The Age of Distantiation

Bertolt Brecht was a theatre practitioner in the first half of the 20th Century. He recognised the power of cinema and its disruptive effect on theatre. Film was better able to realistically capture the intimacy of human interaction and created a ‘nearness of experience’ that the theatre wasn’t able to replicate. This didn’t however, at least to Brecht, mean theatre was redundant. Instead, he developed what he called ‘Epic Theatre’, which argued that theatre should be a space for political discussion and critical aesthetics. In practice this meant a play should be performed in a way that does not cause the audience to identify emotionally with the characters but instead, by distancing the spectator, prompting rational self-reflection and a more critical view of the action on stage. How this manifested in production was by having sets be minimal and obvious, not utilising stage crew to change scenery or props but instead have the actors do it, having any musical instrument that is heard performed on stage with the actors, actors would speak stage directions aloud and speak directly to the audience and any other tool that would let people know they are watching a play. He called this approach Verfremdungseffekt, which roughly translates as ‘The Distancing Effect’. This was all part of the modernist movement and had similar practices elsewhere like how Joyce deconstructed the approach to the novel by undermining a singular narrative or style like in Ulysses or how Picasso undermined classical depictions of the world with Cubism. But the idea of ‘Distantiation’, or the practice of distancing your audience from a work so as to better critically appraise its narrative, has been hugely influential in art and culture over the last eighty years or so. To the point where, like everything else that was once radical, it has been absorbed and commodified by the culture industry.

It’s hard to point to examples of how influential Brecht has been, so fully have his practices been absorbed by the mainstream, but good examples can be seen in any reference to the 4th wall in big budget TV or movies, think House of Cards or Deadpool. Even his approach to staging can be seen in more experimental fare like Lars von Trier’s Dogville. It has been used to unusually clever effect in animation, Looney Tunes, the Simpsons and more recently in Rick & Morty, have all made it clear to the audience they are watching a cartoon from time to time. This method of making you appraise the very thing you are watching while you are watching it has fallen under the umbrella term of ‘meta humour’. Or simply just being ‘meta’. But this belies it’s radical nature and why its exploitation is so insidious.

Brecht believed that the emotional catharsis that came at the climax of films and theatre etc was a passive experience and therefore left audiences complacent. Whether happy or sad the ending that does not engender questions about who the characters are or how they got there, to Brecht, was not useful. These kinds of endings, or just stories in general, are affirmative and allow the audience to project the meaning of it instead of critically analysing it. The method of Distantiation then, promotes the ‘reading’ of a text and, more importantly, that everything can be seen as a text. This was truly radical in that it prompts the audience to question the very means by which a story is delivered. This then bleeds into a critical reading of things like news broadcasts, newspapers and even anecdotes. Maintaining a level of objective distance serves the purpose of allowing appraisal of something that may be trying to manipulate you. This was most explicitly explored by Brecht in his famous-only-to-Drama-students play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui which was a satirical allegory for Hitler’s rise to fame and by producing it as Epic Theatre the audience is forced to question the choices and decisions of the characters in the play that allowed Arturo Ui to succeed. This method of presenting a story and demanding you question it as opposed to passively accepting it is a powerful one and it undermines a lot of established beliefs about art and culture. Therefore, it could not be tolerated and so needed to be accommodated.

As stated, today it seems EVERYthing is created to draw awareness to its own manufactured nature. All post-modern art and culture must ‘show its hand’ so to speak, purely so it cannot be criticised. By addressing its own falsity or shortcomings it can therefore nip those criticisms in the bud and absolve itself of responsibility, despite the criticisms usually being valid. I have referred to this before in my piece about Ricky Gervais and the Golden Globes in that his function is to excoriate the glitterati in a comfortable environment so as to shield them from the same criticisms in a harsher (i.e. a more litigious) environment. As a consequence this method of distantiation has become a comfortable form of insulation; a form of escapism. The Distantiation Industry today is huge. Social media has the effect of drawing attention to the medium through which it is delivered like no other. The digital currency of clicks and engagement through likes, subscribes, follows and so on is a perpetual reference to the very model by which we are exploited. To be cold and distanced has become a method of survival rather than a method by which to appraise the reprehensible systems we inhabit. By commodifying this criticism, capitalism has accommodated for it and now enjoys its profits rather than endures its slings and arrows.

Brecht was a socialist, inspired by the writings of Marx, who was openly critical of the Nazis during their rise and, as such, was forced to flee Germany in 1933 after Hitler took power. For Brecht, there needed to be an understanding by the public at large about the failings that allowed a cataclysm like the two world wars to occur so that they do not happen again. His method of prompting an audience into critical introspection is now, sadly, useless as it has been neutered by the very system it sought to undermine. Everyone today believes themselves to be critical thinkers, who cynically appraise situations and accurately identify the issues present in society today yet somehow, equally, are willing to passively accept them. Myself included. We live at a time of such profound upheaval and change, little of it good, and most of it caused by a small collection of people deeply invested in maintaining life as it is (or was these days). Never has there been a greater need to unite public opinion against those that are actively harming us, but by having created an economic system that thrives on the cold, objective distance that says “all criticism of everything and everyone except that which criticises me” is valid, we are more displaced than ever when the world is actively encouraging us to unite to save our own skins. We are all aware things need to change and most of us understand where that change needs to come but while we have a global population who are all encouraged to not care about anyone but themselves, any kind of unity of purpose has evaporated.

If you are an artist today, particularly if you have a large platform, it is in your interest to create actively critical work and hang the cost to your online traffic. There has never been a more important time to point the finger where it needs to be pointed because no amount of online traffic will save you during the coming economic depression. Either do something now or forever hold your ‘piece’.

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Leo Cookman

Leo Cookman

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Peripatetic Writer. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.