Academic journal article German Quarterly

German studies: Who cares?

Academic journal article German Quarterly

German studies: Who cares?

Article excerpt

"German Cultural Studies: What Is at Stake?" is the title Irene Kacandes gives her persuasive essay introducing the volume A User's Guide to German Cultural Studies. I want to focus this short exploration 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 literature mattered. Perhaps my AngloAmerican 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 delight 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 ultimate questions [sic!].") A few years later, when I had learned better, I concurred with Mar case that, though within "affirmative culture" [o]nly in the medium of ideal beauty, in art, was happiness permitted to be reproduced as a cultural value in the totality 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 assertion: "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 female/feminist writing, at least, was valuable because it enabled the elaboration of the female subjectivity that patriarchy had denied to women. "Asserting women's subjectivity as an epistemological 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 [...]" (63).

But now that all seems very long ago. Certainly, if nothing else, the social movements of the past thirty years have entirely debunked the notion that literature inhabits a realm exterior and superior to the quotidian by showing that it is thoroughly contaminated by the great range of social prejudices 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 Introduction:

[w]e can drop once and for all the illusion that the category "literature" is "objective" in the sense of being eternally given and immutable. Anything can be literature, and anything which is regarded as unalterably and unquestionably literature-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. [...] Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value, distinguished by certain shared inherent properties, does not exist. (10-11)

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 development, 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. …

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