Violent Sensations: Sex, Crime, and Utopia in Vienna and Berlin, 1860-1914

Violent Sensations: Sex, Crime, and Utopia in Vienna and Berlin, 1860-1914

by Scott Spector

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Around the turn of the twentieth century, Vienna and Berlin were centers of scientific knowledge, accompanied by a sense of triumphalism and confidence in progress. Yet they were also sites of fascination with urban decay, often focused on sexual and criminal deviants and the tales of violence surrounding them. Sensational media reports fed the prurient public’s hunger for stories from the criminal underworld: sadism, sexual murder, serial killings, accusations of Jewish ritual child murder—as well as male and female homosexuality.

In Violent Sensations, Scott Spector explores how the protagonists of these stories—people at society’s margins—were given new identities defined by the groundbreaking sciences of psychiatry, sexology, and criminology, and how this expert knowledge was then transmitted to an eager public by journalists covering court cases and police investigations. The book analyzes these sexual and criminal subjects on three levels: first, the expertise of scientists, doctors, lawyers, and scholars; second, the sensationalism of newspaper scandal and pulp fiction; and, third, the subjective ways that the figures themselves came to understand who they were. Throughout, Spector answers important questions about how fantasies of extreme depravity and bestiality figure into the central European self-image of cities as centers of progressive civilization, as well as the ways in which the sciences of social control emerged alongside the burgeoning emancipation of women and homosexuals.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226196817
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/06/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Scott Spector is professor of history and German studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Prague Territories: National Conflict and Cultural Innovation in Franz Kafka’s Fin de Siècle and coeditor of After the History of Sexuality.

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Violent Sensations

Sex, Crime, and Utopia in Vienna and Berlin, 1860â"1914

By Scott Spector

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-19681-7


Dark City, Bright Future: Utopian and Dystopian Urban Genres around 1900

Whether, how, or when modern metropolitan life became radically different from all forms of life that came before are questions that are impossible to answer. The far more interesting and puzzling question, and the genuinely historical question that these ponderings mask, is how this way of thinking itself emerged and what functions it served. If the presupposition of the utter novelty, unprecedented hope, and implicit and dire danger of the contemporary urban world was at least to a degree illusory, its effects were real and remarkable. The cultural innovation responding to this thesis was immense in German-speaking central Europe as well as elsewhere, ranging from innovation in the visual arts and architecture to literary genres, new branches of learning, disciplinary institutions, and areas of scientific research.

Even a strict definition of the fin de siècle as the short period from the early 1890s to about 1905 hardly helps restrict the number of representations and practices that can be seen as central to this inquiry; points of focus need to be identified. One of these is the figure of the modern city or "metropolis" (Großstadt), which was at the center of this thinking about the unprecedented character of the experience of modernity. The self-affirming confidence in civilization and progress on the one hand and fear and anxiety about decay, illness, and danger on the other both found validation in the big city. A cultural imaginary of the threat and promise (or darkness and light) of the "new" metropolis posited a set of oppositional relations — town and country, civilization and nature, and many more — that concealed as much as it revealed. The figure of crime developed in such close proximity to that of the city that the two seemed at times to be artlessly affiliated with one another; sustained, controversial reflection on the nature of the criminal mirrored the dark and light shadings of the urban picture.

A toolbox useful for an analysis of these disparate things would attend to several different figures that often seem to drive the most innovative moments of what must be seen as a revolutionary cultural production. The figures guiding our inquiry include the following: location, the mapping of crime within the city, the search for origins; further, linked to the notion of location, identification and the problem of identity; on the rhetorical level we attend to the recurrence of irony, paradox, or the unity of opposites; genre, the production of novel forms to respond to what seem to be novel conditions; and procedure, an attention to method and system as well as an impulse to abandon previously conventional procedures.

Paradox Metropolis

The opposition of darkness and clarity is powerfully at work in Hans Ostwald's 1904 book, Dark Corners of Berlin, but it paints those dark corners in color. "One of the darkest corners of Berlin, by the Oranienburg Gate, has the brightest illumination, the most colorful action." The insight that "dark deeds do not always shy from the light" is all the more reason to bathe the streets in them, as he hopes his books will do. "Our modern science," Ostwald ventures, "our modern outlook has so thrived, that we may now be permitted confidently to open our eyes to things that until now have been taboo." Part of the contradiction that the fascination with the "dark city" contained has to do with the Enlightenment confidence in the success of a modernity of knowledge and outlook, so that things too awful to have been looked at earlier may now be coolly regarded. This book (fig. 1) was the first of a set of what would be fifty-one studies called the "Documents of the metropolis" (Großstadt-Dokumente), intended, according to Ostwald, the founder and editor of the series, to "shed light" on these dark quarters and provide a "pathfinder through the labyrinth of the metropolis," where various experts would lead the curious reader through the chaos of the modern great city. But this previously unspeakable chaos — the world of prostitution and pandering, perversion and gender disorder, gambling, lewd diversions, bohemianism and crime — seemed not only enabled but produced by the "dark corners" of the great cities in which they were found. The taboo was not an ancient prohibition against speaking of eternal unspeakables but a ban on naming the other half of civilization, just as much a product of modern culture as was science and art. As another author in the series would have it, "Rome was not built in a day, and Berlin did not become the metropolis it is overnight." If Paris was the City of Light of the nineteenth century, world consensus held that no nights were as enticing as Berlin's. Beyond comparisons to Paris and London that were common in such texts, this author recalled ancient Rome, and all other capitals of humanity as such, which were also overcome with the "rapture of sensuality" of Berlin at the moment that they shone most brightly as beacons of world culture. If the modern metropolis was the apogee of civilization, it was also the site of world-historically novel horrors.

There is nothing unfamiliar about the cohabitation of pride in the progress of civilization and simultaneous elaborately staged disgust (perhaps paired with a vicarious thrill) for the urban underworld. In Wilhelmine Germany and late Habsburg Austria — the period in central Europe contemporary with the age the Anglo-American world called "Victorian" — the positions were stereotypes of a kind and were certainly not seen as contradictory. Yet it might be worthwhile to recover and interrogate the strangeness of what is arguably a paradox: the optimistic claim that our civilization has advanced to the point that it is now equipped to face its own degenerate state. The efflorescence of images and texts attesting to the decay of the age embodied in the modern city was accompanied by an array of other genres, instruments, disciplines, and institutions confident in modernity's ability to heal these wounds of its own making. The intimate but complicated relation between these impulses may bear meaning that could not be discerned by rending them from one another or by dismissing them. The same could be said of the implicit sensationalism of Ostwald's ostensibly scientific impulse to apprehend the seedy underbelly of urban life.

What emerges from an analysis of the cultural operation of prurient practices of urban narrative if one wants to take them seriously and as something more than symptoms of a pathologically patriarchal culture? What positive work could these texts and practices be doing, or can they be seen as nothing other than novel forms of normative policing mechanisms and instruments of marginalization? In focusing on the function of these manifestations as social control, there is the risk that they may be read as reductively as it seems on first glance the city itself was read in these texts. The interpretation that these texts were chiefly means of stigmatizing "others," for instance, ironically leads to little more than reiteration of the same coarse stigmatization of the texts and their authors.

One of the biggest methodological problems associated with unpacking the complexity of this system of texts on crime, sexuality, and the metropolis is the difficulty of analyzing such texts without simply recasting them. It is thus surprisingly awkward to begin a chapter on the discourse of the big city in central Europe without talking about the material changes of the last third of the nineteenth century that turned such cities as Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna, and Budapest into metropoles: the urbanization of national populations, the growth of the big cities, electrification and the revolutions of communication and transport, the explosion of newspaper media, and so forth. Histories of the discourse on the big city seem structurally bound to reproduce it: life really was different, rather suddenly, from the way life was experienced by all generations that came before.

The most-cited text from the period in any such discussion must be the Berlin sociologist Georg Simmel's dense lecture "The Metropolis and Mental Life." Simmel certainly and brilliantly argued that modern urban life was quintessentially different from the forms of life that had preceded it, and his essay is full of quotable phrases that seem to confirm a chain of causation: radically new material conditions produced the metropolis and with it a novel form of life in which unique sensory experiences have unprecedented effects on subjects. Memorably, "the psychological foundation of the metropolitan type of individuality consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli." But to draw this chain of causation from the lecture does violence to its rhetorical power and effects. The essay has been called nonsociological or at least "nonsystematic" by latter-day sociologists because of its refusal to make methodological claims and apparent inconsistencies of its argument. The dichotomy at its core is modern metropolitan life against what is named at one point as town or agrarian life (lumped together). Yet the binary categories are unstable, shifting among ancient and modern cities, premetropolitan great cities, the state of nature, and so on, and the qualities of the metropolis (from division of labor to facile communication) are often more broadly modern, shared by inhabitants of many places beyond the relatively few great cities designated as Großstädte. The city is both cause and effect in the essay; it was product and producer, a creation of modern civilization and the source of pressure causing the persons in it to change. This circularity, with the modern subject rather than the city at its center, takes precedence over the causal or linear argument that seems to be made at various points. While the English translator converted the text into an essay format organized in paragraphs, the original text appears as a series of theses or aphorisms, chains of clauses separated by semicolons or dashes. It has probably been argued that the lecture performs the overstimulated and distracted intellectualism it describes as the condition of the modern urban subject. Such a diagnosis was surely not beyond Simmel's own insight and intentions. In spite of this self-reflexivity and irony, the author still acts on the same "basic motive" of the individual agreed on by Marx and Nietzsche, and that is the "resistance of the subject to be leveled down and used up within a sociotechnical mechanism."

Simmel's great urban paradoxes have been described with the trope of coincidentia oppositorum (coterminosity of opposites), a notion rescued by psychoanalysis from medieval theology and philosophy. For Simmel, the city is the place where the great post-Enlightenment conflict between universality and individualism becomes both extreme and manifest; the metropolis itself is, at once, its material manifestation, the conglomeration of subjects of a novel type, and the creation of a new kind of subject confected out of conflicting and cohabiting impulses toward individuation and massification.

We may see in Simmel a proleptic revision of Michel de Certeau, who considered the opposing kinds of vision and experience embodied in the "city," one represented by the objective, abstracting, scientific, mapping gaze from above, as it were, and the other by the rich and uneven texture of the city as experienced on the street. The "concept-city," the theoretical creation visualized (through the mathematically driven Renaissance perspective) even before it could technically be seen, is not only a different place but a different kind of place from the walked city ruled by irregularity, texture, and diversity. These seem to constitute not only distinct but arguably opposed kinds of knowledge. Our reading of Simmel's metropolis troubles this opposition by raising a different question: What if these two are fully conscious of each other in the period under study — what if the concept-city and the street-level experience, the planned and the "dark" city, are of a piece?

The Generic City: Writing the Großstadt

One of the problems with strictly segregating positive and negative assessments of the turn-of-the-century metropolis is that the urban underworld is picturesque. Representing the metropolis without criminals, prostitutes, and perverts is rather like imagining the countryside without landscape. Such was the dilemma of a weekly gazette in Berlin, The Illustrated Weekly Review of Berlin Life (Illustrirte Wochenrundschau über das Berliner Leben), which committed itself to a positive image of the burgeoning life of the new capital. In its third issue it ran an article by a certain A. von Zerbst on criminals in the city that argued more confidently than coherently about the perception of crime in the city. First, Zerbst argued that crime was actually not increasing as much as it seemed because the apparent rise was proportionate to the booming population. Second, a scholar was quoted to demonstrate how natural economic cycles prove that increasing criminality is actually a result of the financial boom of the founding of a unified Germany (hence, crime is a sign of success). And finally, the author turned to a lengthy description of a proliferating new popular genre: the "backstairs novel," penny fictions of a sensational nature, "teeming with crimes of the most insane, ingenious, gruesome kind," often serialized and hand-delivered to subscribers. The editor chimed in with a tsk-tsk to signal his disapproval of the profit motives of unscrupulous authors and publishers whose work was clearly linked to the appearance of the very such crimes in the city as they depicted: "the fantasy is aroused." Zerbst leapt from representation to fantasy to social reality as effortlessly as he concealed his own place among the new sensational genres he described.

The proliferation of sensationalist texts on the city's shadow side was widely acknowledged, often in ways (as in the Zerbst article) that reproduced the prurient interest it reported. The tendency can be seen everywhere, from pulp fiction to criminal newspapers, from police circulars to the mainstream press. Newspapers of record engaged in sensational practice merely more subtly than more popular organs, where headlines such as "Murder? A Mysterious Incident in Darkest Berlin" echoed criminal fiction (fig. 2). The article actually offered a diagrammatic map of the urban district in question to guide its readers through this particular dark corner. The underworld depicted in these texts was rich and diverse, chaotically random in its potential violence and yet meticulously stratified and ordered. It was, as Zerbst implied in his exposé on Berlin criminals, a reflection of the modern metropolis itself, even a realm of unparalleled human endeavor and productivity: "All criminals work on the artful expansion of their system, which is so interesting and dangerous to the public precisely because of the way no single criminal of a particular species can achieve the goal but must count on the support of several accomplices." A report from a later issue of the same illustrated paper offered a tour of Berlin's various penal institutions and their inhabitants. The social system within the walls of these penitentiaries was reminiscent of the hierarchies of the city of millions: every social station is represented, with delegates of each punished for crimes specific to its function. Hence, post and court officials are interned for embezzlement, teachers for lewdness or disciplinary excesses, merchants for swindles, down to the maiming butchers, gambling bakers, thieving servants, and finally waiters with the host of crimes suggested by their intercourse with the public. The tour of the prisons was not atypical of voyeuristic texts on the city's shadow side that displayed an unknown world no more than it exposed the barely concealed essence of the known one: a corruption of official and economic life, an abusive educational system, a meanness, lasciviousness, and greed that characterized the world readers knew as much as that which was beyond their sight.

The point has often been made that depictions of the criminal underworld in this period provided a mirror image of bourgeois society just as the staple image of the professional crook was an inverse image of the respectable burgher. This narrative structure is clearly at work, and it seems just as clear that authors and readers at the time were aware of it. This observation, however, does not justify a reduction of the significance of these texts to moral lessons produced by a disciplinary authority for the purpose of shaping an obedient or productive citizenry. How readers' processes of identification and disidentification might have operated and what motivated these repetitious yet complex fantasies are valuable questions that do not make for conveniently simple answers; they demand closer readings of a wide range of cultural products, beginning with the new genres of metropolis literature.

One of the most expansive novel venues of the sensational exposure of the urban underworld is the series of studies edited by Hans Ostwald with which this chapter began. Ostwald, an autodidact from the working classes, a vagabond artisan turned journalist, conceptualized a series of studies that would bring this unseen, taboo world to light. In the fifty-one volumes of the Großstadt-Dokumente initially published between 1904 and 1908, insider-experts offered their curious audience views chiefly of Berlin and Vienna that were at once intimate and scientific. The official position of the series with regard to the moral balance of the modern city was ambivalence:


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Table of Contents

Introduction: On the Border Dark City, Bright Future: Utopian and Dystopian Urban Genres around 1900 Identical Origins: (Homo)sexual Subjects and Violent Fantasy in the 1860s Sensation and Sensibility: Experts, Scandals, Subjects Utopian Bodies: The Sensual Woman and the Lust Murderer Blood Lies: The Truth About Modern Ritual Murder Accusations and Defenses

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