Dr. Derek Hillard
Associate Professor of German & Interim Department Head
I received my B.A. in Germanics from the University of Washington (Seattle), during which time I spent a year as an Austauschstudent at the Universität Tübingen, a year that has not yet ended for me. After a pause from the academy, I wandered into a dynamic and challenging atmosphere at the Indiana University's Department of Germanic Studies. While earning MA and PhD in German Studies, I did two stints at the Freie Universität Berlin. All the while I felt increasingly pulled into the orbit of the aesthetic, which has become the abiding draw for me in my intellectual pursuits. Specifically, a simple question unsettled me: in our encounter with art do we respond directly to works as externalities or are we merely representing our internal inner workings?
My first book, Poetry as Individuality: The Discourse of Observation in Paul Celan (Bucknell University Press, 2010) is about poetry's relation to its dual sources of world and word. Poetry is at once illusory and real, in the sense that it conceives itself as both tracing the world and projecting itself as the real. Familiar poetic tropes such as illusion, madness, or wounds, have typically been understood as stand-ins for unattainable reality. It is not the unattainable that interests me but the illusion and the real projected by the poem. Through the poetry of the greatest post-war European poet Paul Celan, I consider what such reality could be. For this poet whose family, culture, and indeed, world, were erased, there could be no more urgent demand than bringing forth a world by the difference that writing wills. By deciding for repetition instead of remembrance, Celan's poems at once radically alter words and at the same time give them individuality. As readers of the poems, we are not asked to measure illusions against the real but to imagine particular cases of actuality.
What is implied by the thought that emotions in artistically mediated spaces, characters, and bodies intend to be imagined by observers whose bodies inhabit spaces and experience affect? This question informs my current research, which explores discourses on emotion, mind, and body in literature, the sciences, and empirical aesthetics around 1900. Meaning and understanding have been at the center of literary study since at least Dilthey at the mid-19th century, while what happens to people when they confront the aesthetic was at the margins. Turn-of-the-century empirical or psychological aesthetics, now almost completely forgotten, subjected both emotion and aesthetic impact to a brazenly experimental inquiry. At the same time, art explored the nexus of consciousness, feeling, and the body with renewed vigor. The literary focus of the project is on a range of authors including R. M. Rilke, Ernst Jünger, Robert Musil, and Alfred Döblin. Instead of conceiving of emotion as either bodily or cognitive, so my hypothesis, this literature shows the body to be necessarily complicated by the narrative imaginary.
Continuing my interest in lyric poetry, I am also working on a long long-term project tentatively entitled "The Last Word" which discusses the last significant poems by modernists such as Baudelaire, Valéry, George, Rilke, Trakl, Dickenson, Crane, Pound, and Benn. The research question here centers on the contradictory status of last things, for while aesthetically they are often the most modern – the "last word" – they are also archives of what is oldest in that particular poetic world.
At Kansas State I have above all enjoyed teaching courses that take an anthropological approach to learning, for instance on myth, grammars of violence, sacrifice, the politics of eating, the literature of addiction, and most recently emotion and the arts. I have taught a course on Friedrich Nietzsche's umbrella, and in an upcoming course will explore the way in which German films operate like techné-eyes, place us in new spaces. More than anything else, I enjoy structuring courses around creative approaches—in a recent German composition course students viewed films about East Germany so as to adopt avatars, writing (or typing!) for instance, reports from the perspective of a Stasi officer ca. 1980.