I just read Theodor Adorno’s essay, “Commitment,” in Aesthetics and Politics. I’m especially drawn to Adorno’s criticism of Bertolt Brecht’s technique when it comes to presentation. In other words, the balancing act of aesthetic and thought in a work of art, or even questioning that compositional formula itself. About Brecht’s play Saint Joan, Adorno writes,
The play is set in a Chicago half-way between the Wild West fables of Mahagonny and economic facts. But the more preoccupied Brecht becomes with information, and the less he looks for images, the more he misses the essence of capitalism which the parable is supposed to present. Mere episodes in the sphere of circulation, in which competitors maul each other, are recounted instead of the appropriation of surplus-value in the sphere of production [. . .] (183).
Not having seen or read Saint Joan, I can’t comment on it directly. But the reason I quote this passage is for the second portion, in which Adorno calls Brecht’s scenes and images “Mere episodes.” I think this is a good example of the reification of daily life, in which events come to feel episodic. Georg Lukács points out something similar that begins to happen in literature with the rise of capitalism. The presentation of the world becomes a mere backdrop to small bourgeois conflicts.
The Tramp is berated on the assembly line in Chaplin’s Modern Times
Adorno then goes on to speak of the failed critique of fascism through artistic creation in Brecht’s Arturo Ui and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator:
the deconstruction of leaders, as with all individuals in Brecht, is extended into a reconstruction of the social and economic nexus in which the dictator acts. Instead of a conspiracy of the wealthy and powerful, we are given a trivial gangster organization, the cabbage trust. The true horror of fascism is conjured away; it is no longer a slow end-product of the concentration of social power, but mere hazard, like an accident or a crime [. . .] That is why the buffoonery of fascism, evoked by Chaplin as well, was at the same time also its ultimate horror. If this is suppressed, and a few sorry exploiters of greengrocers are mocked, where key positions of economic power are actually at issue, the attack misfires. The Great Dictator loses all satirical force and becomes obscene when a Jewish girl can hit a line of storm-troopers on the head with a pan without being torn to pieces. For the sake of political commitment, political reality is trivialized: which then reduces the political effect (184-185).
From this passage, I’m reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times (1936). I’m fond of the film, but it’s not free of criticism. Of course, this criticism is not reduced to a rejection of the film’s comedy, but rather its scope. Just as the first passage above references the episodic quality of Brecht’s play, Modern Times also falls into the same trap. The film’s scope of capitalism sometimes reaches its limit at the angry figure of a boss. If only he were nicer, we are meant to think.
Still from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil
And now, I’m reminded also of a humorous, short section in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983). The narrator ponders an arcade game, the objective of which is to hit different members of your job’s hierarchy:
I saw these games born in Japan. I later met up with them again all over the world, but one detail was different. At the beginning the game was familiar: a kind of anti-ecological beating where the idea was to kill off—as soon as they showed the white of their eyes—creatures that were either prairie dogs or baby seals, I can’t be sure which. Now here’s the Japanese variation. Instead of the critters, there’s some vaguely human heads identified by a label. At the top, the chairman of the board. In front of him, the vice president and the directors. In the front row, the section heads and the personnel manager. The guy I filmed, who was smashing up the hierarchy with an enviable energy, confided in me that for him the game was not at all allegorical, that he was thinking very precisely of his superiors. No doubt that’s why the puppet representing the personnel manager has been clubbed so often and so hard, that it’s out of commission, and why it had to be replaced again by a baby seal.
My point in bringing this up is not that art should really be focused on higher members of such hierarchies, but rather that the the “game” itself represents reification by presenting to the user a set of names to be responsible for the ills of work under capitalism. A more recent example of misplaced anger might be the way in which individual bankers were thought of as the enemy during demonstrations at Occupy Wall Street. That’s for another day though.