Ghodsee on Stankiewicz, 'Europe Un-Imagined: Nation and Culture at a French-German Television Channel'

Author: 
Damien Stankiewicz
Reviewer: 
Kristen Ghodsee

Damien Stankiewicz. Europe Un-Imagined: Nation and Culture at a French-German Television Channel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017. 304 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4426-2879-3.

Reviewed by Kristen Ghodsee (University of Pennsylvania) Published on H-SAE (June, 2018) Commissioned by Michael B. Munnik (Cardiff University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52153

It is not every day that a doctoral student of anthropology decides to go head-to-head with an esteemed professor emeritus of political science, but Damien Stankiewicz’z first book, Europe Un-Imagined: Nation and Culture at a French-German Television Channel, is a bold attempt to rethink one of the most influential theories of nationalism of the last century. Stankiewicz is a media anthropologist who conducted extended fieldwork at the European cultural television channel, ARTE, in Strasbourg, France. ARTE’s stated mission is to use the visual media to facilitate the building of a new transnational cultural community to support the political and economic integration required by the European Union.

Stankiewicz’s patient and thoughtful ethnography of this TV channel focuses on the question of whether visual media today plays the role that print media once played in forging what the late Benedict Anderson called “imagined communities.”[1] For Anderson, nationalism was a byproduct of the production of print media in vernacularized languages, which allowed members of a national territory to feel bounded together in a virtual collectivity of other men and women they would never meet or interact with, but with whom they shared a certain temporal and spatial reality as defined through the shared consumption of newspapers, magazines, and books. For Anderson, nationalism was consciously constructed by political and media elites; his ideas have been foundational to many scholars in the field of media studies who have transposed his theories about print media to the new technologies of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. 

Stankiewicz uses his ethnography to push back against Anderson and his contemporary proponents by revealing how nationalism is lived and experienced on a day-to-day level independent of the realm of cultural production. Even among those media professionals explicitly charged to help forge a supranational European identity, French and German national identities asserted themselves in the most surprising and often banal ways. Stankiewicz ultimately questions both the value of the Andersonian theory of the consciously constructible imagined community and the viability of the EU as a political project. Specifically, he argues against “a certain homology between European integration and what I am calling ‘trans-cultural mediationism.’ Both are predicated on the constructability and malleability of large-scale human communities. Mediationism assumes that, because social collectivities and audiovisual texts are so enmeshed, one can shape and pivot image-and-sound in order to influence people’s identities and loyalties; European integration assumes that nation-states, and people living across Europe, can be politically reshaped through supra-national institutions, law, and policy. Fundamentally, both are invested in particular assumptions about how sociality and social change operate; in the view of each, people and their commitments can be influenced and modified through self-consciously forged, then widely disseminated, ideologies and principles” (p. 19). 

Stankiewicz’s work is provocative, and it should be taught in all courses in media studies and on the anthropology of the media because it will provide fodder for lively discussions about the role of television in crafting shared cultural and national identities. Stankiewicz takes the view that ARTE’s efforts weren’t nearly as successful as hoped. He has a sharp ethnographic eye and reveals the embodied practices that divided the French and the German ARTE employees. Who eats yogurt? Who has wine with lunch? Who cares more about their shoes? Stankiewicz is at his best when providing the thick description of daily life behind the scenes at ARTE and how notions of “Frenchness” and “Germanness” influenced every programming choice and often undermined the larger mission of the channel.

But I happened to be writing the first draft of this review during the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, which my teenage daughter now watches obsessively each year. Although she holds a Bulgarian passport, she has only ever spent summers in Bulgaria, and her Bulgarian language skills are on the weaker side. But for one week each May, my daughter suddenly becomes a fervent Bulgarian nationalist, cheering and pumping her fists every time the Bulgarian entry takes the stage, even when there are other songs that she likes better. Somehow, she has accepted that, because her father is a Bulgarian—and she is a Bulgarian citizen—she is obliged to root for Polly Genova or Kristian Kostov or Equinox.

The Eurovision song contest is a great example of what Stankiewicz calls “trans-cultural mediationism,” in that it was consciously created in the 1950s to help heal the wounds of World War II. The show was a deliberate project of the European Broadcasting Union, and its goal was to build a shared European community around some light entertainment. Eurovision has been broadcast yearly since 1956 and has expanded from the initial seven countries to include nations as far afield as Israel, Azerbaijan, and Australia. Although most songs are in English, every year there are neverthless entries in Serbian, French, Greek, Tatar, or some other European language. It is a festival of vapid pop music and gaudy staging, but no one can doubt its cultural salience: it is one of the most watched non-sporting television broadcasts in the world, beloved by teenagers and gay communities around the globe. And even those who abhor it recognize it as a shared European cultural phenomenon. One cannot deny its power to expose contemporary youth to the diversity of European culture. Eurovision fans can not only place Georgia and Montenegro on a map, but they are also savvy to the national alliances that influence the popular voting: Sweden giving twelve points to Norway, Cyprus’s twelve points for Greece, et cetera.  

In some ways, ARTE aspired to be a smarter, more cultured version of Eurovision, using documentary films and broadcasts of operas and ballets to forge a transnational community of thoughtful European viewers. And here is perhaps where we meet the limits of Stankiewicz’s ethnographic case study. Perhaps trans-cultural mediationism fails when the content is too highbrow. Maybe films about history or talk shows with philosophers are somehow inherently less productive of national identity than sports, song contests, or soap operas. Humor and satire might also be more conducive to forging an imagined community than a live broadcast of Aida. When I think about Jan Böhmermann’s hilarious 2016 video, “Be Deutsch! (Achtung! Germans on the rise!),” I imagine that Böhmermann did more to promote a more liberal and tolerant version of German national identity in less than five minutes than any ARTE program could achieve in a hundred hours.[2]

This is not in any way to detract from the value and beauty of Europe Un-imagined. Overall, Stankiewicz’s book is a delightful read and a piercing rumination on the limits of media power in a world oversaturated with content-producers vying for our attention. The book would be excellent for both graduate and undergraduate courses in anthropology, sociology, media studies, and European studies.

Notes

[1]. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

2. Jan Böhmermann, “Be Deutsch! (Achtung! Germans on the rise!),” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMQkV5cTuoY.

Citation: Kristen Ghodsee. Review of Stankiewicz, Damien, Europe Un-Imagined: Nation and Culture at a French-German Television Channel. H-SAE, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52153

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.