Between Popularisation and Aestheticization? Hanns Heinz Ewers and Modernism


We welcome proposals for an edited volume which aims to reconsider and situate Hanns Heinz Ewers’ (1871-1943) literary, journalistic and filmic work within central discourses of social and aesthetic Modernism. We thereby hope to gain new insights into concepts and theoretical (re-)constructions of modernity and Modernism, in particular with reference to Andreas Huyssen’s thesis of the ‘Great Divide’, according to whom, the idea of a now canonical differentiation between – on the one hand – a ‘high’ literature of avant-garde Modernism and a ‘stunted’ popular literature aimed at consumption by the masses – on the other – must be reconsidered. Although Huyssen’s model itself requires critical re-evaluation, his objection to such binaries of high/low is based on the fact that it is in fact an a posteriori construction dependent on Horkheimer/Adorno’s model of the “Culture Industry” which is barely upheld by the actual cultural production since 1900. As such, one needs to question the generally uncritically deployed distinction between serious (i.e. formally complex) ‘Modernism’ and trivial (i.e. less form-intensive) ‘popular literature’ by consulting the actual texts and practices in the literary field after 1900. Contemporary frames of reference include, for example, Walter Benjamin’s proposed dialectics of a de-auratization of the artistic artefact (understood by Adorno as “dialectic self-annihilation of mythology”) which transcends the supposedly established dichotomy of authenticity versus artificiality (Gumbrecht).

Our proposed more critical view of these almost too clear-cut dichotomies demands reconsidering the field of the popular which according to Stuart Hall is constantly renegotiated by each successive cultural era, thus calling into question the concept of a solid, timeless ensemble of ‘trivial’ vs. ‘aesthetically valuable’. This does not mean that the categories associated with aesthetically complex ‘Modernism’ (defined with Baßler as being based on abstractness, self-reflexivity and style) and popularity (with an aesthetics based on comprehensibility, entertainment and reduced complexity) should be abandoned entirely as (historically deployed) frames of reference. Following Fredric Jameson’s idea of a fundamental connectedness of popular and aesthetic forms, we instead propose analysing how both emerged as different ‘control values’ in the discourses of literary production and analysis after the “breakdown of older realisms” in the wake of capitalist industrialisation and rationalisation in the 19th century. Thus Marshall Berman has argued that popular cultural artefacts should not be rejected as ‘mass-cultural’ trash, but should rather be re-interpreted as “Modernism in the streets” in order to compare their structurally similar – yet also different – models of social modernity more thoroughly (see Kiesel and Klinger on this definition of literary Modernism).

The advantage of Berman’s and Jameson’s models is that they define aesthetic Modernism as a perspective on the experience of modernity. This implies that the previously dominant critical construction of binary categories such as high/low, aesthetic/popular, good/bad, intelligentsia/masses become visible as only one possible response to the perceived difficulties in charting the historical totality of industrialized modernity. If Modernism is defined as a “reflective response” to modernity (Gumbrecht), then “popular practice” and “fetishism of style” (Daly) may both be considered as forms of Modernism. This means that the prioritizing of style or formal complexity is only one, highly random cultural option. Popularization and aestheticization need to be analysed in terms of this interconnectedness in order to trace the genealogy of the ‘great divide’, in order to subject this categorization to critical enquiry, and thus make it more useful as a critical concept to define Modernism.

The focus on Hanns Heinz Ewers has been chosen in order to reconstruct historically these discursive negotiations between 1900 and 1940 and thus to study (I) which constitutive factors influence these described processes of categorization and self-fashioning both within and beyond the volatile concepts of modernity and (II) how the dichotomy of popularization/aestheticization established itself as such a successful option. Ewers’ literary, journalistic and filmic work switches constantly between a desire for popularity and the claim to aesthetic innovation. While his position in the avant-garde of Expressionist cinema is commonly accepted, Ewers’ literary works were immediately criticised as ‘trivial’, tasteless and commercially oriented popular literature and thus expelled from the literary canon (see for example Albert Soergel or Kurt Tucholsky’s charge of “parfümierten Salonsadisten”). The modernist styles of Expressionism and New Sobriety are, however, unthinkable without the influence of the such literary programmes of popularity and aestheticism evident in Ewers early cabaret work with the “Überbrettl”-group or in his pioneering contribution to the early history of non-fictional popular-science writing. If one looks more carefully at Ewers’ career, then he seems to occupy a complex self-fashioning between forms of aesthetic and popular Modernisms which becomes increasingly dominated by the drive for popular acceptance as a result of almost non-existent critical approval. This is also one way of reconstructing – if by no means explaining – his early involvement with nationalist and indeed National Socialist positions.

We are absolutely not interested in ‘rehabilitating’ Ewers as an author in any form; such an interest can only be rejected on the basis of his early conservative nationalist mentality and his willingness to assist in National Socialist self-mythologizing with the deplorable Horst Wessel-project. We are, however, interested in looking more closely at the specific position of the author and essayist Ewers between the poles of popularization and aestheticization in order to chart the spectrum of literary and essayist forms of aesthetic modernization.
        We invite contributions which address one or more of the following questions:
•       the formal qualities of Ewers’ texts (narrative structures, characters etc.) in relation to attempts to formally categorize Modernism
•       Ewers’ fantastic literature and processes of canonization (e.g. in the encyclopaedia “Führer durch die moderne Literatur”)
•       Popular Modernism: how does Ewers depict social modernity in his works (e.g. urbanization, violence, science, popular-science writing)
•       Ewers role in early film history
•       Ewers and (literary) tradition: reception, translations, self-fashioning, cultural transfer (i.e. Ewers’ role in mediating and popularizing foreign (avant-garde) literature)
•       Contemporary patterns of critical reception as a key to the ‘great divide’
•       Ewers and the literary field (around 1900)
•       Ewers and the politics of modernity (political essays, nationalism, National Socialism, Ewers and futurism)

Abstracts of ca 500 words in length and in either English or German are kindly requested by the editors before 30th June 2011; final submission of essays is planned for 30th of March 2012. The editors will determine the successful proposals and inform their authors as soon as possible.

Dr. Erdmut Jost: [log in to unmask]
PD Dr. Rainer Godel: [log in to unmask]
Dr. Barry Murnane: [log in to unmask]

Posted by

Dr Andrew Cusack
Department of Germanic Studies
School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies
Trinity College Dublin
Dublin 2

E. [log in to unmask]
T. 00353 1 896 1210
F. 00353 1 896 3762

on behalf of

Dr. Barry Murnane
Institut für Germanistik
Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg
06099 Halle an der Saale

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