Academic journal article German Quarterly

Centering the discipline

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Centering the discipline

Article excerpt

As we approach a new century and millennium, we are naturally concerned with the future and what it holds for our discipline. It behooves us, of course, to keep things in perspective. Germanics in North America is a very young discipline, numbering scarcely 100 years. The worries, laments, and aspirations which mark much of our public and private comments about the current state and future prospects of Germanics or German Studies were a hallmark of public declarations at the end of the 19th century, ranging from Philadelphia (Marion Dexter Learned) to Madison (Alexander Hohlfeld) and Palo Alto (Julius Goebel). Even as those early founders of our discipline in North America were concerned with defining the distinctive contributions of Germanics as an intellectual enterprise within American colleges and the emergent research-university system, so too are we concerned with explaining how Germanics fits into the larger scheme of humanistic endeavors at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Even as our founding fathers recognized the need to cultivate open lines of communication between secondary and postsecondary institutions while simultaneously reaching out to a larger, non-academic audience, we too have realized that Germanists cannot survive in splendid isolation from the realities of the "marketplace" or of the academic communities we co-inhabit. Even as Marion Dexter Learned, Henry Wood, Kuno Francke, A. B. Faust, Frederick J. W Heuser, etc., endeavored to play the role of public intellectuals without neglecting the rigors of serious scholarship or ignoring the value of ef fective language instruction, so too must we ask, not simply what sense does it make to pursue Germanics, but more importantly, what is the role of humanities generally in a post-postmodern, mediadominated era?

Not long ago Ulrich Greiner proclaimed that the crisis in Germanics ("Germanistik") was over because Germanics had ceased to be a "literaturwissenschaftliche" enterprise.l His prognosis ignores the history of Germanics, at least its history in North America, which had been forced to engage in more than "just" literary discourse. In the following I wish to define the center of our discipline in two ways by appealing to that history and the changes it has witnessed.

From the outset the discipline of Germanics has been marked by change. Change is inevitable. Change is good. Change is unnerving. Change provides opportunities, while posing challenges and causing conundrums. Change-or movement-is at the heart of the literary enterprise we seek to fathom and explain. Theodor Mundt, an early Germanist and himself a writer, remarked shortly after Goethe's death: "Es [ist] die Wahrheit in den Dingen, die sick bewegt." He further explained: "Die Wahrheit ist wesentlich productiv, and die Productivitat ist das Prinzip der Bewegung." One of my recommendations for the future is to embrace this kinetic energy, to make it a centerpiece of our interdisciplinary endeavors. Doing so will tend to reduce the danger of canonizing any individual theoretical approach in one-sided fashion. Change is so multiple in its individual phenomena that we run little risk of becoming a monotone or monotonous discipline. Indeed, the resultant blurring of disciplinary boundaries, as Michael Holquist discerns, "may be-and within a given discipline often is-perceived as a crisis."' That perception of a crisis is endemic to the humanities today and is not restricted to Germanics.3 What Holquist describes is different from the crisis resultant of declining enrollment figures and job opportunities in higher education, although not unrelated to it. Thus by embracing change, by advocating crossdisciplinarity, even interdisciplinarity, we are not just seeking a solution to the first kind of crisis, but are also unwittingly contributing to the crisis of legitimacy and disciplinary identification within our ranks and outside them. To be sure, we enhance the risk of decentering, defocusing, defusing, and ultimately weakening our discipline, if we lose sight of the literary enterprise which historically has been at the center of our endeavors. …

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