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Verfremdungseffekt By Kolb, Martina

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REM2075-1
Published: 18/04/2019
Retrieved: 18 October 2019, from
https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/verfremdungseffekt

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Abstract

Verfremdungseffekt (V-effekt), usually translated as alienation effect (a-effect), is a concept developed by the German poet, playwright, and dramaturg Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956). His V-effekt is a term of the arts, not of philosophy or sociology. Brecht’s Verfremdung distinguishes itself from Hegelian and Marxist notions of alienation (Entfremdung) by being relentlessly focused on the theatre and its political and aesthetic impact on roles, actors, and audiences.

Verfremdungseffekt (V-effekt), usually translated as alienation effect (a-effect), is a concept developed by the German poet, playwright, and dramaturg Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956). His V-effekt is a term of the arts, not of philosophy or sociology. Brecht’s Verfremdung distinguishes itself from Hegelian and Marxist notions of alienation (Entfremdung) by being relentlessly focused on the theatre and its political and aesthetic impact on roles, actors, and audiences.

Brecht coined his Verfremdungseffekte in the plural, making clear that the term referred to a variety of artistic devices that would assure what he expected of his non-Aristotelian, epic theatre of the scientific age: distance between actor and role, and between stage and spectator; the actor’s gesture of demonstration; and an absence of illusion and identification.

Brecht’s V-effekte are influenced by Russian Formalism’s concept of ostranenie (making it strange), specifically Viktor Shklovsky’s conviction that art must break common-sense habits of seeing and hearing. Avoiding emotive identification at all cost, V-effekte are diametrically opposed to Stanislavskian/Strasbergian psychologised method acting. Among Brecht’s strategies of de-automatisation are shock and taboo, screen projections and narrators, interrupted plots, shifts in chronology, abrupt beginnings and open endings, songs and commentaries, preludes and interludes, exotic settings, remote times, and a visible stage technique – all of which encourage the spectator to question the seemingly unalterable conditions of both, world and stage. Rather than emphasising stasis or fate, Brecht’s theatre presents the world as changeable, and shows such changeability in the theatre itself, conceiving the stage as the perfect site for critical intervention into the issues of the day.

Although Brecht’s early theatre had included substantial defamiliarisation effects (in The Threepenny Opera, for instance), his explicit theorisation and emphatic practice of the V-effekte came after seeing Japanese Kabuki actors in Berlin and the Chinese opera star Mei Lan Fang in Moscow in the 1930s. Defamiliarisation is neither exclusively modern nor limited to the theatre alone. Brecht observed defamiliarisation effects not only in traditional Chinese acting and the Japanese Noh and Kabuki theatre, but also, for instance, in what he called Bruegel the Elder’s epic painting, underscoring cross-generic representation and cross-cultural contradiction in the Renaissance painter’s œuvre.

Even though Brecht clearly favoured a series of independent scenes or images over the teleology of plot (Aristotle’s mythos), his alleged non-Aristotelianism is founded on the 18th-century reception and its consequences for bourgeois German dramaturgy more than on Aristotle himself. This becomes particularly evident in Brecht’s attack on empathy – a rejection of Lessing’s moralising fashioning of Aristotelian affect into fear and pity (Furcht und Mitleid).

Historically, the German terms Verfremdung and Entfremdung, both translatable as alienation, have caused some confusion in understanding the meaning and impact of Brecht’s V-effekte. It is, therefore, helpful to distinguish Entfremdung (alienation) from Verfremdung (defamiliarisation), and to avoid the ambiguous estrangement altogether. After all, Brecht announced in no uncertain terms a deliberate defamiliarising of what is familiar, rather than voicing a concern with a Kafkaesque existentialist crisis or Lukácsian transcendental homelessness. This hardly implies that Brecht was not preoccupied with the dark side of society; on the contrary; extremely aware of war, poverty, and injustice, he believed before Adorno that without art alienation is total – that without defamiliarisation alienation goes unnoticed. The instrumentalised distance inherent in Brecht’s techniques of defamiliarisation is an antipode to existential and social alienation, precisely because such dramatically induced emotive detachment helps the audience to actively commit to and comprehend the theatre as a didactic practice, and to become motivated to sensible action through that recognition.

References and further reading

  • Allart, Dominique and Currie, Christina (2012) The Brue(H)el Phenomenon: Paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger with a Special Focus on Technique and Copying Practice, Turnhout: Brepols.

  • Bostock, Anna, trans. (1971) Georg Lukács: The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Chen, Kaige, director, Forever Enthralled, standard edn (DVD), 2008.

  • Fowkes, Ben, trans. (1992) Karl Marx: Capital I: A Critique of Political Economy, London, New York, Victoria, and Toronto, ON: Penguin.

  • Gouldner, Alvin W. (1980) ‘Alienation from Hegel to Marx’, The Two Marxisms, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 177–98.

  • Jephcott, Edmund F.N. trans. (2006) Theodor Adorno: Minima Moralia: Reflections From a Damaged Life, New York: Verso.

  • Kenny, Anthony, trans. (2013) Aristotle: Poetics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Kolb, Martina ( 2014 ) ‘Bertolt Brecht – Homme du Monde: Exile, Verfremdung and Weltliteratur’, in Beebee, Thomas ed. German Literature as World Literature, London: Bloomsbury, pp. 101–114.

  • Mrak, Katharina ( 2014 ) The Method: An Overview of Acting Theory According to Konstantin S. Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg, Munich and Ravensburg: GRIN.

  • Nisbet, Hugh Barr H. (2013) ‘Hamburg Dramaturgy’, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: His Life, Works, and Thought, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 391–422.

  • Salz, Jonah, ed. (2018) A History of Japanese Theatre, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Steiner, Peter ( 2016 ) Russian Formalism: A Metapoetics, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

  • Willett, John, ed. and trans. (1964) Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, New York: Hill and Wang.

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18/04/2019

Article DOI

10.4324/9781135000356-REM2075-1

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Citing this article:

Kolb, Martina. "Verfremdungseffekt." The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. : Taylor and Francis, 2016. Date Accessed 18 Oct. 2019 https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/verfremdungseffekt. doi:10.4324/9781135000356-REM2075-1

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