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Art and Political Consequence: Brecht and the Problem of Affect

The truth must be spoken because of the consequences which follow from it for behavior.

—Brecht, “Five Difficulties in Writing the Truth”

One thing I’ve learned, and dying I will tell you: It makes no sense to say there’s something deep inside you that won’t come out! Can you think of anything that has no consequences?

—Brecht, Saint Joan of the Stockyards

Consider the following note recorded for posterity in Brecht’s work journal for December 2, 1942:

a great discovery: the need to buy vitamins here in the form of pills. i was already clearly aware how bad my brain was functioning, how quickly i tired, how low one’s vitality gets, and so on. five days of taking vitamins and i was fit again. what striking proof of the social origin of the proletarian “inability to think”!1

It is, we might say, a deeply “L.A.” thought. Brecht a little more than a year in Los Angeles discovers the wonders of vitamins. But Brecht was not much of a humorist, at least not in the Arbeitsjournal. This raises the question of how serious is the thought about the “social origin” of thinking. Then again, it’s not really about the social origin of thinking at all, but about the chemical and biological roots of it. Is he truly advocating vitamins for all, an even distribution of vitamins to solve the problem of muddled thinking. Freely distributed Centrum as the path to Proletariat Revolution?

If this seems too slim a thought to hang a theory of radical behaviorism on Brecht, consider a more canonical source. In his “Notes from Svendborg” Walter Benjamin relates his encounters with Brecht over the summer of 1934 in Denmark.2 At the conclusion to his notes he mentions, in Brecht’s company, that he was reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He also writes he wasn’t feeling well. These were not unrelated events for Brecht. “[R]eading this novel was the main cause of my illness,” Benjamin recalled of their conversation. Apparently, Brecht was speaking from personal experience. “By way of proof for my illness he told me how, when he was young, a chronic illness whose germ had been latent in him for a long time broke out one afternoon when a schoolfriend played Chopin on the piano, at a time when Brecht was already too enfeebled to protest. He ascribes to Chopin and Dostoevsky particularly dire effects on health.”3 Was it a joke? Why Chopin and Dostoevsky specifically? How serious was the claim? Hanns Eisler recalled an evening with Brecht at Adorno’s home in Los Angeles where they listened to Adorno’s Stefan George settings (“Vier Lieder nach Gedichten von Stefan George,” op. 7, 1944). Brecht’s response was cutting, if not an obvious insult: “It reminds me greatly of Chopin.”4 Knowing Brecht’s feelings about Chopin (and Adorno surely did), one begins to see the point—the joke—of the otherwise anomalous appearance of Chopin’s Funeral March in Man Equals Man.5 The final number performed at Widow Begbick’s canteen, the song played at Galy Gay’s funeral, has the soldiers “carry the crate on their shoulders and sing to the tune of Chopin’s Funeral March: ‘Now he will drink his Irish whisky no more.’”6 The song itself is one more nail in the coffin.

And if music could kill, it could also heal. There were “times when music could be used to treat disease,” Brecht writes in “On the Use of Music in Epic Theater.” Brecht observes that composers have largely forsaken the art of healing through music: “Our composers on the whole leave any observation of the effects of their music to the café proprietors.” That Brecht was fundamentally concerned with the “effects” his plays had on the audience is uncontroversial, but that those effects were seen as inevitable and unstoppable is more surprising (and potentially problematic). Nonetheless, it is clear Brecht had a traditional vision of aesthetics in mind; it was a “science” of feeling.

On occasion Brecht appealed to sociological research in the study of effects on the audience: “One of the few actual pieces of research which I have come across in the last ten years was the statement of a Paris restaurateur about the different orders which his customers placed under the influence of different types of music. He claimed to have noticed that specific drinks were always drunk to the works of specific composers.” Chopin absinthe, Mozart vodka? How exactly could this “research” be utilized in the theater? Could it be marshaled to produce a new subject, as it were behind the viewers’ or listeners’ back? (Woody Allen unintentionally parodied Brecht’s point in his mock restaurant review “Fabrizio’s: Criticism and Response.” Spinelli (the chef’s) “linguine…is quite delicious and not at all didactic. True, there is a pervasive Marxist quality to it, but this is hidden by the sauce. Spinelli has been a devoted Italian Communist for years, and has had a great success in espousing his Marxism by subtly including it in the tortellini.”7 For Brecht, one did not need to be a connoisseur to feel the political effects of the pasta, it was available to everyone.) Brecht implied that theater directors could learn from the science of advertising and “produce music which would have a more or less exactly foreseeable effect on the spectator.” Did Brecht imagine he could produce a correctly political subject through the right kind of music? Did he seriously envision an art with “exactly foreseeable effects” on the viewer? More importantly, what kind of effects did Brecht hope to borrow from the lessons of advertising? If art bore political consequences, as Brecht assumed it did, then what kind of politics and what kind of art would produce the most progressive results?

We know that Brecht was guided on this question by contemporary developments in philosophy and social psychology.8 “Behaviorism,” he wrote in the Threepenny Lawsuit, “is a psychology that, based on the needs of commodity production, seeks to develop methods to influence the customer, an active psychology” and therefore “quintessentially progressive and revolutionary.”9 Progressive and revolutionary, that is, in the way that capitalist techniques of control are: when they are refunctioned from their invented purpose they become weapons in the war against their inventors (this is the point of the opening epigram to the lawsuit: “Contradictions are our hope!”10). In Brecht’s words: “Behaviorism’s limits are those that correspond to its function in capitalism….Here again the road leads only over capitalism’s dead body, but here again this is a good road.”11 Put to alternate purposes, the effects of advertising could assume a revolutionary role. In other words, Verfremdungseffekt—with a stress on the effect—was behaviorism with a Marxist bent. As the Philosopher observes in the Messingkauf Dialogues, his aim was to discover the “laws that would allow me to make predictions” and then to “influence” others (his customers) according to these laws.12

Although Brecht sought to influence the audience in exactly foreseeable ways, he nonetheless fundamentally distinguished this task from what he understood as the “suggestive” use of effects. One kind of effect (the estrangement effect, for instance, but not exclusively) functioned persuasively (and the aim was a high, if loose form of predictability when the work was received by a rational agent, with the assumption of necessary failures); the other type of effect (suggestive), was inevitable and automatic, as it were surefire and beyond failure. As I will argue, Brecht fundamentally differentiated effects of suggestion from effects of influence—two different kinds of artistic consequence—in ways that have yet to be considered. In Brecht’s finely tuned hypnotic terminology, the estrangement effect was a mode of influence but not of suggestion. It is upon this distinction that Brecht’s aesthetics turn.

In a passage entitled “Influence the audience (by the inductive method)” from the 1936 performance notes to Round Heads and Pointed Heads he wrote of the necessity for controlling effects in order to draw out the right responses from the audience: “A considerable sacrifice of the spectator’s empathy does not mean sacrificing all right to influence him. The representation of human behavior from a social point of view is meant indeed to have a decisive influence on the spectator’s own social behavior. This sort of intervention necessarily is bound to release emotional effects; they are deliberate and have to be controlled.”13 One might reasonably wonder what distinguishes Brecht’s vision of a work that produces a “decisive influence” on behavior from the kinds of suggestive control of the audience he ceaselessly critiqued (as Brecht well knew, influence and suggestion were both terms drawn from hypnotic literature and practice).14

One of Brecht’s guiding assumptions, we might call it his ontology, was the belief in the consequential nature of all actions. Effects, of some kind, were an inevitable fact of all art (and of life itself). The task was to control them, putting them to directed ends to influence the right kinds of behavior. Suggestive effects are ones that wash over the audience, putting them in a state of mind undifferentiated from the life outside the theater. For that reason suggestive effects are also ones where the audience feels themselves to be the producer of the work, a kind of bourgeois vision of life as the free play of the affects (rich and poor celebrate their differences in response). The latter is the subject of most of Brecht’s essays on the visual arts including the texts translated in this issue. (In addition, Brecht’s study of “Non-Objective Painting” stands as perhaps the central text on the question of affective response in modernism. For a detailed discussion of that and related essays see my “Seeing Differently and Seeing Correctly: Brecht For and Against Abstraction” in the Brecht Yearbook 38 [Dec. 2013]: 96-121.) For Brecht, the alternative to the open-ended work that freely generated affect was the closed work that sought to control the production of effects, to attempt to foresee the result—to intend effects on an audience, even if that prediction might fail.

Taken at face value, Brecht’s pursuit of “decisive influence” and “exactly foreseeable effects” on audience behavior might seem to undermine his basic political aims. It sounds like a formula for the much-lamented didacticism associated with Brecht’s name. As T. W. Adorno famously argued, Brecht was authoritarian precisely because of his prioritizing of political effect over artistic autonomy. “As a virtuoso of manipulative technique, he wanted to coerce the desired effect,” Adorno wrote.15 From Brecht’s perspective, it’s important to note, there was an essential difference between the “‘direct,’ flattening, impact” of traditional theater and the “indirect impact” he pursued through epic techniques.16 The epic stage was indirect insofar as it set out to “block” the spectator and “prevent his complete empathy”17 with the events described, thereby “leaving the audience to decide the matter for itself.”18 Suffice to say, Adorno found the distinction, at least in practice, unpersuasive.

Of course for Adorno, putting the matter the other way around, autonomy was politically driven from the start and therefore hardly autonomous. As he put it in the Aesthetic Theory, “the resoluteness of [the work’s] distance [from the world]…concretizes the critique of what has been repulsed.”19 At no point did Adorno imagine autonomy as the work of art’s immunity to the audience’s response. It was closer to the opposite, the work of art meant insofar as it was detached from the author and received by historical audiences, giving expression thereby to the accumulated suffering inherent in artistic “material.” In a sense it is difficult to see exactly where Brecht and Adorno differ on their account of political efficacy (both assume it is indirect), except to say that Brecht was forthright in his claims about effects (whether they worked or not is beside the point).

Adorno’s “defense” of Brecht was that Brecht’s didactic “theses took on an entirely different function from the one their content intended. They became constitutive…and contributed to the collapse of the unitary nexus of meaning.”20 The collapse of “unitary” meaning occurred in the process of artistic production. Brecht’s actual productions, and his artistic impulses more generally, blocked his didactic intentions. Brecht’s irrepressible artistry collided with his political aims. Adorno went so far as to (facetiously) claim of Brecht’s “best work” that it was “hard to determine just what the author…meant.”21 But the latter claim is in friction with Adorno’s far more basic assertion that the meaning of every work of art was inherently “ambiguous.”

In one sense, of course, Adorno was correct; Brecht sought, through research, to produce “desired effects” in his audience. Adorno’s defense, on the other hand, is less secure. Adorno’s assertion that works of art necessarily, by virtue of the incalculable demands of the artistic process, mean otherwise than what the author meant, makes it difficult to disagree with his claims. Adorno’s account of intention is limited to the notion of something like a thesis, an iconographic message, or preconceived idea lodged into the work, which is then delivered up to a reader (Brecht representing something like the apotheosis of the intentional fallacy for Adorno). Here is Adorno’s vision of the fallacy:

As Hegel well knew, what artists can say they say only through the form [Gestaltung], not by letting that form deliver a message. Among the most disastrous sources of error in the contemporary interpretation and critique of artworks is the confusion of the intention, what the artist supposedly wants to say, with the content [Gehalt] of the work. In reaction, the content of the artwork is increasingly lodged in what has not been cathected by the artist’s subjective intentions, whereas content is blocked in works in which intention, whether as fabula docet or as philosophical thesis, demands primacy….The philological procedure, which imagines that it grasps securely the content of the work when it grasps its intention, passes judgment immanently on itself in that it tautologically extracts from artworks what was put into them earlier….[N]o intention, however neatly presented, is assured of being realized by the work.22

Setting aside the legitimacy of this claim as an account of Hegel, it should be clear that this is a rather thin image of what constitutes an intention. It amounts to something like a conscious message inserted into a work that is extracted by the critic/viewer/reader. Which is to say, a vision of intention that makes the artistic medium into something like a transparent vehicle for an idea that was fully formed before the work began. On this account, Brecht—the writer attached to the Journals, to theater notes, to Brecht on Theater—is guilty of the sins of contemporary interpretation. This is the Brecht that sees his works as the external materialization of a preformed idea. The idea is something that sits in the work and awaits its delivery to a viewer who pulls the idea from the work unaltered. To this (reductive) image of Brecht Adorno counters with Brecht the “artist.” Because Brecht was an artist (a better one than he knew) and not a critic, he necessarily performed the failure of his own intentions and therefore saved his work. The flip-side of Adorno’s claim here—meaning is foreclosed by works which a driven by didactic intentions—is realized by Brecht. His works succeed because the inner life of his material blocks his intentions. Adorno’s basic assumptions about the nature of artistic “material” (musical or otherwise) insist on the ontological divergence of the work from the one who made it.23 But they also render disagreement with Adorno’s interpretations impossible; it is the “material” speaking, the accumulated history of human suffering “precipitated” into form, that Adorno finds expressed in the works he admires. Any interpretation of Brecht’s work that was founded on the belief that it was the one the author intended, whether that intention is a matter of conscious or unconscious awareness, would, for Adorno, necessarily constitute a misconstrual of the nature of artistic signs, whose “content” is something like the negative image of human expressive agency, which is largely synonymous with instrumental reason.

If Brecht’s putative didacticism, a vision made conspicuous with his claim to having a “decisive influence” on audience behavior, was at the center of the controversy around his work, consider too that he described all works of art as “necessarily…bound to release emotional effects.” Which is to say, Brecht too had a vision of the non-intentional nature of artistic signs, only he imagined that fact as something that had to be continually defeated, neutralized by the artist. As Brecht saw it, one of the central tasks of his theater was to make the necessary release of emotional effects the expressive problem of the work itself, to thematize open-ended affect as the thing to be overcome, or to show how it had not been overcome by his characters, making that failure a problem to be resolved outside the theater.

Consequences: Brecht Watches Gunga Din

Brecht’s most explicit engagement with the problem of artistic effects (and an associated range of loosely behaviorist ideas) appears in the short piece (c. 1940) asking “Is it worth speaking about the amateur theater?” “In the arts, if nowhere else,” Brecht writes, “the principle that ‘if it doesn’t do much good at least it can’t do any harm’ is quite mistaken.”24 Good or bad, bourgeois or communist, all art makes “something happen to one” (BT, 150). All art produces inevitable consequences: “There is no play and no theatrical performance which does not in some way or other affect the dispositions and conceptions of the audience. Art is never without consequences….our morals are affected by it” (BT, 151). He concludes that “political, moral and aesthetic influences all radiate from the theater: good when it is good, bad when it is bad” (BT, 152). At this point Brecht cites an idea derived (through Russian sources) from William James’s and Carl Lange’s theory of emotion that says physiological affects generate specific emotional states, rather than the traditional account of emotions which argues the reverse. In Brecht’s terms, “weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping” (BT, 152). Characteristically, Brecht gives the biological and timeless theory of weeping a specific human setting: a funeral. He observes how “education proceeds along highly theatrical lines….This can be seen at funerals, whose meaning escapes children entirely. These are theatrical events which form the character. The human being copies gestures, miming tones of voice.” Education shows that behavior comes first, “logical arguments only come later” (BT, 152). This is the same situation as when the customer unconsciously orders his drink to accompany the music that saturates the café.

Some recent commentary has focused on Brecht’s putative investment in the priority of bodily response over “logical arguments.” Brigid Doherty, in “Test and Gestus in Brecht and Benjamin,” takes up the problem of influence in the “era of pscyhotechnics.” Doherty considers how, according to Brecht and Benjamin (with special emphasis on Benjamin’s “Karussell der Berufe” of 1930), even or especially one’s “own occupation has influenced his or her mood, opinions, and relations with colleagues, as well as how each would compare the person she or he was at the time of taking up an occupation to the person she or he has become in performing that occupation.”25 Similarly, in “Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street,” Miriam Hansen offers an influential assessment of the role biomechanics played in Brecht’s and Benjamin’s theories of artistic influence. According to Hansen, “A major reference point in this regard is Sergey Eisenstein who, drawing on and revising William James and the conservative philosopher Ludwig Klages…sought to theorize the conditions of transmitting or, more precisely, producing emotion in the beholder through bodily movement.”26 She continues:

Seeking to adapt Klages’s (metaphysically grounded) concept of expressive movement for a materialist theory of signification and reception, Eisenstein, like his teacher Vsevolod Meyerhold, returned to James’s axiom that “emotion follows upon the bodily expression” (“we feel sorry because we cry”), although Eisenstein modified James by insisting on the two-way character and indivisible unity of movement and emotion. Without going into distinctions here, what seems important to me…is the notion of a physiologically “contagious” or “infectious” movement that would trigger emotional effects in the viewer, a form of mimetic identification….The recourse to neuro-physiological, mechanistic, and reflex psychology may not be as sophisticated as the insights of psychoanalysis; yet it may have been more in tune with new, technically mediated forms of aesthetic experience, predicated on mass production, unprecedented circulation and mobility, and collective, public reception.27

Hansen’s media-based claims—the centrality of “psychotechnics,” “new, technically mediated forms of aesthetic experience predicated on mass production, unprecedented circulation and mobility”—grounded as they are in Benjamin’s writings, do not adequately reflect Brecht’s purposes. (It is worth recalling that Brecht considered Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility,” in particular the notion of aura, “pretty abominable” and that his relationship to new media–radio and film–was never as central as his commitment to theater 28) That new forms of technology matter, that they influence behavior, independently of the intentions of their users or receivers, a claim any media theory assumes, sounds something like the opposite of Brecht’s claims. Brecht’s interest in behaviorism was an interest in how it was people expressed themselves in their deepest intentions, even ones hidden from their conscious awareness (that intentions were readable), but not in how actions emerge unintentionally through precognitive response to stimuli. Despite Hansen’s emphasis on the “two-way” character of Brecht’s interpretation of James-Lange, she nonetheless assumes the viability and usefulness of “neuro-physiological, mechanistic, and reflex psychology,” which, as she says, considers response as a matter of “movement and emotion.”

Given this recent emphasis on technological and psycho-biological concerns in Brecht,29 it is important to see how Brecht substantiates his point about response in the essay on amateur theater not by reference to music but film. He describes his affective response to seeing George Stevens’ 1939 (very loose) adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s poem Gunga Din. I cite the passage at length as it touches on Brecht’s most basic claims about the role of affect in art as well as his suspicions about its relevance:30

In the film Gunga Din based on a short story [sic] by Kipling, I saw British occupation forces fighting a native population. An Indian tribe—this term itself implies something wild and uncivilized, as against the word “people”—attacked a body of British troops stationed in India. The Indians were primitive creatures, either comic or wicked: comic when loyal to the British and wicked when hostile. The British soldiers were honest, good-humored chaps and when they used their fists on the mob and “knocked some sense” into them the audience laughed. One of the Indians betrayed his compatriots to the British, sacrificed his life so that his fellow-countrymen should be defeated, and earned the audience’s heartfelt applause.

My heart was touched too: I felt like applauding, and laughed in all the right places. Despite the fact that I knew all the time that there was something wrong, that the Indians are not primitive and uncultured people but have a magnificent age-old culture, and that this Gunga Din could also be seen in a different light, e.g. as a traitor to his people. I was amused and touched because this utterly distorted account was an artistic success and considerable resources in talent and ingenuity had been applied in making it.

Obviously artistic appreciation of this sort is not without effects. It weakens the good instincts and strengthens the bad, it contradicts true experience and spreads misconceptions, in short it perverts our picture of the world. (BT, 151)

Brecht is disturbed by the affective power of the film, as though the director could have taken control of the viewer without the audience’s awareness.

In the film Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks play sergeants in the Royal Army fighting off a murderous Indian cult in colonial British India. Brecht feels himself, as though at a biological level of behavior response, mirroring their moves, identifying with their roles. And yet, his affective responses are countered when he exits the theater (it is as though “suggestive” behavior tends to become intentional when the lights come up). Looking back he senses that his feelings were manipulated, as were likely those of everyone watching the film. Like the café owner, the film director made the audience consume, against their conscious will and morals, his (and Kipling’s) politics.

Recall that Brecht admired the café owner’s (and perhaps the director’s) capacity to control response and that he sought to put behavior “research” to use in the theater. In other words, the problem with Stevens’ film was not that he produced “foreseeable effects” on the audience; moreover, the problem was not ultimately the politics of the director, but rather the kind of effects deployed. In other words, Brecht was as critical of “Leftist” suggestive effects as he was of conservative ones. That’s why he argued that it “is not enough to produce empathy with the proletarian rather than the bourgeois: the entire technique of empathy has become dubious (in principle, it’s entirely conceivable that you could have a bourgeois novel which encourages empathy with a proletarian)” (AP, 230). Brecht’s entire politics rested on the distinction between political (and artistic) commitment and affect along these lines.

In other words, Brecht’s attitude toward empathy was not to say it wasn’t real or effective. It was effective to the extent that it was a commonplace aspect of human behavior, it was normal: human beings mimetically respond to other humans at a very low level of identification (recall he was describing children at a funeral, or viewers at a film). Chopin, café owners, Hollywood film, and bourgeois actors and directors exploited this primordial fact. The point of Brecht’s theater was to introduce cognition into affect, to “divide the audience,” to provide space to reflect on, even refuse, one’s immediate reactions (not just succumb to them). And yet, Brecht also assumed that the kinds of responses produced by his plays would lead to certain predictable results. But the predictability of response he desired was not a matter of the viewer’s normal response to stimuli—the products of empathetic identification—but rather to the normative demands of educated response, which, as social and historical, required the possibility of failure of response.

The problem of affective response in Brecht is difficult to construe because the normal and the normative overlap so closely in the language of Brecht’s formulations. Paraphrasing Aristotle’s Poetics, for instance, Brecht explains that when the actor imitates events from life those “imitations are supposed to have specific effects on the soul” (M, 16). The crucial mistake of Aristotelian aesthetics is not the production of “specific effects” on the audience, but rather that those effects occur at the level of the psyche or soul, that is, to the biological subject. Aristotle appealed to the normal subject for his “research” into audience response and that biological body inevitably responded to stimuli in the way that drugs affected any normal functioning biological unit. That is why empathy effects, in Brecht, is persistently identified with the effect of drugs.

Perhaps thinking of his experience of seeing Gunga Din, Brecht writes that sound film is the most “blooming branch of the international narcotics traffic.” He describes “entire rows of human beings transported into a peculiar doped state, wholly passive, sunk without trace, seemingly in the grip of a severe poisoning attack. Their tense, congealed gaze shows that these people are helpless and involuntary victims of the unchecked lurchings of their emotions” (BT, 89). For Brecht the music-benumbed audience were not “seemingly” in the grip of a poison attack, they actually were. It was not the medium of film that was at fault. The effects available to silent film were crucial to Brecht’s aesthetic because that allowed for contradiction, for performances that worked “against…the predetermined emotional states” produced by the music (BT, 90). (Of course Brecht also assumed that the intentions behind silent films were largely different from those produced by sound films, so it was not an ontological claim he was making about medium.) Brecht rejected surefire—what he calls “predetermined”—emotional reactions, those released in every “normal” subject, but not predictable reactions, those feelings which are culturally shaped and modified. The latter, crucially, allowed for a failure to come off, and required activation by the viewer—what he called “the active creative element” in response (BT, 164)31—while normal response always occurred, and outside of any context of meaning.

Shakespeare offered Brecht a test case on the difference between empathy and influence. The Philosopher in the Messingkauf Dialogues ribs the Actor about his performance of Lear: “When your Lear cursed his daughters a bald-headed man next to me started snorting in such an extraordinary way that I wondered why he didn’t wholly identify himself with your marvelous portrayal of madness, and start frothing at the mouth” (M, 28). Brecht’s point here, part of the joke, was that the actor was better than he let on. The actor could not actually bring himself to produce a wholly seamless performance, one that hypnotized the spectator through the actor’s total identification with the fevered Lear. Brecht called for the abandonment of the “expedient of suggestibility, which comes about as in epilepsy, where the epileptic carries along with him everyone disposed to epilepsy.”32

Bearing in mind the distinction between normal and normative claims in Brecht’s aesthetics, it is easier to see the potential value of the contemporary sciences. Brecht frequently calls on writers to be aware of the latest developments in the science of the self. “Only very few of our ‘realists,’” he writes, “have…taken notice of the development of views on the human psyche in contemporary science and medical treatment. They are still stuck with an introspective type of psychology, a psychology without experiments, a psychology without history, etc.” (AP, 248). He repeatedly draws on the lessons of “physics” and “modern physiology,” of Pavlov’s experiments with dogs to explain theater (M, 17, 33). The Dramaturg in the Messingkauf Dialogues asks about the “transfer of direct sensations…when horror is aroused by horrible actions” (M, 33). The Philosopher explains that at the theater one typically experiences “rich, complex, many-sided incidents, comparable with those of Pavlov’s dogs: food plus bell-ringing” (M, 34). For a failed actor, these complex events only show “secondary features,” a dulled set of reactions, not the full sweep of emotions which is why the actor is “making the audience ill, just like Pavlov and the dogs.” Given Brecht’s understanding of the power of suggestive effects, one gathers that the illness is neither a joke nor imagined. The Pavlov experiment found its way into Mother Courage when Eilif recalls how he strategically starved his soldiers in order to make a raid (a massacre) on peasants storing ox meat. They were so hungry that “their mouths watered if they even heard a word beginning with me…like measles.”33 What Eilif, Hollywood directors, Pavlov and café owners share in common is their commitment to hypnotic suggestion and what Eilif’s soldiers, Hollywood audiences, Pavlov’s dogs, and the café guests share is their susceptibility to its effects.

Brecht’s relation to Pavlov is rather complicated. Pavlov was largely celebrated by Lenin and his research was supported by the Soviet Union (the admiration did not go both ways as Pavlov held little regard for Lenin). The Marxist (re)vision of Pavlov comes out clearly in the Threepenny Lawsuit. Here, Brecht argues, “the reflexes are biological; only in certain of Chaplin’s films are they social” (BT, 50). Before this he writes—part of which I cited earlier—“in the great American comedies the human being is presented as an object, so that their audience could as well be entirely made of Pavlovians. Behaviorism is…based on the industrial producer’s need to acquire means of influencing the customer; an active psychology therefore, progressive and revolutionary. Its limits are those proper to its function under capitalism (the reflexes are biological…).” These sentences have been the source of great trouble for commentators. It appears that Brecht is distinguishing the industrialist/café owner influencing the customer from the Pavlovian audience at the Chaplin film. Chaplin performs a scene open to the audience’s evaluation, while the café owner, performing his actions offstage, does not. In this sense, Pavlov was a crucial theorist of the normative. Pavlov showed how one can ring a bell and have the dog attack the owner under the right circumstances. The problem, of course, is that this suggests that Pavlov, like an actor or director, is someone who could persuade dogs (the viewers of epic theater) of the wrongness and rightness of their salivations (their actions) independent of their associations with the food (the object of empathy).

Suggestion/Influence, Empathy/Action

Continuing the line of thought explored in the 1940 essay on amateur theater—that every work of art, good or bad, “affects the disposition and conceptions of the audience”—in the period between January 11, 1941 and February 1, Brecht’s Journals are filled with discussion of the problem of “the social effect of works of art” (J, 130). The question, again, was not whether art had social effects, but what kind they would be. In these journal entries Brecht presents a slightly altered picture of his vision of epic theater. He now claims that “empathy in non-aristotelian theater” is a “rehearsal measure,” that is, one can use empathy in preparing for a role (J, 124). Above all, Brecht writes, “whatever empathy is achieved should incorporate no element of suggestion, i.e., the audience is not to be induced to empathize too” (J, 124-25). Here Brecht introduces a crucial distinction between empathy and suggestion, which he elaborates over the next several entries.

Although “in reality” empathy and suggestion “occur separately” Brecht reflects how difficult it is to maintain this distinction in current modes of theatrical production because “an actor…empathizing himself and inducing the audience to empathize (suggestive empathy)” is “identical” (J, 125). “Today’s actor,” he contends, it is a crucial moment in his argument, “cannot imagine effects being achieved without empathy, nor effects without suggestion” (J, 125). Even Brechtian performers Helene Weigel and Hermann Greid seem to reject the idea that empathy and suggestion can be separated in practice. Brecht observes that the only performance precedent for this kind of distinction is comedy (and, as cited earlier, outside theater, it is possible with silent film). The question Brecht raises is: “can the preventive techniques used in comedy to avoid empathy also be employed by tragic actors”? (J, 125)

In his January 14 entry Brecht again stresses that the “actor should empathize with the person presented in the play” but adds that it should not happen “on a suggestive basis, i.e. not so that the eventual audience would be forced to participate in this empathy” (J, 125). Brecht draws out the artifice of suggestive acting, showing that it is a set of techniques as much as epic theater is. Rather than being the simple natural expression of the human body in dramatic situation, Brecht dissects, or caricatures, the features of suggestive acting: “Tension in certain parts of the muscular system, head movements executed as if pulling on an elastic band, the feet as if wading in tar, intermittent stiffness, sudden changes, moments of restraint, also monotony of voice, remembered from church responses” (J, 125). As Brecht makes clear, suggestion is derived from the literature and practice of hypnosis; it is a technique the hypnotic operator uses to put the patient into a state of passive openness to the operator’s commands. According to Brecht, a certain pattern of muscle, head, feet, movement, and speech can “induce hypnosis” and “snakes, tigers, hawks and actors rival one another in this art” (J, 125-26). That is, snakes, tigers, and hawks use suggestive techniques to lower the defenses of their prey before they pounce and consume them. Above all, Brecht wants to dissociate “convincing, rounded acting” including empathetic acting and its effects from suggestive acting and its corresponding effects.

Brecht goes on to describe the traditional art of acting as a “simultaneous act of auto-suggestion and suggestion: he suggests to himself that he is somebody else, and he suggests to the audience that he is that other person” (J, 126). The actor drugs himself in the performance of his role and induces the audience to feel the same. The classical actor “makes his simulation suggestive, i.e. he forces the audience to go through it with him” (J, 126-127). As before, what marks the suggestive mode of acting problematic is the forcefulness of its social effects. The audience is unable to think and feel other than what the actor, as hypnotic operator, wants them to. Brecht’s seemingly casual reference to the hypnotic powers of snakes and tigers is more serious than it first appeared. He writes that in the “case of hypnosis by snake movements or by the look of a tiger[,] simulations also occur—of the movements or of rigidity” (J, 127). But at this point Brecht begins to hedge some of his more forceful claims about the separability of empathy and suggestion. “I cannot yet see exactly whether the act of empathy (which is an act of auto-suggestion) can be carried out without the suggestion affecting the audience,” he writes. He provocatively describes the possibility of empathetic acting without suggestive effects as “straightforward imitation, which in turn can of course only affect the persons presented” (J, 127). Indeed, marking a surprising shift of emphasis in his theorization of epic theater, he offers that “in the same way as the act of empathy the a-effect can also be used on a suggestive basis” (J, 127). As the latter makes clear, Brecht’s concern bears on suggestive effects, that is to say, on audience response, rather than techniques of empathy or alienation. (Brecht mentions V-effects of a “demonic” kind, which he rejects for its suggestive results.)

Despite his own hedging over the separability of empathy/alienation and suggestion, he now writes that for actors “there is sometimes a fear of being unable to achieve any effect at all, except on a suggestive basis.” Rejecting this clam, Brecht returns to his basic supposition, “one thing at least is certain; there are some actors who ‘have presence’ without using any of the known means of suggestion” (J, 127). At this point Brecht briskly closes off the line of inquiry he opened up—“I do not set much store by all these speculations”—and considers the problem of empathy and suggestion as simply a practical manner. “It is more important to find exercises…which produce the desired effects. They are relatively easy to check” (J, 127). How does one “check” the success of a “desired effect”? If the effect is produced through suggestion, then one will observe a sequence of precise reflex actions. If the effect is produced on a non-suggestive basis, by any technique available, the audience will be driven to “causal scrutiny” of the actions (J, 127). Brecht’s basic aesthetic aim was to thematize this difference—between causality and reflection on causes, between affect and cognitive awareness—in his works and to make the difference itself a matter of scrutiny.


1. Brecht, Journals, 1934-1955, trans. Hugh Rorrison, ed John Willett (New York: Routledge, 1993), 272; hereafter cited in the text as J.
2. Ongoing exchanges with Charles Palermo, Nicholas Brown and (especially) Jennifer Ashton on the problems raised here, and how best to put them, made this piece possible.
3. Walter Benjamin, “Notes from Svendborg, Summer 1934,” trans. Rodney Livingstone, Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1927-1934 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 789.
4. Quoted in Detlev Claussen, Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 160.
5. Chopin’s march also appears in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.
6. Brecht, editorial notes to Man Equals Man in Collected Plays: Two, ed. John Willett and Ralph Mannheim (London: Metheun, 1994), 294. Also see the different phrasing, used here, in Brecht, Baal, A Man’s A Man, and The Elephant Calf, ed. and trans. Eric Bentley (New York: Grove, 1964), 181.
7. The Complete Prose of Woody Allen (New York: Wings Books, 1991), 441.
8. The range of accounts of Brecht’s engagement with behaviorism and related matters include: Hansjürgen Rosenbauer, Brecht und der Behaviorismus (Bad Homburg: Gehlen), 1970; John J. White, “A Note on Brecht and Behaviorism,” Forum for Modern Language Studies 7 (1971): 249-58; Jan Knopf, Bertolt Brecht. Ein kritischer Forschungsbericht. Fragwudiges in der Brecht-Forschung (Frankfurt am Main: Athenaum, 1974), 85-86; Lutz Danneberg and Hans-Harald Müller, “Wissenschaftliche Philosophie und literarischer Realismus. Der Einfluß des Logischen Empirismus auf Brechts Realismuskonzeption in der Kontroverse mit Georg Lukacs,” in Realismuskonzeption der Exilliteratur zwischen 1935 und 1940/41, ed. by Edita Koch and Frithjof Trapp (Maintal: Koch, 1987), 50-63; Lutz Danneberg and Hans-Harald Miller, “Brecht and Logical Posivitism,” Essays on Brecht: The Brecht Yearbook 1:5 (1990): 151-63; and Steve Giles, Bertolt Brecht and Critical Theory: Marxism, Modernity, and the Threepenny Lawsuit (Bern and New York: Peter Lang, 1997).
9. Brecht, “The Threepenny Lawsuit,” in Bertolt Brecht on Film and Radio, ed. and trans. Marc Silberman (London: Metheun, 2003), 172; my emphasis.
10. Ibid., 148.
11. Ibid., 172.
12. Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, trans. John Willett (London: Metheun, 1965), 18. Hereafter cited in the text as M.
13. Brecht, “Notes on ‘Pointed Heads and Round Heads,’” Collected Plays: Four, ed. Tom Kuhn and John Willett (London: Metheun, 2001), 309.
14. I consider the theoretical and practical role of hypnotic influence played in a range of modernist practices in Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). For a systematic treatment of hypnotic influence in psychoanalytic practice see Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, The Freudian Subject, trans. Catherine Porter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988).
15. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 242.
16. Brecht, notes to “The Mother,” in Collected Plays: Three, ed. John Willett (London: Metheun, 1997), 356, 352.
17. Ibid., 352.
18. Brecht, notes to “He Said Yes/He Said No,” in Collected Plays: Three, 342.
19. I touch on these issues in “Literally Conceptual,” review of Lisa Siraganian, Modernism’s Other Work, Radical Philosophy 177 (Jan./Feb. 2013): 51-54.
20. Ibid., 247.
21. Ibid., 32.
22. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 150; translation slightly modified.
23. Issues of intentionality in art are obviously complicated and I have vastly telescoped a range of detailed arguments here. On the problem of authorial intention in the work of Paul Valéry, and in Adorno’s interpretations of his work, see Todd Cronan, “From Art to Object: The Case of Paul Valéry,” in Against Affective Formalism, 221-51. On the problem of intentionality and disagreement see Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).
24. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, trans. and ed. John Willett (London: Metheun, 1968), 150. Hereafter cited in the text as BT.
25. Brigid Doherty, “Test and Gestus in Brecht and Benjamin,” MLN 115:3 (Apr., 2000): 445.
26. Miriam Bratu Hansen, “Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street,” Critical Inquiry 25:2 (Winter 1999): 317.
27. Ibid., 318.
28. Brecht, quoted in Erdmut Wizisla, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, trans. Christine Shuttleworth (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 48.
29. Among the most technologically-centered of the recent accounts of Brecht is Devin Fore’s Realism After Modernism: The Rehumanization of Art and Literature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).
30. Earlier, around 1924 in Berlin, Brecht was inspired by Kipling’s example to transform the setting of Man Equals Man from Ireland to a British-Indian military-colonial milieu.
31. Brecht further affirms that “the appeal has to be made to reader as a thinking and feeling person,” what he calls the “responsive spectator” (J, 130, 131).
32. “New Dramatic Writing,” in Brecht on Art and Politics, ed. Tom Kuhn and Steve Giles (London: Metheun, 2003), 72-73. Hereafter cited in the text as AP.
33. Brecht, “Mother Courage and Her Children,” in Collected Plays: Five (London: Metheun, 1995), 147.