A few weeks ago, I read a pair of essays that I’ve been thinking about since: Doc Burford’s “should art say things?” and “does art say things?” Doc (as he refers to himself throughout, and as I’ll therefore be referring to him here) is probably best known for Adios, a short, bracing game about living and dying imperfectly under capitalism. Adios indisputably has things to say, and so naturally I was intrigued to read how its developer felt about whether art should in fact say things, and whether in fact it does (in that order).
Basically, Doc is frustrated with the tendency of critics to state what a piece of art is about, categorically and definitively: “An awful lot of people want art to be didactic, because they want art to intentionally convey specific messages that can be reduced to a thesis statement,” he says. Art definitely does say things (and separately, it should), but for Doc, it does not follow that art is straightforwardly about the things it’s saying, nor does it follow that the art question is necessarily political.
When I described Adios a moment ago, the description I gave was accurate, but by no means comprehensive. I think my reading is sound, based both on the text itself, and on Doc having described himself as an anticapitalist. But my intention isn’t to foreclose on other readings. It would be absurd to say that Adios isn’t about anything, and equally absurd to try and claim that it’s exclusively about any one thing.
Perhaps more controversially: Adios isn’t didactic or straightforwardly partisan, but neither is it apolitical. It is political. It has politics. It’s just that it pretty fiercely resists any attempts you might make to fold it neatly into your politics. Which makes sense, given its developer’s ambivalence about the idea of political statements in art.
I think that Doc is getting at something really useful and important in his pair of essays, but there are two wrinkles that I want to add: First, I do think that art is unavoidably about the things it says (even though no, that doesn’t mean it’s exclusively about those things). Second, I think that we enter some iffy territory when we try and make too firm a separation between art conveying ideas on the one hand, and art being political on the other.
Basically, I want our lens here to be a little less David Mamet and a little more Bertolt Brecht.
Pecked by Birds
I remember when I was first playing through Portal 2, and noticing the game’s references to Greek mythology, and particularly the myth of Prometheus. This is not a reach, because the references are not subtle: an NPC called the Oracle Turret retells the myth, with special attention to the part of Prometheus being “pecked by birds,” in a game where we then see GLaDOS being terrorized (and indeed pecked) by a bird.
A friend of mine pointed out that some of the concrete slabs in the lower levels of Aperture Science have “Tartarus” written on them, which makes it pretty unmistakable that we’re supposed to think of these parts of the game as an underworld, and to think of GLaDOS as having been cast into it, and to therefore think of GLaDOS as some manner of Prometheus figure. To which I say: Neat!
But I think that my friend actually came to me hoping that I could talk him out of this entirely sound, pretty straightforward reading, because when I didn’t do that, he said, “So… you’re going to think of Portal 2 as the retelling of a Greek myth now?” And I said, “Well, not exclusively.”
He wasn’t satisfied by that.
I bring this example up because my friend did have a valid concern: namely, that to think of Portal 2 simply as a modern retelling of the Prometheus story is to read it much, much too narrowly, and to rob the game’s other motifs and other influences of their proper importance.
And I’ve been on the other side of that conversation, too! When I was in high school, my girlfriend played me a Neutral Milk Hotel bootleg in which Jeff Mangum says, in no uncertain terms, that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is about Anne Frank. And yes, he did say that, and yes, it’s about that. But the album goes about being what it’s about in such an esoteric way—and my own connection to it was so personal, as a teenager going through shit—that it felt impossible to accept my girlfriend’s extremely sound, convincingly evidenced reading.
And I remember not having the words, at the time, to articulate my objection. I think what I said was, “Well, yeah, sure, but like…”
I can articulate it better now: By reading a specific work of art in one specific way, we’re not foreclosing on reading it in other ways. The work being about something doesn’t mean that it’s only about that thing.
Now, that being said.
I certainly recognize the attitude that Doc is alluding to, and I broadly share his frustrations with it. Art-objects aren’t meaning machines. They don’t exist to transmit singular ideas from artist to audience, nor would we know a perfect work of art by its ability to perform that transfer without any interpretive noise in the expressive signal. Artworks aren’t puzzles to be solved. (The whole deal with JJ Abrams’ “puzzle box” approach is that the contents of the box are supposed to be irrelevant. The reason that’s bullshit is that the trick is predicated on the audience wanting to know what’s in the box, so it’s invariably a letdown when the answer is, inevitably, nothing).
Meaning is something you subjectively derive, not something you objectively discover. It’s personal, and polymorphous. Those who seek the answer are boxing ghosts or chasing clout.
When I talk about critics who tend to treat works of art as meaning machines, I’m thinking of The Hot Take Industrial Complex, which makes some sort of observation about the text and then just… stops, without doing any real critique or analysis. Or of The EXPLAINED Industrial Complex, which flattens texts into hollow, themeless, Abramsesque puzzle boxes. Or… look, at the risk of coming off as an asshole, I do feel like it’s important to be at least a little bit specific here: I’m thinking of The Game Theorists, a YouTube channel that applies the paranoid style of straight-up conspiracism to media analysis, with predictably smug and anti-intellectual results.
This stuff is clickbait, and it’s desperately incurious, and it sucks. It wants your attention, and all it has to offer in return is a patronizing ego-stroke: now you have the answer, to repeat at will.
As someone who loves weird games, and art galleries, and theory, I hate to rush to say the “correct” thing about a work of art, for about the same reason that I sort of hate award shows: One of the best and most valuable things about art is that no one can ever win at it.
Art isn’t reducible in that way, and that’s exactly what rules about it. Or as Doc says:
Art is a rhythm, a smell, a taste. Sometimes art is that creeping sense of dread you feel in your heart when the bills are due. It’s heartbreak. It’s elation. Sometimes it’s a way of helping you cry. And that’s just the audience-facing stuff. Art, for the artists, is a release and therapy as well.
He brings up David Lynch’s famous statement that “the film is the talking.” As in, asking an artist to explain their art is at best asking them to express something they’ve already expressed in a more interesting and comprehensive way, and usually it’s worse than that. Usually it’s asking them to express in words something that simply isn’t expressible in words, something that, for exactly that reason, they’ve chosen to express, you know, in their art.
It’s worth taking a quick look at the complete quote, which is Lynch’s response to being bluntly asked what the theme of his film Mulholland Drive is.
A film is… when it’s finished, all the elements together in a way that feels correct and feels complete. That’s what goes out. So since it’s complete, in my mind, nothing should be talked about more and it’a a big shame when something is finished and then people want you to translate it back into words, because it never will work, it will never go back into words and be what the film is.
It’s like describing a piece of music. You don’t hear the music, you just see the words and maybe conjures up a desire to go listen to that music. Some films may have a theme, but even if it has a theme, it may be a different theme for different people who see it, so it’s better let people come to their own ideas, having seen and experienced the film.
So Lynch declines to declare his authorial intent, and he’s also at least a little bit skeptical of the idea that all movies necessarily have themes in the first place. But he also says that he doesn’t want to talk about what his films mean specifically because he does want us to talk about what his films mean, even and especially when doing so is hard and our differing interpretations are difficult, even impossible, to reconcile.
His point is that, for him, making a movie is the hard work of trying to make a complete statement—and that then for us, watching and discussing the movie is the hard work of trying to derive a complete statement. He couldn’t do that part for us even if he wanted to, which he emphatically doesn’t.
Once we’ve watched the movie, then it’s our turn to struggle heartily and productively with what it might mean. If the answers we come up with are too tidy, then we’re probably doing it wrong—and if your experience with a work of art transcends words and you can never express it to anyone else, then that’s a fine and a beautiful thing.
But it’s also a fine a beautiful thing to work out what an artwork means to you, and to carry that meaning into your life, to do something with it. That’s got to be some portion of the point of engaging with art in the first place, right?
When introducing the question “Is your game political?” Doc says,
Some people understand that this question means “does your game have a worldview?” which is a stupid question to ask… Of course it does, numbnuts! You cannot write a work without having some kind of perspective!
Hear hear! Though I’d put it slightly differently: What I’d say is that themes are a native feature of stories.
All we really mean by “theme” is the story’s point of view. Why is the storyteller telling you this story, and why are they telling it to you in this specific way, and what do they want you to take away from it? The text is always making some kind of point about something. (Yes, even when the point is the story’s own pointlessness, as with Stephen Crane’s proto-existentialist short story “The Open Boat,” or Charles Bukowski’s bleak, fucked up final novel Pulp).
Themes are a native feature of stories, because every story cannot help but have a point of view. If you tell me a story about a funny thing you saw happen at the store today, then the theme is when x happens, that’s funny. Either you assume that I too think that x is funny, or you’re trying to convince me that it is. This simplest of stories has a discernible intent.
If we can’t discern the intent of a story, then it’s barely recognizable as a story. And if a storyteller doesn’t think much about theme, then that doesn’t mean their stories won’t have any. It just means their stories will have themes that they haven’t thought much about.
Themes are a native feature of stories. I’d argue that politics are also a native feature of stories—but you don’t have to follow me that far, because in any case, they’re definitely a native feature of persuasive essays.
So, let’s do this: Given Doc’s skepticism about the idea that “everything is political,” let’s take a look at a moment in Doc’s second essay that engages unambiguously with capital-P Politics.
Before we do that, though, I want to be clear that when Doc says his politics are anticapitalist and left-leaning, I believe him. The claim here isn’t that his politics are something other than what he says they are. I’m not really ascribing intent at all. I’m just zooming in on a moment where a factual error balloons in to something weirder, and seeing what we can learn from it.
An Aside about an Aside
At one point Doc claims that “defining yourself as anti-anything is a bad idea, because you’re letting the other party set the terms for what you’re against, and do you really want to give them that kind of power over you?” To argue this point, he says that “when Tricky Dick Nixon was president, the Republicans actually invented the idea of Universal Basic Income,” even though “they oppose universal basic income these days, because some Democrats support it.” This is his example of how the Republican Party is a sort of “mirror-person, only capable of reflecting the Democrats. In a sense, the Democrats have dramatic influence over the Republicans,” because Republicans look at what Democrats support and then support not-that.
This is incorrect both in the particulars and in the broad strokes. It’s true that Nixon was at least nominally in favor of Universal Basic Income, but it was a policy proposal that he picked up from his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson (a Democrat). Johnson’s “War on Poverty” was itself an attempt to revive the “Economic Bill of Rights” that Franklin D. Roosevelt (also a Democrat) had proposed but never actually pursued.
So no, Republicans did not invent, introduce, or popularize the concept of Universal Basic Income. Universal Basic Income was pretty clearly “invented” by Thomas More in Utopia, and well before it had a basis in theory, at least two Roman emperors put some crude version of the idea into practice.
More importantly, no, Republicans do not in fact set their agenda by looking at what Democrats are doing and then doing the opposite. You might have noticed the Conservative legal movement working pretty hard to roll back abortion rights, and that sure as hell isn’t because Liberals are fiercely in favor of those rights. (Man oh man, I would that they fucking were).
Rather, at least since Bill Clinton, Democrats have been defining themselves by looking to what Republicans are doing and saying that they’ll do basically the same thing, but you know, more competently. You see a similar dynamic with Tony Blair and New Labor in the United Kingdom.
It’s true that reactionaries define themselves in opposition to progressivism. (Reaction is kind of their thing. It’s right there in the name). But it doesn’t follow that whichever political party ins’t reactionary must therefore be progressive. To be a Liberal is definitionally to be neither, and to believe that the status quo is more or less fine and that the system will work itself out.
But wait. Why the fuck are we talking about this again?
This weird aside about Republicans and mirror selves doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with Doc’s main point, so screwing it up doesn’t invalidate his overall argument or anything. But I do think it’s telling that these essays, which are at such pains to map out some intellectual territory that is not-politics, have sort of a tenuous grasp on what politics actually are.
Doc’s point about being anti-whatever would make sense if being against something were, like, fully abstract, just a question of labeling yourself. But no, to be anticapitalist or antifascist (or antiracist, or a prison abolitionist, or a police abolitionist) is to be against actual institutions and individuals having (bad!) material effects on the world. The thing about fascism and racism—and anything to do with people’s rights, really—is that there’s no neutral position.
Sure, the thing you’re against is defining what it is you’re against, but… of course it is? The whole reason you’re against that thing is that you’ve seen what it is, and decided it’s harmful.
This is the sense in which everything is political, and in which it’s important to say so. In the same way that there’s no such thing as a themeless story, and that a writer who isn’t thinking about themes will simply produce a story with not-particularly-thoughtful ones, being flip about the political implications of what you’re saying is just going to leave you with a flippant politics.
Even things that “aren’t political” are politically situated. Even if you don’t think you’ve put politics into your work, someone else can always do politics of one kind or another with it.
Again, I don’t think Doc has any kind of secret reactionary agenda here. I just think he goofed up the history, and in doing so produced an argument that is useful to intransigent centrists, to Nixon apologists, and maybe worst of all, to actual reactionaries. Self-styled traditionalists always claim that they’re acting defensively—that they’re a bulwark against radical, would-be-totalitarian leftism—when in historical fact no reactionaries, no self-styled traditionalists, have ever acted as a check against a nascent authoritarian movement; in historical fact, self-styled traditionalists tend to join authoritarian movements at the first opportunity.
Right-wingers would love for you to think that they form their positions rationally, almost automatically, in response to the left. If indeed “the Democrats have dramatic influence over the Republicans,” then it would follow that the Democrats have a responsibility to avoid progressive action, lest they provoke an equal and opposite reaction. (Conservative Democrats love this way of thinking, too: Whenever the right gains power, it’s the left’s fault, somehow).
To see the world the way Doc describing here is to see it a little less clearly, and a little more like certain bad actors want you to. You don’t have to be a reactionary to produce something that’s potentially helpful to reactionaries, and therefore potentially harmful to everyone else.
Why Should I Wake Up?
Since you can’t stop people from doing politics with your work, you probably want to be thoughtful about what kinds of politics they can most readily do with it. My favorite encapsulation of this idea is the third precept of Heather Flowers’ MEATPUNK MANIFESTO, namely: “ART IS POLITICAL, DON’T LET YOUR ART GET COOPTED BY FASCISTS.”
make all your art as gay and trans and leftist and intersectional as humanly fucking possible. if there aren’t lesbians then you’re probably doing it wrong. the more fascists in it that get completely owned the better
If you can make your work utterly unpalatable to bigots, then that’s a good and virtuous thing. As Lindsay Ellis has pointed out, Nazis have never really tried to co-opt “Springtime for Hitler” in the way they’ve tried to co-opt, say, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” The Producers makes itself inhospitable to fascist reclamation in roughly the way that Heather Flowers was describing back then, and not only because the plot has some “fascists in it that get completely owned.” It also refuses, moment to moment, to see Nazis the way they’d like to see themselves.
As long as we’re talking about musicals, I should admit that whenever anyone says let’s not get political or let’s not make this about politics, the first thing I think of is, unavoidably, Cabaret. Without claiming that Cabaret is exclusively about any one thing, we can say very confidently that one of the things it’s about is living during the rise of fascism. The show takes place in Berlin, in what will soon prove to be the latter days of the Weimar Republic. In the text, you know that someone isn’t taking the Nazis seriously when they dismiss the rising threat as “politics.”
And not to put too fine a point on it, but we are currently living under the rise, or at least the attempted rise, of fascism. So while, again, I am by no means calling Doc a cryptofascist, it is important to understand how useful it is to fascists when we, the non-fascists, dismiss real harms done to actual people as “politics,” or as “differences of opinion.” Cabaret is in large part about the sheer, unimaginable horror that can result from that complacency.
Cabaret is where the song “Tomorrow Belong to Me” comes from. In context it’s chilling, but it’s chilling precisely because it demonstrates how nationalism and bigotry can be rousing, draped in beautiful imagery and the promise of utopian idyll. (The imagined beauty never arrives, and the promises are always, always broken, but people don’t know that as they’re being swept up).
The song perfectly captures the gut-level appeal of fascism, and so actual fascists (such as the thoroughly punchable and famously punched Richard Spencer) have tried to deploy it for their own purposes. They can get away with that partially because we, the rest of us, haven’t heeded Cabaret’s warning—that is, because we still think of Nazis (neo- or ortherwise) as nuisances or novelties, refusing to understand that even though their their ideology is idiotic, clownish, and meritless, they mean it dead-seriously.
Cabaret at-least-arguably gets this one specific thing wrong—it produces a faux-Nazi artifact that’s inadvertently useful to actual Nazis—even though there’s a lot else it gets right. David J. Bradley recently did a great video on the (many) different iterations of Cabaret and the books (and real lives) it’s based on. By bringing in so many different texts telling more or less the same story, Bradley refuses to treat Cabaret as a meaning machine, while also drawing attention to the the things that it does, inescapably, mean.
Among those things: Cabaret shows us that there’s this perfectly understandable, frequently disastrous human impulse to think of politics as being abstract, or apart from lived experience—or if we have to think of them as something actually happening, to think of them as happening to someone else. We could define all forms of privilege, in large part anyway, as the ability to live life apolitically. (In Cabaret, we see how contingent that luxury always is, and that it’s mutually exclusive with fascists getting completely owned).
In the United States right now, there’s this sickening centrist refrain that the Democratic Party should stay away from “culture war” issues, such as trans rights and racial justice. Hopefully I don’t have to explain how fucking stupid it is—not to mention how cruel, not to mention how immoral—to think of people’s material conditions and physical safety as a “culture war,” to think of those people’s rights and safety as politics, simply because those people aren’t you.
Which brings us at long last to Bertolt Brecht.
Moralizing from the Stage
Doc insists that of course any given work of art has a point of view, but at the same time, both of his essays insist that it’s absurd to ask art to “impart ideas.” This, Doc argues, is because art is fundamentally about feelings, not ideas.
We make so many of the things we do to help our audience deal with feelings. You can’t really grapple with that on a conscious level. When you begin to impart ideas, you’ve lost your audience’s attention and care unless you are preaching to the choir.
If we’re defining a theme simply as a text’s point of view, however, then themes can be primarily or even entirely emotional. Lots of capital-R Romantic operas are organized around the theme that it is sad when a beautiful young woman dies, for example. I think Doc would say that you experience that sort of theme on an “unconscious” level—keep that term in mind; it’ll be important in a moment—rather than on the “conscious” level of ideas and morality.
But in some ways, the history of capital-P Political theater is the history of rejecting that dichotomy, and of figuring out how to convey ideas by making the audience feel emotions.
The sort of ur-text for this approach is Bertolt Brecht’s “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction?” Brecht was writing as a practitioner as well as a theorist—he didn’t necessarily think of the two as separable—and he was explicitly trying to craft theatre that could raise the audience’s political consciousness. He was all for slapping the audience in the face with the point of the play, but critically, for him that did not mean “moralizing from the stage,” because
it is not only moral considerations that make hunger, cold, and oppression hard to bear. […]
We were not in fact speaking in the name of morality but in the name of the victims. These truly are two distinct matters, for the victims are often told that they ought to be contented with their lot, for moral reasons. Moralists of this sort see man as existing for morality, not morality for man.
Note that Brecht is just as wary about didactic, condescending art as Doc is. In fact, he objects to that kind of art not only on the grounds that it’s ineffective (as in, “preaching to the choir”) but also on the grounds that it can be harmful and counter-revolutionary (as in, “the victims are often told that they ought to be contented with their lot, for moral reasons”).
If you want to persuade your audience that the world could be different (and indeed that it could be better, and indeed that they could play a part in making it better) then you need emotionally-charged storytelling. For Brecht’s approach to work, the audience must feel “outrage” at the “sufferings” of the characters in the play.
The difference here is that, for Brecht, it’s vital to portray the characters’ suffering as “unnecessary” rather than “inevitable.” The awful things that happen to Brecht’s characters are so excruciating to watch specifically because we can so easily imagine a better world, a world wherein these people could be spared their suffering. We see that their suffering originates from all-too-recognizable sources, most often poverty and war. We’re invited to see those things, too, as unnecessary rather than inevitable. We’re invited not to be content with our lot, which is the vital difference between “man existing for morality” and “morality for man.”
Brecht was keenly aware “that by moralizing from the stage [we] might drive the audience out of the theatre,” so his approach was to make the audience feel, yes, but to also make them keenly aware of what they were feeling and why. It’s not about being emotionally detached from the story, but rather about being aware of your own emotional reaction and incorporating it into your understanding of the world.
This is the soul of Brecht’s famous and frequently misunderstood principle of “alienation.” Brechtian “distance” is not the opposite of feeling things. It’s the opposite of escapism, of being swept up or swept away like a patriotic German hearing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and falling for the pretty lie, reacting emotionally without interrogating that reaction or those emotions too closely. Like nationalist propaganda, Brecht’s form of theater is about politicizing your emotions—but exactly unlike nationalist propaganda, it rejects nostalgic myth-making, xenophobic scapegoating, and analgesic utopianism. It seeks to aim your rage and grief at their actual causes (which are obvious, really, as soon as suffering stops seeming inevitable).
Or in the terms Doc introduces above, Brecht’s form of theater is about bridging the gap between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind.
So where did he get that dichotomy, anyway, and how did he decide that it was a dichotomy? This brings us, at longer-last, to one of Brecht’s most prominent misinterpretors.
Lyrical and Upsetting
Doc gets this conscious/unconscious language from another theorist-practitioner, David Mamet, a guy who used to write effective dramas shot through with shitty reactionary politics, and who now just does the shitty reactionary politics full time. (Doc chooses Mamet partly to give his readers practice at borrowing the good or useful ideas from someone with a lot of other bad, useless ones). There’s a quote from Mamet’s book Three Uses of the Knife that Doc likes enough to use twice, about the dramatic limitations of what Mamet calls “problem plays.”
[That kind of] play is the product of the conscious mind. It’s been overburdened by the necessity of expressing a consciously held view of the world. And the idea[…] is so important that it has to color everything. Each scene and each line of each scene must tend toward the right conclusion, that [the goal of the problem play] is good—and the unconscious mind will never, ever take part in the creation of this play.
Alright, so what exactly are these “problem plays” that are so incapable of tapping into the unconscious mind? Elsewhere in Three Uses of the Knife, Mamet says that “the problem play is a melodrama cleansed of invention.”
Oh, cool. OK.
That’s not a lot to work with, and he doesn’t really get any more specific than that, nor does he offer any concrete examples, which makes it kind of hard to know what the fuck he’s talking about. Interestingly, though, Mamet does seem to know that the figure of the “problem play” will make readers think of Brecht, because immediately after the part Doc quotes, Mamet says:
And so we have a very important topic which, nonetheless, cannot be the stuff of art. It might make a good tract, it might make a good political platform, it might make a good speech. But it can’t be art.
Brecht wrote about the alienation effect and the agitprop uses of theater. But these writings bear little relationship to his plays, which are extraordinarily charming and beautiful and lyrical and upsetting. Coincidentally, they happen to be on social issues. (I think Brecht is a great playwright. I think his theoretical writing is somewhat problematic.)
If you can’t see the connection between Brecht’s theory and his practice, then you’ve misunderstood at least one of the two. And since this is the one and only time that Mamet mentions Brecht in Three Uses of the Knife, it is once again hard to know what the fuck he’s saying or how the fuck he came to think it. The argument seems to be that Brecht thought he was writing “problem plays,” but that he was simply too good a playwright for all that.
And like, don’t get me wrong: You can disagree with an artist’s description of their own work. An artist can say that their art isn’t about anything, for example, and you can call bullshit, because come on, of course it is. (Conversely, an artist can insist that their work is a meaning machine— that it’s about this one thing and that one thing only—and you can, and frankly should, choose to read it otherwise).
But where is Mamet finding a disconnect between Brecht’s plays and his essays? Although he doesn’t exactly commit to the idea, Mamet again seems to be saying that Brecht’s plays aren’t “problem plays,” because… well, because he, David Mamet, likes them. They can’t be “problem plays,” because they’re “charming and beautiful and lyrical and upsetting,” and therefore they haven’t been “cleansed of invention.”
This would be a genuine contradiction if Brecht had proudly declared his intention to cleanse his plays of all invention, and to avoid charm and beauty and lyricism and viscera. But of course, he didn’t declare anything of the kind—because Brechtian theater is a real, extant thing that has actual people practicing it and speaking for it, whereas “problem plays” are a laughably obvious straw man.
As with a lot of philosophical dichotomies, Mamet is really just dividing the art he likes from the art he doesn’t, and then backfilling a vaguely smart-sounding rationalization. Because he’s arguing by vibe rather than doing a close reading of any specific play (or even like, name-checking a few) the reader is invited to likewise decide that any play they’ve ever found too strident is a “problem play” and that they’re very smart for disliking it.
And what about Brecht, that most strident of playwrights, whose plays are so fiercely and ceaselessly focused on problems? Nah, he’s cool. He’s with me.
It’s only natural that Mamet misunderstands Brecht’s theory (or finds it “problematic,” a pretty funny choice of weasel-word given his reactionary bona fides). Mamet blithely places Brecht on his own side of the conscious/unconscious dichotomy because the alternative would be to engage with what Brecht is actually saying, which is that the whole dichotomy is bullshit.
So, What Are We Left with Here?
Hopefully I’ve made it abundantly clear that I see the value in Doc’s position (though Mamet’s, not so much). Doc cares deeply about what he does, and about what it can do, and about people engaging with his work honestly and open-heartedly.
Doc isn’t arguing against the idea that things mean things, or even against themes as a native feature of stories, really. Even though he uses some wide-sweeping, truculent rhetoric, he’s really arguing against two fairly narrow phenomena: Telling stories in a didactic, moralistic way, and reading them in the sort of narrow, incurious way that treats them as meaning machines. And yes, both of those practices are at least annoying and frequently counter-productive and sometimes worse than that, so no real pushback from me there.
As Doc says, “everything we say comes from our point of view,” and as he says even more succinctly: “We can’t escape our own heads.”
There are a couple of moments, though, where Doc makes it personal by relating some profoundly rough shit he’s gone through, like losing his home, and where he then talks about how making art was a way of working through those fucked up times, intuitively, emotionally, well outside the realm of clearly articulated ideas and morals and, he would say, politics.
The most bracing such moment is when Doc describes how he once knew a serial killer, and how the serial killer in question had been casing Doc’s family as likely next targets just before being caught. Doc then talks about how he was only able to process the messy emotions surrounding that brush with horror and catastrophe years later, when he was watching, of all things, some episode of Castle—a TV show about a novelist helping a cop catch a killer who’s like, basing his real murders on the novelist’s fictional ones, or something.
“Where’s the politics in that?” Doc asks.
And again, I get what he’s saying: He had a personal moment with a kinda-stupid piece of art, and it genuinely helped him, and it feels invasive and patronizing to roll that inexpressible working-through into some kind of pat, one-sentence thesis statement.
But at the same time, with respect, politics are all over that story, my dude.
The difference between how serial killers exist in the cultural imagination (fairly common, highly intelligent) and how they exist in reality (not at all common, not remarkably intelligent) is political. We’re invited to imagine that serial killers must be hyper-intelligent, because otherwise how could they operate for years and years without the cops catching them? (The actual answer is that cops are not particularly good at solving murder cases, and also not especially invested in protecting the kinds of people serial killers tend to target).
The prevalence of copaganda, and of crime fiction more broadly, is political. There’s immense political utility to having us all imagine a mean, frightening world in which we’re only safe because of our own paranoiac hypervigilance, and because of “good guys with guns.”
Doc’s sense of catharsis in this story is, yes, likewise a politically situated phenomenon. He found something genuinely useful in an oversimplified, didactic, moralistic reflection of his own complicated, disturbing, chaotic experience. That’s no accident. That’s why copaganda works, why it’s so effective and so pervasive—and it’s important to remember that it can help people to find a little comfort, to feel a little control. We shouldn’t be dismissive of that.
But neither should we ignore that those kinds of stories are generally quite bad at speaking “in the name of the victims,” as Brecht would say. They beatify the victims, and they lionize the police, and they fetishize the murderers, but they rarely if ever ask how we could build a world with less horror in it. They rarely interrogate the way people’s choices have been curtailed, or the systems-level sources of violence. They’re viscerally satisfying for all the same reasons that they’re politically hideous.
This was on my mind because at the time I read Doc’s essays, I’d also started reading John Darnielle’s newest novel Devil House, which is largely about true crime tropes, and about the important truths they hide. It’s about reexamining how we consume cultural myths, and how we conceive of crime and the people who commit it. It’s about our fierce culture-wide hunger to empathize with certain people and to avoid empathizing with others.
I mean, well, yeah, sure, but like… naturally, that’s not all it’s about.
In pointing out the politics of the piece, we’re not foreclosing on other readings. Your connection with any piece of art (whether that’s Devil House or Cabaret or Portal 2 or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea or Adios) could be more abstract, or more personal, or utterly incommunicable. It can be any or all of those things too.
We lose none of that by pointing out that art is always politically situated—that it’s always politically useful to someone or other, wether artists mean for it to be or not. We lose nothing by understanding that, just as we can’t escape our own heads, art can’t outrun politics.