Why Brecht?

Ciné-Tracts (1968) Godard / Marker / Resnais

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.

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.”




Ciné-Tracts (1968) Godard / Marker / Resnais

Bertold Brecht /// Opera – with Innovations!

For some time past there has been a move to renovate the opera. Opera is to have its form modernized and its content brought up to date, but without its culinary character being changed. Since it is precisely for its backwardness that the opera-going public adores opera, an influx of new types of listener with new appetites has to be reckoned with; and so it is. The intention is to democratize but not to alter democracy’s character, which consists in giving the people new rights, but no chance to appreciate them. Ultimately it is all the same to the waiter whom he serves, so long as he serves the food. Thus the avant-garde are demanding or supporting innovations which are supposedly going to lead to a renovation of opera; but nobody demands a fundamental discussion of opera (i.e. of its function), and probably such a discussion would not find much support.

The modesty of the avant-garde’s demands has economic grounds of whose existence they themselves are only partly aware. Great apparati like the opera, the stage, the press, etc., impose their views as it were incognito. For a long time now they have taken the handiwork (music, writing, criticism, etc.) of intellectuals who share in their profits–that is, of men who are economically committed to the prevailing system but are socially near-proletarian–and processed it to make fodder for their public entertainment machine, judging it by their own standards and guiding it into their own channels; meanwhile the intellectuals themselves have gone on supposing that the whole business is concerned only with the presentation of their work, is a secondary process which has no influence over their work but merely wins influence for it. This muddled thinking which overtakes musicians, writers and critics as soon as they consider their own situation has tremendous consequences to which far too little attention is paid. For by imagining that they have got hold of an apparatus which in fact has got hold of them they are supporting an apparatus which is out of their control, which is no longer (as they believe) a means of furthering output but has become an obstacle to output, and specifically to their own output as soon as it follows a new and original course which the apparatus finds awkward or opposed to its own aims. Their output then becomes a matter of delivering the goods. Values evolve which are based on the fodder principle. And this leads to a general habit of judging works of art by their suitability for the apparatus without ever judging the apparatus by its suitability for the work. People say, this or that is a good work; and they mean (but do not say) good for the apparatus. Yet this apparatus is conditioned by the society of the day and only accepts what can keep it going in that society. We are free to discuss any innovation which doesn’t threaten its social function that of providing an evening’s entertainment. We are not free to discuss those which threaten to change its function, possibly by fusing it with the educational system or with the organs of mass communication. Society absorbs via the apparatus whatever it needs in order to reproduce itself. This means that an innovation will pass ifit is calculated to rejuvenate existing society, but not if it is going to change it–irrespective whether the form of the society in question is good or bad.

The avant-garde don’t think of changing the apparatus, because they fancy that they have at their disposal an apparatus which will serve up whatever they freely invent, transforming itself spontaneously to match their ideas. But they are not in fact free inventors; the apparatus goes on fulfilling its function with or without them; the theatres play every night; the papers come out so many times a day; and they absorb what they need; and all they need is a given amount of stuff. The intellectuals, however, are completely dependent on the apparatus, both socially and economically; it is the only channel for the realization of their work. The output of writers, composers and critics comes more and more to resemble raw material. The finished article is produced by the apparatus. You might think that to show up this situation (the creative artist’s utter dependence on the apparatus) would be to condemn it. Its concealment is such a disgrace.

And yet to restrict the individual’s freedom of invention is in itself a progressive act. The individual becomes increasingly drawn into enormous events that are going to change the world. No longer can he simply ‘express himself’. He is brought up short and put into a position where he can fulfil more general tasks. The trouble, however, is that at present the apparati do not work for the general good; the means of production do not belong to the producer; and as a result his work amounts to so much merchandise, and is governed by the normal laws of mercantile trade.


Taken from Brecht on Theatre; the Development of an Aesthetic. (Edited and translated by John Willett.) New York: Hill and Wang, 1964, p. 32-33




Ciné-Tracts (1968) Godard / Marker / Resnais

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?).

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)




Ciné-Tracts (1968) Godard / Marker / Resnais

Alice Creischer /// Yearning for Brecht or for Undisguised Alienation

I have been yearning for Brecht – or for undisguised alienation –for quite some time. It started during the mid-1990s, when the art-world made a separating turn toward new subjectivism as well new authentic (mostly male) artist personalities, something that is by now all too familiar from the ghost trains of the amusement park biennales. At first, I asked myself whether these new forms of being-authentic didn’t also have something to do with the new feeling of “nation” that we in Germany were affected by at the time. I read an essay about Britpop by Malcom McLarren that formulated this connection very clearly: “Today our culture can be summed up by these two words – Authentic and Karaoke … Karaoke is mouthing the words of other peoples songs, singing someone elses lyrics … Life by proxy, liberated by hindsight … Karaoke is the good clean fun for the millennial nuclear family … Here in “Cool Britannia” where I live, everyone is a celebrity because the nation (whatever it is) is such a star  that everyone who lives in it by implication is a star as well. … Tony Blair, our Prime-Minister,  knows this fact very well – he is in essence the first Karaoke Prime Minister. . However there is a counterpoint to all this produce placement and branding of culture. It is the undeniable thirst and search for the authentic in our culture…”  (Karaoke World, NU, Nr. 2, Kopenhagen 1999)/

The thirst for authenticity and the over-produced corporate image of city, enterprise, or country are not actually opposites; they simply to pretend to be. In fact, they belong together, just as a symptom belongs to its surroundings or to the power that calls it into being.

In this sense, authentic subjects like Jonathan Meese, Gregor Schneider, or John Bock were actually symptoms, and there was a wave of interviews with them that were a lot like a setting between a therapist and patients. These interviews put everything ever claimed of psychoanalysis on display, namely that the therapist only hears what confirms his theory, while the patient only says what the therapist wants to hear. The artists became resonators for the feuilleton that celebrates them as the augurs of their own preconditions. But why are the same psychoses and breaks of taboo performed again and again (Oedipus, homosexuality, misogyny, Wagner, Hitler, nation), endlessly depleting the same set of signs? Which canon of ascriptions is made manifest in these authentic subjects?

In psychoanalysis, the therapist’s fee cannot be ignored, since it is this fee that functions as a social contract between the patient and therapist: it conditions the patient’s language-flow as well as the therapist’s art of interpretation. This idea can projected directly onto these subjects on parade and their apparatuses of reception and production, the journals, the exhibition venues, the galleries. They have to fill all of these spaces with a “self” that still out-trumps the expectations toward authenticity – non-alienation. But in the course of its sale, this self still needs to obey the laws of commodity reproduction – the dictate of style – and is subordinate to ever-ready availability: always be authentic.

How does non-alienation work? When a self is performed unfettered and free, doesn’t it become a character mask in this so-called freedom? What is the connection between the authentic artists to the Karaoke of economic and national production sites?

After all, there are connections between technology, subjectivity, and money; in the self-representation of power-relations, the global economy/technology project is marketed as a standard of a universally valid reference to reality. In this way, the social product: subject can set itself into scene with the appeal of global access. For example, it can sit in front of its PC in a Microsoft advertising spot, overcoming all divisions of gender, locality, or social class. But this is exactly what stands in such stark contrast with the real conditions of labor that a person – for instance, someone in a call center or on a microchip assembly line – is subjected to.

When I yearn for Brecht, I do not only want to escape sentimentalities and kitsch, but also want to rediscover people like this, not as victims or clients of an artistic measure taken, but as people who need their own time to tell stories, people that need to be listened to.

I also yearn for Brecht because it is important not to drown the negotiability of political and cultural praxis in expression.

At this point, I should probably write something about “modernism” and about the space that this modernism of negotiability has supplied us with. I should also probably write about how  modernism went bankrupt, how it was, for example, turned to stone as a style and became a decoration for conference rooms. But that is another story.

Still, I would like to mention the following: I think that forms of unmediated subjectivity can also be found in the way political activism is presented in artistic spaces, and that the people that this activism is talking to, the people that this activism engages, often disappear because one fails to find a modern space to listen to them.


Alice Creischer (born 1960) is an artist and writer based in Berlin. Together with Andreas Sieckmann, she initiated the project ExArgentina (www.exargentina.org)




Ciné-Tracts (1968) Godard / Marker / Resnais

Aleksandr Skidan /// The Anachronism of Brecht

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.”




Ciné-Tracts (1968) Godard / Marker / Resnais

Ilya Kalinin /// The Scenography of Capital

In things, people, and events there is something that makes them the way they are, and at the same time, there is something that makes them other.” This is how Brecht formulates his principle of hope connected with the conviction that life is inseparable from becoming, and that its recognition does not amount to affirmation but to change. It is this dialectic accent that lies at the base of the epic theater, founded upon the “alienation effect” and the critical revision of the Aristotelean notion of mimesis. The goal of art is not just to depict things, people, and events themselves, but also to reveal this something that makes them other than themselves. If one understands mimesis as the imitation of what exists, then art is not mimetic. The only thing that is mimetic is the death mask, taken from the dead artist’s frozen face. Art, on the other hand, and dramatic art in particular, are historical and dialectical. It is only mimetic in the facial expressions and gestures of the actor, which amount to what Brecht called the “social gestus,” the dynamic expression of social relationships that exist within a definite historical epoch.

In other words, art needs to represent our capacity to become other, as well as those mechanisms that rob us of this capacity. The goal of the theater is “to show the world in a way that would evoke the desire to change it.” This is where the main point of the Brechtian theatrical project can be found: to dramatize Marx’ social critique, to bring the figures of his political economy onto the stage, but, most importantly, to transform the auditorium into the kind of open, scenic space in which these figure might not only be disavowed, but might begin to function in a way that differs from and presents an alternative to the existing order of things. Brechtian scenography is one of the most interesting (but certainly not the most radical) theatrical experiments of the leftist avant-garde, combining dramaturgical innovation, technical novelty, and an active social position. Moreover, its potential has not yet been exhausted, because it attempted to build a new politico-economic model. In this model, consumption would consist in participating in production, (the opposition of consumption/production would be sublated and rendered void), and labor would be inseparable from reflection, geared toward overcoming the alienating effects of labor and the appropriation of its products.

It is obvious that the conception of the “alienation effect” (Verfremdungseffect) consists in affirming the necessity for an analytical (which, to Brecht, is synonymous for a critical) distance from the artistic material as well as in relation to social reality. This conception was put forth by Brecht himself. But there is another aspect that is far more interesting. The “alienation effect” is related to the techniques of acting as much as it is related to everyday life. In fact, it is hardly a specific aesthetic notion at all. Its defamiliarizing pathos is not only transgressive with regard to the illusory (but no less enduring) fourth wall that divides the stage from the audience (thus embodying the bourgeois ideal of a private life guarded by a rule of secrecy), but also with regard to the border that separates art’s arbitrary, conventional nature from the unconventional, seeming natural quality of life as lived. The habitual nature of everyday thinking consists in perceiving the familiar and the repetitive as something natural, determined by nature itself, and not by the dominant socio-economic system. The system’s stability does not only consist in the fact that we grow accustomed to what is already known, but that we stop noticing the familiar altogether. It is as if our consciousness were sliding along wearing the kind of felt slippers one wears in a museum, leaving no traces on the ice of the familiar, not even stopping to think about things like the structure of ice-crystals or the chemical composition of water.

The alienation of familiar things is necessary as an obstacle; when we encounter it, we begin to look around in surprise. Now our consciousness experiences friction. It no longer slips across the surface of things, but simultaneously allows us to become aware of their texture and to change them. According to Brecht, the “alienation effect” consists in transforming a thing that needs to be brought to consciousness, a thing that requires attention. This thing needs to stop being something that is familiar, well-known, and right in front of us, and has to become something special, striking, and unexpected. For the familiar to be known, it needs to step beyond the bounds of the imperceptible. The alienation effect exposes rituals that interfuse the sphere of social communication, which, on the grounds of their pulsating repetition, have bled into a certain anthropological horizon of obviousness, thus forming an inexhaustible resource for the naturalness and legitimacy of the social order at hand.

This politico-economic perspective of the Brechtian theater, connected to the construction of a new scene of production and social interaction, allows us to see more in the polemic with Stanislavsky that an inner-theatrical discussion with the innovations of the preceding generation, which had gained a dominant position, and not only in the country of victorious. In his criticism of the Stanislavsky method, which had been reduced for assembly-line reproduction through his followers, Brecht targets the aspect that makes it a functional and structural analogy to the political economy of developed commodity capital. Brecht sees Stanislavsky’s theater, which is based on the magic of impersonation, as a machine that produces phantasms, thus satiating the human desire to identify with social images supplied by an uncritical reading of the cultural legacy. In the process of impersonation, the actor “turns off his own consciousness and replaces it with the consciousness” of the character. Thanks to the actor’s mastery, the same operation then takes place in the spectator’s mind as well. As a result, everything bleeds together into a certain collective hallucination. This hallucination eliminates the very possibility of any reflexive position that might target both social relations – which leave their imprint on the piece that plays out on stage – as well as the relations that determine the consciousness of the spectator himself. The figure of the actor who strives to reach complete impersonation represents the abstract figure of capital, whose ideal plasticity and fluidity allows it to impersonate any commodity form. The work of a theatrical system like this one reproduces the fetishized labor of capital, which engenders the illusion of the commodity form and forces us to see things through the exigencies that it imposes.

In this sense, the theater of Stanislavsky becomes a social institution that takes over the function of religion, whose goal, in Brecht’s opinion, is to “school the believer in passivity.” Countering Stanislavsky, Brecht develops a procedure of working with the audience that is outwardly related, but that is essentially its opposite. Louis Althusser conceptualizes this as a procedure of interpellation – an introjective framing of the willingness to submit to the structure of the scene at which subjectivity is gained. Only in the case of Brecht, as described by Althusser, the policeman’s challenge “Hey, you!” becomes a gesture through which the actor (not the character) addresses the spectator directly and immediately, thus generating a certain act of positive subjectification. The spectator is intended to cease being a consumer of the product that the work of the theater generates, becoming involved in their production. The goal is to replace the consumerist identification with characters by convincing the spectator of the necessity of his own critical work in examining his own position with regard to the social conditions, to make him responsible for the character’s behavior and for his own.

Brecht calls for a rejection of the false, hypnotic identification that the technique of dramatic impersonation will engender. Impersonation is an extreme case of capitalist production. In the productive process, the worker loses his own subjectivity and is completely equated to the work he is executing, disappearing in it without leaving even the slightest imprint or mark on the resulting product. Much in the same manner, Stanislavsky’s ideal actor is meant to disappear into the character he is representing; his operative talent consists in the ability to achieve complete desubjectification.  In contrast, Brecht’s ideal actor is a worker who is not only capable of labor, but also of reflecting upon his labor, and what’s more, of demonstrating this reflection in order to spark this work of reflection in others still caught in the passive state of pure consumption. “The actor must accompany everything he has to show with the clear gestus of showing.” In this way, Brecht attempts to elude the alienating logic of commodity production. Unlike a worker who is involved in this type of production, the labor of the Brechtian actor does not negate the actor himself; the actor does not dissolve in the abstraction of labor itself, nor is he cancelled out by the product’s objectivity. The principle of alienation that Brecht developed proves to be a mechanism that allows the construction of a politico-economic alternative to the alienating logic of capital. The Verfremdungseffekt produces a space that blocks the appearance of Entfremdung. Brecht uses the energy of the negation constituent to alienation to construct a positive result. As Brecht writes: “Alienation as understanding is the negation of negation.” In other words, alienation is the negation of alienation. If “unceasing historical development alienates us from the actions of people who lived before us”, then the alienation effect, a product of work done by the actor and the director, is called upon to objectify this historical movement and its underlying socio-economic logic. Brecht’s scenography exposes the product (the scenic image that the actor’s performance embodies), labor (the performance itself), and the worker (the actor), rendering all three visible. The point of the Brechtian theater is to bring onstage this dialectic, which vibrates like steel under tension. According to its logic, the seed does not have to die first in order to bear fruit.


Ilya Kalinin (born 1975), philologist, historian of culture, critic. Lives in Moscow and Petersburg.




Ciné-Tracts (1968) Godard / Marker / Resnais

David Riff /// An Apology of the Obvious?

When something seems ‘the most obvious thing in the world’ it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up. (1)

Read through the lens of fatigue, the question “Why Brecht?” seems to preface an apology of the obvious. Though the Brechtian aesthetic is an inalienable part of modernity’s cultural legacy, its political significance has yet to be recaptured. So much is clear. The Brechtian aureole – women in kerchiefs, men in worker’s caps, hurdgy-gurdy organ music, stark lighting, sparse props, proximal action played out in the ramp lights – has become a stylistic resource for contemporary culture. The Brechtian method has been disassembled into an array of generic components for the toolkit of knowledge production. Brecht is both everywhere and nowhere, leading to a strange mixture of nostalgia and “Brecht fatigue.” Brecht may be inalienable but where is Brecht the political artist, the practical philosopher, the Marxist? Not why Brecht, but which Brecht, wither Brecht?


  1. STRIPLING: Mr. Brecht, could you tell the Committee how many times you have been to Moscow?
  2. BRECHT: Yes. I was invited to Moscow two times.
  3. STRIPLING: Who invited you?
  4. BRECHT: The first time I was invited to show a picture, a documentary picture I had helped to make in Berlin.
  5. STRIPLING: What was the name of that picture?
  6. BRECHT: The name-it is the name of a suburb of Berlin, Kuhle Wampe.
  7. STRIPLING: While you were in Moscow, did you meet Sergei Tretyakov?
  8. BRECHT: Tretyakov, yes. That is a Russian playwright.
  9. STRIPLING: A writer?
  10. BRECHT: Yes. He translated some of my poems and, I think, one play.
  11. STRIPLING: Mr. Chairman, International Literature No.5, 1937, published by the State Literary Art Publishing House in Moscow had an article by Sergei Tretyakov, leading Soviet writer, on an interview he had with Mr. Brecht. On page 60, it states: “[…] Brecht studies and quotes Lenin as a great thinker and as a great master of prose. The traditional drama portrays the struggle of class instincts. Brecht demands that the struggle of class instincts be replaced by the struggle of social consciousness, of social convictions. He maintains that the situation must not only be felt, but explained-crystallized into the idea which will overturn the world.”

Do you recall that interview, Mr. Brecht?

  1. BRECHT: No. (Laughter.) It must have been written twenty years ago or so. (2)


The problem is that the line of interrogation of “Why Brecht?” is as inseparable from the totality of contemporary cultural production as Brecht himself. By now, the recapture and politico-aesthetic actualization of neutralized Marxist thinkers constantly runs danger of becoming a means of reconstructing an identity (brand): once the left has reestablished hegemony over its neutralized past, setting its devices to work in a new historical situation, it (i.e. the left) can be identified and thus brought to market, wearing nothing but its reconstructed identity. This marks the proverbial beginning of the end, before the beginning has begun to become.


von Trier: The story is based on a text by Bertolt Brecht. It’s a song [the “Pirate Jenny” song from The Threepenny Opera] that I’m sure you know, about a ship that comes to a harbor. It has 50 cannons and many masts. [von Trier’s cell phone rings, playing a familiar tune. He answers, but there is no response].

Kapla: What a good tune!

von Trier: Yes, it’s the Internationale!

Kapla: Tell us more about the Brecht song. (3)


Installed as “on the left” of the biopolitical cultural field, all of the invaluable work undertaken in painstakingly reconstructing and actualizing methods becomes abstract, productive labor. In this sense, the answer to the question “Why Brecht?” faces an overwhelming negativity: like anything else, it runs danger of being included as an empty figure, a commodity ultimately alienated from itself. Or to put in the plainest terms possible, the answer to the question “Why Brecht?” just seems too obvious to supply a point of departure for any meaningful dialectic.


Master Hegel taught: all that is only becomes by that it also is not, i.e. in that it becomes or passes. Being and non-being is in becoming as in passing. Becoming merges into passing and passing into becoming. The passing thing becomes another; in the becoming thing another passes. Thus, there is no rest in things, nor is there in its observers. Only by speaking, you, the speaker, change yourself, and that what you are speaking about changes. But if every new thing already contains something old, one can still speak of new and old things quite well. The way of speaking of those who use the Great Method properly does not become less definite but more defined.

Master Hegel said: things are occurences. States are processes. Processes are transitions. (4)


So what if the affirmative reconstruction of Brecht were understood as a diversion, a “subversive affirmation”, as something that seems obvious and therefore acceptable to the hegemonial (liberal) image-commodity of the left, but actually breaks with the dominant stereotypes of leftist cultural identity? Plumpes Denken (Brecht’s term for blunt materialistic thinking) is not always as obvious as it seems. Sometimes you have to be subtle. Sometimes you have to admit that your enemies are wrong.


As Mr. Keuner, the thinking man, was speaking out against Force* in front of a large audience in a hall, he noticed the people in front of him shrinking back and leaving. He looked round and saw standing behind him – Force. “What were you saying?” Force asked him. “I was speaking out in favor of Force,” replied Mr. Keuner.

After Mr. Keuner had left the hall, his students inquired about his backbone. Mr. Keuner replied: “I don’t have a backbone to be broken. I’m the one who has to live longer than Power.”

And Mr. Keuner told the following story:

One day, during the period of illegality**, an agent entered the apartment of Mr. Eggers, a man who had learned to say no. The agent showed a document, which was made out in the name of those who ruled the city, and which stated that any apartment in which he set foot belonged to him; likewise, any food that he demanded belonged to him; likewise, any man whom he saw, had to serve him.

The agent sat down in a chair, demanded food, washed, lay down in bed, and, before he fell asleep, asked, with his face to the wall: “Will you be my servant?”

Mr. Eggers covered the agent with a blanket, drove away the flies, watched over his sleep, as he had done on this day, obeyed him for seven years. But what he did for him, one thing Mr. Eggers was very careful not to do: that was, to say a single word. Now, when the seven had passed and the agent had grown fat from all the eating, sleeping, and giving orders, he died. Then Mr. Eggers wrapped him in the ruined blanket, dragged him out of the house, washed the bed, whitewashed the walls, drew a deep breath and replied: “No.” (5)


(1) Bertold Brecht, interview with Luth Otto, in Brecht on Theatre: the Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and tr. by John Willett, Hill and Wang, New York, 1964, p. 70-71.

(2) Bertold Brecht interrogated by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, October 30th 1947, https://eee.uci.edu/programs/humcore/archives/HUACBrecht.htm

(3) Marit Kapla, Lars von Trier, Our Town, Filmmaker Magazine, 6/11/02, https://www.filmmakermagazine.com/archives/online_features/our_town.php

(4) Bertold Brecht, Me-ti: The Book of Changes, https://www.dada-hoelz.de/meti/b_meti3.html. Translation: DR

(5) Bertold Brecht, Stories of Mr. Keuner (translated by Martin Chalmers), San Francisco: City Lights 2001, p. 3-4


*The German “Gewalt” (force) can be understood as both “power” (i.e. Rechtsgewalt=force of law) and “violence” (Gewalttätigkeit).

**The German “Illegalität” (illegality) denotes the state under which parties or people are declared illegal and forced into hiding. Brecht is obviously referring to the prohibition of the political opposition under National Socialism.

David Riff (born 1974) art critique, translator, lives in Petersburg, member of the workgroup “Chto Delat?”




Ciné-Tracts (1968) Godard / Marker / Resnais

Esa Kirkkopelto – Artiom Magun /// Brecht. Earth. Helsinki. December. Coffee. Cigarettes. Kirkkopelto. Magun.

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).




Ciné-Tracts (1968) Godard / Marker / Resnais

Bertold Brecht /// In Praise of Dialectics

Today, injustice goes with a certain stride,
The oppressors move in for ten thousand years.
Force sounds certain: it will stay the way it is.
No voice resounds except the voice of the rulers

And on the markets, exploitation says it out loud:
I am only just beginning.

But of the oppressed, many now say:
What we want will never happen

Whoever is still alive must never say ‘never’!
Certainty is never certain.
It will not stay the way it is.

When the rulers have already spoken
Then the ruled will start to speak.
Who dares say ‘never’?

Who’s to blame if oppression remains? We are.
Who can break its thrall? We can.

Whoever has been beaten down must rise to his feet!
Whoever is lost must fight back!
Whoever has recognized his condition – how can anyone stop him?
Because the vanquished of today will be tomorrow’s victors
And never will become: already today!

Translation: David Riff


Chto Delat
#11 Why Brecht

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