The writings of the German–Jewish social /cultural theorist Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) have been overshadowed until recently by those of his contemporaries and colleagues, Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno. Indeed, all too often judged exclusively on the basis of his post-war English-language writings on film and cinema, Kracauer has long been misread and maligned in the Anglophone academy as a naive ‘realist’ film theorist. Fortunately, this erroneous assessment is now changing. Renewed interest in Critical Theory and its Frankfurt School exponents is leading to a growing appreciation of the originality, subtlety and complexity of Kracauer’s works and especially his earlier essays penned as a journalist / feuilletonist for the Frankfurter Zeitung during the Weimar Republic. In these fragmentary texts, Kracauer provides an intriguing and insightful critique of modern metropolitan mass culture, identifying the formation and pre-eminence of new class groupings in the contemporary city and interrogating the conditions and qualities of everyday urban experience itself.
This essay does not provide a general introduction to Kracauer’s work or overview of his themes, but rather explores one key motif with which he was preoccupied throughout his writings: the evocative yet elusive concept of ‘improvisation’. Strongly influenced by his erstwhile tutor in Berlin, the sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel, Kracauer presents a pessimistic vision of metropolitan modernity, a system and a space in which increasingly powerful forms of rationalisation, calculation and abstraction lead to the atomisation, overstimulation and eventual indifference of the spiritually impoverished urban individual. Yet Kracauer is also attentive to what he sees as positive, indeed perhaps utopian, moments lodged in this otherwise bleak and forbidding environment. In its confusion and profusion of chance encounters and contingencies, the modern city is where the fortuitous, the haphazard and accidental take on a particular significance, ephemeral conjunctions and configurations best captured, kracauer contents, by the new medium of film.
This paper traces how Kracauer comes to see the improvisional (literally: the ‘unforseen’), as both a necessary and a critical response to the exigencies of metropolitan living. As a spatial, bodily, material and temporal practice, improvisation draws upon the playfulness and imagination of children’s fairytales and of slapstick comedy to suggest possibilities and potentialities transcending the alienated, mechanised, commodified life-world of modernity. In presenting us with images of improvisation, the films of comics such as Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, envision a world of renewed and non-instrumental relations between humans and objects, of revived and benign relations between humans and Nature. These are ludic realms in which the powerful are outwitted by the weak and downtrodden, and human ‘character’ serendipitously triumphs over fate and death.
The paper concludes with some brief reflections on the critical, utopian promise of the improvisional conceived as the ad lib.