“The Essay in a Time of Crisis: Reconstituting the German Public Sphere in Narrative, Visual and Digital Culture (1920s – 2010s)”
My dissertation pursues two goals: to examine the transformation of the essay genre in Germany during the 20th and 21st centuries; and to thereby investigate how the essay’s interplay of personal opinion and public voice has been serving as a strategy to confront Germany’s social, economic and political crises since the Weimar Republic.
Since the 1920s, authors have expanded traditional essay writing by adding visual material, producing photo essays, essay films and finally born-digital essays.
I focus on works by Walter Benjamin, Kurt Tucholsky, filmmakers Walter Ruttmann, Alexander Kluge and Harun Farocki, and digital media-artist Florian Thalhofer. Investigating their essayistic works will expose how the malleable essay genre has shaped political consciousness and self-understanding in German society; and, how this, in turn, has changed the very essence of the modern essay, if not of non-fiction in general.
I propose that the inherent adaptability of the essay as a genre drives authors beyond the self-indulgent motives often ascribed to essayists. There is a persistent connection between essayists and the public sphere. This connection arises through the essay’s focus on the intersecting activity of personal expression, public experience, and the process of deliberation. As a consequence, essayists and their increasingly image-based essays take an active role in renegotiating the boundaries of the public sphere and redefining the essay as a genre.