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"Heroes – Heroizations – Heroisms: Transformations and Conjunctures from Antiquity to the Modern Day" | Collaborative Research Centre 948

Research Programme

The SFB 948 studies the heroic from antiquity to the modern day from a transdisciplinary, trans-epochal and transcultural perspective. We are interested in why and in what ways communities continue to make heroes the focus of their self-understanding. Since ancient times, heroes and heroines have shaped the cultural imaginary of societies in and beyond Europe. Although some scholars claim that we currently live in a “post-heroic age”, recent years have witnessed a new wave of interest in heroism, in which enduring traditions and heterogeneous notions are discussed alongside scepticism and taboos.

The experience of asymmetric warfare, where religious rationale, terrorism, and the omnipresence of the media form unprecedented combinations, has led to intense discussion about new heroes and heroines who resolutely confront threats and are willing to risk their lives. The current swell of interest in heroism is evident in everyday culture and popular culture. The excessive use of the terms “hero” and “heroine”, for example in advertising, involves a banalization of heroic models. Superhero figures in movies, comic books and computer games are immensely popular, the figures being perpetually adapted to changing societal role models.

Our research captures current debates and phenomena such as these. The SFB 948’s main focus is on the tensions between the exceptionality of heroic figures and the social orders that they stabilize but also call into question. There is no such thing as a timeless hero or heroine. Heroic figures must be understood as much more than period-specific or society-specific cultural constructs, and at the same time, heroization processes must be thoroughly examined using historical and transdisciplinary methods. It is against this backdrop that the SFB 948 places heroism since Ancient Greece and heroic figures as elements of heroization processes in the spotlight, in their social, political, cultural and medial contexts. The analysis of the heroic is supported by case studies on social, political, cultural and medial dimensions of the phenomenon.

Over a period of twelve years, the SFB 948 is investigating when and how hero(in)es serve as symbolic figures and anthropomorphic foci of communal self-understanding. Why do heroic figures continually perform this function in the longue durée, despite their inherent contradictions and their exceptionality that sets them apart from everyday experience? In order to answer these questions, the heroic is analysed with regard to cultural, historical, social and medial factors. The research focuses, on the one hand, on processes of heroization and de-heroization, i.e. on the attribution or revocation of heroic qualities. On the other hand, it investigates what we call “heroisms” (plural), i.e. habitus patterns with heroic connotations, according to which communities adopt heroic models.

The projects of the initial funding phase (2012–2016) concentrated on Europe and the regions it influenced from antiquity up to the beginning of the twentieth century. They demonstrated that societies often negotiated norms and values by means of contested heroizations and heroisms. Hero(in)es elicit emotional reactions. As a result, their appearance often generates controversy and unpredictable outcomes. Due to this, the changing trends and transformations of the heroic cannot be described as linear developments. The second funding period (continuing until 2020) expands the scope to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; research into regions like Asia and the Middle East will add a stronger global perspective. In light of this larger scope and the findings so far, the research programme now takes a broader approach. The projects analyse processes of heroization as boundary work, investigate the power of attraction of the heroic, and consider the question of whether superimposing “sediments of time” (Zeitschichten) can advance the historical perspective on transformations and conjunctures of heroization and heroisms. Key themes to be examined are the challenges the heroic faces in its various forms, the relation between the heroic and violence, and the role of the heroic in transcultural constellations.

The SFB 948 has maintained its transdisciplinary focus during the second funding phase, continuing to combine the disciplines of history, literature, visual culture, sociology, and theology in 16 research projects as well as in the work of the Integrated Research Training Group (IGK). In addition, a handbook is being developed, comprising a digital encyclopaedia (the Compendium Heroicum) as well as a synthesis of the projects’ research results.