- Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film by Andreas Huyssen
Reading and re-reading the poetry of Charles Baudelaire in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin famously considered “À une passante” a text showcasing the impact of urban modernity on the modes of sensory perception and poetic expression. As it stages a fleeting encounter of two pedestrians, the poem contains no explicit description of the streets, the urban crowd, or the architectural features of Paris around 1850. And yet the agitation of modern urban life provides a veil through which Baudelaire views and encodes Paris. The poem’s actions as much as its formal organization hinge on the shocks of visual stimuli in urban environments “just as the progress of a sailboat depends on the wind.”1 Though the city on some level is entirely absent, the poem could not have been written anywhere else but in Paris, and the critic’s task, for Benjamin, is to read for the city behind the poem’s veil of perception, to explore how metropolitan life structured what poets could sense, say, know, and transform into texts in the first place.
Andreas Huyssen’s Miniature Metropolis moves creatively in and beyond the wake of Benjamin’s subtle readings of urban writing. Benjamin basically saw urban spaces as breeding grounds for subjects ready to embrace photography and film as ideal media to see and sense the modern world. In Huyssen’s perspective, modernist literature became modernist to the extent to which it recognized the ubiquity of modern visual media but refused to submit its specificity to how technological images reworked the human sensorium. The focus of Miniature Metropolis is on the texts of German-speaking authors of the early twentieth century, on central figures of German literary and aesthetic modernism such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, Gottfried Benn, Siegfried Kracauer, Benjamin himself, Hannah Höch, Irmgard Keun, Ernst Jünger, and Robert Musil. The book’s formal concern is with what Huyssen with great originality and acumen identifies as the modernist genre (and anti-genre) of the miniature: shorter texts about the urban experience, often authored for the feuilletons of leading newspapers, at times embedded in larger bodies of writing, fictional or non-fictional [End Page 467] pieces whose identity have become visible only in retrospect and whose particular qualities developed in active engagement with the rise of modern visual media. Central to Huyssen’s approach to this form of urban writing is the concept of “remediation in reverse” (7). It retools notions from media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan, Jay Bolter, and Richard Grusin, and it is meant to highlight how literary material rubs against and absorbs the logic of other media, not to express nostalgic longing for the past but to investigate, recalibrate, and thereby assert its own specificity. Metropolitan miniatures embody salient moments of aesthetic obstinacy—literature’s efforts to adapt to metropolitan life and its reign of mediated images while insisting on what words can do best. Rather than simply set pictures next to text and hence become what theorists of contemporary electronic writing call multimodal, the urban miniature recognizes different modes of experiencing the modern city as an opportunity to experiment with existing linguistic formats and precisely thus energize literature’s modernist ambitions. Rather than ignoring newer media or allow them to declare language and writing dead, the metropolitan miniature tries to beat them at their own game.
There is much to admire about Miniature Metropolis: Huyssen’s enormously nuanced readings of individual texts; his extraordinary ability to open up new vistas even when writing about authors whose work has received considerable attention in the past; his masterly strategies of situating even very small texts in much larger contexts while detecting the echoes of historical transformations in the folds of specific linguistic and conceptual figures; his at once confident and open-minded reliance on Frankfurt-style critical theory while staying entirely clear of ahistorical dogmatism or conceptual clichés. Moreover, many readers will be up for a whole number of thought...