Special Subjects are grouped into programmes as described below. You can either choose subjects from these programmes or devise subjects of your own. The subjects correspond to areas of particular teaching and research strength in Oxford, but the list is by no means exhaustive and is subject to amendment. In addition to the three programmes shown below you can choose from options in German Literature from the List of Women’s Studies Options.
These are the Special Subject options available in 2020-21. These are indicative of the course offerings for the sub-faculty, so applicants should note that not all options will run in all years, and some course content might change.
Women’s Writing in Medieval Germany (Hilary Term)
Convenor: Professor Almut Suerbaum
Women’s writing in this period consists mostly of mystical revelations, (auto)biographical writings and religious poetry. Important areas of study that have now firmly established themselves in the literary canon are the Fließendes Licht der Gottheit of Mechthild von Magdeburg, the ‘Nonnenviten’ — lives of nuns from S.W. German Dominican convents — and devotional writing. The course offers scope for the investigation of questions of genre, public and private dimensions of literature, the reception of women’s writing, as well as gender-specific aspects of female authorship. The course is planned on the basis of German texts, but it is also possible to study this option on the basis of a combination of Latin and German material.
Middle High German Courtly Literature (Michaelmas Term)
Convenor: Professor Annette Volfing
Courtly literature in medieval German spans the period from Lambrecht’s Alexander c. 1160 to the Minnesang of the later 13th and early fourteenth century. The course centres on Veldeke’s Eneide, the romances of Hartmann, Wolfram and Gottfried with the option to look also at poetry. Students are encouraged to tackle new texts not covered in their earlier studies, and to approach the texts with a diversity of methods ranging from more traditional literary approaches to gender issues and cultural history.
German Literature and the Beginnings of Printing (Hilary Term)
Convenor: Professor Henrike Lähnemann
This subject is devised to open up an area of literary history that has received little attention, the German texts whose reception spanned the manuscript culture of the period 1440-60 and continued in the new medium after the invention of printing. The course addresses both medium-related issues such as the invention of printing with moveable type, wood-block printing and intermediate forms between manuscript and print, as well as providing scope for an investigation of the historical and social background.
Reformation: Printing, Singing, Translating (Hilary Term)
Convenor: Professor Henrike Lähnemann
The Reformation forms a fascinating Schwellenzeit, linking late medieval religious, literary and technical developments with early modern German culture. The hymn book develops as a signature genre for Protestantism, the European network is extensively used to circulate pamphlets, translate from Latin into the vernaculars and back. Sometimes comical, often polemical, the bestsellers of the sixteenth century exercise an influence which reaches to the present day. The course will start from the material and literary basis of Reformation texts by Martin Luther, Hans Sachs and female voices such as Argula von Grumbach and Elisabeth Cruciger; it will then also look at the reception of these texts e.g. in historical novels of the nineteenth and hymn writing of the twentieth century.
Click here to read about the options available for the European Enlightenment Programme.
Belief and Unbelief in 18th and 19th Century German Literature (Hilary Term)
Convenor: Professor Ritchie Robertson
Developments in philosophy, the sciences, theology and Biblical criticism in the period 1650-1750 put orthodox religion under increasing strain. These developments left their mark on 18th- and 19th-century German literature. A number of works reflected and indeed intervened in the religious controversies of the time. The increasing dominance of a philosophical outlook required significant adjustments to the traditional understanding of certain genres and of literature itself. Among the better known authors who suggest themselves for closer study are Klopstock, Lessing, Goethe, Lenz, Schiller and Hölderlin; but so-called minor writers might prove equally rewarding. In the Romantic period many writers, influenced directly or indirectly by the theologian Schleiermacher, reaffirmed the importance of religious belief, though as a way of living rather than as a system of propositions, and some converted to Catholicism. The development of scientific materialism and atheism, however, left their mark notably on the work of Georg Büchner (notably Lenz) and the philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach (Das Wesen des Christentums). These tendencies reached their high point in the militant opposition to Christianity and affirmation of a purely this-worldly existence by Nietzsche, e.g. in Also sprach Zarathustra and his late polemic Der Antichrist.
Possible foci for seminars include: Theology and physico-theology in early Enlightenment poetry: Haller, Brockes, Klopstock; The problem of theodicy: Goethe, Faust I (and Act V of Faust II), together with Kant, ‘Über das Mißlingen aller philosophischen Versuche in der Theodizee’; Büchner and Feuerbach; Nietzsche.
The Bildungsroman 1770-2000 (Michaelmas Term, Hilary Term)
Convenors: Professors Ritchie Robertson and Barry Murnane
The Bildungsroman, the novel centring on its protagonist’s development from youth to adulthood, has been widely considered the characteristically German form of the novel, thanks largely to the cultural prestige of its chief exemplar, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-6). The genre can, however, be followed back to Wieland’s witty philosophical novel Agathon (1766-7) and Moritz’s searching psychological and autobiographical novel Anton Reiser (1785-90); and it runs forward through the Romantics (Novalis, Brentano, Eichendorff), who combined homage with criticism in their reception of Goethe, through the qualified realism of Mörike, Stifter and Keller. The genre was also adapted for the purposes of feminism (Gabriele Reuter’s Aus guter Familie, 1895) and Jewish emancipation (Franzos’s Der Pojaz, 1905), while in the twentieth century it has been modified or parodied by such writers as Rilke, Hesse, Thomas Mann and Günter Grass. By studying a selection from this corpus, candidates will appreciate the range and continuity of German fiction, and its ability to address in literary form some of the central problems of modern culture.
Literature and Medicine 1770-1930 (Michaelmas Term)
Convenor: Professor Barry Murnane
The relationship between literature and medicine is an important source of aesthetic developments in the modern era, helping to shape literary movements as diverse as Empfindsamkeit and Poetic Realism, Romanticism and Naturalism, and helping to link writers like Goethe, Novalis, Büchner, Fontane and Mann. There is no formal prescription and the course will allow you to examine a range of genres and writers including poetry and prose, scientific texts and encyclopaedic literature, focusing on particular authors, periods, or on historical developments across the period as a whole. Comparative approaches are encouraged, with the opportunity to read developments in German culture alongside other European literatures. There is also opportunity to take a more theoretical focus, looking for example at issues such as affect, corporeality, and aesthetics. Some possible topics for discussion are: how literature deals mimetically with medical matters (death, concepts or illness and wellness, therapy); theories of imagination and feeling around 1800; the co-evolution of psychology in literature and clinical discourse; narrating illness; literature as medicine; depictions of medical practitioners; literature and drugs.
Jews and Judaism in German Literature from 1740 to the Present (Hilary Term)
Convenor: Professor Ritchie Robertson
This course examines the representation of Jews and Judaism in Germany and Austria against the background of the history of Jewish emancipation, the resurgence of antisemitism, the Holocaust, and recent attempts to confront and comprehend this history. Within this framework, students may wish to give particular attention to one or more of the following: the entry of Jewish writers into the culture of the Enlightenment and the qualified philosemitism they encountered; the development of antisemitic images from the Romantics onwards and their presence within a wide range of texts whose overt ideology was often far more liberal; the complex Jewish identities of such writers as Heine, Freud, Kafka, Schnitzler, Lasker-Schüler, or Kraus; the relationship between Jews in eastern and western Europe; German Jews and the First World War; the ‘renaissance’ of Jewish culture in the Weimar Republic; literary representations of and responses to the Holocaust; and the question of whether a Jewish culture exists in present-day Germany and Austria.
Literature and Society in Austria, 1815-1938 (Hilary Term)
Convenor: Professor Ritchie Robertson
Although the historiography of German imperialism represents nineteenth-century Austria as a backwater, it had a vigorous and diverse literature which dealt in subtle ways with problems of political authority, social transformation, tensions between the Catholic Church and the modern state, emergent nationalism, and of course the ‘Frauenfrage’ and the ‘Judenfrage’. The date 1922 marks the publication of the enlarged version of Karl Kraus’s monster drama Die letzten Tage der Menschheit, which stages the barbarity of the First World War and the death-throes of the Habsburg Empire. These and other themes can be explored through a range of authors, some undervalued and under-researched. Possible foci include the traditions of classical and comic drama (Grillparzer, Raimund, Nestroy); the realist Novelle (Stifter, Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, Ferdinand von Saar) and the realist drama of Anzengruber; the turn-of-the-century literature of psychological and moral exploration (Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Beer-Hofmann); the overlap between literature and journalism (Karl Kraus and his predecessors); and the Austrian literature of the First World War.
Walter Benjamin in Weimar (Hilary Term)
Convenor: Professor Ben Morgan
Walter Benjamin is one of the most prolific and versatile writers of the Weimar Republic, and the legacy of his theoretical and literary works continues into the present day. Given the breadth of Benjamin’s oeuvre, we will focus on one particular aspect of his texts: his role as a commentator on and critic of the Weimar Republic, its cultural life, technological innovations and social dynamics. Benjamin was greatly fascinated by Weimar culture, yet given his Marxist outlook he also adopted a highly critical stance towards its underlying political tendencies. The seminars will focus on select texts which illustrate Benjamin’s roles as a literary critic, as a radio presenter and journalist, a media theorist and political commentator. At the same time, Benjamin’s writings will be read alongside those of contemporaries such as Siegfried Kracauer and Theodor W. Adorno, situating Benjamin’s particular approach within the wider intellectual climate of his time.
Twentieth-Century German Drama & Theatre (Michaelmas Term, Hilary Term)
Convenors: Professors Tom Kuhn and Barry Murnane
Drama is of great importance in the German tradition, and in the twentieth century too it has played its part: in movements such as Expressionism, in the development of the ‘documentary’ and of a political aesthetic, and simply in the work of several dominant figures: Bertolt Brecht, Peter Weiss, Heiner Müller, Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke. Students are expected to concentrate on either the first half of the century or the period since c. 1945. In either case the work of Brecht is important, students already familiar with aspects of his work do not, however, need to include it as a topic for study. Otherwise the course will offer an opportunity to study the aesthetics of drama and aspects of theatre history, as well as the work of individual authors. The subject can be developed right up to the present.
Contemporary Women’s Writing in German (Hilary Term)
Convenor: Dr Georgina Paul
This course examines the range and varieties of literature written in German by women after 1945. It offers the opportunity to examine issues of identity, sexuality, myth, feminism, tradition, and politics, as well as genre, aesthetic strategy and language within the context of work by important writers of the post-war period. Also available to Women’s Studies students.
Literature and Culture of the Berlin Republic (Michaelmas Term, Hilary Term)
Convenors: Dr Georgina Paul and Professor Karen Leeder
Candidates will be expected to acquire a general knowledge of writing in German since 1990 and to read a selection of texts from the same period. Candidates may expect to address a range of issues, including topics such as: adjustments in the German book market post-1990; approaches to the legacies of the Nazi past; the legacy of the GDR; writing in a multicultural society; literature and globalisation; changing notions of authorship, especially in the light of the digital media; the development of the various genres; gender and writing. There is also the opportunity to focus on selected authors and issues of students’ own choosing.
German Literature and Visual Culture since 1900 (Hilary Term)
Convenor: Dr Carolin Duttlinger
This course examines the various points of interaction between literature and the visual media from the early twentieth century up to the present. Literature has always defined itself both in relation and in contradistinction to the visual arts. In the twentieth century, however, this relationship takes on a new dimension with the invention of film and the emergence of a predominantly visual mass culture – developments to which writers react with a mixture of anxiety and fascination. This course explores the ways in which German-speaking writers have engaged with different types of visual media, such as film and photography, as well as more traditional art forms. While candidates are free to pursue their own interests, the course offers an overview over different forms of text-image interaction, such as Dadaist collage, the political satire of Kurt Tucholsky, Rolf Dieter Brinkmann’s illustrated travelogues and the documentary use of visual material in contemporary memory writing (Sebald, Wackwitz). Yet it is not only by integrating images into their texts that writers engage in a dialogue with visual culture; authors such as Kafka, Musil and, more recently, Uwe Timm and Thomas Kling, engage with the visual media on a more implicit level, within their texts. The course also offers an introduction to theories about the relationship between literature and visual culture by critics such as Walter Benjamin and Friedrich Kittler.
The following courses are not on offer in 2020-21:
Nietzsche and his Impact (Michaelmas Term, Hilary Term)
Convenor: Professor Robertson
Though largely ignored during his lifetime, Nietzsche was soon recognised as the philosopher of modernity. More radically, honestly and intelligently than anyone else, he explored the consequences that must follow if traditional religious belief and moral constraints are jettisoned to make way for a view of the universe based on scientific knowledge and the individual will. Although his ideas about how to fill the resulting moral vacuum have not (fortunately) won general acceptance, nevertheless he is one of the most interesting – and entertaining — of philosophers and ‘cultural critics’. He is also among the most brilliant of German stylists.
When Nietzsche began to be widely read in the 1890s, his ideas were found stimulating and liberating in the most varied quarters. There were Nietzscheans on the radical right and the revolutionary left, in the women’s movement and among Zionists. He was read avidly, but also critically, by writers as varied as Thomas Mann, Kafka, Rilke, Gottfried Benn and Hermann Hesse. Outside Germany, he was read with enthusiasm by Yeats, Lawrence, Stevens, Gide and many others. The subject can be approached comparatively, by pursuing Nietzsche’s impact in English or French literature, or in terms of the history of ideas, by looking at Nietzsche’s reception by subsequent thinkers (e.g. Schmitt, Bataille, Foucault).
Students will be expected to know the following books by Nietzsche in particular detail: Die Geburt der Tragödie (1872) and Zur Genealogie der Moral (1887), and to have read more widely in Nietzsche’s works. They will also be encouraged to study his impact, by a close study of a text or texts by one or more subsequent writer in relation to Nietzsche.
Cinema in a Cultural Context: German Film 1930 to 2020 (Hilary Term)
Convenor: Professor Morgan
The course has two points of focus. The first is the study of German cinema between the coming of sound and the arrival of New German Cinema: 1930-1970 (the first German talkie was made in 1929; by 1970, Fassbinder had already made 4 feature films). The second is the cinema of the Berlin Republic, with a particular focus on the films of Christian Petzold. For the cinema 1930-1970 there will be lectures in Hilary Term weeks 1-4. For the Petzold strand there will be lectures in Hilary Term Weeks 5-8.
Topics for the period 1930-1970 will include propaganda and entertainment films in the Third Reich, the realism of the Rubble Films of the late 1940s, the different strategies for remembering and coming to terms with the past in the popular films of the 1950s and 1960s. German films of the period will be put in dialogue with relevant Hollywood productions of the period. The period includes the political ruptures of 1933, 1945, 1968, and the aesthetic ‘new beginning’ of the Oberhausen manifesto in 1962. But the focus of the course will be the continuities that can be observed in film style, narrative techniques and in the way film is used as a medium for reflecting on everyday problems during the period. The Petzold course will focus in particular on Petzold’s relation to genre film. His work continues the dialogue with American film that has been a major feature of German cinema since the time of the Weimar Republic. At the same time, he is in creative conversation with his own contemporaries in Germany, as is particularly clear in the Dreileben trilogy (2011) to which Petzold contributed a film alongside Dominik Graf (b. 1957) and Christoph Hochhäusler (b. 1972). He makes films for cinema release but also works for television, for instance Toter Mann (2000) or his three episodes of Polizeiruf 110: Kreise (2015), Wölfe (2016), Tatorte (2018). You don’t need to have studied film before to take this option. You can start familiarizing yourself with the vocabulary of film studies by reading David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art: An Introduction, currently in its 12th edition (you can read any edition). Otherwise, the best thing to do is to start watching films. For the 1930-1970 strand: You can work by director (e.g. Käutner, Harlan, Sierck), but it is often more productive to watch films with the same star (e.g. Heinz Rühman, Hans Albers, Ilse Werner, Zarah Leander), or from the same year, to get a clearer sense of continuities in style and approach. Similarly, for Petzold: watch as many of his films as you can, but watch also films with the stars he regularly works with (e.g. Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Matthias Brandt), or films made in same year as Petzold’s productions.