Classical music is not a living art form today. Chilly Gonzales

We Live in a Premodern Society

Is national identity obsolete? Postcolonial theorist Kien Nghi Ha sat down with Anna Polonyi to
discuss German integration, the racism behind the Enlightenment and the future of the nation-state.

The European: You spoke at a panel discussion with the Turkish-German author Feridun Zaimoglu. The event was entitled “Vibrationshintergrund” [vibration background]. What is the significance of this wordplay?
Ha: It’s about challenging German society’s widely accepted perspective on immigrants that sees them as an inherently problematic group with deficiencies. In the past, particular forms of therapy, the so-called “foreigner pedagogy”, were developed in order to re-socialize these individuals and to integrate them into German society. The focus on deficits reveals how for a long time, Germany did not conceive of immigrants and their cultures as a positive, enriching element. This is based on an ideology that has nothing to do with the everyday experiences of individuals. There are two realities here: the ideological and sociocultural one. The first reality is shaped on the one hand by mainstream discourses, which have created their own “immigrant problem,” German policy and laws on foreigners, which attempt to regulate and control immigrants, because they are construed as a potentially dangerous group. On the other hand, there is also the reality of migration, which individuals experience in daily life: people of diverse origins are neighbors, become friends, fall in love with each other and have children together.

The European: Integration as a discourse has existed for some time. Why is this concept being criticized?
Ha: Integration as a concept is very unclear. The term may mean social participation, equal rights and opportunities in political, social and cultural contexts. It can also very clearly focus on cultural assimilation, whereupon foreigners are requested to give up their non-German identities in order to become German in a pre-fab way, which is unnatural for there is no original German identity to begin with. German culture is not static; it is as difficult to define as American, Turkish or Vietnamese culture is. Nevertheless, the illusion of a prescribed and apparently given German culture is adopted, one into which immigrants are meant to fit in and orient themselves accordingly. When they fail to do this, they are threatened by penalties, and are viewed as incapable or unwilling of integration: this is a development we have seen since the introduction of compulsory integration courses in 2005, which affect mostly Muslims and people of color. Increasingly, integration is meant as a forceful coercion to submit to German society rather than an invitation to participate as a self-determined equal within that society.

The European: To what extent must one give up one culture in order to belong to another?
Ha: All individuals have a variety of different identities that they simultaneously operate with. Ideally, one would have a political structure and culture which allows individuals to be German in a variety of ways, such as in the United States, where being American can mean a lot of different things: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, white Americans come in all shapes and sizes. In Germany, this kind of pluralization of national culture and identity is at best rudimentary. Changes are slowly being brought, particularly in cultural areas that allow for hyphenated identities: one can be identified as German-Turkish, or Asian-German, or Black German. But these are for the most part peripheral changes, which have had little impact on the general public’s consciousness until now. We are still dealing with a dominant narration that speaks of a “German culture” in the singular, and thinks of it in terms of a necessary exclusion of other cultural identities.

The European: Must one be critical towards a dominant culture, be it German or American, simply by virtue of its dominance?
Ha: The dark side of a dominant culture and its political discourse is that it represses other histories and minority positions by making them invisible. I believe that it is necessary to subvert dominant structures through cultural, social and political activity if we are to strive towards a society that is as free of coercion and domination as possible. This can only happen if the suppressed and marginalized parts of this society cultivate a voice and demand that it be heard and listened to. The current common understanding of German culture boils down to the controversial formula of a German Leitkultur [guiding culture]. This is absurd idea has become a common expression in German political culture. The CDU professes loyalty to this Leitkultur in its party manifesto. We should ask ourselves: do we want to live in a mono-cultural society, or rather one in which political as well as cultural pluralism is possible, and individuals can be different and still be recognized as members of the same society?

The European: One has to feel part of a society in order to criticize it.
Ha: I do not think that we need the term “integration” at all in order to talk about social participation and democratic rights. It is clear that as soon as we begin to speak about guest-workers here in Germany, we are in fact talking about a range of people who have been in here for up to fifty or sixty years; some are here as 3rd generation migrants. They are fundamental elements of this society. That is a fact that simply cannot be ignored. Various terms for their historical presence can be used, and in the worst of cases, these terms conceal this fact: for instance, one still speaks of “foreigners,” even though these individuals can no longer in any rational way be described as “foreign.” They are only foreign in so far as society refuses to grant them their German citizenship in a fair way. It is undoubtedly a question of political willingness for the German public who has until now held the terms and conditions of German citizenship too high for marginalized migrant groups. One should at least be honest enough to recognize the goal of this kind of politics; at least Thilo Sarazzin publicly recognized that Germany does not want any Muslim immigrants.

The European: Is there an “immigration problem” to speak of?
Ha: It would be better to speak of a democracy deficit and structural racism in Germany, rather than about an integration or immigration problem per se. That is the real core of the problem, and talking about it in those terms would change our perspective. Integration is always the problem of the Other: it is the foreigners, the Turks who are not integrated and who don’t want to be, because they are of Muslim faith and their allegedly backward beliefs stop them from giving up their Turkishness, and thus they cannot embrace womens’ rights. The ideology behind the discourse of integration is constantly constructing and problematizing the postcolonial Other in order to inflate the value of an imagined German cultural heritage. If we are to begin thinking about it in terms of a democratic deficit, then other questions and answer would arise: what can German society do in order to correct this breach in democracy? We could talk about the blind spots of this society and discuss the possibility of reforms that would endow individuals who have been part of this society for decades with their democratic rights.

The European: You mentioned the link between racism and the Enlightenment. Could you talk more about that?
Ha: That is a very interesting, but also very difficult question, as the history of the Enlightenment spans many centuries. What interests me intellectually is the political importance of thematizing the Enlightenment in more complex and contradictory terms than our euro-centric perspective has allowed up until now. I would like to cast doubt on whether one can truly think of the Enlightenment as a linear path of progress. Historically speaking, colonialism and the philosophy of Enlightenment did not necessarily stand in opposition to one another. “Great philosophers,” such as Voltaire and Kant have been idealized as the icons of Western enlightened thinking. What is commonly overlooked is the fact that they were also protagonists in a discourse which constructed race. As theorists of race, they contributed significantly to a colonial discourse and are partially responsible for the establishment of this worldview, which allowed for colonial-racist exploitation and practices of suppression. I believe that the connection between the colonial project and modern Europe is one that we must be very aware of, particularly as part of a culture that prides itself in being enlightened, i.e. self-critical. It is indeed important that we be self-critical, particularly at a time when this alleged “Enlightenment” is being used as a politically charged term and a means by which to alienate Muslim communities. It is important to have a self-critical understanding of the Enlightenment, in order to clarify that there is no rational basis for any kind of “Clash of Cultures” binary. Unfortunately, it is very easy today to use the concept of Enlightenment as a political instrument that enables Westerners to justify their dominance and to continue to claim themselves politically and culturally superior to Muslims, because they are allegedly enlightened, and the latter are not.

The European: When talking about identity, nation-states are often the first point of reference. With current global problem that cannot be solved at the scale of nation-states, is this way of creating an identity still legitimate?
Ha: The sovereignty of nation-states is challenged in a variety of ways. Firstly there is the dimension of economic globalization, which is about capital flows and an interdependent world economy. Secondly, there is also the challenge from super-national structures such as the EU. But what the nation-state is most loathe to give up is its bio-power. The nation-state—and Germany is a good example here—wants to maintain control over migration by all means, even with the military, if necessary. Frontex is exemplary of how the external borders of the EU are being protected according to bio-political priorities concerning the make-up of the European and not least of all German population. But these goals are unrealistic, as the nation-states have been weakening for some time now, and the external EU borders are constantly being crossed. Nevertheless, these borders are meant to be held up as an ideological fiction, even at the price of our humanity. It is widely understood that illegal immigration is also a phenomenon in Germany. As in all other EU countries, this is a phenomenon that seems to be growing. And yet it appears to be ignored politically until it can no longer possibly be ignored.

The European: But when every group defines itself in that it excludes others?
Ha: It is correct that group identity defines itself by distinguishing itself from others. But here we are talking about modern nation-states. Nation-states are structures of such size that they are not based on personal networks or relations, but rather collective symbols, such as national hymns and flags. Personal relationships have no significance within these kinds of anonymous social structures. Citizenship cannot be based on the fiction of a common culture, but rather functions as a membership in a common political-democratic project, in which individuals are granted equal rights, freedoms and responsibilities. The promise of modernity is that individuals should have the freedom to decide in what society they want to live in. That is what is meant by democracy: that social power structures are not given by God or nature, but that the possibility to change them by making democratic decisions is in our own hands. As long as millions of immigrants are continuously being shut out of this democratic system, we live, strictly speaking, in a pre-modern society. Nation-states are a relatively young, modern phenomenon. They are changeable. It is rather a question of political decision-making process, of how states and societies want to organize themselves. If we were to initiate a political movement, and people were to be of the opinion that they no longer want to live in a nation-state, but rather another form of social structure, then democrats would have to discuss post-national societal forms. Nothing is automatic; there is no natural or divine necessity for a nation-state.


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