Montag, 16. März 2009

Composing Nations

The German and Slavic dept hosted a conference last weekend, so I abandoned the papers I should have been working on to go listen to some of the speakers (and grab a free lunch). The panels were quite interesting and I learned a lot. It's so easy to get so caught up in our own particular research projects that we forget about other approaches. It's energizing to see all the different topics and possibilities that come up in the papers.

I found the social part much harder. I disappeared between the panels for a while because I didn't know what to do with myself, to shy and awkward and unsure of myself to go up to anyone and join in a conversation. Furious with myself for not managing to handle it better, particularly since I get the impression that the social element is at least as important as the actual papers: the chance to interact with colleagues, meet people, find out what's going on in the field.

Later on I did chat for a bit with a couple of my professors after one of the panels, suddenly started to feel better and realized that maybe all of that wasn't really expected of me anyway. That this, too, is part of the learning process. The encouragement that I should assert myself if I have questions I want to ask about a paper. And maybe that's how to start: to make my voice heard, enter into a conversation.

Listened to a paper on the language theories of Fritz Mauthner, who I hadn't heard of before. It suggested some interesting ideas, particularly his definition of nation in terms of language (Muttersprache as a means of identification with a larger group). There are a number of implications of defining nation in this way, instead of in terms of a political or geographic entity. The boundaries of languages are much more fluid; although it is clear that, say, Spanish and French are different languages, at what point did they become separate language and cease being dialects of a single language? And when multiple languages can coexist in a single geographic area (as in Prague, where Mauthner grew up), or even within a single individual, the situation becomes more complicated. It seems to me inevitable that with this definition one would either have to try to impose uniformity upon language and its speakers, or else end up undermining the idea of nation itself. (Indeed, this is apparently precisely what happened to Mauther: he moved from language as nation to multilingualism -- every language contains traces of other languages, we all communicate in different ways in different social contexts -- as international relations. He was apparently somewhat torn about this; as a linguist he valued the insight which the experience of multiple languages offered him, but the lack of any single Muttersprache was extremely distressing for him.)

In light of current theories of transnationalism, post-colonial pluralism, etc, this is particularly intriguing. A geographic/political and a linguistic understanding of nation are somewhat mutually exclusive. We don't think of language as being inherently part of the definition of a nation, but there does nonetheless seem to be some kind of persistent connection of the two (a common language as a way of asserting the unity of a state), as can be seen in some of the separatist movements in Europe and in the debates about English as an official language in the US. (Is this because language is one of the most visible signs of culture -- lack of shared language resulting in lack of communication, and hence otherness? What is the situation in African states which were carved up by empirial powers regardless of ethnic or linguistic boundaries?)

I had high hopes for a paper on Greco-Roman mythology in East German literature, which is one of my research interests (and since I'm currently working on a paper on Christa Wolf's Kassandra, of particular relevance at the moment), but ultimately was rather disappointed. Given the scope of the topic, however, perhaps it was inevitable that the speaker could do little more in the time available than provide a general overview. I wish he had been more explicit about what he felt like the function (or functions) of myth in GDR theater was. He made some connection between mythological material and "memory engineering," which wasn't quite clear to me: how can myth be used as a form of memory work when it does not directly portray historical events? I do think that myth has the potential in a work like Kassandra to engage with the problems of the German past in ways that might not be possible in a more realistic mode. But I'm not sure whether we can connect it to memory. It's possible I may not have understood exactly what he meant by "memory engineering." I haven't heard the term before, and I'm not sure whether it's his own or one that has been established in the literature. (And a google search is no help: all it turns up are a lot of sites concerned with data storage and computer programming!) If he meant the way in which public engagement with the past is guided by contemporary social and political concerns, then perhaps he has a point.

I would have liked to have a chance to ask him some questions, maybe get some tips on resources. But I didn't have the courage to walk up to him after the panel (what was I supposed to say? Ask if he minded whether I interrogated him?), and when I looked for him later during lunch I couldn't find him.

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