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<nettime> V for what? Brecht & Benjamin applied on contemporary activism
Alexander Karschnia on Tue, 27 Nov 2012 05:58:52 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> V for what? Brecht & Benjamin applied on contemporary activism


*V **for what?* For *Vendetta *as in the famous movie of the
Wachowski-Brothers? for Victory? (or for *Peace*?) Or *V *like the title of
the first novel of Thomas Pynchon? Or *V* like *V2 *? the infamous
nazi-rocket which inspired Pynchon for his next novel *Gravity?s
*in the German translation by Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Piltz *Die Enden
der Parabel* (the ends of the parable). The answer is: yes ? all of this. *V
for Vendetta*, Victory, Peace and as a Thomas Pynchon trope. All of these
references I want to use to talk about the actuality of Benjamin & Brecht
today, in times of crisis. And about hand-signs...

The image that I want to evoke is that of the statue of Bertolt Brecht in
front of the Berlin Ensemble, wearing a *V for Vendetta* mask while someone
is hiding behind him, raising his or her arm to spread fore- and
middlefinger ? as you normally would behind the head of the person next to
you while a picture is being taken. But in this case, Brecht is not being
mocked, but someone lends an arm to indicate victory. *And *peace. If you
put the 2 together you get the outdated German word: ?Siegfrieden? for
?victorious peace?. This was the declared aim of the military leadership in
the First World War: peace through victory. As we all know, history took a
different course and instead Germany saw peace only after defeat. My first
comment would be that Brecht, who witnessed that war in a med-squad,
fancied this kind of peace. Not a ?Siegfrieden? but a Defeat-?Frieden?. In
his unfinished masterpiece *The downfall of the egoist Johann Fatzer *(*Der
Untergang des Egoisten Johann
he encourages the victor to quickly leave the site of victory, even: to
escap from the place of his success and to rather ?dive deep under to
experience the lesson of defeat.?

This would be the first lesson by Brecht to be learned: that you can only
learn through defeat, by being defeated. Only the one who is put in an
inferior position, who has lost, the loser is able to learn. One could
argue that exactly this is what did *not* happen in Germany after First
World War, otherwise there would not have been a second one. This is true
and this is also (one of) the reason why Brecht never finished his
masterpiece *The downfall of the egoist Johann Fatzer*. Brecht had worked
for five years on it, rewrote it a couple of times and abondaned it
altogether in 1931. Two years later the nazis took over state-power and
Brecht had to emigrate. In the following war whose inavoidableness Brecht
saw very clearly, the first rocket was shot into space: the so-called A4
(Aggregat 4) which was called *V2* for *Vergeltung*: vengance by the
nazi-minister of PR Joseph Goebbels: a revenge-rocket, a so-called *
Wunderwaffe*, miracle weapon that should turn the tide and bring about a
reversal of fortune and finally lead to peace- through-victory. But once
more, victory was on the other, the allied side, most prominently expressed
in the spreading of fore- and middlefinger by the British prime minister
Winston Churchill. Instead of ?Siegfrieden? Germany was faced with
unconditional surrender: *bedingungslose Kapitulation*, abbreviated as:
U.S. One of the consequences of this unconditional surrender was a military
occupaton by allied forces: the U.S., Great Britain and France in the
Western part, the Soviet Union on the Eastern side.

When Brecht returned to Germany, he chose the Eastern part. In East-Berlin
he was put in charge of the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in which he had
celebrated his greatest success with *Die Dreigroschenoper (Three-penny
opera) *in 1928. Heiner M?ller once joked that Hitler saved Brecht ? from
becoming a star of the Boulevard. The truth is that Brecht *had* tried to
continue in this direction ? and failed. What followed after this
commercial failure was: the crisis ? not Brecht?s individual one, but the
Great Depression, the crash. This experience ? and subsequently the rise of
the nazi-movement ? radically altered Brecht?s work. The most radical
plays, the so-called *Lehrst?cke *were written in this period between 1929
and 1933. It was also the time when Brecht & Benjamin started their intense
collaboration: Five years before Benjamin had unsuccessfully tried to make
the acquaintance of Brecht. In the same year he wrote that he was now
convinced of the ?actuality of a radical communism.? By now he had
abandoned his academic career to become a freelance writer. He had decided
to become the most important literary critic of his time.

Thus Hannah Arend wrote about the match between Brecht & him: ?The most
important literary critic working with the most important writer of his
time.? She was one of very few who described their alliance in positive
terms. Most of Benjamin?s friends and colleagues, Gershom Scholem in
Jerusalem, members of the Institute of Social Research, most prominently
Theodor Adorno, but also Sigfried Kracauer, G?nther Anders and others, were
highly suspicious of this new couple. This suspicion also casted its light
on the way that Adorno and Scholem edited Benjamins ouvre after his death,
grossly underestimating and even surpressing the relevance that Brecht had
for Benjamin. For Benjamin Brecht was ?the most actual writer of our
times.? Brecht was the unexpected appearance of a radically modern writer
without reserve, radically committing himself to his time without having
any illusions about it at the same time. It was not only their shared
political agenda, but the way it expressed itself: ?A literary work can
only be politically correct, if it is also correct from a literary,
Benjamin wrote in his essay *The author as producer*. In other words:
?Commitment alone won?t do it.?

Brecht was a revolutionary cultural worker ? in the literal sense: not as a
theater-maker with revolutionary beliefs or convictions, with a certain
political commitment, but as an actually revolutionizing artist whose works
were undermining the way cultural production was organized. His aim was
nothing less than the ?total turnover?, die *totale Umw?lzung* of the
apparatus of production. His work was an elementary force just like living
labour in the factory system as described by Marx. (This living labour,
which recently has been discussed again a lot, has been described as collective
Geert Lovink.) Brecht wanted to bring the cultural industry of
state-theatres (today we might rather speak of creative industries) to its
limits, to a point of crisis. He wanted to make his productions
indigestible for what he liked to call ?culinary theatre?: pleasure for
gourmets. In his eyes, theatres were drug-dealers: every evening they sold
opium to the masses, false consciousness, ideology. Thus his declared goal
was: the destruction of ideology (?Ideologiezertr?mmerung?).

With this position Brecht & Benjamin came into opposition to most writers
organized in the Communist party. This became obvious in the failure of
their attempt to launch a magazine of left-wing intellectuals to intervene
in the political situation. The title: *Criticism & crisis *(*Kritik & Krise
*). No issue was ever printed, but this project maybe was the most
important intellecutal initiative of its time. Its title was its program:
?to discover or bring about the crisis by the means of criticism.? For the
first issue Brecht proposed a text called ?greeting (welcoming) the crisis?
(Begr??ung der Krise). For him politics was but a continuation of critical
practice with other means (die politik als ihre fortsetzung mit anderen
mitteln). What he wrote about the crisis in 1931 seems actual today in an
almost uncanny way: ?the crisis is recognizable for everyone, but at the
same time it is the crisis that prevents people to really recognize the
greater crisis they are in.?

Brecht, Benjamin and all of the writers that they wanted to cooperate with
in this magazine were forced into exile, many of them, like Benjamin, did
not survive. Benjamin committed suicide in 1940 during his escape through
the mountains. Brecht only heard about it a year later, when he arrived in
California. Together with the news of his death, he received the manuscript
of Benjamin?s *On the concept of
*In the sixth thesis Benjamin concludes: ?not even the dead will be safe
from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be

These thesis have not lost anything of their actuality today: but it is an
actuality intertwined with the past. There is a secret appointment between
the generations of the past and that of our own, as Benjamin said. Our
task: ?to brush history against the grain. And: To explode the continuum of
history. The goal: to enter into a new constellation with past events.? To
be able to quote the past, certain moments of the past. This is exactly
what *V* does in the movie *V for Vendetta*.


*V for Vendetta*takes place in a future fascist regime in Great Britain.
After acts of terrorism and a terrible plague a new order is being
installed. *V* is an avenger, a terrorist, an individual anarchist who
eventually brings down that system. He is wearing a mask because he had
become a victim ? *V for victim?* ? of medical experiments that the regime
had undertaken with parts of the population. It turns out that not only did
they carry out the terrorist acts, but also cause the plague which created
a state of emergency in which they were able to seize power.
*V*individually eliminates everyone who was involved, at the end even
fascist dictator. The story ends with his death, but instead of revealing (*
re-V-ling*) who *V* really is, the people ? masses of people ? turn
into *V*by wearing his mask, his hat and his dark coat and march
towards the London
parliamant while *V* is being buried. Instead of being put in the ground, V
is put in a underground-cabin full of dynamit and set in motion to explode
the parliamant: this is the revolution.

The historical reference that *V* operates with is the memory of the
so-called gunpowder plot in Elizabethan England: Guy
Fawkes<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Fawkes>a Catholic
revolutionary ? or counterrevolutionary ? had unsuccessfully
tried to bomb the parliamant on Nov. 5th 1605. On the same day *V* starts
his action: He manages to enter the public television (*T-V*), to highjack
a whole studio and to activate a state-of-emergency channel to commemorate
Guy Fawkes? deed as a heroic action of a singular man as a wake-up call to
the people <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chqi8m4CEEY>. One year later his
mission is accomplished.

How come that a Catholic terrorist has become the symbol for a global
anticapitalist movement? My answer would be that *V* has become a symbol
for revolution ? against the principle of representation. The bombing of
the British parliament is not seen as an attack against a democratic
institution, rather as an attack against the ?fortress of representation?.
This is the sentiment expressed in the mass-masking of *V*. It resonates in
a strange way with Brechts poems and plays in the time of crisis in which
revolutionaries, but also normal city-dwellers (*St?dtebewohner*) are told
to delete their faces, to efface, to become ? *anonymous*.

The uncanny quality of these metaphors is that they anticipated a reality
which became true only a few years later ? in exile. As Heiner M?ller once
said: ?the actuality of art is tomorrow.? So is it possible that today is
this tomorrow? I want to argue that Brecht?s images of effacing, of
escaping the place of success, of embracing defeat has been actualized as a
new political strategy: an anti-representational strategy. This strategy is
shared by the different social movements of last year ? from Tahrir place
in Egypt, the tents on Rothschild-Boulevard in Tel Aviv, Puerto de Sol in
Madrid to Zuccotti (or Liberty) Park in Wall Street.

It is Brecht?s most controversial work since it seems to affirm the
elimination of a young activist by his own comrades. Again Brecht had
anticipated the course of events: just a few years later the time of the
Great terror began in the Soviet Union. Today a different reading of these
plays may be possible, they can be actualized in a new constallation. I
want to argue that this anti-representational aspect brings Brecht to his
own limit, to the site of his defeat. The arm which raises the *V* for his
statue thus expresses his approval of this defeat. Which defeat? The
defeat, the downfall, der *Untergang *of the egoist Johann Fatzer.


Fatzer is a typical Brecht-figure, a ?type? like Baal or Mecky Messer:
Brecht called them ?great asocials?, Benjamin ?virtual revolutionaries?: *V
for virtual revolutionary! *This is actually what I would like to speak
about: virtual vs. actual revolution or maybe virtual and or even
*as*actual revolution. Benjamin?s actuality today derives from terms
?virtual revolutionary?: after the renaissance, the rediscovery of Walter
Benjamin in the years following 1968, Benjamin was re-rediscovered in the
years after 1989 in the context of what the internet critic Geert Lovink
calls ?German media theory?. Benjamin & Brecht both shared a certain sense
of enthusiasm for new technology and ? different than most intellectuals of
critical theory, most prominently Adorno ? of mass-culture. Early forms of
today?s pop-culture. Benjamin today could be the prototype of what Lovink
calls ?virtual intellectual <http://thing.desk.nl/bilwet/Geert/100.LEX>?: a
precarious, but independent thinker.

I want to use Benjamianians terms to reflect a bit about ?virtual
revolutions?: the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, real, actual
revolutions, were often enough labelled ?facebook?-revolutions. For a
certain time the Egyptian google-manager was made into a public figure, a
public face of the revolution. But isn?t the strength of these revolutions
exactly the effacing of its protagonist, that they are ?revolutions of
persons? ? as a Spanish activist called it, according to the slogan: ?real
democracy now!? The angry shouting against all politicians: ?They don?t
represent us! They shall all leave!?

In Germany in the fall of 1989, just before the fall of the wall, the
people in East Germany were shouting: ?Wir sind das Volk.? ? ?We are the
people?. A tricky translation: The English word ?people? means both,
population and persons. The German word ?Volk? doesn?t. The excessive use
the Nazis had made of that word has lead Brecht to the conclusion that it
should be dropped, he was only speaking of population, ?Bev?lkerung?. In
1998 Christoph Schlingensief founded a political party that was supposed to
be based on persons alone: ?Vote yourself we know how to do it!? was the
slogan. The clou was that German law allows individuals to run for office
without a party ? all you need is 200 signatures of people in your area to
become a candidate. Schlingensief propagated that: ?*Du bist 1 Volk: 1 V*?
(?You are the people: one people!?) Like in Spain today this V means
persons: not public persons, but also not private persons. How could you be
private in a mass of millions? Is it rather ?common persons? ? in a very
strong sense of ?common? as a new, a third space between public and
private. Maybe even as the key-concept of all these social movements we
have seen in the last year: ?common causes? ? maybe even ?commonist??!?

This brings us back to Fatzer, rather: to his antagonist Koch, later called
Keuner. The stories from Mr. Keuner later became an independent work of
Brecht ? the name, said Benjamin, derives from the Greek word *koinos *which
means: common man. Who is, as Benjamin writes, a leader (F?hrer). And a
thinker. But thinking, as Brecht & Benjamin always pointed out, is a
collective practice. More than that: Thinking *is* the common! Mr. Keuner,
the thinker, is very lazy that?s why he has to be carried on stage to watch
what is going on there. This is exactly the attitude that Brecht wanted
from his audience: cold-blooded, relaxed experts, smoking cigarettes,
looking cool and distanced.

Thus Brecht urged his actors and actresses *not* to identify themselves
with their roles, but to des-identify: no ?Einf?hlung? (empathy), but
?Ausf?hlung? (*ex-*pathy, so to speak). To put a distance in-between:
between actor and role, but also between audience and figure. This
distancing device is called: Verfremdungseffekt or *V**-Effect!* *V for
Verfremdung! *In English: alienation or estrangement, but it?s tricky: it
is *not *Entfremdung, the alienation of the producers from the product that
Marx had analysed, but an artifical device to change the appearance of
well-known phenomenons in a less known one, stranger, more distant in order
to recognize the misuse behind the use, the exception behind the rule.


The epic actor/actress has to put her gestures in quotation marks: *V* like
the fingers that accompany a word or a sentence with a certain gestures to
mark them as quotes, to distance the speaker from the spoken. This
Brechtian technique has to be radicalized and generalized for making
political art: thus a performance is never to be limited to a cause or a
certain message, but is always already something else, less or more, double
just as the actor or the actress on stage who is supposed to show (a role)
and to show (the act of) showing: *Verfremdung *as *Verdopplung*, doubling.
Art is the second look, a double, doubling look. Becoming identical with
the political process corresponds in a twisted way to the mere onlooker,
the *V*oyeur. Art, theatre or performance is something different, it is the
third space between passive watching and acting (in an activist sense). It
is the space that opens up like ? a *V*. It never fully actualizes itself,
but always also remains virtual. It is the *re* of revolution, the *re*turn:
it is the escape from the site of success, the embracing of failure.

At least, that?s what Benjamin said in his last writing *On the concept of
history*: Empathy, *Einf?hlung*, is wrong, because with who does one
empathize? The answer is ?irrefutably with the victor. Those who currently
rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious.
Empathy with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every
time. This says quite enough to the historical materialist.? The practice
of quoting is a means to explode the continuum of history, to brush history
against the grain. It is always an act of violence (*V for violence*) ? to
rip something out of one context and to put it into another one. Only in a
free, liberated, resurrected society no violence would be needed , all
moments of history would be at the hands of humanity. Thus Benjamin &
Brecht were dreaming of artworks that were composed completly out of
quotes. Which proves Lyotards paradox of postmodernity that one has to be
postmodern in order to become modern. In a variation of a well-known
postmodern slogan we could say today: ?We have never been postmodern?.

Artworks composed completley out of quotes require an audience able to read
it. Thus the attempt to abolish the difference between production and
reception as consequence of this dream. Brecht was hoping that the radio
could be revolutionized in this way that it transforms from an apparatus of
distribution to one of communication. Accordingly Brecht tried to
revolutionize the way of theatre-making ? in the original sense of the word
from the astronomer Copernikus who toppled the geocentric view of the world
and substituted it with a heliocentric one. In his conception of the
?Lehrst?cke? (teaching plays), Brecht performs such a Copernican turn: He
toppled the view of theatre that was centred on the relationship between
actors acting on stage and an audience watching them do that to ? the
actors acting! He proposed to kick out the audience ? since it is the
actors who are the ones learning (by acting), not the audience (by watching
them act). This radical conception of play Brecht labelled ?Lehrst?ck? ?
teaching play. But because of this emphasis on the act of learning, he
himself translated it into learning play (?Lernst?cke?). The audience is
only allowed in, he wrote, if they are of any use ? for the actors. This
notion radically undermines the differentiation of teaching and learning in
order to transform it into a process, a process that takes place
simultaneously: It is ? quite literally ? a learning (and teaching) by
doing: by performing. There is no longer a certain message being delivered
from by a teacher to a pupil, but a continuous process that works both
ways. It is a sabotage to the principle of representation (in German: *
Darstellung*). And that?s why: it had to be stopped. The experiment had to

It was ended from the outside: the rise of a fascist regime. The German
parliamant was set on fire in an individual act by the Dutch anarchist
Marinus van der Lubbe, but instead of waking up the people as in *V for
Vendetta*, the nazis use the incident of the *Reichstagsbrand *to abandon
all democratic rights and to install a dictatorship. When Brecht heard the
Reichstag was on fire, he left Germany immediately ? just in time before he
and his team were caught and put into a concentration camp. When Brecht
returned to Germany 15 years later, he could not continue where he had
stopped. Instead he had to rebuild the German theatre slowly out of ruins.
But in the mean time he had also changed his theory. Now he announced that
the focus was no longer on the process of representing, but on that which
is being represented. This, at least from our point of view, was a step
back ? maybe a tactical one as in Lenin?s phrase: *one stead ahead, two
steps back*, but the theatre is still standing on that foot that stepped
two steps back without ever getting ready to step ahead once more. This
would require more than Brecht?s nonaristotelian dramaturgy, rahter a
postaristotelian dramaturgy that always begins in the middle: everything
starts from there. No more beginning, middle and end, only middle. Brecht
was unwilling to go that far. So in the end he remained in the frame of
Aristotles. Brecht was not ready to sacrifice the story, the fable or

Brecht defended the parable-principle in the exact moment it came to an end
according to Thomas Pynchons novel *Gravity?s rainbow*, in German: *Die
Enden der Parabel *(the ends of the parables). Pynchon?s parable is the
line of flight of the *V2* rocket. It is called the *Blitz* (flashlight)
since it hits the ground before you can hear its sound. Since then the
order of cause and effect is lost forever. Maybe Brecht was aware of it and
thus he defended it. In a terrible way it is the rocket that brushes
history against the grain, that literally explodes the continuum of
history. ?The enemy has not ceased to be victorious.?

At last *V for Veto* or for *Voice*: Put your hands in the air! The
hand-signals were invented in New York when the police prohibited the
occupiers of Wall Street to use technical equipment, loud speakers or other
electric amplifiers, in German: ?Verst?rker?. Thus the group started to
amplify themselves by repeating the words of the speakers in a choir: the
so called ?human? or ?people?s mic?. Along with this choir went certain
hand-signs that enable the gathering, the general assembly or *asamblea* to
communicate on a horizontal level and to make collective decisions in a
radically democratic way. The similarity to Brecht?s learning play practice
and radio-theory is striking: Brecht envisioned to put the listeners in
contact with the learned choirs of his plays or to broadcast to the general
public the counseling and decisions of the people involved in learning
plays which he called ?meeting?hnliche Kollektivveranstaltungen?:
meeting-like collective events. Sounds like a fit description for an *

Or the other way around: *asambleas* as model for learning plays. The
?people?s mic? produces for the participants a strong *V-Effect *?
Verst?rker, amplifier-effect ? but also *Verfremdung*, alienation in the
original Brechtian sense: the seperation of elements, the showing of the
showing as well as displaying an attitude, a commentary. The people that
constitute the ?people?s mic? are simultaneously listening, repeating and
commenting via hand-signs, either agreeing with what is said, disagreeing
or simply passing it on. While from the outside the ?people?s mic? might
look like the old model of a preacher preaching to the converted, it is a
new model of communication, a multi-voiced choir that could be described as
epic in the Brechtian sense. At the same time it follows a postaristotelian
dramaturgy, since it is no longer a process of linear representation form
production to reception, but it begins and ends in the middle. The choir is
a form of live media which is no longer a tool or instrument, a means for
an end, but what Agamben has described as ?means without ends?: It is part
of the production of sociality. It is a Great Education Council ? ?ein
Gro?es P?dagogium? ? as Brecht envisioned in *Fatzer*. By repeating the
words, copying gestures, testing different attitudes the people are
learning. Thus the theatre is transforming into what Benjamin has described
as ?laboratory of versatility?: *V for versatility. *

P.S: Sloganomics: ?Stop reading Benjamin, start to live Benjamin!?

full version: http://alextext.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/158/

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