Academic journal article German Quarterly

Is Literature Still Central to German Studies?

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Is Literature Still Central to German Studies?

Article excerpt

"Literature" versus "Culture"

Literature has always stood in need of being justified. What should be special about its precarious position in German studies? Before I attempt an outline of its shifting fortunes within the discipline of German in the United States in recent decades, I need to recall Wolfgang Iser's reminder: "Since Aristotle we have grown accustomed to a branch of criticism that strives to analyze just what literature should be or should achieve."1 Looking at the recent traffic in theories that has blossomed by questioning these justifications of literature, I cannot but conclude that both justifications and their counterarguments constitute & healthy part of our profession and to generate another assessment is just grist for the mill.

And yet, literature's fortunes have indeed shifted in recent decades, in society as well as in academe. While we cannot account for the loss of literature's privileged position in the information society, we can account for the challenge to its centrality in the discipline of German through the promotion of cultural studies in general and German Studies as an interdisciplinary venture in particular. For a long time, the inner-disciplinary aggravations originated in the turf battles between language and literature instruction. These battles are still relevant but have been superseded by attempts to promote or construct the replacement of "literature" as core of the discipline by "culture." Against the traditional high-culture associations of the term literature, "culture" has a more equalizing and encompassing ring, a more up-to-date and thus more inviting cachet. But one might ask: What is wrong with high-culture associations? Consider the following.

What Literature Used to Be


Literature (in German traditionally "Dichtung") represented universal values. Its study illuminated its humanistic-humanizing-mission. The universalist claim of literature was both a given (canonized in the line from Homer to Shakespeare to Goethe to Tolstoi) and a project (pursued in the individual experience of listening, reading, and viewing). The definition of literature (Dichtung) as a higher pursuit reflected the step beyond 'mere' functional, commercial, and entertainment purposes of texts.


Literature offered the intellectual (spiritual) key to the understanding of other nations. Works like Faust, Madame Bovary, War and Peace were considered to encompass German, French, or Russian culture. Furthermore, by learning the other language and understanding its literature, one experienced the universality of the humanistic message through a different medium. Faust's foreignness for Americans did not stand in the way of the work's universalist message, on the contrary.


Reading and interpreting literature in a foreign language as part of the humanities curriculum indicated a form of academic mastery. The mastery was defined by the advancement beyond language acquisition but also by the self-created (individually maintained) access to the other culture. After philology had provided legitimacy to the discipline far into the twentieth century, mastery of literature took over the role of the core subject in German, separating itself from intrinsic linguistic studies.

What Has Happened?


While the universalist claim remained ingrained in national cultures, in the English as well as in the French or German, literature has lost the privileged position for its articulation and perception. In Robert Scholes' words: "Literature which once represented universal values is now seen as representing values that are more local, historical, connected to particular times and places, to particular groups and their interests."2 Foreignness in literature has become localized, not another guarantor of universalism. Instead it has become a guarantor of a boundary-crossing identity, lifting alterity on a par with or above universalism. …

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