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.

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