Harro Müller’s new collection of texts on modern literature and literary theory sails under the provocative and joyfully subversive flag of Gegengifte, bringing together a range of theoretically informed readings with a critical edge as wary antidote to the dominant discourse in the scholarship on German literature. With the exception of two texts—one an illuminating study of Adorno’s philosophy of language, the other a perceptive examination of Kleist’s patriotic dramas as “Souveränitätsspiele” or plays of sovereignty—all texts have been published previously, and revised for this volume. The collection combines them into an engagingly critical survey of the current topography of German Studies. As a result, Gegengifte presents a welcome and timely addition—even though the issue of “timeliness” is itself among the concepts Müller’s Gegengifte so aptly challenges.
Literature as counter-present and counter-presentation is one of the critical impulses that drive modern literary production but not always, as Müller is quick to argue, the scholarship that makes it its business to dwell on and inhabit the infinite loop of the hermeneutic horizon these texts suggest. Müller is an expert critical reader on the topic [End Page 465] of attending afresh to texts in German literature that scholarship has come to place at the margins of its enduring negotiations of a canon that only exists in the kingdom of Hermeneutica; that elusive amusement park where the price for entry is just as steep and the rides just as brief as everywhere else but where canons have become the weapons—or toys—of choice. German literature is a vast enterprise but the rewards for the struggle with interpretation are scarce, a fact scholarship likes to eloquently veil. Gegengifte is a thoughtful reminder that there are other options.
Müller is, in other words, a master of the dry observation, the laconic comment, and the strategically critical self-reflection. His approach proceeds in two-pronged fashion, critically examining both the literary and the wider theoretical implications of the textual strategies he studies. The two essays that open the volume set the theoretical framework and expose its critical implications. The two densely argued chapters examine Adorno’s theory of language in a study of his language practice, the consistencies and inconsistencies of a language game whose politics is as critical as it invites critical second-level reflection. The first essay highlights some of the central tenets in critical theory and argues that by reading Adorno with the critical attention the “master” applied to his own reading, the project of critical theory opens up new and interesting perspectives. The second essay examines Adorno’s take on the concept of the authentic and the problematic investments that govern the distinction between authentic and inauthentic. Attending to the complicated strategy of self-positioning of the critical vantage point with regard to the issue of what makes the authentic authentic, Müller fleshes out a recurrent problem that runs through the production of modern German literature as an illuminating thread from Kleist to Kluge.
The next chapter explores the problems that define the status, issues, and tribulations of German Studies qua professionalized philology or “Literaturwissenschaft,” one of those abstract terms without a referent. “Literaturwissenschaft” in abstracto does not exist—it does so only in its specified instantiations as one of the national philologies or as a comparative approach that, in turn, always presupposes a specific set of national philologies on which it grounds itself. With Hegel one could quip that it exists for itself but not in itself. The subject, or object, of “Literaturwissenschaft” hinges on the mode of observation chosen, i.e., the way the object is constructed (59). But the problem of course is that this way it is the discipline or its most outspoken stakeholders that define the method, and accordingly determine what qualifies for inclusion and what falls outside the scope of attention. In addition the discipline disciplines itself, but what sounds agreeably self-reflective is barely so in the world out there that relies on blunt...