1. What is your perception of New York? When did you first visit this city, and how has it changed following the pandemic? How does New York compare to cities in Germany where you've resided and worked?
I first visited New York in the late eighties, 1988 or ’89, when I was a student at Washington University in St. Louis. I took a Greyhound bus from Missouri to New York and stayed for a week with a friend in Brooklyn. I immediately fell in love with the city. A bit later, in 2000, I lived in Chelsea for a year, on W. 20th Street, where I wrote large parts of my “Habilitation.” Since then I’ve been trying to come back at least once a year. There are so many things I like about New York, but I think the two things I like best are that it always feels like a new place when you return – you never find it as you left it, it constantly changes – but the one thing that stays the same is that it’s a rather good city for pedestrians. You don’t need a car here. All the boroughs are fairly walkable. That’s unusual for a metropolis. Has the city changed during the pandemic? My feeling is: yes. Many of my favorite restaurants, bars, bookstores seem to be struggling. I also thought there was more latent aggression on the streets this time, but perhaps that’s just my projection. But people seem to be more nervous than usual, more impatient, more easily agitated. But that’s probably true for most places these days.
2. In your talk “Civility and Its Opposites: The Empathies and Resentments of White Liberalism, 1767-1826,” you outlined your current research project, which focuses on the Declaration of Independence as a mediated event. What has your analysis of this document through the lens of rhetoric shown, and how does your research pertain to the present moment?
My project examines a key feature of American literature at the time of the Revolution and the early republic: its rhetorical vacillation between sentimentalism and indignation – or “civic indignation,” as I call it. So, basically, the project asks: what does it mean when colonial elites speak on behalf of – and even in the assumed role of – wounded humanity? What does it mean when a language of universal protest is also a language of white self-sentimentalization? Which rhetorical strategies and which emotional performances can we expect in such a situation? I believe these are important questions, because the historical meaning of 18th-century liberalism – if we can even speak of “liberalism” at this point, but I think we can, as I’ve tried to show in my talk at Deutsches Haus – so, the historical meaning of 18th-century American liberalism, or proto-liberalism, resides not only in its political philosophy, but also in its media rhetoric. And when we look at things this way, we quickly perceive connections to the present moment. Think of Carolin Amlinger and Oliver Nachtwey’s recent book on libertarian authoritarianism in Germany. Or think of Juliet Hooker’s upcoming book on white grievance politics. Many of these discussions resonate with my project’s interest in the complicated affectivity of the founders’ proto-liberal language of “freedom” – but my project argues that these issues have deeper histories than is sometimes acknowledged.
3. As a scholar your primary field of study revolves around American Media History, Seriality and Popular Culture and you have written extensively about David Bowie, the American Enlightenment, The Wire, and the Million Man March. How do you choose your projects, and is there something in particular about US media and culture that particularly piques your interest?
That’s a good question. I wish I could answer it well. Object choice, that’s always tricky. Perhaps the most honest thing to say here is that it’s never simply a straightforward matter of personal choice, especially not in Kulturwissenschaft. To study culture means to study something that affects you, whether you like it or not, often something that is as much part of you as you are part of it. But at the end of the day I would always want to see myself as a cultural historian, committed to empirical analysis, even in projects that were personally very important to me, like the Bowie book. How did I choose that project? Well, I didn’t really. I was asked if I wanted to write this book. How could I have said no? But of course that’s only half the truth. The reason the publisher asked me was that another of their authors knew I was a Bowie fan and told them so when they were considering a Bowie publication. I guess this is how a lot of publications come about these days: you’re being asked to do something – either by other people or by some strange internalized strategist at the back of your mind – but the reason they’re asking is because they know you a bit. And then some of these requests seem more urgent than others. “Civic Indignation” currently appears very urgent to me, fairly relevant to our sense of history in the US and Germany, I think.
4. Could you speak a bit more about another research project you are working on, which focuses on "The Dark Sixties?"
Yes, when you first invited me to speak at Deutsches Haus, shortly before the pandemic, I proposed a lecture either on Nico (of The Velvet Underground & Nico) or Rosemary’s Baby. At the time, I was toying with the idea of writing a series of essays that would have looked at the 1960s in the United States not as a decade of hope and optimism, but as a decade of ominous apprehensions too. Joan Didion would have been another topic, but also Rachel Carson and definitely Andy Warhol. But then Covid-19 happened and we had to postpone my stay at Deutsches Haus, twice actually, and in the meantime the 18th-century project became ever more important. But the American Sixties still look kind of dark to me, at least in how certain strands of white cultural production understood themselves at the time, so I may return to this project eventually. I’m not working on it right now, but I think I’ve assembled enough material to revive it whenever someone asks me to. I’ve already published a little bit on Nico, but the Rosemary’s Baby essay would probably be the next piece in the puzzle.
5. Going back to your current research, to what extent are contemporary social tensions, such as racism or the unequal treatment of women, rooted in the founding moment of the United States of America?
“Rooted” is a difficult term, because it suggests causality. When you just asked me about the contemporary resonances of my project, I said that I see clear connections to current developments, such as the rise of libertarian authoritarianism, but that I would like to bring a deeper sense of history to this discussion. And when I say “history,” I mean that these things (the rhetoric of 18th-century civic indignation and the 21st-century media practices of a newly popular culture-war type of liberalism) are not identical – there is always change, always development – but they’re not unconnected either. These connections, these developments, they may be contingent but they’re not arbitrary. So I wouldn’t want to say that racism is “rooted” in the founding moment of the United States, as if it was the nation’s inescapable destiny, but the specific historical type of racism that we find in, let’s say, Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia in the 1780s did have consequences for the future history of racism in the United States and the Western world at large.
Now, the traditional liberal counter-argument to all this is to point out that a philosophy of universal liberty can be effective, and often has been effective, even when it was initially pronounced in bad faith or if it is inconclusively mixed up with other interests. And I wouldn’t debate this. It is true – and important to keep in mind – that the Declaration of Independence has defined strong political commitments that have proven absolutely useful for subsequent liberation movements in the US and beyond. But I would qualify this fact with two thoughts.
First, I think that we have reached a point now where this fact has been turned into a combative narrative of its own. And its consequences are anything but liberating. To put it a bit bluntly: the one thing we don’t need right now is more liberal triumphalism. In fact, I think that liberalism itself will not be saved by liberal triumphalism. If the liberal tradition will survive at all, it probably won’t be by doubling down on its monumental historical self-confidence, which is becoming increasingly resentful, increasingly brutal, increasingly destructive. Self-destructive too. But perhaps the liberal tradition can survive, under whatever name, in a meaningful reckoning with its own history.
Which brings me to the second point: if such a reckoning occurs, it probably wants to think about the communicative conditions of liberal rhetoric. From the perspective of my project, the liberal appeal to its own futurity – that is, the liberal notion of the Enlightenment as an “unfinished project” and the reference to later emancipation movements, which have utilized the Declaration of Independence for progressive purposes – all these arguments are interesting, because implicitly they seem to acknowledge that it does make a difference if the sentence “all men are created equal” is uttered by an enslaver or by an enslaved person. Even universal propositions are dependent, in their political value, on the particularities of their enunciation. This is why we need to be more attentive to rhetoric, I believe, and not restrict ourselves to political philosophy when we think about Western liberalism.
6. How did you spend your time as the DAAD Visiting Scholar at Deutsches Haus at NYU? What were some of the highlights of your month in New York?
Would it be cheesy to say that my event at Deutsches Haus was the highlight? It’s true though. The conversation with Herman Bennett helped me clarify many questions I have about my own project – and so did the many excellent comments by our audience. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Meeting friends and colleagues in person again was the best thing of my stay. Real live conversations, face to face, not on screens: it almost feels magical in the third year of the pandemic, but this is what I will remember about my month in New York. So it wasn’t just time alone in the library or in front of my laptop, but there were all these meetings, there was another lecture in Dartmouth with excellent critical feedback there too: overall a very productive month and a very good one.