Saturday, January 24, 2009

Kracauer’s The Mass Ornament

Siegfried Kracauer’s book The Mass Ornament has essays with his observations and analysis of Weimar Germany in the 20s but it also seems relevant to America today. Kracauer is like an Amoriam sage in his narrative analysis, which is not the linear, sequential layout of an argument customary in the U.S. Instead, nuggets of information are dispersed throughout his exposition to be discovered, interpreted and formed together into a relational whole through reflection. In further observance of this tradition, he uses symbolism. The term mass ornament is an example. I apply my own definitions to these symbols in this interpretation of his essay The Mass Ornament from the book of essays by the same name.

In architecture, an ornament is a decorative detail that embellishes a space, and over time it becomes an archaeological marker for a culture. Kracauer extends the concept to embellished social spectacles or enactments and uses these to understand a culture as revealed in its current events. He holds that everyday social ornaments represent aspects of a culture without mediation and are better evidence for understanding its essence than its own pronouncements.

The mass ornament is the term he applies to such capitalist spectacles, capitalism derived as it is from mass industrial production, mass consumption, highly synchronized, interchangeable processes and parts. The outcome of its Ratio, the logic behind its processes, is efficient production, consumption, finance and war.

Kracauer sees a regressive/progressive struggle between nature and reason. Myths represent past reason and the understanding of cultures that have failed, but their myths nevertheless offer insights into how real people should relate to nature. Capitalist Ratio is the logic of our current system of mass production and how it deals with nature.

Although it has been far more successful in some regards than earlier organized interaction with nature, Kracauer maintains it does not satisfy our humanity. Its consideration ends with production. Unlike the other liberal thought leaders of the 20s, Kracauer sees the failing of this Ratio as not enough analysis or reason rather than too much. It does not fully include the humanity of mankind into its reckoning, only efficiency of production and consumption.

According to Kracauer, the mass ornament in modern capitalist culture is “muted nature.” It has no foundation to build a true knowledge base (edification complex) about nature. As such, along with the basic inhumanity of its overwhelming focus on efficient operations, mankind is unfulfilled by capitalist Ratio. To compensate they turn to pop practices, rhythmic gymnastics in his day, yoga or martial arts in ours. These pop practices advance into the void, each with its own mythology.

Reason is not pursued as the true link between man and nature because of these retreats into pop mythologies. The result is “irreality.” Additionally, the cultures conjured by these mythologies have, by and large, already succumbed to Ratio thereby leaving the mute nature of mass ornamentation even more prominent and influential. These pop myths already discredited by Ratio only serve to highlight its pre-eminence.

Ratio is an iron beast that breaks all before it into pieces and grinds the residue into dust. Its only weakness is its feet of clay, its foundation based on an endless race to the bottom, the cheapest, the most exploitative and the most risky practices. Unseemly risk, whether credit default swaps today or some future scandal, and its inhuman foundation will prove its undoing.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Travel and Dance as Religion in Commercial Culture

In his essay Travel and Dance, Siegfried Kracauer examines the mechanical nature of commercial culture and social abnormalities that result from it. Two examples are travel and dance. In his view, commercial culture has abridged dance to a simple sequence of timed steps and travel to a plain experience of changing place. Both travel and dance are subject to fashion. A new tempo or a new destination is decreed according to the dictates of this peculiar specter and obligingly followed by trend-setting society.

He believes fashion to be the fundamental force powering the commercial machine that is the basis of capitalist culture. Fashion erodes the value of things by subjecting their image to periodic change. Such change is not relative to the efficiency of the things themselves but instead is an impulsive caprice that defaces the world with unnecessary obsolescence. Yet, fashion does show the intimate connectedness that can be established between people and commodities.

Fashion is the agent of the commercial process that now rules us. Kracauer argues that a depraved profit and loss mechanization has prevailed against our humanness. Our cultural processes have been constricted by the assumption that the world can actually be understood according to mechanistic presuppositions. The cultural thought leaders rationalize all aspects of life to accommodate it to technology and mechanization. Mankind must be made malleable enough to fit into this commercial worldview.

By placing such artificial limitations on what is acceptable in society, mechanical men are actually sacrificing intellect, and unnaturally restricting its consideration of anything beyond their carefully restricted models. The more they embed themselves exclusively in these models, the more they disintegrate into a series of formulaic and meaningless activities. They have become henchmen of "intellectual" excess, becoming not masters of the machine but merely machine like.

Travel and dance have an exaggerated purpose in such a culture. Kracauer observes, “[that] the goal of travel is not its destination but rather a new place as such.” There is no longer a search for the soul of another place but just a look at the foreignness of its face. Travel is a pure sensation of space, being somewhere other than where one is now.

Dance has similarly been evacuated of meaning, reduced to the marking of time. The ceremoniousness of old dance had meaning, pleasant flirtation or a tender and sensuous encounter but this has deteriorated in modern dance to a representation of “rhythm as such. Instead of expressing specific ideas in time, its actual content is time itself.” Modern music, no matter its self-promoted vitality, is nothing more than syncopation. Having only rhythm as a goal is inauthentic, and through dance alone one cannot obtain an authentic experience such as Eros. Travel and dance are no longer phenomena that unfold in space and time but instead are associated simply with the transformation of space and time.

Because mechanical men confine themselves to the spatial-temporal view of their restricted world, they are granted access to a “beyond” only through changes in space or time. Dance and travel are a substitute for the sphere they have denied themselves. They must intermittently live in one place and then another. They must move at one pace, then another. Kracauer says that “Travel and Dance have taken on a theological significance” for them.

Still, even mechanical men are aware of the inauthenticity of their mechanical limitedness. The need for redemption is as passionate for them as for real people. Their addiction to change in time or place is their surrogate redemption. Spatially they cannot be here and there but rather they are first here and then somewhere else that is also here. They are only redeemed to that which they vainly try to escape.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Kracauer on Photography

Siegfried Kracauer was a cultural analyst and member of the applied social sciences group at Columbia University. His work laid the foundation for modern film criticism and he is the author of several works including Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. One of his first essays on photography appeared in the Frankfurter Zeitung in the 1920’s and was latter published in The Mass Ornament.

Underlying Kracauer’s analysis was his tenet that the inconspicuous, quotidian expressions of a culture reveal more about it than its own self-pronouncements. Everyday phenomena such as photos or the nature of popular literature and film are unmediated representations of a culture. Drewniany and Jewler (2008, p 185) remind us that in creative design, a picture is worth a thousand words. Kracauer extended his analysis beyond film into advertising, tourism, city layout, and dance.

Regarding the photograph, he observes that if we enlarge its resolution, we can make out the dots in it, which are matrixed together into recognizable shapes. However, Kracauer observes that the photo attempts to be more than just a reference to the dot matrix shape. It tries to represent the subject matter of an event, which it can not. Without a supporting history or a memory that is associated with the subject matter, the shapes on a photo are not adequate to recreate an understanding of the event.

He believes that photos are a history lacking context or meaning. They are particularly unlike memories, which are retained because of some personal significance. Someone organizes memories according to the personal significance of those memories, while a photograph is an inventory of every spatial detail of a place at a moment. Memories are never only spatial and the significant information in a memory is usually not spatial but in any case cannot be fully condensed to the simplicity of a spatial representation.

There is a variance between photos and memory. Memories are only incomplete fragments to the photographer and often without a spatial representation. They appear as fragments, though, only because a mechanical process like photography does not understand meaning and so cannot incorporate it. However, when memory fragments are associated with a common meaning they become a relational whole.

Memory in turn has reason to doubt a photo. Photo’s usually contain irrelevant litter, and are a jumble of relevant and irrelevant detail. Often the irrelevance is spatial in nature and not just a lack of meaning. [The need for photographic editing software attests to this.] A photo by itself is a suspect truth. It ignores the history of the subjects before the scene. Here there is a partial correspondence between memory and a photo. A person’s memory likewise omits characteristics and determinations of a history, but only those which are not related to the reality the person perceives in their activated consciousness.

A photo is the attempt to reduce the entire circumstance into one graphic image from one viewpoint. An artist using a camera can surmount the abovementioned shortcomings of photography by adding meaning or theme to the elements in a photograph. An artistic composition fashions the elements of a photograph “to a higher purpose. “

The artist uses different rules than the photographer, whose main concern is with the technical details of the process. The Art rules use associations to penetrate the surface cohesion of the photograph to give it a meaning. The photographer, in contrast to the artist, generally does not explore the elements or create a composition to highlight their associations. The result from a photographer is a stockpiling of unconnected elements. Without a substantive understanding of the elements in the composition, photographers are dilettantes who ape an artistic manner.

Can a photograph become timeless? Kracauer quotes E.A. DuPont, “the essence of film is the essence of time.” Because photography is a function of time, then its implications may change depending on the timeframe applied to it. In a new time period, the understanding of the scene in an old photograph is difficult to reconstruct, or as Menander put it “You can never step into the same river twice.” The subjects have moved on or the associations have changed so the image no longer recreates the desired effect. An old photo is then a diminution of its previous essence.

Kracauer argues there is a correspondence with how time affects photography and how it affects fashion. Both a photograph and a fashion are transparent when modern and empty when old. It is only the very old that obtain attention as having the beauty of an antique. Antique is beautiful because it is different in a world where there is a constant selling of newness that is the same. There is a risk with the recent past that the meaning of the composition has changed because the associations or the elements themselves are now outdated. While such is just as outdated as the very old, it still claims to be alive but Kracauer concludes it is merely ludicrous instead. It painfully tries to hold ground that is already lost. In contrast, the antique has surrendered that ground.

Drewniany, B and J Jewler (2008). Creative Stratgey in Advertising. Wadsworth.

Kracauer, S and T. Levin (2005) The Mass Ornament. Harvard.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Kracauer on Weimar Literature

Siegfried Kracauer used analysis of widely read literature to investigate the structure and dynamics of social strata. He argued that this form of analysis avoided the inevitable pretense aroused by a more direct approach. In his essay On Best Sellers and Their Audience, he reviews the structural transformation of the Weimar economy after World War I that reordered the German middle class, and how that reordering was reflected in the period literature.

The weakening of Weimar Germany effectively turned many in the middle class into the working poor who still carried the middle class label. That middle class lacked the crucial features of the middle class before the war. They no longer had the limited independence enjoyed by the former middle class, through its modest financial security. Because of its size and interests, this middle class had been the financial mainstay for the publishing industry.

Kracauer noted the economic trends leading up to the social quagmire in Weimar: the concentration of capital, impoverishment of small stockholders, and the inflationary crisis that “led to the destruction of essential resources.” The new middle class was dependent. The deterioration of their fortunes slowly dismantled the foundation of their old middle class consciousness. The old tenets could no longer survive, stripped of their economic and social foundations in the new social reality.

Along with the declining fortunes and independence of the middle class, actual individualism declined. Administrative law increasingly invaded individual affairs and governmental planning began to transcend individual interest. Collectivization increased. Kracauer observed that people became less conscious of old social status. These trends in Weimar appeared incognito. The prevailing consciousness was still adjusting to the new realities, still reaching for the old concepts.

In addition to declining individualism in Weimar society, economic authorities lost their ability to cast the previous illusions and spells. In Weimar, strong disenchantment had taken hold. Ideas that used to drive the economy became mere rhetorical bric-a-brac. Kracauer’s brilliant quip was “You can’t live on bread alone, particularly when you don’t have any.” A manifestation of this heightened cynicism was the cinematic unmasking of the rigged game, in Weimar films such as The Joyless Streets with Greta Garbo.

In popular literary works, tragedy walked hand in hand with individualism. The fictional individuals triumph, however, even in the potential catastrophe constructed for them by their author. Kracauer quotes a best selling author in Weimar, “The worried, fearful person of today and particularly the person from the upper classes, almost always has to keep his feelings under wraps in the often futile struggle to maintain his standard of living. Such a person grasps … eagerly for such stories.”

Kracauer believed the middle class in Germany understood that a tragic intermediate fate awaited them. Yet they still attempted to maintain the old and comfortable arrangement. As a result of this tension, they raised “all calamities into tragic events. “

Idealists who tragically sacrifice themselves for an ideal was another popular theme in Weimar. The upper class doggedly struggled to maintain a faded idealism, which gave them style and distance from the mass. Faded idealism, according to Kracauer “resonated among the more cultivated circles, which [were] haunted by taste, culture, and education. “

In contrast, the middle and working class taste in literature had an emphasis on spirit or perseverance, and feeling became a pervasive motif. Feeling provided an optimistic hope to steady oneself during tragedy. It buttressed the outmoded concepts that were a comfortable part of better days. This “touching quality” signified an intermediate position between acceptance and rebellion. This was the middle class stance in the Weimar crisis.

Many story lines preserved the middle class concepts through escape into other worlds. These excursions avoided the challenging issues people would encounter with a reasoned analysis of their situation. A popular such distant world was the sensual, and erotic enchantment increased during the Weimar years. Another world was distant geographies. Nature yet another. Nature proved to be a popular backdrop in bestsellers because of its cathartic expanse. In the silence of nature, complex troubles sink into a mute void.

Kracauer’s conclusion, drawn from his study of popular literature, is that the middle class in Weimar would not acknowledge their change in fortune. They invested their beliefs in the false hopes of maintaining a life style ideal that had already perished. Their literature allowed them to renounce language and reason, and through its feeling to retain hope in the old concepts.

Thomas Y. Levin has translated a series of Kracuaer's essays into English. They originally appeared in the Frankfurter Zeitung and are now available in the book The Mass Ornament.