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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 (release in April 2021).
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 introduced 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.
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.
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.
I have meant to write this post for a long time. Christmas holidays this year seemed like a good opportunity. The post, though, doesn’t have much to do with Christmas, or New Year’s. It actually doesn’t even provide a list of fun facts on Hitler. However, Hitler is the lead for the following deliberations. And his name still makes for catchy titles. As German journalists say, children, animals, sex, and Hitler will always sell. You only need to check out title pages of magazines such as Der Spiegel or Stern. (I guess it is not much different in US journalism). If you found this post because of Hitler’s name in the title, my plan worked. Welcome. Besides, it means that colleagues who suggested I change the title of my forthcoming book from Fellow Tribesmen to Chief Hitler or Hitler’s Indians had a point. However, I am still convinced the book’s title is good as it is since it is by no means about Hitler’s perception of Native Americans alone. Nor is this post.
This entry is about an article in the Washington Post, published on 27 November 1940. Titled “Wer niemals narrisch war (He who has never been silly)” [this was before the era of gender neutral terms], it is part of the popular syndicated series On the Record by Dorothy Thompson. Thompson was one of the leading female journalists in the United States during the early 20th century and had spent several years in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s. She was also the first foreign journalist to be kicked out of Germany for criticizing the Nazis. The article discusses Hitler’s alleged attempt to outlaw the public use of Saxonian dialect because, apparently, “it made the German people seem ridiculous.” I say alleged because I never had the chance to follow-up Thompson’s claim and check my facts on this. So, I don’t know whether Hitler really tried to outlaw Saxonian dialect or whether he even suggested it. I don’t recall coming across discussions of Saxonian dialect while researching collections of Hitler’s speeches for my dissertation. And here, my post’s title finally falters, because we don’t know if, while funny, this is really a “fact” about Hitler. Bear with me, though.
I found this article while researching American newspapers for discussions of German Indianthusiasm during the Nazi era in 2007. I used the database ProQuest Historical Newspapers which holds a number of American daily newspapers, digitized and available for full-text search, from their first issues. This means you can conduct a full text research of New York Times issues from the 1860s. I still marvel about the simplicity of this research instrument: I only had to type in the search terms “Indian” and “Nazi,” specify my period of interest (1925-1945) and came up with the most remarkable articles. I had to refine my search because there were so many articles about Gandhi, and about Indianapolis, that were not pertinent for my research (I forgot how the city was related to Nazis, but it came up quite often).
Still, ProQuest led me to a number of gems. Particularly because the article’s titles would never suggest anything pertinent to Indians and Nazis, such as Thompson’s. Full text search functions made it possible. I cannot help but wonder what other gems I would have found if German newspapers had been digitized and available for full-text search, as well. Instead, I had to rely on the Internationale Bibliographie der deutschen Zeitschriftenliteratur, called Dietrich after the publishers, and on the indexing criteria of their editors. They indexed 90,000 articles from 5000 periodicals including daily newspapers, academic journals, weekly magazines, and single issue magazines (on topics such as hunting, medicine, and gardening) in 1940. For my research, I located some 1200 articles via Dietrich, but I also found a number of great sources by browsing in magazines, newspapers, and articles, leading me to wonder about Dietrich’s selection criteria.
Back to Thompson and Saxonian dialect, though. Thompson speaks of “Saxonian,” other sources of “Saxon,” I’ll stick to her version for now. First, Thompson explains to her American audience the significance of Saxony and the Saxonians’ dialect in German culture: “The Saxonians are not, by nature, soldiers and administrators but sober folks whose lives are industrial and commercial.” I like to tell my American friends that the difference between Saxonians and Prussians in history was that Saxonians invested their money in building marvelous palaces and filling them with marvelous things, while the Prussians invested theirs in armies to plunder Saxonian (and other) palaces. This is a bit harsh and overgeneralizing but that seems to be the gist of Saxonian history.
I once saw a satirical sketch on TV in which a Saxonian is invited by the Federal Government during the 1990s to come to Berlin and tell the leaders what Saxonians, their recently re-acquired constituents, are about. This Saxonian character rattles off a long list of wars in which Saxonians weren’t too lucky with their alliances: “To our friends, we are trouble. In the Seven Years War (1756-63), we sided with Austria and Russia against Prussia, and we lost. In 1806, we believed Prussia was great so we sided with them against Napoleon, and we lost. So, we thought Napoleon was a great guy, and went to Russia with him in 1812, and we lost. We even lost a major battle in our city of Leipzig in 1813 (against Prussia, Austria, and Russia). In 1866, we went with Austria against Prussia again, and lost the Battle of Königgrätz. As for 1914-1918, the end of that story is well-known. In 1939-1945, we went with the Nazis, and lost as well. So we thought, ‘the Communists have won the war, we should go with them.’ Today, Communism has become extinct and we’ve lost again. And now,” the Saxonian told the German chancellor, “we’re with you guys.” And that’s when they angrily chased him out of Berlin. So, given our historical ill luck in soldiering and making alliances, it is no wonder that Thompson says “Saxonians, it is clear, are not a breed of heroes, but, alas, of babbits.”
Thompson adds that there is a “tolerant myth in Germany that the Saxonians are stupid.” It is surprising to hear that this was an issue in the 1930s already, for it certainly is true today. Ever since the Fall of the Wall, if you want to make fun of East Germans, and if you want to portray East Germans as stupid, babbity, and backward, you imitate Saxonian dialect (to the detriment of Thuringians and North East German coast dwellers, who are thus conveniently lumped together with us). I once explained this cultural malpractice of portraying East Germans as stupid Saxonians to fellow graduate students in Tucson. One of my friends put her arms around her lover and said: “Oh, he knows what you’re talking about, he’s from West Virginia.” Over and over again, newspapers and TV stations publish surveys stating that Saxonian is the least popular dialect in German. You get the picture. However, Thompson adds in her description that Saxonians, albeit being perceived as stupid, shrewdly put this reputation to their advantage by “presenting themselves as innocent idiots.”
Thompson’s examples of the hilarity of Saxonian dialect, and her depictions and explanations for an American audience are awesome, especially for a Saxonian who knows the dialect and has been the butt of jokes about it. It’s a shame that you have to read this, rather than have somebody perform the pronunciations for you. Thompson uses her examples to mark Saxonian dialect as “full of ‘bulls,’” as “skeptical,” and as “the idiom of debunking” that is “a caricature of all that is sophisticated and highfalutin.” So true. The high German term “Die Blüte der Kultur,” which she translates as “the flowering of culture” (I’d say something like heyday or prime of culture) would be pronounced by a Saxonian as “Die bleete de kerltur,” Says Thompson. She adds: “immediately culture bleats rather than blooms.”
I find this a perfect observation and example, both of the pronunciation and what it does to the conveyed meaning of what is said. I should add, though, that Thompson missed some of the signature elements of Saxonian pronunciation: We round our consonant’s edges: t, k, and p will mostly be pronounced as d, g, and b. Our vowels are usually diphthongs: o is mostly ou, e pronounced more often as ey, and so forth. Check this wikipedia entry for more technical information on the dialect. A British plumber I once met at a bar in Leipzig told me it was especially these diphthongs that revealed to him how close relatives Saxonian and Anglo-Saxon are. I don’t know if a linguist would agree, but my friend’s reasoning sounded convincing.
Regardless of the fine points of Saxonian pronunciation, Thompson is right on the money saying “[t]he reason that Saxonian has become the stage language of broad comedy lies precisely in its capacity to pull down to earth everything that is romantic, overblown, boastful, heroic.” A Saxonian lover, “apostrophizing his adored,” she says, “will begin by likening her to a gazelle and end by rapturously calling her his little iltis. It is a sweet-sounding word, but an iltis is a polecat.” I can confirm that I have never called a woman an iltis, so this may have been a term specific to the era – I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if my grandfather said things like that; he had some very funny-sounding nicknames for my grandma.
In any case, Thompson’s gist should become clear, especially when she goes on to relate anecdotes about Friedrich August III, the last Saxon king who, as popular lore has it, told revolutionaries in 1918 when they demanded his abdication, “Nu, macht doch Euern Dreck aleene!” (Thomson translates this as “Okay! Do the dirty work by yourselves.”). Refusing to go into exile and living out the rest of his days as a citizen in Saxony, he is said to have reprimanded a crowd cheering him in the 1920s: “And a fine set of Republicans you are! Ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” The wiki entry on him linked above provides slightly different translations than Thompson’s.
None of these quotes can be verified by historical sources, but the fact that Saxonians are still proud of these stories today proves Thompson’s point:“It is very hard to pin anything on a Saxonian because he is so ‘dumb.’ It’s never clear whether he really means his irony. His ‘dumbness’ is his excuse. His sabotage of the great abstractions is expressed in mere inflection – or a contempt of vowels.” This was true for Thompson’s observation in the 1930s, and it still works today. Comedians such as Uwe Steimle and Olaf Schubert have brought the unreliable dumbness of the Saxonian to perfection, both in their attire, their facial expressions, their topics, and the way they wear their dialect and its accompanying cultural reputation on their sleeves.
Thompson is very clever in using the Saxonians’ reputation against the Nazis, invoking some of Hitler’s idols: Wagner, Nietzsche, and Karl May, all of whom were Saxonians. She remarks on Wagner’s and Nietzsche’s “revolting from the ‘common people,’ the Babitty atmosphere that surrounded them” and that had an impact on Europe but apparently not on Saxony because “at home, in their slippers, Wagner and Nietzsche both spoke dialect. When the two now-acknowledged harbingers of the Third Reich fell out with each other in a quarrel that shook the world of international culture, they probably fell out in Saxonian.” I am very grateful to Thompson for putting the image of Nietzsche and Wagner having an argument in Saxonian in my head. Although, to be fair, it should be said that, today, Nietzsche is not so much considered as a harbinger of the Third Reich anymore among historians. One of the reasons Nietzsche and Wagner fell out with each other is that Nietzsche couldn’t stand Wagner’s anti-Semitism.
Thompson muses that Saxony produced all three geniuses, who imagined popular dream worlds, but that it probably could only be Saxony to “furnish a comfortable world in which genius could compose, flagellate and dream.”
This leads her to her attack on Hitler: “I have a hunch that Hitler’s rage against Saxonian is really a rage against the Common Man, whose unheroic desire for a small comfortable life – flowers in the window, a secure job, home and family, a canary, a daughter who plays the piano, and a lot of food – is so stubborn and so very un-Nazi. ” In this description of the Saxonian as the “Common Man”, she basically matches most of the traits Americans at the time might have agreed upon as an American ideal: to live a simple, good life far away from any government activity. She portrays Saxonians as actually closer to American ideals than to those of the Nazis.
In Thompson’s perspective, “it isn’t that the Saxonian spirit is rebellious. It is just infuriatingly unmartial and skeptical.” Because they are so “infuriatingly unmartial,” Saxonians singing the Horst Wessel Lied or “’Today we own Germany, tomorrow the whole world’ … would frighten no one.” I do not agree with her jape that Saxonians could not produce really good Nazis. Saxonians did their share to make these twelve years as miserable to the whole world as they were. This example illustrates how the attribution of group character traits most likely produces overgeneralizations that can, and will – back then as much as today – be used for either aggrandizement or defamation of these groups, be it notions of the babbity of the Saxonians, of the backstabbing deviousness of the Jews, the diligence and perfectionism of the Germans, or of the inherent zealous warmongering of the Muslims. However, to go back to Thompson’s notion of Saxonians and Nazis, the public reputation of Saxonians and their dialect does, indeed, not seem to be reconcilable with the heroism, militancy, and bombast of Nazi propaganda.
Comparing the features of Saxonian dialect with “the Bostonian ‘a,’ the Middle Western ‘r,’ the Southern vowels,” Thompson launches into a linguistic history of the English language. She details the various languages English borrowed from, and lists a number of very diverse writers who published in English, claiming that all these incorporations, borrowings, and simplifications have made English the “only world language since Latin. This way, not Hitler’s, is imperial, in the transcendental sense of the word.”
The article’s grand finale returns to Hitler’s claim that Saxonian dialect endangers the Germans’s reputation throughout the world: “Hitler argues that the German language, if it cannot be pure, must never be ridiculous. But the cramped effort of man never to be ridiculous can only end in the most gargantuan and ridiculous caricature of man ever drawn. ‘Wer niemals narrisch war, er ist der grösste Narr’ (He who has never been silly is the silliest of all).” Thompson’s final sentences suggest that the suppression of Saxonian dialect, if the rationale behind it was to be taken serious and the ideas would be followed through, would suppress all other dialects and public expressions until only one man, Hitler, is left speaking: “Perhaps all the rest can sing – in one of those gigantic Wagnerian choruses. Or perhaps the rest is silence.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Thompson’s notion on the political power and the double meaning of silliness in this wonderful example. As a historical document, her article brilliantly deconstructs how silly the Nazis’ arguments on culture actually were, especially in their attempts to be anything but silly. This article is also, in a way, timeless, and not simply because Saxonian dialect is still considered silly and its speakers as stupid. Especially in the realm of politics, a bit of silliness is often the best way to bear the rhetoric, logical, and polemic garbage that political leaders (and those who professionally report on our leaders’ activities) dish out every day, be it in Europe, the United States, or elsewhere. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the Daily Show and Colbert Report are more popular sources of information than some of the news shows they mock. I’m glad to live in a society where one can call on the silliness of leaders, without having to fear the reprisals the Nazis held in stock for anybody deemed disloyal. Still, leaders’ silliness as an affliction is not restricted to the most oppressive regimes. We face it every day.
So, thanks for tuning in, I’ll go watch a few silly YouTube clips now, or maybe read a few politicians’ speeches. In Saxonian.