Tag Archives: research

2 Oct. 2014: Travels with Hirschfeld

Taking stock after a busy summer of writing, researching and travelling, I realised that since starting this project I have now been to quite a few of the many places Hirschfeld visited during his lifetime. My map of these places excludes those cities I visited in pursuit of Hirschfeld archives but which had not been visited by him during his lifetime (the Kinsey Library in Bloomington Indiana is one such example).

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Of course is it well-known that Hirschfeld was an avid traveller. For most of his life, his journeys focused on Europe and North America. But in 1930, under increasing threat of attack from the rising Nazi party, he left Berlin to lecture in the United States. The trip formed the beginning of a journey that would lead Hirschfeld to circumvent the globe as he travelled across the US, Asia and the Middle East before returning Europe where he died in exile in Nice in 1935.

Hirschfeld published an account of this journey, entitled Die Weltreise eines Sexualforschers, which was translated into English by O.P. Green and published under the title Women East and West: Impressions of a Sex Expert in the U.K., while the title of the U.S. version stayed somewhat closer to the original with Men and Women: The World Journey of a Sexologist.

The book is of particular interest for me, not primarily for its depiction of foreign places, although I always make sure to read what he has to say about a city I’m about to visit. Instead I am intrigued by the evidence of Hirschfeld’s many international connections and friendships with reformers around the world. This material indicates the many links that existed in the 1920s and early 1930 between social reformers, medical researchers,  writers and artists from around the world.

My autumn task is to write-up research on Hirschfeld’s international links and what they reveal about the development and reception of his ideas at that moment in time before the events of World War II so brutally reconfigured the boundaries of intellectual exchange and collaboration. I aim aided in this task by a new, less violent, shift in scholarly boundaries: the insights gained from the work of scholars of sexuality in Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East.* Then and now, it seems, studies of the constructions and representations of sexuality, its politics and the everyday realities attached to sexual categories necessitate interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches that look across time and space to explore how bodies and desires are normalized and instrumentalized and well as collectively affirmed and celebrated in the name of ‘sexuality’.

* Click here for a special issue on ‘Transnational Lesbian Cultures’  I edited with Churnjeet Mahn for the Journal of Lesbian Studies. I also includes an article by me on books, difficult feelings and the graphic memoirs of Alison Bechdel.


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’.


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.