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Culture and Anthropology: the Berlin Tradition

Christoph Wulf teaches Anthropology and Pedagogy at Freie University Berlin, where he is a member of the Interdisciplinary Center for Historic Anthropology, of the collaborative research center (SFB) on Performativity, of the center of excellence ‘Languages and Emotions’ and of the Graduate School  ‘InterArt Studies’. Wulf studied History, Pedagogy, Philosophy and Literature at Freie University and received his PhD at Marburg in 1973 where he also passed his habilitation in 1975. In the same year he was given a chair in Pedagogy at University of Siegen. As professor he returned to Freie University Berlin in 1980.   Wulf was a founder member and is one of the main exponents of the Berlin school of historical-cultural anthropology, which combined methods and research topics from different academic disciplines in a transdisciplinary and trans-cultural perspective; he is one of the world’s best known scholars in pedagogy and anthropology. His work in anthropology and pedagogical anthropology is considered as a milestone in the field. In particular, his studies on mimesis, performativity and rituals are important reference points for researchers.   Because of the...

Contemporary photography in Benin

Italian Version.   The first edition of the Mois de la Photographie, recently held at the Institut Français of Cotonou, has showcased the work of four Beninese and French photographers – Laeïla Adjovi, Léonce Agbodjelou, Jean-Jacques Moles, and Catherine Laurent – all focusing on contemporary Benin. The exhibition shed light on a little-known scenario, less established and thriving than that of other countries, such as neighboring Nigeria, but increasingly aware of its striking potential (as clearly emerges from the pictures showcased and other projects). Art and culture in Benin are significantly supported by the Institut Français, the French government agency for the promotion of French culture overseas , and Fondation Zinsou, a local foundation operating in the visual arts field and committed to broadening access to reading through a network of mini-libraries spread across the country.   Placed next to each other, the works of these four photographers – exhibited in Cotonou from January to March, 2016 – sketch out the image of a country caught between past and future, between the certainties of traditional community life and the challenges of individual freedom, between the...

Santu Mofokeng: A Silent Solitude

“A gift is the evidence of an act, a symbolic gesture that is at once free and obligatory,” writes Katia Anguelova, curator of AtWork Dakar 2012. “Considered in terms of a give-and-take relationship, the work of art can therefore be regarded as a gift or a representation of a gift.” This is the central idea of AtWork, the educational format created by lettera27 and Simon Njami. Its key element is a workshop during which participants produce a personalized notebook, which they can choose to donate to lettera27, thus becoming part of AtWork Community. The workshop that has recently taken place in Italy, in partnership with Fondazione Fotografia Modena, was entirely dedicated to the photographic image and was attended, among others, by the young Ivorian aspiring photographer Mohamed Keita. The notebooks produced during the workshop were displayed in an exhibition co-curated by the students at the Fondazione Fotografia Modena’s atelier in Via Giardini. Drawing on Foucault’s idea of heterotopy, Simon Njami chose “heterochrony” as the main theme of the workshop, describing it as “a break with real-time that introduces multiple time-spaces from which it is possible to reconsider...

Thomas Macho. Or, on the Science of culture

The pig and its history, Pier Paolo Pasolini, the history of towers in the West, Philip K. Dick and science-fiction literature, the films of Andrej Tarkovskij and Rossellini, the cultural history of calendar formation. And: metaphors of death, rites and myths in the context of historical anthropology, ethical, aesthetic and cultural models of Western history. What might sound like entries in an impossible and ironic encyclopedia in the spirit of Borges and Foucault are in fact all subjects of some of the courses held and the books written over the past few decades by a man who in Germany is considered the Kulturwissenschaftler par excellence: the Austrian Thomas Macho. What is a Kulturwissenschaftler? To understand it, we need to dig into the history, as well as the etymology, of the German term Kultur, and we will ask Macho himself to do just that during the interview. For now, by way of introduction, a brief clarification: if we wanted to translate Kulturwissenschaftler literally into Italian and thus into English, the closest rendition would be “scienziato della cultura” or “scientist of culture.” But we must keep two points in mind: first, that in German the term Kultur...

Le Tragique et la pitié

This text was first published as the preface of the Brazilian edition of Le Tragique et la Pitié. Discours de réception de René Girard à l’Académie française et réponse de Michel Serres (Paris: Le Pommier, 2007). René Girard, Michel Serres, [O trágico e a piedade: Discurso de posse de René Girard na Academia Francesa e discurso de recepção de Michel Serres (São Paulo: É-realizações Editora, 2011), pp. 9-17].     23, quai de Conti, Paris; 15 December, 2005   I am looking up at the round seventeenth-century Louis Le Vau dome of the Institut de France, which is hanging over the oval room where the ceremony of the election to the 37th seat of the Academie Française is ready to begin. It’s a bright day in mid-December and a soft light fills the distinctive hybrid architecture, partially baroque, partially classic, of the large hall which was once the Chapel of the Collège des Quatre-Nations, and now, after the Napoleonic reorganization of the Academie, the official meeting room of “Les Immortels’, as the forty members are named. There is a soft buzz while the invited guests find their seats and look around for familiar faces, friends, colleagues or eminent personalities. I am...

Umberto Eco: How I Wrote my Books

It is snowing when I get to Umberto Eco’s house in Milan. It’s February, and his latest book, Numero Zero, published by Bompiani at the beginning of 2015, shot to the top the best seller list almost instantly. There have been several reviews, and Eco has given more interviews than is his wont, if I remember correctly. So what can I ask him that hasn’t already been asked? I had read the proofs before the book came out, but we weren’t able to find a date to meet before today. I’m excited to meet him. Eco is famous throughout Italy and the world over, perhaps the best-known living Italian author today. Essays, articles, whole books have been written about him, and yet there are many things about him that escape his readers and critics. One thing I want to find out more about is his double role as essayist and fiction writer. Another is the way he works. Then there is the trifling matter of having written a book at the age of 82. No small feat, in anyone’s book. So this is where I start my interview: sitting on his sofa I ask him about Numero Zero.     What gave you the idea for this book?   I’ve been writing articles criticizing journalism since the 1970s. In the 1990s a fellow...

Compassion: Between Tenderness and Cruelty

There are so many things to say about compassion that one could fill a book or an encyclopedia. A partial list of areas to cover would include: commiseration, piety, love, understanding, sharing, empathy, sympathy, antipathy, intropathy, bliss and clemency. Compassion is what we feel reading about Hector and his wife Andromache, or the dream about the twenty geese that Penelope tells the disguised ‘beggar’ who is really her husband, Odysseus. It is the condition Aristotle refers to in his ‘Poetics’ when he uses the term ‘catharsis’. It is also the virtue embodied by Aeneas as he slings his old father Anchises and his son Ascanius to on his back and carries them out of burning Troy to safety. Or again, when Eros disobeys his mother and falls in love with Psyche. And so on, throughout history, examples of compassion abound, in Romantic literature and then on to the scandal caused by the controversy between Nietzsche and Wagner regarding Schopenhauer.   Compassion does not necessarily have the same connotations today as it did in the past. We are not even sure whether the words we use to describe the sentiment correspond to what each of us feels today. The term ‘compassion’ has...

Guantánamo and the New Concentration Camps

After the terrorist attack on the Parisian satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, some commentators wondered what the consequences of a reaction calling for greater security would be for European legislation. The almost hysterical use of the inclusive “we” in the slogans following the attack (Nous sommes Charlie) provide a linguistic clue to the identity politics in play, just as the 9/11 attacks fueled the rhetoric of a “clash of civilizations”. The reaction to both has been a justification for police interventions on an international scale and so-called ‘surgical’ warfare.   The Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, in an interview in La Repubblica (Jan 15, 2015), invited readers to “stay lucid” and not repeat the mistakes of the past. “The overlapping of the concepts of terrorism and warfare after 9/11 led Bush to wage a war […] that cost tens of thousands of lives. Without that war, the tragic attack France is now reeling from may never have taken place.” Agamben foresaw a slippery slope towards “what politologists call a ‘Security State’, that is a state where a true political presence simply cannot survive.”   The book Guantánamo Diary was published in January 2015 in the...

Farewell Luca Ronconi, Master of Utopias

Luca Ronconi, one of Italy’s greatest theater directors, died on February 21, 2015, just before turning 82. His last productions touched on the theme of death, which he probably felt breathing down his neck during his countless sessions on the dialysis machine, during those innumerable hours of immobility. A man who was constantly boiling over with new ideas was forced to face up to the ghosts of his mind, the same ghosts that were represented on stage. Suspended deaths, like in his recent production of ‘Celestina’ that opened with the body of Melibea. Doors on set opened to reveal pulsating worlds of sex and intrigue, then led back into emptiness before returning, at the end of the play, to the lifeless corpse of the young protagonist. Ronconi’s rendering of  Spregelburd’s ‘Panic’ comes to mind, as well as his final production, Stefano Massini’s ‘Lehman Trilogy’ performed at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan after his death. In this play, the world of the living - thanks to further doors designed by Marco Rossi, which were more ethereal and minimalist than those in ‘Celestina’ - intermingled with the world of the dead. In the case of the Lehman Brothers saga, people who had no desire...

Being #matteorenzi

Claudio Giunta’s new book, Essere #Matteo Renzi (Il Mulino, 2015) is the most recent of a long list of scholarly books about the young Italian Prime Minister–after the earlier pamphlets which were lighter and generally celebratory in tone–which fill the shelves of Italian bookshops and contribute to what could almost be called a new genre. The title of this book hints at the main issue, which each of the eleven chapters deals with to different degrees of depth and explicitness. The title, in fact, paraphrases Negroponte’s Being Digital (Knopf, 1995), a bible for Internet researchers, while parroting ‘Being John Malkovich’, a film which critiques the idea that ordinary people can wrap themselves in a cloak of fame. Giunta analyzes two essential ontological aspects of the Renzi phenomenon. The first is the idea that “things” and “facts” become increasingly evanescent, or evaporate altogether, under the spell of Renzi’s communicative skills  (like Negroponte’s atoms transformed into bytes). The second  is the plastic nature of the political leader’s identity, its ability to mold itself to the identities demanded by those whom some have called the ‘look at me generation’.   The...

Sharing is the new welfare?

In the last few months I’ve rented rooms through Airbnb, listened to music on Spotify, picked up a free yellow bike in Milan, got a lift from Milan to Florence with Blablacar, grabbed a city car for a quick ride with Car2Go, hailed a cab on a rainy night with Uber, and funded a documentary with an online crowd funding platform. I have quite a few friends who rent office space using a co-working website, though I’ve never actually needed to do so myself. A year ago, none of these opportunities I now consider almost routine were nearly as common. They are all different facets of what is called the “Sharing Economy”, or, less frequently, ‘collaborative economy’, or ‘collaborative consumer economy’ .   They have one factor in common: the sharing of private resources (my car, my desk, my music, my home, my bike), which has always taken place informally. The novelty lies in the sheer scale of the sharing. Social networking platforms have made sharing a way of life not only among friends or neighbors, but also among complete strangers all over the world.   Is the process Jeremy Rifkind called “from ownership to access” really taking place? An article published by Wired framed the...

Zingonia: Utopia and Reality

In 1964, Renzo Zingone decided to found and build a new town on farmland in the province of Bergamo. Zingone was a wealthy businessman from Rome who owned the Banca Generale di Credito and had made his fortune mining gold and copper in Venezuela. He had already built the Zingone quarter in Trezzano sul Naviglio just outside Milan. In both cases the choice of name – Zingonia – had been dictated by Zingone senior who, in a letter dated 1930, had advised his two sons, Renzo and Corrado, to “always strive to valorize the family name”.   Zingonia, Missile   Both the Zingone quarter and the new town Zingonia, were designed by the architect Franco Negri, born in 1923, who graduated from the Milan Polytechnic in 1956. The foundation of both projects was the prefabricated industrial depots produced by the family company, Zingone Structures, which in Renzo Zingone’s mind were to become the productive heart of the new settlement. There was an essential difference between the two designs, however. The Zingone quarter was to assimilate the already existing industrial and productive businesses in the Milanese hinterland. In the new town, Zingonia, by contrast, the industrial warehouses...

Putin and the Russian Spirit: An Interview with Gian Piero Piretto

The house is filled with books and paintings, but what strikes the eye is the accumulation of objects on the shelves and surfaces: postcards, souvenirs, figurines, gadgets, all from Russia, the country Gian Piero Piretto has studied all his life. Piretto is strictly speaking neither a historian nor a literary critic. His field of inquiry is visual culture, a discipline which has established itself in Italy only very recently.   Throughout the years he has written extensively, and his books are all unusually original. In 2001, Einaudi published Radioso avvenire: Mitologie culturali sovietiche (Radiant Future: Soviet Cultural Myths), which plots the course from the utopian visions of October 1917 to the 1980s. Piretto analyzes images and everyday objects to illustrate Stalin’s famous claim in 1935:“ Life has improved, comrades. Life has become more joyous.” In short, the books provides us with a visual history of the USSR and its accompanying myths. Piretto’s most recent books are published by Sironi: in 2010, Gli occhi di Stalin (Stalin’s Eyes) and in 2012, La vita privata degli oggetti sovietici (The Private Life of Soviet Objects).   Vasilii Efanov, Famous People of the...

Peter Handke: The Essay Writer

In recent years, critical attention towards the Austrian novelist, playwright and political activist of Slovenian origin, Peter Handke, has focused more on his activism than on his books. In particular, he sparked controversy when he spoke out in support of the Serbian regime, during the sanguinary civil war in former Yugoslavia, and of its leader Slobodan Milošević, both during his trial in the Hague and at his funeral. Many of his most important works are out of print and there are fewer and fewer reprints scheduled, though there may be some change in the air. And yet, his work continues to be translated. Fortunately, this shows that Peter Handke still enjoys a worldwide readership despite the polemics.   Donata Wenders, Peter Handke, Chaville 2009   After receiving such prestigious awards as the Kafka prize in 2008, and the Ibsen prize in 2014, Handke’s return to the public eye inevitably stirred up the controversy. Perhaps it is easier to attack Handke for his views than to analyze and comprehend the full range of motivations the writer has given for his opinions. Admittedly, his unquestioning espousal of Milošević’s doctrines is hard to digest, in particular by today’s...

Kafka in Charlie Chaplin’s Hands

What do Kafka and Chaplin have in common? They both explore the margins of life, where exclusion from the world and from history opens up the curtains of dissimulation and accepts the cognition of pain as destiny. Is the comparison unfeasible? In Benjamin’s view, the worlds of representation are linked together with subtle ties. Aside from differences in time, place, and artistic media, there are mysterious affinities which allow us to juxtapose the two with unexpected hermeneutic results.   “Chaplin holds in his hands a genuine key to the interpretation of Kafka. Just as occurs in Chaplin’s situations, in which in a quite unparalleled way rejected and disinherited existence, eternal human agony combines with the particular circumstances of contemporary being, the monetary system, the city, the police, etc., so too in Kafka every event is Janus-faced, completely immemorial, without history and yet, at the same time, possessing the latest, journalistic topicality.”   Opening the eighth volume of Benjamin’s collected works is like entering a labyrinth where the paths do not follow a geometric pattern of any kind. They simply carry you on a path of awe and unlikely approaches....

All about Sottsass

On September 8, 1981, Ettore Sottsass and Barbara Radice roll up in a taxi a the Design Gallery in Milan. They’re excited and a little scared. That afternoon was the launch of an exhibition of a group of designers who had got together the previous December in their apartment and called themselves Memphis: Martine Bedin, Aldo Cibic, Michele De Lucchi, Matteo Thun and Marco Zanini. They rub their eyes in disbelief as more than 2000 people crowd the showroom to see 31 pieces of furniture, three clocks, ten lamps and eleven ceramic pieces.   The crowd spills out into the street, blocking the traffic. Sottsass and Radice have no idea what is going on. They think there must have been a road accident. No design event has ever attracted a crowd like this, and nobody can tell them how so many people came to be there that day. The invitation to the private view was a T-Rex with his toothy mouth wide open and his eyes sharply focused. A suggestion of things to come, a provocation almost. Will Memphis devour modern design? That day in September, 1981, the founding father of the new movement reached the acme of his success and popularity.   Ettore Sottsass was born in Innsbruck in 1917,...

Drone Theory

0.45 GMT – 05.15 in Afghanistan. Pilot: Shit, is that a rifle? Operator: Dunno, it’s just a warm spot where he’s sitting, I can’t really say, it looks like an object though. Pilot: I hoped there was a weapon down there. Oh well. 01.45 Operator: That truck would be a good target. It’s a 4 x 4 Chevrolet, a Chevy Suburban. Pilot: Yes. Operator: Oh yes. 01.07 Coordinator: The screener says there’s at least one child near the 4 x 4 Operator: Fuck… where? Operator: Send me a fucking image, but I don’t think there are kids around at this time of night. I know these guys are weird, but… Operator: Dunno, could be a teenager, anyway I haven’t seen anything small and they are all bunched together there.   This is a transcript of part of a conversation between members of a ‘team’ guiding a Predator drone over the Afghan skies on February 20, 2010. They are sitting comfortably in their chairs on the Creech US Army Base. The exchange goes on for several minutes, grows agitated, and then draws to a close when a missile is launched and two Kiowa helicopters arrive on the scene, having been called in to complete the attack against the intercepted Chevy.   The transcript is...

Twin H. A new Novel by Giorgio Falco

Three slightly rotten looking apples on a leaning shelf, indefinite shadows  like pools beneath them. The black and white photo on the cover of the Italian edition of the book, by Sabina Ragucci, evokes the idea of time passing.     Apples come into the first sentence, and become part of a discreet but insistent refrain in the book. The protagonist, and narrative voice for much of Giorgio Falco’s new book, La Gemella H ("Twin H", Einaudi 2014) sings the refrain to herself repeatedly: “we only ate apples in strudel in the beginning.” After Pausa caffè ("Coffee Break", Sironi 2004) and the magnificent short stories collected under the title L’ubicazione del bene, ("The Location of Good", Einaudi 2009), Falco tells the story of Hilde Hinner, endowed with the almost magical ability to describe both her own and her sister Helga’s life since their birth in 1933 – her sister the elder by a few minutes.   Hilde tries to become independent by taking up a job as a shop assistant at the Rinascente department store, horribly rebuilt after the ravages of war, but she soon returns to the fold. The twin sisters lives follow a parallel path almost to the bitter end. Identical in appearance...

Cheever Meets Modugno

Years ago I heard a famous Modugno song for the first time. It was called Marito in Città and it first came out in 45rpm in 1958, though it had already circulated the year before. The story is a topos of the 1950s: a husband drops his wife and kids off at their long-vacation destination and then returns to enjoy city life unencumbered, with the excuse of a job to do.     I must confess that the song stuck in my mind for months and still today I appreciate its unusual skillfulness. It was a particularly successful example of a gift Modugno in particular had for evoking a certain quality in the men of his day without any reticence or rhetoric. In the case of this song, the protagonist’s singular charm is quintessentially masculine and Italian. The man proclaims himself to be rich, a good catch for a woman, a tombeur de femmes, only to be betrayed by his excruciating clumsiness, which puts paid to his dreams of adultery. The music is especially congenial, adding a flavor of farcical sympathy to the story. The irresistibly Italian tune hit the charts, and radios blasted the song provocatively in apartments throughout Italy.   Foreign tourists must have been equally struck by...