Berlin Diary: For A Democratic Culture

Monday, September 29, 2008

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Michael Rothberg, Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory

Greetings from Berlin, where I’m spending several months of my sabbatical. Among other things, I hope to use my time here to provide an outside-the-US perspective on some of the questions of theory, culture, and politics that concern us at Kritik and at the Unit for Criticism. I composed the following thoughts before reading the excellent forum around the work of Roberto Dainotto, but this post might be taken as part of a further thinking of “Europe,” here observed from a slightly different—and perhaps more optimistic—angle.

Berlin is an extraordinary city in many ways, and it’s impossible not to be fascinated by the intensive layering of histories that characterizes it. This layering is especially obvious when you move through the city on a bicycle, the preferred means of transportation. Within a few minutes you can pass from West to East, riding over the site of the former wall and moving from a reconstructed city-center-cum-mall like Potsdamer Platz through the late eighteenth-century Brandenburg Gate and on to the former East Germany’s main drag, Unter den Linden. On the way, you pass Peter Eisenman’s recently constructed Holocaust memorial, the new American embassy, and government buildings like the Reichstag, a late nineteenth-century colossus topped with a beautiful Norman Foster-designed glass dome. If you continue down Unter den Linden, you’ll come to the Humboldt University, where Hegel lectured and Du Bois studied, and the Pergamon Museum, which houses an enormous altar taken from what is now Turkey. And that’s just one small, albeit central, part of the city.

[Peter Eisenman's "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe"]

What is most interesting to me about Berlin, however, goes beyond architecture: it has to do with the particular intellectual culture one finds here. At its best, the city’s intellectual life represents a kind of critical and reflective embodiment of the historical layering one finds in the urban environment.

[Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum, with the East German television tower in the background]

Let me give an example. A couple of weeks ago I attended a small conference on “Antisemitism in the Context of Migration and Racism.” The outgrowth of a study on this topic by the group “amira”—a research project sponsored by Berlin’s Verein für Demokratische Kultur e.V. [Association for Democratic Culture]—the conference was primarily directed at social workers involved with migrant youth (of primarily Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab background). The conference itself featured academics, activists, and civil servants as well as social workers and teachers of varied ages and backgrounds, and consisted of a day of presentations, discussions, and workshops. As all involved agreed, the topic of the study itself is a sensitive one—the alleged presence of antisemitism among young minorities who themselves suffer daily the effects of racism, poverty, and marginalization. Many expressed discomfort with the possible impact of such a discussion in a moment of heightened anti-Muslim racism (or “Islamophobia,” as it’s come to be called by some), in Germany and elsewhere. Personaly, I was never fully convinced of the premise of the event—i.e. that a problem exists that is best addressed in terms of particular ethnicized populations, as opposed to at a more holistic, societal level.

Yet, despite these apparent shortcomings, the conference struck me as successful. It created the space for a complex, searching discussion that brought together many layers of the social topography of the city, the country, and indeed the “new” Europe as a whole. It moved back and forth between the most practical questions of pedagogy and more conceptual issues about how to frame the problems of antisemitism and racism in a society both fractured and held together by a diverse population.

As a scholar, I was particularly struck by the degree to which the discussion confronted what I have come to call “multidirectional memory”—the fact that collective memories circulate between social groups and that those groups do not maintain unique possession of “their own” pasts. Remembrance is a social process in which disparate histories intersect, catalyze, and shape each other; it is not, despite what is often believed, a zero-sum game defined by scarce resources. At the “amira” conference, the discussion turned again and again to the relation between different histories of suffering and to the non-obvious but necessary question of how to adjudicate between them. It was not a “competition of victims” but a multidirectional confrontation with the past and present of a stratified and layered social situation—a “post-National Socialist” context, as one of the participants called it, that is also analogous to, but not identical with, postcolonial contexts in other European countries. It was a confrontation that involved addressing delicate questions of “speaking for others” and “speaking as an X,” but somehow it also seemed to avoid the particularly American problem of identity politics and the moralization of the political that too often accompanies it.

As is often the case—but perhaps even more so when one is out of one’s most familiar element and questions of translation are unavoidable—I found myself listening from a double perspective. As I, along with the other audience members and participants, reflected on the topic at hand—the situation in Berlin today—I kept thinking at the same time about another context: the United States. I thought in particular about the name of the event’s sponsoring agency—the “Association for Democratic Culture.” That, I thought, is precisely what we need in America: a renewal of democratic culture. Although my thinking of late has certainly been influenced by the sorry state of electoral politics in the US, I was not, obviously, thinking of the Democratic Party. I was thinking instead of what the conference set in motion: a multidirectional confrontation with history and actuality that was free of excess pathos, resentment, and accusation, and that took place in a context of reasonable disagreement and debate.

I don’t want to idealize the situation in Germany by any means; the very fact that it is still necessary (as it most definitely is) to talk about antisemitism and racism more than sixty years “after Auschwitz,” a half century after the first “guestworkers” arrived, and almost two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall indicates that democratic pedagogy has not been as fully successful here as it might sometimes seem. But it is precisely the decades of confronting its own racist past that has made Germany—and Berlin in particular—a space where serious and non-reductive conversations about social injustice and intersecting histories can take place, at least occasionally, in the public sphere.

What will it take to build that kind of self-critical democratic culture in the United States?


Make A Comment


Frank Hirtz said...

"I don’t want to idealize the situation in Germany by any means; the very fact that it is still necessary (as it most definitely is) to talk about antisemitism and racism more than sixty years “after Auschwitz,” a half century after the first “guestworkers” arrived, and almost two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall indicates that democratic pedagogy has not been as fully successful here as it might sometimes seem."
While I agree that talking/thinking about racism, prejudice, antisemitism in Germany has a different significance for many people, I suggest that there might be never a time -or for that matter no place in the contemporary world - in which it would ‘still (be) necessary …. to talk about antisemitism and racism.’ Thus, I am less struck that a conversation takes place in Germany but that after 60/50/20 years, that the issue or concern of such a conversation is still seen as something extraordinary. Is it not exactly a ‘success’ of the democratic pedagogy that such a conversation takes place? And I might add, also the mode in which such a conversation is conducted.
Michael Rothberg’s contribution allows, however, more general questions, two of which I post here: Which conditions need to be in place that either a conversation about any kind of prejudice, including antisemtism, is considered to be a sign of mature democratic development in a country like Germany; (France, Italy; Chile; Southafrica; you name it) or which conditions have to be in place that a conversation about any form of discrimination, intolerance, bigotry has not to be held since it ceased to be in issue, is not necessary any longer?

Michael Rothberg said...

Thanks to Frank for his comment. I take the point--and certainly agree with it, if I understand it correctly--that the kind of conversations I was describing are signs of democratic maturity. Indeed, that was the main point I wanted to make in this post--public discourse in Germany strikes me as much more highly developed on the whole that that in the US. (And that's true even after we discount Sarah Palin!)

The contrast is even clearer when it comes to discourse about the particular society's own crimes. I simply see no equivalent to contemporary Germany's coming to terms with the Nazi past--however flawed and partial--in the US's engagement with, say, slavery, Jim Crow, or indigenous genocide (not to mention Vietnam, etc.) It is also true that such conversations will probably never not be necessary--I'm not optimistic about the disappearance of all forms of prejudice anywhere in the near future.

That said, the point I was trying to make in passing about the conversation being "still necessary" in Germany after so many years of democratic pedagogy is that certain dominant ways of thinking about cultural difference in Germany remain beholden to notions of "Self" and "Other" that are, I think, regressive. Sometimes these notions are coded as strongly "philo-" (as in philosemitism or philo-Brazilianism!) and sometimes they're coded as abject. Either way, they are strongly binary and exclusivist (one is either German or Jewish, German or Turkish, etc.) Compared to that, I'll take the much-maligned US model of hybridity and multiculturalism.