The study of contemporary literature has established itself: considering recent dissertations in both German and English studies, it can be observed that an academic reputation in these fields no longer depends on studying canonical authors from a historical distance. Despite its recent career as a research topic in the humanities contemporary literature is still difficult to define in its imminent and emerging forms and therefore challenges the way we use sources, employ methodologies and produce knowledge. These epistemological and practical problems of the study of contemporary literature have so far only selectively been discussed.
Although sociological and praxeological perspectives on the institutional and economic dimensions of contemporary literature have evolved over the last years, such approaches have not yet been systematically combined with basic philological questions to date. Thus, in many examples of research a discrepancy between programmes and practices is still in place: While established orthodoxies concerning, for example, authorship and the constitution and formation of literary oeuvres are invoked on the theoretical level, such positioning often stands in direct contradiction to habitualized research practices as for instance the referencing of author interviews.
Such contradictions can be traced back to a tension between explicit and implicit knowledge. In the case of literary studies, this tension flourishes in an institutional situation producing role conflicts and increasingly fuzzy relations of proximity and distance: When authors lecture on poetics and participate in academic conferences, when academics chair these authors’ readings and write reviews of their newest works, we need a more sustained inquiry into the criteria and standards, premises and tools of the production of knowledge in this context. What is at stake is nothing less than a rigorous reflection on the interferences and conflicting responsibilities between creativity and critique in an academic environment.
With the doctoral programme “Schreibszene Frankfurt” we have established a research infrastructure for eight early career researchers (1 postdoctoral, 7 doctoral positions) at Goethe University of Frankfurt in order to break new ground in contemporary literary studies and develop new career options: our doctoral and postdoctoral candidates in literary and cultural studies have the opportunity to recontextualize established philological methods and to explore new forms of research from comparative and empirically enriched perspectives. At its core, the project combines qualification, reflection and experimentation. In cooperation with fellow researchers in Frankfurt and abroad, the members of the “Schreibszene” receive support that builds on the experiences and best practice examples of structured doctoral programmes: establishing networks and professionalization are neither confined to one “training module” nor do we encourage a uniform habitus based on a strictly shared theoretical foundation. It is the aim of the programme to combine the professional training for academic and non-academic careers with a confident and autonomous scrutiny of research practices at this early stage. This focus on the institutional entanglement of our own research also implies that the “Schreibszene” was not built as a creative writing programme. We rather see ourselves as observers and commentators of contemporary literature who share a strong interest in modifying and improving academic writing practices and formats.
The research group explores relations between literary and academic reading and writing by addressing the epistemological potential of various constellations: First, the position of philology as a discipline inside and outside the university, secondly the position of Goethe University of Frankfurt with its unique traditions and setting, and thirdly the city of Frankfurt as an opportunity for networking, thick description and empirical observation. Our research is not dedicated to Frankfurt field work, however. The city rather serves as a testing ground for research expanding the humanities in several ways: We do not consider the university as a space exclusively hosting criticism and critiques of contemporary phenomena; and we are convinced that promising career paths in the fields of literary and cultural studies can be built on a foundation of institutional self-observation that will also contribute to improve the theoretical and methodological rigour of the study of contemporary literature.
The Concept of “Schreibszene“
Using Frankfurt as an empirical, but mainly heuristic setting, we will incorporate ethnographic and sociological perspectives into our study of literature. In order to connect these perspectives to established philological approaches, we will adopt a modified version of the concept of “Schreibszene”, a term Rüdiger Campe introduced in 1991. Various literary scholars such as Stingelin, Giuriato and Zanetti have used this concept to scrutinize the role of writing as a cultural technique within literary studies. The term “Schreibszene” is marked by a conceptual openness allowing to reconsider the aesthetics of texts and their production. Moreover, “Schreibszene” refers to a historically and culturally variable situation encompassing the physicality, materiality and mediality of literary and non-literary acts of writing and thus takes us beyond a more limited focus on rhetoric, poetics or editorial aspects.
To still expand and sharpen our study of contemporary literature we will open up the term “Schreibszene” to include stagings of collective and intermedial forms of literary reception and production. Every year the Frankfurt Book Fair contributes to the discourse on contemporary literature in the form of an international event: here, literature is simultaneously and multiply present in places such as banks, museums and many other urban venues. In addition to the Book Fair literary institutions such as the Büchner Prize and the German Book Prize coexist in close proximity in the Rhine-Main region; and last but not least writers such as E. Henscheid, M. Mosebach und W. Genazino use the city as a setting for their novels. Expanding and specifying the local and spatial dimension of the original definitions of “Schreibszene” allows us to conceptualize and describe contemporary literature as a contingent interplay of agents, practices, routines and methods operating across different media, institutions and contexts.
With the help of the expanded concept of “Schreibszene” the type of research on contemporary literature that we envision will depart from well-established research on literary production, literary institutions and the sociology of scenes. With a focus on constellations such as the city, the university and the discipline we build on research traditions that continue to emphasize the role of scholarly and artistic production of knowledge as site-specific research, as for instance in science and technology studies. An important part of our research will be dedicated to concretizing the global and transnational networks of contemporary literature from a site-specific perspective.
Projects and Activities
The objective of our research group is to relate perspectives of national and comparative literary studies to those of sociology, ethnography and cultural anthropology. The current members of the “Schreibszene” are based in literary, cultural and media studies, but they work closely with associates and supervisors in the above mentioned fields and disciplines. The blog on the “Schreibszene” website provides regular updates on the group’s activities bridging theory and praxis, academic and non-academic writing. A regular open colloquium held on Mondays during term time serves to document the work on individual projects in collaboration with Frankfurt-based colleagues and guests. Upcoming events such as a workshop on the concept on the “scene” and an international and interdisciplinary conference on notions of contemporaneity are announced on the website. Further information on the members’ and the directors’ research can be found in the individual project descriptions.