Kirk Wetters

Research Areas

Eighteenth-century literature, German literature Around 1800 (Romanticism and Weimar Classicism), Philosophies of history, Austrian literature, Literature and music, Theories of genre, Literature and (social) science, Disciplinary histories / interdisciplinarity, Critical theory / the Frankfurt School, Theories of the public sphere and mass media


Kirk Wetters is a Professor of German, who joined the Yale German department in 2004. Starting from his dissertation, which was published as The Opinion System: Impasses of the Public Sphere from Hobbes to Habermas (Fordham 2008), his work has focused on the overlapping conceptual and metaphorical foundations of modern literature and critical theory. His first book argues that the often overlooked or maligned concept of opinion played a defining role in the many divergent strands of post-Enlightenment literature and theory (philosophical epistemology, political and social theory, rhetoric, aesthetics, critique). Literary and critical authors of the German late 18th century (especially Lichtenberg, Mendelssohn, Wieland, Forster, and Goethe), he argues, offer articulations of opinion which anticipate many theoretical claims of the 20th century with regard to the key institutions of modern society, the possibility of democracy, and changing conditions of media, communication, and information.

His second book, Demonic History from Goethe to the Present (Northwestern 2014), investigates the preoccupation with demons and demonic forces in the mental household of post-Enlightenment, supposedly secular societies. This is notably the case in modern literature (prototypically in the Faust tradition), but, perhaps more surprisingly, also in philosophy and theory. The latter, though premised on critical reason, tended to “demonize” everything that could not be rationally understood. The ambiguity between the historical and the supernatural, a foundational trope of modern narrative, is at the same time a theoretical figure governing the conceptual dualisms of individual and society, nature and nurture, destiny and history. This thesis is demonstrated, starting from Goethe, in a range of figures from the first half of the 20th century (especially Friedrich Gundolf, Oswald Spengler, Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, and the Austrian novelist Heimito von Doderer). The edited collection, with co-editors Lars Friedrich and Eva Geulen, Das Dämonische: Schicksale einer Kategorie der Zweideutigkeit nach Goethe (Fink 2014), traces the legacies of the demonic in an even wider range of literary and theoretical framings.

In addition to the two monographs, he has pursued many spinoffs and side projects: 20th-century Austrian literature (especially Stefan Zweig, Hermann Broch, and Heimito von Doderer); Hans Blumenberg (his concepts of illegitimacy and myth); theories of matriarchy and patriarchy in Nicolaus Sombart; theories of crowds and masses from Le Bon and Freud to Hermann Broch’s Massenwahntheorie (“theory of mass delusion”) and The Authoritarian Personality; the question of literary form (in Georg Lukács) and the afterlives of Goethe’s morphological writings (in the Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer); theories of reception, with emphasis on the dynamics of popularization, canonization and literary adaptation; the history of criticism in relation to present-day critical practices.

In teaching, whether on literature, theory or other areas, he understands himself emphatically as a literature professor, which means close analysis of individual works, with attention to their genre, and the dynamics their production and reception. His courses challenge the canons and conventions of what is thought to be “teachable,” often feature interdisciplinary topics, and combine literary classics with less-frequently-taught works (“Illegitimacy,” “The Short Spring of German Theory,” “Historical Fiction,” “Living Form: Organicism in Society and Aesthetics,” “Visions of the End and Representations of Transcendence,” “Fakes, Frauds and Counterfeits”). He regularly devotes seminars to the careful study of longer literary texts, such as Goethe’s Faust and Wilhelm Meister, Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and the recent NYRB translation of Heimito von Doderer’s The Strudlhof Steps.

His current project, provisionally titled “The Short Spring of German Theory,” seeks to historically disentangle the forms and genres of academic publication and communication, so as to produce a clearer conception of the academic and public discourses which came to be known as “critique” and “theory.” The focus of the project is the West German 1950s and 1960s, where interdisciplinary networks and “schools” emerged from the interface and contestation between philosophy and sociology. The two main case studies are the so-called Positivismusstreit (“positivist controversy”) in German sociology and the research group Poetik und Hermeneutik. Both were offshoots of established disciplinary frameworks and innovators of new forms of academic publication, which contributed to the rise of the academic Sammelband (or “edited collection”) as the leading genre of interdisciplinary research.


Highlighted Research Activities

May 1 to July 31 – Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship to the German Literature Archive Marbach (Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach), cosponsored by the Center for Literary and Cultural Research, Berlin (Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung Berlin)

Current Research Project:

“The Short Spring of German Theory”

The Short Spring of German Theory (I): POSITIVISMUSSTREIT VS. POETIK UND HERMENEUTIK(link is external)

The Short Spring of German Theory (II): WE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN POSTCRITICAL(link is external)

2023 publications: 

“Hermann Broch’s Massenwahntheorie Today”(link is external)(in Massenwahntheorie und Friedenspoetik: Hermann Broch und die bedrohte Demoktratie des 20. Jahrhunderts”)

“Criteria of Tragic Form: Toward a Reconstruction of Lukács’ Earliest Critical Theory” (in New German Critique 149, August 2023)

“Gewalttheorie/Theoriegewalt: Nicolaus Sombart und die Theoriegeschichte,” forthcoming in Große Gegewart: Zur Erinnerung an Nicolaus Sombart (2023-2008) and Peter Gostmann

“Sources and Methods: Theory of Canon and the Possibilities of Disciplinary Practice in German Studies,” forthcoming in The Germanic Review (special issue on “Canonical Pressures and the Voices of Difference,” edited by Willi Goetschel and Tanvi Solanki)

2023 lectures:

“Die Vorgeschichte des ’Sammelbands’ - Zur Lesbarkeit deutschsprachiger Tagungs-, Konferenz- und Kongressbände der 1960er Jahre” (Jena, Munich, Marbach, St. Louis)…

“Hermeneutic Keywords: Rezeption, Wirkung, Applikation, Verstehen” (NYU, Sept. 22: “Re-Interpretation: Hermeneutics in the Age of AI”)…

“The Philosophische Rundschau and the Academic Book Review” (Montreal, Oct. 7: German Studies Association Conference panel, “Re-Viewing the Rezension”)

“The Afterlife of the Academic Conference” (Brown University, October 21: “The Afterness of Living On: Toward a Poetics and Politics of Survival”)…

Fall course: 

GMAN 366/531, HUMS 419, LITR 393/CPLT 617, PHIL 346: “The Short Spring of German Theory”

Spring courses:

GMAN 353/669, LITR 249/CPLT 661, HUMS 431: “Hermann Broch’s Sleepwalkers”

GMAN 249/683 LITR 190/CPLT 613, HUMS 217: “Historical Fiction”