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Project A1

The Exceptional as Enthrallment and Provocation:
Comparative Historical Semantics of the Heroic from 1780 to 1850.

Prof. Dr. Jörn Leonhard
Maximilian Höhn

Department of History

The term ‘heroic’ which unites the Collaborative Research Center 948 is itself historically variable. This simple observation is the basis for a comparative study on the historical semantics of heroic concepts in German, French and British societies from the late 18th to the mid-19th century.

The aim of such an analysis which systematically addresses the diachronic transformation and the synchronic variety of contemporary definitions is not to linearly derive a current understanding of the hero. Based on the assumption that thinking and speaking about the exceptional has the potential to structure everyday life and that the discussion of the exceptional time and again yields political and social conceptions of order, this project is much more interested in past presents in which speaking about heroes took place and in each case exhibited concrete political or social functions. Behind that were the relation and the permanent interplay between the personal figuration of the exceptional individual – fascinating and provocational at the same time – and the social figuration of collective experiences and expectations. Necessary for a study of this complex relationship is a ‘rich’ historical catalogue of meanings, which sufficiently considers in a synchronic range of European spaces of experience different types of sources, forms of media, and usage situations. In addition to normative as well as pertinent ideal definitions, also relevant to this project are unreflected and daily uses of the conceptual cluster of ‘hero,’ ‘heroism,’ ‘heroic’ and their related as well as antithetical terms in German, French and English.

This project first identifies competing claims, transfers which transcend language barriers, distinctive limitations to change, and concurrences in the discursive negotiation and identification of that which was determined ‘heroic’ or a ‘hero,’ but also a ‘heroic act’ or a ‘heroic death’ for example. In so doing, the project investigates the discursive action which was behind the transformation in meaning. The project intends to thereby contribute to a review and a survey of established hypotheses as well as to propose new hypotheses in the course of the research – for instance a ‘bourgeois transformation’ or the ‘ethicizing’ of the hero. Furthermore, the project attempts to offer an historical explanation of the corresponding transformations as well as identify the social and national contexts of meaning changes. Lastly, this project intends to document which alternative interpretations were rejected by the dominant understandings of the terms which asserted themselves at certain times.

Such an investigation of historical semantics promises to elucidate the ways in which societies interpret experiences and themselves. This goes beyond the specified scope of this study on the heroic: beyond historical perceptions, the understandings of man, models of sovereignty and integration; beyond diagnoses of the present and the rise and fall of definitive fields of individual substantiation; beyond mutable norms and dealing with transgressions; and, finally, beyond the propensity of the exceptional to cause conflict.