Germany Beyond Multiculturalism?

Beyond MCby Maria Stehle

A report on the International Conference on “Envisioning the Immigration Society” (“Fragen an die Einwanderungsgesellschaft”) at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW, House of World Cultures) in Berlin, June 2009.

Let me start this reflection with a short disclaimer: I only attended two of the panels at this conference. My reflections are not an exhaustive account of the discussions at the conference but rather my thoughts on the two (very different) events that I attended and on some of the questions that emerged for me.

On the first page of the conference program a quote by David Hollinger, historian from UC Berkeley, asks the questions: “ Just who belongs together with whom, and for what purposes, and on what authority?” The short description of the program of the conference starts with an often cited dichotomy: “globalization versus nation.” This dichotomy is introduced as a tension.The program states that the model of “multiculturalism which classified people according to their descent and thus turning them into ‘foreigners’ within the majority seems outdated.” The organizers further introduce the model of “super-diversity” as a concept to be examined from different angles and perspectives. The following collection of questions seems informed by a practical-political perspective – under the assumption that interventions are needed: “What policies need to be put in place? What does growing diversity in societies mean to political and cultural institutions? What impact does this diversity have on the understanding of culture in Germany and Europe?”This short introduction to the central questions and concepts that the conference tries to tackle, also already points to one of the central questions that emerged for me: If we try to critically examine these questions, how do we reveal the politics that underlie the terms we use? Or, let me phrase it differently, with one of the panelists: Since we know that most of the terms used in the policy/political discussions disguise more than they reveal, how can we produce a different discourse? Terms like “culture,” the afro-mentioned dichotomy between the nation and globalization, and the assumption that we have an “issue” or a “problem” at hand illustrates some of these discursive traps. “Culture” often and only barely stands in for a highly “culturalized” or more precisely, racially informed and racist discourse; the fact that the nation state is not disappearing by rather changing and working with globalizing forces is hardly reflected upon in the constructed tension between nation state and globalization; most troubling, under my perspective, is the often missing discussion of what kind of “issue” we are talking about and why this is an “issue” in the first place.

In his introduction to the conference, Berd Scherer, currently director of the HKW, gave a brief account of the problematic history of the concept of multiculturalism. The venue for the conference, the “House of the Cultures of the World,” was founded 20 years ago with exactly this, at this point new, ideology in mind. This is why, so Scherer, it is more than appropriate to house a conference on the “beyond” of this concept today. The (Freudian) slip in his introduction, however, is telling for the central challenge that we face in this “beyond” discussion:  Scherer welcomed the “national experts from all over the world.” Did he mean to say “international”? If not, what kind of expertise do “national” expert bring to the table? Following Scherer, Susanne Stemmler, main organizer of the conference and head of the literature sub-division at the HKW, gave a short introduction that was intended less to critique the concepts of the past, but to ask the questions of/for the future: how do we reach a “post-ethnic era”? And how do we develop “geographies of action?” I will return to my re-cap of the keynote lecture by Arjun Appadurai that followed these general introductions after I offer my thoughts on the panel  “Ensuring Participation – What policy is needed for the immigration Society”. My reflections on this practical-political panel are meant to point to the traps of the discourses on “multiculturalism” and its “beyond” – traps that Appadurai not only thematized and politicized in his lecture, but theorized as well, on a rhetorical and, I would argue, political level.

During the panel under the label “Forum Policy” the discursive trappings of this discussion became at points painfully obvious. Mark Terkessidis, who moderated the panel, found himself in conversation with two politicians who have held, as the case for now Berlin senator Gunter Piening, and are currently holding, as the case for Ayca Polat in Oldenburg, the political office of “commissioners for Integration”—as the office, formerly known as “commissioner for foreigners” is called today.  While from the start, the panelists voiced their discontent with the terms “immigration” and “participation” they found themselves trapped by these very concepts. The question of what kinds of concepts are used in this discussion over policy and political participation, by whom and for what purpose, emerged as the central question for me. Of course, the panelists themselves noted their frustration about the top-down approach they find themselves taking; about the failure to come up with different terms; and about the limitation given by the historical and political nature of their offices. One of the concrete reasons the panelists gave for the limitations of the discourse in Germany was that for the longest time, “diversity” was understood as a social problem that was supposed to be solved and managed by social workers.

For me, two central topics emerged from their discussion: First, the panelists all agreed on the striking gap between a theoretical and even in some realms, journalistic discourse that operates under the clear assumption that Germany is a country of immigration and a wide-spread refusal in the public, among politicians, citizens, and on the community level, to acknowledge this “fact.” What does this mean? While this striking “gap” was pointed out repeatedly, there was no further discussion. Second, and maybe related to this “gap”, the overall perspective on the policy level remained stuck in a national paradigm. France and the US were evoked a few times – in contrast to Germany and as positive examples for how it could work! This comparison worked, when, in his introduction Mark Terkessidis raised the question of when multiculturalism actually took place, since, all policies that deserve that label, like affirmative action, bilingual education, etc., actually were never implemented in Germany.

For most of the discussion, however, these comparisons were used in a rather undifferentiated way. What is the function of using the “other” nation state as a projection of what Germany did and does wrong? One could clearly argue that such comparisons, especially when they are invoked so superficially, serve to disguise more than they reveal! For example, they failed to address questions of representation and perception. The demand for political participation and representation for non-citizens in Germany certainly makes sense; the examples of France and the US, however, show very clearly that they might simply shift the problem – especially when read and understood from “the top down.” Representation, of course, can also function as a perfect disguise—especially in government offices.

Arjun Appadurai started his lecture, and, since he was the first keynote speaker, tried to set the tone for the conference, by taking a “global” perspective. He pointed out that in this global age, we are “simultaneously too close and too far away” from each other. He mentioned global flows not only of people, news, media, and hairstyles (!), but also of empathy, identification, and anger. Global cultural flows, he asserted, change the machineries of local cultures and their trajectories. These flows are complex, and often produce their own curious inner contradictions and their own obstacles. Human rights discourses are an example of producing such a too close and too far situation, such obstacles, and contradictions. They can produce (ethno) mobilizations; they also fit in, however “squarely”, into often opposing flows, discourses, and political agendas.
In an attempt to answer the question of how “super-diversity” can be lived, Appaduari suggested that instead of using the problematic culture/ multi-culture discourses, we use the term “conviviality” to talk about possible visions for he future. “Conviviality” as a concept is not new; Paul Gilroy used it in his book on “Postcolonial Melancholia.” Appaduari did not offer an in-depth discussion of either term “super-diversity” or “conviviality,” however, his mention of the two concepts in the very first lecture promised to foster a discourse about terms, concepts, and their political implications.

Shifting the discussion slightly, Appadurai then discussed the politics of dialogue. Starting with the assumption that, opposed to conservative voices, we believe in dialogue as a means of enabling “conviviality”, he asked us to consider the risks of dialogue. The risks cannot be discounted, partly because they trigger anxieties that might have the power to shut down dialogue and/or put us in a rather small discursive space. He identified three risks: first, the risk of not understanding each other; second, the risk of understanding too much; and third, the risk of revealing too much or too little about internal differences that might exist within the two sides/partners/groups, etc. that are involved in the dialogue. Let me briefly try to explain how Appaduari conceptualized the second and third risk. To be effective, dialogue cannot be about everything. Agreement is always limited and the risk of excess understanding” is very high. Since complete understanding is always an illusion, a real danger lies in the elimination of deepest difference and the creation of false universalisms—excess understanding. The third risk is even more complicated to explain, but arguably equally as important consider. In any dialogue, each side brings their own tensions and contradictions to the “table.” There cannot be any productive negotiation with the “other” if there is not also a negotiation with the “self.”  This raises the issue of representation – how does one represent the “self” in dialogue? How do we conduct dialogue about the relevant differences?  The internal debates that take place on both sides interact with the external debate between the two sides/partners in the dialogue.
Appaduari ended his lecture with a few examples of where he sees such dialogue and the risks of dialogue, tied together with his initial discussion of global flows. His work on slums in Mumbai allows him to see the risks in action as well as observe a culture of what he called “cosmopolitanism from below.” The cosmopolitanism of the slum inhabitant is involuntary and compulsory, but generally slum inhabitants are cosmopolitan: they often speak three or even more languages; their dreams and their perceptions are highly influenced by global mediation; they have access to global media; they negotiate across cultural lives on a daily basis. While Appaduari had enough time to develop his model of dialogues and risks as it related to conviviality, his discussion of the cosmopolitanism of the slum inhabitants/global urban poor remained a little vague. How, for examples, does his model borrow and or distinguish itself from Engels’ concept of the international working class? Also, where exactly do we indentify risks and how do we conceptualize the risks as well as the chances for global flows and conviviality when we talk about/with the slum?

Let me conclude this discussion with a few questions and suggestions. When it comes to the “beyond” of the title of the talk, I think we need to take a more critical look at the national perspectives that still dominate he discourse about policy and politics and the political traps it produces when it comes to questions of “conviviality.” The gap between theory and practice that the panelists identified in Germany seem to point not only the question of how such a gap evolved, but also what purpose the “theoretically sophisticated” debate in politics and media, for example, might serve. Who talks to whom and for what purpose? Is this, maybe, not a dialogue? Or, a dialogue unaware of its own risks? Or, a dialogue that too carefully avoids risks? Who is anxious in this dialogue? Also, and related to the question of the nation, is the question of “who belongs together with whom” really a relevant question and if so, on what level? Why is the issue of “belonging” such a central and often such an emotional part of the discourse? The purposes of belonging and questions of authority and power, as cited by David Hollinger, however, seem to be central political questions. Maybe, especially when it comes to the still rather vague and concealed discussion about race and racism, it is still and again necessary not only to produce a strategic dialogue that is aware of the risks, but a dialogue that also reveals some of the risks and anxieties. I am not suggesting that we discount the dangers that lie in “risky” dialogue; but I do suggest that we reconsider the potential that might lie in contingency and risky dialogue, especially when it comes to discussing racisms, “hyper-diversity” and conviviality with Europe today. Maybe we need to provoke to produce dialogue—about performativity, complicity, and the politically stabilizing force of current discussions— in order to move the discussions and dialogues beyond the concepts that seem to currently trap them?