Lea Pao (Stanford) on "Ernst Meister, Information, and the Work of Poetry"


Thursday, April 22, 2021, 3:00pm to 5:00pm


Virtual. Register to receive link.

The distinction between poetry and information, perhaps most visibly articulated in Wittgenstein’s famous statement that although a poem “is composed in the language of information, [it] is not used in the language-game of giving information,” has haunted 20th century poetics and its readers. Our contemporary information concept owes its force to the legacy of information’s post-WW2 history as a term describing a factual “bit” of a larger process or a “naturalized” entity. In the wake of postwar engineering culture, information becomes that which is organized, stored, and transmitted, such that when it is given to us we gain knowledge about a situation, circumstance, reality, or, we are told, really anything. What separates information from comparable concepts like knowledge in these models is its relative independence from context, medium, or language. Information presents facts, which is to say, information unlike knowledge is not per se expandable or variable; it is not, on the surface, embedded in social practices. But we have ways to counter this definition: poetry has always been invested in information and its processes. Or at least we can see things this way, if we treat information as a practice rather than a quantity, if we approach poetry not as a symptom (of some larger set of historical issues that it merely responds to or reflects) but as a practice of its own.

One example of informational poetic thinking comes from the German poet Ernst Meister, whose poetry tests the distinction between memory and storage, between human practice and its means. Meister’s work experiments with poetry’s capacity to practice active formal expressions of the ideas it brings into the open; it orients us towards the idea of Haltsamkeit­—lastingness, being-there-ness—a concept lying somewhere between paradox or catachresis, somewhere between a theory and practice of information, which, in poetry’s work, unfolds its overlapping layers of human engagement.

Lea PaoLea Pao (Bakk.phil. Chinese Studies, Vienna; Mag.phil. Comparative Literature, Vienna; Ph.D. Comparative Literature, Pennsylvania State University) is Assistant Professor of German Studies at Stanford, where she teaches courses on German and Austrian poetry and literature, graphic narrative, and the history of information and media. She is the co-translator of German philosopher Peter Janich’s What is Information? (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), and the co-editor of Information: A Reader (Columbia University Press, forthcoming 2021). Her current book manuscript explores the relationship between poetry and information through a history of forgotten information concepts via Ernst Meister, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Oswald Egger, and Hertha Kräftner.

The event is part of the German Studies: New Perspectives seminar series at the Mahindra Humanities Center.

Pre-registration is required. Register here.