"New Discourses about Conservatism in German Literature, Philosophy, and Popular Culture"
129th annual convention of the Modern Language Association, Chicago, IL
1:45-3:00 p.m., 9 Jan 2014 in Parlor F, Sheraton Chicago
This session will present innovative work by international scholars on the surge of new and renewed discourses about conservatism that has happened in the last two decades in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The papers will offer critical analyses, seeking to demystify the complex concept of conservatism in the context of the Germanspeaking cultures by clearing up some of the obscurities and stigmatizations that come along with the term “conservatism.” In order to facilitate discussion, Prof. Russell A. Berman (Stanford University) will pose questions both to the panelists and the audience.
Because the new discourses about conservatism are heterogeneous, they can be difficult to map politically. This corresponds to the fact that generally, when defining conservatism, significant differences have to be acknowledged, such as between the classical Wilhelmine German authoritarian conservatism and modern forms like neoconservatism, leftconservatism, and green or environmentalist conservatism, or between political conservatism and cultural conservatism, as well as between German conservatism and Anglo-American conservatism.
Accordingly, the different contemporary Germanic discourses about conservatism do not constitute a unified theory but rather a complex and diverse discursive field that is filled with incoherencies and paradoxes. It is precisely this complexity and diversity, which this panel addresses. Furthermore, scholarship on the recent Germanic renewal of discourses about conservatism is beginning to grow, such as with Volker Weiß’s monograph Deutschlands neue Rechte: Angriff der Eliten von Spengler bis Sarrazin (2011). The papers offered in this session contribute to this emerging scholarship. Each carefully selected paper examines an important discourse or set of discourses about conservatism in one of three areas: literature, philosophy, and popular culture.
1. Maike Schmidt (Univ. of Kiel), “Die Wiederkehr der Konservativen Revolution? Die Konservativismus-Debatten im deutschsprachigen Feuilleton”
Maike Schmidt will offer an overview of the salient literary debates about conservatism in the Germanic feuilletons, which range from the controversy over the essay “Anschwellender Bocksgesang” (1993) by the German novelist and playwright Botho Strauß to the “Manifest für einen Relevanten Realismus” (2005) and to the scandal about the novel Imperium (2012) by the Swiss author Christian Kracht. Maike Schmidt will show how many literary critics concentrate on three aspects of contemporary literature that according to them exhibit various characteristics of conservatism: the poetic messages of certain texts, their aesthetic methods, and finally the authors themselves. Thereby these critics compare many authors and their works to the circle of artists around the German poet Stefan George, including Hugo von Hofmannsthal, as well as to other figures identified with the “Conservative Revolution” of the early 20th century, such as Carl Schmitt. Furthermore, by differentiating between production and reception, Maike Schmidt will distinguish between those contemporary authors who are selfprofessed conservatives and those who are labelled conservative by their critics.
2. Sidonie Kellerer (Univ. of Cologne) and Gaëtan Pégny (Centre Marc Bloch, Berlin): “Heideggerian Politics: Contemporary Readings of Heidegger and Hölderlin”
In their joint presentation, Sidonie Kellerer and Gaëtan Pégny will explore the nexus between new conservative thought and a specific reinterpretation of Heidegger’s philosophical trajectory during the Nazi era. While Heidegger’s complicity with National Socialism has been elucidated by Hugo Ott (1988) and Víctor Farías (1989), among others, Emmanuel Faye added a new dimension to the discussion in 2005, through his focus on the affinity between Heidegger's thinking and Nazi ideology. In their paper, Sidonie Kellerer and Gaëtan Pégny will trace how Faye’s argument has led to a new radicalization of arguments in Heidegger’s defense, with figures such as Slavoj Žižek, Gianni Vattimo and Alfred Denker contending that thanks to Heidegger’s involvement with Nazi ideology he was able to take the socalled “Kehre” (turn), which allowed him to view Nazism as the culmination of modernity. This tendency to render rightwing arguments acceptable by reinterpretation, as Sidonie Kellerer and Gaëtan Pégny argue in their paper, has developed in tandem with—and is closely related to—a return to rightwing readings of Hölderlin from the 1930s that emphasized this poet’s mythologization of death, fate, and the German language.
3. Unfortunately, the talk by Lioba Foit (as listed in the printed program) has been cancelled. Instead I will be giving a presentation entitled: “The ‘New German Conservatism:’ Observations on the Nexus among Conservatism, National Identity, and Irony in Contemporary German Popular Culture”
In this paper, I will analyze recent examples from German popular culture, including the film Finsterworld (2013), the magazine The Germans (founded in 2012), and Heino’s tribute album Mit freundlichen Grüßen (2013), while discussing them in the context of earlier mass cultural developments in fashion and sports, most notably the revival of German patriotism since the 2006 FIFA World Cup. In doing so, I will examine how the connotations of conservative notions and aesthetics have changed in Germany since the turn of the 21st century, largely due to the widespread cultivation of an ironic attitude, which is grounded in postmodern epistemology and which oscillates between noncommittal playfulness and factual earnestness. Most importantly, the same attitude is taken towards national identity and the sensitive issue of Vergangenheitsbewältigung—the “coming to terms with the past” in regard to National Socialism. I will offer a critical evaluation of these developments, while showing how within this framework an engagement with these issues is possible in ways that can be problematic, but also original and productive.
This panel will contribute to the presidential theme of “Vulnerable Times.” If in times of heightened vulnerability the tendency towards—and the problematization of—conservatism is a common response, this is especially interesting in the Germanspeaking countries, most particularly in Germany, a nation which has been caught between antagonisms for virtually her entire history. A major reason for this is, of course, geopolitics, since the Germanspeaking countries understand themselves to lie on the border between the West and the East, which causes internal vulnerabilities of ideological, cultural, religious, and other kinds. Many scholars agree that since the end of the Cold War these vulnerabilities have not been attenuated; rather they have become less clear and even intensified. Correlating with this obfuscation and intensification has been the renewal of discourses about conservatism in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Therefore, the topic of this panel is a timely one and deserving of our attention, while the 2014 MLA convention, with its theme of Vulnerable Times, is the perfect venue for this panel.
The topic of this panel also directly relates to my doctoral research, as my dissertation analyses the literary oeuvre of the Swiss author, Christian Kracht, whose alleged conservatism has been the object of many heated debates among German cultural critics. The most recent controversy was about Kracht’s latest novel, Imperium (2012), which is currently being translated into English. Kracht also co-wrote the script for Finsterworld, together with his wife Frauke Finsterwalder, who directed the film. In my dissertation, I discuss Kracht’s oeuvre in the light of seminal discourses about conservatism and theories of irony. I have published an article on this topic during the early stage of my research, entitled “Irony and Narrative Subtext in the Novel 1979 by Christian Kracht” (Strategies of Humor in Post-Unification German Literature, Film, and Other Media. Ed. Jill E. Twark. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011. 242-66).