Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht on "How I Think about Literature"
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Albert Guerard Professor of Literature at Stanford Universityand widely known as “Sepp” among friends, colleagues and within the DLCL, began his speech for the DLCL’s ongoing lecture series “How I Think about Literature” with an observation about how he reads literature. Sepp described his initiation into American academia in the early ‘80s as a “culture shock”; coming from the German philosophical hermeneutic background, he was surprised by the strong emphasis U.S. scholars (and even students) placed on close reading. This “pathos-laden, heavy” concept of Reading in Anglo-American culture, he noted, originates from three historical layers – the microscopic individual close reading of the bible in the Protestant tradition, the rise and reign of New Criticism in the ‘20s as a secularized version of the Protestant reading culture, and the two backgrounds combined, which he sees as the reason why deconstruction has had such resonance here. This extraordinary attention to textual details or even textuality itself, however, might have produced an unfilled gap; in the ‘70s, the concept of literature itself came into crisis, as the efforts of literary theory to provide a metahistorical definition of "literature" were frustrated. By the time Sepp came to Stanford in 1989, what rose to the fore to (temporarily) replace the concept of literature was that of “culture.” No wonder his first book written on American soil, In 1926--Living at the Edge of Time, was inspired by cultural studies, he reminisces.
But then, he “realized that all the materials I referred to and used for the book were literary – literary books were better for absorbing what I wanted to make present, as they irradiate what we had absorbed in our present.” This epiphany, he states, was the starting point of the “productive discontinuity in my work,” which brought him to the idea of presence – a key concept that flows through many of his recent works.
What we call literature is “the central medium that produces the impression that makes the world concrete, tangible and present,” as can be seen in classics such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote or Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Here, the term “presence” refers to a sense of tangibility, confronting us with the complexity, concreteness and presence of the world, in a way that cannot be subsumed, absorbed, or redeemed in any other form.
Thus bridging the culture of reading with the importance of reading literature in specific, he stated that “reading literature today within western culture is functional in a double and intense way for our relationship with the mainstream of communication we are surround by – electronic communication.” The widespread phenomenon of reading textual materials on the computer or smartphone screen reveals the two-sided relationship between reading and electronics. The reading culture of our time is the condition of people being "glued to the screen" by reading, which may be seen as a positive effect, but – on a more negative note – reading literature has also become a way of avoiding the fact that we get totally absorbed in the fusion of software and consciousness. “This precisely is what I see as a life form that emerges from us sitting in front of computers all day: a fusion between software and consciousness that excludes the body,” Sepp noted. This might sound a little technophobic, he admits, although the image of Sepp sitting in front of his big Mac monitor in his office, typing away, is a familiar scene to members of DLCL. However, he cautioned us against giving in too fast to the totalitarian aspect of electronic culture; he urged us to remember the importance of face-to-face interaction and the enjoyment of a shared experience found in sitting around a physical text, in bodily presence.
Further diagnosing the double relation between electronic communication and literature, he stated that the tension has to do with the simultaneity between two different chronotopes. We are no longer mainly living in the historicist chronotope that came about in the 1800s. Since the third quarter of the 20th century, he asserted, we have moved into a different social construction of time: “the broad present.” In the previous, historicist chronotope as defined by Reinhart Koselleck, we believed that we could leave the past behind, while we enter the future as a vast horizon of possibilities we may choose from. As a result, the present shrank to an imperceptibly short moment of transition, a view of time that still persists.
Sepp pointed out that “within the historical chronotope, this short present became the epistemological habitat of the Cartesian self-reference. In the present, we’re choosing among the possibility of the future (agency) by adopting the past into the present, with the association between the Cartesian self-reference, cogito, and the historicist chronotope.” Which is why, in turn, electronic communication seduces us toward software-consciousness as a life form. We may still feel that the past is gone, the future is promising and the present is but a fleeting moment in the process of the future being transformed into the past. But today, he announced, we are operating in a different chronotope: that of the broad present. We no longer see the future as a horizon of open possibilities; the future has turned into something threatening coming toward us. Nor do we believe that we can leave our pasts behind, for electronic storage makes this impossible. What is more, our present is flooded by pastness. With this pastness juxtaposed to the present, and the future consistently closing up on us, we live in an ever-broadening present of simultaneity.
Naturally, this change in time perception also alters our relationship to the texts of the past. The paradox that the classics – despite their pastness – are still effective may no longer hold up as paradoxical, for should we reside in a world where all that is past and future fuses with the now. We cannot simply jump ship and leave the previous historical chronotope behind. This is precisely why – moving against the shift towards software-consciousness – philosophy is trying to bring back the soma nowadays; if the broad present requires a different human self-reference [a definition of "being human"] that tries to include the body again, this would also explain why today we are more concerned, in Reading, with dimensions that are close to the body such as sensitivity or Stimmung.
Meanwhile, in reality, the rapidly changing scene of literary production and consumption portends the disappearance of the hardware. Indeed, earlier on this year, “Amazon reported that the sales of e-books began to eclipse that of paper copies for the first time in its history,” as Professor Russell Berman remarked in the follow-up Q&A. However, in some distant future when classrooms phase out and screens become the dominant mode of communication and interaction, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht asked us as he made his closing remarks, we should remember the possibility of our literary criticism among those assembled around a text in bodily co-presence.
--- Haerin Shin
I draw your attention to Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, "The Future of Reading? Memories and Thoughts toward a Genealogical Approach," in the summer 2014 issue of Boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture, which many of you will remember hearing as a How I Think about Literature talk.