Monthly Archives: February 2014

25 Feb. 2014. ‘Play Hunger Monkey Mayhem’: Alice Herz-Sommer and Living History

Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, died on Sunday morning in London at the age of 110. Born into a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, she survived two years in Terezin/Theresienstadt, the infamous concentration camp were so many tens of thousand people died.

ImageAs a trained pianist, Herz-Sommer became a member of the concentration camp orchestra, performing more than a 100 concerts during her time in the camp. A documentary of her extraordinary life, “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” (dir. Malcolm Clarke) has just been nominated for an Oscar. When I clicked on the video link to the documentary trailer embedded in Herz-Sommer’s obituary in The Guardian online, I was shocked to be confronted with an advert inviting me to ‘Play Hunger Monkey Mayhem’. While advertising and related finance clearly rule the media today, it is sickening to come across such a brash display of unthinking commercialism in the account of Herz-Sommer’s deeply traumatic yet always forward looking life.

I did not linger to find out what ‘Hunger Monkey Mayhem’ entails, but clearly this game is part of a twenty-first century commercial imagination that has no sense of, or need for, individual histories.

Yet Alice Herz-Sommer’s life story is one of many that have indelibly shaped the present. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the graphic account of the Holocaust survival of his father, Vladek, has shown that history is mediated by memory and feelings in ways that complicate our understanding of the affective legacies of the past. Vladek too survived Terezin/Theresienstadt, but his story differs considerably from that of Alice Herz-Sommer – not least because in Vladek’s account, the orchestra that helped sustain Alice does not exist.

In MetaMaus, the account of the making of Maus, Spiegelman records what happened when he asked his father about the camp’s orchestra: Vladek insisted that he ‘remember[s] only marching, not any orchestras’. As a result, notes Spiegelman, while he knew from his own  research that the orchestra had existed, ‘I have the orchestra being blotted out [in Maus] by the people marching because that’s all [Vladek] remembers’.

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From: See Art Spiegelman’s discussion in MetaMaus (2011)

Spiegelman’s ‘blotting out’ is not a denial or negation of the past but a conscious rendering of individual experience and its memory. The comics format allows him to document this process, making sure that Vladek’s narrative is told alongside – and as part of – other historical accounts of Terezin/Theresienstadt. In my own project, I am similarly trying to get a sense of a larger historical moment by focusing on the experiences and ideas of Magnus Hirschfeld and considering what they can tell us about the beginnings of a collective queer identity and politics in the early twentieth-century.

This research is as much about evaluating sources than it is about discovering new archives. For how a story is told is crucial for understanding what is said and why. The inclusion of ‘Hunger Monkey Mayhem’ in Alice Herz-Sommer’s extraordinary life story serves no useful narrative function. It is a crass reminder of the precariousness of individual lives in the grand narratives of high capitalism where human value is a monetary unit.

 

21 Feb. 2014. Musical Inversions: Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth and her Old English Sheepdog, Pan: http://www.52composers.com/ethel-smyth.html

Ethel Smyth and her Old English Sheepdog, Pan: http://www.52composers.com/ethel-smyth.html

The queer past has an extraordinary sensory presence in the twenty-first century.  Last Wednesday, I went to an excellent event dedicated to the life and music of Ethel Smyth (1854-1944). Organised by the University of Surrey as part of LGBT History Month, the evening paid particular attention to the musical career of Smyth, a composer, writer, suffragette and dog lover whose ‘The March of the Women‘, written for the Women’s Social and Political Union, became the anthem of the British suffragette movement.

The event started off with an informative and entertaining talk by Dr Christopher Wiley on the relationship between Smyth’s music and her lesbianism – her most today best known relationship was with the famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. With the help of violinists Sophie Langdon, pianist Maureen Galea and members of the University of Surrey Chamber Choir, Wiley brought to life Smyth’s music. He demonstrated the breadth of Smyth’s oeuvre, which included, for example, operas, orchestral works and chamber music; and he also explained how the music reflected developments in Smyth’s own life such as her love for Elisabeth ‘Lisl’ von Herzogenberg, the wife of Smyth’s teacher, the composer and conductor Heinrich von Herzogenberg.

I was particularly interested to learn that one of Smyth’s early pieces, which was composed during her time with the von Herzogenbergs in Germany, makes use of a technique of ‘inversion’, here meaning that the closing notes appear in reverse order of the opening notes. While I have written a book on ‘inversion’, this is the first time that I have come across the use of the concept in a musical context.

‘Inversion’ emerged as a concept associated with what we would now call sexual identity in 1860s, in the affirmative writings on same-sex love by the Hanoverian lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895). Ulrichs argued that men who desire men have ‘a female soul’ within their male body. Women who desire other women in turn were seen to have a ‘male soul’ inside their female body (it tells us something about the gendered contexts of these debates that Ulrichs felt prompted to note that he assumed that female same-sex love existed but did not personally know any women who love women).

While the terminology of the ‘invert’ would eventually give way in the early twentieth-century to the ‘lesbian’ and the ‘homosexual’, inversion itself has become one of the most pervasive concepts in modern debates about sexuality. Indeed, ideas about ‘mannish lesbians’ and ‘effeminate gay men’ continue to circulate quite widely in twenty-first century debates about sexuality.

Virginia Woolf and Dame Ethel Smyth. New York Public Library IMAGE ID: 484383

Virginia Woolf and Dame Ethel Smyth. New York Public Library IMAGE ID: 484383

Today, ‘inversion’ is often invoked as part of negative stereotyping. In the late 1870s and 1880s, however, when Ethel Smyth was falling in love with a woman in Germany while honing her skills as a composer, many women and men whose desires ran against the heterosexual grain happily self-identified as inverts. Most famously, perhaps, the rebellion against gender and sexual norms was expressed through dress – Virginia Woolf, Smyth’s unrequited love when the latter was in her early 70s, once described the composer’s dress affectionately as ‘tweeds and spats [with] a little cock’s feather in your felt, and a general look of angry energy’.

Chris Wiley’s talk has alerted me to the existence of a whole new dimension to modern sexual
Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 16.31.03politics. For Ethel Smyth’s composition suggests that sexuality and gender were reshaped in and through music as well as literature, art and politics. From now on, then, I will be listening out for Smyth’s musical inversions and the queer echoes that follow them across time.

 

17 Feb. 2014. And Again With Feeling: Thoughts on Different from the Others

ImageLast week, to mark LGBT History Month, I organised a screening of Anders als die Andern/ Different from the Others (dir. Richard Oswald), a film about homosexual blackmail produced in collaboration with Magnus Hirschfeld who also stars in it. The event was a great success, attracting a large audience which – perhaps prompted by an unexpected fair turn in the weather – occupied almost all the seats in the Birkbeck cinema.

A quick survey revealed that the majority of people in the audience were not professional academics. This was very welcome information, for a main aim of the evening was to bring sexuality scholars into dialogue with people from a wide range of backgrounds.

To kick-start debate after the screening, three wonderful Birkbeck panellists – Silke Arnold-de Simine (European Literatures and Cultures), Justin Bengry (History) and Daniel Monk (Law) – shared their insights into the film and its contexts. Together, we discussed a wide range of topics including, for example, the relationship between law and the everyday, the somewhat surprising cultural visibility of various gender and sexual identities in the early Weimar Republic, and the similarities as well as differences between British and German sexual politics.

Still from Anders als die Andern (dir. Richard Oswald, 1919)

As the discussion opened up to the audience, two questions were asked with particular frequency albeit in a range of guises: one focused on how the historical material relates to our understanding of gender and sexuality in the twenty-first century; and the other reflected on the extent to which any approach to this past is shaped by our own personal experiences and sense of self.

In some cases, the questioner’s focus was firmly on Magnus Hirschfeld himself, reminding me that for some gay men and transgender people in particular Hirschfeld occupies an iconic position in the struggle for rights, equality and a liveable life. While I am critically suspicious of such elevations – not least because I find them hard to reconcile with the more problematic aspects of Hirschfeld’s work such as his support for eugenics – I am nevertheless interested in what one might call ‘the felt impact’ of his work: his role in the construction of affirmative imaginaries that allow nonormative existence to be conceptualised in collective terms, terms that can be, but are not necessarily, tied to political action.

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Our discussion last Thursday showed that neither the biographical minutiae of Hirschfeld’s life nor ‘official’ narratives about sexuality, such as the ones told by law, can fully tell us what it felt like to live a queer life in the early twentieth century. But reading such narratives alongside cultural representations – such as Anders als die Andern – allows us to critique the ‘truths’ that are assigned by and about Hirschfeld across time. For, to adapt Virginia Woolf’s observation in A Room of One’s Own, such representations are ‘likely to contain more truth than fact’.

Anders als die Andern and the discussion that followed interrogated many ‘truths’ and ‘facts’ about bodies and desires. In so doing, the event also revealed the critical importance of feelings in discussions about gender and sexuality.

The next Fellowship event will be an academic symposium, Homophobia Rewritten. Click here for further details. The Call for Papers closes on 31 March 2014.

11 Feb. 2014: Words for ’77 Countries Where Being Gay is a Crime’

Reading the news over lunch, I was drawn to a BBC news item entitled ‘Banned Love: 77 countries where being gay is a crime’. Clicking on the link led me to this short article and the following world map (click on the link for a better view):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-25927595http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-25927595

As it happens, I had been spending the morning thinking about Jasbir Puar’s work on homonationalism. Puar coined the term to develop a framework for exploring ‘how “acceptance” and “tolerance” for gay and lesbian subjects have become a barometer by which the right to and capacity for national sovereignity is evaluated’ in the contemporary world. Or, to phrase this differently, homonationalism describes a historical shift in the treatment of homosexual bodies, as the question of whether or not homosexuality is a crime has come – for certain nation-states and in certain contexts – to be seen as indicative of a nation’s degree of ‘modernity’ or ‘civilisation’.

The critical concept of homonationalism has been taken up in particularly contested ways in relation to debates about Israel-Palestine where some anti-occupation campaigners have accused Israel of ‘pinkwashing’ – using LGBT rights rhetoric to legitimise its occupation of Palestine – while in turn being taken to task for problematic conflations of Jewishness with Israel (see Judith Butler’s thoughts on the topic here).

As modern notions of sexual identity have been shaped by colonialism and the racialised ideas ideas and practices that have become ‘knowledge’ in Western (post) enlightenment thinking, and as words such as ‘homosexuality’ were coined specifically in relation to political debates about state-formations in Europe, I think it is right that we should be cautious about using the language of lesbian and gay identity in global terms. At the same time, however, I also think it is important to make speakable and to speak out against the prosecution and the denial of lives that are lived against the (sexual and gendered) norms of the societies in which they are located.

Looking back to Magnus Hirschfeld’s ‘gay rights activism’ a hundred or so years ago, I’m trying to trace some of the conscious and unconscious ties between sexual reform debates and racialist thinking at the time. I am helped along the way by the words of Stuart Hall, the influential cultural theorist who died yesterday. Hall once suggested that the metaphor of theoretical work is ‘the metaphor of struggle …. [for] the only theory worth having is that which you have to fight off, not that which you speak with profound fluency.’ As someone working with and across languages, times and contexts, the struggle for words lies at the heart of my own research. The stakes are high, for in debates about inequality, injustice and persecution, the process of struggling-for-words is intimately connected to individual and collective existence .

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6 Feb. 2014: Nazi Laws and Public Feelings

I’m currently grappling with the question of how to attend to the relationship between law, politics and everyday lives and feelings in the past?

There now exists a considerable amount of cultural and critical scholarship on the shape and shaping of ‘public feelings‘, especially in the present-day U.S., and about what Sara Ahmed has called the Cultural Politics of Emotions. These insights, in different ways, follow in the feminist tradition of challenging the divide between the public and private, the personal and the political.

Photo-0525This article on the ‘Nazi murder law that still exists‘ indicates the importance of such modes of inquiry even as it shows that the law can provoke public feelings that do not address the full extent of systemic injustices. The broad content of the article – that some of the legislation introduced by the Nazis has never been revoked – was not new to me. However, I had previously only looked at the legal history of Paragraph 175 and its variations, which criminalised homosexuality and remained in West Germany’s Criminal Code until unification in 1994 (I’m showing a movie from 1919 about the impact of this law next week. For more info click here).

It is disturbing that  – so many years after Nazi rule has come to an end – people who are tried for murder in the German courts are still subjected to laws that were introduced by a regime which actively pursued hate, discrimination and inequality, and which killed millions of people. Stephen Evans, the author of the piece, points out the gendered effects of the Nazi murder laws, which distinguish ‘murder’ from ‘manslaughter’ via a definition of ‘the murderer’ ‘as someone who killed “treacherously” or “sneakily” (“heimtueckisch” in German):

‘This means that a man who beats his wife over many years, finally killing her, is less likely to be convicted of murder, with a mandatory life sentence, than to be convicted of manslaughter, which may mean only five years in jail. The argument is that there was nothing “sneaky” or “treacherous” about the killing – it was frontal and direct and might have been expected.’

The article gives examples of how some convictions under this law caused public outrage in Germany, but it appears that these public debates largely focused on the individual cases rather than the fact that Nazi laws remain in place in contemporary Germany.

Aside from drawing attention to the very real legacies of Nazism and its twenty-first century presence – how can a state work through its past if its institutions retain the values of an atrocious regime? – these debates also raise questions about the role of the law in historical research. In the history of same-sex sexuality, which is the concern of my current project, changes in legislation – such as the introduction of Paragraph 175 in the newly formed German Empire or the Labouchere Amendment in Britain – clearly impact on individual lives. But my work on Hirschfeld’s private papers and public work has already taught me that the relationship between legal and political developments and ‘felt experience’ is fraught. For laws, while helping to define the conditions of possibility for individual and collective existence, only ever tell part of the story of what it feels like to live at certain moments in time.

This is why, for me, the tools of literary analysis and cultural criticism are so important. As verbal and visual representations are our bridge between the imagined and the real, paying attention to the narratives that shape a historical archive provides access to the lives and feelings of the women and men who inhabit it.

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3 Feb. 2014: LGBT History Month: NOW!

February is LGBT History Month. During this time, a diverse range of events take place throughout the UK – in schools, universities, grass root organisations and many other places – which have in common that they focus on the LGBT present and past.

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 10.09.09http://lgbthistorymonth.org.uk

As part of my own project, I am organising a screening of Anders als die Anders/Different from the Others (dir. Richard Oswald, 1919) in the Birkbeck Cinema on Thursday, 13 February, 6pm. The film, a homosexual love story, deals with anti-gay legislation and its isolating effects.

I’m particularly looking forward to this event, for the film is a captivating, moving and sometimes surprising document of queer life in the early twentieth century. Moreover, I’m hoping that – as in previous LGBT History Month events I took part it – it will attract non-academic audiences as well as academics.

For, as Claire Hayward notes in a recent blog post, while LGBT History Month is an important initiative, it is absolutely vital that ‘LGBT histories [are] integrated into wider public and national historical discussions and narratives’ throughout the year. So let’s not confine lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer culture, lives and politics to one month in the year, but let’s take LGBT History Month as a prompt for on-going collective debate and engagement.

I’m hoping that the Different from the Others event will bring together many people with all kinds of interests in the histories of inequality and discrimination, and in forms of resistance. The event will start off with a drinks reception and conclude with a panel discussion featuring my brilliant colleagues Silke Arnold – de Simine, Justin Bengry, Daniel Monk and Chrystanthi Nigianni.

You can register here to secure a place. The event is free -come and join us.

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