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.
In the wake of the refugee crisis since 2014, populism, nationalism, and right-wing extremism have surged in Germany. Protagonists within this discourse frequently invoke Native American imagery for their nativist and xenophobic arguments. I have discussed aspects of their ideas and claims in earlier posts and linked them to the nationalist and Nazi ideologies of the early twentieth century:
The latest example of cross-cultural references to Indigenous peoples in German nationalism came up when I read about a ruling at the Federal Administrative Court (Bundesverwaltungsgericht). The issue concerned one of the so-called Reichsbürger (Reich Citizen) groups, a movement that does not acknowledge the Federal Republic of Germany as legitimate, arguing that the German Reich, as far as international law is concerned, never ceased to exist. They refuse to pay taxes and fines and have been known to physically attack representatives of the state, such as police, court officers, and civil servants. See this informative article in The Guardian for more details on the Reichsbürger, especially on incidents involving guns and violence in 2016.
This week, the FAC in Leipzig issued a statement that it did not acknowledge the legitimacy of a particular Reichsbürger group. The problem is that German courts had a thumb rule of never engaging in any dispute with Reichsbürger over their interpretation of the law, never accepting their phony documents, nor addressing them with their self-proclaimed titles. The FAC, apparently, had addressed one such group by their own title which they then had interpreted as the court’s acknowledgment of their legitimacy as an independent state. In a public statement yesterday, the court made clear that their address, in fact, did not acknowledge the group’s legitimacy (see this article in German in Legal Tribune Online for more).
Where is the connection to Native Americans in all this? The Reichsbürger group had proclaimed itself as the “indigene Volk Germaniten” (the Indigenous people of the Germanites), calling their state “Germanitien” (something like “Germanitia” in German). The court had apparently addressed them as “the Indigenous people of the Germanites” in their correspondence.
I have found one of their documents online, an “accreditation certificate” for a member of the diplomatic corps of “Germanitia” in which they describe their group as a “free church,” a “human rights organization,” but also as the representatives of the “constitutive Indigenous people of the Germanites” who claim the right to constitute a sovereign “interim” state independent from the laws of what they see as the illegitimate state of the Federal Republic of Germany.
I could not yet verify if this particular group, or others within this movement of conspiracy theorists, are particularly invested in ideas of German Indianthusiasm or if they make direct historical comparison to Native Americans, but I find it remarkable that their argumentation follows the old nationalist idea of Germans as an Indigenous people. Their bizarre notions of international law employ both blood-and-soil ideology, as well as a vague notion of modern Indigenous sovereignty/human rights claims.
I have been invited to the 6th Central German Conference on the History of Medicine and Science at the College of Medicine at Martin Luther University Halle/Wittenberg this week. The conference featured a number of presentations on the history of Halle’s university and affiliated research institutions, and several on the history of psychiatry in (central) Germany.
My talk presented a brief overview on my current research project, particularly the social-activist stance in public discourse on war experience, veterans’ issues, and PTSD in US civil society. Writing this, I realize how much the project has expanded in recent years: Initially, I described it as an analysis of milblogs, read through the lens of Indigenous warrior traditions. Today, with the book manuscript almost completed, I find that milblogs comprise only one among many source types informing the project, and that its discussion covers research interests and methodology from literary and cultural studies, (new) media studies, anthropology, cultural and medical history, and psychology.
In Halle, I focused on notions of social therapy and cultural transfer in public discourse about PTSD and military psychology since Vietnam. In particular, I addressed how the frequent reference to Native American traditions among civic activists helped promote social therapy, alternative medicine, and the notion of ritual as a therapeutic tool in US psychology, psychiatry, and social work on veterans’ issues.
What I found fascinating about the conference was the opportunity to compare and contextualize: Many presentations also touched upon the role of social issues in German psychiatric history, notably the competition between biological and social approaches after 1945. Apparently, social perspectives in psychiatry coming from the US and the UK (e.g. discussing the origin of psychoses) heavily influenced public and academic debates in post-war West Germany. Eventually, these social perspectives helped pass legislation that made victims of Nazi persecution eligible for financial compensation – dominant biological explanations (e.g. the assumption that genetic predispositions were the sole root of psychoses) had prevented such compensation for years after the war.
It was striking to compare the interweaving of psychological/psychiatric research, public debates, and contemporary social problems in post-war Germany with the public debates on war-related psychological injuries and civil-military relationships in the US, and once more realize the transatlantic dimension of such public debates. I hope that I can present further thoughts and evolving ideas in more posts during the coming weeks to accompany the completion of my manuscript.
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.
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 have―on 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.