Reflection on ETHER Seminar One: The Art of Seeing and Hearing the Other

Author: Cornelia F. Bock, Universität Hamburg, June 2021

The ETHER Seminar One “The Art of Seeing and Hearing the Other” was very inspiring and thought-provoking in many respects as it brought together different perspectives on the nature and the perception of, but mainly on the encounter and possible engagement with the other.

Do We Want the Encounter?

One question that stuck with me was “Do we want the encounter?” that Ana Deumert brought up in her conversation and for which she gave the example of Jewish Holocaust survivors and German perpetrators from Helen Finch’s talk. Here, art was mentioned as a possibility to imagine such an encounter. At the same time, the whole seminar made clear that art in its various forms cannot only be used to act out a hypothetical encounter with the other, but is also a means to actually bring such encounters about and even facilitate them, as for instance Thandanani Gumede showed us when talking about his programme for schools where Zulu culture was brought to British pupils by performances and talks that emphasized the connection between music and education in the Zulu tradition.

In my research context of a joint German-African church service you might presuppose that the people participating in it really do want the encounter with the other as they come there voluntarily and there is much less at stake in this type of an encounter than in others. However, I would argue that it is not that straightforward as there can be different “degrees” of encounters with the other. By this I mean that people might come to the church service because they want to worship in this new joint tradition or because they enjoy Gospel music or the dialogical sermon of two pastors or just because they want to improve their German or English skills. Whatever the reason for their participation, it does have an impact on their behaviour, involvement, and the “degree” of the encounter in the sense of the actual engagement with the other.

Church Service as a Place to Connect, Not Erase, Difference

Still, the religious domain might be a place where it is easier to bring about encounters and even engagement as the participants can perceive each other as being similar or at least sharing something, which can help build trust. This is related to what was called “magic” in the seminar, i.e., the third element that is produced when two people interact, when they build a connection. Even though having a shared belief might already be this third element that connects people, meaningful interaction and encounter within the service will produce more of this feeling of religious common ground. But it can also generate something similar, i.e., a connection, which is not religious in essence, but (inter‑) personal. In the German-African service and other events organised by the church, people get the opportunity not only to talk about their belief and exchange their religious views, but also to get to know each other on a personal level and participate in less religious events, such as jointly watching and enjoying a World Championship football match between Ghana and Germany.

Encounter as Movement across Comfort, Panic and Learning Zones

Another point that was especially interesting for me was the notion of discomfort, which was mentioned several times, for example by Parinita Shetty talking about the “methodology of discomfort” (Burdick/Sandlin 2010). In the joint service people from different ethnic and linguistic, but also religious backgrounds come together. The service itself interweaves aspects from the West African Charismatic tradition with aspects from the German Protestant tradition. Therefore, some liturgical elements or their specific design and execution might be familiar and others unfamiliar. Especially newcomers might feel uncomfortable with this and need some time to develop a sense of belonging. The pastors talk about this by using the idea of a ‘comfort zone’ and a ‘panic zone’:

Und da sind wir ((räuspert sich 0,3s))˙ bei diesem • Modell von Komfortzone ((lacht 0,2s)) • • und Panikzone. Also • ne • • ich erkenn was wieder, • • • aber natürlich • äh • • • wenn ich als Deutscher in Gottesdienst komm und plötzlich soll ich mit meinem Nachbarn ((lacht 0,5s)) über Bibeltext spontan sprechen ((lacht 0,2s)) • • • is erstmal ne Überforderung. [1]

And there we are ((clears throat 0.3s))˙ at this • model of comfort zone ((laughs 0.2s)) • • and panic zone. So • right • • I recognize something, • • • but of course • eh • • • when I as a German come to a church service and suddenly I am supposed to talk spontaneously with my neighbour ((laughs 0.5s)) about a bible text ((laughs 0.2s)) • • • is first of all an overburdening.

The service, then, is supposed to be situated in the overlapping part of those zones, which is the ‘learning zone’. That is, everyone is invited and encouraged to leave his / her comfort zone in order to be able to engage meaningfully with the other and to start mutual learning. One aspect which is on the one hand unfamiliar and on the other hand useful for encounters is the service’s music. This leads us back to art as a medium and facilitator for contact and exchange and to a part of Thandanani Gumede’s provocation (https://ether.leeds.ac.uk/profiles/thandanani-thanda-gumede/) where he experienced a song sung in a language unfamiliar to him, which did not prevent him from understanding the emotions and message of the song. The joint service’s Gospel choir sings songs in many different languages, mostly English and several West African languages. The latter are unfamiliar to most white Germans in the congregation and some also to people with a different African heritage. For many white Germans, these Gospel songs might be the first encounter with an African language. But the music is still able to transport the song’s message and thus contribute to the ongoing ritual and the encounter with the other that is taking place within it.

As mentioned above, the shared Christian belief – though differing in its specific characteristics – can be a facilitator for an encounter with the other in that it provides a reason for people with different backgrounds to come together in the first place. Even though the actual engagement with other people might vary, everyone who is new to the joint service will encounter the other in various forms. What is useful here, is the thought discussed during the ETHER seminar that in every encounter both persons or groups are both the same and different simultaneously. When people realise this, mutual learning and understanding can develop on equal terms. Therefore, a shared belief can not only start but also drive an encounter with the other. It also connects to a point raised in the discussions, “navigating the solidarity with difference”, i.e., seeing and using conflict and difference of opinion as productive and not alienating. Solidarity can be generated even without sameness if differences are acknowledged. The energy of an encounter should not be targeted towards trying to resolve differences permanently or ignoring them, but towards “balancing the polarity” and thus a meaningful engagement. In the German-African church service you can see attempts to do that on various levels. The most explicit one is the pastors bringing up theological differences and conflicts in their sermons and deconstructing them without pushing people to a specific opinion.

Encounter as Embodiment in the Physical Space

One more idea from the seminar that is very interesting and also connects to my research is the importance of bodies in empathy in Lara-Stephanie Krause’s talk and the meanings of word-body-assemblages. The embodiment of engagement with difference is part of the joint German-African church service as it attempts to get people closer together also in a physical/spatial sense. This is done by specific elements in the service where all people ‘have to’ move through the church and talk to each other. In addition, the pastors contribute to this as well with their movements and their spatial positioning towards each other and towards the congregation. By preaching in dialogue while standing right in front of the congregation, i.e., on the same level as the parishioners, their claim for intercultural exchange and mutual learning becomes much more authentic and people can identify more easily with the sermon.

The ETHER seminar one “The Art of Seeing and Hearing the Other” has given me insights into various new perspectives of this topic. All of them are highly intriguing, although I only pointed to those that are directly related to my own research in this reflection. The seminar and the whole ETHER community are very inspirational and will surely stimulate new and more transdisciplinary research and other collaborations. I would like to thank the organisers for making this possible and also thank all participants for their contributions.

Read more about the author here:  Cornelia Bock

Reference

Rehbein, Jochen, Thomas Schmidt, Bernd Meyer, Franziska Watzke & Annette Herkenrath 2004. Handbuch für das computergestützte Transkribieren nach HIAT. Arbeiten zur Mehrsprachigkeit, Folge B,56.

[1] The transcription convention followed here is HIAT (cf. Rehbein et al. 2004).

  • one bullet for a short interruption of the flow of speech (micro pause) • • two bullets for an estimated pause up to half a second • • • three bullets for an estimated pause up to one second If the pause is measured or if it is estimated to be longer than one second, a numerical description is used as follows: ((2,3s)) for a pause of 2.3 seconds