Matthew Miller (Colgate University)

German Studies: Disciplinary and Institutional Snapshots

Bildung within and without Limits 


My statement from the field, the text of which is included below, presented a view of the potentials and limitations of German studies at an undergraduate institution. The stimulating discussions at the “Re-Imagining the Discipline: German studies, the humanities, and the University” conference would compel a revision of those remarks, starting with the title: “Bildung within Limits” alluded to the challenges of departmental smallness as well as the dehumanizing forces currently afflicting U.S. society as well as our campus, which include the Aushöhlung of liberal and (system-)critical learning. Second, the question of “limits” plays a prominent role in the German tradition of critical theory evoked in the final paragraph below (e.g. Kantian Kritik setting the limits of the knowable, Hegel’s Entgrenzungthereof, Marx’s overhaul of idealism, etc.). While this corpus remains a resourceful backbone of the discipline, it has been de-centered and removed from its erstwhile pedestal and enjoys perhaps less coverage and presence than it once did, not only because of pressing epistemic shifts, but also due to the downsizing of the contents of BA and postgraduate degrees. The conference as a whole productively addressed, challenged, and overturned from all kinds of perspectives the limits of German studies. “Bildung within and without Limits” would capture this more appropriately. 


Conveying the productive multiplicity of a field and its different modes of inquiry, the conference sparked discussions on approaches in the classroom and in research, pertaining, most importantly in my view, to the radical opening and unmooring of the field’s erstwhile national focus as well as the blending of contents and perspectives (i.e., lenses) amid emerging epistemes. As suggested by the many examples provided from colleagues’ diverse work, the field’s Wahrheitsgehalte for the future lie in this outward turn and we would do well to continue to develop it, also in different forms beyond campuses. Reformulations and actualizations of German studies for the twenty-first century should address the issues raised in the final paragraph below, e.g. the significance of “Critical Theory,” which is neither self-sufficient nor self-evident, or the legacies of the interwar period, in which, as a differential repetition of a calamitous modernity, we may actually find ourselves again. Indeed, I found the continued susceptibility of modernity to fascist reversion, which we stand ready to address at appropriate theoretical levels, rather underemphasized at the conference. To further wit, if the project of an actually emancipatory modernity were ever to be “completed,” the study of the interwar period would be a component thereof, not to be studied for its own sake, nor to be hallowed anew: its catastrophic end is enough to guard against Weimar Republic or Red Vienna fetishism. Rather, by studying it today, under changed conditions, with regard to changed needs, and with changed lenses, we might enhance the historical consciousness required to grasp where we are and what is to be done now. 


Since 2016, there has been much talk and sometimes actions of resistance. To speak with Peter Weiss’ postcatastrophic and epistemically open, i.e., “generous” as well as resourceful Ästhetik des Widerstands, we would need to proceed both with a greater imaginative ability as to the machinations of our foes and the threats they present as well as the possibility of our defeats. The Left in this or any other country cannot possibly afford to be split anew. Resetting the defeated courses of a once progressive past, transcoding the legacies thereof in the transfer from inheritance to inhabitance, the collective ability of German studies to make significant contributions to society and human autonomy therein is no less important for its ostensible smallness. Sincere thanks to the organizers and all participants for creating such great energy and exchange during our Cornell stay. 


Original conference text: “Bildung within Limits” 

My snapshot of the field is anchored in perspectives from work at the ostensibly fancy institution at which I teach, a residential liberal arts college located in the bucolic hills of central New York. Despite seemingly fortuitous conditions, this work may be deemed a project of Bildung within limits. Reasons for duress include the structural transformation of higher education underway in this country, now oriented primarily towards the professional placement of students overly eager to commodify themselves, the diminishment, in recent years, of interest in languages (not to mention reading), along with a demise in the faculty of the imagination, a sense of adventurousness, and knowledge of one’s human interests, which it has become our task to rekindle. Since we at least aspire to thrive, publicity, outreach, advocacy (of the value of things like this immersive semester abroad in Freiburg, a program that is open to students at schools in the New York Six Liberal Arts Consortium and Syracuse University), and relentless curricular innovation have become regular components of departmental labor, especially when the mere mention of literature or the arduous tasks involved in learning anything new tends to send students scrambling in other directions. I try to confront such challenges by continuing to draw on exciting developments in our dynamic field. 

One aspect thereof has consisted in reframing my work to undergraduate students in terms of Germanophone and European Studies without sacrificing the necessary linguistic groundwork in German. The theorization of Critical European Cultural Studies strikes me as promising here, not least because it can also afford alternative mappings of European culture of the kind insinuated by a view of the continent’s watersheds (seeäische_Hauptwasserscheide). Elements yield a resonance with which one can play to bring transnational perspectives on European multiculture into view, address forms of often fraught migration patterns and the analysis of older and newer fortresses within and without, as well as contribute to the environmental humanities, even by working out a hydropoetics for the rising waters of a sinking age. 

In German studies, the hydro-centric perspective facilitates focal points on different geo-cultural formations, such as the Danube, the Rhine, and the Baltic, which can serve productively to undermine national methodologies and enhance our and students’ understanding of short and long term cultural processes. And it might be underscored that Austrian Studies in particular have long afforded a purview of important transnational and European imaginaries at odds with narratives of cultural nationalization or normalization on the model of the nation-state. 

This year, I tried to exploit one of the borderland areas not only because of its suggestive case-value as a crucible of European nationalisms and possible reconciliation, which the course unit on the Rhine in German 353: Borderlands of European Multiculture was able to demonstrate, but also to see if earlier exposure to the target language could help inspire and impassion students in their learning. With support from Colgate’s Off-Campus Study Office, a colleague in French and I flew, at the end of last semester, with 16 total students from both programs (not necessarily majors), to Zürich, bused to Basel, and hopped back and forth along the Rhine up to Strasbourg for a short trip of about 8 days. An exhausting endeavor, the study-trip guarded against tourism and desires to party through its intensive exploration of the region’s cultural history and present (from the HRR to the EU), guided tours, daily reflection sessions, and a continuation of the language-learning prepared both in regular Colgate courses as well as a non-credit bearing French-German Foreign Languages across the Curriculum component. Several of the students found themselves abroad for the first time, and the multilingual mix of German, French, Baseldütsch, Elsässisch and European English did not always foster their progress or comfort in standard German or French, but the design of the trip, in conjunction with curricular preparation, made for an excellent experience and hopefully firmed up interest on the part of some students to pursue French or German or both further. 

To extrapolate and conclude: at Colgate, I approach German studies and the contributions we can make to the humanities with a missionary fervor of someone who missed his calling at some other pulpit for lack of a believable dogma. Some kind of critical, secular humanism has remained. An increasingly inhumane society stands in need of rehumanization. Nearly a quarter of a millennium after Kant proclaimed its opening, the critical path must be renewed at modernity’s later end. All of its touchstones—most pertinently, those from the European interbellum, from Horkheimer’s inaugural Traditionelle und Kritische Theorie essay through the tremendously suggestive experiment in democratic emancipation that was Red Vienna as well as the theories and critiques of fascism and antifascism, und und und—have become unprecedentedly important. This seems like an Auftrag, aus dem wir uns schwerlich entlassen können, to continue to work and guard against antidemocratic forces undermining a once liberal democracy that should have been made more social long ago.