Alison Phipps, ed. Contemporary German Cultural Studies. London: Edward Arnold Publishers, 2002. x + 306 pp. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-340-76402-2.
Reviewed by Jana Bruns (Department of History, C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University)
Published on H-German (August, 2003)
In her foreword, the editor Alison Phipps advertises this book as a "travel guide" for students of contemporary German culture, and an introduction to the subject from a cultural studies perspective. It purports to be a sampling of "critical, cultural essays which seek to communicate the processes which have led certain forms, structures, practices, and peoples to inhabit contemporary German culture" (p. 3), rather than an overview of cultural production in Germany today. Such fuzzy declarations can be found in many cultural studies projects, reflecting an attempt to steer clear of the essentializing tendencies of neighboring disciplines (such as history) by emphasizing the fluid, contested, and indeterminate nature of meanings, and may deter readers looking for an accessible and informative work. However, Contemporary German Cultural Studies actually contains a great deal of unambiguous information about recent German architecture, domestic life, education, business practices, popular music, movies, and food. Divided into four parts, the book takes the reader on a journey that begins at Germany's borders and gradually moves inward--from the built environment (cities, parks, museums, private homes) to everyday activities (learning, eating, working) to traditional creative practices and cultural institutions (theater, music, cinema). Unfortunately, there is no discussion of the art scene--a serious omission considering the large number of institutions dedicated to the promotion and exhibition of contemporary art.
The weaknesses of this book lie in the uneven quality of the individual contributions rather than its overall structure or subject matter. Many of the analyses lack depth and originality, and are brimming with unnecessary jargon. Only a few offer interesting insights into the relationship between national identity, public policy, and cultural forms, and demonstrate that even mundane practices, such as eating a doener kebab or the common use of "Denglish" (a hybrid of German and English) among German youths, can be seen as symbolic acts that enrich our understanding of German society.
The most interesting chapter is Simon Richter's discussion of German eating and drinking habits, specifically the country's culinary romance with the doener kebab, the public debates around mad cow disease, and the population's (alleged) willingness to believe in the beneficial effects of regular urine consumption! Richter's intention is to demonstrate that Germans regard food as "other" and have a "deeply held suspicion regarding the fundamental indigestibility of all things" (p. 179). While one may not agree with his conclusions or choice of subjects, he makes a good case for the importance of food as a cultural signifier and shows that its preparation, marketing, purchase, and consumption are expressions of socio-cultural attitudes, such as xenophobia, environmentalism, and anti-globalism. In his section on the doener kebab, Richter argues that the assimilation of this traditional Turkish sandwich into German cuisine (the annual sales of döner vendors in Germany exceed those of all other fast-food retailers combined) demonstrates Germans' greater openness towards foreign cultures. At the same time, the relationship between foreign vendors and their German customers continues to be fraught with tension and "the McDonald's, the pizzeria, the shish kebab joint, and the local restaurant featuring 'buergerliche Küche' co-exist in an uneasy union" (p. 182). While Richter sees Germans' latent suspicions towards foreign fares and their purveyors as signs of lingering xenophobia, they also hint at a deep-seated fear towards food in general, which "the German culinary unconscious" (p. 185) views as an alien, potentially hazardous object that has to be made "magenfreundlich" (friendly to the stomach) prior to consumption. This paranoia is the reason most German products contain elaborate labels testifying to their digestibility. Moreover, it fuelled the country's hysteria when mad cow disease hit in the fall of 2000.
What can a nation ingest whose culinary soul designates everything external to the body as potentially harmful? The (unappetizing) answer, according to Richter, is one's own urine. While cautioning against broad generalizations ("I am not asserting that the average German drinks his or her urine on a regular basis" [p. 189]), he claims that Germans' gastronomic neurosis uniquely predisposes them to believe in the value of urine consumption. In the absence of reliable data on urine consumption, Richter enlists indirect evidence, for example, the availability of a large selection of books on the subject in the self-help aisles of mainstream bookstores and the fact that the Second World Conference on Urine Therapy was convened, in 1999, in a spa town near Frankfurt. Although this evidence may not be solid enough to convince readers (including the author of this review) of Richter's point--that a practice most Americans regard as repulsive is "indigenous to German culture" (p. 189)-- his ideas are definitely food for thought, albeit less delectable than the many sausages, beers, and breads adorning the German culinary landscape.
A further noteworthy contribution is Gillian Pye's chapter on recent German architecture and city planning, which investigates the dynamic relationship between landscape, building design and national identity. Pye focuses on two contemporary projects: the Jewish Museum Berlin, designed by the avant-garde architect Daniel Libeskind, and the Emscher Park, an ambitious development spanning some 800 kilometers of polluted and derelict landscape in the heart of the German rust belt. Pye views both projects as expressions or "imprints" (p. 83) of current socio-political attitudes and blueprints for the future. The zig-zag shape, slanting windows, and "voids" (huge empty spaces that serve no concrete function, except to evoke emptiness and discomfort) of Libeskind's Jewish museum materialize the jagged, fragmented, and painful course of German-Jewish history, as well as a desire for future reconciliation and understanding. By working closely with local communities and transforming former sites of heavy industry into performance spaces and gardens instead of bulldozing them, the architects of the Emscher Park acknowledge the German government's local-democratic agenda and the area's past, as well as creating an environmentalist blueprint for other industrial sites.
Other notable chapters include Helen Kelly-Holmes' analysis of recent linguistic trends, Colin Riordan's discussion of German environmentalism, and Osman Durrani's examination of post-war popular music. The majority of the contributions, however, are relatively weak and do not offer much that is new or interesting. Jane Wilkinson's chapter on passports, for example, which explores the process by which one crosses the German border, informs us that "at the moment of border crossing, the unique individual is reduced to the information contained in his/her passport. If that information is in order, entry is granted [...]. If the information in the passport is not in order, or if the traveler is not in possession of a valid passport, [...] entry is prohibited" (p. 22). Such pronouncements merely confirm what any traveler who has left his or her country of origin already knows. In her conclusion, Wilkinson casts additional doubt on the significance of her investigation by pointing out that "border crossing points [...] are never particularly German" and that the rituals of border crossings are "the same everywhere" (p. 36). Susan Tebbutt's chapter on the German education system, Lois Weinthal's examination of private homes, and Meg Mumford's and Alison Phipps' critical survey of contemporary theater conclude with similarly drab or common-sense assertions that add little to our understanding of contemporary German culture.
Overall, then, Contemporary German Studies is an ambitious project that does not live up to its promise. It will disappoint academic readers looking for a sophisticated, accessible work on modern German culture, while non-specialists interested in German customs, cuisine and cultural offerings would be better off consulting a regular travel guide.
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Jana Bruns. Review of Phipps, Alison, ed., Contemporary German Cultural Studies.
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Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.