Rubicon grants for Utrecht humanities research in Germany

Wouter Capitain and Jan Overwijk to receive Rubicon funding

Stapel antieke koffers ©

Lecturers and recently promoted researchers Wouter Capitain and Jan Overwijk will receive Rubicon funding from the Dutch Research Council (NWO). This grant allows Capitain and Overwijk to conduct research abroad.

Music and human exceptionalism

At the Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen, Germany, music scholar Wouter Capitain’s research Music and Human Exceptionalism will focus on (the creation of) the imaginary distinction between ‘humans’ and ‘animals’. “I will analyse how twentieth-century popular artworks use music to create the idea that humans are ‘different’ than animals.”

Foto van Wouter Capitain
Dr Wouter Capitain

“I am incredibly glad and very honoured that the Rubicon grant has been awarded to me,” Capitain comments. “This is a wonderful opportunity to join Prof Birgit Abels’ inspiring research group in Göttingen. I am very much looking forward to being able to fully immerse myself in this research project.”

The Little Mermaid

“Evolutionarily, of course, humans are also animals, yet we think we are fundamentally different from animals,” Capitain says about his upcoming postdoctoral research. “There is no biological basis for this distinction, but we form and learn this idea through cultural expressions.”

Capitain points out that the distinction is often demonstrated through music. As an example, he cites the music in the Disney film The Little Mermaid. “The music of the sea creatures is very different from Ariel’s singing. The music tells us that she is ‘different’ from the animals that surround her, and eventually she does indeed become a human being.”

Music, as for example in Disney films like The Little Mermaid, reinforces the imaginary distinction between humans and animals.

“My hypothesis is that in such popular culture, a eurocentric idea of music is often employed to mark the imaginary boundaries between nature and culture, body and mind, and, by extension, between animal and human.”

Turning the priceless into price

Philosopher Jan Overwijk also opts for Germany. At the Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt, he gets the opportunity to carry out his research. In the project Turning the Priceless into Price, Overwijk will study how, paradoxically, value-creation is premised on the valueless and the invaluable.

Dr. Jan Overwijk
Dr Jan Overwijk

“Needless to say, I am very happy with the grant,” Overwijk responds. “The Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, and in particular Iris van der Tuin and Paul Ziche, helped me by using ‘talent money’ to enable me to write a solid proposal. I am very much looking forward to spending two years delving into the enigma called value.”

The enigma called value

“I will be doing philosophical research on ‘value’, or more specifically, on how value is created at the interface between economy and ecology,” Overwijk says. “Economists talk about ‘externalities’, things that are of value but have no price – things that are external to the market. Nitrogen is a telling example. Although nitrogen has no price, we as Dutch people all ‘pay’ for nitrogen emissions in the form of a deteriorating living environment.”

“Climate disruption, the big brother of the nitrogen crisis, similarly presents the bill for centuries of burning fossil fuels, while those same fuels are the basis of our prosperity,” Overwijk explains. “This raises philosophical questions: how does ecological wealth become economic value? Can we capture all of nature in units of money? Or should we rather see the economy as a collection of energy flows, calculated in joules and calories? And who or what determines what is of value?”

Nitrogen has no price, yet we all ‘pay’ for it in the form of a deteriorating environment.

“At the Institut für Sozialforschung, I will be working with Stephan Lessenich. He is the institute’s director and has previously written a book on the ‘externalisation society’. These are societies like ours that pass on hidden costs to their own living environment and the global South. Lessenich specialises in so-called ‘critical theory’, an interdisciplinary form of theory that seeks to interpret social reality and change it for the better.”

NWO’s Rubicon programme

Rubicon funding allows scholars to spend up to 24 months doing research at a foreign research institution. The amount of funding depends on the chosen destination and the length of stay. Each year, NWO/ZonMw can fund around sixty young researchers within Rubicon, for a total amount of seven million euros, spread over three rounds.

In the most recent round, in which Rubicon grants were awarded to Wouter Capitain and Jan Overwijk, over 2.4 million euros were distributed to fifteen science talents. They were selected from forty applications.