Driven by the compulsion, to repeat, two non-compromising avant-gardists, Esa Kirkkopelto (Finnish philosopher, playwright, and theatre director) and Artiom Magun (Russian philosopher), went to drink their afternoon coffee at the railway station of Helsinki – the flamboyant monument of modernist national-romantic architecture where Brecht wrote his “exile dialogues” in 1940. There, they had the following discussion.

Artiom: One of the problems I have with Brecht, is the seemingly unique status of this figure. Because he provided a way to combine avant-garde art (destruction of form and exposition of the technique) with direct political engagement that still makes sense today -even though his concrete political statements may have become obsolete. And as for other similar type of avant-gardism – like Marinetti’s futurism, and even the “futurism” of Mayakovsky – they seem to be suspect now, since they either tend toward self-sufficient fascist hysteria, or toward autonomous, elitist art.

But exceptions prove the rule, or point at some deep misunderstanding.

Esa: That Brecht remains so solitary is not his fault, but a sad characteristic of the last half-century. But against a broader historical horizon, he was not at all unique. Brecht belongs to a long tradition of the German romantic art form, more precisely to the tradition that we may call, with Holderlin and Benjamin,  revolutionary sobriety.

Artiom: What do you exactly mean? I thought, Germans of all political orientations have always been serious beer-drinkers…

Esa: Well, there is sobriety at the level of tone, too: one might perhaps talk of sobering up, or waking up, to speak again with Benjamin.

I would explain this idea of sobriety through the notion of the prosaic. The prosaic tone is slow and stumbling, open and self-reflective, lacking any gathering point of view. Kant, Holderlin, then the German romantics of Jena, maybe also Kleist or Buchner: here is the post-revolutionary tradition that rejected both the violent discharge of all tensions in exalted rhetoric, and the idea of gradual progress towards the better. Those “Germans of (17)89?” whom Benjamin contrasted to the Nazi Germans in 1939, responded to the revolution in their own way – I don’t know how exactly to put it …

Artiom: Perhaps through intensification?

Esa: What do you exactly mean by this?

Artiom: I mean it literally, as the internalization of tension.

Esa: In this case, yes, that makes sense.

Artiom: So, again, there are two German traditions?

Esa: Yes, and they are very close, but for Benjamin it was the political charge of criticism to see and make a difference, precisely in this sense. Romantics, for example, took much from Fichte, but they rejected the crucial thing: Fichte’s belief that the subject’s infinity is somehow resolved in gradual historical progress.

Artiom: Liberalism, in a word…

Esa: Right, but then Fichte became an extreme nationalist, which was not by chance, although unfortunately some of the romantics joined him later in this obsession.

Artiom: So, there are two modernist traditions, or rather a modernist tradition and the tradition of the avant-garde, which are not always easy to distinguish. Later, this controversy comes to mean: leftist art versus fascism; “aestheticization of poltics versus politicization of art”, to come back to Benjamin. And Benjamin is thinking of Brecht when he refers to the “politicization of art”.

Esa: Yes, and of course in Weimar Germany, both of these traditions existed, and, again, it was hard to distinguish them from one another. It was the time of expressionism – and expressionism is a kind of romanticism or modernism which comes close to the worst. As criticized by Benjamin, German expressionism still remained captive to the German “will to art” (Kunstwollen), the dream of founding the nation on an aesthetic basis. In expressionism, I think (although I am not sure), there is a sense of some innocent and healthy core of humanity, to be found beneath all the corruption. The problem of this position is its weakness. One can justify anything on its basis!
Artiom: In Russia, an analogy to expressionism was to be found in the movement of futurism and formalism, particularly in Shklovsky who probably “donated” his notion of “Verfremdung,” or estrangement to Brecht. As close as Shklovsky and Brecht may be, we see in Shklovsky the will to expose raw reality, while in Brecht we have the critical demonstration of its rigidity, and the search for its possible transformation. Shklovsky’s preferred trope is metaphor, and for Brecht, it is certainly irony – the figure of ambivalence.

But irony can also be dangerous! As in the decadent version of romantic irony (again, this aestheticizing line is present in romanticism from the beginning, and again, it is not without Fichte’s influence), where it affirms the frivolous irresponsibility of any subjective position, and in today’s cynical ideology, where it justifies the passivity of the subject. If, speaking of Russian art, we move from futurists to the Oberiu art of the 1930s, then we see that the issue at stake was irony, not metaphor. And again, politically, this irony was ambivalent.
Esa: Yes, and in Weimar expressionism, both tendencies, to raw naturalism and to passive irony, were present at once. In fact, they went together very well. And Brecht was not immune to the kind of dangers that the Russian art faced.

Benjamin, who was first a part of the expressionist youth movement, was very young when he distanced himself from all of this – particularly from the George circle (and, also very early on, from Heidegger).
Now, for Brecht this evolution took longer. He started, in the 1920s, as an expressionist playwright, with “Baal” and the “Threepenny Opera”. In them, he presented, with a disgusted detachment so characteristic for expressionists (think of Broch or Canetti), the hellish picture of his society, “as it really was”. And then, he became a really fashionable guy! The bourgeois public gave him standing ovations! But precisely this success made him think. He had made an experiment, and this experiment had failed. It was no less important for him to see, in the late 1920s, how the police were slaughtering manifesting workers in the streets of Berlin. And so, he changed his attitude.
Artiom: So, like with Fichte, we have not one but two points of divergence. One is with the fascist fascination with the shocking image, while the other is with cynical liberal detachment.
Esa: Perhaps this is one and the same point. When Brecht became conscious of it, he radically changed his strategy, and started introducing didactic, intellectual content into his art. Where Shklovsky privileged immediate optic perception (that’s why he preferred metaphor), Brecht came to privilege thinking (and thus, preferred irony).

Artiom: But here is yet another, third danger: the dogmatic rationalism of Stalinist kind: the irony of a Platonic kind, the irony of someone who knows the truth…

Esa: Yes, but look, Brecht supplies many direct didactic statements, but he never has one finalizing answer. His politics was constantly ambivalent. Particularly with regard to Stalin: sometimes he takes Stalin’s side, sometimes, like in the Danish discussions with Benjamin, he sharply criticizes him. Think of the ambivalence of the “Me-Ti”. Such ambivalent irony mimics the contradictions that define, according to Marx, any given mode of production.

Artiom: Here we go again – the ambivalence…

Esa: Ah, but this is precisely what we have been searching for: the relationship of politics to art. Brecht saw his artistic task in showing that “things could be otherwise”. This awareness of the excess and of the overdetermination inherent to the world is not his invention but the fundamental message of all art, particularly of the theater. What, since Brecht, is important in theater, is not the character, but the actor and the actor’s body, which imitates nothing in particular but exposes its fantastic mimetic power, its power to change. In Brecht’s theatre, “identification” (Einfuhlung) is interrupted, and attention is displaced from the character to the actor.

Artiom: And here, you already seem to be speaking of your own experimental theater. It is a theater of bodily transformations, of “becoming-animal”, or “becoming an inanimate thing”…

Esa: Yes – and I have seriously changed my approach in the last years. 20th century theater was “director” theater, a kind of total art that used all channels and media to increase the spectacular effect. Brechtian theatre as well the major part of experimental creations retained a dialectical relationship with the spectacle, if only by criticizing and disturbing it in all the possible ways. My actors and I, on the contrary, have tried to abandon this kind of dialectics as a whole and to concentrate in producing mere gestures: letting them create and open their own space, their own community and world, without determining them beforehand. There is always a possibility to produce a right gesture (think of the right tone, in literature) which cannot be appropriated but which can form an inexhaustible source of liberty and joy.

Artiom: Ok, but this seems to be a new version of the autonomy of art.

Esa: Yes and no. I think the modern art form in itself, since Romanticism, is not just a critic or a sort of parasite in bourgeois society, but constitutes a model for another kind of society, not in an utopian manner, but as an  way of existing that never ceases to challenge the prevailing order. This is also why its autonomy is to be understood literally, i.e. politically.

Artiom: Well, but this is precisely Adorno’s notion of autonomy.

Esa: Maybe so.But how did Brecht find his way of relating art to politics, the way that you call so unique? Well, he says this directly: “they?ve proletarianized me too. It isn?t just that they?ve taken my house, my fish-pond and my car from me; they?ve also robbed me of my stage and my audience” (Benjamin, “Conversations with Brecht”) – his art was threatened by the aestheticized politics of the bourgeoisie. I would not make politics, he says, but I was “proletarianized” as an artist, and deprived of my means of production. So I had to make my art political, that is, to revolutionize the relationship of art with politics, by reaching into the unknown.

In my art, I also want to propose a redistribution or redivision of art and politics. And the best proof is the reaction of official people: they sometimes get really angry or perplexed with our demonstrations, although we do not offend public morals or scream out any provocative slogans.

Artiom: They want a revelation, they want catharsis, and you offer them physical training. This is precisely what Benjamin meant when he opposed to the fascist art of shock, the leftist art of training and habituation… Against Shklovsky, one has to point out that the task of art is not to destroy habit and bring things into consciousness. Rather, the task of art is habit or training, in the sense of the penetration, transformation of the very material being of humans (and not just their mythical “mind”). You really come to know some new thing, when it enters into your body. It is then that you start to think it (and not when you become “conscious” of it). If someone really understood what thinking is about, it is Lev Vygotsky: one more figure of the 1930s who started as a formalist and then took distance to formalism, in a very productive way.

Esa: Yes, but my art is not only about bodies, it is also about their divisions and groupings. When I break, in my theatre, the borders between humans and animals, I change the structures in which we perceive the world. Benjamin called these structures “constellations” or “ideas”. “Ideas” are not some mental images, they are material relationships among things. Intellectual theater is able to revolutionize these relationships constantly.

Artiom: Your theater remains a Brechtian theater of estrangement and “surprise”: you show bodies that are closer to things then to human “persons”. And, unlike Brecht’s theater, these bodies do not speak. There seems to be some hermeticism in this – oriented toward something that is precisely beyond all relationships. You pursue an ancient human will to understand the silent “language of the planets” (Lacan) which is the secret matrix of all language.

Esa: Not to only to understand, but to speak it. It is not to exclude some part of the world from all relationships, but to re-establish a material relationship with what we have failed to subsume by consciousness. Politics today is unthinkable without a relationship with the animals and with the extraterrestrial. Our humanist universe is in a state of exhaustion and stagnation.

Artiom: Maybe one could put it as follows: today our ambition is again to total art – not in the sense of artistic “expression” through many channels, but in the sense of penetration of art into all possible practices – aiming to criticize, develop, and liberate these practices. Not just politics as art, but gymnastics as art, or medicine as art. And not vice versa. Art (Kunst, from konnen) would then be a school of human capacity to deal with things by becoming into them.

Esa: Our lonely bodies would not settle with anything less.
(To the waiter, in Finnish): So what do we owe you?

(Recorded by Artem Magun and authorized by Esa Kirkkopelto).