Reflections on Annie Le Brun’s Sadean Materialism

I first came across the writer Annie Le Brun while looking for literature on Aimé Césaire. In her books Pour Aimé Césaire (1994) and Statue Cou Coupé (1996), she defends her fellow surrealist author’s work from being taken off the French core curriculum, to be replaced by créolité literature – a movement which criticises and tries to move beyond racial essentalism. Le Brun effectively dismisses this literary movement as postmodern levelling (she really does not like post structuralism), employed to disguise racism. The fact that she is a white woman intervening in a debate between ‘négre’ and ‘créole’ identifying writers leaves her in a difficult position, and often her accusations feel out of place, even when her observations are appropriate in places (some are definitely problematic). While I appreciate some of her provocations, including the insults hurled towards academics, I end up disagreeing with her on many points, including her disdain for identity politics, religion/spirituality, technology, or pretty much anything she considers post-modern. Although she would probably hate this comparison (as well as the medium of the internet-based blog), my experience of reading her is very much like reading Hannah Arendt: both authors share a hatred of anything ‘mass’, often resulting in a problematic ‘genius worship’, which often borders on elitism and disregards ordinary acts of resistance. Despite their drawbacks, in my view, I appreciate both writers for their sharp examinations of ideology, especially fascism.

So far, only two of Le Brun’s many books have been translated into English, ‘Reality Overload’ (a rather unimaginative critique of technology and gender relations) and ‘Sade – A Sudden Abyss’. I do recommend the book on D.A.F. de Sade as a useful set of provocations to well-meaning materialists, both of the historical/dialectical and the new materialist kind. In my reading on materialism, I keep coming across de Sade references, whether through the work of Georges Bataille or Maurice Blanchot. While most people primarily (and probably rightfully) associate de Sade with misogyny and authoritarianism (interestingly, Le Brun insists that de Sade celebrates the ‘futurity of the female form in characters such as Léonore and Justine’!), scatological obsession and bad taste, I also get the attraction to philosophers. However, approaching the original texts can take some effort, not even so much in terms of feminist and aesthetic sensibilities, but in terms of pure tediousness: they are literally a crap read. All of the sexual clichés are present, united in incredibly bad writing – although apparently not without deeper meaning. It feels a lot like slogging through François RabelaisGargantua and Pantagruel (the book that was brilliantly used against Stalin’s dialectical materialist doctrine by Mikhail Bakhtin). Annie Le Brun would probably say that postmodernism cynicism and relativism has robbed me of the ability to sense the genius of de Sade’s writing, although she herself admits about The 120 Days of Sodom (1785): “Here we have a book which begins with all the pomp of a historical novel, and which ends with the laconic formulas of simple subtraction.”

I guess, more so than de Sade’s work itself, what I do appreciate is the diverse ways in which writers and artists who have felt an affinity with de Sade have used his work.  In his film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Pier Paolo Pasolini stages de Sade’s casual and excessive abuse as a metaphor for capitalism. Georges Bataille, by contrast, draws on de Sade’s methods in his accusations against materialism: that no materialist has used materialism to its full potential. Maurice Blanchot sees in de Sade the simultaneous desire and impossibility to destroy nature – while God is easy to denounce – and even regards de Sade as the perfect writer, since his prolific output drowns out his overall message to such a degree that the reader primarily ends up experiencing the materiality of language. Blanchot considers this a liberation of thought from value. Amusingly, all of these people are dismissed throughout Le Brun’s book. I don’t think Le Brun even mentions Simone de Beauvoir who wrote the introduction to one of the editions to The 120 Days of Sodom – an author she already panned as a ‘feminist imposter’ in texts such as Lâchez tout. Le Brun basically ends up criticising other authors for not going far enough – or misunderstanding de Sade altogether. In her opinion, de Sade has been misjudged as an annoying, but provocative mad person, or as a simple attacker of sexual morals. She further finds that de Sade neither rages against nature, nor cares about ‘noble’ projects such as opposing capitalism. So what, according to Le Brun, is de Sade actually about?

The short answer: liberating nihilism (the title is a bit of a give-away). Le Brun and de Sade both deeply despise hypocrisy, especially from people who consider themselves virtuous. For them, this desire links to the projection of ideology onto the material world – whether these are fascist appeals to ‘natural law’, or religious ideas of the cosmos as a model for vice or virtue. Camille Naish, in the foreword to Sade – A Sudden Abyss, refers to this practice as ‘ideological ‘stripping’’. Indeed, Le Brun appreciates de Sade for taking both atheism and materialism to what she considers their only appropriate conclusions: as radical tools against ideology, including supposedly utopian socialist ideas (at some point, she calls this de Sade’s ‘atheist machine’). As de Sade himself puts it: “Nature, who is stranger than the moralists portray her, is constantly cascading through the dams their policies prescribe for her…” Le Brun even finds that,“from a strictly spectacular point of view, Sade’s humour corresponds to a theatrical depiction of the utter collapse of any form of representation.” This is interesting, as the collapse of representation or utter immediacy is often associated with totalitarian and, in particular, fascist ambitions, such as large scale mobilisations of affect or appeals to dumb forms of ‘natural law’. This is what the writer Bertolt Brecht tried to act against, yet Le Brun describes his attempts at “distancing” as “replacing one system of representation by another”. Here, Le Brun argues that fascists actually don’t do away with representation, but use it to run away from a reality they are not ready to face. This way, they always fail to adopt de Sade, despite his obvious appeal.

What is also not entirely clear is how de Sade makes nature both an object of intense rage and an almost non-existent object. On the one hand you have statement such as this one:

‘In all that we do, there are only offended idols and creatures, but Nature is not one of them, and Nature is the one I really want to outrage; I would like to upset its plans, to foil its proceedings, to stop the orbit of the stars, to disrupt the planets that float in space, to destroy all that serves it, to protect all that harms it, in a word, to insult the core of Nature; and I am incapable of this.’

But you also have statements such as the following one:

“Nothing is born, nothing essentially perishes, everything is but an action or reaction of matter; there are the waves of the sea which rise and fall within the mass of waters; there is perpetual motion, which has been and always will be, and whose principal agents we become, without ever suspecting it, by reason of our virtues and our vices. It is an infinite variety; thousands upon thousands of different bits of substances, appearing in all kinds of forms, annihilating themselves before becoming manifest in other forms, subsequently to dissolve and form again.”

Indeed, Le Brun starts off by pointing to de Sade’s obsession with nature as a ‘physical immensity’, while maintaining that he, in the end, ‘does not grant it any value whatsoever’. As she puts it: “the idea of nature is already neutralised before it has even been formulated, by the vigour of the motion which precedes and exceeds it.” This view maps onto both Le Brun and de Sade’s preoccupation with nothingness. In fact, the book ends with (apologies for spoilers!):

“Wandering about Paris, the whole day long, I experienced an intense feeling of having no more limits, of not being in this world, of actually being the world or rather, of sinking into everything that I was not.” (…) “How could I not be grateful to him for having shown me that within every forceful thought lies and intense way to be nothing?”

This seems to solve the odd connection between power and nothingness: one mode is the flip side of the other. Throughout the book, there are some fascinating passages which seem to prefigure, if I may draw the comparison, “new materialism”: “an ensemble where everything is representative, people and places alike, objects and words, even Aline’s little spaniel, Folichon…” (…) “the ‘assemblage of movements’ which constitute life, according to Sade.” Everything is united by the same matter-energy set-up.

To me, what is actually more interesting is the theme of “the banality of evil”. Almost sounding like Hannah Arendt again, Le Brun notes how the “continuing fascination exercised by Sade” lies in the location of his work in the “indeterminate region between monstrosity and banality.” To me, as a geographer, the arguments that Le Brun makes about this sound a lot like a critique of environmental determinism and related dodgy forms of organicism.

“It is certainly because he refuses, with all his might, the traditional allegiance of the organic and the spiritual that Sade simultaneously allows himself the redoubtable privilege of conceiving what goes on inside him in terms of earthquakes, the orbit of the sun, volcanic eruptions or continental drifts. Nothing could be more monstrous, since humanity is thereby confused with a possible form of energy, and since man becomes one mere probability of being, no better than another. But also, by the same token, nothing could be more banal: even if we have forgotten it, wasn’t everybody’s childhood haunted by a violent impression of physical dominion on a universal scale?”

This sentiment is also echoed in de Sade’s character Léonore’s exclamation: “Let us study nature; let us follow her to her furthermost boundaries; let us even work to place them further still; but never let us prescribe boundaries to nature.” In both quotations, the many claims to biological support for ideologies, most brilliantly analysed by Donna V. Jones in her book The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy, appear to be refuted by describing humans as unstable, inorganic matter-energy infrastructure. At the same time, such statements are not without problems. While such argumentation may work against dodgy vitalist claims, it also sets up a problematic mutual exclusion of the spiritual with materialism. As Erica Lagalisse writes in her new book on Occult Features of Anarchism, this apparent incommensurability is often used to relegate the spiritual outside of the “West” or “modernity” or usually both. And it is not just racialised but gendered. In fact, Le Brun makes many problematic claims about universality that would horrify postcolonial scholars (interestingly, as she writes in Statue Cou Coupé, Le Brun sees Sadean materialism embodied in the figure and actions of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture!).

Somewhat surprisingly, towards the end of the book, Le Brun suggests that de Sade, whom most people consider the absolute opposite of ethics, in fact puts forward an ‘ethics of perturbation’. By this, she means that de Sade, in his dissatisfaction with “discover[ing] man on the very brink of what negates him”. His characters “acquire, rather, a passion for momentum which suggests a perturbation of the subject, a perturbation on which the subject is actually based.” She further argues that “only perturbation permits transition to another speed. But which speed? The speed we never stop losing, the speed of the imagination, which gives man an accurate idea of time and space he has a right to claim for his desires. And that is the beginning of a moral.” Again, this may strike us as rather odd: self-assured assertion of time and space as an ethics. More modestly, she phrases it as “the relative degree of consciousness which allows one to join, or not join, in the workings of the world, and to participate in it.” She stresses that this is impossible without “some violence being done to the order of things, for only thus will we understand it”. So, how do we participate in the world with a ‘relative degree of consciousness’ without representation? And: isn’t this how we are participating in the world anyway?

What I have taken away from this book so far is that it is a fascinating ‘devil’s advocate’ position that tries to push against exuberant, but empty revolutionary claims and dumb appeals to morals. By taking an extreme position, however, it not only risks using caricatures, but, worse, fails to remain sensitive to how certain ideologies such as secularity (see the work of Erica Lagalisse and Claire Blencowe) have become so naturalised that they become false ‘neutral’ foundations or extremes. As pointed out earlier, the book is full of contradictions, some of which temporarily become resolved, only to reassert themselves later. In some ways, I find these contradictions productive, even if I have to keep cringing (including over constant referring to ‘man’ instead of ‘human, thought this may be a translation issue). For example, take this quote: “By means of this passkey of commotion, Sade brings the different world into communication and returns us to the moment of the universe. At the same time, he suggests the one means of not letting ourselves not get carried away by it.” As de Sade’s character Léonore goes on to describe this ‘means’: “as long as we submit nature to our pretty views, as long as we chain her to our loathsome prejudices, confusing them with her own voice, we shall never learn to know her: who knows if we should not run ahead of her to hear what she is trying to say?”

To me this resonates with both problematic and positive connotations. Problematic, because implies that all forms of representation conceal some sort of natural ‘truth’, and positive, because it tries to move against moralising appeals to nature that keep getting hurled, for example, against ‘queer’ people all over the world. To appreciate some of these double edged ‘means’ does not mean that I agree with them or stop being critical of them or that I think that you always need to take ‘the good with the bad’. Rather, examples such as this book help me think about my own blindspots in my theorisations, especially when it comes to ‘solutions’ that initially seem like a good ‘antidote’ to something or other. In this sense, Le Brun’s ‘ideological stripping’ works: it does less so for the dismantling of an ideology to show how fake it is. Instead, it works as a reality check for their own ‘noble’ ideas.

It also works, in my opinion, to draw attention to the key issue within materialism: the fine line between deindividuation – the main strategy of materialism – and dehumanisation. As many critics, from Sylvia Wynter to Juanita Sundberg, have pointed out, both “old” and “new” materialisms often fail to remain sensitive to human inequality or needs in their quest for better models of society. The work of D.A.F. de Sade is perhaps the best illustration of radical materialism without attention to dehumanisation. Current experimentation with materialism and ‘inhumanism’ is exploring exactly this tension right now, and taking Le Brun’s ‘Sadean materialism’ less as a model, but as a problem could be useful in terms of evaluating our own provocations. Since many recent materialist experiments have been disconcertingly appreciated and attacked across the political/theoretical spectrum (see, for example, the Paul Kingsnorth/Arcadia controversy), it is important to develop a sensitivity to the many dimensions of our experimentation, and, especially, to how they might translate into material enactments down the line.

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Sensing M_hrenstraße

On our last day of the Berlin field trip, I found myself on the underground line U2, returning from buying presents for the organising team back in Leicester. There were no empty seats, so I remained standing and, slightly bored, I looked around the carriage at the mix of people – and four legged passengers – around me. I was just about to check for the time – I had to be back at the hotel soon – when the electronic voice announced the stop ‘Mohrenstraße‘.

The vocalisation comes like a shock. Although I knew about this street and the affiliated station – I had even included it in my theme day lecture on imperial and colonial legacies of Berlin – it is a very different experience hearing it mechanically blasted out of a speaker. I uncomfortably look at my fellow passengers again. Are they feeling the same? I could not detect anything. There was a Black woman wearing headphones – probably this wasn’t a deliberate reaction, but it felt like an apt metaphor. Imagine having to pass through this place for your daily commute? Apparently this stop was temporarily announced by German comedian Dieter Hallervorden at a time where he was performing a piece in blackface – until it was removed due to popular protest. The electronic voice is as offensive in its normalised structural racism.

Originally part of the Wilhelmstraße district, the equivalent of the UK’s ‘Whitehall’, the M_hrenstraße has had a long history of renaming. After coming into being as ‘Kaiserhof’ (imperial court), it was renamed several times due to changing infrastructures and politics. As part of the GDR government’s anti-Nazi, anti-imperialist purge that flattened most of the government buildings in the area, it obtained the name of the GDR politician Otto Grotewohl in the early 60s. Shortly after reunification, in 1991, it became subject to another controversial purge – of streets named after GDR politicians. It was then that it became named after the nearby M_hrenstraße, which was in turn named after Black Berliners during colonial times.

Today’s Black Berliners, their organisations, and many other residents have taken on the city government over a renaming of the station, the street and other infrastructure with on-going racist legacies. While there is a general consensus that the word ‘Mohr’ is racist, Berlin’s Christian Democrat politicians and a handful of historians argue that the word is ‘value free’ and a renaming ‘nonsensical’. Another counter argument has been the historic significance of the street: Karl Marx resided here as a student, and a famous German chocolate brand  – infamous for their racist ‘Sarotti Mohr‘ logo (akin to the French Banania controversy) – originated here. Predictably, the street name is supposed to ‘keep generating debate about racism’. What about ‘keeping on generating racism’?

The train stops. I feel the need to get off. I had passed this place before and even taken pictures, but this time, it felt even more viscerally offensive. I needed to see it properly, and especially any evidence of intervention. Perhaps I needed to see a space that gives people a chance to make a physical mark over the imposed one; perhaps it was an escapism from having to vocalise a counter commentary (would I be shouting at a speaker or talking to people?) or feeling the continued absence of one.

M_hrenstraße: the station entrance is often guarded by police, because people keep adding dots above the “o”: Möhrenstraße – carrot street. These dots are also added on correspondence with people and companies residing on this street. The postal staff know, and post thus addressed usually arrives. It almost seems too simple, too fun to be a protest. There are an incredible number of M_hrenstraße signs on this station. The posh looking ones on the red marble, on the other side of the tracks, are too difficult to reach, but there are three lit signs on the platform itself. Before continuing my journey, I closely inspect the Os on each of them:

Political Geology: Active Stratigraphies and the Making of Life

I have just received a hardcopy of the ‘Political Geology‘ collection, edited by Adam Bobbette and Amy Donovan. I have a chapter in it called ‘Against ‘Terrenism’: Léopold Sédar Senghor, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Fear of a De-spiritualised Earth’. The title of the book may seem confusing: when isn’t geology political? Aren’t we constantly fighting over resources or negotiating geologic sources of disaster? What the book is trying to do is to look at how geology can also move into politics in other ways, for instance, as a foundation for political philosophies or related intellectual challenges. My own chapter looks at the tension within organicist visions of the inorganic, and how they are politically utilised in problematic ways.

In 1961 Négritude poet and Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor organised a conference entitled ‘Construire la Terre’ (Building the Earth), which was inspired by the work of the French geologist, palaeontologist, philosopher and Catholic priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. What Senghor attempted in his speech could be described as an attempt at imagining African post-independence politics through geological dimensions. This chapter looks at the political issues with Senghor’s vision of planetary development, and compares it with today’s desires for ‘ancestral geographies’ across the political spectrum.

Two upcoming talks at Westminster and Birmingham on geopoetics

I am giving two talks this term on my current work on geopoetics. The talks are based on a chapter for a collection called ‘Geopoetics in Practice’ (Editors: Eric Magrane, Linda Russo, Sarah de Leeuw, Craig Santos Perez). The instructions for authors were to write a poetic piece and a commentary on their practice (or both combined). I submitted a piece entitled ‘Geopoetics, via Germany’, which also represents a critique of the geohumanities. It is an autobiographical piece which moves between family/local environmental history and German/geopolitical history. It was emotionally very hard to write, and it is even harder to read, but I think I have found a format in which I can present the work.

The first talk is at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster (32-38 Wells Street, London, W1T 3UW), Tuesday 25 September 2018, 4-5.30pm.

The second talk is at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham (Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT), Tuesday 13 November 2018, 1-2pm.

Both are departmental seminars, but should be open to visitors.

From Cosmic Terror to Cosmic Dissent @ The Library of Obscure Wonders


Image: Wassily Kandinsky “Yellow Circle”(1926)

Next Friday, I will be giving a talk entitled “From Cosmic Terror to Cosmic Dissent” at the Library of Obscure Wonders. The talk will be based on my book research on ‘cosmic materialism’, and accessible to a general audience. I will touch upon questions such as:

* what is ‘cosmic terror’ and why was it a thing?
* What were anti-colonial/anti-totalitarian activists doing with physics, theology, anthropology etc?
* Why did so many philosophers/politicians hang out in occult societies at the time?
* How did people try to perform alternative cosmologies?
* Why does a geographer look at this now?

I may also be drawing a map of questions and interconnections.

“The Library of Obscure Wonders collects, documents and archives the obscure, the odd and the wondrous within the everyday.”

Friday 27 July 2018
Doors: 7pm; talk 8pm
The Library of Obscure Wonders
2 Besant Court
Newington Green Road
London N1 4RE

https://obscurewonders.com/

Reflections on teaching about and in Berlin (Part 2/2)


Image: Group photo at Treptower Park’s Soviet War Memorial

Two months after the lecture on Berlin, we went to the city itself. The arrival day was marked by extremes. Having survived the bus journey to the hotel – our bus driver got a bad case of road rage over our flight delay – we were greeted by some exciting developments on the USS strike front. Later that night, our perhaps premature celebrations in a Vietnamese restaurant were uncomfortably interrupted by the close hovering of a drunk right wing guy who took a dislike to the composition of our staff table. Thankfully, the remainder of the trip proved less emotionally stressful.

It usually takes me a while to tune back into Germany, as the process is initially done with some reluctance. For the first few hours, I pick up all the wrong vibes and experience a tension between my expat self and the supposedly native environment. I speak the language clumsily and encounter fellow Germans with mixed feelings of rejection and curiosity. After a while, the tension mellows, and I cannot decide anymore whether I am opening myself to my obviously more welcoming surroundings, or whether I am blocking out the tension with an edited nostalgic imaginary. I decide that it’s a mixture of both and proceed to consume tons of local junk food: Berlin, here I am! The city is also becoming increasingly familiar since a few friends and family moved there over the last few years. This especially translated into vital recommendations for Italian gelato parlours.


Image: Acclimatisation via halloumi döner and ayran – with two fingers to the current German Minister of Interior (see this article).

The trip was preceded by an intense refamiliarisation with German history (see Part 1). In school, I was not keen on history lessons, but now the books I consulted spoke to me very differently. I had the feeling that I could finally make sense of my country and its place in the world, and also connect it to my family’s history. While my family is not from Berlin, it was affected by various historical events associated with the city including the division of Germany, the Third Reich and various migrations: I grew up in a divided Germany that, due to our close proximity to the border, also divided my family. In the Third Reich, my family encompassed the whole spectrum from SS officer to Jew and had to negotiate this in very particular ways. In addition, my German education – including the family stories told to me by my parents – prepared me to deal with the role of the perpetrator-educator and to illustrate the actions and fates of ordinary people. Having come from a town that doubled in size with refugees from East Prussia and related regions, I could also explain how such events in German history influence the current refugee debate. The stories of friends and family who play an active role in the debate, partly because they themselves have different migrantion backgrounds, helped illustrate further how ‘das Deutsche Volk’ currently tries to construct itself (I always struggle with the inscription ‘Dem Deutschen Volke’ on the front of the Reichstag, as friends, family and many other people in German society remain excluded from this category).


Image: Inscription on the Reichstag. Source: Wikipedia.

To gain a fresh image of German history, I immersed myself in books and German newspaper articles. Here, I especially chose English language books – not only would this give me the correct English vocabulary for German events, but also an outside perspective. I tried to cover a range of positions and styles, including Neil MacGregor’s book and podcasts based around the exhibition that I had missed at the British Museum, and David Olusoga and Caspar W. Erichsen’s ‘The Kaiser’s Holocaust’ on the German genocide in Namibia. I also consulted a few German books on colonialism to gain a sense of how the subject was treated in local discourse. The literature made me wish that more Germans, especially Germans in positions of power, read not just their Nazi history more critically. It is worrying that a generation that never experienced the empire and barely remembers the ‘Eastern territories’ seems to long for this past so much that they form alliances with right wing movements.

During this research, I not only found aforementioned German anti-racist and ‘postcolonial’ activist projects, but also some amazing video projects, including the Germania channel that shows song-length documentaries on musicians of different migration backgrounds. What I like about this project it that, through its choice of countries – such as the UK, Thailand, Turkey, Russia, Denmark, Sudan – it challenges who we understand as a ‘migrant’. Why are some people ‘migrants’ and others ‘expats’? I also revisited channels such as the Datteltäter (Dattel = date (fruit) and Täter = perpetrator), a German Muslim-run political comedy and slam poetry series, and the programme of the Maxim Gorki Theatre, a Berlin ‘institution’ that provides acerbic political commentary and is currently staffed not just by a majority ‘minority’ German cast, but also a separate refugee ensemble. Sadly, our delayed flight made me miss their ‘Gorki – Alternative für Deutschland‘ show, which explores the role of the theatre in countering the growth of right wing sentiment.


Image: Berlin’s ‘Datteltäter’. Source: Die Welt

Not having had the opportunity to do a ‘recce’ (a new word I learnt from my colleagues – I had no idea this use of military slang was more widespread!), the main promise I made about my theme day was: enough food and toilet opportunities. While I knew I could pull this off quite well, the rest of the day was a bit more nerve-wracking, because I was not sure what to expect at any of the sites. The first place we visited in person was the building site of Berlin Palace and the adjacent Humboldt Box, a temporary museum that gives a taste of the forthcoming Humboldt Forum and other aspects of the Palace. I expected the box to be tiny, but it turned out to be a huge complex of five floors, including a viewing terrace. Upon entering the space, we were given a spontaneous tour by one of the staff, Bernd Busse, who not only turned out to be from my father’s tiny hometown in rural Northern Germany, but also a former resident of Leicester. This made the tour a lot less dull, despite the group’s reservations about some of his explanations (my colleagues’ favourite: “this was the area before your grandparents bombed it to pieces”). It was interesting to hear ‘live’ how our guide justified the reconstruction: Berlin needed a centre that wasn’t a nondescript modern looking building such as the Palace of the Republic that could be from anywhere in the world. For the remainder of the tour, Busse detailed the painstaking reconstruction efforts. It was interesting to see that the gift shop contained a book on the Palace of the Republic and hadn’t been completely purged. We thanked our guide and moved on to inspect the Humboldt Forum related exhibitions.


Image: Berlin Palace donations represented in the form of stickers on an architectural model.

While the first floor mainly contained Prussian baroque architecture and sculpture models, the next two floors, to our surprise, contained mostly audio exhibits – presumably because these collections could most easily be moved and served to illustrate how the works and artefacts of other cultures would be engaged with. The exhibition encompassed both evolving recording technologies and the ‘negotiation’ of recordings from other cultures (see panel below). The sounds were experienced through headphones that changed songs in front of every exhibit. The students returned with mixed opinions and speculated on how the material could have been presented differently to better engage with the respective communities. They also wondered how the material related to their ‘container’ – the Palace. How do migrant community music projects (an example pictured below), for example, sit within a neo-Prussian imperial palace? The remaining floors contained the results of an architectural competition for a section in the Palace and a posh-looking café. The students noted that the competition featured many geographical themes (see third image below) such as exploration and colonial connections – sadly, some very interesting project descriptions were only available in German.

After our visit, we hopped on a train to Potsdam at Alexanderplatz for a comparison with another controversial building project. I was not aware of the reconstructed Potsdam City Palace at the time – the Potsdam equivalent of Berlin Palace – otherwise we probably would have visited that one, too. Instead we visited the Garnisionskirche (garrison church). This reconstruction project was the focus of a recent multi-page article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), a relatively conservative newpaper known for its investigative journalism. I wanted the students to see Potsdam to gain a sense of the German Empire in a more condensed form. The city (170,000 inhabitants), capital of the federal state of Brandenburg, was – and still is – something like an elite playground that also translates into the built environment. The residing aristocrats constructed whatever they fancied: baroque palaces, Russian houses, Dutch houses, Chinese pavilions, English and French gardens – it even has its own Brandenburg Gate. In 1911, the city even got its own airship port and film studios. Today, Potsdam’s villas mostly are populated by German ‘new aristocrats’: wealthy media and business personalities.


Image: Travel advertisement for Namibia, spotted in Postdam.

According to the article in the FAZ, which focused on the centrality of the church to royalists and (neo-)Nazis, and the suppression of a public vote around its reconstruction, the church was basically irredeemable. It was the place where Prussian soldiers had to swear their oath of loyalty, where the orchestrators of German colonisation and African genocide received their awards, where the royalists and fascists plotted against the Weimar Republic, and where the Nazis held their first parliament (‘Day of Potsdam‘) since they weren’t able to congregate in Berlin’s burnt out Reichstag. The church was to be reconstructed with its original decoration of weapons and war trophies, and much of the money was found to come from right wing and army sources, as had the money for the already restored bell tower that stands in a nearby park (and which had been inaugurated by a guy who had questioned the legitimacy of the current German-Polish border!). After protesters accused the church of not having a congregation, some district rigging managed to pull together roughly a dozen members. The most damming turn of events was a governmental intervention (a joint Christian and Social Democrat action) which forbade a public vote. A similar referendum had already prevented the reconstruction of a church in Magdeburg.

Even the BBC reported on the controversy.

I was not entirely sure what to expect. An ordinary building site? Swastika graffiti? Protesters? German-style left vs. right-wing street fighting? To me, the site felt rather odd in what it tried to perform. As we turned around the corner, the first thing we saw was a big wire cage containing reconstructions of the church’s weather vane ornaments. The box was located between the reconstructed belltower (that is apparently too small for the actual church) and the building site. It was quite funny how everyone was taken aback for a moment before letting out something like: ‘oh my God!’, ‘are they serious?!’ or ‘this is so ugly!’. I had to laugh: if this was a taste of what was to come, one would have to protest against aesthetic crimes alone – the pieces looked like a gigantic parody of Prussian clichés. The building site itself felt rather ordinary. The only sign of protest that we (or, rather, my colleague Gavin Brown) spotted, was a big sign in the window of the ‘de-GDR-ification’ endangered ‘Rechenzentrum’ (former GDR data centre, now artist studios) saying ‘Love thy neighbours’. There was also another red banner which we unfortunately could not decipher.

We also discovered not only an exhibition next to the building site, but also a provisional space of worship called the Nagelkreuzkapelle (Cross of Nails Chapel). The Community of the Cross of Nails is a network of churches that is invested in reconciliatory projects, having started as a project of Coventry Cathedral after its partial destruction during German bombing in WW2. To our surprise, we found that the church was networked with Coventry Cathedral and had official support from the Queen who had even donated to the project. The friendly staff inside the church talked about how the GDR government, like other communist governments, had persecuted Christians and destroyed a large number of churches (around 40) in 1968. For them, the project was part of a movement to reclaim sites of Christian worship and the church’s role in peace building. Indeed, many of the churches destroyed in WW2 and ‘finished off’ by the GDR government are currently being rebuilt despite lack of worshippers. While the exhibition itself was not that revealing (although it did feature an interesting GDR propaganda video about the church’s destruction), the space itself was interesting in its juggling of different aspirations and justifications.

We were also given some brochures in English that emphasised the role of the church as a ‘focal point of Prussian identity’ and a ‘positive symbol of Prussian values’ fused with Christian faith. To me, the church perfectly symbolised the tensions within Prussian culture across absolutism, militarism, conservatism, egalitarianism, enlightenment and faith. Against this background, it feels as if the church could continue on its path as a controversial symbol, but also that its reconstruction diminishes its symbolic power, making it just another ordinary place in provincial Germany. Perhaps this depends a lot on how the different people it will attract are being managed and on how Germany continues to deal with its identity.

In the remaining hours, we visited Sanssouci Palace, which, I had to realise, looked rather bleak in the winter. No wonder this was classed as a summer residence (Berlin Palace was the Hohenzollern‘s winter residence). It took us a while to work out that the odd grey boxes dotted around the park were in fact protections for the white marble statues. Alternative suggestions included bat boxes, puppet theatre stages, Christo-and-Jeanne-Claude-style public art, and idiosyncratic garden sheds. Although the splendour of the building was somewhat palpable, a couple of majestic looking Mandarin ducks clearly stole the show: animals not empire rule! On that note, we decided to end the day at a trashy fun fair on the way to the station, where we swapped Prussian imperial ambitions for a round of dodgems.

Overall, it was a rather interesting experience to talk about German culture and history as a German. I realised how much I took for granted and had to explain to students. It was good to have non-German colleagues with me who, in addition to the student queries, pointed towards some uniquely German issues and habits that I should elaborate further, including questions around German flag waving, public nudity and the influence of federal states. I left with a feeling that I wanted to spend more time in Berlin and with German history to be able to improve my theme day for the next trips (the other theme days so far include migration, urban nature and Cold War geopolitics). How could I teach better about colonial history and how it affects Germany? Should I take the students to the Natural History Museum instead of Potsdam to see how colonialism doesn’t just affect human affairs? Should I take them to the Afrikaviertel – and, if yes, how? Should I restart efforts to contact activists or academics? Or will the changing nature of the Humboldt Forum and Potsdam provide enough material? Planning for the next trip has already started, so this is something that I will have to think through now. Hopefully this will warrant another ‘recce’ to Berlin in the summer or winter.

‘Debriefing’ with my cousin after my theme day at his favourite gelato parlour, we both agreed how much more interesting history becomes when you are older and can see the weirdness of it, including the fact that things that took place thousands of years ago still shape today’s life. It fitted the weirdness of discussing our different experiences with “Germanness” over eating excellent gelato in a generic looking shopping centre next to the only surviving building from the WW2 air raids (a wine store that was especially sturdily built to carry the weight of all the alcohol!) and on the spot of the former Berlin Wall. Although I felt that the day could have been more lively, perhaps through more interaction with local people, I wondered whether I managed to convey at least a little bit of this intense co-shaping (co-weirding?) of geography and history. I hoped that the students, too, went away with a sense of the strangeness of identity and place-making, even if they might not yet know what to do with all the information they received on this trip.

***

Many thanks for advice on theme day planning (and local food options!) goes to: Sukit Manthachitra, Tahani Nadim, Regina Sarreiter, Uli Beisel, Sandra Imelmann, Brigitte and Friedhelm Last, and the whole field trip team.

 

 

 

Reflections on teaching about and in Berlin (Part 1/2)


Image: Protester in front of the Palace of the Republic “Why another palace?”

When I started my new job I was neither expecting to be on strike and ‘action short of a strike’ for months (we’re apparently off strike now, so Mutable Matter is back!), nor was I expecting that my first lecture would be on imperial Germany. Leicester Geography has a third year geopolitics themed field trip to Berlin, and I was going to be teaching on it. I was free to decide on a topic that would be translated into an introductory lecture as well as a theme day with visits to related sites. Since most non-German people think of the Cold War or Nazi Germany when they think of Berlin, I chose to focus on a more obvious choice for Germans: Prussia, the German Empire, and German colonial history. For many Germans, Berlin remains synonymous with Prussia, and also with Potsdam, Berlin’s ‘sister city’, and I wanted to show why this is so. For me, a focus on imperialism was more important than ever, since imperial nostalgia appears to be on the rise again – and with it, temporarily suppressed territorial and cultural claims. Due to significant support among the government and Germany’s old and new aristocracy (they are joined by other wealthy elites such as media personalities), the built environment is rapidly changing. In particular, I wanted to highlight the controveries surrounding the reconstruction of Prussian buildings and the continuing removal of “ugly” GDR (East German architecture. Why do people want to resuscitate Prussian Berlin after Reunification?

For the lecture and the field trip, I chose to illustrate these conflicts over German history through the ‘Stadtschloß’ debate: the reconstruction of Berlin Palace. Built and modified from the 15th century onwards, it was home to the Hohenzollern dynasty that governed the area for over 500 years across changing geopolitical boundaries and entities: Brandenburg, Prussia and Germany. The palace, and specifically its Baroque redesign, is associated with key moments in German history, including the March and November Revolutions, and thus attracts both nostalgia for empire and anger at feudalist oppression. Not long after Reunification, a lobby led by East Prussian born West German aristocrat and amateur historian Wilhelm von Boddien succeeded in raising funds and getting permission for the demolition of the communist palace and the rebuilding of the imperial one. Despite the majority of East Germans and many West Germans opposing the decision, the Palace of the Republic was razed due to ‘asbestos contamination’ and the recovered steel was shipped to Dubai for the construction of the Burj Khalifa. Its estimated completion is late 2018.


Image: Wilhelm von Boddien (third from left) and Neil MacGregor (fourth from left) at Berlin Palace building site. Source: Berliner Zeitung

Aggravating the controversy around Berlin Palace is the proposal of the Humboldt Forum, a permanent exhibition of “non-European” art and artefacts, the majority of which are of colonial origin (current founding director: former British Museum director Neil MacGregor). As the new Berlin Palace nears completion, the public and academic debate rages on, recently re-fuelled by art historian Bénédicte Savoy’s comparison of the Humboldt Forum with the radioactive waste containment in Chernobyl. Some argue that the debate has sparked an interest in German colonialism whose extent, until recently, was deemed too insignificant for the attention of historians. In turn, this interest has led to a much feared discussion of earlier genocides, future reparations and the on-going legacy of racism. But many find its politics and its celebration of the German empire inexcusable. The latest controversy surrounding the Palace is its association with Christian Democrat German Minister of Interior and champion of the newly founded (and so far entirely white male) ‘Heimatministerium’, Horst Seehofer (Bavarian Christian Democrats CSU), who recently proclaimed that ‘Islam does not belong to Germany’ .

The key thing I tried to get across in my teaching was that ‘Germany’ is an extremely amorphous entity. Over the last millennia, its territory and idea has been shaped by struggles between multiple tribes, religions, languages, aristocratic families, ideologies and  ideas of belonging (I have never used so many maps in a single lecture!). Even Germany’s flag existed as an idea way before Germany existed as a unified geopolitical entity. To spare the students total confusion by going further back in history, I decided to begin the lecture with the last days of the Holy Roman Empire and the division and rise of the Hohenzollern dynasty – basically to tell Berlin and German history through the history of Berlin Palace. I am currently wondering whether to go further back into history for next year’s general introductory lecture to Berlin, as some of the tribal and mythology stuff  also keeps coming up in recent debates on German identity (sadly usually appropriated by neo-Nazis and not multi-culturalists). This time, the lecture ended up something like this:

The first version of Berlin Palace came into existence in the 1440s as a castle of the Hohenzollerns. Originally a Swabian aristocratic family, the Hohenzollerns split in two, eventually taking over the Margraviate of Brandenburg and its capital of Berlin-Cölln (Berlin started off as a fusion of two settlements, Berlin and Cölln – its Slavic name refers to its swampy foundations). After the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, Berlin proceeded to become the capital of Prussia, an entity that again moved across different geographical boundaries, due to numerous wars. I showed a few Prussian icons that Germans associate with (late) Prussia, such as the ‘Pickelhaube’ and the ‘Iron Cross’, and how they represented conflicting ideals, perhaps best summed up in the words ‘absolutist Enlightenment’. The (in)famous ‘Prussian virtues’ combine militarism, conservatism and total discipline with cosmopolitanism, egalitarianism and intellectual curiosity. Potsdam, for instance, became home to the first German Muslim places of worship (in the 1730s), because the king promised anyone who joined his ‘Potsdam Giants‘ (special regiment) to be granted a place of worship. The iron cross, and the Prussian aristocrats’ swapping of expensive jewellery for iron, symbolised both war effort and egalitarianism.


Image: Germany’s united future under Prussian domination, as predicted by Austrian satire magazine Kikeriki in 1870 (German unification took place in 1871). Source: Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg.

The students were surprised to hear that the official Prussian language was originally French, since German was seen as the primitive tongue of peasants. Even after Martin Luther’s construction of a German language from a fusion of high and low German, it still took a long time until the influence of trade (e.g. the Hanseatic League), and the development of a ‘trendy’ German high culture in cities now outside of Germany (Prague, home of Kafka; Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, home of Kant) led to the adoption of German as an official language. The prevalence of French, however, benefited Huguenot refugees who emigrated from France to Prussia after the Thirty Years War (the latter had killed around a third of the local population!). Berlin Palace and much of Potsdam’s pomp, including the baroque version of Berlin Palace that is currently being rebuilt – could not have been built without this influx of Huguenot labour.

My colleague Margaret Byron created a more complex picture of German migrations in the following lecture, in which she traced different migrations in both directions, including Russian migration, US migration, Turkish migration and the current ‘Flüchtlingswelle’ (wave of refugees). Margaret highlighted many paradoxes of German migration law that acknowledge certain migrants as Germans who had been living and intermingled outside of Germany for hundreds of years, but refused ‘Germanness’ to people who had been living in Germany for decades and sometimes generations. It also explained well where Germans and their language and culture had ended up, and how Germany had been shaped by a multiplicity of ‘outside’ influences. As German poets Goethe and Schiller once commented on the various attempts to contain ‘Germany’:

“Deutschland? Aber wo liegt es?
Ich weiß das Land nicht zu finden”

[Germany? But where is it?
I don’t know how to find the country.]

(Goethe & Schiller, 1796)

Next, I talked about the German revolutions, which further explain the problematic making of a German identity. In both the March and November revolutions, Berlin Palace figures as an embattled entity. The German revolutions of 1848-1849, during which many workers were killed by the Prussian military in front of Berlin Palace, followed on from other European revolutions that challenged the rule and cultural and geographic divisions of the aristocracy. The working and bourgeois classes were tenuously united by being fed up with the territorial squabbles of the noble houses. However, they were fed up for different reasons. The bourgeois disliked that the aristocracy stood in the way of economic progress and their own financial growth; the working classes were troubled by hunger, overpopulation and terrible working conditions (many emigrated to America), and their protests were aggressively put down by the elites. Although the revolutions started with the two parties more or less unified against the nobility, the competing ideas of social progress within different classes led to the eventual failure of the uprisings. Paintings of this event show people waving the German flag, although no Germany existed as yet. The flag had developed from republican student movements around the turn of the 18th/19th century, and later became the flag of the German Confederation. During the March Revolution, protesters waved the flag, especially a vertical version (echoing the French tricolore), in protest at the corruption of the republican ideal by the aristocracy.


Image: Illustration showing the difference between monarchist (horizonal stripes) and republican (vertical stripes) flags. Source: Wikipedia

When Germany, after another war with France and lengthy squabbles among the aristocratic families about its final boundaries (“Großdeutschland” versus “Kleindeutschland” – with or without Austria), finally became unified in 1871, it was felt to be a severe corruption of the desired ‘Germania’ of the Romantics and more radical political groups. In addition, the orchestrator of the unification, the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, managed to decrease the allure of revolutionary social movements by founding a German welfare state. It was during this time that Germany joined the colonial rush, despite Bismarck’s initial conviction that colonialisation wasn’t worth the economic expense. Persuaded by the plans of German merchants, the chancellor eventually helped create an overseas empire that included present countries such as Namibia, Tanzania and Papua New Guinea. In Namibia, Germans committed a particularly systematic genocide of the Herero, Nama and San people that saw the creation of the country’s first death camps. Still today, wealthy white elites remain in positions of power in this country that did not gain independence (from South Africa) until 1990 (some parts not until 1994). You can read an article on memorials celebrating the genocide here.


Image: Genocide memorial in the Namibian capital Windhoek. Source: New York Times.

Germany lost its colonies at the end of World War I – a war that was proclaimed from Berlin Palace. The Palace, and Germany as a whole, then became the site of the November Revolution (1918-1919), which resulted in the foundation of the Weimar Republic. Since Berlin street fighting was too intense for politicians to meet (there was even fighting inside the Palace), the government moved to a theatre in the ‘German Enlightenment capital’ of Weimar. Another German utopian project, the Weimar Republic was sadly short lived and ended with the National Socialist (Nazi) takeover of the country. During their reign, the Nazis did not really know what to do with Berlin Palace and mainly used it for their flag displays. Partially destroyed during World War II and located on the Eastern side of Berlin, the GDR government decided to blow up the palace – save for the balcony from which the Free Socialist Republic was allegedly declared – and to replace it with a new communist monument: the Palace of the Republic. This new palace functioned both as seat of the East German government, but also as cultural space with a large entertainment complex. Like its predecessor, it became associated with key historical events, including the agreement on German reunification.


Image: Palast der Republik in 1996. Image: Icon Magazine.

Today’s reconstruction efforts of the Palace strongly reference the Prussian Enlightenment, and specifically the ideas associated with the Humboldt brothers. Alexander von Humboldt, more known outside of Germany, was a geographer, naturalist and explorer. His brother Wilhelm, a linguist, philosopher and Prussian politician, became the founder of Berlin’s Humboldt University. In Germany, the Humboldt brothers tend to be wheeled out every time someone tries to sell an elite version of cosmopolitanism. As German political scientist and cultural critic Kien Nghi Ha put it his critical evaluation of the Humboldt worship, ‘Imperfect Steal‘ (he outs Alexander as a skull thief and colonial accomplice): “The Humboldts function as a collective projection screen and cultural-political invention of something that Germany never was in its entire history.”

In the case of the Humboldt Forum that is the idea that housing non-European collections curated by White Germans inside a reconstructed imperial palace ‘named after a skull robber’ (Mnyaka Sururu Mboro of Berlin Postkolonial) is a symbol of ‘cultural dialogue’. As Lilia Youssefi, also a German political scientist and cultural critic, asks in her brilliant essay on remembering and ‘de-membering’: “Whose voices and perspectives are really being made visible in this project?’ There is growing activism not just against the HuFo (Humboldt Forum), but against other sites that show evidence of German colonialism such as the African Quarter in Wedding (part of Berlin) whose streets are named after German colonisers and colonial towns. (Another example that I already discussed on this blog – and also introduced as part of the lecture – is Tahani Nadim’s work on the collections of the Natural History Museum in Berlin.) Groups such as No Humboldt 21, Berlin Postkolonial and AfricAvenir campaign for the renaming of places and especially the integration of Germans of colour in decision making processes on ‘post’-colonial matters.


Image: An information point about the history of Berlin’s African Quarter put up in collaboration with anti-colonial activists (credits enlarged below).

I ended the lecture with an overview of similar reconstruction projects including the Garnisionskirche in Potsdam – a Prussian military church with strong far right and royalist associations (next year, this will feature Potsdam City Palace, the ‘little sister’ of Berlin Palace). On the final slide, I compared such efforts with another project of German identity building: the Walhalla Memorial near Regensburg – a ‘hall of fame’ that showcases famous people that shaped German cultural, political and intellectual life. Incidentally initiated by the same guy who founded the Oktoberfest (the future king Ludwig I of Bavaria), it houses a very uneven mixture of famous Germans – some Germans remained excluded for their gender, religion or controversial views (apparently, Ludwig greatly ‘appreciated’ women, so there are a few more women in there than usual…). In fact, the memorial remains so unrepresentative for many Germans that few even know about it, despite its monumental size and project. What this and many current projects express, however, are power struggles over national representation. Thus, the lecture ended on questions around identity building, and the effects of such apparently innocent questions not just on the built environment, but not on on the economic and legal conditions of people from different migration and social backgrounds living in Germany.


Image: Aerial view of the Walhalla Memorial near Regensburg. Source: Wikipedia.

The question that remained after the lecture was how to translate this into a successful theme day. For my first attempt, see part 2.