Navigation

Prof. Dr. Elisabeth Bronfen

Prof. Dr. Elisabeth Bronfen holds the Chair for English and American Studies at the University of Zurich. She was officially appointed FAU Ambassador during the Dies academicus 2019. (Image: Susan Bronfen)

Elisabeth Bronfen is Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Zurich and since 2007 Global Dinstinguished Professor at New York University. Her research focuses on the Anglo-American Literature and visual culture of the 19. and 20. century, on intermediality and Gender Studies. Her latest publications include Madmen, Death and the American Dream (Diaphanes 2015), Hollywood und das Projekt America. Essays zum Kulturellen Imaginären einer Nation (Transkript 2018), Crossmappings. On Visual Culture (I.B. Taurus/Bloomsbury 2018) and Obsessed. The Cultural Critic´s Life in the Kitchen (Rutgers University Press). She held numerous guest professorships in the US, Australia, Portugal, France, Italy and Denmark. Since 2011, Prof. Dr. Bronfen has been a member of the Academia Europaea. In 2017, she received the Martin Warnke Medal by the Aby Warburg Foundation.

On 4 November 2019, Prof. Dr. Bronfen was officially appointed as FAU Ambassador in the frame of the Dies academicus.

For me, the special thing about FAU is its openness towards internationalisation. At the same time, I am impressed by the strong interest for theory building as a common language across disciplinary boundaries in the field of Cultural and Media Studies.

Prof. Dr. Bronfen, you are now an FAU Ambassador. What will be your main task in this position?

My main task will be the continuation and intensification of the already existing cooperation in the field of Cultural and Media Studies.

What is special about FAU?

For me, the special thing about FAU is its openness towards internationalisation. At the same time, I am impressed by the strong interest for theory building as a common language across disciplinary boundaries in the field of Cultural and Media Studies.

Your research area is English Literature and Culture. Which scientific discovery in your career has surprised or fascinated you the most?

Here, I have to go back to my habilitation thesis “Over Her Dead Body. Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic”, not least, because even after 25 years it is still important to ask why the beautiful female corps has not lost its fascination in literature, the visual arts and cultural theory. Already at that time I was surprised how adamantly the correlation between death and femininity has entrenched itself in our culturally imaginary, but also, how many philosophical, psychological and cultural policy questions can still be negotiated on this over the centuries – and even today.

Your scientific career is impressive and that – as some would point out – as a woman and a humanities scholar. Do women still have a hard time in science?

Surely, there has been done quite a lot during the past decades to make it easier for women to work in science. Generally, there is a much bigger mindfulness regarding this problem as well as development programmes to increase the number of women in scientific institutions. When I was offered a professorship at the University of Zurich in the early 1990s, I was the only woman among 40 scientists at the Faculty of Humanities. That has changed by now. Nevertheless, the question remains how to reconcile the demanding profession of the female scientist with that of the family obligations. Thus, many young women hesitate to start a career in science. At the same time, when looking back I have to state the following: long-established structures can only really be changed very slowly. There are still obstacles. We still have to develop strategies to be recognized, to receive recognition for the specific way how women can work in science.

The sense and purpose of humanities research is questioned again and again. In Hungary, for example, the degree programme Gender Studies has been revoked. What do you answer those doubters?

For me, doing research in the humanities means to discuss our cultural history, to discuss literary, philosophical and works of art, which not only help us to understand how we have become what we are. They can also provide answers to the problems, which our culture is facing. However, humanities studies also means to cultivate analytical thinking, beyond economical profit thinking.

Nevertheless, the question remains how to reconcile the demanding profession of the female scientist with that of the family obligations.

You have recently published a cookbook. How did that happen and do science and cooking have anything in common?

I wanted to write a cookbook for a very long time, partly to convince people to turn their backs on fast food and convenience food and to return to their own kitchens; to discover it as a place of experimentation but also as a place of culinary heritage. However, it is also a part of what is now considered as “life writing” – as the title “Besessen. Meine Kochmemoiren” (Obsessed. My cooking memoirs) states. It is connected to science because I took the writing of this book as an opportunity to delve into my own cookbook collection, looking for cooking principles but also for the history of cooking and fasting. At the same time, it was also an exploration of how cooking is part of a very personal family history to me.

Have you always wanted to become a scientist? What would have you become instead?

No, I started as an actor and actually wanted to become a poet. Then my love of literature and of the philosophical questions it raises packed me and I discovered the charm of analytical thinking and writing. Concurrently, I had set myself a time limit when I worked on my habilitation thesis. If I had not obtained my professorship as a postdoc, I would have applied to an American Law School.

Do you have an advice especially for women who pursue a career in science?

To work persistently on your own research, not to be intimidated by any prejudice against women in your discipline. And at the same time to calmly analyse the expectations, which the university system makes of you, and to find a way to meet them. To enthusiastically and purposefully pursue your own projects but at the same time not to lose your humour. That helps a lot when it comes to defeats that you should always be prepared for.

Thank you very much for the interview, Frau Prof. Dr. Bronfen.