Lecture, March 18: Elisabeth Lange: The Cultureless Subject

Lecture, March 18: Elisabeth Lange: The Cultureless Subject

The Cultureless Subject or Toto’s Deviant Goodness in Sibylle Berg’s Vielen Dank für das Leben

March 18, 2021
via Zoom

In her newspaper article “Leben und dann tschüss” on Sibylle Berg’s 2012 novel Vielen Dank für das Leben, Andrea Hanna Hünniger writes: “Every hope [in this book] turns out to be an illusion.” Why does Hünniger attribute such an absolute state of hopelessness to Berg’s text? While the book’s protagonist Toto is brutally attacked, bullied, and exploited throughout her life, she is also the embodiment of goodness, the “perfect human being”– the “counterpart to evil” (Berg 2012, 228). Why is it, then, that the perception of positivity seems altogether obstructed in this novel?

Toto is a strange-looking hermaphrodite with an otherworldly mentality who expects and wants (almost) nothing and is yet satisfied. What makes Toto special is that her reality is detached from the knowledge of culture and its implications; she does not have a sense of herself and others on the basis of cultural recognizability. Thus, she is deprived of the frame of optimistic striving otherwise dominant in our society: Toto’s goodness is not based on a determined vision for a better life, it is not dependent on the contingencies of the future.

In this paper, I argue that Berg’s novel hinders the postponement of positivity to a potential time and place in the future by having goodness embodied in a subject that undermines our predominant ways of striving for betterment and by extension our very existence in the social sphere.

In reference to Toto’s deviant way of being good, I illustrate how our commitment to what we have internalized as “good” in our contemporary society simultaneously fuels our need to change things for the better by bringing about destruction. This tendency is rooted in our human condition: Our awareness of ourselves and our eventual deaths makes it necessary for us to create distractions in the form of optimistic attachments that inevitably move us away from our singularity in order to be rendered visible as cultural subjects. If the urge to force a certain course upon one’s life ceases to exist (as in the case of Toto), one’s reality transforms in a way that makes us experience the present as not just a mere state of transition. While being entirely like Toto is utopian, the cultureless subject may help us to understand that our efforts to make the world better in an overarching and lasting manner have to remain an effort.

Elisabeth Lange is a PhD candidate in the Department of Germanic Languages & Literatures at the University of Toronto.

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