Current Research

Literary Micrologies: The Life and Knowledge of Small Forms around 1800

“In the smallest animals circulates the hottest blood; in the same way, the warmth of ideas intensifies with the smallness of the stomping ground.” Thus wrote Jean Paul in a Petition of German Satirists to the Public around 1780. As in this aphorism, the analogy between small forms of life and writing serves as the starting point for my current research project, Literary Micrologies: The Life and Knowledge of Small Forms around 1800. Drawing on insights from the fields of literary criticism, media theory and the history of science, my project examines the discursive and poetic reconfiguration of “smallness” in German literature and science from the late-18th to the early-19th century. In the works of the Göttingen experimental physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the Romantic humorist Jean Paul and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, I show how the rhetorical-stylistic ideal of brevity was transformed into an aesthetic-biological model of creativity. Already during this period, I argue, authors looked to microscopic life-forms as a source for new ideas and new models of literary organization; in doing so, they not only expanded the definition of “media” beyond its technological and anthropocentric determinations to encompass living forms in nature, but also challenged the norms of what constitutes a literary work or genre.

The impetus for this research project came out of my dissertation, which I completed at Johns Hopkins University in 2016. Part of this research was published in 2016 in the Monatshefte. Titled “Fragmenting Fragments: Jean Paul’s Poetics of the Small in Meine Miszellen,” this article, which was awarded the 2016 Best Essay Prize of the Goethe Society of North America, makes the case for Jean Paul as a writer of small forms despite his notoriously digressive books, and subsequently distinguishes his poetics of the small from contemporaries like Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis. I also have another article forthcoming in The Germanic Review, titled “From the Spirit of Slip Boxes: Materiality and Media Technology in Jean Paul’s Leben des Quintus Fixlein,” which contends that Jean Paul’s references to the “slip box” [Zettelkasten] system serve as a poetological code for his own witty-combinatorial way of writing, thereby exposing the material and media-technological interfaces of his (auto)biographical idyll.