A Flâneur, But So What?: Franz Hessel and Objectivity in Weimar Berlin

By Amanda DeMarco and Daniel Liu

“Walking slowly down bustling streets is a particular pleasure. Awash in the haste of others, it’s a dip in the surf,” Franz Hessel’s 1929 Walking in Berlin opens with a celebration of the pedestrian’s-eye-view. Hessel was a Francophile who played a path-breaking role in bringing the concept of the flâneur to the streets of Berlin. In the essays that follow, Hessel traverses a good portion of the city, describing everything that passes before him. The result is an invaluable record of life in the city, one that Walter Benjamin called “an absolutely epic book whose source was not memory but rather leisure.”

Recent reviews of the new English translation have taken note of a lacuna in Hessel’s otherwise comprehensive account: his apolitical stance amidst the turbulent Weimar era. “I’m not the first to note the slightly surprising absence of any real negative political commentary in the work, discussions of growing social unrest or the dark shadow of the years to come…” Lucy Scholes writes in the Independent. She chalks it up to Hessel playing the role of the flâneur, which is “that of detached observer — he watches, he describes, but he doesn’t pass comment or get involved. This is precisely what sets him apart from those around him.”

Scholes is correct to conclude that Hessel is following the strictures entailed by his chosen format. But the key word is chosen. This detached role suited certain intellectual and ideological ideals of the era. After all, when ideas are imported from another culture, it is often because they fit or can be made to fit with the receiving culture. When he dons the mantle of the flâneur, though Hessel may be disrupting certain aspects of Weimar culture, equally so is he affirming others, in particular, its interest in dispassionate, objective observation of the city around him.

We typically understand objectivity as a “view from nowhere,” which transmits the truth of reality without personal bias. This idealized view is notoriously difficult in practice, since, as Thomas Nagel has noted, it “is naturally described in terms that, taken literally, are unintelligible: we must get outside of ourselves, and view the world from nowhere within it.” And yet a motivation to be an objective observer and analyst is one that drives not just journalism and scientific research, but many of our moral and political endeavors as well. We try to be objective because it is both useful for knowing our world and acting in it.

What characterizes this practical objectivity as it actually appears in the world? In their seminal study of the history of scientific objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison emphasize that objectivity is not a single monolithic concept, but one which has taken on various guises in various eras. Throughout these changes, objectivity retains a stable core: it is a fundamentally negative quality, the suppression of subjectivity. Theodore Porter’s instructive 1996 study Trust in Numbers wryly informs us that “Its etymology suggests an acquaintance with objects,” that is, objectivity is an outward-facing, world-oriented characteristic.

Beginning in the mid-19th century, a form of scientific objectivity rose to prominence which Daston, Galison, and Porter refer to as mechanical objectivity. It relies on knowledge acquired by means of an apparatus that obviates human intervention and judgment: photographs or quantification by means of measurement devices, for example. Mechanical objectivity as a metaphor for the self suggests operating with the regularity and consistency of a clock or an automobile, rather than your gossipy neighbor, or your temperamental draught horse. Mechanical objectivity, writes Porter, “implies personal restraint. It means following the rules.”

The increasingly rationalized and technocratic character of the state, commerce, and even leisure activities infused German culture with conceptions of objectivity that reverberate through Walking in Berlin, as well as other works of the era — think of Isherwood’s famed declaration: “I am a camera.” Hessel’s descriptions can be as exhausting as they are exhaustive, as if he possessed a machine’s untiring capacity to record. We wouldn’t suggest that Hessel implemented a scientifically rigorous ideal of objectivity throughout his book, but rather that notions of objectivity shaped his work, particularly in his ethic of self-abnegation as a path to clearer vision. As flâneur, Hessel programmatically suppresses himself throughout the book, privileging description over analysis, impressions over judgments. “I simply like to linger at first sight,” he explains on the first page. Hessel evidently believed that there is such a thing as pure, unadulterated first sight, and that it is not so fleeting and delicate that one can’t place a fermata above it and sustain it for the length of an entire book.

This non-analytical posture takes its most extreme form when Hessel describes highly politicized moments stripped of their political content, in their pure physicality. For example, when he attends Nazi and Communist rallies at the Sportpalast, his emphasis lies on the similarity of their form, rather on the divergence of their content:

The Sportpalast peacefully tolerates all of this with a sort of gargantuan good-naturedness. Its walls impartially echo ‘Swastika on the helmet’ and ‘This is the final struggle’* just as they do the cries of the sports fans. All of it is the exuberance of the same unceasing lust for life. [*Lyrics from “Hakenkreuz am Stahlhelm,” a popular song among Nazi-sympathisers in the Weimar Republic, and “The Internationale,” respectively.]

After this view of street politics, the Reichstag and high politics are similarly reduced to an aesthetic experience:

If you have friends among the legislators or members of the press, have them procure a seat in the gallery for you and attend a session. But if you do, you must be careful not to confuse right with left. It’s like with certain stage directions that are intended from the point of view of the actor and not the audience.

Not even the most naïve spirit could be present at these events without judging their purpose; Hessel is actively suppressing political and critical content in an act of self-restraint. His apolitical view pushed to the limits of absurdity at these moments. Hessel employs his description, with a hint of lèse-majesté, to make us see “at first sight” what we are accustomed to perceiving (and preconceiving) ideologically.

First sight is an endangered concept in our divisive era of confirmation bias, when everything seems endowed with preordained political significance, down to the most trivial of objects (hello, Starbucks Christmas cups). Hessel insisted on the value and possibility of objective encounters: “it’s still not necessary to understand everything; you just have to see for yourself how things are perpetually happening and transforming,” he assures us in a chapter dedicated to thunderstruck description of Berlin’s new factories and assembly lines. His confidence is underpinned by a belief in the power of sheer knowledge, which is, after all, what painstaking description hopes to transmit. He urges his fellow Berliners to “go out yourselves, aimlessly, just as I have done, on hazard’s little voyages of discovery.” This is his cure for a lamentable problem: “You can still sense that many parts of Berlin haven’t been viewed enough to be truly visible. We Berliners must dwell in our city to a much greater degree.” In this sense, we might consider his works not apolitical, but pre-political, providing the substrate of knowledge that would allow Berliners to truly “dwell,” in order to become good citizens of their city.

Hessel’s significance is often explained by way of his influence on Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Berlin Childhood Around 1900, but if there is one book that rounds out the image of the city presented in Walking in Berlin, it is Sigfried Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses. Published in 1930, in it Kracauer examined the growing legions of salaried office employees in major German cities, especially Berlin. One might say that while Kracauer depicted the salaried masses at work, Hessel captures them at play. Hessel and Kracauer were fascinated by the same new phenomena — independent young women, the cult of youth, athleticism, mass spectacles, department stores, and electric lighting, even down to the specifics of widows’ balls and the tasteless extravagance epitomized by the massive cafe Haus Vaterland.

Kracauer writes satirically as an anthropologist studying a foreign culture, which imposes limitations on his project analogous to Hessel’s importation of the flâneur: “the work is a diagnosis and, as such, deliberately refrains from putting forward proposals for improvements.” Kracauer’s aim to “become fully aware of a situation still barely explored” is essentially the same as Hessel’s work to observe Berlin until it is “truly visible.”

This posture of diagnosis is not the objectivity of photography-like observation, but a different objectivity, that of “trained or expert judgment.” Anyone who documents every detail of the world does so at some peril, as the result is a thousand varying and unclear pictures. The trained expert is the person we turn to when we want help understanding why the world is the way it is — when we don’t trust photographs, raw data, or observation to show us directly how things are.

Mechanical objectivity and trained judgment are interdependent, rather than mutually exclusive postures and this is one reason why Kracauer and Hessel’s views of the city are so complimentary. While Walking in Berlin records the irreducible tumult of the streets, The Salaried Masses sifts through all of the images of a certain slice of life in the city, distilling the salaried masses down to a few key moments and ideas. Taken together, a remarkably rich view of Berlin emerges.

Of course, neither man is completely rigorous in his application of objectivity. Kracauer is often torn between surface and analysis, micro- and macro-views, grand récit and example. Hessel, for his part, suffered a paroxysm of opinion whenever confronted with the aesthetically objectionable. But their projects demanded practices, not ideals, and in the fabric of each we can discern the methods from which they wove their tales.

In addition to yielding sound information about the world, postures of objectivity are almost always a tactic for asserting authority. Of course, hardly is there an author not concerned with authority, and wherever narrative is to be found, assurances about the narrator’s reliability (or tantalizing hints of its absence) abound. But Hessel and Kracauer had particular motivations to consolidate their authority. Weimar society and Berlin in particular were rocked by change and instability at almost every level. Hessel and Kracauer were also writing at a moment when anxieties about human judgment had reached an apex, primed by decades of discussion about mechanized means of knowledge production, especially the photograph, and by the increasing role of expertise in an industrialized and rationalized economy. As such, their solutions to the eternal problem of narrative authority was a product of their particular era.

Striking as their parallels may be, a comparison of Hessel’s and Kracauer’s work necessarily exposes their divergence. When he reviewed The Salaried Masses, Walter Benjamin noted: “Refusing to mask himself for the carnival that his fellow men are staging — he elbows his way boorishly through the crowd, here and there lifting the mask of someone particularly jaunty.” How different from Hessel, floating along “awash in the haste of others,” taking “a dip in the surf”! In fact, Kracauer was extremely critical of mere reportage, a hugely important format of the day and one which he charges with lack of insight: “Existence is not captured by being at best duplicated in reportage…A hundred reports from a factory do not add up to the reality of the factory, but remain for all eternity a hundred views of the factory.” We need only read Hessel’s descriptions of factories to know that this is not quite right, that there is a rhythm and energy captured, which makes the descriptions close to life.

Hessel and Kracauer in no way discard the possibilities of literature when they imitate the language of science. As they encounter and record physical reality, they also chart a spiritual topography in their projects. When Kracauer says that “sports associations are like outposts intended to conquer the still vacant territory of the employees’ souls,” or that “The mass of salaried employees differ from the worker proletariat in that they are spiritually homeless,” he is pointing to a void at the heart of modern existence. Hessel’s literal circling of the streets orbits this void. His peripatetic writings are an object lesson in new sense of being at home in this homelessness.

Thomas Haskell advises us that objectivity “does not value even detachment as an end in itself, but only as an indispensable prelude or preparation for the achievement of higher levels of understanding…” Walking in Berlin is significant because it brought fresh concepts to a new terrain — the figure of the flâneur to the streets of Berlin — but also because it embodies the characteristics which typify the culture from which it emerged. In its wide-eyed self-abnegation, it brings us a heightened understanding of its era and reveals to us a more complete, more cognizant vision of Berlin and of Weimar culture.

 

Amanda DeMarco is the translator of Walking in Berlin. Daniel Liu is a historian of science.

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