About us

The Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL) is a humanities institute for literary studies in interdisciplinary contexts that draw 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. It 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 carried out in the three program areas History of Theory, World Literature, Knowledge of Life, and in the Key Projects. While literature remains a primary object of investigation in all areas, the institute also opens up new epistemological fields, new modes of knowledge, and new sets of questions in other disciplines. Our overarching objective is to explore the development of alternative descriptions of modernity and how they fit into a broader historical context. As a relatively small, independent institute, the ZfL sees itself as a vital contributor to national and international research communities and 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 at the same time (theory). Their systematic connection results from the enormous discursive impact they each 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 make use of historical-hermeneutical approaches. Of course, these shared interpretive tools can and need to be calibrated in accordance with each particular research endeavor. In the past, the history of concepts and the history of religion have proven to be rich reservoirs for new research questions and modes of inquiry.

The ZfL’s History

Since 1996, the Leibniz-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 Planck 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 “Carlo” Barck (1934–2012), former ZIL department head and longtime co-director of the ZfL. Since 2017, the ZfL has been awarding the Carlo Barck Prize in his honor. It honors a dissertation in the field of literary and cultural studies that excels through its innovative approach and original design. 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). Following a successful evaluation in 2006 by the German Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat), the ZfL (along with the ZAS and ZMO) was primarily funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) between 2008 and 2019. This was supplemented by funding from the State of Berlin as well as by additional grants from other institutions. In 2019, the ZfL was admitted to the Leibniz Association, to which ZAS and ZMO had already been accepted in 2018. Over the years, the ZfL has gained worldwide renown 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. 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 commitment 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 institute’s 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.

Fig. above: © Dominik Flügel