Reading Diary: Alienation (Koebel)

A Short Organum on the Theatre: My impression of Brecht’s text characterizes the Alienation Effect (A-effect) in theatre as a didactic assemblage of incongruent parts with the shared goal of pleasure, entertainment, and social critique. To represent human interactions on the stage is to not lull the viewer into a 'trance-like state' of passive enjoyment, but stimulate a cerebral response that catalyzes a way of looking at the world, presently. It is a general technique applied in a specific way, depending on a combination of factors including script, the historical period it represents, the actors as individual agents, and the individual production elements. Brecht was curious about how the scientific age was changing the interactions of men (and women!), as it has the ability to alter our 'perception of our surroundings'. I’m curious about this too in terms of how we interact nowadays: less frequently in person, and more through technological devices, and what that might imapact in terms of empathy and (mis)communication.

A-Effect strikes me as a collage, where each component part shares an end goal, but the way it is represented is rough, unsmooth, or placed together without ‘crossfade’. It seems to me that the only effective way to use, and also witness, this kind of work, is to have a very clear understanding of who you are as an individual participant or audience member, and your own critique of the social climate surrounding the work. This fissure between an independent worldview and the material being presented creates a distancing, a space, for thought and questioning as to why, how, or in what ways the material in question ‘could be’ something else. My issue with this process is that it makes a lot of assumptions on part of the audience, as I don’t think we can ever really know what an audience is thinking, especially in regard to presenting works within cultures that are unfamiliar to the creator. This position contrasts a more open attitude of exchange that the theatre can also impart. (Also, as a dance artist, I have to say that transgressing cerebral, articulated knowledge is of particular interest to me, and I wonder if there’s a way to apply this technique that is less outwardly prescriptive, but still operates like a collage, maintaining the integrity of its parts, and their capacity to disorient a familiar worldview.)

On Alienation in Chinese Theatre: Brecht narrows in on the techniques of the A-effect, and relates it to similar effects in traditional Chinese theatre, whereby a subtle detachment is present among actors who use unusual ‘gest’ to portray emotions of the characters they are representing, but gest that is often strange, and not dependent on empathy, or the audience’s identification with recognizable emotion. The actor often appears 'cold', there are no illusions to the stage being separate from the audience (no fourth wall) and the actor produces distance between herself and the character she represents. Helpful A-effect techniques include:

1)   transposition into the third person

2)   transposition into the past

3)   speaking the stage directions out loud

The combination of these technique creates a healthy dose of detachment where the audience can witness the actor’s ‘portrayal’ as separate from her, on a conscious level, and not ‘suffer’ the deadpan stares of an ‘emotion infection’ that is a the seemingly fearful operation of the subconscious. I understand how this is a destabilization of the Bourgeois dramatic form, and it may be considered radical to corrupt the space of theatre, and therefore its function, whereby the newly democratized stage allows the individual audience member to cast her vote. However, I feel that this vote is being cast from dominant position of the individual’s frontal lobe. What about the body, and what about affect? Can't and don't we also cast our vote from these areas of knowledge? Also, I’m not so sure the body isn't a part of this operation, because I don't really think you can separate emotion from intellect, or understand emotion from a purely intellectual position. AND, is it really possible to enjoy anything, be it learning or social critique, without some kind of dopamine high/ emotion infection?

I wonder if a computer program could re-create plays using the A-effect? This seems like the stuff of equations, causal or predetermined outcomes, and strategy. I wonder, is the kind of social critique Brecht is looking to achieve, of a certain political lenience? How egalitarian in meaning production was he? I wish I could watch a rehearsal…

Understanding Brecht: I’m interested in Walters’ point about one of the main achievements of epic theatre: that it makes gestures quotable. This notion suggests that gestures are specific to a time and place, and have the ability to communicate via social encoding and widespread usage. Having not seen an epic play performed, I’m curious how this could work, but perhaps that is the whole point – to watch one version played out, and the spectator decides if it could have been something other.

I’m also interested in how this plays into representation, and not reproduction, nowadays. Are the gestures attached to an actor ‘of’ the character, or the actor herself, or ‘of’ the time of the play, or all three? For example, is there a difference between the ways ‘mania’ is expressed through gesture now and 100 years ago? I’m not convinced of this fine line between representation and reproduction, as if reproduction couldn’t have the same affect of distancing a gesture from an opposing text, or the actor’s externalized thoughts. Is it that the gesture has to come out in a somewhat organic way, or seem authentic to the actor (because the character’s gestures have already expired if staging a historical work), in order to work?

So, I am typing frenetically and thinking about a manic character. Could frantic typing be a gesture in a play, say, about the War of 1812? Can I include a laptop as a prop in this staging of 1812 in order to represent a typical gesture of 2015? What other incongruent elements could be present? An interruption from a stranger, or maybe Laura Secord, whistling something by Miley Cyrus, then a door slams, and I say something 3rd person and flat about my character like “She is very contrary and hates rice pudding on Tuesdays”, and then of course I would place my laptop in a bathtub.

I think I understand the concepts but not how to put them into practice, or how to read them in action. And is anything really ever incongruous? It’s possible to produce connections between all kinds of seemingly random things. Last question: how is this NOT absurd? Where do we place the lucid social critique, and how can this be staged. I’m going to google some examples…

Aesthetics and Politics: Walter Benjamin’s diary offers immediate insight into Brecht’s inner world while playing chess, aa Brecht ponders up a new game in which the moves don’t "stay the same, the individual pieces become stronger or weaker, or there is some development over time". To me, this is a metaphor for Brecht’s impulse to change the structure, or foundation, upon which society unfolds, or an obsession with analyzing the surface upon which society plays out, in time.

Opposing opinions on Kafka: Adorno praises Kafka’s ability to arouse fear, whereas Brecht would rather examine fear empirically, stating that there is nothing to be found in Kafka’s ‘depth’ except a ‘separate dimension’ where nothing is to be seen. I simplify this argument to the affect/effect dichotomy. Affect is felt, and non-causal, and in regard to theatre it cannot be predicted, strategized or influenced. You can only concern yourself with structure, form, and the autonomy of the object itself, without adding a desired emotional end point. Effect is measurable, causal, cerebral and falls under a strategic formula whereby an effect is ‘produced’ because in some sense it has already been articulated/determined by the artist. Brecht points toward society in a reflexive fashion (effect), and Kafka presents the 'feeling' of societal pathologies (affect) through his dystopian narrative on paranoia. Adorno argues that deploying effect, or pointing out a social pathology, simultaneously upholds the systems and/or horrific realities that the artwork is responding to, bringing an ‘endlessness’ to them, and quantifying or inscribing them in some way through an aesthetic reduction. So what’s the magic combination? How does one sit at the precipice of articulated knowledge and the unknown? How do you hold an opening? Instead of re-affirming the existing reality for rumination, is it possible to produce a contemplative space that also produces new alternatives? Or perhaps this goal is too concrete. Adorno lands on the following: “Art, which even in its opposition to society remains a part of it, must close its eyes and ears against it: it cannot escape the shadow of irrationality. But when it appeals to this unreason, making it a raison d’être, it converts its own malediction into a theodicy.” So, how does one source the un-inscribed, the slippages, the fissures, and still manage to exist in, and respond to this world here and now? Deleuze and Guittari have stepped into that pool by making cheese and endless collapse. Sounds like Adorno’s answer is to step away from pumping intellect into the work. The answer must be: only make bad art!

Brecht’s Berlin: I was so moved by this article, and got a vivid picture of the ‘stage’ on which Brecht’s writing took place. I was surprised by the optimism and humour the author describes as a young boy in Berlin, but I suppose the full throttle of Hitler’s psychotic vision hadn’t become entirely visible. People still believed in the a greater thrust of humanity, and when the author describes that humanity at the end of the war, on his return to Berlin at the roof-less performance of Three Penny Opera, I understood the sentiment and hopefulness that Brecht’s work really provided. To be able to perform Three Penny Opera was the liberation from living it, and marked the moment when the freedom to critique society was possible again, out in the open air. I take it for granted that I'm allowed to be critical, that I can hold a contentious or subversive position without fear. This article made me thankful for that.