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73rd National Postgraduate Colloquium in German Studies (24/11/23)

Written by Katie Unwin |

On Friday 24 November 2023, the 73rd National Postgraduate Colloquium in German Studies saw speakers and participants from the USA, Germany, Austria, France and the UK meet at Senate House in London for a day of academic, professional and personal exchange. We were treated to a wide array of papers from a diverse range of areas within the multifaceted and international discipline of German Studies. From memory work to the place of language in identity building, scholars from History, Literature, Culture, Language and more came together in a demonstration of the enduring capacity of German Studies to inspire vital research and create meaningful change.

The Colloquium, which started in 1987 at the University of London, is a twice-yearly event run by graduate students for graduate students and is meant as a space where scholars can present their research together with peers, enjoy feedback and build lasting friendships and networks. We are especially fortunate to be able to regularly welcome researchers from universities in mainland Europe and North America, which greatly enriches the exchange with new perspectives from different academic traditions. Friday’s colloquium was a shining example of this and inspires excitement for future meetings (upcoming on Thursday 2 and Friday 3 May 2024).

Panel 1, titled Space and Memory saw speakers discuss sites of memory and culture: what is their mission, how do people respond and react to them and how they have evolved over the years? How are these spaces represented in literature? What can we stand to learn by interacting with them, both physically as we visit in person and on a theoretical level as we look at them as concepts that also transcend spatial borders? 

The first paper of the day came from Cambridge PhD student Beatrice Leeming and postulated the non-academic public as a key component in the curation of memory sites. When considering how we access history through an educational (though not necessarily academic or political) lens, it was suggested that dialogue about remembering needs to be about the act rather than the theory of Holocaust memory. Using examples like virtual reality and the interactive classroom, participants were tasked with considering how memory work might look in the future and what part the general public will play in this as Holocaust memory sites continue to bear the strain of tourism and footfall.

Markus Grill from the University of Vienna followed with an interrogation of the Wiener Kaffeehaus [Viennese coffee house] as a unique intertextual, literary and historical site. Looking at the mythologisation of the Kaffeehaus, it was revealed that the sites maintain a community-building effect and shape collective self-images and perceptions of the nation of Austria, contributing to the concept of an Austrian identity. Following Pierre Nora's ideas, Grill’s paper posited the Viennese coffee house as a literary lieu de mémoire (site of memory). Further, the paper used textual representations of the Kaffeehaus to explore the interaction of different symbolic systems (synchronous intertextuality) along a timeline (diachronic intertextuality). 

Kathrin Witter and Florence Platford answer questions after their presentations

In Panel 2, Criticism and Theory, the techniques of Heiner Müller and Walter Benjamin were taken to task to better understand the critical capacity of aesthetics and its real-world impact.

After a short break, Kathrin Witter from Princeton University presented the negative dialectics present in Heiner Müller's ‘Versuchsreihe’, comprising three plays from the middle period of Müller’s dramatic works. While opportunities for negative dialectical thinking, as conceptualised by Theodor W. Adorno, within the realm of GDR philosophy were scarce due to the Marxist-Leninist imperative to uphold the socialist state, Witter’s paper demonstrated that this form of thought still existed in the GDR, manifesting itself within the realm of dramatic literature and theater (using examples from Müller and Brecht).

Florence Platford from Goldsmiths, University of London, then explored how theological debates in Weimar Germany during the interwar period revolved around questions concerning the categorisation of revelation and the potential redemption of the world. Using ‘Benjamin's unique strand of messianic thinking’ as an example, Platford suggested that this emerged to form a position against both sides of Weimar theology's crucial points of disagreement, challenging the ideas of revelation, redemption, and the absolute distinction between the worldly and the divine.