the mass ornament


By Gabriel Cohn*

Commentary on the book that brings together the main short writings of Siegfried Kracauer.

Siegfried Kracauer (impossible to spell his name without the feeling that already in his conflicting terms – Germanic, pure and hard, and Polish Jew – there is a sign of the tensions and turbulences that would mark the life and work of this figure of perennial “extraterritoriality” , as he defined himself), is known above all for his book on German cinema in the 1920s until the advent of Nazism in 1933, From Caligari to Hitler.

the editing of the mass ornament, bringing together his main short writings – in addition to offering excellent examples of the high level of great German cultural journalism in the 1920s – allows us to have a better idea of ​​the breadth of his contribution to the rich strand of German-Jewish critical thought between the 1920s and the 1960s. XNUMXs, in Germany and in exile.

A contribution, incidentally, that deserved the explicit recognition of some of its greatest figures, especially those close to the circle that became known as the Frankfurt School. Walter Benjamin, with whom he was on the fateful attempt to escape to France via Spain, had paid tribute to him of which he was very proud. Referring to his 1930 book on The employees, Benjamin highlighted his importance in the “radicalization of intelligence” and called Kracauer a “rag-man at dawn, who catches the rags of speech and the rags of words (…) at dawn on the day of the revolution”. Adorno – to whom the book is dedicated – never withheld how much he owed him, and it makes sense to conjecture that the title of an aphorism by Minimum Moralia (Azougue), number 18, “Asylum for the homeless”, is a reference, cryptic like all the others in that work, to the chapter thus named in Kracauer's book.

Kracauer was, by training, an architect. In reality, his degree was in engineering, which at the severe German university of his time meant heavy technical training at all levels of this area of ​​knowledge. I remember this to emphasize that this humanist by vocation knew from the inside the alternative fields of intelligence exercise. He never appreciated, however, the exercise of his profession, however much he was gifted for it in at least one aspect: the rich sensitivity to the spatial dimension, nourished by a style of thinking completely focused on the exercise of vision. It is impossible not to remember here the contrast with his friend Adorno, who characterized himself as someone who “thinks with his ears”, and who would later distance himself from him in the context of a difficult relationship, in which the “extraterritorial” condition, displaced in the space of one contrasted with the condition of “untimely”, displaced in time by the other.

Stronger, in all aspects, is the affinity with another common friend, Walter Benjamin, who was also given to scrutinizing the world with an attentive and melancholy eye. Some have already noticed the architectural construction of this collection, with its six parts distributed by the author himself, who still had time to organize it, in “natural geometry”, “external and internal objects”, “constructions”, “perspectives” and an ending as a “vanishing point”, all of which still includes an apparently anomalous and, nevertheless, very significant section in its production, simply entitled “cinema”. A composition with a strong “ornamental” character, as the editor of his complete works, Karsten Witte, himself a film scholar with strong personal and intellectual affinities with Kracauer, wrote.

Kracauer would hardly have raised the title of one of the texts in his collection to the condition of reference for the whole if the idea of ​​“ornament of the masses” did not seem especially significant to him. The question is: what is, in fact, its meaning? The expression is laden with ambiguity – something not surprising in a master of dealing with ambiguous meanings, which point in conflicting directions and derive their strength from this internal tension. The idea of ​​ornament refers to that of something accessory, which is added on a whim, or by convention, to what really matters. For that very reason, it was anathema to Kracauer's fellow architects who adhered to the strict lines of functionality.

At the same time, the ornament, the surface feature of the set, is what is most striking, precisely because it is on the surface. This already suggests that Kracauer is attentive to what is on the surface, he refuses to discard it in the name of what it covers; however, he refuses to remain in it without discovering its meaning. In this sense, the term ornament has a critical nature in Kracauer's vocabulary. Should we then understand mass ornament as that with which the mass is adorned? Or is the solution found in the Italian translation of the work, which alludes to “pasta as ornament” more appropriate? The text in which Kracauer deals directly with the theme suggests both things: the ornament belongs to the masses, and they appear as ornament. Appear to whom? This is the point: they appear to themselves.

Ornament constitutes the way the masses look and the way they are led to see themselves. Throughout this text, and the others, the use of an allusive style multiplies, in which a network of interpretation is woven into the interstices of phenomena to find their meaning. The analysis is not so much in search of depth as of filling in the voids on the surface. For this, this “ragman” does not disdain what Freud called “the waste of the phenomenal world”.

The most dense text in the volume, a classic until today, deals with Georg Simmel, the father of all, an extraordinary figure who, in addition to Kracauer, left his mark on Lukács, Benjamin, Adorno, Elias and many others. Simmel is, in a way, the patron of this unique mix of philosopher, sociologist, psychologist, writer and public cultural figure who gave incomparable density to thought in the German language at his time and continues to live, far beyond his territory of origin (not least because he was deprived of it, and knew how to make the best of that condition) in the contemporary world.

A passage from this remarkable text allows us to characterize the intellectual profile of Kracauer himself, in terms of what he had and what he would like to overcome. (In this spirit, incidentally, there is remarkable parallelism between Kracauer's tribute to Simmel and Adorno's tribute to Kracauer.) Simmel, he writes, is not the type of thinker who limits himself to concatenating facts, nor, on the other hand, does he seek an “absolute meaning of the world”. He is “a mediator between the phenomenon and the idea. Starting from the surface of things, with the help of a network of analogical relationships and substantive affinities, he penetrates to their spiritual foundations; it thus evidences the symbolic character on every surface (…). The most insignificant event points the way towards the depths of the soul (…). In Simmel, a light that comes from within makes phenomena shine, like the fabric and the ornament in certain paintings by Rembrandt” (p. 273).

In this, both Kracauer and Simmel find themselves at their best and within their limits, which Kracauer seeks to overcome in his own way (starting with his unshakable adherence to the primacy of reason, against trends such as the “philosophy of life” of Simmel). This book bears witness to this search, carried out by a restless and aware mind, like Simmel, that “thinking hurts”.  

*Gabriel Cohn He is Professor Emeritus at FFLCH at USP. Author, among other books, of Weber, Frankfurt – theory and social thought (Quicksilver).

Article originally published in Journal of Reviews.


Siegfried Kracauer. The mass ornament. São Paulo, Cosacnaify, 2009 (

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