Back to the Future

Tradition and Innovation in German Studies

by Marc Silberman (Volume editor)
Edited Collection X, 278 Pages
Series: German Life and Civilization, Volume 68


In the course of the 1970s, interdisciplinary German studies emerged in North America, breaking with what many in the field saw as a suffocating and politically tainted tradition of canon-based philology by broadening both the corpus of texts and the framing concept of culture. In the meantime the innovative impulses that characterized this response to the legacy of Germanistik have themselves become traditions. The essays in this volume critically examine a selection of those past attempts at renewal to gauge where we are now and how we move into the future: exile and forced migration, race and identity, humanism and utopian thought, solidarity and global inequality. A younger generation of scholars demonstrates how reviving and refining the questions of yore leads to new insights into literary and theatrical texts, fundamental philosophical and political ideas, and the structure of memory in ethnographic performance and photography. Looking back into the future is a self-reflexive gesture that asks how tradition inspires innovation, and it displays compelling evidence for the importance of historically informed cultural research in the field of German studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface
  • Introduction: Back to the Future (Marc Silberman)
  • 1 Goethe’s Future: Nature, Technology, and Interpretation (John K. Noyes)
  • Goethe’s Future: The Future of the Past
  • Two Futures
  • Religion, Progress, and Commerce
  • Interpretation, Instrumental Reason, and the Failure of Utopia
  • Interpreting Nature and Imagining the Future
  • Bibliography
  • 2 Ernst Bloch’s Geist der Utopie after a Century: A Janus-Faced Reading on the Trail of Hope (Johan Siebers)
  • Bibliography
  • 3 Pass pro toto: European-Jewish Responses to State Narratives of Personhood (Mona Körte)
  • Brief Remarks on a Physiognomy of the Passport: Descriptio, Narratio, and Icon
  • Joseph Roth’s Paperless Lives
  • Erich Maria Remarque’s Die Nacht von Lissabon: The Occupational Profile “Passport Doctor”
  • Jean Malaquais’s Planète sans visa: Material Processes of Authentication
  • Looking Ahead: Vladimir Vertlib and Katja Petrowskaja
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 4 Strategies of Exile Photography: Helmar Lerski and Hans Casparius in Palestine (Ofer Ashkenazi)
  • Exile and Photography
  • Hans Casparius’s Bifocal Vision: The Demise of Weimar in Tel Aviv
  • Helmar Lerski’s Tel Aviv: Zionism without Heimat
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 5 What Is Solidarity? Reading Hannah Arendt between Innovation and Tradition (David D. Kim)
  • Innovating Tradition
  • From Schiller to Arendt
  • Crises in Solidarity
  • The Politics of Solidarity
  • Bibliography
  • 6 Affective Labors of Socialist Construction in Early East German Literature (Hunter Bivens)
  • The East German 1950s and Superstructural Debt?
  • Socialism and Social Reproduction Theory
  • Affective Materials for Building Socialism
  • Socialist Obstinacy
  • Bibliography
  • 7 Brecht and Turkish Political Theater: Sermet Çağan’s Savaş Oyunu (1964) (Ela Gezen)
  • Bibliography
  • 8 Exhibiting Blackness: Blacks and German Culture Revisited (Katrin Sieg)
  • Whiteness Studies at the Wisconsin Workshop
  • Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B
  • “Squat Monument” at Museum Schöneberg-Tempelhof
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 9 Last Liberals Standing? German Politics and Transcultural Readings of Populism (Crister S. Garrett)
  • The Case of German Life and Civilization: A Model of Yesteryear?
  • Populism and Popular Politics, or, Just How Liberal is Germany?
  • Germany Struggles with Itself: Populism, Liberalism, and the Rise of the AfD and FDP
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 10 Back to the Future of German Studies: Which Future? Which Past? (Frank Trommler)
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

| vii →


Figure 4.1: Hans Casparius, “A View of the Kwuzah Hachugim.” Source: Das Palästina Bilderbuch (Leipzig and Vienna: E. P. Tal & Co., 1934).

Figure 4.2: Hans Casparius, “Palästina, Tel Aviv, 1934 – Strand am Schabbath-Morgen.” Source: Album “Palästina Reise,” 20. Reproduced with permission of Stiftung deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin.

Figure 4.3: Hans Casparius, “Palästina, Tel Aviv, 1934 – Strand am Schabbath-Morgen.” Source: Album “Palästina Reise,” 22. Reproduced with permission of Stiftung deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin.

Figure 4.4: Hans Casparius, [untitled]. Source: Album “Reise Fotos,” 1932/296. Reproduced with permission of Stiftung deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin.

Figures 4.5–4.8: Helmar Lerski, digital screenshots from a documentary on the building of the Tel Aviv Harbor. Reproduced with permission of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive, Jerusalem (original 16mm copy).

Figure 4.9: Helmar Lerski, “Nahalal 25.” Reproduced with permission of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Figure 8.1: Brett Bailey, Exhibit B (2010). Photographer: Anke Schüttler, with permission. ← vii | viii →

Figure 8.2: Jackal Room, Squat Monument (2017). Photographer: Nathalie Mba Bikoro, with permission.

Figure 8.3: Kites Room, Squat Monument (2017). Photographer: Nathalie Mba Bikoro, with permission.

Figure 8.4: Parachute Room, Squat Monument (2017). Photographer: Nathalie Mba Bikoro, with permission.

| ix →


The essays in this volume are revised, extended versions of presentations at the 50th Wisconsin Workshop, held at the University of Wisconsin in Madison from September 14 to 16, 2017. Organized by Professors Venkat Mani and Marc Silberman, the Workshop was made possible through the generous financial support of the Anonymous Fund (College of Letters and Sciences), German Program (Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic), DAAD Center for German and European Studies, Center for European Studies, George L. Mosse Program (Department of History), Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies, Middle East Studies Program, School of Music, and Department of Political Science. We are grateful for the support and enthusiasm of our partners. We also appreciated the help of colleagues in hosting our international guests: Professors Hannah Eldridge, Sonja Klocke, Weijia Li, and Pamela Potter. Most important, without our competent (but often invisible staff), including project assistant Anna Muenchrath, financial officer Katja Mohaupt-Hedden, and office manager Nicole Senter, the entire affair would not have been the success it was. Thank you.

The authors of the contributions in this volume have made every effort to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologizes for any errors or omissions and would be grateful for notification of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.

| 1 →


Introduction: Back to the Future

“Back to the future” calls to mind a popular, award-winning 1985 Hollywood sci-fi comedy produced by Steven Spielberg, directed by Robert Zemeckis, and starring Michael J. Fox. The intergenerational narrative features an American teenager of the 1980s who is accidentally sent back to 1955 in a “time machine” invented by a slightly mad scientist. During his adventurous trip back in time, the young kid must figure out how his teenage parents-to-be can meet and fall in love so that he will be able to return to the future he knows. The movie spawned two further episodes, and the trilogy was marketed under the motto: “Sometimes in order to go forward … you must go back.” What does this have to do with the essays in this book? Is this a claim to futurism as nostalgia, or that nostalgia and futurism are interchangeable? Does it signal to readers that these essays demonstrate how the more things change, the more they stay the same? The resounding answer is “no”! Back to the Future is a time-travel story using modes of self-reflection and doubling back in order to produce moments of self-recognition: who am I? How did I become who I am? And in essence this is what these essays ask: how does tradition inspire innovation in the field of German studies?

This was the point of departure for the invitation to a group of scholars who work at the cutting edge of interdisciplinary German studies to share their most recent research at the 50th Wisconsin Workshop held in Madison in the fall of 2017. The number 50 was also an occasion to look back at what itself has become an institution, the Wisconsin Workshop as a tradition in its own right. Thus, each contributor was asked to consider the act of “looking back” to help us understand how we “stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” how we encounter and grapple with our scholarly traditions in order to move forward. Some of the essayists explicitly reference past Workshop proceedings, and others more generally point to ← 1 | 2 → topics and themes addressed at these annual events.1 The challenge aimed not to defend the representations and critical approaches of the Workshop “tradition”; instead it asked how we might recognize limitations and historical contingencies, pushing forward by appreciating and appropriating what is useful from that tradition. The 50th Wisconsin Workshop was also an opportunity specifically to recognize Jost Hermand, who – together with Reinhold Grimm (†2009) – organized the first such workshop in 1969 in the Department of German at the University of Wisconsin, as well as Klaus Berghahn, who successfully established the campus’s DAAD Center for German and European Studies in 1998, another “institutional framework” for the kind of interdisciplinary research that characterizes German studies in Madison.

The Workshop was conceived in 1969 as an innovative mode of focused intellectual debate, remarkable in the way it brought together young and mature scholars of German literature, arts, culture, and history and created a transatlantic bridge for scholarly exchange about “things German.” But it was not the first such endeavor. The Amherst Colloquium, initiated by Wolfgang Paulsen in the Department of German at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in April 1967, took up the topic of Expressionism, and one year later, in May 1968, the Second Amherst Colloquium focused on the legacy of Romanticism in modern German literature.2 This was the inspiration for Grimm and Hermand, both of whom had been invited to the Amherst Colloquium, to invent their own annual, interdisciplinary conference to be held in the fall on a topic related to German culture. It may be useful to recall that in the late 1960s the field of Germanistik, or Germanics, as it was then called, was still emerging from its postwar “hibernation.” Moreover, humanities scholarship in general had not yet developed the infrastructure that today is taken for granted. Essentially there were two ← 2 | 3 → professional organizations where scholars of German literature and culture could meet in the United States: the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, attended by thousands of other scholars from all fields in the modern languages, and the smaller, annual conference of the American Association of Teachers of German, devoted primarily to the teaching of German language in schools and colleges. Scholarly organizations such as the Austrian Studies Association (established in 1962 as the International Arthur Schnitzler Research Association around the Schnitzler journal that later became Modern Austrian Literature), the Lessing Society (established in 1966 around the Lessing Yearbook), and the International Brecht Society (established in 1971 around the Brecht Jahrbuch) were just beginning to emerge as forums for scholarly exchange and networking. Larger organizations such as Women in German (founded in 1974) or the German Studies Association (founded in 1976 as the Western Association for German Studies) were not yet on the horizon in the late 1960s. While many German departments were home to émigré scholars such as Paulsen, Grimm, and Hermand, who – depending on the conditions of their emigration – may have been able or willing to draw on contacts to colleagues on the continent, transatlantic exchange was only beginning to enter the jet age at that time. Communication was by airmail letter; not even faxes, let alone emails were available. The Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, Goethe Institut, and National Endowment for the Humanities were not yet funding exchanges, summer seminars, and conferences on German topics. Establishing a place in the academy for serious discussion about German culture on a sophisticated intellectual level was something new in the late 1960s.

That the 50th “annual” Wisconsin Workshop took place only 47 years after the first one needs a brief explanation. Owing to an oversight, the organizers missed the number 11 entirely and claimed Workshops numbered 13 in both 1981 and 1982! Then in 1983 there was no Workshop to avoid competition with the founding event of the university’s Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, marked by a visit of the then West German President Karl Carstens. Finally, two Workshops took place in each of the calendar years 1995, 2000, and 2007, one in the spring and one in the fall. Beyond the confounding numbering, however, it is noteworthy ← 3 | 4 → that this pace-setting, intellectual endeavor has enjoyed such longevity. Other large German departments followed the examples of Amherst and Madison, such as Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis with biennial conferences, and there were myriad occasions for others to host their own occasional colloquia, but none could compete with the same endurance and regularity.

In many ways the map of the shifting topics of Madison’s Workshops from year to year can be read as a barometer or gauge of the discipline: anticipating, consolidating, reflecting on, and provoking issues and discussions that over the past five decades have yielded a long list of anthologies with essays defining crucial trends in the emergent field. As one of the largest German programs in North America, Madison’s faculty played an important role in the 1970s in transforming the field from its philological focus based on a well-defined literary canon to an interdisciplinary approach based on a broad definition of culture and textuality in the German-language areas, and the early Workshops became an important forum for attracting attention to the problems and possibilities it harbored. In the 1980s and 1990s topics addressing gender, the environment, ethics, and memory reflected faculty members’ interests and interventions into larger transatlantic discussions. And after the millennial turn Workshop themes continued to broaden the established focus on literature and history with attention to music, art, aesthetics, and philosophy.

I hope these comments do not seem unnecessarily boastful. As Frank Trommler points out in the final essay of this volume, the early Wisconsin Workshops did represent a breakthrough for American Germanistik, influencing departments around the world, and it was also one of the first forums that explicitly integrated graduate student research into its programming, something that today has become much more widespread. These efforts, however, succeeded only because colleagues from other German programs and from Europe were willing to accept the invitation to share their expertise. In this respect, the Workshop is part of that larger history Trommler describes of how German studies developed its current shape in North America. And, of course, some Workshops were more successful than others. Some were small and intense, others targeted large audiences by reaching out to neighboring disciplines; some were conducted in German, ← 4 | 5 → others in English or mixed. After 1990, the organization of the annual Workshops shifted from the hands of its founders Grimm and Hermand to a revolving group of other colleagues, often paired in a mentoring relationship of a senior and junior faculty member, and so the Workshops will continue in the future.

Because of the commemorative nature of the 50th Wisconsin Workshop – with its focus on drawing consequences in our present situation that is saturated by the past in order to raise sensible questions about the future of German studies – the intention was not to produce a coherent thematic focus for the volume of proceedings. Instead, the gesture or the methodology of positioning the knowledge gained in past Workshops as a tradition to be put into question reflects a common goal of exploring how innovations entered into the discipline and why they need to be revised or qualified to help us move forward. Of course, the choices made by the contributors were selective and perhaps not even especially representative of all those past Workshops, but in themselves they indicate lines of continuity that still preoccupy us in German studies and demonstrate how careful research, compelling arguments, and close (re)readings make possible the vitality of ideas. That being said, there are thematic resonances among the contributions.


X, 278
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (March)
interdisciplinarity German Studies Wisconsin Workshop Cultural Studies
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. X, 278 pp., 4 coloured ill., 9 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Marc Silberman (Volume editor)

Marc Silberman is Emeritus Professor of German, film studies, and interdisciplinary theater studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.


Title: Back to the Future