- Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno by Miriam Bratu Hansen, and: Culture in the Anteroom: The Legacies of Siegfried Kracauer Edited by Gerd Gemünden and Johannes von Moltke
The trail left by responses to the idea of Siegfried Kracauer as a “ragpicker” (Lumpensammler) winds alluringly through both these books. Derived from Walter Benjamin and subsequently applied to his own procedures as well, the image of a ragpicker captures the idea of a search in unlikely places by a figure undeterred by meager prospects. And yet, as always, the more vividly an item of rhetoric catches our imagination, the more cautiously we should approach it as the mediator of information. The more inclined we are to gasp inwardly “How true!” the more we should also murmur to ourselves “How true?” Miriam Bratu Hansen, as one would expect of such a towering and, since her death in 2011, much lamented scholar in this area, develops that designation most adroitly and extensively. Yet her formulation, found in both books, “the intellectual seeking to gather the refuse and debris, the ephemeral, the neglected, the marginal, the no longer functional” (Cinema as Experience 33, Culture in the Anteroom 100) preserves just enough aura of lonely persistence in the ragpicker’s original activity to insulate the figurative reference from more difficult questions about validity of conclusions. Receiving Kracauer, or indeed Benjamin himself, by overlaying their image with this figure of the impoverished man among impoverished things deflects our thought from their actual procedure—namely transmuting impressions of commonplace objects into texts that have been immensely enriched by a philosophy of cultural history and eagerly consumed ever since.
Of course neither the brilliant talent engaged in such a process, nor the potential for failure in the ambition to change the awareness of his readers who consume that work, has an equivalent in the ragpicker’s trade. Hansen’s brief gloss on Benjamin’s term also leaves us trailing behind that list as though we accepted that the marginal and the ephemeral were the same thing, and as though Kracauer as a journalist was drawn to neglected objects. On the contrary, he was drawing attention to things that might well have been neglected by a particular class of other intellectuals, but he did so in a way that secured him a place in the market because, selecting things like films and film stars, or major public works in Berlin, he addressed topics that everybody else was talking about.
One can see the dialectics of attachment strongly at work in both these books. Too much eagerness in presentation can often entail a certain kind of neglect itself. [End Page 528] The actual achievement in a body of work grows harder to discern if the map drawn up to place it eschews the relief provided by flaws and limitations. Something of the protective attitude to Kracauer is conveyed in the title of the conference at which many of the contributions to Culture in the Anteroom were first presented: “Taking Care of Siegfried Kracauer.” That also provided the title of one of the four sections within which the essays appear. Miriam Bratu Hansen’s piece on Kracauer’s theory of photography heads up that section. The total of sixteen contributions do present a wonderful variety and cover the full breadth of Kracauer’s writing. These range from the city vignettes that Andreas Huyssen compares to the prose scintillations in Benjamin’s One-Way Street, to Kracauer’s two novels, to his sociology of the “salaried masses,” his writings for newspapers and magazines—on architecture, media, and on popular entertainment in Weimar Germany—to his books on film in English, and the posthumous book on historiography.
Not all the contributions to Culture in the Anteroom are of equal quality, though the volume includes many...