Keystone Mutualists: German Studies X Medical Humanities – A Drama in Three Acts (Part I)

An artistic intervention, precarious and provocative, in the multilingual medical humanities, which makes a case for how German studies and medical humanities keep each other alive by acting it out.

Professor Bernhardi (1912) by Arthur Schnitzler, performed by Foreign Affairs, translated by Judith Beniston and Nicole Robertson. Anatomy Lecture Theatre, Downing Site, Festival of Ideas, Cambridge, 2016. Photograph by Hal Blackburn. Reproduced with permission.

Dramatis personae:

German Studies as keystone mutualist

Medical Humanities as keystone mutualist

History of Art as a keystone species

Red wood ants (species group Formica rufa) as ecosystem engineers

Ina Linge as The Comic

Annja Neumann as The Poet

Peacock as metaphor

The Reader as co-creator


A desolate and barren landscape …

The Poet, The Comic, Red wood ants.

The Poet

A blog post play that names both the Medical Humanities and German Studies as keystone mutualists is inevitably a political intervention; a provocation that intends to spur a debate – so we hope.

The Comic

That’s right! There is no formal agreement about the conditions that establish a “keystone species,” let alone a “keystone mutualist.” The title of “keystone mutualist” is usually attributed to “organisms that participate in mutually beneficial interactions, the loss of which would have a profound impact on the ecosystem” (National Geographic 2023).

The Poet

A keystone species, no matter how small or insignificant it looks (points to the ants climbing up a broken shoehorn), is a vital part of an ecosystem. Keystone roles can be transformative – (to the ants) no pressure!

The Comic

The dramatic tension of our play arises specifically from the ecological niche of German Studies as a keystone species within the research ecosystem that sustains the medical humanities. This is a matter of its working conditions, its material effects and the consequences this ecosystem has for communities, especially for small groups of often overlooked (foundation) species of researchers, who don’t work in, but tend to work through, the critical medical humanities. Together, we (walks in a circle by gesturing towards her fellow performers and audience members) ask questions about the value that the expanded medical humanities can add to public debates and how they can shape real world developments.

The Poet

We are also acting in a moment of crisis (thunder), where modern languages programmes in higher education are threatened with redundancies and closures across the UK, to the point that German, as a diverse field, faces extinction. German studies needs the medical humanities – after all, the capacity to engage with, and work in, uncertain conditions is a key feature of the applied medical humanities (Thacker, Wallis and Winning 2021); and the medical humanities can thrive with the rich materials, methods and researchers that German studies provides. 

Red wood ants

I’ve nothing particular to say yet, but if I don’t say something, you may begin to ignore me.[1]

Act I

German Studies is setting the scene by providing a wormhole into early-twentieth-century, German, sexual knowledge production. The surface of the stage area is covered with pine needles, small branches and urban debris.

Annja Neumann and Ina Linge step onto the stage.

Annja Neumann

Keystone mutualists, by definition, participate in mutually beneficial interactions in their ecosystem. Without their activity, the ecosystem would change drastically or collapse altogether. What if German Studies were a keystone mutualist for the expanded medical humanities ecosystem? What role do interactions between German studies and the medical humanities play in your research on queer livability?

Ina Linge

(Pushes glasses up nose) In my monograph, I looked at the role of “queer livability” in German sexual-scientific life writing. I asked: how do queer and trans people in the early twentieth century in the German-speaking world navigate what I recognise as a balancing act: expressing oneself in a way that feels authentic, and, at the same time, in such a way that they are understood by medical professionals on whose help they often depended. It’s really important to emphasise that research on the German history of sexuality is more than just an illustrative “case study” for the medical humanities.

Medical Humanities enters centre left, causing a strong breeze that sends pine needles, small branches and urban debris flying across the stage. Red wood ants enter centre left and seem unperturbed.

Research in modern languages is often misunderstood as offering illustrative examples to conversations already happening elsewhere. If we’re lucky, we then get to claim that our research can still somehow (gesticulates wildly) inform how – in my case – we think about gender and sexual health and wellbeing today. In this chain of reasoning, German studies is only a small feather in the crown of a peacock – without the feather, it’s a little less pretty, but it’s still clearly a crown (a rough looking peacock with a few feathers missing slowly walks across and stops centre stage).

But German studies research makes a much more important contribution. Radically new ideas about sex, gender and sexuality emerged in the German-speaking world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This was an incredibly important period for shaping modern ideas about sexual and gender identity still in use today. For example, around 1910, the famous German-Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld coined the word “transvestite” and described it as “the erotic desire to cross-dress” (Hirschfeld 1910). Although many today consider this word and its definition derogatory, it was important for its time, because it provided a language for identification. We can see Hirschfeld’s work as part of a complex and long history of transgender identity – the understanding that someone identifies as a gender different from the one assigned at birth.

But it is not just the material we study as German studies scholars, but also how we study it – our methods and critical interventions – that make our contributions so important to the medical humanities today. The neat genealogy from “transvestite,” as a sexual-scientific and medical term, to “transgender” has been questioned by German studies scholars and historians of Germany. They have shown how trans individuals and communities in the past presented themselves in relation to, and often in productive but also painful tension with, sexual-scientific discourses (Sutton 2012; Heaney 2017; Nunn 2023).

My own work brings an important literary perspective to this debate by tracing how historical LGBTQ+ people challenged the dominance of scientific models of gender and sexuality through life writing, creative and literary techniques. This is part of a now well-established turn in the German history of sexuality, which shows that sexology was not limited to scientific inquiry, and instead highlights the important role that cultural texts played in society’s understanding of identity, health and sexuality (Bauer 2009; Funke/Fisher 2015; Linge 2023). This research and the tensions it uncovers generates critical questions for the medical humanities today: who is medicine for? Who has the power and authority to shape medical knowledge? Whose bodies and minds are implicated or marginalised in this process of knowledge creation? What violence is exerted on marginalised people in this process?

So what I want to argue is that without the “German case,” our understanding of the challenges and complexities of health and wellbeing, as they relate to gender and sexuality today, would be vastly impoverished.

Annja Neumann

So, what you are saying is that the peacock, as a species, wouldn’t exist without German Studies (the Peacock panics, changes into fight or flight mode and falls off the stage).

[Act II & Act III coming soon]


[1] The English psychoanalyst Winnicott was said to say similar during analysis with one of his patients. See Guntrip. 1975. “My Experience.”

About the authors

Dr Ina Linge is Senior Lecturer in German in the Department of Languages, Cultures and Visual Studies at the University of Exeter, UK. Her research in queer German studies, environmental humanities, and medical humanities investigates early twentieth-century sexual knowledge production as a collaborative endeavour between the arts and medical and natural sciences. Publications include the monograph Queer Livability: German Sexual Sciences and Life Writing (Michigan University Press, 2023), which explores the importance of queer and trans life writing for sexual knowledge production in early-twentieth-century Germany. Her recent work has explored the role of the non-human in sexual knowledge production, see for example an article on the role of butterfly experiments for German gay-rights activism and research in the 1920s (winner of the 2020 Women in German article prize); and a co-edited special issue on “Sex and Nature” for Environmental Humanities (2022).

Dr Annja Neumann is a Principal artist-researcher and innovator, a change consultant, and an educator with 15+ years’ experience at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, where she has just joined the faculty for the Deepening Creative Practice learning experience for organisational leadership. She connects research as a cultural anthropologist and literary and performance scholar with her embodied practice as theatre-maker, writer and digital media artist. She also works as an Affiliated Lecturer in Digital Humanities at the University of Cambridge and as a Senior Research Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge.


Bauer, Heike. 2009. English Literary Sexology: Translations of Inversion, 1860–1930. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, Kate, and Jana Funke. 2015. “British Sexual Science beyond the Medical: Cross-Disciplinary, Cross-Historical, and Cross-Cultural Translations.” In Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters across the Modern World, edited by Heike Bauer, 95–114. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Guntrip, Harry. 1975. “My Experience of Analysis with Fairbairn and Winnicott—(How Complete a Result Does Psycho-Analytic Therapy Achieve?).” International Review of Psycho-Analysis 2: 145–56.

Heaney, Emma. 2017. The New Woman: Literary Modernism, Queer Theory, and the Trans Feminine Allegory. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Hirschfeld, Magnus. 1910. Die Transvestiten: Eine Untersuchung über den erotischen Verkleidungstrieb. Berlin: Alfred Pulvermacher.

Linge, Ina. 2023. Queer Livability: German Sexual Sciences and Life Writing. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Nunn, Zavier. 2023. “Trans Liminality and the Nazi State.” Past & Present 260: 123–57.

Sutton, Katie. 2012. “‘We Too Deserve a Place in the Sun’: The Politics of Transvestite Identity in Weimar Germany.” German Studies Review 35: 335–54.

Thacker, Neepa, Jennifer Wallis, and Jo Winning. 2021. “‘Capable of being in uncertainties’: applied medical humanities in undergraduate medical education.” Medical Humanities 48: 325–34.

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