'It is dangerous when people start inventing freely past that was never there'

Interview, Carola Lentz, social anthropologist, president of Goethe-Institut, Germany

Carola Lentz, social anthropologist and president of Goethe-Institut, Germany Carola Lentz

“Nationalism is an instrument that can be wielded in different ways,” said Carola Lentz, noted social anthropologist and president of Goethe-Institut, Germany in a conversation with The WEEK. Co-author of the book Remembering Independence, she finds that present governments across the globe are reshaping the past according to their ideas for the future. She noted that a “re-nationalisation of politics” is underway in which some regimes are becoming exclusive and wanting to sever ties in the international sphere. Lentz was on her maiden visit to India to offer scholarly insights on the role of education and culture as a unifying force for multiple identities in a globalised world. 

Tell us about your book ‘Remembering Independence’? 

It is a co-authored book with David Lowe that sheds light on a universal process (adopted by governments) of reshaping the past according to what you want to achieve in the present and the future. The way nation-states like Ghana, India etc. set up their monuments, festivals, and national days to commemorate the process of decolonisation is a case in point. One of the topics I looked at very closely is how memory is a function of the present and not necessarily what happened in the past, although that’s an important reference. I think that it is dangerous when people start to invent freely the past that was never there. What was there, what is being activated, what is being remembered, what is being sidelined are all part of the reshaping. There is, of course, a latitude of what you can do. I think there is an active politics of remembering i.e. a selective process where you choose certain characters, certain heroes and you forget others. The past is being defined by the needs and agendas of the present. So any present government will reshape the past according to its ideas for the future. In other words, what we remember today of the past is reshaped by what we want to achieve in the future and the revision of national pantheons is part of this process that is happening in several nation-states including Ghana which I studied very closely. So, this is a universal process of reshaping the past according to what you want to achieve in the present and the future. This is one of the arguments of the book. 

Your two focus areas of study are nationalism and ethnicity, both powerful political forces at this point in time around the world. Is there a nationalisation of politics? Do you think the nation-states that we used to talk about are gaining more ground now?

Nationalism has got a long history. It started in the 19th century as an idea of dissolving empires, how we reorganise populations, what should be the basis of political systems. In the early days, the idea of nationalism and democracy went together in the sense of empowering the nation to govern itself as against to be governed by some authority – either the emperor or a colonial empire. Even till 1950s, we would say as analysts, that nationalism was a progressive anti-colonial force. At the same time, in places like Germany and Italy in Europe, nationalism already began to show its ugly face as an exclusive, totalitarian, restrictive, oppressive regime and you saw progressive, liberal, democratic, inclusive movements in the non-European world. Up until now, nationalism maintains these two faces – the ugly one that is exclusive, and authoritarian, which defines very narrowly the true identity of the citizens and which works towards the interior world as an exclusivist and oppressive regimes by identifying the national with a particular mindset. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Nationalism can be used in the sense of true patriotism defending a democracy, liberal values, participation, and women’s rights. Nationalism is an instrument that can be wielded in different ways.

What are the other aspects which are more at play now?

The aspects that were there in the old days but now manifest even more are the problems of climate change, migration, unemployment, poverty etc. These are global issues, no longer to be solved in the container of a nation-state because we are in the process of globalisation. People benefit or differ from it in different forms depending on how they are being integrated into the global exchange system. Today, you have ideological entrepreneurs coming up and saying that we should solve all our problems within the boundaries of our nation-state and we should rely on ourselves. I think that is an idea that will not work. So the question is how to deal with this tendency of re-nationalisation of politics in the sense of both being oppressive and exclusive and wanting to sever ties in the international sphere. In Germany, we have this huge debate about how far do we want to have academic exchange relations with China. The question that arises is whether they are trying to dominate us or are they equal or fair players? Or are they unfair players? Up to what extent should we allow our economy and academic spheres to be integrated or are we risking in making ourselves dependent on a regime whose agenda we cannot control. These are the questions that are being discussed in Germany.  

There is this revisionist attitude in India also. How do you think India is coping and moving ahead in terms of remembering things, forgetting things and revising things?

The only insights I have on this is from my colleague David Lowe who co-authored the book with me. But, one thing I have noticed from my area of study is that the Indian Independence movement influences regimes across the world. African countries are strongly influenced by the Indian Independence movement. India has always set the model, not just because the colonizers were the same. Even the British colonial policies in, for instance, Ghana were modelled on Indian Civil Services. You had a lot of people who first served in Indian Civil Services and then transferred to Ghana. One of its famous examples is the tradition of holding a ‘Durbar’, something African countries have taken from Indian traditional practises and are following till date.

You are also an anthropologist. Have you seen any fundamental change in the way societies are behaving? Do you think consumptive mindset impact behaviours overall? 

I don’t know on the world scale. Anthropologists tend to focus on a small part of the world, even within a country. The region I know fairly well is Northern Ghana which used to be a marginalised region when 1980s when I arrived there. There was no electricity, there was no running water. They had fantasies about consumption but in a different way. Thirty years later now, even grandfathers have mobile phones. Communication has become faster and with it the desires of consumption and ideas. At the same time, however, there is a rising middle class in villages that is feeling alienated in cities and going back to their traditions. In other words, consumptive change does not necessarily mean that people completely disregard their traditions. On the contrary, in family systems such as in Africa, relationship is very important and it cuts through class. 

Role of social media?

I think social media, so far, has played a positive role. People are able to maintain close relations. I would even say that social media increases social control. I do not see it enhancing individualism. It does not disintegrate people rather it provides new means for integration. But, it also allows new desires and ideas to circulate much faster. 

Is climate change affecting livelihoods in that part of the world?

Definitely. As compared to 30 years ago, rains have become completely unreliable. The seasons no longer feel like seasons. There are untimely droughts and inundation. It has become quite concerning. 

The number of Indian students in Germany rose by 25 per cent last year. It is emerging as the next big education destination after Canada. How is Goethe-Institut handling this big flow of students coming-in? 

The demand is much higher than what we can offer. The bottleneck is the amount of qualified teachers. Therefore, we are feverishly working at increasing the number of qualified German teachers because we do not want to give sub-standard teaching. We are trying to find the means and the possibilities to upscale but maintaining a certain basic quality is our priority and we are working on it. 

This is your first time in India, what are your plans?

I attended the immersive theatre performance, The Song of the Cosmos, created by Crow, as part of the activation programme for the Delhi edition of the exhibition, 'Critical Zones. In Search of a Common Ground' at the Goethe-Institut. I will be visiting Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram. I have also planned a little trip to Fatehpur Sikri and the Taj Mahal in Agra.

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