Research Spotlight: Julia Sonnevend

We are overjoyed to feature Julia Sonnevend, an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan, as our next research spotlight! Sonnevend  was a Lady Davis Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smart Family Institute of Communications at the Hebrew University and an Associate Postdoctoral Fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace in 2014. Sonnevend was named a Leibniz Summer Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary History in Potsdam (Germany) in 2015. Sonnevend’s research examines the cultural aspects of international media, with a special focus on media events, rituals, performances, and icons. She is interested in the “re-enchantment” of society, in the magical moments, qualities, technologies and artifacts of contemporary social life worldwide. You can learn more about Sonnevend on her website.

You can hear Julia Sonnevend speak on her book Stories without Borders: The Berlin Wall and the Making of a Global Iconic Event on November 3rd!

Your work focuses on global media events. Could you begin by telling us how you developed an interest in this topic?

I have always been interested in the role of events in our everyday lives. Events fall on our heads, they “happen,” and once they hit, our lives are divided into “before” and “after.” Some events are uplifting; others shake the foundations of our existence. The same is true about events of international significance. Events are messy and confusing when they are happening. Their contours are unclear; they do not yet have a name, a concise narrative or an iconic imagery. Still, some of these complex and confusing occurrences become lasting, memorable global iconic events. So the question that I ask in this book is how we can tell the story of an event in a way that people would remember it internationally and over time? And I focus on the case of the fall of the Berlin Wall, because it is one of those earthshaking events that we carry with us from the twentieth century.

Storytelling is a key topic for you as you develop your analysis of the narrative twists and turns that made the fall of the Berlin Wall an iconic event. How did this focus on storytelling emerge in your research? 

We understand happenings through stories. Institutions have stories, patients have stories for their doctors, kids tell stories to their parents, and academics hope to tell stories to their students and audiences in a meaningful way. Great research is being done on storytelling and narratives from media psychology to cultural sociology to communication studies. But there is still in popular imagination a view that powerful events do NOT need powerful stories, because they stand for themselves. That could not be further from the truth. Global iconic events have to be constructed and their narrative “branding” takes quite a lot of storytelling effort. In this book I focus on transnational storytelling, on the construction of lasting international narratives. Obviously, the media alone do not “produce” historic occurrences in social life, but they do strip particular occurrences from their larger contexts, and may shape them into simple and internationally resonant stories. It is certainly possible to regard this process as “media distortion,” but I hope to suggest a different way of thinking in this book, one based on a positive understanding of myth. Binding myths play a crucial role for communities. Facts and context might convince a few minds; myths, on the other hand, have a chance of occupying many diverse hearts in global contexts.

The research for your book, Stories Without Borders, took you to archives and other research sites in multiple countries. What are some of the challenges of doing such comparative research?screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-5-02-35-pm

In Stories Without Borders I analyze the media coverage and collective memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall in four national contexts (East German, West German, American and Soviet/Russian) over twenty-five years. When I started researching this event, I was convinced that there must be a central, high-tech digital archive with all the relevant news coverage somewhere in Germany. Well, there was none. I ended up watching videotapes of television coverage in basements of television companies and examining newspaper clippings in archives in former granaries in neighborhoods where even finding a hot dog stand for lunch was a major challenge. Of course I also encountered linguistic challenges and differences in relevant copyright regulations. So it was a difficult international multimedia project that sometimes even seemed impossible.

 

“Globalization” has been a major keyword and analytical focus for media & communication studies over the past two decades. In what ways do you see your work adding to scholarship in this area?

I am originally from Eastern Europe, from Hungary, so I have always been naturally skeptical of globalization theories. If you come from the periphery, you always see who is left out from the enthusiastic research on internationalization.The central keyword in my book is not “bridge,” as in many pieces of globalization research, but “wall.” The current global political landscape increasingly shows us that people have a desire both for connection and for exclusion. The fall of the Berlin Wall has been the central myth of international openness, but currently there are more separation walls than there were in 1989. This is the trend that we are seeing internationally, while at the same time it is also true that there is a Starbucks on every corner of historic Kyoto in Japan. So globalization processes are happening, but I would not underestimate the counter-trend, which is about a powerful desire in many people to live in homogenous communities, walled-off from others. My work aims to show through one of our most hopeful global narratives, the story of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the complexities of globalization in the world we live in today.”