Duty and Distraction

June 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Die Angestellten: Aus den neuesten Deutschland/The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany by Siegfried Kracauer (front cover, Verso edition, 1998)

Published in 1930, Die Angestellten: Aus den neuesten Deutschland/ The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany by the writer and theorist, Siegfried Kracauer, was critically acclaimed. His friend and fellow author, Walter Benjamin, wrote, ‘ the entire book is an attempt to grapple with a piece of everyday reality, constructed here and experienced now. Reality is pressed so closely that it is compelled to declare its colors and name names’. Kracauer sought to address the new class of salaried employees of the Weimar Republic:

Spiritually homeless, divorced from all custom and tradition, these white-collar workers sought refuge in entertainment—or the “distraction industries,” as Kracauer put it—but, only three years later, were to flee into the arms of Adolf Hitler. Eschewing the instruments of traditional sociological scholarship, but without collapsing into mere journalistic reportage, Kracauer explores the contradictions of this caste. Drawing on conversations, newspapers, adverts and personal correspondence, he charts the bland horror of the everyday. In the process he succeeds in writing not just a prescient account of the declining days of the Weimar Republic, but also a path-breaking exercise in the sociology of culture which has sharp relevance for today.

Informed by sociology and discourse of the cinema, the publication was innovative both methodologically, for what could be described as its anticipated ‘ethnographicness’ and the resulting representational strategies of the ‘montage principle’. Kracauer employed a hybrid-like approach including ‘quotation, conversation, report, narrative, scene, image’ and as Inka Muelder-Bach, in her introduction to the English edition, observes:

His investigation…refrains from formulating its insight in a conceptual language removed form its material. Instead, Kracauer seeks to construct in that material. In other words, knowledge of the material’s significance becomes the principle of its textual representation, so that the representation itself articulates the theory.

The significance of its representational structure as means to articulate the everyday of ‘salaried employees’ material living conditions and that of the ideologies superimposed on this reality’ make it a important publication of continuing critical resonance.

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