When the Department of Visual Arts and Film at Haus der Kulturen der Welt initiated the long-term project Kanon-Fragen (2016–20) in 2016, it was important to us to put a reflexive practice alongside it and to juxtapose it with the paradigm of globalized art. Several aspects of this require explanation, which I would like to offer here in order to put the project Love and Ethnology in context.

When we opened Kanon-Fragen with a conference titled A History of Limits in March 2016, coinciding with the opening of the exhibition Past Disquiet: Narratives and Ghosts from the International Art Exhibition for Palestine, 1978, our aim was to formulate an institution-critical, distancing practice of exhibition-making. Such critical introspection seemed necessary simply due to the problematics of the name of the institution—Haus der Kulturen der Welt, or “House of World Cultures”—since the representation of those marked as culturally “other” has been subjected in the past and present to the framings and power relations of the unmarked silent background presumptions of universalistic world conceptions. The aim of the program of exhibitions was to address the fine mechanics, ideological functions, mutations, and, above all, the continued reproduction of those boundaries that still inscribe the most ephemeral aspects of our aesthetic perception in political and historical power relations and front lines.

The current revision and expansion of the modern canon and the inclusion of the formerly excluded in museums and their collections proceeds as if these institutions’ past Eurocentric understanding of art could simply be cast off with yet another practice of appropriation. As if it were possible to correct past wrongdoing in representation and recognition without fundamentally questioning the institutions of art, their claims to representation, and their places in the modern topography of disciplines and their boundary practices. This course of action is problematic not only because it is tantamount to extending the prevailing Western framework, but also because the increasing culturalization of politics tends to equate aesthetic representation in museums with political representation.

However, the specific problem of representational politics inherent in the name “Haus der Kulturen der Welt” is in a certain way an advantage, at least vis-à-vis institutions that are more prone to a categorical cleansing of their subject, such as museums of art. Making use of this advantage, however, presupposes a negation of the use of art as a means of cultural representation, especially in the service of nation-state identities. Only then might the broader category of “culture” become an opportunity to challenge what in “pure” art institutions is rarely ever discussed: the institutional demarcation of “art” from its “other,” and all the related institutional disciplines, categories, and genres, as well as their attendant economies. And only such a challenge, in turn, makes it conceivable that what is represented in institutions is also deculturalized. The unlimiting of art and art history at Haus der Kulturen der Welt is therefore not necessarily subject to the imperative of the categorical reproduction of a Western notion of “art,” as it is in the case of the expansive globalization of the large museums. Because, here, the historically conditioned, now institutionalized category of “art” and the economic, epistemic, and ontological background assumptions inscribed in it can be more easily exposed to critical deconstruction. Art can also be all the better defended in its irreducible intrinsic logic, especially when this logic itself resists the danger of all-embracing culturalization and aestheticization and both builds up and questions distancing spaces. In this sense, Kanon-Fragen is an attempt to establish a “deinstitutionalizing art institution” model at Haus der Kulturen der Welt. It also assumes that only such deinstitutionalization can provide an appropriate framework for contemporary artistic production and its levels of reflexivity, its distances and solidarities.

The Kanon-Fragen series has focused on, among other subjects, what geopolitical stipulations and the corresponding narrative orders of the official canon have pushed into oblivion. Using the example of the globally operating Congress for Cultural Freedom, financed by the CIA, the exhibition Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War (2017–18) was devoted to the freezing of the prewar foundational “crisis of modernity” after 1945, among other things by subordinating art to the paradoxes of a bourgeois conception of autonomy and turning it into an instrument of cultural diplomacy of the “free West.”

Recalling this foundational crisis and its political escalation in the 1930s was the focus of the project Neolithic Childhood. Art in a False Present, c. 1930 (2018). Based on the writings of Carl Einstein (1885–1940), the exhibition reconstructed the relationship of the European avant-garde to ethnology and “world art” in such a way that it did not necessarily comply with the mystification of a formalistic consolidation of progressive Western art and art histories. Einstein’s own project of an anthropologically “unlimited” art history was driven by the desire to liberate art from its then consolidating, modern disciplinary form and to associate it with a policy of mythopoetic reality production that directly targeted the fascist mobilization of myth.[1]

The demand for a self-reflexive exhibition format is well founded in recent art history. Postmodern art systematically makes explicit the degree to which the interpretative schemata of recipients are socially conditioned, and reflexively confronts them with their silent background assumptions, their “sensitivity” and receptivity, and thus raises the question of the social constitution of (inter-)subjectivity.[2] Without an “unlimiting” of the concept of art, however, even a self-reflexive form of exhibition reproduces it only as disciplinary “form of restriction,”[3] in particular the bourgeois containment and economization of its mythopoetic, collective dimensions. Both must be considered together: the explication of silent background assumptions predominant since the end of “high modernism,” that is, the becoming-thematic of art’s structural conditioning within art; and the anthropological “unlimiting” of its disciplinary form. The speculative exhibition format operating at Haus der Kulturen der Welt under the descriptor of “essay exhibition” aims to meet this dual demand.

It is not just a question of subordinating aesthetic experience to topics and using art in raw contentism to illustrate pre-established theses. Rather, the aim of self-reflexive exhibitions must be to deal with their topics not only as a form of discourse but also in the aesthetic experience itself. The framings and patterns of interpretation, the structuring of the subject matter, should be questioned in the passage through the sensory experience of immediacy, indefiniteness, and conceptual destabilization. For this, the exhibits and the exhibition theme must enter into a kind of reflection and relation of difference that evolves between the artistic opening of the gap between the sign and the signified, representation and the represented, and the identifying, interpretive attribution of meaning by the curatorial framing and its conceptual levels. If the reception of contemporary art essentially depends on the viewer’s competence and willingness to reflect and thereby meet a “cultural limit” of the respective, specifically situated subjects, then it is necessarily a task of the institutional framings to address the supra-individual and structural parameters of these “limits” in their historical structures and conditioning.[4] A self-reflexive exhibition must induce a kind of foundational crisis that pushes the applied categories to their limits and that removes the limits of the “aesthetic experience” as a category in itself. This ultimately implies going beyond the inwardness of “self-reflexion” toward a form of speculation that replaces the content of the ubiquitous capitalizing function with targeted self-alienation.

The exhibition project Love and Ethnology (2017–20) pursues such an agenda based on Hubert Fichte’s monumental writing project Die Geschichte der Empfindlichkeit (The History of Sensitivity), which was posthumously published between 1987 and 2006. It is the concept of “sensitivity” that, despite the irresolvable tension between literary text and visual art, builds a bridge between both by setting up a stage for questions of receptivity. Fichte developed his program of ethnographic poetics before the literary form of ethnographic description and the position of the author within the discipline became a significant topic. But he is, of course, by no means the first or only person who pursued the idea of meeting the challenge of the ethnological encounter and the transgression of cultural boundaries with poetic means. Based on the somewhat blanket statement that ethnographic descriptions suffer from the uncritical fusion of description and object, representation and represented, for him, the gap that inevitably separates the two becomes the setting for self-reflexive, investigative, exposing poetics. This is what Fichte has in common with all later approaches that are critical of representation in the visual arts as well. He is likewise, of course, not the only one in the 1960s and 1970s who departed from the transcendence or distancing assertion of scientific objectivity in art and science, in the process self-reflexively demanding that his own desires and feelings be inscribed into reality—“Is it disgraceful to realize that you’re researching the Wolof because you’re gay?”[5]

Fichte’s utopia of “world gayification” and the concept of “bicontinentality” describe a homosexual vision that today has become rather more relevant as a program of “impurity” in the face of the terror of heteronormative dichotomies and identity demarcations. And this is where we find his genuine achievements in the field of ethnographic description. Fichte’s “queer” awareness of the gap between description and object becomes the “contact zone,” and the “cruising utopia” becomes the scene of a struggle with hegemonic conditions and their reproduction. It becomes the object of a materialistic poetics aimed at the factual, whose declared goal is to transpose the separation of the descriptive and the described in a “dialectical process”[6] in the medium of language as well as sexuality. Hubert Fichte is thus in many respects an exceptional phenomenon in the postwar German-speaking context, including in regard to his attentive description of the reproduction of colonial forms of knowledge, the fronts of disciplinary modernization, and their economies.

However, the author’s project of self-unlimiting meets a limit—or rather several at a time. It is relevant for Love and Ethnology to work these out, because these are also at least some of the limits of “self-reflexive” institution- and representation-critical projects in Western institutions, and thus specifically of a project such as Kanon-Fragen. The motivation to make Fichte’s Die Geschichte der Empfindlichkeit the subject of a comprehensive exhibition program was thus largely grounded in the initial suspicion that the limits of Fichte’s unlimiting could, at least in essential aspects, be analogous to the limits of the unlimiting of Western institutions in the process of their “globalization,” and that such institutions can therefore learn something about themselves from Fichte and his limits. Before we can even say whether and how these limits can be permanently overcome or subverted, they first have to become explicit and intelligible. The critical reception of Fichte’s novels in the medium of the exhibition is therefore a measure to “sensitize” the institutions to the constitutive exclusions, categorical subdivisions, and cleanup operations that they reproduce and with which they construct their objects and which typically operate below the level of visibility and the rituals of recognition. The objective of Love and Ethnology is also to plunge the institution and its ability to represent into a crisis. And not least because it is only against the background of such a degenerative self-reflection that the specific artistic operations in such an exhibition can really come to the fore.

The dialectical process of ethnographic poetics envisaged by Fichte breaks down in what we refer to in the subtitle of the exhibition as “The Colonial Dialectic of Sensitivity.” The phrase “colonial dialectic” refers first of all to the interrelation of colonial opposites, of colonial power and the colonized, and in the Hegelian sense to the level of subjectivization, and, moreover, to the level of the contested order of signification. It also describes the economics of colonial projections and export operations, and the inversions and boomerang effects in the mimetic economy of colonial difference, as exemplified by Aimé Césaire when he describes the colonial master as the embodiment of the barbarism that is projected by him onto the “other.”[7] The term encompasses the circulation of mimesis and alterity, and the asymmetric and yet reciprocal interactions of perceptions of the self, the foreign, and alien perceptions of the foreign, as highlighted in the tradition of “inverse anthropology”—the most advanced German ethnological tradition (and perhaps another original German contribution to the broader field of “postcolonial” discourse), with which Fichte has a few points of intersection.[8] And “colonial dialectic” also describes the correlation between the ideological “great divisions,” their double binds and flickering reversals of desire and exclusion, and how, again and again, the mechanisms and economies of colonial separation and racialized power are reinscribed and reproduced even in acts of transgression, in histories of entangled histories, in processes of transculturation. The realization that “exhibiting” the constructed nature of racial difference alone has never been a barrier to its application is an inherent aspect of colonial dialectics, and probably the one most likely to reveal the limits of the paradigm of institution- and representation-critical “self-reflexivity.” Or, in fact, the one that emphasizes the need to implicate and refer such self-reflexivity, especially in the field of aesthetics, to such colonial dialectics, and thereby unlimit the “aesthetic” as a category.

Hubert Fichte’s attempt to become “sensitized” and to make this sensitivity the medium of a realization also meets avoidable limits associated with unrevised assumptions and actual privileges, such as the ability to read and travel and the attendant barriers to access. These will not, however, be our subject matter in detail here. We find them addressed in the architecture of the overall project as well as in numerous individual articles, or at least broad outlines.

For me, it is more important to examine how the attempt of opening up and becoming transparent in his literary project itself reaches a limit, which leads to Die Geschichte der Empfindlichkeit ultimately becoming a bildungsroman. This is because Fichte challenges the limits of bourgeois subjectivity while consolidating it as a form. In the refraction of his alter ego, his self-unlimiting remains trapped in the limits and the reproduction of a transparent, coherent ego whose colonial dialectic of self-empowerment is left out of the process of self-reflection. This is particularly evident in Fichte’s consistently ambivalent relationship to trance and possession, which runs throughout his work on Afro-diasporic religions, as well as his research on psychiatry in Africa.

The volume Psyche. Glossen (Psyche: Glosses) consists, among other things, of conversations with psychiatrists and patients at the psychiatric unit of Fann Hospital in Dakar, Senegal, which became relatively renowned in Europe through its experiments that combined traditional healing methods and rituals with Western medicine. In the conversations from Fann, Fichte seems to be primarily concerned with criticizing the continued colonialism of forms of knowledge and psychiatric practices, as he by contrast positively describes and appreciates the knowledge of traditional healers and collective rites: “I think they are ahead of us in psychiatry.”[9] Perhaps one could echo Fichte by saying that they are ahead of us in art, because they have institutionally isolated neither art nor psychiatry.

Of course, Fichte was not the only person in the 1970s who dealt with the relationship between power and subjectivity, society and the individual, based on the critique of modern psychiatric institutions, thus giving it the form of a poetic self-searching, which took on community lifestyles and militant political forms of organization, among other topics. The core of the anti-psychiatric movement can be described—in variously radical politics—as the attempt to unfold the discourses and practices of individualizing pathologization and medicalization out of interiorization, and to then reevaluate them as questions of social conditions and the relations of production. The anti-psychiatric discourse called into question every clear demarcation of normality and pathology, and thus resumed a thread of the prewar European avant-garde under different auspices, as Fichte also did.

For the prewar avant-garde, the essential role played by the art of the mentally ill was that it seemed to reveal ways of breaking out of the prison of bourgeois inwardness and the crisis of socialization in capitalism. The motive of depersonalization and trance in this context was essentially tied to the hope of escaping the shackles of the bourgeois subject form and of politically mobilizing the social and the collective, as it were, as externalized dimensions of the psyche.

The fact that this difference of inwardness and outwardness, of autonomous individuality and medial collectivity, also ran chiefly along colonial borders is evidenced by the rampant artistic and epistemic primitivism of the era. In the postwar period, ethno-psychiatry then occupied that nexus where questions of anti-psychiatry came into contact with those of colonial difference. Fichte’s preoccupation with the mentally ill in Africa and his conversations at Fann are an intersection of these vectors.

What happens at this point of intersection, and how is Fichte’s ambivalent relationship with trance and possession portrayed? What is repeatedly summoned and questioned in the discussions in Psyche is the difference between “modern” and “traditional,” which corresponds to the juxtaposition of collective, exoteric, animistic magical concepts of the soul and the individualized psyche of modern psychiatry. It is this difference that defines the discussions on delirium and trance, psychoanalysis, and, say, the ndoep ritual.

This is a central nexus of the “colonial dialectic,” for in this juxtaposition, the coherence of the modern vis-à-vis the nonmodern reproduces itself as the latter’s negation, which goes hand in hand with the production of individuated, autonomous subjects and the image of a heteronomous subjectivity within the premodern and collectivity “entrapped” in magic. The entire mythical/ideological sequence of the colonial “great division” is reproduced and discharged in the confrontation of the individually alienated, but rationally self-determined, subjectivity of the modern with the rituals of the nonmodern borne by collectivity.

The philosophical work of Denise Ferreira da Silva, as well as her contribution to this book,[10] insists that the distinction between “autonomous” and “heteronomous” subjectivities is also fundamental to the mechanisms of racialization. A number of historians have also referred to the connections between the construct of the modern, self-transparent-making subject as a rationally autonomous agent and the institution of private property. The legal form of private ownership and self-ownership thus has determined the limits of the modern self and the modern conceptions of freedom at least since the eighteenth century, but really since the introduction of early capitalism in the sixteenth century.[11]

Possession is nothing less than the absolute, colonial antithesis to this concept of the subject, in such a way that the double bind of the colonial, racial difference can still be reproduced in its critical questioning. However, in Psyche, Fichte is keen to use the voices of his interlocutors to work out the incipient self-reflection of the colonialism of psychiatric knowledge. But perhaps it is exactly this double bind that also retains the upper hand in the conversations at Fann. For self-reflection and unmasking do not prevent the difference from reproducing itself, even in Fichte’s critique of colonialist patterns of thought and not least in the inwardness of the stylization of his sexual desire.

At Fann, as in Togo or Benin, in Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America, Fichte, as a queer ethnologist, was therefore either escaping or subverting the (self-)restrictions of “possessive individualism” and its relation to a work-dominated worldview. Like other avant-gardists before him, he sought the exteriorities of nonmodern collectives and found them in Afro-diasporic religions, whose “transcorporeality”[12] opens up a queer world of nonheteronormative identifications and representations.

But Fichte’s relationship to the trance and possession he describes in his writings remains deeply divided. His hopes, his expectations of the freedom of “rituallessness”[13] that he anticipates from the “computers” of the collective soul, must—according to the double bind outlined—be disappointed to the extent that Fichte remains marked by the fear of self-loss.

However, Fichte overwrites this dialectic with political arguments. He rejects his own participation in the possession trance and calls out the capability of trance created in initiation as a “breaking of consciousness.” He describes the trance itself using terms of the political imaginary of the Cold War colonial dialectic, wherein the political “specter” of a limitless mimesis or behaviorist cybernetics has taken the place of the “savages”: the irrational self-abandonment and heteronomy of modern (mass) subjectivity manifested in totalitarianism and mind control.

If Fichte’s refusal to participate in the mind-altering rituals whose effects he attempts to reveal marks the limit of his scientific authenticity (“Will a neophyte still be able to proceed scientifically?”[14]), then his stance also reveals the limit of his ethnographic, even “queer,” self-reflection as a fear of sensitivity and a loss of self, a state that endangers the privileged assurance of being able to return to the coherence of one’s own self. And these limits run homologous along the boundaries that the possibilities of self-reflexive, representation-critical institutions also meet in the reproduction of their own power. The shape taken on by the crisis and transformation that also causes such entities, in the service of self-knowledge, to open up so that they expose themselves to a “potentially irreversible indeterminacy” [15] remains, for now, uncertain.