Coronavirus and Brecht — Işık Barış Fidaner

In Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek describes Brecht’s dramatic “alienation” effect:

One has only to remember the basic procedure of Brecht’s ‘learning plays’ of the early 1930s in which the dramatis personae pronounce an ‘impossible’ commentary on their own acts. An actor enters the stage and says: ‘I am a capitalist whose aim is to exploit workers. Now I will try to convince one of my workers of the truth of the bourgeois ideology which legitimizes the exploitation…’ He then approaches the worker and does exactly what he has announced he would do.

This effect called “alienation” or “distancing” in Brecht’s theater is the exact inverse of what is called “alienation” in psychoanalysis, it’s closer to what is called “separation”; so it’s more appropriate to call this procedure a “separation effect” [1].

In psychoanalytic alienation, body and authority is confused and fetishization takes place. Its example is classical theater: When an actor embodies a capitalist character, since the capitalist authorization cannot be detached from the actor that plays it, this creates an effect of fetishization; an illusion takes place in which authority and body overlap. In fact, this is the aim of a theater that wants to appeal to the audience’s emotions; a play in which alienation is strong in the psychoanalytic sense, affects and touches people. Myths’ role in oral literature is alienating in this sense.

Brechtian “alienation effect” is the exact inverse of this, and is more like separation in psychoanalysis. In separation, body and authority are separated and the symptom manifests. Its example is Brecht’s distancing effect: As an independent statement, capitalist authorization is detached from the actor’s body; the actor’s body thereby ceases to be a fetish, it becomes a symptom; in other words, it loses its fetishizing aura and is reduced to a particular manifestation. As a result of the distancing effect, the alienation (in the psychoanalytic sense) is broken; thus the “will” that grounds the authorization and the “system” that grounds the embodiment emerge separately [2].

Is the social transformation experienced due to the coronavirus contagion not exactly this “distancing” or “separation” effect in the Brechtian (and psychoanalytic) sense? In the period before the virus, we didn’t need to distinguish body and authority, we could maintain the fetishistic illusion, so we were alienated in the psychoanalytic sense. Then the virus came as a parasitic embodiment and infected all human bodies as a probability if not as a reality. So in order to protect from the virus’ effect, we had to identify our authorities separately from our bodies: The only way to isolate our social-economic systems from the virus’ replication system [3] is to re-authorize each other by relying on the will to protect our bodies from the virus.

In places where curfews take place, people have to carry a written document with them when they go outside: “I am a citizen whose aim is to meet my needs from the market. Now I will go to the market and buy food products…” Then (s)he approaches the market and does exactly what (s)he has announced (s)he would do.


Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD from Boğaziçi University, İstanbul. Admin of Yersiz Şeyler, Editor of Žižekian Analysis, Curator of Görce Writings. Twitter: @BarisFidaner


[1] See “Separation of Authorization from Embodiment”

[2] See “Authorization and Embodiment in Fetish and Symptom”

[3] See “The novelty of the coronavirus”


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