Greeting and Opening Address by the President of the German Association for American Studies (GAAS / DGfA)

Since its inception almost twenty years ago, the Post Graduate Forum (PGF) has become an indisputable and indispensable presence within the German Association for American Studies (DGfA). As the major forum of exchange and debate for young scholars in German American studies it has continuously and effectively worked as an instigator for new approaches and fresh perspectives in the field, always insisting on its openness for connections and exchange beyond the field of American studies in Germany and its autonomy vis-à-vis the established routines and protocols of disciplinary self-definition.

The PGF’s obvious coming of age over the past two decades may be seen as a success story fair and simple, but it also offers an opportunity to reassess its effects and to reflect on its current status and future function for its members—the younger generation of German Americanists—as well as for the field of American studies in Germany at large.

As the current President of the German Association for American Studies—and as a former member of the Forum—I felt extremely pleased and grateful when the organizers of the 2008 PGF conference in Münster invited me to speak at the conference’s opening, giving me the opportunity, as it were, to pitch in a few remarks of my own in regard to the history and the significance of the PGF within the larger field of American studies as a profession and a practice.

Especially during the last ten years, the external impact and influence of the PGF as well as its internal communication and cohesion have both been advanced extremely by the work of COPAS, which has successfully served as the official publication platform for the PGF conferences for quite some time now. In doing this, COPAS has not only made the work of younger German Americanists accessible internationally, it has also turned into an archive for the Forum, documenting its own development and progress.

As a matter of consequence, the editors have also offered to include my short reminiscences and reflections in regard to the PGF from the Münster conference (31 Oct. - 2 Nov. 2008) within the present volume (retaining, their initial format as an oral address)—and I am very grateful for this opportunity. For it also gives me the opportunity to thank both the PGF and COPAS for their most important work in German American studies and beyond. I hope that the rather fortunate and successful relation between the Forum and COPAS will continue to prosper in the years to come, and that the presence of both will remain both indisputable and indispensable.

Professing American Studies’—Some Questions and Remarks Concerning Practice and Profession

First things first: Thanks to Christina Oppel, Anna Rapp, and Anna Thiemann for the invitation and the organization of this event, and thanks to all of you for putting together an impressive conference which again for me demonstrates the sheer vitality and strength of postgraduate American studies in Germany.

I am very happy and honored about the opportunity to talk to you, especially as a ‘former member of the club,’ and as the new—very new—President of the DGfA, i.e. the professional organization which originally ‘spawned’ the PGF (and the biological metaphor I am deliberately using here is already an element of the mythical narratives that professions weave around themselves—which will be something that concerns me in the following).

Looking at the program which has been designed for these three days, my feeling is that it would be foolish to try smuggling more owls into Athens, or rather Münster. Which is why my talk will be concerned with American studies as a field of professional practice. Moreover, as you will soon realize, I will shamelessly mix the personal with the professional and even with the presidential (since I have not yet reached the point of functional self-differentiation which would allow me to leave the personal behind when I am asked to be presidential…). There may even be a strategic and heuristic value in emphasizing the inherent and inevitable link between the personal and the professional in order to reflect upon the future state of the profession while addressing the persons—the personalities or the personal—on which this future may depend.

So here we go.


When the organizers of this conference approached me to offer an invitation to speak to this year’s PGF convention, I was more than pleased—but also a bit surprised and admittedly a bit nervous, too. There can be no question that the President of the German Association for American Studies should take any offer seriously that would give him or her the chance to talk to the people who arguably represent the future of the field and of the profession. Therefore I was pleased—and I still am—to receive this invitation. And I was surprised to learn that it is or was far from natural that the President would indeed answer the call and appear in person (or rather, in function) before a forum which I personally always considered the most actual, contemporary and up-to-date meeting of people, minds and theories in German American studies (I am still in appraisal mode, I will become a bit more critical later—so relax!). If anything, I at least remembered the PGF from my own personal experience as the most critical and ‘hungry’ bunch among the younger Americanists, to say nothing about the contrast between the Graduate Forum and the settled crowd of chairs, full professors and functionaries that made up and still make up the bulk of the audience at the annual conventions of the DGfA.

This is where I started to get a bit nervous.

What seemed to be a no-brainer—would the President come to the annual meeting of the PGF: well, why not?—on further reflection revealed some rather daunting aspects. After all, to invite the President of the association is to invite a basic confrontation: what could be more settled than a settled top representative of a professional organization? Are you inviting the DGfA President as a specimen of the professional establishment? As a glowing example of what should happen to you? Or as a pointed warning about what could also happen to you?

On a less panic-stricken note, my nervousness finally focused on the various pitfalls and traps which this speech could entail—especially for someone like me, whose professional education has been extremely influenced and guided by the activities and objectives of the PGF, and who now finds himself in a function that somehow appeared as the far, if not the opposite, end, within a range of possible (and hoped for) professional achievements that my engagement in the Forum was geared at.

So why am I here? What do you want from me—what do you want to hear from me? And why am I nervous?

Soul searching? Far from it.

To say: “well, what’s the big deal—you’re the top guy and they think it’s a good idea that you address them to give a sense of acknowledgement and respect”—will not do at all. What I am getting at is the fact that the presence of my person as a function holds a certain force within the field of professional self-assurance and self-definition that grounds your position and your potential within the larger field of German American studies. And it may be a perfectly legitimate idea to reflect on the effects and the limits, the possible profit and the responsibility of that function and the force associated with it.

Thus, I am nervous for a reason.

For once, I am not invited, the President has been invited. The things that I might want to say as a former activist and a later drop-out of the PGF may not be the things that my function should make me say to you. And if I say them nevertheless will this meet your expectations of the degree of acknowledgment and respect to be expected from an invited speaker? We all feel honored, but who is honoring whom for what and to what effect and end?

If you’re still with me you’re either completely stunned or you have read Bourdieu—or probably both. In fact, the questions I posed—which may have seemed so extravagant and a bit weird yet central for a particular way of approaching the question of professional practices—pertain to both the distinction and the reproduction of a particular field of practices. Thus, if we take the field of American studies in Germany as a professional academic field, the question what defines this field and how it is distinct from other fields may be less a matter of content, i.e. the particular methods, concepts, theories and ideas that are central in its teachings, in its debates and in its research orientation. From a perspective which looks at American studies in Germany as a field of particular practices—in the sense of a profession, precisely—the central aspects that are decisive for its survival and stability are organization, representation and resonance.

It is exactly in this respect that the history and the future of the PGF and the German Association for American Studies must be reflected upon—even if this reflection in my case at least cannot be realized without some rather personal remarks on the dynamics and conflicts of professional organization.


So I have to go back to the beginning, or rather beginnings. In fact I am entangled in beginnings: this is the first official appearance of the President of the DGfA on the opening of the PGF, and it is also my first official appearance as the President of the DGfA in the opening of a conference. The conference is also an opportunity to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the PGF, pointing back at its own beginnings, if at least at a certain moment of self-definition that could also be looked at as a beginning.

All these beginnings mix in my attempt to reflect on the particular force which beginnings contain, especially those that are memorized and remembered and celebrated as memorable events in the history of a profession.

I never wanted to be part of this.

As far as I remember, the PGF was formed as an idea in Berlin, by three students at the John F. Kennedy Institut, Sabine Sielke, Ulf Reichardt and Hans-Joachim Rieke. The idea was realized in the form of a meeting, with the support of Heinz Ickstadt, during the DGfA convention in Laufen (in the Southern part of Bavaria, close to the Austrian border) in 1989. I had no idea about this, I was completely overwhelmed by the fact that I had to give my first (another first!) workshop paper (that was before my masters thesis had even been written) in a professional framework like this. I only met the PGF people after the workshop had finished, and I remember talking to Ulf about my reluctance to join what I thought was a group of much more advanced students, for which he reprimanded me by pointing out that this assessment was more an act of self-exclusion than of professional modesty.

Thus I got somehow ‘sucked into’ the activities of the PGF because I did not want to look too exclusive, I guess, and because it soon became the central hub of communication and exchange between graduate students in American studies.

But why was the PGF founded in the first place? Well, on the one hand it was a classic example of the tendency of any organization to differentiate and form smaller organizational units that nevertheless follow the logic and the protocol of the larger unit—this is where the biological metaphor comes in handy: the PGF was spawned by the DGfA in terms of structure and organizational (and professional) orientation.

In terms of content, the PGF was geared towards the enhancement and emphasis of theoretical reflection and debate within American studies, it was the agent of the ‘theoretical turn’ in a field that appeared largely disinterested in theory, especially post-structuralist theory and criticism. Laufen was the conference where quite a number of Americanists who had not heard about such theories before were introduced to Foucault and the concept of discourse, as well as Lacanian psychoanalysis (meaning that these concepts were presented rather prominently in workshops).

So in terms of its critical interests, the PGF was introduced (‘hatched’ to stay within the biological metaphor) as an attempt at finding an adequate forum for theoretical issues and debates within the association’s framework. There was a strong feeling that there was not enough theory, that the theory that was there was not up-to-date and that, generally, the association was not open enough for new developments across a range of disciplines and also for new theories in the post-structural vein. This was 1989, remember, the year when the Wall came down, only we could not know this—what I am saying is that there was a general feeling of ‘something’s gotta happen’ and it was with the help of this general feeling that this new professional formation within the larger organization could be established.

However, one also has to emphasize that this would not have been possible without some pressure and help from outside, that is, from the established professionals within the association. Just on the strength of some demand for more theory, the PGF would never have happened. Indeed, what made it possible to give the demand a space and thus a ‘forum’ in the most literal sense, was a representational defect within the association as it presented itself at the end of the 1980s (and that was exactly what it was, the end of the eighties!).

For, on the one hand there was a considerable and noticeable increase of younger scholars, entering the field all over in the departments where American studies were present and visible in German universities. One does not have to be a trained sociologist to realize that there must have been a point where this increase also began to be felt in the association—either by the fact that already established members encouraged their assistants and their graduates to become members, too, or simply by the fact that the average age of new members got lower. On the other hand, the structures of the association at that point were not very welcoming to new members, who after all were not established scholars in their academic fields, who had no publication list to speak of and who were socialized in a climate that was rather critical of the established association structures which still formed the foundation of the association’s self-understanding. In other words, there was an increasing number of people who wanted to be visible and present themselves and their ideas, yet who did not follow—or even did not want to follow—established protocol. This shared experience indeed formed the first, if only diffuse basis for the growing sentiment that the association was somewhat disinterested in the input of younger scholars, that it was more of an old boys’ club with some girls attached—I am only slightly exaggerating the sentiment which as many sentiments was based on the experience of conflict between motivation and ambition and the structure of a professional organization.

This did not go unnoticed and there were enough people in the association who endorsed the idea to give more space to new ideas and to the growing bunch of newcomers. The combination of the will to organize and the space granted for the representation of this new organizational formation within the established structures of the association made the PGF possible—and visible—in the first place.


So the PGF was the result of certain forces and constellations within the German association, and its most immediate effect was that within the established organizational structure there began to grow another organizational structure, that of the PGF. On first sight, and maybe even on second, the organization of the PGF presents an anomaly. On the one hand it was and still is clearly designed to follow familiar forms and protocols: workshops, papers, conferences—in this respect at least the PGF has become a very professional duplicate or even rival of the annual convention of DGfA, externalizing the space granted within the old structures during its beginnings to form a truly autonomous space and forum. In face of the increased visibility of its professional organization, and the growing resonance to its professional representation of the work of younger scholars in German American studies over the last twenty years, however (and this is were my remarks leave the appraisal mode to become more reflective and probably critical) the question may be whether this successful form of professional visibility and resonance has also heightened the representation and visibility of younger German Americanists within the German association—which after all had been the original intention and motivation of the PGF.

And this is where the anomaly of the PGF becomes significant. For despite its success and the impressive professionalism that its activities display and prove—and this conference is clearly a case in point—the PGF is very unlike any other professional organization, and in this respect cannot become a rival to the German association, since its organization is highly dynamic, based on ever rotating structures, depending on a rather volatile and probably capricious constellation of participants and their diverging or converging interests that have to be negotiated again and again. Moreover, and even more significant, there is no stable membership here, in fact, the instability of the association, its temporary limitation is an obligatory feature of its effectiveness and usefulness as a professional organization: you—all of you—have to move on at some point, and you may wonder already when would be a good moment to leave the PGF behind and enter another field or level of the profession which will get you closer to the stability of a professional position.

Thus, beyond or even despite the intellectual intensity and the high quality of the scholarly work that the PGF represents and makes visible, there remains the question in what ways this particular form of professional organization is helpful and effective for the stability and survival of the field of American studies in Germany at large. Is it effective enough? Could it become more effective? How could we measure and assess its effectiveness in this respect, how can we make sure that all this work and all this effort has more impact outside of its own circle of representation and temporary resonance? I am sure that the stability and instability of one’s professional situation plays a significant role in your conversations outside the conference room, yet I would even encourage you to make this a permanent topic for your conventions: the PGF surely is the forum to discuss the question of the future of the discipline—not only in regard to theory, but surely also in regard to practice and your own professional future.

These questions also suggest or even demand a critical reflection of the relation between the DGfA and the PGF as it has developed over time. As I said, there is a strong sense that the external presence and representation of the work done by younger Americanists in Germany has gradually superseded the internal resonance of that work within the association. Certainly, there is always a slot reserved for the annual PGF workshop at the Jahrestagung, and there also has been the presence of at least one representative of the PGF in the extended board of the DGfA for quite some time now (only who ‘represents’ this structure?).

Yet on the other hand, it strikes me as a matter of benevolent negligence that the annual convention of the PGF is not considered a ‘Pflichttermin’ for the President of the DGfA—it is as if the PGF has become some sort of safe playground sponsored by the DGfA to some degree but far from being fully acknowledged as a major contribution to its own professional field and practice.

What is there to do?

For a start, the question about the future of the discipline and the field of American studies in Germany is something that concerns the PGF as much as it does concern the DGfA—even tenured professors sometime worry about that, I can assure you. The continuous exchange of ideas and opinions in this respect would help to formulate and organize activities which will effect resonance beyond our own professional field—as an example one may only mention the debate about the streamlining of academic and high school curricula enforced through political interests. Another aspect immediately related to this debate is the somewhat undervalued fact that American studies in Germany is taught to a very large degree in the context of teacher’s education—certainly a more pointed awareness of this fact would also help us to find more resonance for the professional work we do and will be doing in the future.

I am willing to consider all possible venues in this respect, and I hope that the exchange between the DGfA and the PGF will extend and grow both in opportunity and in intensity. For the future of American studies the upcoming election may prove to be an important incentive to bring more students to our programs and classes and finally into our field.

So thank you again for inviting me—to address you as the President, but also for asking me to join you in ‘professing American studies.’

Peter Schneck

President, German Association for American Studies (GAAS / DGfA)

May 2009

DGfA Jahrestagung Laufen Programm


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