"What we are doing is 'reading' violence"

11 December 2014

What can literature and film, what can the various media do to help uncover the structures underlying violence? This is the focus of research being undertaken by a network of German Studies scholars, among whom is Professor Dagmar von Hoff of the German Department at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). She believes that German Studies as a discipline needs to take a more international, intercultural, and intermedial approach.

She considers exchange is important as it is to be open-minded to other points of view and to look beyond national boundaries – and that is what she foster in particular in her students and doctoral candidates. "We urgently need to promote dialog between the various cultures," says Professor Dagmar von Hoff. "Young people who are experienced in such discourse are more readily able to accept the new and unfamiliar, they can better navigate their own course through life and are more courageous. They will do better in our globalized world."

The German Studies professor expresses herself very cogently. She even uses the term 'world citizen' when making her case. This term was once very popular not only with German-language writers but seems since to have fallen out of fashion although, in our present age, the concept is of great interest.

Mainz – Portugal

Von Hoff came to Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in 2005. "I brought, as it were, an international network with me because throughout my academic career I have worked in numerous different countries." She has held visiting professorships in the USA, Brazil, and Argentina, but primarily in Portugal. For two years she was a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) lector at the Universidade de Lisboa. "I have had a strong bond with Portugal ever since."

Her contacts have since been institutionalized in the form of third-party sponsored research programs and a European network that studies the subject of violence. In addition, von Hoff is always busy making sure that the needs of her students and young researchers is well catered for. She helped establish Erasmus partnerships at Mainz University, while third-party sponsored exchange programs for doctoral candidates have helped promote international ties.

"What we are doing is 'reading' violence," is how she outlines the central topic of the research project being undertaken by a group of European German studies scholars. However, the focus is not just on structures of violence in literature, but also on those to be found in film, theater, and performance arts, in other words, in a range of different media.

Evolution of a differentiated concept of violence

As von Hoff concedes, the subject of violence may well seem omnipresent at first glance. "However, the extreme media exposure has resulted in a restriction of the definition of violence. The word for 'violence' in German is 'Gewalt,' which is derived from Old High German 'giwalt,' a term that could be used to mean not just 'violence' but also 'strength' and 'the exercise of power'." In other languages, there is a clear separation of terminology within this range of meanings. English has the terms 'violence' and 'power' while French has 'violence' and 'pouvoir.'

In the German language of today, the word 'Gewalt' is used solely to designate acts of violence. "It is broadly interpreted as representing the relationship between friend and enemy, between victim and perpetrator. In order to be able to record the complexity of the meanings of various structures of violence, we need to develop a more differentiated concept of violence in Germany. We need to resolve the discrepancies and get back to a situation in which we can view violence from different perspectives."

It is in literature that von Hoff sees the best chance of achieving this. "Literature can reveal the various aspects of violence." As an example, she cites the famous slaughterhouse scene in Alfred Döblin's novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. "Döblin had an instinct for the seismographic and was able to anticipate the rise of National Socialism. This is the sort of power that is inherent in art."

Reading Violence

And this is a power that needs to be discovered, read, and interpreted. The network has already notched up a series of successes. For example, the major research project entitled 'Einschnitte. Gewalt in Literatur und Film der Moderne' [Incisions. Violence in Modern Literature and Film] being supervised by Professor Dagmar von Hoff and Professor António Sousa Ribeiro of Coimbra will be continuing until at least the end of 2015 thanks to support from the DAAD and Portugal's Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT). In late May 2015, a symposium on the subject of "Gewalt und Entfremdung" [Violence and Alienation] is to be held at Mainz University.

"The symposium will also be organized so that we can specifically include doctoral candidates," says von Hoff. She comes back to them again and again as she talks. She wants to open doors for young academics – to Europe, to academic careers, but also to professions and industries outside the university. "Our network also includes, for example, the Peter Lang publishing house as a non-university partner." This is also the result of long-term cooperation since Lang is the publisher of a journal series edited by von Hoff called "LiteraturFilm."

German Studies Institute Partnership

A second major success was the establishment of the German Studies Institute Partnership with Bydgoszcz University in Poland for the period 2013 to 2015, through which mainly German and Polish doctoral candidates receive support in a structured program. The international perspective is also apparent in the form of the topics of the dissertations being supervised by von Hoff. For instance, her research associate Lena Wetenkamp is using her doctoral project to examine how the current concept of Europe is being presented in contemporary German literature.

And to add to these successes, von Hoff and her European colleagues also plan to develop an international doctoral program called "Reading Violence." An application for support from the EU is being drafted. "Mainz University is giving me a lot of support," she says. She also has ideas for 'joint degrees' or doctorates that can be awarded not only in Mainz but also in Coimbra in Portugal, in Valencia in Spain, and in Sassari in Italy.

"Reading Violence" represents a significant move for the European network. "I can already see how my doctoral candidates have become sensitive to detecting structures of violence. They have become more aware of the aspects surrounding violence, of new perspectives." And this is the way she hopes things will continue. "German Studies needs to become even more open-minded," concludes von Hoff.