Drawing of an open book being written on, torn, and set on fire by various male figures and being treated with a scythe by a figure on the left.

Incorporating Innovation. Structural Moments in the History of Theory and Literary Studies (1870/1970)

In the history of literary theory of the long 20th century, periods of an emphasis on theory alternate with periods of theory fatigue. In particular, the booming ‘scientification’ of literary analysis around 1870 and 1970 as well as the debates on imports of theories from the respective ‘guiding disciplines’ in the humanities—history and sociology, respectively—are characterized by a rhetoric of rejection of new ideas. Taking this observation as a starting point, the project investigated the logic of development in the history of literary theory. As an alternative to established concepts such as the ‘paradigm shift,’ the project proposed the model of ‘incorporating innovation.’ Instead of solely naming breaks in the history of theory, it focused on the forms of negotiation between the old and the new as well as on the moments of reiteration in the theory-histories of authorship, historicization, and fictionality.

Following Peter Bürger and Gerhard Plumpe, ‘incorporation’ describes a defusing of advanced theories that originally set out to reshape (Fleck) the prevailing model of thought. As established scholars repeatedly dismiss these potentially dangerous approaches as impractical and harmonize them with existing methods or dismiss them as pseudo-innovations, these theories fail to achieve their intended impact. Instead, they perpetuate the outdated. Understanding these chewed-up and digested literary-theoretical innovations as an inventory of the paradigm they sought to revolutionize, it becomes easier to understand transformations in 20th century literary theory that occurred less in revolutions than in loops. The development and change of literary theory would thus be based on a double latency: the latency of supposedly outdated theoretical premises on the one hand, which incorporate their transformation in order to survive, and, on the other hand, the latency of innovations whose incorporation almost always leaves a residue that may eventually break ground at a later point in time.

How do we, for instance, explain the peculiar persistence of biographical readings of literature? One explanation could be that the various radical attempts to abolish this type of reading throughout the 20th century were repeatedly neutralized and integrated by the renewed dominance of author-centered readings. Taking incorporation as a guiding concept, we can also understand why mid-19th century protoformalist models of thinking could only take effect in a fundamental criticism of ‘biographism’ around 1900. By bringing to the fore the seemingly outdated, the rejection, and the various fates of the incorporated innovations, the state of research on the history of literary theory was supplemented with insights into its own implicit interpretive framework and recurring patterns of argumentation. Furthermore, new perspectives were opened on advances that could only take effect in a mitigated form and much later on. Finally, the project posed the question of hegemony and subversion, of what is prevented from being seen and said. It thus explored the eminent sociopolitical dimension of literary-theoretical development. On the basis of these reflections, the project pursued three central aims:

  • A systematics of various manifestations of incorporation
    The material of the project allowed nuances of incorporation to be tested along with their consequences for the history of theory: from swallowing and taming innovation to its beneficial use, its trivialization, and the productive revitalization of existing premises. The structural aspect of incorporation thereby prevents us from writing a teleological history of theory as it focuses less on theoretical transformation than on its obstruction.

  • A typology of different ‘fates’ of innovation
    Another task was to systematize different consequences for the incorporated innovation. Cases in which its penetrating power survives in single ‘tradable’ elements were set apart from cases in which innovative elements are solely used to recover established ways of thought or from cases in which processed and trivialized theoretical proposals bring forth completely new approaches. Just think of the term ‘deconstruction’ which is as ubiquitous as it is rarely used terminologically.

  • A determination of the relations between the histories of science, disciplines, and theory
    Transformations in the history of theory can be analyzed most effectively when the achievements and limits of different paradigms touch on the professional self-understanding as well as on the respective individual status of scholars in (inter)disciplinary contexts of communication. The project therefore aimed at examining the relationship between literary theory and the humanities during the long 20th century. On the basis of this, the focus was widened to include non-scientific contexts, especially art, the public sphere, and science policy.


Fig. above: C. J. Traviès de Villers: Paraphrase des Caractères de La Bruyère.

Head researcher(s): Eva Stubenrauch


Julia Mierbach, Eva Stubenrauch (ed./eds.)

Gegenwartskonzepte 1750–1800. Eine kulturwissenschaftliche Revision
Beiheft zur Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie

Erich Schmidt Verlag, Berlin 2023, 200 pages
ISBN 978-3-503-21263-7

Eva Stubenrauch