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#11: Why Brecht?

Dmitry Vilensky /// Why Brecht?

That’s great art: nothing obvious in it –
I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.

Bertold Brecht

If we try replacing the word “opera” with culture or art in Brecht’s text “OPERA – WITH INNOVATIONS!”, it paradoxically becomes clear that Brecht’s analysis of the situation more than 70 years ago is more than relevant today. Of course, many things have changed, such as the notions of power, class, labor, the means of struggle. But still, anyone who is still capable of considering the necessity of connecting thought and action now hits upon the same problem that was so obvious then: how is it possible to take intellectual action within the alienating system of capital, an action that might force society’s radical change? Arguing with Adorno, we continue to ask “how the right is possible in the wrong”*, that is, how to gain a clear historical consciousness of the moment, and how it is possible to act correspondingly.

That’s great art: nothing obvious in it –
I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.

Bertold Brecht

If we try replacing the word “opera” with culture or art in Brecht’s text “OPERA – WITH INNOVATIONS!”, it paradoxically becomes clear that Brecht’s analysis of the situation more than 70 years ago is more than relevant today. Of course, many things have changed, such as the notions of power, class, labor, the means of struggle. But still, anyone who is still capable of considering the necessity of connecting thought and action now hits upon the same problem that was so obvious then: how is it possible to take intellectual action within the alienating system of capital, an action that might force society’s radical change? Arguing with Adorno, we continue to ask “how the right is possible in the wrong”*, that is, how to gain a clear historical consciousness of the moment, and how it is possible to act correspondingly.

In fact, Brecht, following Marx, began to examine intellectual action as an important element of struggle connected to economic and political action. The variety of aesthetic methods that Brecht developed always responded to the challenge of this or that concrete historical situation; his methods were based on the Marxist understanding of subjectivity, which is not formed by the spontaneous course of events, but by an awareness of history’s occurring. Brecht clearly understood that dialectic mechanisms are at work in creativity. Constructing his work on their basis, he described reality as a process of constant changes that arise due to the conflicts and contradictions that make the transformation of society possible. He wrote that “…true progress consists not in being progressive but in progressing. True progress is what enables or compels us to progress. And on a broad front, at that, so that neighbouring spheres are set in motion too. True progress has its cause in the impossibility of an actual situation, and its result is that situation’s change.”

Brecht’s method clearly embodies the idea of politicizing cultural production through a process of collective subjectification, which sets the common goal of transforming the entire system that produces culture and knowledge. In this process, even the differentiation between audience and producer loses its meaning. This is how Brecht described the process that is supposed to take place in the spectator’s head: “I’d never have thought it – That’s not the way – That’s extraordinary, hardly believable – It’s got to stop – The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary – That’s great art: nothing obvious in it.” (Is that the way things are? What produced this? It’s terrible! How can we change things?…).

But for a reaction like this to become possible, the same questions need to arise in the entire collective, which is involved in the intellectual action, which can no longer rest complacent in the production of autonomous objects for passive contemplation. Brecht places an accent on creating a situation that might involve anyone who wants to become a party to it. Thus, another key aspect of the Brechtian aesthetic theory is the idea of collective creativity, based on the principle of soviets or councils. Brecht’s ultimate goal was to “convert the institutions of culture from places of entertainment into organs of mass communication”. In many ways, this view was formed by close contact with his friend Karl Korsch, one of Weimar Germany’s leading Marxist thinkers. In his article “Brecht’s Marxist Aesthetic”, Douglas Keller writes: “Brecht’s theory of aesthetic production is congruent with Korsch’s model of the workers’ councils as the authentic organs of socialist practice. For just as Korsch urged a democratic, participatory activity of coproduction in the spheres of labor and politics, Brecht urges the same sort of coparticipation in his aesthetic production. […] Such a revolution in the concept of creation, rejecting the notion of the creator as the solitary genius, was intended to alter aesthetic production radically, much as the workers’ councils were intended to revolutionize industrial and political organization, thus providing an anticipatory model for socialist cultural organization.” (https://www.uta.edu/huma/illuminations/kell3.htm)

The most famous aesthetic method that Brecht introduced was the “alienation effect.” Rejecting any possibility for empathy, based on the illusion of authenticity, the “alienation effect” laid bare the social mechanism, not only by demonstrating how and why people behave in a certain way in society, but also calling for an analysis of the very mechanism that produces social relations themselves. In many ways, this aspect of Brecht’s work anticipated the main tactical method of contemporary activism known as “subversive affirmation.” But if we begin to compare Brecht’s work and contemporary praxis in more detail, we will find that there are fundamental differences. Brecht understood just how important it was to reject any mimicry of reality and not to supply the spectator with the possibility for any obvious interpretations. The most important thing was to give form to the position of a participant observer, which make it possible to play out a multitude of situations, and to choose the most accurate, intellectually approbated reaction from their dialogue and conflict. In this way, Brecht exposed the general nature of things and offered convincing proof of the fact that the greatest master of over-identification is the political self-representation of capitalism itself, which always takes place in a hypertrophied form.

This becomes more understandable if we turn to one of the concrete and more striking examples of the contemporary praxis of “subversive affirmation”, namely the performance “Please love Austria”, realized by the German theater director and artist Christoph Schlingensief in 2000. Schlingensief appropriated the format of the television series “Big Brother”, but incarcerated refugees seeking political asylum in the observation container. Following the rules of the game, he provided the spectators watching the broadcasts from the container over the internet to vote for the deportation of those participants they did not like. This performance was obviously aimed at subverting the “normalcy” of rightwing-populist governments. However, in my view, the most necessary gesture in this piece could have become the gesture of this government when it tried to install a completely “Brechtian” sign near the container: “Attention! This is a theatrical performance!” Though Schlingensief protested against this intervention in his piece adamantly, it is, in fact, this gesture that could have provided an effective means of distancing the spectator from the hyper-realistic pornography of the action, thus allowing its genuine political meaning to come to the fore.

Unlike Schlingensief and many other contemporary activists, Brecht clearly understood that capitalism is never shy about demonstrating its extremity. And the question of gaining distance or alienating capitalism is not a question of skepticism, irony, or even mimicry, but a question of responsible intellectual action, gravely proclaiming that another world is possible after all.


* Adorno’s proverbial statement reads: “Es gibt kein Richtiges im Falschen”; “There is nothing right in the wrong.”

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