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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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2 Ernst Bloch’s Geist der Utopie after a Century: A Janus-Faced Reading on the Trail of Hope (Johan Siebers)


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2 Ernst Bloch’s Geist der Utopie after a Century: A Janus-Faced Reading on the Trail of Hope


The centenary of the publication of Ernst Bloch’s first book, Geist der Utopie [The Spirit of Utopia] (1918), marks the occasion of looking back at the role it played in the past century and ahead at what its existentialist utopian philosophy offers in the present time. The phenomenology of the spirit of anticipation addressed the hopelessness of the generation that had grown up during the First World War. Today we are confronted with a different hopelessness or resignation with respect to the project of social equality and liberation. This essay argues that it is not enough to tap into the resources of critical theory and post-metaphysical thinking in our attempts to reclaim radical hope; something more is needed. Geist der Utopie models a strategy for philosophical reflection on and opens a door onto this “something more.” Like a Janus head, it looks in two temporal directions, setting free the agency and spontaneity of the present.

Sie scheinen allein zu sein, doch ahnen sie immer.1

— HÖLDERLIN, “Wie wenn am Feiertage”

We seem to be living in times which have made us forget how to hope. Amid the many pressing issues of our day – climate change, failing political and public institutions, the widening gap between rich and poor, geopolitical tension and conflict, the encroaching force of...

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