Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Forwards, not Forgetting

Brechtian Productivism in an age of Mechanical Stagnation

Art forms also die. And the rotting corpse that is the theatre has, for the last 20 years or more, been involved in a comprehensive occlusion, distortion and demolition of the work of one of the only 20th century playwrights who attempted to keep it alive. But in that attempt, regardless of whether the theatre lives or dies, is a theory of the technological apparatus, and of production, that still speaks of demands that the proliferating media of today seem incapable of fulfilling. The theatre itself disdains these theories and these techniques. Why?

Round One: Godot vs. Galileo


‘Mr Keuner ran into Mr Muddle, a great fighter against newspapers. ‘I am a great opponent of newspapers. I don’t want any newspapers’, said Mr Muddle. Mr Keuner said ‘I am a greater opponent of newspapers. I want better newspapers.’
If newspapers are a means to disorder, then they are also a means to achieving order. It is precisely people like Mr Muddle who through their dissatisfaction demonstrate the value of newspapers. Mr Muddle thinks he is concerned with the worthlessness of today’s newspapers. In fact he is concerned with their worth tomorrow.
Mr Muddle thought highly of man and did not believe that newspapers could be made better, whereas Mr Keuner did not think very highly of man but did think that newspapers could be made better. ‘Everything can be made better’, said Mr Keuner, ‘except man.’

Brecht, Stories of Herr Keuner

A little juxtaposition might help elucidate this little conundrum. 2006 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Beckett, as well as being the 50th anniversary of the death of Bertolt Brecht. The difference between the receptions of these two anniversaries is striking. While Beckett was beset with tributes, seasons, retrospectives, those chiselled features looking out from arts centres all over, Brecht was very grudgingly acknowledged. A few productions have appeared, and each one of them has had the same mission statement: to take the Brechtian out of Brecht, to extract from it all that pernicious theorising and return it to the cathartic, realist stage. From the National Theatre’s Life of Galileo, which explicitly tried to make a regular middlebrow tale of compromised liberalism out of the alienation effects, to a Young Vic Big Brecht Fest which went so far as to expunge any works that post-dated the development of Brechtian ‘theory’ in 1926-7, there has been an unrelenting attack on Brecht’s technique- which usually accompanies rhetoric about what a Great Artist he was despite all this.

Brecht knew that Beckett was essentially his dramatic inverse, and was planning a ‘response’ play to Waiting for Godot at the time of his death in 1956. The Brechtian and the Beckettian are both paths that the post-war theatre could have taken, and it seems he at least was aware of this. Of course, since the 70s neither direction has been followed, but never mind. Nonetheless, while Adorno in his 1962 attack on Brecht and Sartre’s ‘Commitment’ argued that while these aspiring agitators could be easily reified and turned into cliché, Beckett or Kafka, ‘autonomous’ artists, could resist such treatment. The reverse has actually proved to be the case. What is perceived as Beckett’s depiction of a grim, sardonic struggle against an immutable human condition has an obvious appeal for a stagnant, fatalist and depoliticised terminal capital (alternatively, go to post-Stalinist Prague to find Kafka’s name emblazoned on anything with a price tag) while Brecht’s insistence on the critical stance is utterly anathema to its tamed culture. And this is usually stated in terms of pleasure, or enjoyment: the Brechtian technique is allegedly something that ensures aridity, its laying bare of the device merely leading to a dry formalism. It’s no fun. ‘Negation use, consider revising’ as Microsoft Word will tell you.

Really, Brecht has so little going for him here it’s almost comic: Marxist, German, Hegelian, his innovations summed up as either the rather grand sounding ‘Epic Theatre’ or theorised in imposingly Teutonic terms as the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ which is seemingly designed to be oppressive: whether you translate it as ‘alienation’ or ‘distanciation’ or ‘estrangement’, it isn’t a phrase that promises a whole load of fun. But what is so frustrating about this is that it simply doesn’t square with any of what either Beckett or Brecht actually wrote. Beckett’s Late Review devotees seem to have an idea of him as some sort of amalgam of Zeno the Stoic and Father Ted, yet one can’t imagine Tom Paulin or Bonnie Greer relishing being assaulted by the panic attack of Not I or wading through the thick, impenetrable tangle of repetition and horror of How it Is. Beckett is not fun. For all his virtues, he is a supremely difficult writer, almost all of his mature works extremely forbidding: one might extract a quote or two from Worstward Ho, but few try reading the bastard thing. To be crass, people think they like Beckett and don’t, and think they don’t like Brecht- but, we will argue, they do.

Brecht’s works, curiously enough, are absolutely full of singing, dancing, rhythm, laugh-out-loud jokes, wickedly biting irony, and perhaps most importantly, a refusal to ever be boring. The obvious pleasures of the Kurt Weill assisted musicals of 1927-33 (Seven Deadly Sins, Threepenny Opera, Happy End, Mahogonny) almost seem to go without saying, their songs’ persistent presence in pop culture ever since being proof enough of that: yet this was the exact period of the development and deployment of the Marxist-Modernist Brechtian apparatus of interruption and interjection, the placards and projections that everyone seems to so object to. Even the lehrstucke (‘learning plays’) his most stripped down and didactically severe pieces – most notoriously the ‘wild roar’ (Adorno) of The Measures Taken – have an extremism, a starkness and violence, that prevent them from ever becoming mere academic experiments. So, we will have to ask, what is it in the Brechtian conceptual apparatus that makes people want to separate it from the work? Why is this device that must be laid bare so forbidding to the arbiters of taste? And more to the point, what are these theories, how do they work, and what do they have to do with film and the media rather than the stage?

Round Two: Who’s Afraid of the Verfremdungseffekt?


‘They are the enemies of production. Production makes them uncomfortable. You never know where you are with production. Production is the unforeseeable’

(Brecht, on Socialist Realism)

Like any theory worth using, the Brechtian Methodologies morphed and changed to respond to new conditions, but perhaps most interesting for our purposes here is the period from the mid 20s to mid 30s, when the development of Brecht’s technique was explicitly linked with Technik (i.e. the German term for Technology). Walter Benjamin defined the alienation effect, the form of the Epic Theatre, as first and foremost an engagement with the new reified art forms of the 20th century, and specifically film and radio. In ‘Theatre and Radio’ a piece for the Blatter des Hessischen Landstheaters in 1932, Benjamin writes of the mass form of radio, its ability to reach a greater audience than even the most populist theatre, and that the very technological form of the radio itself gives it potentialities which the stage can’t approach.
‘Not only a more advanced technical stage, but also one in which technology is more evident. Unlike the theatre, it does not have a classical age behind it. The masses it grips are much larger; above all, the material elements on which its apparatus is based are closely intertwined with the interests of its audience. Confronted with this, what can the theatre offer? The use of live people – and apart from this, nothing.’
There are two possible responses to this. One is that of Great Artists, where this simply doesn’t matter because of the eternal nature of the human condition. The other response is to acknowledge that the theatre can’t compete with cinema and radio, but can however debate with them. And it does this, crucially, via Montage. The alienation effect is
‘Nothing but a retranslation of the methods of montage – so crucial in radio and film – from a technological process to a human one. It is enough to point out that the principle of the Epic Theatre, like that of montage, is based on interruption’
And via that interruption, the listener has to ‘take up an attitude towards the events on stage’: the laying bare of the device induces a stance. An early play of Brecht’s featured the banner ‘DON’T STARE SO ROMANTICALLY’: instead the audience has to assume a critical engagement.

Benjamin develops this two years later in ‘The Author as Producer’, where the properties of this montage are further discussed: ‘the superimposed element disrupts the context in which it is inserted’. So here we have a picture of the Epic Theatre where the Verfremdungseffekt is essentially an adaptation to new technological realities, and a harnessing of them specifically for the theatre (but not exclusively so) in order to disrupt its attempts to claim that the world goes on as before. The theory can in fact be adapted for the use in Film and in Radio: as Brecht was doing at the time, producing with collectives of collaborators, composers and designers radio productions such as The Flight of the Lindberghs. Here the most impressive new technological achievement of the time, the transatlantic flight, is made into a collaboration between collective producers building the plane, each one of whom is 'Lindbergh'; or in stage plays, an apparatus is introduced making prominent use of radio, newspaper headlines or projections of photographs and statistics.

Brecht’s theory and practice here was closely linked to two Soviet theoretical innovations, produced by the circle around the journal LEF. This was the far Left of Constructivism, usually calling themselves ‘Productivists’ (in the sense of productive, producing, and the product). First of all the notion of ‘making strange’, developed by the Formalist literary theorists Viktor Shklovsky and Osip Brik, who were also prolific screenplay writers for directors like Pudovkin and Room; and the development by Sergei Tretyakov and others of the notion of the Operative writer who is at once a sociologist, photographer, economist, filmmaker, producer, master of the new apparatus; and the linked experiments like the ‘Two-Way Newspaper’. The producers becoming artists and the artists becoming producers. Brecht wrote in 1927 that the new technological forms had just this radical potential for mass access and communication. In ‘The Radio as a Communications Apparatus’ he writes:

‘Among the obligations of the state’s highest official is the job of informing the nation regularly by means of the radio about his activities and their justification. The task of the radio does not end, however, with the transmission of these reports.
Beyond this, it must organise the collection of reports, i.e. it must transform the reports of those who govern into responses to the questions of those governed. Radio must make exchange possible.
Should you consider this utopian, then I ask you to reflect on the reasons why it is utopian.’

Capitalism has to prevent this apparatus from falling into the hands of all, a radical democratisation of cultural production disrupting the divide between art and life upon which the supremacy of its culture industry depends. The Epic Theatre can’t redistribute the apparatus by itself – but what it can do is present it in an objective manner, show its workings and effects as what they are, to resist the temptation of using it to represent reality or history rather than participate in it. He writes in ‘Suggestions for the Director of Radio Broadcasting’ that because the radio’s apparatus is portable, mass-produced, by its nature not exclusive, to attempt representation with it is inherently absurd. In the case of cinema, ‘I have seen with distress how the Egyptian pyramids and the Indian Rajahs’ palaces move to Neubabelsburg (the studios in Potsdam that were the centre of the 1920s German film industry) in order to be filmed by an apparatus that a man can slip comfortably into his backpack.’

The great mistake here is to see in this an inherent hostility to mass produced culture, and to the productions of that film industry. On the contrary, while the European cinema strained for Art, the American gangster film or slapstick comedy was already devising an appropriate form for the new functional media. Take for instance the 1936 fragment ‘V-Effects of Chaplin’, a little comment on the employment of alienation effects in The Gold Rush (1925):
Eating the boot (with proper table manners, removing the nail like a chicken bone, the index finger pointing outward).
The film’s mechanical aids:
Chaplin appears to his starving friend as a chicken.
Chaplin destroying his rival and at the same time courting him.

So the Verfremdungseffekt is here expressed by gesture, movement, the anti-naturalism producible by the human body itself (the Brechtian gestus, what Benjamin described as the actor’s critical stance towards his character) as well as by the technological apparatus. The Hollywood film, at its least middlebrow edges, is capable of being just as jarring as the Epic Theatre. In the scenes from The Gold Rush referenced above, a situation of poverty and abjection is Made Strange, while at the same time Made Universal. The absurdity of the situation is conveyed by the anti-naturalist gesture, and by the morphing of man into chicken achievable only via the device.

According to Hanns Eisler, Brecht disdained music in favour of the invention ‘Misuc’: a response to a Beethoven that ‘always reminds me of paintings of battles’, and ‘music ceremoniously produced in concert halls’, replacing it with a din that is ‘extremely close to the people’. And as any contemporary production of Brecht will tend to renege on all of this, the best place to encounter it today is on record, in the interpretations of Brecht’s songs by anyone from Lotte Lenya to Nina Simone, the Young Gods to Ernst Busch. This is fitting, as pop had its own Brechtian moment in the late 70s and early 80s, much as Cinema did in the late 60s and early 70s (note that both were in periods of intense political struggle). Some of the most straightforward statements of the Brechtian method are on the subject of music, whether in the ‘mass songs’ that he wrote for the Popular Front of the 30s with Eisler, or in his writings on film music. In 1942, while working on Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die, Brecht wrote a short programmatic piece, ‘On Film Music’, as a contribution to Adorno and Eisler’s study Composing for the Films. This contains one of the most succinct statements of technique and technik. Under the heading ‘Function of Innovations’ Brecht writes of a technique ‘directed mainly against the narcotic function of art’, and one which of necessity has to be based on ‘Excitement – without which theatre today can hardly be imagined’. The use of music in this was totally paramount, for the same reason that the Musical, at its most extreme (Dennis Potter, Lars von Trier) is the culture industry’s most truly Brechtian form.
‘Music had the task of protecting the audience from a state of ‘trance’. It did not serve the enhancement of existing or anticipated effects but rather interrupted or manipulated them. So if there were songs in a play, it was not as if the story ‘dissolved into song’. The people in the play did not break into song. On the contrary, they openly interrupted the story. They assumed a pose for singing and presented the song in a way that did not fully correspond to the situation.’
Then the audience would be taught not to trust what they see: they can ‘discover the emptiness and conventionalism of certain events which the actors had played with unshakeable seriousness.’

Round Three: The Threepenny Lawsuit and the Threepenny Film


‘The Russian writer Osip Brik noted very cleverly that Brecht’s works are always court cases, in which Brecht proves himself to have litigation-mania’

Sergei Tretyakov, ‘Bert Brecht’ (1934)

So what happened when the Brechtian – well, when Brecht himself – was unleashed on cinema? Although in his quasi-expressionist youth Brecht had worked on unproduced screenplays and even directed a short film, the first opportunity for his mature theory to be tested was in an adaptation of his 1928 musical The Threepenny Opera. This was a cobbled together melange made up of a title of Lion Feuchtwanger’s, a translation and rewriting by Elisabeth Hauptmann of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, plus adaptations by Brecht of that play’s original songs, poems by Francois Villon and Rudyard Kipling(!), and even some ‘original’ work, all honed via Kurt Weill’s self-deconstructing music into a viciously witty depiction of amoral capitalism. Famous variety tale of murder, rape and general gangstaism ‘Mack the Knife’ hails from here, and was included specifically as a measure against an actor who was making his villain rather too worthy of identification: better to make him ‘violate an old woman in her slumbers’ for cash rather than let him become a straightforward hero. This chaotic, disjunctive and discordant mess of syncopated cynicism and mercenary amorousness (see ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’) was the most popular play in the Weimar Republic. A vindication, if ever there were, that works created in the new manner could connect just as well, if not better, with a mass audience.

This already deeply hybrid work then gets very complicated indeed. Though the work was contemporaneous with Brecht’s turn towards Marxism and development of Epic Theatre, by the time the film was put into development in 1930 Brecht and his collaborators had shifted artistically and politically to the extreme left, and this was going to be for them a way of testing the new apparatus’ potentialities for both political efficacy and formal rupture. A screenplay was written, entitled The Bruise: a Threepenny Film, which quite explicitly called for the montage experiments of Eisenstein, Pudovkin or Vertov as well as a Gestural, anti-naturalist acting style indebted to Chaplin or Keaton, as opposed to the leisurely pace, fluid camera and subtle, insinuating acting styles advocated by the German Expressionist art film: one of whose number, G.W Pabst, fresh from the Weimar-Goth classic Pandora’s Box, was slated to direct. Needless to say, Brecht’s treatment was rejected, and a new screenplay was written partly by Bela Balazs, a prominent theorist of film at the time. Balazs is worth investigating here as another inverse of the Verfremdungseffekt, especially seeing as the fatuous affirmationism of Daniel Frampton’s Filmosophy last year marked an attempt to rehabilitate him. Put bluntly, Balazs advocated that film learn from Art, that film become Art. Balazs’ invitation to show and discuss some French art films (Rene Clair, Abel Gance, Jean Renoir) in Moscow in the late 20s elicited a response from Eisenstein: ‘Bela Forgets the Scissors’. These works, for all their alleged innovation, really returned film to the canvas, and to the artistic spectacle, precisely because they ignored the principle of interruption and of montage. For Eisenstein, as for Brecht, they weren’t Useful.

Before going on to look at the film itself, we should have a look at the case Brecht assembles in his Threepenny Lawsuit. This tract, assembled after Brecht had already lost his lawsuit against the film’s producers, has very little to do with Pabst’s film: whether or not Brecht had ever actually watched it is a moot point. In fact, it is probably the most sweeping, manifesto-like statement of the Epic Theatre in its Productivist moment. Its first target is those who, over the lawsuit, claimed that Brecht and Weill should have expected the treatment they got: film is a commodity, is not art, and as such any attempt to try and make it so (which Brecht, as a noted playwright working in the cinema, must have been doing) was doomed to failure. These people want to
‘From the outset deprive us of the apparatuses which we need in order to produce, because more and more this kind of producing will supersede the present one.’
An alternative to either this sulky aestheticism or a total surrender to the demands of capital can only be enabled by an expansion of the apparatus: in a short passage pregnant with potentiality Brecht imagines that the Lehrstucke (learning play) participants (usually active Communists, staged anywhere other than a conventional stage) would all have to have their own personal cinema apparatus. The freedom outside the new technology is meaningless. ‘To say to the intellectual worker that he is free to renounce the new work tools is to assign to him a freedom outside the production process’, and hence utterly neutered and of no threat to things as they are.

Then there is the Third Way: film as art. This is based on a form that ‘establishes itself against the apparatuses with a vengeance’, the filmed theatre that Eisenstein feared the development of sound could create. ‘He violates the apparatuses with his ‘art’. This is linked in with the belief that if something is ‘faithfully depicted’, then it is in some way able to be critical, that representation can be critique. In an allusion to the lovingly shot machinery of the photographer Renger-Patzsch, he writes that a photograph of a factory ‘reveals almost nothing about these institutions’. A more bastard form is needed. Here, the forms produced by the culture industry’s disruptive wing are again a way of employing the apparatus, and against the claims of the art film he writes ‘the masses’ bad taste is rooted more deeply in reality than the intellectuals’ good taste.’ Cinema constantly exhibits a potentiality that, for all its employment as a mere money-making machine, can be turned on its head. Its essentially collective production is an exemplar of that: ‘it is the essence of capitalism and not something generally valid that ‘unique’ and ‘special’ artefacts can only be produced by individuals and collectives only bring forth standardised mass commodities.’ What if the collective and mass form could create something ‘unique’?

In one of the very few allusions to the actual film that resulted from this debacle, it is claimed that Pabst, as an artist seems to have ‘the right to stupidity, which is usually extended to poets, painters, musicians etc, and is in fact more of an obligation’. 76 years later, a look at Pabst’s film reveals it as a more complex and murky work than Brecht would credit (if indeed he ever saw it), although it is a perfect example of what happens to these works when the theory is stripped out. According to Tretyakov, Pabst told Brecht that he wanted to make ‘a beautiful fairytale’ out of The Threepenny Opera, and this is exactly what he did. On just one of those huge mimetic sets in Potsdam that so amused Brecht, this time of a Dickensian London rather than the Pyramids, is spread out a haunted landscape of passageways and posters, smog and alleys, rats and dirt, brothels and palaces: more or less an estrangement of Weimar Berlin itself, although crucially the illusionistic nature of this is never alluded to, and the device stays resolutely unbared. The film featured many members of Brecht’s collective, and the divergence of their acting styles with Pabst’s (sur)realist mise-en-scène is peculiarly fascinating. A terrific Carola Neher as Polly Peachum is all gesture, whether dismissing her band of gangsters or acquiring a proto-Thatcher pomp as she becomes a bank manager: sweeps of the hand, cocks of the head are what mark out her performance, for all Pabst’s focus on her pulchritude via the frequent close-ups. Ernst Busch’s street singer is wonderfully sardonic, and Lotte Lenya’s moment where on her own in the brothel she sings her still utterly chilling fantasy of class war and gory revenge ‘Pirate Jenny’ is shiveringly powerful. Pabst creates a seductively eerie filmworld, and one which does in its way exploit the new apparatus (all those lingering tracking shots, a regular feature of the art cinema). There’s only really one major problem with it. It’s boring.

There are several reasons for the inertia and longeurs of the film, and many of these are precise consequences of its occlusion of the Brechtian. Anything that contradicted the tangibility of the mimetic city that Pabst had built was anathema. It’s a mistake to see this as it’s usually posited, as a merely political question: Brecht’s expansion of the 1928 play into a general indictment of capitalism is actually retained by Pabst, who was at this point a committed socialist. But what he couldn’t countenance was the way in which The Bruise or the original play was so doggedly unreal: he cut over half of Weill’s songs (so he actually won his part of the lawsuit) as people don’t just break into song, do they? So somehow they have to be inserted into a realist narrative, so that they become static: rather than interrupting the narrative, a character will stand stock still and sing a song to occasion. The avoidance of montage, meanwhile, means that the film can start to stagnate, to ossify, and to induce the trance that the theorists of Making Strange most feared: the viewer is drugged by the slow, passive foggy drag of Fritz Arno Wagner’s camera through the fantasy London, and rather than being made to think or to engage, and rather than being excited, is induced to dream. When the film’s final reconciliation of the gangster, the capitalist and the state occurs, the effect isn’t agitational – it’s fatalistic. Without the theory the disruptive effect is neutered.

Round Four: A Short Course in Realism from the Perspective of the Police


‘Even if we saw the sun was shining
On the street and on the field
We could never really think that
This was truly our own world’

‘Solidarity Song’ from Kuhle Wampe (1932)

The first 15 minutes of the film that the Brecht collective made a year later in response, Kuhle Wampe, are like being in a different century, seem to be using an entirely different apparatus to Pabst’s film. First we have a stark intertitle, a montage of newspaper headlines, then we are thrown into a montage of factories and tenements, which, as Adorno and Eisler would later elucidate, had to be accompanied by a music that would not induce a picturesque aestheticism, a Hovis advert depiction of proletarian essentialism. Instead the music is sharp, scything, desperate. Then, intercut with this dilapidated city are hordes of the unemployed on bicycles, shots of their wheels, their faces as they search all over Berlin for work. Then one of the unemployed arrives home. The desperation slows, and is replaced by an unbearable inertia. A family argument, a procession of ‘get on yer bike’ clichés. Then our unemployed protagonist – the nearest thing we have had so far to a point of identification – takes off his watch and throws himself out of the window.

The way that politics and aesthetics intersected here is interesting. To the Censor who banned the film, this sudden suicide was proof of a Communist mendacity and avant-garde disdain for the human. The man was not depicted as a full human being. He was a type. The Censor, according to Brecht’s account, had said
‘As artists you must forgive me the expression we learn too little about him, but the consequences are of a political nature and force me to object to the film’s release. Your film proposes that suicide is typical, that it is not simply this or that (pathologically disposed) individual but rather the fate of an entire social class…no, gentlemen, you have not behaved as artists, not here. You were not interested in showing the shocking fate of an individual, which no one would prevent you from doing….Good God, the actor does it as if he were showing how to peel cucumbers’
This, of course, would have been seen as a total vindication. Brecht wryly notes ‘we had the unpleasant sensation of being caught red handed’.

The extreme hybridity of Kuhle Wampe has ever really been followed up since, in cinema or elsewhere. In just over an hour, we have here first an experiment in avant-garde montage and music: the alienation effects extending to cut-ups of decidedly experimental ‘Misuc’ over advertising and strangely threatening children (as a character contemplates an unwanted pregnancy), then second we have a kitchen sink drama: one of the collective here, Ernst Ottwald, was one of the ‘proletarian novelists’ of the late 20s, who included factography and sociological analysis in their narratives, much to the chagrin of Socialist Realists, and the depiction of working class life is extremely rare in being critical without patronising. The older members of the family at the centre of the play are beset with phrases and automatic reponses to events that stop them from ever having to truly think about their situation. Their tiny flat, and subsequently their tent in the film’s titular camp, is full of phantasmagorical objects, nick-nacks and shoddy Imperial remnants: leftovers of the bourgeoisie. This isn’t presented in the manner of a sniffy disdain for their bad taste, but its absurdity is calmly laid out. Their inability to make the connections between their fate and what goes on outside is encapsulated beautifully in the scene where the father laboriously reads from the newspaper a lurid article on the erotic adventures of Mata Hari, while the mother writes out a shopping list, her terror at her inability to make ends meet depicted through a montage of price tags and consumer goods.

Third, we have here a propaganda film on two fronts. Through the depiction of a Communist festival there is a demonstration of working class power; and through the escape of the film’s central character (played by Hertha Thiele) from a stifling, lumpen environment, there is a depiction of the radicalisation of alltagsleben. A politicised everyday life necessitates a new sexual politics, and with the help of her more committed friends, she is able to escape the future of drudgery that is usually reserved for women of her class. Then, fourth, we have an argument in a U-Bahn train. This is a precedent to one of the better elements in the Socialist Realist cinema of today, an analogue to the scene in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom where a room full of people discuss the nationalisation of agriculture without (remarkably) it becoming tedious. A political argument with wit, cut and thrust, inducing the audience to think about the issues critically rather than accept the director’s perspective. So in a public spat over coffee being burnt in South America, there are absurdist non-sequiturs, political agitation, and a variety of perspectives critically evaluated. The interruption ceases in this scene, but in order to induce thought rather, as with Pabst, than to occlude it.

The most remarkable thing about Kuhle Wampe though is the sheer joy of the film. In a similar (only so much less bombastic) manner to Eisenstein’s theory of the Montage of Attractions, where agitational cinema is achieved via a panoply of exciting effects, the film’s full-to-bursting turnover of styles and effects, wit and pathos, kitchen sink realism and formal experimentation keep it for the most part in a state of continuous agitation and libidinal charge. The scenes from the Communist sports festival are key here. Eisler’s music shifts from its peculiar special effects and grimly sweeping themes to stirring songs, stridently belted out by the impossibly poignant baritone of Ernst Busch, the ‘Red Orpheus’ (who also plays the male lead, an apolitical mechanic), which speak of movement, participation, of learning in preparation for taking power. The difference between the mass festival here and that filmed by Riefenstahl later in the decade is so huge it’s almost comic. Everyone is jostling, talking to each other, discussing, thinking and acting at once. These are the inheritors of history, and the future, marching ‘forwards, not forgetting’.

Conclusion: Alienation Affects


‘There are songs to sing, there are feelings to feel, there are thoughts to think. That makes three things, and you can’t do three things at the same time. The singing is easy, syrup in my mouth, and the thinking comes with the tune, so that leaves only the feelings. Am I right, or am I right?
I can sing the singing, I can think the thinking, but you’re not going to catch me feeling the feeling. No, sir.’

Philip Marlowe, in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (1986)

‘I have feelings only when I have a headache- never when I am writing: for then I think.’

Except, they were not the future. The overwhelming tragedy of what would happen to these people within a few years is inescapable: Ernst Busch would survive the Nazi camps, but much of the supporting cast would not; while Ernst Ottwald (like Carola Neher), as a refugee from Nazism in the USSR, would be ‘purged’ by the end of the decade by Stalin. When these collectives reconstituted themselves after the war, usually in a critical alliance with Stalinism, there would be a new scepticism and melancholy about the potentialities of the late Weimar era’s politico-aesthetic co-ordinates. A haunting song by Brecht and Eisler from 1955, ‘The Way the Wind Blows’ is a meditation on the sheer disappointment of the fate of the apparatuses themselves: today ‘production and seduction can now be mentioned in the selfsame breath’, while the workers are beset by a media which ‘tells them what to do and say’, and ‘are so shy of action’ (except of course against Stalinism in East Berlin in 1953), that they are left to ‘take their basic pleasures’ where they can; while the Party, the centre of Brecht’s most jarring and disjunctive works, from The Measures Taken to Kuhle Wampe, which should supposedly be able to advocate a way out, is cut off from the workers. But what is advocated here is still essentially the same measure. There’s no hermeticism, no retreat, for all the air of weariness: to ‘go out where the people go’ is the only way out.

If Brecht was sceptical of the efficacy of the Productivist apparatus by the 50s, half a century later we should be even more wary. Soon before he died, Brecht spoke of how ‘all that remains of the Verfremdungseffekten is the ‘effects’, stripped of their social application, stripped of their point.’ While the theatre might totally disdain it in favour of realism, you can find this all over the 21st century cultural-political landscape: a kind of cynical Brechtian where the alienation effect’s insistence on the stepping in and out of roles is a way of avoiding ever actually saying anything, of ever committing: the ‘postmodern pathology’ of someone like Robbie Williams or Tony Blair (an association made intriguingly by Mark Fisher) resides in their utter inability to step back in after stepping out of Realism. Likewise, watch any video on MTV Base and see a kinetic montage enlisted in the service of slack-jawed ogling. This version of Brechtian technique is never truly dissonant or disjunctive, and is able to exist only because of the absence of two important components of the Epic Theatre’s Apparatus. First, the absence of the democratisation of the apparatuses, and second the absence of the political, educational project.

The first of these two, like the alienation effect, does have a strange presence in current mass culture. What is MySpace if not an utterly degenerated version of the LEFists and Tretyakov’s Two Way Newspaper? It is a mistake to assume that mass access to a means of cultural production necessarily results in an interesting product. When everyone is saying nothing we haven’t really moved beyond the point where only the elite can say nothing. This is because of the absence of another element of the theoretical apparatus: the Lehre of the Lehrstucke, the insistence on learning and education. The Productive writer for the two way newspaper or the radio of ‘exchange’ has to become an expert in everything from economics to photography to gesture, and is never allowed to be a mere dilettante. However, these technologies themselves have far more potential than they ever had in 1927. A radio apparatus or a film camera then was, for all the proselytising, essentially ungainly and expensive. Now, a huge quantity of people have some kind of means of cultural production at their fingertips, whether via their cameraphones, cheap DV cameras, blogs, easily stealable music making programmes like Fruity Loops. That the majority of what is produced by these forms is utterly inane is not necessarily always going to be the case. Capitalism is again mistaking its conditions for eternal ones.

What, then, if all these fragments of the Brechtian apparatus are extant and ineffectual, would it look like if they were combined and used in a manner befitting their democratising, agitational potential? Well, for one: the Scenius of Kingston, Jamaica in the 70s. Here you had a means of production - cheap 4-track studios, effects pedals and the manipulation of tape – which was technologically advanced and accessible; and a means of distribution, on the shoddily pressed 7 inch single or dubplate. This technologically disjunctive music is then used as communication, in essentially the same manner as the two-way newspaper: much as with Chuck D’s perception of Hip Hop as ‘Black CNN’ (also, its no coincidence that perhaps the most terrifyingly powerful version of Brecht on record is Nina Simone’s version of ‘Pirate Jenny’, relocating its class war to a ‘crummy Southern town’). And as this was a period of heightened political struggle, this communication frequently had a fierce agitational urgency: Brecht and Eisler would have given their teeth to have written something like Dennis Brown’s ‘What about the Half’. History is challenged, the familiar is made strange, thought about what is apparently self-evident is advocated. The potential is all still there, in every technologically advanced corner of the world (i.e., all of it) for the apparatus to be restarted. Without forgetting, we could again be marching forwards out of something which, no matter how much it might be normalised, how much it might co-opt us, ‘we know is not our world’.


bat020 said...

You asked for critiques - mine concerns not your defence of the Verfremdungseffekt but the final paragraphs where you you concede far too much to the theme of Late Capitalism Coopting The Avant Garde - a theme that simultaneously gives too much credit to capitalist aesthetic (it might be cliched shit but at least it's Inspired By Brecht) while catapulting the avant gardes of early 20th century into an airtight nostalgia (things were Politcal Then, they are Depoliticised Now - cue wistful sigh).

Slumberous said...

Great post; and this seems to be the real crux of it:

"When everyone is saying nothing we haven’t really moved beyond the point where only the elite can say nothing. This is because of the absence of another element of the theoretical apparatus: the Lehre of the Lehrstucke, the insistence on learning and education."

Maybe this is last is what we really need to concern ourselves with now.
In 1939, Benjamin, well aware of the risks of the procedure, applied the 'archaic and authoritarian' method of Commentary to Brecht's poetry. It was what we have become used to referring to dismissively as a 'close reading', employing all the hermetic esotericism we usually associate with that procedure; but it's with this that he transmitted the real political charge of Brecht's poems. See especially how he read the Lesebuch fur Stadtebewohner as 'object lessons in exile and living outside the law.'
I just wonder if what we need now is less anguish about audiences (how we connect to them, how we alienate them etc.). Maybe what we need first is to recover the rigour and asceticism of Lehre. It's this that distinguishes historical materialism from the illiteracy of the university and Late Review.
(If you've ever been to a lecture on Brecht at a contemporary university you'll get a sense of where i'm going with this: Brecht becomes a mere populist in a very New Labour sense, the harbinger of the Jerry Springer opera and all that shit. The idea of a thinking audience is itself completely unthinkable in the university at this stage).
In other words:
"The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to turn them away from the world and its affairs. The thoughts we are developing here have a similar aim. At a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of fascism had placed their hopes are protrate, and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these obsevations are intended to extricate the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entangled them ... This consideration is meant to suggest the high price our customary mode of thought will have to pay for a conception of history that avoids any complicity with the concept of history to which these politicians still adhere."
Benjamin, On the Concept of History, Thesis X.

owen hatherley said...

Bat: my point was less one about co-option, more pointing out how significant elements of the apparatus had to be excised in order to enable 'cliched shit'. I certainly don't think Robbie Williams or MTV Base are influenced by Brecht: it was more a corrective of the notion that montage or stepping in and out of a role are in themselves subversive, without politics and without doctrine. but I was being sort of affirmative on how something like pop, or the internet, or whatever, need not produce cliched shit. It's I guess an Adornoite point about the two halves of culture that don't meet up.

Naturally, I don't want to preserve a politicised past in aspic. But its a real problem, I think, that political movements of the last decade, whether the anticapitalists, stop the war, etc etc, have been unable to articulate any sort of counter-cultural forms. (covers of Edwin Starr REALLY don't count, nor do the drumming hippies and chants that have stayed the same since 2003 that you could find at the last Stop the War march). There are good reasons for this, for one the fact that in the late 60s this made the new left easily reducible to purchasable signifiers.

The Brechtian is interesting because it offers a total theory of counter-cultural activity, and one which is not limited to hairstyle, taste, etc. My point, really, is that the Left and the remnants of the avant-garde AND pop culture are at the moment shards of something that once cohered, and could cohere again.

roger said...

Owen, I agree with slumberous: great post.

I have a question about the tension in this post between, on the one hand, the notion that theater has to compete with other media, - competition that is carried on, I imagine, on a number of levels, for cultural capital, audiences, influence - and, on the other hand, what the idea that in the mass media, Brecht could construct some communicative moment that would directly address the will of the masses. I hope I am not distorting your point here, by the way. I wonder if there isn't some very strong misjudging of the audience, here. There is a description in Canetti's autobiography of the audience at the opening of the Three Penny opera - and the audience he describes seems to be like the people who posed for portraits by the Neue Sachlichkeit artists - not the masses, but that constant segment of the bourgeoisie that is interested both in art and fashion. I like that bourgeoisie, I should say, aspire to its economic condition, and yet share the longtime wariness of both revolutionary and reactionary artists to its greed, its need to utterly consume, the aesthetic laziness of seeking trends. In this situation, isn't the working class simply a legitimating fiction in order to flesh out that suspicion? I don't know that the romanticism of Pabst is really foreign to the working class aesthetic - I actually think that romanticism, too, encodes an aspiration that the working class would endorse - rather than being perpetually condemned to be cast in stone as the working class, forever. In the latter case, it is as if they are revolutionaries condemned to never revolutionize the real condition of their lives that makes them working class. It is revolution a la Tantale.

Anyway, those are the questions this piece raised for me.

bat020 said...

it was more a corrective of the notion that montage or stepping in and out of a role are in themselves subversive, without politics and without doctrine

Sure, but this notion is too witless to be "corrected", it has to be attacked head on. I think it's a mistake to think of, say, Robbie Williams, as somehow Brechtian in the first place (degenerated or otherwise).

To put it another way, the response to the question "Doesn't Robbie Williams do the Brechtian alienation effect?" is not "No he does not, because he misses out Magic Ingredient X [political doctrine, or whatever]," but just "No."

Daniel's version of the question (quoted on the k-punk site) is more sophisticated: "Aren't the features ascribed to Williams exactly those of the Brechtian alienation effect?" The answer here is "Yes, but this underlines that the Verfremdungseffekt is an effect not a feature."

bat020 said...

As an aside - and this may be my memory playing tricks on me - but I'm convinced the first time I ever heard of "Brechtian alienation" was as a young teenager watching The Young Ones...

owen hatherley said...

A couple of points on Roger's comment: first, on the class composition of audience. Funnily enough Gershom Scholem's memoir of Benjamin makes a similar claim, that the audience at the performance he attended of the Dreigroschenoper were the bourgeoisie enjoying the spectacle of their own disgustingness. mind you this can't really be separated from Scholem's rather pathetic general project in that book to posthumously wrest Benjamin away from Marxism and Brecht)
On the other hand Brecht himself in the mid 30s in response to Lukacs etc accusations of elitism claimed that 3Penny and the lehrstucke were where he connected with a genuinely proletarian audience. (assumes Chris Morris voice) the truth is probably somewhere inbetween.

Which brings me to:

I don't know that the romanticism of Pabst is really foreign to the working class aesthetic - I actually think that romanticism, too, encodes an aspiration that the working class would endorse - rather than being perpetually condemned to be cast in stone as the working class, forever.

This is a very thorny subject, and calls up all sorts of arguments about Proletkult and so forth. This seems a bit akin to Trotsky's argument in Literature in Revolution that the proletariat can't (musn't?) have a 'culture' because it is the class that must abolish itself. But meanwhile the question of whether or not Pabst or Kuhle Wampe were more authentically proletarian misses the point slightly - the issue, for Brecht, was their effectiveness, and in this schema romanticism was (rightly or wrongly) not seen as politically useful. Whether or not The Proletariat like it or not is almost a moot point, as can be seen in the turn in the 30s to easily comprehensible socialist realist aesthetics: essentially playing on the working class affection for the signifiers of bourgeois culture, its nick-nacks and oil paintings. Certain things the working class 'liked': eg, a certain kind of Hollywood, had for Brecht a poltical import that other elements of 'working class culture' didn't. Kuhle Wampe plays on this antagonism beautifully.

roger said...

Owen, your last point is fascinating. In a sense, this is what Lenin argues in what is to be done. The proletariat will want to organize unions, when the point is to produce a revolution. This is where the party comes in. I'm more with the proletariat there, but I can see Lenin's point. Brecht, however, by creating something to be seen, is facing another dilemma altogether if the thing he makes is not going to be liked by the audience he intends it for. There's no intermediating party to round up carpenters and assembly line workers to see the Measures Taken, after all.

More than that, however, I don't think that the defense of Pabst is simply about proletariat taste, but about a politically progressive thing about that taste. Pabst's romanticism does break down sexual mores and does operate on the lines that, after all, create the subordination of women, gays, etc. I imagine that you could make the case that Lulu dancing with her obviously enamored lesbian friend is introducing an element of revolutionary import into the mind of the prole viewer, and Brecht's Pirate Jenny is just reaffirming old notions about women and money. Now, I think that goes much too far. But I don't think the case for Pabst's vision is simply about box office receipts, either.

owen hatherley said...

I imagine that you could make the case that Lulu dancing with her obviously enamored lesbian friend is introducing an element of revolutionary import into the mind of the prole viewer, and Brecht's Pirate Jenny is just reaffirming old notions about women and money.

Well, on the second case, I doubt it: the revenge fantasy is about the act of revenge, not supplanting those that the revenge is taken on. But yeah, I almost agree with you about Pabst, especially in the Lulu films: this points to the two missing things in the Brechtian schema, namely sexuality and glamour. I don't know how to get the latter in there, but the first is: whether in KW's sachlich Reichianism or in Brecht's own (somewhat less utopian) priapism...

Also, with ref to Bat: I must say I don't hold with the 'feature/effect' distinction at all: the Effect, the shock, the effectiveness, in the sense of the 'special effect', the disruptive element, is key here.

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