The human hand cannot draw a straight line, John Ruskin claimed. No matter how well trained, it will inevitably produce curvature or variety of direction. A century later, his claim seemed to underpin La Monte Young’s musically wayward Composition 1960 #10 (the directions for which were to “Draw a straight line and follow it”). Young’s earliest performances of this work, in 1961, show his awareness of its implicit challenge for human bodies. Like a good construction worker, he used plumb lines and yardsticks to make the lines, which he drew with chalk directly on the floor, as straight as possible, repeating the exacting and time-consuming procedure over and over again. If the work called for drawing, his own hand was clearly not up to the task.
Among the most exciting critical developments of recent years has been the restoration of the aesthetic to a central position in the study of the arts. Critics have made diverse claims on its behalf, among which we might discern two widely shared themes. First, aesthetic education does not constitute a retreat from politics, but a means of contesting the neoliberal hegemony of the market. Second, the critics’ emphasis on aesthetics’ political potential is matched by an unprecedented refusal of aesthetic judgment.
In A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari describe viral outbreaks as rhizomatic models for various kinds of nonhierarchical communities. In their explanation of the intricate relationship between deterritorialization (the detachment of a sign from a given context) and reterritorialization (the repurposing of that sign in a new context), they write that "under certain conditions, a virus can connect to germ cells and transmit itself as the cellular gene of a complex species; moreover, it can take flight, move into the cells of an entirely different species, but not without bringing with it 'genetic information' from the first host."
One sure sign, among many others, that the great melodramas of Douglas Sirk’s time at Universal studios (1952-1959) might not be all they initially seem is the immediate ambiguity of the titles of many of the most ambitious ones. For example, the 1955 film All That Heaven Allows could suggest, “Look at all that heaven allows in its generosity.” And it could mean, “Be careful. This paltry consolation or happiness, and this alone, is all that heaven allows.” (In interviews Sirk made clear he meant the latter, that for him, “heaven is stingy,” and he was amused that the studio gave it the former interpretation. They thought it a brilliant, uplifting title.) Many other films throughout his American career have the same double character: Imitation of Life, Tarnished Angels, All I Desire, and There’s Always Tomorrow.
“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things,” Henry David Thoreau writes in Walden (1854). In the century and a half since Thoreau withdrew to the Massachusetts woods, his thinking about modernity and mental life has become our common sense. New machines of work and play, so the story goes, are destroying our capacity to pay attention. We are always in touch but never really intimate, always moving but never in a natural rhythm. “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” (W, p. 90). In his makeshift hermitage, Thoreau devised a therapy for himself, a secular asceticism to cultivate a higher wakefulness. When he walked in the countryside, he practiced what he called “the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen” (W, p. 108). When he read the classics, he devoted himself to “a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object” (W, p. 99). Like him, the distracted today turn to disciplines of attention, adapting the religious practices of older or distant societies to new situations that seem to have little to do with ritual or faith. Mindfulness training, transcendental meditation, regimens to sharpen our focus and extend our concentration--these are the spiritual exercises of our secular age.
In 2019, the Berlin Humboldt Forum will open its doors. As one of the most important cultural projects in Europe in the coming years, it is meant to show – among others – objects from the Ethnologisches Museum of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz/Staatliche Museen zu Berlin within the rebuilt Berlin City Palace. The collections of this museum are highly contested due to their colonial provenance. Currently, a debate has arisen around the question of how to deal with these holdings. For Germany, this is a new phenomenon. For a long time, Germany’s colonial heritage interested only a few specialists. Now, it has become part of national debates. Why now? That’s the leading question of this article. Four reasons seem to me to be important: Germany’s transformation into a country of immigration; the highly-publicized debates surrounding the Berlin Humboldt Forum; the changing place of the Holocaust within the German culture of remembrance; and discussions about rights of ownership over cultural heritage within contexts of injustice, namely art looted by the Nazis and collections from the colonial period. I will argue that the current shift is representative of a new German culture of remembrance that I identify as cosmopolitan according to the concept of Levy and Sznaider.