ProjectKulturgeschichte des Diebstahls: Ein Gründungsmythos

Basic data

Kulturgeschichte des Diebstahls: Ein Gründungsmythos
8/1/2013 to 3/14/2018
Abstract / short description:
The cunning and smart thief is not only a prominent character of antiquity: The narratives of Prometheus, Hermes, Moses and Eva constitute a set of mythical examples for the astute or just boldly insolent thief, that threatens the coveted bourgeois private property even in mod-ern times. Just like Prometheus stole the fire, Hermes Apollo’s cattle, Moses the Egyptians’ gold and just like Eva appropriated God’s apple, the modern thieves of the like of Jean-Jacqueas Rousseau, Jean Genet, Arsène Lupin are challenges to whole concepts of ownership. Yet, such a purloining is not simply an illegitimate appropriation, but the thief experiences himself as capable of acting on his own and as resilient to powers and discourses that he oth-erwise experienced as overpowering. With the tranformation of the concept of ownership from feudal and institutional to private property during the course of nineteenth century, which rendered property mobile and flexible, the more rural robber’s captain was replaced by the urban individual thief. This process didn’t just happen in court, but was accompanied by media and literature of the time. In contrast to the robber and the revolutionary, the thief acts without threatening or violence, his operations are dominated by more subversive, more sub-tle, and more often than not, more ‘intellectual’ notions. The thief is more complex than the robber or the revolutionary: His crime of appropriation creates at the same time a distance in between him and the one he stole from, but similarily this appropriation and the obtained goods remain a reference and connection to the expropriated person. The thief wants to have a similar relation to property and to the world and the other, and what he steals is thus also a share in the other’s subjectivity. The thief appears in a wide range of texts in modern litera-ture, for example in the works of Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, Mark Twain, Alexandre Marius Jacob and Georges Darien, and in all these cases he is a character that is settled in be-tween the admired and cunning hero and the cowardly egotist. It is not just literature, but also modern and postmodern philosophy and theory that uses the topos of theft as a central meta-phor: In Clifford Geertz ‘Thick Description’, in Roland Barthes ‘Mythologies’ and in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negris ‘Empire’ at decisive points, there appears the metaphor or the ex-ample of a theft. Thus the thief is not just a historical figure of the foundation of culture by a primal crime, but he also represents a modern figure of criticism and silent insurrection.

Involved staff


Institute of German Language and Literature
Department of Modern Languages, Faculty of Humanities

Local organizational units

Institute of German Language and Literature
Department of Modern Languages
Faculty of Humanities


Bonn, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany
Bonn, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany

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