The House of Pearled Cultures

“You know, I wear trifocals,” whispers the American sociologist to the Canadian political scientist. This comment is, I think, supposed to be discreet, but Avery F. Gordon hasn’t realized that her microphone is live and very receptive to sound. Thus, as she informs her neighbor, Kim Rygiel, of her current ocular needs, she also informs…an entire auditorium. In the back row, I snicker gleefully at this small herniation of institutional polish. There’s nothing like a hot mic to point out that authoritative voices are still human voices.

I’m at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (or the House of World Cultures)a self-described venue for “international contemporary arts and a forum for current developments and discourse.” HKW is also a landmark of architectural modernism–which means it looks like a spaceship. Built in 1957 for the international building exhibition INTERBAU, its sweeping arches and sloping eaves are typical of mid-20th century design. Idealistically forecasting “the look” of the future, its aesthetic is one which remains the standard, or at least the baseline, for imagining utopian worlds today. I find it ironic to be at this exuberantly futuristic location–sixty years after its construction–for an event called “Now is the Time of Monsters.”

Spread over the course of three days (March 23-25), the curatorial concept of this research, theory, and art conference is to lay “bare the framing conditions of the nation-state, their exclusionary mechanisms and the structural violence anchored within them.” The overall driving inquiry behind the program, complete with papers, projects, and presentations, is simply “what comes after nations?” Issues of citizenship, mobility, asylum, and especially human rights (or the lack thereof) are returned to again and again. It is three days of difficult conversations.

At the moment, I’m privy to a Q&A for the presentation session called “Talking Migration.” The aforementioned Ms. Gordon sits on a panel with seven other aficionados in “the field” of political statelessness–all of whom are tackling questions that focus on the “precarity of citizenship in the face of mobility.” I must admit that the discussion has a tendency to wander, although never far afield from the themes of radical compassion and uncategorizable terror. Of the many delicate terminologies proposed during this forty-minute assembly about collapsing nation-states and uprooted populations, the most salient is the notion of “decomposing citizenship.” The phrase attempts to portray a sense of crumbling identity–and the resulting loss of safety–in the absence of nationality. While it evokes the grim reality of one caught in an abyssal diplomatic no man’s land, it also conjures images of lifeless bodies washed ashore in the Mediterranean, addressing the very real perils of unstable political agency and vanishing statehood.

Despite attempts to investigate diaspora from a range of perspectives (including Brigitta Kuster’s homage to John Berger and Jean Mohr’s still relevant 1975 report on the migrant worker experience, A Seventh Man, and Zoran Terzić’s piano lecture on the ideology of sound), “Talking Migration” ends with more questions than answers. Which is not to say it was entirely fruitless. One of the thought experiments that surfaced was, when exactly does migration start? Is it in the country of departure or in the border zone elsewhere? Perhaps it’s in the anticipation of movement? Or, is it simply in the looking, the peering, over a wall? When attempting to identify a moment, a place, or a distance that signals the onset of migration (and hence, becoming a migrant), one quickly discovers that it defies any form of proper conclusion.

As we filter out of the auditorium, I sense some audience members are perturbed by the lack of resolution provided. However, it’s inspired within me a speculative and somewhat pensive mood. Looking through the glass walls of the HKW, I pause for a moment to admire the honey and fuschia light of the sun as it sets on the former GDR, and I remember that the House of World Cultures is sometimes referred to by Berliners as “the pregnant oyster.” In other contexts, I would have found this pairing of atmospheric beauty and irreverent nicknaming pleasing in a Felliniesque sort of way (the House of Pearled Cultures), but at the moment, the whole scenario seems tasteless.

I realize that I’ve become attuned to the register of decomposition. I detect it everywhere: in the descriptions of hollowed-out Aleppo; the academic critiques of an impotent (yet still virulent) patriarchy; the ubiquitous theme of death; and, as I shall soon see, in the very structure of the conference itself. Breakdown and collapse appear to be, eerily and poignantly, unavoidable–a thought which stays with me while I wander into the foyer for a public conversation entitled “Which Humans Have Human Rights?”

The dialoguing participants of this arranged tête-à-tête are Boaventura de Sousa Santos, a sociologist and legal scholar, and Samar Yazbek, an author and journalist best known for her coverage of the conflict in Syria. Elevated on a platform, de Sousa Santos and Yazbek sit opposite one another. A table separates them in a way that suggests I’m about to witness some “tough talk,” in the manner of an arm wrestling match.

The conversation is bilingual, and I’ve relinquished my only proper identification as collateral for a receiver and headphones that feed me the simultaneous translation of Yazbek’s spoken Arabic. De Sousa Santos sticks to English. The audience is a small sea of people, and all of us are wearing headsets through which the voices of the translators are babbling. I’m struck by the network of signals and layers of information criss-crossing and overlapping in such a condensed space. English and Arabic are rendered into German, as English is churned into Arabic, and vice-versa. Heads are nodding; mouths are murmuring. I can see the translators in their booths, set apart from the crowd. With wild gesticulations, they are keeping time to the cadence of another person’s tongue.

Yazbek is facing forward, and while her decorum on stage is impeccable, her performance is noticeably over-punctuated. She furrows her brow, nods tightly, and frequently opens her mouth in measured incredulity. Her deliberate expressions are meant to register authenticity of experience and be read with immediacy. They signal the recollection of a bullet, a bomb, a crisis without end. When she speaks, she speaks fast, launching point and counterpoint to her partner’s overly calm assertions about the human condition. Her refrain is “who are the monsters now?”

With his back to me, de Sousa Santos is an immobile speaker. I imagine that, were I to change my position so as to view his face, I would only find that he is the same all the way around–360 degrees of back-of-the-head. I’m disconcerted by my impression of him, which has made me wary of his erudite and confident statements about the Western invention of “human rights” and the abstract nuance of dignity.   

Though their arguments often collide, Yazbek and de Sousa Santos do agree on two main ideas: 1) imperialism is bad, and 2) using human rights to instrumentalize imperialism is…also bad. Regarding the central question of which humans have human rights, well, that has been deftly sidestepped in favor of discussing the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which was granted the same legal rights as a human being earlier this year in accordance with the traditional religious practices of the Maori. To some of the less capacious-minded, the example is absurd as both a reference and an occurrence. While I do not share their sentiment, I must admit that I find the citation a bit out of place, or at least poorly timed (with all due respect to the Whanganui). Nonetheless, I appreciate de Sousa Santos’ comment, though not for the sensationalism that it was likely intended to elicit, but for the simple reason that it prompts me to contemplate rivers.

Just beyond the walls from where I sit flows the Spree. It is a picturesque and scenic ride for tour boats today, but during the years of the Cold War, the boundary between East and West Berlin partially followed this river. Though the distance from shore to shore is but a few hundred yards, the Spree was a grave to many who either drowned or were shot crossing the aquatic zone–a no man’s land in its own right–while attempting an escape to the West. For those who survived, the passage from one side to the other was many things, including a crucial political statement, the promise of a different life, and not least of all, a migration.

“Crossing bodies of water” is an inevitable motif when is comes to the history of migration, and it often calls forth scenes from the ancient world. Certain descriptions of the recent Syrian evacuation (lest we call it an “exodus”) portray it as a population fleeing the Levant to ford rivers into Macedonia and Hungary in search of Western sanctuary, an account which makes the crisis seem to be of the biblical past and dangerously undermines its critical urgency.

It is this very rhetorical distancing that informs some of the xenophobic language of the more conservative and exclusionary political factions, such as Germany’s own PEGIDA and AfD movements. Indeed, the former party’s own title–Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, which in translation is “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident”–relies on the archaic vocabulary of global hemispheres to advertise its specific sociocultural stance. However, when it comes to exclusion, the story of the Spree stands as a sobering reminder that the refugee exists in many forms and by many degrees–not just as an endangered foreigner from a chaotic land, or worse, as a being simply reduced to “the other.”

Nearing the end of their chat, Yazbeck asks once more, “Who are the monsters now?” and this time, de Sousa Santos answers: The monster is the triple-headed beast of Capitalism, Colonialism, and Patriarchy. To my mind, his nefarious trifecta has been the monster since long before now, so I’m unmoved by the insight–it’s another instance in which the ancient obscures our clarity in the present. Still, I cannot help but reflecting upon the imagery of his metaphor.

In Greek mythology, there exists a hound of three-heads named Cerberus, whose job is to guard the gates of Hades. A dim place, the Greek underworld is both Heaven and Hell, and it is a region separated from the Earth by the boundary of a river. Only the most audacious of the living dare to cross, and what they encounter on the distant shore, whether paradise or pain, is never a guarantee (though it’s usually some spiteful blend of the two).

I find in this extrapolation an apt metaphor of my own for describing the timbre of the many conjectures issued this day at the HKW. It seems that “what comes after nations?” is just another question that we do not yet have the ability to answer in concrete terms. Contemplation abounds because, as we find ourselves (and by that I mean the human race) on the banks of the twenty-first century’s rushing rapids of political transformation, it’s unclear who will make it to the other side. What is even more of a conundrum is the combination of utopia and damnation that awaits our arrival.




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