restricted access Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film by Andreas Huyssen (review)
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Reviewed by
Andreas Huyssen. Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2015. xiii + 346 pp.

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...