Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

Chapter 2: Brecht's Ethics of Praxis

Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

Chapter 2: Brecht's Ethics of Praxis

Article excerpt

I came to the cities in a time of disorder

When hunger reigned there.

I came among men in a time of revolt

And I rebelled with them.1

2.1 Introduction

Brecht was many things-playwright, poet, lyricist, director, philosopher, etc. However, for Brecht these roles were not disparate. While doing them, he was directing the world toward a new social order and attempting to facilitate the advent of universal human emancipation2. Brecht's whole professional life and much of his private life as well was devoted to ending social antagonism and the emancipation of humanity from material suffering. What made him the 'difficult phenomenon' that Benjamin called him was that nearly his whole life and everything he did constituted either a praxis element or theory element of his complex social philosophy.

One difficulty of Brecht's work is locating an ethics in it. His epic theatre was not interested in moralizing. True, Brecht himself referred many times to the instructive nature of epic theatre; but, Brecht never intended epic theatre to instruct its audience in moral behavior. As Brecht himself says, "[m]any people...attacked the epic theatre, claiming it was too moralistic. Yet moral utterances were secondary in epic theatre. Its intention was less to moralize than to study [society]" (Brecht 2000: 26) [c. 1936]. This is not to suggest that there was no ethical imperative to the epic theatre, though. Instead of presenting moralistic arguments, Brecht designed epic theatre to alter the Weltanschauung of the audience. This constituted the ethical imperative of his theatre. This was critical for Brecht because by altering the audiences' Weltanschauung he was trying to create the necessary conditions for human emancipation. Epic theatre, then, was ethical not in its text but in its agenda (i.e. creating the necessary conditions for human emancipation). In this way, we can say that Brecht's ethic was an ethic of praxis in the Marxian sense.

This chapter seeks to draw Brecht's aesthetic theory into the larger discourse of Marxian praxis philosophy and social and political philosophy more broadly. In it, I will argue that Brecht's thought constitutes a Marxian philosophy of praxis and outline the specifics of his praxis-theory in order to demonstrate that the entire project of epic theatre was deeply rooted in Brecht's ethical concern for human emancipation.

2.2 Marxian Praxis-Theory

Marxian praxis-theories (or philosophies of praxis) are philosophies where Marxian theory is practically applied to one's actions. They are philosophies where Marxian theory directs one's actions. That is, Marxian philosophies of praxis are philosophies where progressive (i.e. materially emancipatory) action (understood in Marxist terms) forms a central tenet of the theory. Specifically, Marxian philosophies of praxis posit some form of action as being necessary for the fulfillment of the theory. They stress the necessity for some action to occur in order to ensure that the predictions of the theory come to fruition.

As Haug (2001) points out, the concept of Marxian praxis-theory can be traced back to Marx himself. In its simplest form it is found in the often quoted "Theses on Feuerbach" where Marx states that "philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways, the point, however, is to change it" (Marx, Engels & Tucker 1972: 109). Although this work was not published during Marx's lifetime it nevertheless became an influential aspect of Marx's thought for twentieth century Marxists. This influence was evident in Italian Marxism. Antonio Labriola, for example, was the first to use the term "philosophy of praxis" calling it the "nucleus of Historical Materialism" (Haug 2001: 69). It was elaborated by Antonio Gramsci who advocated for counterhegemonic action intended to destroy the so called 'commonsense' understanding of subaltern social groups. This 'commonsense' understanding is quite similar to Brecht's notion of the working class Weltanschauung. …

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