I. “Method is detour,” Walter Benjamin once wrote cryptically. This short description might serve as an explanation of the German thinker’s way of working, in which nothing was ever attained as the result of a ritual of established steps that led towards a set goal, but rather through a procedure comprised of shortcuts, deviations, unconscious associations, labyrinths, turns, i.e. anything that involved indirect thought processes. Benjamin was suspicious of method because the elusive truths he sought could scarcely be discovered by means of pre-established and pre-determined approaches. But he did come to reveal his secret, at least partly: “The method for this work: literary montage. I have nothing to say. Only things to show. I am not going to uncover anything precious or attribute to myself spiritual formulae. But rags and castoffs: I do not want to make their inventory, but allow them to obtain justice in the only possible way: by using them.”[1] Those are only two of the paradoxical approaches to any reflection on method(s) and methodology. More precisely, Benjamin imposed on himself a maxim he recommended to all critics: “never write a critique without at least one quotation from the work under review.”[2] Along with its implication of appropriation, citation, collage, and montage, this strict rule can be seen as the most refined technique of a highly personalized method, interiorized and almost impossible to transfer. When Benjamin stated that the The Arcades Project “must develop to the highest point the art of quoting without quotation marks,” he was connecting this theory most closely with that of montage.[3]

Let us take this both as a reflection and as a case of how the existence, or non-existence, of a method can be an almost ontological question. In a quotidian way, one could say that a person is methodical when he or she consciously repeats a set of actions with the objective of achieving certain ends. Methodicalness is here the persistence of a pre-established order that is reflective, far removed from improvisation and randomness, from gesture and expressionism. However, in some cases methodicalness does not necessarily relate to the notion of method as a rational and ideological tool or a structural technique. Methodicalness—and method—share the repetition of some everyday patterns. This can be observed in an intimate scene from JLG/JLG Autoportrait de Décembre (JLG/JLG: Self-Portrait in December) by Jean-Luc Godard (1995), in which the author is seen turning on his bedroom light in the middle of the night, putting on his glasses, and taking a notebook from his bedside to write down ideas that have come to him in dreams or through insomnia, half awake, half asleep. After jotting down some lines, he switches off the light to continue sleeping. Methodicalness—and a method—are at work here.

The documentary photographer who takes each shot five times, just in case; the writer who disciplines him or herself to write at least a page every day in order to complete a novel; the economist who diligently balances accounts—these are instances of people practicing their own methodical systems. Method is also clearly one of the fundamental tools of historical study. Take archiving, an activity comprising compilation, classification, data, arrangement, and so forth. History is literally held together by a method that has been established by others and appears to us normal and natural.

II. It has sometimes been said that the greatest achievement of critical theory since the 1950s lies in the reinvention of its methods as a result of disputes and other exchanges of ideas. While earlier writing had been based on value judgments and expression, a new method emerged that was based on analysis, stratification, and historicity, with deconstruction or bricolage as its only possible programmatic critical consequences. In the meantime, this illusion of method has come to seem just as abstract and systematic as the theories of beauty that it replaced. This “Grand Method,” then, can be seen as a kind of boutade.

In the dialectics of Chinese philosophy Bertolt Brecht discovered a formula for linking the pedagogical with the artistic.[4] He appropriated the didactic style of proverbs, parables, and fables relating to social ethics that were based on the teaching of the ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi (or Mo tzu or Me-ti). Later, he combined this moral language (itself indebted to an appropriation of a past literary style) with the Marxist ideology underlying the political struggles within the socialist movements of the period. A cross between political farce and spiritual guidance resulted, a polemical case of pre-Postmodernism. Perhaps influenced by this referential complexity, and in an attempt to restore Brecht’s political relevance in our times, Fredric Jameson wrote a book on Brecht’s oeuvre in which he pays particular attention to this work.[5] Another scholar has described this aspect of Jameson’s publication: “Brecht and Method is in dialogue primarily with a set of parables called Me-ti: Book of Transformations or Book of Changes or Twist and Turns or Book of Turning Ways, a cryptic book, unpublished in Brecht’s lifetime. This book emulates writings by the Chinese dialectician and anti-Confucian of the classical period Me-ti, who was regarded by many nineteenth-century scholars as a proto-socialist. The title—Book of Twists and Turns, or Turning Ways—stems from a Confucian text—the I-ching—which can be translated likewise as the book of transformations.”[6]

The Grand Method is the doctrine taught by master Me-ti. For Brecht, the term is nothing but a code name for dialectics, the method par excellence in any Marxist analysis of social relations. Dialectics is incompatible with hard-and-fast judgments and with “common sense” in that dialectical thought seems to break the law of non-contradiction.[7] Dialectics’ tendency toward abstraction, its search for totality, and its meandering rhetoric led Brecht to claim that people who lack a sense of humor are unable to understand dialectics, that the best school of dialectics is emigration, and that the most acute dialecticians are refugees because, themselves the product of change, they study nothing but change. Dialectics is a method for enacting a unity of theory and praxis, so in the present context a good definition of it to choose from the vast numbers of complex definitions proposed might be: “The dialectical method aims to bring about understanding that can transcend the deadening effects of conceptual categorisation. It aims—via method—to bring life back into movement, or movement back into life, through recognition of the ‘unity, or identity of opposites’. Dialectics takes the discontinuity of conceptual thought up into itself, in its effort to transcend. Dialectics tries to remap a world that is there and is in movement.”[8]

The principle of collective authorship informs Brecht’s text, which was written fragmentarily between 1930 and the 1940s during his exile in Denmark and in close collaboration with Karl Korsch. Amid the multiplicity of voices in the book it is not easy to distinguish the author’s own from those of quotations and appropriations—the logical conclusion of Benjamin’s model of “quoting without quotation marks.” In particularly radical form we find here a feature typical of Brecht’s work as a product of collective action, with Marxist and modernist texts functioning as “intertexts,” as productive plagiarisms of other people’s work, alongside reworkings of his own material and practice. The readers of this literary experiment (with its aphoristic debates) are coworkers who contribute their own thoughts to produce a revolutionary critique, in accordance with Benjamin’s well known “The Author as Producer” essay, one of the central ideas of which is that readers are always producers in their own right and therefore “workers” in the context of the class struggle.

But what of Brecht’s own production method, the essence of his enormous productivity? Jameson sees Brecht above all as useful, which is the least one can demand of a (good) method. Brecht’s encompasses multi-layered reflection and self-reflection, reference and self-reference. Its vigor and its politics tear open a gap in which individuals can think about themselves historically and view themselves in the third person. This distancing effect requires a great degree of self-consciousness about the method itself, allowing it to come to the surface as a meaningful element within the discourse.

III. As in linguistics, a caesura occurred in art in the late 1950s and early ’60s with the emergence of Minimal Art. The fact that Minimal Art (a distinctive movement in the visual arts) led to Minimalism (a distinctive stylistic characteristic in visual art, music, and architecture), and the fact that the latter helped to consolidate the former, indicates that both were based on strong methodological approaches. There is general agreement that method is relevant to Minimalism (consisting of repetition, serialism, reductionism, and so on), yet it is not widely recognized that a Minimalist method (for instance, a certain mode of arranging spaces or decorating interiors) exists as a distinct entity. Repetition and difference are thus the two principal factors in any evaluation of method in this context. Dogmatism would be a sin, and those who still believe in the obscure creed of pure method would be sinners. Studying the complex and tortuous personalities of many Minimal artists, one is moved to wonder why their choice of clear and pragmatic methods opposes the inner subjective forces of their personas. Not only is method “detour” (to use Benjamin’s word), but the choice of method might in itself be devious.

Methodicalness, then, is easily found among those who deal in contradictions, consciously or unconsciously. Conceptual Art functions in this way, and its current practitioners would do well to recognize that it provides a set of rules, a sequence of patterns, strategies, and logical procedures borrowed from others, that is still very useful. The fact that Conceptual Art has an “afterlife” corroborates this, the set of rules constituting its empirical legacy to the future. Sol LeWitt’s thoughts on Conceptual Art are full of corresponding affirmations of freedom: “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”[9] This notion of the idea becoming a machine was Conceptual Art’s “unwritten law,” enabling everyone freely to claim their own truth and to be dogmatic about their own work and that of others. Method here is a kind of counter-narrative, a dogmatic machine, a game full of instructions, constantly subject to variation and alteration.

IV. Pursuing this line of argument, one might posit that the opposite of method is undiscipline, chaos, anarchy, disorder, and confusion. In other words, method promises order and, ultimately, resolution.[10] In economic terms it promises success. Discipline and undiscipline appear here as two sides of the same coin. Significantly, many regimes, trends, and movements have at some point in their development sought for self-regulation, moderation, and method, only to end up with a division into orthodox and unorthodox camps.

Orthodoxy is so intimidating that rigorous execution alone will be seen as guaranteeing something’s success. But it will not. Orthodoxy puts its hope in reason, and the path from reason to method is too direct.[11] One wonders if there is an ultimate passage that might lead toward an unorthodoxy of method, both as a tool and as a promise. In view of the usefulness of Brecht’s method, to accuse him of dogmatism is wide of the mark. His is a method that requires one to be auto-critical, to question one’s presuppositions and distrust one’s results even as one elaborates them; it is both an unsystematic and an anti-systematic method that promotes both undoctrinal and anti-doctrinal pragmatism. Hence it can help customary causal relationships to be reversed in fruitful ways. Fixed methods do not only lead to formalism, for example. The opposite can also be true, as when the formalism derived from Russian Constructivism is seen as passing to structuralism and becoming the quintessence of method.

Categories are also important in this debate. As forms of being and conditions of existence, categorization and the separation of disciplines and media mark the beginning of all methodological procedures. The isolation of each analysis is subsequently contrasted with the totality, the dialectical method insisting on the concrete unity of the whole.

Investigating the contemporary cultural landscape also means re-examining its discursive methods. This will sometimes make those methods seem to disappear into thin air.

* Published for the first time in The Great Method: Casco Issues X. Casco Office for Art, Theory and Design, Utrecht / Revolver Verlag, Frankfurt, 2007. Re-published in Florian Pumöshl’s catalogue Animal Map, Neue Kunst Halle St. Gallen / Walter Köning, Köln, 2007.

[1] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Cambridge, MA, and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1999, p. 460

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Program for Literary Criticism,” in Selected Writings, vol. 2, part 1: 1927–1930, Cambridge, MA, and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1999, p. 294

[3] Benjamin op. cit. p. 458

[4] Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti: Buch der Wendungen, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1983

[5] Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method, London and New York: Verso, 1998

[6] Esther Leslie, “Jameson, Brecht, Lenin and Spectral Possibilities,” in Fredric Jameson: A Critical Reader, ed. Douglas Kellner and Sean Homer, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, p. 201

[7] Contradiction is of major importance both for dialectics and for the Grand Method, as this passage from Me-ti (see footnote 4, p. 104) makes clear: “One part of Mi-en-leh’s [Lenin’s] praxis lay in the search for the contradiction in seemingly unified appearances.”

[8] Leslie op. cit. p. 206.

[9] Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Art Forum 5, 1967, pp. 79–83

[10] It is no accident that, in addition to the term “Grand Method” as a code for dialectics, Brecht used the pair of concepts “Grand Order” and “Grand Disorder” in his Me-ti (see footnote 4) as encrypted references to socialism or, more exactly, to the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era.

[11] Suffice it to recall the heated debate in Western Marxism reflected in the following words of Georg Lukács: “Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not only the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method.” The last sentence demonstrates the close link between the two concepts. Georg Lukács, “What is Orthodox Marxism?,” in History and Class Consciousness, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1979, p. 1