Cosmos and Contingency


Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany
Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum, Auditorium
Geschwister-Scholl-Straße 3, 10117 Berlin
10 - 12 July 2014

Conference Outline

The conference sets out to interrogate the complex interrelations of "cosmos" and "contingency". Arguing that these two terms have always been intricately linked in Western thought, rather than being mutually exclusive or antagonistic, the key questions connected to this premise are: What does "contingency" refer to in context of discourses of cosmology? Does the concept of contingency fulfill different functions for different cosmologies? What kinds of historical transformations do the concepts of "contingency" and "cosmos" undergo? How do they complement one another? And finally, in which ways have these constellations changed historically? How can the relationship between the heavens, objects, and living beings be represented and explained?

These questions form the framework for this conference on "Cosmos and Contingency". The starting point for these reflections is Lucretius's didactic poem "De rerum natura": A cosmic vortex sweeps up "flickering stars" and "animate things" in a "stream of atoms". Its movement is driven by the "clinamen" by tiny, unfounded deviations in the otherwise parallel movement of the "stream of atoms". This makes the cosmos as a whole a space of indeterminacy and possibility, which is transforming and so also transformable. At the beginning there is neither an intelligent creator nor ordered form, but turbulence and formation.

'Cosmologies of contingency' such as the one proposed by Lucretius are often regarded as insane or as heathen knowledge, and strategies are developed for the systematic reduction of contingency (such as the medieval notion of ordo and the mechanical universe of the Enlightenment). Contrary to these notions, the aim of the conference is to develop an alternative history to the one that emphasizes the stability, order, and comprehensibility of the cosmos. Discussing whether the cosmos is a completely determinate system, or whether it defines itself, the question of the role of chance events, on the one hand, and "agency," and the accompanying potential for action, on the other hand, emerges. Thus, as issues of contingency not only suggest a fundamental destabilization but also possibilities for free decisions and different modes of representation, this approach may open up new paths for the study of the history of (Western) culture.

The conference on "Cosmos and Contingency" approaches its objects from the perspective of historical epistemology. First, we want to examine the interdependence of the - historically variable - concepts of "contingency" and "cosmos." And against the background of attempts of explanation in physics, we will also investigate appropriations and exclusions of contingency in the context of cosmology, which result in the following scientific upheavals: optical astronomy [after 1600], Newtonian mechanics and statistics [after 1750], thermodynamics [after 1840] and space-time [after 1910] as well as contemporary conceptions - since, starting from Lucretius, these cosmologies of contingency are also important for the early-modern period (Blumenberg, Greenblatt) as well as for 20th conceptions (Althusser, Meillassoux, Serres) or contemporary concerns of agency and chance.

Second, the conference is based on the notion that epistemic orders are always determined by specific forms of representation. In contrast to many other approaches to the history of astronomy and philosophy, we want to investigate the interrelation of cosmos and contingency from the perspective of poetics and aesthetics. What kinds of aesthetic decisions do cosmologies make? Tracing the trajectory from "didactic poem" to the "novel", is there a connection between contingency or cosmology and the novel, as Lukács suggested? Is the novel itself a cosmology? What meanings do "cosmology" and "contingency" take on with the development of the concept of "fiction"? What meaning do they have in context of the emergence of "aesthetics" (in contrast to Newtonian physics), or in the counterfactual stories of the 19th and 20th centuries (Blanqui)? What kinds of new modes of representation are offered by film (e.g. Méliès, Kubrick, and Kluge)? And what does the cosmology of the 21st century look like? What will be the role of interactive media?

Finally, we would like to consider the most recent topicality of cosmology in contemporary literature and art in the form of "cosmopolitics". With the integration of micro- and macrocosmic fates in the "Anthropocene", a transformation of perspective is needed (Latour). What kinds of options for action are opened in an integrated cosmos? Does the multitude of worlds open a hitherto unknown space (of possibility) in which plurality and material totality are thinkable outside of the problematic desire for organized totality? How are economic and political questions of legitimacy - from the past until the most recent present - negotiated cosmologically? Can the cosmos be understood as the operator of a "mise en égalité" - as a collective space of discussion and action for heterogeneous political groups (Stengers)?

The conference is a joint venture of two PhD-programs: PhD-Net "Knowledge in Literature" (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Harvard University, Princeton University, and the University of California, Berkeley) and the DFG-Graduiertenkolleg "Forms of Life and Forms of Knowledge" (Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt/Oder and Universität Potsdam).

Conference Convenors

Reto Rössler (HU Berlin), Tim Sparenberg (Viadrina), Philipp Weber (Viadrina)

Conference Program

Thursday, 10 July 2014

15:00 - 15:30, Welcome
Andrea Allerkamp (Viadrina), Joseph Vogl (HU Berlin)

15:30 - 16:00, Introduction
Reto Roessler (HU Berlin), Tim Sparenberg (Viadrina), Philipp Weber (Viadrina)

16:00 - 16:45, Keynote Speech
Thomas Ebke (ENS Paris): Vom unendlichen Universum zur Metaphysik der Differenz

16:45 - 18:00, Panel I: Neuanfänge zwischen Kosmographie und Lukrez
- Wolfgang Hottner (HU Berlin): Einführung
- Cornelia Selent (FU Berlin): Ist die Kontingenz tatsächlich aus der mittelalterlichen Kosmologie ausgeschlossen?
- Maike Gotthardt (Uni Marburg): Nothing will come of Nothing. Frühneuzeitliches self-fashioning und antiker Materialismus (Lukrez, Shakespeare)

18:30 - 19:30, Abendvortrag I
Hartmut Böhme (HU Berlin): Die kosmische Leere, die Ästhetik des Weltraums und die moderne Kunst  

Friday, 11 July 2014

10:00 - 12:00, Panel II: Notwendigkeit und die Form der Kontingenz: Fiktion und Reim
- Bryan Klausmeyer (JHU): Einführung
- Johannes Wankhammer (Cornell): Kosmologische und epistemische Kontingenz bei Breitinger und Brockes
- Thijs Menting (Uni PDM): Kant: Teleologie und Zweckmäßigkeit
- Wolfgang Hottner (HU Berlin): Ungereimtheit. Kant und das physikotheologische Lehrgedicht

13:30 - 14:30, Panel III: Maschinenkosmos - Montage, Bild, Statistik
- Reto Roessler (HU Berlin): Einführung
- Helmut Müller-Sievers (CU Boulder): Goethes kosmische Erzählmascheine. Zur Kontingenz der Bewegungen in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre
- Claudia Marion Stemberger (McGill): Kontingenztoleranz in der Bildproduktion des späten 19. Jahrhunderts. August Strindbergs Celestographien (1893/94)

15:00 - 16:00, Panel III: Maschinenkosmos - Montage, Bild, Statistik
- Timothy Attanucci (Princeton): A Filmic Technique of the Modern Scientific Epic
- Anne Dippel (HU Berlin/Leuphana): Die Produktivität der Kontingenz in der Hoch-Energie-Physik am CERN

17:00 - 18:00, Abendvortrag II
Anselm Haverkamp (Leuphana): Kontingenz - Der Rest ist Schweigen 

Saturday, 12 July 2014

09:00 - 10:00 Panel IV: Radikale Kontingenz
- Philipp Weber (Viadrina): Einführung
- Johanna Stapelfeldt (HU Berlin): Deklinierte Welten zwischen Zahl und Wort (Mallarmé, Chlebnikov und Pastior)
- Elisa Ronzheimer (Yale): "luft von anderem planeten". Zwölftontechnik und Sphärenmusik

10:30 - 12:30, Panel V: Die Aktualität der Kosmopolitik
- Tim Sparenberg (Viadrina): Einführung
- Hans-Christian von Herrmann (TU Berlin): "Der bestirnte Himmel über mir...". Zum Verhältnis von Kosmologie und Ästhetik bei Kant
- Melanie Sehgal (Viadrina): Versuch einer Kosmologie. Natur und Geschichtlichkeit bei Alfred North Whitehead
- Maximilian Haas (Viadrina): Kosmologie der Performance

14:00 - 15:30, Panel V: Die Aktualität der Kosmopolitik II
- Alexandra Heimes (Goethe Uni FFM): Revolution, kosmologisch gedacht: Auguste Blanqui und Walter Benjamin
- Karin Harrasser (Kunstuni Linz): Kosmopolitische Milieus. Erkenntnishandeln bei Stengers aund Haraway


© — Claudia Marion Stemberger 2017