Practical intellectuals

During the Napoleon Wars, French (invader) troops were dispatched in the homes of Berlin inhabitants. Some of these cohabitations went well, others were depicted as being quite catastrophic. But the letters written by intellectuals in that time generally show that their abstract consideration of the political situation (mainly a patriotic discourse) was situated on another level than their assessment of these practices of imposed lodging of French soldiers. Until recently, I never really payed attention to the meaning of this discursive gap. I have always considered the two aspects separately, while there is in fact an excellent question to be asked at the interface of both, namely: should a politically effective shift (like the presence of foreign soldiers in your home) affect your in-depth construction of theoretical (political) discourses or models? What are you supposed to do, as an intellectual: ignore, resist, act, think, run away, write columns on the front page of newspapers, give French soldiers in your home your bad wine and go have a good beer with your University buddies? It is the current political situation that made me take the oddity of these two discourse levels into consideration.

There have not been that many occasions over the last years for me to formalize from the present into the past; I mostly do the opposite of that (try to learn from the past to understand the present). Whatever the direction in time, reflection effects are unavoidable when you work on intellectuals, being by definition an intellectual yourself. Fine. This might, to some extent, help me think and help me share what I know, at best. Will it help me improve the world? No. But as an intellectual, are you supposed to make things better? I for my part would like that, but, as it turns out, it not that easy. Now how so?

Refugees were an abstract topic for a long time, something to read and think about. But at some point, it could not really remain theoretical. (It would have been if I have lived in France, and it would have made me mad). Two weeks ago, 500 refugees settled literally around the corner. A temporary home was set up not far from where I live, in very precarious conditions. A lot of people from the neighborhood helped: brought clothes, bought diapers, gave old cellphones, distributed food, set up a medical unit. All of that voluntary work. A bit chaotic, but done with so much heart, so much time and energy that I could hardly believe the horror stories of people setting fire to refugees homes.  You would get there in the morning, in the afternoon, and find a swarm of people helping with this or that. There was always someone who could tell you where to go and almost never someone with an overview. The overwhelmingness of being part of a spontaneous (solid and yet so fragile) social structure in such an emergency situation can certainly account as a way of finding back to a form of political sense.

Now, what could be done? I have children, I have a job. I can’t sort out clothes for hours (have done so a bit though), I don’t speak any of the useful languages (seriously – French, German and English is the most useless combination ever). German classes were organized spontaneously and I joined the team of teachers. The first classes took place in empty offices, with the participants sitting on the floor, nothing to write. “Hello, my name is…”- that would be about it.

A few days later, here we are with 50 teachers; there are chairs, there is learning material arriving. And it seems clear that this refugees home will stay for a while, with a quick turnover of its inhabitants. So, yes, we need to think ahead. We need to think in terms of pedagogical concept, in terms of chain of competences, in terms of didactic, in terms of social inclusion. The universities are trying to reach out (here officially the Humboldt-Universität). It seems a Promethean work to make all of this come together. But with so much willingness, should it not be at least possible to consider it? I have been thinking about ways of making this work – knowing only too well how much energy would be necessary.

And other energies are needed, too. My class starts at 10 tomorrow – probably just as extreme a pedagogical experience as my Vorlesung of last term.

Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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