NOMIS Research Project “Traveling Forms”

The research project "Traveling Forms” examines the cross-border mobility of cultural forms and in particular of aesthetic forms. One of its central assumptions is that such forms can take shape and stabilize in moving among locations, but also that these forms can be transformed and dissolve in this process.

In focusing on the movement of aesthetic forms, our approach aims to answer several key questions in two main fields—literary studies and anthropology. In literary studies, these questions include: How did literary forms—for example, genres such as tragedy—travel to other locations and what forms of resistance had to be overcome for this to happen? What repertoires of forms did traveling forms encounter upon their arrival and how were they adapted to local conditions? We must also ask which forms did not travel and what the reason was for their immobility. In anthropology, by contrast, the project poses questions about social forms that expand the study of aesthetics beyond its traditional perspectives. Analogous to recent scholarship on literature and art, cultural and social anthropologists have responded to global processes with an increased interest in cultural mobility. This shared field of interest suggests, for instance, that forms of political activism are to be considered from similar perspectives as forms of literary or visual art. Scholarship on literature and art can benefit from the particular expertise of anthropology in exploring culture as a mobile phenomenon, while collaboration between anthropologists and literary scholars opens up an aesthetic perspective on anthropological objects of study.

One crucial question to arise from this dialogue has been whether such processes are driven by a force inherent to form itself. We would like to complement theories of automobility and self-dynamics with a mode of description that makes visible the emergence, maintenance, and transfer of forms as an uncertain and complex process driven not by inner energies but by actors, media, and practices.  

These theoretical assumptions provide the framework for our attempt to elaborate a theory of “form.” Our aim is to reconceptualize this basic concept of cultural studies, with its rich history, so that it can be applied to investigating the mobility of culture. How can a change of location be understood as a moment within form-related processes? "Traveling Forms" develops and tests the heuristic value of a concept of form as a temporarily stable arrangement of heterogeneous elements. It assumes that forms migrate not only as a whole but sometimes also as parts that take on different configurations in new environments.