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Faustin Vierrath

faustin vierrath


Dissertation Project: On the Gender of the ‘Hero’: Comparative Semantics of the Heroic and its Gender Connotations at the Beginning of the Modern Age (Germany, France, Great Britain 1780-1850)

Being marked as exceptional and extraordinary, heroic figures open up the possibility for alternative concepts of order. On the other hand they function as role models and figures with whom members of society can identify. This duplicity, simultaneously exemplary and exceptional, implies that people in discussions about heroes and heroism comment on both what they regard as commendable and worth emulating as well as about the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior. The initial thesis of the dissertation project argues that this potential of heroism as an object of discourse to both set and challenge boundaries is especially relevant for the determination of gender spaces and roles: Highly exclusionary in regards to gender and of course in its classic form overwhelmingly connoting manliness, the heroic concept reveals, upon closer observation variances, alternative paths and most of all the ‘constructedness’ of its synchronically and diachronically varying gender assignment.

The dissertation project aims to investigate this very subject in all linguistic discussion surrounding the core terms hero, heroine, heroism, heroic and their German and French equivalents. In its method the project should be understood as a study of gender sensitive, historical semantics. It follows the premise shared by gender history and conceptual history that language is not only an indicator but a factor in societal change and persistence and it is interested in the pragmatics of term utilizations at identifiable historical places. For this a corpus of primary sources comprised of entertainment magazines and poems, lexica and philosophical treatises provides access firstly to reflexive and less-reflected usage of terms and secondly to different speaker positions and recipients:

How and why is the connection between heroism and manliness discursively (re)produced or challenged? How much space does the outwardly homogenous concept of manfulness offer different masculinities? How is womanly heroism, the intrusion of womanly figures into the core concept of the hero, discursively defused? What – possibly ‘gender neutral’ – discursive functions do sexual codes in heroisms have in established discussions?

This project focuses on the era at the end of the Enlightenment in which European revolutions were taking place, established orders were put to the test and norms required justification in new ways. Furthermore, the turn of the 19th century was decisive for the creation of the model for two contrastive/complementary genders which would determine Western thought up until the present. The goal of this dissertation project is to determine what part the hero discourse played in this process and what was its potential to form alternatives – this as a contribution to gender history – and vice versa to show obvious and hidden sexual attributions in discussions regarding content, valuation and viable areas of usage for ‘heroism’ – this as a contribution to its conceptual history. The project’s transnational-comparative approach allows for the appearance of naturalness or inevitability to be dispelled from national conclusions.