Everyday Modernism: Sensing the Weimar Republic in Literature and other Arts

Anke Finger (University of Connecticut)

In one of his autobiographical vignettes from Berlin Childhood around 1900, Walter Benjamin explores the senses, privileging the sense of sight: while he acknowledges the ‘sweetness’ of the chocolate he is eating, he is entirely enraptured by its wrapping paper. It is so colorful that its visual force seems to erupt over the child. Indeed, Benjamin denies himself any pleasure below his ‘higher sense’ of vision and remains oblivious to the chocolate’s taste. His sense of vision overwhelms his bodily sensorium and literally ‘removes’ (entrücken) him from the physicality of his other senses and from tasting, experiencing, enveloping the chocolate in his mouth. Benjamin, in this short piece on colors, acknowledges only his heart as a meta-realm for experiencing chocolate, but his tongue, his nose, and his hands play no part in this panopticon of eating chocolate in modernism.

This paper seeks to challenge the primacy of sight and investigates diverse accounts of sensing modernism, more precisely, feeling, smelling, tasting, and hearing everyday life in the Weimar Republic. In Sensorium (2006), Caroline Jones emphasizes that “the hierarchies placing sight at the top of our sensory aristocracy are anxious narratives, not neuronal imperatives”. These anxious narratives, I argue, are born at the onset of a multi-dimensional and multi-directional expansion of daily life – the velocity of technological inventions, the vestiges of war, the total artworks of the avant-gardes, radio, film, and the industrialization of cooking, to name a few – and we should recognize and analyze parallel or counter-narratives that include the other senses. I will discuss a number of examples, e.g., autobiographical as well as fictional texts, cookbooks, and audio to demonstrate that everyday sensory experiences produced new forms of expression and identity in the Weimar Republic.




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