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Mass confusion: Dagmar Barnouw on Siegfried Kracauer.




The enduring fascination with Weimar culture has been focused on its unresolved central conflict: the exhilaration of rapid scientific and technological development versus the anxiety of unredeemed mechanization, fragmentation, anonymity, and (self-) alienation of a modern urbanmass society. It is a conflict instructively reflected in some of Siegfried Kracauer's texts of the late '20s, the focus of Henrik Reeh's Ornaments of the Metropolis: Siegfried Kracauer and Modern Urban Culture.

Weimar modernity was the result of a shifting complex, through the nineteenth century, of interactions between Enlightenment and (neo-) Romantic positions: Where the Enlightenment concept of identity was an open-ended process of transformation fed by curiosity about "the world out there," the poet-critics of the Romantic period sought a final transformation of identity as rebirth into a "true" self, both individual and collective. From the retroperspective of two centuries later, neo-Platonic, neo-Romantic, neo-Hegelian eschatological impulses, intensified by a curiously mixed utopianist-pessimist messianism, appear as Weimar culture's most transhistorically relevant, transferable aspect--and therefore its most seductive feature. The remarkably enduring fascination with the work of Walter Benjamin is a good case in point. Seen within the ongoing, changing, and, above all, diverse cultural actuality of the Weimar years, Benjamin's verbal and conceptual messianist hermeticism appears more transparent and problematic. The consequences of the quintessentially modern World War I, the rapidly accelerating interdependencies of technological and social change resulting in cultural and political polarization, seemed to elude rational intellectual intervention. The now much more broadly diffused experience of modernity was eliminating the familiar cultural demarcations that had directed such intervention in the past. At the same time, it encouraged the rapidly expanding business of culture, which meant new visibility and social accessibility but also the political exploitability of cultural activities, among them the novel print and electronic mass media.

Whereas Benjamin was a marginal figure in Weimar culture, Kracauer was temporarily at its center: a successful highbrow journalist, the feuilleton editor of the influential liberal daily Frankfurter Zeitung, he was both sympathetic to and skeptical of the Hegelian-Marxian vanguard project of Ernst Bloch, Lukacs, Benjamin, and Adorno. Though these figures differed with respect to ideological details, they shared a fundamental openness to the seductions of meta-empirical, trans- (or post-) historical meaning, which Kracauer increasingly questioned. Yet in his attempts to mediate between concept and sensation, the general and the particular, his essayistic cultural critique shared with those of Robert Musil, Benjamin, and Bloch an ideational-sensual focus on the explicitly modern "ordinary" phenomena of the contemporary life-world.


Even if the debt was not always explicitly acknowledged, all these writers owed much to Georg Simmel's conceptual and stylistic explorations of modern urban life, especially in his enormously influential Philosophy of Money (1900). Kracauer's discussion of Simmel in Soziologie als Wissenschaft (1922) is awkward and opaque (as is the text as a whole); but in his earlier, less "theoretically" ambitious essay on Simmel (included in the 1963 collection Das Ornament der Masse [The Mass Ornament]), he emphasized what was congenial to him about Simmel's approach: "He always traces what he has seen (Gesehenes). Basically, all his thought is nothing but a grasping (erfassen) of objects by looking at them (durch das Hinblicken auf sie)." This evaluation of Simmel's "mixed" philosophical-essayistic discourse emphasizes precisely those aspects that were to become important to the development of Kracauer's own writing during the '20s.

In his essays on the new phenomenon of urban mass culture, Kracaner tried to deal with the bewildering complexity of cultural changes through tentative observations of "surfaces," the densely interrelated phenomena of everyday life. And here especially the texts strain for more general, "theorizing" definitions of the modernity of the urban experience, which show ambiguities, contradictions, and lacunae. One of the most instructively troubled essays in this respect is "The Mass Ornament" (1927), with its focus on the epistemological significance of the insignificant, easily overlooked surface expressions of a culture: In their "unself-consciousness" (Unbewusstheit) these surface expressions allow access to the "fundamental content" of an epoch--an argument ideologically important as well to Benjamin, Bloch, and Adorno (who for this reason chose it as the title essay for the 1963 collection of Kracauer's Weimar essays).

The projected "automatic" mediation between a (neo-Platonic, neo-Romantic) fundamental truth underlying cultural phenomena and an observer's (correct) consciousness points to one of the more problematic aspects of Kracauer's concept of "reale Dialektik." Meant as an alternative to his friends' insistence on the redemptive power of Hegelian-Marxian "emphatische Theorie," this concept retained vestiges of the latter's potent fallacies. The opacity of the argument in "The Mass Ornament" has its source in a concept of the masses that anticipated certain aspects of the Frankfurt School's rigid perspective on mass culture, notably the global range and the conceptual patterning of their total rejection of it. Kracauer stated explicitly that his critical observation of urban masses was aimed at understanding rather than rejection. But for an experienced observer of a contemporary urban environment, he appears curiously ill attuned here to the multifaceted phenomenon of crowd behavior, which played a hugely important role in Weimar's modern mass democracy. His curiosity was not provoked by the diverse forms and purposes of actual crowds: large groups spontaneously gathering for demonstrations, crowding around a charismatic leader, drawn by political-organizational directives of varying kinds or by political threats and promises; large numbers of people across the whole political spectrum, attracted by the new phenomenon of spectator sports. He also showed little interest in the significance of the particular places where such crowds gathered: the streets, squares, halls, sports fields, and stadiums. Rather, he focused on selective attributes of modern mass man and woman--their desire for distraction, their becoming anonymous particles contained in abstract ornamental patterns--and then presented them "dialectically" as general attributes of Weimar modernity.

Invoking the ambiguity of the phenomenon as he had constructed it--not unlike in his openly self-contradictory (though in some ways seminal) essay of 1927, "Die Photographie"--Kracauer relied on formulaic arrangements of concepts to set up general cultural correspondences. Thus he proposed a significant resemblance between the crowd fitting itself into an abstract ornament and the abstractness of capitalism--a resemblance located precisely in a shared ambiguity: Capitalism is presented as a stage on the way to "disenchantment," a process set in motion by the Enlightenment, which Kracauer, following Weber, regarded as central to modernity. Linking Taylorist production methods to the Tiller girls' regimented dancing to the "ornamental" configurations of crowds in the modern metropolis, he seems to anticipate the equation "Enlightenment = Mass Deception" in Dialectic of Enlightenment. But Kracauer's perspective also clearly differs from that of the Frankfurters in that he acknowledges the importance of contemporary social phenomena in themselves and the need to understand them on their own terms. Three years later he would record them in probing detail in Die Angestellten (1930), his classic documentary study of white-collar workers, the most impressionable mass audience, both for the movies and for Hitler.

How important, then, was the concept of ornament for Kracauer's views of modern urban culture during the Weimar period--for himself? For his readers? And how important are Kracauer's views for Reeh's argumentation? This beautifully produced book--containing a substantial number of Reeh's own photographs of urban ornamentalism, visually pleasant but insufficiently motivated--clearly reflects Kracauer's growing cult status: His texts have become authorization for others' writerly creativity--in this case applied to "modern urban culture," no matter how eclectic or how tenuous the connection. Reeh's attempts to assign canonical status to the argumentation of "The Mass Ornament" (he refers to it as a "seminal programmatic essay" and a "general program of cultural criticism") provide a good case in point. What exactly is the "program" in Reeh's view? He draws mainly on Kracauer's autobiographical novel, Ginster (1928); Strassen in Berlin und anderswo (1964), a collection of the early texts published in Frankfurter Zeitung; and Jacques Offenbach and the Paris of His Time (1938)--all of which "suggest ways in which the subjective can reappropriate urban life." "Resubjectivization" of the urban experience, introduced in Simmel's Philosophy of Money as a concept allowing plural reactions to urban life, is in Ginster a strategy to create space in the city for reflection. In their "photographic" precision, the sketches of urban life in Strassen in Berlin suggest yet another meaning of resubjectivization: Given the medium-specific openness of photography, these "snapshots" also show what the photographer overlooked in the moment of taking the picture but was there and is present in the image--an openness to multiple viewings that supported Kracauer's argument of the specific importance of photography to cultural modernity because it redefined the concept of objectivity.

Reeh uses the concept of resubjectivization too indiscriminately (fudging its different meanings) and too narrowly (as pertaining to the reappropriation of urban life). He does the same with the concept of ornament, and here the problem is more serious because it concerns the organizational focus of his study. Reeh's reading of "The Mass Ornament" mimics rather than analyzes the text's conceptual opaqueness, and yet he hopes "to demonstrate that the cultural, social, and historical conclusions from [it] can, with due caution, be extended to encompass a close connection between ornament, critique, and urbanity"--the subject of his book. But what kind of critique? What is the meaning of ornament in its relation to urbanity? Kracauer's problematic distinction between ratio and reason anticipates the Frankfurters' equally problematic Schopenhauerian distinction between "instrumental" and "critical" reason; and in this essay he is indeed closest to their position and also seemingly most uncomfortable with it. Reeh's insensitivity to Kracauer's pervasive mistrust of theory limits his ability to ask questions and thereby the usefulness of his study for readers who do.

Dagmar Barnouw is professor of German and comparative literature at the University of Southern California.
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Title Annotation:Ornaments of the Metropolis: Siegfried Kracauer and Modern Urban Culture.; Book
Author:Barnouw, Dagmar
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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