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Deformation. An Essay in Negative Anthropology (2021-)

Sebastian Tränkle, Research Area 3: "Future Perfect"
Postdoctoral Research Project

The project reconstructs a modern type of social critique centering around notions of human deformation. It considers such a critique as the medium of a Negative Anthropology. Many other modern anthropological theories in philosophy reject fixed definitions of what is human, and stress its genuinely historical formation. In this project, however, the negative orientation implies perceiving human faculties as subject to historical deformation. The process of the social formation of human subjectivity is thus interpreted at the same time as a process of deformation and dehumanisation.

The project explores both the historical trajectory and the current validity of such a "critique of anthropological deformation" (Adorno). It reconstructs the genesis of social critique by considering select models from the history of social philosophy. The trajectory can be traced from Rousseau's discovery of a "deprived" modern subjectivity via the early Marx's reflections on the deformation of sensuality to Critical Theory's analyses of the Culture Industry's shaping of the imagination or of sensual faculties. Yet, in order to do justice to the emerging critique of subjectivation, these socio-theoretical approaches need to enter into a dialogue with corresponding literary texts that unfold an aesthetics of deformation. Thus, the project includes readings of novels and dramas (by the likes of Georg Büchner, Gustave Flaubert, or H. G. Wells) that focus on the déformation sentimentale of the bourgeois subject. Special attention is given to the formation, transformation and deformation of the perception of time by the changing regimes of temporality in a crisis-ridden capitalist society. How do various philosophical or literary forms articulate or criticise such temporal configurations?

Returning from the historical reconstruction, the project explores the contemporary relevance of the negative-anthropological model of critique. Focusing not just on the "social pathologies of reason" (Honneth) but on the social deformation of both rational and sensual faculties, such a critique offers a promising approach for analysing contemporary processes of subject formation.