In her 1939 novel, Hotel Shanghai, Vicki Braun brought together different characters of European, American and Asian origin to create a portrait of Shanghai in the 1930s. In German Studies research, this novel has been referred to as the first German language ‘metropolis novel’ due to the way it broadens the exile experience and condenses it into the example of one city. As in Baum’s bestseller Grand Hotel (1929), a hotel is the setting and a metaphor for the transience of modern existence.
An intersection of global currents
Today, Shanghai is still a kind of Hotel Shanghai, a world within a world and an intersection of global currents. The 13th International Association of German Studies Congress (IVG), which took place from 23rd till 30th August in the Asian megacity, was also a kind of Hotel Shanghai. For one week, a diverse group of people, topics and specialised questions were brought together under one roof on the Tongji University campus.
Skyline of Shanghai. On the right hand side the Shanghai Tower, with its 632 metres second highest building in the world. (c) Carsten Rohde
With its over 20 million inhabitants, Shanghai provided more than just a spectacular backdrop. The city’s futuristic urban physiognomy and unfettered economic and social dynamics almost inevitably led the European humanities scholars to the question of how the time-honoured, old-European Humaniora will position themselves within the potentially global environment of the future.
Despite all the culturally pessimistic prophecies of doom, the IVG congress gave little reason for concern. On the one hand, such friction between cultures and eras gives rise to productive energy and on the other, German Studies as a whole (literature, linguistics, didactics and teaching in schools) does not live in an ivory tower, but is rising to societal challenges actively and self-critically. With over 1000 lectures and events, the diverse programme at the congress was impressive evidence of this.
1200 participants from 69 countries
Since the 1950s, every five years, German scholars have gathered for a week to discuss German language and literature each time in a different city and country. This time, 1200 participants from 69 countries came together, including many from outside Europe (North America, Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East); IVG congresses traditionally thrive on encounters between people of different cultures.
The chairman of the IVG, Professor Zhu Jianhua, opens the congress. (c) Carsten Rohde
When the congress is held in a non-German speaking country, there is also a stronger focus on the host country. The Chinese hosts were very hospitable and the organisation was almost perfect. Whilst politics played a minor role in the congress sections, it was more present in the prestigious official supporting programme. The Chinese cultural evening, for instance, was dominated by self-confident patriotism and political strength. It is unclear whether this reflected a majority view or primarily the semi-official state and party propaganda.
Face to face
Within the framework of the congress, the MWW had the opportunity to present the research association and its research policies and objectives to an international audience. In the subsequent discussions, there was particular interest in the MWW’s digital projects as well as in the association’s plans for international networking. The congress itself provided a chance for the latter as MWW members reported on their research and discussed their work with numerous experts from around the world. Professor Ulrike Gleixner took part in the Networked authors section and associate professor Dr Carsten Rohde participated in New German literature as a reservoir for contemporary models of identity.
Without question, digitalisation and internationalisation, or rather globalisation, represent two essential perspectives for the future. However, the IVG congress also showed that in addition to, or even contrary to general societal trends, science, culture and literature resoundingly thrive on encounters. What can we know about what we see – be it a person, a city or an artifact – if we do not try to zoom in for a close reading and, in a sense, approach someone or something face to face?