Benjamin Robinson (Indiana University)

Two Incongruent Pairs of Conversations Regarding the Future of Our Discipline


In many of our presentations this weekend, there seemed to be two distinct and important conversations taking place. One conversation concerned the basics of our Germanic studies discipline—our disciplinary Leitkultur, if I may put it somewhat tendentiously in order to draw out the point I want to make. The other conversation concerned the moral and pragmatic necessity to include and represent the students and scholars actually at our universities today—our Willkommenskultur. Now, in light of this important pair of conversations, I want to suggest another way of conceptualizing the same discussion we were having, one that is incongruent with the first conceptual pair. In this second conceptualization, we are having one conversation about our individual scholarly initiatives and another conversation about our programmatic norms. 


To be clear, I don’t think our individual projects map onto our Leitkultur any more than I think our programmatic norms map onto a Willkommenskultur. Indeed, there is no reason to think that our individual initiative follows from or leads to either a sense of what guides our discipline as a whole or to a disciplinary culture addressing diverse scholarly identities; nor is there any reason to think that our programmatic norms tie into either multiculturalism or a canonical view of Germanic culture. Intuitively, we sense that our own scholarly projects are different from any commitment we have either to the canon or to the diversity of experiences we encounter in the academic setting (we still have the sense, I’d wager, of our own obstinate muse), and we also sense that our programmatic norms point as much (or as little) to upholding a core image of Germanic studies as they do to broad representativity in a transcultural world (administrative logic is too local and contingent for such ideals).


Are these, then, simply two distinct sets of discussions that should be kept separate? I want to suggest to the contrary that we benefit by reflecting on how the two pairs are both different and related to each other. To this end, I want to make a few observations about the projects and norms in my own department, and how they have related to our negotiation of a Leit/Willkommenskultur that is propitious for the future of our discipline. 


Academic knowledge production, I would argue, is the refuge for what is most discretionary in our practice. In our research, we are often driven by “projects” rather than by normatively prescribed topics of inquiry. I’d hazard a guess that we—the scholars at this conference—experience our intellectual freedom most intensely when we undertake a new research project. At the same time, such project-based approaches leave the boundaries of our discipline as wide open as the hazy limits of “family resemblances” permit. Let me give a few examples of what I mean from my Germanic Studies Department at Indiana University: we have a scholar analyzing large-N survey data about how people remember and reproduce certain narrative situations better than others; we have another scholar examining how museum exhibitions on Jewish life in Germany create atmospheres of directed viewing that are reflective of the concerns of different communities and state actors; we have another scholar working on the idea of insult as a political resource in modernity; and my own work is focused on the history of pointing in philosophy, logic, and social theory. While these are examples of individual, even quirky projects, ones that are embarked upon with a certain entrepreneurial spirit and a wide-open sense of what constitutes German studies, we also know well that knowledge production is not just a story of autonomy but also one of insertion into the demands of the political economy. 


With regard to the political economy of the university, the most important challenge I’ve experienced as chair of my department is that of identifying enough unity in Germanic studies for it to serve as a place where diverse stakeholders, from students to distinguished scholars, can see their ambitions realized. That is, the challenge is to build a department that is not experienced as a site for self-sacrifice or civic duty, but a place to find recognition and celebrate academic vigor. To create that unity among those who would gather in our department, we have to discover ways to integrate what we do as teachers, researchers, and civic actors. That is, our practical “base” has to be acknowledged as well as our intellectual “superstructure;” our curious and often wary students as well as our autonomous flights of critical imagination. What we often find as we approach our base of undergraduate students—in a country with rapidly changing media ecologies and demographic composition—is that what students are looking for from German studies is not relevance in an urgent sense but disciplinary orientation. Making our discipline legible to newcomers in this constantly changing environment requires not just intellectual self-assertion, but also circumspection and acknowledgment. At the same time, we have reason to bristle at the anti-intellectual pressures of enrollment snapshots and bureaucratic standardization. As many have remarked, students, for what are often good reasons, want to know what they can do with what they’ve learned in a course, where practical “doing” is generally opposed to what has been called here variously “reflection,” “critique,” “appreciation.” 


What I am hoping to point out is that the moral vigilance we invest into drawing the contrast between Leitkultur and Willkommenskultur is not borne out by the way we express our autonomy versus the way we acknowledge our institutional responsibilities. Sometimes responsibility involves being disciplinary in a more or less traditionally legible way; sometimes it involves opening up to approaches that speak to and with new student demographics. Sometimes joyously irresponsible flights of intellectual entrepreneurship establish powerful new connections to fields and constituencies that were unimagined in the canon of the traditional German Bildungsbürgertum; sometimes they involve the most meticulous delight in the metrics of the Hildebrandslied. 


In contrasting our sense of academic autonomy to our need to acknowledge our institutional situation, and pitting that contrast against the highly contentious one of Wilkommenskultur versus Leitkultur, I am actually hovering around a dichotomy highlighted a century ago by Max Weber in his famous 1919 essay, “Politics as Vocation.” There Weber held that politics was characterized by the irreducibility of—and thus necessary negotiation between—two axes, one of Gesinnung (or conviction or vision) and the other of Verantwortung (or responsibility to the exercise of power). The future of Germanic Studies as a discipline, I believe, requires that we take seriously this art of politics as one that is distinct from our sometimes highly moralized polemics pitting Willkommens- against Leitkultur.