Biosketch

I’m an academic working in the section for Germanic Studies in the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sheffield. I’m a BBC New Generation Thinker 2016 (run together with the AHRC). I studied in Oxford, Trier and Berkeley; following my DPhil thesis at Oxford, I was a visiting researcher at the Ruhr University Bochum, Germany, before taking up a lectureship  in German Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Bern, Switzerland. 

Research interests: In the eighteenth century, “modernization” – for example, the division of labour as part of the industrial revolution, and the general professionalization that accompanied more centralized bureaucracies – led to many among the rising middle classes feeling as if their lives had become more “specialized”. They sought out ways to restore a more “wholesome” sense of individuality. In the German-speaking territories, literature and later philosophy laid claim to being “autonomous” domains (rather than branches of general learning); the answer to the now fragmented self and society, writers proposed, was art or speculative thought. Other solutions to developing a “whole” personality included self-development and education (Bildung) or, less intellectually, consumerism and leisure (especially wellness). I work on these eighteenth-century ideas and their cultural legacies, in German-speaking and in comparative contexts (my current publications make reference to material mostly in German, but also in English, French, Dutch, Danish and Norwegian). In doing so, I’ve moved from conceptions of authorship, literature and thought around 1800 to topics such as consumerism and wellness. Above all, I trace one “profession” that has eluded “professionalization” and is in my view a subversive character of culture: the hairdresser. (The term hairdresser was coined in the eighteenth century.)

The Enlightenment, in Germany and elsewhere, embraced eclecticism. Playful interpretation of texts is important, otherwise there is the risk of becoming a pedant. Johann Georg Schlosser warns us of this pitfall in his 1787 text, Über Pedanterie und Pedanten, als eine Warnung für die Gelehrten des XVIII. Jahrhunderts (‘On Pedantry and Pedants as a Warning for the Scholars of the 18th Century’). Schlosser understands pedantry as a social problem that extends beyond scholarship; it is the inability to comprehend ‘den Spielraum der Weisheit, welches ist die Grazie des Lebens’, or ‘wisdom’s room for play, the grace of life’. So in my academic work, I am interested in the playful, marginal and apparently trivial, which turns out to be significant. My work in this regard has shifted from close readings of texts to broader cultural criticism, from the eighteenth century to the present day.

My greatest ambition is to own a Dachshund called Ludwig.

Post: Germanic Studies, School of Languages and Cultures
Jessop West, 1 Upper Hanover Street, Sheffield S3 7RA, UK