Academic journal article New Formations

The Cultural Spaces of Siegfried Kracauer: The Many Surfaces of Berlin

Academic journal article New Formations

The Cultural Spaces of Siegfried Kracauer: The Many Surfaces of Berlin

Article excerpt

The jumble of Berlin street life and the glossed over spaces of the city are recurrent themes in the writings of Siegfried Kracauer. So much so that one could be forgiven for thinking that, from his journalistic essays onwards, much of his life's work represents a sort of iterative journey designed to redeem the details of everyday life through the lens of the urban. Martin Jay's acute observation that Kracauer's seemingly disparate projects all share the same goal of 'redeeming contingency from oblivion'1 is certainly one that holds for his evocative descriptions of what many took to be the superficial spaces of Weimar Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s: the shopping arcades, the hotel lobbies, repair shops, bars, employment exchanges, underpasses, railway stations, and the like. Having been claimed for posterity as a film theorist, an historiographer and, more recently, as a pioneering critic of popular culture, it is equally plausible to claim Kracauer for urban studies, not merely for his ability to map the cultural contours of city life, but, more significantly, for his extraordinary urban sensibility.

In recognising something distinctive to Kracauer's approach to city landscapes, I follow the well-trodden path of those such as Inka Mulder-Bach, Miriam Hansen and other more explicit urban commentators like David Frisby and Anthony Vidler,2 who have all pointed to the metropolitan topography that so preoccupied him. What, to my mind, has tended to be underplayed in this recognition, however, is what singles him out from the crowd of metropolitan observers; namely his peculiar phenomenological appreciation of the culture, texture and feel of life as it is lived out 'on the surface' of the city. In certain respects, his approach to life 'on the face' of reality prefigures contemporary efforts to capture the active presence of daily life as it is performed from one city space to the next. What he shares with such performative accounts is an understanding that all that there is to consider is right in front of you and even though we may not always fully grasp its significance, that is not because the 'truth' is somehow hidden from us or present some way below the 'surface'. Lived experience, for Kracauer, is a 'surface' phenomenon, and although much of it may be obvious and familiar to us that does not imply that its meaning is transparent or that it is readily understood.

This is what makes Kracauer's phenomenology exceptional, in so far as his efforts amounted to more than an attempt to describe the world of our experiences. He stood in the midst of the lives of the people that he described, urging his readers to recognise their common experience, yet he remained apart from them - intent on deciphering the most cursory detail for the fullness of its meaning. His aim was to redeem city life for its inhabitants, to recover the obvious and the familiar, so that they may perhaps understand where, after all, historically their experiences are located. As such, it is the writings of Georg Simmel, an early influence on Kracauer, that I look to rather than the more accustomed sources of Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno to gain an insight into how Kracauer approached the legibility of urban spaces.3

In the first part of the paper, I explore Kracauer's treatment of the 'surface' character of Weimar Berlin, which he took to be expressive of the direction of cultural change at the time. This is done in part through a consideration of what others, mainly the authors cited above, made of Kracauer's shift in outlook towards the emerging mass cultural forms of the time and his embrace of a world of 'surfaces'. In doing so, I try to tease out an urban sensibility that bears the hallmark of Simmel's gift for working through meaningful associations and connections, as well as Kracauer's identified likeness between the superficial topographies of urban life and the montage of experiences revealed through the practices of photography and film. …

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