In this study of Berlin and Cairo, Joseph Ben Prestel offers an approach to comparative urban history that avoids normative Eurocentric assumptions about urbanization and modernity. Rather than examining the cities themselves, he instead focuses on the emotional experiences of those who lived in cities. Building on the recent notion of ‘inner urbanization’ (p. 16), Prestel employs Monique Scheer’s concept of ‘emotional practices’ (p. 13) to understand how the objective and subjective experiences of living in the city informed one another. Prestel assumes that as forms of social practice, ‘emotions…bridge the social, the body, and the mind’ (p. 14). In this way, Prestel seeks to understand ‘the adoption of urban change rather than its origins’ (p. 17). He draws on a rich source base of professional and popular publications and official records in both German and Arabic to construct a convincing case for similar developments in the two capital cities. These developments, he argues, resulted not from common material conditions of urbanity, but rather from a shared conviction that urban life had profound effects on the feelings of urban dwellers. Prestel organizes his book into six chapters that deal, in turns, with strikingly parallel concerns about emotions in the two cities. He refers to this concern as a ‘particular universalism—a universalism, which allowed for particularistic claims’ (p. 195). Prestel starts by examining the new urban practices of love that emerged in Berlin around 1860. He frames this analysis around the field of folk psychology (Völkerpsychologie) and its understanding of morality (Sitte) as an innate quality that required cultivation in society. This view of Sitte, he suggests, influenced the Berlin Statistical Bureau to collect data on institutions it deemed endangered by city life, such as the family and schools. Similarly, new practices of love such as matchmaking services and personal ads gave rise to particular concern among police officials about the deleterious effects of ‘French feeling’ in the Prussian capital, though concerns about French influence diminished after the Prussian victory in 1871. In Cairo, the discussion about the effects of urbanization centred not around morality, but rather on rationality (‘aql), which served the important role of governing undesirable emotions. Those who laid claim to this rationality were men of the emerging middle-class. These men were largely employees of a state bureaucracy flourishing with the economic success of the mid-century Egyptian cotton boom. Prestel argues that in the 1860s and 1870s, writers concerned about ‘aql viewed the city as a place where it could be cultivated for the purposes of ‘controlling one’s body and mind in interactions with the world’ (p. 62). Not surprisingly, the concept was highly gendered and classed: women possessed (and were to cultivate) honour rather than ‘aql, and ‘aql distinguished middle-class men from men of lower social classes. The dangerous pleasures of the city occupy the next chapters of Prestel’s book, which demonstrate through examinations of the entertainment districts of the cities that emotions in both places came to be understood as physical, rather than moral or spiritual phenomena. Those acquainted with the scholarship on Berlin will find much that is familiar in Prestel’s descriptions of the thrills of Friedrichstraße, Berlin’s famous entertainment district. Prestel connects the sense of emotional excitement to fin de siècle medical preoccupation with nerves. Sociologist Georg Simmel deployed this concern about nervousness in his writing on city life, and psychologist Willy Hellpach attributed nervousness to the ‘Gefühlwechsel’ that arose from the physical velocity of urban life (p. 100). To many contemporary observers, the danger of overexcitement and nervousness was irresoluteness, irrationality and weakness—problems that could affect the health of the nation as urban dwellers lost their self-control. Prestel draws lines from the emotional potpourri of Friedrichstraße to Simmel’s nervous Stadtmensch to concerns about national degeneration. Prestel admits that ‘contemporary observers did not spell out this implication’ (p. 105), and indeed, the connection is supported with limited evidence. However, Prestel persuasively demonstrates that a shift toward associating the emotions with the body had important implications for how urban life was understood and managed. At roughly the same time in Egypt, ‘aql similarly acquired a physical meaning when it was re-interpreted as a capacity housed in the brain rather than the spirit. This new materiality of ‘aql accompanied a re-imagining of British-occupied Cairo as a place of decay rather than a site for cultivating middle-class male rationality. New concerns about dangerous emotions emerged along with changes in the city’s socio-economic structure, such as the collapse of the cotton market and subsequent rise of cigarette manufacturing, the loss of upper-administrative positions in the state bureaucracy to Europeans and the introduction of new forms of entertainment (especially beer halls). Prestel uses alcohol permits and police records to sketch the borders of Azbakiyya, an area of Cairo that, like Friedrichstraße, contemporaries identified as a space where men lost control over their emotions. As in Berlin, Prestel argues, this loss of rationality had implications for the future of the nation, as irrational men spelled the decline of patriarchy and the family as the backbone of Egyptian society. The similarities in emotional practices of the two cities are most striking in the final two chapters. Here, Prestel uncovers parallel developments in urban planning and body culture that in both cities were meant to help urban dwellers find productive means of managing destructive feelings. After analysing the prescriptions of the Lebensreform movement and the planning documents for Berlin suburbs Lichterfelde and Westend, Prestel locates similar ideas in Cairo about the importance of physical activity in promoting calm and happiness. The Cairo suburbs were meant to be peaceful spaces where the individual could avoid the overstimulation of the crowded city and thereby cultivate productive feelings. Contemporaries viewed physical exercise and country life as a way for middle-class Egyptians to develop the physical and mental strength that would set them apart from the urban poor and working class and also allow them to meet the challenge of colonial rule. In both cases, the prognosis was uncertain. Just as Lichterfelde and Westend developed their share of urban problems, the Cairo suburb of Helwan, too, began attracting precisely the forms of entertainment its inhabitants had supposedly fled. In his conclusion, Prestel warns against attributing these ‘parallel processes’ (p. 190) to the shared experience of modernity. Instead, he argues, concern with emotions arose because of the prominent role middle-class actors played in the development of urban space and the particular importance of emotions in the natural sciences that bourgeois observers used to make sense of their social environment. Prestel presents persuasive evidence to support this claim. Where he pushes his argument to suggest that this emotional universalism was also tied to the nation, his evidence is somewhat less convincing. But this minor shortfall only illustrates the richness of the author’s interpretation and the potential of his framework for future comparative histories. Theoretically informed but accessibly written, this work will prove as useful to the advanced undergraduate student as for the specialized researcher. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 18, 2018
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