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Cinema and Experience
Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno
By Miriam Bratu Hansen
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
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Film, Medium of a Disintegrating World
No pacifism, no communism, but an aesthetic defense of the dissociated world in the awareness of death. Roughly like that. —KRACAUER ON THE LAST CHAPTER OF HIS NOVEL GINSTER, LETTER TO ERNST BLOCH, 5 JANUARY 1928.
Among the first generation of Critical Theorists, Siegfried Kracauer rightly ranks as the only one who had significant expertise in matters of cinema. This reputation rests largely on his two later books written in English, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947) and Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960), and his collection of Weimar essays translated as The Mass Ornament (1963; 1995), while the bulk of his early writings on film remains unknown in English-language contexts. It would be shortsighted, however, to restrict an account of Kracauer's early film theory to writings that explicitly and exclusively deal with film, whether reviews of particular films or more general reflections on the film medium and the institution of cinema. Like Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Theodor W. Adorno, and others, Kracauer understood the cinema as a symptomatic element within a larger heuristic framework aimed at understanding modernity and its developmental tendencies. While this framework was grounded in a philosophy, if not a theology, of history, it translated into a programmatic attempt to understand contemporary cultural phenomena in relation to the social and economic conditions that gave rise to them and to which they were thought to respond.
In Kracauer's case, these theoretical perspectives evolved both with and against the pragmatic pressures of daily journalistic writing. Between 1921 and 1933, the year of his forced exile, Kracauer published close to two thousand articles—notices, reviews, essays—most of them in the Frankfurter Zeitung, a liberal daily of which he became feuilleton (arts and culture) editor in 1924. Having abandoned his job as an architect to join the paper as a local reporter, he covered just about everything that figured under the rubric of culture—and increasingly areas and topics that did not. In addition to reviewing films on a regular basis (about one-third of the articles), he wrote on urban space and spaces: on streets, squares, and buildings; on train stations, subways, underpasses, and traffic lights; on bars, hotel lobbies, department stores, trade fairs, and arcades; homeless shelters and unemployment agencies; on picture palaces, the circus, and the variety stage; on radio and photography; on electric advertising and illustrated magazines; on courtroom trials, traffic, tourism, and sports; on typewriters and suspenders, pianellas and umbrellas. Kracauer's interest in the quotidian and ephemeral phenomena of modern life was no doubt indebted to the philosopher-sociologist Georg Simmel, but his exploration of the artifacts, sites, and rituals of an emerging consumer culture also points forward to semiological analyses such as Roland Barthes's Mythologies (1957) and more recent work in urban ethnography and the critique of everyday life.
While film and cinema held a special position among Kracauer's topics, they were part and parcel of his larger project to read the "inconspicuous surface-level expressions" of the time as indices of historical change, in an effort to "determine the place" that the present "occupie[d] in the historical process." His attempts to grasp the specificity of film and cinema were bound up with the historico-philosophical inquiry into modernity or, more precisely, with the question of how the struggle over the directions of modernity took shape, and was being played out, in the photographic media and their respective institutions. This approach crucially distinguishes his early writings on film from the more standard debates over whether or not film was "Art," for the most part associated with, or opposed to, the movement of Kinoreform, or cinema reform, and over how film could and should become art if it ever was to gain cultural and social legitimacy. Kracauer's bypassing of the art question, however, makes him no less interesting from the vantage point of film aesthetics or an aesthetic theory of cinema. On the contrary, if Kracauer still speaks to issues closer to current concerns, it is because he approached the question of the aesthetic in the more comprehensive sense that Benjamin, too, was to insist upon—as relating to the organization of human sense perception and its transformation in industrial-capitalist modernity. Both writers discerned the aesthetic significance of cinema in the possibility of a new sensory relationship with the material world; yet, while Benjamin's interest in the photographic media was part of his larger engagement with the question of technology, Kracauer's exploration of new modes of mimetic experience, identification, and sociability was guided by questions of a more sociological and ethnographic nature.
In the following, I trace the development of Kracauer's thinking on cinema and modernity in some detail, not only because most of his early texts are scarcely known in English, compared to the relatively greater availability of texts in translation by Benjamin and Adorno. This attention is also warranted because Kracauer's early speculations on film decisively counter his long-standing reputation in cinema studies as a "naive realist," a reputation based largely on a reductive reading of his later works written in English. In addition to the tradition of film theory in the narrow sense, my frame of reference will be Kracauer's conversation, actual or virtual, with other Critical Theorists. Therefore, I will try to highlight particular concepts and theoretical tropes in Kracauer's early texts—such as the motif of an aesthetics of reification, the turn to the surface, the valorization of distraction, the notion of film's particular capacity to reanimate and reconfigure material objects—that were taken up (though this was for the most part unacknowledged), elaborated, and revised by Benjamin, Bloch, Adorno, and others.
Nonetheless, such conceptual distillation should not make us forget that Kracauer was not a systematic theorist in the manner of, for instance, Marcuse or even Horkheimer and Adorno. By philosophical standards, Kracauer's mode of analysis sometimes appears slippery and inconsistent, if not contradictory. This is not simply or necessarily a shortcoming. Rather, what ensures continued fascination with Kracauer's texts is that they are suffused with another kind of logic, a style of theorizing that we might call writerly or poetic. Kracauer argues as much through images and tropes, through figures of chiasmus, paradox, understatement, and literalization, as through analytic reasoning and allegorical abstraction. While his academic background included philosophy and sociology (in addition to professional training as an architect), he never held an academic position; he was a critical intellectual for whom journalism was not a default career but a chance and challenge to engage in writing as a public medium. No less, though, was Kracauer's choice of theoretical style(s), like Benjamin's, motivated by a critique of the academic discipline of philosophy as a totalizing, systematic discourse that could not adequately address the contemporary transformation and crisis of experience. As I hope to show, this critique translates into critical practice not only by virtue of its turn to noncanonical topics but also because of a rhetorical mode that persistently undermines the traditional distance between the perceiving/describing/analyzing subject and the (mass-cultural) objects under scrutiny.
Kracauer's discovery of film and mass culture around 1923–24 reaches back into the lapsarian layer of his earlier writings, for the most part philosophical and sociological reflections on the problem of modernity. When he begins to develop a theoretical interest in film, he hails it as the perfect medium for a fallen world, an at once sensory and reflexive discourse uniquely suited to capturing the experience of a disintegrating world, a "life deprived of substance." In this capacity, film assumes an important function from the perspective of Kracauer's philosophy or, if you will, theology of history: specifically, the eschatologically tinged idea that modernity could be overcome—and could overcome itself—only by fully realizing all its disintegrating and destructive potential. Paradoxically, as we shall see, this desire to transcend modernity prompts a turn to a postmetaphysical politics of immanence, in which film figures as both symptom of the historical process and sensory-reflexive horizon for dealing with its effects. Accompanying this turn is Kracauer's discovery of the institution of cinema, including but exceeding the projected film, as an alternative public sphere—alternative, that is, to the institutions of both bourgeois culture and the labor movement. Many of Kracauer's early film reviews are actually cinema reviews, in the sense that they include remarks on theater design, performance practices, musical accompaniment, and audience response. From 1925 on he began to reflect on the cinema more generally as a catalyst of a new kind of public, symptomatic of the culture of leisure and consumption that he saw emerge in Germany with the introduction of principles of mass production and the concurrent mushrooming of the class of white-collar workers or employees. When, toward the end of the decade, his writings on film and cinema increasingly shifted from a materialist physiognomy of modernity to a critique of ideology—prefiguring the approach of From Caligari to Hitler (1947)—it was because, in the face of the mounting political crisis, contemporary cinema was failing on two counts: it neither advanced the negativity of the historical process, or "self-sublation" of modernity, nor lived up to the liberating, egalitarian impulses in which Kracauer had discerned the contours of a democratic mass public.
I will trace these movements and countermovements from two complementary angles. The present chapter deals with Kracauer's efforts to develop an aesthetics of film from the perspective of a particular experience and critique of modernity. The following chapter focuses on his exploration of modernity as a mass-produced and mass-consumed, highly ambivalent and contested formation, in which film and cinema were playing only one, albeit a crucial, role. As a hinge between these perspectives, I discuss Kracauer's essay "Photography" (1927), a text that displays key traits of his peculiar method—his shifting among the registers of ethnographic observation, micrological analysis, critique of ideology, and philosophy of history; his effort to grasp the historical moment in both its devastating and liberating possibilities; and the inclusion of himself as experiencing subject in the cultural practices he describes.
Kracauer's writings prior to the mid-1920s by and large participate in the period's pessimistic, lapsarian discourse on modernity. Within a predominantly philosophical and theological framework, modernity appears as the endpoint of a historical process of disintegration, spiritual loss, and withdrawal of meaning from life, a dissociation of truth and existence. Expelled from a traditional order of life and a corresponding religious sphere, the individual is "thrown into the cold infinity of empty space and empty time," a state summed up in Georg Lukács's phrase "transcendental homelessness." Drawing on contemporary sociology, in particular that of Simmel, Max Scheler, and Max Weber, Kracauer ascribes this state to the progressive unfolding of the Ratio, a formal, abstract, instrumental rationality—or perverted form of reason—propelled by capitalist economy, modern science, and technology. With the encroachment of mechanization and rationalization on all aspects of life, human beings are alienated not only from the spiritual sphere but also from all forms of communion and community (Gemeinschaft, as opposed to Gesellschaft). They are thus deprived of an experiential, discursive horizon that would help them make sense of these very processes.
That Kracauer participates in this culturally pessimistic discourse on modernity, with its worn-out idealist rhetoric, is not all that surprising, nor do his early writings differ in this regard from those of other Critical Theorists, in particular Benjamin, Bloch, and the early Lukács. What is remarkable, however, is the distance that Kracauer will travel, in a rather short time, from the metaphysics of Weltzerfall (disintegration of the world) to a more sober, analytic, politically astute, and yet passionately curious attitude toward the concrete phenomena of modern life, in particular mass culture. The beginnings of this transformation can be traced back to the experience of World War I, which for Kracauer, as for many of his generation, shattered the illusions of high idealism and cast its monstrous shadow on the subsequent decade; it is no coincidence that his semiautobiographical novel, Ginster, written toward the end of the 1920s, is set during the war and its aftermath. Hence Kracauer's turn to a more materialist perspective should be imagined neither as a sudden conversion nor as a progressive development toward a more critically correct position, but rather as a process of reorientation and complication in which earlier perspectives both give rise to and persist, even if incongruently, with later ones. His interest in film and mass culture does not just emerge with his often-flagged turn to Marxist thought and empirical sociology around 1925–26. As I will argue, the effort to theorize film precedes that turn and has its roots in precisely the lapsarian construction of history he had initially assumed toward modernity, specifically, in the peculiar form of materialism that this construction entailed.
It is significant that Kracauer elaborates his early metaphysics of modernity in a "philosophical fragment" on the detective novel, a genre of popular fiction that thrived on serial production and that in Germany occupied a lower rank on the ladder of cultural values than in England or France. Rather than considering this genre from the outside, as a sociological symptom, Kracauer reads it as an allegory of contemporary life, incarnating the "idea of a thoroughly rationalized civilized society" (W 1:107). The critical distinction of the detective novel vis-à-vis mere affirmation of that society consists in the way the detective's methods mimic the mechanisms of the autonomous Ratio: "Just as the detective reveals the secret buried between people, the detective novel discloses, in the aesthetic medium, the secret of the de-realized society and its substanceless marionettes." It thus transforms, by virtue of its construction, "incomprehensible life" into a "counter-image" of reality, a "distorting mirror" (Zerrspiegel) in which the world can begin to read its own features (W 1:119, 107).
Kracauer elaborates the trope of a distorting mirror in an essay on the circus, written around the same time, in which he attributes a similarly allegorical—and allegorizing—function to the clowns. If the acrobats miraculously triumph over the laws of gravity and the human physis, the clowns point up the "unreality" of that triumph: "While the real actors suspend the conditions of the life assigned to us, [the clowns] with their off-key seriousness in turn suspend the unreality of those actors. This should lead one to expect that they restore normal reality but, on the contrary, they are only a caricature of caricature; it feels like being in a hall of mirrors, and from the successively arranged mirrors the beholder's own countenance radiates in ever more distorted form." It should be noted that not only does the clowns' mimicry render strange an already estranged reality but the hall-of-mirrors effect also affects the self-perception of the beholder, confronting the viewing subject with its own precarious reality.
Excerpted from Cinema and Experience by Miriam Bratu Hansen. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsPreface
Part I. Kracauer
1. Film, Medium of a Disintegrating World
2. Curious Americanism
Part II. Benjamin
3. Actuality, Antinomies
4. Aura: The Appropriation of a Concept
5. Mistaking the Moon for a Ball
Part III. Adorno
8. The Question of Film Aesthetics
Part IV. Kracauer in Exile
9. Theory of Film
What People are Saying About This
"This magisterial book is a gift. . . . There is no other study like it."Artforum
[Hansen's] reader is amply rewarded by the rich suggestiveness and expansive quality of her insights. . . . A crowning achievement."Bookforum