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Life in a Twenty-First Century Atomic City: No Longer a Socialist Utopia

The Cold War was all about the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. Both countries initiated their nuclear projects around the 1940s with the ultimate purpose of designing an atomic bomb. The production of new weapons implied the large-scale construction of space-consuming and technologically complex facilities. Scientists, engineers, civilian workers, and GULAG (labor camp) inmates mobilized from around the Soviet Union to build the first nuclear plants and cities around them, a thousand miles away from Moscow.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, almost nobody knew that these cities existed; one could not find them on the map. Soviet nuclear workers were forbidden to tell anybody about the location or content of their job under threat of criminal penalty: what happened in the closed cities stayed in the closed cities. Residents did not mind such restrictions. The state supplied them with all essential goods and services, so that there was no actual need to leave the city. People in closed cities enjoyed more cars, more living space, and more doctors per person than people in other Soviet cities. Nuclear workers lived in a golden cage, and some scholars argue that they were “spoilt” by Soviet privileges (Lappo and Polyan.) They were the Soviet elite, and once they settled in closed cities, they generally preferred to stay. Kate Brown rightly called nuclear cities plutopia-an urban utopia made possible by the production of plutonium.

Many researchers have studied the history of these cities, for closed cities are a scholarly gem that reveals fascinating insights into the history of labor, science, surveillance, public health, culture, urban history, and environmental history. Reading some thrilling works about Soviet closed cities made me wonder what has become of them and to what extent they represent a socialist utopia today. I was fortunate to meet a person who grew up in one of Russia’s closed cities. Now, when most of these cities are no longer a secret, but still a mystery, I interviewed my friend and his family about life and the Soviet legacy in a yet closed city with the romantic name, Snezhinsk (from the word sneg, “snow”), located in the Ural Mountains, between the megacities of Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk. The Russian Federal Nuclear Center has been dominating the local economy since the era of the Cold War.

My informant’s grandparents moved to Snezhinsk in the 1960s. They did not chose the nuclear city themselves; rather, the city chose them. Like many Russians in those days, after graduation from university they received a work assignment according to their specialization. There were no application or interviews, like today. Grandparents, as well as their children, worked as theoretical physicists, constructors, and engineers. My interviewees testified to enthusiasm at the workplace: everybody reportedly always tried to do their best, as they felt that each of them was equally responsible for the success of their shared project. My interviewees add that, because the city was initially small and everybody knew each other, it was necessary to maintain good relationships both at work and in everyday life.


The family I interviewed did not experience any shortage of goods or services in Snezhinsk. They stated that the city was always supplied fairly well, as its needs were ranked immediately after Moscow and Leningrad in order of importance. Their education and medicine were superior. Their high school graduates were always and are still welcomed at the best colleges in the country, in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, as well as the colleges of Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk. Their medical services nowadays, the citizens lament, are much worse, as the best doctors have migrated to big cities, preferring to work at private rather than municipal clinics.

My interviewees evaluated cultural life in Soviet times as satisfactory, although they craved more diversity: there was a movie theater with a typical name “Kosmos” (“space”) and a House of Culture where theatre performances and poetry evenings took place. Today, there is much wider range of entertainment available: concerts of popular singers, new restaurants, cafes, and night clubs. In those days, many spent their leisure time on sports, for Soviet citizens had the opportunity to practice any sport they liked. Importantly, all the equipment was given to them free of charge. My friend trained in track and field, swimming, and biathlon; his parents also did track and field and played handball. Unfortunately, a decade ago, athletics in Snezhinsk started to “die out”, as it is largely underfinanced.

SnezhinskThe design and production of nuclear weapons entailed its limitations. The residents could not travel abroad or bring friends and relatives to the city. During the interview, I discovered that one could not even make a call to the city! Kate Brown’s book Plutopia suggested that accidents in Ozersk, another closed nuclear city, just an hour’s drive away from Snezhinsk, caused irreparable damage to the surrounding area (particularly, the Techa River) and its population. It was a good surprise to learn that there is no perceived threat of radioactive contamination in Snezhinsk; the polluted soil of the Techa river basin is too far. Obviously, for residents of Snezhinsk, its advantages outweigh the disadvantages, even today. For instance, the restricted access into the city (through checkpoints) is seen as a positive measure that bans “random” people, the “marginals” such as ex-prisoners or syphilitics. The “quality” of population has significantly deteriorated in comparison with Soviet times, my informants say. The language they use generally reminds me of the notion of a “gated community,” a term deployed by American urban scholar Sonia Hirt in her description of a new post-socialist type of collective residence characterized by privatism and the exclusion of undesirable social elements. Thus, my interviewees would choose to retain the status of a closed city, because the place is “peaceful” this way, or to return to an even harsher regime of Soviet times.

Life in Snezhinsk changed radically after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The family I interviewed complained that public expenditures nowadays do not exceed funding for any other “regular” Russian city. They are generally satisfied with the city planning today as much as in the past, except for the issues with the need for road repairs and the inadequate amount of parking space and greenery. Although now the residents have a chance to build their own private houses, these developments have their adverse effects, eliminating the forestry on the outskirts of the city, in what used to be a recreation zone. The cars, constantly increasing in number, are parked right on the green lawns. The research institute remains the major employer in the city, paying competitive salaries (even by Moscow standards); however, new private companies and small businesses also hire a large portion of local population today.

The transition from command to market economy was central to city life experiences in turn-of-the-century Russia. My conversation with this local family confirmed that this transition was particularly troublesome for Snezhinsk, which for many years survived exclusively at state expense. In any case, the city-forming enterprise is unlikely to end in the foreseeable future. Nuclear weapons still matter, and until they cease to be of military import, the city with its people will be sustained.

Mariia Koskina
MA in History
Binghamton University


Robert Moses: New York’s Antihero

Growing up on Long Island, I have always been familiar with the name of Robert Moses: I spent countless summer afternoons at Robert Moses Beach (affectionately called RoMo among my friends), took drives along the Robert Moses Causeway to go visit my cousins in the next town over, heard stories about Robert Moses Middle School where a number of my friends attended, and walked past a statue of Robert Moses in my village many times without ever realizing who he was. This experience, I am sure, is one that many Long Islanders share. What little I did know of Robert Moses was always positive – he designed my favorite beach and he has namesakes across not just Long Island but all of New York State. It was not until I read Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air that I began to see a more comprehensive picture of who Robert Moses was and the work that he did.

Berman speaks about the move towards modernism in New York City and on Long Island in the twentieth century. He talks about the projects Moses undertook in New York City, particularly the way he cut up the Bronx as if with “a meat-ax” in constructing the Cross Bronx Expressway. He points to the destruction that Moses brought to this northernmost borough and the ways in which neighborhoods and communities were divided without any thought as to the effect this demarcation would have on the people living in these areas.

Berman instead points to the suburbs – my home – and the ways these suburbanites of upper classes and their conveniences were prioritized over the needs of the vast working class population of the Bronx. The Cross Bronx Expressway was commissioned because there was a need for a fast track through New York City to get to the suburbs of Long Island. People did not want to drive slowly through the destitute or run down areas of the Bronx to get to their homes or vacations on Long Island; they wanted a fast track through the ugliness – an elevated expressway to minimize the level of truth they would have to see in their travels.

So yes, to Long Islanders, Robert Moses is a hero. He transformed swamps, dumps, and other undesirable locations into beautiful state parks and sprawling beaches. But many Long Islanders, and embarrassingly myself included, never heard of the ways that our gain was the Bronx’s loss. This course on Urban Visions has taught me many things – perhaps the most significant being a working knowledge of modernity (although at this point I am not sure that anyone can provide an all-encompassing definition) and how modernity transforms not just space and how individuals use this space, but how it transforms people as well. I know for myself that the next time I am “whizzing by” on the Cross Bronx Expressway on my way to Long Island to meet friends and family at “RoMo,” I will be looking out my windows at the areas intended to be overlooked for so long.

Mary Tuttle
MA student in History
Binghamton University

The Sun of Modernity

The sun of modernity changed the cityscape. It straightened streets, burned away squalid quarters, used newspapers to shed light on the criminal underworld, and offered electrified neon showcases. Under its scorching lights the elegant functional buildings of Weimar Berlin and the ascending Stalinist peaks of the Seven Sister towers arose. Fevered by its heat, citizens began to scurry around a city, connecting to every corner through its a net of transportation.


Post-socialist Sofia, Bulgaria

However, Sonia A. Hirt argues in Iron Curtains that the sun of modernity went down. Building on the statement of Zygmunt Bauman that socialism was the culmination of Western modernity, she presents the collapse of socialism in Sofia, Bulgaria as the downfall of the era of modernity. But what would happen to people and their city life after this sunset? To answer this question, the author deploys a metaphor from Karl Marx: “[T]hus, when the universal sun has gone down, the moth seeks the lamplight of the private [world].” Developing this idea, Hirt discusses how beautifully designed streets with their wide sidewalks became soiled with dirt and garbage, how monumental buildings came to be covered with giant ugly billboards, how public parks became fragmented by private villas with tall fences and walls, and how people preferred to escape from urban centers to suburbs where they hid from local villagers in their newly built fortresses, constructed in an architectural style that the author names “mafia baroque.” In place of what was once an obligatory and artificially promoted social life in the public sphere of socialism, privatism emerged with its ideals of personal gain at the expense of the public good. It filled a vacuum after the ideological collapse of socialism in the 1990s.

These abrupt transformations were impetuous and touched not only Sofia but characterized the entire post-socialist world. But what if this change occurred not as a reaction to a long-pestering socialism, and was instead caused by another powerful ideology? One character in the novel of Russian post-modernist writer Victor Pelevin asks, “Whose light reflects the sun?” Is it possible that what Sonia Hirt named the death of modernity was, in fact, only the sunset of socialism, and the lights of modernity that the sun-socialism reflected have continued to rule people’s lives? In our post-modern times, we criticize the project of modernity and declare the relativity of modern discursive constructs. However, those forces that formed Enlightenment, capitalism, and socialism still play their roles in the world, affecting different societies in different ways. Along with many undeniable positive innovations that modernity brought to our life, it also modeled our thinking, constructing dominant patterns of behavior that are considered as the norm in today’s society. The rational measurement of personal achievements represents one of such patterns. Thus, the processes that Sonia Hirt described in her book more likely reflect the influence of a post-socialist alternative modernity project, not the end of modernity altogether.

Timur Saitov
MA student in History
Binghamton University

Being Yourself just one Time a Year Invisible Kurdish Tool: Newroz

Newroz (New Day, or the beginning of spring) celebrations on March 21st are widespread among people in the Middle East and Central Asia. However, Newroz has always been incredibly meaningful for Kurds in Turkey because it has been forbidden by Turkish authorities in most of the Kurdish region of Turkey. One of the most vivid memories of my childhood is from Newroz in my village in Southeastern Turkey/Northern Kurdistan. My dad and his friends were trying to light a fire in the village square, but Turkish soldiers put out the fire. People dispersed to the hills, and when the villagers lit a fire on top of one of the hills, the soldiers put out the fire. We were able to see the villagers and soldiers from the roof of our house; a kind of cat and mouse play. Why did the soldiers or state authorities not allow the villagers to celebrate Newroz? I knew that the Turkish Army and Kurdish insurgent militants had been fighting each other since 1984.

Don Mitchell’s book, The Right to the City Social Justice and Fight for Public Space (2003), offers comprehensive details about how different actors perceive and use public spaces to reach their demands/rights. Mitchell draws a picture of public spaces that were used by the homeless, students, and women to lay claim to the right be represented and heard. Town squares and fields can be indispensable tools for political leaders and movements to rally their followers. Kurdish Newroz celebrations are organized by the Kurdish political movement in big metropoles in Turkey. I attended Newroz in Amed, the unofficial capital of Kurdistan, in 2010 with around one million participants. Women and men wore their colorful Kurdish traditional clothes. This gathering is the largest festival that happens every year in Kurdistan. The location of the Newroz celebration was enormous, and it can be seen there how a space can be used by a political movement to send a message to its supporters and its opponents. The stage was decorated with the pictures of the imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and the banned Kurdish colors, green, red, and yellow. On this day, Kurds are able to experience their highest level of Kurdishness because soldiers and police cannot attack this crowd. The Newroz field plays a very important role in the life of common people, political entities, and the state. The Kurdish people want to celebrate the event, fearlessly dancing with their loved ones. Newroz is also an instrument for the Kurdish political movement to gather people and express their demands. The state authorities panic every year on March 21st, as they wonder how to downplay participation in Newroz.

Iraqi Kurdish people carry fire torches up a mountain, as they celebrate Newroz Day, a festival marking their spring and new year, in the town of Akra

Iraqi Kurds carry fire torches for Newroz (Akre, 2017)

Bahattin Demir
MA student in History
Binghamton University

Brian Ladd’s _The Ghosts of Berlin_

In the first sentence of The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape, published in 1997, Brian Ladd proclaims, “Berlin is a haunted city” (1). This description is appropriate because, as Ladd demonstrates, the city abounds with sites of memory connected to various eras of German history from the German Empire to the Third Reich and from the divided city to the reunified nation. The haunted aspect of these sites of memory, mainly buildings and monuments in Ladd’s book, is a result of a conflicted German past, parts of which many Germans would like to forget or move to the background but cannot because sites around the city serve as reminders and, in this way, ‘haunt’ the city. One example is the Topography of Terror memorial and museum, which includes an outdoor exhibit of an excavated cellar of the Gestapo headquarters and recalls Berlin’s Nazi past. Even though remembering unpleasant eras of German history is important to coming to terms with the past, the ‘haunted’ nature of these sites remains.

Image 1. Western side of East Side Gallery

Image 1. Western side of East Side Gallery

While the classification of Berlin as a haunted city fits, I think a more apt label is contested city, which reflects the focus of Ladd’s book: controversies surrounding various buildings, monuments, street names, etc. More prominent in the book and in Berlin itself than the hauntedness of the city is the contested nature of it as various groups disagree over numerous sites within it, such as the Neue Wache, royal palace, Lenin statue, Reichstag, and Brandenburg Gate. The contest was and is over whose vision of the city, its people, and the nation will dominate, which pasts matter and should be emphasized, and which do not and should fade into the background or be removed. It is about Berlin and German identity, which sites of memory reflect and help shape.

The Berlin Wall is one of these sites of memory. As Ladd explains, at the fall of the Wall, most Germans wanted it completely removed because for 28 years it was a barrier between the eastern and western portions of city. Only a few supported preserving parts of it as a memorial, and today, the voices of those interested in preserving it are much greater. In discussing the East Side Gallery, Ladd claims, “As a historical site, this was a welter of confusion” because artists from around the world came to paint murals on the Wall after it fell and painted them on the eastern side, which the East German government did not allow while the city was divided although the West German government did (36). He ends his discussion of the gallery with a pessimistic view: “By 1995, the artists’ paint was peeling or was disappearing under uninspired graffiti. Removed from a politically liminal space and a sense of transitory creation, the Wall became a mere ghost of its former self.”

Image 2. In Mauerpark.

Image 2. In Mauerpark.

Ladd could not foresee the restoration efforts that took place in 2009 to have as many of the artists as possible return to repaint their murals, which revitalized this portion of the Wall but was not without controversy. This reflects the continued interest in the preservation of the Wall, as do efforts to stop the removal of portions of it for the construction of high-rise apartments [1]. The Wall, however, acts as an interesting and interactive memorial because in many places, it functions as a canvas, speaking not only to the immediate post-Wall era but also to a more current past and giving people a voice. I appreciate this aspect of the Wall in some cases, as on the western side of the East Side Gallery and in Mauerpark (See images 1 and 2). However, I find it hard to accept it on the East Side Gallery where the graffiti on top of the restored murals, in my opinion, diminishes their aesthetic value and, in some cases, ruins the work (See images 3 and 4). To me, it suggests that not everyone appreciates and views the memorial the same way; some want to put their own mark on its most famous pieces, perhaps at times making a political statement, while others protest the removal of parts of it, even if it is just to another area.

Image 3. East Side Gallery

Image 4. East Side Gallery

Image 4-East Side Gallery

Image 3. East Side Gallery.

A more successful memorial to the Berlin Wall is on Bernauer Strasse. Ladd touches on the efforts of those behind this memorial, who protected a portion of the wall from graffiti and chisels, but cannot discuss the culmination of their efforts that has only been completed this year. This memorial includes a monument, documentation center, chapel, and memorial grounds, which give a sense of the actual border fortifications through space, information, and representations (See images 5-7). It is on Bernauer Strasse that Berliners, Germans, and foreigners alike can learn about the history of the Wall and better understand what it looked like. While some may view this 0.8 mile long memorial as a site that ‘haunts’ the city by recapturing the skeleton of the Wall, others view it as part of coming to terms with the past, which is necessary for moving forward, not just for Berliners and Germans.

Image 5. Bernauer Strasse

Image 5. Bernauer Strasse

Image 6. Bernauer Strasse

Image 6. Bernauer Strasse

Ladd’s Ghosts of Berlin draws important connections between sites of memory and identity and the controversies that arise over them. Even though the publication of the book in 1997 dates the material, his discussions remain relevant and leave room for future scholars to bring the information on these monuments and buildings up to date and analyze the debates that continue to surround them. [1] “Developer removes segments of Berlin Wall at East Side Gallery,” Deutsche Welle, 27 March 2013,

Image 7. Bernauer Strasse.

Image 7. Bernauer Strasse.

Certeau’s _Practice of Everyday Life_

On almost every campus, we see a shortcut from A to B that has been made by many people cutting across the lawn. Some people may stare at the trampled grass mourning for the decay of human morality and social order, as campus authorities do. Yet, some people celebrate the creativity and freedom that trampling represents for ordinary people. One of these is the author of the book in review, Michel De Certeau.

Certeau’s the Practice of Everyday Life concerns the various everyday practices of ordinary people, like “talking, reading, moving about, shopping, cooking etc.” (xix) Certeau is fascinated by non-elite ordinary people’s power to subvert or transform elite imposed culture through such everyday activities. Operating in the colonizer’s given cultural system, the colonized find a way to manipulate the system – streets, written texts, etc.- for their own good. Modern day consumers are not passive recipients of popular culture. They participate in the production of popular culture through their creative or productive consumption of elite culture. Thus, those who are traditionally deemed as the weak, the ordinary people, gain power through everyday practices—that is, through their anti-disciplinary procedures, tactics and ruses, or micro-techniques. Certeau focuses on the structure of such techniques, which he elevates to a form of art.

Certeau tries to explain the relationship between elites and ordinary people. Elites monopolize the production of knowledge and ability. In pre-modern Europe, churches gained authority over the interpretation of sacred texts, like the Bible. Although ordinary people had their own interpretations of such texts, their reading was suppressed and smeared as heterodox. In modern societies, religious belief has been transferred to the political realm. Teachers, as producers of culture, like politicians, use popular media and the socio-political mediums, like school, newspapers, magazines, and television broadcasts, to control the authoritative reading of texts. We are constantly being told what and how to think correctly. This elite culture produces the discourse of order.

On the other hand, Certeau believes that ordinary people have always managed to transform elite-imposed systems of governance and order culture for their own purposes. In pre-modern times, ordinary people found ways to deliver and pass transmit their own messages about worth, their own point of views. Different from that of the elites, their message subverted the authoritative, orthodox and literal meanings of the texts. Even when literacy rates were very low and ordinary people were “told” the authoritative way to interpret texts, they “listened” and interpreted in their own way. In the modern period, with almost universal literacy rates and mass printing presses, people (i.e. readers) are finally able to poach, that is, to travel on others’ (i.e. authors’) texts—their continents of travel without body. In reading texts, no location is needed or provided. Eyes are free to tour in others’ texts—to skip passages, to work from back to front or front to back, to superimpose one’s own interpretation. In this sense, modern readers are emancipated to create and produce their own culture outside and through the authors’ texts. In daily practice, Certeau terms such procedures of culture by ordinary people “la perruque,” as putting the master’s resources to one’s own end. Factory workers, for instance, use their practices to subvert and benefit from the authoritative order. As a result, Certeau argues that “a tactic is an art of the weak.” (37)

Certeau poses many intellectual challenges. One concerns Foucault’s disciplinary panopticon. The universality of panopticon is discredited by people’s increasing suspicion of authority. Governance systems, like the police, grow even bigger, just as monitoring cameras double in number every day. Yet fewer and fewer people actually believe in authority. To make people believe in them, writes Certeau, politicians insist that others believe in or support their position. This is a common way to gain people’s trusts. It is sad that “by making people believe that others believe in it” becomes the only source of belief. (189) If this is true, Foucault’s panopticon might still work. The imaginary oversight of popular behavior may still have a disciplinary function, because people still believe in others’ ability to see and they do indeed accept a wide number of authoritative discourses—either as their own or as something widely believed. Another challenge posed by Certeau concerns the internal dilemma of history as a scientific discipline: according to Certeau, one cannot deconstruct the subject of study while simultaneously studying the subject in its circumstances. Once the subject is transportable into a scientific location for study—that is, situated in a conceptual frame, it is uprooted. It is distanced from its original location and given a new place. It is already removed from its original (authentic) position. Therefore, Certeau’s intelligent work not only highlights the creation of the ordinary people, as modern readers, to subvert elite culture, he also poses intellectual challenges to professionals, such as historians like us.

Chuning Xie
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted December 2014

No More Ornaments!!

In her book, Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany, Janet Ward claims that the Weimar era can be seen as a particular era of transition from the modern to the postmodern world (Ward, 3). She digs up the remnants of Weimar modernity to challenge the idea that “distinctive forms of contemporary art and thought have made a quantum leap beyond all the diverse sensibilities of modernism, and earned the right to call themselves post-modern (Berman, 345-346).” In other words, Ward attempts to uncover the traces of modern surface within postmodern hyper-representation (Ward, 42-43).

In her book, Ward distinctively underlines the importance of the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), which was the surface style of the Weimar Republic, for the modern architecture of Germany. She states that the New Objectivity aimed to eradicate the memories of the First World War as well as all superficial forms of decoration (Ward, 51-56) from the surface culture of the new republic. The application of this architectural style to buildings revived a “collective spirit to match the rapid tempo of the mechanized era,” and implied the erasure of the empire’s defeat in the First World War from the memories of the Germans (Ward, 49). Moreover, as opposed to the Wilhelmine era’s unnatural artificial aesthetic, the architecture of the Weimar republic was designed to shape the new aesthetic by removing the heavy ornamentation in addition to making it more functional. For Ward, it was not just the removal of the Wilhelmine façades within the “context of urban rejuvenation (Ward, 83),” but it was also a creation of a new aesthetic surface culture which affected architecture, advertising, and women’s clothing as well as cinema. By emphasizing its functional characteristics, Ward indicates how “advertising, architecture, and the new female identity were merged into the unified functionalism of sheer surface (Ward, 83).”

Just as Berman characterizes modern man as one who “moves within its currents in search of the forms of reality, of beauty, of freedom, of justice, that its fervid and perilous flow allows (Berman, 346),” hopeful people of the Weimar Republic intended to search for authenticity, beauty, and justice and they aimed to liberate the world in which they lived. Ironically, they produced new inauthenticities and boundaries. This argument is valid for glass architecture and the “new woman” of the Weimar Republic. With the introduction of glass exterior walls, the “façade lost its significance as a marker of social status,” and the division between the interior and exterior ended (Ward, 66). In other words, glass technology demoted the bourgeois outer surface of the building, which separated inside from outside, and articulated the social status of builder and owner. Ironically, consumerism used “glass as a key medium of the Weimar modern (Ward, 204),” thus glass-covered displays created new social divisions regarding purchasing power of the passers-by: the ones who possessed the goods displayed through glass-window and the ones who were incapable of purchasing what they saw (Ward, 224). Another irony could be seen in the case of the new woman. Even though women’s bodies were liberated from flamboyant clothes and corsets in the Weimar era, all thanks to the aesthetic of New Objectivity, the image of the New Woman’s body became that of a masculinized “prepubescent girl,” who was “athletic, slim-hipped, broad-shouldered (Ward, 86).” Moreover, the New Woman’s “assembly-line image” enforced an idealization of thinness with “vitamins and diet pills.” That’s why Ward states that “it is not coincidence to see that anorexia and bulimia” started in 1920s. (Ward, 87-91). Additionally, advertisements put women’s bodies “on display,” and made them into a “permanent source of commodified spectacle (Ward, 86).” In other words, “unrestricted,” so-called liberated and rationalized women bodies became modernized but defeminized, objectified, and commodified for mass consumption, which was underpinned by electric advertising and window displays.

Similar to Schwartz’s fin-de-siècle Parisian crowd which was composed of urban spectators as well as apolitical consumers influenced by ocular representations (Zeren-Enis, Blog entry on Schwartz’s book), in my opinion, Ward’s Berliners were also represented as apolitical consumers fascinated by neon lights or window displays. However, Ward does not give much account for the marginalized/politicized people of urban life in the Weimar era. Ward’s representation of apolitical Berliners could be challenged by a discussion of the “politicized neighborhoods” of Berlin during the Weimar era, as seen in the Berlin “kiez” as studied by Pamela Swett in Neighbors and Enemies: The Culture of Radicalism in Berlin, 1929-1933. Swetts points out the problems and political engagements of people in the “kiez” and their role in the transition from Weimar democracy to Nazi Germany. Compared to apolitical consumers described by Ward, the political activists discussed by Swett show the “marginalized side” of modern urban culture.

Ward’s engagement with urban visual culture in 1920s’ Germany indicates how Weimar surface culture shaped the tastes and practices of Germans and how the traces of this era could be observed in visual codes of consumerism in the post-modern era (Ward, 3). Even though the New Objectivity’s rejection of Wilhelmine ornamentation represented itself in architecture, advertisements, women’s clothing and, cinema, ironically, it became a new form of functional aesthetic style or ornamentation for modern Weimar surface. Its authentic and liberating promises failed in certain cases as seen in use of glass technology and the rhetoric of the New Woman. Yet, to look at Weimar Germany both “as the apex of the urban modern and as the germination of the urban postmodern (Ward, 15),” contributes a great deal to today’s debates on modernity and modernism within the context of postmodernity.

Ayse Zeren-Enis
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted December 2014