Friday, 14 November 2014

Jared, on anthropology, magic and dancing

Jared came to Berlin from Indiana where he studied Anthropology and Neuroscience.  The story of how he ended up moving here is one of my favourites from our guides; an entertaining example of one door closing and another opening.

In 2007, I was supposed to go to Africa to run a chimpanzee field research camp in Uganda for an anthropology/ primatology professor of mine, Kevin Hunt, but the expected funding didn't end up coming through and the site was shut down for a year a few months before I was set to depart. At the time, I was also doing a neuroscience degree and had been looking for further education in that direction oversees, or at least somewhere that still valued education as education instead of a lot of dollar signs and debt. Germany ended up being my next best thing, Berlin in particular. I lived in Berlin for about 1.5 years and then again after attaining my MS in neuro-cognitive psychology and some teaching and research in Munich. I had never visited Berlin before and my first reaction was bewilderment. Coming from essentially a suburban/rural satellite town near Chicago in Northwest Indiana, I had come to expect a bit of centralisation, a financial district, and lots of crime. I was initially rather disoriented, this city (Berlin), has no center, or rather everything is the center at once. Forget about a financial district, one can go to Frankfurt to see that. And as for crime, feel free to walk through a park or down a dark alley in the middle of the night and enjoy the scenery (for rates of violent crime in Germany see, As I grew more accustomed to the city I quickly fell in love, it's neighbourhood-centric organisation seems to fractionate Berlin into multiple Berlins - Berlin is many cities in one. If you can't find something for you in Berlin, it probably doesn't exist in the world. Berlin is a safe space (no assholes please), an inclusive space where ignorance and privilege are tolerated about as far as one could throw the TV tower. Feeling uppity and entitled? A bit of the old Berliner Schnauze (Berlin Attitude) will set you back in your rightful place with the rest of the human race. I love this place.
Germany, and Berlin in particular, has a rich scientific past.  Does living in this city affect or inspire your academic work?

I've studied a lot, from high school throughout all of my 20s. I started in American anthropology which has always been since its foundation under Franz Boas and Alexander von Humboldt (Boas' mentor and namesake of Humboldt University in Berlin) a relativist and holistic pursuit of culture, history, biology, and the human condition in general. It was through those studies that I came to neuroscience, via cognitive interests in our hairy cousins in Southeast Asia (orangs, gibbons) and Central Africa (bonobos, gorillas, chimps). Through it all, I've been interested in perspectives and bringing together diverse kinds of knowledge - from personal individual accounts to neuroimaging - as different elements of a possible description of the human condition. Berlin has definately been a muse in these regards, I don't know what I would have done without it. Berlins diversity, its comfort in states of change and dynamism has had me reexamine everything I do. I think Berlin helped me realize that we'll never have a complete picture of all of humanity, because someone is always going to react and break the mold, just because they can, just to try to do something beautiful. In short, I guess Berlin has really helped me to realize that normal is a myth. Magnus Hirschfeld is of particular interest to me in this regard, a gender campaigner and a human sexuality researcher before the term 'gender' existed, before Kinsey, and before Masters and Johnson. Hirschfeld, a self-identifying homosexual and Jew, lobbied and petitioned German society with vigour throughout the 1920s to show folks what might be possible and to chastise them for trampling folks underfoot that are, in the words of his clearly titled film on the topic, 'Different from the Others'. He got some things wrong, but he mostly stands out for me as an example of Berlin at its best and scientists at their best, keeping in mind the political ramifications of any scientific work.

photo by Jared, Berlin
Berlin is also rich in museums, with the range quite amusing and impressive.  Do you have any favourite institutions here, or is there an exhibition you have visited that stands out in your memory?

Hands down, the Pergamon Museum, but not for the Pergamon Alter. Rather, the gates of Babylon. Alexander the Great walked beneath those gates, and it's not so much the awe that might be inspired by Alexander. In truth he was a horrible despot who pressed multiple continents under his thumb and killed thousands upon thousands. It's the thought of this artifact coming from a time when the history we've recorded wasn't even history yet, it was myth and legend all bound up in one complicated mess. This gate is as close to magic as you can get in Berlin, which is a hell of a feat considering that magic doesn't exist. The Neues Museum is right up there too, the Egyptian collection, for precisely the same reason.

Speaking of magic, Berlin is notorious also for its range of free time activities, from its multitude of parks, to its clubs and galleries, all setting the stage for everything and anything.  Have you picked up any new hobbies since moving here?

I haven't really picked up new hobbies so to speak, but I've definitely been able to expand on all the old ones. I've been climbing for over 20 years and this city boasts a plethora of bouldering and climbing halls the likes of which I haven't really seen anywhere else in a big city. The club scene, I guess, would be my other great love in Berlin. This is probably the most inclusive and unpretentious of club scenes I've ever experienced. Dancing at Berghain you'll find a complete cross-section of Berlin in age, ethnic origins, sexuality, and physical ability (tip, if you want to get in, don't show up drunk, loud, macho, or nervous; wear what you want; and if you don't get in, don't fight about it). The music is world class, Berlin's DJs are definitely putting up their best on any evening you might chance to see them. Dancing in Berlin makes you feel like you've reconnected with your humanity. For thousands of years people have been pulling all-nighters, round campfires, drumming, singing, and generally having a good time; this is also possible in Berlin's clubs if you have the right attitude. Finally, I guess it's worth a mention that I absolutely delight in Berlin's parks on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of summer, you can't have a better time just lying around in the grass and listening to excellent buskers (if you hear pan flutes, run the other direction) giving it their all for money and just as often for fun.

Will you share your thoughts on the commemoration of the Fall of the Wall this past weekend.

The date is the 12th of November 2014, and I guess the one thing I and the revellers 25 years ago have in common is that we are both still recovering from the celebrations on a Tuesday. In all seriousness, the fall of the Wall was something I saw as a 7 year old shortly after Tiananmen Square in China. My parents had sat me down in front of the TV as events unfolded and the only thing I can really remember is a wall and a lot of happy drunk and high people dancing around on top of it with a giant gate in the background. My parents explained to me that these folks had been separated by their governments, and I couldn't for the life of me understand the sense of it. It's a surreal experience every time I see the Brandenburg Gate (the gate from my childhood) and think about what's changed from then to now. 25 years ago, I was 7, clueless, and had no Idea I would end up in this weird weird city Berlin relating anthropological, critical, and historical observations of Berlin, including the fall of the Wall, and showing folks some amazing things in the process. I celebrated at Bornholmer Straße, where the wall first crumbled, surrounding me, as I stood on the middle of the packed Böse bridge which once contained a checkpoint, I heard countless tales being related to friends and family about what people were doing on the 9th of November in 1989. I remember specifically a family, talking to their toddler age child, relating that they couldn't see any of their friends in the West for almost 30 years until that night 25 years ago. The child's response, "aber das macht keinen sinn" (German: 'but that doesn't make any sense'), made me think of myself when I was 7, and made me hope that we can get more people to think that way about all divisions and exclusions, I try to show people that child's profoundly and wonderfully naive perspective on all my tours, I think it's an important one.

Thank you Jared, Berlin itself is lucky that you found your way to this city.

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