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The powerful and the marginalized, the masses and the elites, pop culture and high culture: Eva Kimminich is interested in cultural contrasts. As a cultural scientist and Romance philologist, she researches volatile phenomena of our time in addition to historical issues. For seven years, Kimminich has been Professor of Cultures of Romanic Countries at the University of Potsdam. In 2017, she turned 60 – we took the opportunity to talk with her about her diverse research interests spanning from folk song and chanson to hip-hop and break dance to conspiracy theories and right-wing populism.
After gaining her doctorate in the 1980s, Kimminich’s research focused primarily on songs. One of her early projects dealt with 19th-century folk songs from Alsace-Lorraine handwritten by those who sang them. “They adapted songs of the region to their very personal life experiences,” Kimminich explains. The lyrics, thus, fell between orality and scribality, folk culture and the individual. Analyzing these songbooks led Kimminich to other, rather subversive song texts: In her 1993 habilitation thesis, she researched censored chansons in 19th-century Paris. “This was when the working class movement was beginning to develop. The chansons reinterpreted negative terms used by the bourgeoisie for workers; the singers wanted to improve the image of the worker.”
This type of social friction fascinates the researcher. In her work, she has often pushed the boundaries of conventional research. “If you work on censored chansons, rap is just as exciting,” she explains. In the late 1990s, Kimminich was among the first to research francophone rap. “Le rap, c’est ma thérapie,” says one of the song texts, “rap is my therapy”. Rap offered prospects especially to first- or second-generation young men with no jobs, living in dreary suburbs, and facing xenophobia. “At the time, rap culture prevented even larger social tension from erupting in France,” Kimminich says. In many texts, the rappers identify themselves with the values of the French Republic – freedom, equality, fraternity.
“I came to breakdance through rap”, she continues. But that does not mean that she herself took up break dancing. After all, it takes years of practice, and she was in her early 40s then, so it would have been impossible to catch up. She nevertheless sounds like an insider: “In a jam you will see dancers feeding off of each other. A ‘b-boy’ starts doing flips; the next one continues with freeze and another with robot style.” Kimminich calls this dynamism “flow” or an autotelic state in academic language. At the time, Kimminich traveled to Strasbourg every month to do fieldwork on its breakdance scene. She filmed the jams, but was not very skilled at it, since she had never used a camera before. “One day I experienced firsthand what flow means,” she remembers. “All of a sudden, the camera was always in the right place. I was simultaneously immersed in my surroundings and in what I was doing.”
For Kimminich, who studied – in addition to Romance philology – ethnology, cultural anthropology, and art history, fieldwork is a matter of course. This is also what she communicates to her students on excursions. Regularly she takes them to other countries, to Italy, Tunisia, or Mali. This summer, she did fieldwork with her students in the Piedmont, where they studied how people in one of the lonely mountain valleys interact with their living environment and what their quality of life is. In 2013, Kimminich and her students explored the functions of street art in the Tunisian revolution in Tunis and Sfax. And in 2011, they visited rappers in Mali and spoke with them about the socio-critical potential of hip-hop.
Theories need to be firmly grounded, Kimminich is certain. Students should, therefore, experience their academic subject with all of their senses. This also holds for the new Master’s program “applied cultural science and cultural semiotics”, which she launched. Its practical orientation makes it easier for future graduates to enter their professional lives.
Also a semiotician, Kimminich highly values practical experience. For 15 years, she has been a member of the German Society of Semiotics, where she founded the youth and subcultures section. Semiotics deals with sign systems: “Without signs we would be unable to communicate,” Kimminich says. How do we construct reality with signs? How do social identities construct themselves through signs? These are some of the issues Kimminich has long been reflecting. Her internet site “Cultures in Focus” looks at the worlds of signs in current subcultures. There students briefly explain current phenomena like flash mobs, graffiti, or urban gardening. “Such subversive movements can encourage reflection on our perception of reality,” she says. “Signs can endorse authority but also undermine it.” One example is traffic sign hacking, where activists modify traffic signs. One of her many projects with students focused on these subcultural urban phenomena: The exhibition “The City and the Signs” was on display in Potsdam’s education center Bildungsforum earlier this year.
Kimminich is both a passionate professor and a passionate researcher. These two fields often inspire each other. For instance, her current research project on conspiracy theories and right-wing populism on the internet developed out of one of her seminars. Until 2020, she will be researching the charged topic with colleagues from the universities of Potsdam and Turin. “The humanities take up topical issues much too seldom,” Kimminich remarks. “To me, it is important to find out what’s going on in my time.” Two years ago, she organized an international symposium on “Conspiracy Theories in the Current European Crisis”. For its topicality, the meeting was awarded the Potsdam Congress Award in 2015. At the beginning of 2017, she organized a second major conference as part of the European research project. “In today’s society, it’s getting more and more difficult to arrive at common sense”, the researcher remarks. “There is no common picture of reality any longer.” Conspiracy theories can twist our divided reality in a frightening way. And fears always play a role. “There is no conspiracy theory about positive events,” Kimminich explains. Some people believe the 1969 moon landing never happened; the dollar bill allegedly shows the enormous influence of the Illuminati; and a secret power is trying to make humanity sick through jet trails in the sky. Such theories flourish particularly on the internet, where they can quickly reach many people – i.e. those who are looking for them. Kimminich refers to “filter bubbles”: Search engine and social media algorithms show their users mainly information that agrees with their viewpoints. Like at a regular’s table, like-minded people find each other on the internet and confirm each other’s presuppositions.
In times of social isolation, many people are looking for a sense of unity. With messages like “We need you” or “You are looking for the truth”, right-wing political blogs like “Politically Incorrect” attract readers. Opinions on food or climate change are mixed with xenophobic content and presented as all-in-one philosophical packages. “Confessions,” as Kimminich calls them, underpin their view of life: Quotations are presented to prove that someone turned away from multiculturalism and towards nationalism.
For Kimminich, metaphors play a very important role here. “In an age of conspiracy theories and right-wing populism, the threatening effect of verbal imagery becomes evident. In fact, not many people are aware that even our everyday language is full of metaphors.” The spine of a book, tax haven, or waves of refugees – such verbal imagery may be either neutral, trivialize, or stoke fears: Metaphors connote opinions. “Language is between us and the world, and, thus, directly influences our perception of reality.” Consequently, Kimminich calls on politicians and journalists to be more aware of verbal imagery and its effects.
Young researchers at the University of Potsdam are also very interested in the topic. Several final papers are being written on conspiracy theories and right-wing populism. For instance, students compare the rhetoric of Marine Le Pen with that of Beatrix von Storch of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, analyze the meeting of right-wing populist EU politicians in Koblenz in early 2017, or the power of political photographs in the press. How words and pictures are very effectively imbued with meaning was the topic of another exhibition by Kimminich’s students: “The World of Signs – What We Do with Them and What They Do with Us” was on display earlier this year at the science floor of the Bildungsforum, flanked by presentations, workshops, and events for school children. “We wanted to draw attention to what the press and politicians are doing to the voters.” For instance, there was an analysis of photographs taken during a meeting between US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump last year. The press made one event look completely different: Depending on the political orientation of a paper, the selection of photographs told a completely different story. How pictures communicate messages is an important issue, especially in times of digital imagery.
Of course, Kimminich plans to research the pressing issues of her time in the future, too. She will continue to deal with right-wing populism and conspiracy theories, but in addition to that she wants to research a more hopeful component of human relations: compassion and empathy.
The Master’s program Applied Cultural Science and Cultural Semiotics has been offered by the University of Potsdam since winter semester 2017/18. Its cultural semiotic and practical orientations make it unique in Germany. Students do attractive work placements with non-university partners such as Media Innovation Centre Babelsberg, Film Museum Potsdam, the marketing agency Causales, or Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. In cooperation with the University of Turin, the Master’s program may also be completed as part of a double degree.
On the internet site Cultures in Focus (KiF), students and researchers present cultural phenomena especially from Romance-speaking countries. They also explain terms and concepts to examine phenomena from a cultural-critical perspective. The special focus of “Potsdam cultural analyses” is on youth and subcultures.
Prof. Dr. Eva Kimminich studied Romance philology, art history, ethnology, and cultural anthropology. Since 2010, she has been Professor of Cultures of Romanic Countries at the University of Potsdam.
Institut für Romanistik
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Text: Jana Scholz
Translation: Monika Wilke
Published Online by: Marieke Bäumer
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Read this and other articles on research at the University of Potsdam in our research magazine Portal Wissen.