Review by Alfie Bown
Nicolas Hausdorf and Alexander Goller, Superstructural Berlin (Zero Books, 2015) pp. 71.
Out this year with Zero Books is a strange and original short book called Superstructural Berlin: A Superstructural Tourist Guide to Berlin for the Visitor and the New Resident. The book amalgamates poetry, cultural critique, narrative and art into a strange and unsettling medley, putting the reader in the bizarre position of ‘confused investigator’ whilst also giving them an alternate way to read and respond to the streets of Berlin (1).
Those familiar with the work and life of German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin will immediately read this book as a modern and Berlin-inspired version of Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a volumous collection of writings on Paris and life in that city written between 1927 and 1940. That ‘text’ was never finished by Benjamin and was put together after his death from the series of ‘colvolutes’ he left behind. I want to make a special mention of an exceptional project by Sara Giannini, which has recently made these Benjaminian convolutes available online in a brilliant and thought-provoking way. See this version of Benjamin’s archive here.
This text, written by Nicolas Hausdorf and designed by Alexander Goller, is much inspired by Benjamin’s work. Like in Benjamin’s text, here we find a mixture of quotations from others (including important and still understudied writers of the city such as Georg Simmel), observations of the writer’s own and interesting art work from the designer, often eclectically arranged on the page, perhaps to simulate the feeling of rummaging through a Benjaminian archive. The book’s intention, put forward abstractly in the prologue or ‘act one,’ is to break from sociological models entrenched in academic rules and regulations, approaching the city from outside these limitations and producing a reading of the city or an experience of reading the city that is perhaps more honest and certainly more radical.
As a result, it would feel wrong for me to provide an academic-style summary of the books key arguments, though it is important to stress that arguments there are, within its pages. Topics of discussion include drugs, tourism, art and the economy, as well a my favorite section, a ‘chapter’ on ‘Clubbing Infrastructure,’ thoughtfully asking us to consider the role that clubbing plays in the identity politics and experience of living in Berlin. The book makes a range of references from the popular to the philosophical, with sidenotes pointing everywhere from Guy Debord to Lady Gaga).
The book is affective, in the properly Freudian sense of operating on the reader and affecting the boundaries between the individual and the outside world. Whether I am convinced by the arguments and political positions of the book seems immaterial: the book is the start of a discussion and not the end of one, and stimulate thought it certainly does. I see the book as a Benjamin-inspired literary art experiment rather than a contribution to cultural and literary studies of the city. For me this is a point of criticism, and I am weary of texts embracing ‘fragmentation’ too positively, but the authors of the book would probably just see me as too entrenched within traditions of philosophy and academia.
Alfie Bown is an assistant professor of literature in Hong Kong and co-editor of Everyday Analysis.