Hohendahl Graduate Essay Prize

Call for Submissions: The Peter Uwe Hohendahl Graduate Essay Prize in Critical Theory

The Institute for German Cultural Studies is pleased to announce its 2023 call for submissions for The Peter Uwe Hohendahl Graduate Essay Prize in Critical Theory. This named prize honors a distinguished scholar of international renown for his many publications on German literatures of modernity, comparative intellectual histories, critical theory writ large and the Frankfurt School especially, and the history and desiderata of university education in Europe and North America. As Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature from 1977 to 2011, Peter Uwe Hohendahl taught and inspired many Cornell students on the importance of critical theory for public life and the collective good.

Essay submissions may be submitted in German or English on any topic pertaining to critical theory, and registered graduate students in any relevant field of study at Cornell University are eligible to apply. Only one submission per person. The author of the winning essay will be awarded a prize of $250.

Essays may be up to 25 double-spaced pages in length. Please submit your essay via email attachment to Anne Chen (aac262@cornell.edu) by noon on October 15. In the body of the email please include your name, the essay title, your department, and your email address. The essay itself should have a title but not include your name anywhere.

The deadline for submission is October 15.

Entries should be submitted to Anne Chen at aac262@cornell.edu.

The Peter Uwe Hohendahl Graduate Essay Prize in Critical Theory is made possible by a generous gift from an anonymous donor.

Previous Winners:


1st prize: Pascal Schwaighofer, Department of Comparative Literature: “The Book Hive: A Material Metaphor”

In 1792, the Genevan naturalist François Huber (1750–1831) published, under the title Nouvelles observations sur les abeilles (New Observations on the Natural History of Bees), a collection of letters in which he reported entomological discoveries made by means of a new hiving system allowing the beekeeper to open the hive like “les feuillets d’un livre” (the leaves of a book).[1] What Huber named the “ruche en livre” (book hive) literally transformed the dome-shaped hive and provided new access into an enigmatic and mystifying multitude of nonhuman beings.

This essay examines the ramifications of Huber’s invention, which contributed to transforming bees from fabulous beasts into test subjects. However, a certain friction is inherent to the hybridity of the book hive—a book can never fully represent a hive, and a hive can never become a book—opening up questions about the prosthetic role of Huber’s new hive and its epistemology. Huber’s motivation for designing a hive in the form of a book was not purely pragmatic. What drove him must be probed by investigating the larger context, which, together with the cultural and scientific debate around methodology at his time, also includes Huber’s visual impairment.

Because reading a beehive might have matched the ideology and scientific tenets of the Enlightenment, studying the book hive today allows light to be shed on what Michel Foucault terms the “new field of visibility” of eighteenth-century natural history. If the concept of a book can metaphorically and pragmatically “reduce the distance” between “things and language,” then the book hive represents a material endeavor to open access to the “thingness” of honeybees.


1st prize: Daniel Zimmer, Department of Government: “The Blindspot in Biopolitics: Michel Foucault and the Power to Kill Life Itself”

This essay reconstructs Michel Foucault’s engagement with a mysterious mode of power that he termed ‘the power to kill life itself.’ It begins by illustrating how this disturbing new capacity came to preoccupy Foucault at precisely the same time that he was formulating his more famous theory of ‘biopolitics,’ inflecting it in important ways. The essay then proceeds to examine the two modes of exercising the power to kill life itself that most preoccupied Foucault—the atomic excess of sovereign killing power and the ‘excess of biopower’ unleashed by new gene editing technologies—and demonstrates how Foucault came to conclude that the consequences of these developments confront “the workings of contemporary political power” with “a paradox that is difficult, if not impossible, to get around.” It argues that Foucault’s encounter with this paradox helps to explain the stark repudiation of theories of sovereignty that transpires in his thinking at precisely this time. The essay concludes by examining how the political consequences of the power to kill life itself cause Foucault to revise his earlier anti-universalist antihumanism, acknowledging that the threat of ‘universal death’ represents at least one case in which it may be warranted to address humankind in a universal register.


1st prize: Richard LeBlanc, Department of Romance Studies: “The Color of the Transcendental Deduction”

In this paper, I take position in the debate over Kant’s racism, as initiated by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, and propose to read the transcendental deduction of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787) by juxtaposing it with his conceptions of race. I argue that the racism of some of Kant’s lesser-known texts can be understood as both compatible and incompatible with the first critique. First, I show that Kant’s theory of the knowing subject in the transcendental deduction is in line with the universalism of his monogenesis, which means that for Kant all human beings regardless of race would have the transcendental categories of the understanding. Second, I demonstrate that Kant’s idea that only white European people can create scientific knowledge implies that the transcendental deduction as a justification of modern science is potentially Eurocentric and racist. While various interpretations of these texts are possible, I conclude by supporting the point made by scholars such as Robert Bernasconi and others that the study of Kant’s critical thought still needs to take seriously its relation to the history of racism.


1st prize: Daniel Binswanger Friedman, Department of German Studies: "Sichtbar Unterm Warten: The Embedded Act of Seeing Within Kracauer’s Waiting"

This essay explores how visual perception functions as an unlikely bridge between two other important facets of Siegfried Kracauer’s thought: waiting as a phenomenological category, and a complex relationship to Judaic messianism. Building upon connections between the German verb “warten” (to wait), the act of vision, and Gershom Scholem’s 1959 essay on messianism, this paper looks closely at the controversial “Medusa-head” passage in the epilogue of Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Here, all three strands come together in a passage that indexes the only explicit mention of the Holocaust in Kracauer’s oeuvre. The focus then broadens to the controversy that erupted between Kracauer and Adorno on the occasion of the book’s translation into German. Their discussions center on the epilogue and the translation of the theologically charged term “redemption” in the book’s title, ultimately revealing foundational discrepancies between Kracauer and Adorno’s thought, addressing political stakes of post-war translation, and preempting critical debates surrounding the representability of the Shoah. 

2nd prize: Nathaniel Likert, English Department: “Exemplary Justice: Derrida and the Body Politic”


1st prize: Marc Kohlbry, Department of Comparative Literature: "The Reification of Language: Tel Quel and Semantic Materialism"

“The Reification of Language” offers a compelling reading of the understanding of semantic materialism developed by Tel Quel writers in the 1960s, especially as reflected by the 1968 volume Théorie d’ensemble. The essay ably traces the historical arc that led the journal from its early engagement with the writers of the nouveau roman and the literary and philosophical avant-gardes more generally to a deep theoretical negotiation of the connection between language and capitalism. In focusing especially on Jean-Joseph Goux’s notion of sign-as-commodity and its connection to György Lukács’s idea of reification, the essay’s author forcefully discusses the benefits and pitfalls entailed in the homological operations on which semantic materialism relies. The essay packs a wealth of insight in a comparatively tight analysis that makes for utterly rewarding reading. The writing stands out for its conceptual clarity, analytical sophistication, and exemplary intellectual modesty.


1st prize: Conall Cash, Department of Romance Studies: “Structure and Subject in French Marxism: A Confrontation and its Pre‐History”

Honorable Mention: Mariaenrica Giannuzzi, Department of German Studies: “Writing the Landscape: Paul Celan and Racial Uses of Natural History”


1st prize: Matthias Müller, Department of German Studies: “Space of Expectation: Franz Carl Weisskopf in the Soviet Union”


1st prize: Christina Soto van der Plas, Department of Romance Studies: “The Aesthetic Process as Reversal”

Stendhal’s famous phrase about the novel being a mirror “going along the main road” frames the problematic of realism, in which art would simply be a reflection of reality and the ideology of the time. This is also the conception of various Marxist readings—derived from Marx’s basissuperstructure metaphor—of literature that have often ran along the lines of a reflection theory of art in general. Introducing the idea of the “reversal” as the inversion or turning upside down of these theories of art, this essay revises four different positions regarding the problem of the relationship between art and reality as mediated by ideology in the mimetic or representational act so as to unsettle the deadlock of this relationship. The first one is Althusser’s reading of art as a procedure that does not simply makes reality visible, but also redoubles or renders visible ideology through a certain décalage or non-identity. Likewise, Macherey’s conception of literature is that of a fragmented mirror that renders visible the hidden contradictions of ideology. The third position, that of Alain Badiou, breaks away from the two previous ones going beyond the logic of the reversal and instead proposing scission as a procedure to demarcate the autonomy of the field of art with respect to ideology and science. For Badiou, no element of the aesthetic process is by itself ideological or aesthetic but is instead produced as ideological in the structure of the aesthetic mode of production. Finally, Macedonio Fernández’s position against realism opens up a possible disentanglement of the art-ideology-knowledge knot. Fernández’s work challenges realism by proposing that the autonomy of a fiction has a certain effect in reality and it becomes quite literal when he devises that there can be a novel -- a reflection -- walking on the streets.


1st prize: Stephen Klemm, Department of German Studies: “Conscious, Consciousness, and Guilt in the Works of Fichte and Tieck”

In this paper I address recent scholarly debate that seeks to situate the movement of Early German Romanticism in relation to a form philosophical Foundationalism, which attempts to ground philosophical knowledge on an indubitable first principle. In contrast to recent narratives, I argue that the work of Ludwig Tieck represents a fundamental shift away from a philosophy of first principles towards a position that is much more skeptical about the ability to ground a system of knowledge on a first principle.
I argue for this claim by comparing what I call the “moral universe” as it is described by the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte in his Sittenlehre (System of Ethics), a work in which he deduces a system of ethics from an established first principle, with the “moral universe” that the Romantic author Ludwig Tieck creates for his protagonists in his fairy tale Der blonde Eckbert (The Blonde Eckbert). In comparing these two visions of morality, I delineate how Fichte and Tieck come to diametrically opposed conclusions regarding the ability of reason to deduce a moral system from a well-established first principle as well as the ability for any individual to engage in moral decision-making procedures capable of arriving at a secure conclusion concerning what is morally correct conduct. Unlike Fichte, Tieck remains fundamentally skeptical regarding both the possibility of deducing a moral system from a secure first principle and the ability of reason to develop a deliberation procedure capable of making accurate moral decisions. Tieck’s skepticism with respect to these issues marks a fundamental distinction between his world-view and that of his more Foundationalist predecessor Fichte, a distinction, I argue, that is indicative of the shift from a philosophy of first principles to Early German Romanticism.


1st prize: Kevin Duong, Government Department: “Georges Sorel and the Reactionary Politics of Intuition in Fin de Siecle France”

Georges Sorel was a syndicalist, a civil engineer, sometimes a royalist, a nationalist, and an anti-Semite. Mussolini happily declared, "What I am I owe to Georges Sorel." He energized a powerful current of pre-war French political thought considered neither Left nor Right, structured as it was by a more fundamental suspicion of democracy in any iteration. But perhaps most troubling for contemporary political theory, Sorel was also one of the first thinkers to politicize Henri Bergson's philosophy of intuition and translate it into an attack on capitalism and democracy, an approach that would appeal to later fascist thinkers.
This essay reconstructs Sorel's pessimistic diagnosis of democracy's problems. Doing so brings into view how he conscripted Bergson's philosophy into formulating an antidote for the stagnating, dying French republic: "sublime" political violence. For Sorel, democracy and its preferred mode of instrumental, cognitive reasoning cannot make our free will known to us in the way immediate intuition can during the activity of violence. Violence therefore promises escape from a modern world by rescuing the free will from being deadened by instrumentalism and parliamentarism. Reconstructing Sorel's argument calls into question the political innocence of "intuition" as a critical category for our present, revealing how it can motivate reactionary forms of anti-capitalism instead. It also clarifies what is troubling in the turn towards aestheticized or experiential politics generally: By describing anything from parliamentarism to language itself as “deadening," the cry to “return to immediate intuition” participates in a dangerous fantasy of unmediated access to freedom from which stem commitments to violence in the name of irreducible, vital life.

2nd prize: Johannes Wankhammer, Department of German Studies: “After Cosmos and Chaos: Reason in an Age of Contingency”


1st prize: Avery Slater, English Department: “Weltverlorenheit: Lyrical Ontology, Poetic Translation, and the Passive Voice of Extinction”

This paper explores the ethics of translation through the work of Paul Celan, specifically in the poem ‘Große glühende Wölbung.’ Extending and challenging the readings of Celan’s critics as well as his translators, who have tended to reduce Celan’s poetic methodology to gnomic and agonized hermeticism, this paper excavates neglected layers of deep historical and mythic allusion at work in this poem. By way of his excavation, I theorize Celan’s poetics of infralinguistic translation as offering a historically salient alternative to modes of lyric interiority. Through tropes of extinction and apocalypse, Celan’s ethics of translation not only challenge anthropocentric ontologies; they also offer, in their place, a newly apostrophic structure of relation. This post‐lyrical apostrophe locates the living as mutually in correspondence with the dead, an encounter occasioned by what I call an ethics of worldlessness immanent in the practice of translation.

Honorable Mention: Daniel Bret Leraul, Department of Comparative Literature: “Life Formed: On the Early Lukács”


1st prize: Paul Flaig, Department of Comparative Literature: “Brecht, Chaplin and Marxism’s Comic Inheritance”

Although many scholars have discussed the influence of film star Charlie Chaplin on critical theorists like Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, few have examined the broader political ramifications of this influence. The case of Brecht is particularly instructive as such influence spanned the playwright’s entire career, from intense fandom in the early twenties to close friendship during his exile years in Hollywood. The intertwined history of Chaplin and Brecht suggests the importance of reciprocally reading these two figures, especially considering he politico-ethical concern hey inherit from their nineteenth-century forerunner, Karl Marx. If the Marx of “The Eighteenth Brumaire” is forced into satirical anger by the intrusive interruption of the lumpenproletariat, Chaplin and Brecht make this discontinuous, distracted and trampish figure the central object of their formal and narrative strategies. Beyond the teleology of Marxist science, the lumpen performs the political by exposing the repressed nonsense of social relations, thus suggesting their critique and transformation. This essay argues that Brecht’s epic theater screens these relations in a Chaplin-inflicted montage of gestures, positions and attitudes, finding a means, to paraphrase Marx, to separate from the past cheerfully.

Honorable mention: Matteo Calla, Department of German Studies: “Adorno’s Critique of Benjamin’s Montage Aesthetics”

Honorable mention: Nathan Taylor, Department of German Studies: “Towards a Theory of Negative Realism in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory”