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Martin Urmann

The romantic problem and the discovery of selfreference in fin-de-siècle arts


There has hardly been another phase in European arts so firmly convinced of the idea that at the bottom of the individual art forms there are traits of an aesthetic experience, both specific and universal, like the Fin-de-siècle, which turns the transgression of borders between the arts and their media into a programmatic principle of its artistic creativity. For gaining a deeper insight, on a theoretical as well as on a practical level, into what is actually worked out between music, painting and post-naturalistic literature (especially in Paris and Vienna) since the 1880s, I propose to approach this seemingly well known epoch from a new, explicitly interdisciplinary perspective.

The dissertation project basically pursues a twofold line of research: On the one hand, it is conceived as a genuine contribution to studies in fin-de-siècle literature and –painting. By means of a comparison between the Parisian avant-garde (Joris-Karl Huysmans, Stéphane Mallarmé, Maurice Barrès and Gustave Moreau) and the Viennese avant-garde (Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Klimt and Gustav Mahler), I hope to close a striking research gap that too often focuses on one national or even one metropolitan context. On the other hand, the study takes an archaeological approach: by examining the constructivist tendencies within late 19th century arts, commonly known as "decadence", "symbolism" and "art nouveau", the study exposes the fundamental transformations out of which our current aesthetic-philosophic space has risen. The starting point of the analysis is constituted by a concise re-interpretation of Nietzsche’s "The birth of tragedy" and its central "duplicity of apollinian/dionysian" as a medium/form-theory.

It is hardly surprising yet crucially important to the reconstructions of an intellectual history of 19th century arts and philosophy that since Wagner and Baudelaire, these radical aesthetic changes have been achieved with explicit reference to romanticism. In fact, it is in fin-de-siècle arts that two key concepts of the (early- and late-) romantic aesthetics reach an apogee: the reflexivity of the work of art and the figure of the fantastic allowing to think modernity in terms of contingency and hazard. Fin-de-siècle arts, by their very style, show that form cannot be conceived as an act of abstraction founded in identity, but – before and after the conveyance of meaning – as the sensually perceivable inscription of a difference creating a two-side-form, the excluded other of which becomes the actual centre of the process of composition.

Within the framework of a principally hermeneutical approach (Gadamer, Boehm, Ricoeur), the notion of "selfreference" taken from Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory allows us to interrelate and theoretically explicate vital analytical categories, like paradox, irritation and resonance ground. Thereby, the much-lauded ‘modernity’ of late 19th century arts - and above all its gestures of radical performativity - can finally be located more precisely. Furthermore, the conception of selfreference opens the way to the historical reconstruction of the cultural backgrounds of fin-de-siècle arts. In terms of an interdisciplinary sociology of knowledge, the latter can also be interpreted as the earliest fundamental crisis of a modern system of reflection the type of which is later to be repeated by the natural sciences and academic philosophy, but in a way which is symptomatically less open to the paradoxological logic of border based practical processes.

At the core of the analysis is the dimension of selfreferentialisation inscribed in the texts and artworks on a performative as well as on a thematic level, within the tense relationship between musicality and the visual logic of the image. Temporality (the deconstruction of the notion of progress), radical perspectivity beyond the binary opposition of being and appearance and the psychological critique of the metaphysics of subjectivity are the elementary aspects under which selfreference shows itself most vigorously in fin-de-siècle arts. 

Inevitably, all of this leads us back to the aesthetics of tragic experience and the work on a new notion of tragedy.


Personal Details

Contact: servus.uri[at]gmx.de

Born on April 1st 1979 in Oberstdorf

High school degree and alternative civilian service (educator in a home for mentally handicapped children and adolescents/ with conspicuous behavioural traits).


Studies of history (major field of study), philosophy and political science (minor fields of study) at the Humboldt-University Berlin, especially at Prof. Dr. Ludolf Herbst


Maîtrise d’histoire (Advisor: Prof. Dr. Christophe Charle, contemporary history) at Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne


Degree of Magister Artium (M.A.) at the Humboldt-University Berlin with a thesis on the intellectual history of the aesthetics of decadence in France and in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (Advisors: Prof. Dr. L. Herbst/Prof. Dr. W. Hardtwig)

2005-2006 Teaching assignment at the Humboldt-University, department of contemporary history
Since Oct. 2006

Member of the international research training group interart studies; Doctoral thesis as a "Cotutelle de thèse".Advisors: Prof. Dr. Renate Schlesier, Free University (FU) Berlin (department of religious studies) and Prof. Dr. Michael Werner, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris (Centre de recherches interdisciplinaires sur l'Allemagne)

  Associate member of the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin and of the graduate school of the Université franco-allemande: "La dynamique des représentations dans la formation de la modernité européenne"


"Paradoxologisches Sprechen als Triumph der Sprache – Mallarmés Lyrik des 'Blanc'", in: Emmanuel Alloa/Alice Lagaay/Carsten Lotz (Eds.):  „Wie nicht sprechen?“ Strategien der Entsagung im Gegenwartsdenken, Bielefeld 2008, pp. 171-188.

"Articulation et médium. Autour d’une nouvelle théorie du sens et de ses applications possibles", in: Revue des sciences sociales 39 (2008), pp. 192-200.

"Gestimmtes Wissen. Die Fin-de-siècle Literatur als Antwort und Frage an das Problem der Wissenschaft", in: Uffa Jensen/Daniel Morat (Eds.), Rationalisierungen des Gefühls. Zum Verhältnis von Wissenschaft und Emotionen 1880-1930, München 2008, pp. 251-274.

"Aisthesis seit dem Tractatus – Zu Fabian Goppelsröders Wittgensteininterpretation 'Zwischen Sagen und Zeigen'", in: Journal Phänomenologie 29 (2008), pp. 51-56.


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