Queering German Culture ed. by Leanne Dawson
The situation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals, groups, and topics has reached a crossroads in our current moment. As Leanne Dawson opens this volume, the place of gender and sexual minorities has become increasingly entrenched in society, one sign being the introduction of marriage equality in the United States and Germany. Yet, the reaction against this progress has simultaneously reached a feverish pitch, with Dawson referencing the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where far-right marchers chanted Nazi slogans and slurs aimed at racial, religious, and sexual "others." We are once again confronted with the resurgent threat of a movement wishing to erase the history and presence of these groups.
Queering German Culture positions itself as a parry to these developments, its nod to today's disconcerting events adding critical urgency to this collection of queer and feminist inquiry. The contributors address questions of LGBTQ culture, history, and visibility and their creation, treatment, and preservation in a wider societal context. Encompassing literary fiction, film, magazines, and archives from throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the volume foregrounds an intersectional approach at the juncture of gender, sexuality, race, and class. A successor to earlier [End Page 208] work such as Christoph Lorey's and John L. Plew's coedited volume Queering the Canon: Defying Sights in German Literature and Culture (1998), this volume similarly adopts a dual use of queer as both noun and verb, identity and approach, in which German culture is queered not only by studying explicitly queer material but also "through against-the-grain (re)readings of texts and histories" (2). As such, Dawson's introduction lays the groundwork by offering a concise overview of queer German history, culture, and theory, from the early homosexual emancipation movement and milestones in queer cultural production to seminal texts in queer theory; the volume thus takes little for granted on the part of the reader. Major theorists, disciplinary jargon, and even queer slang are explicated in the essays and endnotes. While those steeped in queer or feminist theory may choose to skim over these explanatory interludes, they invite those unfamiliar with the queer tradition to participate in these discussions. Moreover, an array of theoretical approaches including queer and feminist theory, Freudian psychoanalysis, media theory, postcolonial theory, and film theory allow for multiple points of entry for a potentially diverse audience.
The volume's first part, "Queer Histories and Archives," focuses on queer in/visibility and agency. Dawson, comparing the histories and temporal politics of lesbian archives in New York City and Berlin, draws out how these archives make lesbian history visible to queer individuals and their urban environments. She emphasizes that these institutions provide a home that facilitates intergenerational and cross-cultural connection and transmission of knowledge alternative to that of the heterosexual nuclear family. Looking to the Weimar Republic, Cyd Sturgess investigates the fashioning of feminine lesbian subjectivities on the pages of popular lesbian magazines and the influence exerted on their representations by divergent sexological discourses, political ideals, and notions of femininity espoused by opposing camps within the homosexual movement of the 1920s. Kyle Frackman, in his analysis of recent documentary films on gay life in communist East Germany, critically engages the nature of this queerness, illustrating how these films not only productively queer our understanding of the past but also conventional ideas of documentary film and film theory by playing with notions of objectivity and authenticity.
Part 2, "Queering the Other," interrogates queerness in dialogue with race and migrant status. Closely reading Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig, John L. Plews studies the role of physiognomical relations between the novel's famous protagonist and the "foreign" men he encounters. Plews establishes the attribution of foreignness in the novel as a screen for Aschenbach's—and Mann's—sublimated homosexuality, using the threat of racial alterity to avoid the scandal of queerness and to reveal the homoerotic undertones and homophobic imperatives of cultural discourse. Nicholas Courtman considers the role of queer affiliation in fictional representations of refugees in novels by Jenny Erpenbeck and Terézia Mora. He deftly deconstructs the discursive positioning of queerness and migrants as binary opposites, critiquing [End Page 209] tendencies to naturalize heterosexual affection and relationships in order to humanize migrants. Turning to filmmaker Fatih Akin, Sarra Kassem analyzes the intersection of queerness and non-Western female subjectivity. Against the frequent erasure of queer female migrants, Kassem demonstrates how Akin's films succeed in portraying nuanced female characters who move beyond strict boundaries of gender, sexuality, race, and nationality.
The final section, "Queering Normativity," works to destabilize norms of gender and sexuality. Lauren Pilcher undertakes a finely argued examination of gender performativity in films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, teasing out Fassbinder's stylization of performative femininity as a source of pleasure experienced by his female figures rather than by an assumed male viewer. Pilcher presents the queerness of these films as disrupting essentialist notions of womanhood and the phallocentric male gaze of the camera. Concluding the volume, Gary Schmidt reads Thomas Brussig, Jonathan Franzen, and Phillip Roth through a psychoanalytic lens, following the development of their young male protagonists within a web of differing masculine ideals and practices. By interpreting these novels as undermining heterosexual masculinity, he argues for an interpretation of hegemonic masculinity that is always already in negotiation with femininity and queerness.
Although the volume would have benefited from a wider time frame, especially into the nineteenth century when much of modern queerness arose, Queering German Culture excels in offering fascinating material and skillfully argued scholarship. It succeeds in foregrounding queer experiences within German culture, while also providing an accessible collection for those unfamiliar with the German or queer contexts. The volume is a worthy contribution to the steady queering of scholarship and society, an essential task in these precarious times. [End Page 210]