“By end of the year the group is more youthful . . .”

Luca Giuliani on the Wissenschaftskolleg as an Institute and Habitat

by  Lothar Müller

Lothar Müller: How would you describe the role of the Wissenschaftskolleg’s Rector as compared to related leadership roles like that of a university president or the director of a foundation which promotes research projects?

Luca Giuliani: The Wissenschaftskolleg is a constitutional monarchy. From the beginning it was tailor-made to the specifications of the founding Rector Peter Wapnewski. He was an innate constitutional monarch and the institution’s statutes were a custom fit for him. Curiously, though, this constitutional-monarchy model has been preserved to the present day. The Rector has quite a lot of decision-making power – in principle he can decide who becomes a Fellow and who doesn’t. Ultimately I’m the one who signs the letters of invitation. But over the years our Academic Advisory Board has become more powerful and I find this to be a good development. That is to say, a Rector would now be ill-advised not to take into consideration any doubts expressed by the Advisory Board. As in all constitutional monarchies there is the issue of just how the constitutional and monarchical elements counterbalance each other. Personally I’m inclined to fortify the constitutional element.

LM: You only want to be a constitutional monarch to the extent that the constitutional side of things advises you to be one?

LG: Exactly. And one of the monarchical options is to strengthen this very constitution. For instance, up until now, a Rector had the right to propose his successor. I was the first one to suggest – and I discussed this with my predecessor – that we establish a selection committee. I myself had been chosen as Rector by the Members’ Assembly on the proposal of my forerunner Dieter Grimm. I decided, instead of utilizing this right of proposal, that I should like to deploy a committee. I don’t feel summoned to brood over a suitable successor nor do I believe that today, this would still be a political option that one could stand by. And now the implementation of a selection committee is fixed in the Kolleg’s bylaws.

LM: How much time does Luca Giuliani the classical archeologist have for scholarship when he is simultaneously the Kolleg’s Rector?

LG: The Wissenschaftskolleg has an administrative apparatus that functions smoothly and efficiently. This gives the Rector some latitude in terms of the time at his disposal. In my particular case it was through my teaching that a slew of scholarly questions arose that I then addressed. And of course it makes a big difference whether you have a full teaching load or whether you have just two seminar hours per week. So, you have to cut down on the teaching. And as one’s teaching hours dwindle, so too does one’s groundedness in the discipline along with the fertile soil which nourishes your scholarship. On the other hand, in recent years I have been investigating certain issues pertaining to Michelangelo, which I likely wouldn’t have done if I’d been fully immersed in the teaching of classical archeology. You first have to sniff out a certain problem, then you need an idea and sufficient time to execute it. On the other hand, my daily contact with the Fellows has the nature of an advanced-training course. That’s always a lot of fun. Your own research frequently entails stress and frustration since you need to overcome all manner of obstacles, whereas talking with someone else about his research is pure profit in terms of knowledge. The other party doesn’t convey his own frustrations, he just gives you the quintessence of his findings.

LM: The Wissenschaftskolleg’s Rector is not only a Fellow among other Fellows, is not solely involved in scholarly projects, selection procedures and external contacts with sister institutions in Bucharest and Sofia, but he also assumes the role of host. The Kolleg is not just a scholarly institution but a life-world. It generates stories, legends, anecdotes. You would need a very diverse research team to do justice to the Wissenschaftskolleg as an object of study – that team would consist of individuals from the disciplines of sociology, psychology, maybe even ethnology and a specialist in mythology . . .

LG: … and of course such research must be done in a comparative fashion, sending the research team first here and then there, to Princeton, to Harvard.

LM: In Berlin the Wissenschaftskolleg’s founding was shrouded in the mythology of King Arthur’s Round Table.

LG: That came from Spiegel, it was a journalistic invention and was of course a good fit since the Kolleg’s founding Rector, Peter Wapnewski, was in fact a medievalist. In English you might also call it a kind of Camelot. And in America, at least, this term is also used to designate the Kennedy presidency. When you mention the word “Camelot” in America, the first association for a large segment of people is probably John F. Kennedy and not King Arthur.

LM: I’m interested in the habitat, so to speak, of an institute where the residents are taken out of their original institute so as to create a temporary community that entails close spatial proximity to one’s colleagues along with rituals that, of course, don’t only consist of regularly scheduled lectures . . .

LG: We attach great importance to the rituals. The Fellows are all grown-ups. And most of them come to Berlin with the notion of writing a book. Then upon arrival they are slightly startled to discover that there are 39 other scholars at the Kolleg and it is very interesting to see how each of them deals with this fact. There are Fellows who entirely integrate themselves into the group, many even lose themselves in it, whereas others stay resolutely on the margins looking on. It’s about creating a group from a heterogeneous collection of adults. For the space of a year. In the grown-up world this normally doesn’t happen much if at all. The last time you found yourself in such a situation was at school, in the classroom, but nevertheless we’re usually successful. The group only fails when its constituent individuals develop no real interest for one another. This is extremely seldom. Normally the group generates a certain euphoria in its members. And there is also a regressive tendency – by end of the year the group is more youthful than at its beginning. And the rituals play a major role in ensuring the group’s cohesion.

LM: What are the main rituals?

LG: The various forms of social intercourse, the common meals, the lectures – there are not a great many rituals, but those that we have must create a certain atmosphere. And creation of that atmosphere is of course not solely the Rector’s responsibility but also that of the entire staff, which can be likened to a superbly skilled orchestra whose excellence remains unvaried even if the conductor changes every so often. This orchestra has grown together over the years, it has experienced several generations of Fellows, and the social intercourse which has been determined by this experience is what they pass on to the Fellows. In short, there is an unspoken code of conduct.

LM: With respect to the aspect of short-term group formation, it brings to mind cruise ships and extended hotel stays . . .

LG: . . . and sanatoriums.

LM: Right – the Kolleg as a kind of “Magic Mountain” for stressed-out scholars. But the Wissenschaftskolleg then diverges from this comparison in terms of the guests’ status – since they are extended invitations, you don’t have to pay, and ultimately it’s an honor to be invited.

LG: I grew up in a psychiatric clinic because my parents were psychiatrists. And during the formative years of my schooling, leading up to the Abitur, I spent three and a half years at boarding school. This was the Swiss successor to the Odenwaldschule, atop the Hasliberg, just north of Meiringen, directly opposite the Reichenbach Falls where Professor Moriarty kills Sherlock Holmes.

LM: You were well aware of your literary neighborhood back then?

LG: Of course! When do you read Sherlock Holmes if not at that age? It’s always amusing to go looking in your biography for harbingers of your present situation – you construct all of that a posteriori. But I would assert that both of these experiences – boarding school and the psychiatric clinic – did in a way prepare me for what I later encountered here – though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Wissenschaftskolleg is a boarding school or a psychiatric clinic.

LM: Precisely in what way did it prepare you?

LG: Both of these – boarding school and psychiatric ward – are kind of roped-off institutions, not hermetically sealed, but exclusionary nonetheless. Decisive for me was that in the clinic there was no essential difference between the people inside and outside of it, that ontologically speaking the patients were no different than other people. This suggests a certain tendency I might have to be broadly tolerant. And in boarding school it was the confluence of languages, my experience of conflicts and diversity. There was a wide age-range among those in residence there and with whom you had to come to terms with.

LM: The Wissenschaftskolleg as habitat – does one see this aspect of things as Rector?

LG: I see this as a milieu where one of the reasons that there’s so much discussion of scholarship is because there’s so little gossip; in any event, I’m not privy to any.

LM: Frankly, it seems unlikely that there’s no gossiping.

LG: Theoretically I agree with you. But I would say that in the crucial start-up phase the gossip among Fellows about each other plays only a very small role because no one really knows each other. You can only gossip about people you know. And the joke is that at the beginning of your stay here the sole person you really know is your partner – assuming you’ve come with one. So the basic capital of gossip is lacking, at the start of things here it is just the opposite of a parochial little village. Any so-called gossip would have to emerge ex nihilo. People arrive here and must first interact. In a situation where they have to develop shared forms of social intercourse, their first resort isn’t to gossip since it wouldn’t be nourished by anything of substance.

LM: The headmaster of a boarding school must be aware that its life-world also entails risky aspects pertaining to such things as discipline, drugs, sex . . .

LG: I can remember, later on, having a nice talk with the headmaster of my school and he said that people always talked about sex at school but that sex was only interesting for adolescents when they weren’t physically and intellectually stretched to full capacity – but that at this school they were. I listened with mouth agape. There were both boys and girls in the school, it was co-educational, and I don’t know anyone who left this school wanting for sexual experience. This didn’t necessarily play an enormous role but it did play a central one – even if we students were never bored at the school. But the headmaster had to adopt this certain view of matters, otherwise the school would have been closed down by the Swiss authorities due to illicit sexual relations. If he had known and articulated the fact that the students were becoming sexually involved with each other, then the police would have swiftly arrived on the scene. Similar to how drugs might be regarded today.

LM: Do drugs play any role at the Kolleg?

LG: As far as I can tell, no. But now that you mention it, for most of those who come here there is the sole primary drug of work – since they’re workaholics. And they see the potential here for satisfying that drive to work. Which of course presupposes that you won’t be hanging around till two in the morning finishing off that last bottle of wine or that you won’t enfeeble yourself with stimulants over the long haul.

LM: In terms of the Kolleg’s governmental form, you spoke of a constitutional monarchy. Let’s now have a look at the population – the Fellows – and here the notion which suggests itself is a Republic of Scholars. But a sociologist who undertook a study of the Wissenschaftskolleg would not surmise equality among them but would probe for differences in status. Any invitation that the Kolleg extends to a scholar is a ratification of the exceptional status he enjoys within his own discipline. But that holds for everyone in a given Fellow year. How do the hierarchies emerge in such a grouping? There are always bright shining stars in the academic firmament.

LG: True enough, but these status differences usually emerge in those contexts where there is a struggle for scarce resources. And the conditions for such a situation simply do not exist here. The Fellows have all the resources they want. When someone arrives at the Kolleg and gives the other Fellows to think that he’s some kind of hotshot – I say “he” because this sort of thing is usually to be observed among the men – then he runs the risk of being on the outs with the others because they’re more or less all hotshots. You must have more to offer than just your renown and own high opinion of yourself. You have to amuse your colleagues with something they didn’t already know. That is another kind of communication strategy. There are certain people who resonate within the group and are therefore important in giving it a kind of cohesion, but these types aren’t necessarily the strongest in terms of scholarship.

LM: What role do celebrations and other such events play at the Kolleg?

LG: Traditionally we have a farewell party which is staged by the Fellows themselves before they leave the Kolleg. That is actually the only real celebration. This is done on the Fellows’ own initiative, the staff has nothing to do with it and no longer play host but are guests. In terms of the relationship between everyday life and celebrations, though, there is perhaps less need for celebrations here because the entire ten months that one spends at the Kolleg is in fact a hiatus, a recess, a time-out from everyday life. In a certain sense it is a permanent celebration that we have here. And to stage an exception from the exception would be a kind of recidivism.

LM: Here at the Kolleg there is a great deal of face-to-face communication which is likely also complemented by a lot of electronic communication with the world outside the Wissenschaftskolleg. And that’s one particularly interesting point – criticism. It’s a part of scholarship, it’s difficult under conditions of face-to-face communication, and it’s difficult if – as is the case here – a variety of disciplines congregate. When a philologist gives a lecture, do only the philologists make critical remarks? When a biologist gives a talk, do only the biologists raise objections?

LG: I’ll give you an example of one year when communication among the various disciplines didn’t work out so well. We had just heard the lecture of an art historian and then a biologist raised his hand and said: “This was all very interesting, but how can I be sure that you’re right?” I thought that was a trenchant question. Because it was a question of parameters. You’ve interpreted this phenomenon in such and such a way – but on what grounds? What gives your interpretation any force? How can it lay claim to any validity? It was clear that the intellectual interchange in this certain instance hadn’t worked well because a partisan phalanx was mobilized: “Truth doesn’t play the same role for us as it plays for you,” and so forth and so on, it instantly became a matter of “us” versus “you.” But the question was basically an invitation to discuss the basic criteria involved. That’s what I understand by the word “criticism.” Naturally criticism can be aimed at the scholarly findings, and this type of criticism is most interesting when it comes from specialists in that certain discipline. But criticism can also be applied to the premises involved – and that is something which colleagues in your own discipline will almost invariably fail to do. The person best equipped to level such criticism is someone remote from your field of expertise. And that affords you the opportunity to see what sort of premises you yourself have transported into the discussion. The Wissenschaftskolleg invites one to exercise this criticism of premises. And one other observation – we humanities scholars often have a hard time disabusing ourselves of the notion that our certain project is not only of utmost importance but that any well-educated person simply has to know what we are talking about. Natural scientists are much more relaxed in this respect.

LM: What will you be doing when you step down as the Wissenschaftskolleg’s Rector?

LG: First off I’ll be heading to Oxford as a Visiting Fellow to do what our Fellows do here. And right now I’m working on an article on Michelangelo’s David which arose purely by chance during an excursion to Florence. As we stood before the statue I asked myself: What is he actually doing? That’s a typical question for an archeologist but not exactly for an art historian. In the mountain of literature on David nobody ever asks what action is being depicted and no one ever questions the odd gadget in his hand. Apart from that, I’m writing a little book with a former Fellow about the earliest portrait of Socrates, which was created twenty years after his execution and where he is endowed with the features of a satyr. We should like to explain why. Otherwise, after your tenure as Rector, you become a Permanent Fellow. There are worse fates.

Images:© Maurice Weiss