Raising the Curtain on Literature
Freie Universität Berlin officially opened the “Temporal Communities – Doing Literature in a Global Perspective” Cluster of Excellence for Literary Studies
Nov 20, 2019
In keeping with the Cluster’s name, a temporary community gathered in the rooms of the Staatsbibliothek national library and the Ibero-American Institute for its official opening; both institutions are non-university partners of the Cluster. Researchers, collaboration partners, journalists, and professionals from cultural institutions, as well as artists were there to witness the “Grand Opening” of the collaborative research group, or GO! as it was titled.
The GO! evening was just one event among many during the festive three-day program. The ambitious line-up – with dance performances, lectures and theater, sign language poetry, exhibitions, and film screenings – demonstrated just how broadly the Cluster plans to work with its object of study, literature.
The Temporal Communities Cluster seeks to question traditional boundaries, such as cultural regions and epochs, that have often arbitrarily divided the field, but it also seeks an approach that harmonizes such divisions and pushes thinking further to form connections between different media.
According to Cluster coordinators Anita Traninger, Professor of Romance Studies, and Andrew James Johnston, Professor of English Studies, this approach allows scholars to explore the power of literature to create communities over long periods of time. The Spanish poet Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) is a good example of how literature as a practice is characterized by the historically mutable processes of inclusion and exclusion, as Anita Traninger explained in her introduction. During his lifetime, Cervantes was by no means the Cervantes who is today admired alongside Goethe and Shakespeare as a superstar of European literature for having created Don Quixote. Rather, he was living in precarious circumstances and was more of a wanderer. As a writer, he tried to conquer his place in the literary system and repeatedly failed because of its “gatekeeper mechanisms,” those (unwritten) rules that apply at a given time and control access to a given system.
Georg Bertram, Dean of the Department of Philosophy and Humanities at Freie Universität Berlin, where the Cluster is situated, is also convinced that texts “develop in time out of themselves.” Quoting Walter Benjamin, he said, “Even words with fixed meaning can undergo a maturing process.” The philosophy professor went on to say that the department was very proud. He called it “a big day” and the Cluster “a promise for the future.” Bertram hopes the Cluster will “live on and continue to mature in the Benjaminian sense.”
“The Temporal Communities Cluster is a temporal community of writers.” Günter M. Ziegler
Günter M. Ziegler, president of Freie Universität Berlin, identified temporal communities in his own environment: a group of British writers around Christopher Isherwood lived and worked in Ziegler’s neighborhood around Nollendorfplatz in Berlin-Schöneberg at the end of the 1920s. Isherwood’s “The Berlin Stories” were the basis for the musical Cabaret. To what extent did this commonality, this community, possibly shape their works? How tight was the author’s network? Did Isherwood know that one block away Else Lasker-Schüler was writing poetry and that Nelly Sachs lived just another block away?
Ziegler discovered another community in Dahlem, in the immediate vicinity of his place of work, Freie Universität. The community of scientists included physicist Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, and Albert Einstein. A third temporal community – this one, admittedly, with long-term aspirations, as the university president emphasized – is the recently founded Berlin University Alliance including Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, a recent winner of the Excellence competition. Of course, the Temporal Communities Cluster itself is also a temporal community of writers, Ziegler noted.
Andrew James Johnston had initially decided not to talk about Shakespeare in his welcoming address. After all, as an English literature scholar, it would have been all too obvious to call on the playwright as a reference in a literary Cluster. To the delight of the audience, Johnston departed from his initial plan. He had to, if only because the event fell on October 25, St. Crispin’s Day, the day on which Shakespeare’s King Henry V delivered one of the most famous speeches in English literary history.
In addition, the poet and playwright, as Johnston ironically claimed, already designed the content of the Temporal Communities Cluster around 600 years ago. In the most beautiful “proposal verses” (here Johnston alluded to the formulations in scientific grant applications that are often referred to as “proposal prose” in German), Shakespeare addressed the audience as active participants – and thus laid the groundwork for an ever-changing view of texts in different eras and in various arts, as Johnston explained. Johnston admitted that the “Building Digital Communities” research area alone, which the Cluster intends to work on, in addition to four other research areas, would obviously have surpassed Shakespeare’s imagination.
Lea Schneider is doing her doctorate on the “Poetics of Radical Vulnerability in Contemporary Literature” at the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. As a poet and translator, she also values the Internet as a publication space, which is free of hierarchies. Instagram is particularly popular among young poets – also known as Instapoets.
Who is allowed “to literature”? This “grammatically odd” question, as Jutta Müller-Tamm, Professor of Literature at Freie Universität Berlin put it, was the anchor for the panel discussion that followed. There was debate about who is allowed to join in the literary scene, who belongs to it, whose books are discussed, and who receives recognition. Müller-Tamm, who moderated the round, explained that the focus was on inclusion and exclusion criteria, and thus also about the question: Who does not belong, and why?
Do common publishing mechanisms in the literary world contribute to the exclusion of certain literature? While a manuscript usually has to pass through various assessment bodies before it is discussed in the literary department of a media outlet – from an agency to the publisher’s acquisitions office and the publisher’s prelaunch preview to the critics – the pathways on the Internet look much different and lack the same kind of gatekeeper function. There, everyone can “literature,” a freedom that Lütfiye Güzel appreciates and utilizes. The author wants to “do everything alone,” which means the task of deciding whether a text is finished or not is undertaken entirely by herself. Lütfiye Güzel read one of her poems at the end of the discussion.
Ijoma Mangold, literary critic for Die ZEIT magazine, explained that selection and exclusion do not necessarily have to be bad. He appreciates the fact that texts come to him in a “mediated” way: the editing done at the various revision stages, especially the copy-editing, make them more complex and in fact much better. For Mangold, the most important criterion for deciding whether a text is good and should be published is plausibility: Why did the story have to be written like this and not in any other way? This judgment is, he added, subjective, and the critic’s task is then to justify the subjective judgment with a claim to generalization.
Eva Geulen, Director of the Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, called on literary studies not to leave the field of literature classification to critics alone. The advantage of science is that it can approach both the works and the authors from an outside perspective – unlike critics, who are always involved in the business.
Publications on the Internet are expanding the literary field. As Stephan Porombka, Professor of Text Theory and Text Design at Berlin University of the Arts argued, publication processes on the Internet are not like the ones used by publishing houses, whose print schedules follow fixed dates for new publications each spring and autumn and for the book fairs in Leipzig and Frankfurt. Porombka was impressed that the Cluster of Excellence wanted to learn from Internet culture, from the “confusing present.” In contrast to the focus on literature as an object from the past, the study of which necessarily involves a distanced perspective, the Temporal Communities Cluster is “in the middle of it.”
In response to the question “Who is allowed to literature?” the assessment that, “everybody should be allowed to literature” was repeatedly made. Andrew James Johnston formulated how inclusive the Cluster sees itself and which temporal, preferably long-lasting communities he would like to identify and establish, with a quote from Shakespeare: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” With these words, King Henry V swore his troops into the battle of Azincourt on St. Crispin’s Day. Exactly 604 years later (to the day), the “band of brothers” naturally also includes “sisters and LGTBQIA+ – lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual as well as non-binary people,” Johnston said.
The Grand Opening ended the following evening with a visit to the Berlin Schaubühne Theater. After the performance of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, there was opportunity for scholars and actors to talk with one another. In Katie Mitchell’s production, Woolf’s 1929 novel was not only staged, but was also shown as a live film, which was projected onto a screen above the stage. This was an example of literature that traverses space and time, changing media as easily and effortlessly as the main character Orlando changes gender.