My research proceeds along a number of parallel tracks. The visual, the spatial and the material are central in all of my ongoing projects. Although they relate and build on each other, they do so in not entirely intuitive ways. They are presented here in the order they were conceived, and lets be honest, in the order they will be completed.
Urban Legends: Cinema and the Making of Nazi Hamburg probes into Nazism’s politics of place so crucial in binding the population to the regime and underwriting its vision for the reorganization of Europe. I demonstrate how local communities asserted the significance of their place, performed their brand of National Socialisism, and articulated the visions for their city. Rather than resistant or oppositional to Nazism, local administrators, cultural experts, and ordinary “citizens” found venues for political participation, to shape Nazism from the ground up and to preserve their local particularities without ever mounting a challenge to the regime. As I demonstrate in this book, film and cinema are central to this story. Debates over identity, history, everyday leisure, moral decay, and urban mobility were key elements in the Nazification of Hamburg, even when they didn’t jive with the ideological principles and directives emanating from Berlin.
Film and Cinema, it turns out, were also central to my literally stumbling onto the history of trash and dumping. I was sifting through documents detailing the physical destruction, the moral dissolution, and the social collapse evident in Hamburg after the arial bombardments of the city in the summer of 1943. Examining documents detailing the outrage of civil servants over smut and trash in film and pulp fiction that were allegedly corrupting youth and women, I began to question whether the simultaneity of these moralistic complaints on the one hand and references to noise pollution and offal being dumped into bombed out buildings on the other were merely coincidental. In my current book project Empire of Rags and Bones: The Political Economy of Waste and War in Nazi Germany I illustrate how local fears about filth and social dissolution manifested in material reality of the everyday. Garbage practices (particularly dumping and recycling) this book argues, were central to the social order of National Socialism, the politics of war and the genesis of genocide.
I am currently working on a number of related article projects that I hope will eventually come together in a global history of the dump. In this story the garbage dump figures not merely as a problem but is examined as a social and political practice – a practice with rather a messy set of histories. From antiquity until today, dumping is a most consistent form of managing waste or – in other words – of imposing, asserting or restoring ‘order’ on the messes we make. Yet the dump epitomizes order’s very antonym. Why is that so? Who profits? Who cares? Who dies? How does the dump integrate into the society’s most elemental fabrics? Until I am ready to answer these questions with a series of case studies from around the globe, I leave you to ponder an image of US’s mother of dumps – Puente Hills Landfill – which closed on the day I took its picture.