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Weigel, Sigrid. Genea-Logik. Generation, Tradition und Evolution zwischen Kulturund Naturwissenschaften.

Weigel, Sigrid. Genea-Logik. Generation, Tradition und Evolution zwischen Kulturund Naturwissenschaften. Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2006. 288 pp. 29.90 [euro] paperback.

In the wake of recent debates about the genetic fabric of the human being, Sigrid Weigel's study intends to provide both a critical history of today's genealogical concepts and a new discussion of the relationship between the natural sciences and the humanities. The book emerges from a series of essays and lectures given in the years between 2000 and 2004 in the context of a DFG project on "Generation" at the Zentrum fur Literaturforschung in Berlin. While, as a consequence, the historical overviews and quotes that Weigel presents are somewhat loosely knit, the study's open structure also reflects the great scope of the project.

In ten chapters, Weigel discusses a wide array of texts from antiquity to the 21st century, with topics ranging from the genealogical tree as epistemological figure (chapter 1), through the significance of fiction for the process of working through an often obscure family past, particularly in contemporary novels (chapter 2, 3, and 4), the history of the term Generation (chapter 5), the necessity of an overlap of biology and writing for establishing genealogy (chapter 6 and 7), to the attempt to project literary history as Histoire Naturelle (chapter 8). The best examples of the kind of interdisciplinary reading that the study's subtitle promises are the two closing chapters (9 and 10). Here, Weigel unleashes her remarkable intellectual and rhetorical abilities to discuss, on the one hand, the questionability of transferring evolutionary models to cultural products (chapter 9) and, on the other hand, the constitutive role of metaphors for the natural sciences, together with the critical function that philological and cultural methods can play in reminding us of this metaphorical quality (chapter 10). Weigel criticizes attempts to transfer evolutionary models to culture (like Dawkins's introduction of the unit Meme or Wilson's idea of genetic-cultural co-evolution), arguing that they can only describe cultural phenomena that display a high degree of conventionality and that they ignore the fact that cultural phenomena do not transfer and reproduce "from brain to brain" (Dawkins), but via verbal or symbolic media.

Hence, instead of following an "evolution of culture," Weigel demands a "culture of evolution" (193), an investigation of the condition of possibility of scientific claims. Drawing on Hans Blumenberg's suggestions in Zur Lesbarkeit der Welt (1981), Weigel argues forcefully that the metaphoric language of scientific texts is not a mere tool nor does it transfer terms in an "unproper" way (Lily Kay, Who wrote the book of life? 2000), but that metaphoric language generates its object. Discussing authors like Lamarck, Haeckel, and Watson/Crick, Weigel shows how the awareness of the metaphorical character of scientific models vanishes over time, turning what was introduced as a model into a truth. According to Weigel, it is the critique of such truth claims by means of historical and philological methods that belongs to the core tasks of the humanities.

Considering the careful rhetorical readings of scientific texts that Weigel asks for and performs, one would hope to find more detailed interpretations in those chapters that are devoted to literature, especially given Weigel's affinity to literary analysis in her other publications. In the project under discussion, literary texts are often mentioned only cursorily and the connection to the inheritance debate in the life sciences remains elusive at times. The study thereby strays from its underlying idea of an overlap of culture and nature in the concept of genealogy. In chapter 4, for example, the author argues that the new interest in family and ancestry in contemporary German novels (e.g., Duckers's Himmelskorper 2003, Wackwitz's Ein unsichtbares Land 2003, Bruhn's Meines Vaters Land 2004) is a reaction to Germany's haunting past, the Holocaust. This argument limits the author's agenda unnecessarily to national topics and seems to undermine the study's global claim that new biological debates trigger an interest in genealogical questions. Weigel further argues that these novels postulate a new liberation from the myth of authenticity by showing that genealogy needs fiction to come to terms with the gaps in records and memories. Weigel's argument is strong and has the advantage of assigning a key function to literature. However, it is puzzling in so far as one could also argue that geneaological gaps--for example the pater semper incertus est--have been a generating feature of the novel ever since its invention. One of the best known examples is probably Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre in which Felix's paternity can never be established with absolute certainty. If not Goethe, the Romantic School finally abandoned the idea of an authentic past and, to name just one work, E.T.A. Hoffmann's Elixiere des Teufels (1815/16) is an excellent 19th-century example for the role of fiction in filling in genealogical gaps.

Weigel's Genea-Logik is an important and timely book not only because of its intellectual brilliance and stunning scope, but also because it raises profound questions about the role and definition of the humanities in today's academia and society. It is to be wished that Genea-Logik will open the door for a dynamic debate on the issue.


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Author:Lehleiter, Christine
Publication:The German Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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