- The Chatter of the Visible: Montage and Narrative in Weimar Germany by Patrizia C. McBride
The Chatter of the Visible is a dense, sophisticated engagement that focuses on montage in relation to narrative in Weimar Germany. McBride’s foray into montage is far from the reductive analysis of this complex artistic form to which scholars in many fields have grown accustomed. Rather, the book represents a significant contribution to narrative theory in its own right. Through McBride’s deft, thoughtful encounters with early twentieth-century montage, she opens a chiasm of critical possibility in other arenas as well. Reserving the bulk of her sophisticated, potent prose for an unpacking of narrative, she has created what can best be described as a stand-alone assessment that also serves as an excellent companion to the study of montage in fields beyond German Studies.
The book approaches the relationship of montage and narrative by focusing on a discrete series of events and objects. The Chatter of the Visible begins with a lengthy discussion of the relationship between montage and narrative at historical points of transition as well as in relation to key examples of montage. Following a meaty, lengthy Introduction, which includes montage-like segments offset by bullet points and focused on particular manifestations, the text transitions to more sustained encounters.
In the chapters that form the body of the book, McBride focuses on deft re-readings of some of the most seminal ideas from Walter Benjamin’s essay “Die Erzähler: Betrachtungen zum Werk Nikolai Lesskows” (The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov) as well as “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” (The Work of Art [End Page 204] in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility). Here McBride provocatively juxtaposes the idea that Benjamin simply uses montage as a “conceptual prop” in his writings with a much more sophisticated perspective: “For Benjamin the aesthetics of montage was both the signature of modern alienation and a blueprint for inquiring into the possibility of a new storytelling lodged at the intersection of new technological and perceptual patterns” (41). Using her engagement with Benjamin’s “Storyteller” essay to “outline the features of desirable narrative,” McBride then turns to Benjamin’s “Artwork” essay to demonstrate in more specific terms the manifestation of montage’s narrative strategy in relation to its mass cultural forms (42). To these ends, McBride notes that “the two texts make a consistent argument, which hinges on accounting for the present by historicizing (aesthetic) experience and mapping the deep changes produced by technology” (62–3). The two chapters—one focused on “The Storyteller” essay, the other focused on “Artwork” text—are so intimately connected that their separation as distinct chapters seems almost disruptive. But perhaps we witness here another kind of montage-as-meaning moment?
The Chatter With the Visible transitions from its focus on Benjamin’s work, with its theoretical and historical accounting for the relationship between montage and narrative, to what might be described broadly as case studies focused on fairly well-known Weimar artists: Hannah Höch, László Moholy-Nagy, and Kurt Schwitters. Each chapter presents dense, close readings of texts in relation to exemplars of visual montage, providing some of the most lucid examples of montage-as-narrative in the entire book. The focus on these individuals, and these visual works, is understandable. The limits of McBride’s unique take on montage begin to reveal themselves here, however, in that one wonders about the universal applicability of her approach in light of the seemingly ubiquitous culture of montage during Weimar Germany and beyond. In other words, these examples seem themselves to be so unique, so suited to McBride’s argument, that they call in to question the ability of her reframing to explain other examples of montage in the same way. Is the uninformed reader or untutored viewer really able to make sense of other examples of montage in quite the same way?
The book concludes with a...