Beyond the Subject. Vienna Conference Papers

Communicative Identity in the Eighteenth Century; Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim's Epistolary Network and the Cult of Friendship


  • Tobias Heinrich Ludwig Boltzmann Institut für Geschichte und Theorie der Biographie, Vienna



Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim, eighteenth-century letters, Facebook, German literature


In recent years the field of ‘life writing’ has been shaped by critical approaches that have abandoned traditional notions of the singular, self-governing individual in favor of a multiple and processual concept of the subject which understands the self as socially determined. A key role is played by an engagement with the technological and medial requirements – the material basis – of the subject’s construction.

In contributing to this debate, this article looks at a configuration that, while it has numerous structural analogies to the present, is historically situated in the eighteenth century. Using the example of the epistolary network around the German Enlightenment figure Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim (1719–1803), I will argue that at one of the decisive turning points in the formation of the modern concept of the subject there was a form of medial communication which stood at odds to the idea of a unified and autonomous self. Through the relationship created between author and addressee, the letter constructed changing versions of the self that made the success of communication dependent on the play between textual ambiguities and the imagination. At the same time the article examines the role of the visual image as a substitute for the other in epistolary communication. Under the guiding concept of ‘friendship’ a network of text and identity production occurring in parallel is formed. Such a network is not solely based on the principle of individual autonomy but also on collective recognition. 

This article was submitted on July 1st 2014 and published on December 5th 2014.

Author Biography

Tobias Heinrich, Ludwig Boltzmann Institut für Geschichte und Theorie der Biographie, Vienna

Tobias Heinrich is Deputy Director at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for the History and Theory of Biography. His research focuses on eighteenth-century culture and the development of modern biography as well as the current trends in digital biography. He has published on the German authors Johann Gottfried Herder, Alexander Kluge and has participated in writing a collective biography of Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Tobias Heinrich is editor of the European Journal of Life Writing.








Beyond the Subject. Vienna Conference Papers