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The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays

The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays

By Siegfried Kracauer
Translated by Thomas Y. Levin

“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

“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

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.

Paperback
416 pages
6.2 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
Harvard University Press, 2005
Originally Published in 1963
ISBN 9780674551633
Criticism, Social Studies, German History 

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