by Katrin Nahidi
Thanks to the Max Weber Foundation and the Forum Transregionale Studien, I had the opportunity to participate as a science reporter in the WeberWorldCafé Globalisation during the Cold War: Culture, New Geopolitics and Che Guevara, hosted by the foundation and the Forum on November 16th, 2015 in Leipzig.
As I write this report and recall the vivid discussions at the WeberWorldCafé, a military invention in Syria has begun in response to the attacks in Paris. It comes as no surprise that due to the terrible topicality of the World Café’s subject and the attacks in Beirut, Paris and Kobane our first discussion started with the statement “The Cold War that never ended”. During the conversation, that statement turned into a question and became the best example of how the titles and the topics of all the tables were deconstructed and reconstructed in the discussions.
On my way from Berlin to Leipzig the tram to the main station stopped to commemorate the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris. A minute of silence was also the first item on the agenda at the Literaturcafé Leipzig. During the devotional silence I remembered my Facebook feed of the previous days. Some of my friends overlaid their profile pictures with the French flag as a statement of solidarity while others started to engage in discussions that shed light on battlegrounds and victims beyond the attention of Western media. The issues of solidarity and the overcoming of the Eurocentric perspective of the Cold War era were major topics in the conversations in Leipzig.
After a short word of welcome, the organizers of Max Weber Foundation introduced the participants of the conference “Globalization during the Cold War” to the format of WeberWorldCafé. The idea of a World Café is an attempt with high potential to establish less hierarchical conversations. Scientific conferences are indubitably integral part of a researcher’s life, a form of communication and a way of presenting new research results to the interested professional audience. At the same time, the typical conference format with invited speakers who often read their paper out loud to the audience is not conducive to in-depth discussions and seems anachronistic in our world of digital communication. Usually, the most interesting and inspiring discussions at a regular conference take place during the coffee breaks or outside the official program structure. Therefore, the World Café is a step towards a more democratic way of discussions and a diverse audience. The event functions similarly to “speed dating”, a popular model of matchmaking before online dating and platforms like Tinder became common. The point is not to find your academic soul mate but to talk to almost every participant of the conference during four rounds of 25-minutes-discussions at each table.
Since the aim of the café format is to freely exchange ideas without the formality of the presentation structure, the participants conversed with one another over coffee and cake while the organizers motivated everyone to keep the exchanges fluid and the atmosphere pleasant.
The first table “Art, Literature and Propaganda” was hosted by Yang-Wen Zheng and Elizabeth M. Holt. Yang-Wen Zheng works on the adaption of ballet in Maoist China as a space of negotiation between artistic modernity and communist politics. Elizabeth M. Holt concentrates on literature of the Arab world in the field of tensions of cultural politics sponsored by the CIA. The regional focus on China and the Arabic peninsula delivered a valuable additional perspective on the out-dated Eurocentric perception of the Cold War era. Although the conversation commenced with the aforementioned has the Cold War ever ended? a second inquiry proposed a rethinking of Asia as a Cold War main theatre.
The topics of nation building, decolonization and the applicability of the Cold War scenario on today’s political situation were also raised. However, the allotted time was unfortunately too short to get at the interesting details of the individual projects.
As the gong sounded to launch the second round everybody except the table hosts moved to the next table to enter a new debate. Despite the attempts of the hosts Leslie James and Elisabeth Leake at the “Decolonization and Postcolonial Solidarity” table, it was a little bit challenging to continue the discussion right at the point where the previous group had left it. Since decolonization and postcolonial solidarity are highly theorized and politicized concepts, it was necessary to clarify those key terms first to bring the participants into line.
Some of the questions and statements addressed in this conversation included: “What is solidarity? What does it entail? Can you create solidarity? You don’t create, you do it! What does postcolonial do to solidarity? Is solidarity always positive?” It became obvious that the aim to include a wider audience with a less academic background might be difficult in this format unless the table topics were less theoretically oriented.
The table of Quinn Slobodian and Hector Perla Jr. on “Youth movements, the ‘Third World’ and the Radical Left” also picked up the issue of solidarity. Instead of jumping right into the discussion both table hosts introduced themselves and their research interests. The introduction was extremely helpful and could be adopted as a recommendation in preparing the discussion hosts for this event format. Slobodian and Perla follow a historiographical approach towards a re-evaluation of youth movements and the radical left beyond the romanticizing or sociological range of revolution. It may be said that during the Cold War era solidarity could be shown more easily because it was part of the official doctrine in the battle against communism with direct opponents. The concept of solidarity was converted by the radical left into a strategy of resistance but was at the same time an integral part of the existing global governance. The example of the RAF in Germany demonstrates that solidarity has not always been positive. Rather, solidarity can also cause cultural divides and terroristic acts.
In the discussion, we agreed that performing solidarity has lost its significance today, but now in retrospect I would rather say that solidarity has become more selective based on common grounds. Hardly anybody hesitated to commemorate the victims of the attacks in Paris, but showing solidarity with the numerous victims of Boko Haram in Nigeria or in Beirut was a greater obstacle for the global audience.
„The world is a mess and the heroes are gone. The hero is dead, long live Che Guevara.“
At my last table “Social Movements and Cultural Icons” hosted by Beata Hock and James Mark, the conversation revolved around the questions of how the Cuban revolution became a global icon and how it was interpretated in the different regions in the world. The image of the guerrilla fighter Ernesto Che Guevara taken by the photographer Alberto Korda has travelled around the world in many forms and established Che Guevara’s visual legacy as revolutionary. As the object of many paintings, iconographic references to Christ can be observed. Che Guevara represents a masculine culture of revolution and became a hero for the radical left. The conversation at this table was very vivid and touched upon various issues like the Eurocentric view of feminism and the representation of Che Guevara in cinema. Very enriching was the contribution to the discussion of one participant whose family was involved in a politically active group in El Salvador. The participant shared her impressions and private memories of Che Guevara’s significance as A heroic role model for leftist activists.
As the gong sounded for the last time, it was almost hard to believe that one afternoon with many interesting round-table talks had come to an end so quickly. The objective of the WeberWorldCafé format to establish less hierarchical conversations was fulfilled. The success of the event was due to the pleasant atmosphere, the smaller audience size and the spatial breakup of the frontal setting of a traditional conference into a round-table format. Nevertheless, some issues remained such as the inability for some common discussions to reach in-depth levels. One possible solution could be short presentations by the hosts and participants to enrich the discussions from the start.
Participating in the WeberWorldCafé was very stimulating and intense, resulting in the most comprehensive personal involvement I have ever experienced at a conference.
Katrin Nahidi is a PhD Candidate at the Freie Universität Berlin’s department of Art History and a member of the project „Other Modernities – Practices and Patrimonies of Visual Expression outside from the West„. Her dissertation deals with „Modern Iranian Art Revisited – Perspectives of Art Historiography“.
A review of the fourth WeberWorldCafé by our other science reporter, Christopher Hamich, can be found on his blog.