Category Archives: Culture

Toys “R” Us and Alienation

We’ll start with Toys “R” Us’ by now notorious advertisement that has recently gone viral. In the ad, a group of disadvantaged children are loaded onto a bus and told that they are off to the forest for a nature lesson, only to take them to Toys “R” us instead, to “make all their wishes come true.”

Evidently the advertisement was a genuine charity stunt. For its part, Toys “R” Us also released this behind the scenes video on YouTube. Anyone interested can see what they have to say for themselves here.

It’s a “capitalism with a human face” stunt gone rather badly awry. The ad is blatantly offensive. The implied message “who needs nature when you’ve got big box toy stores?” is pretty bad. The caricature of a teacher is also insulting. But that’s just obnoxiousness. What strikes me as most awful, and is perhaps not as immediately obvious, is the fact that the ad also works by thrilling a mostly white middle and upper class viewership with the sight of disadvantaged children being allowed to briefly partake in the worst habits of consumption. As potential Toys R Us patrons, our hearts are supposed to be warmed because the rules are bent so that these children can do once what we could do any time. And the acquisition of a thing beats an encounter with a forest. As Stephen Colbert observed, the moral of this story: “nature sucks.”

Toys R Us has really captured the magic of having a stranger take your kids on a bus, lie about where they’re going, then take off his clothes and promise them toys.

Way out west, Chris Clarke has this thoughtful critique of the ad on the KCET website. Clarke suspects that the ad hits a “sore spot” with environmentally minded people, essentially that environmentalists advocate for nature while also being alienated from it. He observes that environmentalism has itself given in to a destructive techno-fetishism (in fairness, we should specify that this criticism applies mostly to establishment liberal environmental discourses). The basic thesis of the argument as it applies to the ad:

The Toys R Us ad comes from an unspoken sensibility that is so commonplace among adults, even among environmentally concerned adults, that the ad writers thought it unremarkable:

“Nature sucks: we want our toys.”

I’m no better at reading minds than the next person. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the outrage over this ad among my colleagues in the environmental realm came from the wounded realization that it describes something all too real, even among ourselves. It pushed our buttons. Those of us who advocate for the non-human world fight apathy and hostility toward nature all the time. We are constantly told that nature is boring and unimportant, at least compared to a moment’s dubious thrill catching air in an off-road vehicle. Or a quarter’s dubious thrill watching the value of your stock options go up four percent.

I tend to agree with Clarke’s assessment, and I wonder if ascribing it to intuition isn’t being a little demure. While I am disinclined to bemoan “alienation from nature” because doing so is rather cliche, the ad is not just a cultural document of such a condition, but revels in it as something desirable. As the Christmas season comes around, Toys “R” Us profits will spike as it hawks plastic crap, most of which plays with itself and will probably be off to eternal rest in a landfill by June.

What stood out to me about Clarke’s argument, though, was that he got there via an image that was wending its way around the internets a couple years back (I first encountered it here on Adbusters).


Like the advertisement, there’s a message here, one that calls out those of us who more easily recognize commercial signifiers while being ignorant of the given world. Clarke offers a more specific reading:

The lesson of the exercise: we recognize what’s important to us. Most of us know what the swoosh and the apple with a bite missing mean. Identifying leaves by their shape? To most of us, that’s not important.

Good critical practice entails not taking a didactic text’s claims at face value, no matter how sympathetic the “message” may be. This image invites a reading against the grain. Because it’s visual, it’s message is agreeable, and it is easily digestible, it lends itself to the repost reflex. And for that it’s a rather dubious image.

First, while the image means to draw a contrast between two kinds of consciousness, it gets there by way of a false equivalency. We (post)modern subjects instantly recognize the brands at the apparent expense of the earth. But brands are signifiers, they stand for something else. What does a tree stand for? Or a tree branch? One might as well complain that English speaking humans will have an easier time turning the combinations of letters reproduced on this site into meaningful language than they will in identifying a birch leaf. For my part, I recognized the maple only because the shape has also been appropriated as a symbol of the Canadian state. As Clarke points out, the individual drawings could be identified with more than one tree. So the document itself raises the classic problem of a disconnect between signifier and signified. It always already is what it critiques. My point is not to level a cheap charge of hypocrisy, but to point out the difficulties of a line of argumentation I’ve seen elsewhere.

Second, the charge that the image reveals “what’s important to us” is a bit imprecise. The charge could place the blame for collective consciousness formation primarily in the hands of the individual. But if recognizing brands but not trees is a symptom, wouldn’t it be more a symptom of exposure? Given the diversifying channels through which advertising comes at us, it becomes impossible to will away the ability to recognize a logo. Because advertising works best when it subverts cognition, brand recognition does not demand the level mental labor required for reading texts or identifying trees. The point is, what the image calls out is not a question of individual fault. We’re dealing instead with the challenge of bringing into cognition what consumer culture would have us not cognicize. One might say that the problem with the Toys R Us ad is that it is too transparent, it lends itself too easily to critique. That’s how it ended up on the Colbert Report.

Third, what is really at stake in identifying trees by the shape of their leaves? Obviously this is a topos that is really about something else, namely taxonomy as evidence of caring, knowledge, and therefore connectedness. But that does not rescue this particular environmentalist commonplace. Taxonomic knowledge is not the sine qua non of being environmentally good. Ranger Brad is a caricature of just that mindset. It leaves you with an environmentalism that sounds a lot like the Monty Python bit “how to recognize different types of trees from quite a long way away.”

On a side note, the actor playing “Ranger Brad,” Bradford How, stands by his work.

Unfortunately the tweet misses the critical edge of Colbert’s satire. Or is that the idea?

Massenkultur bei Theodor Fontane

Klaus-Peter Möller hat einen lesenswerten Beitrag zum historischen Vorbild der Werbung mit dem riesigen Kaffeemädchen im 13. Kapitel von Theodor Fontanes Roman Der Stechlin.  Fontane hatte einen sehr subtilen Sinn für die gesellschaftlichen Veränderungen seiner Zeit, der sich auch in den scheinbar flüchtigen Details seiner Erzählwelt spüren lässt.

Das Kaffeemädchen habe ich bereits in einem anderen Eintrag erwähnt.

Environmental and Aesthetic Problems: A False Dualism

Today the New York Times’ reported on a city block sized, three story high pile of petroleum coke in Detroit. The coke is a byproduct of tar sands oil production.  Usually it gets shipped off to China or Latin America for fuel, contributing to the air problem out “over there” where we in the United States don’t have to see it.  But at the moment we have a growing mountain of the stuff in Detroit.  The source of outrage here, I would argue, is not the existence of such a pile but the use of Detroit as a “sacrifice zone,” to borrow Chris Hedges’ term.  If this is how we are going to power our civilization, then would it not be better to keep the ugly byproducts within our field of vision?  Yes, the waste becomes a very real social and environmental problem for the people who ultimately are left to deal with it.  But the reason our waste gets sent somewhere else to spoil the material basis of someone else’s life is so that we wealthy consumers in the global north do not have to be confronted with either the toxicity or the sheer ugliness of things like petroleum coke.  What we have is an empirically quantifiable problem of toxicity, yes, but that is not what the article is really about.  The real issue that dominates the article is the fact that it’s ugly, and we can’t hide the ugliness from view.  In other words, the environmental problem is also an aesthetic problem.

I remember watching the pieces that 60 Minutes did on Chernobyl in 1989 and 1996. The images of the nuclear fuel, which had melted, combined with the sand, and then solidified into a kind of glass flow, were beautiful.  The radiation level on the surface when it was discovered was 10,000 Röntgen per hour.  500 Röntgens in five hours is the lethal level for humans.  Radiation is not something that humans can perceive with their bodily sensory apparatus.  In other words, we have something beautiful but deadly, and if you were to go near it, you would only perceive the deadliness through its physiological effects on your body.  That is an aesthetic problem.

Plant and animal life is slowly re-taking the town of Pripyat, by Chernobyl.  Its social character is slowly vanishing as a second nature gives way to a first.  Luckily we now have the internet to satisfy our desire for the melancholy contemplation of ruination, because in spite of its appearances, the exclusion zone is a dangerous place.  That is an aesthetic problem.

The title of Rachel Carson’s classic book Silent Spring is an allusion to Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”  We start off, in other words, not with science, but aesthetics.  The book’s opening chapter “A Fable for Tomorrow” is about a town that knows it is poisoned because of the conspicuous absence of birdsong.  That is an aesthetic problem.

There’s a scene in Raabe’s novel Die Akten des Vogelsangs where the two main characters are standing on a hill, a kind of nature park where the people from the town go to relax.  In the novel, “nature” has been compartmentalized on this hill, it is planned and made beautiful.  In the middle is a copy of Canova’s sculpture of Hebe.  What we have is a compounding of aesthetic problems.

Kant observes in his discussion of the mathematical sublime that we can can estimate the magnitude of something (a mountain, a galaxy, etc.) through measurement, but that does not mean that I know the magnitude of the measure.   The metric system in America has the same problem, because when Americans ask how many miles are in x kilometers, they are trying to obtain a sense of the magnitude of the measure.  We haven’t understood the data if we haven’t grasped it through intuition and thus obtained a real understanding of the concept.  Put very basically, the numbers are meaningless if they are not understood aesthetically.  In my example of Chernobyl, I told you how deadly 500 Röntgens in five hours was so that you could have a sense of how much radiation is in 10,000 Röntgens an hour, and only then do you know what a problem that is.

Common sense would have us distinguish between environmental problems and aesthetic problems.  Nobody ever got poisoned by a novel, at least not literally.  But the distinction is illusory, and if we cling to it then we have failed to understand the environmental crises we are confronted with.  Aesthetics in the narrow sense of perception and judgment is how we arrive at a sense that there is a problem in the first place.  Aesthetics in the broader sense of “relating to art” can also help us to conceptualize how we got here and to imagine other possible kinds of relations.

This is the point, in other words, where we who do cultural studies can legitimately enter the conversation on environmental problems.  And we can do so without selling ourselves short simply because we operate in more speculative realms.

Scattered Thoughts on Glowing Trees and Other Transgressions

The New York Times website ran an article this morning about a bioengineering scheme to create glowing plants that could replace our current lighting technologies through their bioilluminescence.  Evidently hobby scientists in “communal laboratories” are making use of crowd-sourced fundraising in order to finance projects such as this.  The predictable, and probably justified reaction to this story might be to call to mind the common reading of Frankenstein as a cautionary tale of scientific overreach.  I might add that this reading does not even begin to unlock what is most intriguing about Mary Shelley’s novel, but I don’t care to get into that here.1  Emancipated from the old channels of funding, like Victor Frankenstein the people profiled here are working outside of the structures of institutional knowledge.

What struck me instead was the connection to Singularity University, a Silicon Valley based collective of technophiles in the academic and business sectors.  On a slow news day they can usually be hauled from the pages of Wired magazine onto more general interest domains to air their fantastic predictions of the future.  This is the crowd that you hear telling us that within a generation technology will allow for the transcending of our limited, slowly decaying biological bodies into a state of pure consciousness on a hard drive somewhere, where we will live forever in fear of nothing, except perhaps for the occasional stray kitchen magnet.  It’s a fantasy that doubtless looks more convincing if you happen to be a wealthy white employee of Google living in a gentrified San Francisco neighborhood with a reliable source of electricity.


On a related note, NPR yesterday aired a story about one Corinna Lathan, another who has drifted from academia into the private sector.  Lathan is interested in more thoroughly saturating daily experience with those technologies with which we are already amusing ourselves to death (sensors on clothing that can read our emotional and physical states, glasses that display information about our surroundings, etc.).  In the introduction NPR draws a connection to another vision of technological excess more recent than Mary Shelley’s, the Borg from Star Trek.  As a Star Trek fan myself, I have more than once been drawn into a discussion of the Borg as an allegory for this or that.  It’s a topic that can occupy fans for days.”  I don’t tend to argue much with the “Borg as communist” thesis, although if we wish to go down that road, we should say more specifically that the Borg can be read as reflecting American Cold War ideological anxieties about the society in the “Second World.”  But like so many common sense readings, this one in my view misses what’s really interesting about the Borg.

If we start asking about the difference between the Borg and the set of relations that govern life on the U.S.S. Enterprise, then the apparent differences between the two start to collapse.  If the Borg are an allegory for communism, then surely that is so because they completely level the chain of command that structures Starfleet and that is the subject of so many plots.  But in this they have only put into practice the Federation’s democratic platitudes.  More than that, though, is the relation to technology.  Like the Borg, the people on the Enterprise live in, with, and through technology, and when minute 40 to 45 comes around and it’s time for the thrilling climax, the day can always be saved by pulling a rabbit out of some kind of techno-hat.  The key difference, it seems to me, is the illusion maintained on the Enterprise that the edges of the human body delineate some sort of border, marking off the physical interior as a sovereign space from the inorganic.  The illusion is maintained in spite of the fact that they all eat food from a kind of 3D printer.  Picard’s assimilation is a major moment of trauma in the series, but we already know he was pursuing his career with an artificial heart beating in his chest, and as we learn in the episode “Tapestry,” that piece of equipment signifies a watershed moment in his own subject formation.  Perhaps the real horror of the Borg with their cubic vessels and grotesque bio-technical bodies is simply that they present to the Enterprise an image of itself stripped of the aesthetic layers that support the illusion.

1. Instead I can recommend Paul Outka’s essay “Posthuman/Postnatural: Ecocriticism and the Sublime in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” in LeMenager, Stephanie (ed.) Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge, 2011. 31-48

An Introduction to Wilhelm Raabe

At this point it is probably important to say a little bit about who exactly Wilhelm Raabe is.  He is, of course, a German realist author, and he is the author who inspired Wilhelm_Raabe_1910my dissertation project.  Unlike the other authors I am covering, Adalbert Stifter and Theodor Fontane, Wilhelm Raabe is unfortunately less familiar to audiences beyond the German speaking countries.  There are several reasons for this, not the least of which are a historic dearth of translations, a rocky reception history in his own lifetime, and the appropriation of his legacy by a conservative and frequently anti-semitic circle of readers after Raabe’s death in 1910, who in turn paved the way for the author’s integration into National Socialist cultural politics in the 1930s.1  Beyond that, Raabe can be a pretty hard author to read.  By “hard,” of course, I mean that he demands of his reader a certain level of intellectual labor and a willingness to accept that there are certain things that we won’t “get.”  His stories are narrated in a rather idiosyncratic idiom, he reduces plot in some cases down to nothing (the “climax” of Stopfkuchen is the word “yes”), and he sprinkles his texts with numerous allusions that even people steeped in 19th century philology might not get right away.  Of course, to my mind his singular language and his subversion of narrative conventions and genre typologies is the pleasure of reading him in the first place!

For the curious beginner, I would recommend Stopfkuchen (translated under the rather awful title of Tubby Schaumann, but the title means Stuffcake) which is available in print in English in the collection Wilhelm Raabe: Novels. I can also recommend the novella At the Sign of the Wild Man available in new translation in the collection German Moonlight; Höxter and Corvey; At the Sign of the Wild Man.

Here is a little bit of information from a handout I give to students and others forced to listen to me talk about this guy.

Biographic Details

  • Wilhelm Raabe: German Realist Author, born 1831 in Escherhausen, active 1856 – 1900 in Berlin, Stuttgart, and Braunschweig, died 1910 in Braunschweig.
  • Major Works: Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse (Chronicle of Sparrow Alley, 1856), Der Hungerpastor (The Hunger Pastor, 1864), Abu Telfan, Oder die Heimkehr vom Mondgebirge (Abu Telfan, or the Return from the Mountains of the Moon, 1867), Pfisters Mühle (Pfister’s Mill, 1884), Die Akten des Vogelsangs (The Documents of the Birdsong, 1896).

Notable Works Available in English

1. On this point see Jeffrey Sammons’ history of Raabe reception in the 20th century The Shifting Fortunes of Wilhelm Raabe: A History of Criticism as a Cautionary Tale.

Jünger-Haus als Museum

Das Ernst-Jünger-Haus wird nach jahrelanger Restaurierung Jünger-Fans aus aller Welt als Museum zugänglich gemacht. Die FAZ hat einige interessante Überlegungen zu diesem “Haus letzter Hand” heute veröffentlicht.  Der Artikel ist lesenswert, nicht nur wegen des Bildes der unheimlichen Büste Jüngers, die offensichtlich zu den Sehenswürdigkeiten im Jünger-Haus in Wilfingen zählt.

Disneyland Dream: Zeitraum – Zeittraum

Looking over the New York Times this weekend I was alterted to a very interesting video by Frank Rich in his editorial “Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?” One learns interesting things from Rich’s articles now and again, but unfortunately like most of the other New York Times columnists, his articles are lack are rarely insightful or profound.  So it was not surprising that he gave a rather impoverished reading of the film he used as his jumping-off point, the small amateur film Disneyland Dream.  It’s a somewhat longish film, but the first ten minutes or so give all the background to the trip, and then the actual visit to Disneyland begins around minute 20.

This film was made in 1995 with footage shot in 1956, a year after Disneyland opened.  The story is that in 1956, the Barstow family entered a competition offered by 3M on who could basically create the best advertisement for their brand of Scoth tape.  One of the children won with a poster that read “I like Scotch brand cellophane tape because when some things tear then I can just use it” ( a ringing endorsement!).  The family won a trip from their home in suburban Conneticut out to California, where they visited Los Angeles, Catalina, and, of course, Disneyland itself.  This film made it into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2008, and it is definitely worth a watch.

I like this film for a number of reasons.  While it is, on the one hand, just some film from a family most of us never met, it is a rather interesting one.  First off is the way that the nostalgia functions both in the film and in the film’s subject, Disneyland.  The narrator explains events, many of them clearly stages, almost forty years after the fact carefully explaining how it was back then.  On the surface there is what, to some audiences, may appear to be a sort of pleasant innocence, when neighbors were friends, when the willingness to work hard seemed to guarantee a person a certain standard of living, and when corporations such as 3M and Disneyland appeared benevolent.  Of course this picture leaves a lot of things out (immigrants, minorities, non-nuclear families, political undesirables, etc).  The scenes in the neighborhood make this painfully clear.

Secondly there is Disneyland itself.  One of the most interesting things for friends and family of mine who have seen this film is Disneyland as it was shortly after it opened.  Of course much has changed and been redeveloped in the following decades, so the film captures a park that has been lost to its devoted fanbase, and which most of us never knew anyway (the website Yesterland is dedicated to these fans, and this nostalgia for Disneyland as it used to be).  This then leads us to the rings of nostalgia that Disneyland builds around itself.  If we view them in chronological order, I suppose the first ring of nostalgia would be Main Street, USA, which offers a verklärte representation of an American small town at the end of the 19th century (I used to joke that it was the “saubere Königreich.”  Say it out loud and think about it, German speakers.  It really is punny).  Then there is the way that the Disney Corporation mythologizes its own origins, and the way that Walt Disney himself is elevated to the status of some sort of kid friendly Prometheus.  Just think of the statue of Disney and Mickey Mouse at the center of the Disneyland park in Anaheim.  Then there is the marketing, most evident, perhaps, in the periodic celebrations of the park’s founding.  I think and Disneyland Dream also represent another ring of nostalgia.  It is interesting to hear the opposition that comes when Disneyland decides to make alterations, especially to its “classic” rides.  I remember this very clearly when Disneyland tried to remove the sexual innuendo from “Pirates of the Carribbean,” and I confess that on my last visit, in 2006, even I was unhappy when a Johnny Depp automaton was added to that same ride.  Really, isn’t that strange?  Why should anybody really care?

This nostalgia in general is all very strange.  How is it that we came to think of a corporate run theme park as a historical artifact that we would think of in the same way as a medieval cathedral?  Maybe Disneyland Dream offers us a clue.  Isn’t it right there in the title?  It’s a dream of what the nation, of what our system in general should bring: order, cleanliness, pleasure.  As the narrator tells us, it offers us a vision of what was. Now the period in which it was built, the 1950’s, has been subjected to similar romantic idealization.  Just listen to politicians talk about the 1950’s.  This is not a new phenomenon, as others have noticed.  There is a long tradition of selecting some past period as the temporal locus of goodness, virtue, etc.  What we get from the different levels of temporality in Disneyland Dream (1956 and 1995) is Disneyland as a representation of a better time (late 19th century America) and as in its essence an artifact from a better time (the 1950’s).

It’s this dream of what capitalism could be that Frank Rich seizes upon in his article, but this alone is an impoverished understanding of the film, in my view, because it misses yet another level of meaning one can find in the film.  There is something unsettling in the way that the entire community so completely embraces the fantasy.  The family buys a bunch of tape and creates free ads for the corporation.  The arrival of a “representative” of the corporation is hailed as a major event, as if a visit from a 3M employee were akin to a visit from the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!  The entire neighborhood is somehow emotionally vested in this family’s fortune.  And, of course, for having created the free advertisement, they are able to go visit a corproate fantasy land all expenses paid!  This is a big thrill, and yet, the exaggerated way in which the narrator, the family, and the community reacts (see, for instance, the way that the whole family falls over in an artificial way) casts all of this in an extremely ironic light.  There is something overly performative in the behavior of everybody on screen.  Sure, Mr. Barstow was amusing himself by making a film of the event, and having his family act in this way, but within the logic of the film their extreme performativity alienates the viewer from the story unfolding and forces us to consider the film far more critically.

On a final note, it strikes me as interesting and, actually, wonderful that that they travelled all the way across the country to gaze mostly upon simulacra (movie sets, Disneyland itself, and Southern California’s phantasmagorical (ex/sub)urban developments). Of course, if that’s the kind of thing you’re in to, Southern California is the ideal place to be.

ON EDIT:  Speaking of the way the park in Anaheim is marketed, I wonder if the layer of history and nostalgia wrapped around Disneyland was a shift that could be linked to the park’s reproducing itself in Orlando, Paris, Tokyo, etc.?

SECOND EDIT:  It is also worth noting that, in addition to the simulacra of Southern California, the Barstow family saw a lot of fortifications of different kinds, or places that, by nature or by design, serve to keep people out.  There were the homes of the wealthy and movie stars, the castle set and the castle at Disneyland (both hollow representations of fortifications, a combination of both), Catalina Island, and, of course, the Los Angeles highway system.  Roads and highways are a classic technology of separation, and it is interesting that being on them inspires both wonder and fear in the narrator.  Here we might bear in mind the etymological connections of “boulevard” to French bouleverser, boulevard, German Bollwerk, English bulwark.

Destino auf Blu-Ray

Einige Jahren nachdem Disney das Projekt aus dem Archiv herausgeholt und vollendet hatte erscheint nun der Kurzfilm Destino auf Blu-Ray! Wer kein Geld ausgeben möchte oder keinen Blu-Ray-Spieler besitzt, findet einige Raubkopien auf Youtube, allerdings muss man suchen, bis man die Version mit dem Originalton findet, und dann werden sie nach ein paar Tage geflissentlich entfernt (deshalb kein Link).

Walt Disney und Salvador Dali haben das Projekt 1946 unternommen.  Er wurde als Teil eines “Mischfilmes” geplant, der allerdings nie ins Kino kam, weil die Gattung bis dann aus der Mode (!) war.  2003 hat Disney den Film nach den noch bestehenden Skizzen vollenden lassen.  Der Film ist eine bemerkenswerte Mischung der beiden Stile, dazu kommt noch der digitale Zeichentrick, der die Filme des Disney-Studios in den letzten anderthalb Jahrzehnts geprägt hat.

Es hat eine Weile gedauert, bis ich mich mit meiner eigenen Disney-Erziehung abfinden konnte.  Dieses Filmchen hilft einem dabei.

Kostenlose Donnerstags in den staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

Die momentan herrschende Sparpolitik geht leider voran.  Erst vor kurzem habe ich erfahren, dass kostenloser Eintritt Donnerstag Abends in die staatlichen Museen zu Berlin seit über einem Monat Geschichte ist.  Das ist ja nicht nur ein bedauerliches Zeichen anhaltender finanzieller Schwierigkeiten sowie ein Verlust für alle Berliner, sondern auch ein Hinweis auf die Gefahren kultureller und geisteswissenschaftlicher Einrichtungen in den Ländern, wo Sparen hoch auf der Tagesordnung steht.  Es hat sich angeblich herausgestellt, dass Touristen, “die als leistungsfähigeres Publikum geltend dürfen” zunehmend das Angebot nutzten.

Die guten Nachrichten sind, dass jetzt Jugendliche bis zum vollendeten 18. Lebensjahr jeden Tag kostenlosen Eintritt gewährt wird.  Uns alten armen Kunstfreunde hilft das zwar nicht viel.  Für mich persönlich ist das ja bedauerlich, denn als ich in Berlin lebte war es für mich eine Art Tradition, Donnerstag Abends in den Museen zu verbringen.  Ich bin oft dahingegangen, manchmal bloß für eine Stunde oder zwei, um meine Lieblingsstücke oder interessante Artefakten zu betrachten.  Jahreskarten sind glücklicherweise nicht so teuer, der Preis einer solchen für Daueraustellungen beträgt nur 40 Euro, und wenn ich wieder in Berlin bin, werde ich mir wohl eine besorgen, dann könnte ich jederzeit ins Museum gehen.  Aber es kommt eigentlich nicht darauf an, was ich mir selber leisten kann.  Es kommt darauf an, dass der staatliche Kulturbesitz allen zugänglich ist.  Einige kostenlose Stunden sind wirklich nicht zu viel gefragt, und somit muss Kultur nicht unbedint nur denjenigen offen stehen, die das Geld hergeben kann.  Schade ist es auch, dass nur an das Touristengeld wird hier gedacht, als stellten die kostenlosen Abends eine Geschäftsgelegenheit dar, die man noch nicht gezapft hätte.  Eben das ist das Besorgniserregende an die Änderungen der Eintrittspreiseregelungen.

Über den Stuttgarter Bahnhof und die Erhaltung historischer Orte

“Warum darf sich Architektur nicht verändern?” fragte Timo John gestern in der FAZ. Die Kontreverse um den Stuttgarter Bahnhof nimmt zu, wenn man von den Schlagzeilen in den überregionalen Zeitungen ausgeht.  Es geht um einen Rückbau mancher Teilen dieses denkmalgeschutzten Gebäudes, die in den zwanziger Jahren gebaut wurde, im Krieg sehr stark beschädigt wurde, in den 50ern Jahren nicht 100% orginialgetreu wieder aufgebaut.

Die Werte, die solchen Erhaltungsimpulsen zugrundelegen, sind selbstverständlich hinterfragbar, und insofern hat der Autor Recht, warum darf sich Architektur nicht verändern?  Man denkt etwa an Rom, wo Generationen von Einwohner über Jahrhunderte hinweg die Bauten und Denkmäler ihre Vorgänger erweitert, umgebaut, oder zu völlig neuen zwecken beansprucht haben.  Heute können wir solche Veränderungen kaum verdammen, und hätten wir zu den Zeiten gelebt, als der Pantheon eine christliche Kirche wurde oder man eine Statue des Aposteln Petrus auf die Trajanssäule gesetzt hat, wäre es uns wohl nicht einmal eingefallen, Protest zu erheben.

Die Frage erinnert mich aber an einen Vortrag von Rem Koolhaas hier an der Cornell University letzten April.  Eines seiner Projekte, eine Erweiterung von Sibley Hall an Cornell, befindet sich jetzt im Bau.  Koolhaas hat seinen Publikum einige seiner Projekte vorgestellt, manche realisiert, andere nicht, und ging auf einige seiner Theorien ein.  Er ist für seine Ideen über die “generic city” bekannt.  So weit ich das verstehe, meint er damit Städte, die wenig “identitätsstiftendes” an sich haben und ein Minimum an historischen Gedächtnis speichern.  Am Ende beschrieb er eine Idee für Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts für den Charles River.  Das Problem war, dass die denkmalgeschützten Gebäude das Wachsen der Universität und der Stadt im Wege hindern.  Darüber hinaus ist der Fluss eine unnötige Grenze, die sich durch den Campus zieht, denn alle wollen auf dem einen Ufer sein und keiner auf dem anderen.  Für Koolhaas überschauen jegliche Erhaltungsimpulse die Tatsache, dass die Gebäude und der Lauf des Fluss selbst gar nicht so historisch sind.  Die Universität liessen die Gebäude mehrmals umbauen lassen und so den historischen Charakter öfters zerstört.  Und das Flussbett selber hat seine gegenwärtige Gestalt eher menschlicher Hand zu verdanken.  Sein Vorschlag:  das Flussbett so ändern, dass der völlig um den Campus fließt, und den Campus damit vereinigen und einge Menge Parkland daraus gewinnen.

Das Publikum hat dazu gelacht, aber er bestätigte, dieser Plan war in vollem Ernst gemeint.  Und eigentlich sind solche Vorhaben gar nicht neu oder revolutionär.  Andererseits hat sein Vortrag mich persönlich tief beunruhigt.  Auch wenn Koolhaas in mehreren Punkte Recht hatte, schien er kaum an die sozialie Auswirkungen seiner Theorien und seiner Praxis gedacht zu haben.  Warum sollen wir jeder Hühnerstall aus der Römerzeit erhalten?  Andererseits hat sein Vortrag neoliberalen Ideologien sehr stark nachgehallt, und für ihn war das auch gut so.  Er begann mit der problematischen Behauptung, der Diskurs des Marktes sei der letzte auf der Welt, was nicht nur andere Diskurse (so relativ schwach sie sein mögen) sondern auch die Möglichkeit anderer Diskurse ganz und gar ausschließt.  Was die Erhaltung “historischer” Gebäude betrifft, ist das historische wegzuwerfen, wenn es ihm und seinen Projekten im Wege steht. Vor allem problematisch aber war seine Behauptung, dass Architektur gar nicht “deprimierend” sein kann, weil der Mensch überall in allen Räumen glücklich sein kann.  Damit leugnet er aber seine eigene Rolle bei der Schaffung menschlicher Arbeits- und Wohnräume völlig ab, was ich ziemlich gefährlich finde, wenn es aus dem Mund eines “Starchitects” fällt.

Das bringt uns also endlich zurück zum Bahnhof.  Solche Indentifizierung mit “historischen Gebäuden” mag höchst problematisch sein und mag sich in einem lächerlich provinziellem Heimatdiskurs verwandeln, aber bedeutet das, dass wir das historische abschätzen sollen?  Beide Seiten der Bahnhofsdebatte haben wohl Recht und gehen wohl gleichzeitig von falschen Prämisse aus.  Einerseits soll Architektur sich entwickeln können, soll menschliche Bedürfnisse erfüllen und muss dabei nicht unbedingt seinen historischen Charakter aufopfern.  Andererseits ist es doch ein Verlust, wenn historische Architektur verschwindet.  Gleichzeitig soll man auch nicht vergessen, Erhaltung mündet leicht in Gentrifizierung, die historische Altstädte häufig zu großen Freiluft-Einkaufspassagen reduziert (Old Town Pasadena ist ein Beispiel, das sogennante “Gaslamp Quarter” in San Diego, einst Drogen- und Rotlichtviertel sowie Schauplatz der Redefreiheitsaufstände, heute überfüllt mit schicken Restaurants und Spießerkneipen, ist ein anderes).

Das bringt uns dann zu einem Problem, das über diesen einzigen Bahnhof weit hinausgeht.  Wenn wir historische Gebäude oder Stadtpläne “weiterentwickeln” oder gar abräumen, was tritt dann an ihre Stellen?  Leider häufig die “generic city,” wie sie von Koolhaas erklärt wird.  Und im Gegensatz zu Koolhaas denke ich, Architektur und Stadtplanung doch deprimierend wirken können.  Ich habe mein Bachelorstudium in dem Inbegriff einer “generic city” gemacht, nämlich Irvine, California.  Irvine beweist, wie unmenschlich Architektur und Stadtplanung sein kann (gewiss hat der Ort viele Verteidiger, die sich gegen einen solchen Ausspruch schnell wehren würden).

Es ist hier aber nicht meine Absicht, gegen die ganze moderne Architektur und Stadtplanung zu toben.  Ich will aber nur sagen, der Mensch hat ein Recht auf menschliche Wohnräume.  Die Frage wäre dann, ob eine Architektur, die dem neoliberalen Marktkapitalismus dient, solche Wohnräume überhaupt aufbauen kann.

Ein kleiner Seitenpunkt:  Irvine hat auch eine Altstadt!  Wie alle Altstädte bewahrt sie die Erinnerung an vergangene Epochen der Stadtgeschichte und üben eine identitätsstiftende Wirkung auf die ganze Stadt aus.  Sie besteht aus einigen landwirtschaftlichen Bauten, die sich zwischen den 1890ern und den 1940ern datieren lassen, und anderen “modernen” Gebäuden in “historischem” Stil.  Wie man auf der Tafel nachliest, stehen ein paar nicht an ihren historischen Stellen, also sah die Altstadt vor sechzig Jahren nicht wirklich so aus.  “Old Town Irvine” umgibt heute einen Parkplatz, viele meiner Freunde da waren sogar überrascht, als ich gesagt habe, dass Irvine eine Altstadt besitzt.