Communities of Experience: Nationalist and Humanist Aesthetics in Klopstock, Lessing, and Kant

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Accounts of the emergence of aesthetics in eighteenth-century Germany, the study of “sensible cognition” in Alexander Baumgarten’s words, frequently associate its emergence with the imaginative autonomy central to Immanuel Kant’s influential 1791 Critique of the Power of Judgment. Bridging aesthetics, media, and reception studies, this dissertation presents a more diverse picture. Analyzing the works of three key figures – Friedrich Klopstock, G.E. Lessing, and Kant himself – it suggests that aesthetics instead respond to a secular crisis of authority precipitated by the emergence of a bourgeois reading public coming into self-consciousness of its own autonomy. As theories about the essential relation between a subject and a shared sensible world, aesthetics are theories about a subject’s essential relation to community, in the absence of the external authority operative in religion, feudalism, and Leibnizean/ Wolffean rationalism. This study claims that aesthetics are influenced by two models for a subjective relationship to community present in eighteenth-century Germany: Protestantism and Pietism. While Max Weber has suggested that, in substituting external authority for a subjective principle, Protestantism offers a model for secular community based on individual distinction, this study claims that German Pietism offers an alternative at odds with individualism: oriented instead towards an experience of spiritual community in the present. These two models inform two genealogies of aesthetics catalyzed by the emergence of print. Humanist aesthetics, such as those of Kant and late Lessing, reinforce the isolation of the print medium by emphasizing autonomous experience and privileging written media. By contrast, in the work of Friedrich Klopstock emerges a nationalist strain that, influenced by Pietism, is in tension with reading, emphasizing live performance and forms of print distribution binding individuals into more substantive contact. Analyzing Klopstock and Lessing’s poetry, plays, and political allegories, this study shows how these aesthetic practices actively seek to organize different forms of secular community around sensible presentations. This dissertation ultimately seeks both to uncover a history of nationalist aesthetics obscured by humanist histories of aesthetics, and develop a methodology for understanding the role of aesthetic and medial practices in producing normative forms of secular community in the absence of absolute authority.

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Humanism; Protestantism; nationalism; Aesthetics; German literature; European history; Secularism; Enlightenment; History of Aesthetics


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Fleming, Paul A.

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McNulty, Tracy K.
McBride, Patrizia C.

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Germanic Studies

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Ph. D., Germanic Studies

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Doctor of Philosophy

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dissertation or thesis

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