With and Beyond Borders: Toward a Posthumanist American Studies – J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists – article

With and Beyond Borders: Toward a Posthumanist American Studies

Johanna Heil | J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists


I grew up during the Cold War in a divided country—divided by a fence, a wall, and two political and economic systems at (cold) war with one another. I lived just outside the town of Fulda, Germany, a small city with a beautiful baroque historic center known to locals as the favorite settlement of Saint Boniface, the eighth-century “apostle of the Germans,” whose bones were laid to rest in Fulda’s abbey church. But Fulda is not only famous for its role in the Christianization of medieval Germania. In the twentieth century, it became a site of some geopolitical significance: during the Cold War, the German- German border ran eighteen miles east of Fulda, through the rolling hillside of the Rhön. The area around Fulda is a corridor of low land known as the Fulda Gap, which connects the former border region to western Germany. This corridor was strategically important during the Cold War because it was believed to be the passage the Soviet army would have used to attack the West. I was too young to understand why my American neighbor worked at the military base in Fulda, and I certainly could not grasp the full significance of the observation post Point Alpha in the Rhön (now a [End Page 343] Cold War museum). But although the border seemed mostly virtual for me, it also felt real and menacing—I saw it during Rhön hikes and could feel how uncomfortable the adults became at the sight of the watch-towers on the other side. I sometimes felt it looming like a dark cloud over the freedom that I was enjoying in the West, because, whether consciously or unconsciously I cannot tell, I was aware of the privilege that came with my West Germanness and my passport. During the Cold War and the later period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the European borders, I did not experience most borders as closed; after all, my family and I could travel wherever we wanted, and our station wagon was rarely or never stopped. But maybe this was also because we had been taught where we wanted to go. The night when the Berlin Wall fell, I watched my parents watching the news. Stirred by the excitement of so many people, I feigned understanding of what was happening on the screen; I took our huge atlas off the shelf, found the page with the national flags, and proudly crossed out the flag of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). After all, I thought that the “other Germany” and the border in the Rhön no longer existed and thus no longer required representation. In the years that followed, borders were no longer an immediate concern of my childhood. One exception was in school, where I learned about world geography by marking the borders of nation-states in red ink. I did not yet understand that the lines we drew were the color of blood because many could not cross those borders without paying for the passage with their blood. Soon, my neighbor moved back to the United States, the US military base in Fulda was closed, and everyone in town was sad to see the Americans go. As they went they made room for new people to arrive, but those who arrived from the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were less warmly welcomed. ________ Thinking about American studies in a transnational and a critical post-humanist context as a German scholar today, I am often reminded of how I experienced history and borders as a child in Fulda. A city founded to bring Christianity to Germania in the Middle Ages, late modernity brought Fulda right back to the front line of ideological combat. Interestingly, then, the history of my hometown brackets the history of the United States in that it brackets modernity with its humanism, the period when the United States was conceived, came of age as a…


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