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Elisabeth Bronfen: "What amazes me most is the stubborn ability to repress"

by Elisabeth Bronfen
We've greatly reduced the required reading... Five short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, plus the one compulsory piece of Shakespeare from the basic course and vampire and fantasy stories. If very little is read, diversity goes out the window, too.
Elisabeth Bronfen: "What amazes me most is the stubborn ability to repress"

She taught at the University of Zurich for three decades. In conversation, Elisabeth Bronfen takes stock: on the literary canon, new sensibilities, and the fear of ambivalences.

[This interview posted on 8/24/2023 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

"The really sensitive students don't come to my seminars anyway. They are afraid of me": Elisabeth Bronfen.

WOZ: Elisabeth Bronfen, you were a professor of English studies in Zurich for thirty years. That's nothing in the chronology of literary epochs. Nevertheless, the question: How far has the literary canon shifted since your beginnings here?

Elisabeth Bronfen: Apart from the fact that students read much less than they did back then?

That's the biggest change?

No, but I would say that's one of two shifts. We've greatly reduced the required reading. But - and I advocated this - we have become as diverse as one can be, at least in contemporary literature. When I came to Zurich, there wasn't a single woman on the literature list, not even a Jew or a person of color! We then made sure to include as many women authors as possible on the list, and also the other English-language literatures: South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, but also India. But, is this really being read? The list is now very diverse, but then the students just pick - I'm afraid - five short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, plus the one compulsory piece of Shakespeare from the basic course and vampire and fantasy stories. If very little is read, diversity goes out the window, too.

And in the courses: Do discussions run differently today than they did in the early years of your professorship?

Of course, there's a danger now that I sound like my mother did thirty years ago. But that's just the way it is, nostalgia transfigures. I want to try to differentiate it and not simply criticize our students, that would be too easy for me. What I notice is that it is much less intellectual. Certain theoretical texts are definitely read, but they are much more fashion-oriented. That one works on something and bites into it intellectually, which of course also brought absurdities with it in some cases: That doesn't exist anymore. We are in a culture of manuals and, above all, of applicability. All of this is absolutely honest. But, and this is the point: I could not teach a Melville seminar today, because I cannot assume that students will read not only "Moby Dick" but also three other novels by Melville, let alone a whole handbook of secondary literature. I know they don't.

Hollywood and Shakespeare

Born in Munich in 1958, Elisabeth Bronfen first caused a stir in 1992 with her study "Over Her Dead Body." At just 35, she was appointed professor of English at the University of Zurich, where she worked at the English Department from 1993 to 2023.

And the discussions, are they conducted differently today?

You have to embed that. The students know that they have indeed been made into the "flexible people" that Richard Sennett talked about. Hardly any of them can imagine working in the same place for the next forty years. So what's the point of them going anywhere in depth? That's where the concept of self-optimization comes in: I need to optimize myself not only in my lifestyle but also work-wise, need to continually curate my resume. It's no good if I put too much time in somewhere, because optimization means flexibility everywhere. Of course, this is coupled with the fatal introduction of the Bologna Reform.

In what way?

The allocation of credit points means that students are forced into counting points. This has taken on a life of its own in their minds. As quickly as possible, as efficiently as possible, and not so much in depth, that's the idea. That's how you can get them to take continuing education courses later - for which they then have to pay quite a lot of money. Self-organization in reading groups is also hard to find these days: if there are such groups, it's usually only to prepare for an exam. The students move within a neoliberal, capitalist education and work system, and it would be cynical if I were to say now that they should be subversive and break out.

In addition to your professorship in Zurich, you have repeatedly taught in the USA. There are many stories about the climate at universities there. How big are the differences really?

When I teach in the USA, it is only at the doctoral level. And with these programs, they only accept a certain number of students, which means it's competitive. At a university like Zurich, it's different. The people who do doctorates here didn't have to apply to us.

And you have to remember: The American university landscape is huge, and at the same time, studying is expensive. That means you not only have to apply, you also pay a lot of money. And in recent years, universities have increasingly positioned themselves as companies, with students as their customers. You should always keep that in mind when debating what students demand or don't demand. It has a lot to do with this American attitude: We pay for it, then we want what we imagine it to be.

The university as a service company for which the student is simply a customer - in other words, king?

Exactly. That's not the case in Zurich, Basel, Bern. Here, once people have passed the Matura, they have the right to study more or less anything they want to study. As a result, we have much more interpretive authority here over what we teach or don't teach.

In other words, when students in the U.S. fight for different curricula and a more diverse canon, it's not so much a battle from below against above, but rather one along the lines of "he who pays, commands"?

These debates about the canon, about diversity, and what's going on now under the buzzword "woke," which has come to mean something quite different from what was originally meant by it: of course it comes from the students, but that means the students and their parents. And that depends very much in each case on how the universities view it at the management level. If they weren't making money off of it, they wouldn't go into it at all. In a way, it has to do with market needs, otherwise things like this would never be pushed through.

What's also popularly rumored: Students have become more sensitive to problematic or potentially traumatic literature. Would you confirm that?

That depends very much on which seminar you are in. In economics, hardly anyone would think of saying something like that. It is my impression that sensitivity of any kind is very important for students at the moment. But I'm a little hesitant to see that as something new. In the eighties in Germany, there was already that: "Hey, you, I don't like what you're saying. That really breaks me up." With the proliferation on the Internet, this has become a global phenomenon. But you could always see this sensitivity in young people at university, and I've never really found it disturbing. But I'm also very ironic. And I think the really sensitive students don't come to my seminars anyway. They're afraid of me. (Laughs.)

In my student days, the author still tended to be white and male, but he was dead, after all, to use Roland Barthes' words. In times of #MeToo, the separation of work and author is no longer easily tenable. Concrete example: The fact that the philosopher Louis Althusser killed his wife, the philosopher Hélène Rytmann, remained a biographical marginal note for us at the time. Is that different today?

Well, this is really so particular. You can see from it how fanatical these two thinkers were. They became so entrenched in their political-theoretical position that they could no longer talk to each other - and then he kills them to get rid of this position. That's what interests me about cultural phenomena: What is revealed there, what becomes clear here? Not: Do I think this is good or bad, is it reprehensible or not? It may be reprehensible, but for the understanding of a certain cultural figuration it may nevertheless also be enlightening. I would say that much about Althusser. Not to mention, for me, that would never invalidate what he wrote.


I'm really a hardliner on that. Let's take Louis-Ferdinand Céline: He can have been as anti-Semitic as he wants, Journey to the End of the Night remains a terrific novel about the First World War. I can see that there are works that then really lead to terrible follow-up actions, if we think of the films of Veit Harlan, for example. But I can't understand why German TV stations don't want to show Ufa films now. That is German history and German film history. Of course you have to show them. You also have to talk about it.

Elisabeth Bronfen

Speaking of problematic texts in the classroom, have you become more cautious?

I once put Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" on the list for a seminar without thinking about it. Two weeks before the seminar, I thought: For God's sake! But then the students didn't find it problematic at all. I said: First of all, please look at the narrative instance. This Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator. Second, read the novel against the grain, and then you'll notice: the violence that Humbert does to the girl becomes very clear, through the blanks. I didn't have to argue much there. What we're practicing here is reading. And reading means: do you read something as it seems to be intended, or do you read it against the grain? Quite apart from that: they are representations. That's what fascinated me about Shakespeare's epilogues, when they stand up at the end of a play and say that it was all just theater. They do that in a culture of censorship, which allows Shakespeare to write plays that are critical of the state, when you can then say at the end: We were just theater, you were here dreaming with us.

One of your central lessons has always been that problematic characters can be turned against them. You also drew a specifically feminist pleasure from your critical view of certain misogynistic patterns in culture.

With books or movies that really excite me, it's much harder to say smart things about them. I'm much better at working about things that kind of disturb me, that just force me to think further. The desire to do so is the decisive factor for me.

And this pleasure is productive when you have to work analytically on something that bothers you?

In one form or another, yes. To use this Swiss-German word: When something bothers me, then it starts to "drive" me - then it forces me to think.

That's what you once did in your book "Nur über ihre Leiche" ("Over Her Dead Body"), your study of the lusts and fears at work in the literary motif of the beautiful female corpse. Do you think that the willingness to lustfully recharge such questionable images and signs in this way has generally decreased?

Yes, probably so. But that doesn't mean we can't continue to do it, nor do we need to. We hear about paintings being taken down, or people saying they're no longer willing to deal with naked women in painting. I would simply insist that works of art can and should be read for their ambiguity and their contradictions. That's the legacy of Shakespeare as well as early American literature, which was, after all, created within a strict Puritan context. This ambiguity in literature is quite crucial, always has been. When you no longer have the eye for it, because you're only looking at the surface, it becomes difficult. The first time you read something, you see very little; you have to look several times and read things over and over again. The willingness to do that is less than it already is.

Would you say that we have forgotten how to endure ambivalence, especially in culture?

That anyway. That's why it's so difficult to argue today.

Where would you locate the causes?

(Thinking.) I don't know. But I'll give it a try. Time? Something like this takes time. You have to read a lot and really get to grips with the material. What many people also lack: the past. If you can compare something to other times, you realize that it's often not so new, and perhaps more complex. I was brought up that way, my intellectual formation has to do with contradiction and ambivalence. This also has to do with my father's Jewish thinking, where everything is based on conflict, on struggling with the sacred text and its commentators. And I am the little sister of those who fought against their parents in '68 and questioned everything. There it was permanently about quarrels and disputes. That has smoothed out a lot. And thirdly, but this is really pure speculation ...

Here you go.

In the culture we live in, everything looks so perfect, so safe, so comfortable. But many people feel that everything is very insecure. And I don't mean that the day after tomorrow the world will burn and World War III will break out. But this instability, as we experienced in the first months of Covid: I was convinced that this would now have a lasting impact on us and that we would no longer fall back into old patterns of thinking. I was really wrong about that. Something came up once, and now we've suppressed it again. So that would be my third word: massive attempts at repression. Ambivalences also have to do with uncovering things and then having to keep digging.

So it's definitely an enlightening impulse. Is that your driving force?

The two sides of my theoretical desire are, on the one hand, the whole question of the Second World War and the Holocaust. You have to keep thinking about World War II, that is: about fascism, about racism, about violence and history. You have to keep talking about it and forcing people to look at something they still want to cover up. Connected to that are psychoanalysis, trauma theory, and the theory of violence, and the question of how culture and politics are connected and how that connection is worked through in certain aesthetic entities.

And the other side of your theoretical desire?

That remains for me the feminist interest. Women still don't have equal status and still don't get equal pay for equal work, and there's still a glass ceiling. So I don't really care whether you're a liberal feminist, a difference feminist, or any other kind of feminist. This commitment to equality in terms of what texts we read, how we look at history differently, there's actually something enlightening about that: keep reading, keep writing, keep arguing. And convincing people that if we want to think about diversity in our culture, we need to do it in diverse ways.

When we think of terms like "cultural appropriation" or "critical race theory," one can get the impression that academic concepts are spilling over into society much more broadly today - just often in a completely distorted way. How do you explain that?

That is indeed new. Marxist or deconstructivist language used to appear in public discourse only to a limited extent. Today, people adopt terms without knowing where they come from, and in turn appropriate them for something. I call them Bing words: They go "Bing!" when you hear them, and then you don't have to think any further. They are actually mythical signifiers that, detached from their context, are used for this and for that. The actual discussion attached to the terms is long gone. They're really just used like ping-pong balls. For me, the question is: Why is this now the debate that is suddenly heating up politics so much? That's actually funny. Why do debates ignite around terms like "cancel culture" or "cultural appropriation"? My answer would be: these are actually mock battles.

Phony battles? What do you mean?

I have to fan that out. First, the world has become more global, and cultures have indeed become more diverse. And there is also - rightly - a demand for more democracy. And democracy means taking this diversity seriously in the public sphere, whether it is real or virtual. But it also means that we have to endure the inner conflict that we grasped at the time with Derrida's concept of difference: difference as that which cannot be resolved. These are terms I would rather see in the public domain than cultural appropriation or Critical Race Theory. We've had all that before.
And now it's all much more explosive than it was in the nineties, when we published the book "Hybrid Cultures". We were the first in the German-speaking world to translate the postcolonial thinker Homi K. Bhabha. At the time, the Germanists thought: Oh, come on now, that's not important for us in the German-speaking world.

That would be unthinkable today. But how do you mean that now with the mock battles?

I think this migration of emptied scientific terms into public discourse is a crutch in a public culture that has become very complex, a complexity reduction that allows us to have a clear opinion: Do you want the gender asterisk or not? Do you think people should still read Goethe's "Faust" or not? Is it okay to do a school play about a gay couple in high school or not? People can quickly say yes or no to that. Then they don't have to deal with what would be much more important and what gets swept under the rug in the process. For example, the class issue or the fact that democracy is an open project that we have to keep working on.

You have been Swiss for almost twenty years. What do you find most puzzling about this country?

What amazes me the most? The stubborn and absolutely functioning ability to repress rather than to talk things out openly. This culture of holding back, of not talking, of talking behind the back. And connected to that, this culture of rope networks and small, networked power groups - and how impossible it is to break that up.

And that's particularly pronounced here?

It's particularly pronounced in Zurich. Probably also in Basel and Bern, but I can only determine it for Zurich.

Is that also a statement about the university?

It's a statement about the university, about the cultural institutions, about the media.
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