Monday, August 18, 2008

Reading Notes: Kracauer - On Employment Agencies: The Construction of a Space

Social strata are reflected in the spaces that the members of different strata occupy. Suburbs are a result of the growing middle class. Employment agency is the space assigned to the unemployed – opposite of a home.

He sees the Employment agency as a physical manifestation of an economic reality. Employment agencies are necessary as places for the unemployed to go instead of work or home – a kind of anti-home. He mulls their locations at length, describing the locations of a number of different specialized employment agencies, finally settling on the metal workers’ employment agency, which is situated in a back courtyard (two layers deep into the heart of the building), behind the offices where work is contracted and the areas in which the work is done. In this world, the power, economic and social, of a person is measured by his distance from the street. The powerful are at the front of the building and the abject are in the guts of the building, waiting for the job-makers to give them some work. Kracauer maps the economic reality of the workers’ situations onto the physical layout of the building.

Also, lengthy discussion of the irony/suckiness of how work is distributed. Some professions prefer to hire those who have been unemployed the longest, others prefer to hire those most recently unemployed.

Spatial Authority also enters in the form of signs governing the use of the space: “Protect the common property” and “In the interest of a smooth flow of persons, the orders of the hall porter must be unquestioningly followed.” Though he is, you could say, only barely more employed that the unemployed around him, and though they share the same space, the hall porter gains a great deal of authority over those waiting around him.

Also, some discussion of decoration: “Ostensibly out of the need to brighten up the place a little, the walls have from time to time been adorned with coloured prints. Do landscapes interrupt the misery or artistic portraits? Not at all. Rather, pictures that are dedicated to the prevention of accidents. ‘Think of your mother’, stands under one of them that, like the rest, warns of the dangers to which the worker is subjected when working with machines. Astonishingly enough, the couple of illustrations of gloomy happenings shimmer in a friendly manner above the heads. Yet nothing typifies the character of this space more than the fact that in them even pictures of accidents become picture postcard greetings from the happy upper world. If the unemployed could be immediately transferred there from the employment agency, then the poster announcing ‘Unnecessary waiting on the steps is not permitted’, that adorns many staircase walls, would not be required. It sounds like an afterword to the collection of texts that is prefaced by the door plate at the entrance to the courtyard.”

Kracauer sees the economic/social reality of the workers’ existence exemplified by the space they have to inhabit while waiting for a job. This space is further governed not only by its situation in relation to the spaces occupied by those that have the power to give jobs, but also by the disembodied authority of the posted signs warning of the dangers of work as well as the admonishments not to loiter. All in all, rather bleak.

Reading notes: Siegfried Kracauer – The Hotel Lobby

Kracauer - primarily known for film theory – Theory of Film and From Caligari to Hitler. This essay is an extract from Mass Ornament. He fled Germany under the Nazis and worked afterward in America. He was a student of Simmel and was influenced by him. Early in his career looked and daily phenomena and their impact on and significance in human life.

In the Hotel Lobby, he sees the lobby as an “inverted image” of the House of God – any house of worship. These spaces, he says, are both specifically equipped by their function to create equals of the people that inhabit them, despite their divergent functions. In a religious congregation, the differences between them disappear because of their united focus on god – they see their lives as serving the same destiny. Equality in the hotel lobby is instead established by a relationship to nothing. The sitters in a hotel lobby are, in the act of sitting in the lobby, focusing their energy on nothing at all, whereas in the church, the congregation’s members focus their energy entirely on the same object. The House of God is a place where people congregate to encounter a certain unknown Someone, whereas the Hotel Lobby is a place where people congregate to become anonymous and encounter no one. He emphasizes the importance of Silence as it is observed in those places (example from Der Tod in Venedig), and the aims of those specific silences – in the lobby, it underscores the anonymity of the people occupying the space and acts almost as a barrier between the individuals, whereas in the house of god, silent prayer unites the anonymous worshipers in their attempt to find god. Both spaces also allow for a detachment from daily life – one with meaning in the case of the church and one entirely without meaning in the hotel lobby. Silence underlines the sense that the people in those spaces regard one another as equals.

The hotel lobby has no specific purpose “dictated by Ratio,” but does accord a certain distance from the everyday – a kind of perspective that allows the inhabitant to regard daily life from afar. Kracauer is fascinated by the recurrent role of the hotel lobby in detective novels and seems to imply that the hotel lobby is the ideal setting for action performed by the detective novel’s “emptied-out individuals” (“who, as rationally constructed complexes, are comparable to the transcendental subject”). The congregation emerges, seeing itself as having a purpose, while the individuals in the hotel lobby are stripped of a purpose. Thus, the lobby-sitters approach a kind of existential nothing. The house of god creates a community where there had been none before.

Beautiful passage:

“But if the meaning of this anonymity becomes nothing more than the representation of the insignificance of this beginning, the depiction of formal regularities, then it does not foster the solidarity of those liberated from the constraints of the name; instead, it deprives those encountering one another of the possibility of association that the name could have offered them. Remnants of individuals slip into the nirvana of relaxation, faces disappear behind newspapers, and the artificial continuous light illuminates nothing but mannequins. It is the coming and going of unfamiliar people who have become empty forms because they have lost their password, and who now file by as ungraspable flat ghosts. If the possessed an interior, it would have no windows at all, and they would perish aware of their endless abandonment, instead of knowing of their homeland as the congregation does. But as pure exterior, they escape themselves and express their non-being through the false aesthetic affirmation of the estrangement that has been installed between them. The presentation of the surface strikes them as an attraction; the tinge of exoticism gives them a pleasurable shudder.”

Kracauer uses a SPATIAL model to explain the effect of a space on the people who occupy it.