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Book explores Alexander Kluge's literary experiments in futurity

The role of “counterfactual hope” in German author Alexander Kluge’s work, and his “incomparable dedication to the conjoined causes of survival and happiness,” formed much of the inspiration for Leslie Adelson’s new book, “Cosmic Miniatures and the Future Sense: Alexander Kluge’s 21st-century Literary Experiments in German Culture and Narrative Form.”

Adelson, department chair and Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of German Studies, probes the intersection between past and future in Kluge’s literary work. She delves especially into his short literary experiments – Adelson calls them “cosmic miniatures” – which examine the human relation to the cosmos. More broadly, “Cosmic Miniatures” explores how human relationships to the future are already changing in the 21st century, as expressed in German literature written since the Cold War.

One of the most prolific and versatile public intellectuals in Europe, Kluge was born in Germany in 1932. His consistently quirky approach to historical narrative across multiple media arts has garnered him most of Germany’s major prizes in film, literature and philosophy. In the radical prose of his cosmic miniatures, notes Adelson, “off-worldly orientation and unnatural narrative together yield new sensory perspectives on associative networks, futurity, scale and perspective itself.”

As Adelson explains, Kluge’s revolutionary storytelling for the 21st century pivots on the production of anti-realist hope under conditions of real catastrophe. The tale that “Cosmic Miniatures” tells, writes Adelson, “draws its breath from relations between the very large and the very small that are easily overlooked whether one prefers to stress the warp of destruction or the woof of hope in his prose.”

Adelson argues that cosmic, global and German relations of scale and perspective “are key to unlocking what operatively binds the strands of hope and destruction together in narrative form for Kluge’s newer literary miniatures as 21st century experiments, not in space but in time.”

Philosophers have long distinguished between the objective time of the universe and the subjective time of human experience, Adelson contends, and Kluge’s experimental approach to this relationship becomes especially important because the horizon of the future becomes accessible to human experience for readers of Kluge’s quirky prose. This challenges one of the core precepts of European modernity: the image of the future as fundamentally open and – by definition – inaccessible to experience.

Adelson’s teaching and research concentrate on German literature from 1945 to the present and reflect interdisciplinary as well as transnational approaches to culture and history. Her interests include German literature of the post-war and post-socialist eras, emergent literatures associated with minority and migrant populations (especially Jews and Turks), and postcolonial theories of difference and approximation. Adelson’s other books include “The Turkish Turn in Contemporary German Literature: Toward a New Critical Grammar of Migration,” “Making Bodies, Making History: Feminism and German Identity” and “Crisis of Subjectivity: Botho Strauss’s Challenge to West German Prose of the 1970s.” Her new research projects revolve around the literary imagination as a form of labor and the conceit of futurity in German literature of the 20th and 21st centuries. Now serving her third term as chair of the Department of German Studies, Adelson also directed Cornell’s interdisciplinary Institute for German Cultural Studies from 2007-13.

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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