- Brecht and Postmodernism
Ordinary industries have to modernize in order to survive: academic industries postmodernize. The Brecht-industry is a case in point. It has hit upon a felicitous idea: the marketing of Brecht as a postmodernist avant la lettre. He comes neatly packaged as the “Other Brecht.” Brecht est mort, vive l’Autre Brecht!—which translates as Brecht the modernist and man of the Enlightenment is dead, long live Brecht the postmodernist! A manifesto buzzing with postmodernist obsessions calls for new perspectives on the Brechtian oeuvre: on “Brechtian jouissance, the surreal, the obscene, death, violence, discontinuities, indeterminacies and ‘reading shocks’ in Brecht’s works, as well as the paradoxes and pulsions composing their doubtful truths.” Of particular interest are “readings of the ‘other Brecht’ . . . against the fetish of the signature, of fixed identities and stable meanings,” striking the most pronouncedly postmodern note: the “espousal of self-lessness” (Ihab Hassan). Henceforth expect the commodities of the Brecht industry to be variations of “Strategies of Transgression and Subversion: Desire, Discourse, Power, and the Other in B.B.”
The “postmodern” has been around for some time, yet is still an elusive term that has proved unpropitious to definers. It has become, as Umberto Eco has noted in the postscript to The Name of the Rose, “a term bon à tout faire . . . . applied today to anything the user happens to like”; and is made “increasingly retroactive,” until “the postmodern category will include Homer.” So ill-defined is the term that one of its theorists could list twelve different postmodernisms. Yet despite this confusion, it is possible to grasp some defining elements of postmodernism; and its appropriation of Brecht will help in this. [End Page 44]
First, let me discard the false appropriations. They concern the mature Brecht. Some authors had previously transcribed central features of Brecht’s dialectical theatre into postmodernist terms: the concept of the “epic theatre” becomes an instance of the leveling of genre-distinctions; the estrangement effect is said to negate identity and call attention to the fictionality of the texts; the montage-structure of epic drama translates into the celebration of discontinuity and rupture; the open-endedness of the plays is made to signify refusal of closure pointing to the indeterminacy and undecidability of meaning; in Brecht’s concept of “alienated acting” the postmodern theorist discerns differentially constructed meaning: that which is done and shown by the actors connotes that which is not being done and shown. Finally, Brecht’s notorious borrowings from other authors, commonly decried as plagiarisms, become instances of intertextuality! Montage, open form, mixing of genres, constructivism, fragmentation, irony, conscious fictionality, self-reflexivity—in short, the daily bread of the Brechtian theatre—mark his mature oeuvre as High Modernism. The facile transcription of its key terms into the theoretical idiom of postmodernism calls to mind Louise Young’s wicked quip that the advances in critical theory consist largely in renaming.
With the aid of such renaming Roland Barthes, Terry Eagleton, and Linda Hutcheon found it easy to claim the High Modernism of the mature Brecht for postmodernism: a striking instance of what Eco calls the retroactive use of the term. But it is a tad too facile, the arguments too tenuous, and the claims therefore too sweeping, to be in any way convincing. The mature Brecht remains recalcitrant to postmodernizing; and Janelle Reinelt has shown why: in his later work, she writes, a new form of the subject emerges, a “subject-in-process,” which makes it “quite incompatible with . . . the truth-denying aspects of deconstruction.” It is, however, different with the early Brecht: postmodernist appropriations of him are more specific and do have a fundamentum in re. When Elizabeth Wright claims the early Brecht as a “deconstructionist avant la lettre,” chiefly for his decentering critique and ultimate erasure of individuality and selfhood, she has a point. From Baal to the didactic plays (Lehrstücke) as well as in the lyrical work of this period, the motifs of oblivion and evanescence, of expiring and of dissolution, of blotting out and of obliterating traces of existence, are prominent and crystallize progressively in the theme of the dismantling of the subject—hence the keen interest of Brecht’s...