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Miriam Bratu Hansen

Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno

by Miriam Bratu Hansen
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2011
408 pp. Trade, $70.00, £48.95; paper & ebook, $29.95, £19.95
ISBN: 9780520265592; ISBN: 9780520265608; ISBN: 9780520950139.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Cinema and Experience is, alas, a posthumous publication, and the exceptional qualities of the scholarship of a book like this, by one of the leading voices in contemporary film theory and history, are so rich throughout that one feels ashamed to simply review it in the absence of its author (actually, each of its pages would deserve a close-reading and a meticulous and careful discussion). One can only hope that the research of Miriam Hansen, whose work on spectatorship has been crucial in the cultural turn of film studies, will be continued in many ways by those who have found in her writing and thinking good reasons to study film in new and innovative ways.

This book is clearly the result of a lifelong dialogue with the three major German authors on film of the (post-)Weimar period: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno. The position of their work in current scholarship is however very different. Kracauer’s reflection on film is often dismissed, partly due to the misunderstandings that have accompanied the reception of his 1960 Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (a study accused of naïve realism and uncritical acceptation of film as expression of representational verisimilitude). Benjamin’s texts on film, on the contrary, have benefited from the exceptional impact of his "Artwork" article (which does not represent however all of his thinking on film, often simplistically reduced to the idea of film as aura destruction, more particularly in the third and last version of this essay). Adorno’s ideas on film, finally, have routinely been discarded as elitist and aesthetically conservative due to their foregrounding in his famous 1947 book on the culture industry. In Cinema and Experience, Hansen offers a very thorough and detailed description of these three authors’ ideas on cinema, and in doing this, she follows more or less the chronology of their interventions.  For example, Kracauer occupies the first and last chapter of the book, whose central parts are devoted to a large section on Benjamin, followed by a briefer one on Adorno. But the aims of her study are, of course, much more far-reaching than the scrupulous reconstruction and explication of a corpus that is read here for the very first time in all its diversity.  Hansen does not limit herself to revisit the notorious monuments, she delves also in numerous hardly known texts, many of them never translated into English. What she actually is looking for is a twofold basic reinterpretation: On the one hand, she proposes to demonstrate the similarities and continuities between the three authors under scrutiny; on the other hand, she also aims at questioning the monolithic interpretation of their film criticism and theory. Logically enough, both objectives are closely intertwined.

Cinema and Experience, which is a book one can only close-read, has a very plain methodology. Three basic stances determine and underlie all of its interpretations.

First, historical contextualization. Hansen reconstructs the intellectual and conceptual background of all the major concepts used by Kracauer, Benjamin, and Adorno, and she achieves this goal by painstakingly unearthing the permanent debate between these three thinkers and the ongoing debates of their times (the plural is crucial here, for none of these works can be pigeonholed to just one specific intellectual environment or context), as well as by detecting the sometimes dramatic changes undergone by some of these concepts during their internal evolution.

Second: the palimpsestic character of the close-reading. Hansen does not simply rereads and reinterprets the texts and the concepts in the edited versions that have become canonical, she also discloses their previous versions as well as their marginalia and intellectual afterlife (including in the discussions between the three authors themselves). In the case of Kracauer, this means, for instance, that the 1960 Theory of Film (directly written in English, a problem for some of its first readers such as Pauline Kael) is confronted with the bilingual (German and English) notes that the author had been taking since his exile in Marseille (where he had to wait for the authorization to legally immigrate to the US). For Benjamin’s “Artwork” essay, Hansen uses each of its three versions: the handwritten manuscript, the French translation by Pierre Klossowski as published in 1936 in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, and the revised third or "German" version, which is from 1939 but whose publication will remain postponed till the posthumous 1955 Illuminationen edition. In the case of Adorno, Hansen completes the 1947 version of the Dialektik der Aufklärung (co-signed with Max Horkheimer) with later or excluded material that did not necessarily represent the vision of Adorno’s co-author.

Third: the exclusive focus on the double concept of cinema and experience (for this is not a book on film theory in general, and certainly not on the analysis of particular movies). The notion of experience (in the sense of “Erfahrung”, socially grounded in a whole context of living, and not of “Erlebnis”, which refers to a more immediate yet also more isolated form of experience) is of course a strategic concept.  It is in itself a reply to Adorno (whose insistence on the inherent qualities –or if one prefers, lack of quality– of film as culture industry tended to put between brackets any form of concrete experience); it is also a way of saving the heritage of Kracauer (who appears to have said much more on the cinematographic experience than his many detractors have always suggested) and a way of refocusing the Benjamin scholarship (overobsessed, according to Hansen, by the mere idea of film as aura destruction). Cinema, on the other hand, is not to be read here as “film,” but as the specific experience that was both creating modernity and being shaped by it. Cinema provides the framework that simultaneously reproduces and invents new ways of coping with technology, community, rupture, innovation, art, and most of the other notions and concepts that Hansen scrutinizes in her study.

Cinema and Experience is a difficult book. Not because its style is obscure or confused (on the contrary), but because its intellectual and philosophical ambitions are so high. Hansen takes for granted that her reader is perfectly familiar with the existing scholarship and the many cultural and historical debates on the reception of Kracauer, Benjamin, and Adorno,, and this is placing the stakes for the "ideal reader" very high. But all those who accept to follow the author on her passionate journey will be richly rewarded. Our apparently too well known ideas on film according to Kracauer, Benjamin, and Adorno become at second sight a frightening labyrinth with many dark meanders, but eventually the strong hand of Hansen leads us to unforeseen yet always illuminating insights, too various and too complex to be summarized by way of a review (in this regard one may regret that the index, which contains mainly proper nouns, does not fully pay justice to this wealth). And the style of the book is so compelling that no one will want not to follow the slightest of its threads.

Last Updated 3 March 2012

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