Citation, Gesture, Interruption: More on the Cessation of Time

In my last post, I explored the theme of a suspension or temporary cessation of time metaphorized in Brecht by the flight of birds and related to the experience of love.  Here  and in the next posts I will consider three further forms in which this possibility of a “stop” in time, the extension of the instant, might be presented and made available for reflection.  These are–following from Benjamin’s meditations on Brecht–the gestural citation; the tragic caesura; and the “messianic cessation of time” in the Jetztzeit.  Now to the gestural citation in Brecht and Benjamin.

Brecht, The Measures Taken

Brecht, The Measures Taken

In his essay “What Is Epic Theater?” Walter Benjamin includes sections on “interruption” and on “the quotable gesture.”  It is under the conditions of interruption, he writes, that the discovery of “conditions” takes place.  That is, he draws a connection between the temporary cessation of time and a laying bare of the structure constraints and facilitations that a complex social whole depends on, and which, implicitly, the normal passage of time serves to conceal.  A particular “normal” temporality, in this view, operates as a sort of living and lived “ideology,” ideology not in the sense of ideas springing from false consciousness, but rather as a systematic distortion and limitation of social knowledge embedded in real experience.  This lived, but deformed experience is not “false,” in the sense of inauthentic, but rather constrained, restricted, delimited in ways that bear a specific relation to the powers and interests that structure the social world and that seek to reproduce and expand themselves within it.  It is, to use the memorable phrase of Theodor Adorno, “damaged life,” which sees the social blurrily through a half-closed, blood-shot eye and tries to dance on one blistered, battered foot.

Benjamin connects interruption to practices of citation.  Quotation interrupts the continuity of a text and wrench the textual passage into another context, which can range from the zero-degree context of Karl Kraus’s quotations on a blank page, where the groundlessness and idiocy or abuse of language in the passage becomes apparent, to the thick context of commentary and further elaboration.  Benjamin suggests, however, that quotation as interruption is possible not only in the case of verbal texts, but also in relation to action, conveyed in acts and their representative gestures.  This is, he suggests, a defining characteristic of epic theater.  He reinforces the association of action and writing in the following passage, which implies in the metaphor of spacing both that interruption/gestural citation turns continuous action into a kind of typographic writing and, vice versa, that the gestural aspects of writing can be understood to have the potential to function as diagrams of action or even as a kind of dramatic, performative space: “An actor must be able to space his gestures the way a typewriter produce spaced type.  This effect may be achieved, for instance, by an actor’s quoting his own gesture on stage.”


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