:: Article

diverse tribes of urban identity – a review of Stephen Barber’s Berlin Bodies

By John P. Houghton.

Stephen Barber, Berlin Bodies (Reaktion Books, 2017)

Author Stephen Barber has developed a writing style in direct antithesis to Orwell’s rules for plain-English effectiveness. In Barber’s hands, a longer word will always supplant a shorter one, while further clauses will always be added instead of being excised. Entire paragraphs take on the same quality as German compound nouns. Conclusions are constantly deferred as additional points and arguments stack up like cars in an already lengthy autobahn-Verkehrsstockung.

The overall idiom is that of an escaped replicant imitating humanoid speech with reference only to a dictionary of anthropological terms. Thus, pills and bottles of beer are described as “hand-carried narcotic and alcoholic accessories”. Show-off dancing becomes an “eye-directed curated act”. Looking out of a train window is described as a “sensory excoriation and anatomising of Berlin’s urban forms”. The structure is similarly idiosyncratic. The first chapter is 190-pages long. The second is barely a tenth of that length.

And yet, and yet, and yet…after a while, my initial irritation waned, and I began to warm to and then ultimately embrace Berlin Bodies.


In the words of the publisher, the book is “the first cultural history of the human body in Berlin, spanning the 20th century and the contemporary scene today”.

Yet there is two-way strategy at work here. As well as tracing the history of the body in the city, Barber also explores the city as if were a body. As the sub-title puts it, the author is “anatomising the streets of the city”.

This dual manoeuvre is reflected in the two halves of the volume. The epic chapter 1 is an extended and eclectic typology of different kinds of Berlin bodies. These include ghosts, the malfunctioned, dancers, emitters of noise and enactors of silence, actors and transactors.

There is no way to assess objectively the accuracy of these characterisations, as they are Barber’s own definitions. And yet, notwithstanding my wariness of his writing style, I found myself carried along by his descriptions of how the city’s rich and conflicted history has given rise to these diverse tribes of urban identity.

Chapters two through seven, which in total are still shorter than chapter one, then explore the city as body.  Thus, we have ocular and sonic Berlin as we examine the city’s eyes and ears, and ultimately confront its corporeal mortality in the final chapters covering ‘apocalypse’ and ‘ruin’.

As referenced by the publisher, the book covers the period from the late 1800s to the present day. Barber neatly compartmentalises this epoch as the phases of “expansive megalopolis, nerve-ridden electropolis, ruination-intent world capital madness, isolated and divided history pivot, and contemporary city”.


The central thesis is that Berlin is a “unique source of insights into modern urban cultures”. Toward the very end of the book, Barber expands on this potentially banal premise.

Writing in a more lyrical and engaging register, he describes Berlin as an “extremophile body”; an organism that can only exist in the most challenging environments. Like microbial forms that live on hydrothermal geysers on the deepest ocean floor, Berlin is “encrusted onto the volatile skin of Europe, in proximity to vents of historical combustion”.

This hazardous proximity creates within the city a constantly swirling and sometimes overheating cauldron of social and cultural agitation and experimentation. “Berlin has visually and sonically announced itself globally as no other city has, resonantly offering raw, seductive enticements”.


Barber’s surrendering to these “seductive enticements” form some of the most striking passages in Berlin Bodies, whether relaying the silence and dusty redundancy of an abandoned train station, or recalling the bloody aftermath of a pitched battle between Nazis and Communists in the immediate wake of re-unification.

His own body’s engagement with the city – the sight of blood, the smell of late-night revellers, the sounds of riots – ground and humanise the narrative in place of android abstraction. They offer a guide to a new way of experiencing the city of “elating fragments”.


Along the way, the author also excavates and offer for inspection to the reader a vast horde of sociological, cultural and artistic artefacts. I left this book with an enormous list of films, pop videos and archive footage to watch, books and essays to read, and entire parts of the city to explore on my next visit. For this reason alone, Berlin Bodies is a piece of work to treasure.

John P. Houghton is a freelance consultant, commentator and evaluator. He is the author of Jigsaw Cities and tweets @metlines. You can read all of John’s published work here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 22nd, 2017.