Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno—affiliated through friendship, professional ties, and argument—developed an astute philosophical critique of modernity in which technological media played a key role. This book explores in depth their reflections on cinema and photography from the Weimar period up to the 1960s. Miriam Bratu Hansen brings to life an impressive archive of known and, in the case of Kracauer, less known materials and reveals surprising perspectives on canonic texts, including Benjamin’s artwork essay. Her lucid analysis extrapolates from these writings the contours of a theory of cinema and experience that speaks to questions being posed anew as moving image culture evolves in response to digital technology.
Cinema and Experience Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno
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-ideas 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 both 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, though 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 Lukßcs'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 Lukßcs. 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-α-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.
The idea of representation as a distorting mirror is a familiar trope of modernist aesthetics, implying that, since the world is already distorted, reified, and alienated, the iteration of that distortion, as a kind of double negation, is closer to the truth than any attempt to transcend the state of affairs by traditional aesthetic means, be they classicist or realist. In Critical Theory, for instance, we find one highly influential articulation of this trope in Benjamin's The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928), with its revision and rehabilitation of allegory, which, in contrast to the romantic symbol's semblance of organic beauty and totality, showed the petrified, fragmented landscape of history for what it was. Likewise, the trope resonates in Adorno's philosophy of modern music and aesthetic theory, in particular his insistence, against Lukßcs, on the distinction between objective and reflective reification, the latter being the task of any truly modern art. Yet, if Benjamin elaborates this idea in writing on the Baroque Trauerspiel and on Proust, and Adorno on Sch÷nberg and Webern, Kracauer develops it in the context of popular fiction, live entertainments-and film. This to say, he insists on finding the antidote to modern mass culture within mass culture itself, by focusing on its disjunctive devices and reflexive possibilities.
While reviewing films was part of his local reporting duties from 1921 on, it was not until the fall of 1923 that Kracauer displayed a more theoretical interest in the medium. In the reviews that followed over the next few years, he frequently uses phrases like "the spirit" or "essence of film," "film aesthetics," "film language"; speaks of topics "proper to film" (filmgerecht); and discusses individual titles as examples from which to develop an "as yet unwritten metaphysics of film" (FZ, 16 December 1923). His earliest notions of what is and is not "proper" or specific to film actually sound remarkably like the criteria of the later, more familiar Kracauer, though there are still important differences. Reviewing two contemporary German films dealing with imposters, Der Frauenk÷nig (Jaap Speyer, 1923) and Die MΣnner der Sybill (Friedrich Zelnick, 1922), he praises them for their looseness of construction and refusal of interiority: "Compared to the historical spectacles which have recently become fashionable, [these films] after all have the advantage that they do not show carefully rehearsed scenes and elaborate plots which one could just as well see on stage but, instead, improvise thrilling events out of the quotidian and, moreover, renounce the display of soul [seelischer Gehalte] in favor of a film-specific rendering of phantomlike surface life." The difference, or distance, of this position from what Theory of Film will call the "redemption of physical reality" hinges, of course, on what Kracauer means by "surface life" and which particular cinematic techniques, modes of representation, and genres he considers appropriate for capturing that life.
The most graphic account of the world "assigned" to the medium of film can be found in Kracauer's enthusiastic, almost rhapsodic reviews of Karl Grune's film Die Straße (The Street, 1923). Following the Frankfurt premiere in February 1924, Kracauer reviewed the film not just once but twice (with some overlap), first in the local section and the following day in the feuilleton section of the paper. He returned to the film the following year in his programmatic essay "Der Kⁿnstler in dieser Zeit" (The Artist in Our Time), in which he calls upon it to illustrate the dilemma of the contemporary artist-how to engage the gap between "truth" and "existence," the phenomenal world-and to make a case for a particular philosophical and political stance. As late as 1929, in a review of one of Grune's subsequent works, Kracauer still refers to Die Straße as "one of the best and most forward-pointing films." Like many titles he reviewed during the Weimar period, the film resurfaces in his writings in exile, in particular the Caligari book, though without reference to the earlier accounts and with a decidedly different valence.
In the 1924 reviews, Kracauer hails Die Straße as nothing less than a manifesto of metaphysical malaise, of the "suffering of the languishing soul in the lifeless bustle" of modern existence. In an exemplary way, the film captures the experience of modern life-"a life deprived of substance, empty as a tin can, a life which instead of an internal relationality [statt des innerlichen Zusammenhangs] knows nothing but isolated events that form ever new series of images in the manner of a kaleidoscope" (W 6.1:56). With its emphasis on fragmentation and discontinuity, the film visualizes the spatialized experience of time typical of modernity: "the moment, which is only a point in time, becomes visibility." Accordingly, the individual's experience of space dissociates into random encounters with the fragmented material world, epitomized by the modern city street:
What intrudes upon the lonesome wanderer in the voracious streets of the night is expressed by the film in a vertiginous sequence of futurist images, and the film is free to express it this way because the pining inner life releases nothing but fragmentary ideas. The events get entangled and disentangled again, and just as the human beings are living dead, inanimate things participate in the play as a matter of course. A lime wall announces a murder, an electric sign flickers like a blinking eye: everything a confused side-by-side [Nebeneinander], a chaos [Tohuwabohu] of reified souls and seemingly waking things. (W 6.1:57)
The passage displays a number of topoi that recur throughout Kracauer's Weimar writings: the chiastic relation between the living and the mechanical, animate and inanimate, between people and things; the emphasis on externality, on the breakup and flattening out of vertical hierarchies of meaning into paratactic (dis)order (for which he ironically, though not coincidentally, uses the vernacular Hebrew word from Genesis tohuvabohu); and the metaphoric elevation of the city street as the key site of cinematic modernity (pointing toward its canonic inscription in Theory of Film but also resonating with the resurgence of the figure of the flaneur in Weimar culture).
Most important, Kracauer attributes the film's contemporaneity to its use of specifically cinematic codes, in particular editing. In the Feuilleton version of the review, he introduces Die Straße as "one of the few works of modern film production in which an object takes shape in a way that only film can give shape, a work which realizes possibilities that only film can realize.... Film patches together shot after shot and from these successively unfurling images mechanically recomposes the world-a mute world in which no word passes between human beings, in which the incomplete speech of optical impressions is the only language. The more the represented object can be rendered in the succession of mere images, the ensemble of simultaneous impressions, the more it corresponds to the filmic technique of association" (W 6.1:56). In other words, the affinity between the medium and its presumed object is grounded not in film's photographic capability, the iconic representation of a presumably given reality, but rather in its syntactic procedures-in the structural affinity of cinematic montage with the logic of fragmentation and random juxtaposition that for Kracauer defines the current stage of the historical process.
Kracauer conceives of film as a material expression-not just representation-of a particular historical experience, an objective correlative, as it were, of the ongoing process of distintegration. The solitude of the individual in a fragmented, empty world that the critic finds evoked in Grune's film rings with the pathos of personal experience; and the film in turn lends this pathos an allegorical significance and collective resonance. What is remarkable here is the extent to which the critic identifies with the film's nameless protagonist and his nomadic desire. The figure of the "lonesome wanderer" is referred to as "Sehnsⁿchtiger," someone driven by longing, and the narrative situation that propels his odyssey through the "peripheral world" is marked as one of a double exile. Kracauer describes the protagonist (Eugen Kl÷pfer) as lying on a sofa "in a petty-bourgeois living-room which is supposed to be home [Heimat] yet fails to be just that." Fascinated with the play of light and shadow on the ceiling, the dreamer gets up to look out of the window. While his wife sees the street only as street, to him the look "unveils the senselessly tempting jumble of reeling life which, alas, is no more a home [Heimat] than the living-room but, instead, adventure and untasted possibility" (W 6.1:54).
In such ekphrastic accounts, the writer acknowledges his own fascination with the same alienated surface life that the lapsarian critic of modernity deplores. Likewise, he identifies with the protagonist's rejection of bourgeois domesticity, which the film's misogynist economy associates with the unseeing wife (just as it will later associate female sexuality with prostitution and death). This configuration of a double homelessness-between the sham of the bourgeois interior and the anonymous otherness of the modern street-was to become emblematic of Kracauer's intellectual persona throughout the Weimar period. Just as emblematic, however, is the curious ambivalence by which his writing betrays an affinity with, an awareness of being part of, the allegedly fallen world whose transformation he sought to advance.
When Kracauer returns to Die Straße in his "psychological history of the German film," written in actual exile, both the perspective of transformation and the dimension of critical affiliation have disappeared. In the Caligari book, Grune's film is dismissed as a "nonpolitical avant-garde product." The film, Kracauer explains, had a considerable success: "it ingratiated itself with a rather broad public composed mainly of intellectuals." While he still praises the "realistic" effort in the everyday quality of the (studio) setting, the film now figures as an allegory for the regressive movement from rebellion to submission. Its wandering protagonist is reduced to a social type, a philistine acting out historically specific-and in retrospect, politically fatal-psychological mechanisms. With this analysis, not only has Kracauer shifted frames, from a metaphysics of modernity to a critique of ideology, but he also disavows his own earlier fascination with the film, his critical identification with the experience of the doubly exiled wanderer.
But not every film that received his stamp of approval did so because it could be construed as an expression of metaphysical malaise or "transcendental homelessness." On the contrary, many reviews written between 1923 and 1926 disclose a discriminating engagement with the actual film practice that unfurled on Frankfurt screens, a remarkable attention to the diversity of genres, modes of representation, and spectatorial effects. To be sure, Kracauer's stance remains normative throughout (there was probably never a time when he was not to some extent normative, whether in the name of a lapsarian philosophy of history or a politics of realism); still, the terms and criteria he puts into play cast a fairly wide net. The result is a canon that seems to be at odds, in part at least, with the "realist" standards of his later writings. Echoing Lukßcs's praise for film's imbrication of strictly nature-bound reality with the "fantastic," Kracauer emphasizes cinematic effects of "unreality" and "improbability," the "miraculous," "marvelous," and "grotesque"; he delights in moments of "kaleidoscopic" vision, "chance," "improvisation," and "mobility." Accordingly, he favors such genres as thrillers and adventure dramas revolving around detectives, impostors, and the circus; animated and trick photography; fairy tales; and slapstick comedy or any form of high-speed physical farce.
What these reviews amply document is that Kracauer considers film's historic chance to truthfully express its time to be as much a matter of aesthetic choice as of structural affinities between cinematic technique and contemporary experience. The point is not just to mirror the world that is, literally, going to pieces but to advance that process. If anything, this demands a mode of representation decidedly antinaturalist. Praising an animated short of Munich scenes, Kracauer writes: "Its improbability, which runs counter to any naturalism, fully corresponds to the essence of film which after all, if it is to achieve its very specificity, has to completely break apart the natural contexts of our lives." Similarly, he commends a fantastic drama about a missing lottery ticket for making happen "what has to happen in film: the continual transformation of the external world, the crazy displacement of its objects [die verrⁿckte Verrⁿckung ihrer Objekte]."
One strategy of displacement and transformation is the "bracketing" of the represented world by means of irony, hyperbole, satire, or caricature-that is, by the supplementary logic of a "distortion of distortion" that we have seen in his analysis of the circus clowns. On the occasion of an adventure drama set in a cosmopolitan, high-tech milieu of generic Anglo-American origins, Kracauer asserts: "Genuine film drama has the task of rendering ironic the phantomlike quality of our life by exaggerating its unreality and thus to point toward true reality." The hyperbolic doubling of modern surface life promotes a demolition and transcendence of that world by way of humor. A "deeper meaning" of this "amusing joke" is that it "reveals the nothingness of a world that lets itself be set in motion over a nothing and provokes laughter over its previously detoxified seriousness."
Kracauer's preference for films that, in his reading, hyperbolize contemporary reality's "unreality" is rooted in the historico-philosophical assumption that modernity could and would ultimately be overcome, that a different life, the "true reality" that was now absent and inaccessible, was still conceivable beyond the present state. The utopian residue in Kracauer's thinking during this period accounts for his early endorsement of the fairy tale film, a genre in which "film has conquered a domain that fully belongs to it." Because of its liberation from the norms of verisimilitude, the fairy tale provides a modality that allows us "to get to a happy ending without lying" (Alexander Kluge), a utopian moment under erasure that, as Kracauer will elaborate a few years later with regard to Chaplin, nonetheless radiates with visions of justice and peace. Much as the substance of the ending matters, Kracauer seems interested in the fairy tale as a mode of all-but-impossible imagining, a way to uphold the longing for a different world in the face of overwhelming facticity. In his enthusiastic review of Murnau's Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924), he defends the film against critics' objections to the tacked-on happy ending-"a fairy tale-like postlude [Nachspiel] which is so unbelievable that you may just believe it." Chance alone, thanks to the "providential intervention of the ironic author," can raise the "last man" (Emil Jannings's demoted hotel porter) to the position of the "first," and his random inheritance enables him to dispense temporary economic justice in the phantom world (Scheinwelt) of the Hotel Atlantic. If anything, by Kracauer's standards, the film's ending is not fantastic enough: "The epilogue would have to have been rendered even more unreal and playful for it to appear as the fairy tale-like anticipation of a different world." In the Caligari book, he still calls the film's unlikely happy ending an "ingenious" conclusion, but interprets it as "a nice farce jeering at the happy ending typical of the American film."
Whatever disjuncture there may be between Kracauer's early preferences for particular styles and genres and his later judgments, his disapproval of certain types of film crystallizes quite early on and remains rather persistent throughout his life. The titles he reviews in the key of ironically amused to caustic critique usually belong to genres such as literary or theatrical adaptations, mythological or historical spectacles, and "society films" (Gesellschaftsfilme). A review of The Merchant of Venice (1923), for instance, criticizes the film in terms of qualities that violate the "spirit of film": "instead of grotesque surface, false profundity of soul; instead of surprise improvisations, carefully prepared scenes." Thus, in the practice of daily reviewing, especially of culturally prestigious productions, he formulates and recalibrates an aesthetics of film that seems to turn on assumptions about medium specificity.
If there is a common denominator to the films and genres Kracauer criticizes, it is their strict adherence to principles of the classical narrative film, which means the stylistic system formulated most clearly and hegemonically in American cinema from the 1910s on but emerging as well, in alternative forms and with delay, in other national cinemas. The classical system is defined, roughly, by principles of thorough causal motivation, mostly centering on the psychology and actions of individual characters, linear and unobtrusive narration, verisimilitude, intelligibility, and compositional unity-principles that ensure the effect of a coherent and closed diegesis, or fictional world of the film, to which the viewer has access as an invisible guest. In contrast to the well-made plots of classical films, Kracauer prefers narratives whose motivation is loose (unsolid) and defies academic logic (Schullogik), narratives that have "neither beginning nor end." He finds this counterlogic at work in the seriality of American slapstick comedy, as a defining characteristic of that genre; by 1925, he frequently extols, in an almost ritualistic gesture, the comic shorts in the surrounding program, as a relief from and antidote to the pretensions of the dramatic feature. But he also praises noncomedic narrative films (including Hollywood features) constructed loosely enough to leave space for relatively independent details-epiphanies, episodes, elements of performance and improvisation. And he increasingly pinpoints conditions and practices of exhibition that either advance or restrict the range of improvisation and chance in the way films are experienced in the theater.
The most remarkable articulation of Kracauer's anticlassical stance can be found in his essay "Calico World," in which he describes a tour through the backlots of the UFA studio in Neubabelsberg. Marveling at the vast array of fragmentary sets and props that defy natural interconnections and proportions (including sets for well-known films like Fritz Lang's Nibelungen and Metropolis and F. W. Murnau's Faust), he highlights the fact that, to produce the effect of a coherent diegetic world in a film, the world is first cut to pieces. "This dismantling of the world's contents is radical; and even if it is undertaken for the sake of illusion, the illusion is by no means insignificant" (MO 281-82). With obvious irony yet also wide-eyed delight, he evokes the mortification and disorganization of the seemingly natural world-the surreal assembly of the "ruins of the universe ... representative samples of all periods, peoples, and styles," inventoried and stored in warehouses (MO 282)-in terms that resonate with his essay "Photography" of the following year. Similarly, if less explicitly, "Calico-World" links the paradoxical relation between fragmentation and diegetic unity to the historical dialectics of nature, arrested in the appearance of the social order as natural. Classical cinema perpetuates this appearance through its adaptation of bourgeois aesthetic principles, such as theatrical illusionism based on the invisible boundary between viewer and the fictional space of the proscenium stage. The director has the task to organize "the visual material-which is as beautifully disorganized as life itself-into the unity that life owes to art" (MO 288; W 6.1:197). By means of continuity editing and intertitles he turns the "huge chaos" into a "little whole: a social drama, a historical event, a woman's fate." Tongue-in-cheek, Kracauer acknowledges that most of the time the desired effect is achieved: "One believes in the fourth wall. Everything guaranteed nature" (MO 288).
Kracauer's interest in forms of cinematic expression that exceed narrative motivation and integration is coupled with a more porous conception of spectatorship. In a review of a film by E. A. Dupont, for instance, Kracauer singles out ephemeral interludes-"little entrefilets"-not only for the digressive glimpses they afford but also for the way their arrangement appeals to the viewer: "The sequencing of shots is exemplary: the alternation of close-ups, optical fragments, transitions, and master shots leads the imagination [Phantasie] up kaleidoscopic mountains." Even as these montage sequences serve to evoke the "desired atmosphere," the notion of propelling the viewer's imagination into kaleidoscopic gyrations is quite distinct from the effects of diegetic absorption, illusionist mastery, or, for that matter, hypothesis-forming attention that have been attributed to classical narrative. It rather suggests a centrifugal movement away from the film-toward a more autonomous agency that Alexander Kluge was to call "the film in the spectator's head," the disavowed source of experience, of the social wealth of fantasies, wishes, daydreams, and associations appropriated by commercial cinema.
At certain moments, Kracauer's enthusiasm for nondramatic optical delights betrays less the disposition of an anticlassical critic than that of a preclassical moviegoer, which Tom Gunning has described as an "aesthetic of astonishment." Until he developed a more critical stance toward the ideology of so-called "nature films" and travelogues (from about 1926 on), Kracauer relished their strange and marvelous sights in a manner harking back to early cinema when scenics and travel films were highly popular genres and landscape views were perceived as attractions in their own right. Thus, he often singled out "nature scenes" and other views of touristic appeal, even in films that he rejected on aesthetic and political grounds (e.g., shots of Venice in The Merchant of Venice).
It is in this vein that we have to read his initial enthusiasm for the so-called mountain films, the genre that made Leni Riefenstahl and Luis Trenker famous and that, in Kracauer's later critique, promoted a mixture of heroic idealism, immaturity, and "antirationalism on which the Nazis could capitalize." As late as 1925, Arnold Fanck's Der Berg des Schicksals (The Mountain of Fate, 1924) moves Kracauer to this enraptured account:
More important than the plot with its beneficial solution are the magnificent nature views [herrliche Naturaufnahmen] which were taken under the most difficult circumstances during months of patient persistence. The rock formations of the Dolomites-Cimone della Pala, Latemar, Rosengarten, whatever their names may be-stretch toward the sky under every conceivable kind of lighting, they are reflected in the lakes and surrounded by agglomerations of clouds: cumulus clouds, giant cloud massifs that are fraying, oceans of clouds that ebb and flow, striped drifts and flocks of cirrus clouds. They rush close faster than in reality, cheated out of their duration by time-lapse photography. They shroud the peaks, encircle them, and briefly desist from their siege: a kaleidoscopic spectacle, always the same and ever new. Rarely has one seen in a film such heavenly scenes; their curious fascination above all derives from the fact that processes which in nature take hours to unfold are here presented in a few minutes. The cloud events concentrate and the distortion of time creates a delightful optical intoxication.
The concluding remark recommending the film to as many viewers as possible-"it shows the impassioned community between human beings and nature from a peculiar angle"-would have been highly unlikely only a few years later. Not only did Kracauer amplify the negative connotations in his concept of nature on philosophical and political grounds (as in the essay "The Mass Ornament"), but he also embarked on impassioned expeditions into urban modernity and came to prefer the artifices of second nature over the increasingly abused mystique of the first-which he discerned, among other things, in the proliferation of vernacular imagery of the Alps (see chapter 2).
The "optical intoxication" or fascination Kracauer pinpoints in his viewing experience of the mountain film has its referent less in the sights of an ostensibly more primary nature than, more generally, in the cinema's technical ability to render the world of "things," a designation at once more opaque and in excess of the qualities that define material objects in quotidian usage. While he still excoriates modern science for promoting a "loss of our relation to things" (as in his obituary on Rudolf Steiner, FZ 18 April 1925), he discovers in film and particular kinds of film practice, a way to recover, transform, and reanimate the world of things, in modes of consciousness not unrelated to dreams and involuntary memories. Film is capable not only of rendering objects in their material thingness and plasticity, bringing them into visibility, but also of giving the presumably dead world of things a form of speech. Reviewing an adaptation of an Andersen fairy tale, Kracauer attributes this effect to the role of movement and mobility-through techniques of framing, staging, lighting, editing-in translating the plot "into a sequence of light and shadows, a rondo of figures in the snow, a silent scurrying and flitting on stairs and along bridge railings, a rhythmic condensation of all visibilities which begin to speak without words."
By foregrounding the material qualities of objects through cinematic techniques, film has the capacity to reveal things in their habitual, subconscious interdependence with human life, to capture in them the traces of social, psychic, erotic relations. Reviewing Jacques Feyder's (lost) film ThΘrΦse Raquin (1928), Kracauer extols the film's representation of the petty-bourgeois Paris apartment, "which is populated by ghosts.... Every piece of furniture is charged with the fates that unfurled here in the past. There is the double bed, the high armchair, the silver dishes-all these things have the significance of witnesses: they are palpably infused with human substance and now they speak, often better than human beings might speak. In hardly any film-except for the Russian films-has the power of dead things been forced to the surface as actively and densely as here." Kracauer describes an aesthetic quality that Benjamin, in his defense of Battleship Potemkin, had referred to as a "conspiratorial relationship between film technique and milieu" (a quality he was soon to elaborate in terms of the concept of the "optical unconscious")-except that in Kracauer's account of ThΘrΦse Raquin the oppressiveness of the petty-bourgeois interior predominates over the liberatory energies emphasized by Benjamin.
More generally, the idea that film may lend special articulation to the world of things is reminiscent of BΘla Balßzs's concept of film as modern physiognomy, in particular his notion that cinematic technique is capable of conveying the "expressive" quality of material objects, landscapes, and faces; likewise, there are important resonances with the writings of Jean Epstein. Indebted like Balßzs to Simmel's philosophy of art, Kracauer assumes that what animates the cinematic representation of things has as much to do with the emotion of the subject as with the moving object. Film's physiognomic capacity offers a mode of perceptual experience that blurs analytic distinctions between subject and object and allows things to appear in their otherness. But while Balßzs, even as a Marxist, adheres to the romantic and idealist undercurrents of Lebensphilosophie, or the philosophy of life, Kracauer, as we shall see, enlists film's physiognomic ability in a materialist philosophy of death.
Toward a Modernist Materialism
That Kracauer's film theory has its motor in a particular relationship to the world of things is one of the many insights in Adorno's ambivalent homage to his old friend and mentor on the latter's seventy-fifth birthday. As shrewd as it is condescending, Adorno's portrait of Kracauer concludes with the observation that the "primacy of the optical" in him was not just, as suggested earlier in the essay, a matter of his architectural training or talent: "Presumably, [it] is not something inborn but rather the result of this relationship to the world of objects." Adorno speculates that Kracauer's special penchant for visuality has its roots in a "fixation on childhood, as a fixation on play," that compensates for the suffering inflicted upon the self by human beings with a "fixation on the benignness of things." This translates, in Adorno's judgment, into a major theoretical and political deficiency: "One looks in vain in the storehouse of Kracauer's intellectual motifs for rebellion against reification." Considering that the concept of reification is a cornerstone of Adorno's own theory of modernity, we can easily imagine how Kracauer's engagement with the world of things seemed tantamount to a critical sellout, a nostalgic yearning for a place beyond critique: "The state of innocence would be the condition of needy objects, shabby, despised objects alienated from their purposes."
What eludes Adorno is that Kracauer's allegedly uncritical immersion into the world of things, his lack of protest or indignation vis-α-vis reification, is perhaps responsible for the enormous historiographic and cognitive wealth his writings yield, his careful registering of modernity's multifaceted and contradictory realities. And what Adorno elides is the extent to which this immersion also allowed Kracauer to revise and reconfigure the terms of critical subjectivity. For in his forays into the fallen world, Kracauer had no problem seeing himself as both belonging to this world and advancing its analysis and transformation.
Kracauer's truck with the material world allowed him to experience-and to discern theoretically-a different constitution of the subject that manifested itself in that new relationship with things, in particular things modern. The subject that enters the movie theater with/as Kracauer is clearly not the sovereign, unitary, critically distanced subject of transcendental philosophy or the connoisseur of haut-bourgeois culture; it is, to vary on Adorno's characterization of Kracauer, a subject "without skin," and it knows its boundaries to be precarious. What is more, this subject seems to seek out situations in which its very sense of identity, stability, and control is threatened by the otherness of the material world, betraying a masochistic sensibility of the kind that we find stylized in Kracauer's novel Ginster and that resurfaces in the early drafts of Theory of Film.
In his beautiful essay "Boredom" (FZ 16 Nov. 1924), for instance, Kracauer compares the effect of listening to the radio, with its boundless imperialism of bringing the whole world into our living room, to "one of those dreams provoked by an empty stomach: a tiny ball rolls toward you from very far away, expands into a close-up, and finally crashes over you; you can neither stop it nor escape, but lie there chained, a helpless little doll" (MO 333; S 5.1:280). A similar, somewhat less threatening though just as visceral encounter appears earlier in the essay when the impersonal subject of boredom takes a stroll through the nightly streets, filled "with a feeling of unfulfillment from which a fullness might sprout." While his "body takes root in the asphalt," his spirit "roams ceaselessly out of the night and into the night" with the luminous advertising and returns only to pull him into a movie theater-where it allows itself to be polymorphously projected: "As a fake Chinaman it squats in an opium den, turns into a well-trained dog that performs ludicrously clever tricks to please a film diva, gathers up into a storm amid towering mountain peaks, and turns into both a circus artist and a lion at the same time. How could it resist these metamorphoses? ... One forgets oneself gawking, and the huge dark hole is animated with the illusion of a life that belongs to no one and consumes everyone" (MO 332, S 5.1:279).
Kracauer does not simply fall back on the nostalgic complaint that film destroys the sovereign subject by displacing a presumably intact, well-grounded, autonomous spirit with an invasion of alien, heteronomous images (as in Georges Duhamel's polemic quoted by Benjamin: "I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images"). Rather, despite his ambivalence over the sense of loss and emptiness that comes with the cinema illusion, Kracauer does not disavow the pleasure in the sensory expansion it affords, along with the theoretical insights it might yield. For the passage quoted describes a form of involuntary mimetic identification operative in film viewing, a phenomenon theorized in contemporary biomechanical discourse as Carpenter's Effect (referring to the ideomotoric phenomenon that muscular contractions of a person in motion are unconsciously imitated by another person observing the former). What is more, it also suggests that, inasmuch as the moving objects on screen seem to metamorphose into something other than they appeared, such psychophysiological mimesis affords the viewing subject the sensation of participating in this transformation, evoking the possibility-both threatening and liberating-of liquefying fixed structures of social, critical-intellectual, gendered identity.
The subject of experience in Kracauer's texts cannot be said entirely to dissolve into a "subjectless" subjectivity akin to what Martin Jay discerns in Benjamin's writing as a prose equivalent of a modernist style indirect libre. On the contrary, Kracauer needs the distinctions between personal pronouns for a particular rhetorical strategy-a shifting of perspectives from a third-person, impersonal distance to a more personal voice, whether first-person plural or second-person singular (the latter, as in the above example of the radio, used to evoke a sense of imminent violation). This rhetorical strategy more often than not signals a shift in the critic's attitude toward the phenomenon or mode of behavior described, a revaluation of an earlier negative stance.
The shift in pronouns is particularly salient when it refers to forms of cultural consumption that were previously criticized from what appeared as an external, intellectually superior position. In his essay "Travel and Dance" (FZ 15 March 1925), for instance, Kracauer reads the rise of tourism and modern forms of dancing ("and other outgrowths of rational fantasy" like radio and "telephotography") as symptoms of mechanization and rationalization, of "a depraved omnipresence in all dimensions that are calculable" (MO 70; S 5.1:293). Accordingly, these leisure activities are symptomatic of the "double existence" imposed on human beings cut off from the spiritual sphere. And yet, not only is this "Ersatz" real, even if compromised, but it also offers "a liberation from earthly weight [Erdenschwere], the possibility of an aesthetic behavior vis--vis organized toil" (MO 72; S 5.1:294). The turn from pessimistic critique to critical redemption culminates in an emphatic switch of personal pronouns:
We are like children when we travel; we playfully delight in a new velocity, the relaxed roaming and roving, the synoptic viewing of geographical complexes that previously could not be seen at once. We have fallen for the ability to have all these spaces at our disposal; we are like conquistadors who have not yet had a quiet moment to reflect on the meaning of their acquisition. Likewise, when we dance, we mark a time that did not exist before, a time prepared for us by a thousand inventions whose substance we cannot gauge, perhaps because for now their unfamiliar scale appears to us as their substance. Technology has taken us by surprise, and the regions that it has opened up are glaringly empty. (MO 49; S 5.1:296)
This almost technophile vision strikingly anticipates Benjamin's notion of a "room-for-play" (Spiel-Raum) that has opened up with film, which allows human beings to appropriate technology in the mode of play, that is, in a sensory-somatic and nondestructive form. What is more, by acknowledging presumably stereotypical and alienated behavior as part of his own experience and imagination, Kracauer refused to let his intellectual privilege deceive him as to his actual social status-which, unlike Adorno's, was all too close to that of the salaried masses whose habits of leisure he observed. This awareness, among other things, enabled him to recognize in these habits the emergence of a new type of public sphere.
Before shifting the focus to the social and political parameters of Weimar modernity, I wish to return to Kracauer's attitude toward the world of things and its implications for his early film theory. How does film turn from a medium of the fallen world into a catalyst for the fascination with that very world of things, into a matrix for new forms of sensory experience, into an object of supreme aesthetic, cognitive, and political significance? As I indicated earlier, it is important that Kracauer's "materialist turn" preceded his encounter with Marxist theory in 1925-26; that his theoretical interest in film and mass culture took shape already within the framework of his early philosophy of history. This is to say that Kracauer's distinct brand of materialism derives from sources other than the Marxist tradition, even if he subsequently, and rather selectively, absorbed elements of that tradition. Adorno rightly sensed that his friend's concept of material objects was not dominated by a Marxist theory of reification, as it had been formulated at the time most influentially by Lukßcs in History and Class Consciousness (1923), a book that Kracauer took issue with on several counts. If Lukßcs grounds his concept of reification in Marx's theory of the commodity, in particular the opposition of use value and exchange value, Kracauer's approach to reification takes a more observational and experiential form. Predicated on the structure of the commodity, Lukßcs's argument depends on positing an unmediated, originary substantiality of things (which is abstracted and alienated by the commodity form), as it does on the project of restoring labor as the only true source of value in the empowerment of the proletariat qua subject of history. Kracauer would have resented such language as nostalgic. Centering on production and reified labor, Lukßcs's account of the loss of the "character of things as things" (92) and the new "thingness" (Dinghaftigkeit) that takes its place and informs the totality of social life and consciousness remains philosophically abstract. By contrast, Kracauer's descriptions of practices of consumption emerging in contemporary urban society evoke a concrete, sensorily experienced materiality that complicates Marxist concepts of commodity fetishism and reification.
What I wish to argue here is that Kracauer's modernist materialism was at least as much shaped, in its basic assumptions, motifs, and obsessions, by the traditions of Jewish messianism and gnosticism, however secular the implications and the issues that were at stake. Like other Critical Theorists whose intellectual socialization took place during World War I, in particular Bloch, Benjamin, Erich Fromm, and Leo L÷wenthal, Kracauer has to be read in the context of modern, secular Jewish messianism. As Anson Rabinbach has shown with regard to Bloch and Benjamin, this tradition is impossible to describe in any pure form, as it persisted in a variety of radical sensibilities, hermeneutical motifs, and combinations with other discourses (psychoanalysis, Marxism, libertarian anarchism, Zionism, etc.).
Kracauer's relation to Jewish messianism is a complex issue. Raised in a practicing Jewish environment and briefly active in the Freies Jⁿdisches Lehrhaus (a Frankfurt circle of learning and debate surrounding Rabbi Nehemiah Nobel and crucially shaped by its first director, Franz Rosenzweig), Kracauer began to voice vehement criticism of the ongoing revival of messianic thought, especially in its combination with a socialist (in Kracauer's reading, protestant) mystique of community. In his programmatic essay of 1922, "Those Who Wait" ("Die Wartenden"), for instance, he castigates the "messianic Sturm und Drang types of the communist persuasion," a label most likely referring to Bloch, whose book on Thomas Mⁿnzer he had savaged in a review earlier that year. Like other contemporary movements of religious renewal, the Jewish messianists, in Kracauer's view, superimposed a transcendental reality upon an immanent historical process and thus, by abstracting from the real world "filled with corporeal things and people," ended up just as ignorant of the divine that they presumed to know so well (MO 140; S 5.1:169). Kracauer's politics of "waiting," of a "hesitant openness" (MO 138), was directed against the absolutism with which messianic thinkers leaped over the imperfect yet existing reality from the perspective of a future break; by contrast, he turned his gaze toward the changing realm of the here and now, the mundane zone of the ordinary and ephemeral. "Access to truth is now in the profane," he proclaimed at the end of his 1926 polemical review of Martin Buber and Rosenzweig's translation of the Bible (MO 201; S 5.1:365).
Nonetheless, Kracauer participated in the discourse of secular Jewish messianism in significant ways. Much as he abhorred notions of an imminent and immanent instantiation of the Messiah, an "aura of eschatological longing" emanates, as Michael Schr÷ter observes, from the "luminous metaphors" of his texts. And even when he updates his metaphysical language with concepts indebted to the Enlightenment (the French materialist lineage rather than the German idealist one) and to early Marx, a distinctly apocalyptic undercurrent continues to characterize his observations of contemporary life-a perception of modernity as a traumatic upheaval heading toward catastrophe. Like Benjamin at this point, Kracauer rejects all promises of immanent and gradual change and defers any envisioning of a different order to history's inevitable cataclysmic break. Accordingly, the only attitude available to the Jewish intellectual is a hesitant form of waiting, as opposed to more fervent anticipation or even active intervention. As he writes to L÷wenthal in 1924: "We must remain hidden, quietistic, inactive, a thorn in the side of others, preferring to drive them (with us) to despair rather than give them hope." This "revolutionary negativity," which Kracauer still endorsed as late as 1929, is theologically grounded in the axiom to refrain from direct assertions and to preserve empty spaces (HohlrΣume) for the "unsaid"-and as yet unsayable-positive.
In his 1925 essay "The Artist in This Time" (published in the first issue of the Jewish journal Der Morgen), Kracauer unfolds the implications of this stance with recourse, as already mentioned, to Grune's film Die Stra▀e. Reflecting on the dilemma of the modern artist, Kracauer extrapolates from Die Stra▀e an intellectual attitude that spells out the politics of his own earlier implicit identification with the film. He argues that the film's grim view is shared by "people who seriously engage with reality and hence are doubly and profoundly affected by the power of the forces that today deform the world into a city street." Knowing "that only the taking along and transforming [Mitnahme und Verwandlung] of the unreal life will lead to reality and that disintegrated ideals cannot be patched up or hypocritically asserted," these contemporaries "strictly resist the romantic attempt to gloss over the realities of technology and economy and to inhibit the unfolding of the civilizing process with means that are not up to its magnitude." Instead, Kracauer continues, "they will do anything in their power to make the world disclose its phantom character, to let nothingness reign as far as it may. They are nihilists for the sake of the potential positive and hasten toward the end of despair lest a 'yes' might halfway impede that process ineffectively.... [T]hey hyperbolize the negation, stretch the void, and reject soul where it is only make-up. They believe that America will disappear only when it completely discovers itself." Obviously, Kracauer leans toward the party of these "nihilists," even as he urges them not to abandon hope for the revelation of the absent divine (which would amount to perpetuating the abyss between "film image and prophecy").
The often-cited last sentence of the passage expresses the eschatologically tinged hope that disenchanted modernity, troped in the Weimar period's popular catchword Amerika, can and will be transcended; yet, at the same time, it mandates the materialist project of modernity's complete and thorough discovery. This project is driven by a no-less-messianic motif, that of redemption-the idea that the intellectual's task is to furnish an archive for the possibility, even if itself unrepresentable, of a utopian restoration of all things past and present as implied in the cabbalist concept of tikkun. The writer therefore seeks to register things as yet unnamed, as Kracauer sums up his lifelong efforts in his posthumously published book History: The Last Things Before the Last: "They all have served, and continue to serve, a single purpose: the rehabilitation of objectives and modes of being which still lack a name and hence are overlooked or misjudged." However, the language in which the earlier Kracauer imagined this work of redemption-as well as the historical process that makes this work both necessary and possible-has a materialist slant to it that more specifically recalls the tradition of Jewish gnosticism.
While he found Jewish gnosticism just as suspect as other variants of religious mysticism, Kracauer seems temperamentally closer to the cool stoicism of secular or literary gnostics such as Kafka than to any messianic fervor. Like Weber, Simmel, Lukßcs, and other critics of modernity, Kracauer evokes the fallen world through images of petrification and mortification, of detritus, fragments, empty shells, larvae, and masks. In the gnostic tradition, such imagery marks the negative traces of the withdrawal of God, the divine as radical absence. Yet, as material evidence of the negativity of history, these traces have to be preserved and interpreted so that, when the eventual break occurs, the world can be redeemed in as complete a shape as possible, and the sparks of creation encrusted in even the most fallen matter can be released. Hence Kracauer defines the intellectual's task as one of collecting, registering, and archiving: "The new shape [das Gestaltete] cannot be lived unless the disintegrated particles are gathered and carried along." However, this ambulant archiving entails a "transformation." In a letter to Bloch, Kracauer pinpoints as the great motif of "this kind of philosophy of history ... the postulate that nothing must ever be forgotten and nothing that is un-forgotten must remain unchanged."
If modern life is envisioned in gnostic terms, it does not seem too far-fetched to discover in film and photography the contemporary media, art forms, and archives singularly suited to express such a vision-given the material, physiochemical connection of photographic images and photographically based film with the world represented (an issue to which we will return); the mortification and fragmentation involved in photographic exposure and framing; the transformation and reconfiguration of the material through cinematic editing. What is more, Kracauer's gnostic and messianic sensibility not only attracted him to the photographic media but, more generally, made him develop a specific form of modernist materialism that puts him in the vicinity of the contemporary avant-garde, including constructivism, dadaism, and surrealism, as well as atonal music. At the very least, his historico-theological framing of modernity provided him with an existential stance or ethos against efforts to restore bourgeois German culture notwithstanding the shattering defeat of the nation in a war conducted in the name of that very culture, efforts he discerned in the circle around Stefan George, the academic Goethe cult (Friedrich Gundolf), and the continuing glorification of the classics on the traditional stage. Paradoxically, Kracauer's grounding in an ancient theological tradition not only made him more receptive to the ongoing upheavals in the material world but also authorized a radical critique of values and positions that he considered perilously out of touch with contemporary social, aesthetic, and political realities.
This critical ethos can be seen in at least three distinct yet related motifs. One is the programmatic direction of Kracauer's gaze toward material phenomena and aspects of daily life marginalized by dominant culture, whether they lack (moral, aesthetic) value in the eyes of the educated bourgeoisie (like cinema), are assigned to oblivion by the presentism of ever-changing fashion (especially in architecture and design), or elude public awareness (as do unemployment offices, homeless shelters, the organization of urban traffic, etc.). Kracauer's penchant for the detritus of history, both literally and metaphorically, for the ephemeral and quotidian, led Benjamin to characterize him as a (Baudelairean) chiffonnier, a "ragpicker." But he could just as well have compared him to contemporary artists who deliberately chose ordinary, worthless, or devalued materials for their collages (such as Hannah H÷ch, Marianne Brandt, or Kurt Schwitters) or to the dadaist readymades and happenings that polemically exposed the contradictions of aesthetic hierarchies of value. Likewise, Kracauer would have gone part of the way with the surrealists (though avoiding their more mystical flights), on their excursions to flea markets and through the arcades, finding there the banished props of the body, pornographic specialities, odd souvenirs, and "homeless images" reminding the passerby of long-forgotten impulses and desires.
In an article that reads almost like an exercise in "profane illumination," a key concept in Benjamin's 1929 essay on surrealism, Kracauer meditates on the "gentle glow" that emanates from the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at night. The glow is actually a reflection, effecting a spatial interpenetration of the traditional faτade with the picture palaces on the Berlin Kurfⁿrstendamm, which, with their pillars of light, glaring posters, and mirror-glass showcases, "turn night into day in order to banish the horror of the night from the working-day of their patrons" (S 5.2:184). Playing with literal and metaphoric senses of light, Kracauer switches with unusual pathos to an allegorical reading ("a flaming protest against the darkness of our existence ... which flows, as if by itself, into the desperate embrace of the pleasure business") and ends with a meditation on the "mild radiance" unintentionally bestowed by "this sinister glow." "What the spectacle of light leaves over and what business has cast out is preserved by bleak walls. The outside of the church, which is not [used as] a church, becomes the refuge of what has been spilled and forgotten and shines as beautifully as if it were the Holy of Holies. Secret tears thus find their place of memory [GedΣchtnisort]. Not in the hidden interior-in the middle of the street the neglected and inconspicuous is gathered and transformed until it begins to radiate, a comfort to everyone" (S 5.2:185).
A waste product of the relentless glare of modern entertainment and advertisement, the glowing exterior of an unused site of interiority becomes a surface for remembrance (Kracauer puns on the name of the church)-a public screen or, as the title suggests, a picture postcard inviting us to reflect upon what is being eclipsed, yet also unintentionally illuminated, by modernity's spotlights: areas as yet undefined and unspectacular. To take this Denkbild or thought-image a step further, while deriving its light from the commercial theaters, the configuration of a reflexive surface in the dark, contingent sensory effects and mnemonic impulses, anonymous emotion in a public space-this configuration could well be read as Kracauer's minimalist utopia of Lichtspiel, or light-play, the German word for cinema.
A second, related motif in Kracauer's critical arsenal is his own turn to the surface (OberflΣche) and his transvaluation of that term from a locus of sheer negativity, an atomized world of mere appearances, to a site in which contemporary reality manifests itself in an iridescent multiplicity of phenomena. Although the very trope of the surface still implies the vertical topography of idealist philosophy-essence and appearance, the hierarchy of truth and empirical reality-in Kracauer's critical practice the OberflΣche increasingly loses its prefix and becomes a FlΣche that offers a DenkflΣche, an epistemological plane for tracing new configurations (such as the one he famously dubbed the "mass ornament") and for reading surfaces as indices of the possible directions the historical process might take. This is not just a matter of reversing particular idealist hierarchies (as one might infer from his focus on the inconspicuous, degraded, ephemeral). Rather, Kracauer flattens any vertical and deep-rooted hierarchies into lateral relations, often by juxtaposing unequal elements on a two-dimensional plane.
In "Analysis of a City Map" (1926), he confronts the humanly teeming yet lackluster, marginalized life of the Faubourgs with the splendor of the Paris boulevards. He does not simply invert the hierarchy of center and periphery, for example, by nostalgically idealizing the Faubourgs as the domain of use value and neighborhood community. Rather, he puts into question the very opposition of use value and exchange value with an account of the new sites of consumption that, while critical, concludes, "Nevertheless, the streets that lead to the center must be traveled, for its emptiness today is real" (MO 44). By interrelating phenomena on a lateral force field, he draws attention to competing orders of significance and to the mechanisms that regulate public visibility and invisibility. The meaning of the phenomena themselves is no longer given or is as yet undefined; they are symptoms that need to be observed, described, deciphered, and interpreted.
Kracauer's turn to the surface is more than a methodological device; it marks a political move that derives its ethos from his historico-theological stance. Against the conservative denigration of the new entertainment and leisure culture, he defends the "modern urban surface culture" that mushroomed in Berlin between 1924 and 1929 in picture palaces and shopwindow displays. In his signal essay "Cult of Distraction" (FZ 4 March 1926) he valorizes the superficial glamour, the "pure externality" that draws the urban masses into the picture palaces, for no other purpose than Zerstreuung, or distraction-all pejorative terms in the dictionary of the educated bourgeoisie (probably the majority of the readers of the Frankfurter Zeitung, where the article was first published). He does not even like the new picture palaces (the article entails a critique of the gentrification of exhibition practices); but he insists on the cultural significance of these sites because they make visible to society and to the patrons themselves a new public and a new form of mass subjectivity. The polemical edge is directed against all and any attempts to resurrect forms of subjectivity, interiority, and individuality that have been rendered anachronistic by the traumatic impact of war and inflation.
It is not externality that poses a threat to truth. Truth is threatened only by the naive affirmation of cultural values that have become unreal and by the careless misuse of concepts such as personality, inwardness, tragedy, and so on-terms that in themselves certainly refer to lofty ideas but that have lost much of their scope along with their supporting foundations, due to social changes.... In a profound sense, Berlin audiences act truthfully when increasingly they shun these art events (which, for good reason, remain caught in mere pretension), preferring instead the surface glamour of the stars, films, revues, and production values. (MO 326; W 6.1:210-11)
Similar to artistic avant-garde movements dating back to the war, Kracauer's attack is aimed at the hypocrisy of bourgeois-idealist culture, specifically efforts to restore "the spirit" against the onslaught of mechanization, which was often used as a synonym for standardization, mass production, and mass consumption. Even if technology was not Kracauer's primary theoretical focus (as it was for Benjamin), he would never have conceived of technically produced, mediated, and disseminated culture as a contradiction in terms, let alone a social disgrace or moral abomination.
Finally, a third motif characteristic of Kracauer's historico-theological stance returns us to Adorno's complaint about his friend's insufficient rebellion against reification, pointing up a different deployment of gnostic imagery in their respective theorizing of modernity. Adorno, reared on the same sociological discourse as Kracauer, was wont to evoke the effects of reification in images of mortification, rigidification, and death by freezing (KΣltetod), just as he often invoked Ferdinand Kⁿrnberger's dictum "Das Leben lebt nicht" (life does not live) as the fundamental experience of his generation. Kracauer, not quite as threatened by the contamination with the inanimate as his younger friend, visualized the process of petrification and withdrawal of meaning in modern society as a process of fragmentation and disintegration that simultaneously entailed a mobilization of fixed arrangements and conditions. Once he had moved beyond an account of modernity as the penultimate stop in a history of decline, Kracauer could see the fracturing of all familiar, "natural" relations and shapes, the "perforation" of traditional forms of living, increasingly as an opportunity-a chance to point up the "provisional status of all given configurations," to highlight their transitory and transitional character. Focusing on sites of flux and improvisation, the historian of the present will watch the fragments reconfigure themselves, perhaps into something more livable.
Photography and the Vabanque Game of History
The paradoxical relation between mortification and transformation emerges most strikingly in Kracauer's major essay "Photography" (FZ, 28 Oct. 1927) and may help us to understand the centrality of the photographic to his theory of film. This text entwines several strands of his early film theory: lapsarian critique of modernity; phenomenological description of quotidian and ephemeral phenomena impelled by a gnostic-modernist materialism; avant-garde iconoclasm; and critique of ideology that resonates with the more immanent political approach his writings take from the mid-1920s on. It is also exemplary of the way in which he traces alternative perspectives and possibilities within the phenomena under critique, leaving room for an ambivalence grounded in the material, for stereoscopic and conflicted views. Finally, the essay commands attention as a mode of theoretical writing that enacts its argument as much in its stylistic procedures as in conceptual terms.
A common reading of Kracauer's essay "Photography" takes its most important insight to be the opposition between the photographic image and the memory image, including the claim that the proliferation of technologically produced images threatens the very possibility and truth character of images preserved by memory. Against such a reading, which effectively assimilates Kracauer to a genealogy of media pessimism (from Baudelaire and Proust through Virilio and Baudrillard), I contend that the essay's radical insights lie elsewhere. For Kracauer does not simply puncture the ideologically available assumption that the meaning of photographs is given in their analog, iconic relation to the object depicted; rather, he examines how meanings are constituted at the pragmatic level, in the usage and circulation of photographic images in both domestic and public media practices. Another, equally far-reaching concern of the essay is with the aging and afterlife of photographs, the transformation they undergo over time, especially once they have lost their original reference and presence effect. In the precarious temporality and historicity of photography, its alienation from human intention and control, Kracauer traces a countervailing potential, neither positivistic nor nostalgic, that he believes can be actualized in the medium of film. It is this potential that places photography at the crossroads of modernity: "The turn to photography is the go-for-broke game [Vabanque-Spiel] of history" (MO 61; S 5.2:96).
The question of historicity no less concerns the aging and afterlife of the text itself. It takes the by now ritual form of asking whether and how an essay that emphatically seeks to theorize photography in relation to the historical moment-Weimar democracy between economic stabilization and crisis, the larger trajectory of technological capitalist modernity-can speak to a present in which the photographic paradigm, to the extent that it props its claims to authenticity and accuracy on an indexical (physical or existential) relation with the object depicted (the registration of reflected light on a photochemical surface at a particular point in space and time), seems to have been radically displaced and reframed by digital modes of imaging. What's more, since the digital is not just another, more current medium, it has challenged traditional concepts of mediality and has made the idea of medium specificity, commonly taken to be central to classical film theory, appear as a high-modernist preoccupation. As I hope to show, Kracauer's photography essay, much as it responds to a particular stage of media culture, points up issues of technological image production and usage, proliferation and storage that persist, in different forms and infinitely vaster dimensions, in the ostensibly postphotographic age; it likewise complicates key concepts of this debate-such as indexicality-by unfolding them as historically contingent and mutable. Finally, with a view to film theory and, not least, Kracauer's own Theory of Film, the photography essay projects a film aesthetics that compels us to rethink the question of cinematic realism.
Like Benjamin's artwork essay, which it prefigures in important ways, Kracauer's photography essay is organized in discrete sections that frame the object of investigation in the manner of different camera positions or separate takes. The protagonists of the resulting theory film, so to speak, are two photographs that the writer introduces by way of juxtaposition: the contemporary image of a film star (caption: "our demonic diva") on the cover of an illustrated journal and the portrait, more than six decades old, of an unspecified grandmother, possibly Kracauer's own, cast in the private setting of family viewing. Both images show women twenty-four years old; both images become the respective focus of later sections; and both metamorphose in the course of the essay-until they are united, in the eighth and last section, in the surreal panorama of modernity's "general inventory" or "main archive" (Hauptarchiv).
The image of the film star, posing in front of the Hotel Excelsior on the Lido, embodies the present moment ("time: the present")-not just a fashionable cosmopolitan modernity but also a culture of presence, performance, perfection: "The bangs, the seductive tilt of the head, and the twelve eyelashes right and left-all these details, diligently enumerated by the camera, are in their proper place, a flawless appearance" (MO 47). Kracauer emphasizes the photograph's double status as a material object that can be perceived in its sensory texture and a symbolic representation whose referent is elsewhere. Looking through a magnifying glass, one would see "the grain, the millions of dots that constitute the diva, the waves, and the hotel" (MO 47); at the same time, the image is an "optical sign" (MO 54) whose function it is to evoke the star as a unique, corporeal being. However, the referent that validates the sign in the eyes of the general public is not the star in person but her appearance in another medium: "Everyone recognizes her with delight, since everyone has already seen the original on the screen" (MO 47). Resuming the duodecimal figure of the well-groomed eyelashes, Kracauer goes on to assert the paradoxical effect of the star's mass-mediated individuality with recourse to yet another entertainment intertext, that of the revue: "It is such a good likeness that she cannot be confused with anyone else, even if she is perhaps only one-twelfth of a dozen Tiller girls." And he concludes the presentation of the star photograph with a deadpan refrain of the beginning of the paragraph: "Dreamily she stands in front of the Hotel Excelsior, which basks in her fame-a being of flesh and blood, our demonic diva, twenty-four years old, on the Lido. The date is September" (MO 47).
As he mounts his case against the ideology of presence and personality connoted by the mass-addressed image, Kracauer's writing already punctures that effect, even before the passage of time will have disintegrated the photograph and relegated it to history's vast central archive. The microscopic look that reveals "the millions of dots that constitute the diva, the waves, and the hotel" evokes the materialist, egalitarian pathos of Kracauer's frequent observation that in film, the actor is nothing but "a thing among things." The abstraction of the image into minimal units-halftone dots, a precursor to pixels-defamiliarizes the resemblance with a particular living being; it also deflates the authority of the indexical bond (in the narrow sense of referring to the photochemical process of inscription) by foregrounding the image's mediation, if not de/composition, at the level of raster reproduction. The image's claim to depicting a singular referent is further undercut by the tongue-in-cheek remark that attributes its recognizability to the slippage between the image of the actual person and her representation in another medium-film-just as the suggestion that the star might be "only one-twelfth of a dozen Tiller girls" corrodes the aura of her uniqueness. Yet, lest the object of critique be prematurely demolished, Kracauer restores her image by closing the paragraph with a refrain of the opening lines.
The photograph of the diva functions as a synecdoche for the emerging mass culture of industrial-capitalist image production that Kracauer saw flourishing in the illustrated journals and weekly newsreels. By 1927, the term illustrated magazine was actually becoming something of a misnomer: the main purpose of the photograph, according to publisher Hermann Ullstein, was "no longer to illustrate a written text but to allow events to be seen directly in pictures, to render the world comprehensible through the photograph." In Kracauer's analysis, such ideological investment in photographic representation corresponds to the false concreteness by which the individual image mimics the logic of the commodity form; it goes hand in hand with the massive increase-not simply mass reproduction-of photographic images on an imperial, global scale. "The aim of the illustrated magazines is the complete reproduction of the world accessible to the photographic apparatus" (MO 57-58).
Kracauer sees in the relentless "blizzard" of photographic images a form of social blinding and amnesia, a regime of knowledge production that makes for a structural "indifference" toward the meanings and history of the things depicted. "Never before has an age known so much about itself, if knowing means having an image of objects that resembles them in a photographic sense.... Never before has an age known so little about itself. In the hands of the ruling society, the invention of illustrated magazines is one of the most powerful weapons in the strike [Streikmittel] against understanding" (MO 58; S 5.2:93).
Understanding is prevented above all by the contiguous arrangement of the images-"without any gaps"-thereby systematically occluding reflection on things in their relationality (Zusammenhang) and history, which would require the work of consciousness. The illustrated magazines, like the weekly newsreels, advance a social imaginary of complete coverage (anticipating later media genres such as twenty-four-hour cable news and online news services) that affords an illusory sense of omniscience and control. The surface coherence of the layout glosses over the randomness of the arrangement and, with it, the arbitrariness of the social conditions it assumes and perpetuates; the illustrated magazines offer an image of the world that domesticates otherness, disjunctions, and contradictions. But, Kracauer adds, "it does not have to be this way" (MO 58).
Kracauer's critique of these practices should not be mistaken for a lapsarian complaint that the media of technical reproduction are distorting an ostensibly unmediated reality. Rather, "photographability" has become the condition under which social reality constitutes itself: "The world itself has taken on a 'photographic face'; it can be photographed because it strives to be absorbed into the spatial continuum which yields to snapshots" (MO 59). Here he works toward a medium- and institution-specific account of what Heidegger, a decade later, will call the "age of the world picture"-"world picture" understood not as a picture of the world, "but the world conceived and grasped as picture." From this condition, there is no way back, either conceptually or ontologically, to an unmediated state of being that would release us from the obligation to engage contemporary reality precisely where it is most "picture"-driven-which for Kracauer is as much a political as a philosophical and psychotheological concern.
Let me note parenthetically that Kracauer's critique of illustrated magazines was not exactly fashionable at the time. Avant-garde artistic and intellectual circles-for example, the Berlin group assembled around the magazine G: Material fⁿr elementare Gestaltung (1923-26), an important platform of German constructivism-valorized mass-marketed journals such as the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung for their innovative layout, the dynamic integration of photographs, text, and typography. The pedagogic potential of this graphic form inspired not only the layout of G and other avant-garde journals but also Lßszl≤ Moholy-Nagy's famous book Malerei, Fotografie, Film (1925; 1927). And Benjamin, a member of the G group, wrote a defense of the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, "Nichts gegen die 'Illustrirte'" (1925), that praised the journal for its contemporaneity, its "aura of actuality," documentary precision, and conscientious technological reproductions.
If Kracauer remains skeptical toward the illustrated magazines, it is for the same reason that he indicts the vernacular style of New Objectivity in his analysis of the Berlin entertainment malls: "Like the denial of old age, it arises from dread of confronting death" (SM 92). Benjamin, too, comments on the juncture of photography and death, as do later writers such as AndrΘ Bazin, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and Georges Didi-Huberman. For Kracauer, the fact that the world "devours" this image world is a symptom of the fear and denial of death, inextricably linked to German society's refusal to confront the experience of mass death in the lost war. (This refusal is not incompatible with the fascination with disasters, crashes, and catastrophe that Kracauer observes in the media's sensationalist exploitation of violence and death.) "What the photographs by their sheer accumulation attempt to banish is the recollection of death, which is part and parcel of every memory image." Yet the more the world seeks to immortalize itself qua "photographable present," the less it succeeds: "Seemingly ripped from the clutches of death, in reality it has succumbed to it" (MO 59).
The concept of the "memory image" appears to furnish an epistemological and spiritual counterpoint to photography, especially in its mass proliferation. As an immaterial, unstable, and degenerative image, it belongs to a different order of reality and works on a fundamentally different principle of organization. From the perspective of photographic representation, with its claims to accuracy and fullness, memory is fragmentary, discontinuous, affectively distorted and exaggerating; from the perspective of memory, however, "photography appears as a jumble that partly consists of garbage" (MO 51). The memory image relates to those traits of a person that resist being rendered in the spatiotemporal dimensions of photographic representation, and that in fragmentary form may survive after death, as the person's actual or proper "history." In a photograph, by contrast, "a person's history is buried as if under a layer of snow" (MO 51).
The opposition between photography and memory image participates in a broader discourse, associated with Lebensphilosophie, that sought to reconceptualize perception, time, and memory in response to modernity's alleged reduction of experience to spatiotemporal terms. While Kracauer does not mention Bergson by name, the notion of durΘe resonates in the essay's critique of pretensions to chronological and spatial continuity, as manifested, respectively, in historicism and photography. Likewise, he assumes the Proustian distinction between voluntary and involuntary memory, which Benjamin was to mobilize in his work on Baudelaire. Benjamin links the "increasing atrophy of experience" to the fact that devices like photography and film "extend the range of the mΘmoire volontaire." But this expansion comes at a cost: "The perpetual readiness of voluntary, discursive memory, encouraged by the technology of reproduction, reduces the imagination's scope for play [Spielraum]." Similarly, Kracauer warns that, instead of serving as an aid to memory, "the flood of photos sweeps away the dams of memory. The assault of these collections of images is so powerful that it threatens to destroy the potentially existing awareness of crucial traits" (MO 58).
The problem with this kind of argument is that it casts memory and technological reproduction as antithetical, exclusive terms, rather than analyzing their complex interactions. What's more, it assumes an economic logic by which the expansion of the photographic (and, for that matter, phonographic) regime inevitably entails the withering away of human capacities of memory, reflection, and imagination. Given the exponential growth of media technologies, this logic cannot but imply a trajectory of cultural decline. It occludes the possibility that film and photography have also enabled new and qualitatively different types of experience-a possibility in which both Kracauer and Benjamin had a great stake.
I take the opposition of photographic and memory image to be only one element in the rhetorical movement of Kracauer's essay, part of a larger, more dialectical argument that turns on the constellation of photography, historical contingency, and film. As we have seen, the corrosive, allegorical gaze that drains the pretension of life and coherent meaning from contemporary media culture-a sensibility germane to Benjamin's treatise on the baroque Trauerspiel-is a function of critical reading, beginning with the opening section. Yet at least as important is the essay's effort to ascribe this effect to the temporality and historicity of the medium itself, performed by the two photographs as material objects. For much as photography and film were becoming complicit with the social denial of death, Kracauer still discerned in them the unprecedented possibility of confronting the subject with contingency and mortality, and of challenging the natural appearance of the prevailing social order.
Kracauer builds up to this turn from his meditation on the portrait of the grandmother, viewed as part of the family archive by the grandchildren. Because of its age, the temporal gap of more than sixty years that separates the moment of recording from its reception, the image of the grandmother poses the question of photographic referentiality in a different way from that of the diva. With the death of the "ur-image," the connection with the living person may survive for a while by way of oral history but is ultimately loosened, literally defamiliarized, to the point of randomness-"it's any young girl in 1864" (MO 48). Barely remembering the grandmother and the fragmentary stories about her, the children perceive in her photograph only a "mannequin" in an outmoded costume or, rather, a collection of once-fashionable accessories-the chignons, the tightly corseted dress-that have outlived their bearer. What makes the grandchildren giggle and at the same time gives them the creeps, Kracauer suggests, is that the photograph amalgamates these remnants with the incongruous assertion of a living presence. It is this "terrible association" that haunts the beholder like a ghostly apparition and makes him "shudder"; like the early films screened in the "Studio des Ursulines" in Paris, the aged photograph conjures up a disintegrated unity, a reality that is "unredeemed." The configuration of its elements "is so far from necessary that one could just as well imagine a different organization of these elements" (MO 56).
Kracauer relates photography's precarious afterlife to the split-second nature of photographic exposure-that is, he locates the problem precisely in the technologically supported indexical bond traditionally invoked to assert the photograph's accuracy and authority. In the mechanical reduction of time to the moment of its origin, Kracauer observes, the photograph is intrinsically more vulnerable (than, for instance, film) to the subsequent passage of time: "If photography is a function of the flow of time, then its substantive meaning will change depending upon whether it belongs to the domain of the present or to some phase of the past" (MO 54). While the photograph of the diva maintains a tenuous connection, mediated by film, between the corporeal existence of the original and her still-vacillating memory image, the grandmother's photograph affords no such comfort. In the measure that the photograph ages and outlives its referential context, the objects or persons depicted appear to be shrinking or diminishing in significance-in inverse proportion to memory images, which "enlarge themselves into monograms of remembered life." The photograph represents merely the dregs that have "settled from the monogram"; it captures the remnants "that history has discharged" (MO 55). However, in the tension between history and that which history has discarded, photography begins to occupy the intermediary zone that appeals to Kracauer the ragpicker, the intellectual seeking to gather the refuse and debris, the ephemeral, neglected, and marginal, the no longer functional.
Kracauer aligns the temporality of photography with that of fashion and discerns in both a characteristic feature of capitalist modernity-a connection already implicit in the German word for fashion, Mode. Like Benjamin, Kracauer is interested in fashion here primarily for its paradoxical imbrication of novelty and accelerated obsolescence, the moment when both photography and fashion, like all outdated commodities, join the ever-faster-growing garbage pile of modern history. While the very old traditional costume, which has lost all contact with the present, may attain "the beauty of a ruin," the recently outmoded dress, pretending to photographic life, appears merely comical (MO 55).
The grandchildren's giggles are a defense against dread, a shocklike, visceral recognition of their own contingency and mortality, of a history that does not include them. In a rhetorical gesture discussed earlier, Kracauer switches from the third person to the first, assuming the grandchildren's shudder as his own: "This once clung to us like our skin, and this is the way our property clings to us even today. We are contained in nothing and photography assembles fragments around a nothing" (MO 56). Rather than affording a prosthetic extension into a period not lived by consciousness, the photograph irrupts into the beholder's living present in an unsettling way, signaling his own physical transience along with the instability of the social and economic ground of his existence. In its emphasis on discontinuity and estrangement, this account anticipates Kracauer's later discussions, in Theory of Film and his posthumously published History, of a passage from Proust in which the narrator, describing a visit to his grandmother after a long absence, actually equates the sudden, terrifying sight of her as a sick, dejected old woman with a photograph; for Kracauer, this passage marks photography as a "product of complete alienation," epitomized by the view of a stranger unclouded by incessant love and memories, but also the vision of the exile who "has ceased to 'belong'" (T 15; H 83).
Benjamin, too, in his "Little History of Photography" (1931), comments on the haunting quality of early photographs-something that remains in them "that cannot be silenced." Likewise, he attributes this haunting quality to the photograph's association with death, as in his evocation of the portrait of the nineteenth-century photographer Dauthendey and his fiancΘ, who was to commit suicide after the birth of their sixth child. But where Benjamin suggests the mystical possibility of a spark that leaps across the gap between the photograph's time and his own, Kracauer stresses irreversible disjuncture and dissociation into dissimilarity. (It is important to note that he is talking less about the physical, chemically based process of decay than about a disintegration of the depicted material elements.) The photograph of the young grandmother-to-be does not return the gaze across generations. For Kracauer, the chilly breeze of the future that makes the beholder shudder conveys not only intimations of his own mortality but also the liberating sense of the passing of a history that is already dead, depriving the bourgeois social order of its appearance of coherence and continuity, necessity and legitimacy.
More than an existential memento mori, the outdated photograph assumes the status of evidence in the historical process (or "trial," as Benjamin will pun). What up to this point in the essay has remained a private, individual encounter emerges as a public and political possibility toward the end of the essay. It is precisely because of the medium's negativity-its affinity with contingency, opacity to meaning, and tendency toward disintegration-that Kracauer attributes to photography a decisive role in the historical confrontation between human consciousness and nature. Shifting to the historico-philosophical register, he sees photography assigned to that stage of practical and material life at which an at once liberated and alienated consciousness confronts, as its objectified, seemingly autonomous opposite, "the foundation of nature devoid of meaning" (MO 61). In other words, it is the problematic indexicality at the heart of photographic representation that enables it to function as an index in the sense of deixis, an emblem pointing to-and pointing up-a critical juncture of modernity.
As a category inseparable from history, nature refers both to the historically altered physis (including its ostensibly untouched preserves) and to the "second nature" of a society "[secreted by] the capitalist-industrial mode of production"-a social order that "regulates itself according to economic laws of nature" (MO 61). I'd like to stress that in this phase of Kracauer's work his concept of nature, including the bodily and instinctual nature of human beings, has a ferociously pejorative valence, lacking the philosophical solidarity with nature as an object of domination and reification one finds, for instance, in Benjamin and Adorno and, with a different slant, in Kracauer's own Theory of Film. As in the essay on the "mass ornament" (published earlier the same year), nature becomes the allegorical name for any reality that posits itself as given and immutable, a social formation that remains "mute," correlating with a consciousness "unable to see its own material base." "One can certainly imagine a society that has fallen prey to a mute nature which has no meaning however abstract its silence. The contours of such a society emerge in the illustrated journals. Were it to endure, the emancipation of consciousness would result in the eradication of consciousness; the nature that it failed to penetrate would sit down at the very table that consciousness had abandoned" (MO 61).
However, if historically emancipation and reification have gone hand in hand, consciousness is also given an unprecedented opportunity to reoccupy the place at the table with a different agenda: "Less enmeshed in the natural bonds than ever before, it could prove its power in dealing with them." In this alternative, Kracauer pinpoints the significance of the photographic media for the direction of the present, the fate of modernity: "The turn to photography is the go-for-broke game of history."
In the eighth and final section of the essay, Kracauer steps up the rhetorical stakes of this gamble to highlight the historical chance that presents itself with photography, an argument that turns into a case for the photographic foundation of film. In a vast panoramic collage, he evokes the image of a "general inventory" or "main archive" (Hauptarchiv) that assembles the infinite totality of outdated photographs. "For the first time in history, photography brings to light the entire natural cocoon; for the first time, it lends presence to the world of death in its independence from human beings" (MO 62; S 5.2:96). In the dialectics of presence effect and disintegration, the medium-specific negativity of photography comes to define its politically progressive potential, indeed its task "to disclose this previously unexamined foundation of nature" (MO 61-62). In the confrontation with "the unabashedly displayed mechanics of industrial society," photography enables consciousness to view "the reflection [Widerschein] of the reality that has slipped away from it" (MO 62).
Understood as a general warehousing of nature, photography provides an archive that makes visible, in a sensually and bodily experienced way, both the fallout of modernity and the possibility of doing it over, of organizing things differently. This archive, though, is anything but easy to access and navigate; it is rather an an-archive-a heap of broken images-that lends itself to the task precisely because it lacks any obvious and coherent organizational system. It is closer in spirit to dadaist or surrealist montage (or, for that matter, the essay's epigraph from Grimm's Fairy Tales and "Calico-World"):
Photography shows cities in aerial shots, brings crockets [Krabben] and figures from the Gothic cathedrals. All spatial configurations are incorporated into the main archive in unusual overlaps [Uberschneidungen] that distance them from human proximity. Once the grandmother's costume has lost its relationship to the present, it will no longer be funny; it will be peculiar, like a submarine octopus. One day the diva will lose her demonic quality and her bangs will go the same way as the chignons. This is how the elements crumble since they are not held together. The photographic archive assembles in effigy the last elements of a nature alienated from meaning. (MO 62; S 5.2:96-97)
From a future vantage point that shows the present intermingled with everything else that's past, and the human nonhierarchically cohabitating with the nonhuman, even the illustrated magazines lose their market-driven actuality and coverage effect; their images become as random, fragmentary, and ephemeral as the portraits and snapshots in the family album. Kracauer's photographic an-archive evokes Benjamin's image of the backward-flying Angel of History facing the wreckage piled up by a storm from paradise, written at a time when the historical gamble seemed all but lost. Kracauer's vision is not quite as desperate: it still discerns concrete images of disfiguration, assembled in a textual bricolage.
The passage cited reinforces the essay's programmatic subordination of photographic resemblance or iconicity to the idea that photographs do not simply replicate but are themselves part of nature; they are material objects like the commodities they depict in their configuration of and with the human. More than that, Kracauer's text materializes the photographs of the star and the grandmother as "things"-in the emphatic sense of "thingness" theorized by Heidegger. Like Heidegger's famous jug, the two exemplary images take on an amazing plasticity, tactility, and agency; they spawn and participate in public life and disclose their meanings through social usage and cultural practices. Unlike the jug, however, which seems to exist-and endure-in an abstract timeless, if not mythic, space, Kracauer's photo-things are temporal and transient; their very thingness emerges in the dynamics of split-second exposure, commodified presence effect, and archival afterlife. The encounter with aged photographs does not put the beholder in touch with a reality repressed by scientific reason and capitalist appropriation, let alone with nature, but rather with the historical reality of irreducible mediation and alienation.
Kracauer's investment in photographic negativity is fueled by photography's potential to point up the disintegration of traditional and reinvented unities, the arbitrariness of social and cultural arrangements at the level of both the individual image and the protocols of public media. Once the bonds that sustained the memory image are no longer given, the task of artistic and critical practice is "to establish the provisional status of all given configurations." Kracauer finds a model of writing that "demolishes natural reality and displaces the fragments against each other" (MO 62; S 5.2:97) in the works of Franz Kafka, whose novel The Castle he had reviewed enthusiastically a year earlier. If that review reads like a blueprint for Kracauer's early gnostic-modernist theory of film, the photography essay makes this connection explicit. By putting techniques of framing and editing to defamiliarizing effect (associating "parts and segments to create strange figurations"), film has the capacity not only to make evident the "disorder of the detritus reflected in photography" by suspending "every habitual relationship among the elements of nature," but also to "stir up," to mobilize and reconfigure those elements (MO 62-63; S 5.2:97). Combining photographic contingency with cinematic montage, film can "play" with "the pieces of disjointed nature" in a manner "reminiscent of dreams" (MO 63). In other words, similar to the oneiric imbrication of the remains of the most recent and ordinary with the hidden logic of the unconscious, film could animate and reassemble the inert, mortified fragments of photographic nature to suggest the possibility of a different history.
Although film becomes the overt object of Kracauer's reflections only at the end, the whole essay is central to his emerging film theory, if not conceived from this vantage point. In that sense, it provides the foundation for his later effort, in Theory of Film, to ground a "material aesthetics" of the cinema in the photographic basis of film. In that text, the earlier essay remains curiously unmentioned, perhaps relegated to forgetting by the catastrophic defeat in modernity's hitherto most extreme gamble. Nonetheless, as I argue in chapter 9, whatever cinema's potential for "the redemption of physical reality," Kracauer's advocacy of realism in the later book remains tied to a historical understanding of physis and a concept of reality that depends as much on the estranging and metamorphic effects of cinematic representation as on the role of the viewer. As the photography essay makes sufficiently clear, Kracauer's conception of film's relationship with photography is not grounded in any simple or "naive" referential realism. On the contrary, it turns on film's ability to mobilize and play with the reified, unmoored, multiply mediated fragments of the modern physis, a historically transformed world that includes the viewer as materially contingent, embodied subject. The concept of realism at stake is therefore less a referential than an experiential one, predicated on the encounter with that world under radically changed and changing conditions of referentiality.
Kracauer does not posit the relationship between photography and film in evolutionary terms, but seeks to articulate an aesthetic of film in the interstices of the two media. In this intermedial space, film does not "remediate" photography by way of containing it; rather, photography, running alongside and intersecting with film both institutionally and ideologically, provides radical possibilities that film can draw on. To the convergence of film and photography in contemporary capitalist media culture-as prefigured in the cognitive regime that links weekly newsreels and illustrated magazines, and as metonymically present in the photograph of the film star-he opposes an alternative configuration of intermedial relations in which the unstable specificity of one medium works to cite and interrogate the other.
Around the time the photography essay was written, the kind of film it envisioned may not have existed, though there are clearly affinities with experimental films of the period (e.g., RenΘ Clair, Jean Vigo, Dziga Vertov, and Kinugasa Teinsuke, all of whom Kracauer reviewed). By and large, contemporary commercial cinema had no use for the defamiliarizing and disjunctive aesthetics projected in the essay. Kracauer was well aware that, with the stabilization of German film production from 1925 on and mounting political instability toward the end of the decade, critical reviewing required a more direct language than that indebted to photographic negativity or, for that matter, to material expression of Weltzerfall and hyperbolic distortion of distorted conditions. A signal juncture in this regard, preceding the photography essay, was his intervention in the political controversies surrounding the 1926 German release of Battleship Potemkin. Defending Eisenstein's film against the charge of Tendenzkunst (art with a message), Kracauer's decisive review of Potemkin brings together aesthetic criteria developed in his early writings on film-the restriction to physical exteriority appropriate to the medium, an associative fantasy ("filled with indignation, terror, and hope") that guides the sequencing of optical impressions, and a fairy-tale ending-with an enthusiastic endorsement of the "truth" presented by the film, its dealing with a "real" subject such as "the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors" and "the moment of the revolution." He praises the film's engagement with the real not least because it highlights, by contrast, the regressive and escapist bent of capitalist film production that takes on inequality, injustice, poverty, and revolt only to the extent that their representation does not threaten the dominant social order.
The positivization of truth and concretization of the social reality that film can and should confront mark a shift in Kracauer's writing toward a more immanent, politically grounded critique of ideology that takes aim at the films' recycling of outdated bourgeois forms, settings, and values, the gentrification of exhibition practices, and the shaping of a mass-cultural imaginary in collusion with the emerging white-collar class. Increasingly, his critique of these developments tends to imply a betrayal of cinema's anarchic and materialist legacy: its beginnings in the habitat of popular entertainments and dime novels; its capacity to register and advance the disintegration and transformation of the phenomenal world. Kracauer invokes this forgotten potential both as a critical standard for the present and as a promise that the discarded possibilities of film history could yet become decisive for the cinema's future.
In its inscription of the technological media as a historic gamble, the photography essay highlights an important dynamic in Kracauer's early work on film and mass culture, which at once dates it and makes it prescient. For its radicalism still participates in the 1920s' break with the "long nineteenth century," a century prolonged by efforts, enhanced by the capitalist entertainment industry, to restore a cultural faτade that Kracauer, like the avant-garde artists of his time, strongly believed could not be patched up. Moved by a modernist impulse that made him defend the cinema against the educated bourgeoisie, he found in the technological mass media a sensory-perceptual discourse on a par with the experience of modernity, encompassing its traumatic, pathological effects as well as its transformational, emancipatory possibilities. Accordingly, the essay discerned in technologically and mass-based media institutions like the illustrated journals and cinema the emergence of new forms of publicness (different from the traditional liberal public sphere of the newspaper, to whose readers it was addressed) that demanded recognition and critical debate, insisting that these new publics were key to the political future of Weimar modernity.
Beyond its prognostic purchase on the imminent future, the photography essay contains a remarkably acute premonition that the issue was not merely that a discourse equal to the challenges of modernity was lacking-a lack to which film and photography supplied a certain answer-but that these same media generated and circulated an exponentially increased abundance of images, a random multiplicity and an indifferent interchangeability and convergence. It thus anticipates a key feature of contemporary media culture, in a changed socioeconomic and geopolitical landscape, to be sure, and in new, infinitely more powerful technological forms. The point is not just that Kracauer's disintegration of the star photograph into an abstract grid of halftone dots intuits something of the logic of digital procedures. It is at least as important that his rhetorical magnifying glass discovers a similar logic of abstraction and recombination at another level, in the protocols governing the use of photographs in contemporary media practices. What is just as remarkable, however, is that this analysis, if not the driving ethos of Kracauer's early film theory, is fueled by a gnostic-materialist vision of modernity that converts the photographic media's participation in disintegration into new sorts of animation and at once aesthetic and political possibilities of reconfiguration.