threshold between articulation and disarticulation: as the incursion of a power overflooding the zone of cultural shaping and articulation; or as a process of drowning endured by the discrete sign-order of images, together with the iconoclastic energies manifest within it; or as the dissolution of articulation into noise. Various forms of darkness belong to the real as much as all-encompassing light-floods or masses of sound allowing no more distinctions or demarcations. If reality of this sort marks the collapse of articulation, then it forms the psychotic fringe of the linguistic order—a place where non-communication and all-communication flow into each other.
  The threshold event inherent in the metaphor in question allows a typology of precarious localities that offer themselves to irrupting reality as a stage with aesthetic settings. We have wilderness borders and forest-edges; walls, windows, and curtains: all those openings in the transitional zones between the domestic and the uncanny, with which we are familiar not merely since the rise of Hollywood but already from many novels and dramas in the European tradition. Temporally as well, the “scene of the real” is marked as a threshold: it defines the sudden, dramatic moments of anagnorisis and peripeteia—moments that never fully fit into the linear sequence of action but remain eccentric and to a certain degree uncontrollable. In this context it seems worthwhile to pay attention to the specific backdrop of a given scene: to elements of anticipation, suspicion, and expectation, precautions and avoidances, all the normal processes taking place backstage but already thrust into the light of a menacing state of exception of the real.
  Albeit possessing other accents, a similar grammar of thresholds seems to organize the broad, scattered realm of what might be termed modernism’s mystique of the real: the invocation of categories of fullness and depth to which the discrete world of things responds with a mere superficial reflex, or of which it only forms an ontologically  diminished final product (drive, strength, life, being); or inversely, the self-deliverance to what Nietzsche described as the sphere of appearance and to the secretiveness of phenomena, as in Impressionism. Around the same time, with the turn in poetry to an a-mimetic language (say starting with Mallarmé) and with the turn from objective painting to abstraction, modern art experiences a radical break with the referential function of the sign. For the sake of a “density of being” that can only be evoked or indeed anticipated in language, the programs of the avant-garde denounce traditional principles of mimesis as attachment to a false and reifying surface. These programs are aimed at generating a pictorial and linguistic layer that points not beyond itself but towards its interiority, a transformation that can be described thus: the being behindlanguage dissolves into the being of language.
  This listing of aesthetic procedures for dealing with the problem of the real in modernism could be supplemented by many other examples. In all these cases, the real is characterized by an impossibility of adequate and exhaustive symbolization. But representation of the indescribable itself belongs—through the genitive, building a grammatical bridge into the unknown—to cultural semiosis. In this way the real, as something withdrawn, a mystical grounding or, technically, a source of resistance, retains an existence that may be liminal but cannot be extinguished. It is simultaneously located within and outside of the epistemological order and the reach of its representability; it produces disorder while motivating calls for a return to order in face of the unchained self-referentiality of human thinking, speaking, and shaping of the world. And as dark as its definition may remain, it is repeatedly declared the authenticating ground of a world that would otherwise crumble.


1.1.7 Realism, Materiality, Everyday Mundaneness

Importantly, without also describing those models expressly localizing the real in the domain of everyday life, the panorama of possibilities would be incompletely considered. The realistic artistic and literary programs of the nineteenth century encounter the pathos-figure of irruption with a displacement of accent toward inner-worldly reality. The dramatization of inaccessible or non-representable forces is here answered by a “prose of the given” grasping the real not as an epiphany or catastrophe but as a state of demystification. Such a displacement could be recognized above all in its stylistic consequences: as when a rhetoric of sublimity stamped by the genus medium bows out before realistic prose. In this context, we would need to examine strategies of diminution, disenchantment, scientification, and institutionalization serving to resist or even ironize traditional ideas of transcendence.
  By way of Impressionism, paths here lead to the twentieth century’s phenomenological tradi­tions. Artistic procedures such as montage, on the other hand, integrating fragments of reality into the treatment of aesthetic signs, represent an entire other variety of realism. If we can here speak of an irruption of the real, then this consists of transgressing traditional aesthetical imperatives of avoidance, and of destroying the artistic artifact’s self-containment through a form of contamination of the raw material of artistic production.  In Siegfried Kra­cauer’s positive formulation: that new media such as photography and film contain “nature in a raw state” and can “praise” themselves for “not fully devouring their raw material” constitutes their contribution to the “rescue of external reality.”


1.1.8 The Problem of the Real in the Economy

Conceptualized in its basic outlines in the first term of 1980, this application has gained unexpected (and undesired) actuality through the ongoing financial crisis. The threat of an imminent collapse of the world financial system has rendered not only economists but also those working in cultural studies speechless; each group finds itself confronting, in its own way, a dyna­mic for which it cannot summon up any useable descriptive model. A first reflexive response might be to significantly relativize the influence of cultural factors on the functional capacity and well-being of societies and set oneself once more on the hard ground of economic facts. But it seems doubtful that a phenomenon like a financial crisis is suited for, say, reactivating the Marxist distinction between economic base and cultural-ideological superstructure: what is evidently at work here is no crisis of the economic base in the classical sense. Rather, in economic discourse it has become commonplace to distinguish between transactions undertaken within the system in a largely virtual manner and a so-called “real economy” in which real goods are produced. Then the financial economy would itself be something like a self-autonomizing superstructural phenomenon.
  In this manner a double semantics has emerged whose inner contradiction is rarely noted and certainly not resolved: on the one hand the financial crisis, generated by the collapse of real-estate speculation in the USA and other countries, appears to be, precisely, an “irruption of the real” into the more or less prosperous normality of the industrial countries. On the other hand, the extent to which the global financial markets are oriented toward purely fictive quantities and mechanisms of trust, expectation, and the expectation of expectation has become obvious. (This has been the case at least since the scrapping of the gold standard in 1971; it has been favored by extensive deregulation of credit, whose security has long-since been removed from any material coverage.) Likewise the extent to which these markets have been removed from any traditional idea of reality. Con­sequently, we ought to really speak of an “irruption of the unreal.” Correspondingly, within the collective fantasy, the chain reaction observable since 2008, resulting in the evaporation of staggering fortunes and a previously unimaginable expansion of the dimensions of political action, has taken on ghostly characteristics. It can be, it seems, only adequately grasped with the descriptive tools of surrealism or horror movies.
  A common pattern of reaction to this consists in an effort to newly adjust standards of reality. References to the “real economy” are part of an effort to confront the normative counterworld of virtually flowing money, lacking both locus and subject, with a juste milieu of middle-class money-management in which real goods are created and personal actors are responsible for their actions. At the same time, responsibility for the financial crisis is itself repersonalized, being attributed for instance to the individual greed of the bankers involved.
  Such distinctions, meant to restore both a moral and a reality-centered norm, are part of  typical reactive pattern to systemic collapse. In offering the possibility of drawing a line between “good” and “bad” money management, they not only exculpate the system (in this case: global capitalism) as such, but also possibly reduce a deeper insecurity regarding what still generally is to be considered real. For this reason, in the semantics of cultural crisis a distinction between good and bad is often overlayered and intensified by distinctions between authentic and inauthentic, living and lifeless, human and ghostly, and so forth. It would be worthwhile to analyze literary approaches to new forms of money management, and especially to stock exchange crashes, from this perspective. Novels such as Gustav Freytag’s Debit and Credit and Gottfried Keller’s Martin Salander indicate that the insecure ontological constitution of money also placed the poetological program of realism—after all, the prevalent artistic mode in the era of high capitalism—in question. Notably, these novels experiment with schemes of exclusion that would be radicalized in the twentieth century: for instance in a distinction between productive and parasitical capital and its antisemitic variants. At the latest here, the strong political consequences of cultural interference between the negotiation of economic regimes and the negotiation of regimes of being becomes apparent.
 We hope to further explore the thematic complex of “the problem of the real in the economy” in the first phase of the graduate research program. Starting points are here offered by ongoing projects in the Center of Excellence, and by preliminary work by various fellow applicants for the program. This focal point will be strengthened by the planned establishment at the Center of a professorship in the field of cultural economy.


1.1.9 The Cultural Organization of External Reference

On the most general level, the methodological framework of the planned program is defined by the question of how cultures organize their relation to reality and hence their external reference. A working hypothesis for the program is that the non-uniform and contradictory status of such reference in cultural-scientific self-descriptions of modernity represents a moment of its complex functioning, and not of its failure. According to particular discursive and political circumstances, it  thus gains, presumably, the flexibility to shift weight from reality-attachment to detachment, from opening to closure vis-à-vis the world beyond the cultural semiosphere, from determination to autonomy. The alternate options logically exclude each other but also symbiotically depend on each other.
  In awareness of the problem of demarcation discussed above, we hope to explore the opposition and interplay between the two options in various fields. Importantly, this does not involve looking out for an ultimate solution to the problem discussed above. Rather, following for instance the model offered by recent ethnography of science, we intend to coequally scrutinize all observable semantic operations involved in the constitution of each epistemic order. This will take in the spectrum of speech regulations, awkward formulas, unstated coexisting contradictions, and the entire realm of tacit knowledge, together with its verbal effects.