Reviewed by Norman Roessler
Brecht, but to what end? Whereas traditional scholarship has been able to fit Brecht into the moulds of modernist, Marxian, poet, theaterscriptor, and aesthetic theorist quite easily, it has proven much harder to position Brecht within the framework of philosophy and political theory. Yet this is the task that Anthony Squiers sets for himself in this, his first scholarly monograph. It is a daunting task, fraught with difficulties, and as the author himself admits but a mere “starting point”, an “impetus”, and a discursive “model”. One must applaud Squiers for his ambitious and fearless plunge into such an abyss, for it is a necessary maneuver that can serve as a useful missing link to a variety of interdisciplinary lacunae in the field of scholarship.
Brecht is known largely for aesthetic work that is openly and heavily informed by political, philosophical and theoretical concerns. He is grudgingly accepted by theater companies and university theater departments alike, because he is one of the few artists that has the intellectual muscle to resist romantic-entertainment aesthetics, as well as compete with the disciplinary kingdoms of philosophy and political theory. At the same time, perhaps more than any other artist, Brecht produced an extensive amount of philosophical and theoretical writings in various genres, such as work journal, dialogue, poetry, essays – much of it unpublished in his lifetime – which only add to his resumé in the arenas of philosophy and political theory. For Squiers, this material seems to speak for itself, and leads him to question why the project of “Brecht as Philosopher” has not already occurred. The problem, according to Squiers, lies largely with the Brecht scholars (largely Germanists and literary/theater scholars) who have tended to the poet’s academic reputation since his death in 1956.
Using the awkward and somewhat unfortunate term of “formalism” (especially in light of the Realism Debates of the 1930s), Squiers believes that an excessive attention to formalistic and literary concerns has undermined the philosophical and political reach of Brecht’s works. Certainly among the first generation of Anglo-American scholarship, largely the work of Eric Bentley, Martin Esslin, and John Willett, this is the case. Bentley and Esslin were openly dismissive of Brecht’s Marxian noodlings, and wanted to refashion a more benign and literary Brecht that would appeal to the post-war American public. (And to be fair to both writers, this sanitizing procedure was practiced by many Germanists and cultural critics in the postwar era as a way of saving German literature and aesthetics from the World War I/II excesses of imperialism, fascism, and communism.) Willett is a more problematic case, largely because his anthology, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (1964), in contrast to the apolitical, literary emphases of Bentley and Esslin, introduced the American public to the theoretical work of Brecht. This volume is still influential today, and Squiers himself draws on it abundantly. Willett emphasizes the development of an aesthetic system in Brecht’s work, despite the fact that he never produced a magnum opus on aesthetic theory that can be assessed as a holistic artefact. At the same time, he does not advertise Brecht’s theoretical writings as either a philosophy or a politics (although if one follows the Godardian maxim “The point is not to make a political film but a film political” – it is easy enough to read it in such a way). Recent anthologies from Marc Silberman, Brecht on Film and Radio (2000), Tom Kuhn, Steve Giles, and Laura Bradley, Brecht on Art and Politics (2003), and Tom Kuhn, Steve Giles, and Marc Silberman, Brecht on Performance: Messingkauf and Modelbooks (2014) attempt to overcome this gap in the original Willett text, and suggest a type of critique and correction. For Squiers, however, this formalist tradition continues in the present day, and he directs particular ire toward a few recent works from Shookman and Calico.
Squiers’ attention to this critical tradition is a bit underdetermined, and largely leaves out German scholarship on Brecht, particularly the work of Reinhardt Steinweg on the Lehrstück, and Hans-Thiess Lehmann’s work on “Post-Dramatic Theater”. However, Squiers does point to the difficulty of mediating Brecht in philosophical and political categories. Not only does he have to stitch together a coherent philosophical and political narrative from Brecht’s mosaic of work, but he also has to overcome a critical tradition that, out of political or disciplinary disposition, actively advocates against such a move. However, Squiers does find support for his project from two areas. First, in the critical work of Brechtian scholars such as Darko Suvin, Antony Tatlow, Tom Kuhn, Steve Giles, and Astrid Oesmann (Marc Silberman should be included in this group as well), who have pursued a more cultural-studies approach to Brecht, and have been much more comfortable understanding Brecht as both a theater artist and a social, political philosopher. Second, in the Critical Theory tradition, encompassing authors such as Benjamin, Adorno, Lukacs, Arendt, Sartre, Barthes, Eagleton, and Jameson. Squiers is inspired most by Barthes, Sartre, and Jameson, but unfortunately neglects to address the critiques of Brecht by Adorno, Lukacs, and Arendt. These writers similarly “whitewash” Brecht out of social and political philosophy by treating only his aesthetic works, and dismissing his extra-literary interventions as vulgar and naive Marxism.
After this necessary but extensive ground-clearing, Squiers organizes his monograph into six primary chapters: the first three being primarily theoretical, and the second three critical interpretations of Brechtian texts. Chapter 2 covers Brecht’s Ethics of Praxis, and explores the basic Marxist tenets (alienation, contradiction, dialectical method) that underpin such a praxis. Chapter 3 explores consciousness through socio-temporal ordering. Chapter 4 is entitled “Eidetic Reduction and Contradiction”, and draws upon the work of Gramsci, Barthes, and Sartre. Chapter 5 analyzes the Good Person of Sezuan through the prisms of split identity and social ontology. Chapter 6 is a reading of the theaterwork Galileo in reference to a dialectics of enlightenment. Chapter 7 presents a reading of Brecht’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, aided by Mao Zedong’s “On Contradiction”. I found Chapters 3, 4, and 6 to be the strongest material in the text, whereas Chapters 2 and 7 made intriguing critical gestures, but were underdetermined.
Let us take Chapter 3 as a model analysis. In this section, Squiers ably draws upon the sociological work of Eviatar Zerubavel and Harold Garfinkel in regards to socio-temporal consciousness as a way to distinguish Brecht’s Epic Theater from traditional Aristotelian poetics. In the Poetics, Aristotle put forth an idea of organic narrative and dramatic plot (or that is the way it has traditionally been received) that tied human aesthetic re-presentation to a natural order of things. So media from Sophocles to Superman follows a linear, teleological, progressive arc through narrative, character, idea because this is how our body and mind exist in unison with the cosmological universe. The work of Zerubavel and Garfinkel points out that the temporal order is a human construction that is utterly historical, but that is always posited as being real and universal within human society. And when something becomes commonsensical and universal, it becomes also an unthinkable object. Brecht’s Epic Theater intervenes in this naturalized, socio-temporal ordering, and seeks to rupture it at the level of narrative, character, idea, space, actor, and audience, in order to break the hold of reification operative within the cultural context. Through alienation effects and dialectical poetics, the Aristotelian products of empathy and catharsis are problematized, and hence the theaterwork is made thinkable, and the re-presentation of the world through the work of art is shown to be not only thinkable, but also changeable.
Unfortunately, besides a nod to Mother Courage, Squiers does not resolve his excellent theorization with explication through Brechtian praxis of the aesthetic work, but sticks largely with the theoretical texts of Brecht. Since he deals intensely with reading Brecht’s plays in later chapters, this omission can be partly forgiven. However, I think it points to an important issue in the “Brecht as Philosopher” movement: namely, that Brecht needs to be “Socratized”, i.e. theory and praxis need to re-presented in the same critical gesture. Brecht will never stand as an “Either/Or” figure, that is exactly what has undermined his reception in philosophy and political theory; rather, the critic must try to show him as a “Both/And” figure. How that is done I do not know. Yet Squiers may offer a solution, as he resolves the chapter with a great Brechtian move. He includes a close reading of his chapter thesis through utterly banal and quotidian performative events: his daughter’s report card and a teaching moment within his university class. Both pieces of evidence are bound to drive scholars and professors wild, but that’s exactly the point. Professors, literary scholars, formalists, the Adornos-of-the-world, in short, those that Brecht referred to as “Tuis” in the sense of intellectuals as Fachidioten, who performatize commodity fetishism within the theater of education, must repress the arena of praxis in order to pontificate on theory. Squiers’ analysis and interpretation of this evidence is sharp, clever, cutting, and useful. Brecht would have been proud.
If Squiers wants to continue to move Brecht into the categories of philosophy and political theory, I think he should consider two additions to the analytic model represented by this chapter. First, there needs to be more of a connection to the disciplinary scaffolding that comprise both philosophy and political theory. The issue of spatio-temporal consciousness is a great one, and Squiers does trace it back from Zerubavel through Lukacs, Darwin, and Aristotle. The obvious missing link here is Marx. Taking Brecht back through Marx will serve to open up connections to the traditional discourses of philosophy and political theory. The sections on “Commodity Fetishism”, “The Working Day” and “The Division of Labor”, as well as the sections on labor and alienation in The German Ideology and the Economic Manuscripts of 1844, would serve this purpose quite well, and enable a reverse engineering process back through Hegel, Kant, Smith, Locke, Descartes, Plato and Socrates.
Second, the Lehrstücke, or Learning Plays, might serve as more useful and convenient evidence than working with the later plays and adaptations that he treats: Mother Courage, Galileo, The Good Person of Sezuan, and Coriolanus. The Learning Plays, despite intense scholarly and theatrical reclamation since the 1970s, are still controversial and still used against Brecht as evidence of his unworthiness to be treated as either a philosopher or political theorist. However, this repression and false consciousness points exactly to their worth. The Learning Plays are Socratic constructions, dynamic and dialectical, and in my opinion, could serve as better models for Squiers’ project.
In conclusion, Squiers’ work is an “incipient species”, to quote Darwin from Origin of Species, which is both fearless and reckless, but something that is much needed in order to shake the Brecht Industry from its slumbers.
10 April 2015