Tension, Failure, Errantry – 10 Years of the ICI Berlin

ICI BerlinRecently, the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry celebrated its 10th anniversary. We spoke to the director, Christoph Holzhey, and the staff researcher, Arnd Wedemeyer.

Interview by Dennis Schep

Dennis: During the first seven years of its existence the ICI worked on Tension / Spannung. Could you tell me something about the background of this first core project?

Christoph: The project was initiated by myself and a group of nine associate members who took part in setting up the institute. The idea was to think about the tensions between different cultures in the broadest sense possible. We wanted to see how productive tensions can be developed, what the potentials and limits are. Looking at the coexistence of cultures, we wanted to question the paradigm of harmony or integration, and investigate whether we can look at cultures from the perspective of their internal tensions.

When I bring up a term like integration, even as something we wanted to question, it immediately evokes the political notion of multiculturalism. This is part of the background, and we were very interested in the tensions and conflicts that accompany identity formations in the realms of gender, sexuality, race, and so on. That being said, the notion of culture we work with is not restricted to the realm of social or personal identity, and we also look at cultures of knowledge. C.P. Snow has described the split between the so-called two cultures; perhaps today we could even speak of three: the exact sciences, the humanities and the social sciences. There is a tension between different fields, but each field also operates with a different notion of tension: physical tension is not the same as psychological tension, political tension or aesthetic tension. One of the ideas guiding our first core project was to see how these notions resonate differently in the projects of the fellows, and to stimulate a productive transference from one field to another. One could say we tried to put different notions of tension in tension with one another.

Arnd: I was not around for the first years, but it seems to me the topic of Tension was uniquely suited for the foundation of an institute: there was anticipation, something was going to happen, and it was surely going to involve tension. Thematizing this foundational moment with the term tension allowed for a kind of self-reflective understanding of the processes that go into such a venture. Generally the institute does not proceed from a particular idea about how cultures should be understood or studied, but understands its quest to also consist in a reflection on its own operation.

D: Would you say this moment of institutional reflection is also part of the ERRANS project?

A: Absolutely. As the Tension project evolved, we started to ask ourselves what it means for particular tensions to become productive. But that also means asking how to deal with things that are unproductive, even with things that might be considered total failures. This is how we started to reflect on unproductive moments, failures and errancy in a wider sense. The institute is now ten years old, and of course it is not only a story of successes and accomplishments. There is a kind of continuity, but the way in which one project generates the next is highly contingent since it also, and decisively, results from and responds to the work of the ICI fellows – and that’s more than one hundred fellows so far. We try to reflect on this contingency, which also comes out of encounters with failure. The point is to question traditional norms of success but also the aggressive celebration of an – of course only ever temporary – failure on the part of a Capitalism embracing its own crisis mode. Instead we are asking whether it is possible to embrace an “errant” mode of defiance – whether by finding new ways of going astray or by obstinately refusing to budge.

C: Indeed, the idea of ERRANS is not simply a reflection on failure. It moves between two meanings: erring as wandering and erring as being in error. The notion of failure always implies a norm in relation to which one fails. Rather than attacking this norm head-on, we try to go sideways. ERRANS is a way of questioning or subtly undermining norms without really attacking or rejecting them (which would be a way of reproducing them). The most effective way of attacking a norm may not be a critique of its legitimacy, but a strategic embrace of failure. Recently, this argument has gained some traction in queer theory.

D: I imagine the DFG would have a hard time funding such an embrace of failure. How do you see the ICI in relation to more traditional academic environments?

C: One aspect is perhaps the degree of interdisciplinarity at which we aim and with which we experiment in a somewhat freer space than one finds at a regular university. Initially we envisaged assembling fellows from all disciplines, including the natural sciences. That was of course unrealistic: we never got many applications and most of the time, I’ve been the only one with a science PhD in the group. In the first years, we were open to virtually anyone who got a degree in the past ten years, and we also had many artistic projects. But as we got more and more applications and realized that it was difficult to do everything at the same time within the format of our fellowship programme, we decided to only accept postdoctoral applications and effectively refrained from selecting purely artistic projects. We keep looking for different ways to include artistic projects, as we have found it very enriching to have them as part of the conversation, and we cherish our proximity to the art world. I am not sure whether this answers more to your question about embracing failure or about our relation to more traditional academic environments. I may add that for us the interest in the concept of failure lies in its possibility to question traditional ways of understanding achievement and to open up a space for ways of experimenting, thinking and being that do not correspond to teleological and predefined expectations and may thereby carry a different kind of critical, existential and political potential.

A: From the beginning the idea was for the ICI not to be simply a scholarly or academic venture, but to have it engage with different strands in art and activism. We are not a self-enclosed think tank. A tank contains; the ICI is a site of intersections and collaborations, with academic institutions and Sonderforschungsbereiche, but also with art venues and groups interested in activism, such as Savvy Contemporary and the Institute for Queer Theory. We hosted a conference on the power of activist videos recently, and last year, we had two events with Momentum, an art gallery in Kreuzberg. We’ve also collaborated with the Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, most recently for a book presentation on pop music in 1967 and previously on an event with Nilüfer Göle. If you look at our programming, you’ll see that some things are geared towards an academic audience, and others decidedly less so.

Some of our collaborators have had a decisive impact on the course of the ICI. We are not a self-enclosed institute that locks twelve postdocs in a seminar room, but a platform on which things are supposed to be gathered, on which encounters take place. Our collaborations have changed our course, but we also constantly adapt to a changing environment and look for different forms of collaboration. For instance, graduate schools and SFBs expire, the landscape changes rather quickly, and that’s something we have to react to.

D: Most of the staff and fellows do have an academic background. Do you think there’s a particular appeal in going to a place like this?

A: In many ways, we are not too different from other postdoc programs. What may distinguish the fellows at the ICI is a somewhat more playful and less institutionally supervised engagement with interdisciplinarity. We are very interested in theories of play, and we try to embrace the non-teleological opportunities play opens. At the moment we are preparing a workshop in which the fellows will present the work of the current project, ERRANS, in Time. This workshop will take place in September and it will revolve around the prefix “re-.” We will produce a pseudo-glossary of the prefix and the words that carry it. This is one example of the more playful approach we sometimes allow ourselves.

C: What we try to do is perhaps a little bit more intense than other post-doctoral programs. In the first place, this intensity comes with meeting every week in a colloquium to develop a common project. Another key element is that we allow interdisciplinary encounters to unfold at their own pace. It’s very hard to do this kind of work in a satisfactory way; of course you can put people from different disciplines in a room and see what happens, but we try to avoid a situation in which everyone becomes a representative of their own discipline. Many of the people in the institute have unusual trajectories, and the exciting thing is to see what unexpected constellations emerge when these people start working together.

A: In many cases, interdisciplinarity implies that there is some sort of master discipline – which would often be “theory” – that supplies the privileged conduit. This is something we try to avoid, not because we have a problem with theory, but because we think interdisciplinarity can yield the greatest surprises when two specific disciplines start talking to each other and confronting each other without a meta-language supplying the vocabulary. We privilege interdisciplinarity over a transdisciplinary approach filtered through the abstraction of theoretical reflection. The most rewarding and surprising moments happen when we let go of the overarching conceptions that come with a dominant theoretical framework.

Anyone observing the ICI from the outside would say that this is a place where theory reigns supreme. But for us, an encounter between, say, an anthropologist and a literary scholar is exciting not when both generalize their insights to make it conform to the same theoretical framework, but when their work begins to interact in interesting ways. These interactions are unexpected but also extremely rewarding: an errant pleasure. Of course you can have people from various disciplines discuss Deleuze for hours, and of course these kinds of discussions are constantly taking place at the ICI, but there are also moments when the specificity of the individual project produces unforeseen results.

D: What is the role of literature at the ICI?

A: The institute has an academic staff of four people: Christoph, Manuele Gragnolati, Claudia Peppel and myself. All four of us have a literary background: Manuele is a professor of literature at the Sorbonne, Claudia is trained as a literary scholar, and both Christoph and I also have a background in literary studies. So literature is important to all of us, and thinking about the role of literary studies in cultural inquiry is one of the inflections of the institute’s latest instantiation: many of our current fellows are working on literary projects.

C: In previous years, we often tried to include more literary projects, but we found it hard to connect them with the Tension core project. Of course there is tension in literature, but it didn’t seem to do the kind of work we were interested in. In a way, ERRANS allowed us to get more literature into the ICI again. It would be interesting to reflect upon why this may be the case. Perhaps it has something to do with literature’s capacity to imagine worlds that affect us deeply even when they are completely fictional, and with its ability to make us think and feel otherwise in a way that strikes some of us as eminently important even if there is no graspable utility?

A: As you can see in the fellowship announcements, literature is also central to the formulation of the ERRANS project. One thing we have come to realize is that errantry had a valence even in more traditional literary studies. The history of literature is populated by figures of errancy, especially the genre of the epic (which is itself, perhaps, when measured against the rise of the modern novel, an epic failure): think of the knights errant in medieval literature, but also of Odysseus, the prototype of the wandering hero. We have thought about the way gender is reflected in the Odyssey: while Odysseus is traveling, Penelope is at home, weaving a burial shroud by day while undoing her work by night. This scene – and its ob-scenes – encapsulates much of what drives the ERRANS project.