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Brecht and mimesis #4

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The significance of mimesis in Bertolt Brecht’s critique of ‘Aristotelian theatre’.

The final part of the argument, following:

Brecht and mimesis #1

Brecht and mimesis #2

Brecht and mimesis #3


Turning back to the ‘Aristotelian’ production, I now want to consider the change that may have come over the spectator between the dimming of the houselights and, say, the middle of the last act: a change which will go some way towards determining her response to the end of the play. Her mode of apprehension would not be explained merely by her seeing it as (part of) a play, since this would be the case had she walked in just at that moment. How she sees the end of the play (what she sees it as) will be determined by her experience and knowledge of the earlier part, and her involvement in it. For example she would be seeing the portrayed events as the conclusions to preceding sequences of events. To the extent to which she has identified with any of the characters she will see and feel their suffering or relief or happiness as her own. The more involved she gets in the play as the plot unravels the more reluctant she will be to give up those aspect perceptions which the dramatic effect depends on. Enjoyment and interest will continually reinforce those aspect perceptions.

For Brecht of course it is the identification between audience and portrayed character that is the crucial factor. Even in a ‘totally’ naturalistic production we do not see the events and characters portrayed exactly as we would if they were real. A play, like any work of art, is an ordered object of experience. It aims to focus attention on itself as a discrete particular. It has a ‘frame’ round itself. The ‘frame’ of a stage play is not unconnected with the stage floor, the proscenium arch, the duration and number of acts, the cast list and so on. Even if the play is unknown to us there are things we will know about it. We will know it is predetermined; that it has, if not a middle, then certainly a beginning and an end. Had we taken the trouble we could have got hold of a script or at least a synopsis. It is unlikely that we would be totally ignorant of what the play was about.

A further obvious but important feature of the ‘Aristotelian’ play is the privileged position of the audience. The action is taking place on account of the spectator as spectator, but the spectator’s individuality is ignored as irrelevant. Nothing is addressed to the individual, but everything is addressed to the composite audience. This is deliberately different from ‘real life’. The anonymity of the audience is further emphasised by the darkness of the auditorium. One is subjected not exactly to sensory deprivation but certainly to extreme sensory constraint.

We said that aspect perception is subject to persuasion, compulsion, suggestion, chance etc. The forces operating in a vivid stage performance, even if only of persuasion and suggestion, are powerful indeed. But the seeing-as is not limited to seeing the performance as a representation or seeing an actor as Richard III. Something perhaps more profound is also taking place. The ordering of the spectator’s experience is deliberately designed to remove her awareness of her individuality. It cannot do this without her cooperation, nor can it succeed absolutely. But it can make it difficult for her to dwell on her own private concerns.

She is in a dark room mostly full of strangers, and effectively prevented from moving by the pressure of inconvenience. But she is presented with an alternative concern, one which is both vivid and known by her to have been programmed in advance to be interesting and/or entertaining and/or engaging. She is a privileged observer, and it is ‘hers’ anyway, in the sense that she as spectator is its raison d’ être.

But she is a human being, not an observing machine. She makes the events on stage her concern. The emotions she sees expressed become her concern. An emotion expressed on stage is rarely a real emotion. If it was – or if she thought it was – she could not watch it as a spectator. She would have to become an individual, herself, again: she would be embarrassed, sympathetic, horrified etc. So seeing-as has a subjective correlate, which could be rendered by exploiting the ambiguity of ‘seeing as’ but which for the sake of clarity I shall call ‘watching as’ or ‘looking-at as’.



At the ‘duck-rabbit’ end of the aspect perception phenomenon [see: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical investigations, translated by GEM Ascombe, Blackwell, Oxford (1978), p 194ff] this subjective correlate might be a relatively straightforward thing. An observer would have to look at the picture as one who knows what a rabbit, a duck, a picture, and an ambiguous picture all are; and as one prepared to appreciate the ambiguity.

In the context of the stage play however it gets a bit more significant. The spectator is watching the play as a member of an audience, and I have begun to indicate what that involves. But there could be more to it than this. The ‘sensory constraint’ elements on the ‘watching as’ side can of course be considered separately from the conventional (etc) signs and indications which effect, by suggestion or persuasion, a move to any particular aspect perception. In the phenomenon of identification, however, ‘seeing as’ and ‘watching as’ get linked together. The spectator sees the stage events as her concern because she watches them as one prepared in some way to ‘set aside’ her individuality. Getting into any particular state of ‘seeing as and watching as’ is, to an extent at least, under voluntary control. Getting out of that state is perhaps even more so. It is also a matter of degree: to the extent that I ‘set aside’ my individuality I can see the stage events as my own concern.

But most importantly of all the connection between the subjective side and the objective side seems to be somehow necessary. It does not appear to be possible to do the one without the other. Part of what it means to see and feel a stage character’s relief, say, as one’s own, is that one is experiencing as one who has ‘alienated one’s individuality’. It could be the same process looked at from two different viewpoints.

Concept of self

Seeing a drawing as a duck involves seeing the drawing under the concept ‘duck’. If one didn’t know what a duck was one couldn’t see a drawing as a duck. But there is no obvious parallel in the case of seeing an emotion as one’s own. Does one see (expressed) relief under the concept of oneself, or of ‘belonging to oneself’? Knowing what one is, as a person who has emotions and gets into situations, is not the same as knowing what a duck is. Not knowing what one is is not like not knowing what a duck is. Seeing portrayed events and expressed emotions under the kind of concept of self which is relevant here is not merely a matter of seeing them as things which have to be someone’s (but not necessarily one’s own). The relevant kind of concept of self is rather the one we use when we say that eg adult human beings have concepts of themselves whereas animals and babies do not, and that children somehow and at some time learn or develop or acquire the concept.

It might be thought that we could make some headway on the back of the concept of property. Seeing an object as one’s own is a bit like seeing an emotion or a predicament as one’s own. But it is only the ‘external’ aspect of the notion of property which is in any way transparent. We behave towards our property in certain ways; we hold and express certain beliefs about it; we behave in specific ways to others who do (and in different ways to others who do not) respect our property rights; and so on. Otherwise the notion of ‘property’ in its ‘internal’ aspect seems inextricably bound up with the concept of self, so does not seem to be of any immediate help. Hegelian arguments obviously prevent wholesale dismissal of this approach, but unfortunately this is not the place to pursue them further – other than mentioning an interesting similarity which may be more than an analogy. This is that to see something as one’s property one needs a concept of oneself and a concept of property and also (what may or may not be a consequence of the first two) a concept of oneself as one who could possess.

Here we do seem to have a parallel with identification. For theoretically it seems possible to have a concept of oneself without having a concept of oneself as a possible proprietor. To put it another way, it is theoretically possible not to see oneself as a proprietor, but in order to be able to see an object as one’s property one must be able to see oneself as a proprietor, and hence ‘look at’ the object as a proprietor. This is not a perfect parallel to ‘watching as’ or ‘looking at as’ in a theatrical context however, since possessing is not something one attends to like watching a stage play. It is not an experiential mode: one can possess something one isn’t thinking about.

But there is a kind of identification which though not identical with the one under discussion is not irrelevant to our case. It could be characterised as eg ‘considering what it would be like to be in situation S’. This is not a mode of experience but a process or body of thought, and as such is not fixed to any particular spatio-temporal reference. One might hear an account of someone’s good or bad luck from a third party, and ‘think oneself in his place’. This might entail anything from expressions of sympathy or envy to asking questions, imagining situations, sending a get-well card, or bursting out laughing. Identification of this sort may well (and evidently does) happen in the auditorium. But it is not the kind we are examining, nor is it productive of ‘Aristotelian’ empathy. What is interesting is that one cannot identify in this sense without having both a concept of oneself and a ‘subjunctive’ concept of oneself as one who could be doing things or could have done things one is not in fact doing or did not do. It is not at all easy to answer the question whether it is possible in principle to have a concept of oneself but not also this ‘subjunctive’ concept of oneself.

The difference between the above ‘detached’ type of identification and the ‘Aristotelian’ type we are trying to describe is similar to the difference between seeing that the drawing is of, or resembles, a rabbit, and seeing it as a rabbit. One can see that the duck-rabbit looks like a duck at the same time as seeing that it looks like a rabbit. One can see it as a duck while seeing it looks like a rabbit, and vice versa. What one cannot do is see it as a duck and see it as a rabbit at the same time. [Wittgenstein, op. cit., IIxi, p195ff]

By analogy one can see a stage situation as one’s own while knowing it isn’t, but one cannot see it as one’s own at the same time as seeing it as an artifice or a sham. This appears to contradict one of our earliest principles. We said the phenomenon of pictorial representation relied on seeing a thing as a picture and as the thing represented. Similarly, with a dramatic representation, we said it was necessary that the stage event should be seen as a play. Thus it was necessary that there existed people who knew a play when they saw one. But to see something as a play is not to see it merely as an artifice, but as an artifice in the light of the intention behind it, ie that it should be seen not as a mere artifice but as, eg, one’s own concern.

The position is formally analogous to that of a toy. In order for a toy hammer to function as a toy hammer, it must be seen as a hammer and not merely as a toy (an artificial hammer). So there is no contradiction, only the inherent ambiguity of ‘what it is to see something as a play’ which lies at the heart of dramatic art.

And this ambiguity is matched by an ambiguity within the identification process itself. We have spoken of an objective aspect and a subjective aspect to ‘seeing as’. In the context of identification we have described the objective aspect simply as ‘seeing the emotions and predicament as one’s own’. The subjective aspect is rather ‘looking at the predicament as if one were the character’. While we can separate in thought ‘seeing X’s predicament as one’s own’ from ‘looking at the predicament as if one were X’, in the context of identification one cannot do the one without the other.

The situation is formally similar to the impossibility of seeing the duck-rabbit as a duck without at the same time not seeing it as a rabbit. It may not however seem so immediately obvious, and it is important to consider why this might be so. A lot depends on the strength of what I have called ‘predicament’ or ‘emotions and predicament’. Hamlet’s predicament, for example, is not something that an observer can take in at a glance. To know Hamlet’s predicament requires a detailed knowledge of his psychology and history, since his predicament is determined at least in part by the kind of person he is. To an extent therefore ‘seeing X’s predicament as one’s own’ will involve ‘seeing oneself as X’. And obviously a spectator would be far better at doing this in the middle of the last act, having seen and heard everything leading up to this point, than if she had just walked in a minute ago. To the extent that she does ‘see herself as X’ then if she is watching an event on stage she will look at it as if she is X. So to the extent to which the event or events are identifiable as ‘X’s predicament, she will be looking at the predicament as if she was the character X.

Identification and representation

It is now time to reintroduce the distinction between representation type (iii) and representation type (iv). As before I will repeat here these two formulations from the earlier section Brecht and mimesis #2:

(iii) X dramatically (or theatrically) represents (a) Y if and only if X is a dramatic representation (eg a film or a play or part of one) and is intentionally so designed that a normal spectator in normal conditions would be disposed to perceive X as a dramatic representation and as (a) Y on account of an irreducible analogy between experiences of perceiving X and experiences of perceiving Y(s).

(iv) X dramatically (or theatrically) represents (a) Y if and only if X is a dramatic representation (eg a film or a play or part of one) and is intentionally so designed that a normal spectator in normal conditions would be disposed to perceive X as (a) Y on account of his recognition of the intention behind X that it should be seen as a (a) Y as if there were an irreducible analogy between experiences of perceiving X and experiences of perceiving Y(s).

Richard III

Richard III

It should be clear that the kind of identification we are talking about only relates to type (iv), which is in fact the major ‘Aristotelian’ type of representation. To mime walking is to represent (iii) walking. It is not to represent anything else which may or may not be similar or identical to walking. To act ‘Richard III’ in Shakespeare’s play however is (by and large) type (iv), even though Richard III actually existed – since the question can always be asked how close Shakespeare’s Richard III is to the historic Richard III. Shakespeare’s Richard III is a fictional character. Representation types (iii) and (iv) may overlap of course. A person on stage wearing a three-cornered hat and a patch over one eye may represent (iii) Nelson. To the extent that a character is portrayed however the representation will be type (iv).

We are now at last in a position to relate representation type (iv) to identification. Type (iv) representation demonstrates but leaves empty the category of ‘thing represented’, to be filled by the spectator’s imagination. The phenomenological content of the experience is such as to persuade and/or suggest to the spectator that her imagination should fill that category with a synthesis of herself and the actor’s performance. This is only possible if the performance is known to be and is therefore primarily seen as a performance (in the context of a play known to be, and seen as, a play), since it is this that the demonstration of the empty category depends on.

In the ideal Brechtian theatre however there is no ‘room’ for this empty category. Performances are either deliberately type (iii) representations or deliberately ‘auto-destructive’ type (iv) representations. An example of the former could be a representation of ‘economic reality’, which could be accurate or inaccurate. But if inaccurate, it is not an accurate type (iv) representation of a fictional something else which could be compared with ‘economic reality’.

Brecht’s celebrated Verfremdungseffekt (or ‘alienation effect’) relies on a battery of signs, indications and other devices designed to suggest to or persuade the spectator to see the performance only as a performance. In this sense then, a successful Brechtian performance is not a representation at all.

What Brecht sees as his gain is the preservation of the critical faculty which is suppressed by identification. The point is simply that, to the extent that a spectator identifies with character X, then she will not be watching the events as herself but as X, and therefore it is only if X has a critical faculty that the spectator will vicariously exercise it. Hence Brecht’s reference to the role of Raisonneur in realism and the Chorus in Attic tragedy [op. cit., pp 25-26]. And the whole point of preserving the critical faculty is that Brecht wants the theatre to perform a function, which at bottom is one of imparting knowledge, or at least providing a context for learning:

The main reason why the actor has to be clearly detached from his character is this: if the audience is to be shown how to handle the character, or if people who resemble it or are in similar situations are to be shown the secret of their problems, then he must adopt a standpoint which is not only outside the character’s radius but also at a more advanced stage of evolution.

[ibid., p76].

We are therefore face to face with Plato’s classic ‘quarrel between philosophy and poetry’. [Plato, Republic, translated by Desmond Lee, Penguin (1955), 607b]

© Chris Lawrence 2008


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