I began studying philosophy at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, but soon switched to comparative literature, since my interest in philosophical texts was not restricted to the theoretical arguments they articulate, but extended to what professional philosophers often consider marginal, namely the textual strategies, the rhetorical figures, the examples, the graphic arrangements, etc. they deploy to make their point. Having grown up attending American International Schools in Germany and Austria, the American academy soon exerted an unresistable lure and I was so fortunate to be accepted to the graduate program in German at The Johns Hopkins University where I was able to study with thinkers like David Wellbery, Neil Hertz, Michael Fried, Werner Hamacher, Judith Butler, Rainer Nägele, and others. As virtuoso readers they taught me the art of reading or, put differently, to treat literary texts not merely as reflections of theoretical and historical issues, but as original and complex articulations of these issues so that the process of close reading becomes in itself a process of theoretical reflection. Somewhat counterintuitively, it was at Johns Hopkins, at the time one of the centers of critical theory, that I recognized the importance of historically sensitive and specific textual analysis. Strong and enduring research needs to confront and negotiate the tension between producing a formally rigorous reading and making a historical argument. Whereas the former often tends to be ahistorical the latter has the opposite tendency. Negotiating the tension between these diverging hermeneutic modes is the perpetual challenge that fuels my scholarship and teaching.
Historically, my work straddles the “Epochenschwelle” between pre-modern and modern German culture and literature, between the Reformation and the Baroque on the one hand and the enlightenment and beyond on the other. My first book, Theater der Keuschheit – Keuschheit des Theaters. Zu einer Geschichte der (Anti-)Theatralität von Gryphius bis Kleist (Rombach: Freiburg, 2003), traces the profound historical transformation of theatricality that takes place in German theater from the Baroque to Classicism. It places at its center a paradox that has haunted theater from its beginnings: How can a medium which from Plato to Rousseau has been presumed to be so impure and amoral that it inevitably corrupts what it stages function as an instrument of moral reform? The successive theater reforms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can be understood as attempts to purify this ‘fallen’ medium. Not only do different ‘theaters’ respond to this formal paradox in an historically contingent manner, but canonical dramas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reflect it on the plot level in the sexual in-/violability of the heroine. By investigating how a historically specific theatricality determines the representation of chastity and registers its corruption by the theatrical gaze I read these dramas as allegories of their theatricality or - more precisely - antitheatricality. Moreover, the book is the first to register the impact of antitheatrical sentiment on history of literary theater in Germany.
My work on antitheatrical writings attuned me to the persistent role religious thought and discourse plays in the process problematically termed secularization. Thus, my current projects all examine the ways in which theology and religion inform developments that are generally considered genuinely modern. Most immediately, I am working on a book that asks the seemingly simple question why Descartes' founding text of modern philosophy was titled Meditations on First Philosophy in order to take its generic affiliation seriously. By triangulating Descartes with Augustine and Ignatius I am seeking to demonstrate how the cogito as the birth of the modern self is rooted in meditational practices that were articulated, as Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault have shown, in ancient philosophy and later adapted by Christian techniques of devotion.
My long-term project concerns a media history of the Reformation and is going to be collaborative – together with Helmut Puff (University of Michigan) and Ulrike Strasser (UC Irvine). We are investigating how religious reform in the sixteenth century responded to a crisis of mediation which it in turn helped to perpetuate. This crisis affected mainly the ‘vertical' communication between God and man, but also infected the ‘horizontal' communication between men, insofar the latter was always rooted in the former. Since mediation was fundamentally corrupted and corruptive it was in need of reform. If the formative power of media are the media themselves, as McLuhan has observed, it suggests not only that reformation's success was due to its deployment of new media but that its message was consonant with these new media. In the case of the Reformation its message was the medium, and conversely its medium was the message. Thus, reformation theology reveals itself to be one of the more important tributaries feeding into modern media theory.
Before coming to UCLA in 2006, I taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1997–2004) and the University of Konstanz (2004–06) which gave me the opportunity to teach courses on an extremely wide range of topics in German and European cultural and intellectual history, such as “Walter Benjamin and the Critique of Culture,” “Theater and Anti-Theatricality from Plato to Brecht,” “Genealogy of Aesthetics,” “ Allegory: Reading Figures,” “Monsters and the Culture of Wonder in Early Modern Europe,” “Meditation and the Institution of the Self,” and “Media (His-)Stories of the Bible.” Since I thoroughly enjoy the intellectual give-and-take that comes with team-teaching, I continue to take advantage of the flexible teaching arrangements at a German university by offering an annual “Kompaktseminar” with Juliane Vogel (Konstanz) and David Levin (Chicago) in Konstanz (most recently: Dramaturgy of Violence). Here at UCLA, I have developed and taught undergraduate courses like “Techno-Science and German Culture” (German 62W) and “Fairy Tales and the Fantastic” (German 122), and graduate courses on German enlightenment literature and culture and the “The Craft of Thought: The Performativity of Mental Acts in Austin, Derrida, and Descartes.” In conjunction with the Mellon Faculty Seminar in “Media, Technology, and Culture” I am currently teaching a graduate seminar on the genealogies of media theory.