Waterside promenade in Konstanz at the Bodensee lake.

The purpose of the summer seminar is to promote the interdisciplinary study of historical, political, social and cultural aspects of modern and contemporary German affairs and to advance their understanding among scholars in the United States and Canada. The program is open to faculty members and recent PhDs in germane social science and cultural studies fields.

Message in a Bottle: Critical Theory and Climate Change
DAAD Summer Seminar for Faculty and Recent PhDs
Cornell University
June 14-July 16, 2020

Seminar Director:
Paul Fleming, L. Sanford and Jo Mills Reis Professor of Humanities; Taylor Family Director, Society for the Humanities; Professor, German Studies and Comparative Literature, Cornell University

Course Description

This five-week seminar for North American faculty and post-doctoral fellows in the interdisciplinary field of German Studies asks how German literature and thought, especially the tradition of Critical Theory, might help us think, live, and act in the regime of the ever-mounting crisis of climate change. Beginning with Kant’s three questions for framing the enlightened human around 1800 -- What can I know? What do I have to do? What can I hope for? – this seminar re-explores these questions (and more) under the radially altered state of climate change and its consequences for the 21st century and beyond.

If the age of Enlightenment is predicated on the domination of nature (Adorno/Horkheimer), and if the age of the anthropocene marks a rebellion of nature against this premise, how do we define this new mode of (human) being in relation to nature? How does the human-made catastrophe re-frame and change humanity’s relation to nature and the animal world? What might be the necessary new human subjectivities, their relation to capitalism, consumerism, and collectivity in the age of climate crisis?

If modernity was premised on progress and thus the hope for a better future, what remains of hope when the future promises a radically different planet for human life on it? Might Benjamin’s dictum – ‘hope is only given for the sake of the hopeless’ – be truer today than ever, and on a scale (the species-being) previously unimagined? What would it mean to live without hope (Kafka’s “infinite hope … but not for us”) or only with the “hope beyond hope” (Th. Mann/Adorno) or “radical hope” (Lear) or the gentle hope of “staying with the trouble” (Haraway)?

Of particular interest throughout the seminar will be both the ethics and politics of climate change, which demand collective, global action not only in terms of whatever mitigation measures might be possible but also, perhaps more urgently, in terms of the ever-growing relation between climate change and violence, war, migration, and exile, particularly as they effect women, people of color, colonial pasts and presents, and the Global South.

We will examine not only the rhetoric of climate change (in its modes of opinion, denial, optimism, hope, action, nihilism, etc.) but also narration: how does one narrate this particular human catastrophe? How might these new urgent modes of narration relate to other narrative structures: from trauma and tragedy to the 19th century novel, 20th century surrealism, and Science Fiction. Literary examples of narrating catastrophe drawn from historical precedents will be read along side recent theoretical models of the relation between narration, the imaginary, resilience, change, and catastrophe.

The seminar is conceived, on the one hand, as providing participants with a platform for developing present and future scholarly projects, and, on the other, to enhance participants’ scholarly and pedagogical resources (e.g., integration of questions of climate change and its responses into the classroom). In this sense, our time together will provide participants with a variegated toolkit both for research projects and for curricular innovation. The final week of the seminar will consist in presentations of work-in-progress, in which participants will be encouraged to present projects in the context of a public workshop.

The seminar is ideally suited to professors and post-doctoral scholars in a range of fields including Germanic Studies, Comparative Literature, Narrative Studies, Literary Theory, and History. Fluency in German is not required although an interest in academic and creative work emerging from Germany is essential. Participants will be encouraged to contribute from their own fields of research as well as present their work-in-progress.


For further information about seminar content, please contact the seminar director Paul Fleming.

For other seminar-related questions, please contact Olga Petrova at Cornell University’s Institute for German Cultural Studies.


Participation is open to faculty members in the Humanities and Social Sciences at colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada. Applicants who have received their PhDs within the past two years but do not yet hold faculty appointments are encouraged to apply. Ph.D. candidates are not eligible.

Participants must be citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. or Canada.

Application and Deadline

Application deadline is March 1, 2020.

Please download the application form to the right. Kindly note that the form cannot be completed without first being downloaded and saved to your computer.

A complete application consists of the following parts:

  • DAAD application form entitled "Interdisciplinary Summer Seminar in German Studies.” Please answer all questions on the form, even if you refer to additional material
  • Curriculum vitae
  • Complete list of publications
  • A detailed statement explaining why the applicant wants to attend the seminar
  • One letter of recommendation

Please send your application via both hard copy and e-mail to the Seminar Director:

Paul Fleming
Sanford and Jo Mills Reis Professor of Humanities
Department of German Studies
Cornell University
183 Goldwin Smith Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-3201


Stipends and Fees

Accepted participants are eligible for a DAAD stipend, pending final confirmation of funding. There is a $50 course fee.

Terms of Award

DAAD awards grants to cover tuition, travel, and room and board during the seminar.

Participants are required to attend all seminar sessions and to participate actively in the work of the seminar. Work-in-progress of participants and guests will be discussed.

A written report is expected within four weeks of the end of the seminar.

About the Director

Seminar Director Paul Fleming, L. Sanford and Jo Mills Reis Professor of Humanities, Taylor Family Director, Society for the Humanities, and Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature, Cornell University. Scholarly monographs on Exemplarity and Mediocrity: The Art of the Average from Bourgeois Tragedy to Realism (2009) and The Pleasures of Abandonment: Jean Paul and the Life of Humor (2006). He regularly translates from German, including Peter Szondi’s Essay on the Tragic (2002), Hans Blumenberg’s Care Crosses the River (2010), and (with Helmut Müller-Sievers) Hans Blumenberg’s Saint Matthew Passion (forthcoming).

His current book project, provisionally titled Anecdote and Insurrection, examines the mobilization of the anecdote in and as theory particularly in Benjamin, Bloch, and Blumenberg. He has published articles on Moretti, Freud, Ernst Kantorowicz, Simmel, Lukacs, Heyse and Storm, Hebel, Keller, Canetti, Kommerell and others. He has co-edited books and special issues of journals on Kracauer, Stefan George and his Circle, Ulrich Peltzer, and Hans Blumenberg. He serves on the boards of the journals New German Critique and Diacritics, the Signale book series at Cornell University Press, and Periplous: Münchener Studien zur Literaturwissenschaft in Fink Verlag. Together with Rüdiger Campe he is also co-editor of the book series Paradigms: Literature & the Human Sciences at de Gruyter Press.