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Hands-On Realism: Perception, Imagination, and Speech in Brecht's Poetry



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Britten, Robert 


Brecht’s somewhat idiosyncratic conception of realist art appears to pit “Erlebnisse” unfavourably against “Kenntnisse”. With all that is encompassed by the term Verfremdung, Brecht is understood to have looked to thwart would-be passive spectators. But while it is tempting to think of Brecht in opposition to experience-based art, and to draw sharp distinctions between supposedly naïve experience and critical thought, or between passive spectating and active intervention, my thesis highlights the shortcomings of this approach. Even many of Brecht’s most politically acute poems are in fact remarkably evocative of rich perceptual experience. Landscapes in and between seasons, everyday scenes and objects, trees, clouds, bodies of water, form the backdrop to large-scale historical events. Crucially, the figures that populate these poems are precisely not just spectators, but they are keen and active perceivers: they squint their eyes or turn their heads, they notice one thing and not another, they are not limited to what happens to be in view any given moment, but supplement what they encounter with recollections from the past and simulations of possible futures. In such poems, against the tempting fiction of the passive spectator, Brecht shows us perceivers in action, who bring reality dynamically and critically into view. Chapter 1 outlines the striking echo of such poems in recent work on perception and action in psychology and the philosophy of mind. Against the still pervasive idea that perceiving is a kind of spectating in relation to a head-internal theatre, in which perceptual information accrues to form a picture of the external world, theorists of the so-called pragmatic turn situate perception in much closer proximity to action: perceivers are not passive spectators of a world from which they are at a remove, but engage with one that ‘shows up for us in experience only insofar as we know how to make contact with it, […] only insofar as we are able to bring it into focus’ (Noë). The following two chapters attend to poems that thematise or are structured around acts of mental simulation (2) and acts of speech (3). Where those that speak in Brecht’s poems imagine or remember, they meet the world half-way, self-generating alternative contexts that open up space for critical reflection. Where Brecht exhibits, juxtaposes and critically examines the utterances made by different speakers from different perspectives, he reminds us that the function of language is not exhausted in naming, or in representing different objects in the world, but that, with language, we do things. Chapter 4, finally, brings this idea of active world-engagement to the question of Verfremdung. If Brecht was wary of excessive familiarity that would bias readers and audiences into accepting the reality that simply presents itself, this is not a concern about passive or impotent perceivers, but about highly efficient ones: familiarity and habit determine everyday perception precisely because skilled and active perceivers reach out to the world and bring their own expectations and prior knowledge to bear on the encounter. Framed in this way, however, Verfremdung does not side-step such perceptual mechanisms: surprise and shock, uncertainty, attention – all themselves felt as striking or peculiar experiences – are built into a perceptual apparatus that is efficient, but also, at need, flexible and adaptable.





Lee, Charlotte


Bertolt Brecht, Poetry, Realism, 4E Cognition, Perception, Action


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
AHRC (2096178)