A Conversation: Jochen Schulte-Sasse

Jochen Schulte-Sasse
Faculty Profile

An exemplar of the engaged and highly interdisciplinary intellectual, longtime GSD professor Jochen Schulte-Sasse has few peers. Vastly curious and critically dextrous, he has explored, in trenchant essays and much-cited articles, topics ranging from transcendental philosophy and aesthetic theory to kitsch and Saddam Hussein. He helped found the University’s cultural studies and comparative literature department, cofounded and for 20 years edited an influential book series, and is a coeditor of the leading interdisciplinary journal Cultural Critique. Currently GSD’s director of graduate studies, Schulte-Sasse also holds the Fesler-Lampert Chair in Humanities for 2002-03.

I understand you started out to become a chemist? Actually, it’s true, at least to a certain extent. My family background was in natural sciences, math, and medicine. My father was an engineer. My three brothers all studied medicine or the natural sciences. There was no one who had studied the humanities, but that’s where my interests lay. After graduating from high school, I went to work in a chemistry research lab at a company. After six months, I asked myself if I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.When I started college a few months later at the university in Göttingen, I got a student ID printed with my field of study: chemistry. At the spur of the moment, I changed it. I ended up studying German literature, linguistics, math, and philosophy.

How would you describe your overriding intellectual interests today?
I consider myself to be a cultural and intellectual historian. In that context, I’m interested in aesthetic theory and changes in aesthetic theory from the 17th century through the present.

You first came to the University of Minnesota in 1968.
Yes, I came then for nine months as a visiting assistant professor, and then returned 10 years later to join the regular faculty. I came initially because my Ph.D. adviser was friends with Wolfgang Taraba in the department here; he also knew Gerhard Weiss and Frank Hirschbach.

After I got my doctorate in the spring of 1968 (at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum), I wanted to do something unusual, something adventurous before I started an assistant professorship I’d been offered in Germany.

What do you recall from your time in Minneapolis in 1968Ð69?
I took a boat over, the Waterman, from Rotterdam to New York, and then a Greyhound to Minneapolis. I wanted to have the bodily experience of the distance between Germany and the Midwestern United States.

After I arrived, I bought a Studebaker for $100 and a friend and I went down to an area south of the city that was still prairie. I also went to an Indian reservation north of here. It was some childlike quest to see remnants of the old West. I was disappointed so little was left. From age 12 on, I was very interested in Westerns. I’ve taught a seminar on the American Western and published on [German writer] Karl May’s Western novels.

I participated in the theater scene here. I had always been quite interested in theater—I had stood for hours as a high school student to get a ticket for the Ruhrfestspiele, a famous theater festival in Recklinghausen. In Minneapolis, I got involved with the Firehouse Theater. My experiences there really stood out for me, a rather provincial German at that time. In one play, the actors—quite a few of whom were naked—came through the rows and each did something provocative. One woman came up to me and—I still remember this quite clearly—she licked my glasses.

I went quite often to the Guthrie. I became interested in how they used the thrust stage and other techniques to rupture theatrical illusion.

Were you involved in the student movement of the late1960s?
I had been involved in Germany in sit-ins, teach-ins, and demonstrations, and in Minnesota in 1968–69, I got very involved in the antiwar movement, although it was not all about Vietnam. Too many people reduce 1968 to political issues. “The movement,” as it was called, was actually not that much about political revolutions, but cultural revolutions. The sexual revolution was a part of this, but it was more than that. It was a psychological liberation—we tried to redefine all kinds of things. I remember how we discussed Beatles’ texts like “Norwegian Wood” and redefined gender relations. At one point, much later, I published a piece on “Norwegian Wood.” It was—and is still to me—a very interesting text.

Your scholarly work concerns both political and cultural issues.
Yes. The engagement that literary critics and cultural critics have with language, with the rhetoricity of language, always seemed to me to be applicable to political texts. I have published quite a few articles along these lines. I wrote three articles on the first Gulf War, and an article on the impeachment action against President Clinton. Why? That’s what motivates me, always. It’s like a cliché in my writings. Why? Why is that?

What questions were you asking in looking at the Gulf War?
In one article, published in fall 1991, I analyzed the equation between Saddam Hussein and Hitler. I didn’t think we were in a position to answer the question of whether Saddam equates to Hitler. As I looked at the discourse produced by people in power, I became suspicious of stories that seemed to be generated for public consumption, to engineer political consent. I read three times that Saddam is supposed to have Hitler’s Mein Kampf on his bedside table. Before the recent Iraq war, I wondered, again, “Why are we told this? How can anyone know this outside his inner circle?”

I’m interested in that kind of thing—reading official announcements against the grain. What’s crucial in a democracy is critical literacy—and it’s often missing. What I would like to contribute as a teacher and a scholar is to advance critical literacy in students. I believe it’s possible. Maybe it’s an ambition that’s Sisyphus-like for one person.

What, in your view, undermines critical literacy?
We learn to identify with our parents as young children. Similarly, we like to identify with our nation. It’s not particularly an American phenomenon; in Nazi Germany critical literacy was more lacking than anywhere else. But there is a tendency in the United States to foster identification with your nation, with your “in group,” which really flies in the face of critical literacy.

I often watch a program on C-SPAN called “Washington Journal,” a call-in program. I’m frequently shocked by how callers identify with one issue or another, one party or another, with the president or against the president. Structurally, the U.S. political system— a majority system instead of a more democratic system of proportional representation—invites people to identify with a party, a movement.

Critical literacy is in my understanding completely opposite to that. I think that studying the humanities— and particularly languages and literatures— can undermine the tendency to reduce everything to an “identification with.”

I have always found my situation between cultures— being situated “in-between,” a liminal space— a very productive one. Similarly, I’ve seen many students in study abroad programs coming back changed. What is most distressing to me is the closing off of the human mind—when you identify with one culture, one group, and after a while do not question it anymore, no longer even try to step outside your own limited experience.

How have your interrelated interests in literature and culture evolved over the years?
My interest in connecting the literary to the political was fostered during the student movement. I had grown up with a rather rigid dichotomy of “good” and “bad” literature. Germany strongly embraced New Criticism—the work of “immanent interpretation” or very close reading of the text—after the war, when it tried to get rid of any curricula contaminated by Third Reich ideology. In the mid-1960s, influenced by rock ’n’ roll music and the student movement, my whole generation began to question—to implode, really— the distinction between high and low, good and bad. That’s when I became very interested in popular culture … how it participates in shaping culture as a whole, how people use popular culture to work through issues.

After rejecting New Criticism, a lot of us worked on sociohistorical approaches to literature. But by 1978, I became very skeptical of this approach, which I thought had led us into a dead end. I began to think that a lot of what we did were sociohistorical constructions that relied on master narratives—cause-and-effect constructions. What we were constructing was basically a substitute for “transcendence.” It was in a sense the end result of secularization— master narratives were a kind of retaining wall for our individual and collective psyches.

I got interested in what motivates and informs the construction of social philosophy, the writing of narratives. I started reading Freud and Lacan, among others. I got particularly interested in constructions of manhood, especially during the Nazi era. Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, whose English language publication I initiated, became very important for me in this context.

Psychoanalysis became a key influence?
I had a growing interest in psychoanalysis, without losing interest in politics. I don’t see such a great difference there. Ultimately, you only understand political movements if you understand them psychoanalytically. That’s how you understand “identification with.”

You don’t seem to experience a schism between the “scholarly” and the “political.”
Not at all. I use my training not just to address intellectual issues like a dramatic text, but also to read texts in the daily newspaper. I’m a news junkie. On average, I cut out about six articles a week, essays about contemporary issues. I use these in a certain type of publication. I do write somewhat differently on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit than I do on the Gulf War.

What are you working on right now?
My major project is hard to characterize. What I’m currently interested in is how transcendence has disintegrated from ancient Greece to the mid-19th century. I’m interested in the process of modernization, the process of secularization— in how people have lost faith in transcendence as the ground of knowledge and of validity claims.

For many, transcendence obviously means God and the divine, but my interest is how a belief in transcendence shaped and shapes institutions and discourses; how it shaped, let’s say, medical and philosophical discourse. As a case in point, until the 1730s imagination was mainly a medical term. For about 2,000 years, people thought imagination was physically located—for women in the uterus, for men in the spleen. For example, the prevailing view was that things women looked at would imprint on the fetus.This was used to explain “monstrous births”—deformations in the newly born. This wasn’t at all a folk tradition—it was the view of leading philosophers and scientists.

Between the early 1600s and the late 1700s, a major change occurred, a transition from a vertical to a horizontal culture. In vertical culture, there was a hierarchy with the immateriality of transcendence at the top and the materiality of the world at the bottom. In horizontal culture, human beings orient themselves in the dimension of time and space. By the mid-18th century, you have a kind of expansion of this perspective to philosophy and then to aesthetic theory.The term aesthetic—from the Greek for “sense perception”—is a way of recognizing that, in effect, we understand the world according to the position of our body in the world, as many philosophers stressed.This transition is shaped by the loss of transcendence as an anchoring ground for human knowledge.

I’ve been developing a book on this for 10 years, along the way publishing individual articles on related topics—14–15 articles in the last eight years on subjects like linear perspective, or perspectivism more generally, imagination, and fancy.

Do you see your work as falling within postmodernism?
“Postmodern” is not a useful term, not for me. The “post” is actually something that accompanies modernism. Hegel says in his Phenomenology of Spirit that absolute knowledge is impossible and at the same time necessary. What he basically maintains is that you have to project something as an ideal even if it is impossible to reach. This emphasizes the constructedness of everything we do. That’s consistent with the “postmodern” view. Similarly, I see a tension that always existed in Kant between desire for a foundation for knowledge or validity claims and, simultaneously, the realization that there is no foundation. This one could also call a “postmodern” tension or insight.

I’m fascinated with these ideas, and also with how we fall back into easy answers. I’m interested in why, what the motivation is, for affiliation with a collective identity—whether with religious fundamentalism, or with the nation as a nation, or with politicians, or celebrities.

Let’s return to your own personal narrative. You were born…
… a year after the start of the Second World War. I was born in Salzgitter, in Western Germany very near where the so-called “Iron Curtain” was later to run. I was just 41/2 years old when the war ended, but I definitely have memories of the war.

I have one very distinct memory of lying in a window with my mother. Over the hill came a formation of bombers—Allied planes, but of course at the time I had no idea what they were. I said to my mother, “Why does what the plane lost not fall down straight?” My mother looked where I was pointing, grabbed me, and headed for the stairs. Halfway down, we heard a huge sound. Across the street, a house had been cut in half. A bathtub was hanging out of it. I see that image in my head as though it was yesterday. I don’t think the Allies intended to bomb our residential area. It seemed to be an accident, a plane lost a bomb.

Were you terrified during the war?
For me, it was just an interesting thing. I remember when the Allies bombed Braunschweig, the next big city—they always flew what we called “the Burning Christmas Trees” formation to light up a city; the formation behind then dropped the bombs. I saw this from afar, and it was like fireworks—the way a kid today would experience the Fourth of July.

Was your father involved in the war?
My father was an engineer, with several degrees. He was a simple soldier during the war, as far as I know not a Nazi member. He was what they called a “Mitläufer”—he didn’t protest, but he was not active either. He ended up as a Russian POW after the war. He was sent to Siberia because of the nature of his expertise. He was in a labor camp. What happened to him in the Soviet Union was terrible. They kept him until he was useless to them; he came back to us with 100% war injuries. When he was back with us, his disabilities gradually got a little better, and he got a job with the city government. But he never could write again.

How did you and your mother get along without him?
After the war, there were bus trips organized to glean harvested fields. My mother was really good at gleaning fields. She collected all kinds of other things—beechnuts, berries—to feed us. She also opened her own typing office. That and her gathering helped us to survive.

These must be painful memories.
No, not really. If so, they have to do with having to face Germany’s Nazi past after the war, starting at a very early age. In my second-to-last year of high school, all high school students in my state had to attend a showing of Resnais’ Night & Fog.We saw the steam shovels pushing the dead into mass graves, the concentration camps—images that shocked us. On our own we began reading and discussing all kinds of books, starting with a well-known paperback edition of Nazi documents that is still in print; it’s sold about 1.5 million copies so far. I’m often baffled about why so many historians claim Germany did not educate youth about our Nazi past. It’s certainly not true for my generation of high school students.

In the late 1950s, my friends and I hitchhiked across Europe. We had experiences that for a teenager were hard to cope with. I had a traumatic experience in Holland where a person hearing us speak German yelled at us in Dutch; I could only understand certain terms like “Hitler,” “Nazi” and so on. Although we didn’t live in the Third Reich, my generation was shaped by it—more, I believe, than my father’s generation was.

You helped start a highly influential book series.
Yes. It all started with a call from Lindsay Waters, then the acquisitions editor at the U of M Press. He was interested in intellectual ideas emerging from Europe that at the time were not finding their way into the U.S. publishing mainstream—exciting articles and books that weren’t being translated here. Not long after I arrived, Lindsay called me and Wlad Godzich, a colleague who had just been hired in comparative literature.

The three of us had lunch at Vescio’s, in Dinkytown. We asked, “What can we do? How can we have an impact on U.S. intellectual life?” We were talking, talking, and making notes on new books. Lindsay still talks of this as a “mythical meeting.” We decided to start a book series, The Theory and History of Literature, eventually known as the THL series.

For years, we met every Wednesday in the comparative lit library and discussed books and new manuscripts that had been submitted to us or published in Europe. We translated mainly from French, German, Russian, and Italian. We had a long run—ending after 88 books, the last in 1998.

The series famously was praised by critic Stanley Fish.
He said that our series was the only one for which he ever had a standing order. It was, I guess, a remarkable endorsement for our project. People have said that our series reshaped literary discourse in this country. It’s not for me to say that, but a lot of people have said that.

We were very eclectic. We wanted to stir up discussion in the U.S. We did not pursue an intellectual agenda. What was important was the quality of the scholarship, but also inspiring dialogue, providing something not otherwise present in the U.S. We also published each book with a critical introduction to point out its strengths and weaknesses. Some of our introductions have been memorable in their own right—by Paul deMan, Fred Jameson, Jacques Derrida, and many others.

It’s often said we helped transform intellectual life in the humanities, and even beyond, and I guess I have to accept that. Several colleagues from other universities told me that they started their own series in direct imitation of ours.

You now edit a widely admired journal.
Yes, Cultural Critique, which was founded in 1985 by Donna Przybylowicz in the English department here, along with Abdul JanMohamed at UC Berkeley. I was on the original editorial board. Four years ago I was asked to take it over. I moved it from Oxford University Press to the U of M Press—it is supported by both the U of M Press and the College of Liberal Arts. I’m one of three editors; we each do one issue a year.

We get a lot of submissions. After we weed them out, about one third are sent on for review by readers around the globe; half of those are rejected. We’re highly interdisciplinary and we cover a lot more issues than most journals. For example, we had a special issue on trauma and its aftereffects. We had an issue on nostalgia. We also had one on the impeachment process, including an essay I wrote. I was fascinated by the language of the impeachment talks—including constant references to “the rule of law” (not “rule of laws,” as Lincoln and JFK would have it), and statements like “virtue is the mother’s milk.” I came to understand the context as one of unchangeable rules and values; as one of need for the illusion that one’s beliefs are grounded in some rigid—transcendent, if you will—principle.

You seem to bring great avidity to your engagement with ongoing political affairs.
You have to engage. In some respects, I would rather just sit back and read Musil, but I find it very important to engage with the world. In my teaching, I often bring articles I cut out from the newspaper as a way of introducing students to narrative theory. What I’m trying to do is to help students develop the capacity to take what we do in literature and apply it to everyday texts.

You helped found the U’s Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature.
My time is split 50-50 between GSD and CSCL, and my work is very entwined with both. GSD is exceptionally supportive of interdisciplinary activities. It never was and is even less so today a disciplinary, closed-off department. That’s a major reason why I could not have been as happy at most universities as I’ve been here.

CSCL is very important for my work in the areas of popular culture and critical theory. I’ve often taught a CSCL course on popular narratives and images. Among many other things we look at Harlequin romances and tapes of the evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. You can learn a lot from pop cultural phenomena that is relevant to that desire for transcendence. With Swaggart, there’s this constantly changing presentation of a consistently fundamentalist message, and a kind of abandonment in the crowd. Musically, it’s much like pop music, with dynamics akin to those of pop concerts—people with candles, swaying. People submerge in these groups, abandon themselves in group action. You see something similar with the nondenominational mega-churches popping up in the U.S., with their use of music and video within a fundamentalist framework. I find this type of experience rather dangerous. I’m not denying that we need some sense of losing ourselves periodically. When we go home after a long day and watch TV, on a certain level we’re doing the same thing. It’s just that if it becomes too organized and too intense, it becomes dangerous. We have only to think of National Socialism.

Back to your own life. You have two children?
Yes. My daughter, Linn, graduated from Stanford, where her adviser was Condoleezza Rice, the Bush national security adviser. She now works as a political analyst at a Stanford “think tank.” My son, Daniel, is a junior at Grinnell, studying computer science. Both of my kids are on their own paths. They’re both very independent free spirits. We don’t always agree 100 percent on everything politically, but that’s not important to me. In general I try to teach my kids—and my students—to analyze a situation. Where the bits and pieces fall is up to them. What’s important is that they can read a situation or a text against the grain. As long as they can do that, they have critical literacy, and that’s all that matters.

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on March 6, 2009 9:55 AM.

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