Academic journal article New Formations

Kracauer's Weimar Geometry and Geomancy

Academic journal article New Formations

Kracauer's Weimar Geometry and Geomancy

Article excerpt

SEEING ABSTRACTLY: RATIONAL PATTERNS, IRRATIONAL LIVES

In 1926 Siegfried Kracauer wrote an essay titled 'Two Planes'.1 A contribution to Kracauer's city-sketches, it is a study of two places in Marseilles, the bay and the square. The bay area is described as a rectangle 'paved with the sea' on three sides. This vast space is the focal point of the city. It is flanked by hills that frame it, and the 'churches point to the rectangle as the vanishing point of all perspectives'. Here all the lines meet. But this does not mean that human life is to be found there, and it is human life and its presence that concerns Kracauer. The bay, he argues, is simply an example of geometry, an abstract space. The bay has lost the splendour that adhered when it was alive with fishing activities. Now it has 'degenerated' into a rectangle. Human bustle is replaced by geometries. This urban geometry is 'desolate'. It does not entice the streets' human tide. It is emptiness stretching to the edges. The space has no resonance. It is 'muteness'.

Elsewhere in Marseilles, Kracauer (and his walking companion Walter Benjamin) stumbled upon a second square, which is similarly stark. This one is set apart from surrounding back streets where a quite different order rules. The back streets are barely legible for the walkers. The narrow alleyways are convoluted and complicated by winding stairways, and from the outsider's perspective, equally opaque jumbles of Arabic signs. This is an unstable geography, where unfamiliar walkers traverse the quarter as in a dream, for illogically it seems as if the 'improvised backdrops' are torn down and resurrected in other places. In the midst of all this a square is to be found. It emerges suddenly for the walker released from the clutches of the crinkled alleyways. Against the tangle of back streets this square's lines are drawn with a ruler. Any visitor is compelled to move to the square's centre, into a position of exposure. The visitor feels subjected to the stares of those behind windows and walls. Bundles of stares 'traverse the space, intersecting at its midpoint'. This square is never sought purposefully but once found 'it expands toward the four sides of the world, overpowering the pitiful, soft, private parts of the dream'. The square's geometry is as relentlessly bleak as the bay's.

Typically, as in these examples, Kracauer conceives urban space in geometrical terms. The city is comprised of planes, vanishing points, lines of intersection, squares and rectangles. Geometrical form is especially evident in the parts of the city where power is tangible, where penetrating gazes and unremitting exposure are the order. Behind all this are the twisting back alleys and niches where human life takes place, unmappable and confused. These spaces are leftovers from a previous age it would seem - they are not contemporary. But in the city of modernity geometry asserts itself in eye-lines and intersections, planes and routes through. Sometimes something akin to teeming human existence is, however, monitored by Kracauer in the modern, mapped, orderly spaces of the city, such as its major shopping routes. Found here, though, it is the blind existence of the masses smashing up against each other like a whirl of atoms, a swarm on the asphalt, a soulless next-to-each-other. Instead of living in connection with things, modern consuming, leisure-seeking people sink into deadened objects: into cars, walls and the neon advertisements, which, irrespective of the hour, flash on and off.2 They are consumed in objectivity. The energies of industrial capitalism keep defeating its assertion of geometry and order. Geometry does not manage to generalise itself. It is impeded by the busy teeming on the streets. Life in the big city slips away, overcome in the bedazzle of fleeting impressions on the streets as well as in the cinemas. The self is exposed to a glimpse of its transcendental homelessness, a desolate being, alone in the world but massified endlessly. …

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