Research program

Object of study: art, media and social critique

The research training group is devoted to outstanding case studies from the research fields of art, media and social critique. We will study their forms, media and effects in order to think about the prerequisites, conditions, functions and claims to validity of critical practice from a historical and culturally differentiated perspective.

The study of the each critical practice is bracketed by three research hypotheses:

  1. Critique inevitably implies procedures and operations for the representation of its object, and these can be described as cultural techniques. 
  2. Actual critical practices of representation in turn display their particular framing—for example, institutions or media—in scenes that, for their part, are historically, socially and culturally bound. 
  3. Critical practice is principally a situational and, as such, a particular phenomenon, yet nevertheless oriented toward generality. And so critical practices are determined by a constitutive tension between the particular mode of appearance and a comprehensive potential for validity.

As a rule, the doctoral projects will be assigned to disciplines that correspond to the three fields of research. However, this assignment to a discipline is not to be considered as marking a boundary, but rather as a bracketed and established point of departure for interdisciplinary work. For the range of the topics (forms, media and effects) and the research hypotheses (cultural technique, scene, situatedness) is set up in a transdisciplinary manner. They come into play in the disciplines in different ways and ensure a common interdisciplinary basis for discussion.

Main questions of the research training group

The issue of critique has returned emphatically to the fore in social and academic debates. Just as vehemently discussed, however, is what is to be understood as critique. One of the main questions of the research group is how heterogeneous critical forms and discourses are comparable and therefore amenable to discussion. The programmatic point of departure is given by critical practices, for the sake of developing an understanding of critique that is rooted in its cultural conditions. Critique will be considered as a culturally situated phenomenon. The formal and material shape of critical practices, their medial and technological contingency, the requirements for a critical act, the modes of perception and reach of expectations, as well as the functions, modes of action and purposes of critique will be confronted with historically changing purposes of critique.

What all forms of critique have in common is their linkage with representation. Critique is inseparable from the forms and media of representation that it uses and in which it is embedded. This already appeared clearly in critical practices at the beginning of the modern era, for example in Denis Diderot. New media—blogs, social media, the so-called Web 2.0—make the prominent role of representation in critical practices patently obvious. The research training group studies the effects of this linkage to representation on the object and action of critique in a programmatically chosen constellation of three areas: art critique, media critique and social critique. 

Art and media critique usually operate with an awareness of representation. They reflect on  the conditions of their own mode of appearance, forms and media—to the point of a self-reflexive obsession that loses sight of the societal or social relevance of their object. Social critique, on the contrary, is dominated by an orientation toward societal change involvement and intervention: a focus that usually overlooks what Femen, for example, clearly demonstrates: that the critique of social phenomena operates in a way that depends on representation and would be unthinkable without its forms and media.   

In the field of art, a variety of forms of critique will be integrated, transformed, discussed and criticized in turn. Art criticism intervenes in societal processes, for example, as a medium for bourgeois publicity in the early modern era or as an intermediary mouthpiece for critical agendas in contemporary artistic practice: be it a post-Fordian critique of capitalism, a critique of representation or feminist intervention. Art criticism is therefore an exemplary and broad field for dealing with critique. Being concerned directly with questions of representation in its materiality and mediality, it is also confronted with an object that includes the constitution of subjectivity , social, transcendental and economic aspects. Originating at the same time as the elaboration of the modern idea of critique, in the second half of the18th century, art criticism is an instrument of subjective and societal self-perception that is aware of representation. As soon as it is confronted with an esthetically defined object, the critical subject experiences itself in its sensory, emotional and reflexive capacities. In keeping with an idea developed during the modern period, the critical subject is able to observe and represent those capacities in a self-reflexive manner.

Both aspects—the world-connecting dimension of representation and the subject-constituting function of the critical act—are also at the disposal of media criticism and are often associated with argumentation that is critical of culture. Media are suspected of blocking access to the phenomena, and, as a result of computerization and digitalization, they threaten modern forms of subjectivity that are based on transcendental justifications, just as much as established techniques threaten the constitution of the subject. Critical subjectivity today seems to be less tied to the classical cultural techniques of writing, reading and observation. It functions with diagrams, graphs, algorithms and software instead. Here, new or expanded forms of critical subjectivity are being brought into being that do not simply arisefrom the idea of the subject as sketched out during the modern era or the Age of Enlightenment.Given collective and networked forms of assembly of protest and critique, the question of the subject of critique, its esthetics, infrastructures and modes of production is posed in a new way in the field of social critique. Through the forms and media of representation, critical acts can therefore be addressed pointedly in their social and subject-theoretical dimensions. Whereas in the dissertation projects actual cases of critical practice will be studied, the cooperative work of the research group offers a forum for interdisciplinary, methodologically differentiated exchange that permits a review of the phenomenon of critique and its theoretical-systematic determination. In this form, the relation between concrete practices and theoretical access to critique is constantly present as a research issue.