Research at the ZfL

Research Profile

The ZfL’s research is organized into three areas, History of Theory, World Literature, and Life Knowledge, which are interrelated in many ways. Historically, they are linked because key concepts in each field either emerged in the late 18th century (life, world literature) or assumed a new meaning then (theory). Systematically, the research foci cohere by virtue of the enormous discursive impact they have had. For example, the then newly conceived genre of the novel, with the relationship between life and literature at its center, could not be accommodated by the established tradition of rule-governed poetics. Hence, it induced new modes of inquiry that came to be known as theory. Early biology offers another example. The new notion of ›organism‹ traversed several fields, from literature and art to biology and philosophical aesthetics. In terms of methodology, moreover, all three areas are under the purview of historical-hermeneutical approaches. Of course, these interpretive tools can and need to be calibrated in accordance with each particular research endeavor. In the past, concept history and history of religion have proved to be rich reservoirs for questions and modes of inquiry. In the future, juridical aspects will be given greater attention.

In addition to the three main areas housing long-term projects, a fourth research area constitutes itself anew each year. Tools of the Trade and Thought-Styles is the ZfL’s experimental lab in which we take a step back to reflect upon scholarly practices and develop alternatives to traditional modes of study and research.

Research area History of Theory

Prior to the reduction of literature to ›belles lettres‹ at the end of the 18th century, the concept included other fields of erudition such as rhetoric, poetics, religion, natural history, and the arts. Those intellectual traditions and interpretive practices did not simply disappear around 1800, but rather underwent a transformation. One of the effects of this change was the emergence of theory, originally limited to literary theory. From the 18th century onwards, ›theory‹ has been the name given to the study of the discursive conditions that organize any given culture. It has since expanded and turned into a mode of observation with its own historical developments and genre conventions. Theory, as a meta-discourse, is part of a history that surpasses a simple recapitulation of the theories and ›turns‹ that have come and gone since the 1960s.

Detailed information about the research area History of Theory

Research area World Literature

While the notion of world literature emerged together with the national philologies in the 19th century, it also competes with them and offers ways to overcome their divisions. Today, world literature refers to the specific global conditions shaping the realm of literature and to the effects globalization has had on literary production and its reception in a rapidly changing society. However, world literature also suggests that literature is more than just a representation or reflection of particular realities—it creates worlds and shapes realities. Our goal is therefore not the study of all the world’s literatures but an exploration of how different literatures form and help understand certain worlds.

The ZfL’s long-standing study of East-European literature is a good example. Eastern European cultures belong to a politically, ethnically, and religiously fraught region at the ›margins‹ of Europe. In light of recent crises, research into the region’s literature and culture prompts a critical examination of Europe’s hegemonic self-presentation.

Detailed information about the research area World Literature

Research area Knowledge of Life

Reading and thinking have always been means to some end. These skills were believed to be vital to both the lives of individuals and collective bodies, such as nations. The idea that the arts produce and transmit knowledge relevant to life can be traced throughout history from notions of education during Antiquity to the modern Bildungsroman and into the concept of national literatures and cultures. But this conviction is faltering as the natural sciences now address subjects which according to the idea of ›two cultures‹ were once the exclusive domain of the Humanities dealing with subjects that used to pertain solely to the humanities (e.g., the definition of free will). Moreover, modern technology constantly generates new kinds of applied knowledge that erode the distinction of living and non-living as well as nature and culture. The research area »Life Knowledge« operates within the context of the challenges posed to the ›two cultures‹ model. Its interdisciplinary projects engage with the field of biology in particular as the leading science of life. Without ignoring the logic and traditions of specific disciplines or flattening them into a single, shapeless concept of culture, our research takes on the task of investigating how natural objects, artefacts, organisms, and human beings can be studied within a shared framework.

Detailed information about the research area Knowledge of Life

Research area Tools of the Trade and Thought-Styles

While the three research areas detailed above comprise long-term projects, this fourth area gives our researchers a chance to reflect on practical issues in our in-house laboratory. On an annual basis, researchers select an academic practice, analytic method, or publishing format relevant to current or historical developments in the fields of literary and cultural studies. They might decide to investigate traditional formats such as exhibitions and collected volumes, or newer ones like blogs, the Zettelkasten, big data analysis, or other possibilities made available by the growing field of digital humanities. The lab work itself might take on practical or unconventional forms, or it might remain more theoretical and traditional. The outcome is open. Our work in this area allows us to capitalize on one of our strengths as an independent research institution: Here researchers are invited to question their practices and »thought-styles« (Fleck) and to carefully observe themselves as agents of scholarship and knowledge.

Detailed information about the research area Tools of the Trade and Thought-Styles