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Research profile (long version)


I. Collaborative Research Centre 644 »Transformations of Antiquity«


The Collaborative Research Centre (Sonderforschungsbereich, CRC) 644, which began its work on January 1, 2005, unites currently eleven disciplines from the social sciences and humanities at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin as well as one each at the Freie Universität Berlin and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Almost 60 scholars, representing five faculties altogether, work in 16 projects. These projects network in four study groups that form the CRC’s interdisciplinary heart; their aim is to overcome the highly compartmentalized way studies in antiquity have been conducted in the past. For the second grant period, we have established the following study groups:


1. Experiments in transformation

2. The scientization of antiquity

3. Innovation and imagination in transformations

4. Narration, reflection, and the boundaries of knowledge


In addition to the research conducted in the individual projects and the study groups, the CRC places particular emphasis on training a new generation of scholars; an »Integrated Research Training Group« (Integriertes Graduiertenkolleg, IGK) dedicated to supporting our doctoral candidates was established in January 2009.

The CRC is represented by its spokesman, Prof. Dr. Johannes Helmrath (Department of Cultural History and Theory). Funding for the SFB is provided by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation, DFG).


II. Research programme


The CRC 644 »Transformations of Antiquity« is an interdisciplinary research project aiming to study the productive appropriations and transformations of ancient sciences and arts in their various contexts in the post-classical world. We examine the emergence of the system of sciences and the cultural self-constructions that define the Western societies, a process that extends from late antiquity to the present.


1. Premises

2. Programme

3. Foci

4. The concept of transformation


1. Premises

The CRC 644 bases its work on the premise that the European cultures, their arts and sciences formed by carrying on and transforming the cultures of antiquity: Europe’s origins, in terms of cultural geography, lie in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean. The differentiation of the various arts and sciences is inconceivable without their ancient foundations. Aesthetic styles, cultural techniques, and media; mentalities and lifestyles; economic systems, forms of government, and political structures; legal processes; religious and ethical, but also national guiding ideas and identities that have successively emerged to this day could not have come into being without an ongoing engagement of the ancient cultures. It is here that, in processes that took centuries, the conditions for today’s Europe took form, conditions that were later exported to the colonies of the New World; they now profoundly shape parts of the ›Western world‹ beyond Europe, including, for instance, the United States of America. The ancient cultures may have ceased to exist as political empires: as domains of reference in cultural self-constructions, mediated by a series of renaissances and transformations, they have lost none of their vitality.

Based on the amount of knowledge available at any given time, images of antiquity shaped every period in European cultural history (the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the baroque, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, historicism, modernism) as well as the natural sciences (geography, biology, metrology, astronomy, mechanics, physics, chemistry). But their effects also extended into everyday forms of cultural representation (collections, replicas, parks, castles, museums, the theatre, film, comic strips, advertising, etc.).

A second methodological premise is that we do not enjoy, nor has anyone ever enjoyed, unmediated access to ›antiquity itself‹. What the post-classical world engaged were always mediated transmissions, transfers, and transformations of the ancient societies. Moreover, ancient sciences and arts, ancient techniques of culture and of the conduct of life are tangible only in fragments of ancient technical literature, in the backdrop formed by the classical authors and artists, or in the form of material remains. Accordingly, the primary aim of studies in antiquity since the early Middle Ages was to compile the relics of the literature and philosophy of antiquity, the fragments of its scientific and technical literature, and the surviving monuments of material culture and art; and then to connect these remains to the scholars’ or artist’s own experiential world. The results produced by this labour of collection and interpretation, in turn, were apt to affect new constructions: constructions both of antiquity and of the scholars’ own present. These processes of interplay between discovery and transformation, between imagination, idealization, and critical departure, have recurred from generation to generation and are still ongoing.


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2. Programme

The fields studied by the CRC 644 extend from late antiquity and the Middle Ages across the early modern period, the era of Enlightenment, and the 19th century into the present. This orientation toward  the longue durée of cultural evolutions rests on two convictions: first, that the Christian culture as well as the European sciences and arts cannot be understood without the ancient cultures; and second, that the ideas and conceptions of ancient cultures themselves take shape only as an effect of the history of the transformations of antiquity.

In light of these premises, the work of the CRC 644 addresses a wide array of questions. We expect to generate new insight into the emergence and historic differentiation of the natural sciences as well as the humanities, of the arts and media, but also of the self-constructions conceived by the various cultures of reception.

Since cultures are not quasi-natural states of affairs, the studies undertaken by the CRC place particular emphasis on the aspect of ›cultural construction‹. Our work is guided by two aspects: first, that the witnesses documenting the reception of ›antiquity‹ engender their object in the first place; over the course of the history of reception, ›ancient culture‹ comes to be increasingly differentiated, comprises a growing store of sources and monuments, and is subject to more and more heterogeneous and pluralistic interpretations and depictions. Second, it is in these transformations of antiquity that the cultures of reception construct themselves: as antiquity becomes the privileged or polemical object of processes of knowledge, artistic adaption, and ideological negotiation, the portrayal of antiquity such transformations project serves to articulate the culture of reception itself.

The projects studying late antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the early modern era aim at a reassessment that will define more precisely the relationship between an antiquity regarded as pagan and the Christian cultural environment of its reception. The scientific, antiquarian, and artistic appropriations of antiquity evince characteristic fractures, adaptations, or transformations that we examine with a view to the reflective perception of the irreducible alterity and foreignness of antiquity.

Beyond studying the content transmitted in processes of reception, the CRC 644 also examines the particular representations of antiquity as well as these processes themselves with a view to the media in which they take place. Transformations of antiquity are acts tied to specific media and what they can do; these media both constitute and communicate them.

Although antiquity itself and its reception have been widely studied, most of the scholarship has remained within the confines of various isolated disciplines. There has not been, in Germany or abroad, a sustained interdisciplinary and systematic effort to map the productive transformations of ancient sciences and arts in the European societies that succeeded antiquity. The CRC 644 seeks to close this gap by conducting studies of antiquity, the history of European cultures and art, and the history of science in close interdisciplinary integration. Accordingly, the overall aim is to assemble from the individual analyses a new portrayal of the foundational role the ancient sciences and arts played in the emergence of medieval, early modern, and modernist disciplines, arts, and literatures, of cultural models and practices.


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3. Foci

Within the framework delineated by this programme, the CRC has defined the following foci. They serve as a basis for the networking between the individual projects and will be central to the work in the interdisciplinary study groups.


a) Experiments in transformation

The CRC 644 goes beyond traditional models of reception, impact, Nachleben, influence, and the like. The guiding concept of »transformation« refers to the pragmatic, institutional, semantic, and increasingly also reflective differentiations within and between the European cultures, both in their historical dynamic and in their spatial localization and diffusion. »Transformation« describes a process that in each case comprises three components: it means, first, that the object ›antiquity‹ is not and cannot be fixed; it is forever engendered anew, even ›invented‹, in the media of reception, and thus subject to ongoing mutation and differentiation. »Transformation« means, second, that the act of reception must be conceived not as a mere appropriation or adoption, as inscription, registration, or imitatio, but always also as a constructive activity that follows its own rules and incentives defined by its time and cultural context. And »Transformation« means, third, that the cultures of reception, in forming a conception of antiquity, always also relate to themselves, giving rise to differentiated profiles of cultural identity and creating potentials for reflectivity.


b) The scientization of antiquity

The CRC 644 seeks to define the extent to which ancient objects or texts served as carriers, media, codes, archives of a characteristic kind of knowledge that shaped depictions of, and the available information and discourses about, antiquity, preparing the ground for or consolidating disciplines of knowledge and artistic forms. We work with a wide conception of ›knowledge‹: we consider works of art and cultural practices; popularizations in the mass media, mentalities and ideologies; idealizations, experiments and translations; and even social groups (e.g., new elites) and material objects (sculptures, gardens, and castles) carriers or media of knowledge. Nor do we write the history of science purely as one of progress: science is reconstructed also as the history of a praxis of knowledge with features particular to each era, a praxis whose procedures are tied to, and conversely affect, contemporary cultural, aesthetic, and material processes in a multiplicity of ways. The focus of the work undertaken in this context is on the processes of scientization that can be observed in the ways antiquity has been engaged since the early 19th century: on the one hand, antiquity itself increasingly becomes an object of scientific scholarship; on the other hand, this shift also transforms the ways scholars engage fields of knowledge that had already been regarded as ›scientific‹ in antiquity or, on the contrary, acquired the status of sciences only after the end of antiquity.


c) Innovation and imagination in transformations

Central to this focus of our work is the question: In which historic constellations and under which conditions did the field of transformations of antiquity give rise to the genuinely ›new‹, did innovations in a strict sense take place? The question places a particular accent on the role of the ›imagination‹. There is a tension between these two terms and moments of resistance and inertia. Pagan lay piety, for instance, was a force of resistance against the interpretatio Christiana; the Christian cosmology on its Aristotelian-Ptolemaic basis stood against the Copernican reform with its claim to physical truth. Resistance against the new can arise in the name of antiquity, as a sector of antiquity that had been previously dismissed and is now invoked as a model, or against antiquity, by invoking a form of authority flowing from a different source. Central to our discussions are the following questions: What precisely is ›the new‹, and how does it emerge under the auspices of antiquity? What does the particular antiquity referred to in each case look like? What status does ›evidence‹ have, and how does it function as one of the conditions that allow the new to be perceived and enable the techniques that render it plausible? To answer these questions, we examine exemplary processes such as the genesis of the modern state, different forms of ›metamorphosis‹, or the emergence of the pastoral as a literary mode.

d) Narration, reflection, and the boundaries of knowledge

›Narration‹ as a form of knowledge sui generis was developed — primarily in literature and historiography, but also in the visual arts (e.g., history painting or the sculptural or pictorial presentation of mythical characters) — in order to present knowledge about antiquity. It is one of the most long-lived genres of the transformation of antiquity. Epic and novelistic narratives, historiographic writings and artistic representations have drawn on narrative models as a matter of course; nonetheless, the study of such transformations will have to take the marked differences between the media into account. A second aspect central to this focus of our work concerns the ›boundaries of knowledge‹: they are particularly conducive to the expansion, dynamization, and intensification of various orders of knowledge, but also to the formation of internal structures and specializations within them; a phenomenon that is explained not least importantly by the meaning and function of these very boundaries. They not only separate what is part of a culture from what is foreign to it, they are also permeable and can be transgressed. An especially illuminating source of insight into the expansion and innovation of knowledge are the processes of exchange between hegemonic and ostracized, between canonical and apocryphal types of knowledge — distinctions that hold in one form only for a certain period of time.

The central question concerns the ways in which the productivity of boundaries in literary or historiographic writings (e.g. for thinking about political-spatial orders), in park designs, and other forms of art is tested and reflected, realized in narrative form and put to use. Of particular importance, beyond the narrative structures on the surface, are the functional structures of historical narratives: both are constitutive for the narrative construction and transformation of antiquity, a process that continually moves amid the tensions between fact and fiction. We will also examine the extent to which cultural narratives can be regarded as important instruments in the creation of intellectual boundaries and the promotion or disqualification of stores of knowledge.


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4. The concept of transformation

Transformations must be understood as complex processes of mutation that take place between a domain of reference and one of reception. In the act of appropriation, they modify not only the culture of reception but, quite importantly, also construct the culture of reference. This close interrelation between modification and performative genesis is an essential feature of transformative processes, which can occur both synchronously and diachronously. Transformations can build on the products of previous transformations, forming interconnected series.

Transformations, then, generate dynamics of cultural production that always also alter what precedes them, what a transformation reflectively relates to (which comes to be specified only over the course of this transformation). These processes, then, are not unilinear but shaped by relations of interdependency: transformations are bipolar processes of construction in which the two poles constitute one another and define each other’s contours. We call this specific aspect of productive mutuality between the cultures of reference and reception allelopoiesis, from the Greek allelon (ἀλλήλων, »mutually«, »reciprocally«) and poiesis (ποίησις, »creation«, »work«).

It follows that there are no constant entities within the process of transformation that would be, as it were, handed down unaltered. Rather, the input and output of transformations must be understood as mutually generative and performative elements conditioned by the respective contexts in the cultures of reference and reception.

Any transformation is most basically defined by a domain of reference and a domain of reception. An aspect is selected from the domain of reference, and even this selection already represents a construction. Transformations engender alterations in the domains of both reference and reception. They thus lead to something ›new‹ in a twofold sense: to new figurations in the culture of reference as well as that of reception.


The cultural content of the domain of reference constitutes the object of a transformation. Such content need not consist of material objects; it can also be structural or semantic in nature. On the one hand, it is closed by virtue of its characteristic refractoriness and foreignness; on the other hand, it is processual in nature and formally and semantically open. This interplay of constancy and openness determines the latitude within which the transformation moves. The function and potency of the object of transformation is also tied to its specific embedment in a domain of reference. The structural and formal repertoires of this domain serve not only as a point of departure for transformations; they can themselves generate and structure such transformations.


The ›domain of reception‹, too, has its formal and structural repertoires determining the selection and appropriation of content from the reference domain. Transformation encompasses the (re-)construction of the domain of reference no less than the construction of the domain of reception. This aspect of self-reference can be reflected on as a form of interplay between the ›indigenous‹ and the ›foreign‹; but it can also enter into the transformation as an unavowed projection or identification. A modification of the domain of reception is the inevitable consequence.


Processes of transformation are initiated by one or more ›agents‹, who need not be persons; there may also be collectives, institutions, or even artefacts that have agency or to whom it is ascribed. Agents, in drawing upon the domain of reference, generally delineate the contour of the object of transformation, but do not exercise control over the entire process. Agents may also enter into interaction or competition with one another.


In any transformation, its media (writings, imagery, numerals, but also genres or materials) are of particular significance because they are not neutral carriers of information or channels of transmission. Rather, media, by imposing specific conditions, shape the objects of the domains of both reference and reception, exerting decisive influence over the process of transformation. The same holds for the techniques of reference and use (writing, painting, interpreting, experimenting, building, staging, etc.) that define the pragmatic framework within which a transformation takes place. Historically tied to the domain of reception, these cultural techniques nonetheless have formative effects on the domain of reference; they themselves may also undergo changes during the process of transformation.


Essential to the scientific observation of transformations is the methodologically reflected and distancing distinction between the domains of reception and reference; this distinction guides the scholarly inquiry. But as scientific observers select, structure, and question the materials of their examination, they themselves in turn become agents of further transformations. The academic study of these processes, then, no less than other forms of engagement, also constructs cultures  —both the foreign cultures and the scholar’s own.


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