Ottmar Ette (OE): My name is Ottmar Ette, I was born in the Black Forest region of Germany and was raised bilingually. I live in Potsdam, though not here in the Botanical Garden. I have been working here in Potsdam for many years, studying the works of Alexander von Humboldt for over three decades. Humboldt was very familiar with gardens like this one. So this is a very special place for me. I would describe myself as a scholar in Comparative and Romance literature, and I have always understood Romance Studies to be a global science. It has fascinated me since my days as a student and still does today.
I wrote my PhD thesis on a Cuban poet and my „Habilitation“ on a French theoretician. I am passionate about what I do, and I try to share that passion with others.
Nina Hübner (NH): Thank you so much for this nice introduction, Mr. Ette. As you just mentioned, we are sitting here in the Botanical Garden of the University of Potsdam. We chose this place because you have been working for many years now on the tropics and the Caribbean. You recently published a book concerned with TransArea Studies.
In a nutshell: What exactly does TransArea mean?
OE: In essence, TransArea Studies deal with how our world is constructed, and how we can think and imagine the world around us. TransArea Studies also look at the historical development of globalization over the centuries, at diverse periods of drift and acceleration. Its primary focus is not historiography, nor necessarily economics or social movements like migration. Rather, it looks at globalization from the perspective of literature, which is capable of integrating and aggregating all of these aspects in a new way.
NH: Would you consider the Botanical Garden to be a TransArea?
OE: Good question. In essence, the Botanical Garden is a myse en abyme, a fractal space, a microcosm of the entire world. What we see here is a trans-tropical space — the flora comes from different areas of the tropics. So we can only understand this space as a result of different phases of globalization. That turns the Botanical Garden into a space within a space, which re-creates all this diversity before our very eyes, in the sounds, the smells, in the presence of organisms and creatures that technically don’t belong here, yet have now come to live here. In that sense, this garden has created – in the co-existence of all these diverse plants – an entire universe unto itself.
NH: In your approach towards TransArea Studies, you often return to the Caribbean, to the tropics. Why is that?
OE: I don’t work solely on the Caribbean. But when I do, it is for several reasons. I don’t think we can comprehend ourselves merely from within ourselves. That being said, we can understand the Caribbean as a large-scale, experimental space. For Europe, the Caribbean has always been a mirror image, but more importantly, also a laboratory. Of course, the term „laboratory“ evokes a sense of brutality: the violence that was committed to objects and especially to people — displacement, migration, deportation. In that sense, we can learn a lot about Europe by studying the Caribbean. The point is: we need a culture of thought and reflection that understands spaces and areas primarily through their inherent movements, and not as static concepts. In the sciences and humanities, we need to develop a poetics of movement. That way, we can gain a much better sense not only of literature, but also of ourselves, in a way that is more suited to today’s challenges.
NH: How do TransArea studies deal with the fact that the Caribbean is so loaded metaphorically?
OE: None of the many dimensions that shape our lives can after all be understood ex nihilo, out of nothing. There is always some predetermination. And of course, the Caribbean evokes a whole set of images in all of us, even in those of us who have never been there before. There are still many of us in Europe who project all kinds of images onto the Caribbean: palm trees, exotic animals, etc. So the Caribbean can be viewed as an ideal space of reflection, since we are almost obliged to tackle and confront this imagery. We cannot simply walk past these images. They shape our approach to the region, and also reveal their own historical contingency.
NH: You also make the case for literary studies as a life science, as a means to study bios. Can literature help us make our lives, our living together, simpler and more peaceful?
OE: Literature can certainly make a key contribution to our knowledge and comprehension of life and living together. It can help us add historical depth to these issues. Literature has always been based upon and dealt with different forms and norms of living together. Literature is a laboratory — a Botanical Garden, so to speak — in which we can experiment with all the potentialities of human life.
NH: Can literature impact politics? Would you consider TransArea literature to be political?
OE: In fact, TransArea literature is intrinsically political. Not necessarily in the sense of everyday politics, but in the sense of being political. In other words, it is political in a broader, more profound sense. Literature demonstrates how even our most intimate emotions — our ways of living together, love, hate — can turn political. Literature is, so to speak, a realm of imagination. And politics in today’s world can be understood precisely as a lack of imagination. The tendency to justify political decisions as if there were no alternatives at any given moment is a notion that is averse to literature; on the contrary, it is a notion that is constantly questioned by literature in order to give way to new perspectives. Literature in a sense offers a way to overcome political gridlock.
NH: What are your thoughts on the German term „Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund“ (people with a migrant history)?
OE: I’m not very fond of it, because all of us actually have a migratory background, be it in the familial, individual, or collective sense. In fact, literature neatly demonstrates how we each stem from many places, how our multiple futures are enabled by the poly-logical structure of our multiple origins. In Brandenburg, there is a political catch phrase that goes: „no future without origin“. That might sound clever in a political sense, but it reduces everything to one origin, to one future. I think, we need to rephrase here: „no futures without origins“. That brings me to an important aspect of the political approach of TransArea literary studies. That is, to consider the diversity of places and languages that we originate from. In that respect, I believe in what Amin Maalouf has said in Les Identités meurtrières (Engl. trans.: In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong): The more points of reference we have, the more we become individuals, the more we differ from others. At the same time, these multiple points of reference allow for more ways of connecting and of relating to one another. I think that really reflects the political agenda behind the concept of TransArea, behind the reframing of a literary history of globalization, that focuses not solely on the economics or the historiography of globalization.
NH: I imagine you travel a lot. It’s obviously part of your profession, attending conferences and so on. But travel literature also constitutes an important part of TransArea literature, and it is something you have worked on time and again. How do you travel? What is it you like about traveling?
OE: Traveling has fascinated me all my life. I have always loved to travel along with others since I was a child. In fact, I cannot imagine a life without travel. It is, of course, an exceptional privilege, a great gift — as long as you are free to decide where you want to go. It means integrating a whole set of travel experiences into a scientific project based on lived experience. I imagine that without travel, my profession would be some kind of forced sedentary existence. I am very happy with my profession; if it weren’t for travel I wouldn’t be nearly as happy.
NH: Well, if that’s so, Mr. Ette, we wish you enjoyable travels over the summer break. Thank you so much for your time.
OE: The same to you. And keep reading! Reading is always a journey: so enjoy the ride!
Interview with Ottmar Ette, Professor of Romance and Comparative Literature at the Universität Potsdam, Germany. The interview was conducted in German and filmed in 2012 at the Botanical Garden, Potsdam. In it, Ottmar Ette explains and reflects upon his concept of TransArea Studies. On this subject, Ette published in 2012 his monograph TransArea. Eine literarische Globalisierungsgeschichte (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter).
The video interview was drafted, prepared, and produced by Jan Schmieder, Maria-Anna Schiffers, Nina Hübner, and Sebastián Roldán. It is the result of the project seminar “Broadcasting Science: Video-Interviews zu Schlüsselkonzepten der TransArea Studies” (instructor: Tobias Kraft) and is part of the Master Degree studies program for Romance Studies at the Universität Potsdam.
Technical assistance and consulting: Audiovisuelles Zentrum (AVZ), Universität Potsdam