Meaning of Presence. A Conversation with Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
On March 8th at Stanford University, Ivan Ivashchenko, a philosopher and a translator, met German-American literary scholar Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht to discuss his translation into Ukrainian of Gumbrecht's book Production of Presence. What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford UP: Stanford, 2004). The Ivashchenko’s translation will be published at the end of 2019 by IST Publishing in Kharkiv.
A separate book with SMALL RUN BOOKS series will also be published in 2019 as well – a collection of Gumbrecht's papers where he develops his conception of presence
The conversation was published in historico-philosophical open access journal Sententiae (Volume XXXVІІІ, Issue 1, 2019. ISSN 2075-6461).
Ivan Ivashchenko (hereafter II): Let me begin with my very first impression of your book . You are an author who was born, grew up, and spent many years of his academic career in Germany, a country with a culture that is, at least in my view, almost 100% meaning-based (to put it in the terminology of your book). Sure, in the first chapter you explain the intellectual origins of your conception when you are talking about colloquia in Dubrovnik, during the times of Yugoslavia, describing how your idea emerged in the circle of predominantly German intellectuals. However, I wonder, how did it appear in your intellectual life, the very idea of presence, I mean?
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (hereafter HUG): I think there are two components, but it is very difficult to say where they come from. One, and I talk about it in the book, is oedipal in the Freudian sense. My “Doktorvater” whose name I do not pronounce because he was identified as a “Kriegsverbrecher,” was a student of Gadamer, and Gadamer was a student of Heidegger, and Heidegger was a student of Husserl. You feel all that hermeneutic weight on your shoulders, right, and while I had an OK-relationship with my own father, I am not a good son. Or maybe I am a rebellious son. When we did those Dubrovnik colloquia, the whole movement was a movement against hermeneutics as the institution of our academic fathers, and we wanted to do something very different. The Dubrovnik colloquia were also Dionysiac, I mean, lots of marriages broke down there, it was two weeks, we worked six days, but we drank a lot…
II: I had such an impression, to be honest, while reading the first chapter, though you did not mention drinking there…
HUG: It also was very serious, the books, that came out of it, I think, are quite good, and the central book – Materialität der Kommunikation  – became an intellectual landmark in Germany. In this sense, it is also interesting that long before talking about presence, I talked about the anti-hermeneutic, the non-hermeneutic and so forth. It had something of a “Vatermord” motif which I think especially academically, in the humanities is not a bad principle because otherwise you only cultivate traditions. I believe the humanities are much more about the process of debate and not about results.
The books on the shelf are rather byproducts of discussions, I mean, the humanities take place in seminars, in our conversations and so forth
This was one motivation, and the other one had to do with my parents being kind of the first generation wealthy, they were both surgeons, they both went to the university, but I was not from a cultivated family. My parents had only medical books and two encyclopedias, and there was a handbook on sexuality that I was always consulting eagerly when they had left home. But I always had an inferiority complex that I was not from a cultivated family. I was a really good student in high school though. Yes, I tried to read a lot and so forth but I relatively early on cultivated not a counterculture but I would say a propensity to a lived experience. For example, I like opera, but more than going to the opera I watch soccer games, I go to the stadium, right, and still, I can hardly live a week without a live sport event. And I like to be in a crowd. I am Borussia Dortmund fan which is the roughest crowd in Germany. And I have a season ticket for Stanford football. I am actually involved in football during recruiting players.
II: How so?
HUG: Students to be recruited for sports, besides truly needing the normal grades for admission, are allowed to visit the university twice while they make their choice and then they want professors who are not meaningless and are sports fans to talk to them, talk to their parents and I do that for Stanford sports. Or when they fail in the humanities, the football players, I help them up not with grades, but I try to coach them. As a reward, during the games, I can stand on the field with the football team. And I like being there with the sweat, the excitement, the noise and I imagine I could play. On the web, there is a promotional video  for football with me as a fan. Borussia Dortmund also had made a promotional video  with my younger daughter and me. They use that when they travel in the US and in Asia. Anyway, I do not know whether sports is metonymy. Unfortunately, I have not been a good athlete, but being in the stadium, being in the crowd, this is what my next book about. It is kind of intellectual rehabilitation of crowds, of masses. I am not saying that it is not dangerous. It is dangerous being in Dortmunder Südtribüne. Nevertheless, I like being there.
So these two things came together. It was, on the one hand, a critique of hermeneutics, a critique of “Absolutheitsanspruch der Hermeneutik,” as we are saying, which is not only the humanities in Germany, Geisteswissenschaften (it is interesting that in German we are talking about Gesiteswissenschaften, not Menschenwissenschaften). It was rebellious, but it was also, on the other side, affirmative in a rebellious way because there is something I like enormously and I thought it was intellectually underestimated. The more cultivated version of that is if you are a good public speaker and I would arrogantly say that I am one of the better public speakers in Germany today. “Ich kann frei sprechen” like in Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels where I did laudation this year and the ARD Leute they went crazy because they said that I have 23 minutes “aber Sie könnten nicht ohne Manuskript sprechen” but I can! “Ja, aber Sie wissen nicht, dass das 23 Minuten sind!” No, I can exactly speak 23 minutes, and I do not need a watch and can do that. Anyway, there is something performative about thinking, right, if you ask me who were my best professors, I would mention, with one exception, the people who are great speakers. The one exception was actually Benedict XVI. Yes, maybe there is the third component. Although I lost all existential interest in Catholicism after my first communion, I think I want to be culturally very Catholic. So, for example, as you saw in the book the theology of transubstantiation fascinates me because it is so counterintuitive. I feel very well in countries that are culturally Catholic. I mean, Italy is today existentially not a very Catholic country, but I like being in Naples, I like being there more than being in Milan, I mean, I like Milan a lot too. So, that is a more cultivated component, a more performative component of the phenomenon that I now call presence culture.
II: In the next-to-last chapter of your book, you introduce the concepts of deictic gesture and deictic teaching style, which is, I understand, an essential part of your discussion of presence-based culture. When I read it, my first thought was that you have to practice it somehow. Could you elaborate on that since it may seem quite nebulous?
HUG: There are two components. I would not say that my teaching profoundly changed because of my conception of presence, but I hate the American phrase “I teach Hölderlin,” “I teach Goethe,” or “I teach Goya” since it kind of makes Goethe or Goya an object, right, I mean you cannot really teach Shakespeare as if he was a material object. Even, say, for Kant, you can teach maybe but…
II: Teaching is a metaphor here…
HUG: It is metonymy, but it is a bad metonymy. I do not want to be picky but what I want to say is that especially when we are talking about college, in the United States those students won’t be “Literaturwissenschaftler,” “Geisteswissenschaftler” one day. They take courses on literature, philosophy, and history in college to become cultivated persons. And my version of helping them to become cultivated persons is to make them appreciative of great cultural objects but appreciative not in the sense that they know where they have to go to say it is great but to really live it. Now I come to deictic gesture. When “I teach Hölderlin,” or “I teach Shakespeare” or something like that I recite a lot. For instance, one of my final seminars at Stanford was on Hölderlin, and none of my students could read his poems in German. I started every session with reciting Hölderlin in German. They had bilingual Xerox though. And doing so in my own language conjures up, makes Hölderlin present. I mean not present that he comes down like an apparition but present in the sense that you give Hölderlin volume, you embody him. I embody him with my voice, and that I would call a deictic gesture. You also can appreciate how beautiful that sounds. It does not have to be Hölderlin. For example, Sonnet XVIII, when you recite:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date
That is different from just silently reading it. I am not saying that reading it is not good, but reciting here is a deictic gesture. I point to myself, but I think the students can see a double strength of you as a teacher that you are enthusiastic about your topic.
That you get into vibrations when you talk about something and that you really live it because you like it so much. That is contagious
That is what I mean by deictic gestures.
II: If we tried to connect your concept of deictic gesture with your claim in the first chapter that in the meaning-based culture we have lost our relationship to the things of the world, would it mean that deictic gesture is some kind of pedagogical approach to reestablish that presumably lost relationship?
HUG: Yes, in Modern culture. And yes, you can call it a pedagogical strategy, but I do not trust pedagogy in general, and I also do not like strategies (it is too military to my taste); however, it is one. Again, a deictic gesture is an embodiment of enthusiasm, so, for example, I believe in my almost fifty years of teaching I have never taught a seminar on something that I was not passionate about, that I did not really like or did not really find interesting or I did not really hate. And, you know, you have a huge amount of liberty in the humanities, especially if you have some prestige, you can teach whatever you want to teach. It can be love-hatred, for example, Céline. I believe that Céline is the greatest French prose writer of the XXt century and if there is any candidate for being a worse human being than Hitler and Stalin together, then it was Céline. So I hate Céline, but I also admire him, which made for a good Céline seminar. I try to do things that matter to me and that can become contagious not in a sense (and it is an important distinction) that I want students to read Céline the way I do (I do not even exactly know how I read Céline. I can exactly describe you how to read Céline though). Or the philosophical reading group that we are doing. They do not get credits, and I am always saying it is about doing philosophy. So, we meet every Thursday at 6 pm, and we read one text very slowly, during the entire trimester. It is open-ended, we usually end at 9 or 10 pm. It attracts more students than any philosophical course at Stanford. I think it attracts lots of students because they trust me for they know that I am doing it because I like to do it. I think they come because it has a reputation of something is happening there. Even though they do not necessarily know me. That is what I mean. At the first session, I ask why did you come here? It is because we are doing philosophy and philosophy is something you learn by doing it. I think there should be no such courses as “an introduction to philosophy” at all. I do not even know what it could possibly be. It can only happen as contagion (which is a metaphor).
II: I also have rather a big question about page 81  of your book. There, you mention what you call not exclusively conceptual knowledge. According to your book, presence-based culture should open the dimension of non-conceptual knowledge. To be honest, I have been having a hard time understanding this claim. I was wondering how knowledge cannot be conceptual (given that we are talking about knowledge).
HUG: No, it is, of course, an oxymoron. That is true, and I do not think I would write this phrase today. Non-conceptual knowledge, come on, knowledge has to be conceptual. I agree with you. But the quality of the transmission of knowledge depends largely, definitely not exclusively, on things that are not conceptual. For example, the only physical thing I am narcissistic about is my voice. I think I have a really good voice. I can fill in an auditory for 500 people with my voice without a microphone. So, if I read Hölderlin’s Rhein Hymne or Heidelberg that voice is better than some other voices. Like the voice of a singer. My paternal grandfather was actually in a municipal theater and opera tenor. Anyway, that matters, right? I give you another example of the transmission of knowledge. If you ask me what I believe is the function of prosody. I do think that in the literal sense of the word prosody if you listen to it, has a function of conjuring up. You get a feeling. It is like daydreams. You feel what the poet or what the poem is describing is present like he is standing next to it. He is not, but you react as if it was physically close.
Now, you have to be capable of being open for this conjuring up function, of letting that happen to you that you are identifying yourself with, say, the protagonist of the movie
I cry a lot during movies. Last time, while I was watching The Green Book , have you seen it?
II: Yes, last week.
HUG: It is amazing, fantastic film. I was really crying. And I am not embarrassed about it. Not that you have to cry but you have to be open for such an impact, and that is not only what we call aesthetic experience. For instance, Kant. When I read sentences of Kant, and I read him in German, I can only admire him and be speechless. It is incredible when somebody who never was further away from Königsberg than 17 kilometers produces there in this complete cultural isolation a work of that complexity. And as I am talking about Kant and it is not in a different register, have you ever read this beautiful little book by Lyotard on enthusiasm ?
II: I did not.
HUG: It is actually a book on Kant but not a critical reading of Kant. It is about Kant reacting to the French Revolution. It took more than two weeks until the news of 14th of July had traveled to Königsberg, and then Kant was completely enchanted with the French Revolution. So, that was not an aesthetic reaction. It was rather about being capable of this enthusiasm. To be capable of being inspired by something. This is what I goofily described as non-conceptual knowledge. It is not knowledge, but it is often combined with transmission of knowledge, not necessarily but often. Because when Kant learned about the 14th of July, he also knew about the storming of the Bastille and so forth. In other words, some knowledge was there, but the important thing was not conceptual.
II: But according to Kant “Anschauungen ohne Begriffe sind blind.”
HUG: Yes, but maybe it was better than in his theory. To play with Kant’s metaphor. Blind people have famously stronger reactions to many things than seeing people. Have you ever read Lettre sur les aveugles  by Diderot?
HUG: It is a beautiful text. It talks about a blind mathematician who was a real person, a professor in Cambridge, Saunderson.
II: Was he born blind?
HUG: He was almost born blind – he became blind around his first birthday.
II: And became a mathematician?
HUG: He became one of the greatest mathematicians of his time. He is still quoted today. But he was also a seemingly dear human, very charismatic lecturer and had a family. All I want to say, yes, I get Kant’s definition about Anschauung but maybe sometimes one should resist the temptation of translating everything into concepts.
II: Yes, but Kant’s metaphor also says that concepts without sensibility would not produce any knowledge whatsoever. His semantic revolution consists in this claim since synthetic judgments a priori are not just formally valid judgments but they should (must!) be objectively valid. I mean, Kant clearly talks about the relationship to the world or what you Germans call Weltbeziehung.
HUG: I am no longer German!
II: I did not mean your citizenship! So, Kant basically talks about Weltbeziehung even though, of course, he does not use this expression.
HUG: Yes, I know. But I am also writing in the book about oscillation. Of course, I do not believe that any relationship to the world can ever be purely presence-based or purely conceptual. That does not exist. Maybe animals are capable of having a non-conceptual relationship to the world. That is what Heidegger describes quite well as animal instincts in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. So, everything that we call relationship to the world, an experience in a very broad sense of the word “experience” is always already Anschauung and Begrifflichkeit at the same time. That is true, and we cannot help that. I do believe, however, and that is my object of criticism and attack that Western culture and specifically Western academic culture has overprivileged to an idiotic degree the conceptual aspect. For example, I am not saying that Hölderlin’s Brot und Wein is not very interesting in its attempt to reconcile emerging Hegelian philosophy with the Christian theology of the Eucharist. It is conceptually fantastic, and you can only conceptually redeem that. But that does not prevent the prosody of that poem being fantastic, and I do not want to sacrifice the prosody on the altar of hermeneutics. Of course, in the past twenty years, I have written more on presence because that is my polemical edge. But I do not dispute the basic Kantian claim that it always goes together.
II: Actually, many Kant scholars are debating about conceptualism and non-conceptualism in Kant. In my opinion, however, Kant’s distinction was purely methodological because he wanted to show that concepts are not borrowed from the things of the world (to put it in your terms); otherwise, we could not talk about the unity of experience at all.
HUG: Yes, but it is Kant’s Redlichkeit, it does not even fit into his philosophy. Like in the third Critique when he talks about Stimmung that also is not really a concept that good for him but he is so honest that he works it through.
II: My next question concerns an issue to which many intellectuals in the twentieth century fell victim: Is there any ethical dimension of the presence-based culture? By ethical dimension, I do not mean some kind of moralizing based on a superior life experience but rather institutionalized practices that could guarantee and maintain, say, fundamental human rights.
HUG: The answer was provided, without any presence-based concepts, by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectics of Enlightenment. A culture that has eliminated the presence dimension lacks what we call empathy. It is capable of reducing other humans to numbers tattooed on their forearms. It is the presence of presence that can become existentially and ethically relevant.
II: My last rather provocative question would be if you could tell me what Gumbrecht cannot convey.
HUG: There are two levels to this question. Even our conversation which I felt has been a good conversation has also been a kind of a harmless conversation. Harmless in the sense we did not touch anything that is highly problematic or criminal. I mean, you could have asked about if that is a true story that I am fascinated by crime?
I can also sometimes imagine myself committing crimes, I mean, real crimes like bank robberies and hijackings. I have gone so far to say in public that I cannot like a person whom I cannot imagine committing a crime
This is very different from saying I cannot like a person who does not commit a crime. OK, there is one level where at least until my retirement I was not allowed to convey certain things that I could convey because of the climate of political correctness. I think that political correctness is not just an American or an academic disease. It is a disease of Western culture. And it may today be the most established in the EU, in what I call “social democratism.” It is a kind of egalitarian ideology that you are not allowed to touch. And if you are not in consensus you are immediately excluded, you do not get an academic job or another job. I do think that this political correctness is a cover to maintain a certain cultural tradition that is broken and we do not know what to do with it in the present cultural and humanitarian situation that starts with things like global warming, overpopulation, exhaustion of resources. Anyway, I do not want to demonize political correctness, there is not a Kantian reason, but there are historical reasons why it exists. However, it strongly reduces what you are allowed to say. For example, ten years ago at Stanford, I was teaching a freshman core class about Pleasures of Sex. And I obliged myself to talk based on individual experience but not in the first person singular at the end of each lecture for 10 minutes about one form of sexual practice. I talked about masturbation, pleasure through the pain, coordinating orgasms and so forth. It was not an entire lecture but only last ten minutes each time. I made a real effort to do that well in this very hygienic culture, and Americans have no talent for sex, or very little. I thought it was good to do that. Already then, when I announced that because the freshman core was organized by the President’s Office, the Stanford President called me and said, could you not change the title to Pleasures and Problems of Sex? I said no, I want to talk about the pleasures of sex. This is the main problem because the US people do not know much about the pleasures of sex. But today I would not be allowed to convey that. Or I would have big problems. Of course, there are lots of things I cannot convey.
To quote Lyotard on enthusiasm: there is never a guarantee that your enthusiasm for something can become contagious. This is second and the real problem of presence, not only mine. You can talk about presence, you can exchange concepts about it – but there is no way to “carry” or “convey” presence itself in a conversation. This can only work by contagion – and we call “people with presence” those who have, who exude this power of contagion. But nobody can control or guarantee it. A limit hard to live with for me – but what can I do?
1 [Gumbrecht 2004].
2 [Gumbrecht et al. 1988].
5 [Gumbrecht 2004: 81].
7 [Lyotard 1986].
8 [Diderot 1749].
Diderot, D. (1749). Lettre sur les aveugles à l’usage de ceux qui voient. Londres [i.e. Paris?].
Gumbrecht, H. U. (2004). Production of Presence. What Meaning Cannot Convey. Stanford: Stanford UP.
Gumbrecht, H. U., Elsner, M., & Pfeiffer, K. L. (Hrsg.). (1988). Materialität der Kommunikation. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt a. M.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1986). L’enthousiasme, la critique kantienne de l’histoire. Paris: Galilée.
Ukrainian version of the interview is here