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KUA 10 years later


In September I had a chance to return to Copenhagen for a week, working every day out on the island of Amager where the Humanities faculties of the University are. Ten years ago I was an exchange student here — Comp Lit and Nordic — and so it was nice to explore what’s changed (in significantly better weather than when I arrived in January 2007!)

The big change is obviously the complete replacement of the “Old KUA” complex, dating from 1972, with a sparkling new set of buildings. This had begun when I was a student, with a (then-new) complement of classrooms arising alongside. This was what we called “New KUA” in 2007:

Amager Swan

Now, there’s a new set of buildings, which share the same materials and design language of pale pink stone, metal railings, and blue-green glass. A picture of one of these is up at the top of this post. But what sets the new buildings aside is their interior, not exterior. Unlike the New KUA of ten years ago, this new construction pays a lot of attention to the social aspects of space. The offices, library, classrooms and other functions are grouped around an enormous indoor courtyard, shown in this panorama:


The “curled piece of paper” you may be able to make out in the center of that panorama is a unifying theme — a large rolled artwork with words cut out:


The corresponding parts of this lexical stencil are scattered around the courtyard, in bas-relief from the wall itself.

Having nice weather definitely makes a big difference in how you experience the campus. We ate everyday outside the cafeteria, alongside Emil Holm’s canal that passes by Tietgenkollegiet, the round dormitory to the right:


For fans of 1970s architecture, an artistic collective was invited in to document the state of Old KUA before it was torn down. The resulting exhibition, Permanently Temporary - Copenhagen University Amager — lives both online and, charmingly, in a permanent installation in the courtyard of the (new) New KUA complex itself:


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The father of Danish deconstruction on the left's nature-worship:

post-danmark.jpg På et ikke nærmere bestemt tidspunkt blev de røde grønne; socialismen udskiftede klassebegrebet med naturbegrebet. Det gjorde den ikke af kærlighed til skove, tudser, sæler og søer, men for selv at overleve i det risikomoderne uden sit analytiske begreb. Og naturen er lettere at overbevise og styre end arbejderklassen. Den strejker ikke. På venstrefløjen er økologi et middel. Ikke til at bevare naturen, men nationen og til at forsinke og fordreje markedskræfterne med. Selve ordet "økologi" stammer som bekendt fra en nazist (E. Haeckel).

At some time in the past the Reds became Green; socialism replaced the concept of class with the concept of nature. It didn't do this out of love for forests, toads, seals and lakes, but instead in order to survive in the condition of risk-modernism without its analytical notions. And nature is easier to persuade than the working class. It doesn't strike. For the left wing, ecology is a means to an end. Not to protect nature, but nation, and to delay and distort market forces with. The word "ecology" itself, as we know, comes from a Nazi (E. Haeckel).

Post-Danmark: Politik og æstetik hinsides det nationale, p.36
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Danish Starbucks

In late September I flew through Copenhagen, where I had a chance to try out the first Starbucks in Scandinavia — outside the secure zone in Kastrup Airport. You can see a large photo of the Danish-language menu here:

On December 11th I found myself again flying through Copenhagen, and wanted to see if they’d completed construction on the second Starbucks in the region, which was inside the secure ticketing area at Kastrup. Tragically I discovered the new branch was scheduled to open the 12th, one day after my flight — but that they were conducting a “soft launch” for airport employees that very day. I somehow talked my way into the store, still behind construction barricades, by telling the manager I was from Seattle.

Kastrup Starbucks #2

As an extra bonus, all orders were free (!) that day, making this simultaneously the best deal I’ve ever gotten at Starbucks and in Denmark as a whole as well.

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kaerlighed150p2e.jpgIn August 2006, during a conference in Åbo, Finland, British researcher Claire Thomson gave a talk about quite an odd little book that centers on landscape, nation, and memory.

Entitled Kærlighed til fædrelandet var drivkraften (Love for the Fatherland was Driving Force), the book consists of personal narratives from Jeppe Brixvold, Lars Frost, Pablo Henrik Llambí­as and Lars Skinnerbach as they go in search of Denmark in the flat, empty landscape of the peninsula that spawned countless classics of literary romanticism.

Eighteen months later, I finally got a hold of the book myself and have added it to my reading list. There's something oddly compelling about this strange tale of four contemporary authors hiking haplesslessly through the Jutlandic heath, in search of the spirit of Steen St. Blicher — and of Denmark. As Brixvold notes,

De færreste danskere kan i dag bruge ord som «socialism,» «kristelighed» eller «fædrelandssind» uden at rødme, og alligevel er de de mest tydelige grundbestanddele i det danske velfærdssamfund. (76)

(Few Danes can use words today like "socialism," "christianity" or "patriotism" without blushing, but they are still the clearest fundamental elements in the Danish welfare society.)

Through this national landscape wander the ghosts of outsiders: kartoffeltysker, gypsies and Travellers who once populated Blicher’s stories, but who have disappeared or been assimilated.

Natmændene ... blev landarbejdere og sled sikkert selv med hedens opdyrkning, de kom på fabriker og forsvandt i byernes proletariat. De tog mørket med sig, og i dag er landet oplyst... Mørket er væk. Og det er det så lligevel kun i én forstand. Ikke alene stikker erindringen om heden og dens røvere og mordbrændere hovedet frem i f.eks. indvandrerdebatten, mørket har også fundet helt nye veje. I dag er vi ikke kun bange for indvandrere, vi er bange for hvad som helst... Vi kultiverer så en privat fiksering på et eller andet og frygter dét. Vi personliggør mørket, skaber det selv. (77-78)

(The Travellers... became farm workers and surely wore themselves out with the cultivation of the heath, they went to factories and disappeared in the urban proletariat. They took the darkness with them, and today the country has been lightened... The darkness is gone. And yet only in a certain way. The memory of the heath and its robbers and arsonists sticks its head forward not only into the immigration debate, the darkness has also found completely new paths. Today we are afraid of not only immigrants, we are afraid of everything... We cultivate in this way a private fixation with something and fear that thing. We personalize the darkness, we make it ourselves.)

Brixvold’s discussion of "darkness" explicitly links the fear of the unknown or foreign in Blicher’s romantic/realist stories with today’s debates about immigration and assimilation. Was the return of Brixvold, Llambí­as, Frost and Skinnebach to Blicher’s storied heath an attempt to exorcise these ghosts? Or was it an attempt to salvage a kind of communal solidarity neccesary for the continued existance of the welfare state? Can any of these four authors escape the shadow of Blicher and Grundtvig when writing about their country, or is the weight of 19th-century thought about the nation overwhelming even in this, the 21st century?


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On Strøget


This picture is cheating, because it was taken in Copenhagen after the seminar on political literature in September, instead of the seminar on Sara Stridsberg I just got back from this week. But Amanda and I were in the same neighborhood on Wednesday, at any rate...

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DFP's Danish Values

Dansk Folkeparti - Tolerance

This awkward moment for the Dansk Folkeparti is brought to you courtesy of Nørreport station, where an enterprising adbuster crawled across the high-voltage tracks to adhere a triptych of "RACIST" blindfolds to the three politicians featured -- the middle of whom is the infamous Pia Kjærsgaard herself.

The great part about this color commentary is the way the slogan works just as well with the updated graphic treatment: "Vi står fast på vores danske værdier" (We stand fast on our Danish values) takes on a whole different connotation when the three politicians are literally blinded by prejudice. As the DFP would have it, the values in question here are a kind of mash-up of Quayle-era "Family Values" and Hitchensian anti-Islamicism in the service of "Freedom of Expression" (here a proxy for Mohammed cartoons and Lars Vilks.) Not surprisingly, everyone from the Christian Democrats to this particular subway editor disagrees.

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Ikke Kunst panel

This Thursday was the seminar on political literature and critical engagement that I flew down to Copenhagen to attend. Organized by the Danish Students Study Circle, the event brought together artists, professors and grad students with a shared interest in the socio-political turn in recent Danish literature. This recent development is perhaps the natural pendulum swing -- or the payback -- after the 'sleepy' early 1990s.

There are a few names which stand out when you consider literature from this period -- probably most notoriously Claus Beck-Nielsen, the performance artist who has, among other things, 1) lived as a homeless person on the streets of Copenhagen, 2) travelled to Iraq with an enormous empty box labeled "The Democracy," and 3) written his own postmortem.


Beck-Nielsen (seen here at a talk in early 2007) is interesting in that he takes equal aim at internal Danish society (Claus Beck-Nielsen: 1963-2001) as well as Denmark's engagement in the world abroad (Selvmordsaktionen: beretningen om forsøget på at indføre demokratiet i Irak i året 2004). Kristian Ditlev Jensen's Det bliver sagt is more sharply focused inward, an autobiographical account of a young working-class boy's sexual abuse by a member of the cultural elite. In certain people's readings, this narrative stands as a symbol for a collective loss of faith in mores of the ruling class who are supposed to provide cultural liberation to the working class. This unique solidarity between arbejder and intellectual could be thought of as the keystone in the edifice of the welfare state -- a connection that has been problematic in American history long before Dan Qualye's assault on Murphy Brown, but one taken for granted in Scandinavia for decades.

Ditlev Jensen's book was one of the volumes we read last semester in Tue Andersen Nexø's class Vidnesbyrd fra velfærdsstaten, and Nexø was the first speaker on today's program. Nexø concentrated on the domestic Danish cultural landscape, noting the increased emphasis on man as a fundamentally social creature, with individuals situated in oftentimes problematic relationship to others. (Helle Helle's famous short story about a woman's "violent inner life," which proves to be entirely fabricated, deserves a separate post in the near future.) In a theme that others would return to throughout the day, he suggested that the welfare state's implicit goal of "disciplining individuals to achieve self-realization" was now widely recognized as problematic. The resulting "slippage" between the professed view of humanity, and how people actually experience the welfare state in their everyday, is a rich field for current writers.

Nexø pointed to examples such as Ditlev Jensen and Beck-Nielsen as evidence that automatic confidence in the welfare state's intentions and performance could no longer be taken for granted. An interesting nuance in some of these authors' attacks on contemporary Danish society is the division between those who suggest the powerful central state is failing in to nurture the weak and vulnerable and protect them from abuse (Ditlev Jensen, Peter Høeg in De måske egnede) versus those who believe the Danish state is succeeding all too well in its project of dehumanizing citizens (Beck-Nielsen in his postmortem autobiography.)

Hans Hauge, professor from Århus and author of Post Danmark - Politik og aestetik hinsides det nationale took the stage next to discuss "Kunstnernes automatiserede men statsvenlige venstreradikalisme" (Artists' automatized, yet state-friendly, leftist radicalism). I have to say Hauge was a complete surprise in terms of what I was expecting: he delivered a talk that flitted between a kind of ironic nostalgia for the simpler literary debates of earlier times, all the while making it clear he was in command of the vocabulary and critical issues confronting the contemporary reader. I wasn't aware that he was among the first in Denmark to usher in Deconstruction many years ago, but would believe it after hearing him talk. Overall this made me wish I had had more time to read his Post Danmark volume when I had it out from the library last semester. Perhaps it's his own consciousness about the foibles of left-wing academics which makes his ideas seem to flirt with reactionary dogma even while they expertly describe a radical present.

Next up was "Thomas Altheimer," stage-name of an artist who went with Claus Beck-Nielsen on his quixotic journey to Iraq. Altheimer played a slow-motion video of him and Beck-Nielsen undressing on the seashore, changing into bathing suits, and wading out into the (north?) sea. Meanwhile, he described what it was like to go to the Middle East with a Dane who was arguably crazier than himself. He referenced Thomas Friedman's term for Osama bin Laden and his followers as "super-empowered fanatics" and suggested that he and Beck-Nielsen could be thought of as "under-empowered fanatics" in their quest to highlight the absurdity of the Coalition project in the middle east.

As amusing and quotable as "under-empowered fanatic" is, however -- and certainly it's a great way to understand much of contemporary Danish culture, from von Trier's Dogme to Jyllands-Posten's editorial board -- Altheimer's use of it was undercut by the trailer for the film he showed next, an upcoming project entitled "Europe '08". The film -- which truthfully works better in concept that any possible realization -- chronicles the attempt of Altheimer and Simon Robertsen to win the American presidential election -- with Europe herself as the candidate.

The problem with Altheimer's claim on the status of "under-empowered fanatic" was clear in the film clip he showed of traveling to small-town America to open campaign headquarters in Altheimer, Arkansas. (Michael Moore is the king of these kind of mockumentary setups, and films from Roger & Me to Sicko walk the line between presenting economic inequality as a moral outrage and offering it up as entertainment.) Altheimer runs into the polite and helpful Black mayor of the tiny Arkansas town, who takes the Dane completely at face value and offers his help in setting up headquarters. Thus it's hard to know what to make of the artist's sniggering at a typo on the mayor's business card (which appears more prominently in the film trailer than on the blog.)

Just like the closing credits of Dogville, when we don't know whether the photographs of poor, ugly Americans are supposed to incite pity or disgust in the European mind, Altheimer shows a willingness to use the figure of the American ethnic bumpkin as a foil for his own Continental sophistication. Compare von Trier's closing sequence to Altheimer's still photography:

Who, exactly, is under-empowered in this cultural dynamic?
2011 Update: The Europe 2008 website has disappeared from the net and even the Internet Archive didn't cache the photos. The above is the only one I could find -- the original post linked to a larger collection.

(If you want the worst example of this kind of umlauted self-righteousness, check out Jacob Holdt, whose photographs grace the end of Dogville and who traipses through the world with a moral erection giving seminars on racism while Nørrebro -- and the Dannebrog -- burns.)

Solveig Gade went next with an analysis of some recent interventionary art in Denmark. She made reference to a few of Superflex's projects, although strangely not their most compelling: the "FOREIGNERS, PLEASE DON'T LEAVE US ALONE WITH THE DANES" poster:

The person who stole the show in the afternoon was without a doubt Rune Lykkeberg, a long-term graduate student (14 years!) who works currently as an editor at Information, a kind of secular Danish Christian Science Monitor. His extemporaneous speech on the rise and fall of the cultural elite held the audience rapt, if only for the purpose of finding out where exactly which high-speed rhetorical U-turn and zig-zag would end up. Drawing from recent sociology, he suggested that the schism between working-class voting power and ruling-class cultural leadership that had characterized Denmark since the 1930s was indeed coming apart, with many ordinary Danes growing suspicious of the values of those government cultural ministers who see it as their job to enlighten the people through art and literature. This argument, of course, parallels the ways that people have explained the Bush/Kerry election of 2004: that the lower-middle class was convinced to vote against their economic self interest because they were convinced the specter of gay marriage was a bigger threat than the reality of not having universal health care. While there's data to suggest this is a misleading conclusion (apparently in poll situations people over-respond to "shares my values" questions because the term is so loose and slippery), the resonance in the Danish socio-political landscape is striking. And at this point, we need all the scientific explanations we can get for Fogh Rasmussen's continued hold on power.

Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg, a professor at SDU and reviewer at Politiken whom I heard when he came through Seattle a few years ago, arguably started the blog-fight that was one reason for this seminar. In the latest edition of the literary journal Kritik, Zangenberg lashed out at what he called unreflective and automatic criticism of the Danish engagement in Iraq, together with knee-jerk hatred for right-wing politicians such as Venstre's Fogh Rasmussen and various DFP functionaries:

"Helt præcist forekommer det mig problematisk, at hovedparten af de oven for nævnte kunstnere ikke argumenterer overhovedet, men alene forudsætter det sandt, at Bush og Anders Fogh Rasmussen er forbryderiske, tåbelige og ondsindede... Det kan gerne være, men præcis hvorfor? Og kan vi virkelig ikke stille mere op mod det end at hånlé sammen med alle meningsfællerne næste gang vi er til poesi-oplæsning?"

(To be precise, it seems problematic to me that the majority of the above-mentioned artists don't produce an argument at all, but just presuppose it to be true that Bush and Anders Fogh Rasmussen are criminal, ridiculous and evil... That may well be true, but why exactly? And can we really not come up with anything else than mocking laughter together with the like-minded the next time we're at a poetry reading?)

I don't know enough about Zangenberg to say if his position is grounded in his own support for (or ambivalence over) the war in Iraq (I just bought the issue of Kritik in Copenhagen and haven't had time to read it yet (By the way: what's up with US$30 for a freaking journal? Forget Iraq, where's the outraged struggle against high Danish book prices?)) or, possibly, if he's upset at intellectual laziness amongst his own fellow progressives. Tue went on the counter-attack here, in any case. Regardless, his talk here was unfortunately not followed-up by a lengthy stay during the question-and-answer session, as he had to leave the seminar early.

Finally, professor Marianne Stidsen concluded the day's events by suggesting that, for all the controversy and attention generated by Beck-Nielsen and other 'political' authors, they lacked any kind of positive counter-example on which to build an alternate culturo-poltical order. Her experience with previous generations' revolutionary literature -- and here I am assuming she means the 1960s, but I could be wrong -- leads her to conclude that protest is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient for effective politically-engaged literature. She sees nothing in Beck-Nielsen's unique blend of Sisyphus and Quixote that leads any place positive.

The seminar actually began with a few pre-recorded pieces from contemporary authors. Here is Martin Glaz Serup -- whom I saw at the Apparatur Evening -- reading from "Trafikken er uvirkelig":

And Lars Frost, "En drøm om Anders Fogh"

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Danish Apples


On the way back from the Rundetårn, we stopped to buy some vegetables for dinner.

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Copenhagen Rundetårn


I flew down to Copenhagen on Wednesday to attend a conference on Political Literature -- more on which later -- as well as to visit a friend doing dissertation research in the Danish capital. We took a walk through the central city, stopping at the Rundetårn, an observatory built in the 1600s by King Christian IV. I had been up to the top back in 1994, when I travelled through Northern Europe with a high school friend, but never found a chance to go back up when I was living in Copenhagen during the first half of this year. So this was my first time in the tower, which consists of an enormous spiral ramp, since 13 years ago.


The view from the top is spectacular -- you can see the Øresund bridge in the distance, leading to Sweden.


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Final Papers

In my last week in Denmark I'm writing two final papers, one for Tue Nexø's Comp Lit class on Welfare State Literature and one for Erik Skyum's class on Short Story Theory. The latter is being written in Swedish, and I can say two things: 1) It's shocking how hard it is to keep the two languages straight, after having spent the last five months immersed in Danish, and 2) it's humbling how many errors in Swedish that Danes can discover when they proof-read your text. Flight is Friday back to the States, after which a end-of-quarter party with the UW grad students is planned. Next week the Apple Developer's Conference in San Francisco.

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A brief trip to Malmö today to visit a friend gave me the chance to take a bunch of pictures of that city's (in)famous geese.

Geese in Malmö

Other highlights were the Calatrava-design Turning Torso tower:

Malmö's Turning Torso

And the great new City Library:

Malmö City Library

Malmö City Library

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lungs.jpg Today the Danish students' association had a visit from the poet and critic Mette Moestrup, who gave a presentation on the contemporary American poet Juliana Spahr, formerly of U. Hawaii and now at Mills College in Oakland. Moestrup has been involved with Spahr in previous projects, including translating an article of hers into Danish for publication in Den Blå Port, as well as an event that brought American poets to Copenhagen. Spahr's latest poetic work, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, which is probably best placed in the "Hawaiian poetry about 9/11" genre, was what Moestrup read from and discussed with us today.

Reaction from the students focused on the issues of engagement versus passivity that seemed to emerge in Spahr's poetry -- the work makes constant reference to media overload and a stream of disturbing images on the TV in the run-up to the war in Iraq, while remaining strangely silent about political participation in the democratic process. One gets the sense the geographic isolation of Hawaii contributes to the sense of disconnectedness that Spahr's poetic narrator feels, though of course paradoxically the poems are all about being connected to events in the larger world. Hawaii's dual role as island escape and naval military base is also interesting to Spahr, though not really in any kind of complex or new way that I can divine.

The other striking thing about the poems is their creation of a kind of ersatz second-person-plural pronoun, normally morphologically undistinguished in English, in "yous". The group was about to ascribe this affectation to a cutesy way of referring to the poet's collection of multiple parrots, when somebody in the group pointed out that it was probably more a reflection her polyamorous lifestyle. Somehow I liked the poems more with the image of parrots in my head.

All in all Mette Moestrup made a stronger impression on me than the poems that she brought to share with us, as it's refreshing and inspiring to see authors from smaller European countries stay up-to-date and current with other authors in the world. There certainly isn't a counter-example of this kind of engagement that I can think of in the USA, with the possible exception of those authors whose mastery of Spanish allows them to engage with Latin American artists.

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