Literature and Close Reading: An Interview with Andreas Huyssen

By Eric BulsonFebruary 19, 2016

Literature and Close Reading: An Interview with Andreas Huyssen
ANDREAS HUYSSEN, whose name is widely recognized, though regularly mispronounced and misspelled, has been writing about modernism and postmodernism for more years than he’d like to admit. At Columbia University, he continues to teach a legendary course on Frankfurt School Critical Theory — a major body of work by 20th-century German intellectuals — that confounds, inspires, and enlightens undergraduate and graduate students alike. I was among those lucky enough to watch him unpack Georg Lukács’s masterpiece, History and Class Consciousness, and follow it up with a robust explanation for why the debates about aesthetics and politics between Lukács and Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Bertolt Brecht, are as urgent today as ever.

Huyssen had an early career in various European universities before moving to the United States, where he published “Mapping the Postmodern” in 1984. At the time, this essay helped his newly acquired American audience understand how postmodernism was itself following the failed attempts of the European avant-gardes to resist the institutionalization and commodification of art. It remains one of the most important interventions into the debates about postmodernism. Since then, he has published widely on issues related to the politics of memory, the visual arts, and urban imaginaries in a global perspective.

In his most recent book, Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film, Huyssen returns to two of the things he loves most: literature and close reading. The short prose-pieces of Charles Baudelaire, Franz Kafka, Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Robert Musil, and Adorno occasion a series of sophisticated observations about the way new media technologies were helping to revolutionize modes of perception. Don’t be fooled, though: this is not a book about the past. Huyssen has put together another map that can help us navigate the digital age in which we are now living.


ERIC BULSON: With the exception of your two early books in German, you usually have written essays that are only collected into editions later. Why write a book at this point in your career?

ANDREAS HUYSSEN: Privileging the form of the essay had to do with two things: my switch to writing in English after coming to the US — a welcome liberation from the requirements of lengthy and stodgy German academic prose — and my editorial work on New German Critique since 1974, at a time of radical reorientation in the field of German literary studies. The humanities in general at that time required interventions on a variety of intellectual issues in literature, the visual arts, cultural theory, mass culture, and the then raging postmodernism debates. It was not a time for long-term single-topic projects. The academic essay seemed the proper medium. Still, these earlier essay collections did have their thematic and conceptual centers — whether postmodernism or memory politics.

So why the long format now?

It was simply the conviction that what I call the “modernist miniature,” though acknowledged, has never been recognized as a major literary innovation. Hiding in plain sight, as it were, the miniature called for a sustained treatment and close reading in all its variety from Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Kafka to Kracauer, Musil, and Benjamin. The paradox is, of course, that now there is a long book about writing miniatures.

What, then, is a modernist miniature?

Modernist miniatures are short prose texts written for little magazines or newspaper feuilletons (arts supplements) by major German, French, and Austrian modernists. Always published in groups, they reflect on the fleeting experiences of modern city life, especially as it was shaped by the arrival of photography and early cinema. As such, they register the resulting historical transformation in perceptions of time and space in the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries. These feuilleton texts, which we now read in book form — for example, Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris or Benjamin’s One-Way Street — sought to capture the visceral feeling of acceleration and compression, social conflict, and cultural upheaval that defined urban existence. In their focus on dream images, ghostly appearances, surreal memories, and urban phantasmagorias, they largely shunned the realistic description, typical of older urban sketches like those of Louis Sébastien Mercier in the 18th century. The miniature did not merely imitate visual media — it absorbed them, condensing objec­tive and subjective perceptions into the very structure of language and text and asserting the aesthetic specificity of literary language and its own power to capture visual experience. In their compressed form, miniatures also accommodate the short attention spans of urban readers, but in their conceptual ambition and complexity, they sit like foreign bodies in the feuilleton, a section of the newspaper mainly geared toward easy consumption.

How does this particular project fit in with the work you’ve been doing over the years?

Since my post-doctoral days, my work on modern literature and culture in Europe and the US has been shaped by the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and related theorists — writers like Lukács, Bloch, and Brecht, all of whom experienced a strong reception in the US in the wake of the 1960s. The thought of the Weimar Left and the German exiles, especially those in LA, came to be central for my attempt to understand the American obsession with the postmodern from a European perspective. This work resulted in the essays collected in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (1986). Memory politics and the urban environment became my focus after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when I witnessed close-up the transformation of Berlin and German political culture. I wrote about these changes in the essays collected in Twilight Memories (1994) and Present Pasts (2003). Later, I was led to explore the issue of urban imaginaries in a context decidedly beyond the world of the Northern Transatlantic, which at the time was still dominant in architectural and urban studies. This shift resulted in the edited volume Other Cities, Other Worlds: Urban Imaginaries in a Globalizing World (2008). However, the contemporary transformation of metropolitan areas worldwide under neoliberal siege and digital triumphalism raised questions about the earlier development of metropolitan experience in its relationship to emerging new media — for nothing is ever quite as new as it claims. I recognized then that the major critical theorists of modernity and of modern media in whom I was interested — Kracauer, Benjamin, and Adorno — had themselves produced amazing texts in this literary project that I now see were metropolitan miniatures. Felicitously, the renewed focus in literary studies on the visual and on the history/theory of media provided a new framework that led me to construct the metropolitan miniature as an object of exploration. Nonetheless, the method remained an expanded form of close reading, drawing conceptually on these now canonical Frankfurt School theorists.

How is Miniature Metropolis different from what you’ve done earlier?

It is, without apology, a book about literature. At the same time, it reads modernist literature as a response to competitive pressures emerging from new media such as photography and film, so it accompanies the recent switch from “cultural studies” (perhaps better phrased cultural history) to media studies. To avoid a misunderstanding: while I insist on the differential specificity of the literary miniature in relation to visual media, I do not claim superiority of one over the other. Instead, I am interested in the permanent negotiation between the visual and the verbal, which was already constitutive of 20th-century modernism and which has reached a new crescendo in the commercial and social media of our day.

Why was the miniature so popular in Austria, Germany, and France in the first half of the 20th century?

It was kick-started with Baudelaire in post-revolutionary Paris, capital of the 19th century, as Benjamin called it. If Baudelaire — with Rilke and Louis Aragon in his wake — made Paris legible in new ways, then Kafka, Kracauer, Ernst Jünger, Benjamin, and Musil did the same for Prague, Berlin, and Vienna — capitals of the latecomers of industrial urbanization. The rate of growth in these cities was significantly larger and faster in the late 19th century than in London or Paris. Furthermore, the axis powers’ loss of World War I wrought radical transformations in political and urban experiences in Austria and Germany that had no match in the older European capitals, which returned to a new normal.

So the miniature and the metropolis are a match made in media heaven, but how do they relate to the photomontages of artists Hannah Höch and John Heartfield, which you discuss in one of the chapters?

At first, not at all. As opposed to the literary miniature, which is never accompanied by pictures of any kind, these photomontages combine the visual with the language of newspaper cut-outs and elaborate captions. I needed to acknowledge photomontage as a major artistic practice of the 1920s, if only to mark its difference from an earlier understanding of the photograph as a single shot image. Baudelaire and Kafka were both obsessed by photography, but they also hated it, and their literary miniatures could be best understood as an effort at remediation of this early understanding of the photograph. At the same time, photomontage does in the visual realm what the authors of the miniature do as they create a mosaic of texts in their collections. The structuring principle of montage was already there in Baudelaire’s miniatures in Le Spleen de Paris long before montage became a major aesthetic practice in the visual field of the historical avant-garde. Baudelaire famously suggested that the sequence of his miniatures could be radically altered without doing damage to the whole. The photomontages by Hannah Höch, a major member of Berlin Dada, especially resonate with the miniature as a form in that they focus intensely on just one aspect of metropolitan life and its mass culture: the photographic transformation of women’s images into fashionable commodity images as products of the male imagination.

The miniature may have begun with Baudelaire, but isn’t it also part of a much longer process of media transformations involving this tension between the visual and the verbal that goes back to the Greeks?

True, and yet, there is something new happening with the miniature. Film and photography articulated in visual vocabulary what those texts conjured up in language. The miniature does not represent an autonomous sphere of the literary, nor is it simply mimetic of the new technological media. Instead, it insists on the specificity of the literary in the way it transforms central visual experiences of the city into language. It thus represents another very specific stage in the age-old negotiation between the visual and the verbal arts. Not pictura and poesis à la Horace, but perhaps narratio under erasure (the miniature does not tell stories) and cinema/photography as another kind of writing: writing in light.

Are you responding here to critics, such as Friedrich Kittler, who associate the arrival of new media at the beginning of the 20th century with the end of literature?

Yes, I do. No question, literature around 1900 did feel threatened by the rise of photography and film. But it didn’t fold its tents. Contrary to what a media theorist like Kittler has claimed, it provided a powerful response to advances in technological media. The discourse of media history after McLuhan is littered with teleological metaphors: from portraiture to photography, from photography to film, from drama or novel to the cinema, from cinema to television, from television to the internet. The process of remediation in McLuhan held that the respective new medium always remediates an older one. Even someone as sophisticated as Kittler remained in McLuhan’s shadow when he claimed that literature around 1900 was pushed to the margins by technology. With my work on the miniature, I want to suggest that the reverse can also be true: that the old medium, in this case literature, can remediate the newer ones, creating new and unexpected hybridities of cultural articulation. That’s what I call remediation in reverse in the writing of miniatures by Baudelaire, Kafka, Musil, Benjamin, and Kracauer, all of whom explicitly related their writing to the visual media. Each one of these writers remediates differently from the others, depending to some extent on the state of the art of photography and film in their time.

Your book ends with a coda devoted to Adorno’s Minima Moralia, suggesting that this work marks the end of the miniature. Why? Isn’t Minima Moralia more of a collection of aphorisms?

You are right. Peter Suhrkamp, Adorno’s publisher, suggested that Minima Moralia could be compared to Benjamin’s short prose texts such as One-Way Street or Berlin Childhood Around 1900. Adorno, probably mindful of the fact that Nietzsche’s aphorisms were really closer to the genealogy of his text, rejected this comparison, but as one asks about the place of the city in Adorno’s miniatures from exile, it becomes clear that they can be read as a late expression of this new form, which, as Bloch once said, is no longer really a form.

Minima Moralia was written when Adorno was living in exile in Los Angeles and yet the city is nowhere to be found. Or is it?

Right again. The city of Los Angeles is largely absent in this text. But so too are Prague, Berlin, and Vienna from the miniatures of Kafka, Jünger, and Musil. This absence of realistic description characterizes the miniature and marks its distance from the urban sketch, that other major mode of writing the city that goes back to Mercier’s Le Tableau de Paris from the 1780s and that was also widespread in the feuilletons of the period. Just think of the marvelous urban sketches of Robert Walser or Joseph Roth, or even of Benjamin’s descriptions of Moscow or Naples, which are fundamentally different from the miniatures of One-Way Street. For me, Adorno’s experience of LA marks the end of the metropolitan miniature. He recognized that this city, contrary to the European cities of the early 20th century, was no longer an island of modernization in a largely provincial and agricultural national environment. LA was the model of a city oozing out beyond its borders as urban modernity had begun to invade and to capture all territories of the nation state via communications, traffic patterns, and suburbanization, a development that caught on in Western Europe only in the 1950s and 1960s. LA of course also provided the ground for Adorno’s theory of an all-engulfing culture industry that left no corner of modern life untouched.

You mentioned earlier that you edited a collection of interdisciplinary essays about world cities today (Other Cities, Other Worlds, 2008), but now you’ve returned to the European metropolis. What’s the difference here?

The metropolitan form of European cities in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries differs fundamentally from the form of contemporary conurbations, which are huge and amorphous urban conglomerates that have merged formerly separate cities thus wiping out traditional borders between city and country. The work by major world city scholars I organized and edited in the volume you mention sharpened my senses for that very different earlier metropolitan formation and its literary manifestation that ultimately determined the shape of Joyce’s Dublin, Döblin’s and Irmgard Keun’s Berlin, Dos Passos’s New York, and Musil’s Vienna.

Benjamin and Kracauer are singled out for their production of "city images," and yet they are very different from one another. Why?

Indeed, if there is a core to the project of this book, it is the street texts of Kracauer and Benjamin. These texts are largely unacknowledged, yet they are a key part of their authors’ critique of the bourgeois capitalist society of their days. At the same time, they also mark an important genealogical site of contemporary media theory, as both Kracauer and Benjamin wrote extensively about photography and film. Their city texts have often been compared to each other as Denkbilder, or thought images. Yet Roth already realized in the 1920s that Kracauer writes from the street and its experiences, whereas Benjamin doesn’t leave his desk or his place in the library. Kracauer is immersed and haunted by the visual experiences of the city. Benjamin reads the city as script. But both, and this brings them together again, write the city without embedding supplemental pictures or photographs in their texts.

What kind of "city images" would they produce now?

Who knows, really, but one thing is for sure: they would have had to respond to the overwhelming presence of digital media in our negotiation and experience of urban space. They would find dystopia and destruction: New Orleans, downtown New York, Detroit, not to speak of the bombed out shells of Beirut and Syrian cities today. Would they write ironically about the transformation of factories and older industrial regions in Europe and the US into cultural centers and green parks? What would they make of the transformation of Latin American jails and torture centers into memorials and museums commemorating historical and political trauma? Indeed, how would they relate to the contemporary obsessions with memory? Given the erasure of temporal dimensions in the algorithms that run our digitalized lives, would Benjamin still be able to locate some critical force in the obsolete? What kind of dialectic of modernity, they might ask, is there to be had in those real and virtual sites at a time of major economic crisis often compared to the crash of 1929 and its afterlife? And how might they have reacted to a recent art exhibit in New York that was called “Forever Now,” a temporal nightmare of neoliberalism that makes one think that the undead will always live longer? No doubt, they would try to locate some dialectic of past and future, but the communist future they imagined in the interwar period has disappeared for good.

You make the point that this reordering of spatial and temporal perception in the metropolis of the 1900s mirrors our own digital moment. Is that so?

I’m not a technophobe, but I do worry that digital media lock us into the forever now of a consumerist present, thus blocking imaginaries of alternative futures. At the same time, thinking of alternatives has become incredibly difficult after the collapse of the 20th century’s three major utopias: fascism, communism, and modernization. And yet, imagining other futures beyond the current status quo and its threats to the planet and to democracy remains an inescapable task.

Are these utopias what make these critical theorists so relevant today?

Yes, they saw very clearly the dialectic of the new media, their upside and their downside, the way they expanded the realm of the knowable and the way they flooded perception drowning out critical thinking. It is their questions that are pertinent today, more than their answers.

And for you tomorrow … what’s next? Are you going back to writing essays?

I’m in the midst of a project of rewriting and expanding a set of essays on the contemporary visual arts that I have written over the past dozen-plus years for a variety of art catalogs. It will be about artists from beyond the white Northern Transatlantic, artists who work out of the memory of historical trauma such as South African apartheid, Latin American state terror, the Vietnam War, or the Indian Partition, and who use the legacies of European modernism and avant-gardism to articulate vibrant critiques of our post-20th-century condition. A basic proposition to be tested is that political aesthetics maintains its urgency in artistic productions from the so-called periphery much more intensely than in the saturated and ever more obscene Western art markets. This project will take time. I’m in no hurry.


Eric Bulson is the author of the forthcoming book, little magazine, world form.

LARB Contributor

Eric Bulson is the author of the forthcoming book, little magazine, world form.


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