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#11: Why Brecht?

Janna Holmstedt /// Are You Willing to Get Stupid?

Six basic questions in the Media and Communication Science are: Who is speaking? To whom? About what? With what means? In which situation? And what is the effect? They are used to analyze different forms of communcation. According to a classical model, information is coded and then transfered from a sender via a channel to a receiver where the message is decoded. Noise and interference should be eliminated to secure a successfull transfer of information. A rhetorician using this model thus structures his speech according to the message he wants to deliver in order to be as efficient as possible. It is important to catch the audience’s attention and to be understood (Do I make myself clear?).

Six basic questions in the Media and Communication Science are: Who is speaking? To whom? About what? With what means? In which situation? And what is the effect? They are used to analyze different forms of communcation. According to a classical model, information is coded and then transfered from a sender via a channel to a receiver where the message is decoded. Noise and interference should be eliminated to secure a successfull transfer of information. A rhetorician using this model thus structures his speech according to the message he wants to deliver in order to be as efficient as possible. It is important to catch the audience’s attention and to be understood (Do I make myself clear?).

Is this mass media logic possible to apply to any form of human communication, as art for example or a conversation between friends? A rhetorician I spoke to said yes. I say no. We often speak without having a specific message to deliver, because the act of speaking activates experiences that are not easily captured. Rather than being spoken about, they reveal themselves as a movement between, as drift. Unlike the aforementioned rhetorician with his goal set on being understood clearly, I believe that communication begins when we do not understand.

Efficient transfer of information utilizes all that is taken for granted in established generalizations. To understand is to rely upon, or be seduced by conventions. (As is the case when we are provoked; the provocateur and the rhetorician have much in common).  We make ourselves prisoners of normality in order to gain access to the field of ”common sense”.

I collect stories. Our need for stories is greater than our need for facts. It may seem a trivial assertion, but I do not believe that we are such seekers of truth as we make ourselves out to be. We are seekers of context: we try to contextualize truth to make it understandable. Hannah Arendt spoke of ”storytelling” as a vital practice in the Human Sciences, her own field being political philosophy. Since it is impossible to reach an objective point of view by placing oneself outside the world of human interrelations, we need to practice our ability to ”go visiting”, as Arendt puts it. This is an ability to inhabit different positions and viewpoints within this world rather than to search for an universal overview. All abstract theories are derived from specific subjective experiences and these experiences cannot simply be lifted out of the theoretical constructions. Theorizing is about engagement, not detachment. For Arendt, who was interested in questions on how democracy and the political is made possible, it was important to activate an engagement based on a critical understanding. (”I totally understand” is in this context not a constructive starting point).
As in the case of Bertold Brecht. He, a writer and theater director, promoted a theater that stood up against all forms of suggestive realism end escapism. The theater is not a place of refuge; it is a work place where the audience should be actively involved in the production of meaning and confronted with its mechanisms. Brecht does not offer any emotional resolution, no catharsis so that we can go home and sleep calmly at night. The Brecht-influenced attitude focuses on disturbances or counter-stories. There is no safe and passive position to occupy in the auditorium. Nor is there room for the rapture that the arts are often expected to offer and which they also were used to evoke in Nazi Germany. At the theatre, where one often expects to be absorbed by the fiction and the illusion of reality, Brecht pointed out the need for objectivity.

His concept of ”Verfremdung” is often simplistically described as theatrical devices (such as a play-within-a-play, change of scenery openly on stage, actors directly addressing the audience etc.) used to create an alienation effect. This would serve the didactic purpose of making the audience critically composed, as if this critical potential would plainly occur as a result of the audience being reminded of their position as spectators of a spectacle. In a society where the media and entertainment business is becoming increasingly self-aware, similar techniques the audience are used everywhere to ”shock” and to draw its attention. This is a conventional, rhetorical instrument; either you use it to sell, to propagate, or to educate.
I prefer to ignore the didactic aspects of Brecht’s Epic Theatre in favour of the more subversive ones: it is not identification that should be offered, but friction. Not education (”this is how you become a good citizen”), not greater awareness (”this is how it is you see”), not guilt and blame (”and it is your fault”), not revelation and deliverance (”but we are humble,  sinful creatures”), not cosy togetherness in the arms of the good and fine arts (”let’s rejoice”). Instead you are invited to engage in a game of expectations, preconceptions, conventions and the will to understand. You put yourself at risk. The repeated shifts of perspective aim to complicate and concretize, engage and distance. There are always bigger and smaller contexts to take into consideration. (Do you get the picture?).

Next after sleep and work, most of our time is devoted to different kinds of mass media such as commercials, entertainment, news, propaganda etc. What do we take in and who dictates the rules? What communicative strategies are there if you do not want to engage in the mass media logic of attention, noise reduction, and promotion of opinions? If you seek a position that is as neither a fully integrated social being nor an alienated outsider? This is where I find Arendt’s idea of ”storytelling” and Brecht’s unmasking of established conventions interesting. They point to the borderland of the willingly stupid where questions are necessary, because nothing simply can be taken for granted. Nothing simply is. The story unfolds where you engage your subjective experience in the reading. What is normally hidden as part of the framework is dragged onto the arena and activated as part of the storytelling machinery.

We are quick to ”get it”, to accept the illusions of reality presented to us. We are as Johan Huizinga puts it ”Homo Ludens”, playful creatures. Rather than to alienate, ”Verfremdung” serves to make strange, to use our ability to respond to interruptions and propositions: adjust to this, picture that, (catch my drift?). And when you are ready to accept yet another representation or mode of adress: here we go again. The situation is uncertain, awaiting you. Your response matters. From this point of view communication is a potential place – a field of action rather than mere transmission of information and mechanisms of influence.

 

Janna Holmstedt (born 1972) Lives in Stockholm. Artist, stage designer, initiator of SQUID together with Katja Aglert (www.squid-net.com)

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