ABOUT THIS BOOK
Siegfried Kracauer was one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant cultural critics, a daring and prolific scholar, and an incisive theorist of film. In this volume his finest writings on modern society make their long-awaited appearance in English.
This book is a celebration of the masses—their tastes, amusements, and everyday lives. Taking up themes of modernity, such as isolation and alienation, urban culture, and the relation between the group and the individual, Kracauer explores a kaleidoscope of topics: shopping arcades, the cinema, bestsellers and their readers, photography, dance, hotel lobbies, Kafka, the Bible, and boredom. For Kracauer, the most revelatory facets of modern life in the West lie on the surface, in the ephemeral and the marginal. Of special fascination to him is the United States, where he eventually settled after fleeing Germany and whose culture he sees as defined almost exclusively by “the ostentatious display of surface.”
With these essays, written in the 1920s and early 1930s and edited by the author in 1963, Kracauer was the first to demonstrate that studying the everyday world of the masses can bring great rewards. The Mass Ornament today remains a refreshing tribute to popular culture, and its impressively interdisciplinary essays continue to shed light not only on Kracauer’s later work but also on the ideas of the Frankfurt School, the genealogy of film theory and cultural studies, Weimar cultural politics, and, not least, the exigencies of intellectual exile.
In his introduction, Thomas Levin situates Kracauer in a turbulent age, illuminates the forces that influenced him—including his friendships with Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and other Weimar intellectuals—and provides the context necessary for understanding his ideas. Until now, Kracauer has been known primarily for his writings on the cinema. This volume brings us the full scope of his gifts as one of the most wide-ranging and penetrating interpreters of modern life.
Reading his reviews for the Frankfurter Zeitung of some 70 years ago, one would expect Siegfried Kracauer to seem more of his time than he sometimes does. That’s the first salutary shock in The Mass Ornament… Here’s a German Marxist writing about Franz Kafka and Max Weber and Martin Buber hot off the press; or giving an on-set report to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. And yet, when he writes about the fashion for biography, or the crisis of the novel, or of science, he seems to be elaborating arguments that mean more today than ever before.
-- Mark Sinker New Statesman and Society
To those familiar with Kracauer only as the analyst and theorist of film, capable of sustained argument linking film to history, to cultural philosophy, to myth and to popular imagination, The Mass Ornament will come as a revelation. The feuilleton provided the opportunity to range across a multitude of subjects from arcades to boredom, from Max Weber to the Tiller Girls. He emerges as an outstandingly sharp-sighted witness to the cultural diversity of the Weimar Republic and to the loss of value that underlay what he calls the ‘surface-level expressions’ of that culture.
-- Philip Brady Times Higher Education Supplement
Known to the English-language public for the books he wrote after he reached America in 1941, most famously for From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer is best understood as a charter member of that extraordinary constellation of Weimar-era intellectuals which has been dubbed retroactively (and misleadingly) the Frankfurt School. This collection of Kracauer’s early essays—like his friends Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, he began as an essayist-provocateur on a wide variety of social and cultural themes—does more than explain the origins of the eminent film critic and theorist. It includes some of his most original and important writing.
-- Susan Sontag
Practitioners of cultural studies generally, and particularly in the field of modern architecture, are rushing, it seems, to read The Mass Ornament… With two dozen essays and excerpts in The Mass Ornament—admirably translated and accompanied by a substantial introduction and forty-five pages of additional notes—Anglophone scholars in the field of cultural studies can now explore Kracauer’s Weimar essays for themselves.
-- Juliet Koss Assemblage
Kracauer’s free-associational curiosity is brilliantly displayed in the 24 essays gathered in the long overdue English translation of The Mass Ornament. The volume’s idiosyncratic glosses on Paris street maps and hotel lobbies, on best-sellers and popular biographies, are supple, at times lyrical, meditations on cultural transition, respectful of the enigmatic meanings and turbulent emotions elicited by the mass-produced and the marginal… Like Benjamin, Kracauer saw himself as a brainy secret agent, a cultural provocateur: The Mass Ornament decodes the surface meanings of the new, finding, in their hypnotic shallowness, personal and political significance… Among the first to assess popular culture on its own terms, with a mind open to the tumble of new ideas set rolling by the technology and communications avalanche, Kracauer articulated an impressionistic critique of popular culture that’s as provocative today as it was 70 years ago… The Mass Ornament dreams wild dreams about the ultimate meaning of the banal and the beautiful.
-- Bill Marx Millennium Pop
Thanks to Thomas Levin, we have an invaluable collection of Siegfried Kracauer’s more ‘occasional’ Weimar essays, available in a beautiful English-language translation… Following both the selection and the order for a collection of essays chosen by Kracauer himself, The Mass Ornament only now begins to make the magnitude of its effect felt. Anyone part of a film-theory class or German cultural-history seminar in the last two years will agree that this earlier and more biting Kracauer has become de rigueur for any analysis of cultural products and practices, whether located in the Weimar Republic or more generally associated with Western capitalist culture.
-- Jeffrey S. Timon Modernism/Modernity
Adorno’s tutor in philosophy, Walter Benjamin’s editor, friend of Ernst Bloch and Leo Lowenthal, Siegfried Kracauer played a pivotal role in the early development of the so-called Frankfurt School, but his own reputation has never been securely established… The publication of The Mass Ornament, a collection of Kracauer’s essays from the 1920s first issued in Germany in 1963, should go some distance towards rectifying that situation, and renewing interest in one of the leading figures in the Weimar debates about cultural criticism and modernity… The essays collected in The Mass Ornament range from observations on boredom and bullfights, dance crazes and detective novels, to reviews of sociology (‘Georg Simmel’); theology (‘Catholicism and Relativism’); and Biblical translation (on the Martin Buber-Franz Rosenzweig recasting of the Hebrew text)… The Mass Ornament offers a unique opportunity to reflect historically on the prose of cultural studies, the idiomatic difficulties of coordinating theoretical or philosophical propositions (‘academic discourse’) with the passing flux of fashion and the inexorable demands of quotidian accessibility (‘journalism’)… As a report from the past, [The Mass Ornament] holds a distant mirror up to the dilemmas facing cultural analysis, and invites us to renewed reflection on the relation between theory and history, fashion and tradition… [Kracauer’s] edgy and restlessly incisive relation to the entire range of cultural phenomena…offers an exhilarating instance of critical intelligence at work.
-- Robert Eric Livingston Prose Studies
The essays prove that Kracauer could not only write bracingly on photography and film, but also that his erudition extended to a great number of cultural subjects, from religion and science to hotel lobbies, city geography, and the phenomenon of the bestseller. In a lively and interesting introduction, Thomas Y. Levin, the book’s translator and editor, discusses Kracauer’s life and works, and demonstrates why more attention should be paid to this fascinating, neglected member of the Frankfurt School.
-- Virginia Quarterly Review
Kracauer himself chose the 24 pieces collected in this volume… They reflect a sharp analytical interest in a wide spectrum of cultural themes and social phenomena, extending from the new entertainment industries to more arcane subjects: Martin Buber’s Bible translation, the philosophy of Georg Simmel, Kafka’s prose. They all focus on the forces that propel historical change and produce a new culture—i.e., the mass culture of a secular and fragmented democracy. Levin’s edition is exemplary in every respect: his translations have adapted themselves accurately and smoothly to the varying styles of the original, his introduction is perceptive, his notes and documentation are precise and to the point. A book most highly recommended.
-- M. Winkler Choice
Kracauer, a leading cultural critic in the Germany of the turbulent 1920s and early 1930s, shows himself in these essays to be a wide-ranging and penetrating interpreter of the everyday life of this era. The essays expand on his insights into such themes as modernity, isolation, and alienation, urban culture, and the relation between the group and the individual… He explores such topics as shopping arcades, hotel lobbies, best-selling books and their readers, the cinema, and photography.
-- Harry Frumerman Library Journal
We finally have in translation a sample of Kracauer’s Weimar writings which establish him as a major cultural critic, theorist of modernity, and superb writer. In his passionate attempt to grasp the logic of historical change, he approaches both canonized texts and the phenomena of a new leisure culture with radical curiosity, keen observation, deadpan humor and surrealist sensibility. There is hardly any idea in Benjamin’s and Adorno’s writing on film and mass culture of the 1930s and ’40s that does not already appear, in some shape or other, in Kracauer’s essays of the Weimar period.
-- Miriam Hansen, University of Chicago
The pieces collected in Siegfried Kracauer’s The Mass Ornament are the musings of an inveterate flaneur, a rapt spectator, and an inexorable detective as he wanders through the streets of the Weimar Republic. In these singular commentaries, the big city of modernity appears as a vast dreamscape and a mind-boggling phantasmagoria. Ever indefatigable, Kracauer explores the many different stores, hotel lobbies, dance halls, and ornate cinemas, seeking the signs of the past and presentiments of the future which lurk behind the appearances of the everyday, scrutinizing how the changing shapes of urban spaces and the mass media alter human experience. Employing an inimitable format, a blend of sociological analysis, historical-philosophical allegory, and literary miniature, Kracauer provides a veritable lexicon of German modernity and Weimar mythologies. Finally available for English-language audiences in Thomas Levin’s careful and fluid translation, The Mass Ornament provides an important primer for today’s Culture Studies.
-- Eric Rentschler, University of California, Irvine