Since 2003’s Present Pasts, Andreas Huyssen has been counted among the group of humanities scholars whose texts and ideas flourish naturally across the world thanks to the way they diffuse through many different fields of knowledge, from literature to media studies, architecture, and the visual arts. The reason for this adaptability and widespread interest is probably due to the way Huyssen’s essays reflect a shift in German scholarship since the mid-1920s, when modernist thinkers and writers such as Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, and Theodor W. Adorno developed a new approach to understanding culture. Instead of focusing just on specific objects—as science often does—they started to create a kaleidoscopic view grasping multiple objects, including novels, films, architecture, music, and even everyday phenomena such as street signs or tiller girl dances. In doing so, their attitude resembles that of Joseph Knecht, a character from Herman Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game. The game Knecht mastered was connecting different arts with fields of knowledge, such as music and physics, in order to attain a broader understanding of existence. Unlike Hesse’s character, however, who is in search of a transcendental meaning for life, these scholars would dive deeper into the dark waters of the cultural and technological aspects of late capitalist societies. Having read their works, Huyssen, a German scholar who has lived in the US for many years, is somehow affiliated with them. The reason for this resemblance is no coincidence, however, but is rather an intentional movement toward a reinterpretation of high modernity after the waning of postmodernist theories that exploded in the humanities during the early 1980s.
Miniature Metropolis’s subtitle, “Literature in an Age of Photography and Film,” is seemingly a reference to Benjamin’s famous essay [End Page 181] on technical reproduction. Huyssen includes writers, philosophers, and artists such as Charles Baudelaire, Franz Kafka, Benjamin, Adorno, Hannah Höch, and Irmgard Keun, among others. Huyssen does not consider their works in general but rather dissects some works he calls miniatures, a genre of short prose texts on urban life created by Baudelaire in Le Spleen de Paris and practiced by German language writers in the first half of the twentieth century. In his book, Huyssen clearly demonstrates that this is probably a key genre within high modernity for two reasons: first, in their miniatures modernists were searching for a “reverse remediation” for technical media such as film and photography, influenced by these new possibilities of grasping the world (7), and second, due to their agile and protean form, miniatures had a tendency toward interpenetration (Durchdringung, a concept created by Siegfried Giedion that Huyssen often employs) with urban life in the metropolis. Miniatures could describe the city’s movements in its own terms much more than conventional genres such as novels and poems. In other words, Huyssen is arguing that this “minor literature”—a term he uses in accordance with the Deleuzian concept—is a privileged standpoint of life in the metropolis (9).
To accept this challenging idea, we must first understand what is at stake when Huyssen assembles so many different texts, including Benjamin’s philosophical fragments in One Way Street, Musil’s reflections from Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, and Adorno’s microessays from Minima Moralia. What they all have in common, according to Huyssen, is not only their brevity but the way they remediate optical media such as film and photography into a new literary form in order to describe life in the metropolis. Miniatures are like literary silent movies or poetic snapshots composed exclusively of words. This is why Huyssen is right to call it reverse remediation, since Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s concept seems more appropriate to describe how prior media such as the novel can be remediated by later media such as cinema, television, the internet, and so on. Therefore, on one hand, miniatures are produced as a result of the awareness that modern authors like Kafka and Musil had of the impact of optical media on our perception of reality, reconfiguring our relationship with time and space. This awareness is translated (or remediated) into a novel way of writing, and the result is what Huyssen calls a miniature. On the other hand, it is not just optical media but also the metropolis itself (under the effects of Durchdringung) that affects the writer’s sensibility, and their answer to this encounter is this new way of writing (in) the city. In other words, we are no longer talking about mimesis but mimicry.
From Baudelaire to Adorno, modern miniatures are shaped in different ways and respond to diverse purposes. Baudelaire occupies [End Page 182] himself with describing the movement and contradictions of Paris with lively poetic impressions in Spleen de Paris, yet Kafka uses slow motion and freezing techniques that outline and at the same time erase the city’s spaces and space in general, creating the angst effect we admire in his prose. According to Huyssen, on the other hand, Kracauer’s miniature street texts, published mostly in the 1920s in the Frankfurter Zeitung, “give us the physiognomy of urban space as the face of the times” (124). Huyssen broaches the work of Benjamin twice, which sits in the vortex of his book: first in contrast with Kracauer and second with Aragon, whose influence on Berlin Childhood Huyssen attempts to demonstrate. Benjamin’s image of writing as a “compressed fullness . . . receiving each image as if it were that of the folded fan” is central to the understanding of miniatures (144). It also allows us to understand why image is itself a key concept for modern civilization as well for literature. As Huyssen demonstrates, Benjamin’s texts are able to render experience in the modern metropolis into words and words into images. He also manages to attain image specificity, welding the concrete to the abstract.
The chapters on Musil and Adorno are tours de force. In Musil’s miniatures, not only the question of a stereoscopic vision of reality arises but also a new understanding of the relationship between humans and animals, and this places Huyssen’s refined critical theory among recent trends in animal studies. It would be interesting to link this chapter to major texts on the subject, such as Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am, or to recent discussions opened up by speculative realism, such as Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things. The final chapter on Adorno’s Minima Moralia, on the other hand, situates Huyssen’s theory alongside questions of exile and writing in the new megalopolis, such as Los Angeles, redefining his own concept of miniature and challenging the reader to continue his research into contemporary studies. [End Page 183]