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Back to the Future

Tradition and Innovation in German Studies


Edited By Marc Silberman

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.

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1 Goethe’s Future: Nature, Technology, and Interpretation (John K. Noyes)


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1 Goethe’s Future: Nature, Technology, and Interpretation


The global emergence and normalization of pluralism, economic inequality, the technological mediation of experience, the financialization of life, etc., has cast doubt upon the shared nature of the human object, but Goethe already witnessed the first stirrings of this doubt. At that time the nature of the human was invariably linked in one way or another to the philosophy of history, that is, it was granted a specific relationship to the future. This essay examines Goethe as an eccentric and visionary humanist who was constantly flirting with the collapse of the terms in which his contemporaries tried to grasp the future of humanity, while at the same time holding on to the belief that humanity could be negotiated aesthetically.

Goethe’s Future: The Future of the Past

In the beginning of Faust I, immediately following the encounter with the Erdgeist, Faust is interrupted by the “trockene Schleicher” Wagner [dry as dust], who exclaims:

Wagner: Verzeiht! es ist ein groß Ergetzen,

Sich in den Geist der Zeiten zu versetzen;

Zu schauen, wie vor uns ein weiser Mann gedacht,

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