- On the Miniature, the Modern, the Metropolis
“Whoever leads a solitary life and yet now and then wants to attach himself somewhere,” relates a short text from Franz Kafka’s collection Contemplation, “will not be able to manage for long without a window looking on to the street.”1 Two decades after Kafka—same language, different locale—Walter Benjamin reflects in Berlin Childhood around 1900 that nothing has fortified his “own memory so profoundly as gazing into courtyards, one of whose dark loggias, shaded by blinds in the summer, was for [him] the cradle in which the city laid its new citizen.”2 Exactly one century after the publication of Baudelaire’s prose poem “Windows,” whose setup resonates with the scene in Kafka’s text, the section titled “Paysage” in Theodor W. Adorno’s Minima Moralia laments the lack of expression of American streets—and the particular form of perception they produce: “what the hurrying eye has seen merely from the car it cannot retain, and the vanishing landscape leaves no more traces behind than it bears upon itself.”3 As I read through these different small texts, they appear to speak to each other, in their attachment to built environment, through perceptual frames that recall the rectangular shape of a photograph: [End Page 171] window, courtyard, windshield. Taking a step back, it strikes me that the rectangular reappears on another level. All texts are less than one page in length, drawing a dark cubicle against the white of the page. They are “little aerated tomes,” as Roland Barthes once said fondly of miniature texts.4
I had read these texts against the background of Andreas Huyssen’s article “Modernist Miniatures: Literary Snapshots of Urban Spaces.” Published in pmla back in 2007, it came with a sense of both novelty and belatedness. Novel, because in it a major critic of German modernism shifts the focus onto a mode of writing that had hitherto received little attention, yet which—according to Huyssen—may be “more central to . . . literary modernism than the novel or poetry.”5 Belated, because it indeed begged the question what had caused this neglect. After all, the list of miniaturists that Huyssen engages with runs from Baudelaire and Rilke via Benjamin and Aragon to Musil and finally Adorno. All of them turned to small forms of writing, to prose poems, “thought-images,” fragmentary notations, and all of them are exponents of what Huyssen will come to call the metropolitan miniature. How can one account for this mode of spatialized writing that emerges in modernism? How is the focus on visual perception or urban time and space not only a common feature of modernist texts of different genres but constitutive of a particular aesthetic form itself? The questions that delimited the pmla article are now taken up on a larger scale in Huyssen’s new major study, Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film.
With the experience of the urban metropolis being one major paradigm that orients his project, the subtitle names the two other parameters for the investigation: photography and film. The setup is complemented by a theory of modernity that seems to take conceptual cues from the writings of Benjamin on Baudelaire.6 All of the readings relate, in one way or another, to a particular mode of perception that is both rooted in and reflective of the experience of the modern metropolis, its shock-effects, the accelerated speed of life, the circulation of information, in short, “the restructuring of temporal and spatial perception” (mm, 5). The metropolitan miniatures—so the underlying assumption—are texts that respond to this experience. They perceive, register, reproduce—but also feed back into [End Page 172] this new reality as they perpetuate feelings of an accelerated time or confined space in the reading process. Miniatures, we are invited to think, not only capture the restructuring of temporal and spatial perception but contribute in their presence to a new experiential mode, joining the proliferation of stimuli in the metropolis. In...