What is your perception of New York?
As a media scholar, I watch – as nearly everybody from a globalised media landscape – how the supposed familiarity with the city, the buildings, even sounds (like from police cars as heard in crime stories) works, when I walk through central regions of New York. The constant comparison between supposed memory, live effect, familiar views, vague recollections (from childhood memories of television series to images from current blockbusters, or own travel memories) remains ambiguous: there is no repetition, and something is repeated in the perception; the cityscape remains familiar and unfamiliar.
You are a professor of Media Studies and your main areas of research are in Gender and Postcolonial Studies and the history of knowledge. What led you to pursue these topics? Is there something in particular about Euro-American colonialism that piqued your interest? What about New York, if anything, provides inspiration that you would not be able to obtain in Germany?
I am motivated and fascinated by the challenge of developing an understanding of the violent history of colonization and one's own position in relation to it, both structurally, individually and affectively. Fundamentally, all distributions of wealth and all ways of looking at the world and knowing something of it are permeated by this. For Europe and the US, the approaches to these considerations are different, insofar as the Black, BIPOC, and indigenous communities in the USA are the living presence of the violent history of the colonization of the continent and of enslavement. Today, Germany's colonies seem far away; they can be ignored in the same way as Hitler's colonization plan for eastern Europe. At the same time, German popular culture is marked by US-american colonization nostalgia, and figures such as "Winnetou" by the translator-fraudster Karl May continue to be celebrated and are considered untouchable. Decolonization processes and reparative justice must address both redistribution through governance and cultural and emotional practices, i.e. a relearning at all levels. Media are key to this insofar as they record and communicate what we understand as our knowledge, and these forms of perception and transmission are also historically deeply structured by prejudice.
Seen from a German perspective, the negotiation processes and struggles that appear more immediately in the USA are a magnifying glass for local disputes. These are waged over the recognition of genocides, over school education without colonial history, over the commemoration of colonial criminals in public places, or the huge collections of non-European cultural assets in museums and archives; they extend to Europe's migration and deterrence policies, which ignore the responsibility for the causes of flight arising from the unequal distribution of wealth as a result of colonial exploitation.
I would like to pick out just one example from this huge topic: The first museum I visited as soon as I arrived in New York was the National Museum of the American Indian. I was thrilled by the narratives, the multiplication and also correction of perspectives, the complexity of of settler colonialism with reference to the differentiation of indigenous communities, modes of negotiation, indigenous agency, etc. - not a simple history of conquest with victims and perpetrators, whereby at the same time the responsibility remains clearly named, around "Native New York". I was intrigued by the museum's interdisciplinarity (archaeology, social history, cultural history, popular culture, gender history) and the design for different ages and approaches, of interactivity, objects, works of art, an animated film that connects the history of the settlement with the Indian American people today, and an exhibition by Shelley Niro (a woman-centered Mohawk philosophy in paintings and photographs). (I later saw something similar in the Museo del Barrio, and pages could be filled with the fantastic 'American Landscapes' section in the Brooklyn Museum). This is what a historiography looks like that makes its partial perspective clear and adusts hegemonic history, and it is against this background that the statue in front of the museum can be read, whose relief romanticizes the myth of a Dutch trader buying land from an 'Indian with feather headdress'.
The trip to Ellis Island the next day showed a completely different picture, as colonization and indigenous life are not central or even the starting point for the exhibition's narrative, but are addressed late and rather disconnected, for a proud American audience that sees itself as a melting pot. In the back and forth between the African Burial Ground in Manhattan, exhibitions like "Give Back Stolen Land" in Queens, discussions about land acknowledgement-testimonials of institutions, individual lectures or films like ex-NYU's filmmaker Valerio Ciriaci's "Stonebreakers" about colonial monuments and critical activism at Maysles' Documentary Center show the ongoing controversies and ways of dealing with them.
On so many more occasions, I was constantly reminded of German disputes about Berlin's Humboldt Forum, Hamburg's Bismarck statue, questions about "Afrozensus" for a better representation of Black people in and through institutions, initiatives for better textbooks, anti-racist initiatives ... I hope to have differentiated and sharpened my perspective and arguments for academic and non-academic debates. Media Studies, Cultural Studies and political activism benefit from their critical self-questioning in order to develop new tools and practices.
In your talk “A Question of Taste. Colonial Aesthetics, Political Affects, and Taste Tanks,” you outline the need for decolonizing the senses and how “Taste Tanks'' can help with this. Can you expand a little on this? How does the idea that "taste has a history" challenge our conventional understanding of personal and philosophical histories associated with taste?
Taste seems to us to be so natural, given, and immediate – something tastes good or it doesn't, there's supposedly no arguing about that. The idea that an entire culture learns over a long period of time to perceive something as tasting good shatters this certainty in an interesting way. You may remember not liking coffee as a child and can imagine that foreign drinks from the colonies (tea, coffee, the fat and bitter cocoa) didn't taste good at first, especially before sugar became readily available and cheap. In the philosophy of the Enlightenment, taste as an aesthetic category first had an emancipatory impact, because it was involved in decoupling one's own judgment from the guidelines of, for example, the church or the king: those who can trust their senses and connect them with reason (also with morality and modesty, by the way) can trust their own judgment. Unfortunately, the bodies that carry these senses were immediately racialized and gendered, so that non-white, non-male, non-citizen bodies were excluded from this emancipation.
The second meaning of having taste as a mark of distinction through class began immediately (and has continued in many ways into our mass consumer culture). What we consider to taste good in rich countries is usually due to global production structures that are based on the fact that others cannot afford these things – the question of distributive justice is combined here with individual enjoyment and with longstanding habits, as can be seen from the example of chocolate. It calls for Spivak's "education of the senses", for an analysis of the whiteness of their affects (Yao), and for this purpose, I have invoked the model of the Feel Tanks, which the feminist collective of the same name developed, in order to collaboratively think through the interweaving of the political and the affective in feelings, to process them and turn them into actions. A collective reflection, rethinking and acting on taste would be a great thing. Boycotts of non-fair trade products are fine, but learning to understand the interplay between pleasure and enjoyment and the knowledge of a history of violence and a present of exploitation around the cocoa bean calls even more fundamentally for a Taste Tank.
I hope that I can deepen and concretize this body of research with a focus on the city of Hamburg, where I live with a view on colonial warehouses at the harbour, and the shipping companies that made a fortune and still proudly display their history on exoticizing and racist facades, in cooparation with colleagues form the University of Yaoundé in Cameroon and others, trying to look for what Ariella Aïsha Azoulay called "potential histories".