Category Archives: Scholarship

Unpacking My Storage Unit: A Literary Encounter with My Things

German realist literature has a well-earned reputation for its fascination with stuff – actual, material things. Anyone looking to say something smart about Adalbert Stifter, Gustav Freytag, Gottfried Keller, and even (or arguably especially) Theodor Fontane could make a lot of hay looking at furniture, garden ornaments, or the pictures on the wall. Adalbert Stifter is the best example. His descriptions of things buttress his stories‘ claims to represent both material reality itself and reality’s moral structure.

Trailer for Heiner Goebbels “Stifters Dinge”

The thing about things is that they point in two directions: insofar as they have accumulated over time they point backwards to the past. It is no accident that we encounter more than a handful of private museums in the texts from this period. But things also point towards an assumed future, because their preservation assumes a future where they will be necessary and relevant. Both past accumulation and an assumed future are at stake in Stifter’s novel Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer) where so much of the activity at Freiherr von Risach’s estate is devoted to the restoration and preservation of statuary.

Things as guarantor of a stable reality, signs of a good past, and the promise of a morally fulfilled future: this is a vision to which Wilhelm Raabe repeatedly gives lie. In Zum wilden Mann (At the Sign of the Wild Man) the pharmacist sits bankrupt in an empty house. Pfisters Mühle (Pfister’s Mill) gives us the one good poem Raabe ever wrote, the apocalyptic vision of „Einst kommt die Stunde,“ in which „Der liebe, der alte vertraute Plunder / viel tausend Geschlechter Zeichen und Wunder“ (“the dear old familiar junk / Signs and marvels of many thousands of generations” ) is swept away in a massive cloud of dust. Then there is the climax of Akten des Vogelsangs, when Velten Andres sets fire to all of his mother’s things, her „museum of the heart” as a final act of secession from the society around him. It’s tempting to see Velten’s bonfire as one supreme act of badassery, but it’s not entirely clear how to evaluate it. The others in the community fly into a panic, and while the narrator Karl is fascinated, his wife flees the scene and implies that Karl’s fascination with his friend might also cost him their relationship. While Velten claims it’s an “external clearing-away to the interior,” the fire is followed by a regression to his old room reading greasy copies of books he loved in his younger days.

Raabe is an acquired taste, and I don’t mind admitting that I acquired my own taste partly on account of a fascination with characters like Velten – problematic as I understand that fascination to be. I was moved to think again, however, about all the things and the destruction of things in German realism recently when I returned to the town I spent my last few years as a graduate student in to empty out the storage unit containing all of the things I had acquired in my graduate years. Furniture, papers, household items, and books – boxes and boxes and boxes of books – had been sitting in a storage unit for nearly two years now.

Far from an act of badassery, parting with my own things was the result of a cost-benefit analysis: keeping the unit another year was not practical relative to the actual value of what I was storing. But it still meant parting with the signs and wonders of my years as a graduate student. Apart from the exhausting work of sorting everything were the emotions connected to revisiting the remnants of those years. Opening the unit was like opening a time capsule, with the items and documents seeming to narrate back to me my memories of those years. There were my move-out documents from the apartment I had prior to moving to Ithaca to begin my program in 2008, while from 2014 there was a copy of my first job contract after graduating. There was the small end-table, the first piece of furniture my wife-to-be and I bought after we moved to Ithaca, and off of which we ate our first dinner in our first apartment. I also parted with the desk on which I wrote everything from my first seminar papers to my dissertation, a real wood desk I had picked up for free and fantasized about refinishing one day. And I had to part, too, with the coffee table, bookshelf, and standing lamp I had purchased from a colleague who, a few years later, passed away far too young.

It was not all sentimentalism: the things did have to go, and in the end I was more happy than regretful at having to part from them. Nor did everything go: most of the 1,000 or so books I shipped to Germany. They tell their own story about those years. Some were there because I thought at some point that a self-respecting scholar had to have them in arm’s reach, some I honestly believed I’d make time for, some were freebies the hidden cost of which was in the having. Some were leftovers of abandoned dissertation ideas, others were there for no better reason than Ithaca has a great library book sale and I had to learn how to manage my own „Kaufrausch.“

Even as I teach my students to approach artworks from a critical distance for the purposes of their academic writing, we all write our own biographies in one way or another, and I wrote about ecopolitics and ecoaesthetics in German realism because that was one of the ways in which those stories got under my skin. The mixed feelings that come with parting from objects that are themselves dumb but for the meaning I ascribe to them brought to mind again the extent to which our own experiences and concerns belie the stance we assume as scholars and teachers of literature.

Berlin Field Studies: Reflections on Teaching a Course On-Site

Leading a discussion at the Karl Liebknecht Memorial.

Leading a discussion at the Karl Liebknecht Memorial.

This summer I had the opportunity to teach one of the University of Maryland’s field studies courses, entitled “Berlin: Its History and its Art.” Teaching in Europe I have taken students on plenty of cultural excursions, but this was the first time in my career that I had had the opportunity to organize an entire course on location. The experience was a very positive one, not in the least because I was fortunate to work with students who brought an incredible amount of energy and intellectual curiosity to the class. At the same time, a course of this kind poses a number of challenges, both of a logistical and of a pedagogical kind. I lived in Berlin for two years, and so it is a place that I am very familiar with, the town’s well-deserved reputation for constant transformation notwithstanding. Teaching a course in and on the city, however, meant approaching the place from a fresh perspective, and I will reflect on all of that here.

Designing the Course

Course description and learning objectives were set, as “Berlin: Its History and its Art” were part of the program’s stable of field study courses, but the concept and the syllabus were up to me. The course had to be more than a glorified guided tour, and certainly not a pretext for soaking up the aura of the city, rather, it had to be as intellectually challenging as any classroom-based seminar. And because of the course title, we had a dual mandate: the class was both a course in history and art history. At the same time, I wanted to critically interrogate course title, that there was such a thing as “Berlin’s art,” given that some of the most spectacular art in Berlin is not from Berlin at all. The bust of Nefertiti, which we saw, is perhaps the most celebrated instance of a work of art that reflects a problematic history, but we are confronted with similar questions in regards to the Pergamonmuseum, the Ethnological Museum (now in the middle of relocating to the Humboldt-Forum), and much else in the State Museums.

To bring both sides together, I built the class around the theoretical question of how a city’s history and identity is expressed or, as is more often the case, constructed through its art, architecture, and public spaces, which I then broke down into daily themes: “The Architecture of Absolutism” for our Potsdam excursion, or “Colonial Legacies and the Berlin State Museums” for our visit to the Ethnological Museum and the Museum Island.

I prepared some readings on Berlin history for the students to cover ahead of time. The week before the meeting in Berlin was designated for reading. In order to give them the time to dive into a specific period in more depth, I asked each student to take responsibility for a certain period and report on the key developments and their significance for the history of the city.

In order to further ensure that I was not the only person with the content knowledge, I asked each student to prepare an on-site presentation for key structures and places. Public speaking is not everybody’s favorite thing, but the stakes were low and the students had a good esprit de corps, and I was quite hearted to see how supportive they were of each other.

Berlin as a Classroom

In addition to the historical readings, I found a few useful online resources that provided for the students a basic crash course in art history and criticism. A shoutout here especially to the incredibly useful smarthistory.org. We began our first class practicing art criticism with a few artistic depictions of Berlin from Eduard Gaertner’s more realist painting of Unter den Linden to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes. Including the Kirchner was also an opportunity to rehearse the development of the historical avant garde. Doing so was a chance for me to clear the air: the Hamburger Bahnhof was on the agenda, and I know that expressionist, abstract, or non-representative art can divide a room, and I wanted the students to approach the works with at least an understanding of their art historical contexts.

The biggest challenge were the variables involved in being in any city, especially one like Berlin. Some of my information was out of date; I realized too late, for instance, that you couldn’t just show up and be let in to the top of the Reichstag like you could in the past. Unfortunately for a course called “Berlin: Its History and its Art,” the museums are also undergoing a major phase of moving and renovation (as they have since the 1990s). The Neue Nationalgalerie is closed until 2019, and all I knew of what was on display was that a few things were in the Hamburger Bahnhof. Regrettably, I had no opportunity to preview the collections beforehand, so when we got to the Hamburger Bahnhof, I had the students look around a couple of galleries so that I could run through and see what was on display, then reconvene. The specific works I had wanted them to see were not out, instead they had an exhibition on the Degenerate Art exhibition. So I made up a lesson on the Degenerate Art exhibition on the spot.

The Upshot

I left Berlin satisfied with how things had gone down. Reading the papers two weeks later, I was pleased to see that the students were actively incorporating the methods for analyzing art and architecture that we had practiced in our morning seminars and on-site over the course of the week, and generating numerous original insights. I was delighted to read extraordinarily creative essays that expanded on the course’s original concept to think about various pieces of street art that the students had spotted, thorny issues of memory and memorials (an issue near and dear to the hearts of my military-affiliated students), as well as squatter culture, a topic students were surely moved to consider given that our hotel was located up the street from one of Berlin’s remaining squatter settlements.

The reactions of the students to various places and works that we encountered meant led to plenty of surprises and teaching moments for me. This is, of course, always the case when one teaches material for the first time, but being on-site introduced a wider range of variables into the mix. Many of them only grew to love the city over the course of the week, as some were genuinely surprised by the German capital’s grittiness. Having already been thoroughly sold on Berlin before I ever arrived there, if anything I went through a reverse process of learning to see the city and its culture with a more critical eye than I did at the beginning of my first exchange year. I was especially charmed by the way the students reacted to the art museums. Their excitement over seeing an original Picasso took me back to when I was eighteen years old and stood rapturously before the canonical works of art in the National Gallery in London or the Louvre.

A few final points on what worked, and what I intend to incorporate next time.

  • Use of maps. In spite of my students’ joke that they were my ducklings, it was important to me to be sure that I spent ample time orienting them on where they had been and what they had done. I frequently stopped before city maps in the mass transit system to point to where we had been and where we were going. The first seminar also included a detailed study of the city map and a discussion of how to use the mass transit system.
  • Cultural scaffolding. There were a few moments of cross-cultural misunderstanding that I will be sure to prep the students on next time. How to tip in Germany was something students were unsure about, for instance. Some students are also unaware of the taboo (and more generally the laws regarding) photographing interesting people on the street. One student had a mildly embarrassing encounter over photography, which they resolved peacefully and with grace, much to their credit.
  • Social media. My students took the initiative to correspond over Facebook. While my social media presence is curated with students in mind, I still believe in maintaining digital boundaries, especially online. In this case students organized themselves. Some expressed the wish that I had taken this on in order to facilitate travel arrangements, a thought that admittedly had not occurred to me. Whether I would want to bend my practice and facilitate organization over Facebook is a matter I will have to consider. Brent Foster’s essay on Chronicle Vitae this week gets at the possibilities and pitfalls of venturing into that territory with my field study groups.

Photos used with permission.

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Leading my students down the Straße des 17. Juni.

Who’s Afraid of the Anthropocene?

Last week I presented a paper at the German Studies Association conference called “Generalweltanbrennung: Poetics and Politics of the Anthropocene in Theodor Fontane’s Der Stechlin.” The paper was the chance to revisit my work on the novel, which I had let lie fallow since finishing my PhD. The paper was part of a panel series on Anthropocene violence, the Anthropocene being a topic I’ve had the opportunity to think on and to write about over the past year. Ultimately I was very grateful to be able to participate in the discussion, because writing about the Anthropocene has meant considering some of the criticisms of the term and proposed alternatives currently circulating. I recently purchased and read the volume Anthropocene or Capitalocene: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, and the essays contained there had me seriously examining my own use of the term.

The Anthropocene is the as yet informal term for our current moment in geological history, where humans are transforming the environment at such a scale that the traces of our activity will be legible in the layer of rock formed by the sediment currently settling everywhere on the earth’s crust. Even though humanities scholars won’t get the final say on whether the term is actually recognized as a distinct period in the earth’s history, it serves as a convenient shorthand for talking about the human production of nature, either through deliberate interventions or unintended consequences such as global warming.

The term has several problems with it, such that even people friendly to it have to admit to its imperfections. The term implicates all homo sapiens, even though the realities of uneven development mean that responsibility for and the consequences of environmental degradation are not shared equally. The term also runs the risk of becoming grist for the mill (or Wasser auf die Mühle, since this is Fontane) for geoengineers who think that we can engineer our way out of environmental stress with those tools that got us here in the first place. Essentially the term becomes a kind of Trojan Horse for the environmentalist movement.

A variation of the Trojan Horse argument has been with me since I first put pen to a dead tree on ecology and literature. My central concept of “social nature” was one that I had picked up from critical geography, ecomarxist discourses, and earlier critiques of Wilderness-with-a-capital-W and Nature-with-a-capital-N. “Social nature” posits some sort of constructivism, and constructivism that was assailed in the 1990s and 2000s as so much post-modern denial of material reality. Glen Love’s 2003 book Pracitcal Ecocriticism encapsulates the pro-science, anti-constructivist argument quite nicely. For environmentally minded thinkers in and out of the academy in those years, the Sokel hoax was a particularly vivid memory, and the conflict seems to be between a humanities scholarship that under the influence of French theory has become unmoored from the world and scientific disciplines which are somehow better poised to appreciate the world around us. The “Two Cultures” argument gets dusted off here, and C.P. Snow is cited accordingly. I’m not a fan of Snow’s text. The problem with his argument is that it sets up a false dichotomy, science vs. those awful “literary intellectuals,” and in the end science wins.

In the Anthropocene this climate, too, has changed. The relevant scientific bodies are seriously considering formalizing the term while criticism is emerging that does not appeal to science or the wholeness and integrity of Nature as a given. My own reconsideration of the term Anthropocene has, of course, everything to do with my own political and intellectual commitments. The critiques mounted against the Anthropocene argument in Anthropocene or Capitalocene speak in an idiom that I am already more receptive to. Eileen Crist’s essay “On the Poverty of our Nomenclature” even advances arguments against the Anthropocene that would be familiar from Glen Love’s book.

From my work on the paper and the conversations we had at the German Studies Association, I felt more comfortable with some of the problematic aspects of the term “Anthropocene.” It remains a convenient shorthand, a useful, if problematic placeholder. Charges against the Anthropocene, such as the charge that it plays into Promethean ideologies that justify potentially disastrous schemes of geoengineering, assume that there is only one possible way of thinking about the Anthropocene. But I don’t believe that acknowledging the extent to which human activity has altered the planet has to play into narratives that agitate against ecojustice. The question now is whether or not we can organize a society as to promote the well-being of other humans and the more-than-human world. Whether the Anthropocene is politically palatable or not depends on how a good life can be imagined or re-imagined in light of our the ecosocial reality among which we, all living things, must now live.

 

 

Teaching Storm’s “The Rider on the White Horse”

41siL+8ITpL In my German culture survey course I recently had the opportunity to teach a unit on Theodor Storm’s novella The Rider on the White Horse. My motivation for including this unit was to give the students the opportunity to explore the relation between the text as an artistic artifact and its historical context. This is important work for students in general, but especially for the students who are drawn into this particular survey course. The students at my current institution are all affiliated in one way or another with the American military community here in Germany. They are motivated by a desire to become better acquainted with their host country, and many arrive with intellectual commitments leaning more towards the political history component of the course. Since the course is more cultural history, what is at stake in looking at cultural documents (literature, films, works of art, all of which we cover) is to work through with the students the historical and political stakes of aesthetic objects.

Theodor Storm’s The Rider on the White Horse (Der Schimmelreiter in German) is a very handy text for discussing the relation between the seemingly abstract (say, realism as epistemology) and the text’s “concrete” material historical context. The story is a frame narrative about the construction of a dike in Friesland, the main character, Hauke Haien, is an autodidact in geometry who overcomes the barriers imposed by a quasi-feudalistic order to realize the Promethean project of wresting arable land out of the sea. The novella is also a ghost story, as the project claims Haien’s life and he haunts the dike as a kind of revenant.

I paired the novella with excerpts from David Blackbourn’s The Conquest of Nature, an environmental history of hydrological engineering in Germany. Blackbourn’s thesis is that projects like dam building, river straightening, etc. were a crucial condition for the process of state formation in Germany from the eighteenth century to the present. Putting the novel within the context of environmental history not only speaks to student interest, but opens up possibilities for making the theoretical issues that undergird the story clear to students encountering those concepts for the first time. The relegation of the fantastic to nature and the sea, which Hauke seeks to overcome through his engineering prowess, for instance, opens up the possibility for a Frankfurt school reading of the domination of nature. The building of the dike is also connected to social transformations: whereas before Hauke the position of Dikemaster seemed to be concerned primarily with the preservation of the available land, Hauke Haien’s dike turns out to be a good investment, producing surplus value to those members of the community who invest capital in his undertaking. The week prior to reading Storm, we had didacticized The Communist Manifesto in class. While the unit on Marx was connected to the political constellations of the pre-March period, it provided a useful framework for understanding how environmental transformation was connected to the shifting class dynamics of the novella.

The politics of the project within the novella are also useful fodder for discussion. In the story, opposition to the dike comes from community members who are reluctant to have to pay additional taxes in order to support the dike. Obviously the question of taxation in order to pay for infrastructure is a familiar problem to students; I like to refer it back to Blackbourn’s basic thesis of the connection between environmental transformation and the state.

The Rider on the White Horse is also valuable from a medial standpoint. The conceit of the frame narrative is that the story is contained within the pages of a nineteenth century family journal. The medial context is also a key element to the novella’s claim to reality, as the family journal culture of the late nineteenth century had its own strategies for creating a kind of reality effect, strategies based on the innovations of print technology that made a mass media possible in the first place. Of course these were also the journals in which texts like Storm’s first appeared. The Rider on the White Horse was printed in the journal Deutsche Rundschau in 1888. The fact that such journals have been digitized means that students can easily get a better picture of the context in which the novella’s first readers would have originally encountered the story. I could have brought in Deutsche Rundschau, but instead I showed the students an edition of the journal Über Land und Meer, which is more visually interesting and makes for a better case study in medial realism.

A final word on translation: the text has been translated variously as The Rider on the White Horse and The Dikemaster. I use James Wright’s translation, which has been reprinted in the New York Review of Books classics series. Unfortunately there’s no way to render the low German dialect that Storm transcribes in the novella into English. The language politics comes through in other ways, but less so, and for the purposes of my course that’s too bad, as that would be another avenue of exploration in connecting the work of art to the more generalized interests that bring the students into the class. But this version beautifully captures both the interesting pacing of the novella and Storm’s marvelous descriptions of the sea, which has a presence in the story familiar to any fan of Moby-Dick.

On Writing a Dissertation: The Joys of Writing by Hand

I wrote the entire first draft of my dissertation by hand. Here is a picture of the entire thing, every piece that eventually went into the finished product.

Complete Rough Draft of the Dissertation, Norwich, NY, May 2015

There is an obvious dig to be made here: I wrote a dissertation on ecology and literature, and here I was actually increasing my paper consumption. But in the end, writing by hand was more conducive to completing the project.

I decided to do my first drafts by hand when I was working on the papers for my oral exam to advance to PhD candidacy. My academic papers I had always written on a screen, but the things I had written for the drawer I did first by hand. I decided to try writing by hand to see if I could get more joy from the creative process that goes into essay writing and I found it satisfying enough that I continued the practice of handwriting for the dissertation.

There is, admittedly, a certain amount of vulgar romanticism at play here: pushing my pen across the paper and producing something that I could then hold in my hand brought a certain satisfaction over having done something creative, whereas the screen felt more alienating. There was a certain Wollust to writing by hand.

But writing by hand also had many practical benefits for the writing process. Being only able to cross out things allowed me to focus like never before on simply getting the ideas on the page. That also meant that I felt more liberty to try out certain ideas and lines of argumentation, even if much of it ended up on the cutting room floor. By the second half of the drafting process, I began noting the date of each section that I had written, which helped me track my own progress. And typing the document later meant that an extra round of editing was already built in to the process. Then there are the apparent cognitive benefits of writing by hand.

In the summer of 2013 I visited Wilhelm Raabe and Theodor Fontane’s archives in Braunschweig and the Berlin/Potsdam area respectively (photos and musings here!). Part of the value of the archive work was being able to see their handwritten manuscripts. Raabe’s were fairly clean, even the extent manuscript of Die Akten des Vogelsangs, which he labored on and corrected extensively, does not look like it went through that much revision and change. Fontane’s manuscripts could not be more different: he wrote all over the page in different kinds of ink, he wrote bits of his stories on the backs of letters, envelopes, or other scrap paper, and if he liked something and felt it belonged in a certain place, he would rip it out and glue it into the new section. The manuscripts are a perfect window into the origins of the novel, or they would be, if Fontane’s family hadn’t scattered so much of the archive to the wind.

 

On Writing a Dissertation: All Beginnings are Hard

In The Man without Qualities Robert Musil compares solving an intellectual problem to a dog with stick in his mouth trying to get through a narrow door: he turns and turns, and eventually the dog finds the right angle and manages to get the stick through. Trying to start a dissertation can feel very much like this, especially since for most people it is their first major academic undertaking.

The comparison may be cynical, but I found it relaxing, especially when I began the dissertation. In the weeks after I advanced to candidacy, I faced a period of uncertainty over how to approach the texts I wanted to write about. I was unsure of whether the topic I ended up writing about, realism and ecology, would be sustainable (so to speak). I tried getting around my doubts by first making the topic impossibly abstract, then coming up with a different topic altogether. I lost interest in that alternate topic halfway through writing the prospectus, had I tried to turn it into a dissertation the project surely would have fallen apart.

Reading more widely in ecocriticism gave me the confidence that I could talk about what I was planning to talk about, but getting started was as simple as putting my conceptual doubt aside for the moment and pushing the pen across the page. I started with the novel I had thought the most about up until that point, and began writing about the environment in that text. I had written almost half the dissertation before I began to have a sense of both the arguments and the stakes of the project, and much of what I wrote up until then looked something like the dog with the stick, turning this way and that in search of an angle. And that is how it should be. While it can be hard trying to pin a project down as one is generating the material, it was also gratifying to see a form finally emerge, and one that was, in fact, distinct from the hundred years of criticism that had accrued around my authors.

Note: This is the second in a series of reflections on my recently completed dissertation. The first is here.

On Writing a Dissertation

Recently I defended my dissertation. The defense was a milestone in a long process that was ultimately very satisfying. Years of thinking and writing went into it, and I see in it the many happy moments of discovery and insight that happened along the way. There was also plenty of drudgery: the hours at the copier, the mental energy spent over single sentences or phrases, the never-ending quest for just the right iron clad word that would perfectly capture the Ding an sich. And on a personal note, like any book length project the dissertation accompanied me in one form or another through all of the life that happened from the first day of graduate school until now with my first academic position.

As a genre of writing a dissertation is a very unusual beast. It’s as long as a book, and like a book, it tells a story about its material, one that could also be told a different way. But a dissertation (at least in the American academy) is not a book, and it’s other things besides a study of a given object. It’s a document that proves that one can generate original research. It’s a way of carving out a scholarly space for oneself and building a professional identity: in creating it one stakes a claim in a discipline and in a conversation within that discipline. The odd thing about the dissertation, in other words, is that while it’s a piece of original scholarship, it very much serves a bureaucratic, gate-keeping purpose. And while it caps off anywhere from five to ten years in graduate school, it is also a point of departure for future work.

At least, that’s the theory. The contemporary politics of higher education mean that the career path for which the dissertation prepares one will be closed to most of those who manage to actually write a dissertation. But these realities are already well documented, and so I recuse myself for the purposes of this post. Except to say this: the ultimate value of the dissertation was that I answered a question for myself, and I was fortunate to be able to do it in a framework that allowed me to take maximum joy in the process.

Note: This will be the first in a series of posts on the writing of my dissertation.

 

Gardens and Invisible Bird Cages: Stifter on Making Nature Natural

My last postAnthonis_Leemans_-_Hunting_gear,_Still_Life_-_Google_Art_Project looked at a moment in Stifter’s novel Indian Summer in which the protagonist Heinrich Drendorf is thinking about the relative insignificance of humans and human production relative to geological time. I raised the possibility that this might even be an especially ecocentric moment in the novel.

But let’s not be too hasty. One need not look far in his stories to find that he is hardly “ecocentric” by most understandings of the term. From the early Studies to later stories such as Nachkommenschaften (Descendants) nature is caught up again and again in a transition from natura naturans to natura naturata: nature doing its own thing, that is, “nature naturing” to ordering nature. The clearing of forests, draining of swamps, and the extermination of undesired fauna elicit are featured prominently without any particular concern on the narrator’s part.

One might chalk this up to Stifter’s own historical circumstances, that it is only with the benefit of experience that we in 2014 know how disastrous such “conquests of nature” can be. But that does not mean that Stifter lacks any concern for the integrity of the nature he so meticulously represents. We need only look back at Indian Summer, at the chapter “The Departure,” where Freiherr von Risach delivers a delightfully endless and sublimely boring monologue on his garden. He has a particular fondness for birdsong, and comes to the problem of getting a bird to sing naturally:

If [the bird] is caught young or even old, he forgets himself and his misery, becomes a creature that hops back and forth in a small space when he otherwise needed a large one, and sings his song; but this song is one of habit, not of joy. Our grounds are actually a colossal cage without wire, bars or doors where the birds sing from an extraordinary joy that comes to them so readily, where we hear a medley of many voices which would only be a discordant scream in a room together, and where we can observe the birds’ housekeeping and behavior which is so different and can often make us smile even when things are gloomiest. … People want to enjoy them; they want to enjoy them from up close, and since they are incapable of making a cage with invisible wire and bars where they could observe the true nature of the birds, they make a visible cage in which the bird is locked and sings until his premature death. (95-96)

Risach’s garden is the utopia of ordered nature: he has found a way to get the flora and the fauna to do as he would have them by manipulating their beings. His garden is an invisible birdcage because he creates conditions under which the birds would not wish to be anywhere else. That is one reason why nature is made more natural through Risach’s intervention, he is able to produce a space of harmony. Reading Stifter’s criticisms of the 1848 revolution makes it clear that this harmony is not incongruous with his notion of freedom. On the other hand, we are left with the question of the conditions of freedom in a cage in which a being is invisible, stays voluntarily, regards himself as free, and acts authentically as if he had authentic freedom?

Ultimately what’s at stake for Stifter is a kind of Platonic absolute, what Stifter will come to call the “sanftes Gesetz” or “soft law.” According to this, the absolute, which is both the guarantor of the sensible world and the source of moral reason, can only ever be known for its manifestations in the small and particular. “Nature” is not valuable as the given, but is a projection of the higher instance that anchors our immediate reality. To order nature is to make nature more natural by bringing out the general in the particular. But as any good Stifter reader knows, he just can’t help himself, there’s always some detail or circumstance that exposes the whole order as essentially a house of cards. And that’s what constitutes the singular pleasure of reading Stifter.

Teaching Metropolis in the Country

A lingering question I have is about effectively integrating places into the teaching of literary criticism. I refer not only to real existing places that are represented in literature either directly or in more or less veiled forms, but also to the places where we encounter literature. It’s a big question in ecocriticism, and one that I intend to take up in my own work later on down the road. For now, rather than delving into the theoretical issues of this question, I want to share some thoughts on a writing course I taught at Cornell in 2011 and 2012 called “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture.” Because this course was meant to fulfill a first year writing requirement, all content was selected first and foremost in the service of the objective of guiding students from high school to college level writing. I designed the course to include a range of texts ranging historically from Tieck’s Life’s Luxuries and Stifter’s Tourmaline to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. The idea was to give the students ample opportunity to explore different problems in their writing by setting a wide variety of texts in dialogue with one another.

One thing that was important to me in creating the syllabus was that  “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture” not become reified terms, that is, that we don’t talk about them as if they were things “over there” that we needed to drive five hours to New York City to experience. And here’s where place comes in. We were a group of American and international students who grew up in all types of human settlements doing this class at a campus in a small town surrounded by farmland. Unfortunately, it is not unheard of for visitors to our neck of the woods to have difficulty seeing only farmland. For instance Jon Stewart, whose comedy sometimes suffers from a certain metropolitan provincialism, came to Cornell and quipped that “Ithaca is in the middle of nowhere . . . On the way up I didn’t pass anything I couldn’t milk.” But if he had looked past the cows, he would have seen a part of the world that is living with the very real and difficult legacies of its commercial and industrial past, as opposed to  New York City’s overgrown ahistorical backyard.

Ruins of the Ithaca Gun Factory near Cornell, since demolished.

Ruins of the Ithaca Gun Factory near Cornell, since demolished.

Without making the course about Ithaca itself, I selected readings that complicated the city/country dichotomy. With Tourmaline we looked at Vienna and the liminal space of its suburbs. We looked at maps to explore the city/country dichotomy as a social condition that shaped some of the aesthetic problems we were writing about. The first chapter of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz was an easy way to introduce the critique of mass culture, but he also begins the book by talking about a socialist settlement in the desert as representing a kind of alternative future for the city itself. And W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn together with Wilhelm Raabe’s Stopfkuchen (Stuffcake or Tubby Schaumann in English translation) allowed for conversations and assignments on the surprising connections between supposedly remote places and global networks of power and injustice that we might otherwise think of as a relation of metropolitan core to colonized margin.

Chapter six of Rings of Saturn was especially useful for getting around the danger of reifying “Metropolis,” “Modernity,” and “Mass Culture.” The chapter begins with a small iron bridge over the river Blyth, a river that used to be a major shipping lane but has been silted up. The narrator sees only rotting barges, and “nothing but grey water, mudflats, and emptiness” (138). It turns out that the bridge was for a narrow gauge railway (the railway being, of course, the symbol of industrial modernity par excellence). The bridge leads the narrator to a history of China from the Opium Wars to the death of the Dowager Empress, a calamitous history in which Europe was deeply implicated. The bridge doesn’t just “bridge” England’s eastern coast with China, but as an object from this history infects the surrounding landscape. The narrator moves on to Dunwich, once an important port city claimed by the ocean where “you can sense the immense power of emptiness” (159, “den gewaltigen Sog der Leere” in the German), and goes then to the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. The novel weaves together seemingly infinite constellations of history and culture, at times I suspect even making fun of itself for doing so. This poses a challenge for teaching, because with such a text it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees. But it’s a rewarding text to include in a course that thinks about both historical and aesthetic problems that spring from the urban experience, because it hangs on to more global contexts while also pushing assumptions that readers bring to a text. In class we spend time talking about the extensive work the novel does in teaching us how to read it (the first chapter is a kind of field guide to the rest of the novel), and then mid-way through I ask the students to turn to the back cover of the English edition, look at the label “fiction,” and tell me what they think.

 

On the Poetic Status of Conservatism

There’s a point in Theodor Adorno’s essay “In Memory of Eichendorff” when he arrives at the issue of Eichendorff’s own conservatism. The essay, let us first recall, was originally a radio speech broadcast in 1957 to mark the 100th anniversary of the poet’s death (official German culture loves these sorts of anniversaries). What is at stake for Adorno is actually the appropriation of the German cultural past as part of the restoration of the Adenauer years. “But if anywhere, it is in poetry that the status of conservatism has changed in the extreme” (57). Unlike post-war conservatism’s investment in a bad status quo and a thoroughly discredited notion of tradition, historical conservatism of Eichendorff’s kind comes from a value of something abiding against “emerging barbarism” (57).

I cite this because the authors I work with also cling to a politics that seem to invite much less sympathetic readings. Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács memorably described Adalbert Stifter as the “classical author of the German political reaction,” argued that for all of his insight, Wilhelm Raabe was too bound by his social and political limitations to understand his time, and Theodor Fontane’s aestheticization of the nobility was a symptom of political “halfwayness.” (Granted, these judgments are all from Lukács’ most Stalinist period, in which, in spite of Adorno’s polemic, he still produced fantastic and provocative essays.)

The image of Fontane improved after Lukács’ essay with the publication of the letters to Georg Friedlaender, where Fontane has much sharper criticism of the nobility. And Raabe? A first encounter with Raabe through Die Akten des Vogelsangs (recently translated as The Birdsong Papers) might not give the impression of someone who had a portrait of Bismarck in his study, one that hangs there still today.

One position might be to separate the author from the politics, a move that I endorse as part of any critical practice. But that doesn’t obviate the conservative politics or conservative aesthetics in the works themselves. Like Schiller, Stifter sees art and aesthetics as means by which humanity moves from a condition of “is” to “ought.” But unlike Schiller, that is not a move that everyone can make. So in his novel Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer), which is a story about an aesthetic upbringing, only a select few enter the Rose House. In Stifter’s essays and in his stories there is little of the enlightenment universalism of, say, Goethe’s Iphigenie in Taurus (another favorite text of the post-war West German restoration). And while the “fiction of the alternative community” that Jeffrey Sammons sees at work in Raabe has a certain sexiness, then as now it remains a politically ambivalent fiction at best.

Adorno’s reading of Eichendorff’s conservatism could be applied to many of the conservative authors of the 19th century. One of the most striking aspects of Stechlin, for instance, is the extent to which the conservative and even reactionary characters seem to have insights into contemporary reality than the more liberal, “world-open” characters who subscribe to a benign cosmopolitanism. But there’s more to be gained from such a reading than that. Where Lukács tends to look for the social and political value of Raabe and Fontane in spite of their politics, Adorno is sensible to the more useful dialectic at work in the historical conservatism of one like Eichendorff. We see it also in the environmental thematic in Raabe. His novels don’t critique environmental depredation from a position that values nature as something best respected as sovereign and inviolable, but from a skepticism of and perhaps even resistance to destructive bourgeois ideologies of progress. And that is what we mean when we talk about the text’s conservatism. Jeffrey Sammons makes this point when he notes that ecology is one the “conservative values [that] have been revived in the most progressive minds” (272). And that leads us to how these texts might help us to think outside of the restrictive categories that contemporary American political discourse operates in: reading – and teaching – these texts allow us to explore alternative political constellations that existed in historical reality, to empathize with and even value the potential for alternatives in a politics that seems to antithetical to the very term, and to open ourselves up to the realities revealed by political frameworks outside of our own political commitments.