I was seconded to the University of Sao Paulo from August to October 2015. Laura Izarra has been a wonderful host and I wish to thank her very much for the many inspiring meetings we had together. I admire her enthusiasm for the SPECTRESS project and the effort she puts into her research group at USP.
This collaborative project on ‘cultural trauma’ gave me the opportunity to review my previous research on nationalism and the politics of history in the Federal Republic of Germany from a new angle, and also to process my current work on urban movements, deindustrialisation and industrial heritage from a ‘cultural trauma’ point of view. While I had previously been very sceptical of this concept, I now think it can be a useful tool in social and historical research, that is, if we accept Jeffrey Alexander’s distinction between socially constructed ‘cultural trauma’ and real trauma; a distinction that critics of the concept often do not clearly enough draw.
Shortly after my arrival I was asked to give a lecture on industrial heritage in the Ruhr, Germany’s former industrial heartland. I argued that the extensive construction of industrial heritage sites in the course of the region’s deindustrialisation could be regarded as a form of ‘trauma management’. The great number of postindustrial lieux de memoire scattered across the landscape represent the memory of work that is no longer needed and, at the same time, represent a cohesive image of regional identity.
I gave two further lectures on this theme at Universidade Federal Rural Do Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ), where I spent a fascinating day with Alexandre Fortes, and Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in the beautiful old town of Rio with Professor José. Both kindly invited me to spend time with their highly talented colleagues and students. The week in Rio, where I had several opportunities to discuss industrial heritage with Paulo Fontes from the Fundação Getulio Vargas and Larissa Rosa Correa from Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, was the highlight of my research trip to Brazil. I am extremely grateful for this wonderful time.
Because of my interest in the relationship between regional identity and representations of industrial heritage I decided to visit a number of towns in the state of Minas Gerais, where gold mining started in the late 17th century. There I discovered representations of industrial heritage in museums, monuments and memorials that refer to a premodern past and yet remain so fundamental to the regional identity.
Towards the end of my secondment I was invited to give a lecture on my recent book ‘Helmut Kohl’s Quest for Normality: His Representation of the German Nation and Himself’. In this lecture I looked at (West) Germany’s former chancellor as a ‘trauma manager’ who sought to represent and promote a more positive image of German history, rehabilitate and westernise German nationalism, and at the same time carefully tested the boundaries of the, by then, relatively established culture of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the Nazi past) in the Federal Republic.
Sao Paulo: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The good: Sao Paulo is a fascinating city, with millions of extremely friendly inhabitants, an incredible cultural diversity and complex cuisine (and street food), a fantastic music and art scene, and more museums than you could ever visit. It took me a few weeks to settle in but towards the end of the secondment I felt very comfortable. The weather in winter, by the way, was sunny and warmer than the German summer.
The bad: To be sure, the urban planning of this city as a whole could be regarded as having failed. The level of pollution of rivers, canals, streets and especially the air are unparalleled in any European city today. And the permanent traffic jams make it difficult to get around. The city also suffers from water shortages partly for reasons of bad planning. I also felt a culture of fear among the Paulistanos due to high crime rates. Middle-class neighbourhoods are extremely securitised and if you ask people for directions they sometimes back off. The class divide in Sao Paulo remains extreme and the country still has a long way to further promote the social equality as envisaged by the previous Lula government, which has had a polarising effect on politics even though it in many ways improved the conditions of the working classes. (In August I witnessed a massive political protest seeking to delegitimise and overthrow the Labour government for corruption.) Sao Paulo also currently has a massive drug problem with crack, especially visible in parts of the city centre around the so-called Cracolandia. I would strongly advise anyone who moves to Sao Paulo to live somewhere near a subway station. That will guarantee for very efficient and relatively safe inner-city travel.
The ugly: Most historic buildings have been demolished. Sao Paulo’s endless horizon is dominated by a monotonous skyline of highrise buildings and there are very few green spaces left in the city. However, Sao Paulo has a tremendous street art scene. The whole city is an art gallery of unexpected quality. Walking around or taking a taxi was therefore highly entertaining for me. I have to come back to see more of it!