If one takes Siegfried Kracauer at his word, there is dishonour in writing a biography.footnote1 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.

Später renders the life and dealings of his subject in forty short chapters, whose titles betray something of the book’s tendency to shift between various approaches to life-writing and, perhaps, something of the shifting character of its purported subject. The particularities of the life under examination here—the standard material of a biography, after all—are intermingled with a broader setting, one painted in social, technological and historical terms. Kracauer’s activities and theoretical developments are located in a wider field of action or understanding, within which his theoretical insights resonate. The book registers the specificity of Kracauer’s life—his passions, successes and anxieties are related sympathetically in ‘A Case from Paris’, on the Kracauers’ decision to remain in the us after the war, and ‘Cultural Critic, Social Scientist, Door-to-Door Salesman’, the last descriptor a reference to Kracauer’s burden, while in exile, of daily visits to publishers and presses in an effort to get his work into print. Other chapters pay extended attention to the lineaments of the Weimar society that formed Kracauer and his peers—and thus also formed the theory they exported as exiles into the us, where it was transmogrified.

Später’s story is a succession of intellectual and personal relationships, and friendship becomes a political and philosophical term over the course of the biography. Später shows Kracauer’s youth to have been a lonely one, on account of his stutter (which he overcame only after he was forced to move to the us and speak in English) and curious appearance: his broad nose, dark skin and bulging eyes gave him a look which Joseph Roth described in a 1928 letter as ‘un-European’ and which, together with the stutter, was the reason why he could not officially represent the newspaper that employed him for thirteen years. At 18, Kracauer wrote in his diary that ‘everything in me screams for a friend, my whole present life and yearning amounts to one thing: the search for a friend.’ Such loneliness was mirrored theoretically in his early existential critique of capitalism—with its references to alienation, dislocation and uprooting—and became the basis for his resolution to change utterly: to discard the hollow self and dive into the flow of existence; becoming a flâneur, a rag-picker, a participant-observer. An outsider goes outside.

Compensation for Kracauer’s youthful friendlessness came later. He frolics in the light and shadow of Weimar’s renowned intellects across these pages. Adorno, Benjamin, Bloch and Kracauer are here conceived, as they conceived themselves, as a ‘philosophical quartet’ or ‘peer group’, whose members reviewed, referred to and discussed each other’s work—sometimes supporting, sometimes scorning—as they engaged in a common endeavour: rummaging through the everyday—its bagatelles and trifles—in pursuit of philosophical insight and political experience that could become, to borrow Bloch’s phrase, ‘philosophy as cabaret’. (‘Like sailing-ships in bottles or blossoming trees and snow-covered towers sealed and preserved in revolving glass balls, the philosophical truths of the world are preserved here behind the panes of shop windows’, Bloch wrote.) Yet these relationships were never so idyllic, and changed—as relationships are wont to do—over time. Später lays out the tensions between his four key figures (who likely never met in person as a group). In the early years, after meeting through a family friend at the end of the First World War, Adorno and Kracauer enjoyed an extremely intimate relationship. As Adorno felt Kracauer—who was fourteen years his elder—distancing himself and developing individual ties with Bloch and Benjamin in the late 1920s, his spiteful side emerges. He warns Kracauer that Bloch had ‘robbed him to the bone’ and that Benjamin spoke of them both ‘condescendingly’ to a girlfriend. While Später’s work benefits from the consultation of countless unpublished materials, including diaries and correspondence, the reputations of Adorno and of others—including Benjamin—do not. The philosophical quartet becomes a trio in 1937, when Benjamin and Adorno judge Kracauer to have left ‘their common position’ with the Offenbach study. Adorno suggests (and Benjamin agrees) that ‘you, Ernst and me’ undertake ‘a common action’, one which involves suppressing Kracauer’s voice.

In Später’s text, Kracauer has a tendency to recede into the background as the milieu of Weimar thinkers and institutions is carefully reconstructed, or the strands of neo-Kantianism, Lebensphilosophie and the varieties of Marxism (Soviet, Western and others) are thoughtfully laid out—especially the impact of Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness on a generation of thinkers, including Kracauer. Später is interested in delineating the small as well as the large differences between Marxists and anarchists (and between the varieties of both). In Kracauer’s specific case, at least in 1930 when he published The Salaried Masses, the situation was thus: Kracauer oriented himself towards Marx without wanting to be a Marxist; he sought a dialectic without wanting to prescribe a philosophy of totality; and he left space for subjective experience without wanting to deny generality. Später represents the internal disputes amongst members of the philosophical quartet as political, but never dryly so—they are always also part of a fervent quest to calibrate the roles of materialism and metaphysics, the theology of the profane, in any analysis of the world that aims at its overturning.

This biography is a major achievement. It is not designed to elevate its subject, and yet it exudes sympathy for him. Over the course of Später’s study, Kracauer encounters and is transformed by factories, labour exchanges, shops, cinemas and universities, as well as by the cities of Frankfurt, Berlin, Paris, Marseille, New York and Naples (where the porosity of the local stone suggested a way of practicing philosophy to a raft of Critical Theorist tourists). The reader watches Kracauer twist and turn in the winds of a turbulent world, trying to remain as close as possible to the quotidian reality he so relentlessly tracked. This gelatinous man would even find it in himself at the end of his life, as Später relays, to thrust his particular self, his I, into the foreground, the ‘philosophy of the anteroom’, and attempt to delineate the fundamental continuity of his life’s work. Später’s final verdict here is not glowing. The philosophy of Kracauer’s later years could not live up to the promise of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, nor was it as gripping as Bloch’s Principle of Hope or Benjamin’s theses on the philosophy of history. But Kracauer had irons in many fires, and even without a magnum opus to his name, his miscellany had, and has, much to offer.

However, Später’s study is so concerned with the context within and against which Kracauer operates that the details of the writing itself can sometimes feel lost. Kracauer’s most appreciated donation to critical theory might appear to be the feuilleton, essay and review work of the 1920s and early 1930s, produced for the Frankfurter Zeitung. These appear in four part-volumes of the nine-volume German collected Werke, which began publication in 2004, and so constitute quite a chunk of the legacy. Später spends little time with this body of work, discussion of which is largely restricted to a single chapter. These sketches are not dwelt on, which is to say that they are not delved into in order to yield knowledge about the Germany of the time, or even to understand what insights might be conveyed by philosophical cabaret. All that goes into making philosophical cabaret possible or necessary is accounted for in this volume. But what that intellectual mode itself might offer by way of insight into that larger context is largely absent.