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Systems Theory in German and North American Literary Studies

Using the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann as a case study, this project seeks to enhance our understanding of how theoretical paradigms circulate across disciplines and across the globe. How can we account for the incongruities in the reception and perception of theories as they travel from one disciplinary or cultural context to another? In the case of systems theory in particular, the challenge is, first, to understand the process by which a sociological theory was adapted and transformed for the task of literary analysis, and second, to explain what appears to be a significant discrepancy with regard to the impact of systems-theoretically informed literary studies in Germany and the United States. 

Answering these questions will require a multifaceted approach. We will consider the development of existing models of systems-theoretical literary study in German-speaking countries – ranging from Siegfried J. Schmidt's mapping of the differentiation of the social system of literature in the 18th century, to Gerhard Plumpe’s and Niels Werber's discussion of the specific coding of literary communication and Plumpe’s evolutionary model of literary epochs, to Georg Stanitzek and Natalie Binczek's systems-theoretical descriptions of the media aesthetics of literature. And we will also investigate the different phases of the American (non)reception of Luhmann (e.g. in the wake of the Luhmann-Habermas controversy or through Jack Bruce and Cary Wolf), comparing the arguments presented with those that informed the German-language discussion. 

The ultimate aim of our comparative analysis is to generate new perspectives on the possibility of a transnational theoretical cross-fertilization, especially in conjunction with current trends in the literary studies, such as the renewed interest in materiality and form or the question of how to model complex literary and cultural phenomena. 

Matt Erlin