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Feb 5 2015

The Volkswagen Foundation provides room for thought: The Frankfurt sociologist Thomas Lemke writes his "Magnum Opus"

The Government of Things. Foundations and Perspectives of New Materialism

FRANKFURT.  Frankfurt Professor of Sociology, Thomas Lemke, has received funding from the Volkswagen Foundation for his "Magnum Opus". For the 51-year old scientist, who has dedicated himself to the subject of "Biotechnology, Nature and Society" for many years, this means eighteen months of freedom to devote himself solely to a larger scientific work. He already has a working title for his "Magnum Opus": "The Government of Things. Foundations and Perspectives of New Materialism". In his book, Lemke intends to examine the exploratory and innovative potential of New Materialism with a critical eye, and to take a systematic approach to this new area of research for the first time.

As part of its sponsorship programme, the Foundation will fund Lemke's substitute professor. This means that not only will the Professor benefit, but also Dr. Eva Sänger, who has just completed a research project in the Faculty of Social Sciences on the role of ultrasound images in prenatal diagnostics, funded by the German Research Association. During the upcoming summer semester, she will be lecturing to students on topics covering science and technology studies, medical sociology and feminist theory.

In his major work, Lemke wants to pick up on a striking new approach and a shift of emphasis that he has observed for some years in the Humanities and Social Sciences, and which has been given the term "New Materialism". "The hallmark of this materialism is that the concepts of self-organization and agency, which were traditionally reserved for human beings, have been extended to non-human entities", explains Lemke. By entities, philosophers and sociologists are referring to something that exists; an entity, which can be a tangible or abstract object. "It can be observed that things, artefacts and objects, are being increasingly debated and newly conceptualised." Whether it is stem cells, computers or the internet: they are all viewed as a hybrid between dead matter and living beings, between the factual and the normative.

The sociologist comments on his extensive project: "For me, on the one hand it is about exploring the differences compared to earlier versions of materialism, while on the other hand looking at the unsolved theoretical tensions and conceptual ambiguities of this research perspective." However, his aim is ultimately to achieve more than just to compile a critical inventory of the current situation within New Materialism. "My thesis is that within the idea of a "Government of Things", which occurs in the work of the French philosopher and historian, Michel Foucault, there are also elements of a post-humanist and relational concept of materialism, which could be usefully developed." In this sense, there are no "things as such", but instead things and their limitations are only created through interactive relationships, and human behaviour depends entirely on certain enabling conditions, devices and material arrangements. 

The book will consider and expand on this historically informed and empirically oriented perspective, moving it towards that which Foucault refers to as the "intrication of men and things". Lemke adds: "To that end I intend to identify systematic links between Foucault's analysis of government and insights from science and technology studies." The conceptual suggestion of a "Government of Things", according to Lemke, avoids the narrow understanding of a concept of government focussed purely on human beings and furthermore aims to make a substantial contribution to a materialistic analysis of political processes and structures.

Since his appointment in 2008, Lemke has led a series of projects, funded by third parties, including an international collaborative research project on the social and political implications of the use of DNA analysis in immigration procedures in various European states. He has also been heavily involved in the University's own administration.  Lemke was Managing Director of the Institute for the Basic Principles of Social Sciences and Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. The profile of Lemke fits perfectly with the "Magnum Opus" programme of the Volkswagen Foundation. The aim of this initiative is to provide professors from the Humanities and Social Sciences, who have proved themselves through outstanding work, with the freedom to focus all their attention on challenging scientific work. The work of the Frankfurt sociologist was first recognised by the Volkswagen Foundation in 2008. Lemke's book "The Genetic Police. Forms and Fields of Genetic Discrimination" received translation funding from the Foundation and is now also available in an extended English version.

Personal profile

Thomas Lemke studied Political Science, Sociology and Law in Frankfurt, Southampton and Paris and in 1996 earned his doctorate at the Goethe University with a thesis on Michel Foucault's concept of power. Following his doctorate, Lemke worked as an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Economic and Social Sciences at the University of Wuppertal, where he habilitated in 2006.  For many years he worked at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, and as a visiting researcher at Goldsmiths College in London and at New York University. Lemke also held visiting professorships at the Copenhagen Business School and the University of New South Wales in Sydney. In 2007 he was awarded a Heisenberg scholarship from DFG, which was converted into a Heisenberg professorship one year later. Since September 2008, Thomas Lemke has been Professor of Sociology with a focus on "Biotechnology, Nature and Society" at the Faculty of Social Sciences and since last year is also Honorary Professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

In his research and his teaching, Lemke has primarily focussed on the conditions, context and consequences of bioscientific knowledge and biotechnical innovation. A major focus of his work was the analysis of genetic discourses and practices. He has published several books on the effects of genetic knowledge on self-image, health concepts and prevention policies, and together with his colleague, Katharina Liebsch, he produced the first systematic study of the practice of genetic discrimination in Germany.

Information: Prof. Dr. Thomas Lemke, Institute for Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Westend Campus, Tel. (069) 798 36664,,

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