"Wer 'Schau' wünscht, gehe ins Lichtspiel," Max Weber famously remarked, dismissing empiricist phenomenological approaches to sociological questions. "Whoever wants [mere] 'seeing' should go to the movies." 1 Weber, who died just months after Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inaugurated what would come to be known as Weimar Cinema, could not have suspected that this sarcastic advice would prove to be prescient, that cinema would indeed provide a unique and indispensible perspective on social organization. Cinema and Experience, the final work of the noted film scholar Miriam Bratu Hansen, leaves no doubt that anyone who would understand the dislocations and potentials of modern society should indeed go to the movies.
Before her untimely death in 2011, Miriam Hansen was one of the world's leading film historians, thanks largely to her theoretical explorations of silent film spectatorship and her institutional accomplishments at the University of Chicago, where she founded the cinema and media studies department. In her final book, Hansen returns to her intellectual origins in German critical theory and reconstructs the way in which Weimar intellectuals Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno encountered the new medium of film. Hansen's book is arranged chronologically: it contains an initial section on Kracauer's pioneering work on cinema in the early 1920s, which saw film as the "medium of a disintegrating world" (3), and it follows that exposition with a detailed exploration of Walter Benjamin's seminal essay "The Artwork in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility," which Benjamin revised several times in the 1930s. Hansen's third section addresses Adorno's postwar assessment of film aesthetics, which she situates in the contexts of Adorno's concern with modernist art and the culture industry, and her final section returns to Kracauer and his 1960 treatise Theory of Film: The Redemption of Reality. The result is a compelling argument that these theoretical reflections are still relevant to our contemporary experience of mediated social environments.
The conjunction in Hansen's title spans a philosophical abyss. In this book, Hansen is not directly concerned with cinematic traditions of dramatic expression or with the particular films and filmmakers whose relationships and works constitute the history of cinema. Rather, her "materialist phenomenology of the present" (xviii) asks what the appearance of the medium of cinema, with its technical potentials and commercial organization, can teach us about contemporary experience. The book's chronological arrangement carries a historical impetus toward [End Page 403] the present: in Kracauer and Benjamin's pre-Shoah writings, the contours of a utopian alternative appropriation of modern technology are glimpsed in the aesthetic experience of cinema, an alternative that Kracauer associates with a version of America and that Benjamin discerns in a version of Mickey Mouse. The postwar fate of this glimpse is then debated in the latter two sections of the book: Adorno skeptically concedes only the merest possibility of a role for cinema in modernist art, a possibility that Hansen derives largely from Adorno's aesthetic theories of musical composition and construction, and Kracauer defends a comprehensive theory of photographically alienated experience. Thus Hansen's history of critical reflections on cinema identifies the roles that cinema might have played in mass society, the roles that cinema did play, and the fatal divergence between the two as the catastrophe of the twentieth century unfolded.
At the heart of Hansen's interpretation is her longstanding interest in the debate between Benjamin and Adorno, with whom Hansen studied in Frankfurt in the late 1960s. Benjamin's "Artwork" essay, with its famous theses on the decay of the aura and the historical transformation of perception by technologically reproductive media, seemed to Adorno to attribute a revolutionary potential to mass entertainment and to film in particular, a possibility that Adorno saw as naïvely optimistic. In his own work on the culture industry and jazz, Adorno notoriously (and vehemently) described a much more one-sided and stifling relationship between mass entertainment and historical experience. In 1987, Hansen's rich essay "Benjamin...