Germanic Languages | Historical Study of German Literature IV
G577 | 14473 | B. Robinson

G577—German Literature: 20th Century—Spring 2008
New or Improved! Akrasia, Sorites and Other Paradoxes of Change

Bringing together a raft of nonsensical, scary, funny and epiphanic
texts, this course inquires into the 20th century’s ethos of novelty
and improvement. The argument is that modernism’s inconsistent
imperative both to innovate and to refine can best be grasped as a
project for making empiricism consistent with aesthetics, for making
what is the case consistent with what we feel the case could be.
Through our readings, we discern modernism’s quirky efforts to shape
our self-relations (subjective pleasures and tastes) in line with
our perception of things (objects ‘out there’). In contrast to
classicism,  modernism has little use for an ethics based on formal
rational law. By the same token, romanticism’s faith in fancy, in
the absolute or abysmal self, holds equally little appeal for a hard-
edged modernist cosmopolitanism. Neither reason nor genius, but the
fullness of the things that strike us are what govern the terms of
modern self mastery. The “encratic” or “ascetic” self—who resists
weakness, temptation and desire as foreign to proper willing—gives
way to a modern actor whose task is to make self-perception accord
with perception of other things. Forging such an accord is no easy
task, however, as the intractable literature of modernism attests.
What is an other thing—are, for example, our own actions themselves
other things introduced into the world? What extension of motives
and consequences would belong to the unity of an act? Is there such
a thing as a weak will—or is willing always sui generis as a
uniquely human capacity for free decision? If intentions, even our
finest moral intentions, are merely natural inclinations, then is
the gold standard of ethics the things that simply exist out there—
or do objects only dictate to us an animal behaviorism?

We approach this string of questions through two ancient paradoxes:
akrasia, or the paradox of willing against our better judgment, and
sorites, or the paradox of determining when adding or subtracting
some quantity issues in a new quality. Akrasia—whose themes include
self-deception, multiple selves, addiction, mimetic desire and plain
old evil—focuses our attention on what kind of self is consistent
with prudential acting. Sorites—whose themes include zero points of
orientation, events, vagueness and leaps of faith—focuses our
attention on what kind of objectivity is consistent with subjective

What is perhaps most surprising about our thesis, is that both of
its key terms, aesthetics and empiricism, fly in the face of
modernism’s noted hostility to technical-instrumental reason and fin-
de-siècle decadence. If early avant-gardes reveled in machines and
dandies, it was not long before technological and sensational
novelty had lost their aesthetic appeal. The rejection of positive
criteria—and rise of negativity—could not but appear to itself as an
ethical debilitation that no aesthetic thrill was able to
recuperate. The inability to find the proper attachment between
fancy and reality, invention and realism comes to be experienced as
a jarring swing between two comportments—voluntarist and behaviorist—
that have each lost their own measure of quality. We will see our
readings, accordingly, oscillating between the cultivation of
subjectivity among things indifferently lost to convention, and the
discernment of ever new things that promise to relieve us of any
obligation to deciding at all. The axis around which this arrow
helplessly spins is fascism/communism—the great 20th century trial
of what’s real and what’s fake—an ambiguous center that continues to
insert a lingering fear between empiricism and aesthetics.


Christian Morgenstern, Galgenlieder (1905). Piper, 2002. ISBN-10:

Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten (1909). Suhrkamp, 2004. ISBN-10:

Franz Kafka, Die Erzählungen. Und andere ausgewählte Prosa (1924).
Fischer, 2006. ISBN-10: 359616978X

Hermann  Broch, Die Schlafwandler (1932). Suhrkamp, 1994. ISBN-10:

Arno Schmidt, Leviathan und Schwarze Spiegel (1949-1951). Fischer,
1974. ISBN-10: 3596291100

Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Das dicke Kind und andere Erzählungen (1951).
Suhrkamp, 2002. ISBN-10: 3518188194

Thomas Mann, Die Betrogene. Erzählungen 1940–1953. Fischer, 1991.
ISBN-10: 3596294428

Uwe Johnson, Mutmaßungen über Jakob (1959). Suhrkamp, 1992. ISBN-10:

Paul Celan, Der Meridian und andere Prosa (1961). Suhrkamp, 1983.
ISBN-10: 3518014854

Anna Seghers, Das wirkliche Blau. Mit Materialien. (Lernmaterialien)
(Lesehefte für den Literaturunterricht) (1967). Klett, 2003. ISBN-
10: 3122602709

Peter Handke, Die Innenwelt der Aussenwelt der Innenwelt (1969).
Suhrkamp, 2003. ISBN-10: 3518124226

W. G. Sebald, Nach der Natur (1988). Fischer, 1995. ISBN-10: