Poetry and the Price of Milk
1. Brecht Now
Devoting this nonsite issue to Brecht inevitably raises the question of why we should be reading Brecht now.1 But we might just as well ask, as Dana Ward does in his most recent book of poems, The Crisis of Infinite Worlds, why haven’t we been reading him all along:
Bertolt Brecht was a great writer with a special feeling for the question of solidarity, & it seems people don’t talk much about him anymore is there some idea that his work is too didactic or plain in its political motivations to satisfy certain contemporary sensibilities conditioned to prize only those aesthetic objects that reflect an education in certain critically (& now canonically) privileged strategies of experimental modernism & postmodernism I guess I mean is the avant-garde too myopic to really love Brecht? I’m not sure about any of this of course but I have an image of him in my mind that I love where he’s on a little fishing boat with Benjamin have I conjured this picture for my private pleasure or is there a photograph like this in circulation? My favorite poem of Brecht’s is called “Concerning Poor B.B.” & the insouciance in it is manly, very social & delicious in perhaps the way we remember Snoop Dogg as a teen. (52-53)
Ward’s answer to why we haven’t been reading Brecht is itself posed as a question: “is there some idea that his work is too didactic or plain in its political motivations to satisfy certain contemporary sensibilities…?” It’s not surprising that Ward calls our attention right away to something that has been of consistent interest to those who do read Brecht’s work, namely “its political motivations.” What is immediately surprising about this question, however, is that having foregrounded Brecht’s politics, Ward’s answer to why the work goes unread nevertheless doesn’t come down to the politics but to something else: “certain contemporary sensibilities.” What exactly is meant, then, by “contemporary sensibilities”?
Insofar as these “sensibilities” explain whether or not we’re inclined to read Brecht, the determining factor in the equation, apparently, is whether something does or does not “satisfy” them. Ward’s choice of the word “satisfy” is suggestive to begin with, but all the more striking is that what fails to provide the requisite satisfaction is once again not Brecht’s political motivations but something else: it’s the style (“didactic and plain”) in which they present themselves that fails to “satisfy.” From the standpoint of whether a particular style can “satisfy” our “contemporary sensibilities,” we don’t have much further to go before Brecht’s unpopularity is a matter of taste and its solution a matter of marketing. Enter the “manly, very social & delicious” Brecht, stripped of the “didactic and plain” attire of his “political motivations” and re-clothed in the style of a teenaged Snoop Dogg.
The title of the poem in which Brecht appears is “Things the Baby Liked, A-Z,” and the poem itself is organized in tercets, with three lines for each letter of the alphabet. It’s an alphabet song of sorts, in which “B” stands (albeit temporarily) for “Brecht.” We have already begun to see the force of Brecht’s makeover, which transforms his work from being defined by its “political motivations” to being defined by its ability to “satisfy” and be “delicious.” Is Ward simply saying that for Brecht to appeal to “contemporary sensibilities,” we need to be able to see his work as an aesthetic rather than a political project? But that doesn’t seem quite right, because it doesn’t account for why this Brecht belongs among the “Things the Baby Liked.” Another way to put this is to say that Brecht’s “didactic and plain” style, the form his work takes, has reasons for being what it is, reasons that include his political motivations. But no reasons at all, aesthetic or political, are required for the baby to like Brecht (or for Ward to love the image of Brecht in his mind). Brecht only needs to satisfy baby’s taste, or as Ward puts it, his “contemporary sensibilities.”
Which brings us to the question of what is meant here by “contemporary” (especially if the best way to appeal to our “sensibilities” is to approximate the feel of a late Eighties Snoop Dogg). The ease with which Ward can move the social into the same register as individual preference, replace political motivations (fairness and justice, say, or the critique or defense of capitalism) with consumerist ones (pleasure and satisfaction), and make Brecht himself look like Snoop Dogg, is completely consistent with the degree to which these “sensibilities” are contemporized: they’re an index of what we want right now, but also of who we are right now, neither of which will be what they were 5 minutes ago. That is, the old Snoop envisioned as a teen is appealing to our sensibilities because he is more new (more contemporary) than the newest Snoop (rebranding efforts notwithstanding).2 The rapid shifts Ward makes from modernism’s committed Brecht, to postmodernism’s distasteful Brecht, to post postmodernism’s Doggy-style Brecht positions both Ward and the “Things the Baby Likes” within the recently charted territory of so-called “metamodernism.”3
“Constant repositioning” is a phrase Timotheus Vermeulen has used to characterize the movement (Vermeulen “Interview”). And in one of the first academic publications on the subject, Vermeulen and his collaborator, Robin van den Akker, depict how the world appears from a metamodern perspective in terms that could just as easily describe a “crisis of infinite worlds”:
…[M]etamodernism oscillates between the modern and the postmodern. It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity. Indeed, by oscillating to and fro or back and forth, the metamodern negotiates between the modern and the postmodern. One should be careful not to think of this oscillation as a balance however; rather, it is a pendulum swinging between 2, 3, 5, 10, innumerable poles. (Vermeulen and van den Akker)
Once the poles among which we find ourselves “oscillating to and fro or back and forth” are not just 2 or 5, but “innumerable,” we inevitably start swinging from one aesthetic or political commitment to another, too: “For us,” Vermeulen says in a later interview, “the prefix meta indicates that a person can believe in one thing one day and believe in its opposite the next. Or maybe even at the same time. …It repositions itself with and between neoliberalism and Keynesianism, the ‘right’ and the ‘left,’ idealism and ‘pragmatism,’ the discursive and the material, web 2.0 and arts and crafts, without ever seeming reducible to any one of them” (Vermeulen “Interview”). Metamodernism, with its innumerable poles, succeeds in turning beliefs (political and aesthetic alike) into something more like attitudes or inclinations. Ward’s Brecht moves easily into this frame, among the “things the baby likes” one moment, among the dislikes in another, out of liking range altogether in another. The modernist Brecht, meanwhile, surely would have choked on his cigar at the idea of such “constant repositioning” (liking communism one moment and National Socialism the next?). The metamodernist, “social and delicious,” Brecht might look like he can swing between “innumerable poles.” The modernist Brecht clung to the pole he had.
Hannah Arendt understood this well and condemned Brecht’s art for it. That is, she saw Brecht’s aesthetic commitments as consistent with his commitment to communism, and his unwavering commitment to communism, including Stalin’s version of it, even in the wake of the purges, as, in effect, collaboration with totalitarianism in its most brutal form. For Arendt, this consistency (or better yet, complete refusal of any “repositioning”) manifested itself in an aesthetics that, from the beginning to the end of Brecht’s career, could not tolerate the “personal” and thereby made him an enemy of the individual, and particularly, of freedom of expression.
The extent to which Arendt values the “personal” is particularly vivid in her decision to make the centerpiece of her essay Brecht’s poem “Der Herr der Fische,” which she claims is “among his very best works” and “the only strictly personal poem he ever wrote” (Arendt loc. 3270). The eponymous “Herr” in Brecht’s poem “Der Herr der Fische,” however, in his visits with the men and women of his fishing village, is, if anything, strikingly impersonal:
And though he never contrived
To remember their names
Where their work was concerned
He knew all sorts of things.4(Brecht Poems 95)
Whether the poem is as “strictly personal” as Arendt thinks is clearly contestable. But she understood Brecht’s larger aesthetic aims sufficiently well to imagine that whatever is “strictly personal” about this poem, it must be something Brecht actively sought to suppress: “he never published it; he did not want it to be known.” Moreover, what Arendt views in Brecht’s artistic practice as a repression of the personal becomes in her account, a personal trait of Brecht himself, one that she understands as simultaneously a “great virtue” and a “curse.” (loc. 3269-70). The reason “Der Herr der Fische” is, for Arendt, “strictly personal,” despite its impersonal central figure, and the reason she believes that for Brecht it’s sufficiently scandalous that it needs to be kept from public view, is that it is, at bottom, a “self-portrait”: “Brecht’s portrait of the poet as a young man—for this, of course, is what it really is—presenting the poet in all his remoteness, his mixture of pride and humility, ‘a stranger and a friend to everybody,’ hence both rejected and welcome, good only for ‘Hin- und Widerreden’ (‘talk and countertalk’), useless for everyday life, silent about himself, as though there were nothing to talk about” (loc. 3299-3301). The scandal for Brecht, on this account, is that the poem exposes him candidly talking about himself. The scandal for Arendt, however—the scandal of Brecht’s art as a whole—is that it’s only in this poem that Brecht is “strictly personal”; in the rest of his work, he consistently chooses to be “silent about himself.”
Arendt was writing about Brecht at the height of the Cold War, at a moment when communist states like the Soviet Union were under constant attack for, among other things, the enforcement of their citizens’ silence about themselves. And when Arendt imagines what she views as Brecht’s isolation as an artist during the 1920s, when “Der Herr der Fische” was written (“he cut a rather solitary figure among his contemporaries”), it’s his refusal of the personal, set against a contemporary cohort who “resented the fact that the world did not offer them shelter and the security to develop as individuals” that keeps him apart (loc. 3256). But in the half century since 1968 (the year Men in Dark Times was published), and particularly since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the systematic economic exploitation by capitalism that Brecht believed a communist state could overturn has instead overturned most communist states, and, if anything, intensified.5 At the same time, “talking about [one]self” and the freedom to “develop as individuals” have never been more valued. If there’s a “crisis of infinite worlds” for poets like Ward, writing at a moment when the commitment to human capital in the form of self-actualization seems to be at a world-historical peak, the “crisis” looks to them more like a cause for celebration than for revolution. As one reviewer of Ward’s collection puts it, “Dana Ward’s ‘The Crisis of Infinite Worlds’ is based on the idea that talking about someone and what they do makes them more familiar to you. Ward takes us to an alternate universe where to quote from movies, graffiti, and the experience of walking through commercial stores is a way to relate back to the origin of our feelings, and is a trajectory towards the infinitely possible worlds our expressions can create” (Gregorian).6
My contribution to this nonsite Brecht feature is certainly intended at least in part to suggest a very literal understanding of Brecht’s current relevance. If we think for two seconds about the moment in The Messingkauf Dialogues where the Actor recalls a role in which he “pointed out that all the wheels would stop turning if the strong arm of the proletariat so willed it,” the reasons might seem too obvious for comment: “It was at a moment,” the Actor goes on, “when several million workers were going about without work. The wheels had stopped turning whether their strong arm willed it or not” (Brecht Messingkauf 21). At a moment when closer to 200 million worldwide are “going about without work,” it’s hard to imagine a clearer reason to be reading Brecht. But there is another important reason, one that should be (but hasn’t been) so obvious. For if it’s true, as Ward suggests, that many of our contemporaries and immediate predecessors—and particularly poets—haven’t been interested in Brecht, it isn’t quite right to say that it must be because Brecht’s work is “too didactic or too plain in its political motivations” (or, we could say, too committed). Rather, I would argue, if Brecht has held little interest, with respect to aesthetics and politics alike, it’s because aesthetics and politics alike have been “strictly personal,” transformed into a matter of “talking about [one]self”—of expressing one’s attitudes and “special feelings”—instead of what they were for Brecht: impersonal, a matter of accuracy and normative judgment.
Brecht believed art, in the form of what he called “epic theater,” could “give an accurate representation of great financial operations on the stage” (cited in Jameson 91). Verfremdungseffekt or V-effekt, Brecht’s term for the technique by which he believed the epic theater could achieve this, functions above all to prevent the theatergoer from identifying with the characters acting on the stage. Brecht’s strategy of blocking empathy is designed, as he put it, “to alienate the social gest underlying every incident,” where “[b]y social gest is meant the mimetic and gestural expression of the social relationships prevailing between people of a given period” (Willett 139).7 Such “alienation” is intended to prevent the theatergoer from becoming absorbed in the emotional crescendo and release of traditional theater, but the larger goal of short-circuiting the audience’s empathy is to create a critical distance from existing social life and its relations of production—including those specific to theatrical and literary production. Imitated with a difference, social roles, customs, and habits are foregrounded, commented on, rendered forced or unnatural, performed self-consciously. “What is involved,” writes Brecht, “is…taking the human social incidents to be portrayed and labeling them as something striking, something that calls for explanation, is not to be taken for granted, not just natural. The object of this ‘effect’ is to allow the spectator to criticize constructively from a social point of view” (Willett 125). What a Brechtian method aims to produce, in other words, is a specific effect on its audience: a critical apprehension of the disparities and contradictions of capitalism—implied in the events being depicted as well as in the depiction itself—and in turn, the will to effect revolutionary change.
Brecht’s artistic commitments to the alienation effect are political and sociological, to be sure, but the difference (from what Brecht imagines as “traditional” theater) that this technique rehearses is ultimately a logical one. That is, in estranging or alienating us from social life as we live it, the epic theater is designed to produce the recognition that we ought to be living otherwise. But Brecht’s epic theater also rehearses the categorical difference between these two things, between the world of our everyday habits and practices, in which social life runs its course, and the world of art, in which we evaluate, criticize, and see the reasons for a need to change. One is the world in which we have our emotions, responses, and social exchanges (our “special feelings” and “sensibilities”); in the other, we discern their formal outlines and apprehend their workings in the service of just or unjust states of affairs. By marking the separation of these worlds from one another, Brecht insists on a logical distinction that runs like a vein of ore through modernism—it’s the difference, say, between personality and impersonality in T.S. Eliot, between impressionism and imagism for Ezra Pound, or in the case of Gertrude Stein, between human nature and the human mind. This abiding logic, in connection with the fact that the modernists who adhered to it and forked to the right politically were responding to the same “grand financial operations” that inspired Brecht’s sustained commitment to the communist left, is one subject of this essay.
The other, which I’ve already begun to elaborate, harkens back to Ward, and more specifically to the imagined scene in which Brecht “is on a little fishing boat” with Walter Benjamin. From a strictly historical perspective, the fantasy of Brecht and Benjamin being, as it were, “in the same boat” isn’t all that implausible, either literally or figuratively. After all, in 1933, both had separately fled Nazi Germany to avoid persecution. Moreover, in 1934, Benjamin spent some time with Brecht, who was then living in the Danish city of Svendborg, on Funen island in the Baltic Sea. A fishing boat would not have been impossible to come by. We might bear in mind, too, that in April of that year, two months before arriving in Svendborg, Benjamin had prepared a lecture entitled “The Author as Producer” to deliver before an audience of the Institut des Études du Fascisme in Paris. In it, Brecht (now famously) serves to illustrate the contention that literature can only have the right politics if it has the right literary technique (a more extreme version of which claim would be something like no good politics without good art). Benjamin goes further and turns the Brechtian alienation effect—the inducement “to criticize constructively from a social point of view”—into a kind of revolution in itself. Brecht’s epic theater, Benjamin argues, presents “an improved apparatus for [our use],” one that “leads consumers to production” and “in short…is capable of making co-workers out of readers or spectators” (Benjamin 93). It’s as if, for Benjamin, the alienation effect were a kind of cure for the alienation of labor, handing the means of production from the capitalist to the worker. In giving us not only the author as producer, however, but the reader/spectator as producer as well, Benjamin has also bequeathed to contemporary poetry the basis for the aesthetics we find in Ward, one that can just as easily stand on its head and celebrate “The Author as Consumer.” What Ward’s “infinite worlds” give us is an infinite array of attitudes and affective poles from which to swing, an A-Z of ever new (and old) things to “like.” We can call it “metamodernism” (but in another 5 minutes, we might wish to call it something else). It’s fitting therefore, that when the metamodernist views Brecht and Benjamin in the same boat, they appear to him as either of two possibilities: a “picture conjured for personal pleasure” or a “photograph,” a mechanically reproduced object that might or might not be “in circulation,” for which there might or might not be a market.
2. The Judgment of the Man on the Street
Across an expansive body of work on the technique of alienation, Brecht recurs frequently to what he sees as two particularly effective models for a method of acting suitable to the revolutionary aims of the epic theater: the method whose origins he locates in the techniques of professional actors in the Chinese theatre (which I’ll return to later) and that which he identifies with more or less impromptu reenactments of events in ordinary life, such that, for example, bystanders recalling an accident become analogs for the actors and the audience of the theater. As we shall see, these turn out to be versions of the same thing insofar as they both are built upon an understanding of citation. I want to begin with the example of the accident that Brecht describes in a 1938 fragment as “The Street Scene.” “It is comparatively easy to set up a basic model for epic theatre,” Brecht writes,
For practical experiments, I usually picked…an incident such as can be seen at any street corner: an eyewitness demonstrating to a collection of people how a traffic accident took place. The bystanders may not have observed what happened, or they may simply not agree with him, may ‘see things a different way’; the point is that the demonstrator acts the behavior of the driver or the victim or both in such a way that the bystanders are able to form an opinion about the accident. (Willett 121)
It’s easy to map most of the “street scene” elements onto their counterparts in the theater. The “demonstrator” clearly inhabits the role of the actor; the bystanders are the audience for his “demonstration”; and the demonstration itself is equivalent to the actions taking place on the stage. It should also be clear by now that the epic theater equivalent of “form[ing] an opinion about the accident” is, as Brecht puts it in the passage I cited earlier, “to constructively criticize from a social point of view.” But insofar as “forming an opinion,” is “the point,” of the street scene, we can learn something by negation from the three other considerations Brecht lists that are not.
The three things Brecht determines to be beside the point are: 1) “The bystanders may not have observed what happened.” 2) “They may not…agree with” the demonstrator. And 3) They “may ‘see things a different way.’“ We notice right away that the third almost serves as a paraphrase of the second; however, Brecht is actually marking an important difference here, and we can begin to grasp it by registering that the phrase “see things in a different way” allows for two completely incompatible meanings. One is already available in the previous statement that “The bystanders may not agree with the demonstrator.” Their disagreement requires that there be a truth of the matter about which some will be right and the others wrong. Either the driver hit the brakes, or the driver hit the gas. The pedestrian had stepped into the crosswalk, or else she hadn’t. In everyday parlance, we often say two people “see differently” and mean by it simply that they disagree. Brecht’s quotation marks around “see things in a different way,” moreover, serve to remind us that this is a conventional way of expressing the idea, a manner of speaking. At the same time however, we can use the same phrase to mean something like the opposite: we can say we “see things in a different way” and mean that we each have a different experience of things. In this case, to paraphrase the difference as disagreement would be to render nonsense. It would be as if one bystander said to the other, “No, you didn’t see it that way.”
What, then, does it mean to “form an opinion about the accident,” if disagreeing about what happened, seeing what happened differently, and (to go back to the first of the three), failing to see what happened at all, are equally beside the point? So far I’ve just been following the translation but it’s worth noting here that the word that Brecht uses to capture what is “the point,” “Urteil,” has strong juridical connotations of the kind that “opinion” carries only in its more restricted uses (my German to English dictionary, for example, lists for “Urteil,” the following connotations: judgment, sentence, decree, conviction, decision, finding, and verdict). If we are Brecht’s bystanders, then, the “point” of the street scene seems to be that opinions of this kind can be rendered independently of our having seen the incident, of determining its causes, or of our distinctive perspectives about it. On what basis then, is our opinion formed?
The answer emerges especially clearly if we put “The Street Scene” version of the accident scenario together with an earlier version of it, in a passage from a poem written in 1930 called “On Everyday Theater”:
Take that man on the corner: he is showing how
An accident took place. This very moment
He is delivering the driver to the verdict of the crowd. The way he
Sat behind the steering wheel, and now
He imitates the man who was run over, apparently
An old man. Of both he gives
Only so much as to make the accident intelligible, and yet
Enough to make you see them. But he shows neither
As if the accident had been unavoidable. The accident
Becomes in this way intelligible, yet not
intelligible, for both of them
Could have moved quite otherwise; now he is showing what
They might have done so that no accident
Would have occurred.8 (Brecht Poems 177)
Now, from a few paragraphs later in the “Street Scene” prose fragment, here is a two-sentence version of this section of the poem, telescoped down to just a few of its lines, and delivered in the voice of the “man on the corner”: “The driver was guilty, because it all happened the way I showed you. He wouldn’t be guilty if it had happened the way I’m going to show you now” (Willett 127). In the poem, judgment consists explicitly in reaching a verdict: “now he is delivering the driver to the verdict of the crowd.” We needn’t doubt that it’s the judgment of the crowd in the street scene that is at issue, and by analogy, the judgment of the epic theater audience. The first clause from the prose version, meanwhile, enacts the pronouncement of a verdict (“the driver was guilty”), which in turn is presented as the result of the demonstration in the second clause, “because it all happened the way I showed you.” Moreover, while the sentence tells us the driver is guilty because of what happened—the accident itself and what the driver did—at the same time, it shows us that the verdict is pronounced “because” of the reenactment and what the performer did—“the way I showed you.” In other words, we have two simultaneous renderings, one in which the actions of the driver determine his guilt and another in which the imitation of those actions compels a verdict. They inhabit the same sentence but they are not the same proposition.
The poem’s version achieves this same differentiation by other means. It separates what literally happened from its reenactment by means of a subordinating conjunction, a line break, and a rapid shifting of tense. In “he is showing how / an accident took place,” what actually “took place” is grammatically subordinate to the man’s “showing how.” But the empirical events and their representation are also severed: spatially, by the line break; grammatically, insofar as the subordinated clause reads as a stand-alone sentence—“An Accident took place” (this is true of the German as well); and temporally, insofar as the accident takes place in the past tense and its reenactment in the present (it “took place” while “he is showing how/…this very moment”). “This very moment,” of course, is intended to modify the line that follows (“he is delivering the driver to the verdict of the crowd”) in which the “man on the corner” performs his demonstration. But by positioning “this very moment” in the same line with “an accident took place” instead of with the line containing the sentence it modifies, Brecht achieves the further effect of reminding us that the sentence, “An accident took place,” albeit in the past tense, is itself a representation occurring not just in the grammatical present, but “this very moment,” as in the paradigmatic moment of reading, where the sentence is present before its reader. In the poem “this very moment” is also, as we’ve already seen, the moment in which the delivery of the performed reenactment coincides with the delivery of the verdict: “he is delivering the driver to the verdict of the crowd.” Thus the poem gives us two separate worlds: one consisting of what “took place,” the empirical world of accidents, causes and effects, on the one hand; and on the other, a representational world, the world of the reenactment, but also of judgment, for the poem insists, both grammatically and propositionally, that that the latter is where verdicts reside.
We now see that “forming an opinion about the accident,” the part of the street scene that models the alienation effect and is the point of epic theater more generally, is a matter of rendering judgment, of assessing a wrong. The second sentence in the prose “Street Scene,” “He wouldn’t be guilty if it had happened the way I’m going to show you now”—and its counterpart in the poem—“Now he is showing what/They might have done so that no accident would have occurred”—make clear that reaching a verdict entails our judgment not just of what is wrong, but of what is right. In the prose version, the model of the epic theatre compels our recognition of the conditions of a better world, one in which the accident would not take place. The poem is even more emphatic; the demonstrator depicts a world in which “no accident would have occurred.”
The minute “forming an opinion about the accident” becomes a judgment of what is right, not just for this world or that, but in effect, for all possible worlds, the spectator is in the business of making truth-claims, and therefore in the business of the normative and absolute. The “opinion” that the model of epic theater seeks for us to render is one that obtains, in other words, regardless of whether we identify with the driver or the pedestrian, feel pity or rage. And by the same token it’s a judgment that obtains regardless of the driver’s or the pedestrian’s point of view, or for that matter, the demonstrator/actor’s point of view. The judgment remains the same, regardless of “the way we see things.”
3. Finance Modernism
I want to turn for a moment to two other poems by Brecht that illustrate, by showing us the same thing from different perspectives—literally by citing themselves, repeating the same words—that judgment is not a matter of perspective. We’ll begin with one of Brecht’s best known poems, “A Bed for the Night”:
I hear that in New York
At the corner of 26th Street and Broadway
A man stands every evening during the winter months
And gets beds for the homeless there
By appealing to passers-by
It won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation
But a few men have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway.
Don’t put down the book on reading this, man.
A few people have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway
But it won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation.9 (Brecht Poems 181)
The poem begins with a situation that is itself understood as repeated (it takes place “every evening”), signaling that the need to shelter the homeless, taken up by the man who stands every evening at 26th and Broadway, is an ongoing state of affairs. The next three lines, which will become the last three lines of the poem, make a pronouncement on the man’s activity: “It won’t change the world / It won’t improve relations among men / It will not shorten the age of exploitation.” The next three lines, turning on the oppositional conjunction “but,” introduce themselves almost as a response to the previous lines, and they seem to offer a qualification of their judgment, as if the speaker were saying, “what I just said may be true, but at least a few men have a bed for the night.” The reason for thinking the judgment might be qualified—in other words, for treating it as relative rather than absolute—is clearly based on what appears good, but from a limited perspective, that of the “few men” who succeed in receiving “a bed for the night.” When this line is repeated in the last stanza, however, it no longer functions as a countervailing claim about the judgment that giving a few homeless a bed for the night changes nothing. In its second incarnation, the line serves instead simply as a description of what’s happening in the world at a given moment. At the end of the poem, the lines of judgment that stood to be qualified in the previous stanza now return with the full force, the force of final judgment, and as a direct response to the claim that called upon us to view these matters from the point of view of those served by the charitable actions of man in the first stanza. By the time we reach the end of the poem, even though we have seen these lines quite literally from different perspectives as we move our eyes down the page, the judgment that they pronounce (the judgment against a capitalist order that produces men in need of a bed for the night) has not changed.
One word among the six repeated lines does, however, undergo a change from the first iteration to the second, and the force of the change is much easier to grasp in the German. The word for those few who “have a bed for the night” is “Männer” in the first instance, then becomes “Menschen” in the second. “Männer,” the plural of “Mann,” in German is used to refer to an individual person gendered male, while “Menschen” refers to all humankind. In the context of the unfolding of the poem, then, it’s as if recognizing the homeless as members of the class of mankind, rather than as individual men in need, is a precondition for the type of judgment that occurs in the final lines of the poem. At the same time, however, insofar as the lines of that judgment occur first in the series of iterations, it’s as if judgment itself is the precondition for the shift from seeing the homeless as individual men to seeing them as representative of mankind. If we go back to the beginning of the poem, it’s worth noting that the ones who get a bed for the night do so through the man (“Mann,” not “Mensch”) appealing to the good graces of the passers-by. The homeless are “Männer,” in other words, when their conditions are a matter of empathy; once they are “Menschen,” the judgment can reveal the homeless and the charity that serves them alike as effects of systematic exploitation.
Another poem exemplifying this device of repetition/self-citation consists entirely of its repeated lines. And in this case, the poem announces its subject matter clearly in terms of point-of-view:
The peasant’s concern is with his field
He looks after his cattle, pays taxes
Produces children, to save on labourers, and
Depends on the price of milk.
The townspeople speak of love for the soil
Of healthy peasant stock and
Call peasants the backbone of the nation.
The townspeople speak of love for the soil
Of healthy peasant stock
And call peasants the backbone of the nation.
The peasant’s concern is with his field
He looks after his cattle, pays taxes
Produces children, to save on labourers, and
Depends on the price of milk.10 (Brecht Poems 212)
We can see at a glance that the first of the seven-line stanzas gives us two perspectives: the first four lines are devoted to that of the “peasant,” and the last three to that of the “townspeople.” We start with the simple, unadorned descriptions of the practicalities that occupy the peasant’s mind, all of them fully legible in economic terms. The lines devoted to the townspeople, by contrast, serve also as a perspective on the peasant, only now he appears as a clear type, and painted in highly idealized terms.
The second stanza starts by repeating, word for word, the idealized view of the townspeople, then repeats word for word the view of the peasant. This time around, however, the peasant’s point of view reads as a corrective to the townspeople’s idyllic image of him. The concerns of the peasant reemerge, now quite literally from beneath the idealized picture of the townspeople, as harsh realities that have been painted over, as it were, by the picture of him that hangs over them. But before we are tempted to say that this poem invites us to violate the directives of Brecht’s epic theater and identify with the peasant’s familiar financial worries, we should notice that the peasant’s concerns make their own omissions. That is, the worry that from his perspective appears simply as the “price of milk,” and, especially when the prices are high, contributes to his need to “save on laborers,” is an index of an economic totality, a system of relations of production that includes the townspeople, and for that matter, their perspective on the peasant.
In Germany between the end of World War I and when this poem appeared in 1934, the price of milk could certainly testify to the kinds of consequences its fluctuation could have for peasants and townspeople alike. Obviously during the period of stunning hyperinflation of 1922 and 1923, to have said that “prices fluctuate” would have been the understatement of the century. A bottle of milk that cost the equivalent of $1.20 in 1922 would have risen to a price of 2 million dollars in September of 1923, and by November it would have cost a cool 3 billion. By 1931, however, the monetary pendulum had swung the other way; Germany was in a period of deflation, accompanied by widespread unemployment and general reductions in wages and social spending. By 1934, Brecht was in exile, and Hitler had risen to power on a message of love for the soil and healthy peasant stock who are the backbone of the nation.
The point here isn’t that “The Peasant’s Concern” is really a poem about the Nazi takeover of Germany or even a poem about the price of milk. For Brecht, as we have already seen, and as the technique of word-for-word quotation that he deploys serves to make plain, the price of milk and the changing political regimes in which it fluctuates are alike effects of capitalism. Momentous changes in the price of goods (or in the value of the money to buy them) can (and do) occur without altering the market system in which those goods and money come into being in the first place. What both Brecht’s self-quotation poems do is to distinguish between the variable, phenomenological effects of markets—the price of milk goes up or down, this or that homeless man gets a bed for the night—and the market logic that entails both homelessness and price fluctuations.
In the period between World War I and 1933, the German case was the most extreme, to be sure, but the U.S. as well as the other major powers of Europe had also seen wide swings between inflation and deflation, whether as a result of unintended shocks in supply or demand, or as a result of deliberate national strategies for inducing them. What’s striking in the work of the three other modernists I mentioned at the beginning of this paper—Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and T.S. Eliot—is that their work not only invokes the monetary policies that affected what Stein called “the meaning of money,” but that the meaning of money becomes for each of them something against which to measure the meaning of poetry.11 Thus, for example, in The Waste Land, not exactly forthcoming in its views on political economy, the pervasive tropes of fluidity read a little differently when one considers Eliot’s employment in the Foreign Department of Lloyd’s during the time in which he wrote the poem. “I am busy tabulating the balance sheets of foreign banks to see how they are prospering,” wrote Eliot to his sister Charlotte in one of many letters that also complained bitterly about high prices for goods that were not in scarce supply (Eliot Letters 1 162). Now consider these well known lines from the brief “Death By Water” section of The Waste Land:
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead, Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell And the profit and loss. A current under sea Picked his bones in whispers. (ll. 312-316)
Juxtaposed with “profit and loss,” “a current under sea” is hard not to read in this context as a somewhat distorted homophonic pun on “currency.” And if we consider the lines in the previous section that introduce us to “Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna Merchant / Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants / C.i.f. London: documents at sight” (ll. 209-211), what is otherwise among the more baffling of the endnotes Eliot provides with the poem, becomes another occasion for a pun on currency: “The currants were quoted at a price ‘carriage and insurance free to London’; and the Bill of Lading, etc. were to be handed to the buyer upon payment of the sight draft” (fn 210).
Pound’s writings of the early to mid-30s, in their explicit embrace of Mussolini and social credit, are nothing if not a response to the kinds of volatile monetary conditions that had much earlier made Eliot, as he told his sister, so keen to know “the assets and liabilities of every bank abroad” (Eliot Letters 1 162) and that Brecht had understood as cause for revolution. In 1933, the same year that Brecht was fleeing Nazi Germany, Ezra Pound was busy publishing his own denunciations of capitalism in response to ongoing instability in the value of currency, a problem he believed fascism could solve. Pound, however, unlike Brecht, criticized capitalism not so much for its impoverishment of the worker as for its impoverishment of the artist and the arts. The problem he argues, in “Murder by Capital,” is “maladministration of credit” (for which Pound, like Hitler, chose to blame Jews), and the solution, he suggests, is to replace the banks with a system of social credit administrated by the state. The idea behind social credit was to redistribute state wealth among the citizens in the form of vouchers to be used in direct exchange for goods. Pound imagined that the “slips of paper,” would “correspond to extant goods,” and the value of the currency, if we wish to call it that, would remain constant because each slip of paper would be earmarked for a specific good. The absence of such a system, Pound contended, was “at the root of bad taste” (Pound Selected Prose 229). Pound’s fantasy of a one-to-one correspondence between the commodity and the currency used to purchase it (a fantasy also, of the end of price fluctuation from the perspective of the consumer) had its analogue, moreover, in Pound’s highest standard for poetic achievement, in which “The meaning of the poem can not ‘wobble.’“ (Pound Gaudier-Brzeska 257). Insofar as the poetic meaning that both Pound and Eliot sought was something that belonged not to the wobbling world of fluctuating interests rates and prices—that is, to contingencies of the material conditions of production and consumption—but to an unwobbling world that is of the same order as the absolute world of judgment that Brecht severs from the world of individual experiences and perspectives as well as the fluctuating price of milk.
4. Revolution and Anti-Theatricality
It should be clear by now why another central component of Brecht’s alienation method involves overcoming both the spectator’s and the actor’s inclinations to identify with the characters and prevent becoming consumed by their characters’ actions and feelings. In a 1936 essay, “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting,” Brecht proposes Chinese acting as an ideal model for the epic theater because its techniques, he believes, are the most effective in defeating any tendency to empathize. This defeat is accomplished in large part, Brecht claims, by the actor removing from his performance all traces of illusion that the events are real and his actions genuine. He “never acts,” Brecht writes, “as if there were a fourth wall besides the three surrounding him. He expresses his awareness of being watched…. The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place. …A further means is that the artist observes himself” (Willett 91-92). As Brecht points out, the fiction of the fourth wall and the actor who performs as if the audience did not exist are among “the European stage’s characteristic illusions.”
The greatest exponent of these “illusions” was the French aesthetic philosopher Denis Diderot. Brecht’s insistence, meanwhile, on the actor’s utter self-consciousness and the collapse of the fourth wall couldn’t appear more diametrically opposed to Diderot’s essentially anti-theatrical commitments. Diderot’s instructions to actors in his 1758 Discours sur la poésie dramatique are striking in their contradiction, virtually point for point, of the techniques that Brecht extols in Chinese acting. Here is Michael Fried’s translation, from Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot: “Think no more of the [spectator],” writes Diderot, “than if he did not exist. Imagine, at the edge of the stage, a high wall that separates you from the orchestra. Act as if the curtain never rose” (Fried Absorption 96). For Diderot, as Fried explains, these imperatives were transferable to works on canvas, so that what compelled the beholder of certain paintings by Chardin, Greuze, and Vien, whose figures were depicted in the acts of reading, drawing, or, most unselfconsciously of all, sleeping, was their achievement of what Fried calls “the supreme fiction that the beholder did not exist” (Fried Absorption 103). The condition for producing convincing absorption in both painting and the theater for Diderot—the illusion that the beholder did not exist—would eventually become, most pervasively in the literature we have come to associate with modernism, not so much a fiction or an illusion as the ontology of the autonomous work of art. For Brecht of course, there is no theatrical situation in which the beholder does not literally exist, but as we shall see, he proves to be no less committed than Diderot to the logic of autonomy if not to its ontology.12
Gertrude Stein, meanwhile, in a series of lectures delivered between 1934 and 1936, produced, as I have argued elsewhere, what is surely among the most consistent and explicit modernist defenses of this ontology of the work of art, and she does so in thoroughly Diderotian terms. A work of art is only a masterpiece, Stein argues in “What Are Master-Pieces and Why Are There so Few of them” insofar as it “is an end in itself.” What she means by this is that the masterpiece is not an end for anyone or anything else. What it is as a work of art is independent of what it is for any reader or beholder who encounters it. Stein elaborates this claim by differentiating the “entity”—the being as “an end in itself”—achieved by the masterpiece from the “identity” that structures situations that entail an audience. To illustrate this difference, she specifically invokes oratory and letter-writing:
One of the things that I discovered in lecturing was that gradually one ceased to hear what one said one heard what the audience hears one say, that is the reason that oratory is practically never a master-piece. …It is very interesting that letter writing has the same difficulty, the letter writes what the other person is to hear and so entity does not exist there are two present instead of one and so once again creation breaks down. I once wrote in writing The Making of Americans I write for myself and strangers but that was merely a literary formalism for if I did write for myself and strangers if I did I would not really be writing because already then identity would take the place of entity.13 (Stimpson 356-357)
When Stein declares that she wrote her novel The Making of Americans (which she certainly believed was a masterpiece) for an audience of “myself and strangers” only to qualify that claim by saying that her audience was “merely a literary formalism,” the qualification is a matter of kind rather than degree. For Stein when the audience is formal, what it isn’t is literal, which is to say, there is no audience at all.
If no audience at all is a requirement of the ontology of the masterpiece, it’s hardly surprising that in Stein’s aesthetic theory, plays pose a deep problem with respect to their claim to be art. What defines the theater for Stein (and what she thinks differentiates it from literature and painting), is the necessity of an audience, which means that the play, in her terms, cannot be an entity—it consists in the recognition of its audience and therefore is a matter of identity—and therefore cannot be a masterpiece. Indeed, Stein imagines the relationship between the play and its audience in terms of a temporal disjunction that she also links to identity, an unfolding in time that is quite the opposite of the “completed presence” of the masterpiece as entity: “The thing that is fundamental about plays is that the scene as depicted on the stage is more often than not, one might say is almost always in syncopated time in relation to the emotion of anybody in the audience” (Stimpson 244). As she puts it a few pages later, “The emotion of you on one side of the curtain and what is on the other side of the curtain are not going to be going on together. One will always be behind or in front of the other.” (Stimpson 245).
The logic that separates great painting and acting from theatricality in Diderot and masterpieces from everything else in Stein is a logic that also defines modernism against a postmodernism that above all seeks to solicit the reader or beholder. From this standpoint, Brecht looks less like a modernist and more like a postmodernist avant la lettre. As we have already begun to see, however, the very thing Brecht demands from his audience, namely their judgment, is necessarily atemporal and absolute, much as Stein envisions the entity achieved by the masterpiece. “The Business of Art,” Stein writes in “What Are Master-Pieces,” “is to live in the actual present, that is the complete actual present, and to completely express that complete actual present.” This “complete actual present” is offered precisely by way of contrast to the unfolding temporality of remembering and recognition that constitutes “identity” in Stein’s terminology.14 The operative word here is “complete.” In Brecht it is the same presentness of judgment, as we have seen it achieved in Brecht’s poems, and as it is inscribed in the “Urteil” that is the “point” of epic theatre. In short, there is no contradiction between the imperative of the theater to address the spectator in Brecht and its imperative to ignore the spectator in Diderot. In each case the art never consists in the response of this or that viewer; it is the work or the judgment that holds regardless of who is viewing.
Brecht sought to make the theater revolutionary by making it anti-theatrical. There can be no revolution, of course, without revolutionaries; hence Brecht’s interest in behaviorism and advertising, which, as Todd Cronan shows in “Art and Political Consequence,” Brecht imagined might be employed to manipulate theatergoers’ affective responses in controllable ways. But Brecht’s investment in these tactics doesn’t make the aesthetics of his theater any less anti-theatrical or its revolutionary politics, any less indifferent to the revolutionary (or not) feelings of its audience. Brecht could hope for a predictable response in the theatergoer—the desire for revolution—just as the advertising industry can hope to produce predictable responses in the consumer—the desire for this or that commodity. But Brecht understood that the reasons for revolution—systematic exploitation and the structures of capitalism that entail it—are the same regardless of how many (or how few) theatergoers can be made to see them or feel something about them. The reasons for buying a commodity, meanwhile, are potentially as many as the consumers available to buy them, and advertising’s job, which Brecht understood perfectly well, is to capitalize on the most likely hits or to invent new ones. Brecht also understood that the reasons of the consumer (her likes and dislikes) and the reasons of the revolutionary (her political beliefs) are categorically and incommensurably distinct. After all, there is no coherent account of political disagreement (or for that matter, aesthetic disagreement) without appeal to beliefs that are normative, subject to judgments of truth or falsehood, right or wrong, good or bad. The likes and dislikes of the consumer, meanwhile, however they may lend themselves to statistically based claims for what is or is not “normal,” are precisely non-normative—there is no account of them that can be coherently framed in terms of disagreement or coherently admit to judgment. The fundamental anti-theatricality of both Brecht’s aesthetics and his politics—their fundamental indifference to the responses of an audience is, in short, necessary to their claims to deliver judgment. Which is to say that Brecht proves to be a difficult fit for a metamodernist fantasy of oscillating among “infinite worlds” made up of “infinite selves” and their infinite inclinations. For metamodernism, in this respect, is nothing if not capitalism’s fantasy of the market, one in which what we “like” can also masquerade as a politics. Reading Brecht correctly might well serve as its antidote.
Ihre Namen sich zu merken Zeigte er sich nicht imstand Doch zu ihren Tagewerken Wußte er stets allerhand. (Brecht Werke 14 359)↑
Seht dort den Mann an der Straßenecke! Er zeigt, wie Der Unfall vor sich gang. Gerade Überliefert er den Fahrer dem Urteil der Menge. Wie der Hinter der Steuerung saß, und jetzt Ahmt er den Überfahrenen nach, anscheinend Einen alten Mann. Von beiden gibt er Nur so viel, daß der Unfall verständlich wird, und doch Genug, daß sie vor euren Augen erscheinen. Beide Zeigt er aber nicht so, daß sie einem Unfall nicht zu entgehen vermöchten. Der Unfall Wird so verständlich und doch unverständlich, denn beide Konnten sich auch ganz anders bewegen, jetzt zeigt er, wie nämlich Sie sich hätten bewegen können, damit der Unfall Nicht erfolgt ware. (Brecht, Werke 12 319-20)↑
Ich höre, daß in New York An der Ecke der 26. Straße und des Broadway Während der Wintermonate jeden Abend ein Mann steht Und den Obdachlosen, die sich ansammeln Durch Bitten an Vorübergehende ein Nachtlager verschafft. Die Welt wird dadurch nicht anders Die Beziehungen zwischen den Menschen bessern sich nicht Das Zeitalter der Ausbeutung wird dadurch nicht verkürzt Aber einige Männer haben ein Nachtlager Der Wind wird von ihnen eine Nacht lang abgehalten Der ihnen zugedachte Schnee fällt auf die Straße. Leg das Buch nicht nieder, der du das liesest, Mensch. Einige Menschen haben ein Nachtlager Der Wind wird von ihnen eine Nacht lang abgehalten Der ihnen zugedachte Schnee fallt auf die Straße Aber die Welt wird dadurch nicht anders Die Beziehungen zwischen den Menschen bessern sich dadurch nicht Das Zeitalter der Ausbeutung wird dadurch nicht verkürzt. (Brecht Werke 14 137-138)↑
Der Bauer kümmert sich um seinen Acker, Hält sein Vieh in Stand, zahit Steuern Macht Kinder, damit er die Knechte einspart, und Hängt vom Milchpreis ab. Die Städter redden von der Liebe Scholle, Vom gesunden Bauernstamm und Das der Bauer das Fundament der Nation ist. Die Städter redden von der Liebe Scholle, Vom gesunden Bauernstamm und Das der Bauer das Fundament der Nation ist. Der Bauer kümmert sich um seinen Acker, Hält sein Vieh in Stand, zahit Steuern Macht Kinder, damit er die Knechte einspart, und Hängt vom Milchpreis ab. (Brecht Werke 14 172-173)↑