For centuries, perhaps since the emergence of poetry itself, Western culture has engaged in the project of “writing the sea,” or hydrography, and within this project the compass has played a fundamental role. The talk served as a brief introduction into the cultural history of the compass and showed how, ever since its first use, the compass has guided specific techniques of writing and notation and has been both poetically and epistemically productive. It argued this claim through a historical argument reaching from Dante’s reception of the Odyssey and Ripa’s Iconologia to Bacon, who considered the compass one of his age’s emblems, and to the technological thinking of Heisenberg and Heidegger.
Burkhardt Wolf teaches German literature, culture and media studies at the Humboldt University and has taught at Paderborn, Weimar, and Santa Barbara. He has worked on questions of sovereignty and governmentality, political representation and social technologies, danger and risk, violence and religion between the 17th and 20th centuries. His book publications include Die Sorge des Souveräns: Eine Diskursgeschichte des Opfers (2004) and Fortuna di mare: Literatur und Seefahrt (2013).
The lecture is part of the ICI Lecture Series ERRANS. The English verb ‘to err’ has largely lost its positive connotations. It no longer invokes wandering, rambling, or roaming, and is now understood negatively in relation to a prescribed path or goal. To be sure, errors are acknowledged to play an important role in the pursuit of knowledge and happiness, but usually only to the extent that their recognition allows for their elimination, correction, and avoidance. Recognizing that a critique of ideals of productivity, success, goal-orientation, and determination is necessarily paradoxical, the lecture series takes the shifting meanings of ‘erring’ – connoting the violation of norms as well as the activity of wandering – as a prompt to explore the critical potentials and risks of embracing error, randomness, failure, and non-teleological temporalities, and to do so across different disciplines and discourses.
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