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Literature and Peception. On the Aesthetic Phenomenology of Central European Modernism

Final Report Summary - LAP (Literature and Peception. On the Aesthetic Phenomenology of Central European Modernism)

Literature and Perception. On the aesthetic phenomenology of Central European Modernism

Perception is both a cognitive and body-related process, a foundational act of mediating representation that unfolds within an acting being. The phenomenon is anchored in the cognitive, emotional, and physiological realms; but it has social, anthropological, technological, and medial preconditions; its complexity corresponds to the diversification of scientific knowledge - together with artistic and life worldly knowledge - about perception. This has been generally derived in highly specialised and mutually partitioned disciplinary contexts. Questions regarding cognitive capacity have traditionally been discussed in philosophy, and since the mid-eighteenth century especially within an aesthetics originally defining itself as cognitive theory. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the now established natural sciences began to focus on the theme of perception, understanding this as a physio-psychic process. In the course of time, biology, neurophysiology, psychology, and most recently the cognitive sciences have placed phenomena of perception at the centre of their interest. At the same time, early work in sociology made perception a research focus. And literary studies, research on music and art, and media studies have all been strongly interested in the medial and aesthetic transformation of sensory data. For not least of all, that which is perceived constitutes the very material of literary and artistic activity.

That literature lends itself to a specific interest in phenomena of perception has been manifest at least since the mid-nineteenth century, on various textual levels: a) on the level of content, in the explicit thematisation of the experience of perceptions increasingly felt to be precarious, and in a direct engagement with contemporary (literary and extra-literary) discourse over perception; b) on the poetological level: in the virulence of the (philosophical-poetic) question of the cognitive capacity of art and literature (from Baumgarten to Adorno) and the development of self-reflexive language tied to this, hence the problematisation of its referential function; c) on the formal level: in the development - also unfolding vis-à-vis adjacent media - of a formal and generic inventory apparently suited for aesthetically altering perceptions themselves constantly changing in view of processes of socio-economic, technological, and medial transformation. In this way the "textuality of sensory perception" advances into the dominant speech-form of modern literature.

Until now, a broad examination of the connections between the shifting perceptive fields and aesthetic developments of modernism has been lacking in literary studies. It is the case that in treatments of literature of the "historical avant-garde", Walter Benjamin's dictum that "within broad historical eras...with the entire form of existence of the collective, the manner of its sensory perception also changes" has been promoted to an unreflectively adapted research hypothesis. But as yet there has been no effort to demonstrate this hypothesis in a framework of perception theory and on the basis of an extensive textual corpus.

The goal of the project was to illuminate the connections between the shift in perception and literary historical developments since the start of the twentieth century. In its application of concepts from the study of culture that understand aesthetics as a forum for reflection on art, deepened with ethnological, natural, corporeal, technological, and medial dimensions, the project moved towards an understanding of the phenomenon of perception in its various implications. Philosophical and epistemological insight consequently played a role in the emerging argumentation alongside descriptions, grounded in the natural sciences, of an aesthetics proceeding along empirical and experimental lines and findings from cultural philosophy, cultural anthropology, and the theory of both art and media.

In respect to theory, the trans-disciplinary oriented research undertaken here was located in the field of postmodern debates centred on the concepts of perception, aesthetics, and literary modernism. The project's specific approach to the texts itself resulted from debates about these concepts. In its postmodern framework, the aesthetic, which as "aesthesis - meaning a thematisation of perceptions of all sorts" - has increasingly emerged as a general medium of understanding of reality, is no longer simply a realm subject to academic analysis, but is itself an exemplary realm of reflection. As a manifestation of "aesthetic thinking", literature reacts (like art in general) to phenomena of perception. The way it decodes them includes formal-aesthetic transformation; and in the development of its own relevant formal language, it goes beyond the possibilities of the knowledge of reality offered by both science and scholarship or, indeed, everyday life.

On the one hand, the analyses considered the level of contents of literary texts and explore the thematising of the experience of changing perception (for instance of space, time, ego, world). On the other hand they focused on literary procedures and a range of literarising strategies evident in the individual genres, or put otherwise, the changes modern literature has undergone in its materiality. Consistently, the poetical-epistemological question of the cognitive capacity of literature occupied the centre of the project's interest.

The first phase of the project was devoted to exploring a literary corpus as the analytic foundation, in view of the guiding thematic alignment. Parallel to this process, the most recent research on perception, aesthetics, and media has been scrutinised. In a second phase, various texts on perception in a range of discursive contexts have been considered, the aim being a description of the historical debates on the theme against the backdrop of on-going developments in the theory of perception. In the project's third phase, the theme has been explored more deeply in a philosophical, psychological, natural-scientific, and above all aesthetic context, with relevant findings from literary theory offering a framework for comparison. A substantial corpus of texts has here been examined. The fourth phase has involved preparation of a study entitled 'Textualities of Perception'.

Multi-disciplinary research network: The episteme of the senses

Due to the works on the project one basic assumption of the project was confirmed: With the radical disciplinary differentiation of research on perception, a view of the phenomenon as a complex whole has to large extent been lost. The various cultures of knowledge have produced heterogeneous but isolated and thus in the end incomplete knowledge about perception. The need for trans-disciplinary research on the theme is thus apparent, with potential benefits resulting from both the effort and ability to initiate a dialog between findings in the individual disciplines. One part of the research project capitalised on the establishment of a research network. For the time being, nine research groups in Austria, Germany and Switzerland are members of this network. The purpose of our intended examination of phenomena of perception within a multi-disciplinary research framework will be to establish an interconnected network for sharing knowledge gained through empirical and experimental scientific research, and in the realms of philosophy and conceptual history, art theory and media theory, and the creative arts, together with the life world. Beyond such a multidisciplinary network, this trans-disciplinary approach will also help us explore new domains of knowledge located "between" the traditional sciences and thus ordinarily evading specialised disciplinary interest. The network's goal is, then, to develop research on perception proceeding in an interdisciplinary and transversal manner, integrating insights from the "laboratory", "archives", and "atelier" to shed light on the highly complex structure of cultures of the senses. Developing this sort of research on perception remains a desideratum within the international scientific community.