Wednesday, August 13, 2008

German word of the week: "Schaulustige"

Last night three people were killed in a shooting in a busy pedestrianised area in nearby Rüsselsheim (the home of car manufacturer Opel). One of the victims, a woman who appears to have been in the firing line only by accident, bled to death at the scene of the crime.

In the initial absence of any substantial information about the whys and wherefores of this event, a terse, speculative piece in Der Spiegel curiously foregrounds a minor detail that nevertheless speaks volumes about human nature:

Vor Ort versammelten sich nach kurzer Zeit Hunderte Schaulustige.

Which might roughly be translated as: "Shortly after, hundreds of onlookers gathered at the scene of the crime."

The English word "onlooker" of course fails to express the ambiguity of the German term "Schaulustige" – which literally means "people who derive pleasure from looking". While "looking on" constitutes a relatively neutral description of a simple sensory act, the German term clearly entails an undertone of voyeuristic enjoyment, even at the sight of something gruesome, disturbing and painful.

Schaulust is when retired men in grey polyester pants hitched up to their nipples gaze at holes being dug in the street. It is also when you slow down your car on the motorway (thereby forcing others to do so, too) to get a really good look at the accident on the other lane. My own Schaulust has been tickled intermittently over the last three months or so by the unhappy couple who have chosen to stage the dissolution of their relationship in a car parked outside our house.

From a Lacanian perspective, one could explain this scopophilia as a pathological by-product of the split identity incurred during the mirror stage (for Jacques Lacan the constitutive moment of subjectivity). An evolutionist, by contrast, would probably say that Homo Sapiens is merely a nosey old bugger and that curiosity – far from killing the cat – is actually adaptive.

Is the tendency of this constant, everyday desire to tip over into the voyeuristic also visible in the heart-rending images that have been circulating in the wake of the Russian offensive in the Caucasus?

Although pictures like this, this and this would clearly be in the running for the next World Press Photo Award, we should not forget the far more visceral and humble desires to which they cater and on which they rely.


headbang8 said...

Remember, German is the language which gave us schadenfreude, too. Is there not a psychiological term which plays on the name Kitty Genovese, the famous New Yorker who perished amid Schaulust in the 1960s?

Humans are drawn toward the emotional. When we see a baby laugh, we want to smile back. When a couple kisses in public, we smile at them. When someone screams, we take notice.

That the emotion merely attracts us, and does not move us to action--well, that's an invention of the 20th century.

I have just finished the Ersthilfekurs needed for my German driver's license. Did you know that German law compels you to help a victim of misfortune, should you be a passer-by? Sad that it takes a law.

The Wife said...

Yes, poor Kitty G. became a victim of what would later be called "bystander effect" or "bystander apathy".

Whether this is an "invention" of the 20th century, though, I'm not so sure. Our paralysis when confronted with situations that we obviously find interesting might be based on a "natural" response ("why should I help a total stranger?") merely exacerbated in a context of changing social structures: larger, anonymous communities, fewer personal contacts, professional helpers who can be called to do the job.

And then there is the general fear of making a fatal mistake, making things even worse. Which seems to have led to the "won't help - they might sue me" mentality which, at least according to the German prejudice, is characteristic of American society. (I'm not saying that this is true - but many Germans like to think it is).

In that sense, I find the idea that "unterlassene Hilfeleistung" might lead to prosecution - however Hobbesian it might appear - almost comforting.

I really should brush up on my "stabile Seitenlage" and stuff, shouldn't I? It's been a million years ....