ERRANS environ/s
The ICI Berlin announces 12 postdoctoral fellowships for the Academic Years 2018-20

If what begins already finds itself in the thick of it, in the midst of something else, and among others elsewhere, what emerges, in the middle, at this mid-place or mi-lieu, does not thereby constitute a centre. Without starting or end point, origin or telos, this middle is deprived of any coordinates, frame, or foundation, of any measure with respect to them. Rigorously un-centred, such a beginning or emergence does not even have a well-defined position: it is diffuse, scattered, vague, blurred. This errant dimension of the milieu registers in the word ‘environment’: The French en-viron/en-virons (from Old French viron: ’round, circle’) signifies both (as an adverb) a measure of imprecision or estimation and (as a noun, mostly in the plural) a surrounding region — an ambiguity repeated throughout different languages in the idiomatic uses of ‘circa’, ‘vicinity’, or ‘Umgebung’.

There is hardly a discipline, field, or discourse within the natural and social sciences nor the humanities that hasn’t long been touched and transformed by the notions of milieu, environment, or Umwelt. The recent revival and proliferation of ecological discourses can be understood, at least in part, as a response to the increasingly complete immersion in technologically in-formed environments. Yet, already the 19th-century revolutionary shifts in perspective occurred together with fundamentally new scientific methodologies, exactitudes, and quantifiabilities, which sought to contain their constitutive vagueness without ever managing to exhaust their originary errant dimension.

The transdisciplinary impact of these new concepts has not yet been captured, nor is it clear that it can be captured, but while the life sciences play a prominent role in them (having adopted, in the 19th century, concepts from physics and transgressed into the social sciences, for example, as racist discourses and social Darwinism), they don’t operate as the leading science in this transformation. Instead, this process appears to be a multidirectional, non-hierarchizable, and errant movement, itself constituting a complex ecology of knowledge.

The new ICI Focus ‘ERRANS environ/s’ — the third of the Core Project ERRANS that the Institute has been pursuing since 2014 — will contemplate aspects of this frequently divergent, potentially errant, and certainly ongoing transformation of not only the sciences or cultures of knowledge, but also cultural and artistic production at large. It will investigate the ways in which an attention to environments can have the effect of dissolving boundaries or making them permeable, questioning clear-cut distinctions, undermining naive ontologies, decentring the subject, folding nature and culture, and producing complex political ecologies attuned to far-reaching entanglements.

This reflection requires a careful analysis of the emergence of the concepts of environment, itself extraordinarily diffuse and complex: most crucially in the life sciences, but also in relation to, for example, classical field theory, epidemiology, the interlacing of media innovations, while also considering their premodern precursors, for example, the ancient Greek notions of klima and the periechon.

During its early history, the term ‘environment’ moved in tandem with the concept of ‘organism’ — both being related according to mutual influences, adaptations, and interactions. But by the time Georges Canguilhem writes his history of  the term ‘milieu’, he could begin with the observation that the term had become a theoretical linchpin not just in the life sciences and was being ‘constituted as a category of contemporary thought’ in general. This astonishing career of environmental considerations occurred in conjunction with the rise of new conceptions of probability (Lorraine Daston) and modern statistics (Ian Hacking), altering the conception of scientific facts (Mary Poovey). The vagueness and vagaries of milieus seemed to call for a rescaling. Thus, for Adolphe Quetelet, given large enough numbers, the actions and reactions of the homme moyen in his milieu could be predicted with the precision of a ‘social physics’. There have been many attempts to find in theories of the environment a vindication of strong holistic assumptions, new, system-theoretical totalizations, or cybernetic closures. This inherent drift to the vast scale also marks recent promotions of the Gaïa hypothesis, the posthumanist idea of an ‘Anthropocene’, or of a series of other terms that are less prone to an unwitting solidification of human exceptionalism, such as the Capitalocene, or, Donna Haraway’s favourite, the Cthulucene.

Perhaps even more problematic is a provincializing tendency of environmental concerns, which runs the risk of naturalizing social roles and political conflicts. It can be seen in efforts  to safeguard strictly local environments homeostatically by implementing an inherently conservative principle of ‘sustainability’ – frequently at the expense of also taking into consideration privilege and injustice in their transnational and neo-colonial extensions. Here, too, it is important to release a radically open and hence errant dimension of environmental considerations that acknowledges the instabilities, fluidities, and dynamic potentials of fundamental categories (race, sex, gender, species) constitutively bound to today’s arguably unsustainable injustices. This is not to say that all is related and has an environment, and it remains equally important to address another limit of the environment: infused with an errant environ-ness, the very notion of environment as dynamic potential is also premised upon relationality and as such is called into question by the non-related, the non-human, or blackness as theorized by Saidiya Hartman, Frank B. Wilderson, and many others.

The relation between the fascination with environments and a dissolution of form is perhaps nowhere as apparent as in the realm of aesthetics. In the abolition of contour in the painting of Turner, Cézanne, or the Impressionists, for example; in the obsession with vapours and radiations, the aura or the ethereal in Symbolist poetry; in the elevation of the notion of ‘environment’ to an art form itself; in the intricate questioning of environment and embodiment in the works of Louise Bourgeois, Nakaya Fujiko, Mona Hatoum, and Ana Mendieta. These correspondences emerge, somewhat paradoxically, in Gaston Bachelard’s reflections on the role of the ancient elements in works of the imagination. They have also generated a vast speculative philosophy in the work of Michel Serres — who, incidentally, rejects the notion of ‘environment’ altogether.

We welcome contributions from a wide variety of fields and disciplines, pertaining also, for example, to:

  • the importance of the concept of ‘milieu’ for the conceptualization of class, class struggle, and class culture – and the ideas of gendered domesticity implied in it
  • the difficult trajectories of ecofeminism (based on a connection between the oppression of women and the exploitation of nature), its relationship to queer and crip ecologies
  • colonial and neo-colonial regimes and their punitive and extractive use of environmental devastation
  • the slow diffusion of psychopathological categories, most critically in the emergence of borderline personality disorder
  • pre- and early-modern forms of porous textuality, collective authorship, and distributive selfhood
  • immersive and participatory aesthetics in the theatre, the gallery, in computer games, and online
  • the environments shaped by big data and the critical potentials of models of de/coherence, large-scale fluctuations, and singular limits
  • the emergence of Mannerist and Baroque pictorial space, its eschewal of central perspective and mobilization of the cloud
  • the fluidity, but also implicit normativity and teleology of approximation methods
  • the creation of new epistemologies of history writing rooted in the environment, whether architectural, natural, or cultural
  • the decolonization of nation-state models to allow for the emergence of new, complex modalities of governance and ways of being
  • the transformation of public space into surveillance environments
  • the uncentring and decentring of cultural, political, and historical memory regimes oriented towards environments rather than temporal retrieval
  • environment and ‘habitat’: the interdependence of habit-formation and environment, theories of habituation, their more recent feminist theorizations, and the resulting challenges to traditional epistemologies
  • distinctions between inner and external worlds (pleasure and undecidability, theories of embodiment, adaptation to disabling conditions, phantom sensations, voice hallucinations)
  • the radical opening of psychoanalytic topological models suggested in Freud’s late note ‘Psyche is extended, knows nothing of it.’

The ICI Berlin invites scholars from all disciplines to engage in a joint exploration of ‘ERRANS environ/s’. We especially welcome applications from individuals who will contribute to diversity and equal opportunity in scholarly research.

The committed exchange between fellows is a central aim of the Institute. Applicants should be interested in a theoretical reflection on the conceptual and intellectual basis of their projects and in discussing it with fellows from other disciplines. In particular, fellows will be expected to participate in the weekly colloquia, bi-weekly informal meetings, and other activities of the Institute, to contribute to a common publication, and to be resident in Berlin for the duration of the fellowship.

The fellowships announced are for the academic years 2018-20 (10 September 2018 – 17 July 2020). There is no age limit, but applicants should have obtained their PhD within ten years of the date of appointment or have submitted their PhD dissertation by 1 March 2018. Stipends range from EUR 1900 to 2100 per month.

Interested applicants should read also the description of the overarching ERRANS project and follow the application instructions.

Deadline: 7 January 2018

(23:59, Berlin local time)