Variations*: Omne ens habet aliquod esse proprium

– every entity has a singular essence(Johannes Duns Scotus, Opera Omina [1266 à Duns 1308] quoted in: Suarez-Nani, Tiziana: Pietro Pomponazzi et Jenas Duns Scot critiques de Thomas d’Aquin; in: Biard, Joel/Gontier, Thierry (dir.): Pietro Pomponazzi entre traditions et innovations; Amsterdam/Philadelphia: B.R. Gruener Publishing, 2009: 29-67; here:  33)

or: About Academic Responsibility between Dynamics and Statics.

Recently I had to go to Rome – and if ever possible I take it as opportunity at least for a short visit to the Villa Borghese. It is actually not really about visiting the palace and the multitude of exhibits, most of them surely admirable objects in their own right. My visit there is usually solely dedicated to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s statue Ratto di Proserpina – the rape of Proserpina.[1]

It surly is the most dynamic statue I ever saw. For me it is actually not about rape or abduction. Instead, I see it as visualisation of abhorrence of power: the questioning of power and apparent superiority. A woman challenging the given reality by facing it and at the same time refusing to accept it – she turns away from it. Of course, it is easy to see the historical newness – in sculpting and also in societal realities. Bernini’s work is the dialectical repeal of earlier sculptures as for instance Michelangelo di Ludovico Buonarroti Simoni’s masterpiece David.

Supposedly David had been the first free-standing sculpture: firm, independent, disjointed from the environment …. – the beauty and arrogance of the claim of the emerging new era:

Omne ens habet aliquod esse proprium

– every entity has a singular essence

However, paradoxically it had been this new era – the Renaissance and later also the enlightenment – that needed something completely new and even opposing, the upcoming era needed a Proserpina: aware of the abduction, ready to confront herself with this fact because only this allowed to resist. It had been not really about a new moral, about taking a different position. What – in my opinion – Bernini actually expressed is about the opposite: dynamics, allowing the emergence of traction, pulling forces, attraction and surely also the acceptance of possible failure.

In other words the singular essence of every entity is only emerging – and this is the apparent paradox – from the very relationship in which this entity is located and locates itself. And in this light every singular essence is about the dynamic and/or static the entity engages in.

NB: Mentioning dynamics here, I am speaking of statues – not of installations as they are now dominating the arts world. I know that I stand somewhat as a loner in the world of critics, seeing the latter very much as frantic attempt to dynamise the static – frantic like the attempt to use administration as substantial tool. Frantic like using grades and degrees and computerised quotation indices as means of assessing qualification.


Now, something apparently completely different. Recently the German minister for education had been asked to resign – and she even dared to refuse (though finally she had to step back). The background is apparently simple: plagiarism.

But Ulrike Baureithel on the 6th of February in Der Freitag points on a much wider and deeper meaning of the entire debate on an increasing number of leading politicians being caught in comparable scandals – her article is titled Core of the Spectacle. She notes that doctoral dissertations had been for long times already subject to critical disputes. However, in earlier times these disputes had been about substantial matters, highlighting (or searching) political positions that are contestable in terms of political correctness. Baureithel states:

Today politicians do not have to fear to be criticised because of questionable politicial statements they made in works that are already forgotten for long time. Instead, they have to fear the detection of the fact that their statements are not traced back to the original author. This is in an era in which copyrigth is increasingly under pressure and in which blithe transfer of knowledge is advancing to a political flagship rather remarkable.

[Heute müssen sich Politiker nicht mehr vor verdächtigen Inhalten einer längst vergessenen akademischen Arbeit fürchten, sondern davor, den Inhalt nicht auf ihren Urheber zurückgeführt zu haben. Das ist in einer Ära, in der das Urheberrecht wie nie zuvor zur Disposition steht und der unbekümmerte Wissenstransfer zum politischen Aushängeschild avanciert ist, doch immerhin bemerkenswert.]

And indeed it highlights a shift of academic consciousness that marks the fundamental reference of work: it is not about daring ideas, bringing thinking forward, developing original ideas – rather it is about forms. Following this line we easily end in at most positivist research … at most … .

Thus we come now back to the earlier statement:

In other words the singular essence of every entity is only emerging – and this is the apparent paradox – from the very relationship in which this entity is located and locates itself. And in this light every singular essence is about the dynamic and/or static the entity engages in.

And it is exactly here where we find in current academia a new self-localisation. At surface level it is of course about commonly known and accepted matters: the overwhelming influence of management, the financial dependencies and obligations, the constraints within research projects emerging from the conditions for obtaining grants etc.

All this is surely true. But all this is at the end very much about blaming “the other” – a kind of trading indulgences, fading out important parts of our own responsibility as academics – and on this occasion I do not refer primarily to our positioning but to our thinking.


Few of you know me well enough, are aware of the very fact that I am easily getting lost in time, in figures – in general such “hard data” are somewhat meaningless for me. Academically this in some respect of course wanton – isn’t science something “positive”, something that deals with facts as they can be expressed in figures? Sine ira … as Weber said. Still, this “getting lost” has also something that I want to defend – it allows abstractions, something that

separates things out, isolating them from our concerns as social beings immersed in particular cultural practices. As Locke once put it: “Words become general by being made the signs of general ideas: and ideas become general, by separating from them the circumstances of time and place, and any other ideas that may determine them to this or that particular existence.” The problem, however, is that we tend to be interested in things as they exist in a context with others. Indeed, the very word “interest” comes from the Latin inter-esse, which means “to be between,” while the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the root of “abstraction” denotes a “drawing away from” and that the root of its opposite, “contextual,” means “woven together”.

(Blattberg, Charles, 2009: Patriotic Elaborations: Essays in Practical Philosophy; Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press: 45; with reference to John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979], bk 3, ch. 3, sec. 6)

Very much the same is stated in the comments of an exhibition, I recently visited in Copenhagen:

On the one hand, details cannot be ignored if one wishes to depict reality in a convincing manner. On the other hand, however, focusing on a detail threatens to impede our understanding of how it fits into the overall whole.

(from one of the explanations on the wall of the exhibition ‘detaljer’ in the Statens Museum for Kunst)

All this allows us bringing things together – matchmaking if you want; matchmaking even if the matches are extremely distant. Distant as the German ex-minister is from the Kunsthistorische Museum Wien. Distant in time as my visit there – and distant as the time with which I had been confronted when entering a special exhibition: I had to walk up onto a scaffold close to the wall pantings which had been presented by one of the most contested artists of the early 20th century: Gustav Klimt. To cut a long story short: I stepped up, the leverage of the scaffold covered by a black cloth. Arriving on the platform of the exhibition “face to face”, I had been forced to turn around – a crossroads of which I took the option to rue to the right. Now, not concentrating on stepping up the stairs, I could also lift my head. I experienced a kind of numbing, looking into the eyes of the work of this artist: a goddess, not despising, not inflicting but sending a chill down my spine. Only once before I experienced the very same awe, standing just on my own in front of Picasso’s Guernica (At the time of my visit even the security guards keeping in the background.)

I said before “to cut a long story short” – and I know that this is a frequent mistake: we cut long stories short, we squeeze complex issues into power point presentations. And as much as we are in danger to loose the ability to read handwriting as we a dominated by computer scripts, we are in danger to loose the ability to listen, to look – be it at others or at ourselves. And we loose the ability to bear somebody looking at us. Somebody as the history of Guernica! Somebody as Pallas Athena.

Of course it is challenging – not so much to understand but to accept that understanding actually means that we are permanently questioning ourselves, our practice. And we have to do this not as academic exercise but as matter of questioning what we are doing, how we are acting. Things and people come back, even if they leave us. I read recently, in connection with the death of one of the examiners of my doctoral thesis, Hans Heinz Holz, a statement, contending that the important question is not

… ob man prinzipiell damit einverstanden ist, dass nicht in erster Linie Ideen den Lauf der Dinge bestimmen, Kopfgeburten, sondern die ökonomischen Bedingungen –

… if one is in general agreement that not ideas determine history, …, but the economic conditions –

Important is

ob man auch bereit ist, im Sinne von Gleichheit und Gerechtigkeit Schlüsse daraus zu ziehen

if one is ready to accept practical consequences in the sense of equality and justice

– I write this as something that employed my thinking very much over the last years, a matter that I saw and see as permanent challenge. It is the challenge to develop a truly historical perspective. It is about capturing presence not as such but in a light of history – past, present, future – but as matter of exploring history in the light of the presence and future. It had been exactly this responsibility that I felt while standing in front of Picasso’s Guernica and Klimt’s Pallas Athena. The … – yes, it has been a kind of trauma – this trauma did not come from an explicit or implicit accusation. Instead, it emerged from the implicitly asked question:

What do you do? Are you able to relate or are you only following the relations that are put in front of you? Is your strength about the resisting static self-positioning within a hostile dynamic of the environment or is it about the dynamic movement against a more or less static block as it is characterised by Antonio Gramsci. Stephen Gill, in his work on Power and Resistance in the New World Order (Palgrave, Macmillan – 2002, p. 58) captures it, saying

An historical bloc refers to an historical congruence between material forces, institutions and ideologies, or broadly, an alliance of different class forces politically organized around a set of hegemonic ideas that gave strategic direction and coherence to its constituent elements. Moreover, for a new historical bloc to emerge, its leaders must engage in conscious planned struggle. Any new historical bloc must have not only power within the civil society and economy, it also needs persuasive ideas, arguments and initiatives that build on, catalyze and develop its political networks and organization – not political parties such.

Or, coming back to Hans Heinz Holz: the question of not being

ready to accept practical consequences in the sense of equality and justice

And this surely means to look for new Berninis – for new dynamics that are transcending the given system by openly facing the challenges from within by positi0ning ourselves in a fundamentally critical position – fundamentally critical also meaning: taking positions that may fail but that are open to contest.


Well, nobody said it is easy – and I leave it to you, better: invite you to think about the connection and disconnection between the steady David, supposedly the first statue standing on its own and the dynamics of the Bernini’s Ratto di Proserpina – the woman courageously facing the situation in order to draw away not by way of abstraction but by its opposite: inter-esse, drawing things together by tearing them apart.

Still, I do not want to conclude without some reflection on the issue by myself, directing this matter in particular to an academic audience I may conclude by the following – drawing a very broad line. When I studied we had been captured by the idea of a scientific community. Although we had been – part of and inspired by the revolutionary movements of the late 1960s – critical about such elitist community, we maintained the fundamental notion. And we joined in this critical spirit the various movements that engaged for democratic progress. Moreover we joined in this critical spirit the trade unions and the working class. Sure, this had been an imagined community, and it had been a community that had been full of contradictions. But looking back I think it is fair to say that it had been a community that had been by and large a disputatious community. Personally I remember these contests with and against Luhmann, Offe, Kaufmann, …, to name but a few, people that many of you will also know at least by name. Actually it had been an interesting development at the time: a new science developing and claiming to be acknowledged. Though heated debates took place with conservative colleagues, it had been very much about claims against them – the ongoing quest against the  “mustiness of 1,000 years covered by the gowns of academics” (Unter den Talaren – Muff von 1,000 Jahren). Part of this contest had been surely successful: positions taken, contests taken into the system and finding a stable foundation. However, the crux of history, like Hegel’s ‘cunning of reason’ emerged, cutting the dialectical of enlightenment short of the emancipative side.

So, academia replicated the development of modern society: structures, in the beginning surely necessary, became an “independent force”: a structure, obedient to its own rules, having lost out of sight that it can only then be justified if it maintains practice.

Sure, this is the same as a society that maintains a structuralist take on citizenship, perverting it to such an extent that citizens, the original sovereign of the modern state, are incapable to act. And it is even defined by its structural position, any consideration on practice being pushed aside (see in this context for instance Lister, Ruth, 1997: Citizenship. Feminist Perspectives; Palgrave Macmillan; Houndsmills, 20032: 42; cf. Oldfield, Adrian, 1990: Citizenship and Community. Civic Republicanism and the Modern World; London: Routledge).

Coming back to the two paintings – Athena/Atlas and Guernica: facing history as actual reality, as genuine presence, can hurt – it can severely hurt. Still, it is probably easier to deal with such injuries than to deal with the permanent intoxication, causing a slow death, still leading first to the suicide of social science, then to the suicide of people.

I do not mean this literally. I speak of the danger of accepting to be buried in structures, being battered to death by what had been once necessary, that could claim legitimacy: a steadfast claim of liberty now perverted into an iron cage of commodification ….: dispute seemingly only possible by taking the form of war. That is the dimension of suicide Carin Holmquist and Elisabeth Sundin do not mention, it can be grasped as discerping the quadriga of social science

  • self-critique,
  • critique of the other,
  • critique of processes and
  • critique of structures.

In any case we can see a wide bracket: academic performance – and the lack of it – is measured in PhD-cases and the de-recognition of the degree on grounds of formal rules: originality is only a matter of sufficiently and clearly making reference; impact is measured in computerised citation indices rather than in actual debates; and publication-output is in this narrow-minded attitude only relevant if it is squeezed in the suicidal framework of peer reviewed articles. Books don’t count and subsequently contributions to books do not count – and …

… and the murderers a still free, in well-paid positions in academia and parts of the publishing world with its vested interests …

… and fortunately some woke up, repeal their admiration of the form. It is so to say the move from David to Proserpina, the move from a rigid position to the readiness to move again. Many universities are turning their back against rankings, are looking for innovative publications and are demanding the publication of ‘work in progress’, fostering open source software etc. Those stubborn David’s – having concrete blocks where there should be a creative brain, will at some stage have to face the fact that their static version of enlightenment only pretends vision. However, in reality, at the end of a single-line tunnel the light at the end of it turns out to be the light of the train driving towards us.

It should not be a surprise that under these conditions live becomes deception – we find a line from

  • disavow of historicity to
  • personal self-deception to
  • subordination under form to plagiarism to
  • the loss of responsibility.

With the shift of references to different individualities, thus the loss of social references we loose of course responsibility – not as moral decay but as absurdity of today’s realities. A lengthy statment from Theodor W. Adorno’s Minima Moralia (published 1945 – here refering to the 1951 edition to which Adorno addded a dedication, and taken from the dedication) regains importance:

What the pilosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own. He who wishes to know the truth about life in its immediacy must scrutinize its estranged form, the objective powers that determine individual existence even in its most hidden recesses. To speak immediately of the immediate is to behave much as those novelists who drape their marionettes in imitated bygone passions like cheap jewellery, and make people who are no more component parts of machinery act as if they still had the capacity as subjects, and as if something depended on their actions. Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer.

But the relation between life and production, which in reality debases the former to an ephemeral appearance of the latter, is totally absurd. Means and end are inverted.

(Theodor W. Adorno, 1951: Minima Moralia. Reflexions from Damaged Life; translated from the German;London: Verso, 1978: 15)

[Was einmal den Philosophen Leben hieß, ist zur Sphäre des Privaten und dann bloß noch des Konsums geworden, die als Anhang des materiellen Produktionsprozesses, ohne Autonomie und ohne eigene Substanz, mitgeschleift wird. Wer die Wahrheit übers unmittelbare Leben erfahren will, muß dessen entfremdeter Gestalt nachforschen, den objektiven Mächten, die die individuelle Existenz bis ins Verborgenste bestimmen. Redet man unmittelbar vom Unmittelbaren, so verhält man kaum sich anders als jene Romanschreiber, die ihre Marionetten wie mit billigem Schmuck mit den Imitationen der Leidenschaft von ehedem behängen, und Personen, die nichts mehr sind als Bestandstücke der Maschinerie, handeln lassen, als ob sie überhaupt noch als Subjekte handeln könnten, und als ob von ihrem Handeln etwas abhinge. Der Blick aufs Leben ist übergegangen in die Ideologie, die darüber betrügt, daß es keines mehr gibt.

Aber das Verhältnis von Leben und Produktion, das jenes real herabsetzt zur ephemeren Erscheinung von dieser, ist vollendet widersinnig. Mittel und Zweck werden vertauscht.]


* This is very much another approch to questions that had been recently issued in another post.

[1]            The translation is not quite clear. It is sometimes also translated as ‘abduction’, not ‘rape’.



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