11/9 – Symbolic Resurrection

November 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

For all those readers who were disappointed to find only snippets from a dictionary when looking up my article „define:symbolic“ I actually intended a more elaborate piece. But instead of rehearsing my use of the term with ample reference to Jean Baudrillard or Jacques Lacan, the media and history have offered me a wonderful chance to speak about „The Symbolic“ and personal memories. Twenty years ago, the Berlin wall fell. As a symbol it now emerges from the vaults of collective memory and the archive.

This week, Michael Meyer, communications director of the U.N. secretary general, and a former Newsweek reporter in Berlin, published a review of the events of autumn 1989 in the Herald Tribune. He pointed to the widely held view of Americans that Ronald Reagan‘s words to Mr. Gorbachev somehow magically opened the wall and confirmed a feeling of „We won“ (again). Instead, Meyer points out that the opening of the wall was an achievement of thousands of East Germans pressing against the bars at checkpoints and „sheerest happenstance“. Probably, Philip Zelikow would admit chance as an important historical force as well, while holding up his view of a “great election” between East and West that he saw decided already in the early 80’s.

Thank you, Mr. Gorbachev

My memory of autumn 1989 is focused on a certain Mr. Gorbachev, whom I saw on the West German news show, standing together with the East German politburo, saluting troops and flag wavers at the 40th anniversary of the GDR (7 October). Because this Mr. Gorbachev was regarded as a liberator by my parents and people around us, seeing him side with the GDR government aroused a feeling of dissonance. This person on the screen was not the person I imagined (as a nine-year old). In retrospect, Mr. Gorbachev belonged to a different universe and his appearance in the GDR heralded the latter’s end. Him and the old guards simply did not go together. On 10 November 1989 we walked down Kurfurstendamm.

Down the vortex – symbols never survive


These days, the historic event of the falling wall will have to succumb to its symbolic value. It will have to lend itself to all kinds of interpretations and exhaust its energy in the process of symbolic resurrection. On Monday, it will even fall again. One thousand domino stones, each individually designed by people from all over the world, are in place to reenact a unique event as media spectacle. A project called Twinity will even simulate the wall in a virtual reality environment. The symbolic steps in where the „lived character of things“ (Baudrillard) is transcended in an endless rerun of archival material. In this process of reviewing the same over and over again, a multiplicity of meanings attached to a symbol becomes equal to „no meaning“ at all. That is the precondition of the media‘s fascination with symbolic events.

Unfortunately, 11/9 is going to be a Monday. While German media have excelled at recovering the events of November 1989 in the last weeks – resampling photo stocks, reediting historical material and adding commentary on commentary – the actual memory day will fall prey to publishing schedules. Germany‘s (still) leading news magazine Der Spiegel will open the week with an „in-depth“ report on … The future of German grammar schools.


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