Project (2001-2003)

The Modern Grotesque

Thomas O. Haakenson's dissertation project, “The Uncultured Eye: Vision, Culture, and the Modern Grotesque,“ focused on the Germany of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The study was a critical exploration of the relationships among scientific practice, public belief, and artistic engagement. In particular, he examined the textual and discursive means by which anthropologists produced “objective” scientific knowledge, and the use of literary and visual techniques by modern artists to appropriate and to rearticulate these representations in Berlin at the fin-de-siècle. The project detailed the methodological problems anthropologists associated with the variability of individual sense perception, the concerns resulting from the presence of commercial images in scientific photographic archives, as well as the venues and apparatuses anthropologists used to relay information to the lay public. Haakenson demonstrated that, in light of this historical and social context, that artistic engagements such as Hannah Höch’s photomontages, Til Brugmann’s short stories, and Salomo Friedländer’s literary and philosophical provocations—all part of the tradition of the art form known as the grotesque—should be seen as responses to scientific knowledge claims in the Imperial- and Weimar-eras.

The reconsideration of scientific and artistic practice allowed Haakenson to situate Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of “grotesque realism” as well as Wolfgang Kayser’s influential work on the grotesque in terms of a quotidian response to anthropological practice, and thus to articulate theories of public engagement with science that have contemporary reverberations. He suggested that modernist and avant-garde artists sought to create an aesthetic experience that explicitly challenged the logic of visual immediacy—unmittelbare Anschauung—increasingly employed in the production of anthropological knowledge. One of the claims of the study was that many of the theories of subjectivity and aesthetic experience as articulated in the work of the Frankfurt School and its associates therefore should be seen as engagements with the rationalization of sense perception emerging directly from these turn-of-the-century transformations. His project thus provided a thick description of a key period and national context in which concepts and practices vital to current cultural theory, from psychoanalysis to poststructuralism to theories of everyday life, were either formed or significantly changed.