Elisabeth Strowick (NYU)

Rather than “re-imagining the discipline,” I would like to present a few methodological considerations that strike me as relevant with respect to the specific manifestation of German studies in the United States and the future of the discipline. As the title of this roundtable states: German is a “multiple discipline.” This is shown, for instance, by the very influential tradition of Modern German Thought—a signature of German studies in the US, as indicated, for example, by the “Marx, Nietzsche, Freud” course that is taught at pretty much every German department in the United States. The fundamentally interdisciplinary field of Modern German Thought, in which aesthetics, philosophy, philology, epistemology, the science of history, anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis, religious and cultural studies, linguistics, economics, and political theory overlap in diverse ways, has provided important stimuli not only for the modern research university, but also for the development of a wide range of cultures of knowledge. Within this field, let me highlight what has been called the “erste Kulturwissenschaft” or  “Kulturwissenschaft um 1900,” including the works of Benjamin, Cassirer, Freud, Warburg, Simmel, and Weber, which demonstrate the fundamental role of the analysis of representation (Darstellung) [of language and other symbolical practices] in the constitution of new fields of scholarly inquiry. It is here that I see the significance of German studies for literary theory and critical thought as well as their potential for the future of the discipline and the humanities: Based on its differentiated tools for analyzing forms of representation/Darstellung (for instance, rhetoric, hermeneutics, philology, aesthetics, language and symbol theory, or theories of the performative), literary studies is able to address questions pertaining to culture, power and institutions, social and political formations, and historicity and tradition as well as epistemology, discursive classifications, and formations of knowledge in a specific way – thereby expanding the scope of the discipline. With its intimate relation to representation, literature has the potential to reshape fields of knowledge and can thus be regarded as a specific epistemological practice. Theory formation as it takes place in literature is not independent of representation, and it is here that the specific role of German studies for theory formation in the humanities and beyond can be located.


Let me specify this last point in connection with an interdisciplinary field of research that has developed over the past twenty years and for whose development German has been instrumental (perhaps the most influential development originating in German studies since the introduction of Media Theory and Kulturwissenschaften in the 1980s): I am speaking of the “Poetics of Knowledge,” to borrow a term coined by Joseph Vogl in 1997, though let me add that Helmut Müller-Sievers’ book Self-Generation: Biology, Philosophy, and Literature Around 1800 was published the same year. Recently, this field has been institutionalized in the form of the DAAD thematic network “Literature, Knowledge, Media” and the PhD network “Das Wissen der Literatur” (The Knowledge of Literature), in which the German Departments at the HU Berlin, Berkeley, Cornell, Harvard, NYU, Princeton, the University of Indiana Bloomington, and Yale are involved. The methodological point I would like to make is the following: Such a knowledge-poetological approach understands the relationship between literature, science, and technology as a complex system of reciprocal participation (or mutual exchange) between forms of representation. When speaking of reciprocal participation between forms of representation this implies that neither literature nor scientific discourses are to be understood as homogeneous entities in themselves but rather that epistemic objects, modes of perception, observation, and description emerge each in specific discursive-historical constellations. In other words, literature doesn’t react in the mode of critique of scientific knowledge but instead goes into it via modes of representation, as for its part it gains its own modes of representation from its interrelation with other discourses. 


What the example “literature and knowledge” also shows is that methodological developments in German studies take place not least by way of a transatlantic exchange of theories and concepts—another dimension of German as a multiple discipline. In line with this, German studies in the United States has never been “Auslandsgermanistik” at least not since the 1980s, but rather a place for theoretical and methodological innovation that, on its part, has provided inspiration for German studies in German-speaking countries (for instance, deconstruction). This in particular would also be my plea with respect to the future of the discipline and the humanities: Based on the methodological expertise of the field, German should be understood and strengthened as a place where theories and methods are developed so as to open up new, interdisciplinary fields of inquiry. 


I don’t want to close without expressing an institutional concern or Unbehagen: I very well remember the so-called Future Seminars, which were initiated by the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins and conducted over the course of two years (2011–12). All departments were invited to “re-imagine the discipline” and draft a white paper with this focus. Now, we all know the sad story of Hopkins and what is left of the once illustrious German Department and the Humanities Center. So in “re-imagining the discipline,” I very much hope that we indeed re-imagine German studies as German studies—adamant in our commitment to the specific expertise of our discipline and its potential for the future of the humanities. We certainly don’t want to offer up the discipline on a silver plate to particular administrative ambitions that, due to considerations of economic efficiency and impact, are all too willing to abandon a field that is essential for critical thinking, the liberal arts curriculum, and the idea of a research university.