Georg Schendl: Once you start blending in, you get to see the heterogeneity of life
Mag. Phil. Georg Schendl is a teaching assistant at the Center for Inter-American Studies at the University of Graz, Austria. His research interest lies in the history of the Americas, human rights, the development of international criminal law as well as environmental history and studies. He holds two bachelor's and a master’s degree from the University of Vienna.
In February 2012 Georg Schendl was a guest speaker at the Student Conference on Inter-American Studies that took place at the Faculty of Arts, Comenius University.
Perspectives (PP): First of all, we would like to ask you about your first impression of the conference.
Georg Schendl (GS): The conference is organized in a very professional way. If I did not know that students organized it, I would not have guessed. I’m also surprised at the number of people who have come and who seem to be interested in the topic. It’s a revolutionary idea to organize such a conference at a university where there is no program in Inter-American Studies. I’m happy to be here. For me it is a good opportunity to see another university and learn another way of thinking. I didn’t study translation, so I find your specific approach to this subject very interesting.
PP: Do you often travel to Slovakia?
GS: Not really, I think this is my third time. When I was last here, there was still passport control on the border. It must have been shortly before you joined the EU. You know, when something is really close, you never go there because you think you can go at any time. So, in the end, you never – or hardly ever – go there. On the other hand, if you go to Argentina, you have to plan the journey and that’s why you will probably get there one day. All I have to do to get to Bratislava is go to the Eastern Train Station, buy a ticket, and I am there. That’s probably why I hardly ever do it.
PP: The subject of the conference is a little unusual for our department. Is Inter-American Studies often taught at universities?
GS: Definitely not. I first heard of the Inter-American Studies when I applied for a job last year. I had always been more into Latin-American history or Caribbean history, but I thought it would be only natural to start dealing with North America in greater detail too. I am a member of an association which has continental America and the Caribbean in its name, but we don’t deal with the US very much and we hardly ever do something on Canada. On the other hand, Americans do not talk about Latin America very often either. However, from a historical point of view, because I was trained as a historian, I find it rather logical to talk about a common history. There are certain tendencies that the countries of the Americas have in common nowadays. You have a shift, you have hegemonic politics of the US, you can never forget an imbalance of power. You can’t not talk about mutual relations between these countries as it is an important topic to talk about. The problem is that there aren’t many people who speak English and Spanish or Portuguese, or all the four major colonial languages – like French and one of the indigenous languages. Being a historian, I am not such a perfectionist. I don’t need to speak a language as well as translators usually do. My knowledge of Spanish is rather sloppy, but I think it’s a working knowledge. The point is that you really need to know the language in order to translate things on a cultural background.
PP: So, besides English, what colonial languages can you speak? Spanish?
GS: I do speak Spanish. It’s a bit rusty now, because I haven’t spent much time in Latin America in recent years, but it’s okay. I can understand and speak the language. I learnt Portuguese for one and a half years, but it is really rusty. I think Portuguese is in some ways similar to Spanish, so I can read Portuguese and understand Brazilian Portuguese. I went to French classes at school, so I can read it and I can cope with most everyday situations. I’m not proficient in any of the languages, but none of them failed me when I was travelling.
PP: It seems that the only colonial language that you miss in your collection is Dutch.
GS: Which I guess should not be so difficult to learn for someone who speaks German as the first language, but I have never started learning it. I probably will.
PP: How did you get to Inter-American Studies?
GS: Do you want to hear the shorter or the longer version of the story?
PP: Whichever you prefer.
GS: When I studied history, there was no two-level university system. Everybody studied for an M.A. The first years were general: you had to learn everything from year zero to current developments, and later you could specialize. I first thought about specializing in the Second World War, like a lot of people did at that time, but then I started attending a seminar on Cuba, because I was interested in the country, and I met some people that were totally into Latin America and the Caribbean. I started travelling a lot, and that is how I got round to writing my thesis about Chile. While travelling, you always notice the influence of the US on popular culture. Actually, you can’t discuss Central America without discussing the US. But the real breakthrough was my current job. I started to do more reading about North America and I became part of interdisciplinary organisations, which I find more interesting than hanging out with historians and talking about methods of historical research and archives. Although it is perfectly interesting, useful and important, I can’t imagine doing it 24/7 for the rest of my life. I’d prefer to gain some insight into other disciplines. However much I like interdisciplinarity, I would not start too early with it. Everybody should work on forming their own views first, learning the methods of their discipline, and only then, after getting their M.A. or Ph.D., they should start thinking in a broader way. They should open their minds to other disciplines and not only the ones related to their own discipline. It’s also good to go into disciplines like natural sciences, which have a completely different view of the whole world and humanity.
PP: What do you like about Inter-American Studies?
GS: Well, on a completely pragmatic level, I like travelling the Americas. I've always liked it. But I don't think African Studies or Asian Studies are less interesting. I just have more expertise in this field. I've also been to South-East Asia, but I don't know more about it than any other tourist. My knowledge of the region comes from a guide book; I’m not an expert on its history. In fact, I believe that when you do reading about something, you come to understand it even less.
PP: On the other hand, it's also proved that the more you know about something, the more you understand it and the more you begin to like it.
GS: I don't know, maybe things just get more complicated. There's a saying, which, unfortunately, I can't quote, but it says something to the effect that if you come somewhere for a day, you'll write a book, if you're there for a coffee, you'll write an article, but if you spend a couple of years there, you'll write one sentence. At the beginning, things seem clear, but once you start blending in, you get to see the heterogeneity of life. Not all Bolivians are the same. We are not just Slovaks or Austrians. However, when we come somewhere else, we are perceived as Slovaks or Austrians and given some attributes. This is when things get more complicated. Learning about something is also about not seeing the other so much as the other. You simply stop being aware of differences.
PP: Why do you think students should do Inter-American Studies?
GS: Well, it is always this purpose-thinking. I think you should do things that are interesting for you, and when something is interesting, why not do it? I’m not a big fan of today’s personality development system when students specialize at the age of 21 and then get their Ph.D.’s when they’re 26 or 28. Students should have broad interests. Of course, they should have some expertise too. But I believe that we all should in the first place do what is interesting for us and we shouldn’t just want to do everything as fast as possible, get a job and run some projects. I’m not saying it’s a universal recipe, but it definitely worked for me.
PP: Now a tricky question: What jobs can students apply for with a degree in Inter-American Studies?
GS: Well, they can apply for whatever jobs they like. The question is whether they are going to be accepted or not. I’m probably the wrong person to be asked this because I’ve got my job at university. Most people just get their bachelor’s or master’s degrees and want to do something completely different. Ideally, when you are studying economics, you should get a job which has something to do with it. If you wanted to be on the safe side, you should do something you’re interested in and something that could potentially help you find a job. It’s said that humanities education prepares people for jobs in state or international organizations, like NGOs. This is probably true. Here I would like to return to the intercultural aspect of Inter-American Studies, which I consider very important and which is not integral to this field only. I think it is good to be an expert in a certain field of interculturality because you talk to people from Latin America differently than to people from the Middle East. I’m sure that this is what can give you a job.
PP: And my final question. I heard that you’re doing research into human rights. If you could generalize, what do you think is the situation of human rights in the Americas?
GS: Not at its best, I would say. In some parts of the Americas the situation used to be, of course, worse. I mean the dictatorships of Southern or Central America. In the US things were probably better before 9/11. The situation on the whole continent was probably better a couple of years ago, but a rise in crime rate resulted in the return of iron fist politics. I’m interested not only in human rights violations but also in the concept as such – whether it’s cultural relativist or universal. I think it’s probably both. It’s also interesting how human rights are perceived in individual countries. If a security discourse becomes important, the discourse about human rights becomes less important. That’s a rule.
PP: Have you travelled, for instance, to Mexico recently?
GS: Not recently. I went there in 1999 and 2003, when there wasn’t a war with narcomafia and drug cartels. I’ve also been to Columbia twice. When I was first there in 2000, the situation in the country was similar to that in Mexico at the moment. I don’t want to tell students to go to dangerous places – but if you travel to places like this, you get to see different realities. You gain different perspectives and get to see how specific Central European perceptions of life are. Differences are important; that’s what should always be taught. Inter-American Studies is not about homogenization of an area either. It’s not that people are all the same. Quebeckers are different from Patagonians, just as much as Lithuanians are different from the Portuguese. Despite that, there is something that links these people historically or geographically. This is not to say that I want a world where you have the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. This would be a wrong direction because in some cases it’s more important to look at history from a more global perspective. Take the slave trade, for instance. It doesn’t make any sense to look at it as an Inter-American trade. You have to take into consideration Europe, the African coast, all the mixed communities on the African coast...
PP: It leads us back to perspectives, different perspectives...
GS: Yes, a monocausal way of thinking is not desirable. This was one of the first things I learned in history: in an Introduction to History course we were told that if somebody wants to tell you that there’s a monocausal explanation for something, you shouldn’t believe them. It’s been years and years but I still stick to it. One explanation is not enough. Open-mindedness should be fostered.
PP: Would you say that this is the central idea of the Inter-American Studies program?
GS: Definitely yes.
Katarína Koreňová and Lucia Otrísalová
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