Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
Todd III
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The Origins of Literary Studies—And Their End?

Never before in the almost two centuries of its existence has the academic discipline of literary studies been so intensely fascinated by its own history as during the past decade. This volume belongs to a—probably still growing—wave of publications which, at least in Europe and in North America, has opened up one of the liveliest new fields of research for scholars specializing in the different national traditions of literature. Such indulging in their own intellectual and institutional past cannot help producing certain effects of—mostly self-congratulatory—monumentalization. More often and more explicitly, however, the historiography of literary studies is apologetic—sometimes aggressively apologetic, but in some of its best cases also apologetic with undertones of melancholy, nostalgia, and regret. Regardless of whether this discourse attempts to show how much the world would lose by abandoning the institution of literary studies or whether it elegantly and ironically anticipates the vanishing of literary studies without fight or resentment, we have come to understand that the concentration of literary scholars on the origins of their discipline is not independent from a confrontation with the very real possibility of its end. Therefore we should—and perhaps we even must—continue to deal with questions regarding the future of literary studies as philosophical questions, that is as questions which, according to Jean-François Lyotard, have no possible answers and which, precisely because they have no possible answers, unfold a specific intellectual productivity. This notwithstanding, questions regarding the future of literary studies have also become real questions ever since the first universities and colleges have shut down their literary departments. The historical logic underlying the present situation of literary studies is trivial—but it is less its triviality than the fear of facing it which has made this logic unmentionable. All phenomena for which we can trace a historical beginning are capable of having and will ultimately have a historical ending. Instead of repressing, fighting, or only lamenting this fact, we should try to imagine what the end of literary studies could mean, intellectually and institutionally, for us, for our students, and perhaps even for society at large. We should do so without desperately insisting on the need to rescue our discipline. For the truth is that this end has already begun. While the names of our fields of research and teaching are just slowly beginning to change, the social functions that led to their emergence (described in section [I]) and the intellectual premises under which they unfolded their activities during the first century of their existence have almost completely vanished (section [II]).

The larger historical framework for the appearance of national philologies in the academic world of the 19th century was a divergence between normative expectations, produced and propagated by the state, about what society should be, and recurrent forms of experience in everyday social life. This split had not existed prior to the age of the bourgeois revolutions and reform-movements (because earlier European societies had not developed such normative self-images), and it therefore necessitated the emergence of "secondary" institutions capable of mediating the gap between such expectations and such experiences. What covered this need was the broad field of practices that we call "leisure" ("Freizeit").
1 As leisure activities have ever since functioned either by compensation (by offering the illusion of a fulfillment for certain promises contained in the normative image of society) or by reconciliation (as strategies convincing the citizens that such a gap between expectations and everyday experience did not exist in reality), they are surrounded by a taboo concerning any speculations about their functions—for compensations and devices of reconciliation are doomed to fail once they are recognized as such.

New modalities of literary reading2 became key among leisure activities, and we can assume that it was this status that, from the early decades of the 19th century on, attracted considerable investments on the part of the states into professorships and institutes for literary studies. 3 Besides channeling the reading of literature toward effects of compensation and reconciliation, however, the emerging academic disciplines also contributed to the constitution of the new normative images of society by identifying and extracting ethical values from literary texts. It is this second function that explains an important divergence between regionally different developments of literary scholarship. Wherever changes in the social structure appeared as the outcome of Revolutions or Reforms based on universal "human" values, literature and literary studies were expected to propagate these ideals within the broadest possible horizon of texts—and without any specific national or historical restrictions. In contrast, states that had been created in reaction to moments of national defeat and humiliation tended to invent a glorious, mostly remote national past (filling in for the lack of a glorious national present) as a model for their national regeneration, and they therefore favored texts that could illustrate such dreams of historical greatness. Under the latter conditions, the writing of literary history and the complicated philological craft of text-editing emerged as the core practices of literary studies, which consequently developed early standards of professionalization. These were the circumstances that characterized the foundational moment of Germanistik in Prussia, and similar frame-conditions led to the emergence of national philologies in Italy during the Risorgimento, in France after the defeat in the Franco-German war of 1870/71, and in Spain after the loss of the last transatlantic colonies in 1898. Only in England and the United States, i.e., in the two nations that had never undergone such traumatic events during the 19th century, did literary studies maintain their orientation toward a not nationally restricted horizon of canonized texts and toward general "humanistic" values without any major modification or crisis. 4

If, then, we can say that literary studies owed their foundation and their different, nationally specific forms to normative concepts of "Humanity" and of the "Nation," this explains why, from the final decades of the 19th century on, a rapidly intensifying problematization of the quasi-ontological status that had characterized those notions of reference caused a permanent crisis in the literary disciplines—after a century of almost triumphant vitality. Now that their disciplinary horizons of reference were called into question, a number of silent implications on which the 19th century practice of literary studies had relied became open problems: What was the function of literary studies (if the gap between normative expectations about society and everyday experience was quickly disappearing)? Which texts could be regarded as "literary" (earlier institutional practice had attributed this predicate to any texts that were used in the context of leisure or as a reservoir for ethical norms)? What was the relation between the field of literary history and the fields of other historical phenomena (previous practice had simply declared the history of literature to be a kingsway to historical totality)? Such questions ended up delineating the intellectual spaces of Literary Theory 5 and Comparative Literature as overlapping disciplinary sub-fields. Given the 19th century's general fondness for comparison as an intellectual exercise and the subsequent density of its articulations in the academic world, the chronologically late appearance of a Comparative Literature discipline is particularly significant—for it can be seen as a confirmation of the hypothesis that only the crisis of literary studies around 1900 triggered its emergence. 6 The trend towards comparing both different national cultures and different forms of artistic expression ("wechselseitige Erhellung der Künste") probably reached its culminating moment as late as in the 1920s, when the experimentation with totalizing period-concepts—especially with those of "Baroque" or "Renaissance"—almost became an obsession among a generation of scholars who had an active, often biographically motivated interest in transgressing the level of national identities as a horizon of reference for their work. Even some Anglo-American critics whose professional world was less affected by these changes (because it had hardly ever relied on the concept of "nation") reacted to the new situation by making explicit, for the first time, the principles of their practice and by transforming it thus into what has ever since been called "New Criticism." 7 From the perspective of my argument, however, it is particularly important to understand that both Literary Theory and Comparative Literature found their first articulations in the academic institution during a moment when the original social and epistemological environment of literary studies had vanished. In other words: Literary Theory and Comparative Literature were promoted with the hope of finding solutions to an institutional crisis that had problematized the very existence of literary studies.

Today, we have to admit that Literary Theory and Comparative Literature have not justified the very expectations that led to their foundation. Literary criticism has never again returned to a situation where its identity and its social functions could be taken for granted—or could at least remain unthematized. Therefore, the so frequently and so fondly remembered atmosphere of a "departure towards new horizons" that characterized literary studies around 1970 appears, in retrospect, as an almost uncannily close repetition of the crisis that literary studies had undergone after 1900. The so-called "theory boom" of the late sixties and early seventies was, again, provoked by serious and insistent questions concerning the social functions of the discipline. It generated renewed enthusiasm for theory-styles that had originated in the early 20th century, such as Formalism and Structuralism, and with these theories returned the desire of finding a transcultural and metahistorical definition of "literature" (or of "literariness"). In Europe, the theory boom produced, above all, a sometimes naïve vision of literature and literary reception as exclusively fostering political progress and social emancipation (whatever this might exactly mean), and of literary studies administering and mediating such healthy effects. It is not surprising, at least not from today's perspective, that these "socio-dreams," among other things, triggered a reorientation of literary studies in Great Britain, away from the specific Anglo-American tradition and toward the then predominant continental models—for the political implications of the new ideals had an irresistible appeal for a generation almost entirely composed of young leftist critics.

Only recently have we learnt to react with due historical astonishment to the fact that, in several European societies, the state honored such self-assigned "critical" and "political" functions of literary studies by financing an unheard-of institutional expansion. The relative expansion of literary studies within the then rapidly growing academic sector in North America was never quite as dramatic as on the other side of the Atlantic. Nor was the reaction of literary scholars in the United States to the political criticism of the 1960s and the 1970s remotely as optimistic as in Europe and Great Britain. Rather than for socio-dreams, the generation of American critics born around the middle of the century opted for a refusal, a refusal to continue teaching literature as part of an overarching moral, moralizing, and moralistic curriculum. As little as Deconstruction and Foucault-inspired New Historicism may share as intellectual positions, from the angle of this refusal they were functionally equivalent because they both strongly problematized the world-reference of any discourse and, with it, the ground for any ethical instruction. In both cases, the analytical styles also converged with the close reading-tradition of New Criticism. On the other hand, Deconstruction and New Historicism both incurred the accusation of being "nihilistic," especially from those colleagues, on the political Left and on the political Right, who believed and still believe in substantial values. This might be the reason why, on the North American market of academic styles, "Cultural Studies," that loudly social democratic version of a socio-dream coming from the British 1970s, has recently gained considerable territory against Deconstruction and New Historicism. After a long interval of refusal without extra-academic consequences, after twelve years of Republican presidency, Cultural Studies finally encouraged a generation—my own generation—of self-declared revolutionaries to impose their visions of politics and ethics upon the academic space.

Having gone through two moments of crisis and through several waves of theoretical innovation, literary studies today bear only little resemblance to the institutional and intellectual structures that characterized the early steps toward their professionalization after 1810. In the first place, the unity of literary studies and historical linguistics, a unity that seemed to emerge naturally out of the task of discovering, editing, and commenting on texts from a remote national past, no longer exists. After a short period of renewed convergence in the 1960s and 1970s, which was motivated by the endeavor of developing a metahistorically valid definition of literature, linguistics is now further away from literary studies than philosophy, history, sociology, or anthropology. At the same time, and even more importantly, the original simultaneity of a historical and an aesthetic approach to literature, as it constituted literary studies in their beginnings, has vanished. Whereas, during the first century of the discipline's existence, it seemed natural to assume that the chronological distance separating texts from the present intensified their aesthetic value, combinations of historical and aesthetic aspects have now become so eccentric within the field of textual analysis that they require specific legitimations. But as the shape of literary studies had resulted from a double use of literary texts as a reservoir for ethical values and as an illustration of glorious moments in the national past, the discipline had ended up imprinting this double connotation on the institutionally dominating concept of "literature." Today, in contrast, we pursue either historical or philosophical projects that may have a greater epistemological complexity and a higher political legitimacy than ever before. At the same time, we find growing difficulties in coping with the expectation—still existing among academic administrators and, of course, outside the academic institution—that our activities are exclusively or even predominantly occupied with literary discourses in the canonized meaning of the concept "literature."

It is obvious that the dissolution of the traditional ties between literary history and historical linguistics and, within literary studies, between historical and philosophical perspectives has given the discipline more freedom and a broader horizon of choice for any kind of transdisciplinary enterprise. Such interdisciplinarity, however, has its specific problems because it takes place in a larger epistemological environment whose own instability makes it particularly difficult—if not impossible—to demonstrate the pertinence of any form of interdisciplinary collaboration. One could argue that, from a genealogical perspective, this instability originates in philosophical debates which took place during the 19th century—yet it remains true that they have unfolded an institutionally relevant impact on literary studies only during the past two decades.8 Here lies the reason why many of the research paradigms that seemed to anticipate the future (i.e., our present) around 1970—from Transformational Grammar via Structuralism to the Marxist forms of literary sociology—look so desperately obsolete from our contemporary perspective. Rethinking literary studies, therefore, is less a task of responding to the intrinsic transformations of the discipline than the challenge of determining and taking into account the changed epistemological environment—the changed extrinsic conditions—in which any development of the discipline toward the future will have to take place.

As the most important component among such changes, the crisis of concepts such as "truth," "objectivity," and even "consensus" has finally reached literary scholarship, and it is interesting to observe that a number of different intellectual positions converge in the initial provocation for this change. None among these positions is closer to literary studies than Deconstruction, which uses literary texts as evidence for the impossibility of any stable meaning-structure and, consequently, of any reference to an outside "world of objects." Despite a completely different philosophical basis, the influence of Systems Theory—and, more generally, of Constructivism—on the intellectual climate has only strengthened this effect. The systemic second-level observer, for example, who is doomed, through the inevitability of self-observation, to constantly perceive the relativity of his/her positions and insights becomes a strange companion to, but nevertheless a functional equivalent of the deconstructive idea of "différance." Finally, rather through the practice of a new form of historiography than with similarly complex philosophical arguments, Michel Foucault's books have popularized the conviction that whatever lies beyond the level of historically and culturally specific discourses remains inaccessible to human insight—and that the hope to ever reach "truth" was itself the result of such a discursive network.

While we do not know yet whether this philosophical climate will ultimately devaluate or raise the interdisciplinary reputation of literary scholarship, an epistemological environment that problematizes the possibility of describing the present has made definitely impossible any claim to predict the future, including the future of academic disciplines such as literary studies.9 The only remaining possibility of accessing the future seems to lie in the operational form of "risk calculations," where the positive consequences related to the successful realization of certain projects are juxtaposed to and compared with the losses that their failure would entail. What such risk-calculations normally provide is the possibility of buying (and assessing) an insurance that covers the potential costs of possible failures—but it is of course difficult (although not impossible) to imagine that young scholars opting for a professional future in literary studies would seek such financial protection. Nevertheless, there is an important lesson to be drawn from this change in the status of the future. Whereas we were traditionally trying to predict the future of institutions relying on observations of "laws" or, at least, of "trends" in their past and present development, it has now become necessary to design projects whose possibility of realization we can assess—if we at all want to speculate about the future in more or less "reasonable" ways.

At the point of a convergence between such changes in the status of the knowledge we produce and in the conditions under which we can hope to access the future, we must learn to see the temporality of knowledge—specifically the temporality of theories—from a new angle.10 Roughly speaking, two models have dominated our thinking about the temporality of theories: it has either been seen as the ideal of an ever increasing approximation between theories and a world of references (which, in this first model, was imagined as a stable world), or as an ongoing adaptation of theories to changes taking place in the world of references. While only the first paradigm carried a connotation of progression, they both implied the assumption that theories fulfill functions of representation. In a situation, however, where precisely this assumption is vanishing, the hope that theories may ever "improve" or "keep up with reality"—in other words: the expectation of a "development" and, consequently, of a predictable "future" for theories—must disappear. As Derrida argues in Grammatologie, we will probably never be able to leave behind us the age of metaphysics (i.e., the idea of language fulfilling functions of representation), but we cannot maintain our belief in metaphysics either. 11 Problematizing the representational function of theories, the epistemological present seems to lock us into a constant oscillation between the hope of grasping reality in ever renewed theory-designs and the deconstruction of such beliefs. Meanwhile, the idea of a development of theories is transformed into the expectation of an endless proliferation of theories where new positions emerge out of a constant, mutual problematization of their status.

As if our epistemological situation were not complex enough in itself, it seems to coincide with a loss of coherence in the notion of "literature" and with a remarkable fading of its cultural aura—inside, and also outside literary studies. In this context, the insight into the inviability of a common denominator-concept that could comprehend all the historical and cultural varieties among the phenomena we label as "literature" only contains a comparatively mild provocation. For, if it forces us to give up our attempts at developing metahistorical and transcultural "definitions of literature" (which had been so dear to our predecessors around 1970), the discovery of such heterogeneity does not have to prevent literary studies from the constitution of a—more or less—coherent disciplinary field which would now have to be based on the principle of "family resemblance." It is true, however, that we have become much more reluctant (and for good reasons, I think) to attribute unambiguously clear pedagogical or ethical functions to the reading of literature—perhaps with the exception of a few overeager followers (and hasty readers) of Deconstruction. As a general rule, such attributions require much more sophisticated argumentation(s) today than ever during the past two centuries, and the recently renewed interest in philosophical aesthetics may be an outcome of this mounting pressure. It is no surprise that the numerous investigations, typical of the 1970s, about the contributions of literature towards the establishment of cultural, political, and even economic hegemonies ended up generating such effects of skepticism—and one can hardly regret them. If, paradoxically, our social environment—and this may be especially true for the American situation—seems to remain more convinced of the values inherent to literary reading than do most literary critics, the survival of such attitudes among the cultural public should not make us overlook that, as a social form of leisure, literary reading has a greater number of competitors than ever before. Wherever reading is still a lively form of cultural interaction, its social frame of reference is more likely to be that of a repressed or marginalized minority than that of a (more or less triumphant) nation state. Thus, it has been said that literature has failed to play a role in the process of German reunification, but it makes unquestionably strong contributions towards the identity formation of the emerging African societies.12 While literary reading has become key for feminist theory and for the development of new forms of self-reference among gays and lesbians, it faces increasing difficulties in maintaining its place within national programs of education.

Finally, it is high time for an honest rethinking of the relations between literary studies and its concrete political surroundings. While today the most cherished daydream of many literary critics all over the western world continues to be the illusion that political authorities and institutions fear our "subversive" (if not "revolutionary") potential and are therefore constantly concerned with controlling and repressing our activities, a more realistic assessment of our present would probably identify the lack of such resistance, and perhaps even a general lack of a public interest in our activities, as the more serious problem. Is it not astonishing that governments, taxpayers, and parents have consistently financed academic disciplines whose functions are anything but obvious, even to their practitioners? Should it not make us confident—or, perhaps, desperate—that this support has hardly changed during the 20th century, despite all the transformations in the programs and the self-definitions of literary studies during the 20th century, that there was not even a strong negative reaction to our ambitions of becoming "subversive"? The new eagerness among German scholars, for example, to design curricular sequences that prepare students for "practical professions" in the cultural field,13 is probably more an outcome of their own insecurity than an obligatory adaptation to political pressures from outside. At the same time, some American universities seem to have saddened, but not really upset, their alumni and donors by cutting back the component of literature in their curriculum. Such experiences suggest that the main institutional problem for the future of literary studies does not so much lie in a lack of support as in a lack of feedback which we would need in order to develop a more differentiated picture of the external expectations towards our profession.

We should therefore learn to assume the responsibility for the future of our disciplines (perhaps even, if one may say so, for their future after their ending), instead of complaining about a society that does not deserve the blessings of our own (of course always wonderful) cultural taste. In the absence of any form of "cultural politics" on the side of the state, as Necessary characterizes the American situation, there is no excuse for the universities if they do not fill this gap. And under European conditions our disciplines will lose any credibility if they continue to explain a lack of inspired projects through a—nonexistent—hostility on the side of the politicians. Often, indeed, politicians and administrators are more deeply convinced of the existential values inherent to literature than we are. One serious question is therefore whether we, somehow cynically, should pretend that we share and support their cultural value systems or whether we have to accept the risk that would come from admitting that we are defending a cause—literature and literary studies—about which, from an epistemological and from a sociological point of view, only very few assumptions remain obvious. For whichever of these two strategies we opt, for cynical conservativism or for potentially expensive sincerity, it must be clear that a purely intrinsic reform and redefinition of literary studies as a discipline has long become obsolete. What literary scholars tend to perceive as a crisis of their own field, is part of a much more dramatic transformation within the humanities at large, part of a transformation whose outcome will depend on the shaping of a new epistemological, institutional, and practical relationship between the humanities and the sciences.

Why should one insist on maintaining a tradition-oriented identity of literary studies within this context of change? And why, on the other hand, would one have to assume that, in the future, there will be no use for those skills and forms of competence which literary studies have shaped and cultivated in the past? This seems to be the surprisingly undramatic question of the moment: into which future projects, programs, and perhaps even disciplines can we and should we invest what we have learnt through becoming and being scholars of literature?

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht



(1)  For a distinction between "leisure" and the historically earlier tradition of "otium," three components seem to matter: leisure functions as a promise for an entire society whereas " otium" always had the status of a social privilege; only leisure activities were propagated by the state (and in the interest of the state); different from leisure, the functions of "otium" have not been hidden under a taboo (see below).

(2)  See François Furet and Jacques Ozouf, Lire et écrire (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1977), and Rolf Engelsing, Der Bürger als Leser (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1974).

(3) Rather than a full awareness of the specific functions which, according to my thesis, were covered by literature and literary studies, I assume that it was a belief in the symbolic value (i.e., the aura) of literature which persuaded 19th century politicians of the necessity to create such new institutions.

(4)  Only during a relatively short period, toward the end of the 19th century, were some American universities tempted to adopt what they perceived as "the German model of research." See Gerald Graff, Professing Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) and W. B. Carnochan, The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and American Experience (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993) 51-67.

(5)  From this perspective, Russian Formalism can be seen as the earliest paradigm of a "Literary Theory." See my essay, "Rekurs / Distanznahme / Revision. Klio bei den Philologen," in Der Diskurs der Literatur- und Sprachhistorie. Wissenschaftsgeschichte als Innovationsvorgabe, ed. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Bernard Cerquiglini (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1983) 235-256.

(6)  I follow here the brilliant inaugural lecture of my colleague David Palumbo-Liu, "Termos da (in)diferença: cosmopolitismo, politica cultural e o futuro dos estudos da literatura," Cadernos da Pós / Letras 14 (1995): 46-62. For a historical documentation of the origins of "Comparative Literature" as an academic discipline, see Ulrich Weisstein, Comparative Literature and Literary Theory: Survey and Introduction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973) 171 ff.

(7) Perhaps the most typical book in this context is I.A. Richards, Science and Poetry (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., [1926] 1935).

(8) Despite the influential work of such philosophically sophisticated historians as Hayden White or Reinhart Koselleck, it is my impression that (for better or worse) history as a discipline has been much less affected by similar developments.

(9) See Niklas Luhmann, Beobachtungen der Moderne (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1992) 129-148.

(10) See my essay, "Ende des Theorie-Jenseits?" in Zukunft oder Ende. Standpunkte / Analysen / Entwürfe, ed. Rudolf Maresch (Munchen: Boer, 1993) 40-46.

(11)  Of Grammatology (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974) 8 ff.

(12)  See Wlad Godzich, Philosophie einer un-europäischen Literaturkritik (Munich: W. Fink, 1988) 29-46.

(13) See my statement, "Mission Accomplished," in Berufsbezogen studieren. Neue Studiengänge in den Literatur-, Kultur- und Medienwissenschaften, ed. Günter Blamberger, Hermann Glaser and Ulrich Glaser (Munich: Beck, 1993) 37-39.

© 1998 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.