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Touched by the Uncertain – Literary Scholar Johannes Ungelenk Takes Unusual Paths

Prof. Johannes Ungelenk. | Foto: Karla Fritze.
Photo :
Prof. Johannes Ungelenk. | Foto: Karla Fritze.

To fail the reading of theoretical texts with pleasure, to write about the weather as a literary scholar and to familiarize students with the uncertain: Johannes Ungelenk has passions that some would call strange. He finds them indispensable, because they characterize him - as a researcher, a university teacher but also as a human being.

As a researcher, Ungelenk is a commuter between worlds - and not in the figurative sense. He does actually travel a lot. During the semester, he commutes between Munich every week, where he lives with his partner, and Potsdam, where he has been Junior Professor for General and Comparative Literature since summer 2018. “Well, then office, admin, and reading take place on the train in the morning,” he explains. “Moreover, this way I can clearly separate the time for teaching and writing.” He goes a long way for his passion - literary studies. Otherwise, he seldom travels to far-off places, as he says, almost proudly, “others have wanderlust, I am attracted by an unknown text or a new book. I can’t remember the last time I was on holiday.

Discovering the delight of not understanding

His journeys instead lead him into texts, the stranger they are or appear the better. “I think you have to be willing to expose yourself to the text, see what it does with you. If you put yourself above the text with some kind of academic air, the text will do nothing else but what you expect of it - or nothing anymore.” During his comparatistic studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, he already read literature and other theories which promised no easy access. “I had to discover that dealing with not understanding initially releases frustration,” he says. “I read Gilles Deleuze - once, twice, three times - and understood nothing. It displeased me and later, when it got better, it piqued my interest again. The delight in understanding nothing has to grow.” This also led to Ungelenk’s aspiration to create his own research papers in a way that alienates itself, that does not stabilize scientifically but engages it in an argument. “I do not want to read out or interpret literary texts, but rather to demonstrate how they work.”

The departure into the uncertain, into unknown worlds, has been part of Ungelenk’s career as an academic from the very beginning. “I do not come from a family of academics, there were no such role models.” By the end of his school time, he had discovered the world of literature and philosophy for himself and wanted to combine this passion with a secure profession. When he was about to enroll for teaching, a member of a selection committee encouraged him to be guided by his interests and to engage in purely academic studies. He received and learned to appreciate tips, assistance, and support like this during his studies. “Perhaps because I was rather shy, many professors felt like helping me.” He diligently and ambitiously worked on one of his first term papers, which then was torn to shreds. “But in the conversations about it my efforts were appreciated, which helped me a lot to grow.” After his master’s thesis, supervised by Romance language and literature professor Barbara Vinken, he wrote his doctoral thesis. Already then Ungelenk wanted to leave the conventional forms of academic life. In England, he had already worked on gender theories and the conception of a dynamic gender image and was fascinated by a comparison of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. “Deleuze uses the weather for comparison - as an intuitively familiar phenomenon that cannot be grasped as a thing. It has a certain firmness to which one can refer, but at the same time it is dynamic. That got me hooked.”

Following on from the weather metaphor, Ungelenk wanted to interrogate the conception of knowledge and experience and discuss related theories. A well-meaning piece of advice “saved” him from taking the second step before the first. “Look for a classical literary field and write about the weather there, otherwise your academic career will be over before it has really started.” “And this is what I did.” Ungelenk wrote his PhD on the image of some of the most famous writers of all time - Shakespeare, Goethe, and Zola - of the weather and how this picture was a mirror of their time. His findings: While the weather unfolds its power in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest and, as in the knowledge of the early modern period, is in the center of the world, Goethe’s Werther already reveals access to the Enlightenment. The weather, deprived of human availability, does not provide a suitable object for academic research. Instead, literature takes up the topic, thus constituting itself as an autonomous sphere. In turn, Zola’s series of novels of Les Rougon-Macquart reveals that humanity has arrived in the modern age - and is once again insecure. The weather, in particular storms, becomes the model of the modern world and a symbol of those forces that we cannot control. For the recently graduated comparatist, it was particularly important to note that his unprejudiced access to literature bore fruit. “I looked for texts and saw where their reading would lead me. I think that’s how every literary research project should start!”

Working on a philology of touching

Ungelenk has remained true to this credo. Currently, he is working on a philology of touching. The world of Shakespeare is again one of the starting points. “The texts I write analyze how touching works in the theater - for example between audience and actors. At the same time, distance is inscribed in every instance of touching; otherwise it would no longer be a touch but a fusion, some kind of eating up or the like.” In addition, he explores how our thinking is visually shaped, as well as the effects of a new leitmotif – precisely, a philology of touching. “It is appealing to me not to describe this alternative form of thinking but to try it out - to deconstruct how Rilke’s poems of things work so that the text touches the reader,” Ungelenk says. His comparative perspective fits very well with the Potsdam Institute of the Arts and Media. After all, one of the institute’s focal points - the image - is an excellent starting point for Ungelenk’s research. “No art form cares so much about touching as painting, which has always wanted to go beyond its bounds and touch the viewer.”

The fact that he not only earned a doctorate, but also became junior professor at the Potsdam Institute for the Arts and Media is by no means a logical next step on Ungelenk’s academic career ladder. “The academic job profile was completely unknown to me. And perhaps that was good. Had I known the hurdles, I wouldn’t have dared to do it,” he says. “The appointment is like winning the lottery jackpot!”

With particular zeal and joy, Ungelenk dived into his role as a university teacher at the University of Potsdam. You can feel that he still remembers with enthusiasm his own study time - and wants to pass on this joy. “I have decided to do two things in teaching: to read texts very carefully with the students, line by line, and to invite them to readings that lead into the unknown, perhaps even not to anything tangible.” He has already had very good experiences with detailed text reading. More likely problems for students are to come to terms with the fact that non-understanding may also be part of learning at a university. "Of course, it is disturbing to bring a text to a seminar and not to know what's going to happen with it. But sometimes you only notice that you drew a lesson from it three years later,” says the literary scholar. He hopes to be able to lead his students to this goal, the joy of the uncertain. At least, he has benefited from it until today.

The Researcher

Prof. Johannes Ungelenk studied comparative literature in Munich and women’s studies in Oxford. Since 2018, he has been Junior Professor for General and Comparative Literature at the University of Potsdam.
Mail: ungelenkuni-potsdamde


This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - Two 2019 „Data“.