On identity and singularity: Responses to the imperative of identity in German-language literature around 1900 and 2000

Date: 20 June 2017

Venue: KU Leuven - aula 00.28 - Erasmusplein 2 - 3000 Leuven

Time: 2:00 PM - 5:00 PM

Organization / co-organization: KU Leuven Faculteit Letteren / Universteit Antwerpen - Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte

PhD candidate: Lene Rock

Principal investigator: prof. dr. Anke Gilleir (KU Leuven) & prof. dr. Vivian Liska (UAntwerpen)

Short description: Phd defence Lene Rock - Faculty of Arts


This dissertation presents a historical comparison between German-Jewish literature around 1900 and contemporary German ‘literature of migration’. At both ends of the 20th century, the German public debate is characterized by comparably polarizing discourses on identity, and by increasing hostility toward religious or cultural minorities – Jews at the beginning of the century, and immigrants in the final decades.  That polarized and hostile climate offers fertile literary ground. Countless writers have disclosed in varied and original ways the subtleties of cultural identity, assimilation, normative culture, stereotype, and exclusion.

The central research question of this dissertation is how German-Jewish and ‘new’ German writers approach the delicate issue of identity in a social climate where minority groups are consistently portrayed as cultural ‘Others’, and where these writers are often received as ‘not quite German’. A comparative close reading of a selection of texts demonstrates that, in a context of intense identity discourses and perceived threat to ‘German’ culture, literary authors re-enter into a dialogue with the Enlightenment. That dialogue involves not a return to but a re-evaluation of its premise, i.e. the humanistic ideal of self-cultivation and the insistence on autonomy as preconditions of a society of equal individuals. In a variety of themes the texts reveal the wavering confidence in the enlightened individualism that underpins assimilation/integration narratives.

At the same time, they draw the contours of unexpected, tentative, and ephemeral forms of intimacy that resist the embrace of collective identity as well. These non-foundational experiences of community are illustrated in reference to the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy, and investigated from the perspective of three particular figures: the aesthete, the city dweller, and the family hero. A comparative reading of four texts by Arthur Schnitzler, Navid Kermani, Richard Beer-Hofmann, and Feridun Zaimoglu explores the erosion of assimilation narratives through the lens of the aesthete. Presenting aestheticism as the dead end of Bildung, these novels criticize radical assimilation as a process of self-aestheticization leading to self-commodification. At the same time, the novels outline the aesthete’s ‘conversion’ to experiences of kinship and genealogical awareness.

A comparison of texts by Ludwig Jacobowski, Terézia Mora, Franz Hessel, and Emine S. Özdamar investigates the metropolitan experience at both ends of the twentieth century. The city is imagined as a site of recalibration, as an ambivalent space where the futility of emancipatory effort is exposed, but where the erosion of individualism engenders vulnerability and intimacy as well. The four city dwellers discussed here illustrate that neither radical individualism, nor collectivism can lay claim to the city. The final chapter discusses four family (hi)stories by Joseph Roth, Dimitré Dinev, and Zsuzsa Bánk – authors who write against the backdrop of disintegrating empires. The intertwining narratives of family and imperial history expose the fissures in the smooth surface of imperial myth. Through the lens of the family hero, the texts imagine the recovery of singular voices from the ‘collective individual’ produced by imperial or communist regimes, and from the silence imposed on individuals by those regimes and by insistent modernity.

Contact email: lene.rock@gmail.com

Url: http://www.kuleuven.be/doctoraatsverdediging/fiches/3H11/3H110522.htm