- A Critical Response to Heidi M. Silcox’s “What’s Wrong with Alienation?”
In the April 2010 edition of Philosophy and Literature, an article appeared entitled “What’s Wrong with Alienation?” by Heidi M. Silcox. In this article, Silcox makes an analogy between great German Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht’s estrangement effects and the psychological phenomenon of imaginative resistance. Silcox attempts to debunk Brecht’s theory that his theatrical and literary techniques could cause the audience to experience their present reality in radically new and meaningful ways. Specifically, she argues that since Brecht’s dramaturgy rejects empathy, his work completely detaches the audience from the performance, leaving them unengaged and thus unable to form significant responses. According to Silcox, emotional engagement with artistic communications is necessary for lasting impressions to form and didactic intention to be successful. She finds emotional engagement lacking in Brecht’s work and then presents empirical evidence that purports to substantiate her claim.
Most research on Brecht has come from literary and theatrical perspectives or language studies. This research, therefore, reflects the interests of those disciplines and primarily seeks to speak to the literatures in those respective fields. As a consequence, much of the scholarship on [End Page 243] Brecht is formalistic and focuses primarily on the structure or form of the text.1 Recent work, however, has attempted to bring the study of Brecht beyond formalistic approaches in an effort to expand the purview of Brechtian scholarship by exploring him primarily as a Marxist philosopher.2 Silcox’s work is important because it goes beyond formalism and attempts to engage Brecht’s ideas from a new perspective.
However, several fatal pathologies in her theoretical conceptualization and empirical data leave her conclusions largely invalid. For example, Silcox makes several false assumptions about Brecht’s theory of estrangement. First, she assumes that Brecht’s work is meant to completely negate emotional response. This is not the case. As Brecht himself says, his epic theater was not meant to completely eliminate emotional response. He states, “Some people have read into [my theory] the notion that I come out ‘against emotion and in favor of the intellect.’ This of course is not the case. I don’t see how thought and feeling can be kept apart.”3 Brecht recognizes the importance of emotional response, saying that “the epic principles guarantee a critical attitude on the part of the audience, but that attitude is highly emotional.”4 Furthermore, this notion is found elsewhere in Brecht’s writings5 and is also recognized by many preeminent Brecht scholars.6 What epic theater attempted to do was eliminate one particular emotional response: full empathy with the protagonist. This, Brecht believed, would allow the audience to have an emotional response based on a critical and rational assessment of what they had seen.7
Second, Silcox incorrectly assumes that Brecht’s estrangement effects were designed to alienate the audience from the performance. In fact, Brecht wanted the audience to be engaged with the performance. He required attentiveness and personal, intellectual commitment to it. The estrangement Brecht desired was an internal estrangement from one’s current Weltanschauung or worldview.8 This misconception is likely a result of Silcox’s failure to make a distinction between alienation (Entfremdung) and estrangement (Verfremdung). Brecht, of course, uses the term Verfremdungeffekt (estrangement effect). Bloch draws a precise and accurate definition of Verfremdung. According to Bloch, while Verfremdung and Entfremdung “are bound together by the alien,” the former is the idea of making the familiar strange—as Brecht does with his Verfremdungseffekt.9 Verfremdung connotes a defamiliarized conceptualization, whereas Entfremdung only implies a distancing, as Feuerbach uses it, to indicate a moving away from one’s true self; Marx uses the term to indicate the moving away of one’s labor product from one’s self. [End Page 244] Brecht’s use of Verfremdung and not Entfremdung indicates that the moving away or distancing he sought through these effects was a distancing of familiar conceptualization, not, as Silcox implies, a distancing of the audience from the play’s performance and its content.
Finally, Silcox assumes that the primary idea of Brecht’s text in his epic...