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The Powers of Philology

Dynamics of Textual Scholarship


University of Illinois Press

Urbana and Chicago

para Sara

que siempre está presente

2003 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

All rights reserved

Manufactured in the United States of America

C 5 4 3 2 1
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich.

The powers of philology : dynamics of textual scholarship / Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN o-252-02830-9 (cloth : alk. paper)

1. Philology. 2. Criticism, Textual. I. Title.

P121.G86 2003

4oo-dc21 2oo2o12289

Acknowledgments vii

What Are the Powers of Philology? 1

1. Identifying Fragments 9

2. Editing. Texts 24

3. Writing Commentaries 41

4. Historicizing Things 54

5. Teaching 68

Index 89


'I'his book would have never become a reality, for it would never have turned into even the vaguest of all intellectual projects, without the optimism and trust of my friend Glenn Most; it would not have begun to materialize in a series of only slightly coherent essays without those intense conversations, mostly at my Stanford office, for which Miguel 'I'amen and Joshua, Landy took ample time; and those incoherent es­says would not have come together as a book without strong support from Willis Regien Trina Marmarelli, and Valdei Lopes de Araújo. Fi­nally, it is quite possible that I would have never given the topic of phi­lology a try had I not been an admirer and an occasional student of the great classicist Manfred Fuhrmann since the early 1970s and a colleague of the great philologist Karl Maurer since 1975.

I hope Sara will read these pages as if they were yet another post­card.


What Are the Powers of Philology?

For reasons I will probably never quite understand, my mother, who studied medicine, has always, consistently and even more stubbornly, used the German word Philologe to refer to elementary-school teach­ers. But my mother's eccentric semantic creation was no more off the mark than is the use that some of my most competent American col­leagues still make of the word philologist when they apply it to some of their great predecessors from the German tradition, such as Ernst Robert Curtius, Leo Spitzer, and Erich Auerbach. For none of these eminent scholars ever particularly excelled in the practices that the Word philology is supposed to subsume. Ernst Robert Curtius laid the foundations of his academic reputation in the 1920s, when he was known as an eminent specialist in contemporary French and Spanish literature; he then, from the early 1930s on began to concentrate on the history of poetological ideas and literary forms in the Middle Ages. Leo Spitzer had been trained, during the first two decades of the twentieth century, as a historical linguist, but he soon turned toward a highly sub­jective style of immanent-text interpretation (for which the concept of "lived experience" was key). Erich Auerbach, finally, who single­-handedly created a new discourse within literary history, was notori­ously weak when it came to the basic philological skills.1 Neither Cur-­

1.See my book Vom Leben und Sterben der großen Romanisten: Carl Vossler, Ernst Robert Cur­hus, Leo Spitzer, Erich Auerbach, Werner Krauss (Munich: Hanser, 2002). The original English version of the Auerbach essay appeared in Literary History and the Challenge of Philology: The Legacy of Erich Auerbach, ed. Seth Lerer (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1996), 13-35. I have dealt with the subjective and institutional motivations of the same gen­eration of literary scholars in "Historians of Literature-Where Do They Take Their Moti­vations From?" in Poetologische Umbrüche: Romanistische Studien zu Ehren von Ulrich Schulz-Buschhaus, ed. Werner Helmich, Helmut Meter, and Astrid Poier-Bernhard (Munich: Fink, 2002), 399-404.

p. 2.

tius, Spitzer, nor Auerbach ever achieved anything major as text edi­tors or as authors of a historical commentary. It is therefore not quite clear why my colleagues, with a stubbornness equal to my mother's, stick to the tradition of calling them "philologists." I guess that a more or less preconscious reaction to the difference between a certain Ger­man (or Continental) style of dealing with the literary past and the in­terpretive tradition of Anglo-American New Criticism comes into play here. Curtius's, Spitzer's, and Auerbach's works are indeed significantly different from the writings of Arnold, Richards, or Singleton-although this difference should not be enough to call the former scholars phi­lologists.

Above all, however, my two examples for the uses of the word phi­lology were meant to make the astonishing yet undeniable point that this concept, which seems predetermined to function in a simple and unspectacular way, has developed a sometimes confusingly broad range of meanings and uses. It doesn't get much better if you start con­sulting very general or very specialized encyclopedias and reference books. On the one side, you will find definitions of the word philology that, bringing it back to its etymological meaning of "interest in or fas­cination with words," make the notion synonymous with any study of language or, even more generally, with almost any study of any prod­uct of the human spirit.2 On the other, more specific and more famil­iar side, however, philology is narrowly circumscribed to mean a his­torical text curatorship that refers exclusively to written texts.

In the title of my book and throughout its chapters, the word phi­lology will always be used according to its second meaning, that is, as referring to a configuration of scholarly skills that are geared toward historical text curatorship. There are four implications of this concept that I think deserve to be briefly unfolded. First, philological practice has an affinity with those historical periods that see themselves as fol­lowing a greater cultural moment, a moment whose culture they deem to be more important than the cultural present. Not by coincidence, Hellenistic culture of the third and the second centuries B.C. appears

2. See the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. philologist: "One devoted to learning or literature; a lover of letters or scholarship; a learned or literary man."

p. 3.

quite regularly as the historical origin of philology as a scholarly prac­tice (Plato, in contrast, used the same word in the sense of "loqua­ciousness"). Other important moments in the history of philology were, by the same logic, the age of the church fathers; the European Renaissance, when the humanists desired to return to the learning and texts of classical antiquity; and nineteenth-century romanticism, with its nostalgia for the Middle Ages. Second, because of its emergence from a desire for the textual past, philology's two-part core task is the identification and restoration of texts from each cultural past in ques­t ion.3 Based on conjecture, this includes the identification of those texts that have come down to us as fragments; the full documentation of texts for which we have several not completely identical versions, to be presented in their plurality or condensed into the proposal of one orig­inal or most valuable version; and commentary providing informa­tion to help bridge the gap between the knowledge a text presupposes among its historical readers and the knowledge typical for readers of a later age. Identifying fragments, editing texts, and writing historical commentary are the three basic practices of philology. For these prac­tices and their underlying scholarly competence to be used, however, we have to presuppose, beyond the three basic philological skills, an awareness of the differences between different historical periods and cultures, that is, the capacity of historicizing. And finally, the activa­tion of these skills also (and quite inevitably) presupposes the inten­tion to make use of the texts and cultures of the past within the insti­tutional contexts of teaching. In other words, it is difficult to imagine that philology should come into play without pedagogical goals and ,m at least rudimentary historical consciousness.

Third, the identification and restoration of texts from the past - ­that is, philology as understood in this book - establishes a distance vis-á-vis the intellectual space of hermeneutics and of interpretation as the textual practice that hermeneutics informs.4 Rather than rely on

3. See the initial definition in Crran Enciclopedia RIALP (Madrid: Ediciones RIALP, 1972), s.v. filología

4. Grande Dizionario Enciclopedico (Turin: UTET, 1987), s.v. filologia: "The border that separates interpretation from philology is subtle but clear."

p. 4

the inspiration and momentary intuitions of great interpreters, as, for example, New Criticism did, philology has cultivated its self-image as a patient craft whose key values are sobriety, objectivity, and rational­ity.5 Fourth and finally, it follows from everything that I have said so far about philology that such craft and competence play a particularly important and often predominant role within those academic disci­plines that deal with the most chronologically and culturally remote segments of the past (provided that we have at our disposal at least some traces of a written tradition that lead us back to those segments of the past). Philology is thus extremely important for Assyriology and Egyptology, and most classicists still regard it to be their core compe­tence. Ever since the era of romanticism, moreover, philology has been used to reconstruct texts from the Middle Ages as the supposed con­text of origin for the different national-cultural traditions.

Although I started my own scholarly life as a medievalist, that is, in relative proximity to the philological tradition, it is safe to say that I would never have thought to write a book about the "pow­ers of philology" without an intellectual provocation and, later, the en­couragement that came from five colloquia, held at the University of Heidelberg between 1995 and 1999, to which my much-admired friend, the classicist Glenn Most, had been kind enough to invite me. It was Most's project to revisit the history of classics, his own academic disci­pline, by following the histories of the five basic philological practices: identifying fragments, editing texts, writing commentaries, historiciz­ing, and teaching. Of course, this multiple return to the traditions of a venerable academic past was meant to yield inspirations and orien­tations for the future of classics as a discipline.

As a nonclassicist I was assigned to provide contrastive materials from the history of my own academic fields and their disciplines, that is, from the histories of Romance and German literatures and from comparative literature. Despite my best intentions, however, I soon got derailed. What increasingly fascinated me in the analysis of the philo-

5. See Karl Uitti, "Philology," in The johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 567-73.

p. 5.

logical core practices for the Heidelberg colloquia was a layer of in­vestment among the scholars involved, a perhaps preconscious layer of investment that seemed to contradict the self-image of philology as a laborious (not to say sweaty) intellectual craftsmanship. Certainly I was not the first observer to become aware of this layer. Since late an­tiquity, for example, discussions about text editing had included a liberal strain that acknowledged the importance of the editor's imagina­tion for the task of philological reconstruction. What I felt might be new and provocative about the focus of my own discovery, however, was the impression that, as a layer in the philological core practices, this was not just complementary to the interpretation of the texts in question.6 Therefore, I at first wanted to emphasize the otherness of the attitudes and phenomena in question by subsuming them under the concept of "poetics of philology."

I soon realized, however, that to refer to observations of this kind with the formula "the poetics of" had become so conventional over the last decade that it was, frankly, boring.7 On rethinking my choice, I also began to understand that the notion of poetics implies the connotation of a regularity - perhaps even a predictability - that would not fit the character of my discovery. But what exactly did I see, and why did I end up calling what I saw "the powers of philology"?

Let me start the overdue answer to this double question by confess­ing that the notion of power I am using here is far from that used by Michel Foucault, which is now enjoying endless popularity among hu­manists. Unlike Foucault, I think that we miss what is distinctive about power as long as we use this notion within the Cartesian limits of the structures, production, and uses of knowledge. My counterproposal is to define power as the potential of occupying or blocking spaces with bodies. By presenting it as a potential, I imply that power - even the active political use of power - does not always have to produce vio­lence (violence would of course be the transformation of power as a

6. See, for the opposite opinion, Enciclopedia Hispánica (Barcelona: Encyclopedia Britan­nica, 1994-95), s.v. Filología: "The philologist tries to analyze the meaning of a text and, at the same time, to interpret it."

7. It is thanks to Willis Regier's resistance that I avoided getting stuck with this phrase.

p. 6

potential into performance). I insist only that power, however multi­ply mediated it may be, must always be based on physical superior­ity-and that it is therefore inevitably heteronomous in relation to whatever can be regarded to be a structural feature or a content of the human mind.

This, however, does not take care yet of the other, decisive question, which asks how the practices of philology can be related nonmeta­phorically to the concept of power (and to the concept of violence). What I see at work in the philological practices-as their hidden, lively, truly fascinating side-is a type of desire that, however it may mani­fest itself, will always exceed the explicit goals of the philological prac­tices. In each specific case, moreover, this desire conjures up the phi­lologist's body along with a dimension of space that at first glance seems to be alien to any kind of scholarly practice within the human­ities. What I want to discuss under the title of "the powers of philol­ogy" certainly counts as disruptive within the official academic image and self-image of philological practice. At the same time, I think that it is fully adequate to speak of these desires as being "conjured up" by philological work, for these desires will surface inevitably and inde­pendently of the individual philologist's intentions. And what exactly do these desires refer to and long for? It is my impression that, in dif­ferent ways, all philological practices generate desires for presence,8 de­sires for a physical and space-mediated relationship to the things of the world (including texts), and that such desire for presence is indeed the ground on which philology can produce effects of tangibility (and sometimes even the reality thereof).

It was in discussions with the British art historian Stephen Bann that I first understood how material fragments of cultural artifacts from the past can trigger a real desire for possession and for real presence, a desire close to the level of physical appetite.9 Text editing, in contrast,

8. This is the perspective from which my essays on the "powers of philology" are comple­mentary to the forthcoming book, The Production of Presence: On the Silent Side of Meaning (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003).

9. This very aspect suggested the title for the earliest version of what has now become the chapter "Identifying Fragments": "Eat Your Fragment," in Collecting Fragments/Fragmente sammeln, ed. Glenn Most (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1997), 315-27. The titles

p. 7.

conjures up the desire of embodying the text in question, which can transform itself into the desire of also embodying the author of the text embodied. The writing of historical commentaries is driven by a desire for opulence and by its corresponding geometrical dimension, that is, the empty margins around the text on which to comment. His­toricizing means to transform objects from the past into sacred ob­jects, that is, into objects that establish sirnultaneously a distance and ,a desire to touch. Well-understood and successful academic teaching, finally, demands from the instructor that he or she refrain from trans­forming every content and every phenomenon taught into a preana­lyzed and preinterpreted object, which means that these contents and these phenomena, as challenges in untamed complexity, can never completely lose their status as physical objects. Most of these different types of a desire for presence, as they are conjured up by the philolog­ical practices, also bring into play the energy of the philologist's imag­ination. This coemergence of imagination with the desire for presence is by no means random, for imagination is a comparatively archaic fac­ulty of mind, which implies that it has a specific closeness to multiple functions of the human body.

Surprisingly, not to say strangely, we could also claim that these ambiguities - the tension, the interference, and the oscillation that the philological practices are capable of setting free between mind effects and presence effects - come close, in both their structure and their impact, to contemporary definitions of aesthetic experience.10 Never-­

of my following four contributions to the proceedings of the Heidelberg colloquia followed the same syntactical pattern: "P1ayYour Roles Tactfully! About the Pragmatics of Text-Editing, the Desire for Identification and the Resistance to Theory," in Editing TextslTexte edieren, ed. Glenn Most (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1998), 237-50; "Fill Up Your Mar­gins! About Commentary and Copia," in Commentaries/Kommentare, ed. Glenn Most (Göt­tingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1999), 443-53; "Take a Step Back-and Turn away from Death! On the Moves of Historicization," in Historicization/Historisierung ed. Glenn Most (Göttinngen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2001), 365-75; "Live Your Experience-and Be Un­timely! What `Classical Philology as a Profession' Could (Have) Become," in Disciplining Classics/Altertumswissenschaft als Beruf, ed. Glenn Most (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ru­prciltt, 2002), 253-69.

10. See, for this aspect, chapter 3 of The Powers of Presence.

p. 8.

theless, although the association between philology and aesthetic ex­perience will add to the estrangement from the traditional concept and image of philology, it is certainly not the aspect within my reflection on the powers of philology that most fascinates me. What especially inter­est me in this book (but every reader should of course feel free to find his or her own reading trajectory) are new and alternative ways, above all non-interpretive ways, of dealing with cultural objects; I am hoping for non-interpretive ways of dealing with cultural objects that would es­cape the long shadow of the humanities as Geisteswissenschaften, that is, as "sciences of the spirit," which dematerialize the objects to which they refer and make it impossible to thematize the different investments of the human body within different types of cultural experience. What the philological practices conjure up as the philologist's multiple de­sires for presence, are, after all, reactions that hardly fit into any official self-reference of the academic humanities. In this sense, being as far away as possible from the disciplinary self-image of philology, even pro­grammatically so, could become the beginning of the emergence (per­haps even of the creation) of a new intellectual style. This style would be capable of challenging the very limits of the humanities, which come from their inscription into the paradigm of hermeneutics (which also means into the metaphysical legacy of Western philosophy) during the decades around 1900.11 Acknowledging the powers of philology within - ­and in spite of - the context of this academic tradition is like enjoying something disruptive and fascinating, a beautiful and intellectually chal­lenging fireworks display of special effects.

11. See ibid., chapter 2.

p. 9.


Identifying Fragments
One of the shorter entries in Walter Benjamin's One-Way Street (Ein­bahnstraße) refers to a visual memory of the castle of Heidelberg: "HEI­LDELBERG CASTLE: Ruins whose debris point into the sky tend to look twice as beautiful on those clear days when the eye, through their win­dows or simply above them, meets the passing clouds. Through the mo­bile spectacle that it stages in the sky, their destruction confirms the eter­nity of these debris."1

What provokes Benjamin's reflection is the perception of a contrast between two temporalities. On the one hand, there is the swift change and the continuous emergence of forms in the clouds that are passing by above the castle. On the other hand, there is, as an attribute given to the castle's debris, eternity, that degré zéro of temporality which, strictly speaking, excludes any change in time. As often as I read Ben­jarnin's short text (and with all due reverence), I cannot quite follow the association that he suggests between ruins and eternity. More pre­cisely, I do not understand why an awareness of the ongoing effects of destruction (Zerstörung) should ultimately lead to an impression of eternity (Ewigkeit) - even if this process of destruction is "doubled and emphasized by the transitory spectacle" ("bekräftigt durch das ver­gängliche Schauspiel") of the clouds in the sky.

I recently had an opportunity to watch the clouds passing above the ruins of the Heidelberg Castle, but instead of reminding me of eter­nity, this spectacle made me feel the tension between a particularly fast rhythm of change (that of the passing clouds) and another rhythm of change (that of the ruins) so slow that I can evoke it only by imagin-­

1. Walter Renjamin, Einbahnstraße, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 4, pt. 1 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972), 83-148 (quotation on 123). All translations from languages other than En­glish are my own.

p. 10.

ing the castle both in its undestroyed former splendor and in that pos­sible future when the debris will no longer be recognizable as objects that once belonged to a building. What the ongoing transformation of the forms of the clouds and the slow transformation of the castle's ma­terial substance share-and what may perhaps have attracted Ben­jamin's attention, although he falls short of really pointing to this ex­perience-is the connotation or rather the almost visceral feeling of a lack. Quite irresistibly, the ruins of a building make us think of the building in the state of its no longer existing wholeness. And what kind of a lack does the spectacle of the passing clouds evoke? It is the frus­tration coming from a process that is nothing but a continuous emerg­ing and a continuous vanishing of forms, an ongoing transition in which these forms never gain any stability.2 This play of emerging and vanishing does not include moments that mark an event because the perception of an event would require a contrast between the event and something that is not movement and transformation. Never reaching a state that we would associate with concepts such as "completion" or "rest," the play of emerging and vanishing. in the sky also refuses us the corresponding sense of relief.

Benjamin does not seem to see any historical specificity in the experience inspired by the clouds high above the Heidelberg Castle. And can we not indeed imagine, say, Empedocles watching clouds that pass over the ruins of a temple and thinking about time? Or for that matter, Abelard following the same type of spectacle over the debris of an aban­doned monastery? True as this all may be, I will try to argue that a specific affinity exists between the object of Benjamin's reflection (independent of the conclusion he draws from it) and a key motif in the philosophi­cal repertoire of the twentieth-century Western intellectual.3 To make

2. I am not implying that "temporal phenomena in the sense proper" ("Zeitobjekte im reinen Sinn," as Husserl calls them) are incapable of having a form. Their modality of achieving a form is whatever we perceive as a "rhythm" (see my essay "Rhythm and Meaning," in Ma­terialities of Communication, ed. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer [Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1994], 170-82).

3. In general Benjamin was eager to make the phenomena and problems dealt with in Ein­bahnstraße look contemporaneous. See the entry "Engineers" in my book In 1926: Living at the Edge of Time (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), 93-l01.

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