Sarah Vandegrift Eldridge (University of Tennessee, Knoxville)
German thinkers play crucial roles in the development of notions of “self” that view identity as unique, internal, and fairly immutable (though subject—pun intended—to various forms of development). This notion of self is also related to the establishment of scientized biological racism, to religious belief as internal and personal (a matter of “the heart” as much as to institutions and practices), and to conceptions of gender as ‘natural’ and inherent rather than acquired and performed. While these latter paradigms have been historicized (and thus also largely debunked in intellectual discourse), Western societies still tend to adhere to a view of selfhood not too far from these eighteenth-century origins—although scholars at least since the 1960s have critiqued this model of selfhood as complicit in naturalizing systems of oppression to the point of invisibility in the daily lives of ordinary human beings. These post-deconstructionist critiques of selfhood are important and useful, but they often do not do much more than upend value systems, making the establishment of modern individualism a story of decline rather than triumph. They do very little to decenter the entire idea of a unique, interior self. New approaches to eighteenth-century studies can illuminate the extent to which individual identities are, and always have been, socially constructed and relationally situated—in much the same way that modern social and critical movements currently push us to understand them. This understanding of identity insists on the acknowledgment of the empirical qualities that make up the self, but without giving up on the notion of some space for agency within those frameworks and influences.
My research asks specifically what attending to the kinds of selves that appear in eighteenth-century literature—especially non-canonical literature, which has received hardly any scholarly attention at all, still less of it positive—can tell us about the emergence of models of selfhood. It contends that doing so opens up new possibilities for both reading literature and thinking about ethical engagements in our own, twenty-first-century lives. In the German-speaking context, a conscious sense of belatedness and lack of political unity gives rise to discourses of an emerging “modern” self that are especially highly theorized and frequently self-reflexive. Both in broader Enlightenment discourse (philosophy, linguistics, political theory) and in the emerging literary discourse around the novel, eighteenth-century German thinkers observed developments in states around them (especially France and England) and used these observations to conceive of models of selfhood, and of linguistic and cultural unity, that were applicable to a German context. These reflections combined with a scientific paradigm shift in models of generation to arrive, by the turn of the nineteenth century, at a concept of identity as organic, natural, and autopoietic; this model was canonized, on the literary scene, in the genre of the Bildungsroman.
At the same time, however, the literary market and the reading public were expanding rapidly, and so-called trivial literature remained a messy, complex hybrid of old and new ideas. Twenty-first century readers, returning to German novels of the early-to-mid-eighteenth century, encounter a strange and unfamiliar reading experience. As Wolfram Malte Fues writes in one of the only recent studies to explore non-canonical eighteenth-century novels in detail:
"The narrative styles and the perspectives on self and world that express themselves in them spring forward and backward, outward, sideways, as if the narrators, on the developmental path of their narration, were worried about losing something which likewise only remains in their reach if they continue to pursue it. […] Economics, morals, law, politics, art, science/knowledge, sexuality, the core areas of the self-forming bourgeois society, stand immediately next to each other in these mostly biographically or autobiographically plotted narratives, and follow one another so purely and recklessly that it is as if the moral subject forgot the economic one and the sexual subject forgot the moral one. […] The more the texts fragment according to their external and internal form, the more rhizomatically they proliferate into each other" (74).
These narratives thus make the composite nature of eighteenth-century selves highly visible, including the occasional incompatibility of their relational elements. The protagonists of courtly and political novels express themselves by means of their external effects, whether in politics or in gallant love, with the odd outcome that the measure of morality is success. The journeying subjects of imitations of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe establish their anthropological status as European colonizers over and against the native inhabitants, women, Muslims, and Jews that populate the world of eighteenth-century adventure. From these novels in all their weirdness it emerges that, far from being a “universal subject,” the white, straight, cisgender, upper-middle class or upper-class male individual is socially shaped, relationally embedded, and as and empirically located as the rest of us.
Beyond simply historicizing the emergence of conceptions of self from prior models of identity, examining literary texts in detail can show us how the “modern self,” described in terms of depth, uniqueness, and relative unchangeability, is itself a social construct. That is, we, as modern subjects, have been trained and socialized to grasp our own selves in this way—but this conception is neither natural nor necessary. If we attend to the ways Western culture since the Enlightenment has taught us to believe that we are beings with an essential, individual core, we can also attend to the facets of society and culture, of education and socialization, of indoctrination and resistance, that in fact make up our composite selves.
Here, the ethical stakes of eighteenth-century German studies come into play: we can acknowledge what has shaped us (for good and ill), and reflect on what sources we choose to engage with and allow to form our own socially-turned selves. We can also read and understand those sources differently. One might, for example, read Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship with less attention to paths of individual development and more attention to forms of mutual care and affiliation. Or one might choose to uncover and analyze numbers of the increasingly popular entertaining novels to ask, with curiosity and without condescension, why they resonated with eighteenth-century readers—and to ask which of these resonances ought to be discarded and which might still be relevant and carry ethical weight today. On this model, it matters deeply what communities—of literary works, scholarship, and in non-academic life—we surround ourselves with, and how we act within them.
A very short and very lightly annotated bibliography:
Birkhold, Matthew. Characters Before Copyright: The Rise and Regulation of Fan Fiction in Eighteenth-Century Germany. Oxford 2019. –Interdisciplinary history of the German book market and norms around intellectual property and fictional characters that helps challenge old models of authorship.
Eldridge, Sarah Vandegrift. “Narrative Direction: Novel Form and the Experience of Contingency in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship,” in: Eldridge and C. Allen Speight, eds. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Philosophy. Oxford 2020, pp. 54-77. –Attempt to re-empiricize the “aesthetic subject” of Goethe’s Bildungsroman and ask questions about contingency in human life.
Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi. “The Color of Reason: The Idea of ‘Race’ in Kant’s Anthropology,” in: Katherine M. Faull, ed. Anthropology and the German Enlightenment: Perspectives on Humanity. Lewisburg, 1995, pp. 201-41. –Re-examination of the formative role of racist thought in Kant’s thought broadly conceived.
Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi. Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. Malden/Oxford, 1997. –Important collection and situation of key European texts on race from the long eighteenth century.
Fues, Wolfram Malte. Die annullierte Literatur: Nachrichten aus der Romanlücke der deutschen Aufklärung.Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 2017. –Detailed study of non-canonical German literature from 1680-70.
Kittler, Friedrich. “Über die Sozialisation Wilhelm Meisters,” in: Gerhard Kaiser und Friedrich A. Kittler, eds. Dichtung als Sozialisationspiel. Studien zu Goethe und Gottfried Keller. Göttingen 1978. S. 13-124. –Classic deconstructionist critique of the subject and its formation, although unfortunately attached to an Oedipal framework.
Müller-Sievers, Helmut. Self-Generation: Biology, Philosophy, and Literature Around 1800. Stanford 1997. –Reading of epigenetic/organicist turn across German discourses at the end of the eighteenth century.
Saine, Thomas P. The Problem of Being Modern: Or The German Pursuit of Enlightenment from Leibniz to the French Revolution. Detroit 1997. –Account of the ripple effect of seventeenth-century scientific developments in eighteenth-century philosophy and religion.
Tautz, Birgit. Reading and Seeing Ethnic Differences in the Enlightenment: From China to Africa. New York 2007. –Important global account of European conceptions of and relationships to non-European cultures.
Wahrman, Dror. The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven 2006. –Thorough history of eighteenth-century models of selfhood and paradigm shift in the 1770s-80s; specifically about the Anglo-American tradition but with some insights that apply in other national contexts.
Zantop, Susanne. Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870. Chapel Hill, 1997. –Important debunking of the false notion that because Germany was late to acquire colonies, it lacked a racist, imperialist “colonial imagination.”
Zhang, Chunjie. Transculturality and German Discourse in the Age of European Colonialism. Evanston 2017. –Exploration of non-European agency and contributions to and in German thought from 1756-1835.