Slavisches Seminar

Aim of the Project

Why literary theory?

Reflections on literary history as conceived by German early romanticism and idealism (i.e. the brothers Schlegel, Schelling, or Hegel), which were of fundamental importance to the entire Central and East European region, can be interpreted as initial impulses towards a literary theory of sorts. Whereas, in the Age of Enlightenment, the East and West Slavic cultures had oriented themselves primarily towards France, subsequently they primarily drew upon German romanticism, classicism, and idealism, opening a dialogue which in turn had repercussions on German culture (e.g., August Cieszkowski as a leading philosopher of the pre-March (Vormärz) period, Michail Bakunin’s exchanges with Richard Wagner, etc.). Despite the significance of such cross-fertilization, it is the works of the Russian formalists beginning in the 1910s that are regarded as the origin of a modern, institutionalised literary theory which for the first time considered literature as an autonomous subject matter. In critical conjunction with de Saussure’s structuralism, they had a considerable influence on the development of literary theories first in Central Europe and later on, carried by the wave of exiles, in the USA and France. This is the point of departure for our project's analysis of the movements of cultural transfer and the histoire croisée of a widely diversified literary theory.

The second movement in the project's focus is that of the movement and transference between the disciplines. The emergence of literary theory – as a new entity – consisted of a rearrangement of elements from other disciplines. Moreover, formalist theory soon transcended the boundaries of literature, taking phenomena from other disciplines as well as social issues into account and, consequently, rapidly advanced into to other areas. This holds especially true for the literature-centric cultures of Central and Eastern Europe: On the one hand, the emerging literary theories developed in the direction of cultural semiotics (Jurij Lotman, s. Lotman 1992, 1992a, 1992b, 1992c) and on the other, in the direction of anthropology (Wolfgang Iser, cf. Iser 1993; Tihanov 2004 already observed this movement), e.g., tying the aesthetics of reception also to anthropologically oriented approaches of the Prague structuralism. For some years now, the “anthropological turn” in theory has been discussed in the Russian context in Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie (initiated by Prochorova 2009; in Vol 122 (2013) of the journal, for instance, there was a reaction to Brejninger 2013). A culturally rooted literary theory (“kulturowa teoria literatury“) has also crystallized in Poland (cf. Nycz / Markowski 2006 and Walas / Nycz 2013). In the more recent Western European debate, in which literary theory gives way to approaches of cultural theory, there has been a convergence between literary and cultural studies in form of a “literary studies as cultural studies“ (cf. Schößler 2006) established in the 1990s in the course of the cultural turn (described primarily by Bachmann-Medick 1996, 2006), whereby it ultimately falls back on concepts stemming from the 1920s (cf. Voßkamp 2003, 75).

Why Central and Eastern Europe?

Literary theory, originally formulated in Central and Eastern Europe, migrated with its scholars. The most outstanding among these scholars are Roman Jakobson and René Wellek and, in the German-speaking area, Erich Auerbach is perhaps most renowned (cf. Konuk 2010 on Auerbach). However, there are also less prominent cases we would like to trace: The Polonist Manfred Kridl from Vilna, for example, dedicated his work to Russian formalism in Poland in the mid-1930s, i.e. around the same time as the theory debates in Prague (cf. Karcz 2002, 105f.). In 1944, Kridl was the first to write about Russian formalism (Kridl 1944) in the USA. In doing so he was followed, in 1955, by Viktor Erlich who before WWII had graduated from Polish Studies in Warsaw and published the first monography of formalist theory and its further development in Czechoslovakia and Poland (Erlich 1955). In other cases, the scholars remained in their home countries and only their ideas migrated, as was the case with the repeated re-contextualization of the theories of Michail Bachtin or Jurij Lotman. Julia Kristeva – a Bulgarian who had relocated to France – in a new reading (or rather: misreading) introduced the Russian theoretician Michail Bachtin to Western Europe as a theoretician of intertextuality. As a result, Bachtin’s ideas were advanced, on the one hand, in the emerging field of intertextuality theory – cf. for instance Lachmann 1990, Mai 1991, Lesic-Thomas 2005 – and, on the other, in the context of postcolonial studies – cf. for instance Young 2000 (cf. Grübel 2011 on the migration of Bachtin’s concept of dialogicity; on the reception of Bachtin cf. Emerson 2010). In this context, Bachtin’s embeddedness in the German tradition of hermeneutics is receiving more attention as of late (cf. Soboleva 2010). A point less established in Western reception is the dependence of Bachtin’s dialogicity on the Russian (and not only Russian) philosophy of religion so often pointed out by Russian Bachtinologists. (cf. for instance Ivanov, 1999, Hirshkop 2002, Tamarčenko 2011). At first, Jurij Lotman received enthusiastic attention from Western European semiology and narrative theory (cf. Schmid 2014), then advanced to a theoretician of culture as a semiosphere, finally, to figure once again act as a narratologist in most recent German theory (Koschorke 2012). Roman Ingarden who in Germany was initially received within the context of the group “Poetics and Hermeneutics,” as of late has been the focus of attention in France: On the one hand, as a missing link between Paris structuralism (via Wellek and Warren’s Theory of Literature from 1949) and reception aesthetics, on the other hand, as was the precursor to neurosemiotics and neurosciences (Po­toc­ki / Schaeffer 2012). Our aim is to examine why some thinkers from the alleged intellectual periphery of Central and Eastern Europe became prominent while others (as the already mentioned Ol’ga Frejdenberg and Stefania Skwarczyńska) are ignored or forgotten. In this way, the project intends to uncover discursive mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion of the scientific development of a canon which dominates the field of literary scholarship.

Although it is our aim to (re-)write the history of literary theory, we do not seek to produce a “grand narrative” about a literary theory partially originating from “minor” cultures and subsequently integrated into the master discourse of Anglo-American and French theories in a transformed form. Instead, many smaller narratives of seemingly local concepts will be integrated into a greater transcultural context.

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