Theory Transfer: The Fate of German Theory in the United States

September 16-17, 2016

Organized by Peter Uwe Hohendahl and Paul Fleming, a collaborative workshop titled Theory Transfer: The Fate of German Theory in the United States, was held under IGCS auspices September 16-17, 2016. Steffen Martus and Carlos Spoerhase (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) opened the discussion on Saturday with their reflections “Zur Lokalität des Theoretisierens” (“On the Locality of Theorizing”). Arguing for a fine-grained understanding of theorizing as a critical practice, Martus and Spoerhase situated their praxeological project within the larger context of theory in literary studies, thus accounting for “theorizing” among other established practices in the heterogeneous field of Germanistik. Two factors, the speakers claimed, facilitate the perception of a text as theory: a certain resistance to empiricism, and a certain degree of paradigmaticity. In the second part of their presentation, Martus and Spoerhase characterized the historical emergence of theory in Germanistik as a process of becoming accustomed to theorization. In an exemplary analysis of theory transfer, they showed how Boltanski’s and Thévenot’s De la Justification – originally published as a sociological study under a different title – became a theory classic via a set of revisions and changes such as omitting technical appendices, replacing footnotes by endnotes, and publishing the book in the series nrf with Gallimard. Martus and Spoerhase concluded with an analysis of the transfer of German theory, stressing that theory can be made in the transfer process itself. Martus and Spoerhase underscored the importance of framing theoretical texts in various respects such as a careful selection of the parts of an author’s oeuvre that will be translated, forewords, and the choice of publishing house and series, among others. The speakers also discussed opportunities that arise out of these considerations for German theory in a global context.

Ethel Matala de Mazza (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) presented a talk titled “Trading Zone Projektforschung: Kracauer als Propagandaexperte im amerikanischen Exil.” Her reflections inquired into the political and economic preconditions for successful theory transfer. Ethel Matala de Mazza situated Kracauer vis-à-vis the Institut für Sozialforschung as a means of discussing Kracauer’s precarious economic situation before 1960, and especially throughout his time in exile. The Institut für Sozialforschung, notably its director Max Horkheimer, had started to transfer its capital abroad in the early 1930s already to lay the foundation for the institute’s financial independence during its sixteen years in exile. Kracauer meanwhile was far less fortunate. Analyzing the emergence of research organized and executed in projects sponsored by large US-American foundations such as Carnegie and Rockefeller, Matala de Mazza characterized Kracauer as a “Projektemacher wider Willen.” The talk provided keen insights into the connection between Kracauer’s project work and the form of his work; the small forms he favored turned out to be suitable media for reflecting on the boundaries of theory. Another aspect discussed by Matala de Mazza was the sociological dimension of Kracauer’s working conditions, which allowed him to reach a diverse audience and form a professional network too.

In her talk “Critical Theory and Narratology: Heliotropic Storytelling with Alexander Kluge,” Leslie A. Adelson (Cornell University) examined Alexander Kluge’s print literature in light of the observation that his 21st-century writing highlights the ongoing and even acute relevance of critical theory today. Adelson’s approach to Kluge set two main frames of analysis in dialogue with each other: first, Kluge’s strong and avowed indebtedness to Theodor W. Adorno, and second, postclassical narratology, which stresses deep links between narrative form and social reality. Reading the narrative form of “Samstag in Utopia,” a Kluge’s story featuring an Adorno-like philosopher in Die Lücke, die der Teufel läßt, Adelson stressed the futurity of Kluge’s storytelling. This goes beyond mere indexing of future possibility, she argued, by breaking with the modern concept of futurity as temporally unavailable to experience. By tracing relations of form in Adorno’s “Heliotrope” too (from Minima Moralia), Adelson showed how counterfactual hope shapes the temporal operations of Adorno’s narrative practice too. (Matthias Müller)

In his afternoon talk on Jürgen Habermas’s trans-Atlantic reception, Max Pensky (Binghamton University) addressed multiple discussion points, all focusing on Habermas’ philosophy as heavily influenced by a “reiterated bi-directional transatlantic movement.” Rejecting the static idea of a theory transfer and articulating a reflective understanding of the concept instead, Pensky pointed out how Habersmas’ way of thinking should itself be considered a transfer zone, since Habermas began importing theory directly from the US to Europe in order to create transatlantic exchange. From that point on, theory spread virally, disseminated via word of mouth. Stressing the importance of the Germanness of his theory, Habermas strived to reformulate this theory in the United States, setting in motion a bi-directional, transatlantic exchange. The key idea behind this effort was an attempt to “remove philosophy from its national and cultural contexts and make it a matter of transatlantic actions and interests,” as Pensky deftly demonstrated.

Arguing that the biggest problem confronting Niklas Luhmann’s reception in the United States is the very incommensurability of form and context in Luhmann’s theory, Peter Gilgen (Cornell) began by mentioning the “commonplace” that the systems-theorist has not yet arrived on American shores. Though he is remembered elsewhere as one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, Luhmann sadly remains mostly unknown in the Anglo-American world. Gilgen gave five possible reasons for this missing reception. First, Luhmann’s theory was understood as similar to Talcott Parsons’ approach and therefore read as outdated (since Parsons did for the US in the 1960s what Luhmann did for Germany in the 1990s). Second, although Luhmann was bolstered by his close connection to Habermas, he was also inhibited by this proximity, read as anti-humanist, politically naïve, and anti-Enlightenment. Third, the emergence of cultural studies around the same time shed a negative light on Luhmann’s theory, resulting in an understanding of him as a technocrat and retro-oriented conservative. Fourth, his theory faced massive problems regarding its translation, a fact that was already obvious when the title of his first monograph was reduced to “The Theory of Society” (in contrast to “Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft”). This translation distracted from the novelty of his theoretical model, resulting in its being grouped with existing theories such as those of Simmel, Weber, Koselleck, Wittgenstein, and Hegel. Finally, his reception was hindered by the relative dryness of his style. Unfortunately, as Gilgen pointed out, these factors have contributed to simplified and misguided approaches to Luhmann in the United States, the failures of which Gilgen’s more rigorous approach helped to sketch.

Paul Fleming (Cornell), Kizer Walker (Cornell), and Mahinder Kingra (Cornell) engaged in a panel discussion to conclude the workshop, which itself constituted transatlantic exchange. Paul Fleming’s thesis consisted of three bullet points highlighting the importance of the timing of theory transfer. The importance of timing, he suggested, could be observed from Hans Blumenberg’s “Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie,” which, had it emerged in the United States in the 1960s, would have been considered alongside Derrida, DeMan and Ricœur. Because Blumenberg was not translated until later, his work was not understood in the context of 1960s Germany. The reception of Blumenberg’s monumental works (Work on Myth and The Genesis of the Copernican World, for example) in the US was further hindered by the absence of specific introductions that would have facilitated their understanding, such as was the case with Foucault’s own introduction to The Order of Things or Spivak’s introduction to Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Finally, Fleming brought attention to the financial situation and the massive workload confronting university presses, which sometimes hinders the quality of translations.

Stressing a practical approach, Kizer Walker gave real-life insight into the management of Cornell’s library collection. With libraries functioning to disseminate knowledge, they not only distribute books but also serve as an institution’s memory, as filters of information, as patrons of scholarly production, and much more. The facts offered by Walker on German titles were rather sobering: despite the 440,000 books offered by the Cornell library in German (about 8% of the entire collection), only 45% of print monographs released between 1990 and 2012 have been circulated once or more, rendering the remaining 55% unused by trackable patterns. Finally, Walker brought attention to the fact that book acquisitions within the last ten years have dropped dramatically at all Ivy League universities.

In his role as editor-in-chief of Cornell University Press, Mahinder Kingra stressed the importance of university presses in making foreign-language texts accessible to the US market. This task is not easily fulfilled, however, since most editors do not read German or French, making them dependent on others in assessing the possible impact of a given theory in the United States. Once a decision has been made, however, one then has to deal with publishers and agents, turning the process of adaptation and translation into a time- and money-consuming, nerve-racking endeavor involving a great deal of uncertainty regarding the success of the book. This means that it is sometimes left to chance as to whether a title will be translated or not – a difficult contingency given the average investment of $25,000 – $35,000 per book. Though one can speculate on how to increase the success of a translation project, Kingra stressed the importance of a well-constructed system consisting of an engaged board, collaborations with German scholars, a team of established publishers, and good editors. (Marius Reisener)