“But after all, it is perhaps to this inhuman condition, to this inescapable arrangement that we owe our nostalgia for a civilization that attempts to venture elsewhere than into the realm of the measurable”
“The thinking that aesthetic presentation can open up for us is thus not meant to explain and, by extension, to explain out of existence, what in fact remains irreducible, singular, and resistant within the work. Rather, learning to think aesthetically, to think with and through the work of art, means learning to see what exactly the enigma or riddle is. Thinking means remaining open to what threatens to make thinking impossible.”
There was a debate of sorts this week in social media on solo performance, i.e. one person shows. I have always had a certain aversion to one person shows, although there are many I’ve admired. But I think there is an important distinction that has to be made. Theatre cannot exist without two characters. Two voices. Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape is often held up, as it was in this debate, as proof that one character shows are theatre. And it’s a great example because it’s not one character. One actor is used, but there are many voices. In a sense it is an interrogation of one character shows. Now I know of solo performers who adopt many voices during the course of their peformance, and yet, I would still maintain a crucial distinction exists. In Krapp’s Last Tape the other characters are the younger version of Krapp. As such, the actor is carrying on a dialogue with his ghost. When a solo artist changes voices, no such dialogue is really possible. So am I suggesting that residing with dialogue is the essence of theatre? In a sense I think I am. I say *think* I am because I am not entirely certain that such a formula, or any such formula, can really hold up. But for now, I think it is worth thinking about the effect of dialogue as a marker for what I consider theatre. Now even in the best one person shows there is a missing prism through which the autonomy of the play must pass. So, let’s discuss firstly, what is meant by *autonomy*.
Before that discussion, there is another factor. In solo performance there can be no *off stage*. That is a tacit admission by the solo artist. That portal to unconscious or allegorical experience is eliminated. Nobody and nothing is elsewhere. Only the audience exists, and is being spoken to directly, as it were. Within this direct lecture there can be mini-playlets acted out, but the frame for them never changes, because there is, finally, only a single voice. The popularity of one person shows is, besides the fact they are cheap to produce, that the discomfort of the *off stage* is removed. That aperture to the mystery of spoken narrative is removed. A sermon is not theatre. A lecture is not theatre. And solo performance is not theatre, for exactly the same reasons. At this juncture Adorno enters the argument. And to do justice, even in the abbreviated short form of a blog post, I have to delve back a bit to both Tragedy and to Kant.
For Adorno, the aesthetic experience of nature followed upon aesthetic experience and the sublime, not the other way round. For there is a basic terror associated with nature. The domesticated bourgeois experience of *nature* is one associated with Sierra Club brochures, camping trips to National Parks, and picnics. It is not the primal fear of survival against immensity and mystery. And it was Kant who said the sublime was born of a recognition of the power of nature, a power so vast that the principal response was fear. It is only from the vantage point of safety that one can *appreciate* the beauty and grandeur of, say, a volcano or tornado.
“Thus, for the aesthetic power of judgement nature can count as a power, thus as dynamically sublime, only insofar as it it considered an object of fear”.
It is here that *reason* is introduced as a measure for evaluating the force of nature. Now Adorno sort of altered Kant to the extent that he looked at this tensions in light of the conquest and domination of nature. And he then historicized this experience of wonder at nature as a relatively modern experience. I’m not sure this is quite what he intended, but the point is that the aestheticizing of nature began, systematically, in the 18th century. For Adorno, the music of Beethoven was the perfect exemplar. I believe that Adorno continued to theorize about art in light of his basic aversion to the comfortable vantage point. Nothing in art that produced comfort was worthy of respect.
But back to theatre. The comfortable managed vantage point is always going to be one that, in a sense, pacifies the destabalizing elements. This has nothing to do with message, though. The message, say, of an anti-war play can serve the ideological purposes of its opposite if presented in familiar and comfortable form. Those lounging at the bar after a Lincoln Center show that attacks racism or poverty, are only reinforcing a belief that such things are being dealt with, for, after all, they say, didn’t we just see a play acknowledging this? Democracy is great isn’t it. In the solo or monologist performer the legacy of fear, of the unknown, of the sublime is pacified by not allowing for a dialogue. It is never what happens on stage, it is always about lives off stage. And in addition the monologist is somehow enacting the role of him or herself, and in ways that — to me anyway– cant help but feel branded and cultic.
But here I think several other things surface. The theatre takes, obviously, all kinds of forms. There is street theatre, and there are dance forms that incorporate narrative. Noh drama is played out in a way that serves as a good example. Or Kathkali. They reside on the intensely ritualized end of the spectrum. One might suggest the monologist is at the other end of the same spectrum. But there is a point at which this idea collapses. And it might just be the nature of most monologists in the West today, meaning Europe and North America mostly. There is strong tendency toward confession and narratives of identity. The other side is sort of agit-prop for various liberal positions and easy to accept bromides asking for racial and sexual tolerance. Rarely does text matter much. The art of writing recedes and performing is foregrounded. There is a weird sort of toxic taste to monologues that I associate with Dinner Theatre quality celebrity impersonations (A Dinner with Abe Lincoln etc). Now performance art per se is, I think, doing something completely different. Or is that true, really? Bob Flanagan is doing something different and there are a dozen others who are exploring the idea of their own body as an installation. But the scripted monologues, Wallace Shawn or Spalding Grey, or Anna Deavere Smith, are ‘acting’ in the sense of characters, and of text spoken aloud. At some point, performance art is destroying the idea of text. Monologists, or whatever one wants to call them, are speaking but they are not reciting a text exactly, and they are erasing the idea of playing anyone but themselves. Creating various masks or voices is just parlour game skill. But then one begins to inch into stand up comedy. What was Lenny Bruce? What is Marina Abramovic? Bruce in retrospect was a kind of Dada political performer who defied conventional category. Abramovic is nothing but a brand. At best it seems to me, most monologists serve as agit prop, politically narrow concerns are railed against, or they are kitsch impersonations, or they are combinations of both of them. The text as something memorized, formally, and then performed in character serves to distance us from the informality of the everyday. Improvisation actually kills the spontaneous, for it is pretending to be natural. The philistine intentions with, for example, Shakespeare, when one hears directors say they want to make the language natural or everyday. They want actors to be erase the poetic unnaturalness of this language. In so doing the ritual space of theatre is mediated by the vulgarity of the normal — except nothing is really normal. So this is the fabrication of a normal. It’s a bit like saying one wants to dehydrate water. Theatre in its foregrounding subverts the idea of a stable identity, or of cheap impersonations. And this is the real point of all this. And of tragedy. So at this point, its good to return to Adorno and Kant. I have for a long while suspected that one of the barely submerged influences on how Americans are educated about art, in public schools, can be traced back originally to Kant and his ideas on taste and morality (well, perhaps more directly to Puritanism). Without spending undue time on Kant here, the germane aspect is the Beautiful was moral by virtue of being beautiful. This is a wildly reductive reading of Kant, of course. But as school children I remember being taught art history under an umbrella of morality. The good citizen was moral and the good artwork was moral in precisely the same way.
Peter Uwe Hohendahl says, from his book on Adorno, :“..the turning point in the history of aesthetic theory, the loss of the concept of natural beauty at the moment when the successful bourgeois revolution is completed; while Kant at its beginning still realizes the artificial nature of social arrangements, including those in the sphere of culture.” Adorno built on Kant to a degree that would make Kant unrecognizable to himself, but the point here is that Adorno was redefining and making historical the idea of nature and by extension natural beauty. But Adorno also critiqued Hegel on the subject of beauty. Adorno, Hohendahl points out, saw art and culture as historically and socially mediated and the artist as “a tool for the production of the artwork”. He resisted ideas about genius, and in a sense was a precursor for Derrida in some of this, but the main thrust for this post was that in the early 1800s there began certain trends in how to see culture and art. One was to look for authenticity, much pronounced later, and the other was to realize a kind of freedom in the artwork. All art of importance (and this needs to be talked about) is extralogical. It is not conceptual, and while this is more easily grasped in modernism, it is likely true in other ways for all cultural labor. For Adorno, the sublime (and tragic) is work that emancipates (and kitsch does not) because it releases or allows for mimesis, and this too, though, is dialectical. The sublime and its emancipatory capability is linked to the activation of Nature in the subject. Kitsch, the culture industry, is offering on the whole something very close to simple advertising. They ask for identification; to see one’s position in society, a society of oppression and domination, reflected back to one. This is of course very complicated and Adorno’s most contested idea was probably “truth content”. But I want to try to stick to theatre here. The realistic or naturalistic play is, in 2014, inherently dishonest. Im not sure it wasn’t dishonest when Ibsen wrote it. But I suspect Ibsen was not actually very naturalistic at all. Certainly Strindberg was not, nor Shakespeare, and it is only by the mid 19th century that anything like a formal set of rules for representing *reality* were in play. What distinguishes Strindberg from minor playwrights of his time is that Strindberg was never looking to duplicate anything like an everyday *reality*. Strindberg searched for the transcendent in the everyday, and it was the everyday from which he fled, it was the everyday which tormented him. This year’s MacArthur recipient in playwriting is Samuel D. Hunter. I’ve not seen productions of his plays, but I’ve read them. And even in the photos of the productions it is clear that this is essentially TV. It probably falls into the prestige dramady category. Adorno said “The sublime marks the immediate occupation of the artwork by theology”. Hunter’s Bright New Boise is about theology, or rather ‘faith’, which is discount theology. If in solo performance there is nobody to talk back or to listen, so it is in kitsch where the ritual is erased, the off stage removed, and dialogue goes mute. Even in twenty character plays the dialogue is missing. Another way of saying this is that the naturalistic theatre of representation does not aspire to the sublime because what it is doing, its operation, is as a machine for normality.
The theatre of representation hangs it’s dialogue on a scaffolding that establishes the limits of experience. The break room in a crappy Hobby store (Bright New Boise) cannot become or inform an actual relationship that exists for tens of thousands of minimum wage workers every day. Kafka was a clerk, too. Melville a customs inspector, and Genet a hustler and thief. In each case something of that reality emerges from their work. It would exist in their work even if they wrote about surfers or card sharks. The unnaturalness of all life in Empire goes missing. The construction of reality has always to be questioned; so that the play reaches backward beyond the individual subject’s history. If the stage is treated as the site of mimetic sacrifice, abandon somehow, then it naturally is linked to suffering and memory. Today’s kitsch playwrights, the one’s rewarded for their service to the status quo, are never in touch with suffering. They are at best in touch with complaints. This is bourgeois ideology. Thomas Bernhard wrote a couple of short plays in which only one character spoke, but he put a listener on stage, too.
To follow Adorno just a bit longer, it is important to mention his ideas on truth content, and to do that means discussing his ideas about *enigma*. For Adorno, the enigmatic in any artwork is there not to be understood, or deciphered, but to expand the experience of it, to stimulate that part of us that is linked to, but not identical with memory. Like Calasso, there is always a reminder of the transitory or fleeting qualities of art. As Hohendahl says, with art there is no answer. There must, however, always be questions. In that sense the artwork is to remain a riddle. But there is, as always with Adorno, a contradiction. For the enigmatic must be engaged with, and what he calls the “truth content” is, in one sense, the solution. At the same time that it also can never serve as such. This is why Adorno stressed that there was a convergence of philosophy and art. The meaningless world is illuminated by what remains incomprehensible. In terms of theatre, the example that Jan Kott used in his analysis of King Lear (and which I have referenced several times) is perfect. And it cuts to the essential meaning of theatre. The empty stage with blind Gloucester and Mad Tom, both climbing a non-existent hill, is a truth that can find expression no place else. Its a theatrical truth. There is no capsule explanation for it. The inability to describe factually the experience of illumination means such work makes for a bad commodity.
“Artworks stand in the most extreme tension to their truth content. Although this truth content, conceptless, appears nowhere else than in what is made, it negates the made.”
Now it is unsurprising that Adorno has come under attack over the last couple decades. And especially in the U.S. For one of the implications of his aesthetic theory is any work that engenders mass agreement is to be distrusted. This is because of the fatalistic aspect of art. The aesthetic experience of art must point beyond itself, and in that moment there is a tacit failure of the work; there is no agreement in great work, no collective applause for it. The paradox, if that’s what it is, is that by its revealing of something that cannot be articulated outside of itself the artwork opens up possibilities that mere enjoyment close off. In terms of theatre then, it’s only logical that the commercially popular work will be the most suspect. This is perhaps more true now than even fifty years ago. And here there looms a few additional questions.
“The context that is invoked to enforce the ideas and practices pertaining to *consensus* is, as we know, ‘economic globalization’.”
Ranciere has pointed out that psychoanalytic structure of narrative (primarily he means film) has changed since the 1940s. Today the idea of innocence or guilt has been subsumed by a growing global police apparatus. He cites Antigone as, per Lacan, a heroine no longer read as an expression of human rights and liberal piety, but as the harbinger of the secret terror just beneath the surface of the social order. In other words the primal crime that drives narrative is now more intimately fastened to a growing sense of fear that is a sort of collective recognition of how consensus is manufactured; that human beings have become the ‘population’ and that morality is reduced to fact. This is the world of facial recognition technology, which doesn’t work, but which doesn’t matter, and a universe in which everything one does is catalogued. Theatre is economically of little consequence today, in comparison to film. Therefore it exhibits an acute form of condensation. It is very hard to subtract the false, the untruth, in theatre, and far easier to allow it some life in film. The medium of film is more forgiving of lack of unity than theatre. For film is more than closely linked to media and corporate control of information. So if we take this back to ideas about solo performance, and why I feel distinctions are crucial in describing this form, it is because the originary space of theatre is one in which someone must be listening, in person, on that stage. Without that, the narrator too easily is manufacturing consensus. The ‘broken promise’ to which Adorno and Horkheimer both alluded, is also inseparable from the unrepresentable, in the sense that a future community was always there in art’s appeal; and that today the conquest and co-option of all life, the extent of social domination, has meant that the mystifying nature of what is called post modernism is really just the acceptance of that promise being broken, it is further, a new rewards system for those who embrace the lies.The narrative laid out for (today, I think) climate march is one that hides the cooperation with parties connected to 350 degrees, everyone from USAID to countless NGOs with connections to the U.S. State Department, Maddie Albright, and Wall Street. The climate march is kitsch theatre in this sense. The terrors beneath the surface of the social order are mystified. Now I mention this because culture must not remain mute. This is in no way a call for street theatre, although that would be just fine, actually, but a call for an aesthetic resistance. The more careerism drives young artists, the more really autonomous work is made invisible. I should return for a moment to this idea of *autonomy*. An artwork is autonomous not because it is made under conditions of freedom. Tom Huhn wrote this on Adorno and autonomy:
“Art is at once both autonomous and a ‘fait social’. As he (Adorno) puts it, the artwork’s autonomy consists of resembling – but not imitating – the society of empirical reality.”
Then he quotes Adorno (a well known quote): “It is by virtue of this relation to the empirical that artworks recuperate, neutralized, what once was literally and directly experienced in life and what was expulsed by spirit.”
Adorno believed that primal mimesis, if we want to call it that, achieved significance, in its expression, by discarding what it deemed as false or untrue. For the purposes here, I will just try to lay out the reductive simple version; the value of art is in a spiritual awakening, but that awakening or revelation or whatever one chooses to call it, only happens through a process of internal integrity. A process of vetting mimetic material for signs of falseness. The practical meaning of this for artists is one must learn to get rid of cliche and sentimentality and magic thinking and junk science and most of all the narrative expressions, or images that co-conspire with the repressive actions of totalitarian societies, and to fight off commodification, since it participates in all of the above. Great artists don’t have to be philosophers, they simply must learn to sift down through the jumble and chatter and fraudulence of daily life, to hear something integral and honest. Adorno said all art is in movement against society. That unless it is, it is junk. Kitsch. Propaganda. And narcissism.
As Tom Huhn writes; “It is specifically the entirety of external reality’s spell that the artwork mimetically opposes – this logic is directed in particular against the spell of that reality rather than its material constituents.” That spell, for Adorno, had to be opposed. Opposed but recuperated later. It is what left Adorno, in his dialectic, to still see art as an enlightening force. The artwork mimetically produces itself by producing its requirement. This happens on levels that are buried, usually, anyway. So, when I have said all stories are crime stories, all stories are travel stories, and all stories are about homesickness…this is because all art reaches backward in the exact degree to which they project or imagine another, different future.
There are myriad forms of the sensible. The contours of tension in mimesis, from its originary impulse, to it’s later grasp for self-identity, make all of this almost infinitely complex. The discourse on culture in the United States, and largely throughout Europe, too, but most obviously in the seat of Empire, is one in which only the most shallow, most familiar, and most domesticated is allowed survival. The gentrification of consciousness, an already colonized consciousness. The single most common response today, I find, whenever anything of a serious nature comes up in discussion, is the response that minimizes, the voice that tries to suggest this is all too familiar. It is the desire to pretend the unfamiliar IS familiar. That the disruptive happened before, nothing came of it. It’s all so ten minutes ago.
I wonder often at why it is not more obvious that the solo performance, the one person *play* is not experienced as a deficit. That the missing texture of the symbolic listener is not felt more. My suspicion is that the society at large has forgotten the role of the listener. Partly because of electronic recording, and more significantly electronic surveillance, the individual’s relationship to his or her own voice has changed. People certainly speak less to their neighbor, they know fewer words, and they are less interested in hearing the world around them. But then that world around them is falling silent. For all the talk of noise pollution, the natural world is falling mute, and when it’s not, people increasingly plug their ears, literally, to listen instead to their iPad. The phenomenon of blocking out the sound of the world around you is one rarely talked about, but the implications for theatre’s future are profound. The music of language found in the medieval Italian of Dante, or the English of Donne and Milton and Shakespeare, or the French of Flaubert and Rimbaud, the German of Goethe, the Spanish of Cervantes — that kind of density is gone, likely forever. People don’t hear what is said around them, they re-narrate based on guesswork, previous communications, and all of it based on film and TV. The natural world, the sound of rain and oceans and tides moving in, the distinction between summer winds and autumn, or the specific bird song (when there are any birds singing) is lost. The theatre remains a contested space and medium. Partly because it is the economic poor relative to film, but also partly because the theatre is civic, in theory anyway, and today the increasingly isolated and atomized citizen is uncomfortable in an audience with live actors. Stand-Up comedy is fine, and popular. So are one person shows. Stand Up has become a laboratory of displaced feelings of schadenfruede. It is also, oddly, a medium for field testing eccentricities. It certainly serves some service for cultural barometrics, but it is also masturbatory. The one-man or woman show is almost like the champagne version of Stand Up’s Old English 800. Adorno is criticized for his pessimism, as is Freud, and it seems to me that anyone not gripped in a pessimistic melancholy is simply not awake. On the cultural front, the sense of deafness, and blindness, and of a waking dream is all that I see. Today, theatre in the United States is in the hands of deeply ignorant people, philistines, and they pander to and cater to a partly imaginary audience, and partly real, but really in the sense that they themselves created this audience. In 2009 PBS, in conjunction with Bill Moyers, presented Anna Deavere Smith’s one person show, “Let Me Down Easy”. The ad copy advertised that Smith played 20 (TWENTY!!) different parts in this *play*. Golly gosh — twenty parts. Now apparently this is the stuff that goes down easy at Public Broadcasting. Smith is another MacArthur recipient, and was nominated for a Pulitzer (though I think you’re not supposed to know, although I was told I had been a nominee too, which always struck me as too pathetic to put on my CV) and is a multiple Tony winner. Does anyone remember what “Let Me Down Easy” was about? Is anything in the text memorable? I suspect all that anyone remembers was that Ms Smith played twenty different characters.
I want to mention Gerhard Richter here, for Richter is one of those rare painters who can articulate what he’s doing. He is also a cogent cultural critic. Richter pointed out that in Adorno’s pessimism there is a promise of redemption, but that Adorno pulls the rug out from beneath you at the last second. Adorno’s promise of redemption, as Hohendahl says, is based on recognizing that redemption is impossible. This is that final sacrificial stage of the dialectic for Adorno. The artwork dies as it points toward redemption. As Jameson said of Adorno’s idea of ‘truth content’: “…it seems at least minimally possible that it cannot be philosophically described, since it is inscribed in a situation of well nigh nominalistic multiplicity in which only individual works of art, but not art itself, have their various truth contents…”. This is correct in a sense, but then ‘art itself’ is only a shadow stand in for all culture. Great works….per Adorno: “The understanding of works of art, therefore, besides their exegesis through interpretation and critique, must also be pursued from the standpoint of redemption, which very precisely searches out the truth of false consciousness in aesthetic appearance. Great works in that sense cannot lie.”Among Richter’s favorite painters is Barnett Newman. I always find this revealing, for it is Newman who, perhaps even more than Rothko, desired to respiritualize discourse. It is easy to misconstrue this today, in a system of secular vulgarity and under which only the most pathological religious expressions take place. Another way of saying ‘spritiual’ is simply to say serious. For never has any culture in the history of the world so embraced and adored the trivial and unserious as does the U.S. Empire today. So, redemption, truth content, autonomy, and mimesis. How do these come forward as the rapacious system of authoritarian mediation of daily, hourly, life? The trivializing of Imperialist conquest and murder, the orientalism of even much of the left, and certainly of all corporate sponsored news, is growing. The same way in which corporate news creates their narratives, currently its the bombing of Iraq, again, is the same way that corporate PR people create a narrative for the Climate March in NYC, and it is the same way a narrative is created for cultural commodities. Real anger is channelled into reformist band aids via an increasingly corporatized NGO realm. There is such a deep need in the public today for agreement and consensus that narratives are created as if they had existed for a long time, even if they are made out of thin air. Sometimes this takes the form of revisionist histories. Peter Handke is to receive the Ibsen prize:
Now, never mind that Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter was on the same committee to defend Milosevic (as was I, and Ramsey Clark and many others), nor that the U.S. state department propaganda on the Balkans has been factually refuted for more than a decade. It doesn’t matter, for what matters is a narrative that allows the public to indulge in a faux outrage about a history they clearly know nothing about. Handke’s integrity deserves special commendation, and respect. The rewriting of the Balkans has taken place by institutions funded by the U.S., and NGO’s dependent on U.S. business financing. Essentially they are asking you to believe NATO. The current declarations on Srebrenica are created in isolation, framed as scientific, and promoted by corporate journalism and by NATO and NATO friendly NGOs. And gradually they come to serve as the official history. The long shadow of U.S. propaganda infects everything. It is a simulacra of history, a phantom marketing device and increasingly inimical to the truth, to material history. In the end it is more validation for Capitalism and Empire. Allowing small truths to exist the better to squash greater more important truths. It is the new Brave New World.