An Appearance of Reality

Salton city

One of the nagging aesthetic issues in our commodity saturated society of ever greater surrender to societal domination is the question of *realism* — or, naturalism, a term pretty much used interchangeably. I suspect the ascension of marketing and advertising has created an even greater focus on this idea of what is realistic. For selling things it is useful to avoid ambiguity, either perceptual or narratively.

If we go back to Plato and Aristotle we find the origin of modern Western ideas of realism .. of the conventional notion of mimesis. Plato was concerned with art’s ability to mirror the material world. Aristotle more concerned with the logic of plots and with probability in storytelling. He sought out that which reproduced the innate sense we have of the world around us.

I dont need to get off into some of the stuff I’ve already talked about, or rather, I want to get around to a couple other things. It does, however, seem useful to note Edwin Panovsky, a theorist from the 1920’s, remains as a source of much post modern thinking on art and mimesis. Panovsky emphasized that the perspectival lines of the Renaissance were simply further conventions of seeing that helped us order the world of image that is all around us. Simply, he said we scan and see via conventions of organization.

Raymond Williams pointed out that the very word “real” has two almost contradictory meanings. One is that which is not false or imaginary. The other is that which is not just appearance. So the first meaning suggests we see the material world clearly. The second that what we see is not the *real*, for that is the deeper truth.

cendrars collage

I am reminded of some Buddhist thinking which says we have three forms of knowledge, the first is the surface or outer meaning, the second is the sub text if you like, or inner, and the third is the secret meaning.

Now, I have been wondering a lot about how realism applies to writing for theatre. I can later get more into how this affects film making.

The world of advanced neo Imperialism and neo Liberalism, embraces both forms of the traditional *real*, notwithstanding they are often contradictory. Realism is equated with sobriety and rationality, as well as with the virtues of emotional distance. It is also expressed in slang terms such as *get real*, etc.

Yet nobody quite knows what *real* means. Usually, in theatre and film and I suppose in painting, it means conventional. Adhering to the consensus on any particular phenomenon or event. Barthes wrote about the details that create a “reality effect”. A conceptual category for “the real”, and not reality itself….whatever that might be. This of course is what marketers and advertisers rely upon. And it extends even further in hyperbranding. But “realism” also contains moral judgements. The reproduction of reality is a form of sincerity. It is a sign of clear headedness. It does occur to me here that is probably worth the time to reflect upon the importance of the *mirror* in western culture.

Realism is the most familiar of conventions, therefore the most relied upon by propagandists and marketing firms…not to mention Hollywood producers and TV networks.

I am curious how this applies to narrative. And perhaps I am answering questions to myself as I write this. For the strategy is always to somehow avoid the conventional. There are myriad traps sitting within that one sentence. For resistance is now a convention as well. Everything is available to become a commodity. The avant garde of a Robert Wilson is simply a collection of “avant garade effects”. The same way prestige is confered upon certain film projects by various “prestige effects and details”. There are some actors whose involvement reads “prestige”. Colin Firth is probably one of them. Danial Day Lewis another.

rodachenko moma

The process of de-conventionalizing is akin to avoiding all decoration. I was looking at photographs of the house Wittgenstein designed for his sister, and it struck me that his adherence to Adolf Loos philosophy of architecture resulted in, above all else, the elimination of decoration.

Here is Stuart Jeffries writing of the house:

“The Wittgenstein House was very Viennese – its absence of decoration came from a conviction that Austrian ornament had become as unhealthy as Viennese sachertorte cake. Fin de siècle Vienna was a city of aesthetic and moral decay and, at the same time, of creatively frenetic reaction against that decadence: Schoenberg’s atonal music insisted that everything that could be expressed had been expressed by tonal music; Loos’s architecture railed against decoration; Freud argued that unconscious forces seethed below a purportedly ordered and elegant society. Established values were being turned upside-down in Vienna. According to Karl Kraus, Vienna was a “research laboratory for world destruction”.

The Wittgenstein House was a laboratory for living. For some, though, it was an experiment that didn’t work. Wittgenstein’s sister, Hermine, wrote: “Even though I admired the house very much, I always knew that I neither wanted to, nor could, live in it myself. It seemed indeed to be much more a dwelling for the gods than for a small mortal like me, and at first I even had to overcome a faint inner opposition to this ‘house embodied logic’ as I called it, to this perfection and monumentality.”

The clarity and serenity of the design (Wittgenstein took a year to design the radiators, and almost as long to design the door handles) is akin to the improvement of reality, not it’s mirroring. This is achieved in a sense through an expression of care, and respect.

witt zzzz

Wittgenstein House

Wittgenstein House

This is also the intersection for “place” and “space” to be discussed in terms of theatre and narrative. Barthes wrote that the basic principle behind “realism” is that everything must hold together.

Unity. For unity is virtuous, and moral. The coordinated colors of the bougeoise designer — all the way down to your basic Ikea interior — is based on rationality and unity. The stability reflected in families and history. The logic of progress.

egyptian temple wall

Now in theatre, the idea of the “real” is modified slightly. Richard Schechner wrote that theatre begins when a seperation occurs between audience and performers. This is of course, basically wrong. That is not when theatre begins. Audiences form seperate from a performer all the time, without rising to the definition of theatre. Other theatre theorists have posited notions of “perceptual dynamics”, etc. But the real core of this is a conjured sense of space — which is not the everyday. Everyday life is what is given up before the performance. Hence, theatre’s inherent danger to the social order, to social unity.

Now, Elizabethan audiences, and those of Attic Greece, certainly did not feel seperated from the ceremonial space in the sense Western audiences do today (or did until recently)… but then the sense of space in pre-industrial and pre-technological life was very different. I suspect the great pressure of hyperbranded space, the suffocating sense of constant commodity assault by marketers has worn and ground down the sensitivity of the audience to the subtle engendering of a ritual beginning.

Mathew Potolsky wrote:

“Theatrical mimesis…is a form of attention, a conceptual envelope that surrounds and transfigures people and things rather than a discrete object, location, or form of action. The words theatre and theory …share the same Greek root, thea, meaning to look or view. Theory like theatre, assumes the possibility of finding an external standpoint, of distinguishing the knowing subject from the known object.”

So this sense of unification, in one sense, runs counter to the catalyzing of ritual, of the uncanny and the ceremonial. All of which are, of course, de-stablizing and de-unifying. Its interesting to think on just how many “reality effects” are built into popular kistch cultural product — how the insistence on unity is aided by decoration and the minor grace notes of coordinated colors, pleasing shapes, etc etc.

de corcia marylyn photo

The system of marketing at work in our hyperreal hyperbranded and fully enclosed attention economy digests narrative and image at warp speed. Material and image is spewed back out as its opposite. The creative strategy, I feel, must begin with subtraction. The interior of Wittenstein’s house is a gigantic alter space, a temple or grotto even. It is cool and serene and timeless. (Worth noting that it now houses the Bulgarian Embassy I believe, and they have added room dividers and painted the radiators).

door handle, designed by Wittgenstein

door handle, designed by Wittgenstein

Performers today, actors, decorate their performance with reality effects, but also with the used car salesman ad-ons. That seperation, that distance, from convention has always been negotiated and navigated by a kind of faith in the unseen, in the dream world, and this, paradoxically, is bifurcated by the political at one level. The class tensions in gesture and movement reflect toil or they reflect the brutalist expressions of dictators and military men. The subtle craning of a neck or the rolling of shoulders can be trace elements of historical truth.

I remember Adorno didn’t like any rhythm that suggested military marching, or industrialization. The baton of some conductors seemed too like the salute of fascists. Today’s film also commodifies the infantilization of an entire society. The sense of a populace sleepwalking as the police state is bolted into place can be seen both thematically and in image, in most studio product. What was once the ‘youth market’ is now just the pre-school market, the toddler market…at least emotionally.

levitt photo old woman

There is a noise in this culture, a noisiness that bounces off material walls, and psychic space as well. It is the residual noise of constant circulation — of image, of ‘effect’ and it is deafening. The basic level of identification, in a psychoanalytic sense, connects us to our parents. It is somewhere in this early phases that we ‘learn’ what identity is. We have a name, and later we have numbers and cards and state approval. We “exist”. This is where Lacan’s insight about identification is so relevant. If we are formed by our primary identification (father, mother) then that means there logically has to be a brief time before that emotional bond is formed. What is that *space*? For Lacan, it was (to put it reductively) a sort of primary mimesis — our image in the mirror. The imago. Now this is what Margaret Iverson writes on, in relation to artworks, and it is relevant to why humans create at all. Lacan also posits that our need for unity is born during this process. The unity of the image the infant sees.

Now, however this dynamic is actually formed, the sense of identity is clearly a dynamic of childhood. What is learned later, Lacan calls the ‘symbolic order’.

Into this symbolic order comes the hyperreal marketed set of performance effects. This is a vast topic, but race, gender, and sense of unity, of rationality, and of authority. The system of social domination demands certain performances from us. First among them is the acceptance of a hierarchical system of privilege and patriarchy. There is a world system of white colonial/imperialist power and privilege, too. And it is onto this stage (so to speak) that we come to tap dance and traffic our identity.

shceer photo industrial b&w moma

Today the performances that are compulsory are ever more unconscious and robotic. The global neo-liberal onslaught of military domination, economic domination, and a colonizing of consciousness is written in the performative as well. Class and race and gender. These parts of already written. So, how does one find a means of creating narrative outside a system that is digesting even itself. At every turn the narrative is cop-opted and rewritten. The political theatre of John Brennan’s hearings is simply the same script as Aaron Sorkin wrote for Newsroom, or that Zero Dark Thirty plays out. One character walks onto the set of the other.

The interior walls of our psyche have their own blueprint — to stretch a metaphor — and within this occupied terrain resides the social constructs of our guilt and desire. This is the realism officially stamped like our passports, by the authority of the state. Dissent is insanity. The irrational anger of the dispossessed is stamped as madness or crime. The use of anti depressants is really just a form of stage management. But the surplus narrative, the surplus mimetic narrative, finally, cannot be totally controlled. No amount of Speilberg, or Exxon commercials, or Army recruiting spots, or State Dept. briefings can really unify an increasingly disunifying global crisis. Perhaps the environmental crises will have the effect of making unreality-effects the purpose of art (at least partly). The more the kistch narratives of the court appointed playwrights and screenwriters and directors and poets are trotted out for purchase, the more they will be experienced as maggot infested carcasses from the galaxy’s biggest factory farm.

durer lion

The less acceptance of the logic of domination by artists, the better. I’ve found a failure of aesthetic awareness on the left as much as the right. I think partly this is because culture is not seen as important. The right sees it as either just divirting leisure time fodder, or effeminate triviality, and the left sees it, well, much the same, but they admit it less. The left has a puritanical streak that keeps it from learning the secret meaning. Often it keeps them from even bothering with the inner meaning.

crowd young b&w

The mimetic impulse is our link back to childhood. The mimetic is part of what the state reflexively controls via media and propaganda. But there are various forms of the mimetic, and various learned rote peformances that are based on the revisionist histories and ideology of the state. The mimetic and ideology….that is a topic worth discussing. For now, aesthetic awareness means, as part of this, an awareness of the compulsory performance the state has cast you for.

tokyo moma


  1. i dont know where to begin; have so much to say. as a preface want to note this
    also of that Vienna,

    and Musil

    So from Makart to on the one hand fashy modernism on the other fascist kitsch

    may seem an odd comment but consider how the ighting technology was shifting over exactly these years. Speaking of what’s “real”. Before electricity everywhere, a lot of life was lived in the dark and everything was very frequently invisible.

    Beller talks about race and photography mutually constituting. i think there is a mediological angle to approach this material; for the fragmentation, the impossibility of totalizing – which Spivak assSerts (iu think wrongly) in her discussions of value and imperialism, but she raises serious issues- may just be an illusion of the arbitrarily emphasised cartographic model (-“cognitive mapping” sez Jameson), a certain specifictype of visual representation. laybe we can totalize very easily if we abandon the dominance of visuality and that model.

    There’s a wonderful funny little pomo novel called Phitz by Andrew Crumey that comes to mind, about a virtual reality in an 18th century German principality; And this would loop us back to your opening in Vienna on the eve of the modernity – characterized by bombardment from the air – in which we still live.

  2. “For Lacan, it was (to put it reductively) a sort of primary mimesis — our image in the mirror. The imago.”

    but mant of the fundamental conditions we inherit come from a species who didnt experience mirrors in this developmental stage except in the carer’s eyes.

  3. like freud lacan tries to naturalize and universalize a peculiarity of bourgeois individualism

    that wasn’t actually all that well established in Vienna in Freud’s day…great anxiety about the inadequacy of this individualist and ahistorically naturalist vision of our species.

  4. john steppling says:

    Yeah, there is a lot here, another layer, I didnt even get to at all. The types of various representation. Different codes of visual representation. And thats pretty relevant I think. Traverso’s book, Origins of Nazi Violence makes a number of points about how WW1 was a shifting paradigm — the industrial death, and its anonymity. The gas masks on the trench soldiers, and the view from the air….dropping bombs. I mean this goes back even further with how those on horseback saw the land laborer.

    As for mirrors, I guess you could just say reflection. Although humans have had implements of reflection for a very long time. But i guess any reflection will do. And since its probably sort of structural — Im not sure it matters exactly. But its a point Lacan never bothered to answer.

    But I guess I was trying to tweeze out a little the notion of realism…this prevailing convention that carries so much moral superiority. Its a reference back to something that doesnt exist. Its become so franchised as some sort of inherent credibility for those who espouse it.

  5. John Steppling says:

    I dont think thats what lacan was doing. Thats always a certain take the post mod left takes about this stuff. But in fact, thats not what he said. You can insert any set of symbols there……the relationship to the mother remains a structural reality. Now…..yeah, i guess societies have existed where children were taken away from their mother. But while freud was largely guilty of this, I’m not sure Lacan was. I mean its interesting to read back over Marcuse on Freud. Or to revisit Reich even. Because if you say, well, its an ahistorical universalizing, then in its place comes what? And even if it is bougeois to some degree — and I’m not sure it is — then you still have to posit another set of answers for how people develop, how their pysche develops. The left coming after frankfurt…..german speaking left…..guys like Broch…..actually really hated psychoanalysis, but never found a way around that mapping of things.

    I do want to know how beller sees that and why? I dont think I understand.

  6. ues i agree
    im just wondering if an electiricity grid is overlooked in importance

    isnt it interesting that Gaslighting from the film has become this term for the instability of that reality and its connection to women in bourgeois homes

  7. Or to revisit Reich even.

    yes for me Reich is much more on target. Bui also thought I object a lot to Guattari and Deleuze, they do briong up the important point that the formation is not in this fairytale trio of mommy daddy me that Freud and Lacan conjure…The way Theweleit uses both Reich and D/G struck me as correct and insightful. Though he missed the whole plane of what you are discussing, the way the realism as the memesis then can be an instriument for the manipulation of what it is presumed to reflect. He gets dialectical about prose fiction but almost as ritualistic conjuring, like dreams told to shrinks

  8. john steppling says:

    great question. But then electricity remains, amazingly, a sort of huge mystery. Ask scientists what electricity is, and you get answere mostly about what it does, not what it is.

    Gaslighting………..yeah, its a way to drive you crazy…..or drive women crazy. There is a great book Ive mentioned before, In Praise of Shadows, by Tanazaki……….on asian aesthetics. On the shadows inside homes in Japan, in particular. But how architecture ….those red and gold lacquer tiles on roofs were meant to reflect gas light and its flickering. And that they look vulgar under electrical light.

  9. the hearings

    i thjink we can see a real transformation and evolution from say Iran Contra, tto contentious confirmation hearings…Bork, Thomas, Breyer say…to the farces of recent years. The implied audience for these uttrerances before the throne/court has become more drastically detatched from the assumed concrete audience of us. We are watching a theatre on tv, razther than being in the theatre or watching a film. There is that embedded audience who appeared to applaud the final kisses in the backlash cinderellas of the eighties and nineties reactionary romcoms

  10. And that they look vulgar under electrical light.

    hasnt this something to do with the way Viennese bourgeois suddenly had to throw away the peacock feathers and just make everything clean as a whistle? like someone suddenly switched on the lights of the world and they saw all the schmutz. and got obsessed with racial hygiene…

  11. john steppling says:

    I agree mostly vis a vis Freud. Though I often think he remains misread. But whatever….Lacan is a strange figure in this, for me anyway. FOr what is important is less his bourgoise jumping off place, then it is how this structural dynamic gives us a certain set of guarded reactions, defenses, to anything that doesnt fit an already learned unity, vision of unity. But the this created idea of normal, a ‘somehting’ to which all these moral ideas are attached, and ideas about authority and control. Thats what is so key. And it seems there are all manner of attemtps to evade “realism” that fail completely. They react to realism…..everything is denying this realism through realistic (anti realistic) means ends up back at the same place. So this mimetic narrative is a realist novel…..and I guess now its a TV show. Or a tv show with commercial interruptions, or facebook asides. I dont know. But somewhere, as we try to trace it back we arrive at some kind of formation of this idea, And I always though adorno and benjamin’s letters touched on this when they spoke about kafka.

  12. john steppling says:

    yes yes…..we are a detached audience…..a denied audience in one way. Our opinions are assigned, even if we’ve never thought about them. You read, wow, 80% of people love hillary clinton. I mean i read that. Now thats not true. Except it is true, also. Its true because its true within that theatre we see on tv and we are in there, as simulucra or something….our shadow….i dont know. Its in there……its like videodrome.

    But yeah, racial hygiene….fascinating. I wonder if what you say isnt true. Ive often wondered about this………..actually. How lights affect us. But also, I think public building with flourescent lighting, is a part of the manufactured autism I sense. The constant pulsating shows up in photography, but we filter it out with the eye…with the brain really. But if the tube is old, the flickering slows and gets like an uneven heart beat. Arrhythmia ,,,, psychic arrhythmia. Im just sketching here, but I think places with enormous amounts of lighting, like las vegas, create a certain collective thought process.

  13. john steppling says:

    one other side bar note. Conspiracy theory is treated in mainstream media and hollywood as a signifier for effiminate. Clear headed men are rational, logical (!!!), women (and girly men) tie themselves in hysteria-knots, and fears. Its fascinating that as signifiers go, another one for masculinity is black coffee. I have NEVER ONCE heard a male action hero , when asked how he wants his coffee, say “two sugars extra milk”. Not once. Same with conspiracy……rationality is linked to belief in official sources etc. There are tropes behind that…..the state version is that of the institution, and the institution is what one alligns oneself with…..sports teams in high school, or whatever. Girly men go to art school. Etc. These are obvious. But linked to that sense of rationality (anti conspiracy) is the idea of masculinity as conformist, masculinity and potency as “responsible”, “professional” and dutiful to authority. Its also to simplify. I’ll have a steak. Rare. = masculine. Black coffee. Simply. Unadorned. Without frills. Without FEMININE things……sugar and suspicion……hysteria….fearfulness…..real men dont bother with “taste”…thats for commie girl boys. Thats for conspiracy loving froi gras eating surrender monkeys. I’ll have a steak…rare. Black coffee. Whiskey neat. Intellectuals are suspect. And on it goes. But the realist notion is linked here. Realism trends toward the unadorned and the rational is equated with masculinity.

  14. How lights affect us. **I’m thinking about this related to upcoming part two of our conversation – the question of lights on the space, versus the unlit space – the aural space of the poetry, and vinyl – that opens in the lite spaces (in the restaurant set say)

    this is how the cinematic and the problem with the spectacle and what it forcloses is evoked and then subjected to this dialectical demonstration….anyway…that’s the segue..

    and ….well i like my steak black and blue, my coffee black, my whisky neat, but yeah there is such a puritanical thing., and this reminds my again of the appeal of Weeds…but alos see how it lures with this appeal to promote exactly that iudeology, the decadent “gynesis” waiting for the return of phallic power..;..and all these godorful culture pundits in these artifically marx flavoured niche publishing ventures wuth their creepy taste and orwell fixations and hatred of real women and real poc to go with the revanchist German Idealism.

  15. “another one for masculinity is black coffee. I have NEVER ONCE heard a male action hero , when asked how he wants his coffee, say “two sugars extra milk”. Not once”

    i can’t stop laughing rewriting movies
    but they were once so ashamed in NY of this the term was “regular”, do you remember? that meant milk and two sugars. “Regular coffee”

    how does redford order ion the open of Three Days of the Condor? hve to look

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