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Poetics of the Neighbor: Narrative, Ethics, and Vicinity

Research project
Active research
Project period
2018 - 2022
Project owner
Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion, University of Gothenburg, and Department of German Studies, University of Vienna, Austria

Short description

The research project “Poetics of the Neighbor: Narrative, Ethics, and Vicinity” explores figures and concepts of ‘being neighbors’ in German, Austrian, American and British literary texts written from the nineteen-eighties onwards. By rethinking various notions of neighborship – this “particular structure composed of distance and nearness, indifference and involvement” (Georg Simmel) – the project throws new light on a series of highly significant global issues such as closeness, intrusion and especially the trope of (in)voluntary vicinity, using a comparative and transdisciplinary methodological approach.

Neighbours – both real and imaginary ones – have left their mark in our historical, political, and literary annals as long as anyone can remember. In their 2005 book The Neighbor, Slavoj Zizek, Kenneth Reinhard and Eric Santner discuss the biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself as an enigma that calls us to rethink the very nature of responsibility and community. But are we indeed supposed to love our neighbor, even if he is a perfect stranger? Or, as Freud puts it in Civilization and Its Discontents: “Why would we do it?” And, to begin with, what is a neighbor? The Greek plēsion which means ‘neighbor’ or simply ‘fellow man’ is someone who is so close that he concerns and affects us beyond every spontaneous contiguity.

Hence, in neighbor-love both spatial proximity and the readiness for practiced charity are mutually dependent. This unfolds the ethical relation that is at the very core of our living together, even more so in a pluralistic society. Many of these aspects fundamentally inform today’s political debates on globalization, increasing social and geographical mobility, the ongoing refugee crisis, as well as the alarming re-building of borders all over Europe. But why resort to literary narratives and fictions when tracing the challenges of being neighbours? Why not simply reconstruct it as a territorial term, a geopolitical concept, or a strictly sociological category?

This opens up the epistemological dimension of this inquiry: Contemporary fictions do not simply document but creatively respond to some of today’s most challenging questions by raising significant issues in an often more compelling manner than other forms of discourse.

The project’s methodological framework takes an explicitly transdisciplinary approach which understands literature as embedded in a multitude of cultural, social and political discourses, thus combining methods from poetics and classical rhetoric with critical approaches from fields like traumatology (Stuart Taberner’s research on the relation between world literature and the circulation of traumatic memories as well as Cathy Caruth’s and Elaine Scarry’s meditations on the neighbor’s pain), and jurisprudence (e.g. Beate Rössler’s investigations in the ‘right to privacy’, adopted from the European Court of Human Rights).

A broad range of contemporary literary texts by Herta Müller, Terézia Mora, Peter Handke, Graham Greene, Marilynne Robinson, and Marlene Streeruwitz are at the heart of this project. All of the selected texts challenge the cultural construction of being neighbors by presenting us with contradictory versions of vicinity and also with different fictitious versions of what to make of the fundamental Christian love commandment.