Academic journal article New Formations

The Territory of Photography: Between Modernity and Utopia in Kracauer's Thought

Academic journal article New Formations

The Territory of Photography: Between Modernity and Utopia in Kracauer's Thought

Article excerpt

Where does photography belong in Kracauer's thought? In the Weimar essays it is practically synonymous with modernity, one of the mass ornaments whose surface reveals the meaning of the age. In Theory of Film it becomes the foundation for an aesthetics of the photographic media which casts them as redeemers of the physical reality we can no longer perceive. In History: the Last Things Before the Last, the book which Kracauer himself saw as the summa of his life's work, it provides both a model for historical practice and a map for Kracauer's Utopian imaginings. Photography, then, seems to accompany Kracauer wherever he goes, both intellectually and geographically, lending his oeuvre the coherence of a running thread. Yet the very ubiquity of this thread emphasises the radical dis-unity of the corpus of Kracauer's writings, which span journalism and sociology, film history and theory, Marxism and liberal humanism, operetta and philosophy of history, two languages, three countries, and a long series of political crises, from the fall of Imperial Germany to the rise of Nazism, from World War II to the Cold War. What appears to guarantee the coherence of Kracauer's oeuvre is the consistency of his interest in photography. But if photography unifies this heterogeneous collection of writings under Kracauer's signature, then the question must be asked whether what we have come to call 'Kracauer' might not in fact be a name for the problem of photography in modernity, a vector through which the question of photography is raised in its intractability.

In what follows I propose to examine this intractability by mapping the development of Kracauer's thinking about photography from the 1920s to the 1960s, in an arc that traces his transformation from critic of modernity to philosopher of Utopia. This transformation tells us much not just about Kracauer's intellectual trajectory, but also about the mobility of photography as a cultural and historical signifier. Although usually subsumed under the discipline of film studies, Kracauer's writings on photography draw much of their figurative arsenal and conceptual power from literary sources, especially from those of European modernism. It is through these texts that Kracauer rearticulates his original understanding of photography from modern mass ornament to trace of an immaterial world located in between existing ideological camps. In the process, he invites his readers to reconsider the question of the territory of photography, of where photography might actually belong, not just in the trajectory of his thought but also in the history of twentieth-century politics and culture.

MODERNITY AS VABANQUE-SPIEL

The question of photography's position within the historical process was given a first, unambiguous answer by Kracauer in 1927: 'No different from earlier modes of representation, photography, too, is assigned to a particular developmental stage of practical and material life. It is a secretion of the capitalist mode of production'.1 As this emission of capitalism, photography participates in that process of the emancipation of reason from the bonds of nature which Kracauer in 'The Mass Ornament' posits as the driving force of history.2 But photography also marks a point where it is not the force of reason but that of nature that gains the upper hand. Stripped of its symbolic and mythological meaning, the nature from which capitalism emancipates humanity becomes simply a 'mute', brute physical reality which human consciousness cannot encompass or comprehend. It is this alienation of nature from thought that photography portrays: 'The same mere nature which appears in photography flourishes in the reality of the society produced by the capitalist mode of production'.3

Although Kracauer is very clear about the historicity of the society portrayed by photography, his characterisation of capitalism as part of a process of emancipation from myth is in fact historically a-specific, a translation of industrial production into a metaphysical language which clearly shows Kracauer's formation in Kantian idealism. …

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