Kirk Wetters (Yale University)

Notes on the Theory-Hub Model of German Studies


Setting aside the fact that for most German departments it would for various internal reasons not be feasible to define their curriculum primarily through theory, and also setting aside the desirability of doing so, the interdisciplinary landscape itself currently mitigates against this orientation. One need not go so far as to belabor a supposed “end of theory” to recognize that the landscape of theory has been rapidly shifting in the last decade. In retrospect it appears questionable whether theory ever represented a unified corpus or canon. It was always unevenly distributed between disciplines, often providing the criterion of disciplinary “conservatism” versus interdisciplinary “radicality,” but what has become most eroded in recent years is the sense of unquestioned authoritativeness – precisely what makes a canon canonical in the first place. 


Perhaps one could say that instead of a victor emerging from the legendary “theory wars,” theory became the last victim of the canon wars. I would argue that this has many upsides, but the pragmatic downside is that it is increasingly less clear what one “must teach” or “must know” in order to define legitimate expertise in the area of theory. A possible upside, on the other hand, is that the difference between “theoretically informed” work and work that itself has theoretical aspirations seems more sharply focused, with corresponding doubt about whether the former makes of theory just a “research topic” among others, in the service of this or that theory – and the suspicion that the latter is merely inflationary, derivative, epigonal.


In itself this unmooring of theory is nothing extraordinary and not a reason for pessimism, lament, or nostalgia. The lasting legacy of Foucault, Derrida, Adorno, Luhmann, Kittler, etc. (even Habermas!) is secure, but at the same time the status and institutionalization of these and other theories inevitably changes in the decades following the death of the theorists (to say nothing of the changing situation of the academic and non-academic world during these decades). The life and institutional standing of a theorist is an immediate source of the authority and legitimacy of the theory, but this basis must continually reconstitute itself over time. While one can admire posthumous extensions in the first half of the twentieth century, especially in foundational figures such as Nietzsche, Freud and Weber, or in the variously exemplary nineteenth-century cases of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, what 200+ years of theory ultimately failed to do was to unify the humanities and the social sciences (which were pursued under the headings of “cultural studies,” Kulturwissenschaft, as well as within a wide range of traditions of philosophy and theory). Within the contemporary humanities this aspiration no longer seems to be within reach in many contexts. The reasons for this impasse might lie more in the social sciences, but certainly also in theoretical problems of empiricism associated with digital humanities. The model of the natural and social sciences remains tempting, but its limitations have also been too clearly established since the nineteenth century for it to be plausible to think that this would ever be the only model. The need for theory is, one might speculate, simply the result of the shortcomings of a purely natural-scientific or social-scientific basis for humanistic scholarship. But this says nothing about which theories are needed, nor about how to prioritize or develop them as methods for research.


The result is a gap or void, which used to be filled by theory and in some sense must still be filled by theories of one kind or another. But increasingly this seems to mean histories and genealogies of theory, as well as comparative, intellectual-historical, philosophical, and problem-oriented approaches. The tendency of this shift of focus is to level the difference between “good theories” and “bad theories,” “high” and “low” theory, reputable and irreputable theory. And the contexts are fewer and fewer where the invocation of a certain proper name or of an “untranslatable” theoretical concept can pass unquestioned in the academic discourse of the humanities. Everyone and every term needs to be incessantly introduced in a pedagogical way, vetted, glossed, sourced, paraphrased, unpacked, reconstructed, historicized. Arguably this is merely a return to academic best practices and the lingua franca of the “conservative” disciplinary humanities, which always looked askance at “jargony” insider discourses and obvious European imports. In this sense, recent transformations of the role of theory go hand in hand with a more Anglophone academic culture, which undoubtedly is a problem at many levels, but certainly so for everyone who seeks theoretical orientation from “old Europe.” To the extent that scholarship in the field of German resists this trend of US academia, it may become more perilous for us in contexts such as peer reviews and tenure and promotion committees, when colleagues from other disciplines and various generations are asked to evaluate “theoretical” and “theoretically informed” scholarship. While it is not clear that this is an entirely new situation – it may have actually improved in recent decades – more than ever it is incumbent on us to clarify and contextualize ourselves to the highest degree possible in order to meet the changing expectations of our institutional and extra-institutional readers.


To put it bluntly: implicitness is out. In retrospect many theoretical and theoretically informed texts of the twentieth century are becoming difficult to access because we now see how obtrusively they operate at a high level of implicitness and context-dependency. This is not a judgment about quality. It only means that theoretical texts are all like other texts in the sense that they do not automatically survive unchanged across the centuries. Thus it is possible to think that the “conservative” interdisciplinary borrowings represented in the recent trend of what is called in Germany “re-philologization” (Rephilologisierung) – to which one should add “re-philosophization” and “re-historicization” – are essential support structures for theory, without which its coherence and relevance will suffer, while the actual (in the sense of aktuell) “theoretical debates” will become increasingly thin and repetitive insofar as they are based on schematic and distorted understandings of theoretical sources. 


It is not easy to strike a balance in all of this, but the difficulties in which we find ourselves in defining the identity of our field and research goals are also an opportunity insofar as – again in retrospect – it seems clear that reading theory requires not only the skills of a philosopher but also those of a reader of literature. This was the lesson of the often single-minded and exaggerated focus on a certain lineage of exceptional figures such as Benjamin and Hölderlin. This lesson now needs to be applied to a more diverse and in a positive sense eclectic corpus of less idealized figures and problems within an expanded frame of literary and theoretical discourses. The challenges of this work are many, but one thing is certain: They cannot be met by a “field” but only by variously motivated individuals, who will, however, require support in carving out their own intellectual paths and thereby defining themselves and the twenty-first-century field of German in relation to the increasingly problematic theory-canon of the twentieth century.