MWW goes Washington

By Stefan Höppner

The German Studies Association’s annual conference (GSA) is the biggest German Studies congress in North America. From 1st till 4th October this year, over a thousand scholars gathered in the US capital, Washington DC, to discuss the latest research on German culture and history. This was an ideal forum for the MWW Research Association to present its latest findings to the academic community in its very own section of the conference dedicated to "Research in Collections".

View of the Lincoln Memorial from the Washington Monument. © Stefan Höppner

Washington DC in early October: whilst autumn was already in full swing in Germany, there were still late-summer temperatures in the US capital.  However, when we arrived, it was wet and windy; for a while, it even looked as though Hurricane Joaquin was going to hit the city but luckily it changed direction and headed out to sea just in time.  I travelled to Washington to take part in this year’s  German Studies Association conference (GSA) along with MWW director Sonja Asal, Ursula Kundert, who leads the MWW’s Text and Frame research project, and Ellen Strittmatter, head of the MWW’s Politics of the Image research project.

The GSA is the biggest German Studies congress in North America.  In early October, over a thousand literary scholars, historians, philosophers, political scientists, sociologists, art historians and musicologists gather in a different city each year to discuss the latest research on German culture and history.  This year, Washington was the host city. It was surely no coincidence that the US capital was chosen as the venue in the year when the 3rd October marked the 25th anniversary of German reunification. And it was not without reason that Peter Wittig, the German ambassador to the United States, was one of the keynote speakers at the conference.

Advocating Archival research

Just a few weeks earlier, Carsten Rohde (Weimar) and Ulrike Gleixner (Wolfenbüttel) represented the MWW Research Association at the International Association of German Studies conference (IVG) in Shanghai. At the GSA, the MWW took the opportunity to present "Research in Collections: Memory, Methodology and Mediality" in its very own section of the conference. This topic highlighted one of the MWW’s strengths: research within institutional holdings.

Sonja Asal opened the panel discussion with an anecdote about Theodor Mommsen, who edited valuable manuscripts at home until catastrophe hit and in a moment of carelessness, one of the manuscripts caught fire. This must be any librarian or archivist’s nightmare. This was not, however, Asal’s only reason for strongly advocating archival research, which is the MWW’s key concern. At the same time, she criticised the inflationary, metaphorical use of the term archive by followers of Michel Foucault in the field of Cultural Studies. This use of the term refers not to a concrete collection of documents or objects but to the set of rules which applied to a particular era and specific context and which can be formulated as statements of the truth.

Psalms and photographs

Ursula Kundert (Wolfenbüttel) and Ellen Strittmatter (Marbach) then presented the initial findings of their research projects. Kundert is working on the interplay between modes of presenting and canonising texts along with two other MWW researchers. She spoke about the specific types of psalm manuscripts produced in 15th century Northern Germany. Strittmacher leads a team of four researchers on the Politics of the Image project at the German Literature Archive Marbach. Her lecture dealt with the role of photography in the work of W.G. Sebald and Alfred Döblin; the bequests of both these writers are kept in the Marbach literature archive.

The panel discussion was moderated by Meike Werner from the prestigious Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Werner is also an external member of the MWW’s Writers’ Libraries research project.  In most sections of the GSA conference, it is customary to call in an expert to comment on the lectures and provide stimulus for the discussions which follow.  This year, the organisation was able to acquire Frank Trommler from the University of Pennsylvania as its commentator. Trommler, who is a doyen in North American German Studies, frequently carries out research in German repositories, particularly in the German Literature Archive in Marbach. 

Beyond the panel discussion, the MWW was actively involved in other areas of the conference. Sonja Asal moderated a section on The Politics of Collecting: Kitsch, Cabinets, and Catalogues, which included a lecture by Michael Knoche, director of the Herzogin Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, on The Future of Collecting in Academic Libraries.

The annual meeting of North American DAAD professors also took place in the run-up to the conference. This is a committee I am well-acquainted with as until a few months ago, I was a  DAAD professor at the University of Calgary in Canada.  At this year’s meeting, in my new role as head of the MWW Writers’ Libraries research project, I gave a lecture on the MWW Research Association and encouraged collaboration on its projects. In addition, together with Gerrit K. Roessler from DAAD New York, I lead a panel discussion on Fantasy since 1989 and took part in a discussion with author Kathrin Röggla, one of Austria’s best-known contemporary playwrights and authors.  Tanja Nusser (Cincinnati/Ohio), Peter Rehberg (Austin/Texas) and Andreas Stuhlmann (Edmonton/Alberta, Canada) were also panellists.

Downtown Washington

Despite the wind and rain, most of the conference participants, of course, made time for a quick tour of Washington. The White House and the museums drew in many visitors, but the National Mall also proved very popular; this huge strip of parkland runs between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, the temple-like monument to America’s civil war president.

The city of Washington was designed from scratch in around 1800. The United States, which had just gained independence, could not agree on whether the centre of power should be located in the puritan North with its small farms and emerging industries or in the wealthier South with its plantation and slavery based economy. An area of 100 square miles on the border between Virginia and Maryland was agreed on; this region was chosen by President George Washington, who himself came from Virginia. Although the location was in the South of the USA, it was close enough to the cities of the North. The towns of Georgetown in Maryland, und Alexandria in Virginia were unceremoniously incorporated into the new region, which was named District of Columbia (DC). To this day, Washington is a federal territory and not an independent state.

An Alternative to Versailles

French architect Charles l’Enfant designed the street plan as an alternative concept to Versailles in France. In the palace grounds at Versailles, all lines run towards a central point symbolising the highest sovereignty of the king.  In Washington, in contrast, the many grand avenues link the central squares of the city and the institutions which are situated there. Probably the most famous of these is Pennsylvania Avenue, which connects the White House and the Capitol.  The classical architecture of these public buildings is inspired by the spacious plantations of the South, but above all by the Roman Empire and the architecture of the French Revolution: these were obvious role models at a time when hardly any other republics existed. They were entering new political territory and they wanted to reflect this in the architecture.

Committed to neutrality

Later constructions conformed to this classical style, for example, the Washington Monument, a 170 metre high obelisk built in honour of the first president and inaugurated in 1884, or the Lincoln Memorial. In order to maintain the capital city’s neutrality, Washington residents were not allowed to vote in presidential elections until 1964, and until 1973 they were not even allowed to designate their own mayor. Even to this day, the city can send representatives to congress but they cannot vote.

L’Enfant’s plan was on such a grand scale that the streets were only fully completed one hundred years after the city was founded. Today, the district is home to almost six million people with ten percent living directly in the city. Alongside cars, the underground is a popular means of transport. The well-established underground train system was opened in 1976, marking the 200th anniversary of  the founding of the USA. The dimly lit stations with their concrete arches are a stark contrast to the splendour of the rest of the city and have all the charm of a ready-to-use nuclear shelter. This was reason enough to quickly head back above ground to experience the city’s magnificent architecture and some of the world’s best museums. Incidentally, next year’s conference will take place in San Diego, California and hopefully the MWW Research Association will be on board once more!

Associate professor Dr. Stefan Höppner leads the MWW’s Writers’ Libraries research project and is based in Weimar.