Vladimir Rizov review Andreas Huyssen’s new Harvard UP book taking in and connecting the most exiting writers of the modernist and modern city, from Rilke and Kafka to Benjamin and Aragon.
Andreas Huyssen, Miniature Metropolis (Harvard University Press, 2015) 346pp.
Andreas Huyssen’s latest is a deeply thoughtful and insightful work on the relationship between the literary miniature, film and photography in the modernist period. Through an exploration of Baudelaire, Rilke, Kafka, Benjamin, Aragon, Benn, Jünger, Kracauer, Musil and Adorno, Huyssen provides an intriguing account of literature’s ‘differential specificity’ (7) as a medium (a term referenced to Rosalind Krauss and Samuel Weber). It is a thoroughly comprehensive piece of work, which is continuously insightful and never fails to intrigue the reader. The selection of modernist writers discussed in the book is truly varied, and the relationships between them that Huyssen outlines are equally as rich and captivating. From its first to its last chapter, Miniature Metropolis spins a thread that is as intricate as the masterfully woven web of relations between authors that this book reveals. With Baudelaire as a beginning with his outspoken opposition and disdain for photography, to Adorno’s cultural scepticism and pessimism of the post-WWII period at the end, the reader is bound to find the multitude of insights intriguing.
Huyssen, contrary to other perspectives, endeavors to problematize remediation as applied to literature, particularly the literary miniature so prevalent to modernism. Instead, he argues, and quite clearly demonstrates, the idea that literature, at the time of the advent of the new technologies of cinema and photography, instead of stepping back into its own sequestered space, absorbed some aspects of the new technologies into its ‘differential specificity’. Thus, Kafka’s ghosts are turned into ghostly images as seen in photography; Benn’s schizophrenic lyricism into the kaleidoscopic-like potential of cinema; and Musil’s reflections on binoculars and seeing are similarly shown to be a mirrored reflection of the dawn of cinema. Most important perhaps, could be the multitude of links between the various authors: Benjamin and Aragon, and Benjamin and Kracauer, share a chapter, for instance. Huyssen aptly demonstrates the differences and similarities in the pairs of writers and unveils a hidden depth of likeness, both in medium and method. In the case of Aragon’s Le Peysan de Paris and Benjamin’s Berliner Kindheit, a fascinating parallel is unveiled. The use of words, idioms, and turns of phrase are revealed to be almost referential to the degree that one can be convinced that Benjamin is re-writing Aragon, but doing so in a personal way. In other cases, an instance of a fly in Musil’s Flypaper is briefly, and evocatively, mentioned as a probable inspiration to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The insights and incisiveness of reading abound in Huyssen’s book.
In terms of the writing and argument, Huyssen’s prose is clear and insightful. More than this, he reveals himself to be a subtle dialectician. One that does not declare outright his dialectic reasoning, but rather lets it unveil in the matter at hand. Throughout the book, Huyssen takes advantage of his native German regularly and translates, or adjusts translations, of the books being discussed. This lends greater depth to his work; especially considering that the majority of books and writers discussed are in the German language; the two exceptions being Aragon and Baudelaire. However, this may suggest for the possibility of the book being even more ambitious – and perhaps it would have been beneficial to incorporate authors of backgrounds beyond Western Europe. Currently, the writers cover a significant range of Central and Western Europe, but none of, for example, the Russian literary masters of miniatures have been included.
Furthermore, Huyssen is not afraid of quoting at length. His use of quotes is central to and instrumental to the arguments in the various essays. In terms of the content, he does not limit himself to strictly literary projects. In the chapter on Benjamin and Kracauer, there is a quite insightful analysis of Benjamin’s work on emblems (as seen in his The Origin of German Tragic Drama). Likewise in a chapter devoted to Hannah Hoch and Irmgard Keun, the book provides photomontages by Hoch as a support to the analysis. Throughout the book, the various writers discussed are all, each in a different way, explored through their relationship to the cinematic and photographic technologies of the time.
Overall, Huyssen has written a comprehensive account of modernist literature. To say that the book is an example of comparative literature would be an understatement. Rather, Andreas Huyssen has endeavored, very successfully, to place an elaborate network of mirrors inbetween the literary miniatures of the early 20th and late 19th century and capture the reflections of the incipient cinema and photography at the time. The book would undoubtedly be thought-provoking and is sure to bring plenty of insights even to the more general and less literary scholar of media, photography and cinema.
Vladimir Rizov is a doctoral researcher in sociology at the University of York, United Kingdom. His research is on the practice of documentary photography, its history and its relation to the city; a key place in his research interests occupies the work of Walter Benjamin.