Preliminary remarks on the death drive

When you put a potato in the oven it forms a hard shell to protect itself from the overstimulation of the heat. This much I have extrapolated from Freud.

"Such a shame that owls aren’t mammals. Imagine how much truth there would be in owl cheese."


"Mass unemployment is the greatest of all the modernist projects."



(This is a slightly frivolous Benjaminian piece I’ve written for a little book on negativity. Obviously fudged some questions about secular and cyclical crises and the state, to make an old point about history/determinism/voluntarism/crisis.)

“The concept of progress has to be founded on the idea of catastrophe. That things just go on as they currently do is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what is in each case given.”

— Walter Benjamin

In the final moments of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung a new generation of humans stands mutely facing into an empty future. The architecture of the old order lies in ruins; the flames of an all-consuming fire lick around a derelict world. The old laws of the gods are dissolved, their contracts unbound. The magical gold that once conferred universal sovereignty is returned to its protectors in the murky depths of the Rhine. To bourgeois revolutionaries, the appeal of such catastrophic imagery was founded on the notion that freedom would emerge from the wholesale destruction of tradition. But despite the beauty of a fire that obliterates all that exists, it illuminates only a textureless void, filled with people who have nothing left to say and no ground upon which to act.

The image betrays a secret of capitalism’s own historical relations. Whilst wealth within a capitalist society might appear as an immense accumulation of commodities, such an image explains little about the tensions within the great pile. Commodities do not just sit neatly next to each other, but attempt also to destroy each other. On the market one commodity attempts to outmode another. In this sense capitalism is truly revolutionary: every production of the technically new desires at the same time a destruction of that which preceded it. Every new commodity gazes into a future emptied of the past, each imagines its power to destroy other commodities indiscriminately. Each commodity relates with abstact negativity towards others. In the bourgeois fantasy of a catastrophic revolution nothing more is played out than the perpetual process of commodity production. Capitalism’s ideal commodity, its true revolutionary, would provide its consumer with a perfect freedom, abolishing all other commodities. Catastrophe is the dream-shape of capitalism’s inner history. But no commodity is a true revolutionary. In the very abstractness of its negation of other commodities, each one finds itself commensurate with the others. Capitalism’s dream-image of catastrophe will always remain unfulfilled by the immanent movements of capital. Instead through the abstractness of that negativity its destructiveness is hypostatised into capitalism’s concept of history: one of progress towards freedom in the invention of each new commodity.

The dream of freedom within the commodity will never be fulfilled because capitalism’s concept of freedom through progress is coextensive with the progressive technical and intellectual domination of nature and humanity. Precisely those commodities that are supposed to provide human beings with freedom are worked up out of humans and nature. The promises of freedom are produced through the determinate unfreedom of labour in the capitalist mode and human alienation from nature, both internal and external. Is the muteness and the stillness, the inability to act, of that new generation not as much an image of unfreedom as freedom? Do they not find themselves alienated from a world dead and burnt to a cinder? And alienated too from their own history? In the bourgeois image of catastrophic revolution these two processes conjoin: It contains both the universal mortification of humans and nature, and the destruction of old capitals which were once produced out of that mortification. Capitalist progress is not merely the murder of human beings but the forgetting that they ever existed: the ripping of value from their bodies and its subsequent pointless destruction.

If these two capitalist historical relations appear in contradiction – the mortification of nature against the dream of human freedom – then they are most irrationally synthesised in the productions of capitalism in crisis. In the twentieth century capitalism in crisis would find its resolution in world war and Holocaust, a danse macabre of junking, death, and industry. The capitalist dream of the destruction of the bondage of the past converges with the image of a world that is so absolutely deadened that it can be transformed into commodities without resistance. Today not even that promise remains: the age of mass-industrial warfare is over, so capitalism in crisis dreams only of universal extermination.

The shoots of recovery grow withered. We live within capitalist crisis. Our situation in history is characterised by the tailing off of profitability and living standards over the last forty years, alongside the sudden financial quakes of the last seven years. The crisis of capitalism is identical to a crisis of labour; the crisis of profitability for the bourgeois is the reflection of a crisis of unemployment for the proletarian (although one loses only his capital, the other her life.) Both capitalists who desire a return to growth and socialists who desire a return to employment demand that the progressive history of perpetual catastrophe continue ever more violently. But the contradiction of capital and labour is not to be solved by the overcoming of capital by labour. The rhetoric of crisis is understood by socialists as a moment of subjective intervention, as a cue to mount the stage composed of capitalism’s self-produced rubble. Crisis has been misunderstood by socialists as a moment of weakness for capital. Certainly it is a moment of weakness for capital’s constructive aspect, its need to grow and to accumulate; but crisis is at the same time a moment of strength for capital’s destructive aspect. Cyclical crisis justifies the mass junking of defunct capitals. To side with either its constructive or destructive aspect is to be outwitted by capitalism’s own cunning. Instead the revolutionary must struggle to transform human activity in its release from capitalist history, and to transform history in its release from capitalist activity.

If communists have rightly refused to attempt to “fix” the crisis, they have not yet rid themselves of the notion of a purely subjective intervention. Many attempt to imagine a subject who fulfils the role of the great destroyer, a Brünnhilde who will set alight the world before plunging even herself into the blaze: the unemployed and absolutely subaltern who plunder the world in the last moments of its extinction. We require a conception of catastrophe as a counterpart and counterpoint to crisis in order to undermine the subjective idealism of such an image. Ultimately this idealism discovers a subject in crisis who is already free. But to this subject is left only wrecking and wandering, abandon and abandonment. Historically she is the most unfree, doomed to follow the world into darkness and oblivion, unable to act historically.

The conviction that humans may still act historically is the convinction that such free subjects do not yet exist. To imagine them is also to deludedly fantasise away the objectivity of the history of capitalism, or to imagine that this objectivity has already fully consumed itself in crisis. The objectivity of the history of capitalism as it imposes itself as the conditions of historical action on the subject is nothing but the dead and petrified labour of the past, the wrecked and wretched attempts to master nature in toto. Capitalist objectivity is a ruined landscape of dominated nature. The revolutionary force that might redeem the world is the bringing to consciousness of this landscape; it is the subject’s reflection of its deathly affliction, of its own objectivity, from the catastrophically already-too-late. The revolutionary subject does not confirm the fate of the past, allying herself with capital’s own dream of freedom in its destruction. Instead, the revolutionary subject is to rescue the past from that fate in the recognition of her own unfreedom (which appears ideologically as her freedom from the past.) Her success rests on the recognition of capitalism’s own concept of history as one of catastrophe.

Walter Benjamin wrote in a fragment towards the end of his life that, “the course of history, seen in terms of the concept of catastrophe, can actually claim no more attention from thinkers than a child’s kaleidoscope, which with every turn of the hand dissolves the established order into a new array. There is profound truth in this image. The concepts of the ruling class have always been the mirrors that enabled an image of order to prevail. – The kaleidoscope must be smashed.” Every capitalist catastrophe perpetuates catastrophe. But in the truly revolutionary act, in place of a future imagined as an empty void, fragments of colour and mirror and glass fly chaotically through the air. Catastrophe is subverted in revolutionary action. Released from the bonds of order, and from the bounds of concept, refracted through shards of the past – dynamic, sharp and colourful – the world is illuminated in a new spectrum. History is redeemed in its brokenness, for its brokenness is its truth, rather than a justification for its destruction. 


Scattered Notes on Jameson’s Talk

No doubt that Jameson’s talk at the CUNY Graduate Centre will be watched by loads of people in the next few days. Here are a few critical notes that I’ve thrown together in the middle of the night immediately after watching. 

Ok, some late night quick - and probably incomprehensible - critical notes on Jameson’s talk which is now rapidly doing the rounds - or at least a failed attempt to say something that isn’t some old-fashioned Marxy grievance (of which of course one might have many.) Of course I don’t really know much about utopian studies, but I’ll give it a go and maybe we can get a proper conversation going (where the old-fashioned Marxy grievances will be equally welcome.) 

1) There’s something strange about the history being given: it is significant that Jameson will choose the wholly unsuccessful Fourierian Utopia against the Saint-Simonian one (which although it fell apart when the whole thing explicitly became a church and Enfantin went off to find a female messiah in Egypt, had some big effects on the 19th century.) I should probably say that my memory of this history is fuzzy because I last thought hard about it two Christmases ago when I read all the saint-simonian lectures while getting very stoned and quite drunk. And occasionally I try to think about it when I read The Arcades, but not very hard. Anyway, this omission is significant because precisely all of the complexities of finance capital - and particularly its relationship to the state - are not, as Jameson suggests, a product of neoliberalism etc, but instead are the afterlife of the Saint-Simonian project. That is, this must, I think, be posed as a question of the role of banks and finance capital in relation to the state that is formed as the second empire - and the attempt to imagine an integrated utopia in this form without also thinking about the relation of those utopias historically to financial instruments is deceptive.) That’s a complicated question and a complicated historiography I’m posing, because when Jameson talks about the renationalisation of the banks he underestimates, I suspect, something about how integrated utopias in this sense must think about debt and credit relations. Since the saint-simonians they envisage their futures (which was played out in France not only during the second empire but indeed through the third republic too through to WWI) in terms of an integration of any future future through credit relations. That is, he underestimates the inevitabe decoupling (or strictly privatisation) of credit systems that are really at the centre of the history and historiography of saint-simonian thought from the state that they claim to be able to integrate and perpetuate. I think one could probably find some criticism in Benjamin along this line - that these utopias do not escape what Benjamin calls a Schuldzusammenhang - a context of debt - but instead offer redemption only through redeeming and repeating cyclically within such a context. To be cheeky one might even think of Keynesian counter-cyclicals as the full capitalist rationalisation of the saint-simonians’ own historiography of alternating periods of order and disorder, here regulated by a fiscal credit imaginary that is able to fully integrate the future. That is, even in its most rationalised form, it is unable to realise what it imagines (as we see since the 1970s). That Keynes begins the his theorising with his Tract on Monetary Reform with its preface directed to the French state (God, it’s been years since I’ve read this so I don’t remember clearly) at the moment of the end of the saint-simonian dominance in banking is maybe a history worth fleshing out. You get the idea. It’s late at night. 

2) I should continue in the trend of degeneracy of explosive slogans into advertising slogans, into bankruptcy - a line that started once with Breton’s “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all”, which by 2011 has become “Our feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit” and now I add my own, even lesser 2014 attempt, “utopia will be DISINTEGRATIVE and just or it will be fascist.” I am caught on the moment of Jameson’s lecture in which he talks about a moment of nihilism - about the people’s right to drug themselves into permanent oblivion. Might it not be interesting to pose against this a more radical, perhaps more serious thought: will people have the right to die? And what will those rights be like? Is the injustice in this situation not the dehumanising limit of all integrative utopias? See Adorno in the Meditations on Metaphysics on this question. 

3) One last point that caught my attention. Jameson touches on the creation of a psychoanalytic bureaucracy that would at once suggest positions of employment for people in his utopia, and at the same time offer a universal group therapy (although one imagines such a group therapy would be totally alien to someone like Wilfred Bion!) Should I add my name to the list (Reich, then Adorno) in suggesting we go an look back at Freud’s Mass Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. This is the point in Freud’s oeuvre where he considers an analytic of the psychical structures of the army, and maybe it’s worth saying just two things. Firstly any type of psychoanalytic group therapy aimed at sustaining an integrated utopia of the army would involve something quite the opposite of most therapy, that is, the mass weakening of egos. (we can have an argument of whether psychoanalytic treatments for narcissism exist and how that might interact with this question.) This is of course radically anti-Freudian, but then Jameson knows that when he would pick Rousseau on state-religion against what Freud says in The Future of an Illusion. Obviously the mass weakening of egos by a bureaucracy - even in the name of therapy - is a troubling position. This leads then to an account of what is meant by fetish in Jameson’s talk, which is something like the combination of what exists in Freud’s study of the leader and his ideal object. The question is this: is Jameson not unreasonably hopeful that the leader and the object stand opposed to any catastrophe that befalls civilisation rather than either identifying with it (regression in the psychoanalytic sense) or in fact instantiating it (fascism.) 

Anyway, those are probably all too quickly vomited out to make any sense, but maybe we can have a discussion.

7 thoughts buzzing around my head about arts and humanities research at 6am this morning

1) It is striking how deep the will goes to fulfil idiotic demands from the state. I know of no single department in the UK that refuses to submit Research Exercise responses. In almost every department these exercises are a major consideration in hiring staff too. In every department there are people taking on managerial roles with responsibility for these things. We need to find ways of letting anyone who does this know that they are enemies and that we intend on destroying them. 

2) The impact agenda is a means of measuring arts against sciences. It is no surprise that arts do badly, in that we don’t make medicines that save lives etc. There are two options: either we take seriously the idea that the arts and humanities can be involved in the total transformation of the world and the redemption of history (that we should say that’s what we’re up to on impact forms; including the raising of the dead and the transformation of historic suffering into eschatological justice); or, the arts and humanities should withdraw absolutely from participating in any of these measurements. 

3) Participating in state strategies for measuring impact and the like is all part of a race to get one’s hands one a meagre amount of funding. Currently state funding in the UK in the arts and humanities is equivalent to the turnover of a single medium-sized university. It’s a race we should refuse to participate in, and those who continue to do so should be left to rot. 

4) The institution of secondary literature ought to be abolished immediately. People who believe in sustaining it ought to be punished by being forced to read it. This is made more urgent by the current frameworks in the US and the UK (alongside the conditions for getting permanent academic jobs), which require enormous amounts of publishing, usually of very poor material. 

5) The situation of thought in the arts and humanities is strange. In the last last 40 years, extremely far left and critical ideas have prevailed (my God, if one thinks of the extreme right one finds Foucault.) We should have no qualms about saying that we understand that people are given the opportunity to do research because of what they believe (rather than the myth of “being good at research”), and that this in general is in no bad thing. Just that the problem is the things you have to believe in to get a job these days are professionalism, publishing, management, shininess, arse-licking, etc, all of which run directly counter to the widely-acknowledged best thinking in the arts and humanities. This is a contradiction worthy of exploitation. 

6) Fundamentally no-one has time for research. Everyone should be extremely explicit and public about the research that can’t be done under the current conditions. 

7) It seems that one of the only options left for serious thought in the arts and humanities is outside of the universities. We should be starting conversations about counter- and anti-institutions. They should not take the form of the ridiculously bourgeois EGS/Birkbeck Institute for Humanities/Global Center for Advanced Studies and other ridiculous over-priced pseudo-critical finishing schools for hipsters run by already highly-paid professors. They should involve teaching courses to friends too, and learning from friends. Even a bunch of stoned people in a shed are capable today of producing critical thought far more advanced than most of what is said and done in universities.

History in Darkness: Seven Fragments on Siegfried Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses

This text was prepared as a talk for the Anguish Language/Literature and Crisis seminar at Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik, Berlin, 1-4 October, 2013. (This is an edited draft of the version I posted up here a few months back.) 

Siegfried Kracauer’sThe Salaried Masses was written in 1929 and published in 1930. It is an unusual book, composed of a series of twelve newspaper articles, which has fallen into relative obscurity. That obscurity has its own history, beginning with the Nazi accession three years after the books’ publication. It was not until 1971, when the first signs of the next major crisis of capitalism were clearly visible, that it would finally be republished by Suhrkamp Verlag. The text was translated and published by Verso in 1998, but has received little attention in the English-speaking world. It is perhaps a result of its unusual form that it has not been canonised as a major sociological work on capitalist crisis.

Kracauer’s little book was strangely prescient in offering descriptions and arguments that precede the critiques of spectacle and the everyday made by situationists in the 1950s and 1960s as well as touching on issues that became important to Italian left-communist and workerist thought in the 1960s and 1970s regarding the questions of the labour process, immaterial labour, class composition (although in a text written forty years earlier we are spared the language which today has rigidified into jargon.) The following seven fragments are reflections on this text. They are an attempt to reanimate it in our own time of crisis, to examine the mode of writing Kracauer developed, while considering its theoretical difficulties, and the fruit that it bore.

1. Feuilletonisme
October 1929 was the moment of the greatest economic catastrophe in the history of capitalist accumulation. It was also the month in which the text of Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses would be completed. The first stuttering of economic collapse became apparent in March that year, as the Dow Jones tumbled. A month later, Kracauer would begin three months of visits to locations of importance to a newly expanded white-collar class in the German metropolis. His investigations were not confined to offices and workplaces, but included also department stores, unemployment and benefits claims offices, and dance halls. His project could not be content with describing, in fine distinction, the latest developments of the labour process, for this process spilled out of the offices, into the street and the night. The enormous crisis of capitalism is not mentioned by name in the text, but is alluded to on a number of occasions, often haunting the book (and the people described within its pages) as the spectre of unemployment. In the opening chapter he writes,

The proletarianisation of employees is beyond dispute. At all events, similar social conditions prevail for broad layers of salary earners as for the proletariat. An industrial reserve-army of salaried employees has come into being. The view that this is a temporary phenomenon is countered by the alternative view that it could be dismantled only along with the system that conjured it up.[1]

Elsewhere he would refer to “the overabundant supply of workers and the present-day shortage of openings,”[2] or to the fear of redundancy in middle age, with no prospect for re-employment. By the time The Salaried Masses appeared as a book in 1930, several months after its chapters were published in the Frankfurter Zeitung, the crisis would be referred to more explicitly in a preface: “No question about it, industry and commerce find themselves in a particularly difficult situation today.”[3] Mass unemployment created new pressures on the newly expanded salaried class at the centre of Kracauer’s study. This meant not only an economic downward pressure on wages, but also the fear of being replaced or outmoded. This existential fear was tied up not merely with employment as such, but was constellated with the particular historical situation of the culture erected by this salaried class. It is in the global economic crisis read as a crisis of this culture that the relation of literature to crisis might be explored in a different direction. As the new conditions of labour spilled out of the workplaces, a new ‘employee culture’ began to predominate in Berlin. Kracauer characterises this new culture in relation to the bourgeois culture of the nineteenth century: as that bourgeois culture declined into war and large-scale industry in which small small businesses were conglomerated, and capital came into the ownership and control of the state, the image of an already outmoded bourgeois culture became fixed in the minds of this new class, while its contents were emptied.

The position of these strata in the economic process has changed, their middle-class conception of life has remained. They nurture a false consciousness. They would like to defend differences, the acknowledgment of which obscures their situation; they devote themselves to an individualism that would be justified only if they could shape their fate as individuals. Even where they struggle as wage-earners in and with their unions for better conditions of existence, their real existence is often conditioned by the better one they once had. A vanished bourgeois way of life haunts them.[4]

The decline of bourgeois high culture into such spießig sensibilities at the end of the nineteenth century is immensely complex. Perhas its most well-known cultural consequence, though, was the end of the novel or Bildungsroman, at least in the form in which it had existed since the end of the eighteenth century, as the pre-eminent genre for the description of the transformation of inner psychological states of that bourgeois class. As Walter Benjamin noted,

The novel seems from the outset to be more evidently aimed at consumption, unproductive enjoyment than other forms of art. Elsewhere, I have explored the analogy between the novel and food in greater depth. The time when this type of food possessed any nutritional value has long since passed, and the ‘popularity’ of art, something that today is represented by popular novels, has long since ceased to have anything productive or nourishing about it – unlike the novel at the time of the incipient emancipation of the bourgeoisie. Nowadays it is rather the expression of the complete integration of this type of writing into the world of commodity circulation.[5]

Three years later, Benjamin would write of the crisis of bourgeois culture again:

In our writing, opposites that in happier ages fertilized one another have become insoluble antinomies. Thus, science and belle lettres, criticism and literary production, culture and politics, fall apart in disorder and lose all connection with one another. The scene of this literary confusion is the newspaper.[6]

Kracauer had been an editor of the feuilleton section of the left-leaning Frankfurter Zeitung since 1924. As a writer he produced almost 2000 articles for the paper between 1921 and 1933. As an editor he was responsible for commissioning and publishing many modernist fragments in the form that came to be known as the Denkbild (literally the thought-image), by writers such as Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno. If we are to understand The Salaried Masses as standing in the feuilleton tradition, it occupies the ground of the crossroads between these two crises – the crisis of bourgeois culture, and the economic crisis of 1929. And if this new class were attached to a set of nineteenth century ideals, however deformed those ideals had become in the process, their fantasy was sustainable as long as their employment granted a certain existential security. In the crisis of 1929, this security would begin to break down, revealing – through that spectre of unemployment – every corruption and every emptiness of the culture that had been created. The place of expression, the form that would finally at this moment overtake the novel, was the feuilleton. In 1931, Benjamin wrote,

It is poverty that compresses the creativity of our best talents today, with an enormous atmospheric pressure. In this way, talent finds its refuge in the dark belly of the feuilleton, as if in the belly of a wooden horse, from which one day this creativity will emerge and set alight the Troy of the modern press.[7]

But the age of radical feuilletonisme was to be short-lived. That same historical movement that saw the small-time cosmopolitan bourgeoisie shunted into the world of newly proletarianised salaried employement would catch up with the newspaper too. In 1932, the Frankfurter Zeitung was bought by the huge German chemical conglomerate I. G. Farben. In 1933, Kracauer fled Berlin for Paris.

2. Sunless

Wie herrlich leuchtet
Mir die Natur!
Wie glänzt die Sonne!
Wie lacht die Flur!

— J. W. Goethe

There is no sun. Walter Benjamin wrote in a review of Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses, that if we want to visualise the book’s author, we see,

a ragpicker, at daybreak, picking up the rags of speech and verbal scraps with his stick and tossing them, grumbling and growling, a little drunk, into his cart, not without letting one or other of those faded calicoes – ‘humanity’, ‘inner nature’, ‘absorption’ – flutter derisively in the breeze. A ragpicker, early on, at the dawn of the day of revolution.[8]

Thirty years later, Adorno would describe Gustav Mahler, whose music preceded Kracauer’s book by thirty years in similar terms:

Free as only one can be who has not himself been entirely swallowed by culture, in his musical vagrancy he picks up the broken glass from the roadside and holds it up to the sun so that all the colours are refracted.[9]

Benjamin, adopting imagery from Baudelaire, does a certain violence to the relentless vitriol of Kracauer’s book. There is no sun. It is not just that this day of revolution failed to dawn. In the history of those decades between the bourgeois decline within which Mahler’s music made its homeless home and the shuddering of financial capitals in 1929, those colours had been integrated, subsumed, and transformed into artifice. There was no emergent daylight, only the darkened shockwaves through the bodies of workers. Kracauer’s object is a world of rooms flooded with light, but “the light blinds more than it illuminates – and perhaps the abundance of light pouring out over our large towns serves not least to increase the darkness.”[10] Elsewhere in The Salaried Masses, Kracauer would describe an amusement hall in Berlin:

The fact that nineteenth-century panoramas are coming back into such high regard in all these establishments is related to the monotony of work. The more monotony holds sway over the working day, the further away you must be transported once work ends – assuming that attention is to be diverted from the process of production in the background. The true counterstroke against the office machine, however, is the world of vibrant colour. The world not as it is, but as it appears in popular hits. A world every last corner of which is cleansed, as though with a vacuum cleaner, of the dust of everyday existence.[11]

Where colour and light belong to the enemy, where they no longer offer any beautiful illumination, Kracauer’s dark diagnostic of technics and rationality examines, from within that darkness, how this world comes to appear under the artificial glare. There is no sun. In the final paragraphs of his book, Kracauer makes this explicit: “Nature”, he writes, “which is also embodied in capitalistic desire, is one of the system’s most powerful allies; and […] its perpetual glorification, moreover, conflicts with the planned organization of economic life.”[12] The Salaried Masses is not only a sunless book, but also a type of writing, a mode of expression, that no dawning day could ever redeem.

This omnipresent darkness, this sunlessness, offers quite an unusual problem constellated between human expression, literature or the work of writing, and capitalist crisis. In essay called ‘Reflections on Class Theory’ written in 1942, but never published in his lifetime, Adorno wrote that “from the most recent form of injustice, a steady light reflects back on history as a whole. Only in this way can theory enable us to use the full weight of history to gain an insight into the present without succumbing in resignation to the burden of the past.”[13] Adopting Kracauer’s gaze, one of steely realism, I would like to subject this figure from Adorno that looks like a metaphor, this ‘steady light’, to some scrutiny, that might help us not only to consider Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses as crisis literature, but also to think more generally about some of the difficulties and determinations of the nexus of literature and crisis. This steady light has a number of aliases in Adorno’s oeuvre. Perhaps most famously it is the ‘Messianic light’ at the end of Minima Moralia, or elsewhere in that book as ‘the holiness of life that shines forth’ that we receive only refracted.[14] Here the echo of his writing on Mahler is clear. And when Adorno writes about Mahler, this light is almost always the sun. Under these aliases it becomes clearer that this light is neither straightforwardly a metaphor, nor is this just any light. Adorno never says anything of the quality of this light, but it seems hardly possible that this light could be much like any of those described in Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses, whether the “cupboard-like contraption studded with coloured light bulbs” in a paperless office, from which “the manager can at all times determine the state of work in individual departments”[15] or “the beneficent influence exercised by the flood of light, not just upon the urge to buy but also upon the staff, [which] might at most consist of the staff being sufficiently duped to put up with their mean, poorly lit homes.”[16] The strange quality of this light points strictly concerning the philosophy of history [Geschichtsphilosophie]. For Adorno’s steady light shines through those intransigent structures of the temporality of capitalist accumulation. Within the fixity and permanence of this temporality, capitalism becomes the history of accumulated injustices, of piles of bodies ground into commodities. For as long as capital continues to accumulate, this like shines steadily backwards.

But is there not another history here? Is there not a danger of a radical oversimplification of the history of capitalism in the image projected by that steady light, such that forever critique works upon those persistent elements that define capitalism’s temporal core [Zeitkern]? What Adorno’s light might fail to illuminated is something like an inner-history of capitalism, one that registers capitalism’s own moments of weakness. Most particularly, each crisis of capitalism that doesn’t emerge as its final destruction is degraded by this light into an account of those repressions and retrenchments that ensue returning capital to profit through new rationalisations and new constrictions of humanity. In that Messianic light is something like Grossmann’s old theory of the law of collapse of capitalist systems,[17] in which each crisis is referred back, albeit distantly, to the most general tendency of the rate of profit to fall. But that which is passed over by this light are the specificities of capital’s own destructive tendencies. This distinction between Adorno and Kracauer might be seen as a critical inversion of the duet in Exodus of the God who passes over the houses and the Destroyer who goes inside to obliterate the ill-fated Egyptians.[18] Adorno’s steady light attaches itself to the newest technics, only to forget that held within them are materially particular means of destroying old capitals, new modes of defuncting and disposal of old ways of profit and life. It misses each crisis that is not final in favour of a history whose secret intention is always that final crisis. Where capitalism becomes the perpetual ruination of human beings, all of whose life and work may one day be redeemed, the movement of capital’s inner-history lies frozen.

I want to propose, then, in dealing with the literature of crisis, and in particular Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses, that we think about a history of darknesses, of a world blinded by artificial light, of the work depicted masked from any redemptive dawn. Such a demand, such a philosophy of history, is likely to elicit two objections. The first is that the thought is, as Adorno would say, resigned. That the critic is reduced to a mere glossator of the actually existing, who ultimately, and in beautiful prose, furnishes the world of things with powerless reflections. The second charge is that such a proposition is, at its very deepest levels, nihilistic, and that under its gaze catastrophe may be met only with catastrophe. These are powerful criticisms, insofar as they suggest that we are dealing here with a text which in its very labour must sacrifice utopia. Under such criticisms, The Salaried Masses might dissolve into reformism or bitter Satanic laughter. But perhaps instead, Kracauer’s sunless study points to an idealism smuggled in the faith that the next crisis is sure to be the last, or that the dissolution of capitalism will be as unified as the unity that capitalism itself imposes so violently upon the world. What does existence look like, and what does history look like, illuminated by the newest capitalist technology? These are the questions that Kracauer’s text seeks to answer. And it is in this sense that Kracauer would endorse the explosive power of reality. Under that light of reality it seems to Kracauer that always too much has been shown, that unlike the sun, these lights illuminate too indiscriminately, revealing in this writing of reality a world of crisis.

What does it mean to imagine such a darkness stretching (or splintering) through history? It might not lend us the full weight of history to gain an insight into the present, but searching for those sunless texts might just open a space for a description of capitalism, its inner-historical shape, and the qualities of those moments of crisis before retrenchment and repression, before the return to accumulation as normal. We might find traces of this sunless history elsewhere, or begin to write it for our own time.

3. Scientific Instruments

What just was will probably soon be forgotten. Only an empty, awful memory hangs in the air. Who was defended? Foul, wretched profiteers. What was young had to fall, was forced to die for ends so alien and inimical to spirit, but the despicable ones were saved, and now they sit in their comfortable drawing rooms. Not one of them was lost, but those who waved other flags, so much bloom, so much dream, so much hope for the spirit, are dead.[19]

Ernst Bloch’s note, composed at the end of the First World War alludes to a story about the recovery of global capitalism from the long crisis at the end of the nineteenth century: the enormous production of ever more highly technized, ever more efficacious machines for unimagined mass slaughter. Walter Benjamin would write similarly fifteen years later that,

A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds, and at its centre, in a forcefield of destructive torrents and explosions, a tiny fragile human body. With this tremendous development of technology, a completely new poverty has descended on mankind.[20]

But this is only half of the story of an economic recovery from the long crisis at the end of the nineteenth century. The other half, one of equally technized death, is that of the development of mass production. That story began with the publication of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s book The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911,[21] and found its actualisation in the new productive mechanisms of the Ford car plants with their conveyor belts. As Ford wrote,

The principles of assembly are these:
(1) Place the tools and the men in the sequence of operation so that each component shall travel the least possible distance while in the process of finishing.
(2) Use work slides or some other form of carrier so that when a workman completes his operation, he drops the part always in the same place – which place must always be the most convenient place to his hand – and if possible to have gravity carry the part to the next workman for his operation.
(3) Use sliding assembly lines by which the parts to be assembled are delivered at convenient distances.[22]

By the time of Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses, he would be examining “the irruption of machine and ‘assembly-line’ methods into the clerical departments of big firms.”[23] I want to focus for a moment, and perhaps this seems outrageous, on something in Ford’s words: that is, sliding.[24] It might seem like an unusual claim, but part of the possibility of a return to growth after that long crisis was the result of fixed capital moving in a particular way, in the sliding of components of a commodity through a factory. This sliding is something from which political economy, and indeed the critique of political economy, has normally averted its gaze. This quality of capital seems somehow unimportant, or at least unassuming, next to the analysis of the circulation of money, the development of forms of credit, or theories of surplus value. But it is on movements like this sliding, the qualities of systems of fixed capital, that the glaring artificial light of Kracauer’s critique falls.

For a book formed out of twelve articles published in a newspaper, Kracauer offers a great deal of methodological argumentation. Reportage, the mode of this book, is as much an object to be critically studied as the labour process, class composition, and contemporary entertainment activity. The crucial term for understanding the animation of the machinery under the artificial light of Kracauer’s prose is alienation. For too long in the study of literature, the notion of alienated writing has been presumed to belong solely to a mode initiated by Brecht, under his famous concept of the Verfremdungseffekt:

A technique of taking human social incidents to be portrayed and labelling them as something striking, something that calls for explanation, is not to be taken for granted, not just natural.[25]

Kracauer’s writing as alienated writing perhaps belongs under this general definition from Brecht, but it has a further specificity in this work. In the first chapter of The Salaried Masses Kracauer describes his work of writing as something akin to an ethnography. He is to be a foreign observer entering an ‘unknown territory’, but unlike a sojourn to some far-off land, this unknown territory is in the city in which he lives, Berlin. The figure of a territory or an alien landscape, one conditioned more by the physical movements of fixed capital than by a forcefield of destructive torrents and explosions, recurs throughout the text, reaching its highest extravagance in a passage describing this keen observer listening to the conversations of employees of a firm in which they discuss their social statuses with regard to other employees:

The unsuspecting layman observing these immense differences of importance feels as though a new cosmos full of abysses and peaks were coming into view beneath his microscope lens. A chasm of impressive depth yawns likewise between, for example, technical and commercial employees in industry. The latter, according to the report of one victim, treat the former with disdain, and like to make them wait like unimportant customers; while the former, on the other hand, nurture the prejudice that their work alone should be seen as productive.[26]

The movement, the shifts and slides, in these few sentences requires some attention. Within this first sentence, “The unsuspecting layman observing those immense differences of importance feels as though a new cosmos full of abysses and peaks were coming into view beneath his microscope lens”, there is a faint echo of a line from the first German preface to Das Kapital. Describing his new science of the critique of political economy, Marx writes,

The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money form, is very simple and slight in content. Nevertheless, the human mind [Menschengeist] has sought in vain, for more than 2000 years to get to the bottom of it, while on the other hand there has been at least an approximation to a successful analysis of forms which are much richer in content and more complex. Why? Because the complete body is easier to study than its cells. Moreover in the analysis of economic forms, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance. The power of abstraction alone must replace both. But for bourgeois society, the commodity form of the product of labour, or the value-form of the commodity, is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy.[27]

This passage from Marx has troubled me for a number of years. While the microscope, this instrument of scientific experimentation and discovery is said to be of no use, an analogy is maintained between a body composed of microscopic cells and capitalism composed of its own commodity-cells. Their investigation is to be undertaken with an instrument powered only by abstraction. My question has always been this: what kind of image appears under the lens of such an instrument? Readers of Das Kapital will be familiar with the myriad literary forms that it contains, often juxtaposed. It would probably be presumptuous to suggest, however, that such a contraption powered by abstraction generates montages. Nonetheless this image in Marx appears less as a unified whole than as a set of juxtapositions and layers that process through each other. Our ‘superficial observer’ in Marx, confused by the minutiae beneath the lens is echoed in Kracauer with an ‘unsuspecting layman’. But what is most explosive about this sentence is that the unsuspecting layman, surrounded by this strange and foreign landscape, discovers it “beneath his microscope lens.” There is no explanation as to why the layman, not an expert or scientist would have this technologized gaze. Perhaps the answer is Kracauer’s artificial light again, revealing all too many microscopic details. Here it illuminates a set of social relations between workers, each group in competition with the others to prove their true economic worth. That such an apparatus produces a foreboding foreign landscape is not insignificant. Laying these two scientific instruments side by side, we might discover their difference: while Marx’s contraption is powered by abstraction, Kracauer’s is a microscope powered by alienation.

The gaze through this instrument fixes itself to the qualities of things that would rather go unnoticed, on the sliding motion of bits of capital, on the organicism in management ideology, on the labour exchange that resembles the railway marshalling yard with the unemployed pushed along its tracks. But this micrology, this optic of the darkness of the blinding artificial glare, does not offer any pure imagistic reproduction of reality. Just as the foreign ethnographer in writing ethnography understands, ultimately, only his foreignness from the society that he observes, Kracauer’s prose understands the world alienated not so much in still reproduction but in the dynamics that confront and involve the viewer. Those qualities and movements of capital as means of alienation cannot, for Kracauer, be photographed. This would be the basis for the beginning of a radical and critical journalistic practice, standing in opposition to the reporters of his time.

A hundred reports from a factory do not add up to the reality of a factory, but remain for all eternity a hundred views of a factory. Reality is a construction. Certainly life must be observed for it to appear. Yet it is by no means contained in the more or less random observational results of reportage; rather, it is found solely in the mosaic that is assembled from single observations on the basis of comprehension of their meaning. Reportage photographs life; such a mosaic would be its image.[28]

These images cannot be made real by photographs because, more than anything, they move and refuse to be frozen. They move both in physical reality and in history. Their construction into a radical reportage, into an alien image is a form of animation. Every moment of alienation to which this microscopic gaze is subject is determined by new movements of capital. A similar attention to these movements and qualities would be given only a year later by Dziga Vertov in his film Enthusiasm. But there the setting remained industrial. The movements of capital in a service environment show up less well on film: this microscope would produce journalism.

4. Cinematic
It would help, in order to understand these methodological claims, to examine a slightly lengthier piece of writing from The Salaried Masses. This section is from a chapter that describes the reformist, practical, everyday work of trade unionists. Kracauer describes this as ‘repair work’, which even while practiced for humanistic ends, is fully integrated into the world of 1920s capitalism.

No matter whether the employee representatives practice moderation or not, in the consolidated economy they in any case de facto have numerous repairs to carry out – sometimes despite themselves, even where they are combating the prevailing economic order. Like Hegelian reason, this order has its ruses and for the time being is strong enough to fill with ambiguity even actions that do not accept its continued existence. This does not prevent relations between works councils and employers often breaking down. Then in certain cases repairs are made, on neutral ground in public and in the light of day. Such light disenchants physiognomies. Plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses are as bare as the hearing chamber of the Labour Court in which they assemble. No make-up brings the girls’ faces into flower, and every pimple on those of the men is visible in close-up. They are like Sunday trippers in reverse: Sunday trippers torn away from their work who, rather than wandering free, and self-consciously trapped out in their best clothes, have been robbed of their finery and are far away from the glamour of the evening. While they talk, huddle, and wait, the memory awakens of those military recruitment centres in which miserable, naked men were registered as fit for war service. Just as there it revealed not so much the nakedness as the war, so here it really reveals not wretched people but the conditions that make people wretched. In its austere glow minute details emerge with unwonted clarity, which are anything but minute details: for when taken together they characterise the economic life that spawns them. We must rid ourselves of the delusion that it is major events which most determine a person. He is much more deeply and lastingly influenced by the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up, and his fate is certainly linked predominantly to the sequence of these miniature occurrences. They become apparent in the Labour Court, in front of the long raised table behind which the chairman of the court is enthroned between two assessors representing employers and employees respectively. The three judges usually reach their decision at once, after a short deliberation in the cabinet separated off from the courtroom itself. Summary jurisdiction is made possible by its wholly oral character. Use of paper is limited, only the chairman knows the documents. Thanks to the directness of the question-and-answer game to which no attorney gives a final legal polish, the chairman is more dependent on his instinct than in a regular court. The necessity of improvisation produces a kind of atmospheric tension, sometimes transmitted even to the court clerk.
            The parties unpack their wares: nothing but little parcels of woe. They depict the state of affairs, reply to the chairman and his assessors, and address one another. Sometimes one party behaves as though the other were not present. As a rule the complaints are brought by people who have been sacked. For instance, dismissals without notice may be involved. That they can occur lawfully is shown by the following trifling matter. A woman buys shoes in a large store, where the plaintiff is employed – she works in the stocking department. The woman knows the plaintiff personally and would like to purchase some stockings from her to go with her shoes. The stocking sales-girl evidently subordinates commercial interest to the personal relationship, since she tells the woman that she could have bought the shoes more cheaply elsewhere. Because of her wrong-headed world-view the girl gets the sack – and her appeal is rejected. [29]

Despite being relatively easy to read, this is a very complex piece of text that moves in a peculiar way. I would like to suggest one way of reading it that might allow it to become at least a little more open, that might offer some explanation of the power of the critique that this text imposes on the society it examines. My claim is that the key to this passage is one of the more unassuming sentences: “No make-up brings the girls faces to flower, and every pimple on those of the men is visible in close-up.” These are the objects of a cinematic optic, of a way of seeing that had been massively popularised in the previous decade, and about which Kracauer would later write two books. This same bright light of the court projects into the senses a flashback of the military recruitment centre. But this light is just that: a projector, whose beam animates figures, not quite human. Every figure in this cinematic life is projected, made themselves of the light they so wish to escape in order that they may become human again. This is history and social actuality illuminated by the latest capitalist technology. Life, in this way, is lit up, so that the everyday appears as a series of miniature catastrophes. Every act dehumanises more, and the force of necessity demands that the “parcels of woe” that constitute a person’s existence are unpacked onto the screen. But where this critique is most radical is in the blinding light as the scenes are cut together. The viewer might just turn round and glimpse the projector and its beam, as the conditions that make people wretched. Kracauer’s text, in its own movement, encourages us to turn from life, only to find a piece of fixed capital.

5. Glanz
The German word ‘Glanz’ has three meanings: foremost it is a shine or a shimmer, a brilliance reflected on an object, but it also means ‘glamour’, and finally like its cognate in English, ‘glance’, it is a fleeting contact with an object’s exterior. Glanz is all about surface, and is used by Kracauer to describe a certain historical transformation of culture from its bourgeois nineteenth century form.

Nothing is more characteristic of this life, which only in a restricted sense can be called a life, than its view of higher things. Not as substance, but as glamour [Glanz]. Yielded not through concentration but in distraction. ‘Why do people spend so much time in bars?’ asks one employee I know. ‘Probably because they are so miserable at home and they want to get a bit of glamour [Glanz].’ ‘Home’, by the way, should not be taken to mean just a lodging but an everyday existence outlined in advertisements in magazines for employees. These mainly concern: pens; Kohinoor pencils; haemorrhoids; hair loss; beds; crêpe soles; white teeth; rejuvenation elixirs; selling coffee to friend; dictaphones; writer’s cramp; trembling, especially when in the presence of others; quality pianos on weekly instalments; and so on.”[30]

One of the major qualitative shifts that Kracauer identifies, one animated in this crisis optic, is a flattening of life and culture. Objects whose depths were plumbed with contemplation are now glanced at distractedly. Yet this is all that is required since they, the objects themselves, have truly lost a dimension. The division presented between ‘home’ and ‘getting a bit of glamour’ offers no real distinction: Just as the nightlife presents nothing but gleaming surfaces, even the commodities that sustain life have been transformed. They are no longer wholesome, but appear as flattened imprints on the pages of magazines. The dreams of these masses of salaried workers were not so much cornucopias, utopias of commodities piled high, but rather the endless images of commodities, the prospective purchase that might be glanced at, over one’s shoulder on the morning commute, and approved of. This new culture preserves in the ephemera of the advertising image the old objects and decayed relations of bourgeois culture.

This relation to a decayed bourgeois culture, this super-decadence, infects not only the world of entertainment but the workplace. Kracauer describes a scene from a firm’s training programme:

When the middle class girls were still in a state of prosperity, many girls who now punch cards used to stumble through etudes at home on the pianoforte. Music, at least, has not entirely vanished from a process that the National Board for Economic Viability has defined as follows: “Rationalisation is the application of all means offered by technology and systematic organisation to the raising of economic viability, and therewith increasing the production of goods, reducing their costs, and improving them.” No, it has not quite gone. I know of an industrial plant that hires girls straight from high school with a salary and lets them be trained at the typewriter by a teacher of their own. The wily teacher winds up the gramophone and the pupils have to type in time with its tunes. When merry military marches ring out, they all march ahead twice as lightly. The rotation speed of the record is gradually increased, and without the girls really noticing it they tap faster and faster. In their training years they turn into speed typists – music has wrought the cheaply purchased miracle.[31]

The history of the piano étude, or study, is an extraordinarily interesting one. These were training pieces, most commonly associated originally with names like Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny, leading later in the nineteenth century to the production of systems for acquiring comprehensive piano technique as in Hanon. But the étude, as a form, arose in a very particular social setting: that of the early-nineteenth century bourgeois home, with its piano placed in the parlour. The étude was a form designed to train the urban bourgeoisie in being able to reproduce music in their own homes. Later, of course, in the virtuoso hands of Liszt and Chopin, the étude grew to become its own autonomous musical form. But where this need for musical reproduction in the home was technologized, first with player pianos, and later with the gramophone, the étude was made defunct. It is only where this music has become alienated through its own technical and technological means of reproduction that it may safely be reintroduced into the workplace. Where once the bourgeois reproduced music on her instrument, in the 1920s the music was to instrumentalise the human body for the service of profit. In 1942, Adorno wrote in an essay, ‘On the Problem of a New Type of Human Being’ – a text remarkably close to Kracauer’s,

The objects of action are changing. Their mechanisation means that people must ‘adapt’ in their use of everyday devices to an incomparably higher degree than ever before. The act of driving a car or repairing a radio requires an infinitely greater subordination to the nature of those objects than the work of a craftsman for example. Even during the entire era of 19th-century industrial capitalism, the functions of the individual – at least in his free time – were not remotely as dependent on technology as they are today. The game, itself, becomes governed by the technical structure of things.[32]

Taken together, these two forms of rationalisation – the flattening of objects in the world, and the technical mastery of the human body – a new set of effects are developed. Contrary to arguments so common today, that the predominance of immaterial labour is the effect of an economic crisis in the 1970s, we discover in Kracauer a legion of examples of jobs that demand that employees are brutally flattened into attractive surfaces, and in particular surfaces that glisten with youth. We might return here to our cinematic vision of the Labour Court, in which the girls appear broken by their lack of make-up and the men’s faces exhibit pimples in close up. Humans were made cinematic, as though flattened onto a silver screen from which they had no means of escaping. The person became Glanz.

6. Used Up
In the famous ‘Fragment on Machines’ in the Grundrisse, Marx writes:

Fixed capital can enter into circulation as value, however, only to the extent that it passes away as use value in the production process. It pass, as value, into the product – i.e. as labour time worked up and stored in it – in so far as it passes away in its independent form as use value. In being used, it is used up, but in such a way that its value is carried over from its form into the form of the product. If it is not used, not consumed in the production process itself – if the machinery stands still, the iron rusts, the wood rots – then of course its value passes away together with its transitory presence as use value.[33]

This passage might explain something about the spectre of unemployment that haunts Kracauer’s book. Unemployment was radically changed by the rationalisations of the labour process at the beginning of the twentieth century. Workers’ bodies were strained in two movements: at once they were more closely bonded to the specific movements of machines, while specific demands were made of the appearance or Glanz of the employees. For many, the great fear was old age, but this fear doubles through these two rationalising processes. The body is to be ever more finely subordinated to the machine while it must maintain the image of youth. Kracauer describes this subjection of employees to machine work in clerical labour:

The big banks and other firms in which expensive investment pays have mainly gone over to proper mechanisation. The commercial advantages of machine methods can hardly be overestimated; to take just one example, they enable the current-account departments in banks to make up accounts in the shortest possible time and update them hourly. Thanks to the intellectual labour invested in the equipment, its handmaidens are spared the possession of knowledge; if attendance at a commercial college were not compulsory they would need to know nothing at all. The mysteries of the firm are a closed book to them, since they deal only with figures. Just one thing is required of them: attention. This cannot wander free, but is under the control of the apparatus it controls.[34]

Or more sardonically he quips,

The National Board for Economic Viability’s definition [of rationalisation] has no place for the term ‘human beings’. Perhaps it has been forgotten because it no longer plays a very important role. Yet employees are continually to be found who register its elimination as a loss.[35]

Capitalist crises are times of great destructions of capital. Whether in the financial form of the junking of debt or in the industrial form of the mothballing or demolition of factories; either way the machine stops moving. Old age in the era of rationalisation meant being used up at the same rate at which the machine you worked at was. In the crisis, those machines were not used up, but alongside the employees were junked. The iron rusted, the wood rotted. This was a new form of unemployment borne out of a new type of mechanical specialisation: both the general destructiveness of the crisis, and its specific mode of destroying life. Kracauer quotes, at one point, from responses to a survey of unemployed members of the Gewerkschaftsbund der Angestellten conducted near the beginning of 1929:

1)     Former manager with approximately 400 Reichsmark salary. Obliged to sell furniture and fur coat and let out his room. I am forty years old and married. Father of two children (boy, three and a half, girl, six months). Unemployed since April 1, 1925.
2)     Thirty-nine, married, three children (fourteen, twelve, nine). Three years earning nothing. Future? Work, mad-house, or turn on the gas.
3)     Male, redundant, because military candidates were taken on. I sold my furniture. Before the war several businesses of my own, which I had to give up as a result of the war and call-up. When I came home my wife died. All my savings were stolen away by the great national fraud (inflation). Now I am fifty-one, so everywhere I hear, “we don’t take people of that age”. The final step for me is suicide. The German state is our murderer.
4)     I am spiritually broken and sometimes entertain thoughts of suicide. Moreover I have lost confidence in all men. Thirty-eight year old, divorced, four children.
5)     Future? Hopeless, if something is not done soon for employees like me, older but fully trained, and still quite capable of working. Forty-five, married.
6)     Future hopeless without prospects. Early death would be best. This is written by a 32-year old, married, and father of two children.[36]

With the technical using up and defuncting of workers’ bodies, old age came sooner, and this was compounded by a culture of glamour and image whose artificial light was drawn to young flesh, as if it were the most sublime carrier of labour power. Kracauer writes,

'Young people are simply easier to deal with’, is an expression frequently heard. As if older people were not even easier to deal with if anyone would just employ them. The fact that they are treated more ruthlessly than is perhaps required, even in the interest of firms’ profitability, stems in the final analysis from the general abandonment of old age nowadays. Not just employers, but the whole nation has turned against it, and in a dismaying manner, glorifies youth itself. Youth is the fetish of illustrated newspapers and their public; older people court it and rejuvenating nostrums are supposed to preserve it. If growing old means going to meet death, then this idolisation of youth is a sign of flight from death.[37]

This rationalisation of the old and defunct into powerless wandering spirits extends out of the workplace and the illustrated newspaper, and into the conditions of life in society as a whole. Kracauer describes the conditions of the older unemployed employees as they gather in the labour exchange in order to look for small jobs.

Older people, whom they want to dispose of at all costs, are treated like problem children and have to report to the labour exchange daily. In this way, at least they have some occupation. Alas, if no other turns up their existence is not full enough to be worth prolonging – and some of them do then finally turn on the gas.[38]

The punishment of the old – those whose machinic life is now defunct, and whose appearance reflects a duller light – is identical to that announced by George Osborne for the long-term unemployed in our own crisis.[39] For a moment something may be glimpsed: crisis austerity transforms from something austere into its full dialectical opposite of crisis elaboration or crisis baroque. Just as the smooth surfaces of youthful skin transform into the complex textures of the appearance of age, people’s lives are to be forced down ever more fine and complex paths, until they are no longer sustainable.

7. Notes to Literature and Crisis
Crises, where they are not seen as terminal, final, and universally apocalyptic, must be understood as the great moments of capitalist integration. They are moments of the reorganisation of society in favour of capitalist relations. They are moments of an intensification of capital’s destructive powers, under which are piled high new peaks and abysses of human waste, or wasted humans, created as social relations shift tectonically beneath our feet. To eschew apocalypticism in crisis is perhaps the most dangerous and interesting move of Kracauer’s book. It is a move that defines The Salaried Masses a hopeless and integrated text, a writing that uncannily illuminates Berlin with capital’s own technics. Utopia is exchanged for a text full of texture that one can touch, a writing of dark materialism that dwells in the physical movements of capital, understanding their illumination under artificial light to be the actuality of social relations.

In the Luna Park, of an evening, a fountain is sometimes displayed illuminated by Bengal Lights. Cones of red, yellow and green light, continually recreated, flee into the darkness. When the splendour is gone, it turns out to have come from the wretched cartilaginous structure of a few little pipes. The fountain resembles the life of many employees. From its wretchedness it escapes into distraction, lets itself be illuminated with Bengal lights and, unmindful of its origin, dissolves into the nocturnal void.[40]

[1] Siegfried Kracauer, The Salaried Masses, Quinitin Hoare (trans.), London: Verso, 1998, p. 30.

[2] The Salaried Masses, p. 44.

[3] The Salaried Masses, p. 25.

[4] The Salaried Masses, pp. 81-82.

[5] Walter Benjamin, ‘Diary from August 7, 1931, to the Day of my Death’, Rodney Livingstone (trans.) in Michael Jennings (ed.), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 2, Harvard, MA: Belknap Press, 1999, p. 504.

[6] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Newspaper’, Rodney Livingstone (trans.), in Michael Jennings (ed.), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 2, Harvard, MA: Belknap Press, 1999, p. 741.

[7] Walter Benjamin, ‘Diary from August 7, 1931, to the Day of my Death’, Rodney Livingstone (trans.) in Michael Jennings (ed.), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 2, Harvard, MA: Belknap Press, 1999, p. 505 (translation altered.)

[8] Walter Benjamin, ‘An Outside Makes his Mark’, Rodney Livingstone (trans.), in Michael Jennings (ed.), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 2, Harvard, MA: Belknap Press, 1999, p. 310 (translation altered.)

[9] Theodor W. Adorno, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy, Edmund Jephcott (trans.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 36.

[10] The Salaried Masses, p. 90.

[11] The Salaried Masses, pp. 93-94.

[12] The Salaried Masses, p. 105.

[13] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Reflections on Class Theory’, Rodney Livingstone (trans.), in Rolf Tiedemann (ed.) Can One Live After Auschwitz?, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 94.

[14] Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, Edmund Jephcott (trans.), London: Verso, 2005, p. 247 and p. 77.

[15] The Salaried Masses, p. 41.

[16] The Salaried Masses, p. 90.

[17] Henryk Grossmann, Das Akkumulations- und Zusammenbruchsgesetz des kapitalistischen Systems, Leipzig: Hirschfeld, 1929.

[18] Exodus 12.23, “For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.”

[19] Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia, Anthony A. Nassar (trans.), Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000, p. 1.

[20] Walter Benjamin, ‘Experience and Poverty’, Rodney Livingstone (trans.) in Michael Jennings (ed.), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 2, Harvard, MA: Belknap Press, 1999, p. 732.

[21] Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, Norwood, MA: Plimpton Press, 1911.

[22] Henry Ford, My Life and Work, New York: Doubleday, 1923, p. 80.

[23] The Salaried Masses, p. 30.

[24] The following sentences are a development of an argument hinted at in Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s article ‘The Dual Economics of Transition’ in CSE Pamphlet Number 1: Labour Process and Class Strategies, London: Stage 1, 1976, pp. 26-45.

[25] Bertolt Brecht, ‘The Street Scene’, in Brecht on Theatre: 1933-1947, John Willet (trans.), London: Methuen, 1964), p. 125.

[26] The Salaried Masses, p. 83.

[27] Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, Ben Fowkes (trans.), London: Penguin, 1976, p. 90 (translation altered.)

[28] The Salaried Masses, p. 32.

[29] The Salaried Masses, pp. 61-62 (translation altered.)

[30] The Salaried Masses, p. 88.

[31] The Salaried Masses, pp. 42-43.

[32] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘The Problem of a New Type of Human Being’, in Current of Music, Robert Hullot-Kentor (trans.), Cambridge: Polity, 2009, p. 463.

[33] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Martin Nicolaus (trans.), London: Penguin, 1993, p. 681.

[34] The Salaried Masses, p. 42.

[35] The Salaried Masses, p. 45.

[36] The Salaried Masses, p. 57.

[37] The Salaried Masses, p. 58 (translation altered.)

[38] The Salaried Masses, p. 67.

[39] “For the first time, all long term unemployed people who are capable of work will be required to do something in return for their benefits, and to help them find work. They will do useful work putting something back into their community. Making meals for the elderly, clearing up litter, working for a local charity. Others will be made to attend the job centre every working day.” See George Osborne, ‘Speech to the 2013 Conservative Party Conference’, 30 September, 2013,

[40] The Salaried Masses, p. 95.