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Provisional insight

18-19 July 2008
Monash University Conference Centre, Melbourne

This colloquium drew together scholars from a diverse range of fields in order to analyse, debate and explore Siegfried Kracauer’s writings. Through a detailed engagement with his writings on diverse topics including film, photography, architecture, popular culture and history, the colloquium illuminated Kracauer’s difference in thinking through his early Weimar writings, the immediate post-war period and the books he wrote while living in exile in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s.

Invited speakers


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Ad Lib: Reflections on Siegfried Kracauer and the Image of Improvisation

Graeme Gilloch

Graeme Gilloch

This paper seeks to explore one of Siegfried Kracauer’s most suggestive but least developed concepts: ‘improvisation’. Improvisation stands in opposition to the ornamental and serves as a key motif in Kracauer’s vision of modern metropolitan experience and his understanding of the potential of the cinematic medium. In his presentation of diverse practices and images of improvisation – bodily, performative, material, textual – Kracauer points to the critical and comic qualities of the felicitously unforeseen. The paper concludes by arguing for the utopian promise of acting ‘according to pleasure’.

Graeme Gilloch is a Reader in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University. He has published two monographs on the writings of Walter Benjamin (both with Polity Press, Cambridge: Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City [1996] and Critical Constellations: Walter Benjamin [2002]). In addition, he has published numerous essays exploring Benjamin’s work in relation to more contemporary theorists (especially Jean Baudrillard), writers (Paul Auster, W.G. Sebald, Orhan Pamuk) and artists (Sophje Calle, Janet Cardiff). A former Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow at Frankfurt University, he is currently researching and writing an intellectual biography of Siegfried Kracauer.

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Denaturing Time

Andrew Benjamin

Andrew Benjamin

On a number of occasions in the texts that make up The Mass Ornament Kracauer is concerned to position modernity against nature. Rather than understanding this development as a simple refusal of nature it must be understood as integral to the complex politics of time that mark the advent of modernity.

Andrew Benjamin is Professor of Critical Theory and Philosophical Aesthetics at Monash University. He was previously Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Research in Philosophy and Literature at Warwick University. An internationally recognised authority on contemporary French and German critical theory, he has been Visiting Professor at Columbia University in New York and Visiting Critic at the Architectural Association in London. His many books include: What is Deconstruction? (1988), Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde (1991), Present Hope: Philosophy, Architecture, Judaism (1997), Philosophy’s Literature (2001) and Disclosing Spaces: On Painting (2004). He also edited The Lyotard Reader (1989), Abjection, Melancholia and Love: the Work of Julia Kristeva (1990) and Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy: Destruction and Experience (1993) and Walter Benjamin and Romanticism (2002).

Fertile Grounds: Kracauer’s Realist Film Theory, New York City 1945-1960

Deane Williams

This paper seeks to better understand the place of Kracauer’s Theory of Film amongst the debates about filmic realism that occurred in New York City in the immediate post-war years (Eduoard de Laurot, Jonas Mekas, James Agee). In seeking this understanding, this paper will diminish the traditional divide between filmic realism and modernism to propose that in this period, in this culture, that filmic realism was a pre-eminent modernist form. Of course these debates were accompanied by an upsurge in independent realist film making leading to the emergence of what we now call the New American Cinema. Another major aspect of these debates, one that is rarely dealt with and is an instructive and vital component is the films included for discussion. This paper will attend to these, including In the Street (James Agee and Helen Levitt 1953), The Quiet One (Sydney Meyers 1949), On the Bowery (Lionel Rogosin 1956), Little Fugitive (Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley 1953) and Cry of Jazz (Edward O. Bland 1959).

Deane Williams is Senior Lecturer, Film and Television Studies in the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies, Monash University, Melbourne. He has written on realist film in its many forms including documentary film and Australian film history. He is Foundation Editor of Studies in Documentary Film and in 2008 his Australian Postwar Documentary Films: An Arc of Mirrors will be published by Intellect and his (and Brian McFarlane’s) Michael Winterbottom will be published by Manchester University Press.

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Last Day Every Day: Figural Thinking in Auerbach, Kracauer, Benjamin and Some Others

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin

In A Philosophical Interpretation of Freud, Paul Ricoeur (drawing upon Hegel) remarks: “The appropriation of a meaning constituted prior to me presupposes the movement of a subject drawn ahead of itself by a succession of ‘figures’, each of which finds its meaning in the ones which follow it.” The notion of the figural has recently become popular in European film theory and analysis, especially due to the work of Nicole Brenez – in which the figure stands for “the force … of everything that remains to be constituted” in a character, object, social relation or idea. Her use of the term refers back to magisterial work of German literary philologist Erich Auerbach (Mimesis), who decoded the religious interpretive system wherein all persons and events are grasped as significant only insofar as they prefigure their fulfilment on the ‘last day’ of divine judgement. Auerbach’s 1920s work on figuration in Dante was an important influence on his friend Walter Benjamin; and it was this ‘theological’ aspect of Benjamin’s thought that caught Kracauer’s attention, leading to the problematic of the redemption of worldly things. In this lecture I will trace the notion of figural thinking from Weimar then to Paris (and beyond) today, taking in writings by William Routt and Giorgio Agamben, as well as two filmmakers also touched by figural thinking: Josef von Sternberg and Douglas Sirk.

Adrian Martin is Senior Research Fellow in Film and Television Studies, Monash University (Melbourne, Australia). His books include What is Modern Cinema? (Uqbar 2008), Raul Ruiz: Magnificent Obsessions (Altamira 2004), The Mad Max Movies (Screensound/Currency 2003), Once Upon a Time in America (BFI 1998) and Phantasms (Penguin 1994), and he has regular columns in Film Quarterly (US), De Filmkrant (Holland) and Cahiers du cinéma España (Spain). He is the Co-editor of Movie Mutations (BFI 2003) and the Internet film magazine Rouge.

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“Tenuous Intrigues”: Killing Sheep and Killing Time

Lesley Stern

Killer of Sheep

Kracauer talks of the “tenuous intrigues” that characterize certain films, films that navigate between the genres of story and non-story, or experimental films and films of fact. He identifies a “conflict between intrigue and poetry” manifested “in the nature of real-life episodes.” In this paper I explore Kracauer’s “tenuous intrigues” in two pairs of films by two film-makers: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and Warming by the Devil’s Fire, and Agnes Vardas’ Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond.

Lesley Stern is Professor of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of The Scorsese Connection and The Smoking Book and co- editor of Falling for You: Essays on Cinema and Performance. She has published widely in areas of film, performance, photography, art and cultural studies and also writes fiction. She is currently writing a book called Gardening in a Strange Land.

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Indissoluble Girl Clusters: Kracauer in China

Helen Grace

Helen Grace

At the beginning of The Mass Ornament, Kracauer makes an audacious statement which sets the tone not only for this essay but in many ways for his entire oeuvre: ‘The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself’. This claim for the high significance of ephemeral aspects of culture is perhaps the reason for the enduring attraction of Kracauer’s work and in this paper I want to consider a recent instance which suggests the fresh relevance of this work. In the recruitment by the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee of young women to act as official guides, a set of very precise physical characteristics detailed the principle qualifications which women were required to have – from height, to facial symmetry and bodily proportion. In this new case of the formation of ‘indissoluble girl clusters whose movements are demonstrations of mathematics’, a new development is discernible. If in Kracauer’s original example, the ‘mass ornament’ is considered an end in itself, the production of regularity of appearance, in the case I am discussing, overturns the original distinction which Kracauer makes between ‘living star formations’, evacuated of meaning, on the one hand and on the other, military exercises designed to arouse patriotic feelings, suggesting new meanings and the possibility of a new ‘mass ornament’ form, in the service of a new ‘fairy tale’.

This paper will also reflect on the use of Kracauer’s thought in the development of film theory in China precisely as an alternative to the sole use of cinema as a propaganda tool and in general, some discussion of the complexities of propaganda will be considered.

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