Aside from this original stamp, the learning-plays proved highly controversial because of the austerity of their form and the disconcerting nature of their content. Conceived as a means for collective experimentation, the learning plays set up a laboratory-type situation based on a radical reduction of stage and theatrical resources. Brecht, an admirer of Japanese no theater, developed a radical economy of resources that was not primarily intended to express desolation, meaningless or the dehumanization of man (as in Beckett), but rather to set up the conditions that would allow more malleable manipulation of the stage situation. Like scientists engaged in the experimental formulation of a scientific law, the idea is to get rid of incidental details and set up an abstract situation that brings out the elements in their pure forms. This economy of elements seeks to reduce the exhibition value and emphasize the use value of the piece, to offer up the work as a device that can be manipulated. Brecht said: “The form of the learning-play is stringent, however only so that individual inventions and innovations can be easily adapted into the play.”[1] It should be noted that austerity was a way of attacking the “fourth wall,” not to йpater le bourgeois, but to clear the way for a dynamic based on participatory action. Nevertheless, the austere style of the learning plays was seen as an extension of the avant-garde principle of alienation, an appendix to the Verfremdung-effekt (estrangement)of epic theater, rather than as a didactic commitment to opening up to the active collaboration of participants. Brecht’s reception saw the avant-garde rather than the revolutionary pedagogy; it saw the formal experimentalism rather than the research laboratory.

In any case, the confusion was mostly due to the “content” of the pieces. On one hand, all of the learning-plays grappled with the theme of authority, power and violence, and they did so in an extreme and hyperbolic way: the works have a cruel, even sadistic element that attacks the “values” of the right and also the “political correctness” of the left. They grapple with the problem of human relationships in extreme situations, in such a harsh, radical manner that the barbaric element prevails over the enlightenment (liberal or socialist) promise of rational conflict resolution. This “anti-humanism” on its own would have earned him the contempt of the whole political spectrum, but Brecht went further. Some of his learning-plays –the paradigmatic example would be the controversial Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken) – deal with the issue of sacrifice and self-sacrifice as part of the process of political subjectivation. A self-sacrifice that entails a brutal “deletion” of the individual countenance in line with a collective cause. And to top it off, the cause in Die Massnahme is represented by the party. Although Brecht formulated this approach several years before the Soviet purges, it was seen as a kind of advance apologia for Stalin’s infamous trials. Nevertheless, this overlooks the fact that Brecht actually sought to represent society and humans as “transformable”; it ignores the fact that what Brecht was interested in was allowing participants to take on the different roles in the play. Referring to Die Massnahme, Brecht said: “Each of them [the actors –L.I.G.] must change from one role to the next and take over the figure of for instance the accused, the prosecutor, the witnesses, the judge, in quick succession. Under this condition, each of them will be able to subject themselves to the exercises of discussion and of course gain the knowledge – the practical knowledge of what dialectics actually is.”[2] It seems clear that this dynamic that puts the accused in the place of the judge and the pursuer in the place of the pursued, in a carnival of de-hierarchization of roles, is an attack against party logic of any kind. As the core of the Brechtian concept of political subjectivation, sacrifice or self-sacrifice does not have the trivial meaning of the negation of the individual in the interests of the collective. Rather, it recognizes that it is necessary to dismantle an existing conception of the human before a new one can be assembled. Through sacrifice, Brecht inscribes the instance of desubjectivation as part of the subjective constitution, as a prerequisite for the constitution of a new conception of the human in which the anonymous –baseline of subjectivation – can speak. And in theater practice, this takes the form of the role-swapping exercise: it is not about negating the individual, but about negating a single fixed role for each individual, a rejection of a fixed distribution of capacities. In other words, the dissolving of the individual as a static relation between a subjective position and a capacity for action. As such, free of any obsequiousness to party leaderships, the learning-plays break away from the idea of a pre-constituted political subject: they testify to a conception of the “political subject” as a collective process of political subjectivation. Nevertheless, songs like “Praise of the USSR”and “Praise of the Party”proved more powerful. The reception of the learning-plays repudiated the sacrifice of the individual and obsequiousness towards the USSR. The public saw the dissolving of the individual into the party, and overlooked the active production of the anonymous.

This series of misunderstandings meant that the “learning-plays” were seen as mere works of political agitation, theoretical works that sought to activate the public by means of transmitting a revolutionary doctrine. The crucial re-reading that Reiner Steinweg started formulation in the seventies[3] made it possible to begin questioning this way of thinking about the learning plays. At the core of Steinweg’s interpretation lies a conviction that “the learning-play does not contain any instruction, it does not teach ‘Marxism’ or another philosophy or social theory.”[4] So what are these learning-plays that do not teach anything? What do they teach, and how, if they do not transmit any social theory? “The learning-play instructs by being acted, not by being witnessed”,[5] Brecht explained. This did not just entail a complete shake-up of the system of actor-spectator oppositions, but also undermined the very status of an “artwork”: as Walter Benjamin saw, we should not talk about “artworks” but about apparatus, instruments, or better still, laboratories. The learning-plays do not teach anything because they are not didactic works, they are artifacts for self-learning, experimental devices for collective learning and research.

Jacques Ranciиre is the theorist who has most consistently probed the connections between art and politics in recent years by questioning the meaning of the pedagogical relationship. It thus seems odd that the learning-plays do not play a prominent role in his reflections, and odder still that Brecht’s production ends up in a rather uncomfortable position in Ranciиre’s system of references.

In the last few years, Ranciиre has focused on developing a leftist critique of the cultural policies of the left. In his recent book The Emancipated Spectator,[6] he sets out to explore this problem through the paradigmatic case of theater, and it is here that his critique of “critical art” becomes most radical and provocative. The core of his critique throws doubt on what many consider to be at the heart of all critical art: the activation of the receiver. Or, in the case of theater, the conviction that political theater means theater that transforms spectators into actors. Although he does not lose his belief in critical art, Ranciиre nevertheless suspends this belief that has traditionally legitimated critical art. This being so, it is understandable that Brecht should appear in this book as a paradigmatic example of the conception of critical art that Ranciиre wants to move away from.

Ranciиre claims that the problem of “critical art” is not about accepting and using the relationships between art and politics, for the simple reason that art and politics have always been connected. In fact, in Ranciиre’s work “aesthetics” does not refer to the “theory of art” but – more in line with the Greek sense of the term – “the distribution of the sensible.”[7] In other words, the ordering of the forms of sensibility and experience of an age, the modes of distribution of the visible and the sayable, the sharing out of capacities and functions in the sensorium of a community. As such, aesthetics is immediately political. Even l’art pour l’art would have its own way of charting this distribution of forms of sensibility. In this sense, all art is “political”.

In view of this, the boundaries shift. The thing that makes an aesthetic practice “critical art” is not just its link to politics, but its specific way of inscribing that inescapable relationship between art and politics. Critical art is not art that is “committed,” but art that establishes an equal distribution of the sensible, of capacities and functions. This allows Ranciиre to criticize forms of art that had thought themselves “critical” simply by virtue of their links to social or political emancipatory struggles. This kind of art is certainly “political art” – all art is–, but it is not, by default, “critical art.” “Critical” art is art that has the capacity to disrupt the hierarchical forms of the “distribution of the sensible.”And this is something that the kind of “committed” art that has traditionally been considered “political” and “critical” has been unable to do. The left has misunderstood the crux of the discussion: the problem is not the relationship between art and politics, but the way in which aesthetic politics either reproduce or disrupt the configuration of the sensorium. And by misunderstanding the debate, it has been unable to adopt the strategies that would allow it to break free from hierarchical forms of distribution. As a rule, when we approach “leftist” aesthetic practices, Ranciиre tells us, we find oppressive, “police-like”[8] forms of distribution of the sensible (one function for each, each in his place) reproduced in the name of the liberation of the oppressed.

This approach is based on an anti-authoritarian critique of the theory and militancy of the sixties and seventies, which Ranciиre has been developing since the eighties. During this period, Ranciиre writes, there was a distribution of the sensible that countered inert matter with an active principle that prevailed over it: the practice of militancy (political or aesthetic) presupposed that there was a truth that was available to some people, who had to transmit it to those that did not have it, a form that had to shape a matter. The relationship between intellectuals and the lower classes was conceived on the basis of this matrix, of this unequal “distribution” of the visible and the sayable, in which one group or another took turns at playing the active or passive roles. But the hierarchical distribution of capacities was never broken. The principle that requires the activation of the spectator was a legacy of this militant logic, and was thus burdened with a hierarchical division of the sensible. Hence the need to “emancipate” the spectator.

The mode of efficacy of this emancipatory art is taken directly from the principle of “intellectual emancipation” that Ranciиre developed in his 1987 book The Ignorant Master.[9]In it, he reconstructs the eccentric educational practices of the French professor Joseph Jacotot who, in the early nineteenth century, asserted that an ignorant person could teach another ignorant person what he did not know himself, proclaiming the equality of intelligences, and calling for “intellectual emancipation” against the accepted ideas concerning the instruction of the lower classes. Like freedom, learning is not something you give, it is something you take. From this point of view, equality is not the ultimate purpose of teaching, it is its point of departure. As such, teaching does not assume that there is a preexisting inequality that has to be reduced –that is, the initial inequality between the teacher’s knowledge and the student’s ignorance, which is reproduced every time learning takes place–, but rather an equality to be verified each time: the equality of the intelligences of the teacher and the ignorant student. The ignorant master, says Ranciиre, “does not teach his pupils his knowledge, but asks them into the forest of things and signs, to say what they have seen and what they think of what they have seen, to verify it and have it verified.”[10] The ignorant master suspends the presumed difference of intelligences, thus countering “the logic of the stultifying master: the logic of the direct transmission of the equal.”[11] Ranciиre suggests that the political efficacy of “critical art” must be based on this pedagogical presupposition of intellectual emancipation, that is, the equality of intelligences. “We don’t need to turn spectators into actors. We do need to acknowledge the knowledge acting in the ignorant, and the activity peculiar of the spectator.”[12]

This brings us to the question: Does Brecht’s proposed aesthetic-political pedagogy fall apart under this critique, as Ranciиre himself suggests? And so we return to the heart of the first part of this text: if we simply take the conventional reading into account, Brecht would certainly be just another “stultifying master.” But if we accept that his learning plays do not teach anything, shouldn’t we see Brecht as an “ignorant master”? Assuming that the learning-plays were not conceived as thesis pieces but as laboratories for experimental experimentation, aren’t they an attack on “the logic of the direct transmission of the equal”? Don’t they invite “pupils” to “say what they have seen and what they think of what they have seen, to verify it and have it verified”? Isn’t Joseph Jacotot’s maxim “teach what you don’t know” another way of putting what Brecht beautifully expressed as “the art of thinking in other people’s heads”?

Ranciиre also insists that suspending the assumption of the inequality of intelligence also entails suspending a notion of the efficacy of political art understood in terms of an indisputable resolution from a cause to an effect. The fact that the effects of art are indeterminate is part of Ranciиre’s concept of emancipatory art. This indeterminacy, in turn, affects the subject that, according to Ranciиre, is the target of this emancipatory art: the anonymous subject. But didn’t Brecht’s notion of sacrifice lead us along similar paths? Isn’t the indeterminacy of the aesthetic effect at the core of the “abstract” or “sober” nature of the learning plays?

The critique that Ranciиre develops is a pertinent and effective means to question some of the stereotypes that the leftist often falls into: didacticism, indoctrination, effectism, etc. But this does not mean we should reject the avant-garde experience en bloc. We have seen that it is inappropriate to compare Brecht’s learning-plays to the “stultifying pedagogy” that is reproduced by the “critical” model as conceptualized by Ranciиre, and that the learning-plays are based precisely on a presupposition of the “equality of intelligences.” Above all, they are devices for the verification of the equality of intelligences. In Brecht we find the ignorance of the master, the master who teaches what he does not know by abandoning the creation of “works” and choosing instead to designdevices. But we also find the suspension of causality, that is, the effects of the learning-plays are not determined in advance in their dramatic construction, but only in their actual performance. In Brecht, the activation of the spectator does not mean the reproduction of a hierarchical “distribution of the sensible”, but, on the contrary, the www of “the knowledge acting in the ignorant”.

What is at stake here is the problem of tradition, not simply the defense of a pantheon for the cultural left. Firstly, because Ranciиre’s approach leaves very little margin for reception of the experience of the avant-gardes – even if it is a totally renewed reception– and veers closer to conservative readings that question an original hybris in the avant-gardes, the very own logic of which led to the authoritarian practices of the left in the twentieth century. And in addition, because if we approach the shift from artwork to laboratory from the point of view of the problem of tradition, cultural legacy is no longer an accumulation of the “cultural assets” or “masterpieces” of the past, but a public reservoir of socially accessible resources and experiences, which can be reactivated in different struggles in order to transform protest into a creative action, and creative practices into acts of resistance. The learning-plays are not just an example of these resources, but also a way of conceiving art that empowers this way of thinking of history as an archive of resources that can be “functionally transformed” (“umfunktioniert”) for future struggles.


Translated by Nuria Rodrigez

Luis Ignacio Garcha (Argentina, 1978) is philosopher, university professor and researcher. He focuses his interest on the relation of aesthetics and politics in the twentieth century, with special attention to Latin America. He lives in Cуrdoba, Argentina.



[1] In Steinweg, R. (ed.), Brechts Modell der Lehrstьcke. Zeugnisse, Discusssion, Erfahrung, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp, 1976, p. 164.

[2] Ibнd., p. 198.

[3] Steinweg, R., Das Lehrstьck. Brechts Theorie einer politisch-дsthetischen Erziehung, Stuttgart, Metzler, 1972.

[4] In Steinweg, R., “Two Chapters from ‘Learning Play and Epic Theater’”, available in (author’s emphasis).

[5] In Steinweg, R. (ed.), Brechts Modell der Lehrstьcke, op. cit., p. 164.

[6] Ranciиre, J., El espectador emancipado [2008], Bs. As., Manantial, 2010 (The Emancipated Spectator, 2010).

[7] See Ranciиre, J., El reparto de lo sensible. Estйtica y polнtica [2000], Santiago de Chile, LOM, 2009 (The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, 2004).

[8] For the difference between “politics” and “police”, see Ranciиre, J., El desacuerdo. Polнtica y filosofнa [1995], Bs. As., Nueva Visiуn, 1996 (Disagreement. Politics and Philosophy, 1998).

[9]Ranciиre, J., El maestro ignorante. Cinco lecciones sobre la emancipaciуn intelectual [1987], Bs. As., Laertes, 2003 (The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Five Lessons on Intellectual Emancipation, 1991).

[10] Ibнd., p. 18.

[11] Ibнd., p. 20.

[12]Ranciиre, J., El espectador emancipado, cit., p. 23.