7 (2004), Nr.3/September
Bashing the Geisteswissenschaften and what the Feuilleton should observe when doing it. Open Letter to the publishers, to the chief editor and to two editors of „Die Zeit“. 51243 Characters.
Mr. di Lorenzo!
With reading the headlines on page 1 of “Die Zeit”, issue Nr. 18 of past April 22: „Kultur, ihr Trottel! Die Geisteswissenschaften in der Krise: Sie müssen sich ändern - oder sie werden untergehen“ („Culture, you idiots! Humanities in crisis: They must change - or they will perish“) I received a shock indeed. Scholar of the humanities that I am I immediately turned to the announced „Feuilleton Spezial“ on pages 45 to 48. The effect of the shock stayed with me after having read not only these pages but what was to follow in the next months. Now after some time has elapsed, I will try to see what made me and others suffer that bash so badly and at the same time draw your attention to a more perceptible shape of what that bash consisted of. For these reasons I will refer as precisely as possible to all the texts that contributed to the debate from April 22 to May 13 including your, Mr. Naumann’s, first take off on December 4, 2003, and the articles „Die Zeit“ published on September 9 and 23 returning to the repressed as a follow up now concerning one particular Geisteswissenschaft in a more detailed perspective.
Now I look again at page 1 incriminated. Was it George W. Bush and his brilliant suit wearing secretary team that stared and seemed to shout out (by gaze) from that eye catching Annie Leibovitz/Contact/Agentur Focus photograph you layed out to the left of the sentence? No. Since it was presented as quotation, was it a shout out by another invisible team member right besides secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld? Maybe. In fact with this headline put together from the articles of you, Mr. Greiner, and Mr. Spiewak the „Feuilleton Spezial“ was equipped with a formula provocative enough.
I enter my reflections with referring to Mr. Spiewak’s article first. The crisis of the humanities is permanent, but philologists of the Greek or Roman period (so called „Altsprachler“) - for man of more rude business Martin Spiewak somehow a scapegoat species destined to be soon extinct - „still live and do so quite well“. Mr. Spiewak says it as if police has neglected to remove them from the public.
This is the basic tone of Mr. Spiewak’s and of
your, Mr. Greiner’s, opening articles. Spiewak says
that there are 20.000 faculty members and 2.500 theses (no percentage given)
and 250 Privatdozenten applying for a vacant post. He
does not say what all this means and does not provide figures for areas beyond
the humanities. Mr. Frei deserves credit for
articulating Mr. Spiewak’s use of populist
stereotypes and remembering that measures like the cancellation of christmas money at his University
Here I need to mention the case attempted to make by Mr. Lau in his article. Although his role in closing the „Feuilleton Spezial“ was obviously destined to calm down the unpleasant feelings possibly caused by Mr. Spiewak and you, Mr. Greiner, he too bashes scholars of the humanities. As Mr. Lau reports Berlin’s secretary of the finances intends to shut down whole departments at the Freie Universität (FU), that is departments that are not „standortrelevant“, not „important for the location“. To be struck are the departments of German, Roman and comparative literature, of theater, Byzantine and Greek studies the latter department located in one of those more or less run down villas of which the FU is also liked by many. To remind Mr. Lau in case he doesn’t know: When the university was founded after World War II with little money the villas were a guarantee for inspiring family-like campus atmosphere when nobody would have thought of chronical underfinancing or money for renovation. Today the shabby houses are impertinently used by Mr. Lau’s context as a symbol for an alleged overall decay of university faculty itself. Considering the situation with more distance and less prejudice Mr. Frei informs us that everyday splendour and misery may consist of university buildings (at Bochum) that are like Kabul’s run down center although unlike Kabul, as he says, to enjoy renovation and be it for a time span of 10 years. The step not far away from Mr. Lau’s way of proceeding would be calling forth a figure like Terminator, now governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger saying „I will clean up house“.
Back to Mr. Spiewak. He claims that there is no canon anymore what Mr. Frei is even willing to confirm but to my surprise Mr. Thomas E. Schmidt in the „Die Zeit“ doesn’t who regrets that there still is a lack of literary tradition with respect to German classicism, to which - with the normative power of the factitious - the discipline Germanistik has become careful. On the other hand Germanistik has become confident with the success of acquiring a high number of students or research grants and with the achievements of good editory work, working through the Nazi past and the methodology of „Verstehen“. This „Die Zeit“ itself testifies to with the contribution of Mr. Martin Seel on the latter topic.
All this explains in the meantime that Mr. Spiewak does not give empirical evidence. Besides Mr. Spiewak should remember the long debate about canons and „the“ canon of German literature conducted in „Die Zeit“ during the late 1990es. However after some time elapsed and as if nothing had happened „Die Zeit“ surprisingly proposed a canon and it did so again with a canon designed for students below or on high school level. Today when media in general and with all sorts of digital archives show an encreasing demand for bestseller lists „Die Zeit” like other newspapers is more than eager to correspond – in times when advertising collected works of Hölderlin or Schiller have gone for good also in „Die Zeit“.
The second claim unproven by Mr. Spiewak is that with Pierre Bourdieu distinction values with studying Geisteswissenschaften have faded away. Moreover with reference to another sociologist (more of science than of the humanities) Peter Weingart and again without further explanation Spiewak says that the so called „social treaty for the sciences (Wissenschaften)“ is in question today. This treaty is probably considered by Mr. Spiewak to be something like a „treaty of generations“ that is nowhere to be found and expresses but an exaggeration of distrust toward the sciences. Similarly Mr. Beckermann doubts that construction. Furthermore a so called Dohnany-Kommission - explained by Mr. Spiewak only later on August 19 - , a Berlin Finanzsenator and „consequentely“ - how come? - still autonomous universities cut expenses. „If they did not they would have missed their job.“ („Würden sie es nicht tun, hätten sie ihren Job verfehlt.“) That is an outrageous claim again done without any evidence. There may be no doubt about increasing competition among university diciplines as is the case among ever smaller social parts everywhere else. But it is to be doubted that the famously debated profit of academic disciplines is more than a superficial, ideological value.
Without proof Mr. Spiewak claims that
humanities’ „efficacy outwards is low“ („Ihre Wirkung nach
außen ist gering.“). In face of the studies’ duration, aims and applications
a „Qualitätskontrolle“ – sound
like beef control - seems to be necessary. Mr. Spiewak
thinks to recognize that the predominant aims of humanities are to teach or to become
an academic. That restricts humanities to be providers for knowledge, orientation
or for compensation of modern civilization damages. In his article of August
19, Mr. Spiewak delivers subsequentely
and even more severely that labour market compatibility or marketable knowledge
were the only chance. I would like to tell Mr. Spiewak that a claim repeated and not argued does not
become more true! I wonder what he thinks of Mr. Falk
who replied on May 6 that despite financial shortcomings and the lack of jobs
in and beyond universities students are enthusiastic about their fields, or what
he thinks of Mr. Eberhard on May 6 who reports to
have studied philosophy, works as packer now and still feels faith to
philosophy that discloses the world to him. Mr. Spiewak’s
answer to this unshakable trust in the humanities would perhaps be that the
last thing to be justified is to let people study just for fun or interest
(since leisure has become a pervasive industry). 20 years ago
the state and even more so the media didn’t care about. Today we have to
fight for the right of free access to knowledge, and this encloses the
institutional instrument of the university including the Geisteswissenschaften
– keeping in mind that fun with knowledge is different from the pleasure caused
by a cake. Accordingly
Although it is primarily of concern for high schools Mr. Spiewak in his first article brings up the
No evidence is further given for the claim that humanity scholars are only engaged with preserving their prebends. What an imputation! Obnoxious the remark that humanities are not awarded - meant to be: do not deserve - the Nobel prize or patents, a statement particularly unfair since the Nobel prizes have not been designed for the Geisteswissenschaften as Spiewak knows very well. (Gentlemen, advise Chancellor Schröder to install a Nobel prize for the humanities!) The conditions for the literature Nobel prize awarded to philosophers two times were by the way quite different. It was Henri Bergson who enjoyed the short period open concept of literature of the Nobel committee. And Jean Paul Sartre was selected as acclaimed dramatist, novelist and essayist and less so for his achievements in philosophy and the humanities proper. Quite to the contrary of Mr. Spiewak’s claim that humanities lack evaluation he equally is supposed to know that the peer review system is not only used for sciences but also for humanities as with important journals and research funding institutions like the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).
Mr. Greiner! On a higher level you point out the fact that unlike the church or the national state the liberalized administration state withdraws as the protection power („Schutzmacht“) for universities. I am afraid of that it is this kind of protection that private businesses are not willing to take. Particular business interest is opposite to the universal character of knowledge. However this alarming change is unfortunately no reason for you to take sides or develop an attitude.
Also be aware of an important linguistic feature, that of „Nutzen“. It may be rendered either as „use“ or as „profit“ which not necessarily means financial profit as the words „Profit“ or „profitieren“ primarily mean in German. In turn when „use“ is asked from the Geisteswissenschaften very often „Profit“ is wanted. As you say correctly social (non-private?) use-and-profit, Nutzen, is only seen with the sciences („Naturwissenschaften“), hence the appreciation in the public they enjoy. What is your attitude here? It shows that you are not free from ressentiment when you ambiguously say - with joy at the humanities’ misfortune? - that humanities are sciences for the past, „Vergangenheitswissenschaften“. I take it, this coinage is not intended for methodology which the debate lacks to a high extent (don’t excuse it with your audience!). Here Mr. Beckermann is of use. He insists on the fact that the use of Geisteswissenschaften needs to be recognized with distinguishing it from their quality. Use of humanities, he says, is characterized by the achieving of enlightening aims, by passing on tradition, by confronting with art. Quality is debatable, and your debate is necessary in this respect! But by sticking with these aims and abstaining from the fallacious conclusion from low quality to the various uses the argument becomes pale and looses justification. That is right, to be precise: Down at the bottom all contributors, maybe with the exception of Mr. Spiewak, show belief in uses of the humanities more or less – uses, plural, phantastic! A sole prime value „use/profit“ – which is a chimera - means endangering culture with impoverishment, as Becker says. What about quality? The painful procedure is required to single it out, case by case. Do we have studies, reports on the Geisteswissenschaften in this respect? It doesn’t seem so. Whereas other print media, leave the internet, provide their readers with additional information on literature or internet sources, „Die Zeit“ is as pure of information as Kant’s critique never hasn’t been. Also you say, who enters competition with science has already lost as can be seen with programs of Kulturwissenschaften that are focused on economic applications. Your recipe against that failure is surprisingly simple. Instead of the analysis of idioms, media consumption or gender discourse - topics attracting money from the DFG (suspicious per se, Mr. Greiner?) - departments of literature, you suggest, should deal with literature itself.
Literature itself? Here we go. Consider as an example for a return of tasks unachieved the continuation of the debate on the field of one of the humanities: Germanistik. Let me devote the following three paragraphs to the debate that took place on September 9 and 23 with the contributions by Mr. Thomas E. Schmidt, Mr. Jens Jessen, Mr. Peter Bürger and Ms. Birgit Dahlke.
Ms. Dahlke is right with complaining that the
history of German Democratic Republic has not been included into the picture by
Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Jessen. She does so with
particular reference to Mr. Thomas E. Schmidt in his attack on „Die erschöpften Germanisten“ („Exhausted Germanisten“). Yes,
Mr. Schmidt does not take notice of the seminars of former communist republic
that dealt exactly with the controversial aesthetic he longs for at the end of
his article alluding to old authority Wilhelm Dilthey.
Published in our days by the way by pocket book series publisher Reclam housed not in Stuttgart but in Leipzig, it was Dilthey, this forerunner of Martin Heidegger and Hans Georg Gadamer who demanded that
philosophical aesthetics takes possession of the minds of critics in order (!)
to establish a fictitious ego of society. What Mr. Schmidt marks as a loss - a
theory of the aesthetic that stimulates literature studies - enjoyed a
respectable research tradition beyond 1970es Germanistik
Against this background Mr. Thomas E. Schmidt’s stance looks woolly. Although he mentions to have observed with Germanistik a lack of new hypotheses about Goethe due to an obedience to idea fashions the target of his attack are the 1970es. At that time the New Left, he claims, contaminated the tradition with socio-political relativism and in consequence established - against literature itself (!) - a so called „Versozialwissenschaftlichung“ (a „conversion of humanities and practice with the methodology of social sciences“) followed by postmodernist theories and methods - or - as you, Mr. Jessen, have it - a marxist orthodoxy only to be disillusioned by the 1980es. Since a few years and with the abandonment of publicity Mr. Schmidt recognizes a turn with German literature studies: the emergence of new philological and theoretical rigour and of a history of ideas without „Weltanschauung“ (ideology). Because of the 1970es attitude against „werkimmanent“ interpretations („immanent to the singular work“) Mr. Schmidt argues that with this recent turn in literature studies a transitory as well as political/historical aesthetic should be taken into consideration again.
It is regular „Zeit“ contributor Peter Bürger - whose „Theory of the Avantgarde“ published 25 years ago Mr. Schmidt did not refer to - was so cool to respond. As there are much more serious dangers, he says – the shut down of university departments and books stores, the shortage of library budgets, the publisher crisis - , for which purpose do the 1970es serve as enemy, he wants to know. For scholars since then established quite a variety of methods, schools and wrote important books. Alright, think of Friedrich Kittler, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Heinz Schlaffer, Gert Mattenklott or Christa Bürger, she herself giving a report about that time in her scientific memoir published only a year ago. Mr. Bürger is impressively lists the controversial character of 1970es’ marxism, the qualitative progress brought by theory, the influence of Luhmann, finally the programmatic „socio-historical dissolution of literary contradiction“ with Heinz Schlaffer - only to claim that this ongoing debate was happily focused in paradigmatic Frankfurt school critical theory that, for Mr. Bürger, entails an aesthetic of form as introduced by early 20th century’s style studies of Leo Spitzer and Erich Auerbach, by Russian formalism and early Georg Lukács’s category of the social as form.
I only summarize this little debate about Germanistik to show that there is little respect concerning the actual discipline on behalf of „Die Zeit”. A quick visit to the website of annual Germanistentag held only a few days after the communication of your, Mr. Jessen’s, and Mr. Schmidt’s contributions would have revealed that the concept of German literature nowadays is stretched to the utmost. That umbrella term „German literature” has arrived at the status of a linguistic entity that demonstrates the turn to a general „science” of German communication that will be experienced by some as dangerous, for instance by Mr. Jessen or, you, Mr. Greiner who seems to stick with a traditional German aesthetic embodied in high literature. Let me put it in terms of your newspaper structure. What appears to be a secret competition between the sections „Feuilleton“/„Literatur“ might have a parallel in the tension of geisteswissenschaftliche Germanistik and kulturwissenschaftliche German literature studies whose real place in „Die Zeit” should be extend at least to the section „Leben”. This new constellation of literature and culture is not even excluded by the hermeneutics of Mr. Seel who declares that by their textual nature the Geisteswissenschaften are sciences of action - sociology and psychology included - that connect us to the world which again leads us to include the sciences of nature. Scientists in reasoning and thereby working on man’s self comprehension themselves require forms of understanding. Mr. Seel does not say it, but at this point we may recognize that the whole debate of „Die Zeit” goes wrong as long as it does not take into account the fundamental interdisciplinarity that characterizes all sciences today. We probably would have profited more from a debate about the whole spectrum of university with extending it to the pages of the section „Wissenschaft“. The Naturwissenschaften, sciences proper, had a similar debate years ago, the affaire Sokal. And that for instance zoology not directed to genetic applications has to battle for money in the university cosmos shows that the problem of the humanities are not restricted to themselves.
Of respect, Mr. Greiner, you detect less and less today for Geist and the arts. The way you put it sounds peculiar. Are you going to say that literature departments are to account for that loss? Is it respectful to state „that someone is allowed to do research on Karl Gutzkow with public money“ („dass einer auf Staatskosten über Karl Gutzkow forschen darf“), a reproach done by you on the basis of the simple fact of a student’s writing a thesis at the university - where otherwise? - not even knowing whether he or she uses public funds for the project as such. Your expression is as demagogical and loaded with ressentiment that it would have been criticized as example of antiintellectualism by the author to whom „Die Zeit“ devoted much space last year on the occassion of his anniversary, Theodor W. Adorno.
All this said doesn’t mean that I do not agree with you. Many university departments - but not only department devoted to the humanities - have become „learning factories“. Also granted that latin as lingua franca vanished. But you should also mention that anglomania not only affects Geisteswissenschaften cut off from tradition, affects the ineffable and - what do you mean exactly? – the origin („Ursprüngliches“). I’d rather say, it affects German speaking society as a whole.
How come your morality? „Mangel an Stolz ist wohl das größte Problem“ („a lack of pride is the biggest problem“) you say. Should the humanities bring a gain of „decency and dignity“ as you put it supposing thereby that the humanities have failed and become indecent? Should it not be instead Schiller’s grace and dignity (Anmut und Würde) as opposed to Win(c!)kelmann’s simplicity and greatness (Einfalt und Größe) who characterized them by way of the ancient Greeks. An increase of „Anstand und Würde“ here would require exactly the acknowledgement that media like „Die Zeit“ are too avaricious to spend.
I do not agree with you in saying cynically that because of a necessary disillusioning of humanities enthusiasm about the future should be reserved to fantasies of breeding, to new economies and new world orders. I do agree with you to some degree when in taking pattern from Freud‘s return of the repressed you ascribe to the humanities a task that seems to me a bit too defensive and, with focus on religious tradition, too conservative. The task, you suggest anyway, is to keep ready what is threatened to be forgot and what may resurface for instance as (some of!) the muslims’ resistance against modernization and democracy. This is true as was Ernst Bloch’s famous objection to Lukács in the early 1930es reminding him and the Communist Party of the seemingly „backward“ mentality of disappointed laborers and peasants that in face of Nazi ideology should have been represented in party programs. Be there political awareness as much as possible with the humanities as is required you concede - with some relief to me and the humanities, alas! - it is primarily politics and not the humanities that should be concerned with that keeping ready of remembering the past when usually „Politics fails at the underrated power of cultural imprints and traditions.“ („Politik scheitert an der unterschätzten Macht kultureller Prägungen und Traditionen.“)
As was noticed only by von Müller it was you, Mr. Naumann, and not Mr. Spiewak who really introduced the debate already in December 2003. Your contribution back then was, as you surely will have felt, unfortunately not taken as seriously as it would have derserved. Although not entirely free from demagogy like Spiewak’s articles your reflections proceeding from the „Strukturreform der Hamburger Hochschulen“ („reform of universities in Hamburg“) and its 50 % cut of humanity departments as a whole in favor of the sciences are valuable inasmuch as they take serious what is threatened to be forgot as a phenomenon and a regional concept by globalized education industry: Bildung. By the way, that the word „reform“ is used only one more time in all the contributions here shows that we already have entered a new stage where everybody is fed up with reform (because of its permanancy?) instead of starting with a real one. True, administrative measures don’t breath the spirit of a general debate on the Geisteswissenschaften as is also the case with (EU-anticipatory obedience to?) modularized bachelor and master programs and the junior professorship that Mr. Frei readily takes as proofs for the humanities’ will to reform.
Nevertheless, as you Mr. Naumann observe,
humanities from 1900 until today - in Germany of course - keep to the concept
of Bildung. This notion, you tell, contains the
strong medieval connotation of god likeness („Gottesebenbildlichkeit“)
and enlightenment’s improvement of human sociability. This historical condition
elucidates the complexity we attribute to „Bildung“. We
know that the magical word means education, personal formation, individual
development all in one, not to forget the possession of knowledge beyond the
humanities and the arts. Yes, you are right, with this stock of knowledge is
implied a need for liberation, a burden now, you say, too heavy for
universities and too weak as a motor for individual Bildung.
As a matter of fact, you say, it let the Germans go their own way to modernity.
This split of modernity into „Kultur“ („Bildung“) and civilisation, as you show, is particularly
difficult to handle when at the same time political sterilization takes place
in favour of effective education. You think that instead of the pursuit of
happiness important for politics – as in the
Now, which arguments have the defenders of the humanities to bring forward? It devolves upon Achatz von Müller and Armin Nassehi - since Mr. Lau appeases by sympathetically featuring career profiles of a few winning or losing prominent scholars of one university - to lift the debate up to a higher level. One reason to defend the debate of „Die Zeit“ is Mr. von Müller.
After dutifully spending his share of poison with referring to Bourdieu - who in his „Homo academicus“ seeked to dismantle the humanities as a kind of the society’s narcissist self representation by the symbolic capital of the scientific community – Mr. von Müller does what historians do best. He gives a historical account. Already the „universitas“ of the 12th century - notice: that kind of guild that in comparison with parochial or cloister schools was granted to be an autonomous institution, a guild of knowledge for superior education - had two cultures. This is an interesting distinction unfortunately addressed here and elsewhere without reference to the famous C. P. Snow querelle between the Natur- and Geisteswissenschaften in the 1950es and 1960es and former „Zeit“-author Wolf Lepenies’s fine statement on „Drei Kulturen“ (1985). At stake are with von Müller the medieval trivium with preparatory grammatics, rhetorics and dialectics and the „scientific“ quadrivium with arithmetics, geometry, astronomy and music. Besides mentioning the instruction of peaceful disputation by the trivium v. Müller emphasizes the general profit to be drawn from the trivium for the „Gemeinwohl“ („common benefit“). Yet these proto-humanities only could have achieved to prepare by means of general education with the pretense of curating a mind related to the eternal whereas bodily nature was the object of the sciences for the purpose to protect from and help against the failures of our transitory existence. With this divide between mind (Geist) and bodily nature philosophy, philology and history became increasingly coded as disciplines of the good and beautiful. That should in enlightenment proliferate with a „method and critique of all sciences“ (Shaftesbury). Von Müllers deserves particular acknowledgement for pointing at British moral philosophy that insisted on the social character of the science including humanities. To them were ascribed the task of improving all social segments (Hume) and the task of the interaction of self referential, competitive individuals paradoxically realizing their self-interest with creating common welfare (Smith). Von Müller makes plausible that from the enlightenment’s deep trust in humanity only remained two types in 19th century: the gentleman and the Bildungsnarr, a figure that was infatuated with knowledge and the high arts. This put university disciplines increasingly under the pressure of legitimation. Of course von Müller presupposes a knowledge of historicism’s strong positivist impact when mentioning Nietzsche’s critique of the university and Dilthey’s insistence on the social task of the university in face of recurrent crises. One might wish to assist von Müller with saying in retrospect that it didn’t help. The crisis - and von Müller sounds as if the crisis was dissolved into a mere scholarly phenomenon - is rather contained in the humanities themselves, he maintains, in specialization, in a loss of complexity, of orientation knowledge, of problem solving capacity, and along with you, Mr. Greiner, and others in a neurotic lack of confidence.
With the seven medieval arts the basis of the humanities, it seems to me, is correctly identified by von Müller. The narrative he gives is consistent either. It can be extended though. Perhaps it could take profit from Mr. Nassehi’s reflections when Mr. Nassehi would say more about his notion of a „technology of culture“. Mr. Nassehi maintains that research in the humanities needs to be remote from the „interface“ with economy. He puts himself into the row of complaints about the minority complex of the humanities as expressed by defensive autodescription on the one hand and conformist emphasis on criticizing modernization/globalisation and on preserving of a collective memory, ethics and education (Bildung) on the other. This attitude makes the humanities leer at the products administration people demand. Mr. Nassehi includes the social sciences when he, not unlike Martin Seel, states that the main goal of the humanities is to „produce ... ciphers of thought and experience“.
There is even more reason to pursue Mr. Nassehi’s point. He holds that culture is a linguistic „technologicum“ that is able to construct or destruct. Hence the autonomy of sciences and humanities since the latter, so he says, resemble science by way of their look as technology center as do, to illustrate his point, for instance high tech book shelves. Of course this fact contradicts with the conservative and boring way of illustrating the whole debate by David Ausserhofer/Agentur Joker from April 22 to May 13. (What we see are, what readers of the „Bild-Zeitung“ maybe imagine when thinking of parasitic humanities and students fed by fat stipends: singular, beautifully dressed young students in halls sitting or standing in front of a statue, a wooden card-index catalogue or wooden shelves with books of course older than 100 years.) Mr. Nassehi is all the more right in demanding a sharpened technological confidence. But what does he mean exactly? The shaping of whole cultures? The creative industries initiated by the Blair administration? An assessment of the „cultural technologies’ effects“ by the humanities („Technikfolgenabschätzung der Kultur“)? Here Nassehi wishes to have a vis-à-vis to speak with, a lack that he explicitly regrets. The „Zeit“ debate that followed had nobody to offer either.
I take Mr. Nassehi’s hint at technology as vaslable at least in one respect. Be it in overlap with Lepenies’s account or not, I suggest to think of three kinds of cultures. Mr. Nassehi apparently thinks about cultures you can shape: mushrooms, creative industries you support with necessary conditions, for instance well designed cellars or special urban design activities. Let’s say this is the sociological notion of culture. We secondly have identitary culture experienced from individuals within a community and open to being mixed with other communities. The objects of research here are scrutinized by cultural studies or Kulturwissenschaften. And thirdly there is an aesthetic culture aimed at works of high and then also popular arts. With suggesting to invoke art as a „roof“ notion for the high and popular arts I would like to remind you of the fact that the „Geist“ of the Geisteswissenschaften in modern times of course is the „Geist“ communicated and educated by means of the arts, not by religion. As the humanities only could have been formed along the spectrum of the beautiful arts and letters in early modern times therby enabling a collective singular „Kunst“ (art) - this did not at all pop up in the debate – the evolution of art only could have happened by emancipation from religion. There is the problem. With falling back in the arms of autonomous powers like economy, media or religion arts are restricted to express and embody messages serving cultural identities and to merely being a medium of communication and of languages as artful as they may be. With this we can now understand the set back of humanities and criticism. Both of them are inextricably linked with the temporal, developmental, historical entity called art.
Let me introduce the one of the two fictitious contributors to the debate, Klaus Theweleit. What Theweleit, now professor for aesthetic theory at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, says about „historisches Bewußtsein“ explains well why the humanities will even more be caught by crises with the years to come. Theweleit is one of the many - surprisingly nobody of them involved in the debate of „Die Zeit“ - who are aware of the challenge that digital technology means to the Geisteswissenschaften. Because of digital code and a thinking by images and formulas, he observes, young people today do not develop an understanding for longer time periods or hierarchical space alphabetically structured as was used to for instance Johan Cruyff’s soccer team back in the 1970s. If this is true, says Theweleit, various phenomena find an explanation: the aversion against reading in general, the difficulty of developing an idea of linear historicity, the simultaneousness of times with story arrangements like „Harry Potter“ or „Lord of the Rings“. We may conclude that the increasing distrust with humanities is linked to the kind of students he describes. Are teachers of the humanities able to cope with this generation of students? Do they involuntarily transmit their uneasiness to university faculty and administration and even to ministries of education? Nothing said about that in the debate.
A few words about criticism are a must. Criticism?
Gentlemen, that’s your business! Be aware however of moral weeklies like
Addison/Steele’s unmistakable „Spectator“ of published
This is the occasion to return to Mr. Spiewak’s complaint that Germans are not capable enough of writing, a complaint generalized from schools and universities to a whole country. Is this so? But if so, why is it so? I cannot but remind you - representants of „Die Zeit“ - of the responsibility to do something about it. Why are there so few articles of the sort of heavy impact „Zeit“ essay by Geisteswissenschaftler Peter Sloterdijk in 1999? Also, what do you do fostering young intellectuals in particular in the field of the humanities. I can tell you, I read „Die Zeit“ as long as to know well enogh what I am talking about. According to the general trend of a closing off by print media - special editors allowing themselves to write about their hobby horses, ramifying roped editor parties by exchange between editors for different places - it has obviously become increasingly difficult to enter the circle of relatively few authors from the outside. It seems as if editors have become jealous of strong impact (theory) authors. Where in Germany – not to speak of specialized Feuilleton periodicals - if not in „Die Zeit“ or a handful of other newspapers should scholars of humanities write or even learn to write? And what should scholars write in these newspapers if not articles with a more general scope than to write short and less ambitious reviews that would have been done by journalist authors with more wit and accuracy.
Bourdieu would not have ascended to be a sociologist of his size had he not had the chance to get a chance in the Paris Feuilleton that is comparatively rich even in times of a decline of print media. I can explain mentioned closure of mind only with a loss of pride that you should not ascribe to the humanities alone but to yourself too. Where has „Die Zeit“ gone that itself was a premium Geisteswissenschaft (it still is to a certain extent)? I do not only think of authors that may have decided to be part of humanities. I think of what serves as an empirical basis coming from the feuilleton sections that is not only valuable for the humanities they can start from. I think of what finally is delivered to the „Zeit“-Redaktion as fruits with inspirations – well, of course to be reviewed too! – , of what the humanities have done in the meantime with the first impulses offered by „Die Zeit“. I do not mean books only, perhaps also reports before worked out and packed into books. Yes, the step from the criticism of the arts and everyday life - here again I see the a share of the section „Leben“ - to the sciences and humanities that have to deliver new theory in its turn serves as condition for the making new observations by journalists. You may already have recognized a particular hermeneutic circle of weeklies and Geisteswissenschaften. In other words, humanities incite sensibility with their readers by theory, weeklies provide information and inspiration by a review for instance about Heinz Schlaffer’s new history of literature or about a production of contemporary music theatre by Claus Spahn thereby in its turn causing a new theoretical dynamic. Of course this circle may be supported by persons contributing on a more regular basis - let’s say comparative literature professor Peter Bürger, historian Achatz von Müller, art historian Martin Warnke, film studies author Georg Seeßlen - or persons periodically collaborating as do critic Franz Schuh and Claudia Herstatt.
Having shed light on this structure it should have become clear by now what the products of the humanities are. Mr. Assheuer, you are right, you control what taxes are spent for, why students don’t graduate and which fruits can be expected. Which objects do you mean? Books? Knowledge? Intermediate social effects? Remedies? You claim that Geisteswissenschaften are not capable of healing by means of high-grade orientation offerings (Sinnangeboten). Now, Mr. von Müller reminded us of renaissance idea of healing linked with the comforting idea of the eternal which we don’t have today. Are the humanities therefore the sauerkraut in the cellar as you cynically put it with Niklas Luhmann. But you give no reason for this bonmot and even slide without any reason and taking sides into the track of profit ideology demanded today.
Again, what is utilizable, „nützliches“ knowledge at all? What is the function of an economy of Bildung that reveals to be of decisive importance for theaters, orchestras, libraries and cultural broadcasting companies today? Right, we should ask whether the Geisteswissenschaften need or are able to submit themselves to what you call the supercode of society? Yes, the intellectual field of force changed over the last 200 years. Political institutions have become less important. The university is now more closely tied to the market than ever, to private foundations and mercantile interests. Whereas Humboldt managed to protect the Geisteswissenschaften from late feudal demands, as you remember, it is today’s scholars that can hardly oppose to science as commercial business ascribing to the humanities the task of service providers as are for instance Bertelsmann’s profit centers that urge to perform in bestseller markets and rankings. As Paul Weingart put it, economically structured knowledge society returns to university (like devouring grasshoppers?). All this doesn’t promise any good.
Yet finally - thank god! - you caution against the danger of a loss of thinking and reflection as a whole. With stocks or profitable discoveries in mind you warn we could loose our sensitivity to prospective research potential („Zukunftsfähigkeit“) that cannot be assessed, especially not at the beginning of a research project. Here it is interesting to see you turn to classical Adam Smith in a way only slightly different from von Müller’s. Economy cannot produce its cultural conditions, you say with Smith. Moreover a tension between cultural and (Horkheimer’s?) instrumental or economical (?) knowledge needs to be maintained. However as the humanities’ „cultural autonomy consists in passing on and interpreting tradition“ („ihre kulturelle Autonomie besteht in der Weitergabe und Interpretation von Überlieferung“) and is entertained only with questions developed from research, humanities are not restricted, you think toward Mr. Seel, to a hermeneutics of historical texts but expected to address actual problems of society. You name just democracy with unemployment as basic, global violence, the structural arrogance of liberal societies - Mr. Spiewak was calling for the topics cultural and social decay (?), migration and globalisation as well as genetic or brain research - , all of them being features easily to detect with contemporary politics. Needless to say that these demands are wrapped around an ethical kernel, the question concerning good life, as you do. From a more hermeneutic point of view this has already been said by Mr. Seel in his contribution who holds that practicing and explaining by understanding belong together in the Geisteswissenschaften which are sciences of action by the very nature of their texts.
Let me insert the other fictitious contributor. A current saying is that there are 4 columns of democratic society: legislative power, executive power, the judicial system and the press. I would like to add a fifth column: the university. Since it reaches beond my abilities and aims to discuss the whole matter sufficiently I refer to a speech delivered a few years ago. One of the things to learn from certainly is a view toward the internal institutitonal structure of what is questioned today. In his Presidential Lecture of Stanford University Jacques Derrida reminds us of the professor’s fundamental „right to declare in the public whatever there is to say in the interest of an inquiry, a knowledge and a questioning that are directed to truth“ (retranslation is mine). Derrida belongs to the very few who - dare to - think about the future of humanities, and a future of new humanities. As he points out the humanities – he probably would prefer to talk about instead of the sciences humaines even in French – are in crisis everywhere. So are professors as such. Nevertheless he wants to found the university on the professor. For it is obvious that truth and with it the idea of a university of professors is basically linked with the question concerning man and - on the basis of world wide human rights - with humanism and the humanities. When Derrida scrutinizes the „Standort“ for new humanities, he has in mind a place for a discussion without condition, a place that not only allows to resist but qualifies to resist against appropriation from the outside. An example for this may be that consultant agency „Roland Berger takes over the next Goethe edition“, as Mr. Silvin’s fictitious idea has it ironically. As Derrida says this specific space has secure the possibility to defend the right of critiquing powers, the powers of state, economy, of the media, ideologies, of religion and even culture, all of them powers that could obstruct democracy. Critique then is a confession, a profession in its own right, for it belongs to the context of a reconception of the humanities together with a reconception of their preserved canons. The right for theory and transgression reveals the profession of the professors to be a profession with a belief representing the principle of freedom - by way of constative speech acts - and presenting this very principle by exercising, practising and executing it - by way of performative speech acts. In any case, says Derrida, the new humanities are required to deal with the history and idea of man.
You have any idea about the new humanities. Derrida doesn’t and I don’t - right now. But may I say that we should not forget to think of searching them – be it the only message Derrida delivers?
By approaching slowly but steadily the conclusion of this letter let me address what is the performative at stake here by way of a particular example of linguistic performance. You, all of you who remember the debate, will have missed in my account what Mr. Lau had to say about it. Here it is.
Well, Mr. Lau‘s overall message is to judge university professors with respect to the amount of additional research subsidies they acquire from the DFG as Sonderforschungsbereich (SFB, a network of scholars funded by the DFG over a period of time) or as prizes like the Leibniz prize recently won by FU’s dance studies star Gabriele Brandstetter (Euro 1,55 Mio.). Appropriately he does not discuss the contents of the achievements upon which are based the proposals for the project but rather to portray winners or losers. Theatre specialist Erika Fischer-Lichte is not interviewed by Mr. Lau because he wants to learn what she and her SFB participants found out and further seek to find. And of Gabriele Brandstetter Mr. Lau has only to tell that she plans to install a dance lab with recording facilities capable of analyzing data. It is nearly suggested that universities sustain themselves by extra money with regards to budget figures Mr. Lau does not tell. This taken as granted the next step would be to offensively take sponsors thereby enhancing the need and succes of financial performance. It comes worse, as for Mr. Lau the SFB „Kulturen des Performativen“ directed by Erika Fischer-Lichte at FU - here the scapegoat is again - is only worth mentioning because of the title’s „beautifully technical“ („schön technisch“) sound that is succesful with the DFG as he cynically puts it. How would he have taxed the succes of technically sounding „Ästhetik, Pragmatik und Geschichte der Bildschirmmedien“, a SFB over the span of 13 years completed in 2000 that was the hotbed of a good part of today’s German media studies that rank among the leading countries in the field today - see all the sorts of media related teaching vacancies as advertised in the section „Chancen“ of „Die Zeit“ whose own information on new media has become ridiculously little over the last few years. Well, does English humanities reviewing Mr. Lau not know that German language has no equivalent for the „performative“ (for more than one reason there is no „Aufgeführtes“, „Aufführerisches“)? Is he not acquainted with seminal John Austin’s speech act theory that constitutes a good part of today’s discourses in the humanities?
The pretext is as follows. Singer star Dino with his cabriolet
accidentally passes a little village in the mid west of the
Billy Wilder’s movie challenges moral
reflection, at least it did in 1964. How can Zelda and Orville so easily
forgive each other when they have to live from now on for more than a week with
a relationship burden like this? Yet if they love each other as the movie
suggests they have the basis on which to re/build, even deepen their marriage
and start anew with kissing. With respect to that optimist point of view the
abrupt happy end may be seen either as a product of superficial
Let’s therefore proceed to the fact that former president of the USA
Bill Clinton was advised to pose, for his first campaign for the US presidency,
for photography sitting at his office desk with a sign above him saying „It’s
the economy, stupid!“.
I return to your explanations, Mr. Greiner. You ascribe to politics the
task of keeping ready what is threatened to be forgot and what may resurface in
a dangerous way thereby implicitly suggesting that the humanities could be of
help, that is to understand the „underrated power of cultural imprints and
traditions“? With a reading in this direction I am ready to follow you when you
Why are we Trottel? You give no answer. Instead you comfort us mythologically by a noble task. You invite the Geisteswissenschaften to trace beings of enigmas. They are involuntarily assisted by the high speed progress of our times, you say, that produces such a lot of past - well, past, but not history. It is more likely to be debris against which the angel unfolds his wings and is carried away by the storm coming arising from the debris. It doesn’t help. The last passage of your article doesn’t turn the shock away. If there were more pride, you say, treasures could be discovered in case doubt does not prevail over the dignity of the disciplines.
It doesn’t help. Not anymore. „Dummerchen“ - „Dummkopf“ - „Idiot“ - „Trottel“? Do more or less soft bashes signify the new humanities? Are they the new Geist we have to face? - Are you sensible to linguistic particularities? Yes? Then it is frightening to see and hear „stupid“ translated with „Trottel“. Period. The performative „It’s the economy, stupid!“ that weaves conjuration, insult and tenderness has evaporated. Twelve years after Clinton’s succes the mutation of the formula to „Es ist die Kultur, ihr Trottel!“ proves that times have changed with an unmistakable increase of everyday violence, of linguistic violence as well that does apparently not halt from anything.
All three performatives serve in the form of quotations. In written form they are instructions to be performed and to perform the performed. No wonder that all these performances, as cultural signs, superimpose and reinforce themselves. Success! At historical distance we know that with picturing the proper situation two of them were succesful, although at the expense of morals. Of the third performative we only know (so far) that it lacks a convincing picture, that it probably will never have one but instead a text and that there may be reason for the hope that the addressee will be detected by the context proper to that performative. It is hoped that the aggression will be sublated, even sublimated into an object that suits to the endeavour it deserves and that is called the humanities, moral components included.
You, Mr. Helmut Schmidt, said in the interview you gave for the issue of „Die Zeit“ that launched the debate: „For the moment Germans are in the same mood as I am: a bit ill and subsequently out of humour.“ Let me take this as a final occasion to refer to the wit, Esprit and intelligence Geist today requires so badly and the Geisteswissenschaften all the more so. With this in mind I suggest, let us contribute with our best efforts to improving instead of bashing them.
With best regards,
This letter in print is identical with its online version http://h2hobel.phl.univie.ac.at/mahr'svierteljahrs/043f4-2.html. If possible I will inform contributors and people mentioned of the debate via e-mail. I refer to Thomas Assheuer, Der Wissensunternehmer. Beim Streit um die Geisteswissenschaften geht es nicht nur um notwendige Reformen. Es geht darum, die Universitäten an die Interessen der Wirtschaft anzukoppeln, in: Die Zeit, 13. Mai 2004, S. 60; Ansgar Beckermann, in: Die Zeit, 6. Mai 2004, S. 18; Peter Bürger, Wozu Feindbilder? Eine Replik auf Thomas E. Schmidts und Jens Jessens Polemik gegen die Literaturwissenschaft der siebziger Jahre, in: Die Zeit, 23. September 2004, S. 52; Birgit Dahlke, in: Die Zeit, 23. September 2004, S. 24; Jacques Derrida, Die unbedingte Universität, übers. v. Stefan Lorenzer, = es 2238, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp; Markus Eberhard, in: Die Zeit, 6. Mai 2004, S. 18; Susanne Falk, in: Die Zeit, 6. Mai 2004, S. 18; Norbert Frei, Populismus. Die Ideologie der Nützlichkeit. Warum man aufhören sollte, die Geisteswissenschaften schlechtzureden, in: Die Zeit, 29. April 2004, S. 42; Ulrich Greiner, Es ist die Kultur, ihr Trottel! Um den Menschen zu verstehen, reichen die Naturwissenschaften längst nicht aus, in: Die Zeit, 22. April 2004, S. 46; Jens Jessen, Auf den Klassenstandpunkt kames an. Ein germanistisches Vorlesungsverzeichnis aus den siebziger Jahren, als die Dichter auf ihre politische Haltung reduziert wurden, in: Die Zeit, 9. September 2004, S. 50; Jörg Lau, Gold unterm Rost. Die FU war marode. Jetzt wird sie reformiert. Ein Rettungsbericht, in: Die Zeit, 22. April 2004, S. 48; Achatz von Müller, Selige Apathie. Welchen Nutzen haben Germanistik, Philosophie oder Kunstgeschichte? Die Geschichte einer falsch gestellten Frage, in: Die Zeit, 22. April 2004, S. 47; Armin Nassehi, Wasser auf dem Mars, Leben auf der Erde. Warum die Sozialwissenschaften nützlicher sind, als ihre Kritiker ahnen, in: Die Zeit, 6. Mai 2004, S. 38; Michael Naumann, Bildung - ein deutsche Utopie. Wie ein Begriff der mittelalterlichen Mystik zum Generalthema der Pädagogik wurde und warumwir uns davon noch nicht erholt haben, in: Die Zeit, 4. Dezember 2003, S. 45; Thomas E. Schmidt, Die erschöpften Germanisten. Erst warfen sie sich dem Zeitgeist an den Hals, jetzt verkriechen sie sich. Die Literaturwissenschaftler haben die Ideologie abgeschüttelt, aber auch die Literatur aus den Augen verloren. Ein Krisenbericht vor dem Münchner Germanistentag am 12. September, in: Die Zeit, 9. September 2004, S. 18f.; Martin Seel, Weltverstrickt. Das Verstehen. Über den Sinn der Geisteswissenschaften, in: Die Zeit, 22. April 2004, S. 48; Thomas Silvin, in: Die Zeit, 27. Mai 2004, S. 20; Helmut Schmidt, Leben in Deutschland (Interview von Moritz Müller-Wirth, Theo Sommer und Martin Spiewak), in: Die Zeit, 22. April 2004, S. 66; Martin Spiewak, Rettet euch selbst, sonst tut es keiner. Die Geisteswissenschaften sind für die Zukunft schlecht gerüstet. Sie müssen sich ändern. Oder untergehen, in: Die Zeit, 22. April 2004, S. 45f.; Martin Spiewak, Hamburger Radikalkur. Geisteswissenschaftler werden künftig nicht mehr gebraucht, in: Die Zeit, 19. August 2004, S. 27; Klaus Theweleit, Tor zur Welt. Fußball als Realitätsmodell, = KiWi 830, Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch 2004.
Peter Mahr © 2004
back to top of page: Rhizography
back to: Letter