It’s Hard to Love your Literary Studies

In a study detailing how German academia is harmful to racialized and marginalized peoples, Ismahan Wayah interrogates the structures shaping scholarship, teaching, and belonging at German universities. Some racialized and marginalized scholars leave much behind to adopt to the values propagated in the academy, while many never make it as a result of a multi-tier secondary education system designed to uphold the »hegemonic power of the existing white German ruling class« (Wayah 2019, 157). Here, the pain proliferating in the academy is cast as unevenly distributed, invariably burdening those historically denied access to the university and its cherished disciplines. Wayah thus concludes that »we have to unlearn to admire and protect a neoliberal system that oppresses non-normative bodies, and demand transformations in order to create a more just society« (170).


A generous reading of the interesting contributions for a special issue of the Schillerjahrbuch edited by Lars Koch on the topic of the relevance of German literary studies would suggest each contains the potential for unlearning at the heart of Wayah’s call for reform. This becomes legible in some of the contributions, which are invested in expanding the boundaries of received literary studies in Germany. Christian Kirchmeier’s call for a media studies approach is exemplary. Such an approach could support various types of literary studies while also attending to other forms of cultural expression historically sidelined under the banner of Germanistik. Conceived as a »pragmatic solution« to address the perceived declining relevance of German literary studies, such an approach would »change little« about the actual practices underpinning literary studies as we know it (415). It would merely bring literary studies in coalition with other forms of cultural analysis and through this collective force might position literary studies within the domain of relevance.


While I appreciate the hope underpinning expansionist efforts, I feel that the harmful institutional practices of German literary studies as cast in this contribution (and the special issue as a whole), were not interrogated as they should have been. Approaches to assess or recover the relevance of literary studies all too often end up upholding established practices. They paint literary studies’ falling relevance as a peril that befell an innocent institution in need of care, sympathy, and support. Consequently, they do not call for an assessment of what pain had been inflicted on people in the name of German literary studies, whom the institution gave access and whom this access was denied. In short, they leave no room to actively address some of the points scholars like Wayah have raised and continue to raise in their work about how disciplinarity is envisioned to uphold a status quo resistant and harmful to some minds, bodies, and experiences.


Wayah’s account admirably emphasizes transformation over repair. Unlearning takes on an important function anticipating the dismantling and reconstituting of received academic structures. It is a type of undisciplining that would afford those suffocating at the hands of hegemonic structures access to affirmative scholarly engagement, knowledge-making, etc. This rejection of received ways would favor a type relational praxis that Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (2013) describe as study. In their understanding, study is »what you do with other people« (110). Study espouses an interpersonal model for scholarly engagement that attends to the material needs, lived experiences, and intellectual aspirations of people predicated on more generative terms than afforded by received academic relational structures. What better way to start thinking about relevance than by asking how what brings us together sustains us?


I am not interested in maintaining received German literary studies because the institution has brought much pain to me and my comrades. I associate it with harmful pedagogies, exclusionary epistemic and analytic contours, and elitist aspirations that produce violent relational practices. How could I love this system, and why would I want to support it? Instead, I align myself with the important work of academy- and discipline-critical scholars such as Wayah for whom »relevance« would mean a building of a new system.


Ervin Malakaj, University of British Columbia


Works Cited

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Brooklyn: Minor Compositions, 2013.


Wayah, Ismahan. “Kanak Academic: Teaching in Enemy Territory.” Who Can Speak and Who is Heard/Hurt? Facing Problems of Race, Racism, and Ethnic Diversity in the Humanities in Germany, eds. Mahmoud Arghavan, Nicole Hirschfelder, Luvena Kopp, Katharina Motyl. Bielefeld: transcript, 2019. 153–176.



Ervin Malakaj is Assistant Professor of German Studies and affiliate faculty in the Centre for European Studies at the University of British Columbia.


Beitragsbild: Löschblatt von Gertrud von Le Fort.


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