The Viewer's Dialectic, part 2
by Tomás Gutierrez Alea 
translated by Julia Lesage

from Jump Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp. 48-53
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1985, 2005

Brecht passed the same years very differently. The failure of the revolution in Germany, inflation, the sharpening of class struggle, poverty, unemployment, and the consequent rise of fascism to power — in 1933 Brecht embarked down the path of an exile (Vienna, Paris, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and finally the United States). His works were prohibited and burned by the Nazis. It wasn't until 1948, the same year that Eisenstein died, that Brecht returned to Germany. He settled in Berlin, where he dedicated himself mostly to staging his plays.

In general terms, Eisenstein clearly lived through a moment of exultation, of forces being born, of triumph and affirmation, of emotional identification. In contrast, Brecht lived through "dark times," decadence, defeat, barbarism, rejection and condemnation, times of rational separation which demanded an extraordinary lucidity and a solid critical stance. [14] Thus it happens that Eisenstein places primary emphasis on emotional commitment in his premise about how spectators change at the same time that Brecht rejects such a resource and puts the entire emphasis on reason, distance, and a critical stance — which he thought of as "active, executive, positive" (Writings on Theater). These men's disciples (above all, Brecht's, whose "fashion" has been less explosive but more lasting) have traversed one or the other path unilaterally — some with real fanaticism. The followers often don't see the breadth of the issue, nor do they perceive those points at which both paths coincide.

Thus some seem able to discern in Eisenstein a kind of theoretical development which led him from his first "montage of attractions"[15] (which is based on the montage of psychic stimuli, influenced by Pavlov's reflexology) to his theory of "intellectual montage." Eisenstein's followers propose using this latter to attain a "rational" cinema, that is, a cinema which reaches the spectators' intellect, which makes them understand intellectually, beyond emotional identification.

When Eisenstein was only 22 and still hadn't done anything important artistically, significantly he came to the conviction, as he tells us, that insofar as art offered a world of fiction as a relief for the dissatisfactory aspects of reality, then it was not just a deception but a real danger for the advance and development of society, Above all, it was true in the moment he was living through, when they needed everyone's forces kept tense, and participating in the revolutionary "leap." Eisenstein found an echo for his uneasiness among the sectors of LEF (Left Front for Art) who cherished an "active hate against art." Nevertheless, as the young artist grew and matured and as he mastered effective expressive resources, he decided that it was less suitable to polish off that art than to utilize it. As he put it:

"The dethroned queen [art] could be useful for our common cause. It does not deserve to wear the crown. But why don't we let it wash floors for a while? After all, influencing people's minds through art has a certain importance. If the young proletarian state must fulfill all the urgent tasks facing it, it will have to exert a lot of influence over people's hearts and minds."

Certainly, if at first Eisenstein dedicated all his energy toward directing viewers' sentiments in a specific direction (political education, propaganda), later he suggested in Film Form that the new cinema should also guide "all thought processes." We see here that — in spite of what Eisenstein sometimes and perhaps too greatly emphasized, the director's predominant role — he was drifting little by little toward other mechanisms which might elicit "contradictions in people's minds." Thus it's clear that he does not intend to address his work to passive, hypnotized spectators, but rather to spectators in whom he can provoke conflicts, spectators who can be moved and stimulated. He didn't propose these formal investigations as ends in themselves, but rather as the necessary steps to achieve the greatest effectiveness vis-à-vis the spectator. This relation is established (and Eisenstein was very aware of this) not only on the basis of aesthetic pleasure, but also as part of film's inevitable ideological repercussion. Thus, he comes to consider the possibilities within spectacle for provoking a "new vision" in spectators (that is, the same thing Brecht was pursuing with the distancing effect), but he does not go much beyond pointing it out. He does not advance our knowledge about those mechanisms which cinema might put into practice so as to achieve that effect.

In 1939 Eisenstein writes an essay about "Film Structure," which appears in Film Form. There he points out that

"one of the most difficult problems in constructing an art work — one which particularly concerns the most exciting part of our work — is the problem of representing a stance toward the thing represented."

Then he asks:

"With what methods and what means should the event which is expressed cinematically be manipulated? We need to demonstrate simultaneously two things: that this is the event and here's how the characters think about themselves and about what's going on; and also here's how the author relates to that event and how s/he wants the spectators to receive it, to feel about it, and to react to it."

Later Eisenstein develops interesting ideas about "composition," insofar as it can be understood as "a law about the construction of a representation." He takes as his point of departure human emotional behavior: "If you utilize as your source the structure of human emotion, you will unfailingly awaken emotion." Inevitably will surge forth that complex of feelings that were the origins of the composition.

What about when we're dealing with a representation where the author's stance is opposed to the apparent meaning of the represented event, that is, when the author's attitude is distanced and critical? Then the compositional scheme will respond structurally to the emotional state generated in the author, based on the author's relation to the represented act. Consequently, it will tend to provoke in the spectator — through an emotional mechanism — a critical judgment about it.[16]

This means that Eisenstein proposed pathos as the generator of change in spectators. That change also ought to operate effectively on the rational level and thus would aid critical judgment. Eisenstein said in Film Form that intellectual cinema "set as its task restoring the emotional plenitude to intellectual process." Thus, a certain movement ought to be accomplished in intellectual cinema in its spectacle-spectator relation. This can be posed schematically in these terms: from image to feeling and from feeling to idea (or to the thesis). This means a series of images provoke an affective (emotional) feeling which then awakens a whole series of ideas (reason).[17] Intellectual montage breaks with narrative montage. It is epic in the traditional sense. As Eisenstein writes in Film Form,

"Film also has a mission, to create precise intellectual concepts derived from the dynamic collision of opposed passions."

Eisenstein's final goal was to arrive at reason, at intellectual comprehension. And it's not so surprising then that he expressed an interest in filming Capital. The fact that he did not do so surely means that he had not yet found the appropriate artistic means to do it. For we know he couldn't fully develop his concept of intellectual montage. He himself put forth these ideas in their embryonic state, as the first steps toward that synthesis of art and science to which he always aspired. But the important thing is that he lived to the very end of his life dedicated to developing cinema's expressive possibilities in such a way that someday a director could create, via that medium, something equivalent to Capital.

What was Brecht's trajectory during those same years? Like Eisenstein, he was born in the lap of the bourgeoisie. His first work, Baal (1919), presents an asocial, clever and, hedonistic character — versus the traditional hero, the kind that's a cult object for the bourgeoisie. All of Brecht's youthful output is stamped by waves of lyricism, anarchy, irony, skepticism, and nihilism. Thus he thought he could hurl himself willfully against the values of the bourgeois world. He assaulted it with words, bothered it, made faces at it, and set out grotesque scarecrows. But finally this also served, in some way, as more or less exciting entertainment for the bourgeoisie, which liked to get swept away in its search for strong emotions. That hardly controlled poetic eruption began to define its artistic and revolutionary goals. Brecht proceeded to arm himself theoretically and scientifically, to become more self-disciplined At the same time he viscerally reaffirmed his rejection of "those spectators [who] left their reason behind in the coatroom along with their overcoat" (Writings on Theatre, I).

Brecht then begins to discuss epic theater, narrative theater that keeps a certain distance in relation to the events it presents. Brecht counterpoises it to dramatic theater, that which makes spectators "live" an event by exacerbating the event's conflicting elements. Brecht is not alone. Others have started down that path before him, following an urgent social demand. Piscator is among them, with his political theater. But Brecht has the merit of having gone the farthest, not just at the level of theoretical systematization, but also in artistic elaboration.

In 1930, writing his observations about the opera, The Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny, Brecht sets forth a scheme where he demonstrates the displacement of values as we move from dramatic theater to epic theater. It's interesting to observe that this scheme, this kind of summary of his ideas about theater, somehow establishes a line to follow in his future works. In this essay, Brecht himself tells us,

"This schema does not present absolute oppositions, but merely displacements in accent. Similarly, within the process of communication, you can favor that which suggests through feeling or else that which persuades through reason."

That is, he never absolutely excludes the route of sentiment. But he emphasizes the need to work with rational arguments, to awaken spectators' intellectual activity, to offer spectators knowledge, and to bring them — through sensations — to political consciousness.

The scientific rigor which Brecht imposed upon himself leads him to postulate that what's needed is a new spectator, one able to grasp the events set forth on the stage in all their complexity. This should happen in such a way so as to induce the audience to question their own behavior, and so as to insure that at no moment would they identify with the characters nor let themselves be carried away by the mere pleasure of experiencing the life of another. But to acquire that attitude, spectators ought to educate themselves for it, through studying, lived experience, etc. Although Brecht admits the role emotions play in an artwork, he rejects the mechanism of identification as the only way to produce them. He then devotes himself to the task of rationally expressing spectators' interests and sees there can be no interests more legitimate than ceaselessly improving social relations (in the sense of social progress, development, and revolution) in a world where its inhabitants are always having to act "in self-defense" (On Theatre, I). In 1929 Brecht stated decisively, "Only a new goal would make a new art possible and the new goal is pedagogy" (Writings on Theatre, I).

He then addresses himself primarily to a proletarian public, speaking to it directly and rationally, trying to teach it dialectics and raise its consciousness. That is the one line he scrupulously follows in his didactic plays, where he works with a mixture of rigor and asceticism. It notably reduces his effective range, because he is dealing with a public which goes to the theater looking for enjoyment The proletariat also prefers diversion — workers go to bed for sex or just because they are very tired. Brecht sees then the complexity of dialectics. After Mahagonny and, above all, in The Three Penny Opera (1928), he doesn't find the resonance again until Mother Courage (1938), with which he reaches a level of maturity, complexity and effectiveness that he will maintain in his final works, those which make him the most important playwright of our time.

Starting with Mother Courage, Brecht makes room in his works for other traditional theatrical elements, which now he can manipulate with a complete understanding of the medium. He bases his work on an explicit understanding that theater's most important and noble function is to "entertain," provide pleasure and diversion — and that that function is justifiable in and of itself. On that basis, Brecht develops, in all its complexity, his concept of pleasure as a concrete, historically determined phenomenon. Thus he proposes a type of pleasure determined by the circumstances of our era, which he calls the "scientific era." That leads him to traditional dramatic resources like intensifying the conflict or plot and even using identification, but these will no longer be permitted to carry people away. Rather, Brecht will make use of them for his own ends, goals that he sketched out in his youth and which now he can fully attain.

Thus he insists on the need to surpass the opposition, "reason vs. emotion" (Work Journal, I).

"We can attribute the separation between reason and sentiment to the functioning of conventional theater, which strives to abolish reason" (Writing on Theatre, I).

He affirms,

"In Aristotelian theater empathy is also mental; non-Aristotelian theater must also resort to an emotional critique"(Work Journal, I).

Brecht is opposed to the hero who, in an idealist sense, incarnates in his actions an atemporal truth. In contrast are people, in their historical and material sense, who assume, without hypocrisy, the concrete truth that "to live you have to need to eat, drink, live under a roof, get dressed, and a few more things (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology). Thus, Brecht establishes himself on a level of immediacy, which facilitates not just rational communication but also real emotional understanding on the part of the spectator.

We've already seen that Eisenstein also proposed a synthesis of science and art and repeatedly had to defend himself against those who wanted to attribute to him the intention of separating reason from feeling. If, on the one hand, Eisenstein goes from "image to feeling and from feeling to idea," Brecht goes one step more and lets us know that although feeling can stimulate reason, reason in turn purifies our feelings. Paradoxically Eisenstein, that most passionate man, directs his investigative labor towards the logic of emotions at the same time that Brecht, apparently a colder personality and in any case more rigorous, is won over by the emotion of logic.

It would be an error, therefore, to encapsulate Brecht within distanciation and Eisenstein within pathos without keeping in mind the very shadings within each tendency, shadings that draw them together and which let us establish a bridge between each. But we also err if, carried away by a desire for coherence and basing ourselves on the common principles underlying both positions, we try to suppress the contradiction that separates them. That contradiction does exist, and it is possible to discover its objective causes, as we've seen in both the social context of each artist as well as the medium which each uses for expression. And it's not just a question of differing emphases — one placing emphasis on reason and the other on feeling. It's also the fact that each one developed different mechanisms so as to arrive at "an emotional comprehension" of spectacle.

Above all, there are mutually exclusive points, private aspects of each theory that would be difficult to combine: Brecht radically rejected a state of ecstasy in the spectator and Eisenstein proposed ecstasy. The divergence between both can be logically surpassed only if we consider Eisenstein's pathos and Brecht's distanciation as two moments of the same dialectical process (rapture-rupture) within which each artist isolated and emphasized a different phase. In a broad sense both concepts form part of the same attitude toward film or theater and, indeed, toward life. But in a strict sense they are opposed to each other, contradictory. Neither, in isolation, can fully achieve its proposed goal, which can be accomplished only through a process into which both concepts enter into play. All the moments are necessary — sentiment, identification with characters, and ecstasy, as much as reason, a critical stance, and lucidity.

It's not a question of diluting one with the other, from eclectical positions. Rather, it's a question of explaining the artists' thinking and passions and, finally, their effects. Both men represent two poles in dialectical relation, opposed but interpenetrating. The most fertile aspects of their contribution can be concretized only if based on an effective stance vis-à-vis the artist's historical moment and the expressive medium used. In socialism as well as capitalism, in theater as well as in film, you can find an accomplished version of both positions, but only when they've been incorporated as a moment in the historical/artistic process in which they are inscribed. It is a dialectic of reason and passion that exists within the framework of the spectacle/spectator relation.

A healing dream, erotic ecstasy, play, being swept away, or the pathos provoked by an artwork can also be productive moments in people's relation to the world in which they're immersed. But it is always on condition that those states be transcended, because people are forced to return to reality. I'm referring to normal, mature people, who act in accord with their concrete, real, objective interests, and who in their free time go to the movies where they can enjoy a spectacle in the same way that they might go have a few drinks or make love. That state of "separation," of drunkenness, can be consoling and a way of recuperating one's energies, but even more so, it can be a way of generating energy. All normal mature people live in reality. When it begins to be grounded in illusion (whether we call it drunkenness, fiction, or absent-mindedness), we can say we are confronted with a pathological state. And those cases require special treatment.

We therefore have two moments in the spectacle/spectator relation: on the one hand, pathos, ecstasy, absent-mindedness; on the other, distancing, recognizing reality, rupture. The movement from one state to the other can happen various times as the spectacle unfolds. The movement which spectators experience as the spectacle passes from one dialectical pole to the other is analogous to what they experience moving from everyday reality into the cinema, and vice versa. This leaving everyday reality to submerge yourself into a fictional reality, an autonomous world in which you recognize yourself, after which you return enriched by the experience — this is also a movement of getting lost and then setting the rapture or absent-mindedness aside.

We've seen that Brecht principally is challenging the traditional spectacle/spectator relation by virtue of which spectators are entranced to the point of confusing illusion with reality. This is Brecht's great revolutionary contribution to theater and, by extension, to any spectacle that offers us an image of reality — that is, an illusion of reality. He systematized the aesthetic resources of distanciation, which let us opt for a spectacle that is not offered as a substitute for reality but rather as an elucidating instrument — a depth probe — which makes reality clearer and more profound through a fiction that is presented as fiction. Clearly when talking about film and fiction, we're talking about an illusion but not necessarily about deception or error, rather about play. We can — and must — treat it as an illusion, the quality of which we are aware and which we presuppose. In order that an illusion offer us not only aesthetic pleasure but also teaching and stimulus, it's necessary that it be fully accomplished, that it exhaust all its own resources, in such a way that "the paints yield to the painting." ("Our representations ought to yield the foreground to the reality which they represent, social life." Writings on Theater, III.)

A process is fulfilled when people momentarily take on the condition of the spectator so as to afterwards reintegrate themselves into daily reality. We can compare Brecht and Eisenstein's points of view here to help clarify the process that happens during the phase of the spectacle/spectator relation, that is, at the moment of the fiction. The new rules of the game under which that relation is being produced not only permit the spectators' spiritual enrichment and better understanding of reality on the basis of an aesthetic experience, but also facilitate a critical stance by the spectators themselves toward the reality which includes them. Spectators will stop being that vis-à-vis reality and will face it not as something given but as a process the development of which they are involved in.

(numbered consecutively following from Part One)

5. Brecht said, "The bourgeoisie passes beyond, in the theater, the threshold of another world which has no relation at all to daily life. It enjoys there a kind of venal emotion in the form of a drunkeness which eliminates thought and judgment." Quoted in V. Klotz, Bertolt Brecht, p. 138.

6. "And, above all, my body, like my soul, is guarded with arms crossed in the sterile attitude of a spectator, because life isn't spectacle, because a sea of pain isn't a proscenium, because a man who's screaming isn't a dancing bear."

7. Brecht in Writings on Theater states: "The distancing effect consists in transforming the thing which you wish to make explicit, the one you want to draw attention to. You want to get it to stop being an ordinary, well-known immediate object so as to turn it into something special, noteworthy, and unexpected. In a certain sense, what's been known too well ends up as not 'understood,' but your only goal is to make it more understandable."

8. The film BURN offers us an eloquent example of contrast between its explicit message — set out verbally through spoken language and through words which encompass concepts and ideas that are definitively revolutionary and specifically anti-colonial — and its implicit myth about Europe's "immutable" superiority — expressed not just through Marlon Brando's potent and dynamic image and charismatic personality and the dramatic situations where he shows himself to be always above the people's drama, but also through the film's very "treatment," what others would call its "structural dynamics" (Althusser). Perhaps that's using a stricter criterion but equally referring to the phenomenal, the immediate, the formal — which, in this case, may correspond to the filmmakers' unconsciously paternalistic attitude.

9. Slogans have their appropriate moments. Then they express an urgent necessity, and at that moment they have the greatest efficacy. "Slogans are excellent, flashy, and raise spirits, but they lack something fundamental," said Lenin in "On Revolutionary Phraseology." When they exceed their appropriate moment, slogans turn into pure rhetoric. Then they can only have an effect on the person whom Lenin himself called "a revolutionary sentimentalist" — i.e., someone for whom revolution is something like a religion. I don't have to stop to explain all this obviously implies in terms of being an obstacle to the full development of consciousness.

10. As Yuri I. Surovtsev stated in In the Labirynth of Revisionism: "For that (petit bourgeois) mindset, reality is doubly terrible. They are terrified by and indignant at the evil it contains, but they are shocked by as frequently indignant at revolutionary violence as the method of transforming it."

11. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, trans. C.J. Arthur (New York: International Publishers, 1970), pp. 58-59.

12. "Epic theater does not combat emotions, but rather it examines them and doesn't hesitate to provoke them" (Brecht, Writings on Theater).

"Dramatic art has no reason to completely set identification aside. But it should — and can without losing its artistic character — leave a path open for the spectator's critical stance" (Brecht, Writings on Theater).

"12/1/41. We must never forget that non-Aristotelian theater is just one form of theater. It serves specific social goals and does not have a significance which usurps all others, in terms of theater in general. In certain plays I myself may use Aristotelian theater alongside non-Aristotelian theater. If I were to put on stage today, for example, St. Joan of the Stockyards, it might suit me to produce a certain identification with Joan (from a contemporary point of view, I might say, allow a certain identification with her). This would be the case only when the character undergoes a process of self-recognition: and empathy will help spectators to see clearly the essential elements of the situation" (Brecht, Work Diary, I).

13. "My cinematographic tendencies began three years earlier with the filming of THE MEXICAN, 1920." (Eisenstein, Ediciones ICAIC.)

14. "To criticize the course of a river means, in this case, to improve it, correct it. Social criticism is revolution. That's the executive, finished criticism." (Brecht, Writings on Theater).

15. "The basic elements of theater are born from the spectators themselves and what we direct to the spectator in a specific sense. Attraction (as we analyze theater) is all of those aggressive moments in the spectator, that is, all the elements which awake in the spectator those feelings or that kind of psychology which influences his or her sensations, all elements which could be demonstrated and mathematically calculated to produce certain emotional shocks or collisions in an adequate order within that combination. It's the only medium through which you can make the final ideological conclusion perceptible." (Eisenstein, Film Sense, Edicion Lautaro)

Of course, this theory of "montage of attraction" or "artistic stimulants," as Eisenstein elsewhere called it, has a fundamental validity. But it is not everything that you can do. Even more, we might point out that the hypertrophy of that stance (or that method) leads to an authoritarianism, because directors have within their reach so many expressive resources which could emotionally condition spectators in a specific direction — and there's no reason to suppose it's always the best direction. Nevertheless, we must not discount this phenomenon as a possible phase in the process of artistic communication. It could have a revolutionary effectiveness if those aggressive or irritating moments which Eisenstein talked about served to stimulate spectators to discover answers for themselves and, as a result, to act on reality. That is, if the tactic does not impose a paralyzing response.

16. "The author establishes the decisive factors of his/her compositional structure on the basis of his relation to phenomena. This dictates the structure and characteristics, through which the portrayal itself is unfolded. Losing none of its reality, the portrayal emerges from this immeasurably enriched in both intellectual and emotional qualities." (Eisenstein, Film Form)

17. "To accuse me of tearing the emotional from the intellectual is without any foundation. Quite the contrary I wrote: 'Dualism in the sphere of 'feelings' and 'rationality' must be completely overcome by this new form of art. It is necessary to give back the intellectual process its fire and passion, to dunk the abstract thinking process into the boiling material of reality.'" (Marie Seaton, Eisenstein)