Attempting to Translate “The Mass Ornament” (TBC)

Siegfried Kracauer. “The Mass Ornament.” In Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Translated by Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, 74-86.

An excavation which proceeds sectionally, as does Kracauer:


In the first paragraph of this essay, Kracauer sets his readers up for the analysis of popular culture that is to follow, kneading us into a receptive mode through which we might grasp the significance of studying synchronized dancers:

The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself. Since these judgments are expressions of the tendencies of a particular era, they do not offer conclusive testimony about its overall constitution. The surface-level expressions, however, by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things. Conversely, knowledge of this state of things depends on the interpretation of these surface-level expressions. The fundamental substance of an epoch and its unheeded impulses illuminate each other reciprocally. (75)

Earlier in the spring I stopped after this mysterious first paragraph, wondering how I might apply Kracauer’s explanation of “reading the surface” to my own continuing curiosities about a domain of popular culture which, by its own declaration, pertains more to health and fitness than it does to passive entertainment. Already a few questions emerge here: what does it mean for an expression to be inconspicuous — is it by definition what we are so accustomed to that we overlook its meaning? How useful is the translation of marginalia to decipher the moment when it seems possible that only retrospectively can we decipher its era, when inevitably our own judgments interfere with our ability to discern such relevancy in fringe or frivolous expressions of culture? Two terms pose as reciprocal curiosities: “fundamental substance” and “unheeded impulses;” these descriptions nonetheless seem obtuse in their meaning, regardless of any potential issues of translation from the original German. I’m inclined to read “unheeded impulse” as expressions and manifestations of desire which seem trivial, which makes it convenient to apply Kracauer’s attentiveness to such expressions towards contemporary popular culture at large — attempting to decipher architectures of thought from aspects of culture which seem essentially “ornamental,” and thus trivial, while also admitting our limitations as viewers to have an unmediated glimpse into the fundamental substance of our time. This first paragraph might be something like reciprocally a manifest and a disclaimer, one not cancelling each other out, but rather, each makes the mode of analysis all the more relevant. By attempting to read the surface of our moment, and tend to that which we’d prefer to discount as irrelevant, we may get a reprieve from our recalcitrant preconceptions about where it is we are within some broader historical process (a slightly Marxist lean to his language,  here) — familiarization by disassociation, which seems to be one of the many things that art uniquely can do for us. Kracauer invites us to observe absurd, marginal, and ornamental elements of culture with ekphrastic attentiveness, reading “unserious” aspects of culture with a critical attentiveness which does not settle for a simple rejection of their problematic aspects, but reads them seriously for what light they can shed upon other inter-related (yet spatially or visually separated) processes and aspects of culture. (This seems like an argument for an empirical approach to subjective matter; the evidence is in the “body culture” itself, rather than in our ideas or preferences of what it is that’s really happening, which I think is why this essay appeals to me so in my studies of popular health fads. It seems somewhat metaphorical of Traditional Chinese Medicine, in that at any single point in the body, evidence about an entire network of inter-relations could be deduced.) (Another side-note: It’s interesting that Kracauer seems to be talking more about the present than the past, but refers to eras and historical process: this seems important; Ethan wonders, “how do we read surface-level expressions of the past,” considering what does and does not get communicated across the breadth of time?)


A discussion of the mass ornament of the Tiller girls then proceeds, which Kracauer situates within the historically ritualistic and mystical nature of artistic and cultural activities. The dissolution of bodies into one unit refuses to yield re-constituted individuality. The strict parallel geometry of the spectacle misleadingly represents organized content: “The star formations […] have no meaning beyond themselves, and the masses above whom they rise are not a moral unit like a company of soldiers, or even resonant of the eroticism of ballet (77). One cannot even describe the figures as the decorative frills of gymnastic discipline. Rather, the girl-units drill in order to produce an immense number of parallel lines, the goal being to train the broadest mass of people in order to create a pattern of undreamed-of dimensions.” (77) What can be said about an aesthetic that proposes it is “purely aesthetic” (meaning here, without moral justification, which is a masquerade, of course)? While Kracauer contrasts this empty organization of purely geometric mass participation to the collectivity of soldiers’ drills, I wonder how much the aesthetic nature of war is responsible for its appeal; how can be differentiate the aesthetic elements of such participation from the allure of a collective “moral” mandate? (This is a question that I do not pose rhetorically…)

Unearthing from the formal elements of the mass ornament this absence of outward reference to archetypal motifs or geometric patterns which refer to “nature” (or that which might be deduced from gazing at the external world) Kracauer then goes on to defend the significance of this emptiness. The “totality” of the performance eludes both performer and spectator, in a mimicry of the Taylor system of production: “Like the pattern in the stadium, the organization stands above the masses, a monstrous figure whose creator withdraws it from the eyes of its bearers, and barely even observes it himself.” (78) While such mass participation for its own sake, whose remarkability seems to arise from its magnitude more than its meaning, might be (and was) dismissed by “educated people — who are never entirely absent” (79) as content-less entertainment (i.e., purely “formal”), Kracauer then redeems the emptiness itself as leitimate mimesis of the actual social and geographic arrangement of its participants: “The masses organized in these movements come from offices and factories; the formal principle according to which they are molded determines them in reality as well. When significant components of reality become invisible in our world, art must make do with what is left, for an aesthetic presentation is all the more real the less it dispenses with the reality outside the aesthetic sphere.” (79) What a slam-dunking refusal to separate form and content — way to go, Kracauer! — “No matter how low one gauges the value of the mass ornament, its degree of reality is still higher than that of artistic productions which cultivate outdated noble sentiments in obsolete forms — even if it means nothing more than that.” (79) In other words, the vacuousness of the mass ornament is more honest and accurate than attempts to resuscitate an outdated art form which historically formed around monarchic and theological orientations to reality.


Having explored the mass ornament in terms of “high” and “low” culture as above, Kracauer then moves on to situate these performances in a broader historical context, pulling mythology into this consideration of an art form which has divested itself of such archetypal shapes and patterns. He argues that the same problems which faced ancient humanity face us, too: “After the twilight of the gods, the gods did not abdicate: the old nature within and outside man continues to assert itself.” (79) Positing that there are more and less reasonable ways of parcing our precarious position in nature (“a weak and distant reason”) whose battling with the uncertainty of the forces of nature amounts to the process of history itself. (79) Kracauer seems to be distinguishing between a form of reason which utilizes the formal units of “old nature” as the units of its composition, and the moral nature of early fairy tales, which begin to “introduce truth into the world.” (80)

What does Kracauer mean by “truth”? (Very occasionally I wish I spoke German.) He seems to be discussing the utility of mystification. Without getting snagged too much on parcing the terms that Kracauer is using, I think we can proceed for the time being with the premise that what is at stake is a historical “struggle between reason and mythological delusions that have invaded the domains of religion and politics.” (80) (It may be helpful to note that his book Mass Ornament was first published in Germany in 1927.) With the same sensitivity afforded to the Tiller girls, Kracauer is looking into the role of mysticism, as a way to understand its danger — the mass ornament is more evocative of such mysticism, though its geometry has ratio and reason to it; it is emblematic of a long-standing battle for reason (when even nationalism is no less mythological than organic sociology). Reasonability seems to refer to the units of composition, and what the nature of a “higher unity” is (80). What Kracauer’s opinion of justice and good within fairy tales are, I’m not quite sure.

In the last paragraph of this section, some terms re-emerge — “In serving the breakthrough of truth, the historical process becomes a process of demythologization which effects a radical deconstruction of the positions that the natural continually reoccupied.” This is interesting because the usage of “positions” as something which might be deconstructed or reoccupied complicates my initial understanding of its fixed historical status, as in section 1.


Now we discuss the capitalist epoch as a stalled process of demystification. Some grace notes here regarding the role of humanity within nature; Kracauer refuses to separate humanity from nature, while also acknowledging that the distance afforded through technological means of side-stepping natural forces opens up space for the “intervention of reason.” (80) While there is some fortune to be found in the destruction of its entrenchably mystical antecedents, “the Ratio of the capitalist economic system is not reason itself but a murky reason.” (81) It is reasonability gone hay-wire, no longer in service to the physical needs of its participants; “it does not encompass man.” (81) It is not too rational, Kracauer argues, but is rather an enormous magnification of a preliminary stage of demystification, overblown and fetal — many critics of capitalism year for a regression to earlier stages of humanity as more wholesome and somehow more “human,” failing to comprehend the stultifying aspects of mysticism itself. (81)

It is easy to see within this critique of mythological yearnings the imprint of contemporary nostalgia (which manifests in a yearning for materials and commodities more emblematic of such a position of humanity to nature), though I wonder how much the sinister nature of the time period in which this essay was written commands attentiveness to its specific historical context more than it allows for over-arching generalizations. Perhaps this is a question of how much danger ought to be sensed within the stirrings within popular culture for ancient or timeless orientations to both culture and lifestyle. (Which perhaps raises questions about the collective aesthetic nature of life-style practices.)

Kracauer then goes on to articulate the abstract rooting of capitalist thinking — an abstractness which seems itself to be spiritual, which “encompasses all expression.” (81) Kracauer does not suggest that contemporary folly lies in the abstractness itself so much as its mis-use, and the propensity of this “emptiness” of content to serve “any utilitarian application whatsoever.” (81-2) A pithy discussion of empiricism and natural sciences follows, as Kracauer distinguishes mythological and rational iterations of contemporary abstractness.

Kracauer then goes on to describe this self-imposed limitation upon reason (as demonstrated by this ambivalent abstractness) as inextricably connected to the economic system with which it is associated; he connects structures of thought to economic systems. The unchecked proliferation of capitalism is fertile grounds for the expansion of abstract thinking (a result of its illegitimate presentation of reason) which leaves one, once again, “subject to the forces of nature” — a regression to the thinking of an earlier historical epoch. All the while, Kracauer proposes that reason exists for us to utilize at any given point, but its disregard is deliberate or a reflection of a stubborn attachment to a mystical orientation of life. It is as though there is a correctly liberating orientation which awaits a humanity willing to contend with the unknown and simultaneously acknowledge its own agency; such a realization would bring us into a new historical epoch. (Here, I’m not sure how accurate my assessment of Kracauer’s anti-messianism is here, but the main point is that this critique of contemporary thinking is paired with the insistence upon alternatives.)


It suddenly occurs to me that we are discussing the imprint of religious or mystical thinking upon aesthetics. This shadow is articulated not by the mystical content of the aesthetic, but by the way in which participation with the aesthetic work is structured — what the geographical nature of the work suggests about where power is located, and if it resorts to a mythological power which lies behind all that is rationally explained, a kind of power which hides itself within the abstractness Kracauer describes. I’m reminded of the difference between “religion” and “magic,” and wonder whether applying that distinction would shed some light on Kracauer’s intended arguments, and about this divide between truth and nature. Another link between my own studies of mysticism and contemporary health fads, and this essay, then strikes me with its simplicity, which is the hinge of the word “nature” — the valorization of the natural, but here as something that is known, secure, reliable…

This occurs to me because it seems like what is at stake in this work is the spiritual aspect of the aesthetic, as we now turn back to the dance itself and its ambivalence. While certainly not reducible to this, this section continues to excavate the resonance between the unknown, and nature, but explicitly in relation to dances: “In the mass ornament nature is deprived of its substance, and it is just this that points to a condition in which the only elements of nature capable of surviving are those that do not resist illumination through reason.” (83) The reconstitution of mass participation via the mass ornament is an assemblage which reflects contemporary understandings of the knowledge of truth. Kracauer discusses the logic through which we assemble, and separate, parts from a whole; seemingly, the disintegration of “organic unity” is the workings of reason, but the logic which assembles the mass ornament sheds no light upon the individual units of its composition, as though they form a logical substrate whose composition results from an autonomic urge or need to compose a false unity. What Kracauer means by how “bare nature”  reveals itself through this cult-like nature of the mass ornament (84) is something I will continue to ponder.

Some questions that emerge for me in this section — the reasonability of allowing a part to substitute for a whole, and what that has to do with natural science; in what ways is this process distorted within the mass ornament? Are there multiple kinds of reason to which Kracauer is referring? What is the utility of the absorption? What are the differences between the mythology and the mass spectacle that Kracauer compares and contrasts?

This essay seems to be an articulation of the ways that “organic life” is pulled into forms which draw upon its powerful appeal without allowing its participants to go deeper than its surface-presentation; the effects of this retreat do go deeper than its superficial display.

We return again to the argument that pure participation in the mass spectacle is more “real” than clinging onto vestigial forms of high culture (85), which returns us to the very first sentence of the essay. (This is contrast to Adorno’s discussion of pop culture as “baby food.”) Nonetheless, we seem to be discussing the ways that physical fantasy (such as the desire for athletic ability) play out in popular culture as a diversion; this does not form the body of Kracauer’s argument, though I wonder how integral it is the popularity of spectacles like the mass ornament. (A substitution of sensations for their representation.) What might other art forms look like?


A further elaboration of the substitution of mysticism for an uncertainty which emerges out of reason, and a pursuit of erroneous exaltations.  An ambiguous ending returns me back to questions about what Kracauer means by fairy tales as distinguished from overly-convenient resolutions of our fragile and tenuous connection to nature; perhaps one take home is the linkage between structures of thinking, and aesthetics, which Kracauer doesn’t say explicitly, but seems to suggest, might illuminate each other reciprocally.

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