Historical Twitter and Colloquium Games

Thursday, 7 April 2011 § Leave a comment

So, in my last post I was bemoaning the fact that there wasn’t Twitter during the Revolution of 1848 in Germany.  Now, this is probably an inappropriate confession for a wannabe-historian to make, but I get really worked up about that revolution.  (1918/1919, too, but for different reasons.)  They get SO. CLOSE.  And then bam!  Revolution thwarted by the resurgence of elite and military power, which had never receded as much as the revolutionaries seemed to think, and by the fragmentation of the broad, piecemeal revolutionary coalition.  And then the Badenese try to give it one last go!  But then the newly-formed Imperial Troops come in and bam!  Dead dead dead. Repression repression repression.  Ugh, it’s just crushing, not least because it is so. easy. for flat-footed observers to draw a straight line from that crushing of the liberal bourgeois movement to, oh, I don’t know — the Nazis.  I’m not so much about lines as threads.  Maybe it’s because I can’t cut in a straight line?  Anyhow, back to the revolution — there wasn’t twitter.  But you know what there was?

Caterwauling.  Or, in German, Katzenmusik (cat music).  Like the French charivari, or English rough music.  And it is so. much. better. than Twitter.  Why?  Oh, let me count the ways.

First, as a form of social commentary and control — Katzenmusik happened when the general public wanted to reproach individuals who had transgressed social mores, like in cases of infidelity, or a widower marrying a young woman much younger than himself, or, as in 1847/48 in Germany, bakers engaging in grain speculation — it lacked the passive-aggressive quality of Twitter.  There was no 140-character, “Isn’t it a shame when people have no sense of propriety? #cradlerobbers”  No, caterwaulers owned it (and maybe pwned it, too):  it was outright aggressive.  They’d show up at your house one night, noise-making gear at the ready, and sing and screech and generally humiliate you the good old fashioned way.  The caterwaulers’ acts themselves were scandalous — disrupting the peace! singing tawdry songs! breaching the sacred divide between public and private (are you listening, Habermas?)! — but their scandalousness functioned to call out and correct someone else’s.

Second: It understood itself as a form of the carnivalesque, unlike Twitter, which just takes itself way too damn seriously.  Actually, the carnivalesque thing is more complicated than straightforward. If we borrow Bakthin’s formulation, which involves turning the world upside down, mixing high culture with the profane, the subversion’s demand of equal dialogic status vis-à-vis the norm, we have to recognize that his theoretical point of reference is the Mardi Gras/feast of fools acts of resistance and transgression that nonetheless are circumscribed within the knowledge that this is just one night and that tomorrow, today’s “jolly relativity” aside, things will still return to normal.  So it’s a kind of acting out/working through that consciously acts within its own limitations, even as it claims to contest those limits.  So back to the Katzenmusik:  it was definitely, in its earlier manifestations, more carnivalesque, and in fact functioned precisely to reinforce norms (don’t be a cradle robber, asshat!).  But later, as in the food riots of 1847/48, it was less so.  It didn’t play at destroying boundaries of proper behavior and hierarchy, it actually did: lower- and middle-class burghers showed up at millers’ and bakers’ and lords’ houses and behaved in ways that irrevocably upended the Vormärz social order.  As they got more ballsy, so to speak, they pushed even further: ransacking bakeries, breaking windows, burning manors.  (Note to Revolutionaries: you thought that because there wasn’t an immediate and violent crackdown, there wouldn’t be at all.  That was not the case.  #revolutionfail)

Third: My unsavory reference to ballsiness aside, one of the coolest things about Katzenmusik is that it was one of the few arenas of political action or demonstration in nineteenth-century Germany in which women and men participated on relatively equal footing.  In fact, women often instigated the Katzenmusik (the gendered implications of women’s “shrieking” and the yammering of cats is clear, no?).  Men participated, too, and when it devolved into violence against people or property, it was almost always the doing of the men.  But women were the driving force, and an example of actual proto-political agency in a story that, in the historiography, is often just a sausage fest.  (Well, to be fair, women usually get one page toward the end of the chapter on “others,” either right before or right after the Jews.)

Fourth: The pictures are so much better.  To wit:

Take that, twitter blue bird.

Anyhow, I could go on, but alas! I have to go prepare for colloquium.  I’m presenting my dissertation prospectus today, or at least a draft of it.  The Absolute Professor won’t be able to make it because of a meeting she can’t get out of, but she sent me a long email in response to my draft.  It started out: “This is a big improvement over the first try.  It is much more coherent and interesting.”  Which is generally how her praise goes (for me, at least): it makes reference to your previous shitshow of an attempt, and tells you what you did well and what you could do better.  So I’ll take it.  This round of feedback pretty much lacks the snarkiness of the last one (“You can’t seriously think that the theory/practice thing is a legitimate objection.  Kant would blow that to smithereens. “)    The receding of the snarkiness is pretty much tantamount to high praise.  (At my last colloquium, she pretended to shoot me with an imaginary gun.  Apparently I really flubbed a question on interwar German conservatism.) So, anyhow, off to re-read her comments as a way of cribbing my own paper.

Oh, but sticking with the theme and the title: The colloquium carnivalesque.  In years past, my close friends and I played this [really immature but still absurdly amusing] game where the discussant had to work a certain bizarre phrase into their answer to a question, but in a believable way that didn’t draw attention to itself or seem ostentatious to anyone not in on the game.  The prize was the grad school standard: a drink.  So, one time, a friend had to make reference to “street cred,” and once to “the non-human animal,” (she blew that one), and I had to make reference in my first colloquium to the movie “The Sandlot.”  Now we’ve got a new game; one so wrong I can’t even describe it.  But oh, will it be fun. I hope I can keep a straight face.  If not, I’ll just caterwaul.

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