Archive for category Thinky-thoughts
A year and a month ago, I finished my MSc dissertation in Digital Anthropology, on a topic I usually simplify to ‘atheist summer camp and how digital technology is (and isn’t) used there.’ The 16,000 words I submitted at 3:00 AM on the last grueling day may eventually become a right proper ‘publication;’ in the meantime, I shortened it to a blog post for Material World (one of several recent anthropology-themed posts of mine).
The following year (which is to say, recently), a number of my friends went through the same process, and I helped with revisions. I hope my advice was useful to them; for me, it was also an opportunity to reflect on the process of writing and editing, and emerge with what I hope are useful insights on writing composing a large, multi-draft dissertation-type document that involves theory, research, and personal experience.
The Great Draft of the Internet abounds in generic writing and productivity advice, which one could, ironically, waste a lot of time reading. Some of it’s useful, some crappy, some usefully tongue-in-cheek, some implicitly extrapolable from the exemplarily productive, including censorious dictators. As such, the aims of this document are rather modest: writing’s a personal, contextual, and highly contingent thing, and it’s probably best to learn by doing and then reflecting. However, in terms of communicating knowledge of the writing process, de-contextualized useful advice has a tendency to sound both heroic and generic, speaking to ideals while bypassing the messiness of the writing process. Also, generally speaking, it’s difficult to remember what’s commonly taught in high school, to speculate on what may or may not be taught in school internationally, and judge what’s practical and what are the (rational and irrational) bugaboos of English majors and house styles.
Drafts are liminal: never meant to be displayed, and yet, necessary to write (and then, read) to make something deliverable and definite. The finish may be pleasantly beyond one’s original vision, though – if working in good faith – also inevitably compromised by (at best) the impossibility of depicting the whole of reality, and likely: time, inexperience, fatigue, apathy, and the tendency of the present to demand your attention. As David McDougall wrote on ethnographic film, in his essay “The Fate of the Cinema Subject”:
“For the filmmaker, the film is an extract from all footage shot for it, and a reminder of the events that produced it. It reduces the experience onto a very small canvas. For the spectator, by contrast, the film is not small but large: it opens onto a wider landscape.”
Similar arguably goes for all experiences one shapes to share – and the fieldwork-based anthropology dissertation with which I’m familiar (broadly speaking) adds the challenge of considering that experience in light of a theoretical framework. The form bleeds through unevenly in the process of production, at times barely comprehensibly – especially if you’re writing on complex topics. The overall multi-draft production process involves grasping at insight where it’s thick and cogent, while at the same time keeping an eye toward potential directions as yet unknown, as well as the expectations of your readers. One could compare the writing process to participant-observation itself: being in the draft, but not of it, one eye towards the immediacy of experiences (both the writing itself and the remembrances it describes) and the other towards a larger picture, saved insights you must sort through in retrospect. In short, writing is a chronological mess of past, present, future, aspiration and practicality. It’s living inside a non-linear test of Zeno’s Paradox, moving in multiple directions but never quite reaching the end. And then (in more ways than one) you submit.
These are some of the reasons why creative work is challenging, as the dissertation writer is essentially called on to do the work of a seasoned professional, whatever his/her level of comfort or interest in the creative process itself. If you don’t much like writing, the drafting process can make you feel like an introvert delivering a wedding toast that goes on for months. This is why drafts exist: because it is impossible to do all these things at once – and why the process of writing can feel imposing and the end product can turn out pretty satisfying it you work at it.
So get to work. The earlier you start, the better. Slacking off, surfing the web, getting more coffee, re-arranging your pens – we all do it, and (like complaining) it’s an integral part of staying sane. But the actual act of writing is what contributes to the end product, and the foremost contingency of the writing process is actually doing some damn writing, after which, I promise, you will feel better. The more time you spend writing, the more room there is for you to address the content of your ideas. As suggested above, this is a matter of finding both time and energy to write. So when you have the time, be sure it coincides with the energy to be productive. And if you have time but not the focus, consider taking a break lest you spend inordinate time staring at a screen, producing nothing, and calling it “work.” Then get to actual work and don’t beat yourself up, just write.
Don’t consider it “writing” until your words form complete sentences. There was probably more pressure in the days of paper to write in complete sentences, though now the temptation is great to vomit non-linear thinking into a word processor in the hopes of re-arranging it into complete thoughts later. A computer can be a great place to store half-finished thoughts for later, but it’s also a lot of mental work to re-input gibberish back into your mind for processing, much more exhausting than if you did the filtering and processing the first time around. So, where possible, get your thoughts into complete sentences and paragraphs ASAP. No matter how hard you work, you’ll likely spend a certain period of time pre-submission working furtively revising, so it’s best to get as far as you can before you get to that final stretch.
More importantly, the sooner you write, and the sooner you make it understandable to others, the sooner you can seek personalized advice, and move forth into higher-order concerns about the arguments you’re making. That’s what your professors and peers are there for, though they don’t like to receive phone calls past midnight (when you’ll often find yourself working), so you’ll likely find yourself puttering around the Internet for advice (which may have been how you found your way here). Pages like this one are much less useful than personal review, which can supplement these general generic outlines with the specific examples with which you’re wrestling.
Speaking of those arguments you should be making: Don’t just mention things, marshal them towards ends. What’s been written has been written, and it’s only interesting and/or useful contextually to the new thing you’re making. Ideally, you should have something to communicate, and something to say about it. This is, of course, a huge challenge of making readable academic writing: using extant bits of information relevantly, placing them in sentences and paragraphs that convey your discussion goals, their information, and the contextual framework that fits them all together.
For short advice on how to do that: we all get better with practice and good thinking and writing doesn’t develop all at once (see above). To improve in drafting, I would suggest an imperfect relationship-in-development among sentences, concepts, and sources is generally preferable to lists of the same, with little indication for the reviewer what you intend to do with them. In other words, after your prose is readable, make progress toward fitting the bits together usefully. Don’t let drafts linger too long as clusters of hesitantly-connected information.
To choose what to keep and what to discard, don’t ask yourself “Is this relevant?” Ask: “How can I make this relevant?” And if you can’t, delete it. If it’s exceptionally beautiful and you can’t bring yourself to cut it, save it in another document and use it for something else down the line. Have a justification, however spurious, for why a statement / paragraph exists, which you can then use to judge its potential uses. If you’ve worked hard on a section and it still doesn’t feel right, you may be missing the obvious: it’s not working, and you should cut it. Or save it for another piece in another time, when maybe you can make it right.
For example: this blog posts starts with a short narrative that hopefully engages with a bit of drama, establishes my relevant experience, and accounts for the year’s gap between this and my previous post. I included other credentials (my professional writing experience and B.A. in Writing) in earlier drafts, but removed them because I felt they derailed the piece’s focus and failed at establishing credibility: mentioning I wrote a thesis establishes experience, but you’ll likely decide whether I’m full of crap based on the quality of writing in this article, my writing degree and other work experience be damned. I cut and pasted those sentences into another document, and eventually re-worked them into the text here. Had I not been discussing the mechanics of editing, I would have left them out – as I did a direct link to this other Material World article I wrote. All this is not just a narcissistic ploy to discuss myself: see how vaguely relevant discussion – things mentioned, but not necessarily applied – grinds this piece to a halt? I had another two paragraphs elaborating on an example directly from my dissertation, and I spent an hour developing them, but cut them because they largely duplicated (even more chunkily) info in this paragraph. Anyway, continuing:
Use active voice. You may be attracted to passive voice because it sounds vaguely intellectual – or when you’re an undergrad, because it tends to pad out word counts. However, in the dissertation, you’re much more likely to have the problem of staying under word count. More importantly, passive voice is emblematic of an issue problematic for academic writing: a lack of specificity, the lack of clarity it produces around who performs an action. One of the good reasons to use passive voice is to evade directly mentioning an action’s performers, which you should do strategically, not by accident.
The easiest way to fix the passive voice / specificity problem is to make sure your sentences have an actor performing an action. People and things do stuff to other people and other things: this advice was constantly drilled into my head throughout high school and college, and yet it’s so easy to slip into writing in passive voice that I did it in this very sentence. I could correct it by saying teachers drilled this advice into my head.
The composition classic The Elements of Style also mentions this (like I said, probably the most common bit o’ writing-teacher writing advice) in its current 4th edition, section II.2, page 18. Have a read of the Elements of Style, especially sections II and IV, respectively “Elementary Principles of Composition” and “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”; I regard sections I and III as more take-it-or-leave-it-English-teacher preoccupations.
Write the paper you‘re writing, not the paper you didn’t write. As you re-draft, you’ll probably find your paper deviates from what you originally envisioned. As I stated above, this is partially from the thrill of discovery and partially from inevitable compromises. A result is often loose ends you don’t have time to develop – usually beginning with the vestigial remains of story about what you set out to produce in the first place, a personal narrative that has an unfortunate tendency to lodge itself at the beginning of a draft and send the paper down a multi-paragraph dead end. In the case of my dissertation, I began wanting to research evangelical Christian robotics enthusiasts and wound up studying atheists in the woods. It’s an interestingly ironic reversal, but to explain it in the context of my dissertation would have raise more questions than it answered, encouraging the reader’s mind to wander from the lengthy path ahead. Developing such scaffolding and removing it are part of developing a project, as is laying desolation to large chunks of text you poured your soul into.
Don’t wait until the last minute to write your abstract. Draft it early. And make it understandable to someone who hasn’t spent months writing your dissertation. I’ve added mine to my website, I stamp it across the ‘publications’ on my CV, so it’s fair to say I see it often – and yet, the further I find myself removed from the process of writing it, the colder I regard it. Compressed language like that may be technically accurate, but it also does the forest-for-trees-missing thing. Still, I’m reluctant to tinker with it because it is what I submitted: the description of the dissertation I submitted. It’s taken me a year to realize that in some respects that simplification I mentioned at the start (“atheist summer camp and how digital technology is (and isn’t) used there”) isn’t necessarily a bad thing for what it is: a vague intro, regrettably light on the more interesting theoretical concerns, but not a thesis unto itself.
When you write your dissertation, you’ll have been immersed in the subject matter for a good many months, and anyone reading your dissertation probably doesn’t have your knowledge. They may want to know it, however, and will decide whether to read it based, in large part, on your abstract. Your markers, too, may know the theory or general framework behind your subject, but may not have knowledge of your specific topic. So be sure your abstract is technically accurate and inviting to someone who is interested in your topic and wants to know more. By the end of writing, you’ll be more or less insane anyway – and for some time after your submission, you may be pre-occupied with hyper-thoughts of better wordings.
You likely don’t agree with a lot of what I’m saying. This is because you realized I’ve made assumptions that don’t resonate with you. Communication is inherently assumptive, and early drafts especially so. After you’ve had the productive burst of actually getting something on the page, you can go back and recognize those assumptions in your own writing, and in revision, give them more nuance. Practicing writing is also much more useful than listening to advice; I suspect the personal nature of writing makes it easier (after a certain point) to develop by doing than to resonantly communicate useful aspects of the process; I imagine this post will – against my better efforts – resonate more sympathetically with those who have written a dissertation than those who are beginning writing one. Just as I’ve chosen not to go back, however, and attempt to strip these apparent subjectivities from this blog post (and it is a blog post and not a thesis, where less revision is a luxury, and the temptation to revise tends to lead me to create fewer posts), this is less an exhortation to strive for possibly unattainable-perfection than encouragement to writerly self-awareness: to understand the possibilities out of which to choose a position, and go forth confident and aware. If you’re concerned about anything, just write.
London, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Corfu, Katerini
March 29 – April 18th
How long do you have to spend in a place to know it, or (at least) to make some worthwhile pronouncement about it and/or your experience with it? Anthropology says about a year and a half – that’s the standard length of time for doctoral fieldwork. Journalism often gets around the challenges of observation and authority by keeping a great many statements as quotes and attributions. Term papers go by the rule that if someone else said it, it carries weight. Yet limited personal experience with the new, exciting and different is something people is one people often feel compelled to share: IE, travel, something (especially on this blog) I’ve spent a great deal of my time writing about.
A friend of mine, a fellow Midwesterner who visited Europe last year, said that London “feels like it’s the center of something,” a statement with which I concur after having lived there for a year: the city is comfortable with its gravity and has a notable magnetic field. The thing that still strikes me as most endemically (if not uniquely) London as I experienced it is the incredible international diversity of the inner city, the emigrants, expats, natives, tourists, and travelers and the various shades of how one considers him or herself to be any of the above. London is a place that, comfortably embodied as itself, thrives on thoughts of elsewheres. The university scene in London is exemplary of that: I am in a program(me) with very few British students, and even fewer second or third-generation British. At one seminar, I looked across a room of 60 students and counted 40 different countries represented; the remarkable thing here is not the variety, but how commonplace it is. A port town and the former seat of Empire, a place that have always been enmeshed in international exchange, London today feels like a place where the world settles down for a time and then moves on.
“But that’s every city,” said an academic, visiting from Scandinavia, who I met at a conference. “Tell me something unique.”
London is, of course, getting ready to show itself to the rest of the world for the Olympics, at a cost currently estimated at £24 billion ($38 billion USD), up from an original bid of £2.4 billion – changes which operate on “selective logics of inclusion” for both internationals and locals (for a study on potential socio-economic and environmental impact, see here). This international welcome further comes as changes in policy are making it more difficult for foreigners like me to stay and work in the country. The current bonus one gets for paying overseas tuition and graduating from a UK university: until your student visa runs out to find a job (for me, January), or go into the general Tier 2 pool, in which case you must not only be the best person for the job but the only person, as employers are legally required to take a minimally qualified EU candidate over candidates from anywhere else. I don’t think this will change the character of England’s capital much, taken as a whole, but it will create frustrations for a lot of folks looking for a good life and a good living.
The Olympics will obviously be a thoroughly massive and momentous event, but it should also be noted that a common local sentiment regarding them is a fear of logistics: its going to be peak hour on the Tube all day, every day, and twice and packed. We who spend a lot of time here (native born, immigrant, expat, etc) love this city and most of us are totally stoked with the rest of the world visiting if you’d kindly form an orderly queue and not do it all the hell at once. Much like the experience of watching the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee flotilla along the riverside, struggling to see over the heads of the rows in front of you, its a thing that will likely be at its most accessible as televised spectacle, perhaps from somewhere else in Europe, funded by a sublet flat. My current plan: work on my thesis from the relative isolation of Iowa, where I am at present.
The Olympics, however – amidst all its televised glory, logistical complications, and legal clampdowns – highlight part of what makes the questions of my first paragraph so pronounced: ours is an age of mutual awareness and casual exposure.
As I mentioned in my previous post, part of the reason why this blog hasn’t been updated in so long is the migration of personal-storytelling-as-mass-broadcast to Facebook, and from the written blog post to the topical photo album. Among the bits of research I’ve become aware of as a student of Digital Anthropology, David Frohlich divides photography into three eras: in the first – roughly until 1920 – photos were used for documentation. Then, with the introduction of the personal camera, there was a shift toward ‘capturing memories,’ the “Kodak moments” of our families’ lives. Now, with the Internet, the photo is used as a means of outright communication as we regularly post pictures to discuss our lives, to tell jokes, to make political statements, to share the significant with the mundane. This shift is part of the social dynamic that underlies this excellent article disparaging a site I still happen to make frequent use of: “How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet.” Simply put, Flickr is for sharing pictures with people you don’t know, and one of the more pervasive myths of the Internet is that everybody knows everybody.
Vacation pictures were once stereotyped as dreaded albums and slide trays, ritual abuses inflicted by overactive hosts to their captive dinner guests. You’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, you’ve seen your neighbor, and while the pictures of them together may hold an important memory and proof of experience for him/her, the interest you have in seeing the two together may vary. The Internet – however – changed how one shares images, what one shares, and the concept of a ‘vacation’ and how you bring your friends with you – or the world to your friends. Pictures now appear limitless, but their quantity (and the times we take them) spread unevenly in time and space. I think of the preponderance of pictures I take when I’m on the road, along routes with which I have only tenuous, mass-mediated connections. versus the fewer, focused shots of places in which I’ve stayed for extended periods of time. This is vividly illustrated by Eric Fischer – who, using geotagged information – put together these maps of where temporary versus extended residents have taken pictures. As far as the Internet is concerned, the global image of Prague has barely been photographed by any locals (other cities relevant to this series: Berlin and Budapest).
Modern tourism is an act of possession, about seeing things – sometimes wondrous things – and appropriating them as part of our lives, as images and experiences that often converge around recognizable landmarks. In Prague, that is the Old Town Square, the heart of the tourist section, where you do as everyone does: stop and look at the Orloj, the astronomical clock. Built in 1410, it is the oldest timepiece of its kind still working, a rotating and revolving display of hours, minutes, the Zodiac, phases of moon, and the sun, with a procession of medieval vanities and saints rung by Death Itself. As any guidebook will tell you (apocryphally?) the clock was so beautiful that the local leaders blinded its creator lest he surpass it with a subsequent display in some other town. So the clock goes, and – as it has for over four hundred years –the cosmic procession continues, and all the tourists stop and look – as I did seven years ago, and I did this April, as if we can freeze time into something we can take with us.
The Old Town Square is a center for memento commerce, a nexus that one wanders into (purposefully and randomly) on the way to see any number of other sites. On my trip the Easter markets were set up, surrounding the statue of church reformer Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in 1415 for challenging the Church (many reforms he suggested were later pressed by Martin Luther) and whose death sparked nearly two decades of war. This is the heart, too, of a visual performance of place, stacked with things seasonal and mundane, hundreds of varieties of hand-painted hollow eggs and things labeled “Prague,” among which are: wooden dragon puppets, refrigerator magnets, Prague condoms, Prague sex dice, witches, crystal, the same “Born to Be Wild” shirts as were emblazoned with my summer camp’s logo over a decade ago and other quick-press themes (“Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go to “[place]”), plush toys of Zdeněk Miler’s “Mole” character, Mole books. Like the stacks of Royal Wedding kitsch in London that are now being supplanted with soon-to-be-discounted Queen’s Jubilee and London Olympics 2012, these are the marks of a particular image of place, their authenticity drawn from memories and associations of having been procured of a specific location.
The more we walk past that clock, however, the more we ignore it, blend in with it, and ingrain ourselves in a city on its own terms (even if largely as a part of its tourist ecology). Much as in Bourdieu’s idea of the habitus – that the environment contains cues that compel our behavior – we absorb things that surround us, and in growing comfortable with them ignore, turning attention to logistics and life and the background.The notion of difference – and exposure thereto – has been part of what has driven anthropology, too, in tension with the value placed on understanding through length of contact; the tendency to be unaware of so many of the norms of our environments, because of how ingrained they are, to be ‘homeblind.’ Or, to return – a similar sentiment expressed in an oft-quoted line by T.S. Elliot (a Midwesterner who moved to London), that we may “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
For my own region, I remembered the space but forgot about the humidity. You can’t photograph the air, even though it feels like wet fabric in the summer. I flew from London to Minnesota and from there drove. It just gets hotter and more humid the further south you go – through Iowa, to Kansas, to Oklahoma, all the way through a continent of seasonal green parted by the blacktop, spending hours in a moving box of air conditioning. Back in the U.S. (at least for the summer), the visuals seem fixed, and so much right where I left it in Iowa, just a little older, even as the air reminds me less of my own memories than the tropical nightmare of a flooded London in Ballard’s The Drowned World, the city where, in reality, I had left changing sky and unchanging buildings.
London, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Corfu, Katerini
March 29 – April 18th
In January, I left the city for the first time since the week I arrived. When you haven’t seen the countryside for a while, any patch of grass or snowy field, sped by on a train, can remind you of everywhere. Places that I have never been look like places I have not seen for a long time. I missed parking lots, the horror of great big Wal-Mart parking lots. One of the common criticisms of driving through the Midwestern countryside where I grew up is that it all looks the same, and that it goes on forever – yet there is always there, I’ve found, a reminder through space that the world is very big.
“The city is more beautiful than the country because it is rich in human history,” writes London native Peter Ackryod in chapter 46 of London: The Biography, an 801-page parade of historical fragments that portray London as “every city that ever was and ever will be,” (a quote Ackroyd borrows from Stephen Graham’s London Nights ). Ackroyd claims all sentiments for London – for example, Mary Firth, aka Moll Cutpurse, is not just one of the city’s many celebrated historical criminals, but (like every damn thing) “symbolic of London itself,” her disguised femininity above all “a token of urban identity” (619). London is a “a city perpetually doomed” (p192) by the plague and fires, a place that has “always been characterized by the noise that is an aspect of its noisomeness” (66), and attempts to map it represent “an attempt to understand the chaos and thereby to migrate to it; it is an attempt to know the unknowable.” (104). Ackroyd’s London contains multitudes to the point of parody. To get a sense of the vibe of mythic London, I’d recommend looking through some Hogarth pictures; they’re much more thematically organized, evocative, funnier, and quicker to browse.
In well-known cities, there are always marked contrasts between the vibrancy of culture and the physical realities of people living in close proximity, in buildings that last centuries (or pretend like they can), that will break down, change hands, shift from business to tenement and back again. Ackroyd is right about how the city can feel all-encompassing: the world seems to have been drawn to this place in its totality, beginning with the Romans who built the first permanent settlement in the first century CE. International and intercultural coexistence is a conspicuous norm in most neighborhoods – like Golders Green, which I visited last week, and its streets of Orthodox-kosher Korean, Japanese and Chinese restaurants. It’s somewhat unnerving to visit Oxford (an hour away by train) and hear a uniform accent across the people you meet in the streets. Yet it would be a mistake to think that just because people have come together to make something new, in a place with a particular history, that their lives in the city are their only lives. That the things in the city are not contained by it is one of London’s great joys. It is partially for this reason that the posts on my blog tend to be weirdly formal and regrettably infrequent; the everyday stuff of pubs and museums and annoyances and fun has largely migrated to Facebook, where it sits with some 600 friends from around the world, mingling with their domestic lives.
Likewise, the cosmopolitan nature of the city disguises how small it really is; that London seems like it could envelope the whole world is a sentiment better struggled against than accepted. To view London as ‘every city’ is to lose the specificity of what it and every other city can be. It’s the danger when you stay anywhere for too long: you can forget there are other places, and the specifics of your own street mask their similarities to other streets. And then, all windswept vistas look alike.
Now in June – on the verge of returning to the American countryside (at least for the summer) for fieldwork –I’m scrambling to become a tourist in what has become my own city. It’s the leaving of London, though, for other cities that prompted this series of posts. Two months ago, I took a three-week trip through Europe with a friend from Iowa. It’s the ‘overseas short-term resident’ trip: go out and see “Europe,” because it’s all ‘right there.’ I left London to begin in Berlin, staying in the same place I did seven years ago: a hostel themed after the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which provided not only continuity with my previous trip (documented in these three posts), but unexpectedly a bookend for the trip itself with the mural on the wall, depicting a whale being called into being and a pot of flowers falling out a window and thinking to itself, “oh no, not again.” The story concludes on the Greek island of Corfu with hundreds of pots being thrown from windows, but we’ll get there soon enough.
Leaving a mild winter in London into March in Berlin was a trip to a different archetypal set of aesthetics of urban life, beginning with the rain. The image of London fog, drizzle and umbrellas hasn’t held for most of my nine months here; even throughout winter, days remained sunny, in part due to a two-year drought. That month, public service announcements finally responded reminding us to conserve water, just in time for a few rainy days to make them look out of place. Now the bus and train station signs read “Rain or Shine…” Berlin’s weather was closer to that of a London of legend, overcast greys and drizzle, but the streets themselves are entirely Berlin, reflective dynamics of cool materials that the city makes its own, rising above the layers of history that crack open and are exposed.
London, by contrast, is – in a literal, physical sense – remarkably flat, and the grime of centuries past is (depending on the neighborhood) swept away or built overtop, “that great pile upon which the city rests” (Ackryod: 111). Neighborhoods become trendy or posh or fall into collapse, gentrify or become derelict, and the city rises, decays and ultimately builds something else on its own ruins. Berlin embraces the myth of the modern; postwar, the Eastern and Western sides of the city worked to reinvent themselves in visions of alternate futures. London’s more visible aesthetic divides appear, often, to have happened practically. The industrial docklands in the East of the city – where the Olympics will happen – were built into the glass-and-skyscraper business district, while around Bloomsbury (where I’ve spent much of my year), the townhouses of eras passed were rebuilt with whatever resources could be found. Now, these two-to-three story earth-toned mishmashes are being primped and restored in time for the Olympics, sending a message that the place’s styles have always been, will always be, up to date, despite the general transience of London’s population.
Seven years and there’s more continuity than I expected in Berlin, at least between a few days in May in 2005 and 2012. Lounge act Gayle Tufts still has a show going. The punks at the Alex have migrated to the open field where the Palace of the Republic once was, while around the corner from the Topography of Terror – the exposed torture cells from the Nazi secret police, beneath one of the last remaining sections of the Berlin Wall – the Trabi Safari lets you take a drive through the city in East German style. I picked up a few historic sights I hadn’t seen in 2005, but I was more there for the flight, as a launching point, and for nostalgia. When I went to China in 2007, I felt like I was leaving America for a different life, and that the two places marked a divide and I would have to be in either one or the other. With a friend from Iowa (who is living in Italy) in Berlin – a place I had been before with different people – I felt like life was continuous.
Like fields but unlike in inner London, the interiors and exteriors breathe with space. Having coffee in a shop and looking out on the streets near Friedrichstrasse Station and thinking: there are not enough people walking by to achieve the critical mass of the London street, where crossing lights lack authority, and after the first few people step into traffic, the pedestrians claim the intersection. And you cross, with so many people you will never meet again.
Most towns 20,000-some bicyclists pass through on RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) are known for something. It’s a strongly (though not exclusively) American impulse: to find that one thing in one’s burg, no matter how small, that connects with the national consciousness, no matter how tenuously.
My hometown of Clarion (RAGBRAI overnight stop 1993, meet-up town 2007), for example, is the birthplace of the 4-H emblem – each of the four leaves of a clover representing one of the H’s of the agricultural youth organization’s pledge. I never joined 4-H, what with being a solid small town urbanite who grew up a full block from the corn fields. The local point-of-pride that interested me more was Glen Buxton, Alice Cooper’s lead guitarist, who retired to semi-obscurity in Clarion and whose death in 1997 sparked a brief media blitz. Once – while I was volunteering some service at the cemetery with a local youth group I was a part of – my quest to find Mr. Buxton’s gravesite was detoured by an adult leader who steered me toward the grave of a high school girlfriend of his who had died young, him lamenting (during the steering) that there were plenty of other people who had lived and died around here too. Anyway (whiskey is coming, I promise) at several local events during my own high school years, I portrayed O.H. Benson, the local school superintendent who, in 1906, decided to attach the clover symbol to the Wright County Agricultural and Homemaking Clubs, inspired by a gift of seven of the good luck charms from children at the one-room schoolhouse that now sits in the Clarion’s Gazebo Park. In 1911, Benson went to Washington D.C. to help develop such groups nationally and brought the symbol with him. Five minutes ago, you had probably never heard this story, but every child who goes through the Clarion-Goldfield public school system knows a simplified version of it by some combination of heart, hands, head and/or health.
Several miles up the road from Clarion is Woolstock, birth place of TV’s original Superman, George Reeves. Further in Southwestern Iowa, the McDonald’s in Denison has a wall display dedicated to native daughter actress Donna Reed. Towns without a vaguely-recognizable figure who was born or died there tend to adorn their welcome signs with gentle hyperbole like “Crossroads of the Nation” (Early, pop. c. 600) and/or hyperbolic puns like “A Gem of a Town in a Friendly Setting” (Jewell, pop c. 1,200) or hyperbole and gently-obscene-but-not-really puns like “The Friendliest Town by a Dam Site!” (Quasqueton, pop. c. 500). While RAGBRAI didn’t pass through any of the above towns in 2011, one of the great joys of the ride is seeing how local pride manifests itself in the friendly people at each stop who are trying to sell you pie. A highlight this year for me: Oxford, in which photographer and resident Peter Feldstein took pictures of all but three of town’s 800-some residents in 1984 and 2005-6 and published a book about it. Usually, however, a town’s fame does not precede it – nobody knows Elkhorn & Kimballton (2011 Day Two stops) have the greatest rural concentration of Danes outside of Denmark until they see a giant windmill and are confronted with a long line for ethnic pastries and – interest perked – later check Wikipedia.
An exception to this relative obscurity is Templeton (population c. 300, a 2011 Day Two stop) or “Little Chicago,” according to a serviceman in the Philippines as recounted by Templeton Rye company co-founder Keith Kerkhoff. During Prohibition, informal distillers around Templeton (Kerkhoff’s grandfather Alphons among them) made a rye whiskey known for it’s quality that was allegedly favored by Al Capone. Today, the legal variation of Templeton Rye has been selling out wherever it’s allocated in Iowa and going for $18 a shot in (Big) Chicago. Shortages caused by the four-year distilling process and Iowa’s alcohol distribution laws have turned finding the stuff into a cross-state treasure hunt. Templeton Rye jerseys were everywhere on RAGBRAI (look above and to the right) and personally, it’s been a factor in my switch from gin martinis to Manhattans. I won’t embarrass myself by attempting to describe the flavor with adjectives other than “tasty” and “drinkable,” though those are words I’ve never before used to describe whiskey.
Keith used to play football for Buena Vista University (whose marketing department for which I work) and after graduating came within a few picks of making it to the pros. I was lucky enough to get to profile him – and the story of Templeton Rye – for the July issue of our magazine, BV Today. If you’re curious about how illicit Depression-era stills begat what’s fast becoming 21st-century Iowa’s best-known high-end beverage, 70s college football, the minutia of liquor distribution and three generations of the Kerkhoff family story, pour a shot and fire up the ol’ PDF viewer. I said one shot! You’ll want to keep a level head while reading.
In my last entry, I wrote about my hometown of Clarion, Iowa, and the relationship between the look of the surrounding landscape and the practicalities of living there. Pictures I’ve taken with my new Canon 5D Mark II (see below) indicate I won’t be abandoning those themes of specificity and abstraction anytime soon – the Midwestern identity, aesthetic, and experience are rich in these sorts of tensions, a fundamentally ironic one being that the region’s reputation as a ‘place where nothing much happens’ often undercuts their mention.
So, with thoroughly Midwestern tensions in mind, I hesitated a bit with the title on this entry. The rural medical center certainly embraces many small-town ideals, placing a high value on friendliness and viewing its function as an integral part of the community it serves. Residents know their doctors, professionally and socially; the clinic itself is the setting for dramatic times of joy and sorrow and hundreds of everyday events in between. While this no doubt happens in cities of all sizes, an important small town difference is how this experience in one particular clinic is shared by the majority. Heck, before Clarion got its first hospital building in 1951, surgeries were performed in what was a house, doctor-owned, a one-time home – an apt symbol of the integration of medicine, community, and expectations that care be both professional and patients still be treated “like family.” Long since demolished, I imagine this house as the Eagle Rock Hospital in Cold Turkey, Norman Lear’s pre-All in the Family satire of (among other things) small-town Americana, shot on location in the Iowa towns of Greenfield and Winterset (birthplace of John Wayne, seat of bridges-laden Madison County).
At the same time, the rural medical center tends to be sensitive about being perceived as a podunk ‘band-aid station’ by its urban peers. In that sense the hospital is an effective synedoche for a significant aspect of the Midwestern experience: a fear that comfort is a symptom of provincialism, as exacerbated by the Midwestern capacity for joking self-effacement and the default tendency of media to ignore, romanticize, and/or dismiss what happens outside the city. It’s telling that Cold Turkey – an eminently watchable film prominently involving well-known talent (Lear, Dick Van Dyke, Randy Newman) and in my opinion one of the funniest films of the 1970s – has yet to see an official release on DVD (let alone Blu-Ray or Netflix) and is most readily available through a Youtube channel named “Rarevintagefilms.” Put another way, while small town America is still very much alive in the present, the friendliness-and-apple-pie part of its image has connotations of belonging to an idealized past, creating a dissonance (or at least a pause) when one thinks of the small town and its relationship with advanced technology and (in this case) the drama of medicine.
To be sure, hospitals in small towns usually don’t have the pressures and excitement you’d find in a big city E.R. In recent years, however,they have begun to intentionally identify and boldly seize on the strengths of their locations. There exists in northern Iowa a friendly unity and rivalry among several expanding medical centers, each striving to serve their communities with high-quality family practice clinics while angling to become regional centers in differing specialty services.
In the case of Clarion’s Wright Medical Center (WMC), the services offered (particularly orthopaedics) are ever-expanding, while the service quality is patterned after what one might expect from a good hotel if it were run by one’s family. People say hello in the halls; staff don’t just point you where you need to go, they walk with you to your destination. WMC’s$70 million facility is profitable without subsidies, employing several hundred people (in a town of 3,000 and a county of 13,000), including 26 full-time providers and 30 specialists on staff. As a community member it has been a thrill to watch WMC’s ambition and edifice grow, and yet still be able to find my old gym teacher exercising, walking throughout the connections between the hospital and the connected senior apartments.
By now, of course, you’ve no doubt noted another tension at work in this blog entry: one between reportage and commerce. I’m not just biased by hometown pride, but the fact that since 2008 I’ve produced several videos for WMC, beginning in 2008 when I shot one to honor CEO Steve Simonin at a national convention where he was named to healthcare consulting firm The Studer Group‘s Fire Starter Hall of Fame (Steve, incidentally, asked me to evoke Cold Turkey on this project, which was my introduction to the film). This followed with a move to high-definition in 2010, when I made another to introduce the hospital at the 2010 Iowa Recognition for Performance Excellence (IRPE) banquet. In these videos, I worked with WMC’s marketing department, Steve, and the non-profit Wright Medical Foundation to identify goals and then was turned loose to handle all aspects of production, including directing, shooting, and editing. The links below are to my own high definition streams on Youtube; WMC plans to upload lower-res versions to their own website soon. Music in both videos is by Josh Woodward, a singer-songwriter who’s been kind enough not only to license all his songs under creative commons, but also to make them available on his website in both full and instrumental versions.
This video was made to introduce Silver Award winner WMC at the 2011 Iowa Governor’s Recognition of Performance Excellence Celebration, held May 5, and was an updated version of the video that played at 2010’s banquet. While no videos played at the 2011 event due to technical difficulties, the Iowa Quality Center has since found a home for them on its website. All interviews with staff, providers, and the CEO were unscripted; I shaped the narrative in editing.
While Wright Medical Center makes more than enough revenue to cover its operating costs – including $14 million in improvements currently underway – many of its major expansions have been financed through the generosity of donors. These include the first hospital building that was constructed in 1951 and expansions in the 90’s and 00’s that built senior apartments, assisted living facilities, and added new equipment that would otherwise not have been purchased. This video is designed to be played live as part of presentations in homes and at larger banquets and events. The interviews with CEO Steve Simonin and patients Kelly and Judy were captured unscripted, while I wrote the script for Foundation representatives Lisa and Duane. The video went through several major re-drafts, driven by the input of focus groups, before we reached the final version linked above.
But enough words, you were promised photos! Since I shot these videos I’ve added some lenses and upgraded to the Canon 5D Mark II, renowned for its full frame sensor, vivid image quality, and terrible auto-focus system. While I haven’t yet experimented with its video function (which has been used by others to record such projects as the seventh season of House), here are some new pictures that revisit familiar themes. First: some shallow-depth-of-field-friendly portraiture of my friend Angela and her garden, which (the garden) you can read more about in her blog “Could the World Be About to Turn?”, which (the blog) covers gardening and the hope of peacefully promoting positive social change and justice, illuminating and embodying numerous regional tensions in her explorations of politics and agriculture:
Next: more life on an abstract plain, more Wright County from the air, in the cautionary words of my my friend Dave “a totalitarian use of land” (a quote I use on this detail-test piece to perhaps balance some of my more Romantic leanings):
Continuing the theme of Midwest-as-abstraction, my favorite of the set: people relaxing in the middle of the lake, as viewed symmetrically from above, captured on the same flight –
And the city of my current home, Storm Lake, downtown, at night in low light, capturing the anxiety of the photographer over the surprising lack of effort needed to make some subjects look good:
That’s all for now – like I did this time last year, I’m leaving the internet to join one of the most quintessential Iowa experiences: RAGBRAI, the 20,000 person town-t0-town bicycle ride/week-long party that rolls from the banks of the Missouri River (this year at Glenwood) to the mighty Mississippi (at Davenport).
Pie, beer and 454 miles await.
The Gigantomachy, battle royale of the gods. Detail: Nike v. Alkyoneus, Pergamon Altar
On the eve of what was to be its most eventful century, the leaders of Berlin worried it was a city without a history. Before Germany’s unification under Bismarck, the city had largely taken its cultural cues from elsewhere, but suddenly – as the capital of a newly-unified nation – there was building to do. While the city’s renown would come from a culture of steel, mass-production, destruction and all things modern, the impulse from the top down was to still look backward for inspiration – and deliver Old World style in excess to the point of parody.
It wasn’t unusual that Berlin collected other nations’ antiquities – the practice went hand in hand with empire – but few other cities imported entire gateways to place inside larger buildings. The Pergamon Altar, Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, the Market Gate of Miletus – these are not models – they are structures unto themselves, great outdoor entrances to temples and cities, each around 100 feet wide and 50 tall, excavated and today on display indoor in the Pergamon Museum.
Arguably the second-most famous antiquity in town – a bit smaller but memorable nonetheless – belongs to Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, which, in 2005, was on display at the Kulturforum while its old Berlin apartment was under renovation. The highlight – currently in the Neues Museum – is the bust of Nefertiti, remarkable for how its sense of beauty seems to transcend time and place. Yet, the aesthetics of the bust are not, as one might be tempted to guess, universal – or at least, I was put in my place when I suggested the idea to a classroom full of Chinese students, who found her head blocky and her face unattractively masculine.
The ancient world not being terribly feminist, Nefertiti’s great claim to fame beyond her looks is her husband, Ankhenaten, who upended the entire social order of 18th-dynasty Egypt when he decreed that polytheism was out and only Aten the sun god was deserving of worship. Though it is largely unknown how these changes were received in the royal couple’s lifetime, in the years that followed Ankhenaten’s death the reforms he implemented were undone, his temples desecrated, and his capital of Amarna abandoned. Whether he was ahead of his time or just a nut has been debated and romanticized in our own contemporary times – for example, elsewhere in the Berlin collection is a figure of Sinuhe the physician, protagonist of Finnish author Mika Walari’s historical fiction novel The Egyptian, which portrayed Ankhnaten as somewhere between a proto-Christian and proto-Marxist reformer, his deity-reduction platform an effort to flatten Egypt’s social hierarchies, a politically-naive idealist martyred by the schemes of the entrenched bureaucracy and the malleability of the masses. Following the more romantic line, Ankhnaten might have felt at home in Berlin with his outsized vision and noble struggle for progress. Following the negative one, he could have been a dictator, shaping the aesthetics and functions of his nation, capital and architecture to unfortunate and ill-advised ends out of ignorance, as with Kaiser Wilhelm II, or a human malevolence arguably beyond understanding.
This conclusion deals with deliberate culture – objects and buildings where aesthetics were of primary, rather than incidental, concern in their creation. Like so many other places in Berlin, these things show how life does its best to complicate creators’ intentions. This is even true in the allegedly controlled space of an art museum, as with the first object one sees upon entering the Hamburger Bahnhof (which, like Paris’ Musee d’Orsay, was originally a train station): a sculpture and painting by Gerhard Merz proclaiming “I am an architect, also,” a pun on an architect who also claimed to be an artist that could have served as a motto for the city complete with all Merz’ implied challenge. Like much modern art, the work is intended to buck tradition, and – all things considered – probably inherently doesn’t offer as much to contemplate as a good da Vinci or Michelangelo. The real thing of interest here is a quirk of presentation I’m fairly certain was unintended: the necessitatation of a full-time guard to clarify to the Bahnhof’s visitors that the sculpture portion of the installation is, in fact, not a bench. The art in Berlin, much as the city itself, refuses to be enshrined, to be set beyond boundaries, left untouched.
Part III: The Exhibition
A palace is not a building to which a citizen in a twenty-first century democracy readily relates. Appreciates, yes – what else can one do when regarding a structure opulent, regal, elaborate? Schloss Charlottenburg is easy to call pretty, and I’d imagine most people who see it do. And yet, my own sense is that the building would not feel all that comfortable in any time or place.
The Palace certainly doesn’t seem of Berlin: its too old for the city the 20th century built. It seems barely of Germany – or at least, its style is imitative, not homegrown. Heavily indebted to the Palace of Versailles, the palace’s construction began in 1669 on the orders of Sophie Charlotte at a time when her husband – Friedrich I – was looking abroad, northward for inspiration. “In the seventeenth century Berlin lived on art conceived and produced elsewhere, above all in the Netherlands,” writes Ronald Taylor in Berlin and Its Culture.
Scholoss Charlottenburg was to be the Western terminus of Unter den Linden, which ran through the Tiergarten and ended in the east at the other local Hohenzollern palace, the Stadtschloss. Today, most of the street goes by names of fleeting subsequent empires. At Charlottenburg, it is the Otto-Suhr-Alle, named for a mayor of West Berlin during the divided era. Otto-Suhr-Alle connects to a roundabout which extends back westward as Bismarkstrasse; as it continues east through the Tiergarten, it turns into Strasse des 17 Juni, named by the West in 1953 in commemoration of a violently-quelled uprising in East Berlin earlier in the year. On the eastern side of the Tiergarten, the ideology of the street changes as it enters the former East Germany and – after traveling past another memorial to the Soviet soldiers who conquered the city – finally becomes Unter den Linden at the Brandenburg Gate. The street goes by that name through the ruins of Museum Island – the old Hohenzollern Stadtschloss and the East German Palast der Republik – before becoming Karl Liebnecht Strasse as it enters the Alexanderplatz in the East.
Karl Liebnecht was co-founder of the Communist Party of Germany and later martyr to the cause. On the 9th of November, 1919, he declared a “Free Socialist Republic” from a balcony of the Stadtschloss in protest of the announcement of the Wiemar Republic from the roof of the Reichstag. In the aftermath of World War II, Germany’s actual communist republic would destroy the Stadtschloss’ bombed ruins. Schloss Charlottenburg – also heavily damaged – was, in contrast, meticulously restored by the Western Government. And so it became a museum piece, where tourists aren’t allowed to photograph inside and must wear disposable sterile surgery-blue slippers to protect the floor.
There are many exhibitions where you may not touch. The Schloss, however, tries to project the illusion that it is untouched. Schloss Charlottenburg doesn’t seem a place Berlin lives much with. Heck, it’s difficult to imagine it actually being lived in. The building and its presentation are designed to keep observers at a distance – you cannot touch the Palace lest you hurt it; you cannot photograph it, lest you control its image. And so, like one would admire a vicious poodle at a dog show, visitors are encouraged to awe at the opulence and ignore how the Palace’s aesthetics are wielded for the sake of power, something made most explicit in the three-dimensional sculpture that adorns the throne’s canopy. It takes the whole wall depicting the Prussian crown borne by cherubs from heaven, the authority of God and state perfectly entwined.
It’s easy to see how the opulence of the Palace could have been an attractive idealization, a rallying point during the post-war years, when times were lean, the national spirit shattered, and the Communists plotting who knows what across town. Yet it is tough by my own ideals to see that crown’s beauty through its perversion of God, Man, and Art. There are many places, many horrors, in Berlin that made me sad, made me shudder, but that room is the only place where I felt angry. To joke about the memory of the Holocaust seems transgressive, to disrespect the Cold War is par for the course, and to critique long-gone monarchies sounds confusing and quaint. Yet each regime, in its own time, wielded more-or-less incontestable power over the people, building its oppression into streets and walls – places where today, Berlin normally encourages you can look, see, touch, and contemplate. In Berlin, I came to believe that there are many things are not knowable on a visceral level. But art – I make the stuff, and I find in that something transcendent. And all the gilding in the world can’t make something like that crown feel right. Those aesthetics we call just beautiful can be the horrors from which we have enough distance to appreciate.
The monarchy ends at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, perhaps the single most vivid representative of the city’s accumulating layers and dramatically-shifting ideas about aesthetics, war and what constitutes the ‘eternal.’ Like Kaiser Wilhelm II’s other building projects, the Church was ambitious and controversial, to say the least. According to David Clay Large – though neither Wilhelm nor Bismarck had much fondness for Berlin itself – they, continuing a long aristocratic Berliner tradition, wanted to make it “the most beautiful city in the world” to impress the other leaders of Europe who found the industrial metropolis lacking in Old World charm. Of the Memorial Church, Large writes
“A neo-Gothic monstrosity, the church was a mockery of its namesake’s frugality. To make its interior more sumptuous, the Kaiser pressed Berlin’s richest burghers to donate stained glass windows in exchange for medals and titles…Comparing it as it looks today with photographs from before the war, one can only conclude that this building was improved by the bombing.”
The Church was a monument to Man and all the hubris of hereditary titles and saber-rattling that led to World War I, the consequences of which are rendered with poetic justice in its utter destruction in World War II. Nonetheless, it is a house of Christian worship: in the section still standing, beneath cracked mosaics of the Hohenzollern family’s hereditary procession, is a photo of services being held in the ruined chapel. Next door in the ‘New Church’ – finished in 1963 – candles (emblazoned with the church’s logo) are lit in the octagonal sanctuary (above), surrounded by blue glass and a modern design. While the atheistic Soviets sought to absolve the Nazi’s war sins by incorporating their Germany into the Communist collective, the walls here – produced under the divided country’s Western government – are bedecked with monuments to the war‘s Protestant resistance. Among them is the Stalingrad Madonna, sketched Christmas 1943 by a German physician and minister. Such commemoration, as I understand, was common in the immediate Western post-war period, but has sense become difficult to express, to reconcile with the greater imperative to confess complicity in the nightmare. Regardless, the church complex officially gives itself over to the Western inclination toward capitalism in the bell tower (“the lipstick tube”), also of thick of blue glass, the bottom of which is a tourist trap bazaar. Commerce, God, Man: all find degrees of rebuke, solace and validation at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.
In the Church and its layers are a vivid rejection of the notion of timelessness. In any combination within one can find an ideal and its counterpoint, and the poignancy it projects exists because it was humbled. It is so with Berlin, the city that finds beauty in complexity where there is rot in the substance.
It was during the Weimar Republic, between national defeats and in the shadow of Kaiser Wilhelm’s monuments that Berlin found its first great Renaissance, both as a center for modern art and an open air circus of vice. “What distinguished [the city’s vices] from their counterparts in America and in other European cities was their openness, their bizarreness,” writes David Clay Large in Berlin. “The accessibility of vice was perhaps the main reason behind Weimar Berlin’s reputation for singular decadence.” He goes on to describe entertainments including bare-fisted brawling, mud-wrestling, drugs galore, and a six-day non-stop bicycle race. On one hand, the city had 25,000 prostitutes. On the other, it had 25,000 prostitutes. The Bauhaus was touting how mass production need not sacrifice aesthetics, while Fritz Lang was building his Metropolis at Babelsburg east of Berlin, likening the factories a destructive god while using his own exacting, outsized vision to demand that the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart. All around Weimar Republic Berlin were signs of the wonders of industry, productivity and progress – and the impossibility of maintaining control of such energies. In learning to live with the consequences of ambition beyond reason, the city had found its aesthetic. What an exciting hell it must have been.
Note: for a very different take on the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, see Julian Hoffman’s excellent post “In Memorium”
In the late 1800s, Germany was a new and unstable country, the challenges of united empire scattering many of its citizens (my own ancestors included) to places like rural Iowa. Berlin – home of the ruling Prussian dynasty, the Hohenzollern family – was its capital. Though there had been settlements at that spot on the Spree since around 1200, Berlin’s status as a great ‘world city’ was to come soon thereafter with the rise of modernity – urbanization, mechanization, industrialization, mass production, crowded buildings and the anomie that comes when you have so many neighbors you don’t care to know any of them.
If I think of a similarity between the rural Midwest of today and Germany’s great metropolis, it is that the streets of both faces forward from those boom years and depressions of the late 1800s. In small town America, the look manifests in the neighborhoods of massive Victorian homes that look either well-kept or uninhabited; and in the downtowns, with contemporary shops below and apartments above which still often have many fixtures, radiators, ceilings, doorways, and molding that date to the buildings’ founding. In Berlin, you can see it in the city’s limited indulgence in the Old World myth. Places like the Nikolaiviertel – a remnant of the old village of Cölln, restored after the war by the DDR with liberal use of concrete slabbing – look out of place, the accumulation of whims of the eras overshadowing pretensions of age.
When compared architecturally with other famous European cities, Berlin didn’t have as much of an idealized history to look back to, tethered by a hillside Acropolis; its defining cultural glories were modern and their ruins of concrete, metal and glass. More often than not, the city has had to deal with them practically rather than rope them off and wait for tourists. Germany, of course, has to live with its history, something countries aren’t apt to do unless forced; whatever in the past could be positively idealized was largely eclipsed in the later 20th century by the horrors of the 1930s and 40s. It’s a testament to Berlin that with every dramatic change it built something new on top of the remnants of the old, and with them found a new existence and vitality. As much as these two posts (and a third coming) may feel like they indulge some unflattering aspects of Berlin’s history, you’ll have to take it on good faith that there’s no city in Europe I’d rather revisit.
Berlin, Part II: Snackpoint Charlie
After World War II, four Allies – France, Britain, America, and the USSR – set about redefining what was already Europe’s newest great city. While West Germany moved its capital to Bonn, large memorials rose in Eastern Berlin as the leaders of the newly-founded Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) sought to distance their nation’s identity from Nazism. Their strategy: lose the new country in the great Soviet collective. The architectural remembrances of the period emphasize grandeur and the sacrifice of the conquerors, as in the massive memorial at Treptow. There, overlooking the graves of 5,000 soldiers who died conquering the city, is a 40-foot-tall statue of the best of all possible representatives . In one hand is a child, and in the other a sword, smashing the swastika on which he stands. The paved path to the memorial is guarded by kneeling soldiers, their backs to representations of the Soviet flag allegedly built from from the ruins of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery.The panels that surround the graves tell the story of the Communist revolution, visually situating the battle, the sacrifice, and the DDR not in German history but the Soviet story.
The Eastern version of events, of course, was headed for a reckoning, even as its visual imprint would be unmistakable. The Alexanderplatz – former glory of Weimar nightlife, current DDR city planning leftover – was rebuilt to broad, vacant, sparse concrete, crowned by the Fernsehturm (Television Tower), shown above reflected in the Palast der Republik. Designed to be seen from the other side of the Wall, it was, of course, a functional display of power (as was the Stadtschloss on whose ruins the Palast is built or, for that matter, any other state building or monument). Rather than inspiring awe, the structure was variously nicknamed “Walter Ulbricht’s Last Erection” and the “Telespargel” (TV asparagus). While some (Ronald Reagan included, at 23:00) read religious significance into the sparkly cross that the sun shines on the tower’s bulb, the satellite antennas near its base, humorously half-lost in translation, suggest an opposite allegiance well into 2005. As a whole, the Alex and its DDR mixture of pomp and minimalism elicited strongly negative reactions by Berliners I talked to, seemingly only loved by the young punks who congregate around its fountain.
Memorials dot around the commercial districts and urban homescapes. Outward from the Alex extends the Karl-Marx-Alle, another sparse, functional, blocky DDR residential street. In the northeastern suburb of Prenzlauer Berg, the memorial to Communist martyr Ernst Thalmann – fist held high in power and defiance – is sandwiched between two eras of questionable housing: DDR apartments over his shoulder, his face toward a mietskaserne, the lively if disease-ridden industrial/residential ‘rental barracks’ of the late 19th century. The DDR government that installed the sculpture cared enough about its appearance then that they wired its nose for heat to prevent awkward snow collection and dripping, though by 2005 its only visitors seemed to be graffiti artists and college kids on tour.
As the leadership changed, so did some of the memorials. The Neue Wache is adorned outside with Doric columns, the classic sign of empire and ancient history (despite being built in 1816). The Soviets turned the former guardhouse into another statement of sacrifice, their version of the tomb of the unknown soldier, complete with eternal flame. After reunification, the flame was replaced by a variation on a Kathe Kollwitz statue: inspired by air raids, it depicts a mother holding her dead son. Dedicated to all victims of war, the statue is alone in the otherwise empty building, illuminated by the gateway at the columns and a shaft of light from the ceiling. I believe it is one of the most emotionally affecting monuments in the city: a repurposing of a function of armament for a statement of peace, as well as architectural pretension for effective minimalism.
A few weeks later, in a small town outside Dresden a friend’s father would tell me that it was Joan Baez that first exposed him to ‘western culture. While pop culture didn’t travel much the other way around (Wolf Bierman who?) – or at least, didn’t make it as far as America – The Wall itself was the great pop symbol of the divide. That’s part of the reason why, of the pictures I took at the East Side Gallery – one of the few remaining substantial sections of the divider – I chose to upload this small 007 over murals with directly weightier themes. Growing up in the 90’s on a steady diet of campy spy thrillers, the Wall didn’t seem like a symbol of oppression so much as paperback novel excitement. So far removed from its function, the Wall seemed to exist purely as symbol: the West’s very own Cold War Monument, erected by the Communists themselves. One wonders how many tourists think Berlin ought to have kept the thing up, just for old time’s sake.
Checkpoint Charlie plays directly into the Cold War’s pop image: once a feared border crossing, it is now the site of a breezy, commercially-operated ‘spy museum’ emphasizing all the ingenious ways people used to sneak through. Across the street is a food court (below) while a memorial with crosses commemorating those who died at the crossing – which in 2005 was already competing for your attention with surrounding billboards – removed the year after I visited to make room for development. The Soviet memorials stay long after their usefulness as propaganda has diminished. The memory of those who, twenty years ago, the West would have gladly appropriated as martyrs is paved over in service of the open market. Today, even Eastern nostalgia has taken an ironically commercial pitch as bottled Trabi fumes sell on Ebay, and Western news sources report on it in part, for those same reasons: nostalgia and commerce.
Back at my old high school, a display case (otherwise full of sports trophies and memorabilia) has a chunk of the wall, sent by a graduate who was stationed in Germany as a soldier when it came down. Perhaps a foot or two square, awkwardly broken off, it has no graffiti but many metal struts poking from the concrete. Myself, I bought a small piece in Berlin in 2005; its flat side is as bright as if were painted the day before I bought it. It is, of course, unlikely original. I bought it because I could think of no better symbol of the victory of capitalism than spending 10 euros on a useless concrete chip the size of a quarter.
Young women costumed as border guards were holding flags and getting their picture taken at the Checkpoint Charlie station itself on the road median. The place was one in a long line around Berlin where I wondered whether to smile in photographs. It’s very American to smile in photographs, and it tends to look awkward if you don’t. At a concentration camp smiling in the photo is obviously verboten – but what do you do at the Wall or Checkpoint Charlie, functional engines of both oppression and cheap spy paperbacks? If comedy is tragedy plus time, then is kitsch idealism plus dissonance?