Some years ago, after finishing his graduate studies at Princeton, Gerhard Richter and a colleague at the University of Wisconsin–Madison were in a café, deep in discussion: What, really, is important in German studies?
They approached the question in subtractive fashion. “Could the world do without, say, the German novel, do you think? Well, it would be painful, but there are the great novels in English and French, so perhaps yes,” Richter said, recalling the conversation. “Well then, what about painting? German food? Soccer?” Bit by bit they whittled away, peeling back the layers to discover the irreducible core of Germany’s contribution to world culture — “without which the world would be a lot, lot poorer.”
And they found it.
“We narrowed it down to German philosophy and music — those two — and we managed to gather an international symposium, from which came our book Sound Figures of Modernity: German Music and Philosophy. Most of the major philosophers up to Bloch, Adorno, and the early Frankfurt School could not imagine thinking conceptually without also thinking about music. Hegel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Schelling — most of the great thinkers and the German romantics felt this deep affinity between conceptual models of the world and the non-conceptual discourse of music. Music is not tied to a referential model in the way that language-based arts are or painting. Music is central in the arts of the German tradition.”
That broad and fundamental understanding of German culture will be central to the future of German studies at Brown. Richter, most recently professor of German and director of the Graduate Program in Critical Theory at the University of California–Davis, arrives at Brown with a joint appointment in German studies and comparative literature and as chair of the Department of German Studies. It was a chance, he said, to unite the complex whole of the German cultural tradition with a substantial institutional commitment to and investment in the humanities.
Richter, a distinguished scholar of European critical thought and aesthetics, recommends caution when it comes to overly fashionable “area studies” approaches to foreign languages and cultures, interest in which waxes and wanes over time. He is also skeptical of the “journalistic” approach, which is preoccupied with forcing immediate relevance and often focused exclusively on literature or arts of the last 20 years or so. “For me, those are the wrong way to go. What’s valuable about the German tradition — and what may continue to help us think and feel in the future in innovative ways — goes back much, much further,” he said. “Whether it’s the classical writing of Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, or Hölderlin, the political trajectory of Marx, the philosophy of Nietzsche, Freudian psychoanalysis, Heideggerean confrontations with what it means to be human — basically all the paradigms of modern thought have some crucial link to the German tradition. Indeed, the very idea of ‘critique’ and therefore of critical thinking in the modern sense derives from Kant. That’s what we can contribute.”
There are also significant connections with history, philosophy, the sciences, even a sort of kinship with American civilization. “Even during the Third Reich, German culture survived. Where did it go? It survived here,” Richter said. “[Bertolt] Brecht, Thomas Mann, [Arnold] Schoenberg, Max Horkheimer, Kurt Weill, [Theodor] Adorno, Hanns Eisler — it goes on and on. They ended up either on the East Coast — the Frankfurt School, German-Jewish philosophers, Marxist intellectuals — or on the West Coast, where Schoenberg’s and Adorno’s homes are still on the tour with Brad Pitt’s. German thinkers were adept at surviving in a non-native habitat. Thomas Mann, who was living in California, was asked whether it was a problem for a German writer to live so far from Germany. He said, ‘No. Where I am, that’s where German culture is.’”
To be sure, Richter said, German studies will remain German studies — a place where German is learned, where concentrators can pursue deep intellectual interests in the original language. “It has never made sense to me that anyone interested in Nietzsche or Marx or Freud or Walter Benjamin would need to be in an English department, but that happens in many American universities,” Richter said. He has more ambitions for the department, however.
“At the same time, I’ve found it equally important to offer courses in translation to students who are studying, say, critical theory or an adjacent field. I want to make the department a resource center that highlights the contributions German can make to the humanities. Brown is uniquely situated to provide a model of what German studies can be in the 21st century. My plan is to make German studies part of Brown’s pre-eminence in the humanities and a leading department in the country. The will is here, the resources are here, the intellectual commitment is here. That is unique — it’s not happening anywhere else. Brown should be very proud of what it is doing with its humanities initiative. It will become one of the foremost destinations for the study of the humanities in the world.”