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  • Nothing Fails like Success Poetics and Hermeneutics—A Postwar Initiative by Hans Blumenberg*
  • Anselm Haverkamp

One of the oft-cited, but up to now barely deciphered post-war monuments of German making is the Forschungsgruppe Poetik und Hermeneutik, a research group whose proceedings are documented in a series of 17 huge volumes in monumental white covers (Poetik und Hermeneutik: Arbeitsergebnisse einer Forschungsgruppe I–XVII, various working titles and editors. Munich: Fink Verlag, 1964–1996). While there were a few other, similar enterprises, dozens, if not all conference activities around the world nowadays follow (more or less freely) the scheme developed and documented in these volumes.1 These volumes were [End Page 1221] not the first to propagate such a scheme—there were contemporary analogues, from Style in Language, edited by Thomas Sebeok (1960) to The Structuralist Controversy, by Eugenio Donato and Richard Macksey (1970)—but P&H nevertheless offered the most elaborate version, from which its closest analogue, Glyph—founded and edited in 8 volumes (with 2 supplements “after 8”) by Samuel Weber (1977–1980)—, took its brief but brilliant departure. In short, P&H was modern, even cutting-edge, for reasons that are barely recognizable nowadays and at the time little perceived in the American academy—leaving aside for the moment the content or substance conveyed by this vehicle, whose innovations have in the meantime become commonplace, while the edge of the cutting-edge has been lost in the ensuing success of the “French Connection,” as Geoffrey Hartman memorably called it, alluding to its secret German origins (96–98).

For that is what it was in the first, and, as such, forgotten respect, the research group with the logo P&H: it was the first “theory” enterprise—the first and only one, in fact, to not just collect the results or remains of a conference, but to practice theory as the regular routine of a fixed and permanent group of corresponding members—plus a small number of ad hoc invited guests, varying according to special demands. The group’s practice, as I have said, was theory, but that theory was neither one and the same, nor was it theory as such; it was thematically-focused theory, which would then go on to develop, in its shifting theoretical attention, a series of consecutive re-focalizations. The work of the group lasted for over 30 years, and came to an end whose sense of an ending still remains an open question, fully explainable neither by the end of theory nor the exhaustion of its members. The mere fact that one of the founders, Hans Robert Jauss, died shortly after finishing a retrospective of the group’s 30 years of existence remains a circumstantial and by no means conclusive piece of evidence. The inability of the group to continue and transcend the generational barrier of its founding members points rather to the post-war situation of the group’s origin; it illuminates the historical situatedness of the theoretical enterprise and reveals the war—not just any war, but the double war that was the twentieth century—as the primal scene of what became known as, and was fought over as, theory; of a war that continued in, or was continuous with theory, worked through, sublated, or repressed in theory.2 I will come back to [End Page 1222] this in what follows, but it may also be useful to have mentioned this most basic point from the outset.

What I will not do—except in passing—is to evaluate the complicated logic of selection and distinction of the members and guests over the years. What I cannot do is give an adequate account of the proceedings over those years. But what I would like to do is give some first impression of the innovative power of the group’s organization (I). And what I will also attempt is a closer, if all too limited, look at the original constellation of the group (II) as well as one prime example of of the group’s aim (III), given that both the constellation of the group and the exemplary instances of the debate embedded in it have become almost unreadable over the decades of...


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