Blog: Dialing 999 for Authors

Dialing 999 for Authors in Contemporary German Studies: Thoughts on 2014 AGS Conference

What do 1968, a popular East German TV crime series, and contemporary theatre production practices have in common? Authorship, of course! Not so intuitive? Well, please read on…

The setting is Manchester in early April 2014, and the occasion is the annual conference of the Association for German Studies in Great Britain and Ireland (AGS) – 80 or so university academics have met to exchange their latest research ideas, mingle with publishers, and take stock on continuing efforts to promote all things German across the British Isles.

As it happens, critical re-evaluation of great authorship is officially on the menu: the title of the lead panel is ‘Re-thinking Brecht’. Not only did consecutive panels highlight the different ways in which academic research is reconsidering Bertolt Brecht’s work and influence, Tom Kuhn and Steve Giles also shared their practical re-creative practices in translating, editing, and performing Brecht for the Anglophone world.

Yet re-thinking an author’s literary legacy is not the same as re-thinking authorship. Later cultural practitioners who ‘occupy’ Brecht’s artistic work with their own (to borrow a term from Karen Leeder) may tread an ambivalent line between championing his insights and forcing a simplified understanding of his person and his work into contemporary art. But whatever they do, and however scholars analyse it, we are all still working under the auspices of Michel Foucault’s canonical ‘author-function’. Collectively a disparate set of texts is lent significance, coherence and wider social relevance by their shared point of origin, such that the author’s name becomes a powerful signpost in our cultural surroundings. We might turn the signposts around the other way, or even paint over them, but they nevertheless remain obstinately central to our thinking.

The recent theatre production history of Feridun Zaimoglu’s ‘Schwarze Jungfrauen’ bears this point out beautifully. Lizzie Stewart talked us through three of the numerous productions that have been staged across Germany since the premiere in 2006. Yet however diversely the individual directors have appropriated the material (and German ‘Regietheater’ is famously irreverent towards the original script), the reception in each case has coalesced around the play’s origins at the hand of Germany’s most famous living Turkish-German author. Where the play itself is calling out for critical engagement with cultural stereotypes, it seems there is nothing anyone can do to stop it being discussed primarily as the product of its massively stereotyped author.

Has the cultural industry learned nothing? Almost fifty years earlier and in tune with the rest of the Western world, a significant section of Germany’s literary community had already made a sustained attempt to emancipate themselves not just from the grand old bourgeois men of letters embodied by such figures as Thomas Mann and Goethe, but also from the institutional backbone of ‘great’ authorship: conservative broadsheets, elite publishing houses, and hagiographic degrees in literary studies. But the much proclaimed ‘death of literature’ that was heralded by the doyen of radical left-wing literary thinking, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, in 1968 did not lead to any diminution in literary output, either then or subsequently. Why? Mererid Puw-Davies explained the paradox underpinning Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s famous essay ‘Commonplaces on Contemporary Literature’ (an essay, incidentally, which shares much with the apodictic yet slippery style of Roland Barthes). Enzensberger sets out an ideal of politically-effective authorial activity that is located in collective action and represents a fundamental emancipation from the literary text. Yet, like Barthes, he does so through reference to a set of his own authorial ‘signposts’ – Chairman Mao, Ulrike Meinhof and Fritz Teufel, to name but a few . With this, his own indebtedness to the very concept of an author-function is all too apparent. His text, with his name at the bottom, will accordingly become a privileged part of this wider cartography, and his ideal is at all times belied by the real text in which it is formulated.

So is there no model within contemporary German Studies for escaping great men and their canonical texts? I found food for thought in Laura Bradley’s paper on the East German TV crime series: ‘Polizeiruf 110’. The long-running collaboration between the criminal police bureau and state-controlled TV programming department in a highly censored society seems an unlikely place to look for the symbolic overthrow of authority. And yet what emerged from the intricate negotiations that went on behind the production throughout the 1970s and 1980s is arguably an understanding of collective authorship that rendered the actual authors – the original script writers – just one point of original creative input within the much longer and more nuanced process that determined the series’ production and reception.

Television is of course different from literature. However, when it comes to reflecting on our own practice as we read, watch, and discuss art and literature, there is much to be learned from more sustained engagement with authorship issues in this popular medium. Foucault & co. point out the wider social processes in which authors operate, but they – and those of us who follow in their footsteps –  nevertheless tend to end up fetishizing the individual agent within our scholarly objects of enquiry. The production team on a long-running TV series by contrast physically embodies the collaborative process behind making public the creative ideas of any one individual. Literary studies would be greatly enriched by reflecting more on the equivalent networks of negotiation underpinning a text’s genesis amidst the different pulls of publishers, translators, sales people, critics, authors, and literary and academic institutions.

Posted 22 April 2014 by Rebecca Braun


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