Interview by Ilana Gershon
Ilana Gershon: You open Europe Un-Imagined by suggesting that while the television channel you studied aimed to fashion a European identity, in practice they may well have succeeded in creating more fragmentation than cohesion and might do more to make borders visible rather than to transcend them. What led you to this argument?
Damien Stankiewicz: First, Ilana, thanks for this question and this interview! I’m so happy to have the opportunity to discuss my book with you—and I’m a big fan of the CaMP blog!
I guess I would say that it wasn’t so much that the channel was creating fragmentation as much as it wasn’t producing coherence—and I see those things as quite distinct, because one of the central aims of the book is to challenge the validity and ubiquity of Benedict Anderson’s theory of imagined community. If the channel were indeed “creating fragmentation,” one could argue that the channel demonstrates that Anderson’s theory remains intact—that it was indeed creating fragments of European belonging (national belonging, regional Alsatian belonging, and so on) in the ways Anderson stipulates, it just wasn’t able to create a larger European identity. My argument, in contrast, is that the channel’s multifarious efforts—whether to combine national identities into a European one, to create something European de novo, to draw on “Culture” in order to build culture—that these various strategic and narrative pieces never accrued into something recognizable as a coherent imagination in the way that Anderson evokes it as a shared narrative repertoire and collective mode of thinking-the-world.
Instead, I found that producers and programmers at ARTE, though all charged with the same mission statement of producing television and web media that would “bring together the people of Europe,” went about doing so in quite disparate ways, even sometimes within the same production unit and even while working on the same program. It’s possible, of course, that people working towards different goals and with different strategies, harboring uneven convictions about the power of television to create culture (much less what culture it should create) could nevertheless result in a program, format, or entire channel that would convey a coherent message or set of narratives. Indeed, media scholars and anthropologists have rarely argued that cultural producers have uniform goals or sensibilities. But at the end of the day (after eighteen months of fieldwork), it was not only my sense that things didn’t quite add up to a shared set of premises for the coalescing of a trans-European sensibility or identity among viewers—it was also the sense of those working at ARTE, who told me that the channel wasn’t achieving what it hoped to (or at least hadn’t for a number of years); that the channel was bureaucratically and/or administratively flawed; that audiences didn’t care, or no longer cared, about French-German rapprochement, much less about Europe; and that the transnational production process led to all kinds of glitches, misunderstandings, and obstacles that were to great degree insurmountable. I describe numerous examples of these glitches, misunderstandings, and what I call silences in the book.
So it isn’t that ARTE is producing fragmentation as much as the channel, largely by its own admission, runs up against all kinds of difficulties—both in terms of the array of competing ideas about what the channel should do and how, as well as sheer geographical and structural hurdles—which ultimately thwart ARTE’s efforts to produce a European imagined community in the ways its founders, seemingly emulating Anderson, had thought possible and actionable.
Ilana Gershon: What role did audience numbers play in the kinds of audiences ARTE staffers imagined and how they understood appropriate responses to a changing media landscape?
Damien Stankiewicz: As I describe in the last chapter of the book, transnational audiences present ARTE with a number of difficulties. France and Germany have different, somewhat incompatible methods for measuring viewership, for example. And the imprecisions of counting and comparing French and German audiences and viewer profiles led to lots of speculation as to why a particular program or film would garner strong audiences in one country but not the other. As I describe in the book, audience studies staff would often explain contrastive audience numbers through broad reference to national preferences and interests. A documentary about chocolate did well in France but not Germany because the French are more interested in chocolate than Germans. And so forth. The parsing (and ultimately, ambiguities) of audience “analysis” at ARTE was, for me, another example of the channel’s inability to conceive of itself as something other than bi-national, fragmentary, and ultimately incoherent.
At the time I was doing fieldwork, methods for measuring online streaming and downloads were still being figured out. For example, if someone clicked on a video and began watching it, but then immediately stopped the video and didn’t watch the rest of it, ARTE’s audience department didn’t know whether to count this as a “view.” And they couldn’t locate the viewer, either—so if they closed their browser and started watching again, it would be counted as an additional “view”… and so forth. During my time at ARTE, and during follow-up fieldwork in 2014, it was clear, however, that ARTE was in many ways leading the way in developing streaming and app-based viewing technologies. In part this has to do with its recognition that its viewers, who are distributed across national borders, would benefit from digital technologies that were not contingent on traditional/terrestrial networks and infrastructures—and indeed I was told that this digitalization has paid off: ARTE now has a thriving trans-European digital viewership that has greatly augmented and expanded its pre-digital, principally French-German audiences. (Interestingly, this has meant increasing use of English in ARTE’s subtitling, website, and app, which has long been anathema to a channel that was established in part to stave off the invasion of American programming into Europe.)
Ilana Gershon: You kept observing people’s ambivalence about some forms of cultural identification at the same time that cultural stereotypes abound at the station. What work do you think this ambivalence was doing in a television station dedicated to programming identity?
Damien Stankiewicz: I think this was one of the most fascinating aspects of my research at ARTE. Overwhelmingly, in a European borderlands where people are quite aware of the complicated, composite nature of people’s backgrounds and identities, people readily referred to each other and their way of doing or thinking about things as “typically” French or German. French-ness and German-ness remained centrally important categories and explanatory resources even as I observed that many of the stereotypes were simply not true (if in fact I counted to see if more French women at the channel wore lipstick than German women, as bizarre an exercise as that was). People were highly invested in such explanations and in the coherence of French and German stereotypical behavior, even in a context in which most staff had lived or grown up in multiple countries, spoke several languages fluently, had strong regional (Alsatian, Bavarian) attachments, and so forth.
And yet, in keeping with this complexity, a number of staff with whom I spoke were quite critical of stereotype (agreeing that it was pervasive at the channel, and problematic) and a number of folks offered quite interesting critiques of identity, which they understood to be either irrelevant or retrograde to ARTE’s mission.
This co-presence of both outright national/cultural stereotype, as well as staff who had nuanced articulations of why such stereotypical banter was unacceptable, attests to the diversity of views and sensibilities at the channel. I thought I would be able to discern a pattern, some kind of rhyme or reason, that would explain the dynamic between stereotype and refutations of objectified national culture—but it wasn’t clear to me that there was any simple relationship. I didn’t find that stereotype was principally tongue-in-cheek or used jokingly, nor did I find that only people who had lived extensively in several countries held more self-conscious views of culture or identity; ARTE was a place where both views, sensibilities, and ways of understanding social difference existed, and sometimes in the same individuals. But in the everyday life of the place, it was stereotype and national character/culture that shot through everything from birthday toasts, to sound editing sessions, departmental meetings, and even hiring and administrative decisions. And this was a puzzle I think I never fully understood.
Ilana Gershon: French and German journalists were understood to have different reporting styles and different editing styles. How did this affect journalists when they were trying to create transnational or European stories?
Damien Stankiewicz: This is an important question, because it helps me to clarify and nuance one of the book’s running arguments, which is that much of what was considered “French” and what was considered “German” was actually either erroneously categorized as such, or else was interchangeably so. A running argument in my book is that French-ness and German-ness at ARTE were made to be much more coherent and explanatory categories than was actually the case, if you paid close attention. (Which is why I refer to individual staff in the book as “French-identifying,” “German-identifying,” and so on according to how they self-presented or talked about themselves instead of relying on my own assessment of who they were or where they were “from.”)
But there were of course some patterns of behavior that tended to be more French or German (in the sense that they were geographically bounded/bordered). And editing styles in ARTE’s newsroom are an example where real, nationally organized differences existed: The French journalists tended to assemble stories as they went on, piecing together footage and voiceovers alongside their editors and figuring out the narrative as they worked, while the German journalists tended to first write out the story and find the footage, noting time codes and so forth, before going to the editing room.
However, as I try to be careful to specify in my discussion of these newsroom norms, though these differences were often talked about as “German” and “French” ways of editing—often made to converge with other cultural stereotype about French proclivities for loquaciousness or indecision versus Germans’ decisive, methodical organization—they should be circumscribed more narrowly in particular kinds of schooling and training. They aren’t simply “French” versus “German” ways of doing things, but have to do with how journalism is trained and learned in particular institutions in the two countries. Indeed, there were French journalists trained in Germany who assembled stories the ways the German journalists did, and vice versa. In this way, it is much more accurate to talk about French-trained journalists versus German-trained journalists than it is to talk about French-ness or German-ness in sweeping cultural stereotypical terms. As I note in the chapter, we could probably trace particular editing practices to a handful of brick-and-mortar schools of journalism in the two countries (as well as other practices in the ARTE newsroom, which escape this bifurcation, to other schools) in ways that help us to remember that national borders, identity, or “character” do not generate particular practices, but rather particular practices tend to come to be erroneously characterized as broadly national.
Ilana Gershon: What were the different approaches to the culture concept that French and German staffers had, and why do you think they had such different approaches to culture?
Damien Stankiewicz: Here again is an example of the complexities of French-ness, German-ness, and Europeanness at ARTE—and which circles back to why Europe is ultimately “un-imagined” at ARTE (and perhaps why it remains largely un-imagined well beyond ARTE).
I spend a good deal of my “culture” chapter tracing the history of French and German concepts of culture, la culture, création, civilisation, Kultur, Zivilisation, and parsing these against historical differences between France and Germany in terms of such longue durée topics as courtly manners (à la Norbert Elias) and the emergence of the Ministry of Culture in France. But I argue that, while such cultural histories may clarify some of why French-identifying staff at ARTE understand “culture” in a way that skews towards the fine arts, while German-identifying staff have a broader, more anthropological sense of the word, the devil is really in the details: “French” and “German” notions of culture and Kultur are in fact inflected by other kinds of understandings—about the arts, about identity, about belonging—in ways that render these words less decisively “French” or “German”—whether in a historical or practical sense—than they might initially seem. What’s more, in the everyday workings of the channel, various staff held variously hybrid views of culture that drew unevenly on “French” versus “German” delineations (if we can argue that these exist and can be cleanly separated in any useful way). It would perhaps make things simpler, in terms of negotiation and the production of something evenly French-German, were there to exist an absolutely clean distinction between French and German notions of culture; the channel could broadcast culture theme nights or some nights and Kultur theme nights after other nights and maybe everyone would be satisfied—but it hardly breaks down this way and so cannot be negotiated in this way. The problem is that sometimes people at ARTE—and myself sometimes, too—would want to contort discursive-semantic ambiguities like this one into easily recognizable differences and categories—and I think this may be why, on some deeper level, (“national”) difference came to be misunderstood, mis-attributed, and then, because oversimplified, exacerbated.