About us

The Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL) is a humanities institute for literary studies in interdisciplinary contexts that draws from a cultural studies framework. Its methods also engage with the structural transformations within historical-hermeneutic subject areas that have taken place in recent decades. In contrast to the study of literature at universities, predominantly organized by nationality, the ZfL fosters a broad concept of literature, but also uses interdisciplinary tools to fundamentally question the etiology of various literary concepts, their potential for the future, and the relationship between literature and other arts or cultural practices. This is done in the four research areas History of Theory, World Literature, Knowledge of Life, and Research Practices and Styles. Literature remains a primary object of investigation in all areas, opening up new epistemological fields, new modes of knowledge, and new sets of questions in other disciplines. Our overarching project explores the development of alternative descriptions of modernity and how they fit in to a broader historical scope. As a relatively small, independent institute, the ZfL sees itself as a vital contributor to national and international research communities, but also as a critical observer of an ever-changing academic landscape.

Research Profile

The ZfL’s research is organized into three areas, History of Theory, World Literature, and Knowledge of Life, 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.

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.

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.

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 which 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.

Research Practices and 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.

The ZfL's History

Since 1996, the Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL) has been part of the Geisteswissenschaftliche Zentren Berlin (GWZ), which include the Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS) and the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO). Its founding director was the literary scholar Eberhard Lämmert (1924–2015). Prior to this date, the Center went through a four-year transition period within the Förderungsgesellschaft Wissenschaftlicher Neuvorhaben mbH established by the Max Plank Society in 1992. Its aim was to institutionally reestablish a selection of prestigious humanities research centers that were formerly part of East Germany’s Academy of Science. Among them was the Central Institute for Literary History (Zentralinstitut für Literaturgeschichte [ZIL]), whose employees helped shape the work of the ZfL. Of the projects that persevered was the seven-volume historical dictionary Basic Aesthetic Concepts, led by Karlheinz Barck (1934–2012), former ZIL-department head and longtime co-director of the ZfL. To this day, the ZfL pursues research on the historical development of concepts.

When Sigrid Weigel was appointed director in 1999, the ZfL depended on short-term funding, particularly from the German Research Foundation (DFG). Follwoing a successful evaluation in 2008 by the German Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat), the ZfL (along with the ZAS and ZMO) has been primarily funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). A further positive evaluation by the BMBF has guaranteed this funding until 2019, which is supplemented by funding from the State of Berlin as well as by independent grants from other institutions. With the end of the federal program funding approaching, the ZfL hopes to be admitted to the Leibniz Association in the near future and join its sister centers, the ZAS and ZMO, who have already been accepted.

Over the years, the ZfL has gained renown worldwide as a center of innovative cultural research with a strong focus on the early 20th-century thinkers who established the so-called first cultural science (Aby Warburg, Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin), as well as on the cultural legacy of premodern concepts and traditions. Our research projects examine current issues and cultural phenomena through interdisciplinary approaches and historical contextualizations that defy simple explanations. This combination of interdisciplinary research with a focus on the present is a cornerstone of the ZfL. The ZfL is unique in its committment to the study of literature as an undertaking in which scholars look beyond the canonical works in their individual disciplines and collaborate closely with experts from other fields. The enormous potential of this distinguishing feature has taken center stage since the arrival of Eva Geulen in August 2015 as the new director.

After decades in which literary research has expanded in terms of its objects of study and theoretical scope, it is time to ask anew what literature means and what we stand to gain through our study of it. To this end, the ZfL strives to formulate new questions about the role of literature within, across, and between various disciplines and to develop new tools for analyzing literary and cultural history in order to better understand our world today.