2011 Honors Day Address: Jill S. Smith

Story posted May 11, 2011

"Honor Among Thieves?"
By Assistant Professor of German Jill Suzanne Smith

Assistant Professor of German Jill S. Smith delivered the following remarks during the 15th annual Honors Day ceremony recognizing the college-wide academic and extracurricular achievements of Bowdoin students and faculty. The ceremony was held May 11, 2011, at Kanbar Auditorium, Studzinski Recital Hall.

Jill Suzanne Smith150.jpg
Jill S. Smith

Bowdoin students, faculty and staff, President Mills, Dean Judd, and proud families and friends of our student honorees, it is an honor to speak before you tonight. My sincerest congratulations to the students sitting in the audience this evening: I know you are waiting eagerly for your names to be called and for the prizes to be conferred. You are here because you have behaved honorably, in a way that is worthy of respect. You have worked hard, asked and answered tough questions. You have strengthened and enriched the Bowdoin community, both in and outside of the classroom. You’ve earned a good reputation for yourselves and for the college. But in speaking with you about honor, I actually want to draw your attention to persons with bad reputations, persons whose behavior is generally deemed dishonorable — thieves and prostitutes.

If there are any students from my German 308 course in the audience tonight, they know the thief I have in mind. His name is Mackie Messer — known in English translation (and to Frank Sinatra fans) as “Mack the Knife” — and he’s the brutal yet dashing thief with a swagger, the lead character in Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, which premiered in Berlin in 1928. What made Brecht’s portrayal of the urban underworld so unique was not the mere fact that he put thieves and prostitutes center stage, but that he made them virtually indistinguishable from the bourgeois, seemingly “upstanding” characters of the play. Just as Mack the Knife sports the spats and top hat of a bourgeois gentleman, the bourgeois gentleman Jeremiah Peachum runs a phony charity organization that makes money off of alms given to fake beggars. This supposedly upstanding citizen is just as big of a crook as Mack, and those who parade as innocent victims are frauds. The Threepenny Opera demonstrates how quickly the façade of propriety can erode when human greed and anger take hold, and it thereby exposes the very notion of honorable behavior as a sham. Brecht’s biting critique of social hypocrisy was not reserved exclusively for the characters he put on stage; it was directed at his audience, too. Through the use of alienation effects, Brecht prevented his audience from immersing themselves in a fantasy world and being lulled into complacency. He instructed them that the theater was not a space in which they would be passively entertained, but where they should be actively engaged, both during the performance and after its end. In the case of the Threepenny Opera, Brecht revealed to the audience the hollowness of their own values, and expected them to leave the theater with a dispassionate distance that would enable them to question those values further—to challenge their preconceived notions and, in the best case scenario, to formulate alternative visions for the future.

Bowdoin students, I ask you to imagine the college classroom as a Brechtian theater — a laboratory for thoughts, an environment that doesn’t just welcome you in to watch the show — or to get caught up in the illusion that we call the "Bowdoin bubble" — but rather that gives you the critical distance from your own assumptions — from yourself, really —so that you can investigate the intricacies of a topic … of a discipline. One of the most memorable experiences of this past semester for me as a professor came when I asked my students to read excerpts from contemporary memoirs written by prostitutes who live and work in Germany. The day that I handed out the texts, I heard a few snickers and even several expressions of prurient anticipation. But when it came time to discuss the texts, the first student to speak admitted that he had approached the texts with a certain set of expectations — even bias or prejudice — but that the texts had undermined those expectations. He had expected to read about women who were either victims or villains, who were either destitute or deviant, and he found them to be neither. Some students agreed, some disagreed, and a critical discussion ensued. My challenge to you tonight is to follow this student’s example: have the courage and the stick-to-it-iveness to get past the giggle or the flinch that a certain word or topic might evoke. Interrogate your own assumptions; interrogate your terms, for this is an essential step toward critical inquiry.

As my students and colleagues well know, my own research focuses on prostitution — a topic that often elicits flinches and giggles, sometimes even a grunt of disapproval or disdain. Part of what made me study prostitution in depth was an agitation with current scholarship on the subject. Like my student’s initial assumptions, much of the scholarship I read presented clichéd images of prostitutes as victims or villains. What I strive for in my work is not to entice or repulse. Rather, I call into question those polarized discourses on prostitution that divide prostitutes into the clichéd categories of tragic victim and dangerous whore. By searching around in the less explored territory between those two poles, I have found how discourses on prostitution connect to complex questions of gender, labor, morality and structures of intimacy. Let me offer two brief examples of the things I’ve found:

1)  My first example shows how prostitutes living in 1920s Germany sought to define themselves, and as you’ll see, they came up with an image that closely resembles today’s concept of the modern, rationalized sex worker. Between the years of 1920 and 1922, a group of prostitutes in Hamburg took time away from their day jobs — or perhaps more appropriately their night jobs — and wrote and published their own newspaper, which they ironically called The Pillory. The authors of The Pillory made a case for prostitutes to be declared “honest women” and for prostitution to be seen as a profession, even as a learned trade. In their inaugural issue they expressed their hope that “it could someday be possible for this profession of ours, the mastery in the art of love, to exist without a stigma attached.” (My translation.)

2)  Another aspect of my research studies how sexually active, publicly visible women are often confused with prostitutes. In 1928, for example, members of the Berlin city senate met to discuss the dubious arrest of four women who were falsely accused of prostitution. These four women drew the attention of Berlin police by standing on one of the city’s best-known shopping boulevards in the evening, their backs to the shop windows, calling out and gesturing to men who passed by. The police saw this as a clear case of solicitation and therefore saw the women as a danger to public health and public order. Members of the Berlin senate, quite a few of whom were women, saw things differently, and the law was on their side. After all, in 1927, the German government had passed the Law for Combating Venereal Diseases, which officially deregulated and thereby legalized prostitution. As one of the women delegates from the Social Democratic Party argued at the Berlin meeting, the new law and its provisions for public health “refer to persons, not to women specifically.” She then asked, rhetorically, “Where would we be if the police rounded up all persons who called public attention to themselves and tried to hit on a person of the opposite sex?” After much lively debate on this issue, the Berlin senate sent a clear message to Berlin’s police president: they condemned the actions of his officers and stated that, under the new law, women could not simply be rounded up and labeled as prostitutes. If anything, they argued, the label of “prostitute” had lost its social and moral stigma.

What I want you to note about these two examples is that they, like Brecht’s play, come from an era in Germany’s history that is considered by most historians to be one of the most politically polarized — the Weimar Republic. The economic turmoil of the period, combined with the increasing polarization of political rhetoric — bolstered by a sensationalist media — divided the populace between Communists on the left and National Socialists (Nazis) on the right, effectively undermining Germany’s first experiment in democracy. And yet even in this dangerously divisive time period, when each side tried to out-shout the other, we find evidence of discourses that cannot easily be placed on one side or the other. Indeed, we find critical inquiry, lively debate, creativity and nuance. My charge to the students — particularly those who will soon leave the Brechtian theater of the Bowdoin classroom — is to listen past the shouts, to choose your words carefully and to question the words that others might so cavalierly employ, to dig around in the uncharted territory between poles, to see more than two sides to every issue. Such critical engagement can be messy, and it will not always meet with approval, but there’s honor in it just the same.

Jill Smith sincerely thanks her colleagues Birgit Tautz and Steven Cerf, and her husband, Fabian Rueger, "for being such wonderful, helpful sounding boards for this talk."

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