The two readings for the Summer meeting of the Monash Literacy and Teaching Reading Group (a descriptive rather than ‘official’ title) were from Germany in 1930. One was an excerpt from Siegfried Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany. The other was an essay from Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer”. They made an odd pair and, as I am not an expert on Marxist theory or dialectical materialism, they were at times dense. These reflections treat the two articles as provocations or openings for considering the place of ‘cultural producers’ such as writers and teachers.

Kracauer:

The excerpt we looked at from Kracauer was “A short break for ventilation” which documented the author’s visits to newly modernised factories and workplaces in Weimar Germany. Kracauer treats his visits as excursions into what the modern workplace extols as ‘efficiency’ – a god that we still worship. The application of scientific rigour to human resources and work practices has, since the advent of industrialisation, had two contradictory effects: one has been to dehumanise workers into units of production who can be rationalised to create just the right kind of output in a series of actions in a tightly designed and monitored workflow. The other effect has been to look at modern work as a locus of meaning and identity for the individual worker. However, as the first effect suggests, what happens when we emphasise function, efficiency and predictability over individual personality, is that it is very difficult for a worker to see their work as a source of meaning. This was very evident from the beginning in the piecework of the factory worker. Mass production created a huge rise in living standards for many as goods previously made by artisans (at considerable expense) were now churned our cheaply from factories. However, the effect was the worker who once learned an intricate trade or craft was transformed into a single, repetitive unit in a production line.

Kracauer’s essay seems particularly interested in the category of worker who sits between the labourer on the factory floor and the management – the legions of clerical workers and minor functionaries. He devotes some attention to describing the work patterns of young women who come to work after a short stint at secretarial school:

“A number of girls are evenly distributed about the room at Powers machines, punching cards and writing. … I ask the office manager about the machine-girls’ work routine.

‘The girls,’ he replies, ‘punch for only six hours and during the remaining two hours are employed as office clerks. In this way we avoid overtaxing them. All this takes place in a predetermined cycle, so that each employee encounters all tasks. For hygienic reasons, moreover, from time to time we slip in short breaks for ventilation.’

What a scheme – even ventilation outlets are not forgotten.”

Kracauer’s essay suggests that such human touches as “short breaks” are only added insofar as they assist with the mechanics of smooth production. The individuality of each girl is immaterial to the process, and the general aesthetic ugliness of the environment and the ideas it embodies is summed up by the observation, “many girls who now punch cards used to stumble through études at home on the pianoforte.” In other words, they need to be educated and genteel just enough to enter into this workplace and perform their function well – but not so much that a creativity or critical intellect is nurtured that is in excess of requirements.

This is the other face of standardised work and it points up a paradox. On the one hand, standards imply a certain level of proficiency and learning is required to meet the criteria for performance of a work role. This, when applied to domains of work such as teaching, nursing, accountancy, financial planning, occupational therapy, clinical psychology, and so on, is supposed to have the effect of reassuring the public that members of this profession have reached standards and can be trusted to do their job and serve their clients well. The idea is that this also ‘weeds out’ the shonky operators and hence raises the esteem in which that professional is held by the community. However, in applying standards, the unintended effect can be akin to the world described by Kracauer at the birth of the modern clerical workplace – not just ‘standards’ but ‘standardisation’, wherein the professional judgement of the worker is replaced by a standardised routine which bypasses individual knowledge and creativity and replaces it with compliance. In other words, this worker, too, like the labourer on the factory floor before her, becomes a unit in a process that makes a standard, mass-produced product. By the logic of this world, the people involved in this process become themselves, standardised, mass-produced products. This paradox is summed up in a little verse inserted into Kracauer’s essay:

And after all it’s just the same

If it’s you or if it’s me.

Kracauer goes on to analyse this effect of the modern white-collar workplace being a domain of rationalisation and work-function. The effort poured into calibrating and quantifying the exact content of each task in the process has the effect of making it ‘individual-proof’:

“Thanks to the intellectual labour invested in the equipment, its handmaidens are spared the possession of knowledge; if attendance at commercial college were not compulsory, they would need to know nothing at all. The mysteries of the firm too are a closed book to them, since they deal only with figures.”

The Salaried Masses goes to the heart of one of the tensions of modernity – the same forces that revolutionised society out of stable, feudal relations into a rapidly changing, socially mobile world in which commercial goods were more freely accessible, is the same world that wrenches meaning from work and slots people into narrow, alienated, standardised roles in which mere compliance to routine and standardised processes is required. We are still living with the ongoing permutations and complexities of that tension – not least in the profession of teaching.

Benjamin:

The place of artists, intellectuals and other ‘cultural producers’ in modernity is examined by Benjamin. Benjamin’s essay “The Author as Producer” is, if I read it right, an attempt to address a major problem for left-wing intellectuals of his place and time: if you are an intellectual, you are, by definition, bourgeois. But, if you are left-wing, you are sympathetic to the interests and cause of the proletariat, which means you are against the bourgeois. At this point, I am scrabbling around in my memory of courses in Political Theory and Theory of Revolutions that I took back in the early 1990s. If memory serves me right, one of the key insights I derived from those courses is that the bourgeois classes are actually responsible for as much social change and upheaval as they are for conservatism and oppression of the proletariat. Perhaps this is the dilemma that Benjamin addresses – that the class that is identified as the ‘owners of the means of production’ is the same class that gives rise to new social forms. On one side, the burghers of the city, and on the other the revolutionary writers, and both are from the same economic class.

Benjamin charges the left-wing intellectual with a special but obscure task: “His mission is not to report but to struggle; not to play the spectator but to intervene actively.” This bears a family resemblance to the ideal of the French existentialist intellectuals of engagé. However, the latter idea, or the methods used by writers such as Carolyn Steedman in Landscape for a Good Woman, are much more appealing to me than Benjamin’s formulation that a left-wing writer must show “solidarity” with the “proletariat”. What does this really entail? Benjamin argues that this consists of a kind of collectivisation of intellectual production, a process that changes cultural production from something that merely reiterates bourgeois values to an “apparatus” that is adapted to “the purposes of the proletarian revolution.”

Perhaps because of my no doubt bourgeois distaste for roping any intellectual or artistic endeavour to an ideological program imposed from the outside, not to mention what actually happened to intellectuals and artists in Stalin’s Russia, I cannot enthuse about this aspect of Benjamin’s article. I may have misunderstood it, but his program for artistic revolutionary work sounds very similar in its control and rationalisation of action to function, to the streamlined functionalism of the Weimar era workplace documented by Kracauer. Why have cultivated individuals when all you need are Socialist Realist artists fulfilling work orders like colour-by-numbers hacks?

There are some other ideas here: the notion of how new technologies transform cultural production and bring in the reader as collaborator, breaking down the distinction between an ‘elite’ cultural producer and a deskilled consumer. This was a thread in Benjamin’s essay that seemed positively prescient for what modern print production, telecommunications, media and ICTs have done for collaborative cultural practice and decentred notions of intellectual and literary value.

As to how it relates to teaching literature … Perhaps we can take from these two articles an illumination of our odd and awkward position as English teachers, as we are a form of cultural producer and/or intellectual. We are charged with multiple and often contradictory tasks that promote both cultural conservatism and social change. We teach ‘standard Australian English’ and yet also engage with new, collaborative and digital tools for reading and writing. We teach ‘classic’ literature, and yet we also want students to create new types of texts. We want to be professionals and recognised as such by our communities, and yet we may be wary of ‘standards’ becoming ‘standardisation’. Does who we are and what kinds of intellectual and social engagement we represent to our students matter – or does it not matter, as long as we implement the mandated strategies and ‘teach to the test’? Is Kracauer’s verse true: “And after all it’s just the same/If it’s you or if it’s me”?

Under the various pressures of high-stakes testing and exams, it is easy to feel a little like one of those girls at the punch-card machines. And yet, teacher’s work is qualitatively different, not the least being we do not have to toil at dehumanising, clattering machines and the necessity for some professional judgement and knowledge is recognised. And yet … my prickly reaction to Benjamin’s essay is in part a feeling that programmatic interventions such as those envisioned by thinkers like him have to guard against dismantling the very qualities that make people happily invest identity in their work – such as freedom to make professional judgements and to be recognised as expert interpreters of their world and how to respond to it.

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3 thoughts on “Reflections on Reading Group Readings January 2015 – Kracauer and Benjamin

  1. Hi Fleur! Great post. I intentionally didn’t read your responses till I’d posted my own- hence the delay in responding- as I didn’t want my own (initial) responses to be coloured by yours.

    It’s difficult to separate Benjamin’s exhortations to the author from our retrospective knowledge of how Soviet Russia turned out. Still, I think there’s great worth in the task he charged intellectuals with: “not to report but to struggle; not to play the spectator but to intervene actively.”

    Benjamin is discussing artists, intellectuals, writers- producers of knowledge. In our own context, we’re considering how his words apply to teachers. I don’t have to agree with Benjamin’s particular political stance to agree that there’s a duty(?) (responsibility?) to be actively engaged with the systems/ institutions/ society within which one participates. (You mention “a family resemblance to the ideal of the French existentialist intellectuals of engagé”- I’ll have to look this up.)

    As participants- representatives, even- of the educational system, we’re caught up in it, and faced with a choice as to whether we’ll unquestioningly implement policies and systems or critically evaluate and challenge them.

    As you say, in our role as teachers we’re charged with “multiple and often contradictory tasks that promote both cultural conservatism and social change.” The tensions you recognise- between teaching classic literature and valuing new literacies, between being professional and meeting mandated “standards” or participating (even passively) in “standardisation” – must be recognised. The bargains and compromises that we strike in balancing these tensions are not trivial, since teaching is always political.

    1. Hello Joe!

      Thanks for the thoughtful and, indeed, engaged comment. Benjamin is a subtle and playful thinker and this article we looked at reminded me of Kafka’s exhortation to writers: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Yes, the prescience he had for the rise of technologies that would create citizen-journalists, not to mention bloggers, is acute. My disquiet is more to do with demanding that writers adhere to some particular ideological program that stands outside the process of writing the text itself. The ideas about readers becoming collaborators, of each of us being co-creators of culture, rather than consumers or passive spectators, is still powerful and pertinent. What’s more, it is an ideal or stance which informs English teaching for social change. We want students to be ‘literate’ but for what purpose? Surely, not to just repeat culture as it already stands, but to actively participate in its continual renegotiation and becoming. So, I thought there was this tension between these radical, decentred, participatory ideals of Benjamin on the one hand, and the idea that anyone can command an other to adhere to an ideological program on the other. Not being a Benjamin scholar, I can only suspect that this irresolvable tension and paradox is characteristic of his work.

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