【Report】Schemas of Middle Europe

It would seem that our pre-conceived notion of Middle Europe, Germany in particular, and the reality on the ground (or in the air), category and sensibility, transcendental and empirical, are sharply antagonistic, which is perhaps more than a little ironic for her being the birth-tongue (if no longer birth country) of Immanuel Kant.

I have therefore decided to title this entry ‘Schemas’, given that it is the schematism which in Kantian philosophy serves as the bridge between what is innate in our heads and what lies beyond in the world. The use is of course grossly inexact: it is a tribute to German trains.

Yes, it was with a certain shock that we discovered German public infrastructure, which we had been conditioned to think superior to the world, is in tatters. I hope by the end of the piece to have explained (to myself) the nature of this shock, which went beyond a mere ‘thwarting of expectations’. Germany: was not she the exception that proved bureaucratic inefficiency? When did she become its foremost exponent?

Initial conditions were, come to think of it, foreboding. The day before we were scheduled to arrive into Hamburg we received news of an ‘attack’ on the airport: a man had abducted his own child and run a van into the building. Which may have been why our flight from Narita to Zurich was going to be delayed. This made an already tight transfer a race; somewhere along which, my luggage was misplaced and did not arrive with us into Hamburg. An accumulation of minor contingencies, resulting in a small misfortune. Or was it?

How many contingencies add up to a necessity?

I can say with terminological exactitude that my luggage for several days was in a state of exception. Here’s how: our arrival into Hamburg was already quite late, around 10:00 pm as I recall. Waiting around in vain for my luggage only made everything later; there was a substantial queue of others’ whose luggage had also failed to materialise; our conference was to start first thing the next morning; luckily, there was a QR code through which to file a missing baggage report online. This I filled in diligently until on the final page an error message was shown, to my great disappointment. I, accordingly, began to fill out again from scratch. But was halted: ‘this baggage tag number has already been registered’. Oh? That’s, good news, I guess, I can now rest contented that my request has been submitted to the relevant parties……

As it turned out it didn’t matter whether any request had been submitted because in order to inquire about the status quo of my baggage I needed to quote a missing baggage registration number; said number was to be granted me at the end of the online report; I need not say any more. My luggage, for all intents and purposes, had fallen through the cracks of the tracking system of the airline, it had become a sans-papier, in limbo, in the state of exception.

Fortunately, five or six emails later I was issued anew a registration number; I had formally been let into the circle of those who have the right to learn the whereabouts of their luggage. It now but had to be located and reunited with me; this took until a couple of days after my return to Japan, but all was well since Professor Kokubun kindly let me cosplay as him in his clothes for the duration of the conference.

There was separately an incident involving a main metro line which had gone completely out of service for the night. Desperate commuters bought up all the taxis operating in the area, even the ones our conference organiser had booked to transport us from the Institute to the harbour where we were to board a night cruise. Again, those of us who were left ashore managed to spend a fine evening indoors drinking and eating and hugging. In the last instance we could find means to work around the lack of infrastructure, privately. Indeed, I can without reservation say that I had the most wonderful time in Germany, the 3 day, nine-to-five conference was tiring but highly rewarding, it was an honour to be allowed to present at such an occasion, in professorial cosplay, the halls of the Institute were like a classy hotel, the vegetarian meals elegantly cooked, the weather actually quite lovely, warm and sunny for it being November in north Middle Europe―but in retrospect it could very well not have been, if I did not have access to such private work-arounds. And many, most of the world certainly do not.

Which, in turn gave me reason to think again through the theme of this conference: the ‘Universal in Crisis’. Today more than ever the instinct is to equate the universal with the global. And under this equation it is difficult to see the collapse of infrastructure as anything but a local problem. After all it is true that each country, each industry has its own readily narratable path to the status quo, for example: for the German train system I was told that a disastrous privatisation experiment in 1994 somehow kept the onus for upkeep on the public sector; privately owned, publicly run, a splendid arrangement. No doubt each collapse has its origin-story. Nor is everything collapsing; it isn’t; and even if it were, that would only prove the collapse to be general, not universal.

That certain concrete particulars nevertheless attain universal significance in history, was Hegel’s supreme insight. And it seems to me that Germany was one such concrete universal, a country who, especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification, stood for a great deal more than itself, the post-ideological age, a happy co-becoming of science, industry and culture, political and bureaucratic competence (Merkel: the last great political figure of the West), enlightened liberal tolerance: in short, Europe. Europe as ideal, a universal project. History, whether she wanted it or not, had made her into a symbol, if not in her own eyes then surely in the rest of the world’s eyes. This eye on me has been shut. The collapse of its transport system, then, while being a local phenomenon is also symbolic universally, if only because German public transport is still the best in the world. Oh how it shimmers, in its pitiful twilight.

What ‘schema’ am I left with, now that fact has dispelled transcendental fantasy? It is probably something like this. Germany’s universal historic significance is largely at an end. With her, has died the notion of a public world, common pooling of resources; what is left is a sort of desert around which we circle in a hurry, losing money in taxis and time in aborted trains. But soon I am afraid we might not even be able to remember what it is that we have lost. Is that not Kant’s lesson, in the most simplistic version possible, that we cannot just ‘see’ things as they are, we can only ‘see’ them when we have a network of transcendental concepts. And it seems that one of these was, veritably, ‘Germany’, a supposed real land where everything works starting from the same basic principles (liberal-democratic capitalism) as us. Hence my shock: at the very moment I saw the real of Germany as it is, I could no longer really see it, indeed I could no longer really see anything at all. All I have left are floating schemata. The solution to this I do not know, whether it is, as Professor Saito stressed in his presentation, a return to the laws of historical materialism which allow us to see even the exception to these laws as exceptions (but such a law can all too readily reify into another schema); or, as Professor Nakajima proposed, co-becoming, beyond the mere importation and exportation of local ideals parading as the Universal (but precisely the effect of such infrastructural collapse is the gradual retreat of all into locality, even ‘individuality’); or, as Professor Kokubun suggested, the encounter with Others constitutionally similar to me on whom I can depend to construct my field of perception (but we seem to all be becoming similar, similarly myopic). What I do know is that I, and probably many many Others like me, have patient work to do trying to furnish the requisite transcendental and empirical poles of our schema.

Reported by Wren Nishina (Graduate School of Arts and Sciences)