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boundary 2 30.1 (2003) 51-66

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Reception in Distraction

Howard Eiland

I take my title from a passage near the end of Benjamin's essay on the technological reproducibility of the work of art. Benjamin italicizes the sentence: "Reception in distraction [Die Rezeption in der Zerstreuung]—the sort of reception which is increasingly noticeable in all areas of art and is a symptom of profound changes in apperception—finds in film its true training ground [Ðbungsinstrument]." 1 I would like, in what follows, to highlight a certain inconsistency (if I can put it that way) in Benjamin's handling of the concept of distraction, a variance in his attitude toward the concept, and I would like to show how two separate attitudes involved here—one prominently [End Page 51] exemplified in his writings on Bertolt Brecht and the other in the work of art essay—are both reflected in The Arcades Project. I shall refer, provisionally, to the first of these attitudes as "negative," and to the second as "positive," but it should be kept in mind that, especially in the case of the artwork essay and The Arcades, the notion of distraction operates in a peculiarly slippery manner, such as very likely makes this one of the more elusive of Benjaminian topoi. It is at its slipperiest where it bears on the theory of montage.

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The "negative" view of distraction is enunciated in Benjamin's discussion of Brecht's epic theater in two pieces from the early thirties: the magazine article "Theater and Radio," from 1932, and the famous (possibly undelivered) lecture from 1934, "The Author as Producer." In both texts Benjamin distinguishes epic theater from the big-city "theater of convention," which, in its complementary functions of cultivation and distraction, Bildung and Zerstreuung (the latter might also be translated here as "entertainment"), caters to a "sated class," as he says, "for which everything it touches becomes a stimulant." 2 In the epic theater, on the other hand, a certain concrete pedagogics takes the place of sensationalism, Schulung replaces Bildung (that is, "training"—the training of expert judgment—replaces "culture"), and instead of distraction there is "group formation" [Gruppierung], which refers to the formation of both a well-informed audience and a highly trained ensemble of performers on the basis of a set of shared social and political concerns translated on the stage to a series of radically distinct, thought-provoking "actions"—what Brecht calls the "knotting" of the incidents. 3 Zerstreuung thus has the sense of "divertissement" here, of complacent diversion. Rather than such a bald appeal to the emotions—above all, to the capacity for empathy, for identifying with characters—epic theater engenders critical distance; rather than soothing or warming its audience, it seeks to astonish them through the well-known "alienation effect," [End Page 52] which, by making ordinary objects and actions seem strange, renders them conspicuous and encourages audience and actor alike to reflect on them. Discovery through alienation—"communication by alienation" (ST, 169; BT, 202)—these are Brecht's formulas for the new experimental theater that he and others (such as the directors V. E. Meyerhold and Erwin Piscator) have established, one where the development of plot gives way to the "lightning-like" (GS, 2:530) illumination of situations and where performance becomes critique. As Benjamin puts it in the first of two essays entitled "What Is Epic Theater?" (1931), "The discovery of situations is accomplished by means of the interruption of sequences" (GS, 2:522). Benjamin lays emphasis on the principle of interruption, which, with its "retarding character" (a term derived from Schlegel and Novalis), 4 makes for the distinctively punctuated, intermittent rhythm of Brechtian drama. Whether by means of the sudden intervention of song, the use of captions, or what Brecht calls the gestic conventions of the actors, this interruption of sequences creates gaps that undermine the audience's illusion of a "world" on the stage and make room for critical reflection, including the possibility of imagining, as Brecht says, "a different set of political and economic conditions" (ST, 242–43; BT, 86) under which the actions on...


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