by Gizem Arslan (Southern Methodist University)
As a subdiscipline of German Studies, migration studies in the 1990s and early 2000s focused mostly on film and literature and advocated for the recognition of contributions by minority authors to the canon. Concurrently, migration studies sought to complicate ethnicized categorizations such as “Turkish” and “German,” and to address “the impossibility of reading texts and historical contexts of migration in isolation from one another, yet equally the impossibility of reducing the one to the other” (Kim 2011, Adelson 2005). This meant performing scholarly work attuned to text and context alike, in which the texts in question were not reduced to representations and ethnographies of migrant communities. As elaborated in the 2017 forum on migration studies in the German Quarterly, more recent scholarship revises these earlier emphases, exploring multiple archives (e.g., European, Ottoman), marginalized communities (e.g., Afro-Germans, Aussiedler), and genres. Today, with 40 million internally displaced peoples, 25.4 million refugees, and 3.1 million asylum seekers globally, the discipline has much to accomplish by addressing stories of escape, trauma, resettlement and expulsion, and the terms “precarity,” “fear,” “empathy,” and “intimacy,” as it has already begun to do.
“Why does migration studies as subdiscipline of German Studies matter?” If we contextualize migration studies with respect to the current global refugee crisis, most displaced people in the world today are from Sudan, Afghanistan, and Syria, and top refugee-hosting countries are neither in Europe nor North America, as much western political discourse and news coverage would have us believe. Rather, they are in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. Even specifically German-language cultural production around migration and asylum increasingly engages varied languages and geographies illimitable to the German-speaking world. Therefore, to claim migration studies for German Studies appears to pander to Eurocentric debates arising from Europe and North America’s enduring self-conception as linguistically, ethnically, and racially homogenous nation-states.
Instead, some recent scholarship points in more relevant, urgent directions. Deniz Göktürk and David Gramling suggest exploring how migration is framed by institutions (NGOs, funding bodies, universities) and disciplines (Göktürk and Gramling 2017). Many such institutions and disciplines have been influenced—even conceived—by German-speaking thinkers and politicians. For instance, Yasemin Yildiz has shown how Johann Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Wilhelm von Humboldt “spearheaded the view that one could properly think, feel, and express oneself only in one’s ‘mother tongue’” (Yildiz 2012, 6–7). These thinkers’ and language’s role in the imagination and emergence of nation-states has been documented extensively (see for example Yildiz 2012; Gramling 2016). German-speaking authors (among others) have also challenged the institutions and disciplines informing migration. For example, in his 2014 speech to the Bundestag on the sixty-fifth anniversary of Germany’s Basic Law, German-Iranian journalist, author, and Islam scholar Navid Kermani sharply criticized the 1993 amendments to the Basic Law that limit asylum rights in Germany. In North-American German Studies, Vanessa Plumly’s 2016 analysis links racialized “refugee assemblages” in public discourse and media coverage in the wake of German reunification and the Cologne New Year’s Eve 2015 attacks with European colonial legacies.
In sum, migration studies as subdiscipline of German Studies matters very much indeed. The reason is not that German Studies is uniquely suited to engage with migration debates in any narrow sense. Rather, it is that German-speaking thinkers and politicians, European colonial legacies and German-language authors have both formed and challenged the institutions and disciplines that frame migration today.
Adelson, Leslie A. 2005. The Turkish Turn in Contemporary German Literature: Toward a New Critical Grammar of Migration. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Arslan, Gizem, Brooke Kreitinger, Deniz Göktürk, David Gramling, B. Venkat Mani, Olivia Landry, Barbara Mennel, Scott Denham, Robin Ellis, and Roman Utkin. 2017. “Forum: Migration Studies.” The German Quarterly 90 (2): 212–34.
Göktürk, Deniz, and David Gramling. 2017. “Germany in Transit, Ten Years on, in Forum: Migration Studies.” The German Quarterly 90 (2): 217–19.
Gramling, David. 2016. The Invention of Monolingualism. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
Kim, John Namjun. 2010. “Ethnic Irony: The Poetic Parabasis of the Promiscuous Personal Pronoun in Yoko Tawada’s ‘Eine Leere Flasche’ (A Vacuous Flask).” The German Quarterly 83 (3): 333–52.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Figures at a Glance.” UNHCR. Accessed July 1, 2019.https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html.
Plumly, Vanessa D. 2016. “Refugee Assemblages, Cycles of Violence, and Body Politic(s) in Times of ‘Celebratory Fear.’” Women in German Yearbook 32: 163.
Yildiz, Yasemin. 2012. Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition. New York: Fordham University Press.
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