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 three research areas: History of Theory, World Literature, and Knowledge of Life. Literature remains a primary object of investigation in all areas, while opening up new epistemological fields, new modes of knowledge, and new sets of questions in other disciplines. As an overarching mission, we explore the development of alternative descriptions of modernity and how they fit in to a broader historical context. As a relatively small, independent institute, the ZfL sees itself as a vital contributor to national and international research communities, as well as a critical observer of an ever-changing academic landscape.
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 then (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. Granted, 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 history of religion have proved to be rich reservoirs for new research questions and modes of inquiry. In future projects, legal-historical aspects of culture will be given greater attention.
History of Theory
Prior to the reduction of literature to belles lettres at the end of the 18th century, the concept included other fields of erudition such as rhetoric, poetics, religion, natural history, and the arts. These intellectual traditions and interpretive practices did not simply disappear around 1800, but rather underwent a transformation. One of the effects of this change was the emergence of theory, originally limited to literary theory. From the 18th century onwards, the term “theory” has been the name given to the study of the discursive conditions that organize any given culture. It has since expanded and turned into a mode of inquiry with its own historical developments and genre conventions. The History of Theory, as a meta-discourse, thus surpasses a simple recapitulation of the theories and “turns” that have come and gone since the 1960s.
While the notion of world literature emerged together with the national philologies in the 19th century, it also competes with them and offers ways to overcome their divisions. Today, the studies of world literature take into concern the specific global conditions shaping the realm of literature as well as the effects of globalization on literary production and reception in a rapidly changing society. Moreover, the concept of “world literature” suggests that literature is more than just a representation or reflection of particular realities—it creates worlds and shapes realities. Our goal is therefore not the study of all the world’s literatures but an exploration of how different literatures form and help understand our world.
The ZfL’s long-standing study of Eastern European literature is a good example. Eastern European cultures belong to a politically, ethnically, and religiously fraught region at the “margins” of Europe. In light of recent crises, research into the region’s literature and culture prompts a critical examination of Europe’s hegemonic self-presentation.
Knowledge of Life
Reading and thinking have always been means to some end. These skills have been believed to be vital to both the lives of individuals and collective bodies, such as nations. The idea that the arts produce and transmit knowledge relevant to life can be traced throughout history from notions of education during Antiquity to the modern Bildungsroman and into the concept of national literatures and cultures. But this conviction is faltering as the natural sciences now address subjects which – according to the idea of the “two cultures” – were once the exclusive domain of the humanities (e.g., the definition of free will). Moreover, modern technology constantly generates new types of applied knowledge which blur the distinction between living and non-living as well as that between nature and culture. The research area “Knowledge of Life” operates within the context of the challenges posed to the “two cultures” model. Its interdisciplinary projects engage with the field of biology in particular as the leading science of life. Without ignoring the logic and traditions of specific disciplines or flattening them into a single, shapeless concept of culture, our research takes on the task of investigating how natural objects, artefacts, organisms, and human beings can be studied within a shared framework.
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 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 honour. It honours 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) has been primarily funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) since 2008. This is supplemented by funding from the State of Berlin as well as by further grants from other institutions. Since 2019, the ZfL is admitted to the Leibniz Association to join its sister centers, the ZAS and ZMO, which were 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. Our 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 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.
Ill. above: © Dominik Flügel