Interkultur, by Mark Terkessidis / Reviewed by Isabel Dzierson

Interkultur, by Mark Terkessidis

Reviewed by Isabel Dzierson

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Mark Terkessidis, Interkultur. Berlin: Edition Suhrkamp, 2010. Pp. 220.

Journalist and author Mark Terkessidis develops in his book by the same name, the so-called concept of “Interkultur”—a programmatic change of the perception of German society, which is today facing a diverse and complex reality. Terkessidis challenges the often polemic and reductionist debate about multiculturalism and integration of migrants in Germany by developing, in five chapters, a new pragmatic and radical, but long overdue attempt to transform institutional frameworks in order to foster an open, diverse society.

In the first chapter Terkessidis explains the notion of the Para-polis, going beyond the classical concept of the polis, which implies the permanent settling down of its inhabitants. The Para-polis is the result of a change in urban demography, facing different dynamics and new forms of mobility. It is a multi-faceted city in movement. Diverse life models and types of mobility challenge the ideas about integrating immigrants into a stable urban community. Instead, urban diversity demands new figurations in order to promote the participation of its inhabitants in urban life and to create solidarity and a feeling of community. Participation has become difficult due to increasing mobility. Thus, the cities have to develop an infrastructure and architecture of mobility to create mobilized urban spaces that are at the same time embedded in global networks. To pursue this project, the existence of migration needs to be accepted as a social reality in German cities and not any longer as an exceptional circumstance. Too often do responsible authorities failure to grasp the new complexity of urban life and define migration as a problem of urban segregation and loss of control within cities. Cities should therefore strive for creative solutions that take into account both the heterogeneity of the society and individual needs and foster the active participation of their mobile inhabitants.

Terkessisis takes this new urban landscape as a starting point in developing his central critique of the paradigm of integration in the second chapter. The author takes the reader from the historical evolution of the notion of integration since the 1970s to its revival around the year 2000. He explains the multiplicity of definitions and meanings of the integration concept, which overlap in the public discourse with the assimilation and the multicultural model. The integration model starts with the idea of a supposedly homogenous, “native” society into which migrants are required to integrate – illustratively called the “container model.” It is the impossible attempt to re-establish an imaginary socio-cultural unity. This concept tends to perceive the migrant as not engaged enough or even incapable of integrating into society, and therefore as the reason for the disruption of social unity. Migrants are said to be missing parts of their identity and to suffer from the rupture with their country of origin – a lack they could overcome by the act of integration. Those assumptions result from the fact that the notion of German culture or “being German” is, despite of the changing structures of German society, still surprisingly rigid and fixed. ‘Supposedly German’ values are established in order to “prove” the cultural incompatibility of the migrants. This discourse however applies different scales to migrants and non-migrant and thereby ignores the fact that an authentic German value system is nothing but an ideological myth.

Supporters of this concept seem to overlook the fact that society is transforming into a diverse, multifaceted one. Furthermore, this narration of being incomplete can create negative feelings for migrants and have a socially destabilizing effect. Thus, the strong dichotomist distinction between the immigrants and the receiving society needs to be abandoned and the emergence of a new “us” accepted and acknowledged. Terkessidis claims to overcome the notion of integration and to aim for a post-integrative concept. Diverse social structures need to be taken into account and the access to institutions and resources needs to be guaranteed for everyone. This means, for instance, on a practical level that the German educational system needs to be changed, its discriminatory structures having been criticized even by the UN.

The third chapter is a critique of racist mechanisms and cultural essentialism in Germany. Departing from multiple individual examples, Terkessidis points out how former migrants and their children experience daily exclusion, sometimes even due to simply naïve or friendly motives. The social discourse tends to create an imaginary border between the categories “Us” and “Them,” putting migrants into the position of foreigners, which they cannot escape. Instead of open racism, we are facing today the phenomenon of cultural reductionism. This means that cultural attributes and stereotypes towards minority groups become predominant and serve as explanations for actual social problems. In addition, migrants become representatives of a whole group, which reduces them to a supposed cultural membership and limits their individual personality.

Racism also exists on an institutional level, not in the form of open hostility, but as mechanisms that perpetuate the figure of the stranger. The author criticizes the lack of coordination and continuity in the prevention of racism in the German context, which tends to see racist acts as exceptional cases. Therefore he is drawing a comparison to the UK. In the UK institutional racisms is recognized as a structural problem and programs are developed to promote race equality and to educate concerning citizenship issues. Terkessidis argues that in order to change discriminating mechanisms, racism has first of all to be acknowledged as a structural, institutional problem in German society. Furthermore the author inspires his readers to rethink ethnic categories and to question the way those are exploited for political purposes. He wants to transcend the dichotomy of minority and majority and look instead at the entire social context which creates cultural assumptions and racist prejudices.

In his last two chapters Terkessidis tries to explain the actual program “Interkultur” to offer theoretical and practical solutions to the problems and challenges presented in the preceding chapters. Interkultur stands for “cultures in between”, a permanent state of transition in the positive sense of producing creativity and diversity – a term that is inspired by theoretical concepts of Deleuze and Guattari. The author critiques the German tendency of long and misleading debates and the inability to undertake considerate political measures in time. The first step for coming up with solutions and to accomplish a permanent change is therefore to acknowledge that structural discrimination and social complexity are existing – especially by the responsible political authorities. The author tries to answer the question of how intercultural opening can be implemented in a long-lasting and efficient way. This project requires as a first step the radical transformation of public and private institutions, because they form an essential part of our daily life. The author is well aware of the difficulties and effort that this task demands and maintains a realistic perspective. Therefore he does not demand a revolution, but rather an evolution of institutions by reforming and restructuring them in order to overcome institutional inequalities. Terkessidis’ program aims for a barrier-free social and political reality. Terkessidis takes his inspiration from the concept of a barrier-free environment which wants to guarantee everyday access for disabled individuals, and transfers it to the topic of immigration. The change of institutions will ideally have an effect on all levels of the society; this is what Terkessidis calls migration mainstreaming both on an individual and community level. Following the idea of gender mainstreaming, this means that migration needs to be discussed on a larger scale and should not be restricted to certain designated areas.

According to Terkessidis’ approach the intercultural transformation has to be implemented on different levels of the institution to change the core of the institution. Therefore it is crucial to begin by investigating the state and type of the institution and by taking into consideration the opinions of employees. The first level is the general culture of the institution. The author recommends changing norms and rules by deciding on a Corporate Code in order to fix diversity principles permanently and officially. Strategies of recruitment need to be changed to avoid discrimination and guarantee unrestricted access to jobs. Quotas and campaigns can help to modify the structural injustice within human resource management. Furthermore the basic “material” conditions of an institution need to guarantee barrier-free access for every individual according to his or her specific needs, which Terkessidis refers to as “designing for diversity.” Finally the strategies of institutions need to be changed profoundly to achieve a mainstreaming approach to diversity.

After elaborating those practical strategies, Terkessidis stresses the importance of cultural institutions adopting a broad notion of participation and diversity. This is especially relevant for migrant communities for which cultural production can be an important platform to participate and articulate. However, works of cultural production such as those of theater, film and music have for a long time been linked to the project of nation building and identity formation and lead to categories of unity and cultural pureness. To overcome this reductionist conception, cultural spaces have to be opened to everybody and the idea of cultural hybridity has to be incorporated. But Terkessidis warns against creating only special categories such as so-called ‘migrant literature’ or ‘migrant cinema’. Instead he claims that cultural institutions should take into perspective a common daily practice of life in order to realize the formation of a new cultural and social space.

Terkessidis pursues with his book an explicit politically and socially relevant goal: creating a profound change towards a diverse society and guaranteeing the same access conditions for every individual. Therefore the author takes on a very pragmatic perspective by offering an attempt to both change the society’s institutions and the predominant paradigm of integration. Terkessidis sees the institutional changes as a first step in the direction of profound social transformation, considering that individual beliefs and ideologies are very difficult to change. He motivates his readers to think beyond multicultural debates and discriminatory demands for assimilation and to aim for real diversity and equality of opportunity. Terkessidis applies a notion of culture that focuses on practices and interaction rather than on notions of identity and ethnicity. He sees himself inspired by the Anglo-American tradition of a Cultural Studies approach and by a postcolonial theory background – in particular referring to Homi Bhabha and Raymond Williams.

“Interkultur” supplements a reflective theoretical framework with a wide range of empirical examples taken from daily social reality in Germany. Those examples render the critical reflections very accessible to the reader and explain the book’s popularity amongst political and administrative functionaries. In addition Terkessidis’ distinct and intelligent style make this book not only worthwhile and informative but also an enjoyable reading experience. At times however, the book tends to be slightly repetitive and misses a bit of lucidity in the definition of the term Interkultur. Despite this minor critique, Terkessidis’ book is both an important contribution to the academic field of migration studies and an invitation to every reader to overcome prejudices and rethink categories. It is an attempt to engage with the project of diversity, where cultural borders become more and more porous, and, as Terkessidis poetically refers to it, “to construct a common building.” Terkessidis’ critique is sharp, productive and leaves the reader with a positive perspective on the future.

—Isabel Dzierson (University of Konstanz)

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