Dr Manuel Clemens

PhD, German Literature
Lecturer in German Studies
ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences

Areas of expertise

  • Literature In German 200512
  • German Language 200307
  • Cultural Studies 2002
  • Cultural Theory 200204

Research interests

My research and teaching interests focus particularly on history and theory of Bildung, the novel from Goethe to present, interrelations of aesthetic and political theories, representations of authority and populism, Latin American literature as well as intellectual history from 1750 to present.

My first book, The Labyrinth of Aesthetic Solitude: A Small Theory of Bildung, investigates the important but never fully defined idea of Zweckfreiheit (“disinterestedness”) by rethinking the concept of Bildung. In order to develop the implications of “Zweckfreiheit,” I question the extent to which the idealized realm of an inner aesthetic education can manifest itself in “real” life. Starting with Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters, my book discusses Kant, Nietzsche, Simmel, Bergson, Freud, Bourdieu, and Rancière. In works by these thinkers, I look at the problematic moment when the transition from art to life is thematized. This moment, I argue, leaves the subject in an irreconcilable gap between these two realms. I call this intermediate zone without an easy exit the “labyrinth of aesthetic solitude.” However, I also argue that a close reader can find useful narratives en miniature in this labyrinth, in which the distance between these different spheres is narrowed. I claim that hitherto underestimated or even unrecognized educational experiences like Schiller’s idleness in the Aesthetic Letters, Nietzsche’s adolescent memory of overhearing a secret and his use of a dream-metaphor in On the Future of our Educational Institutions, or Freud’s detective work as an interpreter of dreams lead eventually to a “small” theory of Bildung that is still valid in our time. Above all, my work focuses on the vexed relationship between aesthetics, education and politics, and I have published articles on topics such as populism, authority and Bildung.


At ANU since August 2018. From 2016 to 2017, I was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Rutgers University. Prior to these appointments, I taught German and comparative literature as well as cultural studies in Germany (Leuphana University Lüneburg) and Mexico (University Iberoamericana, University of Michoacán). I am also a recurrent Visiting Lecturer in the German Summer School at the University of New Mexico (USA).

I received my PhD from the German Department at Yale University with a dissertation on "The Labyrinth of Aesthetic Solitude. A Small Theory of Bildung" in 2013. From 1999-2005, I studied cultural studies and philosophy at the European University Viadrina in Franfurt (Oder) and Paris.  

Researcher's projects

My current book-length project addresses three versions of the zoon politikon. I call these the tolerant, the authoritarian, and the anti-authoritarian subject. It investigates the problems that anti-populist interventions face when confronted with populism and inquires about the current status of the Frankfurt School’s notion of an “authoritarian personality.” My project connects a reading of Lessing’s drama Nathan the Wise with an analysis of the contemporary political landscape, in which a liberal consensus previously thought to be fundamentally valid has begun to unravel. The analysis places the drama’s notions of reconciliation and tolerance at the forefront. The first section examines the constitution as well as the affective foundations of reconciliation and argues that this process generates an advantage for the protagonists as opposed to the supporting characters. The second section uses the intolerant supporting character to analyze the limits of tolerance. The character is controlled by illegitimate affects and can be viewed as what the Frankfurt School will later call an authoritarian personality. The last chapter returns once more to the protagonists’ successful reunion, demonstrating their similarity with postmodern subject constitutions and affect management, which lead to anti-authoritarian subjects as in Foucault’s interpretations of Cervantes, Diderot and Artaud.

Available student projects

German literature and culture from 1750-present

Bildung, Bildungsroman and coming of age

European enlightenment

Intellectual history and the development of modernity

Literature, philosophy and politics/political theory

Goethe, Schiller, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Kafka, Foucault, Bourdieu, Frankfurt School as well as contemporary German literature

German and Latin American literature


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Updated:  22 October 2019 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers