Category Archives: Cultural History

On contemporary culture and the creative imperative

A blurring of lines between practices and institutions is characteristic for today’s complex societies. Consider for instance the increasing number of people producing media content and texts. An increase ever so little located within media organisations themselves. The online news site Buzzfeed, for instance, laid off their entire quiz and many of their popular culture editors because it suddenly realised that unpaid community contributors already also do the job. Everybody is allowed to create quizzes, but, as it happened, so did a single college student from Michigan manage to become, without really knowing so, Buzzfeed’s second largest global traffic driver.

The number of people carrying out creative work, producing aesthetic and cultural value, has increased drastically. The rapid boom in design professions as well as the cultural significance attached to the idea of creativity and the creative industries is a testament to that. The primacy of aesthetic discourses has moved from the galleries and academies towards ‘the people’. Or at least this seemed the hope of many cultural policy initiatives, like those of New Labour in the UK. The hope of the ‘project of modernity’ within which finally all can participate in the social, economic, and cultural production of society. Everybody has creativity – everybody can create and care for something, everybody creates and cares for something. And the young and dynamic creative industries sound way more egalitarian than the old and bourgeois cultural industries ever could anyways. Yet that New Labour avoided questions of aesthetic value at arm’s length and ultimately surrendered them not to ‘the people’ but the neoliberal rationale of ‘the market knows best’ should be common sense by now.

Contemporary cultures are haunted by the futures they missed – haunted by the ubiquity of a cultural memory expanding in the infinite step of meaning being produced. Digital technologies, the intrusive drivers enlarging this step, transgress through their computational logic and entropic generation of data a constant element of randomness into contemporary culture. Digital media create, as some argue, an immobilising ‘pitch-black deep space of thought’ in which we are unable to sufficiently remember ‘the’ past and predict ‘the’ future. It is the same trajectory in which tech evangelist gifted us the pervasive ethos of productivity and efficiency – only to shortly after start themselves promoting counter initiatives of mindfulness and well-being.

There lies, at the heart of contemporary culture, an ever so strong creative imperative. We are supposed to live in the now and constantly re-invent ourselves before, beneath, and beyond old institutions. We are supposed to work for all of them at once and none of them at all. And when I say ‘we’, I mean ‘I’ – the ‘we’ of ‘Is’. There are countless, and predominantly Western, I suppose, narratives that urge one to live life ‘fully’ – whatever that means. It is ok to be ‘gelassen’, to live in the moment and appreciate life’s immediacy – yet apparently only if you do so efficiently. But those who do not hesitate to break up ‘old’ institutions to unlock a direct and immediate connection with life seem ever so often unable to realise that the greatest of all institutions are not those in-between people but incorporated within the ‘I’.

The resilience of this obsession with creators seems obvious. Those who manage to create something singular are rewarded – of course only after this uniqueness is asserted by a critic still. The lucky lottery winners of the creative industries are rewarded by being enthroned the primacy over the discourse of socio-economic success. Filmmaker and prominent voice of ‘the’ YouTube creator community Casey Neistat embodies this most clearly. ‘Do What You Can’t’. We are supposed to celebrate those who make, those who create, keep creating, keep putting the work in to do more of what they can’t. But it is at the same time Neistat, the living American dream of self-made entrepreneurial millionaire and pop icon, who, just human too, realised at the heights of his career the values of family, of ‘old institutions’. First he shut-down his daily programming, then came back, once or twice (I’ve lost count), only to leave again and again, preaching ever so less the ethos of ‘do more’ and instead that of ‘spend time with those you love’. Yet I would suppose, it is precisely that what many people can’t do. They work their lives off in the hope to spend time with their family, for there to be a future of time spent together.

Artist, entrepreneur, and intellectual Alexander Kluge argues that we, once again, need to learn to be more poetic. A trajectory I believe many would and do agree with. However, a trajectory so often misinterpreted still. For doesn’t the poet’s ‘work’ start not with the word gracefully expressed but the world viewed and experienced much more slowly and intimately than any theodicy of productivity, progress, and creation could ever lend?

Of the many scenes in Kluge’s ‘The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time’, one especially stuck with me. A car, loaded to the roof with luggage, turns up the driveway of house, a mansion even. The passengers are a child, whose parents died in a car accident, and the foster parent, who took care until the authorities managed to find relatives willing to take care. They enter the house within which the child’s new family is currently moving in. Busy people moving all kinds of expensive furniture for even more busy owners. Nobody has time for the visitors, nobody seems to really care for the visitors – not even the new mother. The only thing she cares about is getting everything ready for the dinner reception this evening. They wait, are told to wait. The foster parent has notes prepared on little pieces of paper. She has written down everything the child likes and needs and eagerly tries to explain it first to the mother and then manically to anybody passing by. The child, meanwhile, is sitting alone, left to itself and waiting in front of the past and future collide.

The social sciences and humanities are not excluded from the developments outlined above. While not less driven by the ethos of productivity and illusion of originality, they ever so often still seem the first and loudest to critique the former. Scholars are supposed to be cutting-edge researchers, inspiring teachers, elegant writers, technical presenters to their peers and clever ones to the public, sombre administrators of the academy, appealing consultants to policy and industry, and, most importantly, successful fundraisers. Myself writing piece after piece, haunted by deadline after deadline, trying to figure out my own academic future of solitude, I can only sit here and wonder: Who is this child we at once care for so much but spend so little time with after all? The role of the academy as institution seems ever so strongly to resemble that of the foster parent knowing and fighting for the needs of a child not truly one’s own.

It is a testament for today’s times that academics feel the need to be the most vocal advocates for society. Abstracting needs, creating recommendations or critique, engaging with people who care a great deal about dinner parties. This seems to be the bread and butter of contemporary intellectual practice. However, are academics really the best people to do these things – the most intelligible inquirers, writers, or speakers for society? One can only wonder what the world looks like through a child’s view. And I can only ask: Should the academy not to be the institution sitting right next to the child instead of fighting above its head? Not the institution for but of society. Not the creator of actions for a world to come but broker of sensibility for a world about to pass. A sensibility for the now which today seems ever so often overshadowed by the urge to create.

Understanding the garden as place-to-be: Approaching embodied experiences and the feeling of felicitously being at rest

The contemporary landscape discourse tends to move towards an open conceptualization of its central term of discussion (Franzen & Krebs 2006). Instead of solely understanding landscapes as aestheticized and idealized forms of nature (a perspective that at least has been common-sense since the 18th century, see von Buttlar 1989 or van Dülmen 1999), the scope has been broadened.

Studying social, political, and economic aspects of landscapes is no new paradigm. However, in an open conceptualization of landscapes, they are supposed to be embraced. Yet more crucially, this new conceptualization tries to cope with the changing forms of human movement that emerge within our complex cultures and societies shaped by processes of urbanisation.

An open conceptualization of landscapes is concerned with spatial structures that have become evermore patchwork-like. Contemporary landscapes have become more dynamic and particular; they have become more complex. Or as policy makers would say, today there simply are more stakeholders whose perspectives must be considered.

Instead of talking about a new aesthetic of the garden, I will therefor try to grasp onto the episteme of it. In the broadest terms of this concept, I understand the episteme of the garden as the root upon which we can establish different understandings and meanings of it. And I will try to outline this root of contemporary gardens, public and private, in what is the embodied experience of them. The embodied experience of human movement in what is the complex spatial structures we call garden today.

Thanks to my good friend Helena [1], I use the term embodied experience for the reason, as she said, that one immediately understands and feels what is meant. Within this immediacy, I hope to show how gardens allow us to gain hold onto the immediacy of the world. In understanding them as place-to-be, I will try to show how in their embodied experience we can gain hold onto something like the ‘unconcealment of being’. Experiences of our human embodiment that we might describe as beautiful, or, put more broadly, as felicitously being at rest.

Following conceptual reflections on the nature of space and the form of the garden, in situating these experiences, we will hence try to show their importance and reach. Leaning on fieldwork in the Schönbrunn Gardens, the Heiligenstädter Park, and at a garden party in Lower Austria, we will approach the embodied experience of contemporary gardens with a focus on their spatial structures.

Conceptualizing space

Understanding space as something that constantly is made, unmade, and remade, the political task that is spatial planning has a long-standing history in the fields of quantification and mathematics (Behrisch 2006). Mathematics and geometry are thus the appropriate tools to shape space in its physical materiality. However, culture, the relational space of symbolic representations and orderings of the world, is the tool to shape the possible meaningfulness of spaces. Hence, “a social order is hidden in the order of space” (Lefebvre 1974: 288).

In this juxtaposition of an absolute-physical and relational-cultural space, we can situate phenomena like ‘lieux de memoire’ – sites of memory (Nora 1984). They are material spaces that in their symbolic representations and social functionality are vested with historical significance. We can situate ‘heterotopia’ – other spaces (Foucault 1984). They are simultaneously mythic and real spaces, taking the form of contradictory sites. In this contradictory nature, they are entered through specific ways (and rituals), break with traditional time and representation of the world in creating a microcosm. We can situate ‘topophilia’ – approaching felicitous spaces (Bachelard 1958). They are the spaces we love and protect. They are the spaces we do not only experience in their geometrically orderedness, but in the intimate imaginations we live and lived them in.

The form of the garden

Gardens, public and private, appear to take the shape of all the above phenomena. They are today often sites of memory, places where we remember historical events and progressions. Accompanied with museums, they make the past present again and are supported in this functionality through the display of symbolic representations in the form of signs and tours, guiding our movement and view. Yet gardens are contradictory sites, bringing together different parts of the world. They are part of nature, but nature ordered by humans to display views of the world. In the words of Foucault, ‘the garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world’. They are places we love and protect. They can be quite intimate places, as only in the contemplative movement and imagination that emerges from the views they create they reach their full meaningfulness.

Reading through a portrait of André Le Nôtre, the principal gardener of King Louis XIV of France (Orsenna 2001), one can immediately see the importance of geometry and culture in creating such garden spaces. For had he, apart from his formal education, rested his career in close relationships with philosophers and artists. His mathematical obsession was paired with an understanding of beauty influenced by Italian culture through his teacher Simon Vouet; though Le Nôtre only visited Italy at the end of his career (and was disappointed).

Yet his career also is a reminder for the importance of pragmatic political and economic aspects, inscribing the social order of a time into the garden. Apart from the task of allocating and managing the necessary resources, Le Nôtre often was confronted with adapting the symbolic representations created within Versailles in ways that corresponded to the image it was supposed to communicate to guests, political and private.

But still, Le Nôtre’s gardens only reached their full meaningfulness, for him and others, in what is walking through them. He has been described as always walking, though in a sense never covering any distance – and since he spent his entire life working, he only ever travelled from one of his gardens to another. For him the eye, the view is as important as is human movement, because only in the movement the view is vested with life. Accompanied by eye and movement, walking in the same garden all over again, the same continuously becomes something ephemerally different yet remaining already known.

Walking without covering distance might hence be associated with what one can understand as ‘unconcealment of being’ or ‘event of truth’. While the view allows for the emergence of things being there, it is in the horizontal movement that is walking without covering distance that we are able to gain closeness to these things. In this closeness, they can have an appearance, present themselves, put simply, touch us (Gumbrecht 2004: 64–78). And it is in this touch of our surrounding material environment that we can experience that form of ‘inspiration of the mind and an activation of the body’ we might call human life (Gumbrecht 1997: 137-139).

Schönbrunn Gardens

Concerning the embodied experiences connected to such movement, I think the first aspect of the episteme of the garden rests in the ways a garden is entered. More precisely, in the way a sense of knowing is established. For is it that upon the moment a garden is entered one has not yet become an actor in the dyadic roleplay of the knower and the unknown. And I think the Schönbrunn Gardens in Vienna have the potential to be an exemplary case of a spatial structure nurturing this feeling of knowing.

In this sense, I don’t want to undermine the historical significance that lies within this space and the way it is presented and made present again in the various museums and tours offered. I also don’t want to undermine the importance of what is the landscape and garden art present or its history. Yet I am neither equipped with the disciplinary tools nor with the intentions to focus on these aspects (if interested in Viennese gardens from this perspective, see Berger 2016). However, while I think there is one other aspect that has the same constitutive force capable of differentiating this from other gardens, namely the views created while ascending the garden hill, I’ll have to disregard it in this piece.

It is within the different gates available to enter the garden that not only the particular and dynamic uses of it become visible, but also that the garden as distinct space from the surrounding city is created. However, in focussing on the available gates, especially the ‘Hietzinger Tor’ on the north west side of the gardens, we can outline the Schönbrunn Gardens to be a complex spatial structure. It is this complex structure that creates a representation of the city located in by experiencing the feeling of knowing upon entering.

The first thing one notices quite heavily when entering the garden through the ‘Hietzinger Tor’ is the change in ambient noise. More radical than at any other of the possible five gates to enter the garden does the sound of the surrounding city and traffic break this fast (The main entrance is still accompanied with the typical city noise of tourist streams; the ‘Meidlinger Tor’ requires you to move through two gates to enter the gardens, hence breaking with the city much slower; the ‘Tirolertor’ is embedded in the accompanying ‘Maxingpark’; ‘Engelstor’ and ‘Maxingtor’ are only being used by the gardening and forestry facilities; the ‘Maria Theresia Tor’ might have a similar effect, yet who uses this gate anyway?). Put differently, the break takes this kind of odd auditory effect that when turning around after walking a few meters you still can see the city and cars moving but not hear them anymore already.

What follows this break immediately is a view of the garden created at the intersection between ‘Palmenhaus’ on the right side, ‘Postwiesen’ on the left side, and the ‘Finstere Allee’ in the centre leading towards the ‘Große Parterre’ infront of the Schönbrunn Palace and ‘Neptunbrunnen’. The gate still in the back, behind oneself on the left side cars of the gardening and gastronomy facilities passing onto the ‘Hietzinger Fahrstraße’, on the right groups of students, families, and couples walking towards the Schönbrunn Zoo.

It is at this intersection that one is confronted with the made-nature of cultural heritage on the right side, less symmetrically ordered nature and broadly open space on the left side, and a distanced but focussed view on an open space of cultural heritage occupied by streams of tourists in the centre. Within this view that is experienced upon entering the garden, an image of the city is presented within the garden’s structure. Its embodied experience creating a feeling of knowing as one is presently situated in Vienna; a city vested with culture and history which one most of the time inattentively lives by, falling back to less ordered spaces that are yet more open and distanced from tourist streams, hence surrounding oneself in the traffic and presence of those living and working the city. The contemporary experience of the garden is shaped by the dynamic experience of what is moving through the city. Yet in being an image, a parcel presenting the totality, it is much easier to gain hold onto this dynamic and be at rest.

Garden Party in Lower Austria

Upon being in a garden, I think the second aspect of its contemporary episteme rests in the embodied experience creating a sense of functioning. Functional purposes of gardens today are presumably more complex than just the idealized display of nature (and maybe always have been, yet not broadly and publicly available I assume?). More dynamic and particular, their spatial structure must hence provide the possibility for varying leisurely and social activities to unfold within the same space. In unfolding these spatially ordered activities, functional purposes are transformed into a lived-in, a functioning space. And I think a garden party in Lower Austria I was invited to can be seen as exemplary case in establishing such embodied experiences.

The key parameters in creating a fitting spatial structure nurturing the embodied experience of functioning are proximity and visibility – laying the grounds for what is movement without covering distance. Yet again it is necessary to mention that I am not capable of discussing what is the garden art and history of this space, at the same time do not want to undermine its importance for appears the garden to be presently well thought and worked through. Hence I’ll try speaking of visibility and not view for am I not concerned with a perspective created and contemplated, yet.

The core layout of the garden party can be seen in three horizontally aligned main areas. On the outer left a small setup soccer field and tennis court accompanied with some open space and a ping-pong table. Both areas divided by a small and I presume most of the time empty area with bar tables. The overall area separated from the centre area by a straight garden path with the visibility being blocked by the pool house on the upper and bushes on the lower side.

The centre main area of the party featuring a put aside yet used trampoline and setup archery range on the lower part. Behind the two an open space on the left and seating area on the right side featuring a food stand and benches behind it facing towards the outer right main area. A straight line of bushes dividing the main area in two parts. The upper area commencing with open space and bar tables, small buffet and band. In front of the pool house on the upper left side a lowered seating area and fire place, inside a bar plus couches and tv to watch the soccer world cup. On the upper right side the pool surrounded by seats and deck chairs.

The outer right main area almost entirely consisting of water from the pond surrounding the garden featuring two rowing boats and two inflatable swans. On the other side of the pond, hidden in low-hanging tree branches what I assume to be something playground-like. The overall variety of activities, seating areas, and foods available perfectly balanced on the grounds of choices haven been made, yet still there being room to make them on their own within.

In this setting the variety of different activities present were placed in that kind of proximity and visibility that they at the same time allowed kids to be on their own yet still in auditive and visual reach of their parents. Pool, archery range, and trampoline featuring the clearest visibility. Soccer and playground offering limited visibility but yet still clear sounds. Tennis court and accompanying open space neither establishing clear visual or auditive connection to the central main area. Seating at the food stand and bar tables in front of the pool house offering the most visibility and proximity to all areas. Lowered seating at the pool house and seating behind the food stand only limited visibility yet still centrally positioned. Bar and tv area mostly hidden yet connected to the central open space. Seating around the pool offering varying degrees of proximity to the main area.

In the way all different areas and activities are weaved together through their varying degrees of proximity and visibility the embodied experience of movement (be it directed towards carrying out an activity, seeking openness or closeness from others, or to contemplatively stroll around) nurtures a feeling of functioning. The movement never becomes functional and hence distant from what is the leisurely and recreational space of the garden party. It is a movement that covers no distance. All the particularities brought together in what is the entity of the garden space are hence experienced in a form of readiness-to-hand. They are not distant but in reach, not theoretically functional but empirically functioning. And I think in this certainty of things being in reach, of possible otherness we can experience in our movement and hence our self lies the ground upon which we can easily feel at rest.

Heiligenstädter Park

The third and last aspect of the garden episteme lies in a feeling of being, yet more precisely not a feeling of being evoked upon entering or inside the garden and not while leaving, but in the acts of remembering and reflecting the embodied experiences made once the garden is left. Such acts being highly individual, I reckon there to be no exemplary case. Hence I’ll try to describe this aspect of the episteme in what is my experience of the Heiligenstädter Park in Vienna.

Yet again, I am not able to provide any real depth into what is the history and structure of this space. From its early stages shaped by Josef und Leopoldine Kugler to some kind of geopolitical significance within the Vienna Danube regulation to a Beethoven memorial and heritage-protected lodge of the Rothschild-Gärten, there seems to be a lot to remember within this park. And within its history and present structure, the Heiligenstädter Park appears to always have been a more or less complex recreational space.

It is accompanied by the Döblinger public swimming pool, Hohe Warte Stadion, and an allotment garden (which in the bureaucratic wonderland of spatial planning that Austrian authorities must be allows two-story buildings within a garden; while I never knowingly talked to a German allotment gardener, I assume this is something they spend their entire gardening life dreaming of). Featuring multiple basketball and tennis courts, playgrounds for kids, lots of open space areas, and an oddly well placed fenced area for dogs to go about their business, the park seems to be very aware of what is serving the needs of its stakeholders today.

In this assemblage of particularities one finds within the Heiligenstädter Park, remembering the embodied experience made while walking through evokes a feeling of being. And I think it is best described as a feeling of felicitously being at rest. Walking through the garden, what in my case was a single five to ten minutes ascension of the hillside that is the Heiligenstädter Park, it is not the strong sense of an image of the city as I found in the Schönbrunn Gardens nor is it the certain sense of functioning I found at the garden party in Lower Austria.

Sure, all of the three cases presented in this piece have the qualities of all the outlined aspects of what is the garden episteme. And all of them, in their different ways and forms allow to set the path to feel felicitously being at rest. Yet, in what is my experience remembering the Heiligenstädter Park, I only afterwards found that rest of what is acknowledging the clearness within the complex spatial structure of the garden.

I reckon the contemplation of the views and movements experienced does not lead to any kind of fundamental epistemic consequence, something I think Le Nôtre hoped to find in Italy. But rather does it evoke a sense of appreciation for that form of contemporary human life inscribed into the spatial structure of the garden that aspires to have nothing more to itself than itself. It is on this ground that the garden becomes constituted as a place-to-be.

In this sense, however poorly equipped this piece is with historical perspective and evidence, and in accordance with what Jan Georg Söffner and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (2014) have written about barbecues in Germany, we might assume: The gardens as such, public and private, remained the same, yet have become more complex – are not the same anymore.

[1] Writing this piece I am both thankful and fearful at the same time. This piece, as so much of my work, would not be possible without Helena. She is more historically educated, more presently situated, more driven towards the future, put simply, more human than I could ever be. For within her continuous feedback and support I owe so much to her. And hence I fear that this piece won’t be able to match the richness of what is experiencing the garden the way she showed me.

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Eating pizza in a mediated world: On remembering and making lived experiences present again

Practices of “[e]ating the things of the world …. [understood] as the most direct way of becoming one with the things of the world in their tangible presence … all belong to one obvious and crucial mode of world-appropriation – a crucial mode of world-appropriation, however, about which we don’t like to talk and that we constantly struggle to project toward and, above all, beyond the margins of our own meaning culture.“ (Gumbrecht 2003: 86).

While eating is unavoidably connected to a dimension of presence, there seems to be a cultural-historic development that transformed these practices into a set of practices situated in a dimension of sense and meaning. Eating in the sense of ‘Verzehren’, the physical act of eating, has historically been transformed into cultural practices of ‘Essen’, the structured act of eating a meal, and embedded into discourses of tastes and diets. Put more concretely, one of the most direct ways of becoming one with the things of the world has been surrounded by a set of meanings and understandings, by discourses and thus institutionalized ways of speaking and thinking about it.

But, we can still observe practices that ultimately deal with eating in a dimension of presence. Concerning the experiential form of lived experiences, and thus an intensified and immediate experience of being in the world, we can get hold onto presence in especially those practices of eating that are more extraordinary than ordinary, that are connected to beautiful aesthetic or emotional experiences.

In trying to understand the role of an immediate dimension of our reality in contemporary cultures and societies, we might therefore look at the above mentioned historical development and the practices used to work against or around these regularized and interpretative frameworks of being. I argue, through outlining the case of eating pizza, that practices of remembering or attempts of making lived experiences present again form ways of producing presence – that they are practices of finding immediacy in a mediated world. In short: I believe that we still find eating set in the context of presence when it is remembered as an embodied experience that one might want to experience again.

Looking at works that deal with food and practices of eating in a historical perspective, we are however confronted with a more problematic view. We find works like Elias (1976), looking at changes in practices of eating, among other things, to account for wider societal progressions. But, practices in these perspectives are less understood per se than as field of sociality. For example, we can find more contemporary works like Keppler (1994), understanding the situational frames of eating in the family home as field of communicative community formation.

Taking a broad historical perspective on food, we can describe it as always set in the context of power – negotiated along class relations, used in processes of cultural distinctions and hegemony, driven by trade and global transitions. Starting in the introduction of agricultural systems to early forms of establishing wider tastes and cuisines in festive contexts, the description of eating seems to always be set in a social and cultural context (Tannahill 1973). Going into 19th century developments that are constitutive for our present condition, while eating practices are discussed in a variety of settings, moving away from a focus on festive contexts, we are still less focused on the practices of eating themselves. Resting in broader discourses of biopolitics and scientific and technological advancements, we can observe the emergence of diets as broadly institutionalized health discourse. However, we can also observe the continuation of an ongoing separation of producers and consumers, an increase in variety of foods available, and a differentiation of tastes and cuisines. In short: the 19th century establishes food and eating practices as more complex parts of culture (Pilcher 2006).

It is in this move of food and eating becoming complex parts of culture that they become superimposed by the logics of producing and reproducing cultural relations and dynamics. They become signs, losing substance to gain ascribed meanings (Barthes 1975). As signs they mark difference, becoming resources in a relational space to induce social and cultural distinctions (Bourdieu 1984). As both cultural artefacts and practices they form a horizon of possibilities along which one can make cultural decisions and create narratives of the self that can be observed by others, enabling the creation and maintenance of an identity (Köstlin 2006).

Taking pizza, whose first appearance we can see in the late 19th century Naples, and eating it as case, we are able to situate both artefact and practice as predominantly constituted in the above outlined modern conditions. However, the global appeal of pizza must be observed in the early to mid 20th century. While migration especially played a crucial role in bringing pizza to North America, in Europe and especially Germany wider changes regarding the amount of free time and travel mobility available were important (Heinzelmann 2014). What makes this development of particular interest is corresponding phenomena that are emerging around the mass tourism of the 1950s. It is in this context of travel that we find people from a variety of social, cultural and economic backgrounds confronted with the experiential horizon of vacation – and in the case of Germany also a broad range of people confronted with the Italian cuisine (Thomas 2006).

For many the main context of food and eating in the everyday life was dominated by a functional context, a discourse of diets, and traditional cuisines. While folk events offered a way into a different experiential context of eating for the many, the discourse around fine tastes that ultimately revokes eating its functional purpose was historically constituted in festive and bourgeois conditions. Understanding vacation as institutionalized leisure and recreational space opposed to work, opposed to functional purposes of our actions, mass tourism opened the task of creating foods and practices of eating that are keyed to an autotelic logic like we find it in discourses of fine tastes, however, with mass appeal.

Hence, in the 1950s mass tourism and beyond, we find ways of sharing, negotiating and approaching the Italian cuisine following logics of enjoyment. In mass tourism becoming more organized and established, especially pizza, as more affordable dish, has been moved to the attention of tourists through travel guides (Thomas 2006). Given different economic backgrounds and the confrontation with a culturally and culinarily unknown setting, travel guides shared experiences once made, mediating places and foods that might have an appeal for eating with the intent of enjoyment. They negotiate the economic conditions in recommending affordable places and foods while structuring the way the Italian cuisine is approached at large. In recommending and guiding through the foreign, they induce order, bringing not only forward a notion of what one might understand as traditional Italian food and culture, but also framing the mere contact points experiences can be made at.

Following wider changes in the organization of the everyday life – changing roles in family settings and moves of detraditionalization – in the 1970s and beyond, we are confronted with a situation in which not only foods, practices of eating, tastes and diets change (de Certau 1998), but also the experiential logics of how we approach them in our everyday life (Köstlin 2003). It is in following these conditions that the Italian cuisine gained hold in the German culinary horizon – it being more light and easier to prepare than traditional heavy German meals. In its institutionalization, we are not only confronted with Italian restaurants and shops opening in Germany, different Italian foods of different qualities and prices being available, but also with the integration of eating practices associated to Italian culture and the appropriation of Italian dishes like pizza (Thomas 2006).

Moving from vacation to everyday life, eating pizza became less reliant on the organizing principles of how to find food to enjoy than principles of how can I eat the food I enjoyed again. As the Italian cuisine becomes more known, people are confronted with moments of remembering the lived experiences possibly made – for example while eating pizza on vacation. Grasping onto the notion of presence, it is not only in the lived experiences themselves, but in the mere acts of remembering that we (re)gain closeness to the world. Remembering experiences of eating food are hence not only practices of retelling a story about enjoyment or evaluating it, but they are always also sensual memories of our embodiment, of the space we ate in, its visual and auditive materialities, as well as the gustatory perceptions that come with physically eating a meal (Hartmann 1994, 2006).

Instead of travel guides recommending places and foods to eat, in this new setting we see newspaper articles recommending recipes of how to make pizza the right way or discussing Italian restaurants offering pizza the true and traditional way. In short: we find organizing principles that try to bring us (back) into situations and contexts where we might be able to re-experience the enjoyment of eating pizza we remember. Taken into a more contemporary context, these discourse practices of the true pizza are further enhanced through digital technologies. Ranging from blogs discussing pizza to online platforms aggregating restaurants reviews and recipes to algorithmic powers managing attention of pizza related contents and search queries to online assemblages like the subreddit /r/pizza, we find pizza discussed in a variety of settings with a variety of intents – eating with the intent of enjoyment being one of them.

In our present media cultures and societies, it thus appears that we might not have the means to directly address the highly individual and ephemeral present experience we can have while eating. However, in practices of remembering and attempts of making these experiences present again, we can observe a way an immediate dimension of our reality is latently at work in our cultures. While remembering – be it the experience of eating pizza with the intent of enjoyment – is in a first step always an incorporating practice and thus in some way present when we approach the world, it only becomes impactful for others, and thus culturally impactful, through practices of inscription (Connerton 1989) – be it in travel notes, letters or guides, recipes, blog posts, restaurants reviews or pictures we post online.

The advent of digital media technologies sure confronts us with the challenge to reflect upon the mere ways we can remember today (van Dijck 2007). And the changing nature of structural boundaries of leisure and free time settings dominant logics of how we approach the world sure have to be considered in our observation of immediacy being mediated and having an impact culturally. But still, it seems that besides possible concrete distinctions we might explicate, we are confronted with a more general logic at work. We might therefore understand the latent work of lived experiences – in acts of remembering eating pizza and the attempts of making the experience present again through fostering a discourse of the true and traditional way – as the mere moments of difference that force us into a position where we have to (re)negotiate our sense of place – our identity and understanding of human life.

“Nothing is as concrete and real as Life, yet Life eludes all subjective planning and order. Life thus becomes a value that is almost obsessively attributed to whatever appears overwhelming and sublime, to whatever lies beyond the reach of concepts and conceptual distinctions … Life exceeds the rationalities of all the different everyday worlds, and therefore acquires a transcendental status … The enthusiasm for Life’s overwhelming strength … is almost always accompanied by a certain disdain for – or sheer absence of – thought.” (Gumbrecht 1997: 360ff.)

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Why do people watch a train ride? A cultural-historic note on technology fascination, aesthetic landscapes, and participatory online practices

‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’ (literally: “railway romance”) is a German television program, broadcasting train rides and railway related reports. Since its creation in 1991, the show, produced by the German regional public broadcaster SWR, has aired almost 700 episodes. While there sure have been earlier iterations of romanticising railway technology and its history, taking a cultural-historical stance, we, at least in this piece, might assume that ‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’ had a governing discursive position in defining the parameters of how and why we watch a train ride today.

Understanding the form and content of the show as paradigmatic, we are, therefore, confronted with three major areas creating the interest underlying practices of watching a train ride. The display of a social context of use, the display of historical and technological details, and the display of the train’s plain movement through a landscape. There are related shows like ‘Germany’s Most Beautiful Railways’, being used as night-time feature on television channels of the joint German public broadcaster ARD, consisting of uncommented train rides, focusing on specific areas of the paradigm. However, in the assemblage nature of ‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’, and television’s formerly central role, we might understand its governing position as creating a space of identity; creating image spaces as well as mediating information and social knowledge around which cultural identities can emerge (Morley and Robins 1989).

‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’ provides resources and contexts, enabling watching a train ride to become a meaningful practice; be it through embedding it in documentary style social knowledge of our everyday worlds or in providing historical and technological information on the trains. However, it at the same time also is the primary and central resource for the image space of train rides themselves. In broadcasting perspectives normally not broadly available to the public – i.e. cab rides, meaning viewing a train ride from the train drivers position [1] – the television program becomes a gatekeeper, regulating not only why but also how to experience a trains plain movement through a landscape (apart from being passenger on an actual train obviously).

Embedded in social and historical contexts of use, watching a train ride means watching a ‘technology-in-practice’ (Orlikowski 2000). Apart from a general interest in the history and contents of our social worlds, the underlying interest takes form of a technology fascination. The trains plain movement through a landscape becomes of instrumental value. What’s to see and to experience is the technology-in-practice. That’s what appears to be the desired meaningful frame to be in. That’s the desired syntagmatic chain to follow if the practice of watching a train ride has to be communicated as meaningful [2].

It is in the syntagmatic chain of technology fascination that we are ultimately confronted with historical ordering practices. What is of interest rests in the classical episteme (Foucault 1970), in creating taxonomies through practices of classifying different types of trains, train parts and manufactures, or railways. Maybe at least partly driven by the 19th century desire for history to be an uninterpreted continuity (Foucault 1972), interest in watching a train ride, embedded in a report of its social and historical context of use, hence lies in collecting and preserving knowledge about cultural heritage objects so present to transportation in our everyday life. In documenting these contexts of use, we are confronted with the attempt to give order to and access a history underlying these everyday life technologies. However, we are at the same time confronted with modern forms of knowledge, resting in experts, trust, and reflexivity (Giddens 1990).

What we access through the tv program thus is expert knowledge about transportation systems we don’t necessarily need to know to use them. However, we rely on trust in the accounts of these experts, therefor are seeking the feeling that there lies historical consistency behind it. Reflexivity as the motion of continuously building up on the present knowledge does thus conclude the constitutive core of how watching a train ride can become meaningful. It sits at the centre of accumulating the past of our transportation systems to understand the present world we life and use these technologies in.

Contrasting this notion, some outline a contemplative aspect in perceiving a landscape while being passenger on a train (Burckhardt 2006). Again, the train ride itself becomes of instrumental value. The underlying interest rests in the windowed view, embedded in what is understood as something like a 17th century bourgeoise aesthetic understanding of landscapes (Ritter 1974). What does this mean? As nature had increasingly been appropriated and controlled through technology, the opportunity to approach landscapes as de-functionalized harmonic entities of nature emerged (Groh und Groh 1991). What rests within this is the discourse of 16th and 17th century landscape art. Approaching nature as art, landscapes were hence transformed into beautiful objects (Büttner 2006, Ketelsen 1999). And within this transformation our view towards landscapes too is changed. It becomes (the imitation of) an artistic view, projecting and reflecting the likes of culture, society, human condition, and the world within the landscape (Dinnebier 2004).

In this syntagmatic chain of contemplative landscapes, what constitutes watching a train ride as meaningful is artistic projection and reflection. Understanding this view as cultural technique, taking the shape of cultural critique, we can describe it as always moving between nature and history. The latter being accumulated materialities, positioning ourselves in the world. The former being the present worldly condition situated in, enabling us to continuously re-question our historically constituted positioning in the world (Baecker 2016). Hence, the desired outcome in projecting the present condition into the landscape, changing our view of it to reflect on where else we could be, is to experience ‘contingency becoming order’ (Luhmann 2008). While technology fascination takes the stance of historical ordering practices, accumulating pasts to understand the present, contemplative landscapes projects the present to reflect about and construct possible future orderings of our world. Put more synthetically:

Contrasting the first two syntagmatic chains in which watching a train ride becomes a meaningful practice, we might bring a third option to the table; namely embodied experiences themselves. This is not to undermine the role of our embodiment in the former two chains. We always are situated corporal beings (Wacquant 2015) and more specifically does interest always need to be inscribed into our bodies (Bourdieu 1998). In both chains we are confronted with different (physical) materialities of technologies and landscapes; be it through historical trains and railways made present again or in a landscape’s mere worldly concreteness. In both chains our experience is mediated around something concrete, something real and immediate coming into our reach. However, that is mediated around might be the key point.

The central object to all chains, and the discussion of this piece obviously, is the train ride. The question asked, how and especially why do we watch a train ride? How does watching a train ride become meaningful? We might propose that the embodied experience of watching a train ride can be meaningful on its own. And Gumbrecht’s (2004) use of Heidegger’s term ‘Gelassenheit’ (composure), the capacity of letting things be, might be key to understand this process. “For could Heidegger’s Gelassenheit not mean being simultaneously quiet and wide-awake?“ (Gumbrecht 2004: 136).

‘Gelassenheit’ becomes a disposition through which we approach our embodied experience of the world. It takes both the form of a disposition we take and a disposition we are moved into. Put differently, it is the matter of a context we set or set context we are set into, allowing us to let the things be. To be quite for a moment whilst being wide-awake. To experience “the things of the world in their preconceptual thingness will reactivate a feeling for the bodily and for the spatial dimension of our existence.” (Gumbrecht 2004: 118). So how does watching a train ride become meaningful in this stance? It does, if the context we are in requires nothing more than being present.

Taken forward, we might see such contexts in their clearest forms in tv programmes like ‘Germany’s Most Beautiful Railways’, meaning the plain train ride itself. A body in motion through space which we can latch onto. However, the entitlement of most beautiful might still be hindering in freeing the train ride from the meaningful context of syntagmatic chains one and two. For isn’t the aspiration of the most beautiful not already the attempt to be somewhere else instead of just being present?

Looking into participatory online practices that emerge with the advent of new and digital media (Hay and Couldry 2011), we can observe the creation of a new image space of plain train rides. Taking the case of the video distribution platform YouTube, we can find a variety of train and railway related footage, among which the already mentioned cab ride videos are a part [1]. What we find more precisely is over-the-top content par excellence, participatory in nature that the footage uploaded comes directly from the drivers of the trains.

These new image spaces are not, or at least far less, framed through the meaningful discourses of social and historical contexts of use that are so present to the governing position of the image spaces of ‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’. Sure, every video is historically specific, however, the perspective of the video is a windowed one. There is no focus on the driver’s actions, no view of the dashboard. The view focusses on the trains’ plain movement through a landscape. Altering the view from passenger to driver, we are at the same time confronted with a different view of landscape. What we see are not landscapes in their classical windowed frame, but rather landscapes divided by a centred track. It neither really is a technology-in-practice nor a contemplative landscape. It seems as there is nothing really to it apart from it being a body in motion we can watch and be part of.

In this sense, this piece maybe didn’t want to show anymore than the possibilities of change within syntagmatic chains, a change of contexts, that comes with new media technologies. The contents, the footage of the train rides has always been there, however, it seems like that only in this new setting of participatory online practices the possibility to broadly and publicly set it free from the contexts of technology fascination and contemplative landscapes emerged. This is not to undermine their form and relevance, but to highlight the existence of a possible otherness, a syntagmatic chain, a meaningful way into reality, in which we are not ‘forced’ to surround our human embodiment, the immediacy of the world with ideas and concepts, but have the capacity to let it presently be meaningful on its own.

‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’ sure still plays a paradigmatic role in creating the space of identity that is romanticising railway technology today. However, it is within the advent of new media technologies that new ways into reality emerge and thus it’s formerly centralized position is being contested. However, as these technologies do not change the contents but rather the way we approach them, we might need to hope that we finally forget logics of scarcity in allocating resources to the production of our cultural contents, so that we finally are able to fully grasp onto the particularities that can emerge within our ever evolving digitized and mediatized cultures and societies. It is within such a position that we might need to sharpen our view on homologies; not to look for difference in contents, but rather in contexts that achieve the same but in a different way. Leaning on positions from the postmodern discourse, we might argue for more sensitivity towards differences ‘to tolerate the incommensurable’ (Lyotard 1984). Leaning on arguments present in the ethnography discourse, we might ask to strengthen the ‘arts of noticing’ (Tsing 2015).

[1] e.g. and or

[2] For the distinction paradigm / syntagm we lean on them as linguist concepts used in science and technology studies to map the development of scientific controversies as the simultaneous production of text and context. “The first (syntagmatic) dimension defines how many different elements may be held together in a meaningful assemblage, while the second (paradigmatic) dimension defines the meaningful substitution that may be done at each point along the syntagm. The first dimension defines association, and the second substitution – or, still more synthetically, AND and OR.” (Latour, Mauguin, and Teil 1992: 36). However, we aim to understand this mapping in the broader sense of power relations associated with technologies used (Latour 1991). Put more concretely, we aim to outline different syntagmatic chains, meaning an assemblage of content (more broadly experiences of social knowledge, historical knowledge, landscapes or embodied experiences) and media technology parameters (more broadly what frames the experience from window, to television program, to online video distribution platform), defining the power relations necessary for watching a train ride to become meaningful.

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