By SAM BROMER
For most college students, distraction is a temptation to be avoided at all costs. We turn off our phones; we [dis]connect; we silently whisper to ourselves in Olin to stop fucking browsing Facebook and people look over concerned, and we apologize; we silently pray that @skullmandible’s series of tweets analyzing the aesthetics of every single Goosebumps book cover ever will become less addictive (but they don’t). But what if distraction could be not only a good thing, but even downright revolutionary?
Siegfried Kracauer — or, according to my very accurate autocorrect, ‘Cracker’ — believed that culturally induced distraction had just such a potential. Trained as an engineer and an architect, the German writer, journalist and cultural critic was an astute observer of the everyday.
After the first World War, Kracauer became a mentor to famed fellow Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno. In 1964, Adorno fondly recalled that “for years Siegfried Kracauer read [Immanuel Kant’s] The Critique of Pure Reason with me regularly on Saturday afternoons. I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that I owe more to this reading than to my academic teachers.”
I bring up this meeting for two reasons, neither of which pertain to the article, but that I want to share anyway. First, Adorno and Kracauer are the biggest dweebs in the world for spending their Saturdays reading Kant. Second, I think that it would be hilarious if someone took this scenario and made some sort of Adorno-Kracauer soft-porn fan fiction … vast readership, please get on that. Anyway …
Unlike Adorno, who saw the empty dreck of the “culture industry” as unworthy of serious consideration, Kracauer was more than happy to engage with popular culture. While film and literature editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung (loosely translates to “A Whale’s Vagina”) he analyzed and often celebrated the vast spectrum of mass-cultural diversions of the time, from circuses and city layouts to photography and films. 80 years before obsessive analysis of popular culture became the only job for which bratty, twenty-something, pseudo-intellectuals (sound familiar?) were qualified, he recognized that the banal surface-level expressions of mass culture were more relevant to understanding society than contemplative works of philosophy. In other words, he thought that in the vacuity of a capitalist society, one could learn more about the world by watching dogs jump through hula hoops at the movies than by reading Heidegger.
In the wake of the horror and devastation of World War I, film provided an essential diversion for Berliners. Walter Benjamin describes the feelings of the German working class after the Great War thusly: “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of forces of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human life.”
Little wonder they wanted to forget themselves in entertainment. Traumatized and disoriented, they returned home to factory jobs that filled their time but did not offer fulfillment, and spent the little free time that remained being bombarded by a constant flux of images and sounds that required no contemplation.
In his 1926 piece, “Cult of Distraction,” Kracauer pushes back against reactionary critics who would chide the working masses of Berlin for their “addiction to distraction.” Instead, he argues that such entertainment works like a life buoy — it keeps the spectator from “sink[ing] into the abyss.” He argued that the cinemas of Berlin, which he nicknamed “pleasure palaces,” were at least sincere in that they didn’t try to hide the “pure externality” of the culture. It was the high art of the 19th century that claimed to offer meaning while actually distracting the populace from the most pressing needs of the time.
But Kracauer was not a proponent of distraction for its own sake. He only condoned it insofar as it allowed the audience to “encounter itself” in the “fragmented sequence of splendid sense impressions.” He was an optimist who believed that when people were confronted with the emptiness of their own lives, they would thirst for change. Distraction, then, was almost a moral imperative.
The mere fact that whole industries — see: the AV Club — have popped up around the serious analysis of pop culture hint at the relevance Kracauer’s ideas might have today. So, too, does the fact that millions of people regularly pay to see transforming cars injure each other. Maybe what we need is not more high art, but more crap. Maybe then, we’ll decide that enough is enough.
Maybe I should get back to writing my essay on Kracauer.