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1 READING KAHN AND THE HOMUNCULUS One can only correctly comprehend something from the outside if one knows it on the inside; that is true for machines just as it is for living things. —­WALTER BENJAMIN, “A VISIT TO THE BRASS WORKS,” RADIO BERLIN BROADCAST, JULY 1930 AN IMPRESARIO OF THE MODERN Modernizing aspirations—­ and the means of playing them out—­ didn’t materialize out of thin air. There were entrepreneurs who saw the existing and potential audience for commodities and performances that signified the modern, and who made careers for themselves as impresarios of the modern. They offered modernizing advice, entertainment , experiences, and programs, in modernizing words and images. In their personas and productions, they crafted a lexicon and poetics of the modern. Here it is important to make a distinction: modernists were modernizers , but modernizers were not necessarily modernists. Modernism has a pedigree in art and art history. Early twentieth-­ century modernists were self-­ conscious performers who created modern art and joined movements that opposed academic and/or commercial art, and that in some way challenged bourgeois propriety. They opposed the already constituted era of modernity as insufficiently or oppressively modern, and they offered distinctively critical modernist aesthetics 12 | READING KAHN AND THE HOMUNCULUS (of various sorts) that were connected to larger cultural/political projects. Even if they denounced each other and competed for audiences and authority, their common purpose was to induce modern ways of doing, seeing, thinking, and being in every domain and register according to the particularities of their aesthetic and political programs. For modernists, the new era in its apotheosis should be in some fashion a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total integrated design—­ or more than that, a universal condition.1 The poster “Der Mensch als Industriepalast” is modernist. The five-­ volume Das Leben des Menschen, with its hodgepodge of illustrations in a variety of styles, is not. It modernizes but is only modernist in parts. Fritz Kahn was an impresario of the modern. He sought to make a name for himself as a disseminator of “the magic of modern science”—­ and as a modernizer of the image practices of popular medical and scientific publication.2 More than any other science writer of his time, Kahn was an exponent of the profusely and imaginatively illustrated text, with pictures that made reference to industrial ways of seeing, doing, and living. Kahn’s images asked his readers to collude in their own modernization , to think of themselves as scientific and technological artifacts, with mind/bodies that were a site of production and exchange, full of manufacturing processes. His method, influenced by advertisements and mass-­ market newspapers and magazines, was to bombard the reader with pictures that evoked the experience of living in modernity, that pleasurably modeled and encouraged a kind of modernizing self-­ surveillance. Readers could see themselves (individually and collectively ) and their cities, workplaces, homes, and cars in the images. To view and adopt the image was an easy self-­ affirming and self-­ improving way to be modern. Like many of his readers, Kahn had a diasporic history and compound identity. To the larger public, he was a secular author of popular books on science, medicine, and health. But he was also a Zionist, participated in a Jewish Masonic lodge, and wrote books and articles on Jewish culture and history for a Jewish readership.3 Growing up, his family was in motion, going from Germany (Halle in Anhalt-­ Saxony) to America (Hoboken, New Jersey, then New York City), then back to Germany, staying in Hamburg, Halle (again) and Bonn before settling down in Berlin. As an adult, his itinerary became even more complicated . After the rise of the Nazis, he was forced to flee from his home in FIGURE 1.1. Portrait of Fritz Kahn, Life, 19 April 1943, 23. Photograph by James L. Hussey. READING KAHN AND THE HOMUNCULUS | 13 Berlin, settling first in Palestine, then France. After the Nazi conquest of France, he again had to flee. With the aid of American secret agent Varian Fry and a letter of reference from Albert Einstein, he managed to escape to the United States via Lisbon, settling in the New York metropolitan area, where he continued his work. He returned to Europe in the 1950s and spent the remainder of his years mostly in Denmark and Switzerland. It was a life in binaries and contradictions: traditional and modern, Jewish and German, national and cosmopolitan. KAHN’S READERSHIP That’s a rough accounting of the identity of Kahn...


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