Sunday, October 25, 2015

Symptoms of Modernity. Jews and Queers in Late-Twentieth-Century Vienna by Matti Bunzl.

Symptoms of Modernity is an anthropological, cross-cultural study concerning the conditions and progress of the LGBT and Jewish communities in Austria. Matti Bunzl is able to link these two groups because both were perceived, by the majority of citizens, as containing traits which opposed the nation’s Aryan self-image. The existence of Jews and LGBT people contradicted the dominant culture’s view of itself as Aryan men and women, having specific gender roles, within a culturally homogeneous nation.

From this jumping-off point, Bunzl presents the similar history of these groups from pre-World War II to the early 21st Century. The reader sees an evolution from oppression and exclusion, through the inter-war Nazi period of extermination, to the post-War period of disregard. The trajectory becomes more positive in the 1970s as both groups organize publicly and begin demanding rights. One then observes increasing progress through the 1990s and into the 21st Century, which is influenced by both demands from these two communities within the nation and modernizing transnational pressure exerted primarily by the European Union that Austria wished to join.

The chief post-war stumbling block, which prevented Austrians from making much progress around homophobia and anti-Semitism, was the nation’s self-identification as “Hitler’s First Victim.” Those familiar with the history of the Anschluss will remember that the Austrian population overwhelmingly supported the Nazi “invasion.” German soldiers were welcomed at the border with flowers and treated to parades in Vienna. After the confetti was swept-up, Austria’s citizens brutally, enthusiastically participated in the Third Reich’s program, of killing and deporting to concentration camps, their Jewish and LGBT citizens. They were “Hitler’s First Cheerleaders.” But the loss of the war made remembering this behavior inconvenient. So the victim myth was born. Unlike their relatives in Germany, Austrians remained unrepentant. While Germany began a program of classes in public schools that addressed national responsibility for the Holocaust, Austria continued its ideology of racial purity and gendered images of Aryan men and women that excluded LGBT people and Jews. By the late 20th Century, Germany was electing leftist chancellors like Willy Brandt and rising Green Party members like Petra Kelly, while Austria was electing conservative ex-Nazis like Kurt Waldheim and rising reactionaries like Jorg Haider.

Bunzl’s work is a unique contribution to the study of Austrian history and society. His examination of the intersections between the experiences of Jewish and LGBT communities is a first. The author teaches Anthropology, as well as History. His research is based upon both historical archives and direct, anthropological field study. As a result, his perspective is on the development of the two cultures, their institutions, their connections with each other and their relationship to the dominant culture, as they politically awaken and culturally expand over time.

The language of this book is a combination of academic anthropological expression and over-thinking. Its dense professional vocabulary sometimes results in ideas sounding more original and complex than they are. For example, Bunzl will say that the two communities “share a common genealogy of cultural abjection” (Bunzl, p. 12), rather than “they are similarly oppressed minorities.” Through a novel use of terms, Professor Bunzl also argues for a thesis statement that is intellectually obtuse and linguistically awkward. The author calls the LGBT and Jewish communities “symptoms of modernity,” meaning that they were “the abject products of the nation’s reification as a fantasized space of ethnic and sexual purity, as well as the signposts of its historical trajectory” (Bunzl, p. 216). Aside from the author’s ever-present, convoluted language, the idea is flawed on its face. It’s not Jewish and LGBT people who are “symptoms.” Indeed, calling oppressed minorities “symptoms” dehumanizes them and configures them in a subservient position as indicators for the dominant culture, when they should be represented as independent peoples. It would be simpler and more accurate to say “the way LGBT and Jewish people were treated showed how the Austrian culture was changing.”

The value of Symptoms of Modernity is not only in its unique presentation of Vienna’s LGBT and Jewish communities, but also in its optimism. Bunzl shows vibrant groups overcoming a horrific past and arriving in a more liberated, culturally rich present. His images of Pride Marches, social events, Jewish museums, strong organizations and protests, are affirmative pictures of healthy growth. A particular nugget of interest is his portrait of an iconoclastic political group of LGBT Jews called Re'uth. It’s not all rosy. This anthropologist presented signs that Austria was developing new nationalist prejudices targeting non-European immigrants. These anti-immigrant sentiments are poignant to read about, as Austria and the EU face their Migrant Crisis of Syrian refugees. But by and large, Bunzl celebrates the changes that have taken place and the regenerative ability of humanity.


Bunzl, Matti. Symptoms of Modernity. Jews and Queers in Late-Twentieth-Century Vienna. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.