2. Brecht’s UK Tour
Published: 19.09.2017
in the series The Fire Last Time: Documentary and Politics in 1970s Britain
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The 1970s conjuncture in Britain that I want to discuss saw photography, and specifically documentary photography, aligned with what Sylvia Harvey termed ‘political modernism’ (strictly speaking, this would be second-wave political modernism).1Sylvia Harvey, ‘Whose Brecht? Memories for the Eighties’, Screen, vol.23, no.1, May/June, pp. 45–59. Examples might include works by Jo Spence, the Hackney Flashers Collective, the Women’s Workshop of the Artists’ Union who created the Women and Work exhibition, the Berwick Street Film Collective, Peter Dunn and Lorraine Leeson, Mary Kelly and Victor Burgin’s works between 1975 and 1976. These practices were closely identified with the work of the film-maker Jean-Luc Godard, particularly his collaborative Dziga Vertov Group films, but Bertolt Brecht’s ideas from the second-quarter of the twentieth century were pivotal for many artists, photographers, film-makers and theorists to the extent that collectively this work is often described as ‘neo-Brechtian’. I hasten to add, that I’m responding to an English-language reception of Brecht and that German speakers are likely to find much of this strangely alien.

The radical and independent practice of the 1970s consciously produced work that combined attention to political subjects, particularly class and gender, with modernist formal techniques intended to disrupt the dominant conventions of the mass media. At its best, this cross-pollination of political themes and modernist experimentation enriches both, opening new questions. This is one of the reasons that there is currently a great deal of interest in this kind of political documentary; in addition to the video-essays I pointed to in my last post, we could cite a spate of important exhibitions revisiting the moment and major museums acquiring works that have been largely overlooked for thirty years. Yet, despite these shows, recent publications on film and Siona Wilson’s study of British feminist art of the period2Siona Wilson, Art Labor, Sex Politics: Feminist Effects in 1970s British Art and Performance (Minnesota University Press, 2015). many threads of this neo-Brechtian documentary moment remain to be untangled. We are really still at the start of this process, but it is important to do this work, because so much of the recent treatment of the 1970s radical aesthetics treats the work and ideas uncritically through its own optic. Here, I have two objectives: a) lay out the way the argument was presented in 1970s Britain (it overlaps with the claims made elsewhere, particularly in France); b) indicate how the argument entailed a significant misrepresentation of Brecht’s work and ideas. In itself, this act of misrecognition doesn’t invalidate the claims that were made or the work produced, but it should lead to a re-evaluation of some of the issues and that has some relevance at a time when these arguments are again the subject of consideration by image-workers and theorists.

In the UK, Brecht’s work had a certain underground presence from the 1930s. A version of Seven Deadly Sins was produced in London in 1933. However, interest in Brecht’s theatre developed apace from the mid-1950s. Brecht visited with the Berliner Ensemble in August 1956 for a season at the Palace Theatre; they performed Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Trumpets and Drums. Later that year Peggy Ashcroft played the lead in The Good Woman of Setzuan at the Royal Court Theatre. (Brecht died later that year). Thereafter, there was an irregular flow of productions and in 1965 the Berliner Ensemble were again in the UK. Reaction was mixed, with some down-right hostility, but the critic Kenneth Tynan proclaimed Brecht as a generation defining writer. Though, as Michael Kustow wrote in 1977: “British theatre people for a long time took over merely the outward appurtenances of Brechtian style — half-curtains, placards, unnaturalistic bright lighting, a cool style of acting.” We might add, and the use of film in the theatre. Brecht began to have a real impact on some significant British playwrights, directors and companies such as 7:84.37:84 was the proportion of population to wealth in Britain. 7% of the population owned 84% of the national wealth. Today the figure would need to be revised and not for the better.

The Good Woman of Setzuan, 1956;from Nicholas Jacobs and Prudence Ohlsen eds., Brecht in Britain (Irat Services/TQ publication, 1977)

Undoubtedly, one of the major events was John Willett’s English-language edition of Brecht’s writings on theatre, published in 1964. However, it was the mid-1970s before the interest in Brecht’s ideas began to permeate other cultural forms such as photography and film. Walter Benjamin’s essays on Brecht appeared in English in 1973 and the book Aesthetics and Politics, which contained Brecht’s exchanges with Georg Lukács came out in 1977. Much of what was known about Brecht came from these publications and Willett’s The New Sobriety (1978) an important survey of the work of the political avant-garde in inter-war Europe. It was, though, in cinema journals committed to avant-garde filmmaking that a distinct account of Brecht began to take hold. The key discussion took place in France in the journals Tel Quel, Cahiers du cinéma, Cinéthèque, and Critique, but this work was rapidly translated in a host of English-language film-magazines such as Screen, Afterimage and Camera Obscura. Related work on photography began to appear in the US based Afterimage magazine and Camerawork founded in East London in 1976. It would take too long to track the history of publishing ventures and institutions here, but no materialist history is adequate without such an account.

In terms of the debate elsewhere, the co-joining of Socialist politics and modernism occurred late in the UK. Godard had abandoned the Dziga Vertov project as early as 1973 or 1974. In fact, there is good reason to take 1979 — the year Photography/Politics: One was published — as the watershed date for the European Thermidor. It was the year the Italian state beheaded the radical left, with the arrest of Toni Negri and the other Workerist leadership on fantasy charges. Closer to home, 1979 saw Margaret Thatcher elected as Prime Minister in the UK and with her government neoliberalism moved from its testing ground in Pinochet’s Chile to the heartlands of European capitalism. The process of privatisation of public resources, financialisation and anti-union laws that she initiated open on the current crisis. But the British belatedness is the point. It demonstrates just how little was known of the radical practice of the 1920s and 1930s in the English speaking world, but also how much was still imagined to be possible at the time.

Let me try to set out the standard account of Brecht and ‘Brechtian’ practice presented in the period. I have always found the version of Brecht that I was taught very strange, because my own experience of his work and writing didn’t equate with this presentation of his ideas. Initially, I found Brecht’s own writings such as The Messingkauf Dialogues underwhelming and it took me a long-time to understand the problem. It is my argument that this now familiar version is inadequate, not only as an account of Brecht, but also of the diverse documentary work of the time. Many of these assumptions need to be questioned, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the account that dominated discussion. Brecht’s explicit comment on photography is well known (though, in the interests of accuracy, Brecht always attributed this observation to the Marxist sociologist Fritz Sternberg).4The misattribution to Brecht probably entered through Benjamin’s account of his discussions with Brecht in Denmark. Brecht put it like this:

A photograph of the Krupp works or AEG reveals almost nothing about these institutions. Reality as such has slipped into the domain of the functional. The reification of human relations, the factory, for example, no longer discloses those relations. So there is indeed ‘something to construct’, something ‘artificial’, ‘invented’. Hence, there is in fact a need for art.

While this observation condenses some of Brecht’s concerns and made for an easy classroom point when paired with John Heartfield’s montages or later work by Jeff Wall, it was the wider Brechtian project, rather than the explicit photographic reference, that was significant. That argument was often stated something like this: traditional documentary, or realism, is a profoundly ideological practice, which conceals the signs of its own articulations. As such, documentary appears to show us things as they really are, passing-off partial or interested points-of-view as unquestionable and immediate reality. In this sense, documentary (or realism) presupposes what Roland Barthes called a normative ‘natural attitude’ to reality. It is homogenous and non-contradictory; it offers narrative resolution, tying up the threads of the plot and leaving no emotional or ethical dilemmas unresolved. The result was said to be a passive viewing experience; the spectator is merely a consumer of pre-packaged information. Because he was far from being an extravagant modernist, Stuart Hall will be my example. In an essay of 1982 on Picture Post (the key British magazine of photo-journalism) and explicitly responding to Brecht’s comment, Hall suggested that this social documentary was unable to address contradiction and strip away appearances to “make invisible social relations visible”. For Hall, this is the limit of this kind of documentary and what links it to, or makes it a component of, social-democratic consciousness. Citing Benjamin, he argued Picture Post couldn’t alienate the apparatus from the ruling class. This kind of documentary was unable to break with capitalism and could only address individual cases and symptoms of distress, rather than the systemic causes of economic crisis and unemployment.5Stuart Hall, ‘The Social Eye of Picture Post’, Working Papers in Cultural Studies, No.2, 1972, pp.108-115. It is fair to acknowledge that Hall revisited this view during the 1980s.

Claiming authority from Brechtian staging techniques, which aimed to draw attention to the artifice of the theatre and break the spectator’s passive identification with the character — sometimes called dis-identification or the alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt) — photographers took up a range of devices and techniques intended to disrupt the coherence of documentary. Juxtaposition or montage were said to have a jarring effect that heightened critical viewing. The image could not be allowed to stand-alone or ‘speak for itself’. Instead photographers chose ‘impure’ forms, such as slide-tape presentation, or introduced text onto the image, breaking the formalist-modernist injunction on the use of language, they worked with narrative and sequence. Increasingly, photographers took up performative strategies, creating staged scenarios. The drift towards the dressing-up box was one aspect of the devaluation of documentary and class.

The film work in this mode is probably better known than the photography. These films these included: The Amazing Equal Play Show by the London Women’s Film Group (1974); Nightcleaners, Part 1 by the Berwick Street Film Collective (1975); Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx (1977); So That You Can Live by Cinema Action (1982); Sue Clayton and Jonathan Curling’s The Song of the Shirt (1979). All have some relation to an expanded sense of documentary. The best-known photographic work is probably by Victor Burgin and the Hackney Flashers, but other projects include the pedagogical work of Photography Workshop, The Women and Work exhibition (1975) by Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly; montage work by Peter Kennard and by Dunn and Leeson and photo-narratives by Yve Lomax and Alexis Hunter. Probably the least discussed today is Sarah McCarthy’s series The Milner and the Student (1978). Sometimes this work is conflated with Conceptual art, and while there are clear overlaps, it is sufficiently distinct to require another kind of consideration.

Victor Burgin, Class Consciousness, 1976

Paul Wombell, Air India, 1975

Victor Burgin’s Class Consciousness (1976) and Paul Wombell’s Air India (1975) employ a similar strategy of ironising advertising fantasy, by counter-posing images of consumer desire with documentary images. Both works set images of the capitalist dream world against documentary photographs of women’s work. The image of the cleaner was almost certainly made by Wombell and the text that accompanies it is probably his. It is more difficult to decide which components of Class Consciousness Burgin made. It is possible that he took the photographs — staging the woman with the luxury car — and he made other images of women factory workers, but he might just have easily have gleaned these components from the glossy magazines. Perhaps, only the bold captions (and title) were his interventions. However, this isn’t really the point. The central work task is in bringing these components together in a new configuration. Both Wombell and Burgin’s pieces pivot on juxtaposition, eliciting a moment’s pause from the beholder. This disturbance (Brechtian alienation) can lead us to reflect on the distance between, on the one hand, the ideology of aspiration and the desire for emulation and, on the other, the everyday world of women’s low-paid work. (I’ll be dealing specifically with important theme of documentary and women’s labour in my final post). The following year Burgin deepened this approach with UK76, his multi-panel representation of Britain. In my view, it is one of the most important achievements of the period and would need a more sustained consideration than I can offer here. However, Burgin came to see this approach as flawed, because he thought it left untouched the problematic claim for documentary as inherently truthful; irony ran in only one direction. With the developing post-modern consensus he wished to mark its distance from any truth claim, presenting documentary as just another mode of representation. His follow up work US77 was already on another path, engaging with desire, voyeurism and losing its focus on class politics. Phantasy moved centre stage.

Other approaches were also employed. Women and Work mixed sound recordings, with archive photographs, portraits and information panels in order to examine the sexual division of labour in a North London factory. Dunn and Leeson produced large-scale montages on health care in East London that appeared on billboards, others created postcards for circulation. Photography Workshop and the Hackney Flashers took an explicitly pedagogical approach to documentary, producing exhibitions that mixed photographs, simply-typed texts, cartoons and appropriated mass-media images. As we will see, there are reasons to think of these works as closer to Brecht’s conception of re-functioning popular forms and learning through practice.

Photography Workshop postcard, Do Not Adjust Your Mind... n.d. (1970s)

In my view, all of these photo-works are valuable, but we need to disentangle them from the explicit theorisations of practice prominent at the time. This is because the predominant trend in political modernism in France and in much of the English debate was a political formalism that believed that the avant-garde ‘open’ text distanced or estranged the ‘reader’ from their place in the established order of social reality. Drawing on psychoanalysis, semiotics and Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology (called by some at the time the nouveau mélange) it was argued that an emphasis on text as text unravelled realism’s transcendental fixity and identification, offering instead a space from which to reconfigure a self-conscious and active subject open to new political possibilities.6See Jean-Louis Baudry, ‘Writing, Fiction, Ideology’, Afterimage (5, 1974), pp.22–39. This strikes me as a considerably different conceptualisation from Brecht’s practice.

It is worth noting two problems contained in this conceptualisation that counted against documentary once the radical mood of the period waned:

A) ‘The male gaze’ or ‘the female viewer’, prominent in the debates, are collective entities, but the subject underpinning the argument was modelled on the individual self of psychoanalysis. The dialectic at work here is self/other rather than one/many. This emphasis on écriture or open text led many theorists and practitioners to reject realism and focus on desire and the imaginary in constructed or staged photography. In the process, Benjamin’s argument from ‘Author as Producer’ was transformed and Brecht’s legacy was reduced to the Verfremdungseffekt (or alienation) understood as critical labour on the text/subject. Brecht’s presence in these debates provided a kind of leftist backfill for a ‘politics of form’. I’ll take up this question centrally in my fourth post on ‘production’. While it is true that Brecht opposed psychological presentation in theatre, this was to enhance clarity of argument. Even his famous use of masks and typification was designed to enhance the realism of the key characters. Accessibility, realism and popularity were central goals of his theatre. Brecht as the champion of popular entertainment and realism or the advocate of learning through practice barely figured in the argument.7See D.N. Rodowick, The Crisis of Political Modernism: Criticism and Ideology in Film Theory (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994); and C. MacCabe, ‘Class of ’68: elements of an intellectual autobiography 1967–81’, Theoretical Essays: Film, Linguistics, Literature (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985) pp.1–32; ‘Peter Osborne in Conversation with Paul Willeman’, Petra Bauer and Dan Kidner eds, Working Together: Notes on British Film Collectives in the 1970s (Southend-on-Sea: Focal Point Gallery, 2013), pp.39-46. See also Dana B. Polan, ‘Brecht and the Politics of Self-Reflexive Cinema’ (1974), in Bill Nichols (ed.), Movies and Methods, Vol.2 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), pp.661–72; and S. Harvey, ‘Whose Brecht? Memories for the Eighties’. As important a Brechtian term as ‘re-functioning’ was entirely missing from the discussion. Attention was almost exclusively focussed on the model of practice offered by Godard at the expense of other resources. Popular pedagogy and popular entertainment (comedy) were largely absent. The exception to this reading was, I think, is Jo Spence, who retained a commitment to both popular pedagogy and vulgar hilarity; her library contains a Book of Reactionary Jokes (the cover image is worthy of the ‘Alt Right’) and a collection of smutty postcards.8The Jo Spence Memorial Library is based in the School of Arts, Birkbeck, University of London. In part at least, Spence’s own class subjectivity and politics inclined her to this alternative emphasis.

David Rodowick has argued the key problem with this political-modernist perspective resides in an analogy between, or conflation of, the human subject and text. If the unconscious is structured like a language, as Jaques Lacan suggests, many political modernists took this to mean that a radical écriture, or disruption of diegesis, could disturb, even reconstruct, the bourgeois subject. If Althusser argued the subject recognised itself in the act of interpellation, this was thought to mean another mode of address could bring about a new politics of subjectification. This is an outright idealism, and for what it is worth, there is nothing in Althusser or Lacan to license such claims. But, without this analogy — viewer/text — many of the central assertions of this work can’t be sustained. The alternative politics of subjectification resulting from employing modernist textual forms to problematise I/eye requires that we think of subjectivity as a textual construction.

B) While disruption at the level of narrative or form, might call attention to seamless ideology in the media, it might just be alienating and not in the way Brecht intended. There is nothing inherently radical in breaking coherence and the production of active political subjects through such techniques is wishful thinking. Some participants in the debate have since acknowledged the simplification.9C. MacCabe, ‘Class of ’68: elements of an intellectual autobiography 1967–81’; ‘Peter Osborne in Conversation with Paul Willeman’. However, it is worth recalling that at the time, not everyone went down this path. Important criticisms were voiced, though, they were largely ignored. Sylvia Harvey and Terry Lovell wrote important criticisms of this perspective project for Screen and the BFI.10Sylvia Harvey, Independent Cinema? (Stafford: West Midlands Arts, 1978); Terry Lovell, Pictures of Reality: Aesthetics, Politics and Pleasure (London: BFI, 1980). A full account would also have to include the exchange between Clark and Wollen: Timothy J Clark, ‘Preliminaries to a Possible Treatment of Olympia’, Screen (21.1, 1980), pp.18-41; Peter Wollen, ‘Manet -Modernism and Avant-Garde’, Screen, (21.2, 1980), pp15-25. My sympathy is with Clark, but it is now noticeable how much he too drew from the Screen toolbox. Lovell’s book Pictures of Reality is particularly noteworthy for its defence of Marxist realism via an early engagement with Roy Bhaskar’s philosophy of science. Spence kept her distance from the full version of this argument and retained her focus on the experience of what Richard Sennett calls ‘the hidden injuries of class’.

The problem with the version of neo-Brechtian practice that was propounded in Screen and associated debates is that it overly fetishised formal experimentation; under-estimating the importance for any radical politics of building new institutions of dissent and transforming the production apparatus. The idea of retrograde traditional documentary was overstated in polemical debates, which regularly seemed to argue that only avant-garde approaches to representation were valid. This criticism can be blind to the diversity of critical practices and the range of changes required to constitute radical hegemony. Documentary might be traditional in form and yet still engage an active audience in discussion and critical reflexion; it really does depend on the context, framing and audience. What is more, after the work of Mikhail Bakhtin it is difficult to position documentary as closed or monologic in contrast to the ‘open text’. As I suggested in my first post, the visibility of working people is a necessary condition for the generation of class-consciousness. A sincere political practice has to acknowledge the importance of distinct audiences and varied institutional sites and, therefore, the need for different forms of address. Theorists and practitioners at the time were fond of citing Althusser’s account of ideology (often suggesting any disagreement was retrograde), but they ignored its central Gramscian thrust: practices are embedded in institutions. Now that the full text of On Reproduction is available the perspective on these matters advanced in the 1970s looks clumsy at best, and inept at worst. It was an approach for the seminar room. A serious project for hegemony must transform the production apparatus and create autonomous institutions of reproduction. There can be no single recipe for the reinvention of documentary.

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