MWW Goes San Diego

From Stefan Höppner

For the second year in a row, the MWW participated with a panel the German Studies Association (GSA). The GSA holds its annual conference in a different American city every year and draws over 1,000 participants. In November 2016 they went to San Diego.

Skyline of San Diego ©Pixabay
Die Skyline von San Diego ©Pixabay

Researchers of German language and literature in North America are organised in the German Studies Association (GSA) which not only includes German Studies scholars, but also academics in other disciplines, e.g. History, Sociology, Political Science, Musicology, Philosophy and Gender Studies. The GSA holds its annual conference in a different American city every year and draws over 1,000 participants – more than the number of researchers who normally attend the “Deutscher Germanistentag” in Germany. After getting rained out in Washington last year, the GSA staged its conference in San Diego, California this time. And for the second year in a row, the MWW participated with a panel of its own, developed by the Writers‘ Libraries project.

San Diego is one of the prettiest cities in the United States. Founded in 1769 by Spanish colonists, it had belonged to Mexico before the Americans seized it in 1850. The city really expanded after World War II and is now home to more than 1.3 million inhabitants. Its economy is primarily supported by the military and computer industry, but also tourism. San Diego is a popular point of departure for cruise ships, and its large dolphinarium Sea World – criticised for its orca shows – is one of the most popular amusement parks in the world. San Diego is also known as an important research hub. In addition to the large campus at the University of California, San Diego is also home to the Scripps Research Institute, one of the world’s leading biomedical research facilities where top international researchers work – even Nobel Prize winners who have been nudged into retirement by their universities.

The GSA held its conference in the touristy district of town, the so-called “Hotel Circle” where most of the large hotel chains are situated. Between them runs Interstate Highway 8, a hellishly loud thoroughfare (especially at night) that heads out of San Diego into the desert towards Arizona. The conference itself took place at the Town and Country Resort, a combination of a Club Med and congress mega-center, designed in a chaotic jumble of architectural styles. Alongside hotel high-rises of the kind you would see at a holiday resort in Mallorca, there were also British-looking cottages under palm trees and plain, but practical run-of-the-mill architecture dating from the 1960s to the 1980s. Some of the members of the MWW delegation lived there, while others took rooms at a motel on the opposite side of the freeway which could have doubled as a backdrop for an old Wim Wenders movie.

The MWW panel Towards an Archeology of Authors‘ Libraries presented the initial results of the three Authors‘ Libraries sub-projects. Jörn Münkner (Wolfenbüttel) assessed the value of the knowledge and source material contained in early modern scholarly libraries. Stefan Höppner (Weimar) reflected on the growing significance of Goethe’s library for the author. Höppner invited his listeners to debate on the theory that in Goethe’s last years of life, he regarded his library much as he did his art and mineral collections, namely as unique works in and of themselves, and that his book collection assumed greater importance as a working tool for his “final authorised edition” published between 1827 and 1830. Caroline Jessen examined the significance of the poet Karl Wolfskehl’s fragmented library as an inconvenient legacy of German-Jewish culture, destroyed after 1933, and demonstrated how studying his library has revealed a fascinating new perspective on Wolfkehl’s work.

The panel was supposed to be moderated by Laurie Johnson of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. But because she had to cancel on short notice, she was replaced by Meike Werner from Vanderbilt University who had moderated last year’s panel and (as an external member of the Authors’ Libraries project group!) was extremely well-acquainted with the research of the three speakers. Thanks to her contact with the American Friends of Marbach, she succeeded in enlisting Frank Trommler from the University of Pennsylvania as a respondent. Trommler skilfully, concisely and effectively summarised the three presentations and highlighted aspects which are common to all three projects. The ensuing discussion centred on the importance of conducting research on the authors’ books compared to traditional philological work which tends to primarily focus on modern editions and secondary literature. These impulses will be incorporated into the three researchers’ future collaboration which not only involves the books which they themselves are studying, but also the connections these different authors’ libraries share.

Naturally the three MWW representatives attended other panels which were relevant to their own research. And in the evenings, they mixed and mingled at various receptions where they actively spread the word about their upcoming conference titled Authorship and the Library: Collection Strategies and Writing Processes, which will take place from 8 to 10 November in Weimar. Stefan Höppner also participated at the annual conference hosted by his former colleagues, the North American DAAD professors. The GSA conference was culturally enriching as well. The writer Kerstin Hensel read some of her more recent poems and short stories. The DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts presented the outcasts of East German cinema, including the comedy Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam by Egon Günther who combined the absurd humour à la Pan Tau with the cinematic language of the Nouvelle Vague. The film is about a magic flashlight which has the power to reveal every liar by making them float in the air. It was banned in 1966 by the SED due to its subversive potential, and even some of the audio track was destroyed. The highlight, though, was a reading by Thomas Meinecke from his new novel Selbst (Self), accompanied by various YouTube clips, e.g. featuring David Bowie and his own band F.S.K., which the author then analysed in connection with passages from his novel. The programme left very little time to see San Diego. It was only after the conference that the three MWW researchers were able to venture out together to explore the city.

Stefan Höppner is an MWW research associate in Weimar. Since 2015 he is head of the research project Writers‘ Libraries.