Habilitation award winners 2018: interview series
PD Dr. Karin Höpker, Department of English and American Studies
Dr. Höpker, what was the subject of your habilitation thesis?
I am investigating the emergence and development of a term that has now become very common – risk. At the beginning of the 19th century, risk was a very specific term in the maritime trade used to describe insurable goods. Towards the end of the century, it took on a similar meaning to our understanding of risk today. I am interested in how this shift and broadening in meaning came about and which role literature in particular has played in this context.
What excites you the most about your research?
What fascinates me is the ability of fiction to create its own worlds in terms of content and structure that develop the hypotheses of our reality. For example, if we take a look at the development of the novel, we can understand how intensely narrative deals with fundamental social problems and questions, not just in terms of the contents or the themes in the novel, but also in the way the story is told. What does perception mean? How do we actually know what we think we know about ourselves or about the world? How can we communicate thoughts, feelings and the contents of consciousness? How do we make decisions and how do we inform each other about this process? In this context, literature offers a very special experimental freedom to consider such questions and to test and discuss ideas and techniques in a virtual model. Social systems are complex and literature has certain functions within them at certain times. In a way, literature offers a special window through which we can listen to a part of a society in a dialogue with itself.
Which difficulties did you encounter during your habilitation and how did you overcome them?
There’s a certain expectation placed on academics in the humanities that the projects we choose for our dissertation, habilitation and follow-up projects must not be too close to one another. This part of the 19th century was completely new territory for me and my work includes background knowledge from several different disciplines. If I hadn’t been able to use the research of some historians who searched numerous archives to investigate the history of insurance and speculation with policies, statistics and censor research, case files about legal disputes about the transport of slaves, and the history of science, biological taxonomy or the whale trade, my project would have been almost impossible.
To which extent has your research changed you and your view of the world?
I think that by examining literature we become aware of how different thought, communication, and the view of oneself and the world can be in certain eras. We experience that our own thinking in the here and now is not a foregone conclusion. This means our assumptions of how we and the world are, all that what we often consider to be normal and natural, the intellectual ‘horizon’ of our perception to a certain extent, are suddenly confronted with something completely different which we are open to, as we perceive it as fiction, as something hypothetical and playful to which we voluntarily and safely subject ourselves to. While reading, we can experience something that is foreign to us and that we often have only limited access to. What I am interested in and what I hope is that we can learn to expand our horizons and to question our presumptions. When we take reading seriously and engage with it, we learn to think differently, at least to a certain extent, which not only shows us from a historical perspective that everything was not always as it is now, but also enables us to imagine how things could be different in the future.
What’s next – for you and your field of research?
I currently hold a position as a senior assistant professor (‘Oberassistentin’) at the Chair of American Studies with a particular focus on literary studies. I am applying for professorships and would like to apply for funding for a new project soon. This is always an exciting but also difficult point in one’s own academic biography, as you’re still heavily involved in the old project which still has to be turned into a book, and at the same time, there’s something new that you’d like to concentrate on. I can say this much – the next project is also about narrative, but about a completely different type of risk, namely about love.
Thank you very much for the interview, Dr. Höpker.