17th Transatlantic Students Symposium
The Future of Democratic Cultures
in Europe and the United States
Vienna and Berlin, March 23-30, 2019
Six UW ASC students took part in the Symposium, one of them as a member of the HU group because of his status as an Erasmus exchange student. The remaining five students prepared for the events by taking part in pre-departure seminars led by Dr. Tomasz Basiuk at UW. Karolina Szlasa, a participant, acted as UW student organizer. Other ASC students who took part were Magdalena Kos, Michał Niedzielski (via HU), Kamila Aleksandra Pękała, Kinga Pomykacz, and Bogdana Sybikowska.
Vienna: Art History Museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum), Imperial Furniture Museum (Hofmobiliendepot), City Castle (Hofburg). Walking tour with former deputy mayor Rudolf Schicker, HOSI (Austrian LGBTQ Rights Organization), Vienna Women’s Affairs Department, Talk by Dr. Franz Leander Fillafer at Austrian Academy of Sciences on Post-Imperial Austria, European Center on labor migration, Reporters without Borders, World Wildlife Fund, National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism.
Berlin: City Tour, Walking Tour “Lobby Control”, International Organization for Migration (IOM), POLIS180 think tank for foreign affairs and European politics, Bündnis Neukölln – refugee housing project.
How we have experienced it
When I first heard about this year’s Transatlantic Symposium I thought it could work well as an opportunity to try myself at an academic conference. After arriving in Vienna we spend the first couple days visiting local institutions. Hearing from the people working for them gave us a bigger picture on the many problems we find in today’s democracies and we were able to see how many different approaches to these issues those people have and from how many different angles it is possible to go after them. Their many different outlooks provided us with a lot of new information; but what was even more empowering and thought-provoking were all the questions, comments and discussions that we shared as the Transatlantic group. For, we were there not only to learn from the people representing these well-respected institutions but also to learn from one another. And that, for me, was the most valuable aspect of the conference. Sometimes the presentations we saw gave us a new perspective, new information that allowed us to see more and to understand more. Sometimes we were amazed with the material. Sometimes we were outraged with what we’ve heard or learned. But never did we stop ourselves from calling into question what we were hearing; and when we wanted to know more or to dig deeper it was hard to stop us from asking, even if the spokespeople weren’t too pleased to respond. Being there as a group and hearing one another in these situations definitely gave us more power. It may be fairly easy to fall into the trap of taking some people’s words for granted just because they work at these well-respected institutions or are superior to us in position, age, or experience. Being there as part of this Transatlantic group reminded me how important it is not to fall into that trap. Seeing how we as students looking for our own truths in the world, all of us so different yet so similar, having different backgrounds, different histories, different interests and concerns, can show one another new perspectives, new ways of looking at things and allow one another to notice things we would have otherwise missed pumped me up with all that power. It was a wonderful experience. It has not only showed me how powerful we as students working toward a shared future are but also empowered my conviction that even though we are still only students our words are as much significant, serious and needed.
My conference paper was actually a piece of prose writing inspired by the writer David Foster Wallace. I was concerned with the question of whether the narratives and myths we create in history and culture need to be as pure and honest as we would like them to be, whether it is even possible to ask that of them. It seems like with the Information Age society has started to doubt that. Do we still need them? Even if they are these carefully crafted stories created to provide us with something we can believe in? All the quotations that I used come from the essay “Up, Simba” from the book of short stories Consider the Lobster.
To be perfectly honest, the week I spent at the Symposium was one of the best in my life. Not only did I have a unique opportunity to meet students from other American Studies departments, from Germany and the United States, but participation in the event has allowed me to get to know and understand the multitude of cultures in Vienna and Berlin.
Organization of the event was fantastic, everything was planned ahead and we knew our schedule in advance. Thanks to that we managed to avoid any possible chaos or disorder, which tends to happen during similar events. The meetings we had with various groups and people – nongovernment organizations, government organizations, think tanks, political and social activists – gave me the opportunity to learn and develop a better understanding of multiple issues that affect the democratic process in Europe and in the United States. Some of the people we met made me even reconsider my attitudes and stances and provoked me to think critically about my personal worldview. All of the people we met were well prepared and open for questioning. I especially enjoyed the meeting we had at the WWF Austria during which I learned a lot about the preservation of wildlife and natural landscape in Austria but also how difficult (and at the same time important) it is to convince politicians to fight against global warming. I cannot say anything bad about the conditions of our trip either. The hotels in which we stayed were comfortable and stylish. We were provided with comfortable space to rest after each day of hard work.
I know I am going to miss my experience of the Transatlantic Symposium. If I will get the opportunity to participate in similar events in the future, I will not hesitate to accept them. I deeply encourage all ASC students to join in the next stages of the Symposium as it is an event that changes your life, for good.
I have delivered a paper on the representation of (un)democratic cultures in the American science fiction cinema. My goal was to challenge the assumption that films showing dystopian societies tend to be politically progressive, since they present the future in which democratic principles are eroded and therefore serve as a warning to us. However, my analysis suggested that the audiovisual aspects of movies such as Equilibrium (2002) or V for Vendetta (2005) often contradict their narratives’ message. The uncanny romance with fascist aesthetics or overreliance on special effects such movies employ might make it difficult for the audience to question the message of these movies and can even elicit sympathy for the functioning of the authoritarian governments.
The Transatlantic Symposium in Vienna and Berlin was incredibly stimulating. We spent four days in Vienna and three in Berlin with a group of students from the University of Warsaw, Humboldt University and Oregon State University – and I think each one of us brought a different sort of experience and background to the Symposium making it all the more rich and fascinating. Our activities ranged from visiting art museums to talks with various groups and both governmental and nongovernmental organizations engaged in a wide array of causes related to such issues as environmental protection, LGBT rights, social justice and income inequality. For me, the most memorable element of all the visits was the way in which we were not afraid to ask questions or challenge our interlocutors, no matter how challenging the topic was. Over the course of these 10 days we were also often being challenged ourselves – at least I know I was. There were several experiences which have left a lasting personal impact on me during that week. One of them was the meeting at HOSI, an Austrian LGBTQ rights organization, where we were confronted with the harsh reality of being a migrant in Vienna (which I had previously thought to be a very modern and liberal city), and learned about the even harsher realities of life in Chechnya. Further, we had a chance to see and talk about the inner workings of a think tank at the European Center in Vienna, where I recall us having a very friendly conversation with Mr. Ricardo Rodrigues and his colleagues, Solina Danaj and Eszter Zolyomi. The other two visits that I most enjoyed were the talk with Karl Schelmann at the World Wildlife Fund (after which I was wondering what it would be like to work for such an organization) and, back in Berlin, with the Lobby Control group who shone a light on the not-so-glorious role of money in German politics.
The week wrapped up with our presentations on Saturday the 30th, where I held a presentation about the dichotomies of the rural urban divide in the context of Polish and American politics – the presentation went well and I was very happy with it, even though I had been quite stressed about it before that. All of the presentations were at a very high level; which, admittedly, sometimes made it hard to follow everything that was being said if you were not familiar with the field.
I had a vague image of what the Transatlantic Symposium is going to be like. The actual experience turned out to be unquestionably better than anything I’ve expected. In short, the Symposium was a total of 10 days of new experiences and encounters. We were offered a quite unusual opportunity to get to know one another, all of us participants coming from three different universities, countries, and realities. In this group consisting of students from Oregon University, Humboldt and University of Warsaw we participated in numerous meetings with different organizations and activists from political, social, and environmental spheres. For me, each of those was memorable in some way, but there were few that I came to cherish more than others. The most engaging, for me, was a visit to HOSI Wien, an organization that fights for the rights of LGBTQ community since the 70s. Another visit that stuck into my memory was Austrian WWF and the discussion we had there about the environment. The most important part of all of those visits was a chance to later share my reactions and thoughts with other participants that was personally very enriching, eye-opening and challenging. The Transatlantic Symposium was one-of-a-kind type of experience for me. It was thought-provoking and extremely motivating, it left me with the feeling that there is so much to be done in the academia, in activism, and in social work, and that we all are very well equipped to do it.
My presentation topic was based on Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution where she compares American and French Revolutions in terms of their consequences for democracy of those two countries, France and the United States. According to her evaluation, the relatively peaceful American Revolution was more fruitful and politically more constructive than bloody and chaotic French one. In my paper, using Ranciere’s “Ten Theses on Politics,” I wanted to prove the opposite – that the real victory of French Revolution was not stability but finally including groups of citizens deprived of their political voice in the discourse.
The 17th Transatlantic Symposium was a highly challenging but more than a worthwhile experience. International environment gave us all a chance to evolve and live through some completely new and unforgettable experiences. We shared many conversations and, as our interests came from various fields, it not only introduced us to the new research opportunities but forced us to think and act outside of our comfort zones. I have come to understand the Transatlantic Symposium as a space where young scholars from different nations with interdisciplinary backgrounds can share their ideas and exchange knowledge. This in return has helped us to cultivate tools such as critical thinking, problem-solving and indiscrimination toward perspectives different from our own. During this year’s Transatlantic Symposium not only was I provided with the space for practicing public speaking (detached from the usual classroom), but what is more, I became more confident in professionally engaging in scholarly discussions with fellow students and professors. The week was busy in a lot of activities and trips prepared by our amazing team of student organizers who have made an incredible work scheduling trips and meetings with non/governmental institutions and their representatives. For me, the most interesting and valuable meeting in Vienna we had was the one with the Austrian Politician and former Deputy Mayor Rudolf Schicker who took us on a walking tour and showed the city from a completely different perspective. In Berlin, on the other hand, the most interesting proved itself to be the meeting with the representatives of the International Organization for Migration who were very professional in providing us with answers to the questions that concerned us. The second, most compelling activity in Berlin was the Lobby Control Tour. I am grateful for the academic training I’ve received, but I am even more appreciative to have been a part of such brilliant team and to have been put into this unusual setting where I was able to meet people who not only turn out to be supportive colleagues but who have become close friends.
My research topic was about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and how it was the Trump Brand that got him to win the presidential election, therefore my subtitle: “The Trump Brand Strategy.” In a world of big corporations, where names and logos are essential to differentiate between good and bad products, brand strategy takes over. It requires diligent preparation, analysis and planning to manage the brand one wants to establish. But this domain, as it appears, is not limited to big corporations and companies but has been taken over by the political sphere as well and now it is politicians who also employ it. In the case of Donald Trump, the so-called umbrella brand has emerged. Starting from an initially small project to form a mega-brand — Trump’s umbrella brand spreads over widely, comprising all of his sub-brands: foundations, hotels, casinos, and what has been the most significant his presidency also falls under its shade. In my paper I analyze the Trump brand, I consider it as an umbrella brand and how his branding was created to help him win the presidential elections.
The unique opportunity to participate in the Transatlantic Symposium has not only changed my perception of transatlantic cultural relations but also helped me to broaden the scope of my research interests. We have visited multiple nongovernmental institutions that varied in terms of work strategy and target groups where we had a chance to see the discussed problems from various perspectives. What I found particularly interesting was the meeting with the President of Reporters Without Borders Austria Dr. Rubina Möhring with whom we discussed the problem of violations of Freedom of Speech and Information in different countries of the world. The aforementioned issue can be a significant obstacle in the development of transatlantic relations, specifically when it is combined with the problem of fake news. On the day of the conference we were all excited and perhaps a little bit nervous. The accumulated knowledge we’ve acquired during these couple of days we spent together attributed greatly to the changes we’ve made to the final versions of our presentations. Overall, not only have we exchanged our experience and acquired invaluable knowledge, but also had a great time together with our fellow colleagues from the United States and Germany, something I will never forget.
My research topic “The United Nations struggle for democracy during the Arab Spring” was interrelated greatly with migration issues in Europe we have discussed during our institutional visits as well as with the problem of the reform of the whole organization, which incidentally has its office site in Vienna. The problem of saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war has been important and essential since the First World War. Any regional conflict can become a burst bubble for a collective security and democracy and consequently the efficiency of an organization that controls the processes and crises all over the world, this becomes a primarily source of analysis. During my presentation, I discussed the efficiency of the United Nations Security Council in the struggle for democracy during the Arab Spring. I have conducted the research that includes analyses of the situation during the Arab Spring, the precursors of conflicts and the reactive actions taken by the body to cease the conflict at certain stage.
How we have spent our days together
It was the first day for us to see one another’s faces, to hear what we’re all working on academically and to get a sense of what this week is going to be like. We were still too shy to make friends though.
On the first day we visited two museums. The first was Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, one of the largest and most impressive museum in the whole of Europe. The museum hosts a large collection of European paintings, including such timeless works as Brueghel’s Tower of Babel or Rembrand’s Self Portrait. At the time of our visit the museum hosted an exhibition of Mark Rothko’s works, of a famous American painter and a pioneer of abstract expressionism, which allowed us to explore beyond the core texts of European history and get the taste of American visual arts as well. On our second visit we went to the Hofmobiliendepot (Imperial Furniture Collection), a museum that hosts a collection of various physical remnants of the Habsburg empire, from highly artistic paintings to mundane everyday objects such as chair. These visits forced us to reconsider what is the role and significance of such exhibitions, consisting purely of material objects that are yet deeply significant for history.
The day began with an eye-opening walking tour around Vienna. It was much more than just a walk from one well-known tourist attraction to another. We saw and were able to learn about the unknown parts of Vienna, one of which was the social housing project organized and funded by the city. Mr. Schicker’s lecture also allowed us to recognize different approaches to the issue of public housing and city development, which tend to vary between the United States, Austria and Poland. After that we visited the HOSI, Austrian oldest LGBTQ+ organization. Members of HOSI talked about their political and social activism, but also about their own personal issues and struggles as queer people in Austria. Visit to HOSI reminded us about the importance of fighting for marginalized minorities and the dangers of being complacent about one’s own position in society. Our next appointment was at the MA 57, a municipal agency devoted to the protection of women’s rights and improvement of women’s living conditions in Vienna. Ms. Götz lectured us extensively about what city of Vienna does to help women in domains such as housing, protection from domestic violence, immigration issues, or education. It was very insightful to compare the way in which governmental and non-governmental organizations operate, especially when they share similar interests. Our last event of the day was a lecture given by Dr. Franz Leander Fillafer from the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The lecture was about the history of the Habsburg empire and the way it affects current socio-political climate in Austria. We also spend some time discussing whether it is possible to apply the analysis of Habsburg’s downfall as a warning to the future of European Union.
Our last day in Vienna started off with a visit to the European Center where we met with its representatives: Sonila Danaj (posting of workers), Ms Eszter Zolyomi (gender, migration) and Mr Ricardo Rodrigues (inequalities, health&care). They introduced us to the specifics of their work that concerns statistical research and analysis of data in the abovementioned fields. Thanks to their presentations we learned not only about the current trends in the labour market, migration and healthcare, but also how they themselves established their carriers and what paths and choices led them to their current tasks. Later on, we met with Dr. Rubina Möhring from Reporters Without Borders at Café Prückel. She shared with us her experience obtained in her journalistic practice and we discussed current challenges for the freedom of speech and of the European political climate in regards to journalism and publishing. The next meeting of the day was with Karl Schellmann representing the World Wildlife Fund. We learned about the local as well as global goals and challenges faced by the WWF. After presentation, we got a chance to ask him questions and discuss topic that interested us the most when it comes to the environment. Lastly that day, we met with Michaela Niklas, Susanne Betz and Stephanie Meyerhofer from National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, who spoke about the history of the organisation they represent and reported on how their work deals with a difficult history of National Socialism in Austria.
Transfer to Berlin – flight days meant more time for us to hang out together.
The first day after the arrival of the Symposium group to Berlin was especially memorable for me.* Not only was it beautifully surreal to see my peers from both Humboldt and University of Warsaw reunited after Vienna, it was also fascinating to watch them connect with each other in ways I could have only heretofore imagined. Furthermore, we were navigating the streets of Berlin where I had spent my last six months and I couldn’t wait to see what my Polish friends would make of it. Friedrichstrasse, the TV Tower, the area of the HU – everything. We began the day with a tour with the Lobby Control organization, which took us through the secret lobbying streets – the guides were both very informed and interesting and helped us realize just how complicated the topic of Lobby Control is. That day I became personally convinced that a career in journalism is a possibility for me, and that social and political change is not just a matter of having a vision or some sort of idealism, but is also a lot of hard work, work that sometimes involves being aware of what is happening at every level and protesting when something is wrong rather than turning a blind eye to it and assuming it can’t be changed so why bother. Following that tour, we visited the IOM (International Organization for Migration) where a very professional French young man explained to us how the UN approaches migrants and what is being done, especially from the perspective of logistics and organization, to support migrants and refugees. We promptly engaged him about the topics we were passionnate about as a group and had talked about while in Vienna – how migration intersects with LGBT issues, and the plight of queer refugees, such as the memorable girl from Chechnya with a black sweater with a red tiger on it. We finished the day with a talk with a girl who represented Polis180, a think tank associated with the Freie Universitat – she recommended us a podcast which I still haven’t checked out.
*Michał was an Erasmus student at HU
Symposium Conference. The topic of the 17th Transatlantic Symposium was “The Future of Democratic Cultures in Europe and the United States.” The student conference took place in the Senate Hall of Humboldt University Berlin on March 22nd, 2019. The day-long conference, totaling more than twenty papers, was subdivided into thematic panels. Each speaker was given a 15-minute time slot to present. Additionally, each panel was followed by a Q&A. In addition to participating faculty and students, the audience included past Symposium participants, non-participating HU faculty and students, and members of the general public.
There was a lively discussion at the end of each panel. The exchange became especially heated during a panel which included several presentations on identity politics and the discrimination of ethnic minorities, as one former Symposium faculty member asked the speakers about the relationship between their intellectual strategies and their commitment to Enlightenment principles that found academic discourse. This debate carried over to the next day, when another faculty member responded with an ad hoc lecture on the philosophical tradition underlying the notions of knowledge, activity, and emotions.
On the last day of our intense and extremely diverse program we had a chance to meet Adam Bresnahan who is one of the leaders of Bündnis Neukölln, an organization responsible for providing help with finding housing for refugees, which sometimes can be quite an imposing challenge. The discussed issue is closely interrelated with housing condition, specifically cold dampness and the age of the building the refugees live in. The organization provides refugees with advice and legal help, assists them with application letters and schedules accommodation viewings. They also connect refugees with the job center and contact landlords. A talk with Bresnahan helped us to better understand issues related to migration, such as the effects of the refugee crisis, specifically when it comes to a big city with a housing crisis like Berlin. We concluded the Symposium with a discussion held at the Humboldt University. It helped us to wrap up all of the experiences of the past days and also to recover from the day before, the day that proved itself very intense and eye-opening and that was cooled down by our ultimate lecture “Plato and the Soul of Academia” by Dr. Philipp Kneis. Later on we had a closing dinner where everybody could spend some more time together and discuss their experience during the Symposium. We have finished our day with a digital concert of Pink Floyd that felt like a perfect finishing chord to the Transatlantic Symposium.