Preferred Citation: Byg, Barton. Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.

12— Real History and the Nonexistent Spectator— Brecht, Adorno, and Straub/Huillet

Real History and the Nonexistent Spectator—
Brecht, Adorno, and Straub/Huillet

If one is not satisfied with the flippant claim that Straub/Huillet merely have the perverse intention of "making films for intellectuals who hate the movies," the challenge that their films and their artistic stance presents to aesthetic theory must be answered. They do not see the lack of a large audience for their films as the fault of the films themselves but rather as the result of the domination of the media market by products of the culture industry. They do not respond to this by compromising with the conventions that would make their films more accessible, by resorting to an "art-for-art's-sake" posture, or by accepting the ungroundedness of signification posited by postmodernism. They are, however, very critical of filmmakers who have compromised, as they see it, to reach a mass audience, for example, Fassbinder and Wenders. However, they do not criticize Godard's films, even though they might have disagreements, because his work also has difficulty getting distribution ("If all films were like that," perhaps they would even criticize Godard).[1] For their part, Straub/Huillet insist on a documentary accuracy, resolute commitment to a redemptive view of history, and a search for a liberated spectator who could become the historical subject that until now has been obliterated by various modes of oppression. Here is the point at which their work intersects with recent discussions of the contemporary relevance of Brecht, Benjamin, and Adorno. As Andreas Huyssen has put it, "If Adorno's critique of the capitalist culture industry is combined with the theories of Brecht and Benjamin, it is still valid."[2]

Adorno saw no need to develop a specific theory of the art of the cinema, due no doubt to his general disapproval of the film industry. Yet a number of his works do indeed add up to a theoretical position on film that has earned considerable contemporary attention. Miriam Hansen reintroduced Adorno into


the discussion of the New German Cinema in 1981 with her discussion of his essay "Transparencies on Film."[3] In this 1966 essay, he did indicate a certain recognition of the critical potential in the Young German Cinema of the time. And Huyssen's essay on Adorno's In Search of Wagner shows that this critique of mass culture applies to film as well as other media.[4] Adorno's "emphasis on ruptures and breaks" and his attacks on "the traditional epistemological preference for identity," as Peter U. Hohendahl has written, have also been the basis for a poststructuralist appropriation of Adorno.[5] By working at the points at which Brecht and Adorno conflict, however, I believe Straub/Huillet represent a method by which modernism can continue its formal dialogue with history without sacrificing their utopian hopes to the historical skepticism of postmodernism. As Michael P. Steinberg put it in his essay on Adorno's music theory, "The disappearance of the subject, rather than protect against the hegemony of the strong and the official, threatens the dignity of the persecuted."[6] Straub/Huillet's combination of Adorno's emphasis on the negativity of art and Brecht's political militancy preserves a contemporary connection of the cultural and political struggles of the 1960s and the 1930s.

The materialist self-discipline Straub/Huillet exercise in making films has made it difficult to categorize them among the other filmmakers of the "New German Cinema." Many critics are unable to reconcile Straub/Huillet's professed radical politics with the lack of explicit political messages in their films. Martin Walsh writes, for instance, "Straub/Huillet do, it seems to me, manage to 'suspend meaning,' but that very suspension eliminates the possibility of any didactic political statement—and this perhaps begins to explain the gap between the vision of their films encountered in interviews with them, and an actual experience of certain of their films."[7] This "gap" is inherent to the political honesty of Straub/Huillet's aesthetics. Merely to satisfy the audience that exists would abandon both aesthetic and political progress. Yet even the negation of what is, in aesthetic or political terms, is "a necessary but not sufficient condition." Therefore Straub insists, "I don't believe in the cinema."[8] Joel Rogers summed up the challenge to theory posed by Straub/Huillet as follows:

When Straub/Huillet "answer" their critics, they make implicit appeal to a certain analysis of capitalist society and the possibilities of autonomous production within it. Without the analysis, the answers remain incoherent, but the articulation of the analysis is not something they themselves have pursued in print. Instead they make films. It would remain a useful project to try to reconstruct a theory contemporary with their film practice. Such a theory would draw heavily from Adorno's aesthetics. As justification it would not try to put Straub/Huillet's work beyond the reach of critical discussion. On the contrary, it would aim to make that discussion more sensible, by specifying what is up for grabs, or what would be required of an immanent critique of their work. The more modest and immediate hope would be to demonstrate the sheer plausibility of


what they are doing within argument unbounded by the context of their work alone.[9]

It is not necessarily elitist arrogance, then, that makes the films of Straub/Huillet appear inaccessible but the fact that the context within which they hope to operate has not been created in either politics or criticism. It has been a project of this book to help to generate that forum for discussion, which would necessarily first require that the films themselves be seen by more people. The relative unfamiliarity of most U.S. audiences with Straub/Huillet also has necessarily colored the critical tone of this book: It is difficult to explore and analyze the shortcomings of artists whose strengths have not yet been recognized. This is also a contradiction faced by any critic writing about foreign artists whose work is not part of the commercial system of cultural transmission in the United States. Such critics necessarily replace the public relations effort that for commercial work is done by specialists. The additional dilemma for U.S. critics writing about state-subsidized German art is that they might merely aid in the image building for the German state that such art supports. Straub/Huillet's confrontation of German history and their "Europeanization" of German culture seem to work against this tendency.

A potential context for such a critical discussion is presented by the work of Brecht and Adorno. For Brecht and Adorno and for Straub/Huillet as well, a political and historical context is necessary to any critical or aesthetic discussion. The following will attempt to show the plausibility of creating such a context around Straub/Huillet's films in order to overcome the impasses of "political modernism."

In his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Brecht declared that he was unaware of any influence he might have had on the American film industry.[10] Brecht's statement need not be taken as a flippant evasion. Indeed, where the dominant narrative cinema is concerned, virtually none of the developments Brecht either expected or desired has appeared. Some techniques derived from Brecht's theater have, however, become merely fashionable, stripped of their original purpose or forcefulness. In some regards, the self-reflexive aspects of the arts were developing long before Brecht began writing, with Baudelaire and the Symbolist poets, for example. By now, calling attention to the "deceptions" of artistic media is most often a superficial cliché. Serious questions of Brecht's relevance will therefore be directed not at his concrete technical suggestions but at his philosophical considerations. Klaus-Detlef Müller writes, "Brecht's innovation in theater is fundamentally philosophical and not—as was often assumed—a formal technique, linked to a political stance and ultimately interchangeable with it."[11] If this can be said of Brecht's main area of activity, it must be even more important to considerations of his direct or indirect relevance to film theory. What is important is


not a list of formal criteria for "political art" but thoughts on the nature of theater and film and their relations to society.

Brecht's most important contribution to film theory derives indirectly from his deliberations on epic theater. Before turning to these, however, let us consider the context of the dominant narrative cinema and how its development neutralized Brecht's direct prognosis for the medium. For both Brecht and Benjamin, the most important aspect of the cinema was its unreality. A result of its technical nature, the obvious gap between cinema and "the world" was welcomed by both theorists, who considered it inherent to the medium.[12] In many respects, these descriptions of the nature of the medium are valid enough, but they become paradoxical when it comes to a positive, liberating potential. They no doubt arise from the same attraction the early cinema holds for the avant-garde. But the actual development of the cinema goes directly against the hopes that Brecht and Benjamin had for it.

Of the two, Benjamin was the more open to the fact that film would be a part of a transformation of the function of art in society. His deliberations consider the changes that might be brought about by the very nature of the new, mechanically reproduced art, while Brecht seems more inclined to try to master the new medium to further his previous intentions in theater. Thus we find Brecht unable to work creatively in the cinema. He saw parallels between the technical possibilities of cinema and his ideas of epic theater but was unable to concretely unite the two. Hence his famous "fundamental reproach" against the cinema.[13]

There are identifiable reasons for this. The initial hopes Brecht had for the cinema were based on its newness, its unreality. In the "Dreigroschenprozess," he asserts that the bourgeois worldview based on the perspective of the individual is overthrown by the film. Motivation does not come from the "character" or the "inner life" of persons, but instead, people are seen from the outside. Brecht's wishful thinking led him to believe that this evaluative, concrete, didactic way of looking at reality (see Benjamin as well) would be put to use by the masses, who measure things by their practicality for the real world. Furthermore, Brecht was optimistic about the unreality of film images. "Precisely because it represents reality with such an abstract effect, it is well suited to confrontations with reality."[14] Burkhardt Lindner also attributes Brecht's concept of the "social gestus" in epic theater to the photographic reproduction of reality. The abstract isolation of individual human relationships and attitudes was thought to reveal their broad social and historical significance.[15] Brecht's mistake here is to assume that this abstract quality and the resulting critical view of reality via art were inherent in film and photography. He concludes, "In reality, film requires external action and nothing introspectively psychological. And in this tendency, capitalism has a thoroughly revolutionary effect, in that it multiplies, organizes and automates certain needs on a mass scale."[16]


The actual development of cinema has sought to overcome the technical newness of film in favor of novelistic realism. Exactly the psychologizing individual perspective that Brecht detested in the bourgeois novel has triumphed in the film as in the culture industry in general. Brecht polemicized against Thomas Mann's approach to film as a way of revitalizing the novel, insisting that the novel was dead and had nothing to do with film: "Thus one uses every new (or to be newly defined) thing to support the old, by using the old as the basis of the definition."[17] But Brecht makes the same mistake himself in looking to film for solutions to problems of the theater. More important, the battle to keep film from serving the needs of the supposedly moribund bourgeois novel was lost long ago. As Gidal has asserted, the realist novel lives on today largely in the disguise of the commercial narrative cinema.

The political and social basis for the survival of this nineteenth-century bourgeois art form need not be dwelled on here. Its formal aesthetic basis, however, precisely in technical areas noted by Brecht and Benjamin, is of great interest. The so-called realist novel has always had more of a prescriptive than a descriptive relation to the reality of the middle class it addressed. In a sense, the "unreality" of the world seen on film is no greater than the artifices of nineteenth-century realism; it is merely technically different. The function of this novelistic world in legitimating bourgeois ideology has proved superior to the liberating potential of new media. One reason for this is that ideology derives its force from imaginary constructs rather than from the "reality" Brecht expected the masses to prefer. As Heath put it, "In ideology, it is said, is represented the imaginary relation of individuals to the real relations in which they live."[18] Brecht proclaimed that aesthetics must be derived from the needs of the class struggle, but he did not sufficiently consider that the ruling class would follow the same precept. The legitimation of bourgeois ideology begins with the very same "unreality" in cinema that Brecht saw but uses it to strengthen, rather than reveal, the power of its novelistic representations of imaginary social relations.

Brecht's most significant misconception about film and photography in general is the assumption that the stasis[19] and unreality of the image were contradictory to bourgeois narrative forms. Eisler and Adorno explained the function of film music to contain this disruptive potential.[20] And Heath has maintained that the editing devices that make it possible to imitate the individual perspective of novelistic narrative are actually based on the "partial unreality of the film picture." As Heath goes on to note in this context, "If film photographs gave a very strong spatial impression, montage probably would be impossible."[21] Thus the imaginary social relations of the novel and its readers are matched by an imaginary spatial relation of the viewer to the film. The energy required of the spectator to maintain this relation to the film, despite and because of its unreality, in turn has fundamental psychological and


ideological relevance. Heath has described the process from both points of view. Regarding the film's effect on the viewer, Heath writes, "In its movement, its framings, its cuts, its intermittencies, the film ceaselessly poses an absence, a lack, which is ceaselessly recaptured, for—one needs to be able to say 'forin'—the film, the process binding the spectator as subject in the realization of the film's space."[22] To state the dilemma most extremely, one could say that even Brecht's Verfremdungs-Effekt could be used formally for reactionary purposes, repelling a spectator at certain points only to strengthen the desire for a "meaning" that can reunite the work. Heath also asserts that the narrative strategies of classical cinema are not as transparent as to render the spectator passive through ignorance of the production of the work. It would be more accurate to say that, rather than a passive consumer, the spectator becomes a willing accomplice in the artifice of the narrative film. As Heath puts it, "Classical cinema does not efface the signs of production, it contains them."[23]

Here we can relate aesthetic effectiveness to the essential genius of the culture industry. Since capitalism cannot meet the "real" needs of the masses (this even implies that one knows they have real needs), or rather, since the masses must not be allowed to unpredictably discover or express their needs, the culture industry creates needs that it is able to satisfy. The unreality, incompleteness, motion, confusion, the "lack" exists in cinema both in its technical makeup and its often sensational (threatening) content. Yet the unity and aesthetic distance of each film and the serene existence of the artistic institution itself automatically neutralize these internal threats or deficiencies, while binding the spectator to a society that contains these dynamics.

Thus the insufficiency of art in the face of reality (as Brecht might see it) allows it to be used to imply another reality to which it is sufficient. The preservation of the social fabric rests on the existence of this social fabric (a sense of community) in the imagination—the definition of ideology. The bourgeois individual, as imagined in the realist novel, is still imagined as the basis for narrative cinema and "real" society. Heath must here be quoted at length on the social significance of this process in the institutions of art.

"When the bourgeoisie had to find something else besides painting and the novel to disguise the real to the masses, to invent, that is, the ideology of the new mass communications, its name was the photograph." Godard's remark serves to emphasize this at least: the film is developed and exploited from the photograph as an alternative and successor to the novel for the production-reproduction of the novelistic ; the novelistic is the ideological category of the narrative elaborated in the film, as it is of that in the novel. The title of the novelistic is Family Romance (or Family Plot , as the recent Hitchcock film would have it); the problem it addresses is that of the definition of forms of individual meaning within the limits of existing social representations and their determining social relations, the provision and maintenance of fictions of the individual; the historical reality it


encounters [is] a permanent crisis of identity that must be permanently resolved by remembering the history of the individual-subject. Narrative lays out—lays down as law—a film memory from the novelistic as the re-imaging of the individual as subject, the very representation of identity as the coherence of a past safely negotiated and reappropriated.[24]

Brecht was right about this much: real history, real individual and class interests would have destroyed capitalism by now. Herbert Marcuse asserted that all history is revolutionary.[25] But the history of the individual, which legitimates the existing social order, is a fabricated history. The spectators of the narrative film share in a memory, thus resolving the crisis of identity of the individual and of a society of individuals. The presence/absence ambivalence in film representation allows even the most threatening content to become part of a nonthreatening past, which has been conquered by the (imaginary) community that shares this past. Thus, to expect reality in film, or a confrontation with reality via the film, ignores the very function of conventional narrative. Its unreal representation of social relations defines them in reality and places the spectator within them. A spectator who could exist within these relations yet compare them to another "reality" is a social contradiction.

Here the dilemma of Brecht's own aesthetics reappears. We have already noted that an audience or a "historical subject" adequate to his innovations did not exist. The fact is that it cannot exist, for if it did, the premise of the aesthetics would invalidate itself. A sense of this resides in Brecht's remark that his ideal audience would be Karl Marx, or at least Marxists.[26] Adorno applies the phrase, "preaching to the saved."[27] However, the technical innovations Brecht achieved are based on the bourgeois traditions that also do not at present belong to the intended audience. Brecht's audience was and is imaginary.

Furthermore, the above description of the function of the unreal aspect of film leads to the conclusion that any "audience" is imaginary. The work of art, by implying a collective history (and this can be done by means of Heath's "novelistic" or merely by the use of language or music, as Benjamin, Eisler, and Adorno have noted), necessarily says "We."[28] Through the culture industry, this aspect becomes the tool of ideology.

Here we can begin to see possibilities for liberating art from servitude to ideology and for pointing toward social liberation beyond the theories of Brecht and Adorno. The ideological function of art lies not in its content but in its constitution of the individual. The ideological function cannot be transformed by replacing the content of art with a rival ideology but only by transforming the relation of the work of art to its subject.

Adorno points the way with his concept of the "authentic" work of art. Such a work can have none other than a negative relation to reality, and its separation from reality is absolute. Otherwise it would necessarily become a tool of ideology. Art can desire neither action nor communication: "The criticism


practiced a priori by art is criticism of activity as the cryptogram of domination. By its very form, praxis tends toward that which its goal would be to abolish."[29] And further, "That works renounce communication is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition of their nonideological nature. The central criterion is the power of expression. [. . .] In expression they expose themselves as a social wound."[30] In precisely this withdrawal from reality, Adorno sees the utopian, liberating aspect of art. By insisting on its negation of things-as-they-are, art proves the possibility that things can be changed. Yet it does not contradict itself by "representing" that change, because this would merely destroy the utopian future by repeating the violence of the past. The condemnation of the world in art is inherent and absolute. The similarity of the world and the "novelistic" dictates that the world must remain as it is, or the promise of the culture industry cannot be fulfilled. For Adorno, the gap between art and the world revives the possibility of change in the world; and this possibility arises from a non-nostalgic relation to the past.

Ultimately mimesis would be reversed; in a sublimated sense, reality should imitate works of art. But the fact that works of art exist indicates that nonbeing could be. The reality of works of art testifies to the possibility of the possible. What is implied by the desire in works of art—the reality of that which is not—is transformed for it into remembrance. In it are fused what is, as past (Gewesenes ), and nonbeing, because the past is no more. Since the Platonic Anamnesis, the not-yet-being has been dreamed of in remembrance, which alone concretizes utopia without betraying it into Being.[31]

This is indeed the crucial description of the liberating potential of art, but it, too, must be overcome. Otherwise, it applies to the art that Heath describes as the novelistic as well as to any other, since such art affirms society by negating it. It uses the very same utopian impulse to provide a tenuous social system with the imaginary past it needs to legitimate its future. Adorno indeed appears too neutral in his description of just this process: "The process which every work of art completes within itself becomes a model of possible practice affecting society as well, a model in which something like a subject-community [Gesamtsubjekt ] constitutes itself."[32] This is very similar to the process of "the reimagining of the individual as subject" which Heath describes. The "model of possible practice" as Adorno describes it could very well be an affirmative one; it might pose as a utopian possibility the survival of the existing system of domination. Since this system is so unstable that it negates itself, even negative works of art could conceivably preserve it through their utopian force.

Adorno's application of his insights begins to contradict itself in the following: "All works of art, including affirmative ones, are a priori polemical. The idea of a conservative work of art is self-contradictory. Inasmuch as they


emphatically divorce themselves from the empirical world, their Other, they proclaim that this world itself should be altered, [are] unconscious schemes for its transformation."[33] Thus Adorno would like to see both affirmative and negative works of art as utopian. Yet the culture industry is perfectly capable of seducing both impulses to serve its ideological purposes. Negative art, by proving that the possible is possible, may merely channel the despair already generated by "empirical reality." But if affirmative art presents an image that is at odds with the bleakness of empirical reality, that image provides no proof that empirical reality could be changed to measure up to it. There is in this no concrete reason to believe that this separation will ever be overcome, or that empirical reality will even enter consciousness. The affirmation, like the negation, requires a renunciation of practical intervention. Adorno finally seems to vacillate between an unsubstantiated optimism about the inherent revolutionary nature of art and the conclusion that art, to remain true to itself, must make its self-definition narrower and narrower, so that it merely observes the decline of civilization in silent protest.

Another application of Adorno's theoretical insights is necessary to reunite his definition of artistic utopia with forces for social transformation existing outside of art. It is this latter that Adorno neglected. Having postulated the survival and viability of art in its separation from reality, he seemed to cease to take the dynamic potential of reality seriously. Thus he writes, "Art respects the masses by confronting them as that which they could be, instead of conforming to them in their degraded state."[34] As in the demand that reality should imitate art, Adorno seems to have concluded that not only does the culture industry deflect or absorb potential for change but it has also obliterated it completely. Of the two separate realms, art and reality, only in art can progress be imagined. Thus Lindner criticizes Critical Theory in general for confusing technical and economic-political domination. Critical Theory assumes that the need for a culture industry to manage impulses for change has disappeared and that the culture industry has become what the people want. Lindner sees the Critical Theorists' analysis of society as too cynical in its assumption that rational principles of technical domination have become so all-pervasive as to need legitimation no longer.

Culture industry "refers to the standardization of the thing itself" and thereby to its technical characteristics. The basic structure of the culture industry—the relationship of tangible details to the totalitarian whole—is described in terms such as "cataloging, classification, quantification, interchangeability, administration, stereotyping." The relationship between the blind masses and central steering is characterized as technical rationality. The masses respond to the "omnipresence of stereotypes" with blind worship of technology. The pleasure of "being an appendage of the machinery" apparently hardly needs any content which legitimizes domination any longer. Civilization, which began as "self-preservation" against powerful natural necessities, continually increases its


rationality in the form of "domination of nature." Domination of nature includes domination of people. The total transformation of literally every aspect of existence into a realm of means to an end leads to the liquidation of the subject which is to make use of them.[35]

These terms, which Lindner has drawn from Adorno and Max Horkheimer, do indeed imply that social reality, the "subject," no longer offers any resistance to the culture industry. Therefore, the culture industry is not seen as an instrument of domination of some segments of humanity by others or as a means of holding a system together which the "real needs" of humanity threaten to break apart. Humanity no longer has "real needs" according to this technological scheme, and political-economic oppression is abolished, not merely hidden, in the oppression of consciousness.

An alternative to this one-dimensional view of the culture industry can be found in Adorno's own description of utopia in art but with a less abstract application than he gives it. After all, even Adorno did speak of "what the masses could be" as one dimension of art. The key aspects of this utopian future, where the masses are concerned, lie in two elements that have constantly resurfaced in these investigations: these are the elements of time (history, memory, a past) and of the subject, that nexus of social relations that exist in and through time, history, language, and art. Thus, as we have seen, Straub/Huillet, Hölderlin, and Benjamin push language and history to the borders where it threatens to cease even to be human.

Brecht, too, defines the subject as demanding a new relation between theater and time or process.

Today, when the human being must be conceived as "the ensemble of all social relations," the epic form is the only one which can grasp those processes that serve drama as the material for a comprehensive worldview. The individual human being, too—the flesh-and-blood human being—is only tangible through the processes in which and as a result of which it exists. The new drama must methodologically incorporate the "experiment" into its form. It must be able to use connections in all directions; it must make use of statics; it will have a tension reigning between its individual parts, mutually charging them.[36]

If this quotation is compared to Heath's description of the "novelistic" in cinema, we see the shift that has taken place, away from Brecht's intentions. Brecht wrote of the human being in the work of art as "only tangible through the processes in which and as a result of which it exists." The spectator, as subject, is meant to evaluate (in this "experiment") both the human being and the social processes. According to Heath, the social processes are presented in the film with the spectator as their point of unification. Rather than the static quality Brecht sought (and expected cinema to possess) in order to permit reflection, the cinema's images, with their fragmentations and constant motion,


uncontrollable from beginning to end, bring about "the holding of the spectator as the unifying position—the subject—of their relation in time."[37]

Just as the fixed point of the subject/spectator is necessary to make sense of the film (and to affirm its social relations), so also is the subject the fixed point that makes sense of the fragmentations and fabrications of the culture industry. The social relations postulated by ideology, the collective past in which they exist, are imaginary, artificial. It does not logically follow, however, that real social relations, a real past, do not exist. Instead, it seems the purpose of ideology to obscure them, to rob them of their disruptive force.

Let us assume for a moment that both a "real past" and a real "historical subject" might exist apart from the imaginary ones that legitimate the culture industry. How might they relate to art? As Adorno described it, the work of art as Other merges with pastness, that which is no longer, to prove the reality of that which does not (yet) exist: utopia. This is similar to the manipulative function of the imaginary past of the novelistic, which forges an artificial community. But what if the Other were a link with a real past that is denied its future expression by the culture industry? This is the utopian aspect of Brecht's epic theater.

The cinema's unreality poses an incompleteness that demands that a subject fill it in by accepting an affirmative position within its social relations. But historical reality, which is Brecht's aesthetic material, is also incomplete and postulates a future subject that can claim it as its own past. Müller writes of Brecht's concept of the work of art, "It takes on a decidedly new dimension: its completion lies outside itself in a future reality. Contemporary reality, the work of art, and future reality form a whole. Therefore, the work of art is necessarily incomplete, since the not-yet-being (to borrow a term from Ernst Bloch) is a part of its existence."[38] Here we are not far from Hölderlin and Benjamin's "the task of the translator," but Adorno notes this utopian strain even in Brecht's work. Thus he repeatedly comes back to Brecht as an authentic-artist-in-spite-of-himself, while denying the direct relation of Brecht's work to reality. Brecht's failure in his commitment to change reality becomes for Adorno a stronger critique of reality than any success: "In his plays, the theses took on an entirely different function than their content intended. They became constitutive, molded the drama into an anti-illusionist one, and contributed to the collapse of its unity and meaning."[39] Here is the other side of the coin. Where cinema resorts to unreality and fragmentation to captivate a real addressee, Brecht's epic theater insisted on reality and its fragmentation even though this meant losing its addressee. Rather than an imaginary subject-community (Gesamtsubjekt) in the present, Brecht's work—like the cinema of Straub/Huillet—points toward a real transformation in the future.

This potential in Brecht's theory and practice rests on a concept of the separation of art and reality similar to Adorno's—but on a more diversified,


concrete inclusion of reality as a contributing element. To simplify the culture industry as described by Critical Theory as well as Heath's more psychoanalytic description of aesthetic manipulation, one would say that the working class that Brecht sought to address simply does not exist. It does not constitute a historical subject capable of responding to a Marxist critique of political economy or to sophisticated transformations of bourgeois art forms. The working class clearly does not exist today as the subject of the imaginary social relations presented by the culture industry. Nevertheless, there is reason to assert that the working class does indeed exist, but merely in reality, not in imagination. Its real existence has been purged from history, so that it cannot even remember itself.

Adorno does not pursue the importance of history to imply resistance on the part of the subject, but it is implicit in his description of concrete utopia and of the objective potential for resistance in Composing for the Films . Imaginary pastness is the power behind the social cohesion of the culture industry. But real pastness—the real history of real subjects—preserves the artistic yearning for that which does not yet exist: a future for those very subjects.

One must decide whether or not the reality of capitalist society would indeed destroy itself if only imagination could consent to it. If technical rationality truly means capitalism is no longer self-destructive, then these arguments are foundationless. But real human suffering and oppression, a collective past that could point toward a different future, persists as a basis for art, even for Adorno. The final sentence of his Aesthetic Theory is, "But what kind of history writing would art be if it were to shake off the memory of accumulated suffering."[40] Brecht's utopian impulse retains its social basis by anchoring itself in "real" history, that is, history as subject to analysis of social processes that would lead to revolution if only a historical subject were there to imagine it. Like Adorno, Brecht recognizes that the role of art is only to record (imagine) the past sufferings that prepare the way for a future that cannot be imagined. Even the present is a part of this "historicization." Adorno separates art and reality; Brecht unites art and past reality (which, as Adorno says, is thus nonbeing) while also refusing to include future reality or the future subject that is its necessary condition. The material of art is reality; its implications are utopian. Müller describes the utopian aspect of this historical materialism.

Verfremdung in a strict sense implies familiarity and thus finds its true materials in the present. But since Verfremdung and historicizations are interchangeable terms, a point of view is necessary which can make the structure of the present visible as a historical phenomenon. This point of view must lie "further ahead in developments." This means that Verfremdung is undertaken from the basis of the recognized meaning of history, that is, from utopia. Utopia provides for the present what historically later periods can give to every phase of history: the consideration of phenomena as past, insight into their interrelationships from a


historical distance. By implication, of course, this means no less than a transformation of the present.[41]

Even if one rejects the "recognized meaning of history" as a final possibility, this entire description matches Adorno's claim for art of the power to imagine the world other than it is. This indeed revolutionizes the present, "concretizing utopia without betraying it into being."

This aesthetic humility does not assert the uselessness of socioeconomic or historical analysis. But such activities belong to the world as it is, not as it might be. They can have no direct relationship to revolutionary reality, for, as Fortini wrote, "revolutionary reality, when it emerges, will be such as to render even the most imaginative models unrecognizable."[42]

Not only would revolution render limited intellectual speculation irrelevant, it would also rearrange the structures and processes of all of history retroactively through the shift of power. Thus, inversely, the aesthetic reclaiming of history postulates such a shift of power to a different historical subject. Benjamin describes the radical significance of seizing a history to constitute a revolutionary force.

The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger's leap into the past. This jump, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands. The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution.[43]

In light of the foregoing analysis, one might assert that what passes for "Brechtian" in political art—especially the cinema of political modernism—has more in common with Adorno than with Brecht. In stressing the political purpose of exclusively formal innovation without linking it to the frustrated aspirations of real people and real history, such an approach implies with Adorno that reality is too thoroughly administered to offer any hope. Politics in art becomes an alibi, a substitute for politics lacking in reality. As Colin MacCabe put it in the 1970s, "That the breaking of the imaginary relation between text and viewer is the first prerequisite of political questions in art has, I would hold, been evident since Brecht. That the breaking of the imaginary relationship can constitute a political goal in itself is the ultra-leftist fantasy of the surrealists and of much of the avant-garde work now being undertaken in the cinema."[44] Indeed, there is a tendency to hold up such "political" art as almost a moral imperative. Since reality is frustrating, the only possible expression of freedom is self-denial in art as well. Hence a certain moralistic tone is inescapable in the way Walsh cites Straub as claiming that viewers who cannot watch the long traveling shots from within an automobile in History


Lessons , who cannot "engage with activity in the street, cannot have an advanced political position."[45] Instead of moralistically claiming such involvement as a prerequisite for "an advanced political position," one might see the relationship Straub outlines as merely descriptive. The systematic manipulation of viewers as subjects for novelistic reality keeps them from seeing their own reality, their own history. Straub/Huillet films are not an indictment of viewers whose viewing habits are otherwise but an offer of an alternative that points to potential for freedom in other aspects as well—the tiger's "leap" under the clear sky of history.

Peter Gidal criticizes Straub/Huillet from just such an ultra-leftist point of view. For him, the subversion of traditional narrative in their films is not radical enough. Rather than dwell on the location of the spectator in relation to the film, which is the main aesthetic and utopian thrust of these films, Gidal sees a political imperative in the complete overthrow of representation. For him, the use of black leader to call attention to deletions is a false claim of equivalency. "Black leader = emptiness" is just as odious to him, apparently, as the devices of representing the bourgeois individual personality. The filmic unity of the works also strikes Gidal as a mystification. "The point is," he writes, "that the mystification of procedures into a coherent line, into a rightness about sound, image, continuity, uninterrupted by the material (film), is in fact a basic illusionist project."[46] Furthermore, he sees in the films an "unseen center, . . . a persecuted character. The persecuted outsider is never far from the center of thought. The romantic, mystical artist as outsider, communist, Jew, may be the figure of Jean-Marie Straub, judging by the strongly identificatory manner in which it is set up. This may be the central problem as well, the inability of the films to produce themselves as material operations. They always end up as stories."[47] He concludes as well that this positing of a persecuted character ends up confirming the "patriarchal male [Hegelian] subject."[48] But in her essay on the relevance of Hegel to psychoanalytic film criticism and the Left, Julia Kristeva stressed a point made evident again and again in Straub/Huillet films: "the fact that these aesthetic forms constitute, along with the history of religions, a different series from that of the forms of the state and the juridical superstructures."[49] But to preserve some political and aesthetic purity in art, it is not enough to offer alternative structures to the "stories" that define and imprison the viewer as subject. Instead, art can propose a return to the fundamental purpose of aesthetic innovation: to rediscover reality that has been obscured by forms based on manipulation. Schoenberg, for instance, was irritated by those who refused to see serial composition as composition, as more freedom for artistic expression, not less. Hölderlin found joy in sorrow and discovered what was his own in the German language by exploring its foreignness.

At some point, the political avant-garde or political modernism implies an acceptance of capitalism's technical rationality of progress and reserves theory


and culture to the work of "experts." A certain respect for the audience, implied even by Adorno, is lacking here. Authentic art does not presume to offer experience that is useful in the context of needs generated by the culture industry, but it does attempt to offer what might be useful if the future subject implied by its formal and historical development were to arrive, if the masses became "what they could be." This is why Straub/Huillet, for all their formal radicality, insist that they are working in the popular tradition of cinema, rather than in a marginal, avant-garde subcategory for initiates. Serge Daney has described the uniqueness and difficulty of their stance.

With their well-oiled war machine, their sacred egoism, their fine vitality, too, and the clear ideas they have concerning their work, the Straubs are probably the last to create a cinema for loners that can nevertheless be brought into regular theaters. They are squarely in cinema and I would have given up on them long ago with their garbled political ideas, had I not understood that they were the last great film-makers of the history of modern cinema, perhaps of the history of cinema, period. I harbor no illusions about the receptability of their work; they set out to teach people something and people will always hate them for that.[50]

But despite the public's resistance, Straub/Huillet have not withdrawn into the political self-protection in such aesthetic dogmatism, an inability to accept that reality can and will change, perhaps positively, without an artist's design. Instead, they turn toward the world to find the traces of such change. Their belief in change rather than aesthetic puritanism echoes Brecht's argument that artistic self-obsession can actually hinder any frightening changes.

The world is thus nailed up with barricades for many leftist writers. The barricade hides their opponents from them, and protects the opponents more than themselves. The world then consists of two worlds, distant from each other, not within one another. So a large number of people are petty-bourgeois and petty-bourgeois are just nothing but petty-bourgeois, belonging to an unchanging, natural category. [. . .] Contempt protects them from all demands. So, too, industry is soulless and the courts unjust, as the trees are green, and it would seem more reasonable for industry to be soulless than for us therefore to criticize it. [. . .] The commodity character of literature increases and the laws of competition force our writers always to produce something new, nothing familiar or already forgotten. An injustice, getting on in years, thus remains unchallenged; a great outrage becomes after two weeks a minor irregularity; and capitalism, which is after all only "material," becomes dull material, yesterday's news.[51]

The fear behind these obsessions, whether they are with static conceptions of political art, separate from politics, or with compulsory newness in form, regardless of real social needs, is seen by both Fortini and Adorno. It is the fear of death. If art dares to want something real, if it dares to express a yearning based on real history or the artist's real involvement with the materials of art


and life, it runs the risk of getting what it wants. People naturally resist art that makes them uncomfortable, since, as Eisler and Adorno put it, "The fact that music is alien to industrious people reveals their alienation in regard to one another."[52] The end of this alienation would mean a kind of death: the end of the world as we know it. The figures of Empedocles and Antigone embody this utopian leap. For art to dare to assert an identity in this context is to face the necessity of its extinction.


12— Real History and the Nonexistent Spectator— Brecht, Adorno, and Straub/Huillet

Preferred Citation: Byg, Barton. Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.