Tag Archives: Arts and culture

A Violent World of Difference

Dr Heike BauerThis post was contributed by Dr Heike Bauer, Senior Lecturer in English and Gender Studies in the Department of English and Humanities. Her project, Magnus Hirschfeld and the Shaping of Queer Modernity, is funded by an AHRC Fellowship. Follow her on Twitter.

My project began with a curious textual encounter. There is a ‘conspiration of silence’ about homosexual persecution I read in one the earliest studies of male and female homosexuality, Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes (1914). At over a thousand pages in length, the book by the Jewish doctor and sexual reformer Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) is arguably the most substantial modern work on the topic. Like most of Hirschfeld’s publications, it is written in German, but nevertheless contains many English phrases. As someone who – like Hirschfeld’s readership in the early twentieth-century – moves freely between German and English, I had not paid much attention to his occasional switches between languages. Yet the encounter with Hirschfeld’s mistranslation of ‘conspiracy’ made me pause and wonder about the role of translation in his work. Why did Hirschfeld turn to English in his accounts of the lives of women and men whose same-sex desires rendered them ‘anders als die andern’: different from the others?

Photo: Heike Bauer

Photo: Heike Bauer

Hirschfeld, a trained doctor who had also studied literature and languages at several European universities, is one of the most prolific and influential modern sexologists. He is best known today for his homosexual rights activism, foundational studies of transvestism and opening of the world’s first Institute of Sexual Sciences in Berlin in 1919. A well-known figure amongst contemporary writers and artists, his work was international in scope and outlook. He travelled extensively between the 1890s and 1920s, gathering information about the lives of queer women and men from around the world and forging friendships with colleagues in Europe, the U.S., Asia and the Middle East. My interest in Hirschfeld initially focused on the international dimension of his work, for his many connections provide compelling new insights into the global networks of exchange that shaped debates about sexuality across the modern world  (I explored these international links in a Wellcome Trust funded project on Sexology and Translation: Scientific and Cultural Encounters in the Modern World, 1860-1930)

Hirschfeld’s reference to the ‘conspiration of silence’ that smothers debates about the persecution of homosexuality shifted my research into a new direction. It made me realize that there is a gap in scholarship on the modern history of sexuality: for while we know of many queer lives which have ended tragically as a result of legal persecution, violent attack or the inability to cope with heteronormative social and emotional pressures, we know surprisingly little about the traumatic impact of this suffering on the lives of their contemporaries, and on the shaping of modern queer culture more broadly.

As someone trained in literary studies, my research is built around close readings of texts and their contexts. Paying attention to where English phrases appear in the German narrative – ‘conspiration of silence’ is just one of many such examples (although most of them are in flawless English ) – opened my eyes to an archive of little known accounts of lesbian and homosexual injury, persecution and suicide, and it pointed me to evidence of how this suffering was received by the women and men who identified in some form with the victims.

I found that next to his well-known theorizations of what he called ‘the third sex’, Hirschfeld was also a chronicler of the effects of hate and violence against lesbians and homosexual men and other groups of people. Publishing both in German and English and influenced by his literary as well as medical training, he wrote, for example, about the death of Oscar Wilde and how it affected homosexual men at the turn of the last century; he conducted the first statistical surveys of lesbian and homosexual suicide; and he published books on war, nationalism and racism in which he collated evidence of different forms of collective discrimination and their impact on individual lives.

Conrad Veidt and Magnus Hirschfeld in Anders als die Andern (dir. Richard Oswald, 1919), a film about homosexual blackmail featuring Hirschfeld. It ends with the tragic suicide of the blackmail victim. Screenshot.

Conrad Veidt and Magnus Hirschfeld in Anders als die Andern (dir. Richard Oswald, 1919), a film about homosexual blackmail featuring Hirschfeld. It ends with the tragic suicide of the blackmail victim. Screenshot.

A Violent World of Difference examines these writings and Hirschfeld’s own suffering and its reception– he was both verbally and physically attacked and his Institute was destroyed in a Nazi raid in 1933 – for the insights it provides into the role of violence in the shaping of modern queer culture.  The project discusses sexological literature, literary and popular culture, film and photography to demonstrate that traumatic experiences had a significant impact not only on the individuals subjected to them but also on the shaping of a collective identity.

By paying attention to how queer suffering was understood and received in the U.K, Germany and the U.S., the project further traces the transnational contours of modern queer culture to reveal that violent attacks on lesbians and homosexual men created emotional shockwaves that rippled far across the geopolitical boundaries of the modern world.

As part of the project, I will be leading a series of workshops and symposia on homophobia and literature, queer suicide, and on working with feelings in the history of sexuality. Please contact me if you would like to hear more about this work: h.bauer@bbk.ac.uk


Touching the Book

This post was contributed by Dr Heather Tilley, Exhibition Curator of the Touching the Book exhibition which launches today (18 July 2013) and runs until 31 October 2013 in the Peltz Gallery in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. Dr Tilley will be blogging at blogs.bbk.ac.uk/touchingthebook throughout the exhibition.

Front cover to James Gall’s ‘The First Class Book for the Blind’, 1840. Credit: RNIB

Front cover to James Gall’s ‘The First Class Book for the Blind’, 1840. Credit: RNIB

I first started working on nineteenth-century embossed books for blind people about six years ago, as part of my PhD research into the relationship between blindness and writing in the nineteenth century. It is a research process that has been underpinned by two, overlapping, concerns: firstly, the question of academic ownership and secondly, the relationship between touch and sight. These books, as the exhibition draws attention to, were initially produced within the realm of the visual: often produced by people with sight, and designed to be read simultaneously by people with sight.

As a sighted researcher, I was conscious of the fact that much of the discourse around these books – the guides, codes, statements and reports that detailed their production and use – was in printed text, difficult to access by blind people (the sources have largely not been digitised in a meaningful way). The embossed alphabet systems themselves – many of them long obsolete – might have little tactual meaning to a blind person in the twenty-first century. The content of much of the early embossed literature also raises a further set of problems as it belongs very much to mid-nineteenth century evangelical culture, with an emphasis on biblical texts and spiritual guides. To what extent is it helpful or desirable to transcribe the content of these embossed books into other formats (for example braille)? As my researches unfolded, the question of form and media became more central to my analysis than content (although there are correlations between all three), as the point at which the important issue of blind peoples’ reading experiences began to emerge.

First page of the St John’s Gospel embossed in Frere type, 1843. Credit: RNIB

First page of the St John’s Gospel embossed in Frere type, 1843. Credit: RNIB

What then, do we do with these books? How do we read them, and what histories can we draw from them? We need, first of all, a critical practice that more clearly attends to the experience of touch, and its relationship to vision in this period. As my post on James Gall’s first book details, and the exhibition explores, touch was frequently theorised as a useful but often inferior tool for cognitive understanding in early discourses on embossed reading practices. This is where the history of embossed literature intersects with the history of the senses, as shifting ideas of both touch (as well as the literary sign) open up the way for experiments and innovations in this area. We might also explore how these experiments in turn affected wider cultural understanding of both blindness and the sense of touch (interest in the hypothetical blind man restored to sight, a key figure in Enlightenment philosophy, shifts to the tactile intelligence of the feeling blind person in texts such as Alexander Bain’s The Senses and the Intellect, 1855). These are the questions that underpin the exhibition, and that I, and other colleagues – not least the exciting work being done by Vanessa Warne and Jan-Eric Olsén – are exploring in other research forums.

Most significantly, what was it like for blind and partially-sighted people to touch and handle these books? How successful and enriching was their reading experience, from both a perceptual and educational/entertainment point of view? Archives recording traces of reading experiences by blind people are notoriously scanty, as it is mainly institutional perspectives (such as correspondence between institution directors and teachers) that were deemed worthy of recording for posterity.

Unknown photographer, Ann Whiting, ambrotype, c. 1850-60s. Private Collection

Unknown photographer, Ann Whiting, ambrotype, c. 1850-60s. Private Collection

It’s my point here that we can learn something about reading experiences from the form of the books themselves. These books invite an affective reading, impressing traces of previous readers in the dirt of the pages, and the worn surfaces of some of the embossed letters. There is a sense, then, of these books as things which have been used and handled. Indeed some books, such as the copy of St John’s Gospel in Lucas type on display in the exhibition that belonged to Harriet Curry, can be attributed to particular owners and readers. It is this that led to the development of an exhibition proposal that would explore the physical and material qualities of the books themselves and invite reflection on the relationship between these books and their readers. Whilst the fragility of the books means that they will be presented in cases in the exhibition, relief images of some of the central alphabets and texts will allow visitors to get a sense of how these books felt to the touch.

Beyond the exhibition and in the UK, the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) is based nearby and has a rich collection of embossed literature available to consult. And part of the scope of the exhibition blog is to help build up a sense of where other materials are located, and to share information and knowledge about this history. Over the coming months, a series of guest contributors will post about other objects, materials, and collections relating to this history. There is a rise of interest in the history of visual disability. It’s my hope that this rise entails the recovery of more narratives and records about the people who read these books, beyond the hyperbolic – and silencing – accounts we often find in official discourses.


Alexander Bain, The Senses and the Intellect (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1855), pp. 346-47.


Mothers, murderers and mistresses: the empresses of ancient Rome

Professor Catharine EdwardsProfessor Catharine Edwards, Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, will be presenting Mothers, murderers and mistresses: the empresses of ancient Rome, on BBC4 from Wednesday 29 May, 9pm.

Female members of the imperial family, the wives, daughters – and particularly mothers – of Roman emperors are some of the most colourful characters in Tacitus’ and Suetonius’ accounts of Rome in the early imperial age.  Livia, wife of Rome’s first emperor Augustus, and mother of its second – Tiberius, emerges as the lynch-pin of the family – charming, politically adept, devious – and prepared to stop at nothing – including murder – to secure her son’s succession to the imperial throne. Agrippina, sister of the emperor Caligula, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero, outdoes even Livia in her outrageous plotting. She seduces the emperor Claudius, who happens to be her uncle, becomes his wife, then later murders him as soon as her son Nero is old enough to take over. Agrippina, it seems, longs to rule the empire herself. Nero cannot bear his mother’s domineering and eventually has her killed.

Other women, most strikingly Augustus’ only daughter, Julia, and Claudius’ first wife, Messalina, attract attention for their flagrant sexual excesses. One ancient writer describes Julia entertaining her lovers in public in the Roman forum, while Messalina is said to have taken part in a competition with Rome’s leading prostitute and won, satisfying 25 clients in 24 hours – if, that is, we are to believe the scandalized reports of Roman commentators.

Gender and Power in Ancient Rome

I’ve always been interested in the interrelationship between gender and power in ancient Rome. This was a key concern in my first book, The politics of immorality in ancient Rome (Cambridge 1993). It’s also something that drew me to publish a translation of Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars (Oxford World’s Classics 2000), while Tacitus’ characterization of Agrippina features particularly in my more recent Death in ancient Rome (Yale 2007). When I was approached by Tom Webber of Hotsauce TV to research and present a three-part series on Roman imperial women I jumped at the chance.

Piecing together the stories of women

The stories of these women, though gripping, are often lost sight of, even when we focus on individual Roman emperors – let alone in studies of military or administrative history. Can we ever hope to recover something of their point of view? Tantalisingly, Agrippina herself wrote an account of her family’s history, which is now lost, though Tacitus drew on it in writing his Annals. What kind of a view of Roman history did this offer? Would it have given us a flavour of what it felt like to be almost at the pinnacle of Roman power, yet always ultimately dependent on the continuing favour of an erratic and perhaps not very bright young man obsessed with music and sex? Agrippina was probably fully justified if she thought she could do a much better job of running the empire than her teenage son.

Another question our series sets out to explore is how much influence these women really had. Fleeting references in ancient literature, as well as texts inscribed on stone, are pieced together to reveal Livia, for instance, getting involved in the affairs of subject communities in the eastern Roman empire, interceding with Augustus on behalf of the islanders of Samos or advising Salome, sister of Herod the Great, on whom she should marry.

Envy or admiration?

Agrippina and Nero

Agrippina and Nero

The ancient evidence relating to these women is often highly contradictory.  One particular challenge we face is explaining the striking mismatch between literary accounts, which so often highlight these women’s shocking excesses, whether of ambition, avarice or sexual desire and, on the other hand, the coins and works of sculpture (such as the relief shown above, in which Agrippina places a wreath on Nero’s head) which seem to recognize their position and influence as completely legitimate. Did Romans  – and the inhabitants of the empire more generally – resent these imperial women or admire them – or is the picture more complex? Venerated, envied, viewed with suspicion, feared and sometimes hated they certainly provoked strong emotions.

Above all we need to be cautious about taking ancient accounts of their scandalous misbehavior, all those stories of adultery and poisoning, at face value. The Romans often prided themselves on their rugged masculinity; political power in Roman antiquity is characterized as something that is – or ought to be – a masculine preserve. The advent of the principate (as ancient historians term the monarchical regime which succeeded the Roman republic) brought significant political change. In a system where power was transmitted through the family, female members of that family came to have enormous importance. Many of the traditional Roman ruling class, the senatorial elite, resented the rule of one family and focused their resentment on the influence of its women. And what better way to undermine the authority of an emperor than to ridicule him for being under a woman’s thumb, whether scheming wife or domineering mother?

Watch a trailer for the documentary, starting on 29 May 2013, 9pm, BBC4:


The Modernist Party

This post was contributed by Dr Kate McLoughlin, Senior Lecturer in Modern Literature in the Department of English and Humanities.

The Modernist Party began as a teaching idea.  In my previous job, at the University of Glasgow, I was looking for a way to introduce students to Modernist literature – a notoriously difficult, though richly rewarding, set of works by writers such as Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce.  In the first class, we began with a general discussion of parties (show me the student who hasn’t been to one).  After exploring how people might feel before, during and after attending a party, we moved on to discuss parties in some famous Modernist texts: Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’, investigating how these scenes work formally and thematically.  The students had already each researched a modernist figure – a writer, artist, dancer, musician, philosopher – and I then asked them to role-play him or her at an imagined party taking place in the 1920s.  (I played Ernest Hemingway and was asked why I’d written such a gloomy ending to A Farewell to Arms.)  Still sitting round the seminar table, the students and I introduced ourselves in character and made small-talk.  At the end, we discussed what we’d learned about our Modernist fellow-guests and how the role-playing had felt.  ‘Awkward’, ‘fun’, ‘embarrassing’, ‘hard to keep up the pretence’ were among the responses: useful things to have learned about modernist experiences.  I repeated the class the following year at Glasgow and this time we stood up and moved about as we mingled, which made the experience more realistic.  When I came to Birkbeck, I used the format as the opening seminar of my course on English Literary Modernism.  The fact that, like all Birkbeck seminars, it was taking place in the evening made for even greater verisimiltude.  This time, I dimmed the lights and provided soft drinks.  A student commented:

I personally found the mock party very productive. It was a great way of making someone understand how they might feel at a party. I loved it because it made me feel nervous, anxious and coward, but I also found it enjoyable. I guess these feelings are common to most people in modernist party, and making someone actually experience the feelings and experiences of modernist party gives a more clear idea of the modernist party as you are not simply reading or hearing something but experiencing it.

I’m delighted to have found a format that gives students experience of Modernism from the inside, as it were, and I’m enormously grateful to the Birkbeck and Glasgow classes for playing along so sportingly.

It’s always gratifying to an academic when teaching and research come together, and at the same time as experimenting with the Modernist party in the classroom, I have been assembling a volume of essays on the subject for publication.  The Modernist Party is published this month by Edinburgh University Press.  In 12 chapters internationally distinguished scholars explore the party both as a literary device and as a forum for developing modernist creative values, opening up new perspectives on materiality, the everyday and concepts of space, place and time. There are chapters on Conrad and domestic parties, T. S. Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’ and performance anxiety, the party vector in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and Finnegans Wake, Katherine Mansfield’s party stories, Virginia Woolf ’s idea of a party, the textual parties of Proust, Ford Madox Ford and Aldous Huxley and the real-life parties of Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier, Natalie Barney and Gertrude Stein, the black ‘after-party’ of the Harlem Renaissance and the party in extremis in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love.