In its teaching and research, the department of Allgemeine und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft (AVL) at the University of Erfurt encompasses what is generally known at universities in the Anglo-American world as comparative literature and critical literary theory. The diversity of this field of studies comes from combining its two traditional perspectives: the theory of literature and of literary studies, on the one hand, and comparative literature, on the other.
The theory of literature and of literary studies is concerned with theories of literature: with their history, the problems of their foundation, their argumentative structure, their epistemological promises, and the question of how they relate to a variety of texts belonging to various linguistic areas or historical periods.
As indicated by its name, comparative literature is explicitly based on comparison as a method and object of study. Comparison is found in literary studies in many different forms. Objects of comparison can be individual texts, authors, genres, epochs, and national literatures. We’ve all heard someone say: “That can't be compared ...” But is this really true? Why not? It is certainly possible to compare proverbial apples and oranges—both are fruits, they taste different, etc. And yet: if someone bites into an apple, especially in a text or in the theatre, there is no way the apple could be replaced by an orange—and if it were, this would also change the contexts that we must read and take into account. In comparing, it is equally crucial to reflect theoretically and methodologically on the procedure of comparing itself. The point is not simply to compare two things we have before us: rather, the aim of a comparison is to allow us to see what is compared in a different light. For instance: “comparing” Heinrich von Kleist's comedy The Broken Jug and Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus not only allows us to highlight the (shared) motif of a judge who judges himself; above all, it reveals how Kleist’s comedy rewrites or adapts the model it cites. Comparing thus explores intertextual references, and not only between texts, but also between plays, images, films, etc. Reading and analyzing texts, symbols, and media in this way means pursuing these kinds of diverse relations and references, which continually point beyond themselves.
Literary studies thus deals with the memory of texts that is generated by the relationship between texts (or images, etc.); it is concerned with the ways in which texts are passed on, with the formation of canons, and with translation—and explicitly also with the phenomena of misunderstanding and forgetting.
Comparative literature takes the perspective of literatures in the plural (compared to which national literatures are—historically, and in different ways—only a small and limited subsection). Since the twentieth century, certainly, this perspective has again become highly topical and relevant (as a view on the “world”).
It affords, in a specific way, an external, different view of national literatures and their philologies, and of the histories of both.
On the one hand, these references to the theoretically focused debates that have developed in the field of comparative literature continually give rise to new points of view. And on the other hand, methods of comparative literature make it possible to consider questions that go beyond single national literatures and their philologies, and to constantly develop new questions and modes of inquiry.
For an up-to-date picture, take a look at the current BA and MA course offerings. You will find seminars on borders, on translations, on presentations of refugees and exiles, on memory and the book as a medium, on comedies and laughter, on forms of making an entrance or appearing (on stage and elsewhere), on visual poetry, on travel reports by female authors, on the play of literature and play within literature, or on literature and money.
AVL occupies a key position for the model of transphilological literary studies as it is conceived and practiced in literary studies at the University of Erfurt. MA students, in particular, may choose to concentrate on in-depth research while drawing from the insight generated by attending the crossphilological colloquium Texte. Zeichen. Medien (Texts. Signs. Media) – in addition to the regular guest lectures with international speakers and the many conferences organized by the literary department in Erfurt. These venues give students access to the joint research and teaching focused on the forms, media, and practices of representation that takes place in the various philologies within the Department of Literary Studies and the research forumTexte. Zeichen. Medien.
These conceptual reflections on the field of AVL foreground an interest in the reciprocal relations by which cultural configurations and representations both depend upon and constitute each other, as well as the very modes of these representations.
AVL in Erfurt also approaches its questions and objects of study (the literature it reads, the images it considers, etc.) from a perspective that is assertively connected to cultural studies and media studies. The perspective of cultural studies views literature in connection with other discourses, systems of knowledge, and forms of cognition, while the perspective of media studies understands literary texts as media events that it examines in the context of other media and of media history. The perspectives are based on the premise that a knowledge of the productivity of language itself and of its forms of organization can be productively integrated into cultural studies and media studies—and that literary texts distinctly reflect other discourses and media in their own way. AVL also familiarizes students with methods of intra- and intercultural readings and comparative approaches—and it sees itself as a site for reflecting on discourses and formations of identity as they are developed and self-reflectively presented in texts, symbols, and media.