A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 212

Art critic John Berger.

Monday, May 11

Is it possible to manufacture culture, just like automobiles and software?

Well, yes, as the late art critic and novelist John Berger demonstrated in his classic 1972 BBC television series Ways of Seeing.

This wasn’t really Berger’s primary goal–more of a by-product of his reasoning. Ways of Seeing began by examining the long tradition of European oil painting and its actual, often-mystified purpose of displaying the power and possessions of the wealthy. Then, Berger turned his attention to advertising, which he suggested had taken up the role once played by fine art. 

Artists from Rubens to Rembrandt and up to the moderns were, in considerable measure, devoted to painting things realistically, especially the property and womenfolk of the landed aristocracy. On the other hand, the ads Berger showed were fantasies. Yes, they portrayed expensive objects just as Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors had. But ads are aspirational, giving the viewer images of life as it could be…if only one had enough money. 

So, accepting Berger’s analysis, we can say that the advertising industry does indeed manufacture culture—portraits, landscapes, nudes (or nearly nudes), family tableau. 

Berger suggested that these ads are effective—so much so that they have invaded our dreams. His examples included “the skin dream,” or succulent and inviting portraits of bodies on display. They also include dreams of remote and exotic locations that encourage us to buy a range of products. 

Numerous corporate entities have also been successful in producing culture. Both Hollywood and European motion picture companies have been fabulously effective, as have music production companies from Sun Studios and Motown and right up to Darkroom/Interscope Records, the label behind the pop phenom of the moment Billie Eilish.

But such creation isn’t easy. We are all aware of countless, notorious flubs—from French rock ’n’ roll to the Hollywood movie Ishtar

East Germany was responsible for some of the wildest, and most ham-handed, efforts at culture creation. Anna Funder’s Stasiland describes one attempt to replicate the success of American rock ’n’ roll dance. She quotes from an East German source: 

“Today, all young people dance

 The Lipsi step, only in lipsistep,

 Today, all young people like to learn

 The Lipsistep: it is modern!

 Rhumba, boogie and Cha cha cha

 These dances are all passé

 Now out of nowhere and overnight

 This new beat is here to stay!”

As Funder viewed dancers performing the Lipsistep, “in not one of this panoply of gestures do the dancers’ hips move. Their torsos remain straight—neither bending towards one another, nor swivelling from side to side. The makers of this dance had plundered every tradition they could find and painstakingly extracted only the sexless moves.…the Lipsi step was the East’s answer to Elvis and decadent foreign rock’n’roll. And here it was: a dance invented by a committee.”

Many establishment types were alarmed by the pelvis gyrations of Elvis Presley and Chubby Checker, but East Bloc leaders particularly envied the success of these Western cultural imperialists. Why couldn’t a committee invent an alternative to the Twist?

It seems that it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing.

Dinner: Turkey chili and a lettuce and oranges salad.

Entertainment: final episodes of Mhz’s German puzzler Man in Room 301.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 211

East German Communist biggy Erich Honecker with CPUSA leader Angela Davis. Photo by Peter Koard

Sunday, May 2

Readers could never be sure that the outlandish stories related by Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski were really nonfiction as he claimed. For instance, one anecdote in his book The Emperor concerned a member of Ethiopian autocrat Haile Selassie’s court—a figure known as the Minister of the Pillow. This person’s only known assignment: to quickly and discretely insert a pillow beneath the feet of the diminutive Selassie whenever the Emperor chose to sit on his grand throne. 

The pillow helped to disguise Selassie’s short stature—and made him seem less like the preposterous Lily Tomlin TV character Edith Ann who sat in an oversize chair with her feet dangling above the floor.

Could there really have been a Minister of the Pillow?

Similarly, many stories about the East German secret police seem ripped from Kapuscinski’s pages. Could these honestly be true?

Before the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germany was an East Bloc ally of the Soviet Union that kept an extremely close watch on its citizenry.

The East German Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, was the vast “internal army by which the government kept control,” in the words of Anna Funder, author of Stasiland. “Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose. It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned, and it knew if your wife slept around. It was a bureaucracy metastasized through East German society: overt or covert, there was someone reporting to the Stasi on their fellows and friends in every school, every factory, every apartment block, every pub.” 

In the last year of its existence, the Stasi employed 97,000 full-time operatives and had 173,000 unofficial informants in East Germany—a country of 17,000,000 residents. That works out to one operative for every 63 people. In Nazi Germany, there was only one Gestapo agent for every 2,000 citizens.

And during the forty-odd years that the GDR lasted, the Stasi arrested 250,000 people.

There are countless weird stories about the Stasi, some of which are related in Funder’s book. 

For instance, she says that the Stasi developed a quasi-scientific, “smell sampling” method for keeping track of people. Everyone has his or her own peculiar odor, they believed, which we leave on everything we touch. Such smells can be captured and, with the help of “sniffer dogs,” used to find a match. To that end, the Stasi had a vast inventory of jars for smell samples, consisting of things like soiled clothing stolen from people’s apartments. “The Stasi would take its dogs and jars to a location where they suspected an illegal meeting had occurred, and see if the dogs could pick up the scents of the people whose essences were captured in the jars.”

Icky, no?

Another story. The Stasi had elaborate plans for a final day of confrontation with internal enemies of the regime—a Day X. On that date, yet to be determined, Stasi officers would arrest and jail precisely 85,939 East Germans, all listed by name on the plans. They imagined how all available prisons and camps, including former Nazi detention centers, schools, hospitals and factory holiday hostels, would house these prisoners 

Tis the final conflict, as “The Internationale” would have it.

To write her book, Funder found many people who had contact with the Stasi. In one case, a young woman was summoned to a Stasi major’s office, Room 118 at a police station. There, the officer produced a pile of her private love letters, communications with a former Italian boyfriend whom she had met during a trip to Hungary, and he grilled her about them. The Stasi officer, who was exaggeratedly polite, focused on individual words in their “private lovers language,” including their pet names for each other. He knew a great deal about this boyfriend—his job, his house in Umbria, the make of his car. The Stasi were “very interested” in this friend—but the woman said she couldn’t help them since the two had split up. The major let her leave, but gave her his business card and said she should not hesitate to call.

Which she did later, after discussing with her mother this invitation to become an informer. When the Stasi officer came to her home along with another official, the woman told him she was going to invoke her right to communicate directly with the country’s Communist leader, Erich Honecker, and make a complaint. Weirdly, this seemed to set the officials back on their heels—there was no need to get Berlin involved, they said. She never knew why the Stasi feared this communication with Honecker…but somehow, she had won.

Not everyone won, of course. Between 1961 and 1988, over 100,000 GDR citizens tried to escape to the West and over 600 of them died in the process. The Berlin Wall—known internally as Die Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, or the Antifacist Protection Rampart—was, the East German regime declared, “a service to humanity” in that it walled out imperialism. And of course it walled out most everything else.

Dinner: chicken salad and tomato-red pepper soup.

Entertainment: episodes of the old sitcoms Cheers and Seinfeld.