Peripheral Desires: The German Discovery of Sex

Peripheral Desires: The German Discovery of Sex

Peripheral Desires: The German Discovery of Sex

Peripheral Desires: The German Discovery of Sex


In Peripheral Desires, Robert Deam Tobin charts the emergence, from the 1830s through the early twentieth century, of a new vocabulary and science of human sexuality in the writings of literary authors, politicians, and members of the medical establishment in German-speaking central Europe--and observes how consistently these writers, thinkers, and scientists associated the new nonnormative sexualities with places away from the German metropoles of Berlin and Vienna.

In the writings of Aimée Duc and Lou Andreas-Salomé, Switzerland figured as a place for women in particular to escape the sexual confines of Germany. The sexual ethnologies of Ferdinand Karsch-Haack and the popular novels of Karl May linked nonnormative sexualities with the colonies and, in particular, with German Samoa. Same-sex desire was perhaps the most centrifugal sexuality of all, as so-called Greek love migrated to numerous places and peoples: a curious connection between homosexuality and Hungarian nationalism emerged in the writings of Adalbert Stifter and Karl Maria Kerbeny; Arnold Zweig built on a long and extremely well-developed gradation of associating homosexuality with Jewishness, projecting the entire question of same-sex desire onto the physical territory of Palestine; and Thomas Mann, of course, famously associated male-male desire with the fantastically liminal city of Venice, lying between land and sea, Europe and the Orient.

As Germany--and German-speaking Europe--became a fertile ground for homosexual subcultures in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, what factors helped construct the sexuality that emerged? Peripheral Desires examines how and why the political, scientific and literary culture of the region produced the modern vocabulary of sexuality.


In the nineteenth century, new potential villains and threats began to frighten Europe: “hyperactive children, precocious girls, ambiguous schoolboys, dubious servants and teachers, cruel or maniacal husbands, solitary collectors, ramblers with strange impulses.” Lurking inside these scary people were sexual secrets, which—according to Michel Foucault—had truth claims that gave them identities with new explanatory powers: “nymphomaniac,” “pedophile,” “sadist,” and “homosexual.” Reviewing these developments in the first volume of his Histoire de la sexualité (History of Sexuality), Foucault restates one of the central questions of his scholarship: “What does the appearance of all these peripheral sexualities signify?” in the phrase, sexualités périphériques, Foucault uses “peripheral” primarily in the sense of “non-normative,” referring to sexualities forced centrifugally away from the vortex of bourgeois life and thereby required to speak endlessly about themselves. the word “peripheral” can also, however, shed light on the cultural geography of German-speaking central Europe, where many of the new discourses around sexuality emerged.

From Foucault’s perspectives in Paris and Berkeley, the German-speaking lands beyond the Rhine were themselves in the periphery. This is not to bring up the old resentments between France and Germany, but to underscore Marshall Berman’s insight that late eighteenth-century German-speaking central Europe was one of the first geographical regions to experience a sense of underdevelopment in contrast with a developed and modernized West.

Despite Germanic anxieties about being peripheral, however, Berlin and Vienna were also the capitals of powerful empires in the center of Europe. Even as German-speaking thinkers reconstructed sexual identity on the periphery of the West, they consistently pushed these new non-normative sexualities and locales outward, away from German centers of gravity—to Switzerland . . .

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