“Revolution and the Real”

Graduate Student Conference on March 6, 2015

Hosted by the German Department at New York University

Keynote Speaker: TBD


“Philosophy, which once seemed outmoded, remains alive because the moment of its realization was missed.” – Theodor Adorno

Much of German literature and philosophy could be considered a surrogate for the unrealized revolution: Weimar Classicism or Romanticism for 1789, Realism for 1848, the culture of the Weimar Republic for 1918. In all of these cases, German culture observes the ‘real’ of the revolution from a distance and reflects, substitutes, idealizes. Yet it is from these idealist German responses that there arises the theory of revolution as a process in the real, the “realization” of philosophy – namely in Marx’s theory of historical materialism.


At each of these conjunctures we witness a simultaneous circumvention of the political and a blossoming of creativity and insight in Germany. Dichter such as Heinrich Heine, Georg Büchner, and Bertolt Brecht both thematized and exhorted revolution, while many elements of Weimar classicism and Romanticism are set off by the shadow of fully or partially realized revolutions in other countries even and perhaps especially where national politics is not the explicit focus. This German tradition of intellectual substitution for the unrealized rupture with the present order stretches back at least as far as Martin Luther’s 95 theses in 1517. Kant named the intervention of transcendental idealism into the history of philosophy a Copernican revolution, taking up an event that revolutionized the understanding of the already revolutionary motions of its own celestial objects of study.


Does the failure of the German political revolutions detract from their status as revolutions? Or is it on the contrary precisely the realization of revolution in determinate and purportedly permanent institutions that threatens its revolutionary character? What constitutes a “real revolution”? If, according to Lacan, the Real is the impossible, are real revolutions condemned to ideality? Revolutionary rhetoric often proclaims the inadequacy of mere resistance, of partial change or reform, instead seeking to uproot the established order of things in its entirety and usher in a new one. In that sense, the revolution takes aim at reality itself, disrupting its balance and redefining its rules. However, unlike mere revolt, the very notion of revolution also implies its own centripetal momentum, perhaps assuming the possibility of some future stability and permanence even as it presently resists or destroys. Paradoxically, the ancient notion of the revolution of celestial bodies, the very image of stasis and harmony, becomes in modern political discourse the name for a purportedly absolute rupture with what is currently real or actual.


Literary and artistic realisms have had a mixed and contested relationship to revolutionary practices of representation. Underlying the related debates may in part be an internal tension within the term “realism” itself symmetrical with that of “revolution” discussed above. Realism must promise variously to depict, represent, or communicate the real. But to do this, the ism of the real must differ determinately from the real itself, whether as a movement, a philosophy, or a set of conventions. However insistent they may be upon the primacy of reality or the real, realist representational practices would seem always to assume that the real itself requires some mediation in order to be accessible at all. If the purpose of revolutionary intellectual and artistic practices is to change the world in the real, as Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach might be understood to suggest, what kind of realism would resist the danger of simple reification in order to be capable of such a revolutionary intervention?   


We seek papers that explore how literary and artistic practices negotiate the interlocking paradoxes of revolution, the real, and realism, and the political stakes of their doing so.


Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

-revolutionary writers or texts

-realism in philosophy, literature, and visual art

-studies of the revolutions of 1848 or 1918

-Bureaucracy and revolution

-Eternal recurrence

-Tropologies of revolution and revolving tropes

-Copernican revolutions in philosophy and/or psychoanalysis

-the impact of revolutions on literary production

-staging revolution and revolutionary stagings

-Political (“committed”) art; the relationship between art and politics

-Comparative paradigms of revolution (e.g., East vs. West Germany; 18th vs. 20th century)

-reality vs. the Real

-Propaganda and/or agitation

-theories of the avant-garde

-narratives and metanarratives of revolution and realism

-alternatives to revolution (e.g. Burke and conservatism, or Schiller and aesthetic education)

-RAF and postwar radical politics


We welcome contributions from a range of disciplines, including German studies, history, philosophy, gender studies, and other language and literature departments. Please submit a 300-word abstract for a 15-20 minute paper by Dec. 20, 2014 to [log in to unmask]. If accepted, final papers should be submitted two weeks before the conference.

******************* The German Studies Call for Papers List Editor: Stefani Engelstein Assistant Editor: Olaf Schmidt Sponsored by the University of Missouri Info available at: http://grs.missouri.edu/resources/gerlistserv.html