German Studies: Who Cares?

by Sara Lennox
German Studies: Who Cares?
Sara Lennox
The German Quarterly
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University of Massachusetts, Amherst

German Studies: Who Cares?

"German Cultural Studies: What Is at Stake?" is the title Irene Kacandes Bves her persuasive essay introducing the vol- ume A User's Guide to German Cultural Studies. I want to focus this short explora- tion of the role German Studies can play in a larger academic and social context on two questions even more fundamental to the project of German Studies: "What's the point?" and "Who cares?" Or, to pose those questions a little more elegantly, how do we justify our professional activities to deans, provosts, and chancellors; to trustees and state legislators; to the students we teach; and, perhaps most urgently, to ourselves?

When I started graduate school thirty- some years ago, I still believed that lit- erature mattered. Perhaps my Anglo-American training had convinced me that literature contained "the best that has been known and said in the world" (xii), as Matthew Arnold put it, and hence could function as a source of instruction and de- light both for me and for the students I was learning how to teach. (In fact, in 1969, at a point when I should already have known better, I wrote this in the personal essay of my Fulbright application: "Literature is an author's expression of human aspirations, hopes, and dreams, of man's relationship to other men, and of his response to ulti- mate questions [sic!].") A few years later, when I had learned better,I concurred with Marcuse that, though within "affirmative culture" "[olnly in the medium of ideal beauty, in art, was happiness permitted to be reproduced as a cultural value in the to- tality of social life" (117), art nonetheless held out a "promesse de bonheur" against which we could measure our degraded lives in the present and which we could attempt to realize via political action in the future. Sometimes I even embraced Adorno's as- sertion: "The greatness of works of art, however, consists solely in the fact that they give voice to what ideology hides" (39).A few years later still, in a somewhat different political environment, I would argue (in what was, I believe, the fourth feminist article ever published in German Quarterly)that femalelfeminist writing, at least, was valuable because it enabled the elaboration 6f the female subjectivity that patriarchy had denied to women. "Asserting women's subjectivity as an epis- temological model opposed to dominant male structures of thought," as I put it back then, "women's writing became a form of feminist resistance and struggle

[...Iv (63).

But now that all seems very long ago. Certainly, if nothing else, the social move- ments of the past thirty years have entirely debunked the notion that literature inhab- its a realm exterior and superior to the quo- tidian by showing that it is thoroughly con- taminated by the great range of social prej- udices that characterized the time and culture from which specific works derive. The very notion of "literature" and the choice of the works that comprise its canon have been shown to be historically variable social productions, so that, as Terry Eagleton put it in Literary Theory: An In- troduction:

[wle can drop once and for all the illusion that the category "literature" is "objec- tive" in the sense of being eternally given and immutable. Anything can be litera-

The German Quarterly 73.1 (Winter 2000) 12

LENNOX:German Studies: Who Cares?

ture, and anything which is regarded as unalterably and unquestionably litera- ture-Shakespeare, for example-can cease to be literature. Any belief that the study of literature is the study of a stable, well-definable entity, as entomology is the study of insects, can be abandoned as a chimera. [...I Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value, distinguished by certain shared in- herent properties, does not exist. (10-1 1)

So: why are we wasting our lives on the subject matter of literature? What's the point? Who cares?

At least within my own intellectual de- velopment, this is where cultural studies came to the rescue. By reconceiving the function of culture, cultural studies moved literature and other cultural products to center stage again. All cultural products were now understood as "intertextual," constructed out of the varieties of contra- dictory discourses (or "ideologies," in the sense in which the enormously influential French neo-Marxist Louis Althusser used the term: "the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of exis- tence" [Lenin 1621) that informed the larger societies. Their authors, or produc- ers, were understood, on the one hand, as social constructions themselves (that is, as products of their era and society), but, on the other, also as possessing sufficient agency to appropriate and deploy those dis- courses in ways that supported, subverted, or contested the range of discourses that underwrote the dominant order (often, again in complex and contradictory ways, at the same time sustaining some aspects of dominant power structures while oppos- ing others.) Moreover, within this cultural studies model which emerged out of the en- counter of seventies neo-Marxism with poststructuralism, culture is deemed to possess at least a relative autonomy from other aspects of the society-for even Engels had maintained that the economy was determining only in the last instance, and to Althusser, "the lonely hour of the

'last instance' never comes" (Marx 1-13).

Thus, for cultural studies, culture is, as Marx said of the superstructure, the realm of "ideological forms in which men [i.e., people] become conscious of I...I conflict and fight it out" (Tucker 5)--except that, for cultural studies, the arena of culture is not a reflection or mystification of more- fundamental power relations existing within the economic base underlying eco- nomic struggles, but the very battleground itself. As Mary Poovey argues in Uneven Developments with respect to gender in mid-Victorian England, cultural products, including literature, do "ideological work" in two senses: first, they do the "work of ideology," since cultural representations comprise the system of independent im- ages in which various ideologies become ac- cessible to individuals; and, second, they do "the work of making ideologyn--they constitute the sites "on which ideological sys- tems [are] simultaneously constructed and contested [...I, the sites at which struggles for authority [occur], as well as the locus of assumptions used to underwrite the very authority that [authorizes] those strug- gles" (2). And, moreover, because of the in- evitable polysemy of cultural products as well as the different "positionalities" (i.e, the temporal, social, and political loca- tions) of those who respond to them, the re- ception of cultural products also consti- tutes asite of cultural struggle, as different sorts of individuals or groups elaborate "readings" of the cultural prod.uct that variously confirm or contest the dominant assumptions of their own societies. And that is where our job as scholars and teach- ers of culture and literature becomes im- portant again.

Very probably not every practitioner of German cultural studies in North America would formulate his or her project in the way I have just outlined. And yet, I think very many of us share similar underlying assumptions. Many of us were shaped by the oppositional movements of the sixties, and many of us go about our work with an


ethical, if not political, agenda. Along with our commitment to the study of German culture, we also share a deep concern about some of its manifestations. (See the state- ment in the section "Why Study Germany, Austria, and Switzerland?" in the German Studies Association guidelines for German Studies curricular organization: "Students of this area face the moral and intel- lectual challenge of a historical record that includes a brilliant legacy of creativity and performance in the arts and sciences as well as the officially organized cruelty and tarbarism of the Third Reich, which has profoundly altered our understanding of modernity and progress.") To some degree this explains North American German Studies practitioners' insistence on the uniqueness of the lens with which they view Germany, ana the impatience with German Germanistik on which Peter Hohendahl has remarked. "We" German Studies practitioners are convinced (not without an occasional souPCon of self- righteousness) that the perspectives that we can bring to the study of "things Ger- man" allows us to address questions-re- garding gender, multiculturalism, coioni- alism and postcoloniality, heterogeneity and particularism, the meaning and func- tionalization of Germany's past, and the role of the nation in a globalizing world, among many other things-that German Germanistik has too seldom stepped for- ward to address. As Hohendahl puts it:

Die veranderte ethnische Zusammenset- zung der amerikanischen Studentenschaft und der zunehmend multikulturel- le Charakter der amerikanischen Gesell- schaft, die sich kaum noch als ein nationaler Schmelztiegel beschreiben laBt, stellt auch die Germanistik, sofern sie sich an dem offentlichen Gesprach be- teiligen will, vor neue Aufgaben. (530)

That is to say, whether we would phrase it exactly this way or not, as we engage with German cultural products many German Studies practitioners understand them- selves also to be engaged in an ideological struggle around the meaning of German culture and theuses to which it is to be put.

As Kacandes puts it, "Cultural studies practitioners recognize themselves and what they do as interwoven with the fabric of contemporary culture. Thus, cultural studies is 'political,' since it posits its own intellectual work as making a difference [...I" (9)."[Wle," Kacandes later contin- ues, "can use our difference and our dis- placement (from one another and from those who teach our subjects in Ger- man-speaking countries) to teach us and others new things [...In (21). Adorno argued in the first sentence of Negative Dia- lectics: "Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed" (3);in contrast, Ger- man Studies lives because we haven't given up the fight. In pursuing the poten- tially quite urgent practice of German cul- tural studies in our scholarship and teach- ing, we are undertaking a political inter- vention into the shape of the future. It's the present and the future that are at stake; that is the point of German Studies, and that is why we care, very much.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W Negative Dialectics. Trans.

E. B. Ashton. New York: Seabury, 1979.

. "On Lyric Poetry and Society." Notes to Literature. Trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Vol. 1.New York: Columbia Ue 1991. 37-54.

Althusser, Louis. For Mum. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review, 1974.

.Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays.

Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Re-

view, 1971. Arnold, Matthew. Literature and Dogma: An Es

say towards a Better Appreciation of the Bible.

New York: AMS, 1970. Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Zntroduction. Minneapolis: TJ of Minnesota T: 1983.

LENNOX:German Studies: Who Cares?

Hohendahl, Peter Uwe. "Germanistik in den Vereinigten Staaten: Eine Disziplin im Um- bruch." Zeitschrift fur Germanistik Neue Folge 6.3 (1996): 527-35.

Kacandes, Irene. "German Cultural Studies: What Is at Stake." A UserS Guide to German. Cultura1,Studies. Ed. Scott Denham, Irene Kacandes, and Jonathan Petropoulos. Ann Arbor: U of Ivlichigan E: 1997. 3-28.

Lennox, Sara. "Trends in Literary Theory: The Female Aesthetic and German Women's Writing." German Quarterly 54.1 (1981): 63-75.

Marcuse, Herbert. "The Affirmative Character of Culture." Negations: Essays in Critical Theory.Trans. Jeremy J.Shapiro. Boston: Beacon, 1968. 88-133.

Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments: The Ideo- logical Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian Eng- land. Chicago: U of Chicago E: 1988.

Tucker, Robert C., ed. The Mum-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1978.

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