Brad Prager’s article “Offending the Public: Handke, Herzog, Hypnosis” appears in Telos 159 (Summer 2012). Read the full version online at the Telos Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue here.
Wes Tirey: Can you tell us about how your article explores the question of the “public sphere”?
Brad Prager: My essay was intended as an indirect engagement with questions concerning the public sphere. It offers a perspective on the work of author-artists Werner Herzog and Peter Handke, and I’ve chosen the term “author-artist” despite the fact that Herzog is, of course, best known as a film director. I’d like, at least in this contribution to Telos, to view this early part of Herzog’s career a little bit differently and see him as also a product of German art and literature of the 1970s, a time and place in which authors tended to be politically engaged, but also simultaneously influenced by German Modernism and discourses of aesthetic autonomy. Those two elements interact in an interesting way in the 1970s, and something like Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small, which deals with revolution, is quite Modernist and can almost be described as avant-garde. It is a good example of how those tendencies come together. In the background of the essay is Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason, which was an influential and provocative book. Central to the piece is the question: how can an artist critique the public’s engagement with art, or how do you turn art into something critical and politically incisive, when it is immediately subject to appropriation, and may already have a cynical position built into it? Handke was trying to reshape the stage with his innovative plays, Kaspar and Offending the Audience. The latter of the two gives the essay its title; I’m toying with the sound of the term “Offensive Aesthetics,” advocated here, and Öffentlichkeit, the German term meaning “public sphere.” Handke’s two stage plays basically incorporate an awareness of the audience and the artificiality of the stage into them, and they push that awareness back on the viewer, sometimes uncomfortably. Speaking within the terms of a tradition that was accustomed to Brecht, whose works already strongly avowed the stage’s artificiality, these plays each attempt to add a new dimension. Handke dispenses with narrative and even with that secondary level of identification that one finds in Brecht. It’s very difficult in these Handke plays, to find characters, in a traditional sense, with whom spectators could empathize. Handke’s plays are conscious not only of the positionality of the author and producer, but also of the public, who have consumer expectations based, more or less, on having paid for a ticket. The question for him concerned how one incorporates all of this knowledge into the work (not to mention the certain knowledge that everyone is already in possession of this knowledge) and encourages the spectator to rethink why they have come to the theater in the first place, without simply having the audience walk out. That’s a difficult trick. Art may be hopeless as a source of critique insofar as it is a commodity, always available for purchase and subject to consumer satisfaction, but perhaps the best way to deal with that is to avow that fact and kick it around until it has no life left in it, as Handke does in Offending the Audience.
Tirey: Your article treats the “public sphere” in Europe [this is true for most in the issue of Telos] in a past historical period. What are your views on the status of the public sphere today in the United States? Is the “public sphere” still a useful category?
Prager: One thing that interests me about Habermas is that he writes about the demise of the public sphere. Perhaps it is only supposed to be a normative, regulatory ideal, but according to Habermas it also existed, more or less, in the eighteenth century. In whatever form, whether it was ideal or real, it is now a shadow of itself. So little in contemporary political discussions is conducted free of economic interest. Capital shapes and authorizes the discourse. I don’t think anyone would disagree about that. It would have been good news had the web given the public sphere a reinvigorating jolt, but its effects have been predominantly to provide everyone with access to their own facts. Without agreement on that level, as Habermas asserts in his Theory of Communicative Action, productive discussion can hardly proceed. The public sphere is a useful category, but at this point it bears closer resemblance to a memory. Or, better said: a memory of a memory. It is almost entirely inaccessible. When you read a reasonable argument in the newspaper, you have to remember that it only reaches a small number of people, and that there is another worldview, based on what you perceive to be entirely false facts, yet its proponents have always already rejected your argument’s terms. And that’s only a portrait of the slim part of the population who still read the papers. My essay here perhaps turns to aesthetics as a way of engaging this problem. I have respect for those who write politically persuasively, but art may be best suited to remind us that we’ve strayed far from the point where rational-critical debate and discussion carry the day. We’re very deep in the woods.
Tirey: We’re very deep in the woods, indeed. But what would you say are some of the explicit challenges of treating art and aesthetics as a way of engaging more robust public activity? Some art is very vague or subversive (which isn’t a bad thing). Wouldn’t art and aesthetics have to be very “concrete” to reach and affect a larger public body?
Prager: That’s true. In this essay for Telos I’m interested in art that is vague, insofar as its political content is abstract (a film director cooks and eats his shoe). Perhaps by concrete, one means, in extreme cases, films that lobby, so to speak, for legislative reform. In such cases, one imagines that those works are hardly art. But this is an old discussion about what politically engaged art looks like. Somehow I imagine that you need both forms of speech: the kind that speaks directly (that is, concretely) about the issues at hand, and the kind that questions our ability to successfully communicate about topics. I would loath to imagine a world in which there were only the former, and one couldn’t ask, in what is by definition an abstract way, about the trajectory of the enlightenment or the endless (unfinishable) projects of modernity. Those questions have to be asked in a way I would describe as speculative, and speculation is an abstract project. By “abstract,” I don’t mean that they speculate into the origins of the universe, but rather that a work of art would force our presumptions about communication, and about the relation between subject and society, back on their heels. That has to be done with appeals to, let’s say, the less political side of our reasoning skills. Eating a shoe is a good example of that. Even if one does it with a concrete intention (for example, I am cooking and eating my shoe because I believe the minimum wage is too low), one still has to ask how eating a shoe makes that point. I don’t think you can get there by that which I would describe as a political logic. No congressman would ever eat his or her shoe and hope to win reelection, or to continue to get funding from lobbyists. The less concrete art is, the greater the chance that someone might wonder what it means. Film, by the way, struggles profoundly with this because of its representational habits; that is, people expect film to resemble reality, and if it doesn’t, it is destined for the museum (as installation art), which, in terms of reaching a wider public, is problematic. I like Herzog because he sometimes takes steps in this direction, using film in ways one doesn’t necessarily expect from a filmmaker.