My First Year at the Wissenschaftskolleg

By Thorsten Wilhelmy

The exercise of looking back on a year at the Wissenschaftskolleg is familiar to all former Fellows. The request from the executive board of the Fellow Club that I look back on my first year in Grunewald may thus be a subtle tit-for-tat. But I am glad to fulfill it, as a proxy for the institution so to speak, half in return and half as penance, and I will try thereby to generalize my observations, rather than tie them to the specifics of my first year here. The key words for this are time, space, exception, charisma, and irony -- and all of them have to do with balancing acts.

Time: I am looking back at a first year, during which in many ways I still had to learn the routines of the institution. Unlike the Fellows, I could take my time for this, because I knew that a second, third, etc. year would follow. One of my first observations  was that the institution lives in accordance with at least two different rhythms and dynamics, and the synchronization of these rhythms is a challenge for everyone.There is, first, the programmatic deceleration of the Fellows’ time, as a big exception, a period extending for ten months and, second, there is the profane normal time of the institution, which is shaped to a much greater degree by routines, traditions, prior understandings, and the knowledge of repetition. The way these two intertwine almost invisibly and without all-too-perceptible convulsions impressed me from the beginning, because it is an achievement from both sides, the Fellows as well as the staff.

My second impression has to do with space (and place). Even for a latecomer, it is palpable that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Wissenschaftskolleg has shifted to the periphery of the city as much as Berlin has shifted to the center of Europe. More than before, the city is a transfer point, hub, and bazaar; other intellectual and academic energies circulate, and with them the number of institutions and actors shaping the city’s scientific profile has multiplied. Berlin’s attractiveness benefits the Wissenschaftskolleg – invitations to the Kolleg are simultaneously invitations to a city with three opera houses, numerous theaters, artists’ studios, and galleries, with enough archives and history for more than one nightmare from which we are trying to awake. At the same time, Berlin is also a challenge for the Wissenschaftskolleg: on the one hand, the contrast between the Wallotstraße behind its thorn hedge and the energy-charged city “out there”underscores the basic idea of interruption, retreat, and cloistering in the Kolleg, and, on the other, the world beyond the hedge is always a temptation, distraction, and competition for one’s attention. Researchers now also find many other paths to Berlin. The number of scientific institutions in the capital city is growing and the role of the Wissenschaftskolleg in this changing environment is certainly no longer what was envisioned at its founding three decades ago in a divided city that epitomized the Cold War. It is now far more integrated into the science-policy reality of a city increasingly staging itself as cosmopolitan and its institutions of research and higher education. And in the international context, it is long since nothing singular: institutions calling themselves  Institutes for Advanced Study are founded (and sometimes closed again) all over the place. If this were a different institution, I would say that the Wissenschaftskolleg has gone bourgeois. Yet, if there is an institution that, from its beginning, didn’t need to do that, then it’s the Wissenschaftskolleg.

Despite this diversification of scientific institutions in Berlin, the Wissenschaftskolleg remains the exception to a rule in research, perhaps more than ever, since the evaluation regimes and output expectations for academics everywhere are increasing rather than decreasing. The Wissenschaftskolleg is thus simultaneously becoming both more necessary and more exotic, depending on one’s point of view. The demand for the free scope offered here is palpable in the face of the narrowing scope offered by the worldwide science system. This makes it simultaneously easier and more difficult to defend the legitimacy of this freedom, because we live from the rule and against it at the same time.

The last two key words that occur to me when looking back on the year are “charisma” and “irony”. To invite researchers, artists, and intellectuals to live and work in secluded villas, to involve them in elaborate rituals, and to make exclusive offers to them is to be in the business of charismatizing science. It is astonishing to observe how successfully this works and that, at the same time, the institution, its Fellows, and its staff are open to irony. Science itself generally has no affinity for irony. Where the search for truth is the driving force, irony’s ambiguities and half-light are disturbing; all too often it pushes the struggle for the better argument to the background, in favor of play and gesture. And for an institution’s charisma, in particular, irony can be poisonous. Perhaps the most elegant exercise in the tightrope walk that the Wissenschaftskolleg performs is to allow irony while yet remaining charismatic. Thomas Mann once termed irony the “eroticism of the mind” – and if the Tuesday mornings and Thursday evenings, the table talk and table tennis matches (yes, they too) remain suffused with this special spirit, then we won’t have to worry about the future of this tightrope walker, the Wissenschaftskolleg.