I'm currently finalizing a new course I'll be teaching this fall. It approaches German cultural history through queer studies with a focus on texts that span the Reformation to fin de siècle. The course is designed as an undergraduate gen-ed course and will be taught in English. At its core, it examines the queer potential of narratives of antidevelopment. The class will consider how hegemonic discourse is formed and will focus on figures who resist or fall outside of it. One focus of the course will be on sexuality discourses and the politics of desire; however, sexuality and everything it indexes will not always take center stage even if it will invariably be present for all discussions and legible in all texts read for the class.
There are two course goals. On the one hand, successful completion of the class means being able to describe select developments in the social, economic, and cultural history informing German literary, visual, epistolary cultures of the early modern and modern eras (1500-1900). On the other, it means being able to discuss, analyze, and interpret (in the spoken and the written) representative texts from these eras with a focus on queer antidevelopment. What we will do in this class is approach periodization praxis in German Studies queerly, too, which means that we will examine texts and artists firmly on the canon line and those who fall outside of it—who stand queerly in relation to it.
In what follows, I'll briefly outline the theoretical grounding for the course. I will then provide three excerpts from the syllabus which briefly outline what will be at stake at key moments in the semester. My last thoughts will be on cultural transfer, translation, and the need to advocate for translation work so that we can continue to teach the best courses possible to broader audiences.
Queer Failure & Antidevelopment
Theoretically, the course will be grounded in the work of Sara Ahmed and Jack Halberstam. In terms of Ahmed's contribution, we will examine central ideas in Queer Phenomenology (Duke UP, 2006) which relate to the establishment of what Ahmed calls the "lines that direct us" (12). The class will consider how institutionalized patterns of behavior come to articulate the status quo, which orients itself around guiding principles—or lines. Lines, in this thinking, are paths we are expected to follow. In this regard, kinship networks are lines of orientation loaded with expectations (e.g., lineage, inheritance). Departing from these lines, either forcibly or by choice, is one quality frequently ascribed to queer subjects.
Halberstam's ideas in The Queer Art of Failure (Duke UP, 2011) examine how queer subjects, because their relation to lines of expectation is in tension, perform or actually experience failure more readily than others. Queer subjects thus not only fail but, in failing, resist "logics of success that have emerged from the triumphs of global capitalism" (Halberstam 19). In the class, we will think about how success narratives are a foundational ideal of heteronormalcy and how queer subjects, through failure, find themselves positioned in relation to this system of logic (e.g., by leading a life not necessarily oriented around reproduction), as well as on a path leading away from it. Antidevelopment is thus a queer mode.
Unit 1 Excerpt: Luther, Dürer, and Courage
Although the Reformation is frequently read as a time of revolution, and although particularly Luther's writings are regularly attributed emancipatory prowess, it is a period which crystalizes some power dynamics and gives rise to new hegemonic systems. Luther's writings on marriage and the family are especially instructive here. Although he critiqued Catholic celibacy, arguing that sexual urges cannot be repressed, he advocated that this energy derived from sexual urges be directed into marriage. The first unit of the course will consider in which ways Luther's rhetorical gesture in his writings on marriage and the family intensify hegemonic ideals of kinship, desire, and reproduction.
Examining Baldung Grien's, Dürer's, and woodcarvings and images by other artists depicting bathhouses and other locations capturing homosocial and homoerotic tension, the class will consider how figures behaving unideally in the context heterosexual hegemony or figures who cannot "fit" into the social and kinship lineage imagined for them by the world emerge as queer. The tension between the ways of being captured in the woodcuts and the way of being advocated by Luther's writings will form the intellectual context for our discussion of Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's Courage (1669-70). The class will read Courage primarily (though not exclusively) as queer subject. We will consider the social, economic, and historical contexts that inform the life of Courage and will interrogate the systems of power to which she is subject, which she resists, and out of which she fails.
Unit 2 Excerpt: Lineage, Kleist, Günderrode
The works of Heinrich von Kleist have long been celebrated for their interest in rupture, accidents, confusion, failing subjects, and other modes of antidevelopment. To this end, the class will explore Kleist's "Das Erdbeben in Chile" (1807) and read it as a text which imagines the breakdown of social systems through natural force and which studies the factors informing the re-establishment of kinship, lineage, familial expectation. We will connect the text's themes to Kleist's own life and will think about the life of a poet from a military family, whose own queerness always tempered relations and likely influenced his thinking about, as Ahmed says, "the lines that direct us." To this end, we will read Kleist's correspondence with his family, his letters to Ernst von Pfuel, and his suicide letter as documents in the queer archive: Kleist, for our class, is not "simply" an interesting character frequently ill ascribed to different literary movements around 1800, but a queer author in tension with the periodization clusters projected onto him because of his queerness.
I have paired Kleist with the work of his contemporary, Karoline von Günderrode, whose poetry imagines queer intimacy and establishes that this intimacy can thrive primarily in moments defined by secrecy. Reading select poems by Günderrode, we will examine how the act of reading itself performs an intimacy with the potential for secret encounters with the queer lyrical I. We will chart out the ways that Günderrode's poetry additionally considers—even if not explicitly—the social parameters of unsanctioned longing, positing imagination as the venue in which desires deviating from accepted norms can thrive. The discussions in this unit will interrogate post-Enlightenment discourse by considering how Kleist's and Günderrode's queer aesthetics comment upon, unsettle, and point away from the regimes of reason so very destructive for some while being beneficial to others.
Unit 3 Excerpt: Power, Domination, Musil
In order to explore the systems of power informing dominant discourse—which shape received mores and behaviors—we will read, among other texts, Robert Musil's Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (1906). Musil's short novel explores the regimentation regimes of the military and surveys the establishment and abuse of power, the sexual politics of power, and queer fantasies of adolescence. We will consider in which ways the site of the boarding school—a queer site in itself—becomes a venue in which Musil explores the implications of systems of power on the social orders of fin de siècle Imperial Austria.
On Translation and a General Note About the Syllabus
I was interested in queering some predictable and unpredictable figures in the German cultural canon (we also read Keller's "Kleider machen Leute" as a text with queer moments, for instance). What became clear is that there are many texts which lend themselves to such readings. One of the biggest challenges was finding appropriate English translations of the texts I wanted to examine.
For the most part, predictable (i.e., established) figures in literary history will have work in translation. What emerged for me in developing this course is the urgency with which we have to advocate for more translation work from German into English if we are to give our students the chance to explore texts queerly particularly those printed before 1900. Translation work, in this light, emerged for me as essential component of queer studies. I always respected my translator colleagues and will see in which ways I can advocate more robustly on their behalf so that they can continue to do their work, which directly serves and impacts the field of queer studies broadly.
I'll be glad to share a PDF version of the syllabus if you are interested. I'd also be interested to hear from you if you taught a similar or related course and how you structured it. Perhaps you developed a unit that speaks to this topic for another course? I'd be interested to hear about it as well!