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Performing Viral Pandemics?

Started by aha. Last reply by aha May 11, 2020. 2 Replies

Hi.Hopefully all is well!The shorty is a suggestion to start an online conversation group to elaborate questions from theCovid-19 oriented period and Performance Philosophy?eg. Intra-Active Virome?…Continue

We all have the same dream?

Started by Egemen Kalyon Apr 2, 2020. 0 Replies

Hello, "We all have the same dream" is my project that aims to create an archive from the dreams of our era and reinterpret Jung's "collective unconscious" concepts with performance and performing…Continue

Circus and Its Others 2020, UC Davis CFP

Started by Ante Ursic Mar 15, 2020. 0 Replies

Circus and its Others 2020November 12-15University of California, DavisRevised Proposal Deadline: April 15, 2020Launched in 2014, the Circus and its Others research project explores the ways in which…Continue

Tags: critical, ethnic, queer, performance, animal

Blog Posts

"Further Evidence on the Meaning of Musical Performance" Working Paper

Posted by Phillip Cartwright on January 15, 2020 at 21:28 0 Comments

Karolina Nevoina and I are pleased to announce availability of our working paper, "Further Evidence on the Meaning of Musical Performance". Special thanks to Professor Aaron Williamon and the Royal College of Music, Centre for Performance Science.…


Division of Labor - Denis Beaubois

Posted by Gabrielle Senza on February 23, 2018 at 0:36 0 Comments

I just came across Denis Beaubois, an Australian multidisciplinary artist whose work, Currency - Division of Labor might be of interest to researchers here.

It is a series of video/performance works that use the division of labor model in capitalism as a structural tool for performance.

From his website:

The Division of labour work explores…




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Reading Butler: speculations on the limitations of Brecht

Reading Butler: speculations on the limitations of Brecht


The focus of this article is on integrating the contributions made by Butler’s work to an understanding and expansion of performance and, in particular, what is called the Brechtian method. The following was written between 2008 and 2010 as part of my first thesis and rather than develop a purely theoretical formulation of any imaginary (or otherwise) alignment, the following will outline what can be seen as a possible set of practices. In order to show the potential of Butler’s theory of performativity and the performative to dramaturgy, I will draw from Brecht’s discussion of the Verfremdungseffekt and Gestus followed by an interpretation from Elin Diamond. Brecht’s proposition will then be re-considered from the perspective provided by both, Diamond’s interpretation of Brecht, and Butler’s writing on subversive discontinuity, de-familiarization/de-naturalisation and resignification. 


1  Staging arguments – the Verfremdungseffekt and Gestus

‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’ was composed in Switzerland after Brecht’s return to Europe from the United States in 1947. In the prologue, Brecht writes:

The following sets out to define an aesthetic drawn from a particular kind of theatrical performance which has been worked out in practice over the past few decades … what we achieved in the way of theatre for a scientific age was not science but theatre, and the accumulated innovations worked out during the Nazi period and the war, when practical demonstration was impossible, compel some attempt to set this species of theatre in its aesthetic background, or anyhow to sketch for it the outlines of a conceivable aesthetic. To explain the theory of theatrical alienation except within an aesthetic framework would be impossibly awkward.1

I include this excerpt so that I may emphasize three factors, the first of which relates to the fact that the ‘Organum’ is based on practical experience of research, writing, and production over twenty years or so in collaborative environments. Secondly, Brecht’s early theatre particularly, assumes a subversive agency in repressive conditions; and finally, the theory discussed in the ‘Organum’ is derived from a set of aesthetic practices and frameworks, rather than applied to a set of aesthetic practices. Supplementary to these factors is the notion that, in this period, theatre redefined itself, that is, theatre reconfigured and became the change needed in order to resist an ossification brought about through the repressive ‘universalizing’ measures taken by totalitarian ideologies. As Brecht writes, ‘When something seems the most obvious thing in the world it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up. What is ‘natural’ must have the force of what is startling.’2

            In proposing a description of the device Brecht used in theatre practice known as Verfremdungseffekt, I submit that it is by observing the inter-play of the various translations and interpretations of the term, that we can arrive at a sense of ‘the ideological environment they inhabit.’3 As mentioned, there is consensus among scholars that Brecht’s sense of the concept Verfremdung is affirmed by Russian formalism, particularly Viktor Schklovski’s use of the term priem ostrannenija, meaning, to make strange. It is likely that Verfremdungseffekt, as a technique, was first posited by Brecht c1935 to distinguish a meaning that is different to Entfremden, meaning, to alienate. The latter is a term used in Marxist theory. According to Reinhold Grimm, ‘the word Verfremdung is found in only one German dialect, the Swabian, Brecht’s own.’4 In Marx’s theory, alienation is used to describe the effect of dehumanized labour, or, worker disassociation—the estrangement of the worker from a continuum of labour, ownership, product and reward in or under capitalism. Marx wrote:

We now have to grasp the essential connection between private property, greed, the separation of labour, capital and landed property, exchange and competition, value and the devaluation of man, monopoly, and competition, etc. – the connection between this entire system of estrangement and the money system […] In the sphere of political economy, this realization of labour as a loss of reality for the worker, objectification as loss of and bondage to the object, and appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.5

Perhaps consideration of everyday situations, which require what can be described as virtually ‘pre-programmed’ repetitive behaviours, assists in an understanding of an aspect of the function and meaning Brecht may have intended for the use of Verfremdungseffekt in theatre practice. The process of sometimes simply going through the motions of a particular task, or, of participating in an absent-minded way without a political or social awareness—being on auto pilot so to speak—is one description of a way of being that can be subject to the process of subversive discontinuity brought about by a technique that draws attention to the mechanical nature of certain actions and responses.  

            The quotation from Loren Kruger which follows places the term under discussion within the discourse of the enlightenment project and emphasizes her preference for association with the term ‘disillusion’ because it alludes to the ‘de-enchantment’ in Siegfried Kracauer’s article, ‘Cult of Distraction: On Berlin’s Picture Palaces’ (1926).

Brecht explicitly defines Verfremdung as an estrangement from and thus critique of alienation. John Willett’s familiar translation ‘alienation’ thus not only undoes Brecht’s critique but also loses the precise train of thought and practice that connects Verfremdung not only to Marx and Hegel but also to related concepts such as Max Weber’s Entzauberung, (de-enchantment of the world) and with them the network linking past and present resonances of the enlightenment critique of superstition, fanaticism, xenophobia and other symptoms of closed minds.6

Disillusionment is a state of mind described by Brecht in all of his plays. For Brecht, disillusionment is an important, albeit painful, process signifying a character’s capacity to comprehend the conditions for existence and thereby come to an understanding of them. It can be surmised that Brecht did not propose that his audience lapse into pre-formed responses to theatrical conventions nor did he want to create a hypnotic closeted environment wherein an audience could be carried away into delusion or fantasy, unless, the intention was to then destabilize that fiction.

Just as the actor no longer has to persuade the audience that it is the author’s character and not himself that is standing on the stage, so also he need not pretend that the events taking place on the stage have never been rehearsed and are now happening for the first and only time.7

The technique then, can be said to carry an ‘intention’ to disturb or disrupt the comfort and safety an audience might feel as receivers of neatly packaged messages, common-sense knowledge, and closed dramaturgy. The impact of Verfremdungseffekte in performance is therefore dependant upon showing normative conditions produced by performativity and related to a form of hegemony. Brecht’s invitation to the audience to engage entails, not only a critical awareness of topical subject matter, but a critical awareness of the conditions for theatre making as communication and knowledge acquisition. With this it is possible to imagine the unrealized, potential work of an audience. For contemporary audiences in a paradoxically media sensitized and de-sensitized world the work that an audience can achieve is a prospect to be nurtured.

The aim of Gestus, as conveyed in the ‘Organum’, is to enhance perception of the intricacies that constitute verbal and non-verbal social interaction. In the ‘Organum’, Brecht writes that the process of acting in aesthetic contexts, is a learning process that, as its necessary business, organises representations of social situations. Brecht contends that any particular social situation can be re-structured and purposefully designed in order to show spectators an unfamiliar aspect of sociality, or conversely, an overly familiar set of conditions. In other words, the aim is to show the oddity of the ordinary.

For Brecht and this study, the process of acting has a direct and indirect didactic, social purpose. For Brecht, it would seem that in the doing of acting—the performing—actors should clearly show that: they are acting, showing, pointing to a particular aspect of the human condition, and that within that process they are also learning about that aspect.

            It should be noted that the ‘Organum’ was written a short time after an intensive period rehearsing with the actor Charles Laughton on the production of Life of Galileo [Leben Des Galilei] in Los Angeles. Laughton also worked with Brecht on the first English translation (1947), while another collaborator, Ruth Berlau, provided a photographic document of those rehearsals, and repeated the process for various other productions. I mention this only to point out that the theory of Gestus was formulated—but not fixed—after many years of practical research. For this reason I seek to identify the basis of Brecht’s arguments and assumptions in the development of the practice rather than attempt to re-establish, or, fix, the conclusions and outcomes.

            Through the rehearsing, organising and finding of certain identifiable particularities of human existence, Brecht hopes to arrive at the subject position of the character, the attitude of the character to others, and to then elucidate the circumstances of the characters for audiences.

By helping to develop the parts that correspond to his own, or at any rate standing in for their players, the actor strengthens the all-decisive social standpoint from which he has to present his character. The master is only the sort of master his servant lets him be, etc.8

It should be noted that this is not a description of becoming something other, or transforming into something other, it is a process of showing the other—citing the other—and the conditions of the other. The actor, Brecht contends, ‘finds out much more about himself from the treatment which he gets at the hands of the characters in the play.’9 That is, actors learn about human experience from being subject to interaction that they may not ordinarily ‘do’, and circumstances in which they may not ordinarily find themselves.

The realm of attitudes adopted by the characters toward one another is what we call the realm of gest. Physical attitude, tone of voice and facial expression are all determined by a social gest: the characters are cursing, flattering, instructing one another, and so on. The attitude which people adopt towards one another include even those attitudes which would appear to be quite private, such as the utterances of physical pain in an illness, or of religious faith. These expressions of a gest are usually highly complicated and contradictory, so that they cannot be rendered by any single word and the actor must take care that in giving his image the necessary emphasis he does not lose anything, but emphasizes the entire complex […] The actor masters his character by paying critical attention to its manifold utterances, as also to those of his counterparts and of all the other characters involved.10

The emphasis here is on the actor’s ability to physicalize the internal and external dynamics of a situation and to present those dynamics as an image. In order to ‘master’ a character Brecht considered that observation plays an integral part. ‘Observation’ wrote Brecht,

is a major part of acting. The actor observes his fellow men with all his nerves and muscles in an act of imitation, which is at the same time a process of the mind. For pure imitation would only bring out what had been observed; and this is not enough, because the original says what it has to say with too subdued a voice.11

In summary, Brecht’s argument for the effectiveness of Gestus focuses on at least three separate facets, the first being the learning process of actors as they research their character’s subject position, their attitude to others and their circumstances, or, conditions. The second factor to note is that Brecht wanted his theatre to relate the entirety—the full extent—of a situation. Finally, Brecht proposed that the actor could ‘master’ a character through observation while conceding that ‘pure imitation’ of what has been observed is not enough as ‘the original says what it has to say with too subdued a voice.’

            Before considering Elin Diamond’s interpretation of Brecht’s Gestus, I refer to Austin’s discussion of ‘context’ and the non-linguistic gesture in How to do things with words, together with Derrida’s critique. Through Brecht’s description above, it can be argued that although his aim seems to be in accord with Austin’s belief that ‘true’ meaning is conveyed by viewing the whole context and background conditions, Derrida has shown that in any social interaction, the entirety of a context is impossible to determine, and further, that the conscious and unconscious intention of any person is not always knowable. This is not to say that in some circumstances, intent and context cannot be accurately assessed. As far as the remaining aspects of Gestus mentioned in the summary above, that is, the learning process of the actor, mastery of the character and the subdued voice of the original, this discussion is best informed by Butler on the subject in formation and performer agency together with Diamond’s proposition of a Gestic Feminist Criticism.

A contemporary feminist interpretation of the V-Effekt and Gestus: Elin Diamond

Elin Diamond’s essay ‘Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory, Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism’ (1988), is an exploration of the value of Brecht’s theatre theory for feminism.

I would suggest that feminist theory and Brechtian theory need to be read intertextually, for among the effects of such a reading are a recovery of the radical potential of the Brechtian critique and a discovery, for feminist theory, of the specificity of theatre.12

Diamond defines her task as having two aims, the first of which is to read the status and position of female writing and history through ‘key topoi in Brechtian theory: Verfremdungseffekt, the “not, but,” historicization, and Gestus.’13 The second is to propose a theatre-specific feminist criticism which is named ‘gestic criticism.’14 Interestingly, Diamond remarks that ‘Brecht exhibits a typical Marxian blindness toward gender relations’, an observation that I contest in my readings of the plays. I submit that Brecht gives, not only a realistic account of gender relations but that he shows too, how that account is related to the discourse on race, class and sexuality.

Diamond then proceeds to outline why she believes that the Verfremdungseffekt is such a powerful form of critique asserting that the Brechtian actor refuses mimesis, or, impersonation, as a methodology and instead adopts an iconicity that reveals the subject-actor, the subject position of the character, and the subject-actor showing the character to the spectator. Importantly, Diamond notes that in this configuration, the subject-actor—unlike a film actor—is afforded the privileged vantage point of both viewing and returning the spectator’s gaze, a gaze that is divided between watching the process of acting, understanding the subject position of the character, and simultaneously processing an array of other sense experiences such as costumes, props, lighting, music/sound and set design. The technique that Brecht described for actors is one that is meant to permeate all areas of production enabling theatre’s agency as a process of disillusionment: one which subverts the identification of spectator with the subject-actor and the actor with character. As Diamond notes:

the Verfremdungseffekt also challenges the mimetic property of acting that semioticians call iconicity, the fact that the performer’s bodyconventionally resembles the object (or character) to which it refers.15

At this point it can be recognized that both Gestus and the Verfremdungseffekt, as devices that are embedded in Brecht’s dramaturgy, not imposed upon it, constitute what can be thought of as proto-deconstruction of both identity and agency. Diamond turns to Freud, and to Gayle Rubin, to emphasize the instability of gender identity and the oppositions that support the continuing pseudo-significance of sex-difference in the ‘social and political battlefield of gender.’16 Brecht’s method of ‘linking those differences to a practical politics’ are, according to Diamond, key to Brecht’s theory of the “not, but.” As Brecht writes in

‘Short Description of a New Technique of Acting which Produces an Alienation Effect’ (1940):

            When he appears on stage, besides what he actually is doing he will at all essential points discover, specify, imply what he is not doing; that is to say he will act in such a way that the alternative emerges as clearly as possible, that his acting allows the other possibilities to be inferred and only represents one out of the possible variants [...] Whatever he doesn’t do must be contained and conserved in what he does. In this way every sentence and every gesture signifies a decision; the character remains under observation and is tested [...] The actor does not allow himself to become completely transformed on the stage into the character he is portraying. He is not Lear, Harpagon, Schweik; he shows them.17

This emphasis on inherent possibility and potential is one that also invites the spectator to participate in the ‘real-time’ pleasure of creative play and accidental discoveries, a pleasure that is foreclosed in the process of watching a film in a cinema. Further, and as Diamond notes, ‘In fact, Gestus undermines the stability of the spectatorial “self,” for in the act of looking the spectator engages with her own temporality.’18 Finally, Diamond points out that in the act of observing, the feminist spectator also becomes aware of herself as an historical subject and as one who is subject to constitution through regulation. As previously suggested, these recognitions and observations set up the potential work of an audience.


2.  Butler - resignification, de-familiarization and subversive discontinuity

This section discusses a dramaturgy that presents the possibility of a ‘subversive and parodic redeployment of power rather than the impossible fantasy of a full-scale transcendence.’ With regard to the aesthetic use of the ‘performative’ speech act, Butler writes:

An aesthetic enactment of an injurious word may both use the word and mention it, that is, make use of it to produce certain effects but also at the same time make reference to that very use, calling attention to it as a citation, situating that use within a citational legacy, making that use into an explicitly discursive item to be reflected on rather than a taken for granted operation of ordinary language. Or, it may be that an aesthetic re-enactment uses that word, but also displays it, points to it, outlines it as the arbitrary material instance of language that is exploited to produce certain kinds of effects. In this sense, the word as a material signifier is foregrounded as semantically empty in itself, but as that empty moment in language that can become the site of semantically compounded legacy and effect. This is not to say that a word loses its power to injure, but that we are given the word in such a way that we can begin to ask: how does a word become the site for the power to injure?19

In this we see that Austin’s concept of the illocutionary performative has clearly been extended into the perlocutionary use: a rhetorical, logical use which, in aesthetic contexts, has the potential of showing how the performative operates. Further, and as Shannon Jackson notes, this language of overt display, of pointing to, of exposing the arbitrary, echoes the form of Brecht’s dramaturgy and acting theory.

This is how theatre theorists such as Elin Diamond and William Worthen have reconciled theatre and performativity, lodging Brechtian defamiliarisation inside Butlerian resignification.’20

Resignification for Butler is inherent within the act of subverting familiar cultural norms. Butler’s formulation of the cultural operation of power does not concede that a construct—such as the notion of natural gender with essential qualities and characteristics—is outside of culture or prior to culture and that, therefore, such constructs cannot be conceived as incontrovertible. In a simple example, resignification as re-functioning, or, umfunctionieren in Brecht, suggests that abusive terms in hate-speech can be returned to the speaker in a different form even when the intention of the utterer is to be, unmistakably, derogatory. The intercept works to defuse or inhibit the Austinian ‘uptake’ of the speech act dislocating the continuity of its performative force. The dislocation then becomes the condition upon which the terms meaning itself can be resignified as something other than that which the speaker intended. As Butler notes

            More generally this suggests that the changeable power of such terms marks a kind of discursive performativity that is not a discrete series of speech acts, but a ritual chain of resignification whose origin and end remain unfixed and fixable. In this sense, an “act” is not a momentary happening, but a certain nexus of temporary horizons, the condensation of an iterability that exceeds the moment it occasions.21

In view of this I would like to explore the idea that Brecht’s concept of Gestus can be thought as a ritual chain of signifiers, that is, as representing cultural norms through images. As mentioned, Gestus refers to the physical manifestation—appearance on and of the body—of the multifarious social attitudes and comportments developed by individuals and groups as momentary, temporary or permanently inculcated responses or reflexes to social conditions and relations. Gestus in Brecht can refer simultaneously to the broad and the specific—a signification with intricate but resounding impact—becoming a component of the palette of techniques used in dramaturgy, each component working in different ways to subvert normative perspectives. Gestus can be seen as a condensed historicity, a glimpse into the effects of performative forces which in turn provide insight into the extensive generative power of performativity. At the very least Gestus can show performative acts in operation, as well as the runaway capacity to produce endless fabrications—extreme and comical—of natural, normal, familiar occurrences which, in aesthetic contexts, must be de-familiarized through various forms of Verfremdungseffekte in order to be seen to occur at all.

            For instance, an action that quotes an unfamiliar attribute of gender can become a destabilizing and dislocating experience. With reference to Brecht’s dramaturgy in the early plays, this type of action serves as a signifier of contradiction. Butler contends

The loss of the sense of the normal can be its own occasion for laughter, especially when the normal, the original is revealed to be a copy, and an inevitably failed one, an ideal that no one can embody. In this sense laughter emerges in the realization that all along the original was derived.22

At this point I would like to refer to Brecht’s tribute to George Bernard Shaw and the observation that ‘he knows just how much courage is needed to laugh at what is amusing, and how much seriousness to pick it out.’23

            In brief, the Verfremdungseffekt for Brecht and de-familiarization for Butler are processes by which accepted views and categories can be made strange by exploring the axiomatic, or, foundational, in order to reconfigure those views into that which is questionable and therefore open to challenge. A simple example can be found in Butler’s early work focused on gender and heteronormativity, wherein Butler presents the argument that there is no pregendered being, ‘no illusion of an abiding gendered self.’24 If we accept that there is no ‘abiding gendered self’ it follows that there can be no natural being, and no preformed plan. This can become the basis for problematizing the different attributes of the natural and the cultural. Brecht’s dramaturgy can be seen as a similar, albeit crude process, using a different grammar. The first theorisation of his method is indeed framed as a process, not a fixed formula wherein theatre as agency is presented as a form of thinking.

            The final section of this chapter explores the possibility that Butler’s theory of performativity can be aligned with Brecht’s early use of the concept of Gestus and historicity to show how a series of acts, patterns of behaviour and utterances, that are repeated and demonstrated over time, form, in mundane ways, in banal environments and circumstances, an array of what can be seen as fabrications, that is, copies that are merely founded as originals, models of that which are not and never have been.

3.  Butler - subject formation and ‘performer’ agency

As previously outlined, Brecht’s argument for the effectiveness of Gestus focuses on at least three separate facets, the first being the learning process of actors as they research their character’s subject position, their attitude to others and their circumstances, or, conditions. The second factor to note is that Brecht wanted his actors to relate the entirety—the full extent—of a situation. Finally, Brecht proposed that the actor could ‘master’ a character through observation while conceding that ‘pure imitation’ of what has been observed is not enough as ‘the original says what it has to say with too subdued a voice.’ The second factor has already been explored and relates to Derrida’s critique of Austin’s notion that it is possible to determine a total context and background conditions. The first premise, the learning process of the actor, indicates advocacy for training that extends beyond the notion that performers should be interpreters, or, instruments of the writer’s words according a director’s sense of how a script should be realized. Instead, it indicates that acting develops in accord with the nature of the material and the performer’s relationship with the material. An actor training method and director’s interpretation that imposes itself on material with which it is at odds creates an array of problems.            

That Brecht eventually established his own company with Helene Weigel in 1949, and participated fully in every aspect of the ‘creative’ process may lend weight to this speculation. The Berliner Ensemble started as a touring company auspiced by the Deutches Theatre but re-established itself in the Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm in 1954, two years before Brecht died. The Threepenny Opera [Die Dreigroschenoper] was first performed at the Schiffbauerdamm in 1928. The learning process as described by Brecht, is as important to the development of the person who is the artist as it is to the ability of the artist to show their artform. Brecht’s view was that ‘every art contributes to the greatest art of all, the art of living,’25 and that the theatre through necessity should ‘remain something entirely superfluous, though this indeed means that it is the superfluous for which we live. Nothing needs less justification than pleasure.’26 Thus, to facilitate agency, the opinions of the actor need not be suppressed during performance, or, foreclosed by performance.

            Of course the audience would not forget Laughton if he attempted the full change of personality, in that they would admire him for it; but they would in that case miss his own opinions and sensations, which would have been completely swallowed up by the character. He would have taken its opinions and sensations and made them his own, so that a single homogeneous pattern would emerge, which he would then make ours. In order to prevent this abuse the actor must also put some artistry into the act of showing.27

This excerpt from the ‘Organum’ shows both Brecht’s desire to disrupt the appearance of continuity and homogeneity—seamlessness—in the actor’s performance and the importance of performer agency to Brecht’s understanding. It also establishes the difference between Stanislavski’s formulation of the actor’s relationship to the character which attempts an impossible erasure of the person who is the artist. Brecht’s views on acting as a form of agency can be traced to the 1920s through an interview with Brecht written in the Berliner Börsen-Courier.

            The actors always score great successes in your plays. Are you                            yourself satisfied with them?


Because they act badly?

No. Because they act wrong.

How ought they to act then?

For an audience of the scientific age.

What does that mean?

Demonstrating their knowledge.

Knowledge of what?

Of human relations, of human behaviour, of human capacities.

All right; that’s what they need to know. But how are they to demonstrate it?

Consciously, suggestively, descriptively.

How do they do it at present?

By means of hypnosis. They go into a trance and take the audience with them.28

Brecht goes on to say that a leave-taking scene, for instance, should have the ‘ceremonious’ features of ‘ritual.’ The emphasis here is on how acts and utterances occur and how these acts and utterances are the effect of what has already taken place. Agency can be linked to consciousness, and ritual is linked to Butler’s theory of performativity. Before exploring what may seem to be a possible conflict between performer agency and ritual, Brecht’s third premise needs to be considered. The third premise is founded on the actor’s ability to ‘construct’ a character through observation. As has been noted Brecht wrote that,

The actor observes his fellow men with all his nerves and muscles in an act of imitation which is at the same time a process of the mind. For pure imitation would only bring out what had been observed; and this is not enough, because the original says what it has to say with too subdued a voice.29

This section of the ‘Organum’ contains a number of significant facets of Brecht’s thinking, the first being that he links the act of observation and imitation to conscious intent, ‘processes of the mind,’ prior to noting that mere imitation brought about through observation cannot capture the subtleties, ‘the subdued voice’, of the ‘original’, the focus of the observation. In order to avoid caricature Brecht advises the actor to consider that the one being observed is showing the observer something of themselves, something that they want the observer to know. In the following section of the ‘Organum’ Brecht challenges the actor not to be a mere mimic.

            Unless the actor is satisfied to be a parrot or a monkey he must                          master our period’s knowledge of human social life by himself                                     joining in the war of the classes [...] mankind’s highest decisions are in fact fought out on earth, not in the heavens; in the ‘external’ world, not inside people’s heads.30

These formulations assume that observation and imitation can be isolated as processes of consciousness; that there is an ‘original’, complete person to observe and imitate; and that what is being observed, is, first, able to be, both shown and then imitated, and second, that what is shown is all that is known. I am alluding here to the question of self-knowledge and the limits of self-knowledge. Finally, Brecht assumes that the battleground, the political site, is located outside of the body and that aspects of sociality can be explained through the action of power on the body. In many ways the latter assumptions deny the possibilities inherent in the plays.

            From the above I suggest that while there are limits to Brecht’s sense of Gestus the premise can be extended and expanded through Butler’s work. At this point the question of a possible conflict between performer agency and ritual needs to re-emerge and be considered within the theory of subject formation. It is, therefore, appropriate to reiterate the aspect of performativity that refers to ritual.

Performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of the body, understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration.31

While attention is immediately drawn to the impossible challenge of representing this formulation aesthetically, its significance cannot be ignored. Identifying aspects of performativity through textual analysis is completely different to the somewhat easier task of identifying and representing the performative force of an act or utterance in a performance.

For the writer and the actor there appears to be a conflict between the notion of agency, and the theory of performativity. As has been noted, autonomous forms of agency are problematized by both the theory of performativity and the theory of subject formation. If the agency of the individual appears to be limited by the theory of performativity, forms of agency can be assumed through a practice, or a set of practices, which align to a particular discourse. In this way the practice, the work, the act, becomes the change.

            Ritual and repetition would seem to be the elements that have the potential to make performativity intelligible—rather than observable—in an aesthetic situation. If a subject is always incomplete—always in a state of being formed and never an original—the complexity of the process is not only a story told ‘with too subdued a voice’, it is not able to be communicated through the techniques devised by Brecht alone but with Butler.

 Jena Zelezny 2008/2009  

1.  Bertolt Brecht, ‘Short Organum for the Theatre’ (1948), in BT, 179-80.

2.  Brecht, ‘Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction’ (c1936), in BT, 71.

3.  Loren Kruger ‘Keywords and Contexts: Translating Theatre Theory’ in Theatre Journal, (2007), 59:3, 358.

4.  Reinhold Grimm quoted in Fuegi, Essential Brecht (1972), 190.

5.  Karl Marx, ‘Estranged Labour’ in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), trans. Martin Milligan, !961.

6.  Loren Kruger ‘Keywords and Contexts: Translating Theatre Theory’ in Theatre Journal, (2007), 59:3, 357.

7.  Brecht, ‘Short Organum’ in BT, ¶50, 194.

8.  Brecht, ibid ¶59, 197. A reference to Hegel’s Lord and bondsman metaphor.

9.  Ibid., ¶60, 198.

10.  Ibid., ¶61-62, 198.

11.  Ibid., ¶54, 196.

12.  Elin Diamond, ‘Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism’ (1988) in TDR, 32:1, 82.

13.  Ibid., 83.

14.  Ibid., 83.

15.  Ibid., 84.

16.  Ibid., 86.

17.  Brecht, ‘Short Description of a New Technique of Acting which Produces an Alienation Effect’ (1940), in BT 137.

NB. Willett’s contentious translation of the Verfremdungseffekt as alienation.

18.  Diamond, ibid., 90.

19.  Judith Butler, Excitable Speech (1997), 99.

20.  Shannon Jackson, Professing performance: Theatre in the Academy from Philology to Performativity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004)190-1.

21.  Butler, ES, 14.

22.  Butler, GT, 176.

23.  Brecht, ‘Tribute to Shaw’ (1926), in BT, 10.

24.  Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’ in Theatre Journal, vol. 40:4 (December 1988), 519.

25.  Brecht, Appendices to ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’, ¶4, BT 277.

26.  Ibid., ¶3, 181.

27.  Brecht, ‘Organum’ ¶49, 194.

28.  Brecht, ‘A Dialogue about Acting’ (1929) BT, 26.

29.  Brecht, ‘Organum’ ¶54, 196.

30.  Ibid., ¶55, 196.

31. Butler, GT, xv.



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