The Feuilleton and Its Discontents

Alexander Stern has an essay on the feuilleton which is as readable as it is erudite, no mean feat:

“In the beginning was the press, and then the world appeared.” So begins a satirical 1922 poem by Karl Kraus. A ruthless critic who regularly excoriated the press in his magazine The Torch, Kraus blamed German newspapers for the outbreak of World War I. He reserved a special hatred for the feuilleton (pronounced “fuh-yah-tawn”) section of the paper, which included, along with art, literature, and reviews, short impressionistic pieces about city life and culture. And he was far from the only one to bemoan “the age of the feuilleton,” as novelist Hermann Hesse dubbed it. In 1929 the philosopher Theodor Lessing, who would be assassinated by Nazis four years later, reflected that “feuilletonist” had become “the nastiest insult in the German language.”

Whence all this contempt for light reading material?

The answer is complicated, but lies somewhere at the intersection of a volatile political climate, quickly modernizing cities, and the emergence of mass culture. In papers like Die Frankfurter Zeitung, Das Berliner Tageblatt, and Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, German journalists attempted to come to terms with their fast-changing times, writing literary vignettes that reflected philosophically on culture, technology, and politics. The feuilleton section thus became a battleground over the meaning of modernity. The controversy it generated prefigured present-day concerns about the deterioration of attention and the media’s role in shaping—or, as Walter Benjamin suggested, generating—public opinion....

n modernity we are wrenched out of history, take up an “objective” viewpoint on our culture, and immediately find genuine connection to much of it gone. God dies, traditions wither, only the words remain. To the feuilletonist, in Benjamin’s view, this means we can finally think clearly. We can finally view religion, tradition, and so forth objectively—things that to premoderns were still obscure because they were too close to their culture, because the words meant too much.

The feuilletonist thus covers all his subjects with a finish of urbane, pseudo-philosophical detachment. Kraus wrote:

When a streetcar accident takes place in Vienna, the gentlemen [of the press] write about the nature of streetcars, about the nature of streetcar accidents, and about the nature of accidents in general, all with the viewpoint: what is man?

Glib generalization and a tone of seen-it-all skepticism seduces the reader and seems to lift them up into the writer’s realm of free-floating observation. Even when written in the first person, the feuilleton takes up a kind of third-person “I” that surveys the scene, wary and detached, hovering above the crowd. Judgments seem to emerge effortlessly. Individual observations always serve some unassailable universal point. Feuilletons were written with what Benjamin called a “false subjectivity that can be separated from the person and incorporated in the circulation of commodities.”

The feuilletonist is like a conversation partner who convinces you of something by assuming you already knew it. A tacit note of almost conspiratorial intimacy accompanies his opinions: This is just obvious to two people of our intellect and experience. The reader is, on the one hand, flattered without argument into accepting the view expressed, and, on the other, infantilized.

The result is the manufacture of opinion—not that the feuilleton necessarily indoctrinates its readers. Rather, it absolves them of having to think for themselves. “It is precisely the purpose of the public opinion generated by the press,” Benjamin wrote, “to make the public incapable of judging, to insinuate into it the attitude of someone irresponsible, uninformed.”

Read the whole thing, as they say. I love feuilletons, which don't exist in the English-speaking press. I've often thought of trying to import the genre, but there's probably a reason it doesn't seem to travel well. At first, the English-speaking reader is put off by the distinctive tone of amused, world-weary detachment. He's used to either facts or opinions, dammit, not some weirdly subjective mix of the two.

But once you get up to what masters like Roth and Kracauer and Tucholsky are up to, you're hooked.


Fine Buildings, High Culture, No Excuses, No Regrets

Martin Kettle, who proudly calls himself a Germanophile, expresses his admiration in the Guardian for the new Elbphilharmonie (Philharmonia on the Elbe River) concert hall in Hamburg:

[I]n Hamburg on Wednesday evening a substantial part of official Germany – and surely everyone in the city itself – turned out in force for the opening of the dazzling Elbphilharmonie concert hall stretching high into the heavens in the former port district. Germany’s president Joachim Gauck made a witty speech, chancellor Angela Merkel, Hamburg-born before her family emigrated to communist East Germany, sat in the front row of the stalls. The mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz (a social democrat opposed to Merkel), glowed with civic pride....

For sure, Germany is far too deferential for the British taste. It is too respectful, polite, orderly, above all too serious. At times, including in the course of my visit for the Elbphilharmonie opening, even I, a Germanophile, wanted to have a bit more naughtiness and surprise in the proceedings. And no British arts organisation would put seven white men on stage to conduct a press conference about a huge project – the way the Elbphilharmonie did this week – with not a woman nor a black face in sight. On social media, there is this week, certainly, a strong undercurrent of hostility to the Hamburg opening, and the amount of public money it has taken is eyewatering. But the fact remains that Germany’s readiness to spend on a project such as the Elbphilharmonie, though often controversial on matters like cost and the environment, is ultimately a unifying force.

The civic pride and pleasure now that the concert hall is finally up and running was palpable. The tickets are all sold out for the next six months. The aim is that every child in Hamburg will get to a concert within the first year of the opening. The hall has already had half a million visitors before the first notes (by Benjamin Britten, as it happens) were heard in the opening concert, broadcast live on German television.

...But the truth is we don’t care, not enough. Maybe Germany cares too much. But I’d rather care too much than too little. And it really is a stunner of a building in a city that it’s a joy to get to know.

Amen, brother. This is what makes living in Germany a delight: livable cities with bold, interesting architecture and thriving cultural scenes. German politicians all more or less agree that high culture is an end in itself. It is not open to debate whether the state should fund it. They know that many people find it elitist and a waste of tax money, but it has to continue.*

High culture cannot survive without subsidies either from the state or from private donors. And its existence benefits everyone, whether they understand that or not. So Hamburg spends millions to build a glorious new concert hall. And at the other end of the scale, municipal arts councils dole out grants and commissions here and there to small bookstores, avant-garde theater groups, nature education programs for children, jazz clubs, charity projects, and artists of all kinds. Of course there's some corruption and waste here, what government program doesn't have that? But overall, most of the money goes where it's supposed to, and keeps interesting things happening.

It all adds up, and has a subtle, but profound overall effect. This is why I love living in Germany.

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Isolated, Unable to Communicate, Easy to Radicalize

Abigail Fielding-Smith has a good deep dive on Jaber al-Bakr, the Syrian refugee who became radicalized in Germany and was arrested last year for having constructed a powerful bomb:

The idea that a terrorist group like Islamic State has infiltrated the country through its refugee intake is alarming enough. But Jaber’s case suggests a different kind of challenge. If building a life in Germany is so hard that it could cause an ordinary Syrian refugee to fall in with extremists, how will the struggles of several hundred thousand others manifest themselves?

“So many, with no language, in such a short time,” says Manfred Murck, a former Hamburg intelligence chief. “This is a real field experiment.”...

The precise reasons behind Jaber’s decision to set out for Europe in 2014 are unclear. The country was falling apart, with more than 100,000 Syrians already dead. Many of the millions of young men who left were wanted by regime authorities, either for suspected links with the opposition or for military service.

Jaber may have been worried about getting called up, or he may simply have wanted out. In the aftermath of his arrest in Germany, one of Jaber’s brothers back home gave interviews to the media. His account is puzzling at points, and may reflect the pressures of living in a government-controlled area of Syria. During an interview with the TV program ARD-Fakt, he seemed to give different explanations for Jaber’s decision: he wanted to get out of Syria, he wanted to study more, and he had seen others going and wanted to join in....

aber was “really interested” in learning German when he first arrived, Samer recalls. He bought a book on it. In June 2015, he posted an article in German about a Syrian girl who arrived speaking only Arabic and passed the German end-of-school exams with top marks a year later. It’s unlikely Jaber would have understood the article, but it seemed to reflect an aspiration....

This sense of being exposed, looked at, and judged, can make it hard to practice German.

“I don’t want to speak when I only have a few words, because out there, there is no mercy,” explained Aziz, a young Syrian man living up the road from Eilenburg in Leipzig. Pieces of paper detailing the fiendish machinations of German grammar were pinned to his wardrobe.

One bit of German idiom with which Aziz is all too familiar is the word schmarotzer – scrounger.

“In Syria we had dignity,“ he said. “Now I have to ask for money. You don’t know how much it hurts.”

German is one of the trickier European languages. The articles – ‘the’ and ‘a’ - change form not just according to the gender of the noun attached to them but according to the case being used. Certain words trigger an inversion of the sentence order. Until rules like this have been drilled into you to the point where they are second nature, it is very hard to spontaneously express yourself in German.

Samer, Jaber’s housemate, believes that language is one aspect of a cultural barrier keeping many refugees excluded from German society.

“Let’s be honest, not every Syrian refugee who came here is a doctor”, he said. “I know many Syrians that still struggle to use the train.”...

Jaber didn’t seem to have what it takes to make it in the ‘white’ economy. “His interest in the language got less and less,” recalled Samer. “Jaber wasn’t disciplined –the new generation hasn’t been disciplined enough because of five years of war. When he came to Germany everything had rules and a system, and he couldn’t cope.”

As people like me have been pointing out for years now, the majority of the recent arrivals from MENA countries will never learn German. German is a tough language to learn even for people who speak English or Romance languages, to say nothing of semi-literate Arabs who use an entirely different alphabet. When confronted with these obvious problems, mainstream politicians invoke the mantra "German courses...German courses...we must have more German courses...". They never address the question of what happens if people fail those courses, or stop attending them. You'd think German politicians would know that this is a thing that happens in the real world, since about 1/3 (g) of Germans who enroll in university never finish.

And, as this article shows, that fact creates a security risk. Isolated, angry, with disappointed expectations, increasingly cloistered in ethnic sub-groups, and with propaganda and sympathetic recruiters just a mouse-click away. Even if only 1 in 100 becomes radicalized, that's quite a few radicals, considering that there are something like 500,000 young Muslim males now in Germany, the majority of whom will never learn German.


Germany: Less Perverted Than You Think. Despite All the Apotemnophiliacs.


sprockets germany's most disturbing videos von pentakatharidis

Canada's National Post fills us in on the latest in the field of apotemnophilia, which we're now apparently supposed to call "transability":

People like Jason [who chopped one of his arms off] have been classified as ‘‘transabled’’ — feeling like imposters in their bodies, their arms and legs in full working order.

“We define transability as the desire or the need for a person identified as able-bodied by other people to transform his or her body to obtain a physical impairment,” says Alexandre Baril, a Quebec born academic who will present on “transability” at this week’s Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Ottawa.

“The person could want to become deaf, blind, amputee, paraplegic. It’s a really, really strong desire.”

Researchers in Canada are trying to better understand how transabled people think and feel. Clive Baldwin, a Canada Research Chair in Narrative Studies who teaches social work at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., has interviewed 37 people worldwide who identify as transabled.

Most of them are men. About half are in Germany and Switzerland, but he knows of a few in Canada. Most crave an amputation or paralysis, though he has interviewed one person who wants his penis removed. Another wants to be blind.

One stereotype many Germans aren't aware of is "the German-speaking parts of Northern Europe are hothouses of the most exotic perversions known to humanity -- second only, perhaps, to Japan".

When Germans think of Kraut stereotypes, they generally imagine Alphorns, Bavarian dress, punctuality, precision engineering, Nazis, beer, sausage, pretzels. But not necessarily perversion.

But that is indeed one of the stereotypes. Where does it come from? Perhaps an amalgam of:

  • Weimar-era transvestitism, rape-murders, and Expressionist documentation of same
  • Nazi sadists and homosexuals, and the weirdly sexless Hitler
  • A long -- and continuing -- history of legalized prostitution
  • Freikörperkultur, i.e. hanging around in large groups naked
  • Extreme German performance and body art (I'm looking at you, Nitsch and, to a much lesser extent, Beuys)
  • Freudian theory and Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis
  • Elfriede Jelinek
  • Armin Meiwes (you know, the cannibal)
  • Berlin gay sex clubs

I could go on. Stereotypes are generally accurate, but I think this one ain't. It's a matter of selection bias and self-fulfilling prophecies: sex sells, so anything happening in Germany which has to do with sex gets reported to the outside world. Germany, like most European cultures, is fairly sexually conservative compared to the United States or Britain. Germans who travel abroad (both men and women) are usually shocked, even primly dismayed, by how promiscuous Anglo-American city-dwellers are. Not to mention all the irresponsible drinking and drug use.

Truth to tell, the kind of Germans in my social circle tend to combine a lack of prudishness with a sensible moderation in matters genital. It's quite admirable. And even the ones who might go in for a suckling-pig swinger orgy (g) or two (as a friend of mine once quipped, this would be the ultimate integration test for foreigners) are unrecognizable outside the club. You get the definite impression that their second-favorite activity, after swinger orgies, is scoring excellent deals on equipment to re-grout their bathtubs.

Germany, I pronounce thee no more perverted than any other advanced country, and a lot less perverted than some. You're welcome!


Freiburg Rape-Murders Still Unsolved

In October and November, two young women were attacked, one in Freiburg, one nearby. They were apparently seized at random, raped, and murdered. It is possible both attacks were committed by the same rapist/murderer. So far, despite cash rewards, the use of scent hounds, and comparisons with volunteer DNA samples, there are no solid clues.

The police have male DNA from one of the crime scenes with which they could construct an accurate visual profile of the suspect and precisely define which ethnic group he comes from. But Section 81(e) of the German Criminal Procedure code outlaws this, although it is common in other countries. The contains no exception for extreme situations, such as the possibility of active serial killers.

The police took hundreds of DNA samples from men who attended a medicine faculty college party with one of the victims just before she was killed. Let's assume 90% of the men where white. If the DNA sample could have been tested for ethnicity, and it showed the suspect was black, the police would not have had to waste thousands of man-hours on this fruitless search. The police will probably broaden their search to other ethnic communities. But if the DNA sample showed someone of Northern European ancestry, these searches would also be superfluous -- or at least could be targeted much more precisely.

There should be a national debate about changing this law, but the only commentary I have seen so far about this questionable law has been in the conservative Junge Freiheit. And, of course, here on German Joys.

If another young woman is dragged into the bushes, raped, and murdered -- and it turns out a DNA profile could have helped solve the crime before her death -- maybe the mainstream press will notice this issue. But it shouldn't have to come to that, should it? 


An American in Berghain

Schlecky Silberstein stumbled upon this instant Internet classic -- an American from San Antonio decides on the spur of the moment to visit legendary Berlin nightclub Berghain and, as his Yelp review indicates, is scarred for life. I'm putting it after the fold because, well, this is Berghain we're talking about. You've been warned.

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Alcohol and Socialism

From a display at the Stasi Museum in Leipzig:

Stasimuseum leipzig

Translation:

3. Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse occurs when alcohol consumption leads to a contradiction between socialist moral requirements and a socialist lifestyle, on the one hand, and actual behavior, on the other.

Since most of us now drink and live a life in contradiction to fundamental socialist principles, we are all alcoholics. I find that strangely reassuring.


Separate the Colors, Leave the Lids On

The local news visits the largest glass recycling facility in Europe, in Dormagen. The report clears up a few mysteries about the ubiquitous glass-recycling boxes you see in Germany.

First of all, separating glass by colors actually does matter. You typically hear Germans saying it doesn't, because the trucks which clear the containers seem to dump everything haphazardly into the trailer compartment. Wrong! What bystanders can't see is that the trucks have separate compartments for each color of glass.

Glass of the wrong color, as well as non-glass items such as ceramics or even gun parts (according to the plant manager) are removed from the stream by hand. The rest is automated.

Oh, and although every box has a warning sign tells you to remove the lid before you recycle the bottle, this turns out to be wrong. The machines can easily remove lids, which are recyclable themselves, and intact bottles with lids are "more hygienic" for the human sorters to handle.

This has been your public-service post for the month of October.


Ulm Minster "Coated in Urine and Vomit" Thanks to German Videophobia

Piss

The Washington Post reports on the Ulm Minster:

The spire atop Ulm Minster, the world’s tallest church, juts 530 feet into the air above the German city for which it is named. In its 639th year, however, the Gothic structure could be laid low by a gross and unfortunate hazard: Too many revelrous Germans are ducking into the church’s alcoves to relieve their full bladders and queasy stomachs against the ancient walls.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on it for half a year now and, once again, it’s coated with urine and vomit,” Michael Hilbert, head of the local building preservation agency, told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Those charged with maintaining the building, like Hilbert, worry that abrasive chemicals in the bodily fluids are abrading the sandstone blocks that form the church’s foundation. Making matters worse, the potential damage to the stone comes after the church recently completed an expensive renovation....

To stanch the flow of expelled waste, police patrols have increased in the area. Ulm also doubled city fines for public urination to 100 euros, or $110.

But neither the increased fines nor the extra patrols appear to have curbed the acidic eliminations. (Most sandstones are able to weather acids, like those in acid rains, without significant damage, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Certain sandstone types, however, contain carbonate cements that dissolve when exposed even to weak acids.)

This is another instance of the curious German aversion to video surveillance. Like nuclear power, inflation, and debt, Germans have an intense cultural aversion to video surveillance. This is largely explained by the Nazi excesses in monitoring the population, as well as the European culture of privacy, which gives you rights over your own image, even in public. But these legitimate concerns are endlessly exaggerated and hyped in public discussions here, so that there is an organized lobby against video surveillance even where it would be a cheap, obvious, and effective way to solve serious problems.

As here. This is not a hard case. Just set up a bunch of obvious video surveillance cameras and signs where the problem is worst. Post images of the offenders online.

The predictable riposte from Green Party members, the most strident opponents of video surveillance, is that this won't stop everybody from pissing on the church. I've heard this argument literally hundreds of times from Green Party member about virtually every proposed expansion of government or police power. 

One of the strange defects in German debate culture is that almost nobody makes the obvious counter-argument to the Greens: that a measure doesn't have to be 100% successful to be worth doing. We have laws against murder, yet murders happen nevertheless. Some people will still piss on the church after the cameras are installed, but there will be many fewer of them. Perhaps the cameras might catch people who are engaged in innocent activity (although what that might be is a bit hard to imagine). Of course, nobody would see these images except the people who monitor the camera feeds.

The idea that this miniscule infringement of the privacy of people who know they are in a public space outweighs the importance of preserving the world's architectural heritage is, frankly, ludicrous. I'd be willing to bet that all the privately-owned businesses within a kilometer of the Ulm Minster already have video surveillance. The notion that a masturbation video emporium (g) in Ulm can manage to protect itself, while one of the world's greatest Gothic churches cannot, is, well, beyond ludicrous.

Grow up, Germany. We're counting on you.