Research mission

We are an emerging interdisciplinary research group (at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Arts) that problematizes and explores the conceptual applicability of “apophasis” in the study of history, cultures, and literature. Our aim is to unveil what (historical or present-day) actors, authors, archives, and museums could not or did not want to address. However, taking the rhetorical device of apophasis as a research lens goes beyond recognizing gaps and silences in the archives, and entails more than reading the sources “against the grain.” To put it in an apophatic way: our research does not merely center on what is missing. More importantly, it focuses on our (historical or present-day) subjects’ awareness and acknowledgement that something significant is missing or at least difficult to grasp. Concretely, this research lens challenges us to investigate more closely how the creators of the sources that we are studying recognized and dealt with their struggle to comprehensively represent groups of people and their human experiences via the linguistic categories or other audible, visual, material and/or spatial mediums available to them.

Such a research focus, in other words, presupposes our subjects’ recognition of the so-called “elephant in the room.” By suggesting not to talk about it, one, in fact, evokes the proverbial “elephant,” thus making it a perfect example of apophasis in its rhetorical sense. Even when not being mentioned at all, the “elephant in the room” is there by mutual understanding of the significance or taboo of what is not being said. Thus, although commonly associated with negative theology, which refers to the practice of defining the undefinable (God) by pointing out what cannot be attributed to the definition (of God), apophasis is a more broadly applied and applicable rhetorical device, involving “patterns of saying and unsaying.” Going beyond antithesis, such patterns acknowledge the ineffable (indescribable, undefinable, unspeakable, or ungraspable) nature of the subject at hand, and the limitations of our language for accurately and appropriately describing it. This, in turn, makes negation, omission, denial, or contradiction seem the most suitable tools for addressing the topic or crafting the framework for its lacking definition. However, that does not mean that defining it will always be impossible; it may just not be possible yet. Apophasis, in other words, holds a promise and garners expectations of what is to come.

Via his reinterpretation of Jacques Derrida’s notion of “democracy to come,” political theorist Fred Dallmayr has coined the term “apophatic democracy,” which sets the tone for defining democracy by negotiation, possibility, and promise – not only via negation, denial, or absence (such as the absence of authoritarianism). In her research on intersectional identities crafted through political discourse in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western European proto-democracies (Belgium and France), Karen Lauwers, who has initiated the present research initiative, pushes the boundaries of the apophatic lens. She goes beyond the purely linguistic interpretation of the notion, as she advocates for the use of the term to critically assess the apophatic rhetoric of actions, imagery, and materiality as well. Concerning the latter aspect, our research group draws particular attention to the internal contradictions of archival preservation and museum collections.

Overall, the aim of our initiative is to further unravel apophasis as a mentality that embraces paradoxes in its attempt to grapple with ungraspable experiences. Concrete themes and examples of “the ungraspable,” investigated by individual members of the group, include climate change, experiences of agony and dying, perceptions of apocalypse, decoloniality and historical processes of identification and othering, of categories of people (such as “citizens” or Indigenous populations) and the problematic ways in which their sources have been preserved, labelled, and presented. Thus, although heavily inspired by Derrida and the linguistic turn in historiography, our apophatic lens takes us, quite paradoxically, away from rhetorics, as it draws our attention toward histories of experiences of the unspeakable.

How is this achievable on a methodological level? This question brings us to the image featuring on top of this blog: the elephant in the room, or rather: in the archive. Via its AI-feature, Picsart generated an image of an elephant standing in a room full of books and documents, kept in bookcases and boxes, but also scattered around on the floor. As such, the blog’s banner does not only represent our challenge of working with apophatic archives, containing ambiguously labelled boxes of “miscellaneous items” or “varia,” and files in petitioning archives admittedly “not containing petitions,” just to name a few examples. The image also represents our goal to explore the potential of AI-tools in the analysis of what is not tangibly or explicitly there. Can we ethically, effectively, and critically use AI-tools for labelling, categorizing, and organizing “ungraspable” historical experiences that the contemporary producers of our sources had difficulty to grasp themselves? Let’s find out together, during the academic year of 2023-2024!

Would you like to join us in our endeavors or are you interested in writing a post as a guest blogger? Address your inquiries and suggestions to

Inspiration and further reading

  • Baker, Bernadette. “Torsions Within the Same Anxiety? Entification, Apophasis, History.” Educational Philosophy and Theory 40, no. 4 (2008): 471–93.
  • Dallmayr, Fred. Democracy to Come. Politics as Relational Praxis. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Demenchonok, Edward. “The Quest for Genuine Democracy: A Promise of Democracy to Come.” In Civility, Nonviolent Resistance, and the New Struggle for Social Justice, edited by Amin Asfari, 234–58. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2019.
  • Sells, Michael A. Mystical Languages of Unsaying. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

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