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German Media Perspectives on the Dakota Access Pipeline Conflict

I’ve followed news about the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline project since early summer this year. Apart from social media, my major source of information was Indian Country Today. In these months, I’ve wondered about the increasing complaints among activists and independent media that most media remained silent on the issue. While major media outlets in the US recently seem to have taken note (often in a detour via celebrities who became engaged), I believe the project and the protests against it have been well-publicized in Germany, in the context of the usual news cycle on foreign affairs and US news beyond the election.

It would be too bold to state that German media were ahead of their US counterparts in covering the protests, but there has been a regular influx of information in both print and TV news since last summer. This radio feature was one among many who covered the election in lengthy overland trips, but it also discusses protests against DAPL among Iowa farmers and at Standing Rock, detailing conflicts over private farmland. It portrays current issues in US society but does not stop with the celebrity factor of Trump. The two major public TV stations, ARD and ZDF, have covered the protests repeatedly since September, and have recently given them prominent position in their prime-time evening news shows (see here for a report on the Corps of Engineers’ decision of 3 Dec). Major German newspapers, such as Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, have become involved as well. This is especially noteworthy because Süddeutsche took up the published list of banks financing the project, along with recent activist efforts to target these banks through divestment campaigns, and has begun to ask questions about DAPL investments by Bavaria’s Bayern LB.

While the degree of coverage does not seem out of the ordinary from a German news perspective, it certainly seems as if German news media are more interested in the issue than US media have been until recently. Part of this interest might have a historical context. News out of the US are not only big news because German media cover the US as a world power; there has been a tradition of reporting on social and political struggles in the US that is part of the love-hate relationship and the mix of fascination and contempt that has determined German perspectives of the US throughout history. News out of Indian country have been part of that mix since the late 19th century.

Newspapers in communist East Germany covered the Red Power movement and AIM during the 1970s, gleefully giving the US a black eye over imperialism and colonialism. To get a glimpse how prominently Indigenous issues were placed to highlight social and racial injustice in the US, see this list of articles published in the leading party mouthpiece, Neues Deutschland on the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation. It is no surprise that newspapers in this socialist tradition still are intent on reporting on social conflicts in the US today, including the DAPL protests. Similarly, a few articles can be found in German-speaking left-wing online forums, revealing interconnections of issues and networks of social activism in a globalizing world.

Farther back in history, the Nazis had their own reasons to discuss race relations in the US, as I have described in my academic work and in earlier posts. Talking about race riots, miscegenation laws, mismanagement and poverty on Indian reservations, and about repressive and paternalistic US-Indian policy helped the Nazis turn the table and point an accusing finger at the US when the Roosevelt administration and US media criticized Nazi Germany for its persecution of minorities. As the Chicago Tribune titled in October 1938 (a few weeks before the infamous “Kristallnacht” pogroms): “Remember Fate of Indians, Nazis tell Roosevelt.”

In 1890 already, Rocky Bear, a Lakota performer with Buffalo Bill’s show, gave a speech at the Munich Anthropological Society, led by Prof. Johannes Ranke. His protestations against US-Indian policy were received with great interest and sympathy by his audience and the press covering the event (see Ames, Eric. “Seeing the Imaginary. On the Popular Reception of Wild West Shows in Germany, 1885-1910.” In I Like America 223-24).

Given the history of how US society and its social, political, and racial conflicts have been perceived and interpreted in the German public, it is no surprise that the DAPL protests are met with keen interest in Germany. They are not only an expression of people’s awareness of global problems (such as climate change, environmental issues, and energy development), but also embedded in a tradition of reveling in another country’s problems (presumably to be able to forget about one’s own for a while).

Research Initiative Announces Completion of Projects

Our Leipzig-Dresden research initiative, running under the German title “Selbst-Bewusste Erzählungen,” announced the completion of its projects. The group has worked together since 2011. Its collaborative research resulted, among other works, in two essay collections and an international symposium in fields related to post-classical narratology, i.e., a cultural perspective on textuality and social relevance in contemporary US literature and culture.

“The Art of Misdirection”: Trauma and the Dissolution of Genres in Video Arts

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The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead

In early May, I was invited to participate in the symposium “The Art of Misdirection,” discussing the exhibition “Present Continuous” of Berlin-based Israeli video artist Omer Fast at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK. Many of the works exhibited here tackled issues relevant for my project on war experience, discussing the struggles of homecoming and reintegration, but also moral implications of warfare, and guilt.

As the Guardian‘s review of the exhibition states, Fast’s works warn us over and over “that the world is not to be trusted.” Films like his 5000 Feet is the Best (based on  Fast’s interview with a US Predator drone pilot) subvert genre conventions: they suggest ‘authenticity’ and ‘truth’ in their gestures toward the documentary mode but insert orator’s tangents and flashbacks, time loops, and obviously veer into fiction at times, making the observer wonder if the interviewees and/or the filmmaker are lying to us, and why. It didn’t help here that I recognized the actor representing the drone pilot, Denis O’Hare, from the TV series True Blood, where he played the vampire Russell Edgington, a particularly untrustworthy character.

In A Tank Translated, the crew of an Israeli tank share their experience about fighting in the conflict with Palestine. Lighting, the positioning of the interviewees, the sequence of questions and answers, all suggest an oral history documentary, until the English subtitles subtly begin to take on a life of their own: words disappear or change, often altering or even contradicting the meaning of what was just said.

I was fascinated and confused by this blurring of genres. My researcher self longed for the documentary mode, to be able to trust the films as sources (as far as oral history can be trusted as a historical source in the first place), and take home more information on how war experience can be narrated. Yet, I also enjoyed how the films played with the viewer, and how their rejection of genre conventions visualized not only possible renditions of traumatic war experience, but also hinted at a veteran’s struggle to talk to a stranger about his experience, the decision on whether or not to be truthful, and what repercussions one’s personal tale might haveon one’s reputation, one’s sense of self, or on the public imagination and memory of that particular conflict.

The Symposium’s contributions marked a truly trans-disciplinary approach to Fast’s work. While I contextualized it with my take of milblogs as a form of ceremonial storytelling, other scholars approached it via historical perspectives on visual artists as military spies, via trauma studies in literary theory, via critical observations on militarization in urban studies, or historians’ efforts to protect cultural heritage sites in conflict zones.

Republishing Older Articles in Open Access

Among its services, Dresden’s state and university library SLUB offers the opportunity to republish older articles and essays in open access format. After permission was secured from the original publishers, SLUB services uploaded PDF files of most of my early publications on Saxony’s document server QUCOSA. I have updated my publications page with links to these PDFs today. I am glad that a colleague reminded me of this option to thus increase the international visibility and accessibility of my work.

A few permissions still need to be acquired, and most of my more recent works are still subject to a one-year protection period. Links to these texts fill hopefully follow in the coming months.

Given its strengths and weaknesses, I am very happy with this opportunity. QUCOSA does not promote the texts, I still rely on the original publisher’s and my own PR efforts. However, I am not subject to a strict one-on-one share system and the texts are not hidden behind a paywall.

Milblogs and Autobiographical War Narratives

A few days ago, I attended this year’s meeting of historians in the GAAS in Tutzing at Lake Starnberg, southwest of Munich. The meeting’s central theme was “Auto/Biographies in American History,” which gave me an opportunity to look at milblogs from a perspective of autobiographical writing.

I had worked through a number of books on Anglo Saxon war diaries and memoirs early last year, among them Samuel Hynes’s The Soldier’s Tale. I enjoyed the way Hynes discusses various war narratives’ medium and genre specifics; he develops a fascinating overview of how personal war narratives interrelate with other genres, such as historiography, travel writing, and autobiography. His observations on commonalities and differences between these text types and personal war narratives make Hynes’s work fruitful material for teaching: It explicitly invites students to engage in source criticism, e.g., by addressing that, while both travel writing and war narratives have a ‘touristic’ perspective in that they discuss foreign and exotic places and peoples, war narratives depict the radical cognitive gap between civilian and war experience, focusing on the battlefield as an “anti-landscape,” and, thus, revealing that war “is not a place we could travel to” (7-8).

However, Hynes’s approach seems too narrow to do justice to the various forms of personal war narratives. He argues that war narratives “are by their nature retrospective. To perceive the changes that war has made in a man requires the passage of time and the establishment of distance from the remembered self” (4). In this and similar statements, Hynes favors the memoir over the diary or the letter as a source on personal war experience, positing that a soldier-author does not have time to reflect on war experience during the war itself and, more importantly, that it needs a post-war self to bring memories in order and create a coherent narrative of one’s war.

I’ve found this emphasis on an author’s temporal distance to the actual experience of war to be problematic and used my presentation at Tutzing to discuss how milblogs, especially their technological specifics and the corresponding cultural practices of public discourse between bloggers and audience, invite and nurture dialog among soldiers and civilians and, thus, facilitate reflection on the impact of war on the self even during deployment. According to Hynes, war narratives―being a form of conversion literature―have autobiographic elements but, unlike autobiographies, they do not depict “continuous lives” and focus on war as an interruption. Veteran (memoir) authors look back on their old war selves as strangers: “For everyone except career soldiers, military service is a kind of exile from one’s own real life, a dislocation of the familiar that the mind preserves as life in another world” (7-8). However, it is worthwhile to study texts focusing on this interruption as they reveal that, indeed, reflection takes place in the war zone and that these texts convey fruitful information for historians, and literary and cultural studies scholars, as well as psychologists.

A researcher’s focus on milblogs written during deployment can help explore the causes and effects of the “dislocation of the familiar” as they happen, and it illustrates the soldiers’ and civilians’ discourse on these extreme circumstances while the soldier is still embroiled in the war. As historical sources, memoirs are limited because, although their authors had time to reflect on their old war selves, they might depict selective or distorted memories, and will probably have been influenced by collective memory, i.e., by the public, interpretation of that war shaped by media and the arts. While milbloggers may not have had much time to sort out and come to terms with their experience yet, their interaction with their audience provides a public forum for reflection; this exchange, in addition to depicting personal experience, illustrates how collective memory of that event is being constructed.

Public exchange on personal war experience has also begun to play a larger role in psychology in recent years. The growing focus on narrative in psychology, especially on a narrator’s interaction with a supportive and responsive audience, reveals that reflection and meaning-making may take place through narrating experience and bearing witness. Recent psychological works on war stress and PTSD suggest that research emphasis on personal war narratives may even help integrate the frequently opposed branches of cognitive/neuro-psychology and experimental social psychology. Milblogs and other social media demonstrate the role of reflection and meaning-making through social support, because they facilitate exchange between deployed soldiers and civil society.

In addition, working with methods and concepts from popular culture studies, e.g., fandom studies, allows us to see milblogs as a joint effort between soldier-authors and a (mostly) civilian audience to make meaning of war experience and negotiate one’s place in US society, that is, to constitute community in an effort to create a joint narrative (for a detailed discussion, see my article “Keep that Fan Mail Coming”). Reflections on individual as well as collective impacts of war are part and parcel of the exchanges in milblogs. As such, these public debates and the social support for soldiers through interactive communication are not a new phenomenon. While Web 2.0 provides the technology to engage in such exchanges on a global scale and in almost synchronous communication (minimal time delay between narrative and response), such public debates were already observed during the US Civil War, when soldiers’ letters were widely distributed among home communities and frequently republished by local newspapers.

 

Selling Ethnicity and “Shadow Wolves”: New Essay Collection Released

Cover Title Selling Ethnicity

A few days ago, another huge project was finished. Starting in 2012, my Leipzig colleagues Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez, Anne Grob, Maria Lippold and I prepared a conference on “Selling Ethnicity and Race.” The conference, held in November 2013 at Leipzig University, discussed “the production and performance of ethnic and racial identities as well as the consumption of ‘ethnic’ and racialized products in the complex field between representational politics, economics, and consumerism, […investigating] new emerging ethnic imaginaries and the ways in which they respond to the re-invigoration of ethnic identification and to the increased visibility of nonwhite Americans in the United States.” We invited scholars from the fields of cultural anthropology, history, ethnic studies, cultural studies, and Native American studies from the US and Germany, to discuss these issues.

The anthology collecting some of the contributions has just been released with Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, completing an exciting three-year project

Although, or better, because it was not immediately related to my current research projects in its thematic outline, I loved this project as it forced me to go deep into unfamiliar territory. Working on the introduction to bundle these various approaches and disciplines into a coherent work, we discussed theories of ethnic marketing, forms of capital (e.g., cultural, social), border studies, consumerism, and commodification. Our collected case studies explore examples from Native American, Asian American, and Hispanic communities.

The collection at Amazon.

Table of contents.

Shadow Wolves – the “Indian Scout Syndrome” in Policing

My own contribution to the project drew from my current work on Native American military traditions and warrior imagery, focusing on a case study I had wanted to research since my graduate work at the University of Arizona in 2000. My essay discusses the all-Native Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit called the “Shadow Wolves,” stationed at the Tohono O’odham reservation in southern Arizona. To a large extent, the text employs Nancy Leong’s concept of “racial capitalism” to argue that most media representations of the Shadow Wolves cater to popular notions of Indian super-scouts. Newspapers portray the Native officers’ tracking and scouting techniques (known as “cutting for sign”) as theirsupposedly inheritable and uniqueracial capital.

Scholarship on the Shadow Wolves is scarce; most works focus on border issues, particularly the militarization of the border after 9/11. Only a few of those, and none of the media articles I analyzed, address the political significance behind the ethnic composition of this unit (although all state the fact): The Tohono O’odham assert their sovereignty by insisting on an all-Native unit in exchange for allowing the federal government to permanently station an ICE unit on the reservation.

Over the course of my research on the Shadow Wolves’ expertise, I became intrigued with their record of tracker training courses across the world: they served in Eastern European countries during the expansion of the EU, in Central Asia, and on the Arabian peninsula. Some of these tracker courses seem to be part of EXBS (Export Control and Related Border Security), a US program within an international agreement to counter smuggling and terrorism and to enhance international collaboration of security forces. For my interest in warrior imagery, I would have loved to see the correspondence by which American representatives suggest the use of Shadow Wolf instructors to foreign diplomats, especially the way their tracking expertise is advertised. Unfortunately, it seems that these documentsif they are available at allare subject to a FOIA request, and the scope of this article didn’t allow for such a rather time-consuming process.

 

“Sorry Business”: Bronwyn Carlson Presents in Flagstaff on Social Media Use and Mourning in Australian Aboriginal Communities

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While researching Native American veterans’ issues at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, I had the pleasure of seeing a presentation by Dr. Bronwyn Carlson (University of Wollongong, Australia) on 14 October. Dr. Carlson, who visited NAU to discuss collaborations between her institution and the Applied Indigenous Studies Program at NAU, specializes in the study of social media use among Australian Aboriginal communities.

I am fascinated by Carlson’s work because it brings together a number of aspects I have been grappling with for my milblog project. I read the use of social media by primarily non-Indigenous populations (i.e., US soldiers and civilian representatives of the home front) as a cultural practice that conducts cultural work by ceremonially negotiating war experience and, thus, constituting community. My work draws from a discussion of how Indigenous communities in the US reintegrate returning veterans and of the role community support plays in this integration process.

Media-studies approaches to social and new media in the early 2000s tended to be very defensive in stating that virtual communities, such as blog audiences or Facebook groups, could constitute community through relationship-maintaining interaction that was not bound to embodiment and place. Much of these debates seemed to defend against allegations that online communities could not be communities, exactly because they were not spatial and embodied, and often did not enable synchronous conversation (such as the sequence of blog post and readers’ comments).

While my own work draws from observations about Native American war-related ceremonies to argue that non-Native milblogs, indeed, constitute community because they perform ceremonial acts of narrating war experience and social support through audience response (an indirect link between Indigenous communalism and social media), Bronwyn Carlson’s research focuses on how Australian Aboriginals directly operationalize social media for community-related cultural practices.

One aspect of this would be the question of forging identity – I have been asked repeatedly in how far online space as a playground for assuming another identity might be a problem for my work on milblogs, in how far some blogs might be fakes assuming a “hero” identity In the case of veterans and soldiers, I am sure that any wannabe milbloggers would be called out very quickly because the milblogosphere so so well-connected and because the topics are so specific that faking expertise would be too difficult to succeed. However, the fact that some popular (general) blogs turned out to be based on fictitious identities, and the widespread utilization of anonymity in social media raised the question of authenticity among many colleagues to whom I presented my work. ‘Playing with identity’ seems to be primarily a problem of the “Western” world, though, if we consider Dr. Carlson’s work. Australian Aboriginals tend to be more interested in representing, emphasizing, and strengthening their cultural identity through their representation of “self” in social media, rather than engage in ethnic, social, or gender drag.

Carlson’s presentation and articles illustrate that Australian Aboriginals not only use social media at higher rates than non-Indigenous Australians, but that their use of the media opportunities goes beyond typical non-Indigenous uses, as well. It incorporates culturally-specific elements that serve to (re-)instate cultural identity: Because many communities have been torn apart due to forced adoptions, residential schools, or employment requirements, many Australian Aboriginal communities face challenges in continuing particular practices, and social media offer opportunities to remedy this predicament.

This is especially important regarding matters of death and mourning, which are called “Sorry Business” among Aboriginal communities. Sorry Business entails social obligations, based on reciprocity and social support, participating in ceremonies, and representing one’s extended family. Social media allows people to inform distant relatives about the death of particular community members through online obituaries, to organize transport to remote funeral ceremonies, to extend gestures of support and condolences online if attendance at a funeral is impossible, and to dedicate online sites as memorials to deceased persons, to which users can contribute by posting stories, images, or messages. I have seen similar practices and functions of bridging the spatial divide in milblog-representations of mourning, and am fascinated by the similar utilization of technology to continue cultural communal traditions between them and the expressions of Aboriginal Sorry Business.

I found especially remarkable that Dr. Carlson presented this cultural phenomenon from various angles, discussing culturally-specific problems such as the impact of staggering numbers of suicides among Australian Aboriginal youth on Sorry Business in the social media, and internal debates on cultural taboos (such as visual representations and mentioning the names of deceased persons online). These perspectives complicate our understanding of the matter, yet they illustrate intriguingly how a culture is not only confronted and challenged by technological and social change, but also, how community members take up the challenge and seek to incorporate these new technologies into its cultural and social fabric. Representations of internal debates and conflicts over cultural taboos versus opportunities to conduct ceremonies and commemorate lost community members, after all, indicate that this culture is alive and kicking.