Janus-Faced Modernism: The Body (Politic) in Red Viennese Life & Culture

The year 2019 marked the centennial anniversary of the beginning of a period in Vienna’s municipal history commonly referred to as “Red Vienna.” During this brief period, from 1919 to 1934, the Social Democratic Workers’ Party dominated both the political and the cultural scene. Its initiatives—in housing, education, health and welfare, leisure and culture—laid the groundwork for an equitably and justly organized modern urban metropolis. That lasting groundwork is in part why the city of Vienna is today consistently ranked one of the “most livable” cities in the world.

But the story of Red Vienna’s emergence, its claims, successes, failures, and above all its relevance for the present is certainly neither fixed nor uncontested. The following conversation—occasioned by the publication of a new book on Viennese modernism and newly published translations about Red Vienna in Barricade’s latest issue—ended up circling and kept resituating, from multiple angles, by way of various objects, what amounts to a fundamental, albeit generative ambivalence at the heart of this peculiar modernist project.

I’d like to thank Alys X. George and Elizabeth Benninger—the hawk-eyed, bright-minded editors of my translations—for sitting down to this conversation with me, for shining their extraordinary lights on issues ranging from the administration of health and disease, to the role of the body in shaping culture, to the management of crisis, identity, and difference.

Lauren K. Wolfe, July 2020

Participants:

ALYS X. GEORGE is assistant professor of German and affiliate faculty of the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at New York University.

ELIZABETH BENNINGER lives and works in New York. She is a founding editorial collective member of Barricade.

LAUREN K. WOLFE is a Brooklyn-based translator and educator. She is a founding editorial collective member of Barricade.

The following conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

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LAUREN: Alys, you’ve recently published a compelling new book with the University of Chicago Press, called The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body. In it, you have revised the oft-told story of Viennese modernism—a largely bourgeois story in which the psyche plays a leading role: It’s a story of the development of psychoanalysis in the sciences and the various abstract crises—of language, of identity—that drove cultural production toward a certain aestheticism. But in your revisionist interdisciplinary history—in which you look at public exhibitions, at dance and body culture, at new media, at feuilleton journalism, at pedagogical practices—you shift the emphasis away from the psychological to focus on the central role the body has played—the physiological, expressive, or, in your words, “somatic” and “semiotic” body—in shaping cultural and social life in Vienna around the turn of the last century through the 1930s. Your work—after tracing many paths through the fairgrounds, medical clinics, and advertising pages—ultimately deposits this new body inside the progressive, worker-oriented, social-democratic municipal institutions of so-called “Red Vienna,” where your particular story of Viennese modernism ends. And ends, of course, rather fatally or dramatically in a sudden reversal, with the seizure of municipal and federal power by a clerico-corporatist, authoritarian state, commonly termed “Austrofascism.” One of the things I so admire about your book, though, is that it very carefully, but fundamentally refuses exactly the trajectory that I have just clumsily laid out: a story that plunges from utopia to dictatorship, from emancipatory socialism to repressive fascism, as if this were a simple reversal, a story of action and reaction. Instead, you understand the modernist utopian project as already carrying its Janus-faced other inside itself as potential, which you convincingly demonstrate, not least by tracing all the way back to mid-nineteenth century debates and practices the backstory of the modernist body—the body on display, the body in motion, on stage, on camera, the body in pieces, as pedagogical instrument, in operating and delivery rooms—in this way shifting a certain weight from the foot that wants to understand modernism as a radical break from tradition. But your book does something very crucial that other dialectic-of-enlightenment narratives don’t: You have placed the working-class body at the center of your story, alongside the bodies of our familiar “others”: the Jewish body, the female body, with special focus on the pregnant bodies of working-class women. I’m wondering if you could explain your decision to start with these bodies in particular: Why these bodies? What about them inspired you to trace this comprehensive counter-narrative? And to what unexpected places and conclusions did they lead you?

ALYS: I want to thank you for this really generous introduction to my work and for the invitation to talk with you both today.

I think to start with the question “Why these bodies in particular?” might be overlooking the more fundamental question I found myself asking when I began studying this time period, the time around 1900 and into the interwar years. For me, the initial question was not “why these bodies” but “where is the body” at all in an historiographic narrative that’s dominated so strongly by the psyche. We know the story about how Freudian psychoanalysis profoundly influenced the development of culture around 1900 and after, and this is the narrative that’s long been associated with Viennese modernism. But as I was looking at primary sources across disciplines and media, it struck me how many bodies I was seeing. And the more I looked beyond bourgeois high culture to various forms of popular culture, I started thinking, yes, there is this clearly relevant and legitimate narrative of the psyche, but there was also a deep-rooted fascination with the body that housed the psyche, and that fascination pre-dated the emergence of psychoanalysis. So the question I asked myself, initially, even before I got to the question you asked—which bodies?, because there’s obviously not one singular body––was: Where is the body at all in this narrative of homo psychologicus?

Also, what kinds of “culture” are we looking at? Because it’s not just canonized forms of cultural production––portraiture, novels, plays––created by canonical figures who are all well-known. There were so many disparate forms of cultural production that don’t even get considered in the hegemonic historiography of this time period. A lot of it is severely under-researched, and a lot of the figures have disappeared into the annals of history, never to be recovered for the most part. There was just no systematic overview of this time period that took account of this production and that sought to really shift the frame. And that’s what my project strove to do.

You also mention this question of breaks, crises, ruptures, in historical terms, Lauren. We like to think in neatly delimited time periods, right? In the case of Vienna, the period from 1890 to 1910 is classically defined as Viennese modernism. World War I ostensibly puts an end to all that, and something new begins in 1918/1919 with Red Vienna, which then comes to an abrupt end in 1934 with the rise of “Austrofascism.” I see the necessity in historiography of defining history in these small packets. However, I think that narrowing in this way, to a series of soundbites, really does a disservice if you’re looking at the long arc of history, which is one of the things that I aimed to do. And something I noticed in my initial research was that there was a lot more continuity here than just the well-worn story about fracture and crisis. Which is why I took a long view from, let’s say, 1870 at the outset through 1938. This allows us to discern what happens with specific discourses: how they emerge, evolve, and can be easily co-opted to different ends. It’s up to us to interpret them contextually and see their pre-histories, their afterlives.

LAUREN: It’s super interesting that, in counterpoint to the tendency to periodize that you’re describing, especially around modernism, when rupture and crisis are such themes, and “movements” in art especially tend to just accelerate, one after another after another, etc., it’s interesting that the body is the thing that provides this element of continuity. And how you make this corporeal element the counterweight to a narrative of breaking and rupture. For instance, you’ve traced from the 1870s through the 1930s the public habits or practices of gazing at and exhibiting the body. You find “exotic” bodies brought to Vienna from elsewhere, for the edification and entertainment of the Viennese public, but then later, in the interwar years, in Red Vienna, the gaze shifts and it’s the Viennese public’s own body that becomes the object, in the context of a new consciousness about hygiene practices and sanitation.

And so it’s interesting that the body allows you a measure of historical or temporal continuity. And then, at the same time, it allows you to cross disciplines and examine such a wide array of material culture and intellectual constructs.

ALYS: Yeah, there’s something key in this, in the public display of the body or the study of the body. The story kind of starts for me, like you said, in the mid-1800s, but these human displays really hit a high point in the two decades around 1900, with people being brought to Europe from overseas and put on display for profit, though this was by no means a uniquely Viennese phenomenon. There’s plenty of research on this, on how these exhibitions are implicated in, are used to define what it means to be European—right at the same time that sciences like anthropology and ethnography are emerging as disciplines in their own right and sort of feeding off of these displays, using as their material objects precisely those bodies which are staged in a popular cultural arena. So you get this really fascinating and disturbing intersection between popular culture and hard science, where the two domains feed off of one another and the object of study is the body of the other.

And if you trace that line, of the public staging of bodies, what the “other” is does change over the course of the first few decades of the twentieth century. As you know, the Austro-Hungarian Empire ends with the end of World War I, and we have, for the first time, an Austria. It’s a rump-state republic that’s lost its imperial identity. At the same time, you have all of these antecedent medical and hygiene initiatives, which you can trace back to the late eighteenth century. Then interwar Red Vienna biopolitically codifies public health and hygiene directed at improving particularly working-class people’s lives, and governmentally assumes the utopian mantle of bettering, optimizing both the body and its living conditions.

And that’s where it intersects with looking—only now it’s looking inside one’s own community. Now, the object of study is not so much people from other places, it becomes people from other classes. So the working classes, for example, come more sharply into view and are the object of study for many of the foundational initiatives that have come to underwrite what we identify with interwar social democracy in Austria.

LAUREN: That’s really fascinating, also because I think that the narrative that you’re writing against, this retreat into the “garden of aestheticism,” the classic Carl Schorske—when was that written?

ALYS: It was based on a series of essays published in the 1960s. When it was published as a book, in expanded form, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

LAUREN: Ah, so a while ago.

ALYS: It’s been a while, yeah.

LAUREN: So there’s really a stark contrast between that now classic or canonical take on Viennese modernism, as a kind of retreat into a sort of untouchable, apolitical space of the interior, and the story that you’re telling, which is almost exactly the opposite. And I think that’s what’s so compelling, too: that there is a certain kind of turning inward in this history of the body, but it’s a directing of the gaze from the bodies of the other to the bodies of one’s own community. And interestingly, this inward turning actually leads back out into an explicitly political project.

ALYS: Right, it’s deeply political. In fact, I would argue that bodies are never not political. And that’s where this discussion comes together with your great translation of the really important introduction and round table discussion from the exhibition catalog to the Red Vienna exhibition that just ended a few months ago in Vienna.

I love how the curators describe it in their introduction: Red Vienna is this “space of possibility,” where, in some sense, the central question is: How should one live? How do we construct our lives? And that’s actually a project of engagement with all kinds of lifeworlds that are not encompassed by the old Schorskean narrative of an ahistorical retreat into the “garden of aestheticism,” which had resulted from a deep disappointment in liberal politics. Yes, aestheticism, decadence may have been the dominant strand of high literary production in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it was not reflective of many people’s actual lifeworlds. And I think that’s what brought me back to the body. It’s that the mind is ultimately always embodied, and so we can look at the body as a site of lived experience, a site of knowledge production, the body as actual material, but also as a trope and metaphor in culture.

My approach comes from cultural history, from cultural studies, where we consider not only high culture, but where we also study people’s rituals and practices, where we study popular culture. It’s a more encompassing, fuller view, and it allows us to sort of break out of some of these really entrenched narratives that center on a kind of cultural production that in reality is relatively divorced from most people’s lived experiences. The high-mindedness of homo psychologicus doesn’t account for most people’s lifeworlds. And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to bring it back to the body in which that mind lives.

LAUREN: This comes across so clearly in your book—so many lifeworlds, so many different bodies attached to these, a much more pluralized view of the people who were actually participating.

ALYS: In this moment, in particular, the lifeworlds of women. The story of first-wave feminism intersects in really interesting ways with the emergence of social democracy as a political movement, too. It’s the marginalized voices that are really raising themselves up to be heard, and, in essence, they want to be at least considered as part of this project. This starts to get realized more fully in Red Vienna.

LAUREN: Could be I’m belaboring the high-low divide a bit, but I like to think about the avant-garde as a kind of outgrowth or excrescence of the dominant class—in the case of modernism, the primarily male bourgeoisie. Accordingly, a cultural history focused on the avant-garde would be in a kind of feedback loop with the concerns of the dominant class. I’m interested in how your research, how following these working-class and women’s bodies, led you outside of avant-garde cultural production, into the newspapers, to the fairgrounds, how you end up exploring places where the avant-garde is not necessarily hanging out, or not exclusively.

ALYS: I would say that the avant-garde is also going to the movies, is also going to the fairgrounds. I mean, these are the “democratic” sites of more popular culture, to which, in theory, everybody has access, and these more democratic spaces have always interested me because there’s serious cultural production happening there as well. Fairgrounds, for example, figure centrally in the works of modernist writers whose names one would recognize, like, for example, Peter Altenberg, Arthur Schnitzler, Felix Salten. And film is huge for Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Robert Musil, all of the major Viennese modernists. They themselves were consumers of popular culture, and they were also producing high culture that, at minimum, reflected on these popular cultural forms—pantomime would be a great example of that. So many famous Viennese writers dabbled in writing pantomimes. And staged them at the fairgrounds in some cases, too.

Even beyond reflecting on the question of who counts as the avant-garde, who is producing and who is consuming what type of culture, we have to also look at the spaces where culture is disseminated and consumed. How open are they? I can’t imagine too many working-class people went to the Imperial Theater, for example, to see Schnitzler’s latest play. But, in the interwar years especially, there were different types of theater and performance initiatives precisely for the working classes, where they created their own culture and staged it for themselves, but where the cultural avant-garde was also really involved in the programming and conceptualization. There was an attempt to precisely break down the barriers to access to culture and knowledge. It’s the question of accessibility both to consumption of culture and knowledge, but also to its means of production that has never stopped fascinating me.

LAUREN: Part of the project of Red Vienna was an effort to create subjects out of the mass administrative object that the working class had been under imperial management, to create a working-class culture, comprised of self-determining, working-class political subjects. I wonder if this is an element of what you’re describing.

ALYS: Yes. It has to do with the cultivation of a thinking subject and, in precise terms, it’s the cultivation of a thinking political subject that has agency. But it’s a double-edged sword, because this kind of cultivation, while utopian in conception, operates on a kind of paternalism. So we have to make sure to not lose sight of what that actually meant for people’s lived experiences. While the municipal government in Red Vienna may have provided the tools, largely through access to knowledge, for people to become politically engaged subjects, they were still very highly administered by the state, and that administration really reached into every aspect of their lifeworlds. I mean, this is not just housing and nutrition, not just education, but gender relations, leisure and culture, sexuality and public health––basically every aspect of life. That administration served two purposes: one, more broadly, to improve people’s lives and encourage self-determination, and the other to create enlightened political subjects, which essentially aimed to create a base of voters who would then, because their lifeworlds had been so dramatically improved, ideally go to the ballot box and vote Social Democrat.

If we take voting rights as an example: In 1918, half the population—namely, women—were enfranchised. The vote, in practice, becomes more representative, but women’s electoral behavior was also tracked in the decade between 1920 and 1930 through the use of differently colored ballot envelopes. So here we see the dual aims of self-determination and equal rights, but still with a really clear, politically pragmatic, administrative-disciplinary bent.

LAUREN: I see a lot of parallels to the present, when looking at the problems facing the municipal government of Red Vienna—not least among them disease, infection, outbreak. A huge percentage of the urban population was mal- or undernourished, homeless, suffering from tuberculosis after the war. Could you say more about this pragmatic utopianism, specifically in regard to the ways that Red Vienna’s administration addressed the fears and the real material concerns brought about by food scarcity, housing insecurity, above all an epidemic? Is there anything here that might be informative for the present?

ALYS: That’s a really good question. It makes me think of the networks that existed, networks of knowledge in public health, medicine, epidemiology, and politics in Vienna. There was very clear precedence given to expertise in these areas. The famous anatomist, Julius Tandler, who was basically the architect of Red Vienna’s public health and hygiene initiatives and the head of the municipal welfare office from 1920 on, was kind of the Anthony Fauci of his day. He had a very long history of giving public lectures, since the late 1890s, for women and the working classes, open university–type courses, adult education, advocating that you need to know your body in order to know yourself. In this way—the role medical experts were given, how much weight their voices had, how much leverage they were given to create policy in really practical terms—Red Vienna could be a model for the present.

The focus on reducing infant mortality was also an issue that might be informative for our state of affairs. The US currently has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the developed world. In the late 1800s, Austria had the highest infant mortality rate in western Europe. Tandler really made mothers and mothers-to-be the center of his policy-making, giving priority to investment in improved access to health care, improved home environments––practical, material support. He advocated an early-intervention approach, and by “early” he meant even before conception. He recognized the socioeconomic factors that lead to poor birth outcomes and implemented concrete municipal support programs to counteract some of the more tenacious issues of access to information, education, care, etc. The result was that the infant mortality rate declined by half under his watch.

All of this was happening immediately in the wake of World War I, which resulted, among other things, in huge disease outbreaks in 1918/1919 and repeatedly in the 1920s. The number of total deaths that could be attributed to tuberculosis was something like twenty-five percent. And tuberculosis is a disease much like the coronavirus, which, though caused by bacteria, is highly infectious and attacks the lungs. Its spread is fostered by urban overcrowding and poor housing conditions. So of course it affects higher percentages of working-class people. Tandler and other officials in Red Vienna knew that they couldn’t fight disease, for example, or infant mortality, without also holistically addressing housing conditions, access to healthcare and health information, benefits for mothers, etc. I think it’s the holistic view alongside the valuation of expertise that could be real models for the United States.

An important aspect of these networks of knowledge is that the cultural elite were not siloed off from, let’s say in this case, medical experts and politicians, but instead worked together. Maybe it’s by virtue of Vienna’s size, as a somewhat smaller city, and certainly its strong tradition of medical knowledge and expertise. People were very deeply invested in bringing knowledge to the people, and I think there was a kind of mutual influence.

Let me give you a concrete example. Take modern dance, and how that evolved away from ballet in the early twentieth century. You have this idea of a more natural body, free dance, expressive dance, and many of the most famous modern dancers opened schools of their own starting in the early 1920s. Social Democrats—the party, the arts and cultural bureau—saw an opportunity here, because they thought, biopolitically speaking, if people are healthy, then they’re going to be able to lead better lives. So dance is one way that we can encourage healthy living and physical fitness. A key aspect here is how individuals could improve their physical health, not just through workers’ sport initiatives, which were also important, but through high culture, through dance. And these dancers were partnering with the ruling political party to offer free modern dance classes to the public, classes that took the workers’ lives into account, offering classes that fit with their work schedules.

Another example might be exhibition culture, like the series of hygiene exhibitions that were really popular in the German-speaking world, starting in the early 1900s and held with increasing frequency throughout the 1920s and 1930s. These were exhibitions anyone could attend (again addressing the question of accessibility), held in public spaces, with minimal or no entry fees, with convenient and extended opening hours. The experts who designed these exhibits—sociologists, physicians, politicians, designers––were thinking in very smart ways about how information can be communicated, how to make it understandable without watering down the serious scientific content. Otto Neurath and Marie Reidemeister (later Neurath) developed the “Vienna method,” later called Isotype, using numbers, symbols, and images instead of words to communicate statistics in a way that’s visually very impactful, easy to understand, even with limited literacy, but no less coherent and specific.

LAUREN: It’s just such a shocking contrast, that you can have these really strikingly similar moments of affliction—similar in scope and intensity, separated by one hundred years almost exactly—and then such fundamentally different worldviews that reside at the base of the approaches taken to crisis management, health crisis management, in each moment. In the United States, in the present, you find sheer disregard for health and well-being, willful ignorance and the spread of misinformation for politically spurious ends. Meanwhile, one hundred years ago, you have a similar measure of real, widespread misery and what you find underwriting the management of that crisis is the good a person is assumed to be, the good a person is assumed capable of doing. That’s the starting point. The contrast with the present, in the United States, couldn’t be more discouraging. 

ALYS: Yes, absolutely. And this question of expertise plays a big role, it’s a really clear contrast between what’s going on now in the US and what was going on one hundred years ago in Vienna. There, the experts really were the center of policy-making, specifically for health, hygiene, and welfare. Currently in the United States, we see the government either appointing inexperienced or unqualified people to major policy-making positions and/or trying to undercut the legitimacy of its own appointed experts in these fields. Instead of making the experts the center, their scientific knowledge is being undermined, and that’s exactly the opposite of what was going on in Vienna in the 1920s and early 1930s.

ELIZABETH: I’d like to pick up on this question—of the specificity of the pandemic, of interwar Vienna and the present—and zoom out a little, to think more broadly about “crisis” and “crisis management.” In the roundtable discussion that Lauren translated, the question comes up regarding to what extent Red Vienna can be understood as a product of crisis management, as a reaction to current events and circumstances, and to what extent that view is limiting. And hearkening back to something we were discussing earlier, modernism is often understood as, at least in part, a response to a series of world-historical “crises”—political, epistemological, philosophical, aesthetic—albeit of a less immediate and definable nature. I’m wondering if there’s some productive way to think about the coexistence, and possible intersections, of these two senses of “crisis” in Red Vienna?

ALYS: What comes to mind for me, first off, when listening to your question about crisis and crisis management, Elizabeth, is how, around the turn of the century and certainly during World War I, there’s this perception that the world order is somehow shifting in a way that feels very uncontrollable and threatening. And I think what the Social Democrats do in a really productive way is to imbue that moment of crisis with a sense of potential. It’s not just a sort of navel-gazing, grievance-laden look back at all of the things that we’ve lost. It’s a forward-oriented view, asking: How can we actually actively create the type of society that we would like to live in and be a part of? And so there’s a kind of inflection point, and that might be represented by the war. But actually, I think it’s a generational imperative, too, and that, for many younger people who didn’t fight in the war or consciously experience the high times of imperialism and colonialism, there’s a lot less mourning what came before. So maybe there was also a sense of destruction as a starting point rather than an end point.

LAUREN: That’s super interesting, bringing in the question of generations. There is a generational conflict in interwar Vienna. And, in spite of the social democratic rule, there is still class conflict. And conflict within the party, which is expressed generationally and also on the issue of what are acceptable trade-offs, with for instance bourgeois interests. These things become smoothed over with historical distance, what was rough or gnarly and more complicated in the moment. It strikes me that maybe it’s also at this point of generational difference or conflict that the strands Elizabeth is referring to are actually coming together, where the psychological-aesthetic-epistemological and the embodied-practical-political are coming together. One of the participants in the roundtable from the exhibition catalog brings up certain forms of ritualized public gatherings, as an example of, in his view, a persistent anachronism, that separated, if not generations from one another, then certainly the more progressive from the less progressive wings of the party. He describes these older forms that just didn’t connect anymore with the younger generation, who may have only come of age during Red Vienna. And some of this younger generation, especially in the left wing of the party, were taking part in political cabaret, which had a strongly communist bent, rather than in the consecration or mystery plays that the party otherwise put on, which were themselves much older forms adapted to the reformist values of social democracy.

ALYS: Those “anachronisms” can be so revealing, though. It’s a question of creating the broadest possible reach for one’s messaging, and mass performances would be what comes to mind here. Political cabaret is fantastic, and deeply necessary, but it won’t typically have such wide reach. So old forms are given new shape. Austria is a very Catholic country, still today. And this was a rather conservative Catholicism that was exercised, not just in politics, but also performatively, in ritual practice. How the medieval tradition of Catholic mystery plays comes to be a cornerstone of high-cultural and political performance in the 1920s is really interesting. If you look at the Salzburg Festival—first held in 1920—they used all kinds of mass performance elements that harkened back to these really deep Catholic roots, but at the same time, they gave them a new-old setting––a public space outside of the confines of the theater, but a cathedral square. And then you have the Social Democrats in Vienna using similar means—taking performance outside of the theater, the mass movement of bodies, the communalism and striving toward a higher ideological purpose––in publicly staged performances in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I’m interested in the reach here—they’re drawing on older traditions and practices and rituals, but also in some sense experimenting with how they can make those rituals, traditions, practices relevant for the present moment. So they’re familiar, yet also imbued with political purpose. It’s adapting old means to new ends. And it’s interesting that, as soon as the so-called Austrofascist government takes power in 1934, these same types of mass performances are seen in copycat form. They become, of course, not much later an integral part of National Socialist political culture as well. By tracing certain practices, and seeing how they are altered or amended, are used and deployed in various contexts—it becomes clear that the practices don’t disappear, the rituals don’t disappear, the individual forms of cultural production don’t disappear, but they are changed to suit the ideological purpose. Considering these developmental arcs is really interesting. Taking the long view, rather than seeing things in clearly delimited time frames defined by significant world-historical or political events.

LAUREN: And there’s a dark side to this sort of story, too, which you gesture toward at the end of your book, Alys: the quick appropriability of practices and discourses both. In Red Vienna, the body becomes highly visible, a descriptive inventory is made of it, and this is done with an eye toward a certain kind of emancipation, with an eye toward producing self-determining political subjects. But a tension is implicit here, between knowledge, self-knowledge, and discipline, which is enacted on bodies by the state.

ALYS: A specific biopolitical example strikes me as important in this context, and that would be eugenics. This is clearly part of the history of the body and the history of science and medicine, with roots in the previous century. Julius Tandler, whom I mentioned before, this really enlightened sort of health hero of Red Vienna, was also a proponent, like many other doctors of his day, of eugenics. His kind of “positive” eugenics had nothing to do with forced sterilization or other “racial hygiene” measures that would later be implemented by the Nazis. The idea instead was to improve the social body as a whole by cultivating the healthiest possible individuals within that whole. Tandler’s form of eugenics, all of it voluntary, might be called humanist: It used education, marital advising, and reproductive counseling to try to positively influence the health of the population. Which is not to say that many of his statements would not be considered controversial by today’s standards. It just goes to show how eugenics is a kind of body-oriented, scientifically based policy that can easily be appropriated to a variety of political, ideological ends, not least, in the end, Nazism and genocide. Today, looking back, we cannot help but have that association, but in the first decades of the 1900s, there really was a notion of “positive” eugenics, untainted by what would come just a few years later.

ELIZABETH: I’m thinking of something you mention, Alys, in the introduction to your book: You refer to Elaine Scarry’s extraordinary study of the body in pain, in order to point to the kind of prominence that bodies achieve at moments of philosophical, ideological, cultural, political, and practical change and upheaval. You write that the appeal to the body, its “sheer material factualness,” lends a much-desired “realness” or “certainty” to lifeworlds in uncertain times. The premise is that, in face of whatever crisis, the body, in all its complexity, is after all a kind of material reference that one can always refer back to. But then again, at the same time, in its manifest potential for difference, it is also a producer of perceived “crisis.” So it has this inherent ambivalence: We can have a body, we can touch it, we can study it, we can cut it open, we can measure it, we can make all these records of it, but it is nevertheless forever producing difference. And eugenics emerges as a kind of “crisis management,” as a management of difference—many kinds of difference.

ALYS: That’s such an important summary, Elizabeth. What you say about the body being a material fact, one which we constantly try to know, understand, improve, but also a persistent producer of and marker of difference, which we need to somehow manage, control, discipline: that gets right at the heart of what many of these examples point to.

ELIZABETH: Right, and with eugenics we see difference taken as a threat, broadly speaking, and that leads to a certain kind of management of difference. But during the same time period, we also see other sorts of gestures, in political and cultural practices and in cultural production, where there are other approaches to an understanding and appreciation, if not “management” per se, of difference. How might we frame this particular confluence of aesthetic and political cultural forces in Red Vienna, in its treatment and management of bodies?

ALYS: I have a gut-reaction kind of answer to this, something that in my mind that sets this type of municipal project apart from other national contexts. The word that comes to mind for me is care. Comprehensive care and enlightened humanism as ethical imperatives, as a political basis. Even if we account for the Janus-faced aspects of how that care became manifest administratively, the systematic application of care as the cornerstone of all of these initiatives is really impressive.

LAUREN: Do you mean to say that somehow the body comes to the fore in Red Vienna, beyond physiological typologies, beyond the kind of epistemological projects that display and measure and categorize it, that the body enters public space also as an imperative, as a thing from which action rather than knowledge must follow? Is that what you mean by care?

ALYS: Absolutely, and it builds in some sense on what Elizabeth was saying. Your question really crystallizes down precisely what the two-sidedness of this is: On the one hand, the body as a basis for knowledge and, on the other hand, a generator of action. And I think that’s precisely the Janus-faced character of what we’ve been discussing. The body is the source of the knowledge, in that it is an object of study, but it also has this liberating potential in that, through care and cultivation, it can potentially become the agent of action and of change. It’s subject/object, it’s also knowledge/action. It’s the hinge in a way between these dualities.

ELIZABETH: I think this also plays into the question of productive identification or recognition and how this is to be fostered; how one comes to recognize the shared humanity, or to identify with, the “other”—not in the way we see problematic (mis)identification occasioned by the nineteenth-century human exhibitions that we were discussing earlier, but in a way which is more equitable, which involves more will to mutuality and understanding than fantasy and projection. And this idea of care that you bring up makes a lot of sense, in terms of the care and cultivation of an individual, and also in relation to a politics of scale. It makes sense that an ethics and politics of care could be best enacted in a municipal framework; and of course the argument is commonly made that, in general, urban centers are always more social democratic–leaning because you see or perceive yourself as more involved in a community with others. So it’s not just the care of your individual body and the cultivation of it, but that this is tied up inherently with everybody else’s care and health, their bodies are intimately linked with yours.

ALYS: Exactly. It’s a communal, holistic mindset for political––and social––reality.

LAUREN: And it’s not to be overlooked that specifically in Red Vienna living circumstances were different, were changing, and actively changed: Privacy, this liberal value, and the nuclear family were being reviewed, its structure worked against. Inequality, in terms of gender, in terms of gendered labor, was under review. Even inside the private home. The private home became an object, a site of planning and administration—and design, there were design consultants provided for the working-classes, to help with the question of how to organize, optimize domestic space. In light of an epidemic, for instance, the home has to be sanitized. And domestic work collectivized, to lift the burden on working women and mothers. And the Red Vienna housing projects weren’t suburban, these were not banlieue, they were scattered all throughout the city, even in the inner city, everywhere, by design.

ELIZABETH: It’s just so cool, the fact that these were implemented, and so widespread, and that it was not just a housing project but also ideologically remaking how one understood the family or “household” unit. Alys, when you brought up care, my mind immediately shot off to feminist theory, to the large body of scholarship around what is a kind of feminist ethic or politics of care.

ALYS: You’re spot on. So many of the initiatives in Red Vienna took care as a pragmatic value, an ethical imperative for political and social change. The contrast between Vienna a century ago and our time and place could not be starker. Here, again, is where I see Red Vienna as a real paragon: in its realization of a politics of care, it has a lot to teach us––if we’re willing to listen. And the feminist ethic you allude to was also explicit there: So many of the theories that underlie the concrete reforms that were taken in Red Vienna began with women, and specifically with mothers: support for working mothers, attempts to enable different types of living outside of the bourgeois nuclear family, the struggle for reproductive choice.

But going back to the municipal housing initiatives: They also return us to the body, because the individual apartments were designed above all with efficiency in mind, and efficiency not only in the sense of: How can the city afford to alleviate housing insecurity by building this number of apartments? Especially when space is at a premium? They had to scale down. I mean, these apartments were tiny by today’s standards: People got roughly 40 square meters for a family with multiple children. And that space was highly optimized on the basis of scientific studies that measured the average human arm span, for instance—

ELIZABETH: And here again: the scientific study of the body . . .

ALYS: Physiological optimization, yes . . . But to draw the arc to the present day in statistics: In 1900, 300,000 of Vienna’s population of two million did not have an apartment; over 65,000 public housing apartments were built in the interwar years, and one in ten Viennese lived in public housing by 1934; today, that number is one in four. These are among the most lasting legacies of Red Vienna: affordable housing, infrastructure and public works, greenspaces––positively affecting the lives of as many Viennese as possible. No wonder, then, that Vienna has been ranked the city with the highest quality of life for a number of years running, as you mentioned earlier, Lauren.

Barricade Recommends: Transit Books

Transit Books is a young press—it was founded in 2015 with the aim of bringing an open-minded and international sensibility to an industry that is notorious for its insularity and resistance to the unknown. The risk of starting a new business and choosing to focus on the areas that conventional wisdom describes as the most challenging (translations, novellas, literary and narrative nonfiction) paid off for Transit Books. The fiction and nonfiction that they publish all display a powerful intimacy that perhaps is one explanation for their unlikely successes. One of their first books, Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and several others had prominent critical acclaim and sales success. 

 

My personal affection for Transit (barring their fantastically pleasing and consistent cover design) comes from their publishing approach and editorial sensibility. Transit is a press that thinks carefully about the particularities of publishing work in translation without obsessing over difference and over-emphasizing the exotic to feed an ignorant market. They put care and attention into editing their translators and producing readable, pleasing, artful books, but do not then rely on translation as a novelty selling point. They choose to publish work that often does not relate in obvious ways to the perception that the US has of the authors’ countries of origin, and they publish work that doesn’t easily fit into the same worldview that supports those stereotypes. 

 

Recommended reads from Transit Books:

Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba—a surreal novel about the violence of girlhood in a Spanish boarding school

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi—an expansive and immersive historical fiction of the Buganda Kingdom 

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin—a collection on digressive, critical essays on intimacy, grief, and peculiarity

The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra—an autobiographical novel about family secrecy, terror, and memory

—Yana Makuwa