For some years now, inside observers have felt that literary studies has arrived at a moment of stagnation. Not only has a fifty-year-long sequence of changing “paradigms” come to a standstill since the final years of the twentieth century; not only are we longing for new “master thinkers” who do not appear; but, epistemologically, we seem to be stuck in the extreme (and unfruitful) tension between seeing literary texts as “allegories” of the impossibility of language to refer to any outside referent (following the dogma of “deconstruction” and the linguistic turn) and a somehow naïve optimism regarding the capacity of literary texts to refer to an outside world as it is implicitly carried and sometimes professed by “cultural studies.” In this situation, the concept of Stimmung (most frequently illustrated by metaphors of being wrapped into, say, weather, or the sound of music) offers an alternative view of the ontology of literature, without falling back into the long-frustrated attempts to “define literature.” Many (if not all) of the texts that we call “literary” provide us with exactly this impression of “being wrapped” into the material world—a material world in which texts can evoke a material impression (the “lightest” possible material impression, however) through effects of prosody. “Reading for the `Stimmung'” can connect us with unusual immediacy to the Stimmung of a past historical period and a different cultural environment. “Reading for the `Stimmung'” may open new perspectives for the historical analysis and aesthetic appreciation of literary texts, and, at the same time, bring us back to a number of scholarly concerns that we have abandoned since the late 1970s.
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht; Reading for the Stimmung? About the Ontology of Literature Today. boundary 2 1 August 2008; 35 (3): 213–221. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-2008-016
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