Disclaimer: This short text is merely a brief summary of my PhD dissertation that I finished in January 2024 at Koblenz University and Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences. The full dissertation will be published as issue 20 in the edition “Medien- und Gestaltungsästhetik” at transcript in late autumn 2024.

Introduction the Aesthetics of the Virtual in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Work

In my dissertation titled “Machines and Atmospheres: On the Aesthetics of the Virtual in E.T.A. Hoffmann”, I explore the intricate ways Hoffmann’s poetic methods can be understood as an aesthetic of the virtual. By aligning the historically emergent concept of the virtual, originally an optical term referring to mirror images and extended to mean an effective force without physical presence, with Hoffmann’s literary practices, I propose that his works prefigure modern understandings of virtuality. This establishes a foundational framework where his literary texts not only represent dual aspects of atmosphere and machine but also create immersive worlds that engage readers both imaginatively and materially. My thesis argues that Hoffmann’s literature transcends the mere creation of narrative fiction to evoke a realm that exists between the reader’s perception and the textual narrative, functioning as a virtual space. I discuss how Hoffmann utilizes narrative structures that provoke the reader into an active role, thus blurring the lines between creator and consumer. These narratives challenge traditional notions of textual interaction, encouraging a participatory reading experience that mirrors the interactive dynamics of virtual environments in contemporary digital media. Hoffmann’s employment of the virtual goes beyond mere thematic content; it becomes a structural element that shapes how his stories are experienced, making his literary endeavor a pioneering example of virtual aesthetics in the Romantic era.

Hoffmann’s Textual Virtuality: An Interface of Reader and Narrative

In the core of my analysis, I examine how Hoffmann’s narratives serve as sophisticated interfaces that engage the reader actively, creating a shared space of narrative development and experiential immersion. His texts, often structured through complex narrative frames and metafictional elements, invite readers to transcend the physical limits of the printed page and participate in the unfolding of the story. This interaction is akin to modern virtual realities where the user’s engagement helps to shape the experience. Hoffmann’s narrative techniques, particularly his use of detailed, vivid descriptions and disruptions of narrative expectations, heighten the sense of a textually induced virtual space. I argue that these narrative strategies not only captivate the reader’s imagination but also simulate the immersive experience of entering into a virtual realm, where each reader’s engagement can lead to uniquely personalized narrative outcomes. The layered complexity of Hoffmann’s texts creates a multidimensional space where reality and fiction intermingle, encouraging readers to navigate and explore these layers as active participants. This engagement is crucial for the emergence of a virtual aesthetic, where the boundary between the text and the reader becomes fluid and interactive, fostering a sense of presence within the narrative world. Hoffmann’s texts, therefore, do not just tell stories—they create worlds that exist in a state of potential, activated and realized through the act of reading.

The Dualism of Machine and Atmosphere in Hoffmann’s Aesthetic

Delving deeper, my dissertation discusses the specific characteristics of Hoffmann’s narrative method, which intertwines optical and mechanical elements to enhance the virtual effect. Hoffmann’s works frequently utilize motifs of the ‘machine’ and the ‘atmosphere’ to construct narratives that challenge the boundaries between reality and imagination. The concept of the ‘machine’ in Hoffmann’s texts often symbolizes the mechanics of the narrative itself—how stories are constructed and how they operate to engage the reader’s cognitive and perceptual faculties. On the other hand, ‘atmosphere’ pertains to the ambient, emotional, or spiritual environments that these machines generate or manipulate, thus enveloping the reader in a constructed yet palpable world. The dialectic between machine and atmosphere in Hoffmann’s work illustrates how literary texts can function as virtual engines, creating spaces that are emotionally resonant yet grounded in the mechanical manipulation of narrative form. This machine-like construction of narrative allows Hoffmann to control the pacing, mood, and emotional trajectory of his stories, while the atmospheric elements provide depth and texture, immersing the reader in an environment that feels both immediate and richly detailed. The interaction between these two elements is essential for creating a virtual experience that is both cognitively engaging and emotionally compelling. By examining specific texts, I show how Hoffmann crafts these elements to manipulate the reader’s experience, using the machine to construct the narrative framework and the atmosphere to fill it with life, turning the act of reading into an experience of exploring a virtual world. This intricate balance between the mechanical and the atmospheric not only highlights Hoffmann’s innovative narrative techniques but also showcases his ability to invoke a virtual aesthetic that is deeply immersive and interactive.

Expanding the Virtual: Beyond Digital Realities

In my concluding arguments, I contend that Hoffmann’s poetic approach offers more than just a precursor to digital or technological notions of the virtual. It represents an early manifestation of virtual aesthetics that invites readers to actively expand the limits of their imagination and participate in the creation of new realities. This interpretation not only provides fresh insights into Hoffmann’s works but also redefines the scope of virtual aesthetics to encompass literary and artistic principles that predate and

perhaps even anticipate modern digital technologies. My discussion highlights how Hoffmann’s literary techniques, such as his intricate use of narrative frames and his blending of the fantastical with the real, serve to construct a literary form of virtual reality that engages the reader’s senses and imagination. I argue that these techniques allow Hoffmann to explore themes of identity, perception, and reality in ways that resonate with contemporary virtual experiences. Furthermore, by positioning the reader as an active participant in the narrative construction, Hoffmann’s works foster a dynamic interaction that is characteristic of virtual environments. This not only enhances the immersive quality of his narratives but also challenges the readers to reconsider their role as passive recipients of the text. Thus, Hoffmann’s literature not only anticipates the dynamics of digital virtuality but also expands the concept of the virtual to include the imaginative and creative engagement of the reader in the literary experience, offering a broader and more nuanced understanding of virtuality in aesthetic discourse.