- Redeeming Kracauer’s Theory of Film: An Examination of the Importance of Material Aesthetics
As is perhaps more well-known than the contents of the book itself, Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960), while deemed an important work of “classical” film theory, has never been fully embraced by film theorists.1 Agreeing with Miriam Bratu Hansen that Kracauer’s work is “often misread as ordaining a ‘naively realist’ theory of film” (xxv), the purpose of this article is to examine what Kracauer actually means when he writes, “My book differs from most writings in the field in that it is a material aesthetics, not a formal one. It is concerned with content. […] Films come into their own when they record and reveal physical reality” (qtd. in Hansen xlix).
My argument is that Kracauer conceives of film as giving us a representation of the external world in its purity—a dimension of reality revealed to us via cinema’s non-intellectual, physiological, affect on the spectator. Film’s images of physical existence are not revelatory with respect to any notion of indexicality, but rather because these images give us, via such affective absorption of the mind and body, access to the world as it is without the human abstractions of science and ideology. This is very much akin to the thoughts put forward by Martin Heidegger in his 1946 essay “What are Poets For?” which similarly rails against subjectivity, or purposeful self-assertion, for its obstructing us from pure existence—what he terms Being. As with film for Kracauer, it is in poetry’s use of language in a non-intellectual manner—language for language’s sake—that we are given access to Being. Heidegger writes in that essay that a “comparison places different things in an identical setting to make the difference visible” (100) and I recount the striking similarities between Heidegger’s thoughts on poetry and Kracauer’s Theory of Film in order to prize out the significant difference between the two thinkers. The difference is that, for Heidegger, symbolist poetry reveals Being—it is the redemption of spirituality—while, for Kracauer, film reveals what the former would term being—it is the redemption of physical reality.
The further implication of this is that both thinkers are arguing that the mediums under their respective examinations effectuate an alternative mode of existence. As will be examined, Heidegger argues that machinery [End Page 66] is just an expression of man’s technological impulse, but that poetry allows us to move from the “logic of calculating reason” towards “the logic of the heart” (127); while for Kracauer the redemption of physical reality is the chance for the redemption of humanity—to live free of the ideology and abstraction that had, by then, seen two World Wars and a nuclear stand-off arising.
This article, then, explores what Bridgette Peucker calls the “metaphysical strain in Kracauer’s relation to the things of the world” (5), and argues that Kracauer’s “material aesthetics” is grounded in a secular stance that connotes socio-political values of freedom.
I will begin by first addressing the notion of Kracauer as a “realist” in order to contextualize, and dispute, the current position of his work in academic discourse on film. Vivian Sobchack, for example, briefly alludes to “Kracauer, that most dogmatic and literal of realist film theorists” (183), while Sean Cubitt similarly pays little attention to the thinker due to his apparent “puritanical streak” (125). While, within the scholarship focused upon realist views of photography, it is notable that even Stanley Cavell and Noel Carroll neglect Kracauer in exchange for an emphasis on the writings of André Bazin and Erwin Panofsky in their support and critique, respectively, of the re-presentational view of film and photography.
The re-presentational, or transparency, view of the filmic image is characterized by Noel Carroll as consisting of four key features:
First, it is essentialist, claiming that the nature of photographs and cinematic shots is unique, distinct, that is, from drawings, paintings, etc. Second, some sort of identity relation is held to persist between the photograph or film image and...