Cite as: Christina Wessely, Milieus, Environments, Life Forms: Biology and Critical Theory in the Gulf of Naples, lecture, ICI Berlin, 27 January 2020, video recording, mp4, 35:22 <>
27 Jan 2020

Milieus, Environments, Life Forms

Biology and Critical Theory in the Gulf of Naples
By Christina Wessely
Since the German biologist Anton Dohrn founded its zoological station in 1872, scientists have been coming to Naples to study the foundations of modern biology. Soon, it became an international center for the life sciences, with a special focus on ecological questions concerning the ‘habits and conditions of life’, as its founder Anton Dohrn framed the station’s research programme.

At the same time, writers and philosophers rediscovered the Southern Italian metropolis, which had been a major travel destination for previous centuries. In the summer of 1925, the city witnessed a remarkable gathering: Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Theodor W. Adorno, Ernst Bloch, and Alfred Sohn-Rethel came to Naples, and their visits inspired them to reflect on quite similar questions — namely, the specific quality, range, and influence of surroundings, environments, and habitats — albeit from a historical materialist perspective focusing on the human subject and its socio-economic conditions.

Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis used the term ‘porosity’ to describe Naples. Adopting this term as its key analytical category, the talk aims at relating these Neapolitan knowledge formations — biological and philosophical — in order to address some decisive aspects of modern ecological thinking.Christina Wessely is professor for the cultural history of knowledge at Leuphana University Lüneburg. She studied history and German literature at the University of Vienna and the Freie Universität Berlin, received postdoctoral fellowships from the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and from Harvard University, and held research positions at the University of Vienna and the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Recent publications on the history of ecology include Löwenbaby (2019); ‘Watery Milieus. Marine Biology, Aquariums, and the Limits of Ecological Knowledge circa 1900’ in Grey Room 75 (2019), pp. 36–59; and the co-edited volume Milieu. Umgebungen des Lebendigen in der Moderne (2017).


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Format: mp4
Length: 00:35:22
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