The “west” as a unit does not exist

A conversation about patriotism and sports fascination, about university education and college sports, about the idea of the West and the rogue state image that America currently enjoys around the world

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is the author of numerous books and writes for almost all major German-language newspapers and magazines, mainly and regularly for the FAZ and the NZZ, the "Merkur" and the "Literaturen". Along with Jurgen Habermas and Peter Sloterdijk, Sepp Gumbrecht has become one of Germany’s best-known and most influential intellectuals. Since his resettlement in the USA, his glowing and publicly declared commitment to "Americanness" and his partisanship for the "New Rome", "our man in Stanford", as he is often ironically called, has also become the subject of heated debates and accusations in Germany. Neither does he feel like a German or even a European pigeon post, nor does he want to be associated with old European calamities. Telepolis has visited Sepp Gumbrecht in his new home, in Stanford/California. For the first time, he speaks in detail and publicly about his (personal) motives for becoming an "American" and gives reasons why he is proud of his country.

The'westen' als einheit existiert nicht

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, called "Sepp" by friends, was born in Wurzburg in 1948. After graduating from high school, which earned him a scholarship from the Maximilianeum Foundation (Bayerische Hochstbegabtenforderung), he had a textbook career. He studied German, Romance languages and literature, sociology and philosophy at the universities of Munich, Regensburg, Salamanca and Pavia, obtained his doctorate in Constance at the age of twenty-three and became a professor in Bochum at the age of twenty-six. In Siegen he was entrusted by the then Federal Minister for Education and Science, Jurgen Mollemann, with the first non-scientific graduate college in Germany. Since 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, he has taught comparative literature at Stanford University.

Both during his time in Siegen and at Stanford, he was instrumental in advancing the discourse in the humanities both at home and abroad, i.e. discourse analysis and systems constructivism, deconstructivism and media archaology, and was actively and at the forefront of writing on it. Since the end of the 1990s, but at least since his "Prasenzbuch", a "metaphysical turn" is discernible in him. Gumbrecht is now concerned with the search for, or the uncovering of, a pre-conceptual, that which does not merge into text or meaning, media technology or communication, which the philosophical tradition describes with "life" or better: "experience", but which he prefers to call the "non-hermeneutic".

Sepp Gumbrecht is the author of countless books and collections of texts, and it would hardly be possible to list them all here. Most recently, he has turned to sport and its inherent fascination. In addition, he writes for almost all major German-language newspapers and magazines, mainly and regularly for the FAZ and the NZZ, the "Merkur" and the "Literaturen". Gumbrecht is a member of the so-called "Scientific Board" of the Auto University, which is sponsored by the Volkswagen Group, and of the Council of the University of Greifswald. At the same time, he is a self-confessed football and soccer fan who loves baseball and ice hockey. Along with Jurgen Habermas and Peter Sloterdijk, Sepp Gumbrecht has become one of Germany’s best-known and most influential intellectuals.

It is more practical to start from two different cultures

Although you were facing a dazzling career in Germany, you left the country in 1989 and went to Stanford. What were the motives at that time?

Sepp Gumbrecht: I had the feeling that in Germany, at forty, my professional career was already behind me. I had already achieved much of what was important to me personally: I had become a full professor at a very young age, had been invited to two of the then very prestigious "Poetics and Hermeneutics" colloquia, a federal ministry had entrusted me with the model experiment for the first graduate college in the humanities, and I had published with Suhrkamp and written for the FAZ. This is precisely why I was attracted by the completely different university situation in the USA. The main challenge was that college is an academic institution that exists only in England and the United States, but not in Europe. Teaching college students requires a completely different attitude and form of preparation from the teacher. Not only are they, on average, much younger than "subject students" in Germany, but one must also learn to understand their motivation for certain courses – because the college is fundamentally a general education institution in the traditional sense. It must have taken me ten years to prepare and teach college courses in such a way that I was successful. Another reason for moving to the United States was that I had developed a kind of "love at first sight" for the country since my first American guest lectureship in Berkeley in 1980. From the first day, I realized that this was "my thing" – to which I almost reacted with a bad [political] conscience at the beginning as an old-68er. In retrospect, however, it has proven true for me – politics or not – that I feel enormously comfortable in this country, even in the long term. This had little to do with the German university landscape, and certainly nothing to do with the fact that I might have been treated badly in Germany. The opposite had been the case. Nevertheless, I simply had the feeling that America and I "fit together" even better. Certainly there was a specifically German historical reason for my decision. I belong to that German generation in which many have decided to take upon themselves the historical responsibility or even guilt that the generation that was responsible or guilty had not taken upon itself. I therefore felt it as a liberation and above all as a relief to be able to move in a different cultural context and climate than the German one. For example, I had never actually read a single line of Heidegger before I came to the USA. It was only in 1989, my first year at Stanford, that it suddenly became easier to free myself from this self-imposed condemnation and to read Heidegger. In Germany this was repugnant to me.

Object of Desire

In the meantime you have become an American citizen and have exchanged your old "identity" for a new one. What made you take this step?

Sepp Gumbrecht: I only realized this the moment I had a really interesting professional opportunity to return to Germany. Only then did I realize that I no longer wanted to live permanently in Europe or Germany. And when this was definitely clear to me, it also made more sense to acquire US citizenship together with my family. Finally, despite and in the current political situation in the United States, I have a great admiration for this very old democracy, of which I still discover new aspects and true strengths in everyday life, less in the political scene in Washington. America becomes democratic in its very own way, for example, when parents are intensively committed to their children’s schools on a daily basis and are prepared to make great sacrifices, especially financial ones. Choosing to live in a country is different from choosing to live in the country where you were born. I wanted to be an American, while no one ever asked me if I wanted to be German. I am still satisfied with my decision – but at the same time I am tired of having to discuss it as if I had meant it in the sense of the Kantian imperative as a decision that is also exemplary or even potentially binding for others. Of course, there are also grotesque or at least ironic effects in the change of nationality. One shows this little anecdote: A few days after I got my American passport, I had to accompany a group of American students from Stanford on a tour to Hiroshima. For me it was like a repetition of the familiar German situation. Even though the parallels between Hiroshima and the Holocaust have, in my opinion, very clear limits, I found myself in a situation where the memory of national history created – and should create – trepidation. On the other hand, since I’ve become an American, it’s easier for me to think about and criticize certain things that I don’t like or agree with in the United States. As an American, I can try to help change that. Were you, in relation to your situation, to say that the "melting pot" still works? Or would you agree with those who only want to recognize a "mixed salad"??

The'westen' als einheit existiert nicht

The Latinos assimilate themselves by Hector Ruiz

Sepp Gumbrecht: melting pot was the old metaphor that has been disqualified for some time as politically incorrect. Since then, people prefer to talk about the salad bowl – which always reminds me of the smell and taste of salad dressing, which is quite inappropriate here. In any case, I approached the subject differently. At the ceremony of swearing in of new state burghers, a representative of the legal system made a speech. In my case, it was a female prosecutor from San Jose. For them, what made U.S. citizenship special was that the moment you legally become an American, you are a "citizen" in the full sense of the word, second nobody else, to no other long-term citizen. "Citizenship" means, first and foremost, being a member of a legal system that gives you rights and responsibilities. The question of ethnic affiliation is largely neutralized. Demographically, there is no longer a clear, absolute ethnic majority in the United States, perhaps not even in the economic or political sector. All one has to do is look at the current Cabinet and the previous Cabinets. Perhaps in absolute terms the WASPs were still just ahead, but one of the best kept secrets by the American [and in any case the international] left is that the current Bush cabinet is more multi-ethnic than any previous cabinet in American history – and second in this "all-time ranking" is the first Bush cabinet. In the long run, the effect of affirmative action at the universities will probably also come into play. While some claim that affirmative action is de facto racism because it starts from ethnic ["racial"] criteria. But I see the positive effects every day. Stanford, as a private university, like almost all other top private universities, engages in affirmative action. I see the many, largely but not exclusively African-American students who, without affirmative action, would never have been able to come to Stanford simply because of their high school grades – and who now contribute significantly to the intensity of our intellectual climate. Therefore, for such reasons, today and under American conditions, one would certainly no longer ask the question of what the national "leading culture" should be. But Huntington raises the question – with good reasons. And it also provides weighty arguments for the existence of such a guiding culture, namely the reference to the American Creed that has made the country the rough-and-tumble it currently is.

Sepp Gumbrecht: Although I like Huntington’s books for their dry historical realism, who is to say that his assessments of the future are necessarily correct?? Unlike him, I believe – as he does as an American citizen – that it would be the most natural continuation of the traditions of my country, which has never been ethnically defined in its identity, if, to emphasize just one possible development, we were soon to have two national languages: English and Spanish. If one looks at the uprising in the French banlieues or the events after the spring flood in New Orleans, then one has to realize, however, with humiliation, that bourgeoisie, dual citizenship and civics hardly prevent "racism" and/or the "clash of civilizations".

Sepp Gumbrecht: I believe that as far as "racism" is concerned, things are different in Europe and in the United States. Not that there was no racism in the U.S.A. But for the average American, even the less educated, it is much more normal than for the average European to live and work with people who have a different skin color and perhaps a different native language. Fortunately, there is no leading culture. That European intellectuals now and then, romanticizing the Klu Klux Klan, accuse the USA of their "racism", as if Europe were free of racism, is simply laughable. It is, one could say polemically, the wishful thinking of European intellectuals who cannot get over the experience that their continent has lost its international leadership role. Perhaps the moralization of the Iraq war was a last, clumsy attempt to regain this role.

The'westen' als einheit existiert nicht

You deflect and avoid the problem! The question is, at least the most recent experience in Europe teaches (see the Netherlands, France, Denmark …), that the preservation of rights and duties cannot bridge the gap between cultures.

Sepp Gumbrecht: I do not see where the principal problem for us should be. Of course, there are underprivileged groups, there are ghettos, there are frustrations. But I am convinced, nevertheless, that the ethnic and cultural component in the identity and role of the American citizen occupies no or only a very subordinate position. It has never been amed here, for example, that all neighbors or all colleagues celebrate Christmas. And for some time now, this knowledge, which has existed for so long, has also found expression in the language and behavior of institutions and individuals, which could be a positive effect of the now fading political correctness. But the idea that one day one or another group, which today is a minority, could be the majority or the dominant stratum, certainly causes less panic in America than in the European countries.

National Grasp

Why then did you describe your solemn initiation into Americanity with such coarse emotional pathos, making private matters public?? Especially since you knew very well that national pride does not go down well in Germany.

Sepp Gumbrecht: The desire for provocation is always present in my texts and exercises. Positively formulated: Thinking becomes productive when certain positions are overdrawn in order to provoke contradiction. In this role I feel very well. I don’t want to isolate myself totally, but as long as you provoke contradiction and thus trigger reactions in others, I think that’s quite all right. Perhaps, however, the inclusion of the ethnic component makes it easier to show national pride. May African-Americans or Latinos be socially underprivileged, they still have – or have acquired – American citizenship. From then on, there is simply no doubt in the normal case that they function within the rights and duties established by law and are Americans. In Europe, on the other hand, people do indeed ask me whether – as they ame – I will return to Europe after my retirement [which is already non-existent in the USA] in order to spend my old age there and – oh, the height of dignity – to be buried. It has been some time now since the acquisition of my citizenship. But I still feel something of the pathos when I fly to Virginia, for example, where the fathers of interception: Washington, Jefferson, Monroe and Madison lived. You see their farms and houses, some of them tiny, and you immediately sense an "improbability" in the Luhmannian sense, which is that this colony, which had no political power but functioned economically, has become the country it is today. The optimistic version of this story is that of a certain fidelity to certain principles. It is easier for me to say: "I’m proud to be an American", or: "I’m proud of this Country", even in the awareness of many problems, than it was for me to say: "I’m proud to be a German". This may simply be idiosyncratic and not dependent on reasons that others could or should take over. But it is factual for me. And if European, especially German readers should really get upset about the fact that in America I have discovered my capacity for a different kind of national pride, I am surprised at first. Is my individual case so important? And then I ask sometimes further, for what this excitement could be a symptom with some of my readers. What do you ame?

Sepp Gumbrecht: Hm – I did not expect this demand. Perhaps the average educated [others I hardly ever meet] European is simply insecure enough to forbid himself the idea that someone like me can simply prefer and better live in America than in Europe. And that’s why they like to pathologize it. Americans, on the other hand, are hardly ever surprised – but in many cases simply full of admiration – when one of their compatriots decides to stay for life in [from their vivid point of view: so very cultivated] Europe. Isn’t this simply a shift as well?. Because one cannot and must not be proud of being German for historical, ideological, political or whatever reasons, the Proud to be an American comes just in time.

Sepp Gumbrecht: Why not? There is a continuity of the American state and its principles since 1776, so that the object of reference of "Proud to be an American" is different than in Germany, for example, where such a long continuity does not exist. After all, we are talking about almost 250 years of continuity, including the War of Independence. In France, too, the reference of national pride is a certain statehood, a certain tradition of institutions, certain democratic forms of behavior that have existed in the long term. There it may be very strongly connected with a certain existence and certain ethnicity. But there is also this component, of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, 1789 in the sense of a civic membership and continuity. You only have to cross the border to France. Francois Furet, the coarse French historian, once said that every daily political life in France to this day, half-consciously or consciously, sees itself as an allegory of the French Revolution. This is actually also the case with Supreme Court decisions in the United States. In Germany they say: What does the legislator say and want? – Which is then rightly commented on in such a way that "the legislator" is just a necessary fiction of the legal system. When one speaks of the Supreme Court and then goes on to wonder what The Framers of the Constitution might have meant and wanted with this or that wording in our Constitution, then one can certainly see historical faces in the process.

The'westen' als einheit existiert nicht

Aren’t you glorifying too much?? For example, in the sense that you overemphasize certain symbols or events, but deliberately leave out historical or social aspects or contexts? After all, the "nation-building" of the USA, as Martin Scorsese recently showed impressively in "Gangs of New York", is also built on blood, murder and sacrifice.

Sepp Gumbrecht: Of course I emphasize a positive tradition that does not exist in Germany. If I do not mention the extermination of the Native Americans in one breath, this does not mean that I deny this terrible historical fact. This is what the American nation has to deal with [especially in its education sector]. From this point of view, this question about the first place on the world ranking list of all crimes of mankind is obsolete – every nation should deal primarily with the problems in its history. From this point of view, isn’t the concern, especially of German intellectuals, that in the United States the eradication of the native Americans could be forgotten or suppressed, a little strange?? And does one really want to argue that this historical process of a draw was the equivalent of the programmatic and industrialized "Endlosung" of the Nazi years? But this is exactly the question that I, as an American, should not be asking.

The'westen' als einheit existiert nicht

Will Wilson: Wistfulness of Native Americans My impression is rather a reverse one. Precisely because the Germans deal with the Holocaust so meticulously and guiltily (you can hardly find a cultural program on German television, hardly a feuilleton, in which it is not reminded or referred to in some way every day), they have the right, perhaps even the historical obligation, to draw the attention of other nations to it as well.

Sepp Gumbrecht: Why? I agree with you – and mean [in contrast to many German intellectuals and critics outside Germany] that in your and my father’s country they have indeed done and are still doing everything humanly possible to keep alive the memory of crimes that took place for the most part on German soil [it is interesting in this respect, by the way, to study the topology of the large concentration camps] – and above all in the name of the German state. But that only means that the Germans did what was urgently needed. It does not justify this relationship of model students who now want to tell on other students to the teacher. This self-centered moral complacency always reminds me of Heinrich Mann’s crude novel "Der Untertan"."

God willing

A common community of values is constantly invoked between Americans and Europeans. It is only in recent years that we have come to realize that the differences between the two cultures may be greater than what unites them. Where would you locate the major differences??

Sepp Gumbrecht: I went to America on the premise that it is "also" a Western culture. What I said earlier about colleges and undergraduates, about how it took me a long time to understand, applies much more generally than I had initially imagined. Anyone who makes a long-term change in one direction or another will probably have this experience. This is hardly different for Americans in Paris or Europe – if they are not, as very many of them are, so shoehorned in by the supposed "cultural superiority of Europe" that they are afraid to admit how truly different Europe really is, at least today. Pragmatically, it would perhaps be more appropriate, or simply more practical, to start from two different cultures. Then neither side has the moral right to accuse the other of "misinterpreting" or practicing one culture. If you start from diversity, you are more likely to find commonalities that you find interesting and happy about. Perhaps it could be as simple as that. The most central of all differences is for me the internationally seen really astonishing empirical finding that 95 or 97 percent of my compatriots apparently believe in a personal God who loves them personally. And not in the sense of an intellectually lived Christianity, but in a way that perhaps existed before only in the Middle Ages. God seems to be as real to most Americans as the existence of freeways, and perhaps more real than the existence of a legal system. God "simply" exists for them. For all my enthusiasm for the country, and despite the seventeen years I have lived there, I have come to accept, somewhat grudgingly, that I can hardly reach a colleague on the phone on a Sunday morning. The same colleague, with whom I can discuss deconstruction or whatever until the early hours of the next morning, often believes in God in this ontological way and also largely draws consequences from it. This will remain forever strange to me – and is not always easy to understand even for intellectually religious Europeans, which I am not. For Americans, however, on the European side, and this is for me the second central distinction of our present, the value of leisure and the dichotomy "leisure/work" are very striking in Europe. The envy of Americans for the many vacations that Europeans, especially Germans, have per year is probably not that gross. A great many Americans seem to be proud of what they make of their profession, usually quite independently of whether they are in an academic or a proletarian profession. It is existentially important to "do something in one’s job" – like the "educational vacations" (the word is hard to translate)!) have become existentially important in Europe. In contrast, for Americans, the education and training of children is a top priority, often with extreme financial consequences and burdens. This probably has to do with the fact that many Americans [partly for Protestant-religious reasons] consider a life that is fulfilled in a job to be the highest good. In other words, a specific Protestant ethic, which Max Weber described in 1904 after his return from America?

Sepp Gumbrecht: In modern terms, it is certainly more of a Protestant ethic than a Catholic one, but on the other hand, it has an unconditionality that one would rather associate with an archaic or stereotypical Catholicism. If God told his believers tomorrow to do X or Y, they would do it, even if they secretly thought it was ethically reprehensible. In the Protestantism to which Weber refers, ethics is certainly more sacularized and thus rationalized. There is God, but, at least according to my impression, the Protestant ethics could get along quite well without him, because it is anyway plausible in everyday life. An interesting example is the Mormons, currently the richest and fastest growing religious group in the U.S. [and perhaps even in the world]. In many respects, their faith cannot be reconciled with their very successful behavior in their profession. Mormons spend years of their lives as missionaries abroad without being productive in terms of their own wealth – so there faith sets absolute limits for the sacularization of life. Years ago, when I gave a seminar in Salt Lake City on Derrida and deconstruction, after an intense and highly competent discussion, two particularly competent and intellectually engaged students suddenly apologized to me because, after our academic coffee break, they had to spend the night in the central church, in Salt Lake City’s St. Peter’s Basilica, so to speak, holding a kind of vigil. That is, the Weberian mechanism works, but just in spite of this fundamentalist component in many different "denomination"-specific variants. In this sense, as I said, I myself have not become American at all. The American way of being religious is as strange to me today as it was on the first day. But it doesn’t bother me either – and nobody demands it from me ["former European intellectuals are like that", one seems to think]. The shining example is my neighbor, Richard Rorty, who is himself an avowed atheist and has a remarkably happy marriage with a practicing Mormon woman. Do you see this culture currently threatened by that of the Latinos??

Sepp Gumbrecht: My impression is that the penetration of the culture and everyday life of former Catholics, Lutherans, and perhaps even agnostics by American forms of religious practice is, unfortunately [as far as I am concerned], more successful than the infiltration of American fundamentalisms by Catholic or de facto agnostic Latinos, which is hardly happening at all. This is also and especially true for Sud America. In Brazil, baroque-exuberant Catholicism has been largely replaced by "sects" such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, which I regret very much. Macumba, this fantastic Afro-Christian-syncretistic form of religion, still exists. But I fear solely because it is attractive to tourists and potentially lucrative. In Christian America, on the other hand, the most strongly fundamentalist versions of religion have the strongest penetrating power, given today’s cultural situation. Perhaps the very sacular Europe, intellectuals like me must realize that we are the discontinued model – which runs counter to a promise of the Enlightenment of complete sacularization. To return to the formulation of your question: Huntington, who is much older than I am, is thus probably either too pessimistic [Latinos will not, as he fears, ring in the end of the United States] or too optimistic from our intellectual perspective [sacularization is not making the progress he fears], depending on how you interpret it.

The second part of the discussion will be devoted to the German government’s "Brain up" initiative. It is about the special charm of Stanford, about the question what Europe or Germany could possibly learn from the American university landscape or not and why it is so difficult to transfer this culture to Europe. It also attempts to approach the significance of college sports in America, which is of great importance to Europeans.

The third part will deal with the fascination of sport, which is quite equally pronounced on both continents, but in which considerable mental and cultural differences between America and Europe become apparent.

The fourth and final part deals with the latent anti-Americanism that is rampant worldwide, with enemy images and blame both up and down the Atlantic and the "rogue state" image that America currently occupies in the world.

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