Messages in a Bottle: The Migration of Texts
Annual Conference of the Dubnow Institute, 3 and 4 December 2020 (Online Event)
When Dialectic of Enlightenment was completed in 1944, the metaphor of messages in a bottle had long established itself in reference to this work at the emigrated Institute for Social Research. This book, in which Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno tried to conceptualize the historical, political, and social forces that had forced them into exile, was written for later generations. It did not have a target audience: The text was written in German in America, reflected the American experience of those who were not American, and drew on European philosophical traditions without expounding on these. The reception of this work occurred at another time and in another place. The Dialectic of Enlightenment became one of the most widely read works of the German protest movement in the 1960s. This spatial and temporal dislocation contributed significantly to the disappearance of the contexts originally embedded in the work. The epistemology of the events that unfolded in Europe, which was itself difficult to grasp, and a not insignificant scale of suppression exacerbated this disappearance. This ensured that the Dialectic of Enlightenment was understood less as an engagement with National Socialism and – at least partly – with the Holocaust and rather became seen almost exclusively as a text about the general upheavals of modernity.
Other texts written in exile in the context of the workers’ movement, the political Left, and their intellectual cultures suffered a similar fate. The contexts of experience, emergence, and reception underlying these works differed markedly. Thus, texts were being promptly and broadly discussed that had already been disclaimed on account of rapid political and historical developments. More in-depth analyses, on the other hand, often only received attention with great delay and in a distorted manner, if they were perceived at all. They often did not correspond to the optimistic perspectives regarding the future of the interwar period, nor with the construction rhetoric of the postwar period. Sometimes, they seemed too unwieldy, had taken on other historical experiences due to their emergence in exile, or – as occurred with Yiddish texts – they hardly had an audience left.
Moreover, National Socialism and the Holocaust affected the perception of texts that had been written long before that era. An engagement with these texts seemed to offer the possibility of transcending this civilizational rupture and of summarily reconnecting with the traditions of the interwar period and the nineteenth century. However, more contemporary texts got in the way of the messages in a bottle from the period of exile. The developments that these texts addressed acted in part as screen memories and sometimes served to deflect the moments of realization contained in many texts written in exile. This applies not least of all to texts about the nuclear threat or the horrors of colonialism, the reception of which probably proceeded, at least in Germany, from the need for a projective relief from one’s own history.
This annual conference is dedicated to exploring these contexts. On the basis of representative texts written in exile in the context of the workers’ movement and the political Left, it aims to discuss the migration of texts, theories, and ideas that reflected on National Socialism, the Holocaust, their backgrounds, and their impact on the categories and mindscapes employed in these texts. To this end, the disparate conditions relating to the experience, emergence, and reception of the texts will be brought together. The focus will lie on the historical experiences recorded in these texts, the influence of exile on their theoretical development, misunderstandings in their reception, as well as encryptions and codifications. In addition, other texts will be analyzed in conjunction that reflect competing events and memories. This will allow for the historical efficacy of concepts from the workers’ and union movements to be elucidated alongside the conditions surrounding realizations about National Socialism and the Holocaust. As the central catastrophe of the twentieth century emanated from Germany, the focus will lie on texts by authors from the German-speaking world. However, Eastern and Western Europe, especially France, will also be taken into account.
CONTACT AND REGISTRATION
Due to the Corona pandemic, the Dubnow Institute’s annual conference is being held digitally. Please register by 1 December 2020 to receive a link to the digital lecture room.
Please send an e-mail to jahreskonferenz2020(at)dubnow.de with the title of the event »Flaschenpost«, your name, institution (if applicable) and the email address to which we should send the link to the event room.