The wind of history turns the pages of burnt-out books, flipping them open at the most appropriate place. Today, this place is Brecht. Why exactly Brecht? Because Brecht, without being a professional philosopher, exposed the logic of capitalism’s escalation into fascism with sober clarity and sarcasm, and because this exposition still retains its heuristic strength? Yes, but not only. Because his critique of the bourgeois means of cultural production from within (the exposition of exposition) could not be any more current than here and now? That is certainly so. Because in developing his method, he combined critical theory with revolutionary praxis, becoming a founder of socialist art, along with Mayakovsky, Filonov, or Eisenstein? Oh, quite! Because his dynamic – and analytical – version of socialist realism (and socialist pedagogy) differs favorably from the official dogmata? Not exactly incorrect. Because, hand in hand with the newest scientific discoveries of his time, he gave the theater new meaning as a mode of cognition, and not emotional impact, paving the way for a semiology of the theater (“his theater is neither pathetic nor rational but well-founded.” (Barthes))? It goes without saying. But also because he decisively connected the material form of the drama with a definite – Marxist – idea, revealing a model of politicized art (which Benjamin called for and oriented himself toward) that was, however, still art? This is probably what is most important. And the most difficult, if one wants to draw upon this (artistic) experience in practice. Because in the final analysis, and this is something we need to admit, the theatrical technique that Brecht developed aimed at interrupting (the illusion of) art. This interruption is epochal. Though it can hardly be reduced to the “end of art” declared by Hegel, it can be related to this idea nevertheless on one fundamental point, namely in that it effects an “epoch?” of sorts, a gesture in which the dialectic (of our epoch) comes to a standstill and freezes up in inaction.

The Spectacle As Theological Subterfuge

The Brechtian theater is based upon the “alienation effect” (Verfremdungseffekt), which is easily mistaken for Marx’ notion of “alienation” (Entfremdung), since the two terms share the same etymology. To avoid confusion, it is most convenient to illustrate the alienation-effect with the example of theatrical production, where it is realized on several levels at once:

1) The fabula of the play contains two stories, one of which is a parable (allegory) of the same text with a deeper meaning.
2) The scenery presents a socially recognizable object or space (a factory, for example).
3) The play’s plasticity provides information on the individual presented and his-her social habitus, his-her relationship to the world of labor (gestus, “social gesture”).
4) Diction does not psychologize the text, but recasts its rhythm and texture.
5) In his-her performance, the actor does not impersonate one of the play’s characters but demonstrates it, establishing a distance to it (“stepping out of role”).
6) The classical division into acts is rejected in favor of a “montage” of episodes and scenes.
7) Further examples of how the scenic illusion can be interrupted include addressing the audience directly, songs, or changes of scenery in full view of the audience, as well as the introduction of newsreels, titles, and other “commentaries”

Individually, many of these devices can be found in the Greek theater or the Shakespearean theater, not to mention the productions of Brecht’s contemporaries, such as Piscator (with whom Brecht collaborated), Meyerhold, Vakhtangov, Eisenstein (whose work Brecht knew), and in agitprop. Brecht’s innovation lies in the fact that he used them consciously, turning them into his main aesthetic principle. Strictly speaking, this principle is valid for any artistic language that has gained “self-awareness.” In application to the theater, it entails a purposeful “exposure of devices:” instead of maintaining the impression that the action on stage is reality, it serves to underline the artificiality of the dramaturgical construction or its characters.

Brecht did not arrive at the political implications of the “alienation effect” immediately, nor did he use the term right away. He was only able to grasp its full meaning after studying Marxist theory (with Korsch) and being introduced with the “estrangement” of the Russian formalists (through Sergei Tretyakov). However, as far back as the early 1920s, he had taken an irreconcilable position with regard to the bourgeois theater for its sedative, hypnotic effect of the audience, which turned it into a passive object. Brecht called this type of theater “a branch of the bourgeois drug trade.” At this point, it seems appropriate to cite the memoirs of Stefan Zweig, in which he describes the predominant atmosphere in Germany at the time, the atmosphere that evoked Brecht’s revulsion: “Every extravagant movement that eluded the critique of common sense enjoyed a golden age: theosophy, spiritualism, anthroposophy, palm reading, graphology, mystic doctrines from the Far East.” On stage the same murky torrent spouted forth freely, providing fertile ground for National Socialism and its cult of neo-paganism, hysteria, magical passes toward Shambhala, until it was canalized into the torch processions of the faecal (processed, materialized, objectified) masses. Soon to be staged on an unprecedented scale, this spectacle fits the definition of Guy Debord to a hair’s breadth (even if he actually meant its post-industrial variety or totality, to be more precise): “The spectacle is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue. It is the self-portrait of power in the epoch of its totalitarian management of the conditions of existence.”

The search for an antidote leads Brecht to conceptualize the principal difference between two types of theater, the dramatic theater and the epic theater. The dramatic theater strives to take the emotions of the spectator by storm, so that he might give himself to the action on stage “with all his being”, empathizing with its characters and melting into its illusion completely, losing any sense of the difference between the action on stage and reality. The result: an expurgation of affects (as if under hypnosis), reconciliation (with fate, destiny, the “lot of man”, the eternal, and the unchanging). The epic theater, on the contrary, is meant to appeal to the spectator’s analytical capabilities, arousing his surprise and curiosity, pushing him into an awareness of the historically conditioned social relations behind this conflict or that. The result: a critical catharsis, the desire to change the course of events (not on stage, but in reality), the desire to make history.

Critical catharsis differs from its classical Aristotelean version just as idealist philosophy, which only interpreted the world in various ways, differs from Marxism, whose point is to change it. Another analogy: the work of art in the age of its cult-value’s dominance vs. art in the age of its transformation into a cultural product.

The Interruption of Art: Hegel, Marx, Benjamin

Marx did not leave behind any fully developed philosophy of art, but his analysis of the product is completely applicable to contemporary cultural production, in which “every product is a bait with which to seduce away the other’s very being, his money.” This state of affair corresponds to what Benjamin called the exhibition value of the artwork. This exhibition value takes the place of the artwork’s cult value as a result of a historical process that free art from its ritual (and earlier on, from its magical) function. Benjamin describes this process of secularization in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), in which Brecht plays an important though unobvious role. In order to appreciate this role fully, we need to return to Hegel, who, in his “Lectures on Aesthetics” examined the dissolution of the romantic form of art, drawing the conclusion that art has already ceased to be the highest form in which truth comes into being.  On the one hand, the “end of art”, for Hegel, is due to the immanent logic of its development, the complete realization of its principle in romantic art, and on the other hand, the “prosaization” of the world, the dominance of rational (scientific) thought, which now also infiltrates the artist’s reflections.

Benjamin turns to the “Lectures on Aesthetics” at a key point in his essay, whose goal, and this is something we should not forget, is to oppose and resist traditional notions such as creativity, genius, eternal value, and mystery whose “uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense” with new notions that would be impossible to use as a means to fascist ends. Having shown that the cultic foundation of art falls away with the emergence of reproductive technologies (first and foremost, photography), he decisively affirms: “But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.” (Section IV)

Directly after beginning the next section V, he quotes Hegel in a footnote.  This reads as an oblique response to Heidegger, who reflected upon the same problem of the “death of art” in his “Origins of the Work of Art” (1935), making reference to the same verdict that Hegel passed: “We are beyond the stage of reverence for works of art as divine and objects deserving our worship. The impression they produce is one of a more reflective kind, and the emotions they arouse require a higher test…” But if Heidegger continues to search for the authentic essence of art, its “origin” in beauty, in the beautiful as an “event of the truth’s dehiscence,” Benjamin rejects this metaphysical language (fraught with sacralization and the return to magic) and prefers to speak of the radical change of art’s function.

Just a little more, and Brecht will come on stage (again in a footnote). Before this happens, it once again makes sense to trace the logic that is keeping him backstage for now. In the age of technical reproducibility and the interpretation of data in the fascist sense, because of the absolute dominance of its exhibition value, art becomes something else, a new manifestation with completely new functions, one of which, the aesthetic, “later may be recognized as incidental.” What follows is a gesture that invites us to lend an ear to Brecht. A gesture that interrupts the historical context and throws us straight into the resulting rupture: “If the concept of ‘work of art’ can no longer be applied to the thing that emerges once the work is transformed into a commodity, we have to eliminate this concept with cautious care but without fear, lest we liquidate the function of the very thing as well. For it has to go through this phase without mental reservation, and not as noncommittal deviation from the straight path; rather, what happens here with the work of art will change it fundamentally and erase its past to such an extent that should the old concept be taken up again–and it will, why not?–it will no longer stir any memory of the thing it once designated.”