PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

Ornaments of the Metropolis: Siegfried Kracauer and Modern Urban Culture

by Henrik Reeh; translated by John Irons

Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004

264 pages. Illustrations, preface, notes, bibliographic references, and index

$39.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-262-18237-8

In Ornaments of the Metropolis, Henrik Reeh eloquently argues for the central importance of Siegfried Kracauer’s Weimar writings for understanding the modern metropolis. The book traipses through reflections on metropolitan subjectivity and social experience, and resists urban cynicism by finding space for utopian possibilities. Reeh integrates a much broader range of Kracauer’s work--most famously known for his essays in the Frankfurter Zeitung and his later work on film--than usually finds its way into scholarly reflection. Beyond these feuilleton-journalistic cultural essays, Reeh analyzes Kracauer’s fiction, dissertation on architecture history, and a biography/social history of nineteenth-century Paris.

Reeh’s book is a plea for a humanistic inquiry into the metropolis as a remedy for the overwhelmingly administrative concerns of urban planning. Through Kracauer’s writings, Reeh builds a case for the city as a locus in which the individual subject can resist disintegration before the forces of modernization. Through individual and collective reflection the individual may take experiences from the external, objective world, which can then be reshaped in a process of resubjectivization. This city is more than accumulations of labor and social forces consolidating capital’s position over individual subjects; it opens the possibility for personal and social transformations. Reeh’s analysis follows a tripartite structure in which the principle of division appears to arise from an intersection of distinctions in genre, thematics, and periodization.

In the first part, Reeh’s primary texts for analysis are Kracauer’s anonymously written serial novel Ginster (later published as a book) and his doctoral thesis on wrought-iron ornaments in Berlin. Reeh uses these two texts to lay out Kracauer’s thoughts on the city and ornament through the First World War. Here, Reeh outlines Kracauer’s analysis of the subjective pole of they city—it is seen through the individual Ginster or the eye of the student Kracauer. While individuals can lose themselves to the objective culture in this city, Kracauer tries to open a space for subjective reflection. The objects and experiences of the city do not merely shape and form a docile subject; an individual can respond to and reflect upon these to bring about a resubjectivization.

Reeh draws upon Kracauer’s later urban essays--dating from the mid-1920s into the early 1930s—to frame his theoretical reading of Ginster. These feuilleton essays form the core of his analysis in Part Two. Here, Reeh traces how Kracauer leaves behind his youthful, solitary reflections on urban life to bring a Marxist-inflected social perspective to bear on the modern metropolis. Shifting from Part One’s pole of the world of an individual bourgeois subject, Reeh argues that in his newspaper essays, Kracauer tries to locate urban understandings in “a rational, systemic world” (196).

In his final, brief section, Reeh follows Kracauer’s mid-1930s move in location (Berlin to Paris) and change of form (from the feuilleton to Kracauer’s own generic invention—sociobiography). Analyzing Kracauer’s history of operetta composer Jacques Offenbach within the context of Second Empire France, Reeh explicitly address the role of history in shaping social subjectivity. Kracauer argues that the rise of operetta is inextricably linked to the boulevard life of Paris and the political structures of Napoleon III’s France. This historical framing attenuates any possible propensities for positing too great an individualism.

Reeh’s book works between the poles of two primary, but not fully achieved, goals. First, he proposes “to gradually define the theoretical principles and the practical conditions for a true humanistic science of the urban” (1). Second, he argues that the concept of the ornament is central to first understanding Kracauer’s thoughts on the city and then for more generally analyzing the modern metropolis itself. Beyond surface decoration, “the ornament is linked to everything from the scribbles of childhood and youth to a form of writing” (5). Reeh’s idea of the ornament is so wide-ranging as to become a bit elusive. Despite some ambiguities, the concept of the ornament proves to be a useful heuristic for the majority of Kracauer’s urban writings but nearly falls out in the final section on nineteenth-century Paris. The visuality of the ornament—either as two-dimensional design form or as an intellectual trope—does not weather well the turn to an aural form. Reeh does compellingly establish his secondary and tertiary goals for the book. His recuperation of Kracauer’s neglected urban analyses and their idiosyncratic but valuable contributions to understandings of urban modernity is well put forth. Likewise, he extracts from Kracauer a strong argument for the importance of the city in the development of modernity.

Reeh culls methodological tools from Kracauer for his humanistic science of the urban. The point of departure for Kracauer’s analyses is always within the metropolis; he does not seek a vantage point from outside the modern city—neither temporally (historically) nor spatially (from the country). Likewise, Reeh’s point of departure is the work of Kracauer; he does not adequately get outside of Kracauer’s writings. With the exception of cursory introductory looks to Adolf Loos on ornaments and Georg Simmel on modernity, the city, and subjective experience, Reeh limits his discussions almost exclusively to the work of Kracauer. The passing mention of Kracauer’s friends and interlocutors—like Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno—are primarily to show how their letters or writings can illuminate the work of Kracauer. Reeh makes it appear as though Kracauer’s ideas appeared ex nihilo. Grounding him within a stronger context of intellectual history would not only help to better elucidate the work, it would better strengthen contributions to the humanistic science of the urban.

For instance, Part Three’s analyses of Offenbach, operetta, and the particular historical moment of the Second Empire read like Lukács-lite. Kracauer was quite familiar with Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel--he wrote two different reviews of the book--and its idea that specific artistic forms arise at particular moments to reinscribe epistemic paradigms in the form. Knowing that Lukács linked this argument to an overwhelming concern with the transcendental homelessness (Heimatlosigkeit) of modernity would help to ground Kracauer’s discussion of Heimat in the Offenbach book. Kracauer takes the sad lament of Lukács’s nostalgia and offers a measured utopian solution; rather than looking back with longing, one can substitute a modern experience, e.g., the Parisian boulevard, for the lost Heimat of childhood hearth and home.

A second place where recourse to one of Kracauer’s sources would help consolidate Reeh’s arguments would be even easier to integrate than the Lukács suggestion. Reeh mimics Kracauer’s use of a small object or a unique experience of the city to make broader claims about metropolitan life; he uses close readings of individual works of Kracauer to discuss modern urbanity. A greater integration of Simmel would be useful to provide a model for the synecdochic relationships between the fragmentary object and an urban totality. Kracauer’s essayistic writing does not offer an easily appropriated method—a point of which Reeh is aware. Despite quite diligently working through correspondence, diaries, and writings to establish a strong relationship between Kracauer and Simmel, Reeh underutilizes this connection. Demonstrating how Kracauer derives this method of synecdoche from Simmel’s The Philosophy of Money—again Reeh demonstrates Kracauer’s admiring familiarity with this text (33)--would enable Reeh to appropriate a more rigorously developed method for his humanistic science.

Reeh tries to recuperate these principles of fragmentariness, lack of system, and so on, for his humanistic science. But he fails to demonstrate how these traits which previously necessitated Kracauer’s relegation to obscurity can now become central to a study of the city. The inadequacy of urban planning to understand the nuanced dynamics of the city is clear, but how does a fragmentary study of objects become a theoretical principle or method unless he better appropriates a Simmelian method. I also am unclear that a humanistic urban science is as entirely lacking as Reeh posits. While urban theorists like Henri Lefebvre or David Harvey may subordinate individual subjects to social forces, I find elsewhere a model of what I believe Reeh calls for--Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air (Berman 1988). Berman integrates Goethe, Marx, Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky in his study of modernization and its impacts on the subjects and objects of the city.

Even though the systematizing of his humanistic science and the framing of the ornament are not fully executed, Reeh is definitely worth a read. He compellingly establishes the significance of Kracauer as an urban thinker and offers evocative reads of Weimar life and, somewhat less so, of Second Empire Paris.

References Cited

Berman, M. 1988. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York: Penguin Books.


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