JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Requisite emigration-show mise en scène ...

... Germans posing with the flag of their adopted country.

Konny Reimann: the “Texas cowboy” from Hamburg.

Konny Reimann’s Texas BBQ sauce.

Catherine Gee: “relocation expert” on There’s No Place Like Home?

Goodbye Germany’s “instruction manual” to leaving the country.

Immigrants arrested on Italy’s coast: these are the images of immigration that the emigration shows elide.

 

Flexible citizenship

The German format surely entertains an ethnographic pleasure by indulging the subjects’ fantasies of the “unbureaucratic life,” sunny skies, re-inventing oneself, the entrepreneurial adventure of the free-market economy, being one’s own boss or owning one‘s own house or garden—to name the reasons that the subjects most often provide for wanting to leave their homeland. In turn they offer the viewer a safe window to this world as vicarious dream. In this way, the emigration shows are symptomatic of a frustration with Hartz IV (the popular name for the 2005 law which reduced social benefits) and the malaise of the young middle class’ perceived shrinking opportunities vis-à-vis the generation of 1968. The programs are—especially in the instances where the émigrés thrive—often promotions for these individuals and their businesses. The Husky trainers in Sweden, a pair of “cowboys” in the USA, and the Vaassen family in South Africa (all of whom offer bed & breakfast accommodation) surely participate in order to advertise themselves. Some subjects may hope to achieve a measure of celebrity, one traditional feature of the docusoap’s blurry divisions of “television and ordinary reality, program and audience, public and private, stardom and anonymity” (Bignell 2004: 200).

Most strikingly, the shows negotiate a 21st-century definition of German identity unhinged from the geographical boundaries of the nation-state. Some stories—particularly those which follow subjects who have lived for years and even decades abroad—imply a special ability of the German-born to assimilate into their new culture, even suggesting that the subjects become not only citizens of the adopted country but culturally or ethnically indistinguishable from the natives.

Take the case of Konny Reimann and his family from Hamburg, who emigrated to Texas in 2005. Reimann has been featured on more than one of the emigrant formats and has published both a ghost-written autobiography and a cookbook (translation: Konny’s Barbeque Bible). Reimann is infamous for his self-aggrandizing appearances. Not only does he—after only a handful of years living in the USA on a Green Card—wear cowboy hats and boots and speak German with an American accent. He has assumed the full cultural and political identity of an American. For example, in German media, Reimann has advocated the death penalty. Although this position may be mainstream in Texas, it is unthinkable in Germany and espoused only by provocative members of neo-fascist parties. In cases like the Reimanns’ there is a distinct sense that Germans become the “better” Americans or Australians, taking on the most conservative and caricatured features of their adopted cultures. That these shows depict such scenarios reveals a certain cultural relativism that allows Germans to adopt stances that would be impossible in their native country.

The Reimanns, “at home” in Texas. Konny Reimann has written a Barbeque Bible and advocates the death penalty in media appearances.

Even in the stories whereby the subjects ultimately fail and must return to Germany, the initial arrival scenario implies this mobile sense of citizenship. One typical tableau—serving prominently in the advertising for Goodbye Germany and recurring in nearly every story—features the subjects holding the national flag of their adopted country shortly after their arrival, often in front of an iconographic landmark (Times Square, Sydney Opera House). This mise-en-scène is suggestive for a number of reasons. First, it reinforces the idea that Germans can quickly, indeed almost effortlessly and immediately “become” Swedes, Spaniards or Costa Ricans. Second, the flag-waving is curious because of what it in effect replaces: Germans’ patriotic feeling towards Germany. Although the 2006 World Cup noticeably loosened attitudes, it is still socially unacceptable to fly the German flag or to admit that one is proud to be German. These shows allow Germans to partake of a projected patriotism. Third, these images, in which a German, now “Australian” family stands before the Sydney Opera House, put the very concept of these programs into serious question. Are these emigration shows or touristic spectacles?

Indeed, the many stories in which the subjects—in spite of their original enthusiasm for their adopted country and the initial appearance that they have “become” exponents of their destination culture—end up in despair and returning to Germany within less than a year, interrogates the conventional ontology of emigration: its permanence. These shows often depict a temporary emigration, emigration as an extended form of tourism or even emigration as a national sport.[1][open endnotes in new window] It is after all tourism, rather than emigration, that we see as a form of knowledge-acquisition, a short-term cultural epistemology that we hope will have a long afterlife in our memories.

The German shows symptomatically question whether emigration, in its classical sense, is even possible. Emigration clearly means something different even from 30 years ago, when the prospect of a daughter or son leaving for foreign shores—and again, usually for America or Oceania—meant the occasional letter or the expensive phone call at Christmas. Today we have inexpensive and even free phone calls, Skype, e-mail and instant messaging, blogging and cheap air travel. One can reasonably “keep up” with both familial and national events to the point that emigration or exile loses its essential quality of permanence. This constitutes what Aihwa Ong, in a perhaps more serious 1990s’ Chinese context, calls “flexible citizenship.”

This reality programming illustrates dramatically how emigration can become a performance. New cultures can be tried on and then discarded; ethnicity becomes a loose term rather than a fixed determinant of identity. The motto of My New Life—“Adventure Emigration”—is programmatic. These shows have a narratological and dramaturgical affinity to their sister subgenre, the makeover/transformation show. The contestants try on a new culture that might better complete or complement their disposition or identity, and the viewer judges on the results of that makeover. There is always a way back, a reversal to any reversal of fortunes.

The flexible citizenship on offer is particularly curious in the context of the political debates around immigration, which until very recently defined national identity in an opposite fashion. In the 20th century, the German state(s) oriented their immigration policies around a strict version of the so-called Jus sanguinis, i.e., that Germans “become” Germans by virtue of being born to a German. (This view of citizenship contrasts with the Jus soli, the rule in most of North and South America and in hybrid forms in much of Europe. It dictates that location of a person’s birth can determine his or her citizenship.) As the Federal Republic became increasingly multiethnic with the invitation of foreign “guest workers” in the 1960s and 1970s, the naturalization laws produced strange results. Turkish guest workers’ children and even grandchildren, who had grown up in Germany and in some cases had never been to Turkey nor could speak Turkish, were often denied German citizenship on this basis. In 2000, the Social Democratic/Green government passed a new immigration law that loosened the regulations for naturalization (though not for immigration itself). Nonetheless, it is extraordinarily difficult to reconcile the blithe form of emigration that plays out in the docusoaps with the still culturally entrenched “rule of the blood” immigration—not to mention that these shows play out against the news footage of Africans dying close to the coasts of Malta and Italy or detained in internment camps in their efforts to gain entry to the EU. The ironic subtext to German emigration television is the question of immigration and the ugly discourse of Überfremdung, the idea that with the immigration of non-whites, Germany is becoming “too foreign.”

This seeming paradox of emigration/immigration may suggest one of two conclusions. The first would call attention to new research on popular understandings of German citizenship. Reflecting on interviews with young working-class Germans, the sociologist Cynthia Miller-Idriss maintains that although German legal and institutional forms of citizenship may have been traditionally defined as biological or racial in nature, the understanding of citizenship among the majority of Germans themselves includes foremost “residence within a geographic set of borders” (2006: 553), the willingness to work and contribute to the nation-state and the desire to be part of the national community (i.e. cultural and linguistic assimilation) (556-557). Rather than using solely racial, genetic or ethnic criteria, the German populace considers citizenship to be above all a “practice” featuring a “choice of membership” (554).

The second and perhaps more cynical conclusion would surmise that citizenship is in fact a one-way street: ethnic Germans can easily assume a new identity by emigration whereas foreigners can hardly become Germans. This would suggest a conception of European migration in line with Ginette Verstraete’s recent findings. She suggests that the “borderless space of mobility” so integral to the post-wall German and European identity is mythic and pertains to another sort of movement: managing and indeed violently preventing “illegal” immigrants from penetrating the borders of the European Union (Verstraete 2010: 4-5). Verstraete argues that these phenomena go hand in hand: just as Europe has erased its internal national boundaries for Europeans and made them more mobile (whether for tourism or longer stays), it has erected and fortified its external boundaries to “undesirable” migrants. Largely blind to the role of “guest workers” in creating their wealth, middle-class EU citizens subscribe to an ideology of privileged movement such that free travel for work or pleasure has become an ontological category of being European. In an almost perverse way then, Germans’ tourism and expressions of emigration as manifested in these programs engender a sense of belonging among Germans and consolidate the nation identity: leaving Germany or desiring to do so makes one more German.

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