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New Left Review 107, September-October 2017


Esther Leslie

PHILOSOPHY AS CABARET

If one takes Siegfried Kracauer at his word, there is dishonour in writing a biography. [1] Jörg Später, Siegfried Kracauer: Eine Biographie, Suhrkamp Verlag: Berlin 2016, €39.95, hardback 744 pp, 978 3 51842 572 5; Graeme Gilloch, Siegfried Kracauer: Our Companion in Misfortune, Polity Press: Cambridge 2015, £16.99, paperback 264 pp, 978 0 74562 962 9 He dismissed biography as ‘an art form of the new bourgeoisie’; a ‘sign of escape or, to be more precise, evasion’—a form built to avoid confrontation with the magnitude of current world events. Jörg Später, however, has not been deterred, and has drawn on the model Kracauer himself provided in Jacques Offenbach und das Paris seiner Zeit to produce a Gesellschaftsbiographie, or ‘social biography’, where the subject becomes a prism through which to see the world in which he lived and worked. Kracauer is portrayed as an outcast who attempts to merge into his environments and yet always stands out (‘an outsider makes himself noticeable’, as Benjamin once remarked of him). The biography works with this character by placing Kracauer within his times, as Offenbach and his operettas were placed in the Paris of Napoleon Bonaparte, and showing him falling foul of them, in order that Später might delineate a panoply of historical forces—some of which Kracauer rides, some of which crush him. Kracauer proves, however, a somewhat jelly-like lens onto his epoch: Später stresses his protagonist’s chameleonic character—his ability to meld to different contexts, locations and jobs over the course of a life that began in Frankfurt in 1889 and ended in New York in 1966. After first training as an architect, Kracauer worked for the Frankfurter Zeitung from 1921 until his flight from Nazi Germany in 1933. Much of his writing from the Weimar period—including Die Angestellten (The Salaried Masses) from 1930 and the Mass Ornament collection—was first printed in the feuilleton section of that paper. Kracauer’s Weimar work anticipated that of his Frankfurt School associates, exploring the nature of mass culture under capitalism and introducing themes and methods that would permeate the much-misunderstood (and much-maligned) books of his American exile. Yet his reception in his native Germany has been underwhelming—particularly when compared to that of his younger colleagues Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. It is a remarkable fact that Später’s is the first major biography of Kracauer to appear in Germany, marking the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Accordingly, the book is 744 pages long, and its exclusivity means it can simply be called Siegfried Kracauer: Eine Biographie.

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