BRECHT: War Primer

   Epic thaetre,  Verfremdungseffekt  &  LEHRESTÜCK

March  2011


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Epilogue: The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility

by Walter Benjamin, in Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938 (on the conflation of Art, Technology and Death).

     “All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: War.  Marinetti says in his manifesto on the Ethiopian colonial war: ‘For twenty-seven years we Futurists have rebelled against the branding of war as anti-aesthetic. …Accordingly we state: …War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks.  War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metallization of the human body.  War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns.  War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony.  War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others.  …Poets and artists of Futurism! ... remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art… may be illuminated by them!

     “‘Fiat ars-peret mundus,’ says Fascisim, and as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology.  This is evidently the consummation of  ‘l’art pour l‘art.’  Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself.  Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.  This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.  Communism responds by politicizing art.”



     War Primer, the name I’ve given to this Cultural Farming media ethnography project, was originally entitled War Games: Manufacturing the Military Industrial Media Entertainment News Network, in respect for James Der Derian’s significant work of similar name (Virtuous War 2001).  However, when I googled “Der Derian” I found his own “virtuous-ness” had since materialized into something much more...celebrity: festival awards, distributors, publicists, mailing lists, trailers, press kits, director statements, global screenings, posters, logotypes, Facebook followings.  In short, Der Derian’s recent work has seemingly morphed into ‘virtuous celebrity’ (Human Terrain).  But then, I suppose, everyone must build their own methodological comfort-level, right?

      So instead of my original intent, I now choose to refocus this video project onto several of Bertolt Brecht’s guiding theatrical terminologies: Epic Theatre, Thaeter, Verfremdungseffekt, and Lehrstück.  And while this War Primer project continues to pay homage to Virtuous War, it also now reminds how combinations of theory and craft can be purposefully refunctioned for servicing other pressing needs.  Indeed, “war” is always at hand for every human of every generation.


      Bertolt Brecht, perhaps the most influential figure in twentieth century theatre, was a close personal friend to an equally influential German thinker: Walter Benjamin.  In northern Europe, during the 1930’s, the two men spent long pensive periods together, reading, writing, walking, playing chess, making love to the same women. 

      Benjamin wrote of Brecht as “plagiarist, troublemaker, saboteur”.  Yet, Brecht helped edit Benjamin’s most famous text The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, although Benjamin continued to revise this text numerous times before his death.   Theirs was kind of ‘mistress’s relationship’, that is to say, temporary cycles filled with secret genuine attraction, generous exploitation, and fearful pride.

     Benjamin’s persona was reserved and cerebral, while Brecht’s was excitable and performative.  Both men deeply experimented with Surrealist notions of montage-effect through idiosyncratic combinations of craft and theory.  Benjamin spent his last years in quotidian quotation-collage, “rag-picking” his unfinished Arcades Project. 

      Brecht meanwhile spent great energies outside typical theatrical dramaturgy exploring varieties of invention within a widening group of visual artists, for example, stage producer and mentor Edwin Piscator, photomontage surrealist John Heartfield, and filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Charlie Chaplin.  Photography, projected imagery, songs and “gestures of interruption” were commonplace in every Brecht production. 

      Brecht also reportedly participated in the writing or pre-planning for upwards to 50 films, although he is most noted for the 1932 film Kuhle Wampe (PART 1, PART 2), having co-written the script and directed its final scene. 

      All told, Brecht’s constructions were attempts to appropriate ‘mendacious straightforward realism’ in popular media for purposes of shock and interruption.  Mechanical aids, writes Brecht, were to be employed “not to help out the spectator but to block him; they prevent his complete empathy, interrupt his being automatically carried away.” 

      And while Brecht was leery of the camera’s Cyclopean gaze, it was clear that montage-effect could achieve ‘critical distance’.  Here, Brecht’s “Chock” effect intended to be more cerebral than visceral -- where fragmentation, the incorporation of documentary media, parody, nudity, musical interlude, among others, conflate to break illusion, deny emotional catharsis, and to instead educate the audience (V-effekt).  Passive reception was to be replaced with intellectual co-production.

      Throughout the theoretical experimental years of the 1940’s, Brecht returned again and again to a longtime, virtually unknown and unfinished picture-book project he named War Primer .  It was a scrapbook of photo-verse collage.  Brecht, particularly during his exile in the United States during World War II, spent time cutting and pasting magazine war imagery from popular news sources like Life magazine.  He mounted these in a plain workbook, writing simple 4-line rhymes to accompany each image. 

      This collection of 85 visual epigrams were ostensibly completed in 1947, yet first published in 1955 less than a year before Brecht’s death, and finally published in English in 1998:




      Brecht’s War Primer is a compendium, a personal design, a portable “poor monument”, not cut heroicly from stone, but a practical aid in “critical remembering” to future generations (this too is Cultural Farming’s project).  Brecht’s aim is not only to teach us to recognize and decipher, but to refunction the “hieroglyphs” that constitute all bourgeois mechanical reproduction.  This thesis too is at the very heart of my Cultural Farming project. 

      Brecht uses the illustrated press as raw data for the ongoing training of an epic dramatist -- in exile -- who is deprived of a regular theatre audience.  Thus, War Primer must be seen as a continuation of Brecht’s theatre-by-other-means.  Likewise, Cultural Farming’s video-continuation of War Primer attempts to accomplish exactly the same -- to critically refunction today’s televisual crush with its sudden too-close (obscene) synchronization of emotions.  In doing so, my War Primer touches upon four primary Brechtian terms:

Epic Theatre -  Broadly conceived, “Epic” is used to describe a form of theatre outside ordinary Stanislavskian theatre, in that “Epic” denies illusion, shallow spectacle, manipulative plots, and heightened emotion of melodrama.  Its intention is to engender a kind of intellectual co-production -- contemplation rather than (aristotelian) seduction.

Thaetre -  For Brecht, inverted spelling signals the attempt to reconstruct the theatre for the philosopher, not an audience.  In the words of the philosopher, this new “thaetre” will mean that “The spectator will no longer flee from present times to history; the present times will become history.”

Verfremdungseffekt -  Commonly contracted into “V-effekt”, the term renders into defamiliarization effect, estrangement effect, distantiation, alienation effect, or distancing effect.  It is the (surreal) method to “Epic’s” (critical) methodology.  By discouraging audiences from identifying with the characters, and so losing detachment, the action must continually be made strange, alien, remote, separate, shocked.

Lehrstück – “Learning/teaching plays”, Lehrstück draws a sharp line to distinguish itself from renovative art, which is designed merely to stimulate audiences' appetites for cultural consumption in an effort to save existing institutions.  Lehrstück is the “play” of genuine educational/performance/innovation which aims at a transformation of the entire cultural apparatus -- from places of entertainment into public performances with no fixed boundary between actor and audience.

Books on my desk during this project:

Arendt, Hannah. (Ed.). (1968). Walter Benjamin: Illuminations (1st ed.). New York: Harcourt Brace & World.

Benjamin, Walter. (2002). Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938. (Edited by  Eiland & Jennings). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Benjamin, Walter. (2003). Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938-1940. (Edited by  Eiland & Jennings). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Brecht, Bertolt. (1998). War Primer. Translated by John Willet. London: Libris.

Der Derian, James. (2001). Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-industrial-Media-Entertainment Network. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Martin, C. & Bial, H. (Eds.). (2000). Brecht Sourcebook. London: Routledge.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. (2005). Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture.  New York: Routledge.

Thomson, P. & Sacks, G. (Eds.). (2006). The Cambridge Companion to Brecht. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Virilio, Paul. (1994). The Vision Machine. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Virilio, Paul. (2003). Unknown Quantity. London: Thames & Hudson.

Virilio, Paul. (2005.). The Original Accident. Cambridge, UK: Polity. 

Willett, John. (1978). Art & Politics in the Weimar Period: The New Sobriety 1917-1933. New York: Pantheon Books.

Willett, John. (1986). Caspar Neher: Brecht’s Designer. London: Methuen.

Willett, John. (Ed.). (1992). Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. New York: Hill and Wang.

Wizisla, Erdmut. (2009). Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht: The Story of a Friendship. New Haven: Yale University Press.





An American

resident in Canada, experimenting with new forms of critical media ethnography in Cultural Farming.