This year’s annual meeting of the German Association for American Studies had popular culture as its central theme. At the opening, speakers pointed to the apparent disconnect between the strong tradition of popular-culture scholarship in German American studies and the fact that, until this year’s 66th meeting, popular culture had never been the central theme.
My colleagues Katharina Gerund and Mareike Spychala invited me to speak in the panel “Images of War: Popular Culture as Militainment.” The panel was a good opportunity to get together with colleagues in the field of military life writing and military culture research. In German American studies, quite a few thesis projects addressed topics such as post-9/11 war memoirs, fiction, milblogs, or focused on aspects such as gender in first-person war narratives. More projects are currently underway.
Inspired by discussions on the proliferation of loaded terms such as “warrior” at earlier GAAS meetings, I drew on research for my recently published book to take a closer look at terminology and concepts. I presented examples from military parlance and institutions (e.g. the Soldier’s Creed, Warrior Transition Units), self-help books, and civic activism, where the term “warrior” has been fashionable since the early 2000s.
Although usage of the term “warrior” for US military personnel seems ubiquitous, diverse protagonists argue against its use and insist on calling military personnel “soldiers.” I cited a few examples of criticism from folks who believe that an association with “warriors” and warrior culture diminishes the emphasis on professionalism in the US military. These arguments, however, often employ an ethnocentric, ahistoric, sometimes even racist understanding of “warriors” in that historical warriors are portrayed as undisciplined, bloodthirsty glory hounds. This notion goes hand in glove with the popular understanding and usage of “tribal,” i.e. the notion that a ‘tribal’ group derives its identity from hatred and the resulting violence against any and all outsiders. Historical examples for such negative portrayals of ‘warriors’ are often ancient Greeks, medieval knights, or Indigenous groups.
In contrast, a lot of the activist scholarship and non-fiction I analyzed for Ceremonial Storytelling frequently refers to Native American warrior traditions and, thus, employs a positivist representation of ‘warriors,’ mainly through the perspective of social relationships. I discussed examples such as Sebastian Junger’s Tribe and Edward Tick’s Warrior’s Return to argue that these social activists see psychological war injury and veterans’ reintegration problems as signs of a social crisis in US society, rather than as mere individual afflictions. They seek inspiration and role models from the social responsibilities between Indigenous warriors and their communities (and are sometimes dismissed as “primitivism fantas[ies]” for that reason). Applying a social perspective to the concept of the warrior, these activist scholars and writers hope to develop civic ceremonies, such as town hall meetings with veterans and civilians on Memorial Day, to mend civil-military relationships and to promote veteran reintegration. In their understanding, a warrior is not a bloodthirsty individualist, but someone who sacrifices personal interest for the benefit of the group, and they call upon US civil society to acknowledge its responsibility for soldiers in return.
My fellow panelists presented work on the “metonymic war veteran” in cultural expressions such as Black Panther (David F. Eisler), on the soldier group as a symbol for US society in combat films such as Air Force and Full Metal Jacket (Martin Holtz), on the depiction of child soldiers in graphic novels (Tatiana Prorokova), and on the representations of violence and diversity in the children’s TV show Liberty’s Kids on PBS (Carsten Junker).
In the context of my new job, I got involved in an international research project titled “Curating (Post)Socialist Environments” about museum work and (art) history in Eastern Europe, and how people in Eastern European countries built, organized, created, refined – i.e., curated – exhibitions but also urban landscapes and private homes.
The project gave me an opportunity to delve into the history of the Leipzig museum during the GDR, especially the museum’s relationship with diverse regional clubs of Indian hobbyists. I spent a few weeks at the museum library and archives to study old yearbooks, visitor’s books, documents, and exhibition scripts. In addition, I did a survey of references to Native Americans in East German TV shows from news to kids’ shows to ethnographic documentaries at Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv (German TV and Radio Archive) and looked at reports and documents on cultural and education policy at the Bundesarchiv (Federal Archive).
All this generated more than enough material for several articles, and there are still documents to be perused. I finished the manuscript for an article that will be part of the research group’s forthcoming anthology titled Curating (Post)Socialist Environments.
Last week, I attended the conference “Museums in the GDR” in Rostock, organized by the Richard-Schöne-Gesellschaft für Museumsgeschichte and the “Kunsthalle Rostock.” The conference also commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Kunsthalle in Rostock, one of the very few museums constructed in East Germany 1949-90.
The conference addresses “questions regarding the organizational, political, and aesthetic development of museums in the GDR, provide answers, and debate[d] blank spaces in previous research.”
“[The meeting] looks into personal, cultural, and intellectual continuities of (East) German museum policy since the Kaiser era to identify unique developments in GDR museum culture, and to discuss international relations, not only with the Eastern Bloc but also the competition with West Germany.” (from the conference press release)
My own contribution introduces some Indian hobby clubs, pointing to Indianthusiast continuities since the 19th century. I emphasized that the Leipzig Museum für Völkerkunde and local hobby clubs built their relationship for mutual benefit: On the one hand, hobbyists approached the museum to gain reliable resources about Native Americans. They learned about exhibition concepts and practices, and sometimes could use the museum as a platform to present their own activities and skills to the public.
On the other hand, the museum fulfilled its mandate to serve as a link between the state’s ideological directives on education and culture, scholarship, and the populace. Supporting the hobbyists’ amateur ethnography was a welcome opportunity for the museum to implement the state’s doctrine of popular education (especially the so-called “Bitterfelder Weg”) and to gain further insight into the museum’s own collection from the hobbyists’ growing practical experience with reconstructing material culture.
By employing the term “:experimental ethnography,” I argue that both the hobbyists (who had to justify their work with state officials to obtain permits for club activities) and the museum (which was supposed to support youth culture and non-professional interests) portrayed their mutual activities as serious work. Framing their activities as amateur research and exhibitions with a political motivation (anti-imperialist solidarity) apparently could demonstrate to the state that hobbyism went beyond mere horseplay, that hobbyists were not ‘just playing Indian.’
I have been working at a new job for over a year now, so the job isn’t that “new” anymore, but I never got around to adjust my online profiles accordingly, so here goes:
I now serve as curator for the American collections at the State Ethnographic Collections Saxony (SES), a museum collaboration with sites in Leipzig, Dresden, and Herrnhut. The SES is part of the State Art Collections Dresden (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, SKD), a collaboration of fifteen state-run museums in Saxony holding more than a million objects.
After I did a post-graduate internship at the GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig in 2011, I already knew the North American collection and many of the colleagues. I’ve spent much of last year working with the collections, and was involved with research and exhibition project at all sites.
My tasks as a curator, apart from research in collections and contributions to exhibition projects, include a lot of provenance research involving object and collector biographies and archival research. This is in part because collections from colonial contexts (e.g., human remains and sensitive objects) have received a lot of public attention in Germany in recent years. Museums put much effort and funding into investigating the history and the problematic aspects of their own collections. This is also tied in with the current large-scale task at SKD to put the entire collection into a searchable online database.
We plan to open new permanent exhibitions at Leipzig and Herrnhut in the early 2020s, so the next few years will bring intense institutional self-reflection and mapping out a course toward modern museums that reflect the state of scholarship, intercultural relations, and contemporary public debates of twenty-first century Germany and Europe.
As part of a team of curators and scholars, I have been involved in a research and exhibition project on the history of tobacco use since March 2018. On Saturday, 25 May 2019, we opened the exhibition Allerwärts: Herrnhut in der Welt des Tabaks, at the Ethnographic Museum in Herrnhut, Saxony.
The exhibition approaches tobacco from a unique angle. Rather than looking at the cultural history of smoking, or the historical development of debates about health, we use tobacco as an example to discuss local-global networks through a lens of interelated cultural, economic, and social history questions. Apart from sociocultural contexts of tobacco consumption, along with utensils (such as pipes and pouches) in diverse source communities, the exhibit opens up local contexts between merkantile and missionary activities of the Unity of the Brethren (Moravian Church). On the one hand, the Moravian Church ran a thriving company, Abraham Dürninger & Co, that was already a global player in the textile and tobacco trade during the 18th century. The exhibition discusses Dürninger’s tobacco networks, as well as the company’s advertising and how their ads’ imagery fit within global historical trends of promoting colonial products and of representing colonized peoples.
On the other hand, tobacco played a major economic role in many of the Moravian mission stations spread all over the world. The exhibition uses examples from stations in Greenland, South Africa, and the south Russian Wolga region to show how tobacco supported the economic subsistence of the stations, or was handed out as a gift to (potential) converts.
Finally, the exhibition addresses the historical role of tobacco for ethnographic collections: it presents objects related to tobacco consumption that were collected by Moravian missionaries and given to museums in Saxony. In addition, it discusses how ethnogaphers used tobacco as currency to obtain objects from source communities.
I focused my contribution on “Indian” imagery in tobacco ads, ranging from broadsides and cigar box labels to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of “cigar store Indian” statues and German collectible image albums that were major advertising devices after the 1920s. One of the central objects in the exhibit is a statue of an “Indian” wearing a plains feather headdress with integrated mechanism to cut cigar tips and to light a cigar. The Dürninger company had ordered the carving of this statue to decorate its Berlin show room for the 1936 Olympic Games.
The research group is currently working to complement the exhibition with a collection of academic essays to present research results. We expect this collection to be published in 2020.
I’m happy to announce that my new monograph, Ceremonial Storytelling. Ritual and Narrative in Post-9/11 US Wars, was released with Peter Lang a few days ago.
Initially designed as a series of close readings about soldier blogs written from deployment in Afghanistan, the project quickly expanded into a discussion of the public discourse about war experience, civil-military relationships, and military firsthand writing on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Especially fascinating was the perspective of scholars, medical practitioners, and civic activists on the role of firsthand reports about war experience in Native American warrior traditions. It seems that, in postulating the ‘forever wars’ of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq as social crises, many Americans come to understand psychological injury and PTSD as a social issue, rather than a personal affliction.
Consequently, the book observes how civic activists and activist scholars promote Indigenous warrior traditions as role models for non-Native American veteran reintegration and health care. They particularly stress the role of ritual and narrative for civil-military negotiations of war experience and for trauma therapy. Applying a cultural-comparative lens, this book reads non-Native soldiers’ and veterans’ life writing from post-9/11 wars as “ceremonial storytelling.” It analyses activist academic texts, “milblogs” written in the war zone, as well as “homecoming scenarios,” that is, multimedial texts and performative practices in which returned veterans share their war experiences with civilians in a ceremonial setting. Soldiers’ and veterans’ interactions with civilians in these texts and scenarios constitute jointly constructed, narrative civic rituals that discuss the meaning of war experience and homecoming.
The monograph follows an American-cultural-studies approach but also draws on ideas, concepts, and methodologies from literary theory, Native American studies, (new) media studies, (new) military history, cultural history, psychology, ritual studies, narratology, and cultural anthropology.
I will present select aspects of the project, namely observations on the popular depiction of US soldiers as “warriors,” at the annual meeting of the German Association for American Studies in Hamburg in June.
I’m glad to announce that two articles from my research on veterans and war narratives have been released recently. This work is part of the larger research initiative “Selbst-Bewusste Erzählungen” on the interrelations of textuality and social relevance in contemporary US literature and culture, originated as a research collaboration between TU Dresden and Leipzig University.
One article, “’To Put Others Before Yourself’: Volunteerism and Mental Health in US Veterans’ Projects,” discusses two NGOs organized by and for veterans to analyze how their activism responds to the sense of social crisis prevalent in these public debates on veterans’ affairs (The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon). It presents the projects’ online self-representation and their documentation in activist scholarship and journalism to carve out how civic engagement in veterans’ affairs challenges the traditional myth of American individualism to promote volunteerism and community service as vehicles for reintegration, promoting – and enacting – the civil-military social contract.
The other article, “’Writing Yourself Home’: US Veterans, Creative Writing, and Social Activism” explores how public discourse about civil-military relationships, war experience, and trauma, simmering since the domestic divisions over Vietnam, turned to first-person narratives in recent years to discuss the psychological costs of war and homecoming. It interprets the proliferation of veterans’ writing projects as part of a civic activist movement that seeks to address veterans’ social and emotional struggles through community (re)building and social therapy. The writing projects promote themselves as a means to bridge the experiential gap between civilians and veterans and, in doing so, they enact social reintegration.
The manuscript for the project’s main publication, my second monograph Ceremonial Storytelling. Ritual and Narrative in Post-9/11 Wars, was recently submitted to Peter Lang Publishing and will be released in their American Culture series.
In May 2015, I attended a conference on the history of German perceptions of the US since 1945 in Tutzing. My presentation explored how nationalist and racist tropes of the Nazi era utilized Native American imagery and historical comparison, and how these arguments were adapted among neo-Nazis and right-wing populists in Germany to stoke nativist sentiment during the current refugee crisis. In the following months, I developed a series of blog posts on this issue:
Earlier this month, my colleague Volker Benkert published the German-language conference collection, titled Feinde, Freunde, Fremde?…. My contribution further develops ideas laid out in these early blog posts. Other contributions cover transatlantic comparative analyses of genocide, German-American cultural transfer, perspectives on the US in East and West Germany during the Cold War, and German-American relations until today.
Initially, I had intended the series on Indian imagery in German nativism and immigration on this blog to be a minor spin-off following my dissertation research. Recent events, such as the growing influx of refugees since 2014, the rise of nationalist, nativist, and racist political organizations, and their increasing visibility in public discourse, however, merit more deeper explorations of the issue. It seems that protagonists in these public debates not only recycle Indian imagery and argumentation from the Nazi era, but that growing exchange and interrelation among similar political currents across Europe also shares and disseminates related imagery, such as references to Native Americans and Indigeneity.