Ideologies, Histories, and Representations of Work and Labour in Contemporary German-Language Literature: Forced Labour, Sex Work, and State Socialist Labour Ideologies
University of Cambridge
Department of German and Dutch
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Courtman, N. (2020). Ideologies, Histories, and Representations of Work and Labour in Contemporary German-Language Literature: Forced Labour, Sex Work, and State Socialist Labour Ideologies (Doctoral thesis). https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.66252
My dissertation is concerned with the ways in which German-language authors writing between the last third of the twentieth century and now engage with histories, ideologies, and forms of work and labour that exist outside of the realm of conventional wage labour. My specific areas of focus are literary engagements with the forced labour regimes of mid-twentieth century Europe, the phenomenon of sex work and prostitution, and the ideologies of labour developed and elaborated under state socialism. On the one hand, these topics are of particular importance when considering the cultural memory of work in an de-industrialised age as it relates to issues such as the ambivalent ideological inheritance of Marxist conceptualisations of labour whose original emancipatory potential seems marred by the legacy of state socialism. These topics simultaneously provide an in-route into the exploration of philosophical, social, and political considerations on work, such as the labour activity’s status as simultaneous locus of both self- actualisation and domination, or the imbrication of sex and work alongside the persistent gendered division of labour in patraiarchal society. Focusing on the works of Elfriede Jelinek, Volker Braun, and Herta Müller, with additional readings of works by Heiner Müller and Ruth Klüger, I explore how these authors use literature as a medium for the critical questioning and examination of how work and workers have been ideologically and practically exploited, instrumentalised, and treated in the twentieth and twenty-first century. My three main authors all came to write within societies or intellectual milieus that were dominated by Marxist thought of one kind or another. All three also identify as emphatically political authors, who deploy linguistic and literary experimentation as part of their political project. In my introduction, I recapitulate the Hegelian and Marxian conceptualisations of labour and its individual and socio-theoretical significance that formed this intellectual tradition, and examine Brecht’s equally influential writings on the relation between ordinary production, aesthetic production, and politically engaged literature. The rest of my thesis is divided into three sections. The first of these examines Volker Braun’s critical engagement with the state socialist veneration of labour and the aesthetic doctrine of socialist realism, examining both his pre- and post-Wende texts. Braun’s writing provides the path into the next section on forced labour, which begins with an analysis of Braun’s writing as critique of specific East German historiographical narratives surrounding the Nazi forced labour system, before reading Ruth Klüger’s weiter leben in relation to West German discourses on the same topic. Beginning from Ruth Klüger and Herta Müller’s commentaries upon each other’s writings, I then develop a reading of Herta Müller’s Atemschaukel as an immanent critique of the theory of reform through labour that underpinned the Soviet gulag system. I then move with Herta Müller and Volker Braun into the third section by analysing the imbrications of sex and work in several of Braun’s works and in Müller’s Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt, using these texts as a way of surveying various second-wave feminist positions on sex work. This then leads into a reconstruction of Elfriede Jelinek’s changing positions on sex work and prostitution from her 1975 novel Die Liebhaberinnen through to a series of plays that she wrote on the topic after 2000, examining how her political and theoretical commitments change over this period and how these changes relate to transformations in Jelinek’s own literary working methods. In my conclusion, I re-examine the central insights gleaned from the readings performed in the three sections, before suggesting how these findings can be built upon when using other writers’ works as resources for a critical examination and questioning of work’s past and present.
Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Müller, Volker Braun, Ruth Klüger, Work in Literature, Forced Labour, GDR Literature
Jesus College Cambridge Schröder Scholarship in German Studies. Award financed by the Schröder Fund, the Cambridge Trust, and Jesus College.
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This record's DOI: https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.66252
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