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  • The Critical Realist in Naïve New York. A review of Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings, eds. Johannes von Moltke and Kristy Rawson
  • Jeff Menne (bio)
Von Moltke, Johannes and Kristy Rawson, eds. Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings, Berkeley: U of California P, 2012.

Nothing has marked the maturity of cinema studies as much as its reckoning with Siegfried Kracauer’s writings. The discipline’s nominal adjustment, from “cinema studies” to “cinema and media studies,” signals its expansion; its reckoning with Kracauer, though, marks its increased conceptual and methodological sophistication. This reckoning has largely been carried out in a Germanist strain of media studies, which was first given focus in a 1991 special issue of New German Critique and would then include the efforts of Miriam Bratu Hansen, Thomas Levin, Dagmar Barnouw, Heide Schlüpmann, Gertrud Koch, Gerd Germünden, and Johannes von Moltke, among others.1 Conceptually, the nascent discipline’s need for a united front (just to situate itself in the academy, where, by virtue of its object’s “mass” appeal, it was always vulnerable) had been satisfied by a reified version of Kracauer as the theorist of “naïve realism,” fixed in place by Dudley Andrew for the sake of distinguishing what he deemed the more salutary achievement of André Bazin and his Cahiers du cinéma cohort (Andrew, Major Film Theories 131-133).2 The discipline’s unilateralism, in other words, took the form of obeisance to French intellectual culture. For many years Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed was overlooked for the same reason. “The general reason given,” Cavell would report, “was that in 1971 American academic film studies was still in its formative stages, and its founders were preoccupied with the monthly, even weekly, onrush of material originating mostly in France and then in England” (32).3 But now a consensus holds there to be no more misleading a tag for Kracauer’s work than “naïve realism.” In an afterword to Johannes von Moltke and Kristy Rawson’s new edited collection of Kracauer essays, Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings, Martin Jay suggests, in fact, that we call Kracauer a “magical nominalist” (227). Whichever the apposite term—magical nominalist, curious realist, critical realist—the interest in conceptual nuance indexed therein is a product of the greater methodological rigor in cinema studies today.4 Von Moltke and Rawson’s collection is an instance of this. It brings together Kracauer’s work from the 1940s and 50s, essays from “little magazines” such as Commentary and Public Opinion Quarterly, and film and book reviews from New Republic, Film Culture, and Saturday Review of Literature. The effect is to suggest Kracauer’s influence on the intellectual culture in New York City in the moment it was admitting film into its ambit as an object of study. Researched at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach, von Moltke and Rawson’s collection—partnered with Graehme Gilloch and Jaeho Kang’s forthcoming collection—helps, they claim, provide the most “comprehensive picture” to date of Kracauer’s intellectual personality (ix). This picture might give a perspective on Kracauer different from the one that posits an “epistemological shift” between his Weimar writings and his exile writings, between the conceptual aliveness of essays such as “The Mass Ornament” and “The Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies” (both 1927) and the pedantic closure of Theory of Film (1960) (3).5 From this perspective, von Moltke and Rawson propose, we can understand Kracauer within “three overlapping contexts”: the institutional enfranchisement of film study, the relations of the New York Intellectuals, and the relations of the exiled Frankfurt School associates (4). Perhaps the most interesting yield of this overlap is the dynamic relation in which it lets us place modernism and cinema, as the two became co-articulated in the institutions of culture by way of appeals cast in traditional aesthetic terms. Reading by Kracauer’s light, however, we glimpse an alternative history in which the unruly works of modernism might not have been domesticated along Lionel Trilling’s lines (or Clement Greenberg’s or even Irving Howe’s), but would have been reinserted in the media ecologies of early-century modernity, a moment in which the new...

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