Archive for the ‘Germany’ Category
I thought I knew what to expect. I knew that Ukraine would be less developed than Poland. Still, some experiences early on surprised me.
At 9 am yesterday, our driver, Vitali, picked us up in his van at our Cracow hotel. He didn’t speak much English, but he was friendly fellow. More important, he knew the way to Lviv, Ukraine, and was going to drive us the 600 or so kilometers to get there.
We did our best to communicate with Vitali, my father relying on the bits of Polish he remembered from his childhood (his parents spoke to him in English, but to each other and their friends in Polish, not Yiddish). Turns out Vitali spoke Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, and Hungarian, after living in Hungary for six years serving with the Red Army. We stopped at a truck stop for lunch, which had a grill with only female servers and only male customers. I had some kielbasa, the first real kielbasa I had all trip. It was delicious, and didn’t need any condiments.
There is no main highway between Cracow and Lviv. We took small roads, sometimes only with one lane in each direction. Sometimes, the roads had a half-lane/shoulder on each side. If you wanted to pass the car ahead of you, you pulled into the other lane (of potentially oncoming traffic) and any car coming must drive half in their lane and half on the shoulder. This struck me and my dad as pretty scary, but Vitali handled it without difficulty.
Crossing the border between Poland and Ukraine was an amazing experience. When we first pulled up to the border, we saw a huge line of cars and anticipated an enormous wait. I’ve waited upwards of 2 hours at the Canada-US border, so this wasn’t exactly novel to me, but I was still disappointed. We were stopped behind a long line of cars, and ahead of us was a traffic light, turned red, ahead of which was a similarly endless line of cars. Many in our section actually turned their cars off, and Vitali did so as well. My father stepped out to take a look, I stepped out to pee by the side of the road (public urination is a form of reparations). We feared the worst. The Vitali walked off ahead to try to speak to someone. A few minutes later, he came running back, as the light had turned green and others were starting their engines again.
Still the line moved slowly. So Vitali decided to simply veer to one side of line and drive up ahead, passing car after car. Eventually, he encountered a guard. He spoke to him jovially, and handed him our passports. We heard him say something about my father being a professor from Canada. A few minutes later, we were allowed to pass.
It turns out that that guard had been Polish. Apparently you have to go through/customs security on the way out too. We then drove up to a Ukrainian soldier, who Vitali approached with same jovial manner. We gave him our passports, and a few minutes later, he returned them and we moved on. Vitali was clearly a veteran border crosser. Apparently, he simply told them we were from Canada, and didn’t have any alcohol or cigarettes, and off we went. We’ve heard that is easier for Canadians to cross the Poland-Ukraine border than it is for Ukrainians.
Once we entered Ukraine, the difference seemed immediately apparent. Like in Poland, we drove through small roads, with a similarly treacherous way to pass cars ahead of you. But the scenery was rather different. We drove by old women with rakes, wearing handkerchiefs, plowing fields. Groups of horses with no fence to hold them in. And then cows actually walked in the middle of the road, forcing us to stop until they went by.
I thought of India first. I’ve never been, but have heard that this was a frequent occurrence there. But then I thought of Borat.
I couldn’t help it. I remember a travelogue we read in my eastern European history class, from the 18th or 19th century, written by a Frenchman visiting Poland, who thought he had travelled back to the medieval era, only to be amazed that Warsaw was an actual city. If my demi-Orientalist prejudices had emerged in Poland, they doubled in the Ukraine. And sure enough, when we got to Lviv, I was a bit surprised to find a modern city. But there it was.
The roads around the downtown square are almost all cobblestone. It creates a very charming effect, but is murder on car suspension, and I suspect, on women or men in high heels. Lviv, like Cracow, had been a Polish city under the Habsburgs, and it had something of the same aura. But it also felt different. It wasn’t just that the cars were more run-down and the buildings more dilapidated.
Ukraine was the birthplace of the pogrom. One of the country’s heroes, Bogdan Chmielnicki, had led the butchering of thousands of Jews in the 1600s. They still have a statue of him (below). There are no statues of Hitler in Germany. My father’s father, born, raised and educated in Poland, a veteran officer in the Polish army, visited Germany after the war. But he would never set foot in Poland. And he would not have dreamed to going to Ukraine. I thought about that. I felt uneasy. I felt bad for feeling this way, but I felt it nonetheless.
Needing a bit of a break, my father and I ate at McDonalds that night. The food was cheaper, a bit over 8 American dollars, for a Big Mac, Quarterpounder with Cheese, a large fry, a Coke-Light, and a bottle of water (no gas). It tasted good, like I remembered it. But I knew that the next day would be radically different than the one before. More on that in the next post.
There is a statue on the south side of Volkspark Friedrichshain that I run past nearly every day. It seems to be that of a lunging man with a sword wielded wobbily over his head; his limbs are lanky, rubbery, his face hidden beneath a dishpan helmet. I say “seems” because I’ve yet to stop. Every time I run by, I turn my head and squint my eyes and try to determine what this Acme-German soldier is supposed to memorialize. I don’t stop partly because I don’t want to interrupt my run, and partly because I like not quite knowing. So far I think I’ve made out “1938 – 1939.” But there are so many memorials in Berlin dedicated to events around that date that I don’t know whether my mind is playing tricks on my eyes.
This is the summer of not knowing. In part this is because it’s the summer post-generals and pre-prospectus—an ambiguous time. The last big project is done and the new one not yet really begun. Archives unexpectedly close for holidays and other events, and suddenly long, quiet days stretch out in front of you, and you read a little at a café, but mostly you enjoy how wide the Berlin sidewalks are, and walk them side to side. Other days are spent in archives that moonlight as saunas, rushed with heat. Furious typing down of documents that may or may not have anything, in the end, to do with your dissertation. The other day it began to storm outside the FFBIZ and a piece of hail flew in and hit my computer screen. Because I am prepped to think the worst, I assumed at first that the window had begun to shatter in on us.
Last summer I spent most of my time in the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, which houses most of West Germany’s federal documents. It’s hard to miss. It looks like this:
This summer I’m touring a more eclectic range of archives. My Hamburg archive is located in the Rote Flora, a building that’s been squatted in since 1989. Rote Flora has many sides to it, all covered in graffiti. One of them is the outside, where in the summer homeless men and women camp out on old mattresses and sleeping bags. There are lectures and parties, but also, come to find out an archive, located beyond a metal door, up two flights of stairs, and into a chain-smoking chamber where boxes are thrown at you by the most lovely bearded man who invites you to take as many photos as quickly as you can. Its opening hours are Monday, four to eight. It looks like this:
There is an archive in Berlin I’ve just started to go to that is located in a bookshop. It is small and you work at a table in the front room, and every fifteen minutes or so someone will come in and ask the price of a book and you will direct them to the man at the computer in the backroom. The first day the proprietor toured me through the holdings. Once I knew where things were I was free to take them off the shelves at will. They have nearly every journal I could want in full serial, and binders of random flyers and brochures organized helpfully by themes. But many of the brochures have no dates and it will take some creativity to place them. Some of Papiertiger’s holdings are stored in the bathroom against the wall near the washbasin.
Through a series of random happenings, I had dinner with Francis Ford Coppola the other night, who was about to start on Jonathan Steinberg’s new biography of Bismarck. He told us about the death of generations and how he came to acquire a vineyard and found a literary magazine, and I lectured him about Alsace-Lorraine’s changing borders and explained Prussian militarism and German unification, which wasn’t a fair exchange. My friend and I took him to a bar in Kreuzberg, which he called “Little Brooklyn.” He is past seventy now and has wisdom to hand down; for example he advised us to “always say yes” and be good to our future kids.
On a balcony in Friedrichshain the other night, my friend told me to tap the building facade, which I did only to hear a hollow sound. Old buildings in the former East Berlin, never reconstructed postwar, are now outfitted with colorful add-on facades that cover up the old grays and browns and suggest the existence of stainless steel dishwashers inside. You might not recognize the same street you walked down in 2004. With their upscale fronts and backs these buildings bloat out an extra six inches or more, but I hear the added padding helps keep their insides warm during the bitter Berlin winters.
Here’s some other advice I’ve received since arriving in Berlin:
- From an archivist: a description of every Berlin lake I could possibly want to bathe in, particularly one very nice lake frequented by gays and lesbians, if I am “comfortable with that,” and a suggestion that I could go nude if I wanted to.
- From a fellow grad student: you have to earn their trust at Papiertiger before they’ll let you photograph for a fee.
- A summary of Robert Koch Institute bulletins: Don’t eat the Spanish cucumbers, or for that matter any cucumbers. Or raw tomatoes and lettuce. Whatever you do, avoid the sprouts.
There is a way one settles into traveling; particularly if traveling alone and in a new city. Small details become important. The patterns of traffic are an object of scrutiny, the manner of greeting a muttered remembrance (“Grüss Gott,” the guy at Müller says and of course he does. It’s Bavaria. Munich). The Sonnenblumenbrötchen bought at a bakery by the Hauptbahnhof, which one realizes is essentially a French baguette disguised by sunflower seeds, turns into an object of first night annoyance. Hearty, excessively—deliciously—grained bread is one of the distinct pleasures of being a German historian. A woman on a bike clings her bell and yells at me as I walk back from the archive, backpack slung across my back, apparently causing the skirt of my dress to ride up. And so manner of dress and habit of walking begin a slow shift toward ones more suitable for summer archiving.
I’ve never been to Munich before, though I spent a month nearby in schönes Bamberg last summer — “Summit of Bavaria/ Excessively Gemütlich,” an 11th century poem in the Cambridge Songs, as liberally translated by a favorite medievalist, proclaims. Having experienced such a Bavarian wonder, I decided to save Munich for another day. And here I am now, with a few feminists to look through at the Institut für Zeitgeschichte, and a brother, who has joined me for part of my trip, to entertain and try to show Germany. How does one show Germany to someone? I’ve never been a tour guide here, probably because I’ve only ever come here to work. So Germany is more a lifestyle than a sight for me. Look at that balcony, I tell him, imagining how nice it would be to have a Käsefrühstuck out there one morning. Berlin will be easier; I was once toured around there. I was a sophomore in college and I remember spending a long time staring across Berlin from the top of the Berliner Dom as my German professor rambled on. And a Love Weekend spent jumping up and down in an old factory building while Paul van Dyk spun techno.
The first two days I spent in Munich alone, jetlagged and located by the central train station, never my first choice for a home base. I stayed in a hostel by the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof for a night on my way back home last summer and worried I might carry bedbugs across the Atlantic to New York. Repatriation. I don’t know if there is a New York equivalent to the area around a European urban train station. Perhaps 1970s Times Square — its unromanticized version. Casinos and sex shops (the site of Beate Uhse’s shop was oddly comforting—the woman has history) clustered next to hostels whose young British and American revelers run over. Small lessons remembered: don’t buy your Brötchen or sleep near the train station, Grüss Gotts all around, keep your skirt down.
European casinos and sex shops always seem to have black mirrored entrances with strobe lights and Halloween streamers. Last year I went into a casino in Bamberg to print a train ticket. Two middle-aged women pulled levers at 2pm and a manager grumbled at me “Bathroom? No, printer? There, there,” she jabbed her finger. I bought a card that would either print me a train ticket to Berlin or give me four tries at the slots.
Arriving at the archive this past Friday, radically jetlagged and underslept, I managed to make my needs known through a slurge of mumbled German. Research is a series of roads left untraveled and bets with oneself. If I don’t take this down, will I find something better later? Perhaps I’ll just note its existence. A conference on new contraceptive methods in the early 1970s? A half hour painstakingly going through my feminist’s handwritten notes—not necessarily for their worth, but for fear I won’t be able to get my hands on any other report of the events. Two folders later, the proceedings appear in typewritten full. In Reading Berlin Peter Fritzsche describes the illegible city as central to 20th century modernism: the uncertainty of being able to see or represent clearly, “the larger, ongoing process of just rereading and rewriting.” Unfolding a modern city is not unlike unfolding a new archive—terrifying, illegible, incapable of being represented yet forced to be nonetheless. One synchronizes oneself into both eventually.
I am really pleased to be able to introduce a post from the pseudonymous JP Schneider, who in the middle of tapping out his dissertation gives answer to the question: what role can historians hope to play as “experts” on contemporary historical events, such as the recent revolutions in the Middle East? -Luce
by JP Schneider
There is an alarming but nonetheless unsurprising degree of historical myopia amongst journalists, commentators, pundits, 24-hour news networks and “experts” on the convulsions that are sweeping the crumbling dictatorships in North Africa and the “Middle East”. Many are prone to suggesting that this is an Arab version of 1989, a lazy parallel that paints the Arabs as a singular, monolithic entity, and that the systems that oppressed these people in various states somehow possess a uniformly similar economic-political system that benighted those countries – and soon-to-be countries – under the Soviet boot. So what can historians who study the region bring to bear on public understandings of what is happening at the moment, an especially pertinent question given the criticisms leveled at Middle Eastern studies departments in the US for failing to predict such seminal events as the 1979 Iranian Revolution?
The answer, of course, is relatively little. This shouldn’t be mistaken for the cry of a post-modernist; while it has its uses, post-modernism is ultimately an invitation to get lost in linguistic and methodological contortions and disappear down the rabbit hole of futility. Rather, the point I am making is a relevant corrective to those who are trotted out, whether in the academy or in the media, as having a more informed viewpoint than the rest of us helots.
And this speaks to a broader issue about the way in which historians do their research. Let’s say we are an historian of Egypt, or indeed, for that matter, Germany. What does that research entail? We spend most of our time sitting in archives because we don’t have the time (or the money) to get out and get talking to a wide variety of people. We may be lucky and have the benefit of a wide variety of contacts in our country of choice that we can draw on to get an “authentic” view. But how representative are they? If we’re researching nineteenth century trade unionism in Egypt or Germany, how many trade unionists do we know or speak to while we’re there on that oh-too-brief research trip? Yet as soon as we’re back in our citadels of learning we are drawn on as the repository of knowledge – historical and contemporary – on unfolding situations in our areas of expertise. Think about the situation with the higher echelons within the academy. Sure they have many more years of in-country experience, and a vast network of contacts, but how much faith should we place in the pronouncements of those with named chairs? When was the last time Juan Cole (much as I respect him) visited Egypt?
Should historians even be trying to gauge the present-day situation in their chosen country? Of course they should. The consequences of events and trends that occur in the past are all around us today. The Turkish kebab shop that sold you that deliciously unhealthy piece of meat: one small portion of the history of the Gastarbeiter. The many taxi drivers in Cairo, highly educated yet unable to find a job commensurate with their qualifications: the stagnation of the (late) Mubarak regime.
So what, I hear you cry as you stab the laptop screen in disgust and dismay. Simply this. As historians we should spend less time in archives and more time making the most of the countries we are temporary visitors in. The book or journal article can be delayed a little while. Interactions – whether snatched moments or lingering conversations – with our fellow men and women cannot. Ultimately, the scholarly work we produce will be richer for it. We might even be lucky enough to be there when history is being made in front of us.
The need to put out my hat for change and plea for grant funding has forced my hand: I now have my next summer planned out in more detail than my next week. I am now closer to actually being able to conceptualize a potential prospectus than ever before. And the funny thing is that, despite a fifty year shift in time period and a spiraling of topics, it looks like I am essentially doing what I said I came here to do in the first place: trace through the ideas of a network of activist groups and individuals involved in a social debate concerning reproduction, identity, and ethics. Or something like that. Who knew?
I am not an archive fetishist, which is probably why I’m not a social historian. I study people who are often still living and who were fiercely engaged in debates which I might have been involved in had I been born a generation earlier (well, and in Germany). Tendrils of those debates still inflect today’s concerns and value judgments, and you may have seen me post on them here. I found Wiz’s post on the Forgotten Abolitionist lovely and moving, but I can’t claim to have myself felt that poignant feeling upon opening a folder containing the life of someone long dead. As I said, many of my people aren’t, and maybe I haven’t yet immersed myself enough in the archives to start feeling emotional attachments, though I did a master’s thesis on an early twentieth century German feminist and paged through many of her hand-written letters.
I’ve never tried to really plumb the depths of my psyche to understand why I do history, but I don’t think my anxiety about death plays a part [that comes out every time I sob through yet another saccharine Hollywood death scene]. I suspect I partly do history because I like to tell a story and find my own life too boring a plotline, but history for me is also a way to think through the paradoxes and contradictions that plague my own world. Their conundrums are my conundrums, which means that when I read through someone’s writings my underlying anxiety is about the impact such ideas have had in making available access to abortion, or agency of the disabled, or so on.
I have recently discovered the democracy of the archival institution in Germany, though my opinion is out on the democracy of the archive itself. The Berlin Papiertiger archive, fittingly located on Curvystrasse, was founded in 1985 and sees itself as part of a continuing Leftist movement that it thinks should have a good understanding of its own history: “Alongside other factors, a political movement is only as successful as what it has learned from its history and its defeats, and if it has taken from this the correct conclusions.” It sees its clientele as its own comrades; the first plea on its home page is to “bring us your current newspapers, brochures, fliers, and posters.” Carrying the motto “From the movement, for the movement,” Papiertiger is passionately worried about who will write their history, how they will interpret it, and that historians will ignore the transformative impact of the social movements from below on society.
The Frauenforschungs-, -bildungs- und -informationszentrum e.V. [FFBIZ], one of the largest archives in Germany containing materials on the themes of women and gender, began in 1978 as an alternative project of the new German women’s movement, which demanded that the state provide monetary support for socially important work without taking away the self-determination of their project. First they occupied a building, then they were subsidized by public funding, and finally they were recognized as a “Modellprojekt.” Has such a thing ever happened in the US? Think: a bunch of women occupied a building in order to open an archive. This was how important it was for activists invested in some form of identity politics (pace Judt) to be able to research into experiences and lives they thought would illuminate their own social situation.
I bring these archives up because I find their histories exciting and their continued existence inspiring, but also because they elicit a number of questions and problems for me. Having been professionally trained as a historian in the United States, and being very bad at hagiography, can I really expect to fulfill Papiertiger’s plea for a better interpretation of the history of the Left? On the other hand, is their call a challenge to remember, even in critique, the excitement and sense of accomplishment that people involved in such social movements felt at the time? It was useful to read Ute Frevert’s 1986 take on the activities of Germany’s New Women’s Movement around abortion liberalization in the early 1970s. It was a battle they technically lost, yet Frevert claims the loss was not a total defeat: the fight itself had demonstrated common, sex-specific interests and identities and resulted in the building up of feminist groups in almost all of Germany’s big cities. Whatever we have to say about the paradoxes, the failures, the problematics, do we risk losing sight of the significance of inchoate emotions and optimistic activities themselves?
Secondly, what will the archives of our generation look like? Papiertiger continues to collect activist newspapers and placards from today’s activist circles. Who is collecting these things in the US? I actually just don’t know, so if anyone could enlighten me I’d appreciate it. Are there large social archives that gather the random papers of random activist movements that may have lasted for the blink of an eye? The Archive of Social Movements in Hamburg opens its “Self-Image and History” page with the following:
Materials and documents from social movements disappear with the breakup of groups and movements; all the painstakingly acquired collections of newspapers, private archives, and mountains of brochures often turn into scrap paper or become private memories left to mold in the attic. These sources remain hidden to the public mind and even the collective memory of the social movements themselves.
This really said something to me. Perhaps there is after all something about remembering and recognizing normal, everyday historical actors at the base of why I do history, but what I find most poignant is the specifics of how these people engaged, the evidence that groups of people, even if for just six months or two years, with no real game plan and no survival guide, were passionate enough about something to come together in the face of futility and force their foot into the door of history. Rather than anxiety about death, though, I think this is grounded in a regret that my generation, with some notable exceptions, seems to have lost that spark of energy and groundless optimism laced with perhaps an essential naivete. I’m not one of those lamenters who thinks my generation doesn’t care — it does, but our activism has become professionalized, legitimated with degrees and business cards. Perhaps this is more effective, yet it would seem that we miss something in losing an even sometimes reckless spontaneity — perhaps the ability to call a movement successful despite its losses because its enthusiasm fomented political commitments and new identities in those who had previously been apolitical. Does today’s activist political culture provide opportunities, after a certain (young) age, for the apathetic to become suddenly engaged?
On the other hand, maybe I’m just selfishly concerned about the fate of Ad Hoc Magazine, a progressive magazine I and some friends created and ran for a few years in college, the paper leftovers of which even now form a great moldy mountain in my parents’ basement. I fear that one day they will decide to build a fire with them, and that Ad Hoc’s internet incarnation will crumble away forgotten, a nursing home of broken links and outdated thoughts. (In an attempt at (self-)preservation, here is a 2005 article on Columbia expansion and a 2006 article on the diversity initiative.)
Which brings up a final question: is the internet sufficient as an archive of our generation’s social movements and alternative ideas?
Sitting in on a couple of Weber lectures these past few weeks has put me in my historical place. An ambivalent mourner of disenchantment, Weber noted in his 1918 lecture “Wissenschaft als Beruf (Science as Vocation)”[pdf] that the American university in particular represented the modern condition: an efficient system with little place for personality or a deep sense of culture, imbued with a spirit of capitalist professionalism, promoting utter mediocrity. Sound familiar?
Of course Weber had different demons to combat than I or many of my fellow PhDs. I for one don’t feel quite so constrained by our (post)modern, disenchanted condition, think great wallops of creativity and meaning can burst forth from it, believe it has allowed different groups of people to gain a foothold in society, am more a critic of parts than the whole. And Weber of course was looking at the American system through the lens of a German academic, and personally I’d much rather be part of the former rather than the latter, at least today.
Part of Weber’s lament was that we could no longer find “meaning” in the Academy. By this he meant that we had arrived at a point of the absolute relativity of value: any concept can be instrumentalized for one value, or for another. We could no longer find God in History as Ranke once tried to; we were post-metaphysics. Today, embedded in our profession is the attempt to historicize things we may consider fundamentally “human,” to analyze the historical process by which we grasped onto “human rights” as the foundation of human encounter, to understand when and why humans began to “empathize” (Sam Moyn has a new book out on the former, Martha Nussbaum and Lynn Hunt see the entrance of the novel on the historical scene as necessary for the arousal of the latter).
So what would Weber say about Martha Nussbaum’s proposal (one I’m largely on board with) in Not for Profit that we need the humanitis and arts for the following:
the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a “citizen of the world”; and finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.
Nussbaum is no radical of course. For Nussbaum, these abilities are “crucial to the health of any democracy internally, and to the creation of a decent world culture capable of contructively addressing the world’s most pressing problems.” While we may see her proposal as a rescue plan from the economic instrumentality that currently reigns throughout our university system, the cultivation of these meaningful human abilities are to be deployed for the sake of what is, at heart, a moderate program: the bolstering of a democratic state, in the hopes that this state might in turn be able to reach out to solve “the world’s most pressing problems.” There is an interesting slippage going on here and as ever I become uncomfortable with “imagining” the predicament of another person rather than speaking to that person (but perhaps she emphasizes language skills and communication and I am just forgetting this).
This is after all still a program of instrumental rationality. It is one that I largely support, since the value is care for one’s fellow humans rather than individual net-worth, and it’s a process that I feel very much a part of. Education for me has been about expanding my initially narrow understanding of the world, challenging my preconceptions and prejudices. Yet perhaps it’s worthwhile to bring in Weber here to check some of Nussbaum’s impulses, to remember that the concept of imagined empathy can be deployed in the service of many different, conflicting values, as demonstrated so well by recent US foreign policy.
And to think about how much economic instrumentality can become spiraled together with other forms of instrumentality:
The Puritans wanted to be men of the calling—we, on the other hand, must be. For when asceticism moved out of the monastic cells and into working life, and began to dominate innerworldly morality, it helped to build that mighty cosmos of the modern economic order (which is bound to the technical and economic conditions of mechanical and machine production). Today this mighty cosmos determines, with overwhelming coercion, the style of life not only of those directly involved in business but of every individual who is born into this mechanism, and may well continue to do so until the day that the last ton of fossil fuel has been consumed.
In Baxter’s view, concern for outward possessions should sit lightly on the shoulders of his saints, “like a thin cloak which can be thrown off at any time.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become a shell hard as steel. As asceticism began to change the world and endeavored to exercise its influence over it, the outward goods of this world gained increasing and finally inescapable power over men, as never before in history. Today its spirit has fled from this shell—whether for all time, who knows? Certainly, victorious capitalism has no further need for this support now that it rests on the foundation of the machine. Even the optimistic mood of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems destined to fade away, and the idea of a “duty in a calling” haunts our lives like the ghost of once-held religious beliefs. Where “doing one’s job” cannot be directly linked to the highest spiritual and cultural values—although it may be felt to be more than mere economic coercion—the individual today usually makes no attempt to find any meaning in it. Where capitalism is at its most unbridled, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, divested of its metaphysical significance, today tends to be associated with purely elemental passions, which at times virtually turn it into a sporting contest.
No one yet knows who will live in that shell in the future. Perhaps new prophets will emerge, or powerful old ideas and ideals will be reborn at the end of this monstrous development. Or perhaps—if neither of these occurs—“Chinese” ossification, dressed up with a kind of desperate self-importance, will set in. Then, however, it might truly be said of the “last men” in this cultural development: “specialists without spirit, hedonists without a heart, these nonentities imagine they have attained a stage of humankind never before reached.”
(The Protestant Ethic, Penguin edition, pp.120-121).
Sidenote: Part of the reason I like Weber so much is that he was one of the hardest working academics out there — to the point of nervous collapse. When asked once why he worked so hard, he responded, “I want to see how much I can bear.” This is always a good reminder not to be such a crazypants.
In just a few days I leave Germany and I’m looking forward to finally heading home, though I find it hard to believe that soon I will be starting a semester’s work. Undoubtedly I will miss the relaxation of a country where weekend mornings find at least a dozen men drinking beer at the corner café by 10 AM. There are of course many things I won’t miss, particularly the phenomenon of dead Sundays, which compels you to join the men and their beers since there’s nothing better to do (my compromise has always been to have first a cappuccino, then a beer). I will also miss a certain German Gemütlichkeit, the admirable if always startling German penchant for nudity in nature, the haphazardness of Berlin, the tamed wildness of their forests. But most of what I will miss surrounds German food, and the way it is eaten here.
I was initially worried about what I would do for two months in a country that prides itself on its great hunks of pig, but I actually think it’s relatively easy to avoid meat in Germany, in part because it’s a wonder what they can do with a potato. There’s also a tradition of German vegetarianism tied in with other Lebensreform movements that began in the pre-World War I period (historian Steven Aschheim claims this was in direct response to Germany’s rapid industrialization), and most menus will offer a few decent vegetarian options. In any case, it’s hard to complain about their food when their beer is so nourishing.
Most symbolic (and since this is food we’re talking about, most enjoyable) for me is the German breakfast. Unlike the Italian breakfast, which is quickly finished off with a mini-pastry and shot of espresso, or the French breakfast, a paltry offering of white bread and bad coffee, the German breakfast can go on for hours. A variety of sliced cheeses and meats, boiled eggs, individual fruits and vegetables, delicious quark, cornflakes with whole milk, jams and rolls packed with nuts and grains (fascinatingly, what the Germans call a “Fitness-Brötchen” is just a roll packed with twice the normal nuts and grains). Overall there is a piecemeal quality to the breakfast. You see the foods in minimalist form, it is you who decide what to combine together, and in the end, you know exactly what you’re putting into your mouth.
Sheila Jasanoff writes that when passing its stringent 2004 law on growing genetically-modified crops, the German government, “sought to avoid controversy by opting for a legislative framework that reduced the risk of ontological mixing or impurity—thereby also minimizing the possibility of normative conﬂicts.” She goes on:
Key provisions included restrictions on the amount of land to be planted with GM crops, a national register to keep track of these crops, and a requirement that farmers pay damages to non-GM growers whose ﬁelds are contaminated by GM varieties. The horror of unregulated things, so prevalent in the German legal order, came through in a parliamentarian’s comments on the law: ‘In the interest of farmers and consumers, we do not want genetically altered foods uncontrolled and initially unnoticed to sneak onto our grocery shelves’ (Deutsche Welle, 2004b).
It is not hard to see how this emphasis on the ontological stability of food is ingrained in the very practice of eating in Germany. I’m of course coming from the perspective of someone already invested in certain eating practices. It’s not as if Germany has outlawed processed foods, which are easily found on supermarket shelves. For all I know, there may be thousands of Germans stuffing themselves silly with Cheez Whiz as we speak. Nonetheless, it is striking when I look back on my two months here and realize that, without having made any conscious effort, taking advantage only of what was on offer and even relatively cheap, I cannot think of one piece of food whose ingredients weren’t readily apparent to me: breads, yogurts, vegetables, eggs, fruits, potatoes, and so on. These have been the stuff of my diet and it lends some credence to the idea that the Germans have a very clearly defined idea of what “food” is, and it’s less important whether it’s a meat or a vegetable than whether their great-grandparents also would have recognized it as “food.”
Popular U.S. food activists, such as Michael Pollan and more recently, Jonathan Safran Foer, focus on encouraging localism, eating less or no meat, and pushing for government legislation to change the way food is produced (both in terms of cruel and environmentally-unfriendly factory farming, as well as our reliance on “monocultures of corn and soy in the field and cheap calories of fat, sugar and feedlot meat”). In contrast, the popular focus in Germany seems more firmly turned toward the threat of large corporations pushing GM-foods. Stores advertise themselves specifically as not carrying genetically-modified foods (in the US there is the more all-encompassing, fuzzy “organic,” and many stores carry both organic and non-organic products, leaving it to the customer to decide). German researchers have attempted in the past to keep GM-crop sites secret for fear that anti-GM activists would sabotage them. In contrast to Foer’s Eating Animals and Pollan’s Food Rules, German bookstores have recently been displaying Monique-Marie Robins’s Mit Gift und Genen: Wie der Biotech-Konzern Monsanto unsere Welt verändert (With Toxins and Genes: How the Biotech-Corporation Monsanto Is Changing Our World).
I’m no expert on why Germans might tend to focus more on global corporations and GM-foods than individual, vegetarian choices, but I can take a few guesses. First there’s the tradition of the small, European Union-subsidized farmer in Germany, and more pride in regional food and recipes (living in Bamberg this past month, it’s nearly impossible to get away from their local Frankish method of dousing everything in heavy sauces). There is a daily fruit market in Bamberg (an old, medieval city that emerged from WWII largely intact) in a square next to a street called “Obstmarkt” (i.e. fruit market). It makes me wonder if the city’s residents haven’t been buying their fruit in this square for centuries. There has also already been concrete government involvement in banning factory farm practices. In 2009 a German law passed making it illegal to keep chickens in small, individual cages (in the States, this has been banned only in California), there is a detailed system of numbering eggs according to how the chicken was raised, and recently there’s been a governmental scandal involving accusations of animal cruelty against a minister of agricultural resources. High politics and animals mix in a way they don’t in the US, and Germans may feel they have a better sense of where their meat came from, how it was treated, and how it connects to traditional norms of eating.
But beyond this, I think American food activism is still very much tied up in personal responsibility, while German activism focuses on attacking that which structures and pollutes our choices: the global, the (often American) corporation. In the end, while Pollan and Foer urge engagement with government, their suggested journeys are distinctly individualistic. Just as each of us must take a look at our carbon footprint, each of us must also work to change the world through our daily habits, our patronage of the green market and, if we are to eat meat, the local farm that we ourselves have visited. We are to vote with our forks, and by forks I mean wallets. Perhaps due to a history of corporatism, where industries/professions are expected to self-regulate and trusted corporations drive policy, Germans focus in on companies who have been remiss in their duties, such as agricultural corporations who endanger the purity of “food.”
To get to the point, all this makes me wonder whether an American discourse focused overwhelmingly on individual actions actually causes us to cede responsibility, to fail to hold the bigger picture responsible, and to leave those who lack the time and money to be “individually responsible” in the hands of corporations like Monsanto. Much of this thinking was sparked by an article I recently read by Leslie J. Reagan on miscarriage in America. She describes how there was a brief moment in the 1970s when herbicides/toxins like 2,4,5-T were recognized as causing miscarriages, but the media discourse soon shifted to zone in on individual woman’s responsibilities (e.g. no smoking, drinking, caffeinating during pregnancy).
Media coverage of the effects of industrial and agricultural practices on pregnancy proved short lived, however, and refocused instead on the individual woman. The shift from corporate to individual responsibility for miscarriage and other reproductive misfortunes had broad political ramifications, implying that the solution to the problem of miscarriage would be found in reforming individual women rather than reforming corporate practices… [P]regnant women found themselves scrutinized and criticized by strangers in restaurants and doctors in hospitals. The impact of this philosophy of individual mother-blaming was differentiated by class and race. Low-income women and African American women in particular bore the brunt of official punitive responses to mothers’ perceived misbehavior…
All of this rings very true. My sister just had her first baby, and while what she could eat and drink was the topic of weekly discussions (“Really? No coffee???”), not once did we give much thought to environmental factors that might harm the birth. And all this connects, I think, to the way food activists like Michael Pollan struggle when confronted with activists concerned with hunger and poverty, like Joel Berg. The two had a recent exchange in the New York Review of Books. With a focus on individual eating plans, activists like Pollan haven’t thought enough about how to change the system in such a way as to also benefit those without the money or time (Pollan really needs to recognize that having the time to prepare healthy foods can also be a privilege) to be “individually responsible” in the current sense of the phrase. And this prioritizing focus on personal responsibility can give ammunition to media commentators, who generally like to wallow in their obtuseness, and to take one example, portray urban single mothers as “lazy” or “welfare queens” because their body shape suggests stereotypes of slothfulness (as Pollan is right to emphasize, it is the stuff of cheap food that leads directly to high rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes). This discourse in turn allows the media to blame the urban poor for not taking responsibility for their own health and income.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the individual ethical, am a personal fan of localism and eating less meat, like a lot of what Michael Pollan says, but if this becomes the mantra of American food then we risk leaving a lot of people in the dust, and at the hands of media commentators, McDonalds, and Monsanto.
Well, the NY Times has an article out about the BP settlement that would get money to fisherman, shrimpers, seafood processors, hotel and restaurant owners based on proximity to the leak; hence if your restaurant is beachfront, you’ll have an easier time getting funds than a restaurant owner a few miles away. Given that it’s unimaginable that the rate of tourism/customers dropped in direct proportion to number of miles from the leak, this is just the first of many things that seems silly about this settlement. Then again, the point of settlements like this is to get money out and get it out fast.
Which leads to devil’s bargains, such as this: once small businesses sign on to the settlement, they waive their right to sue BP for damages in the future. This is where the question of timeliness suddenly starts to muddle up the power politics. Since the American government, populace, and local businesses are all (nearly — I’m looking at you, Joe Barton) in complete agreement that BP needs to pay up, it would seem like we had BP in a headlock. But because BP doesn’t need to just pay up, but needs to pay up quick, it can snag the opportunity to put in clauses that force those who want a cut of the pie right now to waive away any right to, well, more pie in the future. And those who decide to sue rather than settle won’t see a buck for years. The main problem is that, even if we’re able to estimate the damage done now, there’s no way to tell what the future environmental and economic damages will be.
So because I’m on much firmer ground talking about the body than the environment, but think there’s parallels between the two, let’s shift back to 1960s Germany where over 2,600 children have been born with mild to severe birth defects due to their mothers’ consumption of the pharmaceutical, Thalidomide, during pregnancy. The parents of the affected children, under the crazy and complex German legal system, face up to 18 years of legal trials before they might see any significant change from the drug’s manufacturer, Chemie Grünenthal. In the end they sign a deal with Chemie Grünenthal for a 100 million deutschmark fund (which they need for special medical care, prosthetics, etc) and, of course, simultaneously waive away any future right to seek further compensation.
Of course the problem is that the original settlement couldn’t predict the ways in which their bodies would develop into adulthood, the extra wear and tear they would experience due to their birth defects, the ever-developing technologies they might need, nor quite honestly that they would live so long, as many doctors predicted they wouldn’t make it to middle-age. So, in the past decade there have been movements in Germany, Great Britain, and Australia demanding further compensation from Grünenthal or its foreign distributors to provide for unforeseen bodily damages due to the drug’s impact. Particularly in Germany these demands have been painted as hopeless due to the legal bind of the 1970s agreement, and Grünenthal itself isn’t giving much by way of handout. While the Australian distributor of thalidomide agreed to a surprise $50 million windfall to 45 victims in Australia/New Zealand this summer, in 2008 Grünenthal comparatively offered 50 million Euro… to the over 2,600 affected adults in Germany.
To get back to the Gulf, my point is simple: given that the impact on environment can be just as unpredictable (more so) than impact on body, given how long oil spill damages can last, is it really enough to sign up for the $20 billion and call it a day? Couldn’t we at least chat about writing a settlement that stipulates some consideration for future, unexpected or continuous damages to the Gulf? Perhaps settlements are always written like this (lord knows, I’m no lawyer), yet given that the past hundred years has seen both some of the most damaging man-made catastrophes in human history and an accumulation of data demonstrating long-term impacts, it might be time to rethink the normative.