Our AHA panel “Babel before Bhabha:” Language and German Cultural Studies since 1800" investigates how the linguistic definition of cultural difference has legitimated and spawned human conflict and imperial conquest in the modern period. It explores the particular importance of language and linguistic theory to German concepts of culture, moving from a specific national context to a more general consideration of the historical role of language in humanistic inquiry.
First, the papers seek to understand a German peculiarity. Why was language such an important metaphor for the representation of national culture in Germany? J.G. Herder (1744-1803) and the prophets of German nationalism emphasized a specifically linguistic definition of the national community that was both territorially expansive and exclusionary. The subsequent conflation of language and race in discussions of “Aryan” and “Semitic” peoples has been tied to a Sonderweg (special path) of German development that culminated in the death camps of the Third Reich. Germans did not confine their linguistic interests to the home front, however. Scholars sought to uncover how peoples throughout the entire world, especially in Africa and the Pacific, were interrelated, and what that meant for Germany’s position in the human community. Research on “colonial” languages was not ensconced in an ivory tower, but rather employed in the service of state-building.
Secondly, the panel seeks to historicize the current concern for language manifest in the humanistic disciplines. It argues that the German philological tradition, which nourished the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, raised the “specter of autonomous language” by claiming that words and grammatical structures shaped culture, community, and cognition independently of a transcendental subject. Even before the “linguistic turn,” German language studies provided European and American scholars with models and informing metaphors for other modes of thinking in the human and natural sciences.
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