In: KulturPoetik 2009, Heft 2


Hans J. Rindisbacher


(1) Christoph Hoffmann, Unter Beobachtung. Naturforschung in der Zeit der Sinnesapparate. Göttingen: Wallstein 2006. 351 p.
(2) Christian Gruber, Literatur Kultur Quanten. Der Kampf um die Deutungshoheit und das naturwissenschaftliche Modell. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann 2006. 215p.




One of the more striking features of scientific research is how much of it goes into what Hermann Helmholtz called »secondary matters« as early as 1869: clarifying principles, finding and preparing the objects of study, designing, building, and observing the instruments of observation, accounting for errors – systemic or random – figuring out environmental influences, working on communication and publication, and, more recently, dealing with legal aspects, patents, permissions, intellectual property rights, etc. Christoph Hoffmann’s book deals with such matters explicitly in relation to research in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when observation and the development of the tools of observation begin to emerge as crucial – and problematic – aspects of science research.

In choosing this broad framework of »secondary matters« and their interaction with what is presumably the central task of science, namely finding out about reality, questions of contextualization and framing will emerge as central points of discussion.

Christian Gruber’s study on literature, culture, and quanta is different. Addressing more contemporary and specifically literary issues, he is in search of a model to account for the seeming randomness of literary interpretation, the ebb and flow in the reputation of individual authors, the unpredictable canonization of some and the near erasure of others, and the overall vagaries of literary history. He ends up proposing a natural-science model, quantum theory, as the explanatory frame of reference for what is quintessentially a humanities subject. The most applicable angle for discussing his work, therefore, is perhaps less »secondary matters« than the border area of »the two cultures« that Charles Percy Snow so memorably diagnosed in 1959. In the half-century since, repeated efforts have been made to bring the two cultures into a dialog, research has become more interdisciplinary – also more narrowly specialized, of course – and new fields have emerged between the two cultures, as it were, notably in the rapidly expanding areas of the life sciences and cultural theory. The books discussed here will serve as contexts for each other, as »secondary matters« for their assessment and positioning in a research landscape where not only the two-culture border has been opened but the evaluating subject itself, humans, have been forced, notably through biotechnology, into completely novel modes of self-understanding. A glance at the bibliographies in the books mentioned here reveals just how much their authors are aware of each other’s work and the ideas in their respective fields.

I will set out discussing Hoffmann and Gruber separately, beginning with the former, and in conclusion open the discussion onto broader frames of reference that can serve as organizational devices in the contemporary quest for mediation of scientific findings to larger audiences. This quest is currently driven by the rapidly expanding area of biotechnology and the neurosciences. But as a first instance of just how interdisciplinary and transgressive framing and intertextuality have become, here is an example from literature that elegantly mediates Hoffmann and Gruber.

Christoph Hoffmann, Unter Beobachtung. Naturforschung in der Zeit der Sinnesapparate. Göttingen: Wallstein 2006. 351 p.

The same year as Gruber’s study and only a year before Hoffmann’s book appeared, Daniel Kehlmann published his bestselling novel, Die Vermessung der Welt, a historical-fictional account of Alexander von Humboldt’s life (1769-1859), juxtaposed with that of Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855).(1) The pre-eminent natural scientist of the time and his great contemporary in mathematics and astronomy are both shown as deeply engaged with these »secondary matters« that often present themselves as obstacles to their central professional concerns but also tie them, especially Humboldt, into broad networks of discourses that far transcend the borders of the Gelehrtenrepublik and expand into publishing, diplomacy, and fundraising. Hoffmann mentions both scholars explicitly, and certainly Humboldt, who dragged an array of cutting-edge science instruments along on his American expedition, experienced – and experimented with – many of the questions Hoffmann pursues in his study.

»Discourse networks«, in turn, is the English title and central theme of Friedrich Kittler’s 1985 study, Aufschreibesysteme.(2) It is a highly suitable frame of analysis for both Hoffmann’s and Christian Gruber’s books. For Hoffmann the »Aufschreibesysteme«, the notation devices developed for the »Sinnesapparate« of his subtitle are very much at the center of his enterprise; for Gruber, whose focus is on the history and framing of literary scholarship and interpretation, »discourse« and »discourse networks«, the English-language angle, is the closer match. Hoffmann refers to Kittler explicitly while Gruber, surprisingly, does not. What he does instead is open up the debate toward the newly prominent discourse of the neurosciences.

Hoffmann’s study is a nuanced history-of-science account that traces, partly in the field of astronomy, the discovery of both instrumental and human errors and how they were tackled. Despite this tight focus, the study brings to light questions of the conceptualization of the human senses and their overall role in scientific observation and measuring, up to the historical moment in the later nineteenth century when direct sense perception was beginning to be replaced by electromechanical devices altogether and when the Sinnesapparate as devices that extend, but also problematize, the role of human sensory perception at the origin of scientific observation gave way to Sinnesapparate, the complex instruments that largely replace human senses. This replacement and the detachment of scientific data from the observer is an intrinsic goal of science qua objectification. Hoffmann’s book illustrates this trajectory and carefully records the traces the process has left.

Hoffmann begins his narrative in the eighteenth century, emphasizing the emerging awareness of the bodily involvement of the observer through his senses in the outcome of scientific observation. While the French may be at the forefront of this awareness (Pierre Bouguer, Jean Senebier) the Germans are not far behind (J. J. Krüger’s Naturlehre, 1740; or Tobias Mayer’s Beschreibung eines neuen Mikrometers, 1750) and the measures taken to address the problem of subjective distortion are universal: scientists from all countries employ strict regimens of observation, sets of »Vorkehrungen oder ›précautions‹« (p. 39). Human sensory activity, whose variation is acknowledged, thus appears in the eighteenth century as an object of regulation in order for its results to circulate legitimately as scientific data within the field of Naturforschung. A key step to that end was the conceptualization of the sense organs as tools of the mind (»Verstand«) which allowed for the development of observational regimes in the first place (»reason« analyzing and regulating »the senses« in the Kantian »theater of the mind«). A second focus of attention after the senses (›Von den Sinnen des Beobachters‹) emerges in the tools of observation (›Von den Werkzeugen des Beobachters‹, 43), in the concept of the »Unvollkommenes« (p. 44), and their interrelation. The notion of the imperfect is crucial for much of the further development of scientific observation as it logically implies its opposite, perfect observation producing perfect data. In light of the impossibility of achieving this goal, the deeply romantic notion of »infinite perfectibility« begins to drive much of observational progress in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries leading indeed not to perfection but via regimes of observation, a shift of focus to the tools of observation, and the recognition of standard errors and their mathematical accounting to the modern apparatuses of observation. They often consist of complex instrumental setups where the subjectivity of the observer has been largely eliminated and the deviation of the measuring tools accounted and controlled for, to the point that the objectivity of the sciences today depends more on understanding the principles of the instrumental setup than »daß es jemanden gibt, der zuschaut« (p. 25). Along the way and in order to compensate for inevitable observational variation, scientific life in the nineteenth century became experiment-driven, leading to increasingly sophisticated mathematical modeling on the one hand and mechanization, instrumentalization, and ultimately the automation of observation itself. Hoffmann illustrates and analyzes this trend brilliantly in chapters 5 and 6, in the »Entdeckung konstanter Beobachterdifferenzen in der Astronomie« (p. 20), a case study of international (mostly British and German) collaboration as well as competition, scholarly communication and discursive network building; and he takes up in chapter 7 the re-emergence of the senses as part of the »reflexive turn« in scientific observation in the second part of the century when the senses themselves became the renewed focus of scientific attention in the domain of »sinnesphysiologische Forschungen« (p. 19). But this time, instead of providing the model for apparatuses, they themselves are studied as, and from the perspective of, apparatuses and instruments.

The book contains an impressive bibliography that unites a broad range of scholarly perspectives, from historical and archival materials to critical and theoretical writing – both related to the concrete and experimental aspects of Naturforschung as well as to contemporary scientific conceptualizations. However, Hoffmann stops just short of the latest approach to Sinnesapparate, their investigation in the neurosciences. That may be just as well as this new inquiry into the senses has little effect on modern physical science research, where sensory input, as Hoffmann shows, has already been relegated to second-order observation of the instruments of primary data gathering. The real impact of this new approach to perception and cognition is occurring in the social sciences. Christian Gruber’s book takes us part of the way there.

Christian Gruber, Literatur Kultur Quanten. Der Kampf um die Deutungshoheit und das naturwissenschaftliche Modell. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann 2006. 215 p.

Gruber’s enterprise is entirely different from Hoffmann’s. »Literature«, »culture«, and »quanta« (which here means quantum or chaos theory) are used as broad markers in what the subtitle implies is a »struggle for interpretative supremacy and the natural science model«. It is an odd book in many ways, not lastly in its positing of the continued existence of a hard demarcation line between the »two cultures«. The first of its three parts amounts to a broad German literary historical survey that takes up half of the book and leaves mixed feelings. While useful in its own right, and slowly gaining narrative and conceptual momentum as it reaches the twentieth century and unfolds an embedded history of Germanistik, it contains nothing essentially new that a standard literary history with a social-science bent would not. Nevertheless it places certain emphases that the rest of the book’s argument draws on. First, literature is established as a collective enterprise with many participants. Second, literature is set up as a »system«, not entirely unlike Peter Bürger’s »institutions« of art or Pierre Bourdieu’s »field« of cultural production. Yet in emphasizing literature’s aspects of a complex system whose never fully analyzable initial stage lets it develop in unpredictable directions, Gruber tilts it toward natural science modeling in the form of quantum theory and the emerging neuroscience brain models. Lastly, the fact that science findings in the twentieth century, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and quantum and chaos theory (Max Planck) all imply the relativity or unpredictability of scientific modeling per se, allows Gruber to make the claim that the »Naturwissenschaften nähern sich den kreativen Bereichen, die zuvor Literatur und Kunst vorbehalten waren« (p. 64). It is this claim that makes a modern natural-sciences model appropriate for the humanities, specifically literature.

The second chapter, ›Wie funktioniert Literatur?‹ aligns only partly with the tripartite division hinted at in the title. It is less about culture than language, linguistics, and texts and serves to establish literature as an experience-based and association-enabling »communicative system of the third order« (p. 114) – in contrast to the concrete, object-based, face-to-face interaction of the first, and the abstracta-capable system of the second order. The chapter does cast a first line toward brain research – »der besondere Reiz fiktionaler Texte gründet in der assoziativen Funktionsweise des Gehirns« (p. 114) – that is taken up in chapter three, without, however, fully engaging the theory of mind (ToM) approaches that have recently been put forward as explanatory models for the invariable attraction of humans to literary texts (stories). This attraction seems to stem from fictional texts’ offering the reader vast possibilities of attributing moods, assumptions, behaviors, motives, in short, a mind, to fictional characters – a game humans love to play!(3)

In chapter 3, »Literatur und Naturwissenschaft«, Gruber locates the origin of the humanities-natural science dichotomy in Descartes and laments that literary scholarship ignored the cutting-edge findings in the natural sciences at the beginning of the twentieth century (mostly in theoretical and experimental physics, see above) that led to their recognition of worlds far beyond our cognitive abilities (p. 150). Gruber claims that literary scholarship has been put on the defensive by ignoring the possibilities of certain cognitive models in the sciences for the description of literary phenomena. But despite his polemics against literary scholarship (»subjektive Nabelschau«, »Thesenhuberei«, »Pseudo-Forschung«), Gruber’s ultimate claims for quantum theory and chaos research in literature are actually modest, namely »mit Hilfe von nützlichen Analogien Erklärungen für bestimmte Phänomene in Kunst und Literatur zu finden« (p. 151). It is above all the uncertainty principle with its emphasis on observer influence that Gruber touts as a metaphor for interpreting literature: »Eine Beobachtung macht aus unzähligen Möglichkeiten genau eine, nämlich die, die man durch sein Eingreifen selbst geschaffen hat« (p. 152). This conceptualization seems primarily applicable to the individual text, though. »Beim Lesen fallen ständig Entscheidungen darüber, wie bestimmte Passagen zu verstehen sind« (p. 153). But understanding reading as a process of elimination of meanings might just as easily be explained as a case of path dependency – a simpler model than quantum theory. In contrast, the chaos model may provide a closer fit with the overall system of literature, literary history, and literary developments, as established by Gruber in the first chapter as »die Gesamtheit aller historischen und gegenwärtigen Lesarten von bereits geschriebenen und zeitgenössischen fiktionalen Texten, die noch immer oder im Augenblick als Literatur angesehen werden« (p. 169). Precisely how and why they came to be that way, chaos theory cannot explain either, but it does serve as a model for present states of a complex dynamic system such as literature that can never be completely and unambiguously extrapolated from earlier states. Thus, assuming that literary change is »ziel- und auftragslos« (p. 166), chaos models explain »wie das Handeln der vielen das literarische System erhält und gleichzeitig wandelt« (p. 169) and »wie sich im einzelnen nachvollziehbare Ursache-Wirkungsketten so überlagern, dass am Ende ein überraschendes Ganzes herauskommt« (p. 167).

In a far-ranging book such as this, an index and a full bibliography would have been welcome; unfortunately, both are missing and bibliographical references are, somewhat haphazardly, merely integrated into the endnotes.

In conclusion I want to keep the promise made at the outset and insert Hoffmann’s and Gruber’s texts into a broader context. The ever-increasing permeability of disciplinary borders provides a starting point. Earlier discussions of observing, measuring, and interpreting scientific facts, as described by Hoffmann, remained largely contained among scholars; indeed there was no reason for such esoteric things as, say, the accuracy of transit observations of a given star at the Greenwich observatory to enter a wide public discourse. No one had to base any life decisions on it. But historical development has blurred this line. In Gruber, too, there appears a line of demarcation. It runs less between scientists and the general public, but between various kinds of scientists. While he crosses it in order to bring insights from physics to bear on the field of literature, his is already a rearguard action when juxtaposed to the interdisciplinary approaches that have created a whole new reality in the life sciences. I want to illustrate briefly this broader breach in the walls between various sciences and between scientists and the public. The former have notably been brought together around one particular object of inquiry: the human brain; and the people are scrambling to make sense of the implications for their own lives. Our case in point is thus the brain scan, that multicolored, vaguely walnut-shaped blotch that has become ubiquitous, from health sections in newspapers to covers of popular magazines, to images in hospital-shows on television and that seems to symbolize quite unproblematically our new knowledge of that organ. Usually in hues of blue, green, red, orange and yellow, such scans, together with brief explanatory texts, show what seems to be happening in which parts of the brain when certain perceptual, cognitive or emotional tasks are carried out.

Joseph Dumit in Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity provides an impression of the complexities involved in PET (positron emission tomography) technology and quickly disabuses his readers of this simple view of representation by delving headlong into the world of the apparatuses behind the image. Dumit deals, as does Hoffmann, with the discourses among scientists on issues of data capturing and measurements and the results that the world at large eventually gets to see. His is a fascinating story even if he writes only about the technological aspects and the vast network of associated sciences, institutions, individuals, and decisions that helped develop it and that come into play whenever a person undergoes a PET scan. Dumit leaves out altogether the secondary set of networks a person would draw on for further decision-making.

First, there is the historical development of the technology itself (ongoing), which involves at least the following:

A short list of the disciplines involved in PET experiments include physicists, chemists, nuclear chemists, biologists, computer scientists, electrical engineers, psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, oncologists, nuclear medicine specialists, neuroanatomists, mathematicians. These specialists must cooperate extensively with each other to understand how each area of expertise depends on the results of everyone else’s areas. (4)

The next step is the procedure of actually obtaining the scans. Then comes mathematics and statistics as each brain scan produces essentially a huge number of numerical (computerized) information – so huge that its understanding requires a process of visualization, i.e., the shift from quantitative to qualitative representation of the data. On the way there, however, difficult decisions of a statistical nature have to be made, standards have to be established, calibrations have to be put in place – each of which may lead to vastly differing visual representations. One of the keys is to generate a standard, a »normal« brain, against which the one under investigation can then be analyzed, measured, mapped. The image that is ultimately created is then in effect a rendering of the differences to the »normal« brain, the statistical chimera created at the outset. Moreover, let us not forget that neuroscience never really observes or measures anything directly, but always only indirectly within a semiotic structure, where the flow of a traced molecule indicates glucose or oxygen consumption, which in turn signals activity in a certain part of the brain, which in turn is associated with whatever the inquiry actually tries to find out – for instance where language is processed or a tumor grows. Instead of causation there is only correlation and association, a nexus with clearly aesthetic qualities. Hoffmann’s Sinnesapparate have long become nothing but Sinnesapparate, the gigantic infrastructure behind the scenes, the processes behind the image.

In The Politics of Life Itself Nikolas Rose broadens this picture from Dumit’s focus on neuroscience representational issues to the question of what the increasing and ever more generally available and consumed information about our own bodies (often obtained precisely by the kind of apparatus that Dumit describes) means for the way we go about making everyday decisions and living our lives.(5) Rose’s account addresses the vanishing border between scientific findings that relate to individual lives  – mostly of a hereditary, genetic, and hence probabilistic and prognostic nature – and what we as individuals and, extrapolated, as societies, do with them. In our new world of information- and biotechnology not only the world »out there« is related to us differently than ever before, our own bodies have become both more transparent and more complex, and our lives require different decision making processes then ever before.

Without a doubt, then, the issues addressed in our two principal texts, of the mediation between subjects and the world of facts, the senses, and instruments of perception and data gathering and, at a different level, the interaction of the various disciplines that create and interpret the findings, have remained central; it’s just that they have become differently framed and moved into new, usually larger and more complex contexts. This has flattened the difference for ordinary citizens in everyday life between primary and secondary matters and dispersed the interpretative authority into many disciplines.

Hans J. Rindisbacher, Assoc. Prof. of German, Pomona College, 550 N. Harvard Ave., Claremont, CA 91711, USA. E-mail: 


(1) Daniel Kehlmann, Die Vermessung der Welt. Reinbek 2005; translated into English as Measuring the World (2007). [zurück]

(2) Friedrich A. Kittler, Aufschreibesysteme 1800/1900. München 1985; translated into English as Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (1990). [zurück]

(3) See for instance Lisa Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction. Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus 2006. [zurück]

(4) Joseph Dumit, Picturing Personhood. Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity. Princeton 2004, p. 54. [zurück]

(5) Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself. Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton 2007. [zurück]