Spring 2017 Colloquium Series: Literarische Unschärfe: Zu ihrer Poetik und ihrem frühneuzeitlichen Debüt

February 24, 2017

Christian Metz

Christian Metz, who is Feodor Lynen Fellow in the Department of German Studies at Cornell University for the academic year 2016-17 under the auspices of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, opened the spring semester’s colloquium series on February 24, 2017, with a paper titled Literarische Unschärfe: Zu ihrer Poetik und ihrem frühneuzeitlichen Debüt (“Literary Blurriness: On Its Poetics and Its Early Modern Debut”). Taking the apparent omnipresence of blurry images in contemporary culture as a point of entry into his multifaceted project, Metz developed an analytical understanding of blurriness as a visual phenomenon that is based on physiological qualities of the human eye and therefore inseparable from normal vision. Establishing blurriness as a relational optical phenomenon rather than a quality of images, Metz argued, allows for exploration of the interface between sensory perceptions and their cognitive processing in the context of logic, semiotics, and the phenomenology of attention. Blurry perception (“unscharfe Wahrnehmung”) can then be conceptualized as a basic cultural and bodily technique that raises fundamental questions regarding the nature of the human faculties of perception. This understanding of blurriness expands its significance beyond both optical perception and modernity.

Metz argued that visual arts that stage or expose blurriness shed light on aspects of optical perception that otherwise usually remain unnoticed or hidden. Metz advocated for a literary notion of blurriness that simultaneously foregrounds several dimensions of blurriness. This involves conceptualizing literary blurriness as a “textual model” incorporating two main aspects: 1) mere (bloße) blurriness as experienced with regard to the textual medium (Schriftlichkeit) and the blurry perception of letters and words in the process of reading (rooted in the physiological conditions of the human eye as well as in Western conventions of reading); and 2) artistic (künstlerische) blurriness operative on different textual levels and analyzable by means of rhetoric, semiotics, and narratology.

In the second part of his paper Metz traced the debut of literary blurriness in the seventeenth century in Johann Klaj’s Redeoratorium “Auferstehung Jesu Christi” (“Resurrection of Jesus Christ”) and the poem “Die Seifenblase” (“The Soap Bubble”) by Barthold Heinrich Brockes. Metz demonstrated how a notion of blurriness allowed Klaj to address a key aspect of religious narration, namely a topological and metaphysical blurriness that performs crises of faith, cognition, and perception in Klaj’s adaptation of the biblical story. According to Metz, Brockes’s poem staged processes of visual perception and the interplay of focusing and blurring, reminiscent of the scientific gaze that relies on the microscope or the telescope. At the same time, however, Brockes thematized the temporality of blurriness and the ephemeral beauty of the soap bubble, thereby introducing a notion of vanitas that brings relations between observer and observed, subject and object, into focus, foregrounding the fragile status of both the soap bubble and its perception. (Matthias Müller)