"Professor Gray, the Gadfly?!" Graduate Student Seth Berk Interviews Rick Gray

Submitted by Stephanie N. Welch on

“Professor Gray, the Gadfly?!”


Interview with Prof. Richard T. Gray
Byron W. and Alice L. Lockwood Professor in the Humanities
By Seth Berk, Ph.C.
April 21st, 2015


SB:      Rick, when one takes a look at your career as a scholar in German studies, it really is striking to look at the resonance that your work has had in our field, both nationally and internationally. Here at the UW, you currently hold the Byron W. and Alice Lockwood Professor in the Humanities position, you previously were the Solomon Katz Distinguished Lecturer in the Humanities, not to mention your numerous recognitions as a teacher and as a scholar, which includes several awards for outstanding scholarship by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, a faculty recognition award from students last year, and you and Sabine were recently awarded the Hood Fellowship a the University of Auckland in New Zealand, to name a just few. You were recently a member of the editorial board of PMLA and you were also active in the AATG for a number of years.

RG:     Yes, I’ve tried to be active not only in scholarship, but also with the teaching of German, with a trajectory towards German studies in North America.

SB:      That mixture of scholarship and a dedication to teaching seem to reflect itself in some of your books, too, thinking of Approaches to Teaching Kafka’s Short Fiction (1995).

RG:     Yes, a dedication to pedagogy comes from my background of working at teaching colleges before I came to the UW—at Reed College and Mills College—which I have always really enjoyed. Teaching has always been very important on my horizon or in my viewfinder…

SB:      Was there something that really turned you on to German studies in your formative years?

RG:     Well, I took German language classes in high school and initially I wanted to be a science major. I wanted to go to Case and study chemical engineering and German was the scientific language, at that time, though things have changed a bit in the mean time! But I had a wonderful teacher of German in high school, a young guy, Paul Lundgren, who studied at the University of Illinois. He was a great teacher, lively, and lots of fun, and I did well, fell in love with the language, and ended up taking three years of German in high school. After my senior year I went to Germany for the first time as part of a trip organized by Lundgren, came back, and enrolled in college as a German major!

SB:      What year was that?

RG:     1970.

SB:      Did you immediately get an impression of the ’68-Studentenbewegung? Were there a lot of happenings going on when you were there?

RG:     You know, at that point I didn’t, but my first time studying at a German university was in ’72–’73 at the University of Heidelberg, and Heidelberg was at the that time the “reddest” university in Germany. That was the time of the Radikalenerlass, the law that barred political radicals from civil service jobs, including teaching, and there were lots of protests, classes were out of session as often as they were in session.

SB:      Like sit-ins instead of class?

RG:     Yes, or there would be students, usually left-oriented students, who would disrupt lecturers. So I was once in a lecture class by Eberhard Lämmert, and I remember one time he was holding a lecture and kept being interrupted, so he just said, “I can’t hold my lecture, I won’t hold my lecture,” so he just left and I remember being upset, because I wanted to hear what he had to say. But, yes, Heidelberg in ’72 and ’73 was an exciting time, politically and…

SB:      Was that a time when you started to get interested in the Frankfurt School and critical theory, looking at something like Money Matters (2008)?

RG:     Well that came later, not just the book, but in terms of an interest in critical theory. There was always an interest in philosophy, that was already there, but I was interested in Herman Hesse at the time, which is sort of a cliché… and existentialism. But as I mentioned, critical theory really didn’t come into the picture until the end of graduate school, maybe a little later than some of my colleagues, since I was working with people and with texts that didn’t really emphasize theoretical approaches, and it was still very historical and biographical. When I was dealing with the dissertation on Kafka, I started getting involved with reception theory and hermeneutics, and those ended up becoming an important part of that book. That led to things like the translation of Manfred Frank, which I did with Sabine.

SB:      Was that your first partnership with Sabine?

RG:     Yes, the first scholarly partnership…

SB:      Did you know each other before that project?

RG:     Yes, we knew each other… we were already together as a couple. She was writing her dissertation on critical theory, so our interests began to converge at that point…

SB:      Well, the two of you seem to have a great intellectual partnership. Can it sometimes feel competitive being in a relationship with another accomplished scholar? Or is it always a productive back-and-forth? Just curious, since you both produce such great work!

RG:     Well, you know, for a while we were working together. You could say that we still have a lot of shared interests. Eco-criticism is one, which she has obviously dealt with more than I have, but it has also been something that has been on my horizon. I started buying the books, and she also picked up on it right away, and that just goes back to these shared interests that have always been there. We worked together not only on the Manfred Frank translation, but also on Unification and Its Discontents, a documentation of the Wende, which appeared with the UW Press in 1996, where we gathered the documents and translated them. So that was another major project that came about because I was living in Germany at the time when the Wende was taking place and I was following the events.

SB:      Did you go to Berlin when that was all happening?

RG:     I didn’t go to Berlin, but I was following the news and newspapers and trying to keep up with the developments as best as I could. But Sabine’s and my interests have always fallen kind of in the same area. My historical parameters go back a little bit farther, because I do more work in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Sabine is more a scholar of contemporary literature, although she has been showing more interest in these earlier periods with things like her eco-criticism project, looking at texts by Alexander von Humboldt and others. So our interests often intertwine, but in more recent years, we have kind of gone off on more separate paths, but always with mutual respect and admiration for the other person’s work, and lots of interchange and exchange. So we’re partners, but we’re also intellectual friends.

SB:      Do you bounce a lot of ideas back and forth when you’re working on your more individual projects?

RG:     It used to be that way more, but sometime we just don’t have the time. We ask the other person questions, if we know that the expertise is there that we can rely on. She can ask me about Sebald and I can ask her about Humboldt or eco-criticism. A part of that might just be that as we’ve gotten older, we’ve gotten busier, and it is just harder to participate in the other person’s work to the extent that we used to. Although she did surprise me with the Festschrift two years ago!

SB:      Money Matters has really generated a lot of resonance in the academic community, especially when one looks at CFPs and conferences focused on the interrelationship between economics and literature. Was there a trend there that you perceived ahead of the curve, or did your interests arise more from previous projects, like Stations of the Divided Subject?

RG:     That was on my horizon for a while, but not necessarily as independent projects, so the physiognomy book, About Face, and Money Matters both emerged from what was originally conceived as a unified project, which was supposed to focus on cultural semiotics and the institutionalization of different disciplines. The original project, which was funded by the Humboldt Foundation, was supposed to interrogate these different aspects in separate chapters, and what started out as chapters turned into books! First it was the physiognomy book, and semiotics is important there, reading the signs of facial features for the deeper expression of character, or the expression of deep character. The economics book obviously started with the semiotics of money, so money as signs of value and how things change.

SB:      In terms of reification?

RG:     Yes, reifying, or for that matter, money is really a de-reification in a certain sense, as it becomes more and more symbolic as it goes from specie to paper money, and finally to hyper-money. So why can people can steal ten billion dollars from banks via the Internet, by just stealing symbols or transferring numbers from one place to another. Money has become less and less tangible. So the economics book, I think it’s true, has been the one that’s gotten the most recognition, partially because it was published in 2008, right when the financial crisis came. There was a lot of interest, a culture of money, and a resurgence of economic criticism in German studies—with major critics like Jochen Hörisch and now Joseph Vogl—there’s kind of a conglomeration of interests in economic issues. I was just at a conference in Leuven, Belgium, where I was invited as a keynote speaker, and it was called “Getting and Spending.” There was some German literature, but most differently forms of European literature: French, English, or continental or Anglo-American literatures. There was a big group of young scholars there who were really interested in these issues, and many of them were influenced by the New Economic Criticism movement that I was a part of. The New Economic Criticism conferences and books took place in the late nineties, and Martha Woodmansee was the person who was heading that up for the Society for Critical Exchange. I was a member of that society, and I participated in the two big conferences organized by the New Economic Criticism group. Two of my early publications on literature and economics came out in publications supported by that group: one in the book on New Economic Criticism, and one in a special issue of the journal, New Literary History, that was based on conference papers. That movement has reshaped and redefined what economic criticism looks like, and rejuvenated it, and that was an important set of intellectual connections for me. I got to meet a lot of these people who were working in that area early on.

SB:      Were you following anyone’s lead in terms of your approach to literature and linking texts to socio-historical contexts, in terms of not only economic events, but also shifts in political and social structures? As part of an archive of cultural memory?

RG:     I think there is a shared set of presuppositions—you might call it Foucauldian discourse theory or discourse analysis—that saw economic issues as somehow tied to aesthetic issues. But that is also the beauty of scholarship, in that all these people are approaching this one set of topics from very separate and very distinct points of view. I think that my skill as a critic has always been the skill of a reader, so my approach with almost everything that I’ve done has always been from the inside out. Not everybody who is doing economic criticism is doing these kinds of close readings and trying to extrapolate general tendencies out of individual works. Some people take a more factual or historical approach, with statistics or a book-market approach, or things of that sort.

SB:      In terms of how well certain books were selling?

RG:     Exactly, and my approach has always been interpretative. So I look at the works and try to offer subtle, close readings of these works that often open up on larger questions, and then to say something about the historical timeframe or period in which the works were written.

SB:      Does that relate to post-structuralism in terms of not just looking at texts as autonomous entities, and rather connecting them back to the historical situations surrounding their production?

RG:     I would hesitate to say post-structuralist and would tend towards new historicism, because of the historical context. Post-structuralism tends to take texts apart so as to demonstrate that they are unable to say what they pretend to be saying, and that was never satisfying for me. I like the playfulness and the subtleties of reading that come from post-structuralism, or neo-structuralism, so I’ve certainly learned a lot from it and practice certain techniques that might be associated with post-structuralism. But I’ve always thought of myself as a more sociologically oriented critic, trying to say something about the world we live in, or the world that people lived in and the problems that they were dealing with, and I see literature as a privileged way of dealing with the kinds of problems that we face.

SB:      Making that connection back to society seems critical, especially for dismantling that notion of the ivory tower…

RG:     Literature has a purpose, dismantling its purpose can be a critical purpose, but it only leads so far. At some point it becomes a detour, and I think that neo-structuralism becomes in its results fairly quickly repetitive, that it ends up as a kind of the critical performance. There’s a book, it came out ten or fifteen years ago, called Kafka and the Critical Performance, and I am not a critical performer on a tightrope or something like that, more like a laborer in the interpretive camp!

SB:      Oh, man… (laughs). But it does sound like you get a lot of pleasure from your work.

RG:     I do.

SB:      And it doesn’t seem like intellectual self-absorption that only serves the purpose of self-entertainment.

RG:     If I thought that it didn’t have purpose and meaning, I wouldn’t enjoy doing it. I couldn’t do it just for the enjoyment of finding a nice phrase, even though there is a certain pleasure in discovering an important idea, but it’s got to be more than that.

SB:      Looking at About Face and Money Matters, both have great titles, very clever plays on words with multiple meanings. Was that by design?

RG:     Those came pretty naturally and sort of grew up out of the projects. Once the projects had gotten to a certain point, it made sense to deal with them in that way. The Sebald book that I have just finished is similar: Ghostwriting is the title of that one. So that’s another title that has just emerged from the work that I’ve done with Sebald, and it fits with the character of what he does and with the themes that I’m trying to develop in the book.

SB:      Does that relate to Sebald’s use of images, for instance, photos of diaries, and how they then haunt his narratives?

RG:     It deals with visual material and documents, but also treats ghosts as a theme in Sebald’s works, with figures that return, revenants, and actually the introductory chapter is called “Sebald’s Literary Séance,” where I argue how Sebald is kind of a medium, who is recalling these ghosts of the past, and, as a narrator, is trying to reconstruct these lives and show what theses lives indicate in terms of the historical circumstances or configurations out of which they emerge. I try to come to terms with why Sebald is successful as “ghost writer,” as someone who writes for others, as a ghost writer who writes in the name of others, but at the same time who is writing so as to resuscitate these ghosts.

SB:      Does that then tie to the photography in terms of Roland Barthes?

RG:     It does. Sebald was a reader of Barthes, who thought of photos as this kind of recapturing of a moment of the past, and that’s one of the reasons why black and white photography is so important for him, because there are these shadows and the gray areas, and he talks about the gray zones in the photos as the place of the ghosts, where the ghosts appear. So those are definitely related.

SB:      A kind of presence via non-presence?

RG:     Yes. Or the photograph is marking, as Barthes says, the “has been,” or the “once was.” Those are issues that Sebald is interested in, and, in a certain sense, you could say that his works are doing the same thing. They are saying, “this once was,” or “this person once was,” and “this is the reason that this person no longer is.”

SB:      Encountering Sebald’s works, a reader often has the feeling that his narratives engage with Germany’s past, particularly with National Socialism and the repercussions for Western civilization on the whole. That kind of confrontation with the past seems to be something that underlies many of your projects, if you think of About Face or Stations of the Divided Subject. You start them in the period of the Enlightenment, and then move towards modernity. Do these projects arise in some part from trying to understand what happened, trying to understand the myth of reason and its instrumentalization?

RG:     Absolutely. I think that all of my projects go back to that in some way. Even my first book, the Kafka book, Constructive Destruction, goes back to the eighteenth century, not in the philosophical sense, but in terms of genre going back to the aphorism and trying to reconstruct the history of this genre and what happens to it when it ends up with Kafka in the context of Austria at the turn of the century. The Sebald book is different, because this historical context is less explicit. But Sebald does see National Socialism in a similar way, as something that emerges out of the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic Wars, and I think that this is a shared intellectual characteristic. In one interview he talks about the horror of National Socialism not being a unique phenomenon in Europe, but of being representative, perhaps in exaggerated form, of other expressions of this drive to dominance and mastery, and that has been an issue in questions about instrumental reason.

SB:      That makes me think of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, that progress often marches hand in hand with barbarism…

RG:     Or Walter Benjamin, who maintained that there’s no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

SB:      Definitely a damning thing to think about, and it actually still has applications to contemporary situations…

RG:     When I was thinking about what we were going to talk about today, I thought it might be like I’ve experienced at conferences. When people meet me, they say, “Oh, you’re the guy who writes on so many different things,” because a lot of people’s scholarly profiles center on one thing: some people work on Thomas Mann and are known as Thomas Mann scholars, and I guess that I’m known, sort of, as a Kafka scholar, because that is a persistent interest, and something that I’ve published on repeatedly and that I’ll continue to publish on. But when people ask me, “What do you do?” it’s kind of hard for me to say. I would usually say that I’m an intellectual historian who concentrates on literature, on intellectual history from the Enlightenment to the present day, but that’s all fairly vague. Then I was thinking today that if I had to describe what I do in a phrase, I’d say, “press the restart button.” (laughs). So I finish a project, and then I just follow my interests or turn to something else, or put something aside—and it is never completely aside, obviously—but then working on something else, often very different topics and genres: aphorisms in the first book, questions of subjectivity in the second book, physiognomy, economics, Sebald. So it’s a pleasure to be able to follow my personal, active interests. Bicycling is down the road (laughing)… a book on bicycles!

SB:      That ability to hit the reset button and to move to topics that interest you seems like a really great quality for a researcher, and there still seems like there is some coherence between your projects, too…

RG:     There is some, but I think it is maybe a struggle for people to recognize, for instance, if people just look at titles of the books and immediately think, “Oh, he’s doing something else… again.” (laughs) It is hard, or one has to be careful when one is doing interdisciplinary work, which is what I’ve always tried to do, to avoid falling into the trap of being a dilettante.  

SB:      Sort of the dangers of multitasking…

RG:     Yes, multitasking, or thinking of a metaphor from the Jahrhundertwende, which is a term that I like to use, it that of the gadfly, just flitting from one thing to the next. And I really try to be careful not to appear like a gadfly, which really means just getting involved—as deeply as you are getting involved with Amazons in your dissertation project—in everything that I work with.

SB:      The Sebald book is finished, you mentioned the bicycle project, and you also have a Kafka project underway?

RG:     I have a Kafka project that has been ongoing for a long time. There are individual essays that I’ve written and published, some of them in German, some of them in English, and I have one text that I’ve written that is not published that is waiting for the book, and there is also one thing that I need to write, so that’s not too far down the road.

SB:      That’s really impressive that you so often get things out there first in article form, and you probably get a lot of feedback through that, too…

RG:     Yes, that’s important, and I think that this is a fairly typical mode of scholarly development and exchange. When you’re working on a project, you test the waters and see what kind of response you get, and the challenge can be later trying to assemble those things into something that stands as a coherent unit. Obviously, you’re developing them as something that you see as having some manner of coherence or fitting together, especially if that is not immediately apparent. The Sebald book is a lot easier, because all of the chapters relate to his prose narratives with a fairly clear focus. But other things that we’ve talked about, or your project, for example, where you are dealing with different authors and are trying to follow a theme over its historical emergence and development, the interconnections are a lot looser and you have to become a master of transitions in order to lend the project a sense of coherence.

SB:      That seems like a great skill to master! Are there other scholars, you’ve already mentioned Martha Woodmansee and Lämmert, who really inspired you or with whom you really clicked over the years? You also worked with Walter Sokel…

RG:     That was definitely a very formative experience. I admired him intellectually.

SB:      What did he turn you on to intellectually?

RG:     Kafka, to a certain extent, because I wasn’t really a Kafka scholar until I took his seminar, and I wrote a paper in his seminar that became my dissertation and first book, with his encouragement. I essentially got the seminar paper back from him, and he said, “You should develop this as a dissertation!” and that was what I did! It was a very productive relationship, and obviously Sabine is very important, and of course my colleagues at different places. It is hard to say, because I don’t adhere to a particular theoretical direction, so there is no definitive scholar for me, although I think that hermeneutics and reception theory were both important—and Marxism, or more the critical Marxism of dialectical materialism—in terms of forming my intellectual interests. If had had to name names, people of my generation whose work I really admire, I’d say Russell Berman, David Wellbery, and they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum, and I think that what I do is sort of an amalgamation of David’s semiotic nuances and Russell’s political activism, or maybe just a bad version of the two of them (laughs).

SB:      So in terms of dialectical materialism, or critical theory, who influenced you the most there?

RG:     Adorno and Horkheimer. German critical theory, Frankfurt School theory, that’s the place I identify with closely. But more than that, opening up to hermeneutics and more conservative forms, like Gadamer.

SB:      Would you go to someone like Herbert Marcuse, who was more distanced from the Frankfurt School because of his association with the New Left? Do you agree that literature has that utopian potential for change, or is that still something that is too abstract or just a dream of Marcuse’s?

RG:     That is the way that Marcuse thought, and I did write about that to a certain extent in Stations of the Divided Subject.  But I think that I would no longer say, perhaps, that literature has this utopian potential, but instead that literature interrogates our utopian visions, and it is important for that reason. Literature is a mode of problem solving, just like science is, but it is a different one, problem solving in the sense of trying to come to terms with things. Sebald is a good case, trying to come to terms with the history of destruction, what he calls the natural history of destruction. Also, I think there is an ecological or eco-critical turn in Sebald that is really interesting. Problems that he couldn’t resolve, but that he tried to deal with in a literary fashion, and it is interesting to see what kinds of things literature can do, and what it can’t do.

SB:      Literature as a space for reflecting?

RG:     And for stimulating reflection, emotions, activating readers and making problems seem pressing and real. I would hate to see the end of literary culture, let’s put it that way…

SB:      That is one thing that has always interested me, in terms of critical theory, and the Frankfurt School, that they were reflecting on mass media as it was still emerging. Do you feel like that is still something that is easily communicated to students? Working with you in the Freud class, and thinking of his essay, “Der Dichter und das Phantasieren,” in terms of working through individual and social problems through literary productions, or thinking of someone like Brecht and his epic theater, there is this tradition in German culture, going back even to the Enlightenment, of activating the audience…

RG:     Literature as a vehicle for change.

SB:      Do you think that we, as Germanists, can convey that to American or international students?

RG:     Let’s put it this way: I hope so. If we can’t, then I’ve lost my purpose. I certainly worry about the decline of literary culture, if you can call it that. Recently I’ve been thinking—we should maybe censor this for the newsletter, because it sounds too negative—but lately I’ve been dropping the phrase “the end of philology.” Is philology a historical window, is it a historical pursuit, is it being superseded because of Internet culture and information systems? Where the information itself is becoming more important, so that we’re losing the Marshall McLuhan perspective, that the medium is the message. That’s always been important, because the literary medium is the message. The way something is written, the rhetoric, the language, the metaphors, the style, the structure, those are the things that say as much or more than the text openly states. Literature teaches us to interpret those aspects, with critical thinking, or critical reading, having an active mind vis-à-vis the things that try to inform us, and that is important and literature has something special to do in that regard.

SB:      Does that makes us dangerous then?

RG:     We wish! (laughing). There was a time when we were thought of ourselves as dangerous, but I don’t think that we’re thought of as dangerous anymore. Maybe we’ve shot ourselves in the foot  As much as I subscribe to literary theory, a theoretical explosion that took place in literary studies during my generation, and I worry that we wrote ourselves out of relevance, by being too abstract…

SB:      In terms of jargon?

RG:     In terms of jargon, in terms of the complexity. Sometimes I think that we tried so hard to compete with the hard sciences, in terms of complexity, that we mistook our role as spokespeople for—I don’t want to say simpler things—for more articulate ways of discussing problems and communicating them in ways that are accessible. As a teacher, that is one of things that I really try hard to do. How do you make complex things accessible? And I think that this is was I try to do in my scholarship also. How do you make complex things understandable to readers, not only to other scholars, but to the freshman or sophomore sitting in the first row in the Freud class. Freud is already complex, but I try to figure it out for them… and with them. If you can turn them on to the joy of understanding the way Freud’s mind works, hopefully that’s going to transfer to other areas of their intellectual life.

SB:      So is there one class that you really love teaching, or that you’d like to teach in the future?

RG:     I’ve always loved the Freud class, that’s always been one of my favorites. I used to teach Vienna 1900, and I loved teaching that class because of the diversity, because Vienna was this kind of intellectual breeding ground at the turn of the century. Just really exciting with people like Wittgenstein, great literature, great visual art, so that’s always been fun. But with my teaching, especially graduate-level teaching, I always tried to teach new classes that went along with whatever I was doing in my scholarship. I also liked teaching the bibliography, theory, and research methods class, which is maybe not so much about stimulating critical thinking, but more about the rudiments of scholarship. And I love language teaching. I can’t imagine being at a university or institution where teaching the language wouldn’t be part of the job description. If you keep your own enthusiasm for the language and for the intellectual culture, and I always have, that transfers to the students.

SB:      Teaching is definitely the highlight of the day more days than not!

RG:     For me, too! I actually turned down a fellowship while I was in graduate school, because it would have taken me away from teaching. I loved the teaching so much that I opted to have a TA-ship rather than the fellowship. At that time, it just seemed like the right choice for me, teaching was just such a great break from the hard work and concentration required for scholarship.

SB:      Kopfarbeit.

RG:     And you have to get out of your self, and the classroom is a great way to get out of your self. The advanced languages classes are really fun, because you get to know the students, they’re involved in self-expression, and in a language classroom you really get to witness their progress day by day, and it is just really exciting. To experience the time when they finally get the dative right…


SB:      Well, it was great talking with you! Thanks for your time, Rick.

RG:     Thank you.