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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.