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/

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Funded PhD studentship in Caribbean Studies

Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies
University of Warwick

Applications are invited for a three-and-half-year (42 months) funded PhD studentship at the University of Warwick starting in autumn 2018. The successful candidate will be based at the university’s Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies (YPCCS) and the research can be into any aspect of the history, literature, culture or societies of the Caribbean.

The studentship is tenable for up to three-and-a-half years (full-time), subject to academic progression.

It offers an annual stipend at the standard RCUK rate (currently £14,553) and covers full tuition fees at the Home/EU rate for 3 years. International candidates are encouraged to apply but would need to self-fund the difference between the fee rates.

The studentship is funded jointly through the generous endowment provided by Yesu Persaud and the Warwick Collaborative Postgraduate Research Scholarships (WCPRS) scheme.

Applicants should be holders of a good first degree (at least 2:1 or equivalent).  A relevant Masters degree, completed or close to completion, is also expected in an area relevant to the proposed area of doctoral research.

Before submitting an application, candidates should identify and make contact with a potential supervisor from among the Centre’s academic staff.

Please send informal inquiries about the studentship to the acting director of the YPCCS, Dr Michael Niblett, at M.Niblett@warwick.ac.uk

For further details see http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/ccs/study/fundedphd/

Deadline for receipt of applications is Wednesday 4th July.  Interviews, if required, will take place at the University of Warwick.

 

An experiment in teaching geohumanities

As someone whose work gets framed as ‘geohumanities’, I often get asked about my take on the field, both in terms of research and teaching. I usually answer that I feel that geohumanities is in danger of becoming a mere rebranding exercise for cultural geography or environmental humanities. Looking at articles from journals across those three fields, it becomes difficult to make out a difference. This dynamic seems aggravated by the demands of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) that evaluates research output according to discipline. Many academics have complained that, while contemporary problems (and research funders) demand interdisciplinarity, the current research (and academic career) assessment punishes discipline transgressions. Your work will always be scrutinised for sufficient adherence to disciplinary boundaries, and it seems not enough that most of your work can be accounted for in this way, and the fact that there are dedicated journals for this field in which you can publish. Although the new framework promises to pay more attention to interdisciplinarity, the paranoia around disciplinarity persists. Certainly, during last year’s job interviews, I experienced anxiety around my work and the journals in which I decide to publish. Even at interviews for geohumanities themed posts, when bringing up potential practice based or inter/cross-disciplinary outputs, the answer was often ‘no’.

Moreover, some geographers have started to define geohumanities as a meeting of geography and art, sometimes to contrast with environmental/ecological humanities, which tend to be perceived as a meeting of literature and environmental geography. Frequently, geography itself is seen as a science (in the art-science vein), and also as an already pre-defined aesthetic project in itself, due to its dealings with things such as landscape and weather. For me, this definition feels too limited, and frequently leads to a predictable division of labour: geographers write about art, while artists engage with geography. Referring to some attempts at role reversal, some sceptics have joked that it is perhaps best if geographers don’t try to ‘do art’, although there are a few successful examples around. The greater problem, for me, however, is the loss of the wide humanities spectrum, which all creatively engage with and affect geography, from theatre to history. Many of our key concepts that have altered the course of geography, in academia and beyond, come from the humanities, such as ‘postcolonialism’, the ‘nonhuman’/ ’posthuman’, the ‘subaltern’ or ‘slow violence’. In addition, there is a danger of losing the breadth within the geo, which includes all sorts of levels, layers and scales through e.g. geology, geophysics, GIS and especially geopolitics.

A related issue is interdisciplinary teaching. There are many different ways of doing this, depending on institutional logistics (timetabling, student location, connection to other departments etc), levels (undergraduate, postgraduate) and staffing. An increasing number of universities claim to have interdisciplinary undergraduate teaching programmes such as ‘Liberal Arts’, but in reality, subjects are still being kept separate and taught by specialists. The location of an interdisciplinary programme also often determines the angle. For instance, if an art and science programme is located within an arts faculty, the syllabus is more likely to be art centred, no matter how diverse the student body.

Factors that contribute to disciplinary adherence include assessment and employability. In terms of assessment, existing people need to assess work in an existing framework. Although there is some leeway in terms of content, method, tasks and outputs – usually attached to a lengthy process of approval and external scrutiny – there are considerable benefits in staying with the old system, from economic to identity-related ones. One argument that has been rolled out for as well as against interdisciplinarity is employability. Employer requirements are, of course, all over the teaching excellence framework (TEF). How is this supposed to shape teaching, according to the reports? The paper “Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice”, at first glance, emphasises student choice and flexibility, but on closer scrutiny, this mainly relates to financial issues: all students should have the same consumer choice of institution. Nothing about potential links to earlier statements in the same report such as “business problems often require rapid solutions, and are rarely focused on a single research discipline”.

With so much woolly “guidance”, institutional and disciplinary anxieties, how is one to teach an interdisciplinary geohumanities module? One way of going about this is to ask: what would I like this module to do? In my case, what I would be interested in trying is to teach geography arts and humanities style. I would like geography students to see not only where many of their concepts come from, but also how the arts and humanities are used at different sites to attempt to reimagine and overwrite geographical narratives that are at the heart of many environmental and geopolitical problems. Geohumanities work often presents itself as “crisis focused”, and it is a good idea to discuss examples of interventions that people in different positions around the world have made in the face of crisis. In practical terms, what I would be looking at is to include consideration of different humanities disciplines, different media (also to teach aesthetic literacy), geographical breadth and high-low culture dynamics. This is quite a lot to consider for one module, which probably allows for 10 sessions at the most. I do not worry too much about covering everything, as the module building process will be naturally limited by the research interests of whoever teaches it. In fact, this limitation will open up the possibility for students to bring their own examples of which they are “experts”, also often due to a generational difference, thus creating a more equal position in the classroom.

Over the last few years, I have drafted different geohumanities modules that are structured by different emphases: issue focused, concept focused, medium/output focused (not just to work on/through different media, but to perhaps also not privilege reading as a mode of knowledge transmission), discipline focused (covering as many humanities/”geos” as possible with or without co-teaching from other subject areas), format focused (non-lecture) etc. While I currently do not teach any of these modules, I integrate aspects of them (and of my “postcolonial” science studies module) into some of my current courses.

So, to liberate at least one of my full “fantasy modules” from my drawer and to put it out there for discussion, I’d like to show a hybrid medium/issue focused one. While comparatively conservative in format – it was written to pass a particular course approval system in geography – it can easily be adapted to suit different institutional and non-institutional needs. Feedback/discussion welcome! Also, please feel free to post links to other courses below. Today, I found an interesting mapping themed teaching syllabus, developed by Garrett Nelson at Dartmouth, which can be found here.

CHANGING GEOGRAPHIES: CREATIVE INTERVENTIONS INTO GLOBAL CRISES


Image: Actors from Shakespeare’s Globe perform “Hamlet” at the Good Chance Theatre Tent in the Jungle, Feb. 3, 2016. Source: Al Jazeera/Getty Images/Dan Kitwood.

The main aim behind this module is to enable (geography) students to get a sense of how different humanities-based disciplines engage with pressing global environmental and geopolitical issues, and why this is interesting for geographers. Further aims include: to help students understand links between social, economic and institutional dynamics around art and culture; to map the reach of the humanities, especially the feedback loops between popular culture, ‘high culture’ and wider global (political) dynamics; to identify, challenge and perhaps contribute examples of creative attempts at challenging geopolitical dynamics and stereotypes; to study and experiment with a variety of media and formats (e.g. press release, podcast, photograph, zine, arts grant application) to improve communication of critical geographical issues; and to build confidence in engaging with difficult debates and in communicating these to different audiences.

1 Introduction to the Geohumanities

This introduction situates the geohumanities vis à vis fields such as environmental humanities, cultural geography and ecocriticism. Through a variety of examples, the session seeks to illustrate why the field has evolved and how it contributes to discourse. As part of this, it also draws attention to institutional dynamics such as issues of race and gender in academic authorship, funding, publishing and syllabus design. Further, by explaining the rationale behind this module, this introduction prompts the question:
What have the geohumanities set out to do so far and what would you actually like them to do?

Bird Rose, D, van Dooren, T, Chrulew, M, Cooke, S, Kearnes, M, O’Gormand, E (2012) Thinking Through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities.

Cosgrove, D (2000) Cultural Geography. In: R.J. Johnston, D. Gregory, G. Pratt, M. Watts (eds) The Dictionary of Human Geography. Oxford: Blackwell.

DeLoughrey, E, Handley, G B (2011) Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hawkins, H, Cabeen, L, Callard, F, Castree, N, Daniels, S, DeLyser, D, Munro Neely, H, Mitchell, P (2015) What Might GeoHumanities Do? Possibilities, Practices, Publics, and Politics. GeoHumanities1(2).

Other examples of works discussed: Juliana Spahr, This connection of everyone with lungs (2005) and The Transformation (2007); Vanessa Agard-Jones, Toxic Symposium (2017)

2 Is the Museum a Battlefield? Art, culture and global power

Taking inspiration from artist Hito Steyerl’s performances Is the Museum a Battlefield (2013) and Guards (2012), this session looks at the museum, the artwork and the art world as a site of geopolitical struggle. What actually makes a museum or gallery? Who funds, views and buys art and why? What are artists, curators and institutions doing to challenge problematic dynamics? This lecture also looks at geopolitical use of cultural “soft power” to garner wider support from populations, explaining terms such as culture washing, pinkwashing.

Bennett, T (1995) The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. London: Routledge.

Puar, J K (2007) Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sharp, J (2000) Condensing the Cold War. Reader’s Digest and American Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Steyerl, H (2012) The Wretched of the Screen. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Other examples of works discussed: Hito Steyerl, Is the Museum a Battlefield (2013) and Guards (2012); Barnard, L (2014) Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden. TLV in LDN. MODCaR, Imaging Detroit Festival (2012).

3 Inhuman Conditions: Documenting human rights abuses

Prompted by Pheng Cheah’s question of how the humanities can make a difference in addressing global human rights abuses, this session looks at how photographers, documentary film makers, journalists, lawyers and even architects are attempting to change the way we think about violence. This session looks at experiments with human empathy in relation to geographical and cultural distance and proximity. It also looks at the ways in which violence against humans is linked with (real, imagined) environmental factors and special practices such as erasures in the built environment.

Azoulay, A (2012) Civil Imagination: Political Ontology of Photography. London: Verso (reprint).

Cheah, P (2006) Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Herscher, A (2010) Violence Taking Place: The Architecture of the Kosovo Conflict. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.

O’Tuathail (1996) An Anti-geopolitical Eye: Maggie O’Kane in Bosnia, 1992-93. Gender, Place & Culture 3(2).

Examples of works discussed: Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture (2017); Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977); pro/anti-Refugee Campaigns; war campaigns; Ai Wei Wei controversies; debates around public monuments; apartheid architecture; cultural economy of ‘ruin porn’.

4 Shakespeare in the Jungle: Can theatre help refugees?

When the Globe Theatre in London sent actors to the Calais ‘Jungle’ refugee camp, their actions were both lauded and condemned. Of all things, do refugees need theatre, dance or music? And, if yes, what kind of performances? What can such interventions do in terms of affecting different publics, including decision-makers? This session looks at a variety of controversial but also ‘quiet’, less high profile examples of how well-meaning performances have negotiated prevalent geographical imaginaries.

Daley, P (2005) Bob Geldof and the Livingstone connection: Africa not yet saved? Pambazuka News. URL: http://tinyurl.com/yaxvhahq

Nagar, R (2014) Muddying the Waters: Co-authoring Feminisms across Scholarship and Activism. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

Rogers, A (2017) Advancing the geographies of the performing arts: Intercultural aesthetics, migratory mobility and geopolitics. Progress in Human Geography [Online First].

Salhi, K (1998) African Theatre for Development: Art for Self-Determination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Other examples of works discussed: Geraldine Pratt and Caleb Johnston ‘Nanay’ (2009); Aimé Césaire, A Tempest (1969); Live Aid (1985); WOMAD; Beyoncé’s Superbowl performance (2013).

5 “These girls are the future!’: subculture visions

‘These girls are the future!’ was an overheard exclamation by a male visitor of the 2016 DIY Zine Fair in London. The person pointed at the stall of ‘OOMK’ (One of my kind), a small independent journal primarily devoted to the creative experiences and ambitions of young Muslim women. This session looks at related examples and strategies of supposed ‘low culture’, such as DIY zine making and DIY fashion as part of experimentation with identity and geography.

Ashery, O, Sansour, L (2009) The Novel of Nonel and Vovel. Milan: Edizioni Charta Srl.

Dasgupta, R K (2015) Articulating dissident citizenship, belonging, and queerness on cyberspace South Asian Review, 35(3)

Feigenbaum, A (2012) Written in the mud. (Proto)Zine-making and autonomous media at the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. Feminist Media Studies 13(1).

Hall, S, Jefferson, T (1993 [1975]) Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain. London: Routledge.

Other examples of works discussed: Oomk, Odd One Out, Mashalla News, Bidoun, The Henceforward (Eve Tuck), Indian & Cowboy, Skin Deep, Sticky Institute gay marriage controversy.
→ Possibility of visit to zine fair.

6 Technologies of Struggle: whose future/ism?

Afro, Asian and Arab Futurism are contemporary cultural movements that often take technology as an inspiration for re-imagining cultures and global divisions. This session looks at the role of technology (and technology censorship) in shaping global dynamics and (natural, built) environments, and at humanities based takes on dominant techno-narratives. It especially focuses on film and video games as a medium of exploration, but also makes links with interventions into geographical mapping and multi-dimensional visualisation technologies such as GIS and CAD.

Chude-Sokei, L O (2015) The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics.

Majali, S (date unknown) Towards Arab Futurism/s: Manifesto. Novelty 2

Moore, K (2007) Towards a Postcolonial GIS. In: A. C. Winstanley (ed) GISRUK 2007 Proceedings. National Centre for Geocomputation. National University of Ireland Maynooth.

Mavhunga, C (2017) What do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa? Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Examples of works discussed: Harun Farocki Parallel I-IV (2014); Larissa Sansour Nation Estate (2013); Fatima Al Qadiri, GCC Transmission (2013); Sophia Al Maria, Black Friday (2016); Alondra Nelson (ed) Afrofuturism (2002); Simon Rittmeyer, Drexciya (2012); Wanuri Kahi, Pumzi (2009); Liu Cixin, Zhongguo 2185 (1989); Mitnick/Roddier, Off the Radar (2013); Sabine Gruffat, I have always been a dreamer (2012); Russian ‘Paper Architecture’; what3words project.

7 Geopoetics: Disrupting colonial orders by becoming geography

This session looks at how natural forces have been critically appropriated in invigorating cultural identity and movements. Students are invited to trace this strategy through examples from recent anti-colonial literature and poetry from areas such as the Caribbean and Polynesia, and are encouraged to find other examples from across the world where this strategy has been employed. This session also looks at the journeys and production conditions of supposedly immaterial art forms such as poetry and sound.

Césaire S (2012) The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941-45). D. Maximin (ed). Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

Glissant, E (2010) Poetics of Relation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hau’ofa, E (2008) We Are The Ocean. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Noxolo, P. Preziuso, M. (2012) Moving Matter. Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 14(1) 120-135

Other examples of works discussed: Manthia Diawara, One World in Relation (2009), Aimé Césaire, Moi, laminaire (1982), Edouard Glissant, La Lézarde (1957); Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, My Poem To My Daughter (2014); Femi Nylander, A poem that migrates through tongues; Anthropocene related works.

8 Back to the future: rewriting geography by rewriting the past

How do historians, archaeologists and anthropologists contest geographical and geopolitical narratives? This session looks at how supposedly ‘backwards looking’ humanities participate in the rewriting of the present world, for instance, by contesting existing theories about human and nonhuman cohabitation. Does it matter how old the earth is? Does it matter that there were black Romans? Does it matter that Haiti had a revolution? This session also looks at the ways in which historical knowledge is disseminated to wider audiences.

Buck-Morss, S (2009) Hegel, Haiti and Universal History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Graeber, D (2011) Debt: The First 5,000 Years. New York: Melville House.

Tolia-Kelly, D (2011) Narrating the postcolonial landscape: archaeologies of race at Hadrian’s Wall. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36(1)

Yusoff, K (2013) Geologic Life: Prehistory, Climate, Futures in the Anthropocene. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31(5).

Other examples of works discussed: British slave owner database; white supremacist histories (e.g. Vinland, Mary Beard controversy, white slavery, Nell Irvin Painter’s ‘The History of White People’ (2010)); geological discovery of ‘deep time’.

9 Into Eternity: ways of working against environmental ‘slow violence’

How do we deal with long-term problems such as nuclear waste and severe environmental pollution? How are the differences in responses between developed and developing countries? Which populations are the most effected by such environmental risks? Students will be invited to research examples of how a variety of actors, including governments, businesses, artists are trying to tackle issues that will exceed their life-times.

Agard-Jones, V (2014) Spray. Somatosphere (Commonplaces: Itemizing the Technological Present) May 2014.

Nixon, R (2011) Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Teiawa, K M (2015) Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Van Wyck, P C (2005) Signs of Danger. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Other examples of works discussed: Michael Madsen, Into Eternity (2011); Bodil Furu, Mangeurs de Cuivre (2016); Josh Fox, James Spione, Myron Dewey, Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock (2017); LaToya Ruby Frazier, A Haunted Capital (2013); Vanessa Agard-Jones, Toxic Symposium (2017).

10 Geophilosophy: why imagine the Earth without us?

Why are philosophers interested in imagining a world without humans? Why are some of them looking at medieval mysticism and turning to Black Metal and Noise music as part of this pursuit? This session looks at the intellectual movement of ‘geophilosophy’ and its strange nihilist challenge to environmental and social movements. Is this ‘environmental pessimism’ just a pure celebration of human and nonhuman extinction or is there a more profound challenge to rethinking how we think about ourselves in the world?

Connole, E (2017) On the Meaning of Style: Black Metal’s “Black” Or So, Black Is Myself. in P Webb, S Jacobs et al (eds.) Through the Subcultural Lens: Hebdige and Subculture in the 21st Century. London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mackay, R (2010) Editorial Introduction. Collapse 6: Geophilosophy. Falmouth: Urbanomic.

Negarestani, R (2008) Machines are digging. In: R. Negarestani Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. Melbourne: Re:press.

Woodard, B. (2013) Introduction, or, Abyss Lessons. In: B. Woodard, ‘On an Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy’. New York: Punctum.

Other examples of works discussed: Wojciech Doroszuk, Festin (2013); Bela Tarr, The Turin Horse (2011); Lars von Trier, Melancholia; Black Metal, Noise Music.

New article in Feminist Review Environment Special Issue


Image: Mount Pelée on Martinique

My article “To risk the Earth: The Nonhuman and Nonhistory” is out in the new Feminist Review Environment Special Issue, edited by Carrie Hamilton and Yasmin Gunaratnam (free link from publisher here). The article was originally written for the : Decolonizing and Reinhabiting Broken Earth, curated by Kathryn Yusoff and Nigel Clark. It was prompted by a string of peer reviews and conference papers which, in my view, followed a problematic and re-occurring pattern of inattention to colonial histories in public engagement with global environmental change. I feel that, no matter what discipline we inhabit, we have to remain aware that any landscape has a history, and that this history will be differently remembered by different people. The fact that some of these papers either ignored or tried to erase particular traumatic histories speaks of a privileged position that, in all cases, remained unacknowledged. This article is a plea to sensitise oneself to geography and geology not just aesthetically and experientally, but also historically. I am expressing this call through concepts developed by Suzanne Césaire and Edouard Glissant against the white privilege of selective environmental aestheticisation.

Events: Internationalisation in HE (Loughborough) / Postcolonial Politics (London)

Two excellent events are happening on Thursday 26 April 2018. I may be speaking at the event on internationalisation.

***

The Internationalisation of Higher Education: Policies, Pedagogies and Practices

Thursday 26 April 2018
9am – 5pm
Department of Geography
Loughborough University
Holywell Park
Loughborough
LE11 3TL

Higher Education institutions in the UK, and in many countries across the world, are increasingly seeking to incorporate an international dimension to their research, teaching and public engagement. The rationale behind, and the implications of, these endeavours have become the subject of much debate among academics, policymakers and the wider public.

This one-day symposium will contribute to these debates by exploring the following question – How can academics and practitioners work both within and against the grain of neoliberal internationalising agendas within higher education, in a way that is simultaneously critical and constructive? This overarching question will be examined over the course of the day via three key interrelated themes: 1) Institutional Policies and Practices 2) Mobilities 3) Pedagogies and Curricula.

Confirmed speakers include:

James Booth, PhD Candidate, University of Leicester
James Esson, Lecturer in Human Geography, Loughborough University
Peter Kraftl, Professor of Human Geography and College Director of Internationalisation, University of Birmingham
Ed Nash, International Strategy Officer, University of Oxford
Clare Newstead, College International Manager, Nottingham Trent University
Patricia Noxolo, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Birmingham
Laura Prazeres, Lecturer in Geography, University of St Andrews
Parvati Raghuram, Professor of human geography, Open University
Nathalie Tebbett, PhD candidate, Loughborough University
Johanna Waters, Associate professor in human geography, University of Oxford

Speakers and participants will engage with the key question and themes via the following indicative topics:

– Belonging and identity
– Government policies and migration management
– Global rankings and league tables
– Intercultural learning and deficit models
– Internationalisation of learning and teaching
– Mental health and wellbeing
– Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) related research activities
– Qualification ‘mismatches’
– Racism and Xenophobia
– The (mis)alignment between internationalisation agendas, widening participation, and equality and diversity agendas
– The mobilities of global academic talent
– Transnational socialisation

Free tickets available here.

***

If you are in London, there is an excellent booklaunch and discussion the same evening:

Where to now? Postcolonial Politics in the 21st Century

A roundtable to mark the launch of the Routledge Handbook of Postcolonial Politics edited by Olivia U. Rutazibwa and Robbie Shilliam. Free tickets (and description) available here.

Thu 26 April 2018
6-8pm
Department of International Relations
Queen Mary University of London
Mile End Road
Arts 1 Lecture Theatre
London
E1 4NS

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.