Faculty Blog

TOPAS@home – It smells, therefore you and I are

Working with theoretical texts is just as important for most scholars as personal exchange. The TOPAS reading and discussion forum shows how both can be successfully combined in times of remote work, and that this setup can even reveal something fundamental about the human relationship to the world

Just over 2 years ago, a group of theoretically interested colleagues came together to form a reading and discussion forum under the label of TOPAS (“Theories of Practice and Science”). The idea of this forum is to enable the exchange between researchers who work on similar questions from different perspectives, and to open up theoretical approaches to the relationship between cultural practice and academic occupation with it. What started as an idea to foster interdisciplinary collaboration in the faculty, has now developed into a lively forum where serious theoretical work has a place as well as bad jokes.

Even if the selection of authors and topics in the group is mostly spontaneous and interest-driven, after two years of intensive discussions, some key themes have emerged that concern us the most in our text work. On the one hand, this concerns the relationship between the various political, social, and artistic symbolic systems and their specific contribution to the structure and dynamics of cultural practice as a whole. On the other hand, in our discussions we fathom a variety of connections between theoretical frameworks and their reflections in and implications for society.

Thinking, smelling, and the world that surrounds us

In recent times we have been increasingly concerned with the nexus of perception/embodiment, social visibility, and politics. Starting with authors like Jacques Rancìere, Judith Butler, or Milo Rau, and after examining their respective view of the problem, we have now arrived at Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s idea of the other as a sensible certainty that establishes before any rational evaluation of the world that surrounds us. With this idea, on the one hand, Merleau-Ponty tries to expand the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl by the physical grounding of perception in order to explain our primary relation to the world. On the other hand, this redefinition results in turning away from the classic Cartesian motto “cogito, ergo sum”.

The implications of this idea are substantial: if not our rational examination of, but the sensual grounding in the world establishes the idea of the other as well as our self, then thinking cannot be the source of the self as seen in western philosophy. To solve this problem, and relating to Merleau-Ponty’s idea of embodied cognition, we came up with a new motto that captures the relationship between the self and the world and can be summarized with the title of this post: “it smells, therefore you and I are”.

In times of confinement, this olfactory determination of the human relationship with the world is surely something that many people can relate to. At least that is what water consumption statistics in residential areas suggest. And even if it is not without a certain irony that the TOPAS group engages with an idea of the other, which is based on direct sensual contact, under the conditions of working remotely, it is good to see that our work proceeds normally – only without the smell of the others.

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