Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Comparative Literature and Literary Theory

First Advisor

Jean-Michel Rabaté


This dissertation addresses the concurrent revival of experimental writing and linguistic skepticism in West Germany and Austria after 1945, concentrating on the work of Helmut HeiÃ?enbüttel, Konrad Bayer, Peter Handke, and Rolf Dieter Brinkmann. While the immediate postwar years gave rise to a germanophone literature that was largely intolerant of formal experimentation--due to widespread adherence to a neo-Sartrean model of littérature engagée and a restorationist return to classical form--certain writers began to oppose this aesthetic conservatism in the early fifties. Influenced by international avant-garde developments--from concrete poetry to the nouveau roman--they developed a new form of German writing that actively experimented with literary and linguistic form. Their work was often accompanied by a sophisticated theoretical critique of language, connecting back via Wittgenstein and Whorf to the turn-of-the-century Sprachkrise and the writings of Mauthner and Hofmannsthal. I aim to offer an analysis of this language-skeptical approach to writing, showing how it was employed to create a cultural space for avant-garde literature in the postwar period--presenting experimental writing as a legitimate intellectual endeavor with tangible social value, despite its running contrary to prevalent models of politically engaged or formally conservative writing. Against the common literary-historical view of the sixties as the decade of the "politicization of literature," I aim to show the existence of an alternate track of "linguistic aesthetics" propagated almost exclusively by writers of experimental literature, developing in the fifties and extending through the sixties and beyond. For these writers, a skeptical and analytical treatment of language became the necessary starting point for any progressive literature. I also aim to show how later writers like Handke and Brinkmann came to see this linguistic skepticism as en encumbering limitation of literary possibility. In their early-seventies work, which is often grouped with the movement of New Subjectivity, these writers adopt a pragmatic model of language as a flawed but functional tool for the communication of subjective experience, resulting in a writing that continues to explore the ambiguous link between word and world.