Interview with Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

Marisa Galvez: What has been the place of medieval studies in your pursuit of main concepts and questions throughout your career, such as presence, belatedness, and even in your writings about sports?

Sepp Gumbrecht: You know how grateful and enthusiastic I am, and how inspiring I found this 1967 colloquium in February. Although the colloquium was about my work, that is not the reason why I thought it was so good, or why I was so enthusiastic about it, precisely because in the end it was not just about me and my work. However, if there were one thing about my work that I would have liked to be more directly visible is that influence of medieval studies. You talked about it, and Heather [Webb] talked about it, but you are official medievalists. I would say that nothing of the books I have written and of the ideas I had—if ever I was able to make an impact through them—has not been inspired by medieval studies. Neither do I say that with a regret, nor do I mean that I should have remained a medievalist, nor am I saying this because I feel obliged to say it. To elaborate more on it, I will give you a couple of examples. I believe that the entire intuition of Production of Presence, as well as the one that drove me in The Powers of Philology and in Atmosphere, Mood, Stimmung, and even ultimately In Praise of Athletic Beauty, are related to my previous work as a medievalist. This is a kind of a syndrome that shows in these four books, in which I work through these three or four dimensions of life—presence, atmosphere, beauty and the body. This syndrome includes a skepticism against a Schleiermacher- and Gadamer-type of hermeneutics, which I think would have never emerged in my work without me having started out as a medievalist.

As far as presence is concerned, both the phenomena that I wanted to write about and the definition that I propose in Production of Presence, of course, are directly taken out of the medieval theology of the Eucharist, the Pre-Reformation theology of the Eucharist. Although I am not officially a philosopher, that book is clearly a philosophical book and it wants to be a philosophical book, whose intuitions are drawn from medieval theology. And the intuition was there, it is almost embarrassing to say, in the Aristotelian concept of the symbolon, as opposed to the Saussurean concept of the sign, the concept where the symbolon, or the sign, is substance and form, as opposed to signified and signifier. I don’t think this would have ever been so important to me had I not become a medievalist. And we could perhaps say that I would not have become a medievalist had I not grown up in a Catholic cultural environment. I will add one thing: if my parents had been terribly Catholic, Catholicism and medieval theology would not have been so interesting to me. Strangely, my parents obliged me to go to church, to be an altar boy, to be very Catholic, but they were not terribly convinced themselves about religion. They probably thought that it was just good for me culturally. And this was the friction: not having ever been part of Catholic culture, but simultaneously being part of it while seeing it from outside. Until the present day I have a huge sympathy [for Catholic culture]. I would never defend the Catholic Church and Catholic culture as a phenomenon altogether, and their many negative things. But I hardly go to Rome without going to the Vatican, as I like this environment.

Nevertheless, to talk once again about presence—the concept and not the book. I would also say that the basic question I was pursuing in Production of Presence emerged in another book of mine, In 1926: Living on the Edge of Time. This book was not only my first book written at Stanford, but the book that—if I look back today—marks the beginning of my ideas making a difference. I think that, if people associate anything from the books I have written over the past two or three decades with me as a scholar now, it had started with In 1926.

MG: That’s the first book I read of yours.

SG: Yeah, of course. In that book—and this is not so visible—I inherited a question from Marc Bloch, from his La Société Feodale. The two projects were completely different, and yet Marc Bloch’s question in La Société Feodale is the same I had in In 1926: whether you can describe medieval culture synchronically. For Marc Bloch, that meant the first feudal systems and the second feudal systems being described together. Each of the two parts of this book are descriptions of a synchronic system. Not of one year, like In 1926, but nevertheless a synchronic description. And the question I was really pursuing—and I had been happily pursuing it for a long time before I wrote In 1926 and before the idea of an alphabetical order for the book’s chapters had crossed my mind—was: how can one, and I am deliberately using these words, conjure the past in a non-narrative way. I say in a non-narrative way, because a narrative way would inevitably imply soft causality. I mean soft causality as in the Latin proposition post hoc propter hoc. In that sense, describing a phenomenon or a time synchronically is Bloch’s question too.

Now, with In Praise of Athletic Beauty—and that’s the real title, though it has many translations, and some of the translated titles are horrible, like “In praise of sports.” It is not “In praise of sports,” but In Praise of Athletic Beauty. In that book, I was writing about the aesthetic appreciation of a bodily performance that does not have to imply that this bodily performance expresses anything in terms of meaning or concepts. This dimension of expression that does not achieve a meaning, once again, I believe, is something that I would have probably never found an angle to tackle it had it not been for the middle ages—even though its main inspiration is that I’ve always been a sports fan.

I will give you one last example, the first real book project that I will start post-retirement has the provisional title Mystical Bodies. This project is not a rehabilitation of crowds, but something like saying that crowds are not only negative, so that I can describe a type of sociability that sociology has always overlooked, namely when people are just being together, like in a stadium, when a Pope gives a mass, or a public viewing of a sports event, when people are not necessarily interested in the sports event that is being broadcasted, but they want to be together. It is not random that the only concept that I can find to refer to that phenomenon is the earliest self-description and self-reference of medieval Christianity, as Christ’s mystical body.

Finally, if we twist your question in a negative way, I seem to be incapable to have any good idea, or any idea capable of producing resonance, which in the end I will not discover that “well, well, well, although I wanted to do something really new, it is all set in my medievalist’s beginnings.” What I say about it has nothing to do with better or worse, whether the ideas are better if they can’t be traceable to an academic origin, but it is quite interesting that it seems so. Of course, I hope that what I’m describing “autobiographically,” is similar to one of those cases, as it is with [Paul] Zumthor and [Hugo] Kuhn. Zumthor always remained the great medievalist he was, but he also has a fantastic book on Amsterdam in the 17th century. And while he always continued to be a medievalist—the same is true for Kuhn, and for others as well—, this was not a limitation of his intellectual horizon.

To conclude on a note about nowadays, I want to clarify that I am not making a systematic argument about medievalism or medievalist origins being better, which I think one could ever run with, but maybe that is a concluding favorable statement for the study of medieval culture in an environment where more and more students, who want to do literature, see literature as synonymous with contemporary literature, spanning a maximum of 30 or 40 years past. I somewhat regret that it is the case, where Ulysses by [James] Joyce or [Marcel] Proust’s work would be too far away. In such an environment, I think that this inspiring otherness from medieval times, this inspiring resistance that the period imposes on us, and this hermeneutic difficulty—maybe even the impossibility—of accessing medieval culture should be emphasized because it is so different and not readily accessible. It is probably your experience and my experience as instructors, that we will not have the greatest enrollments in this present environment, but it can be something fascinating when, in a college context with particularly intelligent people, students may profit during a short time from what we are teaching, in a way that helps them develop their minds. And if they then continue writing code, become politicians, or investment bankers, it is all fine with me. I’ve nothing on earth against it, but this resistance imposed by the time, and working against this difficulty, is something we should cultivate.

MG: This is my favorite question. As you were speaking about Kuhn earlier, can you talk a little bit about his influence on your work, especially in terms of medieval culture and texts? Do you see a genealogy of scholarship revolving around Kuhn? Maybe you could say a few words about how he was like, how he was in a classroom.

SG: As I guess we say in American English, I think I ran into Kuhn in my third or fourth semester. I had started with Germanistik, German Studies, and Romanistik, as they say in Germany for Romance Studies or Romance Philology. I must say that, after the first three semesters, I was so disappointed with the two fields that I was about to say “Ok, I do something reasonable.” I would have probably studied Law, which I still think I wouldn’t have been bad at. Anyway… Back then, when I was still in doubt, I attended this Vorlesung by Kuhn on the medieval Tristan topic—Hugo Kuhn, who had a certain aura, as he was a big deal, and although I remember the topic, I don’t know what the title was. That lecture was a real turning point, not so much in the sense of giving me the feeling “Oh, there was a method, a way of doing things,” but more so in the sense that there was this amazingly intelligent and engaging person who was the Vorleser. The course ran twice a week, forty-five minutes for each lecture. In a way, I wanted to be like him, even knowing that I wouldn’t have ever been like him, but the thought I had was: “If that is possible in the humanities, in literary studies, then it is worth doing it.” It is worth doing it still because you can be exposed to such people and they can be so inspiring. Also, even if I tried not to copy him or his style, the idea that I could try to be something like, this type of life would be existentially worthwhile.

However, in terms of academic genealogy, there is an awareness of such genealogy that started with Kuhn. I do think that this notion remains in the closer world of medieval studies in Germany, which continues to be relatively large and it is kind of a sub-dimension of German Studies. I think the people of your generation, a generation in which you’d be very young, but which includes people from your age up to scholars who are in their mid-fifties, there are still what you call an Enkelschüler—the immediate students of Kuhn—and they still feel that there is a certain “genealogical” coherence. It is in the nature of such genealogies that they get a little bit blurred, even when there is an awareness that there was somebody very, very important, and very charismatic, unique. If I ask myself in what way he was important for me, I would start with something that has nothing to do specifically with medieval studies. It is much more about a way of being inspiring as an instructor and as a scholar, which Florian Klinger at our colloquium (After 1967) tried to describe, giving me the honor of using me as an example. When Florian was giving his paper, I felt like “This is exactly like Kuhn.” That would be this capacity of being inspiring not by directly saying “Oh, you are very good and you can do this and this and this,” but being inspiring in the sense of not setting any limits. I sometimes say something to my students that reminds me of Kuhn, although Kuhn had no way of saying that. I tell them “You shouldn’t try to apply Foucault’s method or being like Foucault, you should try being better than Foucault.” It is very unlikely that this will ever happen, that a student of mine will be better than Foucault, but Foucault’s work is already out there and why should you not be the one who perhaps is even better, or do your own thing, like Foucault did. That was very much the feeling of Hugo Kuhn.

I’ll give more details, so you can imagine the impact. I was in the third semester. I was then very much—if there is a German equivalent—a sophomore, or something like that. Hugo Kuhn treated me like he treated his doctoral students, and like he treated his assistant professors—in Germany, assistant professors are somebody’s assistant—or even like his colleagues. He treated me the same way as he treated them, and that was encouraging. Although it could have felt like a load on my shoulders, it never did. One could say if somebody expects so much, then this is too much for you to take, that you cannot bear that. But I did not have that feeling. Instead, I had a feeling of a freedom, of a space to be conquered. More importantly, a space to be conquered my way, as with him it was not about doing academic work his way.

Despite all that freedom, of course, there are certain intuitions and concepts, which I first heard from him and that I am still using, although some people now think I’ve invented them. One of them is this concept of Faszinationstypen. The concept is about how certain topics are fascinating and they pervade all different literary and non-literary forms, all the different genres, in certain historical moments. To give an example: in the 12th century, the relationship between erotic love and society. This is precisely fascinating for that time because there is no stable solution for that. The complimentary concept to Faszinatiostypen is that of Inszenierungstypen, which means staging types, or types of “ins-encenation.” That would be, for example, the ballads in the late middle ages or early modernity, i.e., the staging form of the ballad which would be capable of absorbing any fascination with any topic. When I am explaining these are concepts, they don’t sound that genius, but that at the time nobody had thought of them. And that was very, very inspiring.

However, the most inspiring ideas for me were taken from the moments he was lecturing about medieval troubadour poetry. He was the great specialist on Walter von der Vogelweide, who happens to have a specific historical relationship with my hometown. In my hometown, people claim that the bones and the grave of Walter von der Vogelweide are in Wurzburg. That is probably a romantic invention. Nevertheless, his most influential idea for me was that a performance can never completely count with an institutionalized situation. That a performance creates its own situation. Like in our conversation. This conversation now is different from the conversation that we had two hours ago, we are reconstituting it. The speech act theory was not around yet, but this idea that, whenever you are in an interaction and whenever you are in communication with someone, you produce something that is unique to that moment. That, I think, is an important idea, and that is also an impulse for imagination that has never left me, which I developed with him. I think it is not very central in my work philosophically, but it is very central in whatever I am doing, both by doing it, by creating a classroom and by creating a seminar, which are always different. Also, the desire of retrieving that original context of performance, to reconstruct it, to reconstruct it with a desire to, however impossible that may be, to become part of that situation in the past.

MG: To stay on a similar topic, can you talk a little bit about Zumthor’s influence on your work, and about the colloquium Materialities of Communication?

SG: This was a colloquium that we organized in a country which no longer exists, Yugoslavia, with a German colleague whose work is unfortunately underestimated in this country, Ludwig Pfeiffer, even though he is an amazing Anglicist. There were five colloquia I organized in the 1980s. One of them took place in Yugoslavia, precisely because Yugoslavia was officially a socialist country, so it belonged to the Warsaw Pact of the State Socialist countries, with the Soviet Union and so forth.

MG: What was the date again?

SG: The colloquia were from 1981 to 1989. And this was the fourth colloquium, which happened in 1987 and was called Materialities of Communication. That is the only colloquium whose edited volume is translated, at least a selection of it, into English. Now, why in Yugoslavia? Because it was the only country in the world that allowed people from “capitalist countries,” Western countries I mean, not only to organize intellectual events, but also to spend Western money there. Another amazing reason for the colloquium to have happened there, it was the only country among the state socialist countries, including East Germany and the Soviet Union, that had no official reason not to let their own scholars go if they were invited. We never had more than 5, 6 or 7 people from officially socialist countries, but it was possible then. Now, this has little or nothing to do with medieval studies, but the title materialities of communication does. What was hidden—or maybe not so hidden after all—behind the title was an anti-hermeneutic effect we were interested in discussing. The idea that, while the reconstruction of meaning and attribution of meaning were still perfectly legitimate operations of reading, there must be other dimensions of dealing with cultural artifacts or cultural phenomena that are not circumscribed to the attribution of meaning. We chose the word materialities because we were in socialist, and officially Marxist states, and materiality sounded like a Marxist concept back then. We never truly had such Marxist intentions, but we thought that we were successful in playing on them, and that it would have given a good pretext for people from East Germany, Poland, or Yugoslavia, and so forth, to participate. That was the specific environment created in that colloquium.

This was really a dynamite colloquium, in every sense, in my recollection. In some senses that are not so good for websites, but I’ll tell you privately one day. That colloquium was the turning point of my private life too. There were two protagonists, who may not have been so central for the colloquium’s organization, but who were, for me, already important, even more so retrospectively speaking. There were superstars back then, like Jean-François Lyotard and Niklas Luhmann, and others. But the two most interesting people, for the topic of our interview topic and as I remember, were Friedrich Kittler on the one hand, and Paul Zumthor on the other. Kittler, who I think, is rightfully considered the founder of media studies today. He was the first real great mind, who was interested in media also, and I should say that he invented a concept we can invoke in French, sensibilité culturelle. Nobody was interested in broken shellac records, or radio from the 1930s, or telephones from the 1940s, not before Kittler. The concept speaks not only to his theories, which he developed, but to a whole cultural sensitivity that he is famous for today.

The other influential person was Paul Zumthor, who in the 70s and 80s went through a very profound epistemological rebooting and reorientation of his approach, not only to medieval culture, but mainly to medieval culture. He went from a thoroughly semiotic to a more performance oriented approach. His was a very impressive semiotic way of reading, for if you have a semiotic approach you read everything in medieval culture in a similar way to Umberto Eco’s style, who was then the name in semiotics within medieval studies. However, performance, as he later meant it, stressed not only the body moving, but also the singing of troubadour songs, or even writing as performance as well. With very different cultural sensibilities and intellectual styles, I think these two colleagues and friends, and amazing scholars, were central for this colloquium. I don’t say that only because we are talking about medieval studies, or in any way to rank them today, but in my personal ranking I think Zumthor was the number one, precisely because he was more open and less fixated on his own view of things.

To explain more what I have been saying, even if it may sound strange, as it would require more explanation than what I am about to present. I think that the greatness of Friedrich Kittler was his mythographic talent. He could invent stories and histories about very counterintuitive theses. For example, that each great mediatic invention comes out of a war situation. Do I believe that? No. But the idea served to weave fantastic stories and to develop very provocative theses. I think that people who have been working against these theses have been as important as people working for them. He was also not the best speaker. Indeed, he triggered amazing discussions, but once he had read his manuscript with the speed of light, and he wanted to smoke a cigarette after it, it was no longer interesting. On the contrary, Zumthor had a natural talent, what you call in German, Weltoffenheit. He was interested in people, something I think we share. These people don’t have to be as brilliant as you are. Of course, when I have a student like you, it is very special, but you know, I am also interested in people with much more normal, limited, middle-level talents (who should perhaps never have been admitted to a place like Stanford). Zumthor had that broad interest in people and ideas too. So, it was not about saying who was better or worse, but these were the two central protagonists, and this is why I return to them at the end of the introduction to my book, Production of Presence, and that would be the philological proof of what I am saying, of the impact they had on that colloquium.

As I have said before, that book would have never happened without my beginning in medieval studies—I wrote in the introduction what I am just saying now—and it would not have happened without this colloquium, as Production of Presence, published almost 20 years later, was the redemption of the basic intuition of that colloquium about materiality of communication. They both share the desire of being more than just this Oedipal resistance against hermeneutics, they both wanted to offer an alternative. Not an alternative that completely rejected any interpretation. Of course, that would be idiotic. But I do think that Production of Presence has had the success it has had because it says, “ok, this is a different way of dealing with cultural artifacts.” Again, not in the sense that you can’t or shouldn’t interpret. There’s the written proof of what I was saying about the various influences on my work in general, in the introduction to that book, where I invoked several friends, colleagues, and scholars. One of the two most important colleagues is Zumthor, and I would actually say the most important one. Although we started with Kuhn, he was dead by the time the colloquium took place. On a side note, it was actually interesting that Zumthor had never met Kuhn personally. When I met Zumthor, I thought he was like me, maybe that the first communication that we had. I was convinced that he was a completely hors de série, unusual, and inspiring medievalist.

By the way, to finish with your question about Zumthor with an anecdote, his nephew, Peter Zumthor, is one of the signature architects of our times. And I owe that I am friends with Peter Zumthor to the fact that Peter Zumthor had never seen his uncle. Somebody told Peter that I had been friends with his uncle. I was at a colloquium in Zürich at the ETH, and all of a sudden “wow, that’s Peter Zumthor,” and he just came to me and said, “you know, yes, I bought one of your books, Production of Presence, it was very interesting, but I really want to know about my uncle.”

MG: How come he didn’t know about his uncle?

SG: Because the Zumthors are, what we call in Swiss, Baselbieter, not from the city of Basel, but from the countryside of Basel, so their first language would have been German. Like Federer, the great tennis player. But for some reason, and I don’t know why, Paul’s father moved to Geneva so early in his life that Paul’s native language was neither Hochdeutsch nor Swiss German, but French. Then, his intellectual career developed mainly in France. He was for a short time in Leipzig, in Germany, before the end of World War II. It is interesting that—maybe because he came from outside—he has never had any official intellectual recognition in France. To put it bluntly, because they were both there, everybody knew that Paul was much better than Daniel Poirion, for example. Unfortunately, Poirion was the one whom we rate the best. Nevertheless, the chair at the Sorbonne was Poirion, which meant that Paul Zumthor would not have had the chance to go to Collège de France. He ended his academic career not in Amsterdam, or in France, but in Montréal. As later in life Paul became the author of very respectable historical novels, and an even better one of poetry in French, today he is considered one of the great twentieth century authors of littérature Quebecoise. I think this anecdote about his career shows Paul’s openness, which I was speaking about. He was, I think, the greatest literary medievalist of the twentieth century, and you see I like rankings. At the same time, he was much more than just a medievalist. But much more because he was a medievalist.

MG: Can you speak about the milieu or the atmosphere of Stanford when René Girard, Michel Serres, you, Brigitte Cazelle, Jeffrey Schnapp and Robert Harrison were still here? Can you talk about a certain time when those kind of medievalists were here? Were there specific intellectual exchanges that come to mind, which emerged from this community at a certain time at Stanford?

SG: If that atmosphere were not so specific to Stanford at that time, and if it would have interested other people than us at Stanford, this would be almost an anthology. Describing the contrast between the type of intellectual sociability that took place at Stanford then, within the humanities, and compare it to today’s, this description shows an amazing contrast. If I look at the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages today, I think our strength—maybe not just at the DLCL, but within the humanities at large, although there are ups and downs—is an enormous homogeneity of quality that exists today. I am speaking about a generation, in which you are the tail end, which includes people who are 10 to 15 years older than you are, the middle career-generation.

On a very practical note, and I will be honest, when I came to Stanford in 1989, when students would tell me “I’m going to take a course with professor X,” there were always moments in which, without wanting to hurt Professor X and without creating a scandal, I wanted to politely tell them “this is a waste of your time, to take that.” At Stanford, especially in the foreign language philology departments, to call them the German way, like French, like Italian, Russian, and so forth, there were colleagues whose only merit was that they were native speakers. To say it in a parodic form, they were native speakers and had once or twice read a book in their lives. Simultaneously, we had a couple of superstars, which felt weird in the same context.

I start with the most famous, because he was in the English department, Ian Watt. Due to The Rise of the Novel, he was still referred to as one of the greatest Anglicists of all times. Moreover, we had towering figures like René Girard, Michel Serres, John Freccero, whose work I am not terribly fond of, but who’s important. From outside, even before I came to Stanford, after I had got an offer, I was asking myself “Is this a place I really want to go?” One the one hand, there were all these giants, who were all good and fantastic. On the other, there was not much in between the starts and the other type of colleagues. I think that this gap is what has really disappeared in the past 25, or 30 years. Which leads me to say that this has been a very, very exciting trajectory at Stanford.

But was there much conversation between those stars and us, the younger people? Between Serres and Girard and Robert Harrison, or Brigitte? She was a bit older than us, but she was not on the same generation as Girard, certainly not in terms of visibility, even if I think she was a terrific colleague. Indeed, there was not much of a conversation. There was rather an encouragement, and an underlying reason to be proud of, to have them here and to be at the same university where Michel Serres was teaching. Do I think that he had much of an impact on Stanford colleagues or Stanford students? Unfortunately, not. But the fact that he was here, would come every year, and somehow would find that environment interesting enough, was encouraging.

On the contrary, René was more dedicated to Stanford. He was a very successful undergraduate instructor, which was not the case with the graduate students. Perhaps because he had a hard time understanding why anybody would not agree with him. I am not saying that as an aggressive criticism. He was so deeply convinced that he was always right. I mean, if you have a book title, which is not self-ironic and says “Things hidden in literature since the beginning of the world,” and if this is your theory, you are not the best person to tease out what a graduate student has to say. Nevertheless, the fact was that he was here, that he was the most present among the superstars.

As for Robert Harrison, Girard and Serres—and he pretends that Freccero too—were important to him, even though I don’t see any traces of their influence in Robert’s work. Robert Harrison, whom I consider one of the greatest humanists in the world today, I would even go so far as to say second to none, is definitely the great Dantist and Italianist. For the younger among us, maybe their presence had a different value, for Patricia Parker, who was brought to Stanford a year before I was, myself, I think that for Roland [Greene] too. For those people, myself included, their presence was like a statement that it is possible to live at this university as a humanist, which was then a more technical university. Once again, I am not saying that it was a problem. I am and was perfectly happy with that. In that sense, I think we had a different development than the humanities at MIT. And that different development may have to do—and this is the final dimension of this question—with this emerging community of superstars and of younger scholars, for whom medieval studies was an intersection, either for random reasons or not. You could easily say that it was the intersection, indeed. Even though, to my knowledge, Girard had never written about the Middle Ages. He was just finishing his Shakespeare book then. I think that, if you work on Shakespeare, the medieval period is somehow there.

MG: Which book was he finishing at the time?

SG: Le fruit de la passion. One could say the same for Serres. I think that the earliest he had ever been teaching was Leibniz, or La Fontaine, but Serres and Girard were people classy enough to find the medieval period interesting. I think that, when you came here, Stanford was already different from what I am describing. Today, considering you are now a colleague—and I have seen how your colleagues think of you internationally—it seems that this was a good environment to grow. Medieval studies mattered, and perhaps it could have never been so taken for granted as with other universities. As I was comparing medieval studies to Classics, it is interesting in that sense that today we have the number one Classics, especially Ancient Greek, department in the world. And that was also absolutely not the case in 1989. Something must have made it happen, considering the institutional improbability of that to happen—happen in an interesting way. A way in which nothing, no field was ever guaranteed, a way in which—now I am referring to Robert Harrison as a Dantist—people would either not listen to you talk about Dante at all, or you were so good that Dante became a central fascination—and Dante is very established at Stanford today. There are a few undergraduates, whatever they are majoring in, who have not heard about Dante.

MG: How do you view the impact of the Grundriss der Romanischen Literaturen des Mitteralters on medieval studies in America and then Europe?

SG: If you seriously ask what impact have they had… well, no, they haven’t had any impact. Although I ended up inheriting it from my academic adviser [Hans R. Jauss] and from Erich Köhler, and although I invested a lot of time and effort in the Grundriss during a couple of years, to make it dramatic, I think the impact is zero.

MG: Why?

SG: In all of them you find some gems. I am not saying they are not important, but interesting publications are sometimes not as impactful on the environment in which they were produced. I will give you an example from the Stanford Italian Review that has absolutely nothing to do with medieval studies. There’s one special issue about the reception of Nietzsche in Italy. There was probably no other country where Nietzsche had an early resonance. In fact, the reception happened much earlier than in Germany. The issue on Nieztsche was edited by the young Robert Harrison. It is fantastic, it is a pet-book, it lies behind my desk at home, and it is really important for me. I hope that, for me at least, this William IX essay, which you were talking about, which came out in the Grundriss, was important. I refer students to it sometimes, because there is something about Kuhn’s spirit about performance, about those situations in medieval times, and how they could have been. On a side note, it is interesting that we published, in the Stanford Literature Review, some of the essays from a colloquium that I organized in my first year at Stanford. The colloquium happened in the spring of 1990, and it was dedicated to a concept that was very hot back then, mainly due to the influence of Deconstruction: writing, écriture, Schriftzug.

Although these are interesting publications, one could actually look at them and ask an interesting question: why has this resonance not happened? Within the Humanities, both with serial publications and with Stanford University Press, Stanford has never had an impact that would correspond to what I see as a very positive development of the humanities here. I would say this unto the present day, partly because it rubs people who are in the humanities the wrong way. It is nonetheless interesting that Stanford is a technical university. It just doesn’t happen to have the letter T in its name. It is a technical university, and like some technical universities all over the world, not all of them, it has small but excellent humanities. And I think that we would probably not be as good as we are, and we would not have developed the collective intellectual style that characterizes it, if we were not in this environment. Not in the sense that we have to define ourselves against the technical environment. Rather, to say it metaphorically, I think that there are vibrations coming from computer science, coming from our unbelievably strong business school, or from our incredibly strong engineering departments. I think that we have had—I am very happy that I am a humanist at Stanford during the past 29 years—a much more exciting trajectory. I had a much more exciting personal trajectory than the one I would have had, had I been at a classical humanities university, such as Yale, or Princeton, or Chicago. It has been fantastic to be here. I feel that, in terms of books or serial publications, the impact that Stanford Press has made as compared to some other university presses, such as Chicago, has not been terribly successful, huh? Perhaps because these subjects were, or rather these institutions were founded in a time when Stanford and humanities still sounded like an oxymoron. I think this is changed now, and if one would start a publication like the Grundriss now, it would probably be different. I don’t know. You being a younger colleague, would you found a journal today, or start a serial publication? I don’t think it is the age for that.

So, the lack of success of the Grundriss, to return to your main question, happened because of two reasons. First, there is the environment, as I have given some examples. Second, it probably came too late. On top of it, it was too encyclopedic. When I say it came too late, I mean not so much in the sense that one would not have been able to use the description of medieval vernacular literature in Romance Languages that is there in the Grundriss, a description that aimed at plenitude and completeness. I think that the documentations and references are still useful. Even the idea that drove the project, to compile knowledge about every single manuscript containing medieval vernacular texts, literary texts, in romance languages, that they should be properly documented. I think it came too late because of the production costs. By the time we were half-way through with it, the costs—which were not to be avoided—had reached a level that made it impossible to carry on with the project, impossible even for university libraries in Germany to buy it, to continue with their subscription. The Winter Verlag, the university press that funded it, still exists, but that publishing house, which did the Grundriss, first with the two founders and then with me, went bankrupt. I think that the Grundriss was one part of its bankruptcy.

Moreover, if one imagines that the Grundriss had ever been successfully completed—which will never happen, as the idea was 25 volumes—the end of the project would have probably overlapped with electronic age. That, of course, is something that today one could restart. Today, it would be useful, and I would say that one should only do the documentary part. The Grundriss came too late in this very technical and economic sense. Too expensive and not necessarily helpful for internet age. So, I would that, excluding the documentations, the project could be useful today because of possible ties to New Philology, even more successful than what it could have originally been.

It is the historical part—the production of historical knowledge about the texts—that was certainly not thought through, and certainly not seen as it would have been seen from today’s point of view. The concept of literature in the title, for example, is a completely naïve one. It was not carefully elaborated, I mean in the sense of asking “what literature would have been in the Middle Ages. Is there something that is medieval vernacular literature that has anything to do with the post-Romantic way that we are used to today? Also, why romance? Or why only romance?” This division of literatures was a division that had to do with a relatively random institutional structure. Why did the project not include, for example, medieval German literature? Why not including all the vernacular literatures, which would then include Nordic literatures, English, German literatures—there would be no Slavic literatures because they start later.

Despite all of that, like the other publications I was mentioning, I would say there are a couple of gems in the existing volumes. I think my academic adviser’s essay on medieval allegory is very, very important. This was the first volume that came out, the historical volume number 6. I think we made this insane effort of medieval history-writing. Whether the project is historiographic in itself, that is a different question. But then we wanted to do something on the historical part that would be in line with discussions that were going on in the realm of historiography in the 1980s. Well, we produced 1200 pages. In a strange way, I am very proud of it. However, there is too much material written in German. Which is another condition of having come out too late. Back then, in the 1950s and early 60s, German was still this Wissenschaftsprache. Scholars then would know German, which is no longer the case. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with our situation nowadays. Also, there were too many technical conditions that made this come out too late—price, scope, and so forth. In that sense, the history of the Grundriss is a tragic-comic one.


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On Being a Medievalist and More

This Colloquy originated in the "After 1967" conference of 2018 in which we celebrated the work of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. It is concerned with Gumbrecht's relation to medieval literature, his original field of interest.


The core of the Colloquy is three items from the conference, which I describe briefly here. However, we welcome contributions on how the field of medieval literature has changed over the past fifty years and how philosophy, media studies, and performance studies have catalyzed medieval studies, as well as the more circumscribed topic of medieval studies at Stanford. 

In an interview that marks the centerpiece of this Colloquy, I drew Gumbrecht out on a series of questions about the influence of medieval studies in his intellectual biography and the presence of medieval studies at Stanford from the time of his arrival in 1989 to the present day. Starting our discussion with how the difficulty of the medieval period nourished new ways of approaching literary texts, we also covered foundational experiences and encounters. We spoke about the influence of Hugo Kuhn and media studies and its translation to American Humanities, the Grundriss der romanischen Literaturen des Mittelalters in the age of electronic media, the inspiring otherness of medieval culture and how it has productively shaped his work on presence, athletic beauty, and other phenomena—work that seeks to "conjure the past in a non-narrative way." I was fascinated by Gumbrecht’s encounters (both personally and intellectually) with Kuhn, Paul Zumthor, and certain epistemological genealogies concerning performance, media studies, and semiotics via medieval studies. He describes colloquia where he, Zumthor, Jean-François Lyotard, Niklas Luhmann and others were pursuing the "anti-hermeneutic effect," that is, "dealing with cultural artifacts or cultural phenomena that are not circumscribed to the attribution of meaning." He also describes in candid detail the convergence of an intellectual milieu at Stanford—a "technical" university in the best sense of the word, e.g. with "vibrations from computer science, engineering"—whose intersection was medieval studies. A core group of scholars cultivated a Stanford style of humanities, where "medieval studies mattered," Gumbrecht explains, because it "could never be taken for granted as with other universities."  This was a time when Michel Serres, René Girard, John Freccero, Brigitte Cazelles, Jeffrey Schnapp, and Robert Harrison in the French and Italian department were publishing major works on medieval topics and authors that registered an impact in all spheres of humanities. 

As Gumbrecht puts it, "performance creates its own situation. Like in our conversation." And this is true for the interview: people past and present, events local and international, colloquia, and publications came together as a story about medieval studies at Stanford and beyond in the course of the conversation. As part of this colloquy, you will also find two presentations given at the "After 1967" conference: my paper on "The Production of Medieval Life Forms in the Work of Gumbrecht" and "The Medieval Beginnings of Italian Poetry Today" by Heather Webb. These two papers describe the consequences of Gumbrecht's scholarship in our respective fields of medieval French and Italian, and touch on the motifs of his thinking such as mood, performance, and transgression.

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