Awarded to Ben Gook, University of Melbourne for his thesis, The past that 0utlived itself: German re-unification and its discontents:
First, I want to say thanks to Bill Martin and the award committee. It is a great honour to receive this award, and I found it humbling to read down the list of past recipients. Universities today can feel like thankless places, so this recognition plus the sociability and acknowledgement of the association and its conferences – all are to be welcomed. Unfortunately, one of my supervisors, Dr John Cash, could not be here this year, although he has been a regular TASA conference goer for many years, and he encouraged me to become involved with the Association. I know some of you know him. Even in his absence, I would like to thank him.
I do not want to say much, just a couple of quick things about the thesis topic and maybe explain how I chose it or how it chose me, as someone with no clear links with Germany before I began the project, or even someone able to speak German.
The thesis was born of a wish to understand what those who lived within non-capitalist social systems made of life under capitalism and, conversely, what life under capitalism made of them. At the start of my PhD candidature, I set out to understand the afterlife of Eastern Bloc socialism in communities that had lived with its various national iterations; this was eventually whittled down to Germany alone (but not ‘just’ Germany).
Re-unified Germany revealed many questions I was interested in, not least of which were the affects and horizons of hope identified by Eva Cox at this year’s conference. Complex societies can confront people as strange and heteronomous—inscrutable, obscure, acting above but through them; human doing and history is veiled by society’s presentation as fate, as given, as invariant, something seemingly unalterable by individual subjects, even acting in concert. 1989 shows that subjects acting together across all sorts of lines can become autonomous.
Yet 1989—the Fall of the Berlin Wall—became the emblem of history’s terminus, at least in the hands of Fukuyama and others. Hope turned to disappointment in 1990, after the two nations came together. A lot can be learned about capitalism and democracy in German re-unification. Specifically, a lot can be learned about the nastier sides of capitalism (its immiseration, its cold institutions, its ruthless calculation) and liberal democracy (its self-satisfied disregard of criticism, its attenuation of popular power, a quelling of truly democratic struggle, overruled by platitudes as it becomes institutionalised).
The paradox of re-unification remains: that a deeply felt wish for democracy in East Germany impelled protest and rupture, yet the result of all that was the former East’s subsumption into the West German democratic institutions without remainder, as if a received version of democracy was a benevolent gift from Westerners to Easterners, an endpoint rather than an understanding of democracy as an unfinished principle. I think a lot can be learned, too, about psychic life and ideology in the persisting division of the two populations, as reflected in the title of the revised and published version of this research—Divided Subjects, Invisible Borders: Re-Unified Germany after 1989.
What happened in 1989 was an impetus to challenge sclerotic institutions in the socialist East, a source for democratic renewal. However, it became an opportunity missed. I wanted to register that disappointment, the discontents of this process, which are all at once psychological, ideological and material. I was interested, then, in the fallout of this process, especially as it affected subjectivity and relations between Eastern and Western Germans. I was interested in pursuing this situation in depth, but not solely as an exercise in the cultural or social history of Germany. Instead, I wanted to push harder on these questions through this case study, because they are not only German problems.
The fates of people and ideas in this era between late 1989 and late 1990 were lost in a social process, a series of structural, political arrangements. The dynamic opening, the untidiness, the improvisations of 1989 and 1990 becomes the static ‘Fall of the Wall’ and ‘re-unification’ we know today. In the thesis I consider these historical moments through the lenses of affect, memory, subjectivity, ambivalence and so on—all of which aim to bolster this point about what has gone missing in our understanding of this past in the present, and the ways division remains behind the veil of unity.
The project’s main critical thrust echoes the opening Keynote of the TASA Conference this year: not the intellectual reproduction of what exists in institutions but social thought as an activity that has a secured hold on possibility, a negative utopian moment, as Adorno puts it, that can reclaim history insofar as it resists easy affirmations and consolations. It retrieves from obscurity those moments of possibility—a history of freedom. In the thesis, this retrieval entailed narrating a history that could help undo the urge—recurrent in Western historiography and political theories—to silence these perspectives. In the thesis I wanted to make room for the nameless Easterners in the history of 1989 – those figures whose agency is constitutive of the concrete instantiations of universal ideals of freedom, but whom today register disaffection and disappointment with the drift of re-unified Germany.
Thanks again to the award committee and TASA for the award.
Divided Subjects, Invisible Borders: Re-unified Germany after 1989 was published in September 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield International. You can read the introduction and first chapter here.