Stimmung 2016 – an interview with Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is a literature professor at Stanford University, a public intellectual and a naturalized citizen of the United States. This interview took place in Berlin, three days after Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election.

Interview by Chris Fenwick and Dennis Schep.

You have written a book about the Stimmung after 1945, describing the ‘50s as a claustrophobic era. How would you see the Stimmung of today?

I feel it is a Stimmung of the end of something. It’s not quite clear what has come to an end, maybe nothing has come to an end, but if there is one motif that goes through all this confusion and the centrifugal interpretations of what is happening, there is always a claim for something ending. We have to seriously ask whether the institutional forms and rituals that emerged under certain historical conditions in the 18th century are no longer viable, whether accidents that have always been possible, like on January 30th 1933 in this city in this country, are now more frequently possible – so that we should imagine something else. Something has come to an end, but we aren’t sure what it might be. This gives us a double uncertainty, for as long as we don’t know what has come to an end, we don’t know what might come, and we cannot develop a recipe or strategy.

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On Dylan and the Nobel

I’ve recently taken over editorship of a Berlin literary studies blog, which probably means I’ll only have time to make things appear there in the near future. Here’s something I wrote about the recent Nobel Prize award to Bob Dylan:

I’m going to set out two arguments against awarding the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan. The first concerns the potential political function of the prize within the literary landscape. It ultimately suggests that Dylan is a conservative choice. The second is about the scope of the category “literature,” specifically whether it should include songwriters. Here I admit that Dylan is a provocative choice, but maybe not productively so. I’m not going to assess Dylan’s artistic merit, say he shouldn’t get the prize because William Faulkner is better or, for that matter, say that he should since half the pre-war laureates aren’t read any more and/or are rubbish. Dylan is clearly a hugely talented lyricist who has exerted a great influence on culture. However, because his body of work is significantly dissimilar in kind from that of previous Nobel laureates, carrying out a comparison of quality is impossible. The issue isn’t whether it’s fair that he get the prize, rather whether it’s coherent.

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The limits of my language are not the limits of my world

Viewed from space, political borders are totally arbitrary. Why draw borders around a nation state, as opposed to a city state? Is someone who moves from Leeds to London to find a job not an economic migrant?

On Earth, of course, there are reasons, explanations. The historical passage from the city state to the nation state, for all its entrenchment in the domineering ideals of conquering elites, also depends on the construction of a common identity, the overcoming of the narcissism of small differences. One can envisage a community independent of an exploitative elite, history notwithstanding.

European history is a bloody mess. Yet European culture is an intricate web of exchange.

Is the identity of the nation not shallow compared to the identity of the continent? Is the insistence on drawing political borders at the national, rather than the supranational level, not a decision based on a contingent sense of identity? And how do we know that this sense isn’t flimsy and artificial, forcing separations where one could find unity in diversity? How do we know when it isn’t basically racism?

Some say that language is fundamental.

Yet there are languages without nation states, nation states without single languages. And languages can be learned.

Learning foreign languages, more than anything else I’ve done, shows the contingency of my mother tongue. When faced with idiomatic difficulties of German or Russian or Italian, I realize how far I am from really existing in any of these languages like I exist in English. I see that they have a world just as rich and strange as English, and that English, to a non-native, appears just so to them.

Yet I still read and understand and translate. And in doing so, I don’t feel separate and isolated within English, as if English should be cut off and given a realm of its own. No. I feel that both English and German are absurd – that the absurdity of being born within a particular language, cast within a particular set of conventions, is the same absurdity as being born. A contingency of existence. And to build anything on such a contingency would be absurd.

When, as an undergraduate, I spent a summer in Montpellier to improve my French, I went to a language school that gave out binders emblazoned with a Camus quotation: “Ma patrie, c’est la langue française.” I doubt the binder did justice to the conundrum of Camus’s Franco-Algerian identity, but what he meant by this was quite profound: that the nation state isn’t defined by language; rather, language precedes it totally, on an existential level. Belonging to a nation state is an absurdity.

In the light of what has just happened, all I can say is this:

My country is the English language. An isolationist UK is not a country to which I can belong.

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Posted in Brexit, EU, language, languages, sad | 9 Comments

The Totality of Facts

In 2013 I attended the European Quizzing Championship in Liverpool and wrote a piece about it. The original was so long and misshapen it took me two years to get around to editing it. I finally did, and it’s up at The Point:

It’s the first day of the 2013 European Quizzing Championships in Liverpool and I’m sitting next to Jesse Honey—English national team member, winner of the game show Mastermind and the 2012 World Quizzing Champion. I’m going to mark Honey’s answers and he, ridiculously, will mark mine.

Honey keeps telling people he’ll be giving up quizzing. Family and job won’t allow him the time he wants to spend on it.

No one believes him.

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Posted in aesthetic experience, Berlin, criticism, cultural memory, David Markson, essay, ethics, Frances Yates, memory, philosophy, quizzing, Uncategorized, Wittgenstein | Leave a comment

Trolling the New College of the Humanities

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Ana Lily Amirpour, ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’ (2015): Redacted Facebook rant

It’s all surface. Every shot is pure style, but not in a good way. It’s got the logic of a music video: simply an excuse for letting cool images float around. Yes, you can talk about that kind of language being interesting, going back to Un Chien Andalou, etc., and for sure cinema is about making dream-like spaces you can float in. But it’s impossible to connect to the images Amirpour creates at all – it’s like there’s a barrier of self-conscious coolness around them, a kind of Leidenfrost effect generated by the density of artschool posturing. It’s the kind of coolness you find in advertising. Lots of adverts are way more cinematographically complex than the programmes they’re inserted into – but at the same time, they’re instrumentalizing that imagery purely to make an object desirable, so they’re uniform (like pornography is uniform). Adverts look like filmschool graduates want an excuse to indulge their snazzy editing and trickshot skills. This is 100 minutes of that: a cinematography showreel, not a film. Continue reading

Posted in Ana Lily Amirpour, bullshit, criticism, film, pointless rants, postmodernism, reviews, Uncategorized, Wes Anderson | Leave a comment

Daphne

Pursuit and flight are equal, or at least equal in danger. Pursuit has foundered many, and many more have fled themselves completely. Even a god was lost among us.

Daphne’s heels drummed the forest floor. If it wasn’t Cupid who spurred her on, she at least felt an arrow’s sting and quickened her pace. She skipped the roots where Apollo fell. Some say, of course, he was held back, but that resignation was quite his own when, panting, he drew himself up from dead leaves to watch her, a tiny white fleck, float deeper into the grove. The chase began when she was lost to his sight.

Alone, Apollo’s search inspires everything. Daphne comes to him in every woodland sound, she breathes from every tree. Lost for good, she is now everywhere. And so he will climb, sometimes, to lie in her arms, or preen her tresses, or curl his length about her trunk. He tends the forest as a lover, diligent and maniacal. When the arch of a root discloses her foot Apollo throws himself on it with kisses. His lips taste bitter earth and he lies in ecstasy.

Did Daphne transform? For Apollo, there is no question. Yet still she is itinerant. The boughs of yesterday’s embrace today are cold. That knot, in which he saw her face, is now not even a heart. From birch to beech to laurel, Daphne darts, and the god, as best he can, stays in pursuit. He crouches, circumspect, then resumes his dash. He gropes within the bushes. He smells her perfume in a bunch of berries. Every glance reveals a promise.

Virgin always, Daphne watches him. No man treads this forest. If, by whatever errancy, they did, then never would they find a god. Only Daphne knows Apollo now. His bow forgotten, he slinks among the trunks. A moss has taken root upon his back, his lips are perished by the bark’s abrasions. From her quiet vantage, Daphne blooms. Who knows with what emotion she surveys Apollo’s fate: to crawl, doubtfully, between the laurels, silent as the wood from which he is made?

(Chicago, June 2013)

Posted in flotsam/jetsam, scribblings, writing | Leave a comment