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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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Introduction: Back to the Future (Marc Silberman)


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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...

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