BERLINER UNWILLE: Nicolas Hausdorf and Alexander Goller’s ‘Super Structural Berlin’

This piece is part of our Life in the 21st Century City thread, an occasional series of reviews, essays and travelogues. It seeks to explore the felt reality of world cities today and the experience of living in them on both large and small scales. The series’ remit is necessarily and intentionally broad; it makes no claims of completeness. Rather, in gathering together a thematically diverse collection of documents, it aims to explore and interrogate the varieties of city life around the world. 

Nicolas Hausdorf and Alexander Goller, Super Structural Berlin: A Superstructural Tourist Guide to Berlin for the Visitor and the New Resident (Zero Books, 2015) 

by Sam Wiseman

In Berlin: The Destiny of a City (1910), Karl Scheffler famously describes Berlin as a city “condemned forever to becoming and never to being.” As a major European capital which only rose to global significance in the nineteenth century, he recognises the city’s unique embodiment of modernity. Berlin’s identity, like its buildings and streets (which rest upon swampland), lacks a firm foundation, and its history expresses only the “unity of disunity” that Marshall Berman sees as modernity’s defining characteristic. That Scheffler was writing even before the series of twentieth-century European conflicts and catastrophes – which in many ways had their epicentre in Berlin – gives his comment an eerie prescience. Nonetheless, the reactionary implication prompts a defensive response: isn’t Berlin’s restlessness and adaptability a potentially positive force, rather than a ‘condemning’ one? Amidst the horrors of the city’s history we also find, at certain moments, a cosmopolitanism, openness and diversity from which it draws its strength, ranging from the influx of Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France in the late seventeenth century (who ultimately made up a quarter of the city’s population), to today’s Syrian refugees. This is also evident in the built environment; Nicolas Hausdorf and Alexander Goller suggest in Super Structural Berlin that the city could “be considered a monument to post-humanism’s unlimited alterability of form, having over time incorporated the most varied ideological adventures and shifted its architecture accordingly.” (Their claim that post-reunification architecture is characterised by “the aesthetics of relativity, fragmentation and prosthetization” – see Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome – does, however, feel slightly less convincing of late, given the city council’s current obsession with reconstructing Prussian buildings in their original style).

Hausdorf and Goller’s text, presented as a “polemical cultural meme and cognitive device,” focuses upon the different infrastructures which today’s Berliners engage with and reproduce: specifically, those of drugs, clubbing, art, the ‘new economy’ of internet start-ups, and tourism. Scheffler’s line, they suggest, is the flipside of a “young, fast and romantic” urban imaginary embraced by the city’s “influx of young creatives […] from the slow dread of rotting provinces and the machinist high-speed insanity of world capitals.” The analysis of Super Structural Berlin is declared, at the outset, to be “all subjective experience,” but the approach here is a form of sociology, detailing the ways in which the city’s current material conditions and phenomena serve to create and perpetuate particular identities, dynamics and ideological positions. Hausdorf and Goller tend to reach firmly sceptical conclusions regarding the supposedly transgressive potential of these infrastructures: recreational drug use, they argue, serves to postulate “police as the enemy […] thereby rendering them into alienated agents of repressive government.” The everyday presence of drugs makes the illicit an integral part of many Berliners’ (or tourists’) identities, a way of playfully defining oneself against the forces of the state, as manifested in the police. This behaviour rests, however, upon “a vast shadow-economy fuelled by the misery of refugees as the ground level distribution agents of city-wide somatization.” As a recent Guardian article noted, the epicentre of this activity is Görlitzer Park in Kreuzberg, which is apparently known to refugees throughout Europe. In recent months, the park has been designated a zero-tolerance zone, although the dealers largely remain, or have simply moved to areas surrounding the park.

Of course, these dynamics between consumers, authorities and dealers are not unique to Berlin. But beyond outlining such processes, Hausdorf and Goller have a serious and ambitious aim: Super Structural Berlin is “a call to arms for the re-appropriation of the city to all those conscious of their historical responsibility.” Essentially, this dramatic claim reflects the hope that residents and visitors alike will reflect upon and examine their behaviours, thoughts and impulses in the city, particularly those which are justified by pretensions to ethical value or authenticity. In a city with a past as troubled as Berlin’s, phrases like “historical responsibility” are freighted with even more controversy and confrontational power than usual, and Hausdorf and Goller use this language deliberately. In particular, they are focused upon challenging the ways in which Berlin’s infrastructures are ideologically justified through appeals to qualities like creativity, individualism, uniqueness, subversion and transgression. Alexandra Richie has discussed the myth of ‘Berliner Unwille’ (unwillingness), an idea which has been used “to portray the people as independent-minded and suspicious of authority.” In reality, she argues, “it is difficult to imagine a city which has been more politically docile throughout its long and turbulent history.” With this in mind, we should be suspicious of any attempt to present the city’s latest incarnation – Europe’s capital of hedonistic tourism, start-ups, small galleries and hipster bars – as something that is necessarily politically/ethically positive, or even neutral. Far from offering alternatives, or even respite, from the ever-more sophisticated manifestations of global capitalism, Super Structural Berlin warns that the city’s current infrastructures may represent “the preconditions to empire”: a new form of consumerism ripe for export to other cities. Again, in the context of Berlin and Germany, the use of such language feels deliberate and provocative.

Hausdorf and Goller bluntly critique traditions and characteristics of the city often seen as present-day manifestations of Berliner Unwille: the annual clashes between anarchists and police on May Day, for example, are dismissed as “a sclerotic and ritualised expression of the least subversive of anti-state contestations.” These battles, they suggest, are a kind of bloodletting, a controlled performance of resistance with no clear intention or expectation of change. One may be tempted to see them as a mere residue of a genuinely subversive and radical culture that developed in the bizarre political micro-climate of West Berlin; this romantic picture of the Cold War era, however, should itself be scrutinised. As Mark Reeder’s recent film B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West-Berlin suggests, the pattern of attacks against police and soldiers by the punks, hippies and draft-dodgers of 1980s West Berlin had, even then, a ritualised, nihilistic quality about it. There was no obvious agenda to be pursued; West Berliners may not have felt they had much of a long-term future, but neither, Reeder argues, did they have any kind of coherent alternative. For all of their transgressive character, the subcultures of West Berlin could be strangely apolitical, inhabiting the very heart of a geopolitical conflict they were unwilling to acknowledge; this world represented the narcotised eye of the Cold War storm. Blixa Bargeld, in B-Movie, takes pleasure in the fact that he has never seen one-half of the city; and that surprising lack of interest in the plight of East Berliners, forced to live within a police state, is echoed by many other former West Berliners, who were not always as excited by the fall of the Wall as their Eastern counterparts. If Kreuzberg’s counter-culture always had this nihilistic and incoherent character, it is no surprise that today’s May Day celebrations are similarly lacking in a sense of genuine subversion and radicalism.

Super Structural Berlin is similarly sceptical regarding Berlin’s clubbing scene. The notoriously Kafkaesque door policies of the more popular clubs (Berghain in particular) are seen to function as a means of inculcating a “precise set of values and aesthetics […] slowly but surely reprogramming Berlin’s youth. […] Only those who have perfectly incorporated the sub-cultural codes are continuously safe from rejection.” In other words, Hausdorf and Goller suggest, the city’s legendary club culture has come to function as a means of enforcing a certain type of conformity, one all the more dangerous for its subtle insidiousness. They also imply a kind of hypocrisy in Berghain’s “distinctively counter-cultural” appearance being “hybridized with a corporate smoking lounge sponsored by big tobacco.” Berlin is a city in which the semiotics of transgression and radicalism are everywhere, but the danger is that these function as substitutes for genuine political engagement, rather than as a spur to it; moreover, they can serve to mask the spread of global capital, or render it apparently less destructive. As the book’s introduction notes, while “the iron cage of capitalism is clearly perceptible here, it seems softer than elsewhere, not as brutal.” This sense, Hausdorf and Goller argue, should be seen not as a cause for complacency, but rather as a sign of the increasing sophistication and complexity of capital.

Such points are astute, but Super Structural Berlin could investigate the distinctive aesthetics of Berlin’s club music in more detail. Hausdorf and Goller note that “immersive architectures are proliferating the dark and deep whispers of machine language – Techno, Electro, Minimal, Dubstep, Trance and Goa.” They offer some excellent turns of phrase in describing club environments, but neglect to emphasise the very specific role that certain forms – particularly minimal techno – play both in Berlin’s cultural history and present. “In Germany,” they note, “the sound of the machine reigns supreme and is spread to the imperial periphery.” While this point is related to Germany’s role as an industrial powerhouse, there is no examination of the particular strain of techno (and the particular kind of club environment) that emerged in Berlin in the 1990s, driven by the distinctive social, cultural, economic and environmental conditions of the reunified city. Of course, Super Structural Berlin is not a cultural history text, but some explanation of techno’s evolution within the unique conditions of the city is important in understanding its particular meaning and power today (just as, for example, the role of techno in Detroit’s cultural imaginary cannot be understood without consideration of that city’s industrial history and demographics). This is not, however, to diminish the acuity of Hausdorf and Goller’s insights regarding the increasing commercialisation of Berlin’s club scene, one of the “multiple technologies of allegiance to the gambles of grand capital” which they identify in all of the book’s infrastructures. In such respects, their scepticism – and consequently, their call for reflection and resistance – rings true. This brief text ultimately justifies its dramatic demands for “historical responsibility”: it serves as a reminder that the signs and aesthetics of transgression, radicalism and subversion may prevail precisely in those cultural environments in which such concepts are most threatened.

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