Literature & Culture

From its beginnings in the Middle Ages, through the turbulent Reformation and religious civil wars, to Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment modernity, the German intellectual tradition has been a source of profound innovation and renewal. With Luther, Christianity reinvented itself; with Kant, philosophy was redirected; with Marx, political theory and practice were revolutionized; with Nietzsche, idealism was “reversed” to reveal the power of life; with Freud, the ego forfeited its position at the center of the self. After WWII, the crime and violence of Nazism fueled utopian experiments in neoliberalism and social democracy in the West and communism in the East. Members of the Germanic Studies faculty investigate these and other turning points in global intellectual life, whose inspiration can be traced to the German conversation with the Western tradition.

What propels the continuing provocation of Germany’s influential thinkers from the Enlightenment and Romanticism? What do the theological, aesthetic, philosophical, and scientific speculations of Lessing, the Humboldt brothers, Schiller, and Goethe tell us about the world we live in now? Why does the intensity of inward speculation and the clash of outward futility that propelled some of the darkest, and at the same time most exuberant, poetry and prose of the German canon in Hölderlin, Kleist, Novalis, Schlegel, Droste-Hülshoff, and E.T.A. Hoffmann, continue to leave such an indelible mark on the conceptual imagination today? How do the 18th-century Berlin salons hosted by pioneering Jewish women such as Rachel Varnhagen and Henriette Herz still inform our ideas of equality and self-realization? No sooner did the explosion of German high modernism in Mann, Kafka, and Musil reshape the aesthetic agenda than it was met with the response of the avant-gardes of Expressionism, Dadaism, and New Objectivity. What is it about the conceptualization of Germany’s embattled/battling modernism by Benjamin, Brecht, Seghers, and Adorno that still speaks to us so emphatically in our putative post-modernity? At the same time as Germany was fostering what has become known as the “continental” tradition of philosophy, Austria had become a hotbed of what would emerge as “analytic” philosophy through the efforts of Wittgenstein, Carnap, Popper, and others inside and out of the Vienna Circle. Even as it has striven for linguistic, logical, or conceptual transcendence, German thinking has never eluded controversy, from Wagner’s antisemitism and Heidegger’s membership in the Nazi party, to the accommodation of communist thinkers such as Lukács and Bloch with the states of the Eastern Bloc.

To help us explore these and other complexities of the German tradition we are aided by colleagues in neighboring disciplines—Philosophy, Religious Studies, Political Theory, English, Jewish Studies, Comparative Literature, among others—with whom we often collaborate, debate, and teach.

As director of the Experimental Humanities Lab, Fritz Breithaupt develops the tradition of moral thought and empirical psychology to explore the intersections of empathy and narrative. Likewise a director, indeed a double director—of the IU Center for Theoretical Inquiry in the Humanities and the Philological Laboratory at the Free University Berlin—Michel Chaouli explores the way aesthetic experience informs persistent philosophical questions, especially experiences of curiosity, surprise, and wonder. Using the tools of ethnography and sociology, Irit Dekel’s research delves into the way contemporary German memory—whether of trauma or domestic life, of “migrant” or “native”—is shaped by various techniques of performance and exhibition as it connects with publics caught up in current events. Teresa Kovacs explores what happens to the theater as an institution and idea in a multicultural German-speaking world. She enquires how the dominance of postdramatic forms serves such a society and how it changes central concepts like catharsis, representation, and dialogue through new modes and media of performance. William Rasch’s major interest is the philosophical discourse of modernity from the European Enlightenment to the 20th-century theoretical works of Weber, the Frankfurt School, Schmitt, Gehlen, Habermas and Luhmann. Benjamin Robinson combines Marxism with the analytical tradition to examine how unexpected events—crises and revolutions—become semiotic “indexes” for organizing practical social intentions and theories of the nature alike. In one of his current book projects, Johannes Türk develops the implications of the figure of the immune man (homo immunis) in the tradition of political theories of sovereignty from Roman Law through feudal law to biopolitical contexts. William Scheuermann (Political Science, adjunct professor in Germanic Studies), works on modern political thought, German political thought, and international political theory. Allen Wood (Philosophy) is currently working on a book on Fichte’s Ethical Thought.

From the relevance of a constellation in chemistry for understanding the concept of Romantic poetry, to the influence of economic and monetary factors on the formation of the modern self, to the history of immunology and its language as a major vocabulary for defining art—our faculty members have flipped the contexts of the history of knowledge to understand it in new configurations of poetics, cognition, nature, and technology.

Although knowledge about cultural contexts has always played an important part in philology, the influence of epistemological formations on literature (and vice versa) has only recently become an independent area of research encompassing what was traditionally called intellectual history. Whereas traditional views of the relationship between literature and knowledge privilege humanistic ways of knowing—especially philosophy, linguistics, history, and psychology—now chemistry, medicine, semiotics, immunology, economy, neuroscience, cybernetics, and artificial intelligence promise to make accessible the relationships between humanistic inquiries and developments in the sciences and technologies of the past as well as the present.

Contributing to these approaches, our faculty have established networks of cooperation inside and outside the university to enrich our curriculum, especially on the graduate level, through (for example) courses on empathy and literature, the senses in the eighteenth century, the forking modernities of capitalism and socialism, temporality in narrative literature, biology, and historiography. Johannes Türk has become a specialist in the history of two facially disparate fields of knowledge: the culture of insult as a socio-political phenomenon; and immunology. His work investigates their cultural implications from a variety of changing angles, whether that of the long history of the European novel, the present moment of political excitation, or the epistemology of the life sciences. Considering what semiotics has to say about how our knowledge “carves nature at its joints,” Benjamin Robinson examines the possibility of an écriture socialiste capable of reassembling phenomena from technology to love in a manner simultaneously partisan and optimized. Teresa Kovacs engages with the parasitic praxis of contemporary theater. She is interested in how contemporary performances and plays intentionally take up, quote, and remix historical formations and knowledge to promote an “art of secondariness.” William Rasch enquires into German Enlightenment views on gender and the barriers they placed on women’s full role in the intellectual life of the time. As associate director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, Gunther Jikeli researches the history of antisemitism in Germany and Europe, seeking to understand its changing forms in response to events such as migration and the rise of new social media. Sander Gliboff (History and Philosophy of Science, adjunct in Germanic Studies) works on the history of biology, especially evolution and genetics, and the science in modern Germany and Austria. Irit Dekel’s research is concerned with memory as a practice, not just of historical recall, but also of poetic, affective, and social reconstruction of experience. Michel Chaouli has been working on the intersection of the sciences of the senses, theories of embodiment, and aesthetic theories since the eighteenth century. With publications on the different ways that money, images, excuses, and empathy have inflected our historical senses of selfhood and agency, Fritz Breithaupt has pursued in his research changing historical configurations of literary representation, social media, and self-knowledge.

Several members of our department are pioneers in the research of narrative in the context of German and European literature. Narratives are everywhere. When a lawyer wants to make a case for a client, she more often than not will resort to storytelling. Advertisers know the need to link their product to a good story, and journalists have become specialists in developing narrative as a mode of unfolding the world. Meanwhile, spin has developed into an entire multi-media industry to support politicians, corporations, and celebrities.

Narrative thinking and narrative presentations turn out to be highly efficient for memory and problem solving. Narratives are a favorite pastime (Gottschall), and narratives in the form of gossip may have had a central role in creating homo sapiens (Dunbar). Narratives also play a central role in the construction of individual and collective identities, where national identity has been an especially fraught question through the rise and fall of multiple German polities. Accordingly, we ask what narratives are, how they impact human behavior, what forms they take and how they relate to issues of aesthetics, human evolution, cognitive function, morality, performance, and self-justification, in both literary and non-literary media. Of particular interest to us are questions of narration, empathy, and taking sides. Besides sponsoring prominent guests, our department has hosted an international workshop on narration and empathy that led to the publication of two edited volumes, one in English and one in German.

A number of publications, courses, and research projects by faculty members over the past few years address crucial aspects of narratological questions, including Fritz Breithaupt’s the Experimental Humanities Lab. In these we turn to the multitude of German writers who have expanded the range of what narratives can do (think of the fragment in Schlegel, Kleist’s novellas with their peculiar unerhörte Begebenheit, Stifter’s microcosms, reality effects in Keller, Storm, and Fontane, the weird fiction of Hoffmann, Kafka and Walser, or epic rupture in Anna Seghers and Peter Weiss) and also to the abundance of theorists and philosophers, such as Walter Benjamin, Käte Hamburger, or Dorrit Cohn, who have analyzed the structure and effects of narrative.

In contrast to most “narratologists,” we look at many different ideas and forms of narrative that emerge from individual literary, theatrical, filmic, and philosophical texts. That is, instead of subsuming narratives under some general taxonomy, we look at narrative through the eyes of specific textual, filmic, and artistic instances. A complementary approach links the narrative economy of texts and the ways in which they engage the reader/viewer with the latest research questions concerning emotionality and the structure of the sensorium (anger, visibility—invisibility).

Taking up the radical innovations of German theatrical scene—from Jelinek to Schlingensief, Heiner Müller to Rimini Protokoll—Teresa Kovacs’s research explores the relation between dramatic narrative and performance, examining ways that narrative experience can persist in new media and methods of storytelling beyond the text. Johannes Türk reinterprets narrative as forming sequences that immunize against conflicts and allow us to integrate them. Fritz Breithaupt is writing a monograph on narrative moral reasoning and continues to publish the results from his Experimental Humanities Lab. In his work on the embodied dimensions of aesthetic experience, Michel Chaouli puts narrative in contact with the phenomenology of the full ranges of senses.

Theater and film have long occupied a central position in the culture of German-speaking Europe, a prominence that is addressed by our department’s core strength in the study of performance, exhibition, and media. Paying special attention to radical innovations in contemporary performance culture as well as to the robust museum and memorial cultures in public life, our faculty members continue the department’s longstanding commitment to the development of a drama-based pedagogy in the language and culture classroom.

Our department’s research stands out in the following areas:

  • The analysis of new forms of drama, including medial, linguistic, and political-demographic aspects of innovation, especially the engaged theater praxis of multicultural European capitals;
  • Use of live performance and digital media to reanimate and re-engage older dramatic sources for contemporary audiences;
  • Digital arts, digital humanities, intermediality, social media and critical media practice
  • Performative pedagogy

Teresa Kovacs has published broadly on theories of performance and postdramatic theater. Her monograph engages with the theatrical text as disruption, focusing on the political and critical dimensions of the Nobel-Prize-winning work of Elfriede Jelinek. Among the questions animating Kovacs’ research is: How does drama maintain its relevance in globalized transcultural contexts, where neither a common language nor a shared cultural canon can be presumed? Zooming in from the global network to the urban node, the focus of her current monograph is the ruined city landscape as it is depicted or deployed in the work of playwrights, directors, and performance groups such as Heiner Goebbels, Dimiter Gotscheff, Christoph Schlingensief, Heiner Müller, Elfriede Jelinek, René Pollesch, theatercombinat, Rimini Protokoll, and Johan Simons. In addition, she is interested in theater as an intermedial art per se. She engages with photographic and cinematographic practices in the performances of e.g. Einar Schleef and Schlingensief. Moreover, she focuses on works that have to be discussed as hybrids in-between performance, film, and installation art.

Irit Dekel brings a training in sociology to her examination of the culture of memory in Germany and Israel. Her book Mediation at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin approaches memorial culture through the lens of performance. Based on ethnographic research, and drawing on dramaturgic theory, memory studies and theories of the public sphere, the book theorizes memorial experiences by analyzing interaction between guides, memorial workers and visitors. Further research enquires into exhibits on contemporary Jewish life in Germany as well into home museums memorializing significant cultural figures, examining the way artists, artifacts, and stories connect with the situatedness of viewers to create what can be called a “national memory atmosphere.” Complementing her scholarly research, Dekel’s public intellectual commentary appears as a in the journal Public Seminar.

Susanne Even has established performative pedagogy as a major field of research through her book Drama Grammatik. Dramapädagogische Ansätze für den Grammatikunterricht Deutsch als Fremdsprache and her co-authored anthology Perfomatives Lehren Lernen Forschen – Performative Teaching Learning Research. As the co-editor of SCENARIO: A journal for performative teaching, learning, research, Even coordinates an international network of researchers and practitioners interested in innovating applications of performance in foreign language teaching and learning.

Germanic Studies maintains an ongoing engagement with digital humanities and multimedia scholarship. Gunther Jikeli has teamed up with researchers at the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering to analyze online antisemitism on Twitter, in order to identify key influencers and dissemination patterns. Michel Chaouli serves on the editorial board of the online journal Dichtung Digital, in whose context he continues his work in digital poetics. Our department has contributed to the greater campus community through numerous media events with filmmakers at the Indiana University Cinema.

A prominent research and teaching strength of our department examines how artistic dimensions of culture interact with political dimensions. Our work is informed by emphases on both the distinctness of these two realms and their interrelationships. In different ways, individual faculty members explore traditional as well as innovative aspects of this field, such as the legacy of engaged culture; new materialist paradigms; contemporary specifications of the political and aesthetic; new periodizations and territorializations; and minority positionalities. Several colleagues explore aesthetics in its philosophical space, where its relationship to ethics and political theory can take an oblique form. Others emphasize the historical and political embeddedness of aesthetic objects, their production, and their reception.

Our strength in this area builds on an active existing campus culture. Examples include reading groups at the Center for Theoretical Inquiry in the Humanities, focusing on the work of Max Weber, Leo Strauss, Louis Althusser, Jacques Rancière, Marx and theorists of immaterial and affective labor. We have hosted symposia on figures such as Hannah Arendt, Carl Schmitt, Alain Badiou (who was a guest of the department in 2007), as well as a multiyear project on East German film in the wake of reunification. In the larger picture of contemporary political culture, Germanic faculty members have also hosted civil rights leader William Barber III and labor leader and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, raising questions of labor, civil rights, migration, and capital in the 21st century. A conference on the theme of “Engagements, Events, Energies: The Arts Between Affirmation and Critique” hosted international scholars to take measure of recent work on the conjunction of politics and aesthetics. Other relevant conferences and workshops have focused on themes such “Crisis/Anti-Crisis” with anthropologist Janet Roitman and “Performing Community: Aesthetics and Politics, Violence and Re-mediation.”

Besides his work on Niklas Luhmann, Bill Rasch has published extensively on the antiliberal political theorist Carl Schmitt. His 2019 book, Carl Schmitt: State and Society situates Schmitt in the broad tradition of German theories of the European state, arguing for Schmitt’s insight into the persistent relevance of the state as a counterpart to the privatizing realm of civil society. Michelle Moyd’s (History, adjunct professor in Germanic Studies) ground-breaking book, Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa explores the social and cultural history of African soldiers (askari) in the colonial army of German East Africa, today’s Tanzania. Julia Roos (History, adjunct professor in Germanic Studies) works on twentieth-century Germany, gender, race, and sexuality. Mark Roseman (History, adjunct professor in Germanic Studies) works on the history of the Holocaust and modern German history, including post-1945 German and European reconstruction and generation conflict. Besides his work on the political function of immunological language and the regulation of empathy, Johannes Türk is exploring the role affect plays in political legitimization in his book project The Modernity of the Insult. Benjamin Robinson works on political topics in two contexts—the aesthetic context of disclosing versus affecting (perceptible, for example, in literary effects such as epiphany versus shock), and the semiotic context in which managed indexes such as GDP compete with unmanaged crises to demarcate actionable segments of the social. Teresa Kovacs directs her scholarly attention to some of the sharpest and most contentious works of political theater today. In dialogue with theater practitioners, critics, and theorists, she enquires into the relationship between forms of theatrical representation, on the one hand, and power, violence, and resistance, on the other. Moreover, she conceptualizes how theatrical organizations—such as the state-funded Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz—mediate between aesthetic visions and political institutions.

The history of Jews in Germany is an ancient one, with a proud and complex cultural legacy stretching back to the settlement of the first Ashkenazi Jewish communities in the Early and High Middle Ages. Figures such Moses Mendelsohn, Dorothea Schlegel, Rahel Varnhagen, and Heinrich Heine played key roles mediating secular German and Jewish culture during the eras of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud found great modern social scientific paradigms. It is especially with the modern era, however, that the contribution of Jews to a distinct German culture takes off. Prominent names—from Albert Einstein to Franz Kafka, Rosa Luxemburg to Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer to Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber to Hannah Arendt, Arnold Schönberg to Hans Eisler, Anna Seghers to Klaus Mann, Else Lasker-Schüler to Kurt Tucholsky—hardly begin to describe the explosion of German-Jewish culture that came to a sudden and devastating end with the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust.

Both because of and despite the traumatic memory of the Holocaust, the German-Jewish tradition continues to resonate in both its social prophetic tone and critical secularism with contemporary migrant and post-migrant German culture. The Muslim author and German-Book-Prize-winner Navid Kermani has emphasized his kinship with the Jewish cosmopolitanism of 19th-century Germany. Complex experiences of Jewish persecution and assimilation, exile and resistance, are received and transformed by writers in today’s multicultural Germany. Meanwhile, displacements and reconfigurations of conflicts between Palestine and Israel, the rise of Islamophobia and a new antisemitism, established Turkish and South Slav communities and emerging communities of more recent Syrian and Northern African immigrants shape an increasingly rich and complex cultural and political landscape in Germany. The fragility and vitality of these cultural constellations find expression, for example, in plays by Israeli émigré director Yael Ronen, dealing with Jewish, Palestinian, Roma, Yugoslavian, and German clashes and identities, and her work establishing the Exile Ensemble for refugee artists at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin.

With our internationally prominent Yiddish Program and Archives (AHEYM), the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, and our cutting-edge research in memory studies and the cultural sociologies of public Holocaust memorials, IU Germanic Studies is a leading academic center of German-Jewish studies. Faculty work in contemporary migrant cultures, as well as in studies of new hatreds and dangerous nationalisms makes connections across German history.

Hot topics of faculty research include Gunther Jikeli’s empirical study of hate speech dissemination and evolution in social media such as Twitter and Instagram. Irit Dekel’s work combines a sophisticated theoretical approach with concrete ethnographies and location studies, to understand topics such as German philosemitism and the 2012 circumcision debate, which formed a site of symbolic contestation for negotiating religious and national boundaries in Germany. Dov-Ber Kerler has built up one of the most well-known Yiddish Programs in the United States, exploring Yiddish socio-linguistics and dialectology, as well as Yiddish poetry and contemporary global Yiddish cultures. With a specific focus on Elfriede Jelinek, Teresa Kovacs’ research deals with questions of Holocaust memory and post-memory in German and Austrian culture. In addition, she is interested in representation and presence of people on the move on the contemporary German stage.