GQ is pleased to present a new Forum essay, this time on the complex and crucial issue of scholarly "credibility" in German Studies. If you have opinions or experiences in this area, please share them with us. Send a short statement of up to 300 words to firstname.lastname@example.org. And of course we are always glad to hear thoughts on the first Forum question, the "centrality" of literature for GS. The editors promise to respond.
Credibility: The Next Challenge
Katherine Arens (University of Texas at Austin)
In the nineteenth century, studying literature meant studying the history of older literatures through the lens of philology -- a historical discipline, less than an interpretive one. The degree-granting study of literature (especially contemporary) was an artifact of the early twentieth century.In the US after the Second World War, however, the study of literature became ideologized in a very particular way, we recognize now: as part of the post-war post-secondary curriculum that tried to define the "educated human" whose image resonated through Harvard, Yale, and Princeton up through the 1970s.The backlash (especially in the college curriculum) came in the so-called "canon wars," when the ideology of literary and social style and privilege came under critique as a tool of hegemony, leading to new critical interest in cultural processes and group identity politics rather than literary form, style, or purportedly eternal human values.
What has not been pursued to any great degree is how this shift of disciplinary practice has impacted the day-to-day business of scholarship, nor how it might change our position in the curriculum. Most particularly, no one has asked the question I wish to pose here: are we in a credibility crisis as scholars, teachers, and professionals? I think the answer is yes, which requires us to ask an additional question: what constitutes professional credibility today?
By gone forms of literary scholarship insisted on mastery of clear bodies of knowledge and skills to define successful professionals: how to scan poems and talk about genres, how to use historical dictionaries and reference books, what kinds of intertextual and textual hermeneutics were appropriate to study the canons of the literate elite. The canon wars brought many new forms of literary and cultural studies sharing little but attention to power relations -- and usually without agreement about how to assemble evidence about those relationships, through research and/or new forms of close reading.
During the canon wars, interest in theory did proliferate, but little of it was ever tested against empirical evidence, nor did the theorists ever generate new canons, textbooks, interpretive models, or tools for reading, historical reconstruction, analysis, or reorganizations of knowledge (the "post-library," one might call it). Theory, particularly French theory, guided various interests in power and identity on the parts of scholars, and, unfortunately, much of that theory was taken out of its original context, blunting the results' technical accuracy.
This new scholarship embraces insights from history, cultural geography and anthropology, and the social sciences, as well as from communication and media studies, psychoanalysis, and any number of specialized studies. Yet what is produced is all too often a kind of new journalism: compelling acts of writing and self-expression -- performance -- on the part of the scholar, guided principally by that scholar's tastes and validated through rhetorical verve. All too often, these new journalists borrow work from other disciplines on which to base "new" scholarship, in blissful ignorance or willful overlooking of the challenges and critiques of that work from within its own field. Such borrowings have always characterized literary scholarship, but it seems now that we no longer care what the etiquette of these borrowings might be, intellectually and methodologically.
Worse, perhaps, is how this new scholarship deals with source materials. In an era when more material is available at hand with little difficulty of access, the number of literary scholars is growing who make "cultural-historical" arguments without checking Historical Abstracts for what historians actually think, who make arguments about language and identity in texts without checking the Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts to see how a dialect or language norm is represented or have been studied, or who use online text corpuses like Gutenberg.de without checking the textual scholarship included in a historical-critical edition. Or who fail to check out what the recent state of the art is, as documented in the book-review services tailored for their areas. Such neglect only strengthens the appearance of their work as journalism as opposed to reliable scholarship.
Hence what I am terming our profound crisis of credibility.
The study of language and literature is to no small degree protected within the average college curriculum by schemes of distribution requirements broadly adopted after the Second World War. Is that protection still credible, if we have changed our fields so radically?Is it, for example, (or was it ever) credible to offer courses on film or other cultural artifacts (cities and monuments are currently trendy) under slots designated as filling a "literature requirement"?
If we answer yes, then we need to articulate what justifies the teaching of Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951) instead of or along side its Patricia Highsmith source, or Wim Wenders' Der Himmel über Berlin (1987) without the Handke and Rilke texts at its core -- or, from the other side of the disciplinary boundary, without discussing its foley, framing, and use of mattes and blue screen. To do otherwise is to co-opt and alter traditional forms of disciplinary authority -- an arrogant and chancy move in terms of disciplinary credibility. Individual scholars of "literature" are surely qualified to "teach film," but is that choice credible, methodologically and in terms of knowledge production, within curricular and scholarly expectations? What in the framework of our professional education and practice qualifies us to transfer our research skills in this way ("reading novels" = "reading films"), and have we explained our fiat credibly to our neighboring disciplines?
The problem is only exacerbated when these claims are asserted and tested within the scholarly community, across the lines of disciplines which, after all, are designed to police themselves. When scholarship does not rely on a disciplinary consensus and thus on its authority, promotion and tenure cases, or grants and institutional support will be lost. If the history representative on a grant or promotion panel can impugn a book on the basis of "inadequate research," as they see it, then that book will not be seen as credible, if there is no coherent and resistant disciplinary consensus to back it up.
By no means do I mean to suggest that the profession ought to be held accountable by outside entities -- we get to become "cultural studies specialists," or anything else, if we choose as a group to be. Yet how do we then set our work apart from other humanities and social sciences, or should we, and on what grounds? Are all "texts" the same (novels, films, and memorials)? What professional quality judgments are or should be ours alone, especially when so much information is broadly available electronically, including archival materials? How do we (re)define our standards of research, to ourselves and our peers? What do we teach our graduate students? What does constitute a legitimate analysis of new classes of texts in old scholarly contexts, when, for example, art historians disagree with us about how to treat Christo's Wrapped Reichstag project or theater historians a piece of Klaus Nomi performance art?
A Ragnarök scenario is a clear option: abolishing separate "language" departments, grant divisions, and journals for literary and cultural studies, and surrendering our sinecures in the curricula to other kinds of literacy. Or we could take a humbler approach: address our need to establish credibility in our new contexts by defining scholarly research methods, writing, research, and analysis standards, and curricular outcomes that will help anchor what excites us in the new academic reality.
Our claims to academic freedom and to a continued presence in the academy (supported by requirements and tuition) derive from the achievements of a two-hundred-year old guild that, like the masters and apprentices in any luxury trade, not only adapts to current whims but also passes on the knowledge necessary to supersede shifting winds of custom and funding, guaranteeing craftsmanship that lasts beyond a moment and guaranteeing that craftsmen can move their art and trade forward, true to their own visions and to their public alike.
What has given us the freedom to teach and learn is a set of judgments about how to deal with historical horizons of expectation (using contemporaneous sources and dealing with the provenance, memory, and adaptations of our work), with sources, languages, text editing, and archival practices, with norms for writing, publishing, citing, and research, with the needs of students and the public to access what we produce, and with a commitment to elaborating and elucidating change rather than innovating willfully, for its own sake. Today, we have a great commitment to ethical positions about how our work is produced, circulated, and used; we need to add to it a commitment to the guild's best practices, honoring the past to move forward, even as we critique it and ourselves alike.
One example of this "taking out of context" might be Kristeva's Revolution in Poetic Language (1974; 1984 in English)), of which only the first half was translated, leading many US feminist critics to take it as a theory of the feminine, rather than as an analysis of the tropes of the feminine at the end of the nineteenth century. The Lacan translations are only now being fixed on reissue; the roots of French feminism in phenomenology and the philosophy of science are virtually ignored.
For German studies, the listservs helping distribute reviews from the broadest range of German Studies fields include: H-German, H-Germanistik, H-HRE, and HABSBURG from H-Net (see http://www.h-net.org/), and the successor to the Internationalea Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur (http://iasl.uni-muenchen.de/), aside from more specialized listservs.