Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

Reich Transformations

Aesthetic Models of Political Transnationality in German Literature, 1800–1945

PD Dr. Uwe Hebekus


This project is focused on models of  aesthetic transformation in the idea of the Reich as it developed in the German-speaking countries as an alternative to the dominant political-cultural orientation of the lead term “nation”. The historical systematic point of the proposed study is as follows:  the model of order for the nation in the period of its greatest political—and at least political-symbolic—popularity in the “long nineteenth century” and beyond is to be found in a simultaneously double asymmetry. On the one hand, the (continental) European nations see themselves exposed to streams of money, wares, signs and people in the wake of capitalism, colonialism and media (r)evolutions. These streams irritate boundary-setting in a lasting way by means of a national structure thought of in bodily terms. On the other hand, these nations equip themselves to a large extent with a political imaginary which points beyond itself. In this manner, to take one example, the universalism of the French constitution exceeds its actual referent in its semantic extension, not only addressing the French nation but all of “humanity” in its trajectory. At the same time, both terms function so that designs of transnationality emerge as the opposite term of the ordering model “nation”. These designs wish to adopt the nation as a central major referent of the political and the cultural, although in place of this major referent, more substantial political structures should appear that can be thought as hegemonically structured. In the German context, which--despite comparative side glances—will be the central concern of the project, this means that (precisely) after the end of the Old Reich [i.e., the Holy Roman Empire] (in 1806) a translatio imperii is felt to be an urgent desideratum while the Old Reich sees such translatio wishes as a type of political-cultural “Pluriversum”. It is precisely here that it provides a structural parameter to a political thought which confronts the boundary-crossing and centralization operations of the ordering model of the “nation”. In the models provided by the field of investigation for this project, it is completely the case that these designs come to take the place of the “nation” through a cultural transnationality which is not centered upon an essential core or a static canon of values but put into operation as a formal principle of aesthetic communication. An equally early and distinctive station for this is the political thought of Johann Wolfgang Goethe. This thought rewrites the traditional Reich topos of  “unity in diversity” and the equally traditional talk of the Reich as a corpus irregulare, transforming them into an aesthetic-political program for communication. It thus gives the principle of metamorphosis, which Goethe had developed in his natural-scientific writings, a cultural-semiotic connotation: intercultural and transnational communication are understood as a functional system organized in relation to itself—a system of a-teleological and inconceivable transformation that reproduces itself via operations of separation, reorganization, differentiation, elimination, and intensification.

As a result, Goethe’s political project of a translatio imperii appears as an attempt to program the cultural identity of Europe not on the basis of consensus but of dialogue, “dialogue” in the sense of a coming together (Ineins) of unification and differentiation. In this way, Goethe’s political thinking is redeployed in the 19th and 20th century as a complete series of attempts to conceive of Europe as post-essentialist and as a parameter of process which is discursive and dynamic. The study proposes to look more closely at this series and others using the following examples: Goethe’s political thought in comparison with essayistic texts of political (early) Romanticism which ascribe to a political program that is non-national in orientation (Friedrich Schlegel); novels of literary Realism which negotiate the wave of globalization at the close of the 19th century (Theodor Fontane, Wilhelm Raabe); Thomas Mann and Rudolf Borchardt’s “Germany” as a discourse of “Europe”; aesthetic models of large political capacities from the Nazi period (Gottfried Benn, Ernst Jünger, Carl Schmitt).

That said, however, the project is not conceived as an attempt at historical reconstruction. Rather it also takes as its point of departure current events. For it is also asking whether and to what extent the translatio-projects, the objects of the proposal study, can be read as the genealogical pre-stages of current attempts to conceive of Europe as a discursive figure (Massimo Cacciari, Jacques Derrida, Bo Stråth). The project thus asks the question—one which is politically volatile—whether the idea and model of Europe as a post-essentialist site of cultural “condensation” is referring back to the political-cultural ordering model of the “Reich”.