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Reviewed by:
  • Körper/Kultur: Kalifornische Studien zur deutschen Moderne
  • Sarah Roff (bio)
Thomas W. Kniesche, ed., Körper/Kultur: Kalifornische Studien zur deutschen Moderne. Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 1995.

As editor of Körper/Kultur, Thomas Kniesche has done a real service to Germanistik by providing translations of a number of essays that have proven influential in defining what a German version of American “body criticism” should look like. In the process, Kniesche offers compelling evidence that Germanistik in America is more than just a spin-off of something done more authentically by Germans in Germany. For what this book so ably demonstrates is that Germanistik needs the American academy to foster some of its most creative and interesting work. Although a number of contributors to the volume (for instance Wolf Kittler, Elisabeth Weber and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht) are Germans, it is hard to imagine that their work would have looked the same had the relative conservatism of the German academy not nudged them westwards to France and then across the Atlantic to the “absolute West” of California (12). The great migration that began with Adorno, Brecht and Thomas Mann (to name only a few) still seems to be underway, despite the fact that contemporary American proponents of cultural studies would have us believe that comparative literature has been on the decline since its end. As is clear, moreover, from the fact that some of the more path-breaking, not to mention daring, contributions to this volume come from Americans Laurence A. Rickels, Avital Ronell, and Susan Derwin, the trade has become bilateral.

It is worth remembering, however, that the premise of this volume is as much regional as it is national. It is California, according to Kniesche, that has fired the imagination of “theory.” With Rickels’ The Case of California as his precedent, Kniesche reminds us that it was in the thirty-first state that critical theory encountered the culture industry and post-modernism found its simulacra of the end of history. Now California has become not just the “Schauplatz der Theorie,” he insists, but its “andere Schauplatz,” the place where psychoanalysis and deconstruction have at last begun to have an impact on Germanistik, where “die Mechanismen der herrschenden Methoden der Interpretation suspendiert werden, und Texte beginnen,” as Kniesche puts it, “aus ihren unterirdischen Reserven zu übertragen” (24). [End Page 486]

Such claims may seem a bit provincial—while Derrida, for instance, has been a regular visitor to California over the past decade, repaying its hospitality by declaring it “the state of theory,” the institutionalization of deconstruction in America (which more than a few European critics have seen as the death of everything that was genuinely provocative about it as an intellectual movement) has historically been much more closely associated with the Eastern seaboard. Where psychoanalysis and deconstruction intersect in the essays brought together in this volume, however, they are peculiarly bound up with two very Californian questions—death and the body. The threat of death, Kniesche tells us, is what pushes Germans west, “um dem eigenen Körper und dem Tod des anderen zu entweichen” (11). Yet if such an observation is cast in the spirit of Adorno’s remark (made, perhaps not coincidentally, to the Psychoanalytic Society of San Francisco) that castration anxiety, i.e. the fear of corporeal mutilation, constituted Freud’s greatest conceptual contribution to an understanding of the pressure exerted by culture on the individual in the age of Auschwitz, the comparison between the threat of extinction that caused a generation of intellectuals to flee Nazi Germany and the unlikelihood of obtaining a full professorship nowadays in the German system with an unconventional Habilitationsschrift can only be regarded as a gesture of self-aggrandizement. When Kniesche insists, moreover, that the European academic who gets to California finds himself confronted by a cult of the body that ritualizes his own evasion of death, he seems not to appreciate how this reflects on the escape sixty years ago.

So is there a “Californian moment” that brings together the various essays anthologized in Körper/Kultur? In Laurence Rickels’ “Goethe überholt Lessing auf der Autobahn,” it is a passage in the final paragraph where...

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