Mi / 10:00 – 12:00

The Totalitarian Subject

On Psychology, Political Theory, and Literature of the 1930s and 1940s

Sandra Janßen, Thyssen@KWI Fellow

Online (Zoom) & Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KWI) Essen, Room 106, Goethestr. 31, 45128 Essen

My presentation will feature my current book project, a study that constellates psychology, political theory, and literature from the 1930s and 1940s around the figure of a ‘totalitarian subject.’ The idea the book elaborates is that a ‘totalitarian’ subject is not simply defined by the political regime to which it conforms, but—more importantly—by notions of totality that prefigure and legitimize such forms of power. It studies contemporaneous psychology in order to identify the conceptions of subjectivity on which the totalitarian thinking of this period also relies. However, it is literature that renders this epistemic connection conspicuous, for in literary texts of that period, psychological and political subject models are closely interwoven. The significance of political totalitarianism can thus be understood in new ways by considering other fields of knowledge. I mainly draw on French and German sources in all three domains covered by this study, with the intention of showing that certain basic concepts about subjectivity not only spread between the aforementioned domains, but also between totalitarian and non-totalitarian countries; however, in totalitarian ideologies they culminate in the direst consequences. Literary authors I primarily study are Hermann Broch, Maurice Blanchot, and Gottfried Benn, but I also draw on a range of others, including Günter Anders, Georges Bataille, Arthur Koestler, Bertolt Brecht, Valentin Kataev, and Primo Levi.

In my colloquium presentation, I would like to discuss the middle part of the book, which is to treat a heterogeneous range of political theories from the 1930s and 1940s, including open supporters of Nazism or Stalinism as well as critical theorists of totalitarianism, hoping to show that whichever their political stance, authors refer to similar figures of political thought, and that these figures have close similarities with psychological thought of the same period.