Style. Past and Present

One of the hallmarks of liberal democracies is the protection of stylistic diversity on all levels, from ways of life to art. However, one person’s style has always been another’s lack of style. This has, in recent times, led to intensified competition, an accelerating logic of outbidding styles, and the isolation of style communities in echo chambers, culminating in the hypostasization of their own style. Combined with the social and medial, ecological and economic shifts that have been disrupting the global stage for a number of years now, this has also strengthened populism in Germany. Taboos have been broken that were unthinkable for a long time in Germany—especially with regard to its culture of remembrance. The loss of style occasionally apostrophized as ‘brutalization’ has now been followed by actions. When styles lose their typical leeway between flexible normativity and rule-based freedom or selfdestruct through their claims to exclusivity, questions of style become questions of life (and even survival). Against this background, the project explores the long history of style in the arts, sciences and society.

The indestructibility of the concept of style, from the elocutio of ancient rhetoric to our present day ‘lifestyles,’ is directly related to its irritating vagueness and, accordingly, its diverse applications. Because style as a concept is difficult to grasp, it is used primarily where definitions and arguments fail. ‘Style’ embraces unstable phenomena of coherence and consistency that remain unresolved in distinctions between norm and obligation, on the one hand, and freedom and choice on the other or between individuality and sociality. Friedrich Möbius spoke in 1984 of the “synthesizing synopsis of even disparate phenomena,” Robert Musil in 1921 of style as a “prosthesis of truth,” and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, following Flaubert in 1986, called style “a way of seeing things that is detached from objects.” The fact that style as a concept is overdetermined and inaccessible to discursive argumentation does not mean, however, that its phenomena and effects cannot be analyzed in a context-dependent and functional way. The instruments offered by literary stylistics shall be examined, modified and expanded historically and systematically in an inter- and transdisciplinary perspective. To this end, a reading group on the topic of style has been meeting since the winter semester 2018/2019.

Current Research

Style Pluralism and the Longing for Style around 1900 and in the Present
Since the 19th century (Semper, Flaubert, Nietzsche, Proust), it has been precisely stylistic pluralism, the multiplying of stylistic options, that has fostered a desire for the ‘one’ or ‘true’ style. The “will for style” (Wustmann), prominent around 1900, can also be understood as a reaction to the vast proliferation of (artistic) media. As artists felt the need to orientate their artistic style to the medium—Alfred Döblin proclaimed the ‘cinema style’ for the modern novel as early as 1913—or at least to react to the changing media landscape, raises the question of whether this historical constellation provides a meaningful basis for comparing the significance of style today. Doubtlessly the interactive and collaborative elements of Web 2.0 have influenced the style(s) of contemporary literature. Authors, for instance, publish their work in advance or even exclusively on the Internet, integrate digital writing practices appropriated from social networks into their texts and/or react, reflect and criticize the impact that new writing and communication styles have on the way we perceive the present. Last but not least, readers are endowed with new roles, for example evaluating and sharing (authors’) posts or tweets, thus contributing to the success—and the style—of writers.

Thought Style and Collective Style
Drawing on Ludwik Fleck (but also Thomas S. Kuhn and Bruno Latour), the concept of a thought style has been made productive in the history of science, first for the history of the natural sciences, and more recently also for the history of linguistics. Thus, the heuristic potential of an appropriately sharpened concept of thought style can be mobilized for investigating a ‘school of writing’-style in contemporary literature. Do university courses such as ‘creative’ or ‘scenic’ writing impose what Fleck called a “thought constraint,” resulting in a specific, uniform style? How does this relate to the older tradition of writing as a craft? And how is the contemporary literary tendency of centring the author connected to these issues?

Style and narratology
While literary studies (with the exception of Romance studies) have long neglected style and stylistics, they are currently, following linguistics and in addition to empirical aesthetics, making greater efforts to explore the possibilities of digitally supported and primarily quantitatively organized stylometry. However, such interests often remain secretly tied to narratological parameters, thus obscuring a possible competition between style and narrative procedures, both in the literary tradition itself and its scholarship. It was narratology, methodologically more advanced than style analysis, that in recent decades placed style in the blind spot of scientific reflection.

Rupture of Style
Canonizing in art and literature is dependent on stylistic ruptures, if only because a style can mostly be identified only after its demise. Since the privileging of originality in the last third of the 18th century, literary historiography has been oriented towards what is new in each case, but without recognising the alleged breakthrough as a stylistic break. As a result, stereotypical juxtapositions such as rhetoric vs. style or organic artwork of the classical vs. fragmentary modernism still organize the field today. With the concept of stylistic rupture,  conventional innovation-centric models can be enriched dialectically. However, ever since Susan Sontag’s investigations into Camp and the emergence of pop literature, manner, jargon, attitude can no longer readily be regarded as the ‘other’ of style. Rather, a conformist style can be subversive and, conversely, the rupture of style can solidify into a convention. On the one hand, this makes the potential of the stylistic rupture visible as an analytical historical category, but on the other hand, by including its counter-concepts, it also imports new problems: its relational character turns into relativism.

Within the framework of the focus project, a proposal on the phenomenon of drasticism in contemporary philosophy and literature is currently underway (applicants: Eva Geulen, Ludger Schwarte; researchers: Georg Dickmann, Pola Groß; collaboration: Claude Haas). Contemporary media such as Twitter and social networks promote a certain, drastic form of speech, one which populist politics in particular attempt to use for their own purposes. This project explores what this implies for literary and theoretical texts that make use of comparable stylistic procedures. After all, breaking taboos, transgressing, or ‘speaking the truth’ (parrhesia), often presented as reckless, provocative speech, have a long tradition. The currently recurring linguistic escapades, however,  confront this philosophical and literary practice with considerable challenges, challenges that the project seeks to address systematically. Is it still possible, in view of the developments of recent years, to employ authentic forms of drastic speaking and writing? Which stylistic register must they display in order to be distinguishable from popular or populist forms of drastic writing?

since 2020
Head researcher(s): Eva Geulen
Associate Researcher(s): Georg Dickmann, Pola Groß, Claude Haas


See also


  • Eva Geulen, Claude Haas (eds.): Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie, special issue: Stil in der Literaturwissenschaft (forthcoming 2021)

In recent decades, the question of style has all but vanished from literary studies. While in science studies, the rediscovery of Ludwik Fleck has fostered lively research into thought styles and sociology has explored the concept of so-called lifestyles, style as a genuinely literary category seems to have mostly slipped off the radar of philological attention. This situation has, however, recently begun to change with the surge of machine learning methods of stylometry.
Departing from this observation, the volume seeks to elucidate the practical manifestations of style in literary discourse itself. What style, for instance, did ‘traditional’ style researchers such as Erich Auerbach or Leo Spitzer cultivate? Can an individual scholarly style have any place at all on an academic landscape dominated by self-confident disciplinary, discursive, social and conceptual histories? Lastly, does not a renewed interest in style threaten to reinstate concepts long considered obsolete, such as ‘authorship’ and ‘work’?

With contributions by Amanda Anderson, Heinrich Detering, Juliane Vogel, Steffen Martus i.a.

Eva Geulen

  • “ ‘Folgeerscheinungen der rhythmischen décadence.’ Rhythmus und Stil in Nietzsches ‘Ecce homo,’ ” in: Boris Roman Gibhardt (ed.): Denkfigur Rhythmus. Probleme und Potenziale des Rhythmusbegriffs in den Künsten. Hannover: Wehrhahn Verlag 2020, 91–103 (with Elisa Ronzheimer)
  • “Unverfügbarkeit. Überlegungen zum Spätstil (Goethe, Adorno, Kommerell)”, in: Kai Sina, David Wellbery (eds.): Goethes Spätwerk. On Late Goethe. Berlin: de Gruyter 2020, 15–24
  • “Geheimnis Gutachten (mit Hinweisen),” in: ZfL Blog, 7 Apr 2020
  • “Was Stil sagt,” in: ZfL Blog, 1 Feb 2019
  • “Zur Idee eines ‘innern geistigen Rhythmus’ bei A.W. Schlegel,” in: Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie (137), special issue: August Wilhelm Schlegel und die Philologie, ed. by Matthias Buschmeier, Kai Kauffmann, 211–224

Pola Groß

Claude Haas


12 Nov 2021 · 9.00 am

Eva Geulen: Stil und Moral in der “Minima Moralia”

Centre Marc Bloch, Friedrichstraße 191, 10117 Berlin

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11 Nov 2021 · 9.00 am

Eva Geulen: The styles of literary criticism

Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Wallotstraße 19, 14193 Berlin

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24 Oct 2021 · 5.30 pm

Eva Geulen: Klassizität als Effekt überforderter Form bei Peter Szondi

Lecture Hall at Bibliotheca Albertina, Beethovenstraße 6, 04107 Leipzig

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06 Oct 2021 – 08 Oct 2021

Schreibarten im Umbruch. Stildiskurse im 18. Jahrhundert

Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Aufgang B, 3. Etage

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09 Sep 2021

Pola Groß and Hanna Hamel: Netznachbarschaften 3.0: Autor*innen-Stile und Kollektive


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Project pitch
07 Sep 2021 · 4.00 pm

Pola Groß and Hanna Hamel: Neue Nachbarschaften. Stil und Social Media in der Gegenwartsliteratur

online via Zoom

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Paper presentation
15 May 2021 · 4.00 pm

Pola Groß: Mit Stil gegen Stil. Überlegungen zu einer Schlüsselkategorie bei Adorno


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06 May 2021 – 08 May 2021

Style and Rhetoric: A Precarious Couple and its Histories

Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Aufgang B, 3. Etage, Trajekteraum

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Readings and Workshop
19 Nov 2020 – 20 Nov 2020

Neue Nachbarschaften. Stil und Social Media in der Gegenwartsliteratur


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Reading Workshop
05 Mar 2020 · 11.00 am

Schreibarten – Stil im 18. Jahrhundert

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Aufgang B, 3. Etage, Seminarraum

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14 Feb 2020 · 10.00 am

Schulen, Gruppen, Stile. Denken, kollektiv betrachtet

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Aufgang B, 3. Etage, Seminarraum

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International Conference
16 Jan 2020 – 18 Jan 2020

‘Firsthand Time.’ Documentary Aesthetics in the Long 1960s

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Aufgang B, 3. Etage, Seminarraum

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Reading Workshop
09 Jan 2020 · 11.00 am

Denkstil – Denkkollektiv – Sprache bei Ludwik Fleck

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Aufgang B, 3. Etage, Seminarraum

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14 Jun 2019 – 15 Jun 2019


ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Aufgang B, 3. Et.

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Panel and Discussion with Jeff Dolven, Paul Fleming, Eva Geulen, Daniel Tiffany
13 Jul 2018 · 6.00 pm

Style: The Present Situation

Cabinet, Ebersstr. 3, 10827 Berlin

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04 Dec 2020 Audio
“Social Media und die Gegenwartsliteratur”
Radio feature in the program “Hintergrund Kultur” on WDR 5 Scala
For a long time now, writers have been bound to use the Internet to express themselves. The feature by Hannah Rau examines their use of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and the ways in which social media in turn influence their writing. Answers to these questions are offered by Pola Groß, among others.
22 Nov 2020 Audio
Radio feature on the event Neue Nachbarschaften. Stil und Social Media in der Gegenwartsliteratur in the program “Kultur heute” on Deutschlandfunk
© Deutschlandfunk