The Department of German and Scandinavian proudly presents:

What is a Thing? --  Key Responses in Modern German Literature and Thought”

February 20th/21th, University of Oregon
12-6pm, Knight Browsing Room

Keynote Speaker: Jonathan Monroe (Cornell University)

“We look everywhere for the Absolute (das Unbedingte), and find only things (Dinge).”
-Novalis, Blütenstaub (1798)

Although the question of what constitutes a Thing is an ancient one, it is pressing today in a number of humanities fields: for example, in literary studies, "material cultural studies" continue but are losing momentum, and the broader question of the historical contextualization of literature in a world of things remains an important but multiply vexed one; in continental philosophical work, "object-oriented philosophy" and other new post-post-structuralist directions have arrived in search of new non-Heideggerian models of referentiality; and in the real world global crises of economy and environment, the human situation is raising with a new urgency the question of our relationships to "things."   Hence our desire to pose here again the question, "What is a 'Thing'?" and to invite papers that explore interpretively from today's perspective various key responses to this question since the Romantic period.  

With this quotation from Blütenstaub, Novalis implies that we live in a disenchanted world in which meaning has become scarce and questions whether or not this meaning can somehow be brought back (or perhaps for the first time) into the world. Another Romantic, Eduard Mörike (1804-1875), provides rich prose descriptions of Things in an attempt to gain this meaning. This project is picked up by many thinkers, not only Novalis’ contemporaries in Romanticism, but later on as modernism begins to take shape. Perhaps this is most explicit in the works of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), famous for his “Thing-Poems,” in which the world of Things are made to speak. But this is also ultimately the question in the works of Franz Kafka (1883-1924), with his characters searching everywhere in broken and brutal communities, without a hint of success: "For the street he was in, the main street of the village, did not lead up to the Castle hill, it only made towards it and then, as if deliberately, turned aside, and though it did not lead away from the Castle it got no nearer to it either." With their descriptions of the material world around them, the Realists, like Theodor Fontane (1819-1888) and Thomas Mann (1875-1955), not only give us a look inside a world of the past, they also provide social critiques of a world in which Things have taken on the wrong kind of meaning and superseded the value of the human being. On the philosophical end, there is of course Karl Marx (1818-1883), who, in Capital, develops eery descriptions of the Things as commodities taking on a similar perverted meaning, gaining a life of their own and turning on the very people who made them. This aspect of Marx’s philosophy comes out of Hegel’s phenomenology, a tradition that is later continued by thinkers like Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), who announced the battle cry of phenomenology, “To the Things themselves!” and described a process in which one is able to set aside our common or “natural” way of seeing Things, allowing them to “show themselves.”  This conference thus turns around a question that is specific and currently pressing enough to be productive, yet broad enough to invite proposals from a variety of epochs, literary discourses, and philosophical orientations.


Guest Lectures by:

Jonathan Monroe, Cornell University
David Appelbaum, State University of New York at New Paltz
Rochelle Tobias, John Hopkins University
Tove Holmes, McGill University
Timothy Gilmore, University of California at Santa Barbara
Erica Weitzmann, University of California at Berkeley


In support and collaboration with
UO College of Arts and Sciences, Comparative Literature, Philosophy & the German Studies Committee.

"This event is free and open to the public"

For more information contact Nick Reynolds: or Judith Lechner: