Germanic Languages | Historical Study of German Literature IV (1900-Present)
G577 | 25946 | Benjamin Robinson

4:00P-5:15P / MW

Alternate Modernities in German Modernism

Are the values of “Western” scientific rationality, political
liberalism, and multicultural diversity universal? Is it just a
matter of time until the forces of globalization make the world a
village? Or are there alternative values of modernity, as viable as
the familiar pluralist and incremental terms of the West? Such
questions have spurred debates in fields from anthropology to
sociology as well as in military policy and human rights.

In cultural studies, a prominent argument holds that talk of local
specificity, historicization and cultural difference reflects an
ideological delusion: namely, that our modernity can be
differentiated at all. This argument sees the deterritorialization
and virtualization promoted by liberal capitalism as a force
(whether for good or ill) of spatio-temporal homogenization. At the
same time, there is a lively discussion that takes the other tack,
arguing that bourgeois modernity is only one among many possible
alternative paths into the future. This view holds that there are
forks in the road and roads not taken: that there are other
modernities as universal or provincial as the bourgeois one. The
challenge for this line of argumentation, however, is to make
available for the sensual aesthetic imagination what such
alternatives might consist of.

This is the challenge we address in this graduate introduction to
the historical study of 20th-century German literature. The
contending alternate universes of socialism, fascism, and liberalism
in modern Germany each generated their own claims to universality.
At the end of the century one universe has apparently triumphed, but
does that mean that all the streams of futurity have emptied into
the single torrent of consumer liberalism? Or can history still be
imagined as forking, as offering the possibility of consequential
choices on questions as fundamental as which modernity is most

Focusing on the socialist challenge to liberal modernity, we examine
how seven key written texts and five visual texts imagine the
possibility and desirability of divergences and convergences in the
flow of modern civilization. Our readings begin with the
eschatological optimism with which Johannes R. Becher announces the
metaphysical grandeur of the five-year plan. From this futuristic
apotheosis of the plan, we move on to the oppositional hopes and
despair of exile (Seghers), biological fatalism (Benn),
administrative collaboration (Fallada), the impossible transcription
of system difference (Johnson), and the visualization of
the “qualitative leap” of revolution (Fühmann). We end with the 1995
novel “Ich” by Wolfgang Hilbig, in which the chiliastic vision of a
redeemed world has turned into the hallucinations of an introverted
Stasi spy. What paths, we ask, traverse a chasm as wide as the one
separating Becher from Hilbig?

For our textual analyses we consider rubrics of utopia, cybernetic
rationality, rational choice, and messianic identification. We
examine genre designations such as modernism, realism, avant-garde,
and decadence. Finally, we discuss the construction of affects
(or “structures of feeling”) like optimism, pessimism, melancholia,
dejection and apathy.

The goal of the course is not to approximate a historical narrative
of German socialism’s rise and fall through literary texts, but to
see how aesthetic experiences heighten our awareness of choice and
structure, and substance and system, in the representation of
possible alternatives to an inevitable modernity.

The reading list is long—if you can, please try to get an early
start on the reading, especially the Uwe Johnson novel, which is a
real challenge.

Required Texts:
Anna Seghers, Transit			Aufbau  (1993) ISBN 3-7466-
5153-0  (290 pp.)
Gottfried Benn, Doppelleben 		Klett-Cotta (1984) ISBN 3-
6089-5271-3  (199 pp., excerpts)
Hans Fallada, Der Alpdruck		Aufbau (1998) ISBN 3-7466-
5316-9  (241 pp.)
Uwe Johnson, Das dritte Buch über Achim	Suhrkamp (1992) ISBN 3-5181-
1819-6  (300 pp.)
Franz Fühmann, Der Mund des Propheten	Aufbau (1991) ISBN 3-7466-
0083-9  (239 pp., excerpts)
Wolfgang Hilbig, “Ich”			Fischer (1995) ISBN 3-596-
12669-X  (378 pp.)

Sergei Eisenstein, Ten Days that Shook the World (1927) 104 mins
Fred Zinnemann, The Seventh Cross (1944) 110 mins
Konrad Wolf, Ich war neunzehn (1967) 119 mins
Alexander Kluge, Abschied von Gestern (1965/66) 88 mins
Chris Marker, Sans Soleil (1982) 100 mins

Johannes R. Becher, Der grosse Plan (excerpts)
Jorge Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths”
Rosa Luxemburg, Ernst Bloch, Martin Heidegger, Jürgen Habermas