Weimar culture is a construction no less of its contemporary commentators than of its leading artists, intellectuals and filmmakers. However ephemeral in some respects the output of its essayists and critics may have been, their contribution to our understanding, indeed to the terms of ongoing debates, remains indispensable. Siegfried Kracauer, known for his later study of German cinema, was among a number of Weimar writers who stood out for the eclecticism of their interests and for the ambition to synthesize from those interests a position from which to address culture as a whole. The form and content of his writing testify to a remarkable intellectual mobility. As a student of everything from architecture and philosophy to motion pictures and sociology, Kracauer stood at a very busy crossroads. Harry Craver’s new volume in the wide-ranging SPEKTRUM series from the German Studies Association demonstrates that he was also highly self-reflective in formulation of the role and function of the commentator/critic. As feuilletonist and as critic of popular culture, Kracauer sought to craft a position from which to assess a world he recognized had lost its traditional points of orientation and normative claims to truth. The aim of Reluctant Skeptic is to situate Kracauer in Weimar culture in light of how he drew from and responded to debates about secularization and the decline of religion, specifically in the context of the religious revival of the early 1920s. The focus is not religion per se, but what religious interests and claims could, and could not, contribute by way of response to post-war concerns. Craver examines Kracauer’s efforts to distil from shifting religious and philosophical currents answers to pressing social, political and cultural questions. These efforts came in recognition that the contribution of religion was made within a fundamentally secularized context. Religion too made accommodation to modernity, just as religious language and concepts aided assessment of secularized culture. Craver emphasises that although Kracauer adopted and deployed religious concepts in reflecting on the crises of his time, he analysed the role of religion not programmatically but as an element of his broader critical project, a project that drew on cultural threads as diverse as motion pictures and the detective novel. Reluctant Skeptic is therefore a study in framing broader issues using religion as mode of perception and source of concepts through which to address the fundamental intellectual tensions of the age: between the desire for and resistance to utopian answers, between the interest in and suspicion of metaphysical systems, between reliance on reason and unease about reduction of meaning to the rational. Craver argues that in constructing the role of critic Kracauer sought to ‘define a space between a materialist skepticism, on the one hand, and religious or metaphysical determinations of truth on the other’ (p. 210). In this regard he casts Kracauer in the role of epistemologist, one who worked from a reservoir of philosophical and religious ideas as well as from the surface of popular culture. In Kracauer’s thinking, the space between extremes, the middle way, could be articulated through the concept of ‘waiting’, a position between ‘messianic utopianism and nihilist skepticism’ which was indebted to religious concepts but rejected positive religion (p. 84). Against the religious flânerie of the post-war years, he urged skepticism and sobriety. In approach and form Reluctant Skeptic is a work of multi-layered contextualization and intersections, a study of what the author identifies as the intellectual milieus that Kracauer inhabited. As critic, Kracauer appears here principally as an interlocutor. Craver situates Kracauer in his vital context—what he read, who he corresponded with, what he singled out for attention. The story is told largely through Kracauer’s reading of the ideas of others. Craver thereby recreates for the reader the profoundly intersectional nature of Weimar culture, or at least that part of Weimar that chose openness over reaction. Among Kracauer’s principal interlocutors were writers as diverse as Max Scheler, Ernst Bloch, Oswald Spengler, Soren Kierkegaard and Alfred Döblin. Less familiar figures also play key roles. The result is an intriguing blend of ideational convergence and dissonance. At times the critic himself disappears, as it were, in the interlocution, the incessant dialogue which represented Kracauer’s intellectual world. This too is evocative of the Weimar in which discourse prevailed while the Republic struggled and eventually succumbed. Reluctant Skeptic opens a window into a moment and a place in time through in-depth analysis of Kracauer’s polyphonic engagement with pressing contemporary questions and the role of the critic in assessing them. It makes no claim that Kracauer’s perceptions of secularization and religion offer the paramount vantage point from which to take the measure of the crises we associate with Weimar, and it acknowledges that Kracauer’s attentiveness to religion ebbed in the later 1920s. It succeeds admirably in creating an intellectual milieu analogous to the socio-cultural or socio-denominational milieus explored in studies of Weimar political culture. It also offers a fresh perspective on the intellectual uncertainties of the post-war era. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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