Siegfried Kracauer was one of two seminal film critics of the Weimar Republic, as well as one of the most influential people in the development of critical film theory. Before he left Germany following the rise of National Socialism, he was a literary editor for the Frankfurter Zeitung. He published a number of notable essays, including Die Angestellten, Das Ornament der Masse and Kult der Zerstreuung.

“An analysis of the simple surface manifestations of an epoch can contribute more to determining its place in the historical process than judgements of the epoch about itself.”i

Ornament der Masse, originally published in 1927, ostensibly deals with an analysis of mass culture through Kracauer's idea of the 'ornament'. Kracauer's concept of the 'ornament' revolves around the 'masses'. He differentiates between the 'people' and the 'masses', in that 'ornaments' borne from the 'people' “(...) appear as a magic force so laden with meaning that they cannot be reduced to a purely linear structure.”ii, where the 'ornaments' of the 'masses' “(...) are composed of elements which are mere building blocks.”iii.

These new 'ornaments' stem from the advent of mass culture, of taylorism, of americanism, of capitalism, of the very society that evolved during the Weimar Republic. The building blocks for the new 'ornaments' were borne from a new class of people that developed with the new life of the city, Die Angestellten.

A product of the industrial system, these salaried masses formed a large part of the growing middle class that developed, a group who could afford leisure outside of their working life, and worked towards this. The commodification of leisure, combined with the increasing demand led to a growing number of attractions available to the masses.

Berlin today is the prominent place of a culture of employees, that means of a culture made by employees for employees and considered by most employees as culture”iv

Kracauer's primary example of this is the Tiller Girls. A product of the American “distraction factories”, they illustrate his concept perfectly. A prime example of mass culture, these groups performed throughout the western world.

“Even as they crystallize into patterns in the revues of Berlin, performances of the same geometrical exactitude are occurring in similarly packed stadiums in Australia and India, not to mention America.”v

The synchronised dancing of the girls generated aesthetic pleasure by the repetitive geometry of the rows of girls, mimicking both the assembly lines in factories and the ordered marching of soldiers. The audience themselves were arranged in rows similar to that of the Tiller Girls, row upon row of of spectators, the masses beholden to their ornament. This however was a new ornament, a purely artificial, linear structure built from the ordered and arranged movements of individual limbs and bodies of these “indissoluble girl units”.

In spite of his seeming disdain for the Tiller girls, he argues against “certain intellectuals” that have judged them mere diversions for the masses, Kracauer (referring to artistic movements yet to acknowledge to new age of the masses) claims:

“(...) the aesthetic pleasure gained from ornamental mass movement is legitimate, (...) for an aesthetic presentation is all the more real the less it dispenses with the reality outside the aesthetic sphere. No matter how low one rates the value of the mass ornament, its level of reality is still above that of artistic productions which cultivate obsolete noble sentiments in withered forms (...)”vi

Kracauer describes the capitalist epoch as a stage in the process of demystification. Capitalism aims for universal commodification and a pervasion of rationality by the reproduction and production of all things, implying a rejection of that which cannot be reproduced artificially, nature. To that end, Kracauer believes that

“A system which is indifferent to variations of form leads necessarily to the obliteration of national characteristics and to the fabrication of masses of workers who can be employed and used uniformly throughout the world. - Like the mass ornament, the capitalist production process is an end in itself.”vii

With the production process an end in itself, Kracauer ultimately claims that despite capitalism's pervasion of rationality, it does not rationalise enough. The abstract thinking of capitalism cannot grasp the actual substance of life and is therefore limited to concrete observation of phenomena. These abstractions lack the concrete sense of those ideas that are rooted in natural life. Distinguishing between abstractness and reason, he goes on to say that unless capitalism can move beyond it's self imposed base in abstraction, humanity will once again be subject to the forces of nature, preventing the emergence of reason.

Film, an emerging medium of expression whose development coincided with the Weimar Republic, was something that could be seen to go to either side of culture. He saw the glamorous cinemas as Pläsirkasernen, legitimising the existence of the masses by reiterating the empty tensions of their workday, though once again he hits back against those claiming this as mere diversion by stating that only extreme diversion may bring the audience closer to the truth, (linking back to the very sentence he opens the essay with) by dealing with the surface tensions of their reality, though he believes that through this commodification, film lost its chance to exist as part of an avant-garde proletariat culture.

Ultimately, Das Ornament der Masse and Kracauer's other writing are his analysis of the new capitalist industrial society of the Weimar Republic. Through his mostly objective stance, he looks to the ephemera of the popular culture of the city to draw conclusions about the period. The masses figure largely into these analyses, the decay of the traditional class system with the emerging caste of white collar workers, the byproduct of the new capitalist economic model. It is with this new caste that the figure of the flaneur emerges, along with the commodification of leisure time leads to the growing industry of distraction, a mimicry of traditional community aimed at the new masses. This kind of mass production of entertainment embodied the spirit of the new industrial world, where simultaneous, mass consumption of identical cultural products was desirable, the Tiller Girls being Kracauer's best illustration of this from Das Ornament der Masse. In the process of demystifying these traditional forms, they lose the current of organic life that flows from the original communities, which cannot be reduced so. This reflects the lack of community in the cities themselves, the anonymity prevents true communities with “shared destinies” from emerging, so instead the “distraction factories” produce a mimicry of community in the form of shared consumption.

i The Mass Ornament. pp 1.
ii The Mass Ornament. pp 2.
iii The Mass Ornament. pp 2.
iv Die Angestellten. pp 15.
v The Mass Ornament. pp 1.
vi The Mass Ornament. pp 4.
vii The Mass Ornament. pp 3.

Bibliography:

Girls and Crisis – The Other Side of Diversion
Author(s): Sabine Hake
Source: New German Critique, No. 40, Special Issue on Weimar Film Theory (Winter, 1987), pp. 147-164
Published by: New German Critique
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/488136
Accessed: 05/10/2009

Introduction to Siegfried Kracauer's “The Mass Ornament”
Author(s): Karsten Witte, Barbara Correll, Jack Zipes
Source: New German Critique, No. 5 (Spring, 1975), pp. 59-66
Published by: New German Critique
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/487919
Accessed: 05/10/2009

The Mass Ornament
Author(s): Siegfried Kracauer, Barbara Correll, Jack Zipes
Source: New German Critique, No. 5 (Spring, 1975), pp. 67-76
Published by: New German Critique
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/487920
Accessed: 05/10/2009

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