The Viewer's Dialectic, part 2

by Tomás Gutierrez Alea 
translated by Julia Lesage

from Jump Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp. 48-53
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1985, 2005

We are pleased to present here the second part of Tomás Gutierrez Alec's essay, "The Viewer's Dialectic." The first part appeared in JUMP CUT No. 29 (which you can obtain by sending $2.00 (US$2.50 abroad) to P.O. Box 865, Berkeley, CA, 94701. The final part of "The Viewer's Dialectic," in which Gutierrez Alea carefully analyzes his own film, MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT, will appear in JUMP CUT, No. 32. The complete translation is also available from the Center for Cuban Studies, New York.


Spectacle is essentially a phenomenon destined for contemplation.

People, reduced momentarily to the condition of spectators, contemplate a peculiar phenomenon, the characteristic traits of which indicate the unusual, the extraordinary, the exceptional, the beyond the ordinary.

Certain real phenomena — natural or social phenomena — can indeed manifest themselves spectacularly: wars, mass demonstrations, natural forces unleashed, grandiose landscapes. They constitute a spectacle insofar as they break down the habitual image we have of reality. They offer an unfamiliar image, a magnified and revealing one, to the people contemplating them — the spectators. And just as reality can manifest itself spectacularly, so too real spectacle, the kind people provide for themselves in play or in artistic expression, can be more or less spectacular in the degree to which it distances itself from or draws closer to daily reality. But in any case, spectacle exists as such in the function of the spectator. By definition spectators are people who contemplate and whose condition is determined not just by the characteristics of the phenomenon they are looking at, but rather by the position that they as individuals (subjects) occupy in relation to it. People can be actors or spectators facing the sane phenomenon.

What does it mean to call the spectator a passive being? In a general sense, not only all knowledge, but also the entire complex of interests and values that comprise consciousness, are shaped and developed, both socio-historically and individually. This follows a process that has as its point of departure the moment of looking (sensory consciousness). It culminates in the moment of rational or theoretical consciousness. We can say, therefore, that the condition of being a spectator is a fundamental one. It's a moment in the process of the subject's appropriating or interiorizing reality — a reality that includes, of course, the cultural sphere as a product of specific human activity.

But clearly contemplation itself doesn't consist of a simple, passive appropriation by the individual. It responds to people's needs to improve the conditions of their lives. It already bears within it a certain activity. There can be more or less activity, which does not just depend on subjects and their social and historical locus. It also depends on the peculiarities of the contemplated object. What I wish to investigate is how such specific features can constitute a stimulus for unleashing in viewers activity of another order, a resulting action that surpasses the spectacle.

When I refer to "contemplative" spectators, I mean ones who don't move beyond the passive-contemplative level. Correspondingly, "active" spectators, taking the moment of lived contemplation as their point of departure, generate a process of critically understanding reality (including, of course, the spectacle), and thus they generate a practical, transforming action.

Viewers looking at a spectacle are faced with the product of a creative process that produced a fictional image. That product also began with objective reality. Thus, a spectacle can be directly contemplated as an object in and of itself, as a product of practical human activity. But viewers can also refer to the content, which is more or less objective, which the spectacle reflects. Then the spectacle functions as a mediation in the process of understanding reality.

When a relation is produced only at the first level, that is, when spectacle is contemplated merely as an object in and of itself and nothing more, "contemplative" spectators can satisfy their need for enjoyment and aesthetic pleasure. But they express that activity fundamentally in accepting or rejecting the spectacle; they do not go beyond the cultural plane. Here, the cultural plane is offered to people as a simple object of consumption. Any reference to the social reality that shapes culture is reduced to an affirmation of cultural values or, in a few cases, to a complacent "critique."

In capitalist society, the typical consumerist film spectacle is the light comedy or melodrama. It has invariably had "a happy end." This has provided, and to a certain degree continues to provide, a rather efficient ideological weapon to promote and consolidate conformity among huge sectors of the public. First, there's a plot. In its numerous situations, we are made to feel that the stable values of society are threatened, via the persona of the hero who incarnates those values, and which, on an ideological plane, conform to the character's appearance. That is to say, those are the values which (people almost never understand why this happens) have been converted into sacred ideas and objects of worship and veneration. These include fatherland as an abstract notion, private property, religion, and generally all that constitutes bourgeois morality. In the end those values are saved. We leave the viewing room with the sensation that everything's ok, that we don't need to change anything. One veil after another has been drawn over reality. That means people can't be happy but have to convert something that could be a diverting game and healthy entertainment into an effort to evade things. Such a process throws individual, trapped viewers into a net of relations that will keep them from self-knowledge and full self-development.

If spectacle is used as a refuge when people are faced with a hostile reality, then it can only collaborate with all the factors that maintain that reality. The spectacle acts as a pacifier, an escape valve. It shapes contemplative viewers as they face reality. The mechanism is so obvious and transparent, it's been denounced with tenacious frequency.[5] [open notes in new window] Critics have proposed many ways out of this immensely irritating situation, which inverts viewers' role as subjects and converts them into the sad state of being objects.

The happy end was discredited within a reality whose mere appearance disproved the rose-colored image sold to people. So artists had to acquire other more sophisticated mechanisms. The most spectacular tactic, surely, was the "happening." Such an art form takes the spectator into the play at a level that is presumably corrosive for an alienating and repressive society. Not only does the happening propose to give spectators an opportunity to participate, but it even drags them in against their will and involves then in "provocative" and "subversive" actions. But all this goes on, of course, clearly within the spectacle. There anything can happen and many things (even women, in the extreme cases) can be damaged. What dominates is the unusual, the unexpected, surprise, and exhibitionism. Beyond all that, we could find a valuable ritual that helped shape people to behave in a determined way. Generally, it'd be very entertaining, above all for those who would abandon themselves to the luxury of looking at things as if from above because undoubtedly that'd give them a certain kind of relief. In spite of the happening's truculent and disquieting appearance, it might just be an ingenious expedient. In the final instance, it helps to prolong the situation, not to change anything. It's like going hunting while those below are getting together collectively.

The film spectacle, of course, has no room for this kind of resource, which would facilitate or provoke people's "participation" on the basis of complete rupture. Nevertheless, the problem of spectators' participation still persists. It demands a solution that's within — or better, based on — the cinematic spectacle itself. Looking at this problem, we can see clearly the simplistic focus that too often was used to treat it. First of all, our uneasiness about the spectators' position reveals something we frequently forgot but which nevertheless may be an axiomatic truth: the answer which interests viewers is not just that which they get from inside the spectacle, but rather that which they ought to get from confronting reality. That is to say, people are fundamentally interested in real participation, not an illusory one.

During periods of relative calm in a class society, there's minimal individual social participation. In one way or another, individuals become manipulated like mere objects through physical, moral and ideological coercion. Individual activity takes place only within the framework of the direct production of material goods, which mainly serve to meet the exploited class' necessities. Individual action outside this framework is illusory.

However, at those times that the class struggle is exacerbated, the level of people's general participation grows. At the same time, a leap occurs in the development of social consciousness. In those moments of rupture — extraordinary moments — spectacular acts occur within social reality. Confronted with those, individuals take a stand in conformity with their own interests. Without doubt, it's above all in these circumstances that we see revealed what Aimé Cesaire discussed as the "sterile attitude of being a spectator."[6]

This means that reality demands that people make up their minds when faced with it, and that demand is fundamental to people's relation to the world at any given time, across all of history. We can assume as a principle that the world doesn't satisfy people, so people decide to change it through their activity. (V.I. Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks) But we must remember that that human activity, that taking a stand which gets translated into practical, transformative action, is conditioned by the type of social relations existing at any given moment. And in our case, in a society where we're constructing socialism, reality also demands decisive activity and a growing level of social participation from all those individuals who compose this society. This process is only possible if accompanied by a parallel development in social consciousness.

The cinematic spectacle is inscribed within that process insofar as it reflects a tendency of the social conscience that incorporates the spectators themselves and insofar as it can affect the spectators as a stimulus, or as an obstacle, for consequent action. And when I speak about the consequent action, I am referring to this specific type of participation, historically and socially conditioned, a concrete participation which implies that people are responding adequately to the problems of social reality, especially those problems located on the ideological and political plane. What this is about, then, is stimulating and causing spectators to act in the sense of historical movement, and to shape social development.

To provoke such a response in the spectator, reality must be made problematic within the spectator. It has to express and transmit uneasiness and open up questions. That is to say, we need an open spectacle.

But the concept of "openness" is too broad. It can be located at any level at which the artistic work operates. In and of itself, openness doesn't guarantee an effective participation on the spectator's part. However, we may have an open spectacle that provokes an uneasiness which isn't just aesthetic restlessness as its source of pleasure. It may pose conceptual or ideological dislocations. Then it becomes (without ceasing to be play, in the sense that it's all still spectacle) a serious operation because it is descending to the most profound level of reality.

Nevertheless, to gain the greatest efficacy and functionality, it is not enough that work be open — in the sense of indeterminate. The work itself must bear those premises that can bring the spectator to discern reality. That is to say, it pushes spectators into the path of truth, into coming to a dialectical consciousness about reality. Then it could operate as a real guide for action. We don't have to confuse openness with ambiguity, inconsistency, eclecticness or arbitrariness.

What can the artist depend on so as to conceive of a spectacle that would not just propose problems but would also point viewers in the direction they ought to go in order to discover for themselves a higher level of discernment? Undoubtedly art must make use of science's development of instruments for its investigative tasks. Art must apply all of the methodological resources at hand and all it can gain from information theory, linguistics, psychology, sociology, etc. Spectacle, insofar as it becomes a negative pole of the reality-fiction relation, ought to develop an apt strategy for each circumstance. Practically, spectators cannot be considered as abstractions, but rather as people who are historically and socially conditioned. In this way, the spectacle must address itself first of all to concrete spectators, in the face of whom it must unfold its operative potential to the fullest.


We see Tarzan jumping from tree to tree, daring to swim a river full of crocodiles, running through arrows that his enemies rain down on him. His enemies are black people who hold his female companion prisoner. Tarzan sends a huge cry into the jungle and brings the animals to help him. The monkey Cheeta participates, exteriorizing more than any of the others the various emotional states that the adventure provokes (displeasure, unhappiness, fear, trust, joy, enthusiasm). Tarzan finally smiles. He's killed a few black men and driving the rest away, and he's finally rescued his woman.

Confronting the screen where those scenes are projected (and it's been like this for a long time everywhere in the world), the audience might have both blacks and whites in it. All vibrate in unison, holding their breath in the moments of greatest danger and feeling happy at the end, when Tarzan kisses his woman and Cheeta applauds.

What's been going on? Through what mechanism can you get this kind of undifferentiated mass public, composed of people of all ages, colors, professions, sexes, classes, etc.? They all seem to feel the same emotions regarding an action whose profound significance threatens the moral integrity of at least a good part of that very audience. What causes that profound significance not to go further into the level of people's consciousness? Up to what point can viewers' class consciousness sleep during the moment of the spectacle?

Some assume, with the greatest of good will, that if we substitute a revolutionary hero for Tarzan, we could get more people to adhere to the revolutionary cause. But they do not understand that the very mechanism of identification or empathy with the hero, if he's made into an absolute, fixes the spectator at a point where the only thing that person can distinguish is the "bad" and the "good." Of course, viewers naturally identify with the "good," without considering what the character represents. So it's intrinsically reactionary because it doesn't work at the level of the viewers' consciousness. Far from it, it keeps consciousness asleep. (Communication occurs on every possible level, and expressive resources are valid to the degree that they are effective, no matter what channel they resort to. But what happens when identification is resorted to unconditionally is that it blocks the step to rational communication. In this sense, its operation is reactionary, no matter if directed towards revolutionary goals.) And we should note that all theater, both before and after Brecht, based itself to a certain degree on that resource.

Bertolt Brecht, whom we could justifiably nickname "the scourge of the entrancers," most systematically called our attention to identification, which has been used in Western theater since ancient Greece and which has limited extraordinarily spectacle's social function (political and ideological). Brecht understood these issues as only a German Marxist might who experienced in his youth the entire process of the ever more acute class struggle between the two world wars, with the subsequent rise of fascism. He set in opposition what he called a non-Aristotelian dramaturgy to traditional concepts, which he said were based on identification.

"We can define as Aristotelian dramaturgy (a definition from which we will derive a definition of non-Aristotelian dramaturgy) all drama which fits the definition of tragedy contained in Aristotle's Poetics … From the social point of view, most interesting is the goal Aristotle attributes to tragedy: catharsis, emptying the spectator of all fear and pity, through actions which provoke fear and pity, This emptying out is achieved by a very specific psychological act: viewers' emotional identification with dramatic characters, recreated by actors. We'll call drama Aristotelian when it produces this identification, whether or not it uses the rules furnished by Aristotle to achieve that effect."

Further on, he writes,

"We must assume that [catharsis] is based on some form of identification. Because a free and critical position among spectators, oriented toward purely earthly solutions for problems, could not rest on the base of catharsis." (Brecht, Writing on Theatre)

Perhaps it would be useful to define more precisely certain shadings among these concepts. Catharsis is equivalent to an emptying, a discharge, so much so that identification leads to the idea of swept away, of involvement; that is, emotional discharge through affective involvement. Brecht claimed — following Aristotle — that it's a matter of emptying the spectator of all fear and pity through actions that provoke fear and pity. On the other hand, we can prove historically that this operation (like the counter fires ignited along the boundaries of a forest fire to halt it) has had and continues to have a primary function in theater and in spectacle in general — regulating the limits within which certain passions can be presented and sometimes impending the "fire" in spectators from extending beyond the spectacle itself. Thus we must be more cautious about openly proclaiming a kind of dry law that would assume to throw out of the theater a resource that has had such a sustained acceptance.

For Brecht, the basic resource of Aristotelian dramaturgy, used throughout the history of Western theatre, that is, identification, was an obstacle to developing viewers' critical sense and "purely terrestrial solutions for their problems." Indeed, the theater of the era in which Brecht happened to live — the fully imperialist phase of capitalism, maintained itself within canons which served to reinforce the dominant ideology and oppose the coming of revolution. To convert theater into something different, it was necessary to break with those schemes. Thus arose the idea of keeping spectators at a sufficient distance from the work so that they couldn't be limited by the fascination by which the hero's personality might exercise over them. At the same time, they should be sufficiently drawn in so that they wouldn't lose interest in what the spectacle was posing on the rational plane. That is, it's almost a tightrope operation, but many have wanted to understand it too simplistically as rejecting all of identification's resources.

The distancing effect that Brecht proclaimed is, in fact, a rupture within the process of identification and prevents it from culminating. It does this in a way so that spectators do not abandon themselves but conserve their lucidity and critical facilities. Really, the distancing effect doesn't pretend to do anything but arrive at, or make the spectator arrive at, a state of astonishment or surprise in the face of daily reality. It's the precondition, the first and fundamental step for those who want to know. It tries to awaken in spectators that need to understand that which can only be grasped rationally. To understand reality objectively, you must separate yourself from it, distance yourself, not be implicated emotionally. Only in this way can — and should — a capacity for discernment be stimulated by spectacle.

Spectators discover new relations and a new meaning about all that which is familiar. "What's known in general terms, precisely because it's known, is not recognized," said Hegel in Phenomenology of the Spirit. It is a question then of that which we do know, which forms part of our daily life, that which we're habituated to. It's being shown to us as something that we're seeing for the first time — in a way that makes surprise bloom, which creates astonishment and doubt. That is, it provokes a critical and penetrating attitude within spectators.

Some have understood this distancing effect as simply clamping down on the emotional process being developed within the spectacle. But the issue is more complex. The emotional process ought to remain in such a way that it's broken off and obliges spectators to seek compensation, still in the emotional plane. The distancing effect ought to substitute for just any emotion the specific emotion of discovering something, of finding a truth that had been obscured before because of fitting into daily life. And that's fundamental. Its goal is not just to distance spectators from the emotion which spectacle can produce, on the basis of a capricious aestheticism. Its goal is to reveal something new to those who think they do know. For this reason, it should accomplish that through separating out and valorizing in a new way those things that are familiar. This will only be possible if the spectators' interest is aroused so that they can come to feel, on the highest level, the emotion of rationally discovering some truth.

In film this oft-spoken-of distancing effect acquires specific modalities, still not fully explored. Just think about the simple fact that the camera can gather up isolated aspects of reality, just as daily reality presents itself to anybody. That same person is so familiar with everyday reality that s/he isn't used to going beyond appearances. In exchange for their capacity to adapt (undoubtedly a survival mechanism within a reality which is not always pleasant or easy, and never perfect), people as subjects have greatly lost to the impulse that would move them to transform reality. Nevertheless, when we see that reality on the screen, forming part of a spectacle, we see it with new eyes, in another context, and we cant fail to discover new meanings in it. This confrontation and the consequent "revelation" of new signification are no more than the seed of an attitude of "strangeness" vis-à-vis reality. It has blossomed exclusively from a purely situational act translating some isolated aspect of reality into another context. That constitutes the most elemental mechanism of distancing.

In film it's usually done in a less deliberate way than in theater, simply because the image which film captures of reality[7] is a "documentary" one. That image can much more easily create the illusion that one is facing reality itself. Montage creates associations. It does not just put together a series of images in unusual relations as an incentive to discover new meaning. It also can establish relations between sound and image (what Eisenstein described as "audio-visual counterpoint"), which constitute a specifically cinematic modality for creating distancing effects. But whether it's film or theater or any other kind of spectacle that presumes to use that effect, we can't forget that it is essentially a resource for revealing new data about reality, to penetrate into reality beyond its phenomenological immediacy. Therefore, it always ought to be an effect that renews itself, because once you make a mechanism of that sort habitual, then it becomes an everyday event and loses the chance to arouse the emotion of discovery.

Yet film also has its own peculiarities in terms of the phenomenon of identification. The very conditions of the film spectacle (images — lights and shadows — which move on the screen, sounds which envelop the spectator) help create a sensation of isolation even when viewers are in the middle of a crowd, which they don't listen to and don't look at. This tends to provoke in the spectator something very similar to a hypnotic state, a trance state in which consciousness can remain completely asleep. In that sense, film images can be compared to those of a shared dream. Consequently, their power of persuasion or suggestion reaches a dangerous level, since it can operate on any of the senses. Suggestion has traditionally served as a resource for one class' "appropriating" the consciousness of another.

Why is this phenomenon of identification produced? Is it an essential element of spectacle, or can spectacle dispense with it? Doesn't it form the very basis of that impulse which takes people to the movies — to see something which moves them and remove themselves for a few minutes from their daily lives, but also to experience something which lets them recognize themselves and see themselves from another angle? Certainly these "reflections" transcend the merely psychological. As Louis Althusser notes in For Marx,

"If this consciousness [the consciousness of the spectators themselves] cannot be reduced to a purely psychological consciousness, if it is a social, cultural and ideological consciousness, we cannot conceive its relation to the spectacle solely in the form of a psychological identification. Indeed, before (psychologically) identifying itself with the hero, the spectatorial consciousness recognizes itself in the ideological content of the play, and in the forms characteristic of this content. Before becoming the occasion for an identification (an identification with self in the species of another), the performance is, fundamentally, the occasion for a cultural and ideological recognition. This self-recognition presupposes as its principle an essential identity (which makes the processes of psychological identification possible, insofar as they are psychological): the identity uniting spectators and actors assembled in the same place on the same evening. Yes, we are first united by an institution — the performance, but more deeply, by the same myths, the same themes, which govern us without our consent, by spontaneously lived ideology." (English edition ed. and trans. by Ben Brewster; New York: Random House, 1970; pp. 150-151.)

What does this mean? If we all share an essential identity and if we are all united by the same myth, the some themes, which govern us without our paying attention to them, the (Aristotelian) spectacle normally tends to reinforce them. Even if it lays bare a criterion valorizing those myths, that is, even if they are explicitly criticized within the spectacle, that criticism will never attain much efficacy as long as the spectacle itself enacts that ideology in its external appearance, on its surface, in its immediacy.[8]

It's not enough, then, that the spectacle also bear clear ideas, revolutionary messages rationally projected upon the spectator, if the spectacle presents itself as an affirmation of those very myths which govern us without our paying attention to them and which constitute a serious obstacle for the full development (within reality, not within the spectacle) of those ideas and those messages. So that ideas don't remain imprisoned within the spectacle, the spectacle itself must demystify those aspects of reality that are manifestations — often inconsistent ones — of a reactionary ideology.

I want to put my emphasis here on the spectacle that seeks to make effective inroads on discovering reality's most profound layers — the demystifying spectacle — one which makes us advance another level in pursuing genuine consciousness. That is, the spectacle that produces a new spectator will be the one which does not exhaust itself exposing a criterion — no matter how revolutionary this criterion might be or seem, or one people could also arrive at via criticism or slogans or commonplaces.[9] Rather, such a spectacle thrusts spectators into the street chock full of uncertainties, with only the path indicated — the path they will have to pursue when they cease being spectators and become actors in their own life.

There's a paralyzing effect in criticizing reality but exhausting all action in the making of the critique. Such a mental process tends to consolidate the petit bourgeois mindset, in the sense that this thinking never generates practical action and does not impel people to revolutionary action but rather to decadent conformity. In the best cases, it leads to a kind of blue stocking reformism. In the final instance, it always bears within it an implicit accepting of social evil as something essentially immobile. And thus such criticism promotes utopian solutions or individual consolation. Pondering evil and its eternal character leads to resignation.[10]

"… all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism, by resolution into self-consciousness" or transformation into 'apparitions,' 'specters,' 'fancies,' etc. but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which gave rise to this idealistic humbug … not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history, also of religion, of philosophy and all other types of theory."[11]

Decadent myths are not just destroyed with words. The myths are an almost immovable force. You have to use force against them. And any demystifying operation implies the need to throw them out. That's why the spectacle that sets out in that direction has to do something more than just state its proposition. It has to confront viewers as they are, but in the middle of a new reality — that is, it's the same reality but with a new significance. And this ought to stir them up.

Mythology, insofar as it's an illusory understanding, can level everything and set itself up in the center of a world deprived of all reality, in the middle of a desert populated only by imaginary figures. These fantasies have to be dissipated before viewers can be made to face reality in new ways, i.e., to stop being spectators. In this way the spectacle itself can equally serve to create or reinforce myths or help destroy them. For centuries it has occupied itself almost exclusively with the first task. And surely it will keep on creating new myths, because that is also a constant human need. But at this historical moment, the most urgent task imposed on spectacle is demystification — a task which Brecht began in his plays and theoretical writings more than fifty years ago and which we have to continue to develop. We must continue to place new demands on the relation of spectacle to spectator.

We have already seen how viewers' class consciousness can remain asleep — momentarily defenseless — during the spectacle. That seems to be one of spectacle's obvious results when it incarnates a reactionary spirit and is the ideological product of an exploiting class consciousness — that is, when it's pure "ideology," in the narrow sense. The fascination commanded by the hero in an Aristotelian drama is a resource that can elevate spirits but which usually diminishes rational thinking. Of course, this has most effect in immature spectators — in children, vulnerable because of their age, or in any kind of adolescent consciousness. Surely when we speak about people, we can't absolutely postulate the specific moment of their development, as such. Mature people are qualitatively different from children or adolescents since every moment has its specificity. Nevertheless, for a long time now, the so-called "average spectator" has been established by North American cinema (the Hollywood leisure-time spectator) as a viewer of any age, but one whose mental age corresponds to age 12. Of course, any reference to those viewers' class consciousness is set aside because it's presumed that from the moment they encounter the spectacle, they stay asleep. At least that's what Hollywood film has aimed for and what it has largely achieved.

We can even include mature spectators with a developed class consciousness, spectators "of the scientific era" — as Brecht called them — as being susceptible to undergoing that regression during the moment of the spectacle. It happens to the degree that spectacle appeals to people's feelings, to their emotions, and to the degree that it does so effectively, with sufficient elegance and appeal — sorely disputed categories but ones which, without a doubt, have a relevant role to play in the ideological sphere.

Does this mean that those resources capable of provoking a state of fascination — especially psychological identification — ought to be tossed aside as the old garbage of an era (class society), which people should surpass as soon as possible all over the world? We know that because "fascism with its grotesque emphasis on the emotional" (as Brecht put it), could unleash insanity and gravely wound reason (which is still convalescing and not exactly recuperating, which is still vulnerable) and increase madness and barbarism to levels never before reached by humanity. Does this then mean that art, and specifically spectacle, ought to renounce feeling and emotion and all those resources that operate on this level, such as the resource of identification?

We know that not even Brecht himself, with his lucid, efficient, and necessary emphasis on rationality, thought that. However, a lot of Brechtian-style dogmatism fantasizes that the viewing consciousness is not yet mature unless it's coldly rational.[12] As we confront the evidence of a world which is still working on its economic and social development, a world which has hardly gotten to pull its feet out of the swamp of prehistory, should we renounce those resources (weapons) which could turn out to have a certain kind of effectiveness in provoking a crisis within spectators' understanding? That is to say, you could use a trance to transform consciousness, to develop it, to get it out of being crystallized, ossified, passive, conforming, and irredeemably asleep.

It is interesting to note that Brecht bases his rejection of "inebriation," or the ecstasy provoked by the traditional art work, on the concept of "scattered energy," which supports Freud's well-known thesis in Civilization and Its Discontents. Here is part of what Brecht says about Freud:

"The substitute satisfactions, such as art deals out, are illusions wielded against reality; in that, they aren't any less efficient in the psychological realm, thanks to the great role which fantasy plays in spiritual life (Freud, Irrationality and Culture, p. 22). Those narcotics are usually responsible for the squandering of huge amounts of energy, which could be applied to bettering human destiny" (Ibid, p. 20). (Brecht, Writings on Theater)

It's true that Freud refers to life as he knows it, that life imposed on him in the historical moment he was fated to live. The world has changed a lot since then. Nevertheless, we can ask ourselves this: Is it reasonable, consistent with a realistic attitude vis-à-vis the human condition to reject completely the viewers' drive to be stirred, bewitched, overwhelmed, etc.? Once Brecht himself alluded to a sentence from Francis Bacon as an emblem for realism: "You dominate nature by obeying it. People throughout history have demonstrated that anxiousness, that need. What could we have made so that need would disappear with a simple change in artistic product? We'd just be making a superstructural change while all our earthly problems still persist — class struggle, imperialism, underdevelopment, wars, and hunger. What kind of art is effective while those problems remain in any part of the world?


Both were born in l898 — Eisenstein in Riga on January 23, and Brecht in Augsberg on February 10. They lived through the same epoch but in two worlds that came to oppose each other irreconcilably. Both become famous in the 20s with their early works: POTEMKIN (1926) and The Three Penny Opera (1928) achieve an immediate resonance and mark decisive moments, for they play a prominent role in the impetuous advance of a revolution that will shake the foundations upon which rest the bourgeois conception of film and theater. The important thing for both men was to advance the spectator's being armed with reason. They worked toward an immediate practical goal: to contribute through their artistic work toward transforming people and speeding up human development.

In terms of that goal, they strove to make their arts the most efficacious possible, and thus they came to confront aesthetic problems with the rigor of a scientist and the stance of a militant. They nourished themselves from some common sources, from which they extracted everything that could enrich their creative activity, everything that could bring them new expressive resources, everything that could be assimilated. So they read from Meyerhold to Joyce, passing by way of Japanese and Chinese theater, the circus, the music hail, Freud, Eisenstein — but, above all, Marx as the basis of everything, as foundation and guide. That is, both men depended, in their aesthetic searching, on dialectical materialism. Both upheld its goals and its findings in their very conception of the world.

Nevertheless, Eisenstein proposes in Film Form:

"To make spectators 'go outside themselves' as far as they can, we find ourselves obliged to recommend a 'guide' to them, following which they would enter into the desired condition."

He then makes it more precise:

"The most simple 'prototype' of such imitative behavior would be, of course, that of entranced viewers who are up with a character on the screen who is overwhelmed by pathos, a character who, in one way or another, has come to be 'outside' of him or her self."

On the other hand, Brecht declares:

"This magical operation ought to be combated. We have to renounce everything which represents an attempt to hypnotize, everything which tries to provoke ecstasy and obliteration." (Writing on Theatre, I)

It's clear that, in spite of their having not only common viewpoints but a whole philosophical base in common, these two artists traveled very different paths and in some aspects diverging ones.

Everything seems to indicate that there is no compromise between the two. We immediately discover that while one exalts passion, the other chooses the path of reason. While the one wants spectators committed emotionally to the spectacle, the other wants them to be separate, distant, analytical, and rational. As Eisenstein writes in Film Form:

"Pathos demonstrates its effect when spectators are impelled to jump out of their seats if they are sitting, let themselves fall down if they are standing, to applaud and scream. It's when their eyes shine with enthusiasm before filling up with tears of pleasure — in a word, when spectators are obliged to 'jump out of themselves.'"

"To employ a more elegant term, I'd say that the effect of a pathetic work consists in producing ecstasy in spectators. I need not add anything more because the symptoms which I've described before clearly expressed this: ex-stasis: literally, 'to be outside of oneself,' which is the same as saying 'carried away' or 'different from one's ordinary way of being.'"

This emotional commitment would be arrived at "most simply" through an "imitative behavior" (Aristotelian mimesis), that is, viewers' identification with the character represented in the spectacle. This "different way of being" also implies a separation from oneself. On the one hand, that establishes a "different" way of looking at things — at daily reality. It also means an upheaval, an alienation from oneself. Eisenstein himself feels obliged to justify such a "magical" operation:

"'To go out of oneself' doesn't mean going to nothingness. To go out of oneself implies, inevitably, a transition to something distinctly different, to something qualitatively different, to something opposed to what was before (from immobility to movement, from silence to noise, etc.)" (Film Form).

That is, this "transition" to something different only means, then, a movement in the process of transforming spectators. It's a negative movement, which has no reason to extend beyond its own limits, that is, the limits of spectacle itself. For Eisenstein, there's a moment in which spectators move away from themselves, stop being themselves so as to live within an other — in the character. That moment is invested with a special interest insofar as it constitutes the premise of a desirable change. And for Eisenstein, this change is produced — or at least originates — in an environment of feeling, in the emotional, in a state of ecstasy. As he writes in Film Form:

"I mean by culminating moments, those instances of a process in which water has been converted into a new substance, steam; ice into water; or the ingot of iron into steel. In this case, it also means people "going out of themselves, a changing of state, the shift from one quality into another quality, 'ecstasy.'"

Brecht also wants to produce a transformation in spectators, a change which would lead people to better understand themselves and their social environment, and thus effectively to rule both themselves and their world. As he puts it in Writings on Theatre:

"We must change all of theatre. The changes can't be made just in the text, the actor, or the scenery. Spectators must also enter into the process. Their attitude must be modified."

He appeals more to spectators' reason than to sentiment and warns that "spectators must not identify with the characters, but rather argue about them." To that end, he proposes a mechanism of alienation or ending absent-mindedness in the viewers' relation to the characters. But it is opposite to what Eisenstein proposes in his "pathetic structure." With the distancing effect, Brecht tries to alienate, make strange, disrupt spectators, not from themselves but from the characters (or, in a broader sense, from the dramatic situation being developed in front of them, the spectacle itself, the fiction). Spectators, Brecht tells us,

"shouldn't be drawn out of their world to be transported to the world of art. There is no need to sweep them away. On the contrary they should be inserted into their own real world, with all their senses alert."

Brecht appeals to spectators' reason. He tries to stimulate their critical faculty, so that this distanciation, more than being swept away, would effect a genuine rupture, since it means restoring spectators to their reality, their world, with a new attitude. Ultimately it means restoring the spectators to themselves.

Why, if both artists begin with the same philosophical principles and from the same revolutionary position, do they offer such diametrically opposed solutions to the same problem? At what point would we find their respected positions antagonistic and irreconcilable?

Clearly, we're dealing with two unique and very different personalities. There couldn't have been any easy dialogue between the two. After filming THE OLD AND THE NEW, Eisenstein traveled extensively abroad and worked on various film projects, among which the best known and the most dramatically frustrated was what he shot in Mexico. Before that, he'd been in Berlin around the end of 1929. There he surely got to know Brecht. Marie Seton's testimony in Sergei M. Eisenstein is pretty eloquent about this:

"Equally curious, indeed, a little off-putting, was the dry, bloodless energy which Eisenstein felt in Bertolt Brecht, whose abrupt verses and satirical pieces coldly bored into the guts of social hypocrisy. Sergei M. thought that Brecht was a tenacious teacher wielding a pneumatic drill against consciousness' stone wall, which Brecht could not tear down with the fire of his passion."

Beyond the peculiarities of each man's personality, we must not forget that they expressed themselves in media with many traits and elements in common but also with their own specific properties: that is, film and theater. Eisenstein began in theater, but according to his own testimony,[13] even while directing theater he was thinking about film. In 1923 when he put on Ostrovsky's theatrical work, Wise Men Are Too Simple, he included in the stage directions a film short, a little comic film. After that, film fills his life, not just as a medium of artistic expression but also as an object of intense theoretical speculation.

Brecht on the other hand, is completely a man of the theater. If on a few occasions he approached film, we can't say that he had much luck with that medium, which he came to reject with bitterness. He never considered film language in its specificity. He didn't really understand the resources which film itself might offer him and saw in it only a technical medium facilitating the mounting of a theatrical work. Brecht found very narrow expressive limits in film, which kept him from appreciating the possibilities of an "epic" cinema — in a sense in which he employed that term. He could not conceive of a "non-Aristotelian" cinema, a cinema that finally wouldn't be a dream or a substitute for reality but rather a mobilizer of viewers' consciousness. In theater, the distancing effect finds its most effective vehicle in the actors' roles. That's why Brecht insisted on this aspect.

On the contrary, in cinema there're a lot of other possibilities. In general, there's "composition," in the way that Eisenstein talked about it; it's made up of various elements (framing, narration, music — in a word, audio-visual montage) and rests its effectiveness on the form in which those are structured. But Eisenstein himself in going this route encountered obstacles, which caused him to disperse his forces in a formalist search. Nevertheless it's not fair to characterize him simply as a formalist without remembering the historical necessity for that search. It was the logical consequence of the process of creating a new language, a new means of expression whose laws and syntax could only spring up after longterm practical work and an attention fully concentrated on the formal aspects of cinema. Movies are a baby art. Theater is not, and was not at the moment when Brecht encountered it. It had already had a long evolution and had become consolidated formally. This allowed Brecht to center his attention primarily on problems of content.

Both theater and film utilize multiple expressive resources (image, word and music), and in both, diverse elements can be combined, integrated, or added together in different forms and to various degrees. Thus people often speak about "theatrical" films or "cinematic" theater, which only indicates that both media can exchange influences, resources, achievements, and postures. But one specific trait that makes film different from theater can help us understand Brecht and Eisenstein's contradictory positions.

Film generally manifests itself primarily as a visual language, while theater gives more weight to words. Images particularize and restrict signification to the concreteness of objects, while words permit generalizing and expressing ideas, concepts and abstractions about certain images, and this expression goes well beyond the object itself. Such images in the immediacy of their cinematic representation, and out of the interplay of relations promoted by cinema's artistic exercise, can turn out to be very suggestive, even moving. That is, they appeal directly to the senses and accommodate themselves more to the emotional plane. But they also undeniably establish narrow limits in terms of what could be called their reach — for communicating in the conceptional, abstract, and rational plane. Thus all Eisenstein's efforts to express concepts through the collision of images — intellectual montage — did not let him attain his goals without the help of the word. Still, those efforts have borne a later fruit in broadening cinema's expressive possibilities.

But more than personality or the medium each favored to express himself, the determining factor was each man's social context: Eisenstein was 19 when the Bolsheviks took power and began the most radical transformation of reality in modern times in a good part of the world. He experienced, therefore, all his artistic formation in the midst of the effervescence of the revolution's first years, the years of the Proletkult and other excesses. He paid attention to all the movements of the international, artistic avant-garde which were flourishing then and which in the Soviet countries were going to assume a new physiognomy. Thus he saw futurism, constructivism, cine-eye, Mayakovsky, Meyerhold, Tatlin, Malevich, the demystifying of "art" and the consecrating of "life" — experimentation, propaganda. But in those years, cinema was the medium which best expressed the revolution ("collective art par excellence destined for the masses"). It wasn't accidental that sometimes Lenin referred to film as the most important art. And the Russian films produced a grand impact because of their connection to that movement which saw their birth, and because of their authenticity and renewed force, a force that derived from the very reality, which had engendered them.

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