GERM-730 GDR Culture
Fall for 2014-2015
When the fall of socialism in 1989 erased the GDR from the geopolitical map, the field of East German studies was thrown into crisis. Seen as an aberration of history, and proven to have been “behind” the West, the socialist East appeared no longer relevant to Western paradigms of modernity that had seemingly triumphed. Western scholars of GDR literature and culture, who had valorized GDR artists’ increasing distance from official socialist cultural policy and artistic doctrines such as socialist realism in the 1970s and 80s, were shocked by prominent authors’ public calls for a renewed, democratic socialism in the Fall of 1989. In the 1990s, this shock prompted a rewriting of GDR literary/cultural histories that dismissed the accomplishments of East German artists and declared them aesthetically and ideologically “immature”; academic discourses thus echoed the denigration of socialist society in the economic and political realms. In very recent years, however, new approaches have tended to stress not the Otherness (and “behindness”) of GDR culture, but have emphasized instead commonalities between socialist people’s republics and the democratic cultures that flourished in western nation-states, both of which appear to (have) become similarly obsolete. Such an approach opens a new perspective on GDR culture and the way in which it conceptualized individual agency and collective sovereignty. The theoretical tension between the two approaches I have sketched here is the starting point for our exploration of GDR culture and its afterlife. We will sort through some of the GDR cultural texts and debates in order to assess whether they can productively contribute to a more complex understanding of modernity—but also to see where “things went wrong.”
We will ground more general concerns with socialist historiography, the role of the artist and intellectual elites in the construction of the new society, and modernist aesthetics to the study of one cultural institution, the cinema. The cinema in the GDR was produced by one central agency, the Deutsche Film Agentur (DEFA), which was subject to state control and censorship. Readings will address both the history and structure of this institution, and the changing paradigms of film criticism. We will seek to hone our own interpretive skills through close readings of selected cinematic texts and of the analytical literature about them. Discussions are organized in the following clusters: (1) Artists in the socialist State; GDR culture features a particularly rich set of debates about the role of artists and intellectuals, and about the issues of power, resistance, and complicity—they make an important contribution to any discussion of the ethics of social elites. (2) Antifascism as State Ideology; how did the GDR remember Nazism and the Holocaust, and what lessons did it draw from it? (3) Socialist genders; The GDR organized gender relations in significantly different ways than West Germany—perhaps surprisingly, some of the East German state’s policies and ideological premises are now reappearing at the EU level. (4) The GDR’s cinematic afterlife; we will look at some oft the most important films signaling post-socialist reorientations, and ask how East and West German filmmakers remember the GDR and how these memories are mobilized vis-à-vis present predicaments.
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