The Enacted Thought: Performance Practices and the Theatres of Learning

The Enacted Thought: Performance Practices and the Theatres of Learning was an experimental graduate seminar at Princeton University taught in the Spring term of 2016. The students (most pursuing Ph.D.s) came from several departments (music, art history, comparative literature). The class was led by D. Graham Burnett (History and History of Science) and Chiara Cappelletto (Philosophy, University of Milan). The artist David Levine worked with the class through the IHUM “New Schools” initiative.

Participants: Isabel Ballan, Lee Colón, Elaine Fitz Gibbon, Lucy Partman, Matthew Strother, Enzo Vasquez Toral, Nathaniel Whitfield.

Click here for the syllabus for the class

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The course sought to examine the relationship between cultures of performance and cultures of pedagogy in the modern period. The last thirty years have seen a range of new creative experiments at the convergence of critical and creative discourse — leading to new categories of thought-theater like the “performance lecture,” together with various art-space re-imaginings of the scenography/dramaturgy of teaching and learning. This recent history set the occasion for our inquiry, which worked to reach back and recover a genealogy for these contemporary crossings of pedagogy and performance. Our broad aim? A deeper appreciation of the inosculation of stagecraft and mindwork since 1600 — which we seek to achieve (and express) through a hybrid of theoretical discourse and embodied practices.

This site functioned as a collectively-authored general clearing house for materials and sources germane to the class as it unfolded. Summaries of all seminar discussions were posted each week, together with pre- and post-semianar comments and supplementary materials. The students and teachers made this site together as a shared platform for the course, but we archive it here in the hope that it will serve as a resource for others interested in these topics (and that it will afford a kind of archive or documentation for the work we did together in the Spring of 2016).

A final note: the course culminated with a performance project, entitled “Pulling Imaginary Teeth,” which took place on the 28th of April 2016 at the Princeton Art Museum; it was a jointly conceived and jointly executed effort to experiment with non-traditional forms of textual/critical engagement.


P.S.  A word on the structure of these posts: in general the posting for each class session consists of, initially, a summary of the seminar discussion that occurred at that meeting (usually by me, but often with commentary);  below that material in the scroll one will find a series of pre-class postings and discussion threads that relate to the reading for that week.


CLASS ONE (2/3/16)



l’esprit d’escalier and post-hoc foresight, I want to make clear that if you do not read this classic-fantastic-tragic “Multi-Book” entitled  Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts (by Robert Filliou) in advance of our course, the class cannot but fail!




Just a quick recap of a few of the topics that we opened in this first discussion:

  • David got things started by talking a bit about the assignment arc for the class — and our final project.  More on all this as things proceed.
  • Chiara launched us with the challenging idea that we might want to consider the relationship between an “actor” and a “character” as in some sense homologous with (a type for?) the relationship between the “body” and the “mind” (better: spirit? soul?).  The point seemed to be that the theater offered a resource for defying the philosophical typologies of “matter” vs “idea” — and the sundry dualisms and nervous monisms that are generated out of this opening gambit.  We will surely return to this idea.
  • We realized that we were going to have to construct for ourselves some satisfactory account of what we mean by “theater” as against “performance.” Chiara here posited as a hypothesis that “theater” is in some sense always already philosophical because of theater’s implicit reliance on the quintessentially philosophical maneuver of the “as if” — the hypothetical position. (Look out for the section on “if” in the Stanislavsky for next week).

Chiara has given us this to get us thinking:

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CLASS TWO (2/10/16)

Class 2 board


Quick summary notes on our class discussion today (please feel free to supplement):

  • Much of our early conversation centered on Ion 535 b-e, which Chiara offered us as the center of the dialog, and the central statement of the “question of the actor” in the philosophical/theatrical tradition that follows Plato.  We finished by experimenting with a number of “stagings” of that problematic.
  • In between we worked on an exegesis of Puchner, and on a satisfactory account of “Dramatic Platonism.” We spent some time on p. 148, and Puchner’s powerful (in my view) evocation of the need for a new positioning with respect to philosophical idealism in our time:



Don’t Forget: click here for David Levine’s assignment for classes 3 & 4



D. Graham Burnett:

I thought that, given our emphasis on pedagogy, it was interesting to watch this (very staged) short clip of Stanislavsky teaching.  Is this even real?  I do not know.

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Enzo V. Toral:

Augusto Boal’s ideas have informed my work as a performer and researcher of Theater. His well-known Theater of the Oppressed is what has caught the attention of theater scholars and directors the most around the globe. However, I am both interested in the Oppressed and his theater experimentations before it in 1960s-1970s  dictatorial Brazil. Here a video to learn more about his work (there are a lot more videos and stuff written on him in Portuguese, in case you’re familiar with the language too):

Augusto Boal

Matthew Strother:


Since we are reading Stanislavski for the next few weeks and thinking about what it means to live in a part, I thought I would let everyone know that the Maly Theater of Saint Petersburg is bringing a production of the Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard to BAM in Brooklyn from Feb 17—Feb 27. The company’s director, Lev Dodin, studied with one of Stanislavski’s pupils at the Leningrad Institute of Theater, and his work is very much in line with the methods we are reading about in An Actor Prepares.

I had the privilege of seeing one of the Maly Theater’s Chekhov productions some years ago and it was hands down one of the greatest theatrical experiences of my life. If you want to know what the “blooming of the subconscious” looks like on stage, then take a train to New York to see these guys.

The play is in Russian with sub-titles.


Elaine Fitz Gibbon:

Une leçon de Pierre Boulez
This is an example of a lecture recital that the recently deceased composer Pierre Boulez gave to a lay audience about the work “Sur Incises” (1996-98). The lecture recital is part of documentary on Boulez and thus a highly produced “lesson”, but I think it portrays an interesting example of the genre of the lecture recital (a more well-known example might be Leonard Bernstein’s filmed lecture series with the New York Philharmonic, the “Young People’s Concerts), particularly in its illustration of the effectiveness of the medium in the realm of contemporary music. Particular attention should be given to the dramatic structure of the lecture, as well as the cinematography, which is used to make audible what at first seems impenetrably complex.


Lucy Partman:

Naturalist, explorer, writer, philosopher, polymath… Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) gave over 70 lectures in Berlin starting in the fall of 1871. They were a public sensation, with hundreds attending of all type and class. There was traffic in the streets as people rushed to the lectures (performances?) to the crowded auditoriums. He “took his audience on a journey through the heavens and deep seas, across the earth, up the highest mountains and then back to a tiny fleck of moss on a rock” (Wulf, 194). Further, “Newspapers reported how Humboldt’s ‘new method’ of lecturing and thinking surprised the audience with the way that it connected seemingly disparate disciplines and facts” (196). I have been fascinated by Humboldt’s approach to science and pedagogy since reading the preface to his opus Cosmos. More recently, I read about his lectures in Andrea Wulf’s new book The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (2015). I would like to consider his lectures, style, reception, presentation of science.

Humboldt's lecture notes on plant geography
Check out Humboldt’s lecture prep notes. He apparently did not read anything while presenting. (Image from Wulf, 195.)

And now for some 20th c.

Carolee Schneemann
Interior Scroll, 1975

“In front of an audience comprising mainly women artists, Schneemann approached a long table under two dimmed spotlights dressed and carrying two sheets. She undressed, wrapped herself in a sheet and climbed on the table. After telling the audience she would read from her book, Cezanne, She Was A Great Painter (published 1976), she dropped the sheet, retaining an apron, and applied strokes of dark paint on her face and body. Holding the book in one hand, she then read from it while adopting a series of ‘life model “action poses”’ (Schneemann in More Than Meat Joy, p.235). She then removed the apron and slowly drew a narrow scroll of paper from her vagina, reading aloud from it.”

Full summary from Tate here:

Interior Scroll


Isabel Ballan

Anne Carson is a poet, a teacher, a literary critic, a performer, and sometimes all of these simultaneously. I believe she demonstrates well an embodied enactment of discourse. Here is a clip of Anne Carson reading a “lecture” which is in the form of a poem, which is presented as a kind of absurdist play alongside an interpretive dance routine.

Anne Carson

Nathaniel Whitfield

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CLASS THREE (2/17/16)

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I thought in our seminar discussion today that we made some suggestive progress on analyzing the relationship between “theater/theatricality” and “performance/performativity.” The residuum of the conversation is inscribed on the board depicted above.  To summarize what I got from it: the anatomized condition of spectatorship characteristic of the museum/gallery art spaces AND the collectivized “we” audience of the traditional theatre BOTH affirm/reinforce a durationally consistent and fundamentally fixed subjectivity (i.e., one is the “viewer” of the artwork; one is “the audience” for the show — these identities perdure and are not subject to transformation or destabilization under the ordinary conditions of theatre and museum spectatorship). By contrast “performative” situations trade-on/stage/invoke an unstable superposition of audience/actor and/or viewer/”work.” The affective (aesthetic? political?) dynamics of such circumstances are generated out of the imminent and realized “decoherence” of the superposition.  (I use these terms from quantum physics in a purely metaphorical way).

Offering us the “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers” theory of the actor, David defined the condition of acting in a purely contextual way: the actor is the person who has the attention of others directed upon his or her person like so many rifles.”

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We experimented with a version of this condition in undertaking a riff on the exercise evoked by Stanislavsky in Chapter 3 of An Actor Prepares:


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Any thoughts on this, or on the work with David on the “performance” of the critical texts (props to Enzo and Lee for throwing themselves into that) very welcome…

Finally, very important to me was the final moment in our discussion, in which we considered what it is to “have” a piece of critical text (a piece of argumentation) “in” oneself in such a way as to be able to covey (teach? perform?) it compellingly — and in such a way as to communicate its claims and their rationale/force.  The notion, flagged in conclusion, that such a “mastery” of a text remains, in a sense, superficial, until one can conjure a motive for the line of argument — this struck me as fascinating, and I have continued to mull it over.  Pushing the thought, I find myself close to obsessed by the idea that it is precisely the sublated presence of a (confected? invented? dreamed?) psychological “deep story” under any given proposition that makes for something like “ownership” (or, if one prefers, “full participation”) in the proposition itself.  If something like this obtains, it stands to reason that a kind of “character-analysis” amounts to a condition of possibility of reading itself.  Something to think on.  Not, I believe, how we usually think of reading critical sources.



Hi all

Very nice meeting you! Here is a five-minute excerpt from the longer video. Please forgive the quality. It was 2005!–David

DGB: this is really quite compelling; thanks for sharing.


Performance of Critical Texts Exercise

EVT:  Coming into the exercise, I felt like I was in my “actor mode.” As a theater performer, I have always thought about characterization way too much; and I thought that when reading Ranciere I also needed to portray a character. The first time I read my selected text, such “character” that I had previously envisioned came across with my hand movements and gestures while also adding tone inflections while reading. Aside from the fact that it was my first time engaging with Ranciere in English (I had only read him in Spanish before and occasionally in French), I felt that I was “relearning” what he was trying to say while I attempted to perform his ideas. The first reading was comfortable since it occurred without interruptions; the second one allowed me to re-think and criticize on the spot that “characterization” I had in mind. This was because I was confronted with interruptions and misunderstandings from the audience, and needed to rework my ideas of performing this text immediately—I realized that the characterization I created was not as clear as I thought, or at least it was not for everyone else. Not being able to use my hands complicated the process of putting Ranciere’s points across with only his words (I realized that my hand movements served as a way to add to Ranciere’s words with some of my own). Finally, doing the exercise standing felt more of a performance to me; I was able to fully embody the text. Overall, this exercise was very eye-opening regarding my own understand of what performing a text means and how to characterize myself through the words of someone else.


Chair Exercise

LHP: I was captivated by the moments when I, as a viewer, met the gaze of the sitter. As a member of the audience, I was sitting, and the person in the chair, under inspection, the subject of the audience’s gaze, was also, yes, sitting. Both viewer and subject partaking in the same action, yet not interchangeable, except in moments of mutual gazing when the audience member is brought into the realm of the subject/actor. The viewer is put on the spot, the tables are turned, or shared. Perhaps Marina Abramović’s “The Artist Is Present” from her retrospective at MoMA in 2010 (that 736-hour and 30-minute sitting piece) makes sense in this context. Although in this case the shared gaze would be more than a moment!

Marina Abramović e Ulay - MoMA 2010

EFG: To switch the perspective from the sitter to the audience, I found it a really interesting exercise from my perspective as an audience member to be confronted with so many different ways of sitting. Particularly in the performances where the sitter actively made eye contact with individual members of the audience, I felt a very strong urge to look away as much as possible, to not observe the sitter. My inability to observe them while perceiving that I was being observed made me intensely aware of my own posture, my facial expression and how uncomfortable I felt. In the cases of those who made a point of not looking at the audience, particularly those who it seemed to me felt comfortable sitting before us (who didn’t draw attention to their awareness of their own performance), I felt far more free to observe the sitter. I looked not only at their face, their posture, but their entire body and its movements, or seeming lack of movement, the movement of their breathing. But this in turn made me aware of my position as a voyeur, or at least, in observing my aesthetic pleasure in watching them without being confronted by their observation of myself, I felt my watching turn into a voyeuristic act.
In being in the position of the sitter, I had planned to sing in my head a piece of music I know well, in order to give structure to the time and provide myself with something to fixate on to distract myself from becoming too acutely aware of my own performance. I was surprised at how difficult it was to sustain my concentration on the piece. I found it in the moment to be ineffectual — I was constantly being distracted by my awareness of my performance — but I think that perhaps this would get easier with practice.

EVT:  While doing the chair exercise I felt that I needed “to act” more as a viewer than as the sitter. When being an audience member, it was unavoidable to interact with the sitter and I sometimes felt I needed “not to interact” as naturally with my classmates’ performances on the chair. I found it very interesting to see how that also was reflected when I was the sitter and looked at everyone else in the audience. As a sitter I took the approach of making myself feel comfortable, I even felt a little sleepy at times because the chair was very comfortable. This technique helped me “look more natural” although at times this naturality was broken by the artificiality of the interactions I gathered from the audience. I felt that we all did not want to be a source of distraction, make the sitter nervous or make him/her laugh; I found this understandable but interesting to watch. This also made me reflect on how “natural” we should/should not look while we perform and how that could be portrayed when we perform a text beyond traditional theater conventions (e.g. under Stanislavskian terms).


I found that the most compelling sitters were the ones that sat with a sense of expectation and anticipation–the ones you felt you had to watch because, at any moment, they might move, they might shift, and you had to watch in order to catch it. These were the sitters that, I think, had the most self-possession and felt most comfortable with the space of the stage, who were in control of all of their movements, who made not a single movement in vain. This means, I suppose, that these were the sitters who were most still: each little motion had to be so thoroughly earned that it could not have been otherwise.

I myself, on the stage, focused not so much on movement as on projecting emotion. For this reason I think my “performance” on the stage was a bit patchy; I did not know how to sustain the emotion over the entire allotment of time, nor did I know how to eliminate extraneous movement that did not further the convincing portrayal of the emotion. I was happy, however, with the use I made of my feelings of discomfort up on the stage: I channeled them toward my performance and thus controlled their expression.




Later this week, please note:

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(We read some Tim Etchells stuff later in the term — specifically in CLASS FIVE)

Lee Colon & Enzo Vasquez Toral

Enzo V. Toral:

Moving from our conversation on Dramatic Platonism last week, Rokem invites us to pay attention to the encounters between philosophers and thespians. Similarly to our discussion last week, Rokem presents Plato as using theater-like devices to express philosophical thought. However, an aspect we might want to focus as well is the circumstances under which philosophers and thespians meet in the Symposium. In particular, Plato’s text portrays such encounter in a way that we see an intimate view of the character’s social life and their philosophical interactions. Another question I had while reading Rokem’s text is understanding thinking (and not just philosophy) as a performative exercise—in particular related to Benjamin’s performative storytelling—versus theatricalized thinking in philosophy.

Although not particularly related to Plato’s and Rokem’s texts, Stanislavski’s chapters for this week invites us to look at daily life to solidify acting. To me, in a way, Stanislavski’s invitation to create imaginary stories to objects and understand the emotional contexts of our interactions with people—and the world—is inherently a performative exercise, which then is translated in a more believable performance. In this context of imagination, how can we ground this performative thinking and attention towards dramatic action to philosophy?

These are just some thoughts that came to mind while reading the texts for tomorrow. I look forward to discussing more about these and other topics with you all! –Enzo

LC—Some thoughts to add on to Enzo’s and some passages that might help guide our discussion:

Rokem compares Brecht’s discussion of a car accident as a trigger for the actor in “The Street Scene” to a similar discussion of accidents in Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares (Rokem, 155-159). For Stanislavski, expressed through Tortsov, the collective emotional memory of the actor is a store from which he may draw upon onstage. Though we haven’t yet reached this section quoted by Rokem, chapter 5 contains a premonition that we might engage. Tortsov describes an old women carrying a caged canary in a baby carriage down the boulevard. He imagines the bird is the only companion she has left in the world. Struck by this image and the emotions produced by his imagined scenario, Tortsov states, “All this is more interesting and suited to the theatre than the actual truth. Why should I not tuck that impression into the storehouse of my memory? I am not a census taker, who is responsible for collecting exact facts. I am an artist who must have material that will stir my emotions” (Rokem, 93).

In what Rokem categorizes as the earliest encounter between a philosopher and thespians (Rokem, 21), Plato’s Symposium reflects, Rokem argues, Plato’s philosophical ideas. The text critiques narratives as but faded copies of eternal Ideas, so that even Plato’s own text does not propose to fully represent the truth (Rokem, 23). Information passes through a number of interlocutors, mirroring the relationship he theorizes between works of art and the truth, twice removed, copies of copies (23, references Book 10 of Plato’s Republic). The narrator recounts a story told orally to him by his friend, Aristodemes, who was not awake for the entirety of the period of time he describes and who cannot remember many of its details. This oration describes a series of orators who also recount what, in some cases, has been verbally described to them. Socrates’ speech, for example, deals in large part with a conversation he had with Diotima.

In addition to these levels of removal from the original event, if this can even be located, the information being conveyed is limited by several dramatic occurrences that serve as interruptions. Rokem points to two instances: the moment when Aristophanes is about to respond to Socrates’ speech and is impeded by a drunk Alcibiades knocking at the door, and the narrative’s conclusion, in which Socrates breaks off his argument, which states there can exist an author that writes well both comedy and tragedy, when he realizes both his listeners, the thespians Alcibiades and Agathon, have fallen asleep. Another significant example of interruption, which Rokem does not address, occurs after Alcibiades has finished his ode to Socrates and before Socrates praises Agathon, which the philosopher proposes to do along the logic of the oratory game they play, when a group of revelers storm into the room.

The revelers interrupt a shift in the game’s order as a response to Alcibiades speech, which Socrates accuses the actor of performing as a theatrical ruse meant to cause a fight between Socrates and Alcibiades in order to gain the affections of both. This event in the text is perhaps interesting to consider in relation to the the Moustrap and Dumbshow in Shakespeare’s Hamlet that utilize the theatre for philosophical goals, according to Rokem, to solve the emotional conundrum Hamlet faces and determine the truth (Rokem, 73-74).

Lastly, I want to reiterate two questions presented by Rokem in his introduction that resonated for me in relation to this course (Rokem, 5)—How can artistic practice be considered a form of research? What kind of thinking is produced by such artistic and creative practices?


DGB:  everyone who does not know this piece by John Baldessari should check it out —

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 LC: The film essay is, perhaps, a recorded form of performance lecture. This essay in Frieze gives a fine overview of some of the work of its practitioners. A couple relevant examples:

Hito Steyerl, How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational. MOV File (2013)

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DGB, commenting more on the above:  “I LOVE THIS; MY KIDS LOVE THIS  :-)”

Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue (2013)

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DGB again: Cannot help putting in a little plug for my own shit here — this essay by me on Grosse Fatigue is coming out in the next issue of Parkett.


NJW: Continuing with Matthew’s thought from last class of putting the text on stage as a method of reading, allowing the drama to unfold before our eyes and the implications that this theatrical approach has. I have found look at texts through Wagner’s Total work of Art (Gesamtkunstwerk), the unification of various systems of art in an effort to synthesise and utilize all the senses, as an interesting method of reading. His writing on the ‘mystic gulf’ has been a recurring theme for me of late:

“Between (the audience) and the picture to be looked at there is nothing plainly visible, merely a floating atmosphere of distance… while the spectral music sounding from the ‘mystic gulf’ like vapours rising from the Holy Womb of God beneath the Pythius tripod.”

If we also look at the etymology of the term Phantasmagoria (for what was Wagners opera house in Bayreuth if not a giant phantasmagoria made of hidden magic lanterns) we find, phanta (Greek) for Ghost, phantom and Agora (Greek) for “assembly” – to speak publically. Within such a framework we end up with a conversation between audience (Reader) and ghosts (Plato Nietzsche / Brechte etc.) in the midst of which sit our texts…

A great talk by Brigid Doherty on Rilke’s lecture on Rodin exemplifies this. Conjuring up the French Fable of Jacquo, the Monkey with a Magic Lantern, to explore Rilkes reconfiguration of the lecture as phantasmagoria…

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Rilke calls attention to his predicament as speaker bereft of images of the subject of his speech (Rodin’s sculptures). He also will not speak the name ‘Rodin’ for…

“saying that name straight away would establish a friendship between us.. a warmth… (that) would make it appear as though I only seemingly set apart were speaking from among you, as if I were one of your voices”

… and she continues on to compare the ‘eyes of audience as lens of magic lantern’. The absence of photography means the audience dispenses images from its collective head (as the prior proliferation of Rodins images means that everyone in the room would be aware of his work). The absence of the object of ‘enquiry’ necessitate an invoking of phantoms from within the audiences ‘collective’ head.

Enjoy, Nathaniel

CLASS FOUR (2/24/16)

Blackboard 4

(note: please look at next week — WEEK FIVE — for some additional reading, etc.)


For a fair portion of the class discussion today we worked the terrain upon which class three ended, to wit, David Levine’s semi-cryptic suggestion that there was a particular form of “possession” of a critical text that came with the ability not merely to articulate (effectively) its argumentative arc, but rather with the ability to conceive the “person” who would be motivated to make this claim — in other words to invent/imagine/conjure a “backstory” for the critical claim, to afford a psychological impetus or emotional matrix out of which such an argument would come.  We had some questions: Is this a forensic process — where one is trying to get at the actual psychology of the author in question? (Less interesting, and I think no). Or, in some sense, does it not really matter what psychology one invents, in that there are many that can be conceived to motivate any argument? (More interesting, and I like experimenting with this version of the idea).  If the latter, what is the status of the different psychologies in question?  What is the nature of this kind of “enacted reading” — a kind of reading that passes through something like character analysis?  What relationship does this have to the notion of authorial intent?  It seems different to me.  It seems a way of thinking differently about the status of a text in relationship to authorship.  But this is merely an intuition.

My own preoccupation with the hermeneutic implications of all of this prompted Nathaniel to push on the specifically political dimensions: after all, isn’t “going down into the street and throwing stones” a very particular way of “embodying” a reading of, say, a revolutionary critique of the social order?

And then Chiara offered us a gnomic proposition — to wit, that the hermeneutic and political valences of the matter of reading-via-conjectured-character are “mediated” by a the following question: “How can we be critical scholars in a world in which many of our sources cannot be checked?”

This seems interesting, but I am not sure if it is right.  Is the world we are in now a world in which it is harder to check sources?  And if so, do we need to be able to conjure human persons “behind” or “within” different questionable texts in order to be able to work with them critically?  I dimly descry something that might lead to a new kind of thinking in all of this (new to me, anyway), but I cannot get there.  Not yet.


text from Actor Prepares

We took a turn into this bit of text from An Actor Prepares.  And it was Chiara’s effort to substitute “virtual” for “possible” (more specifically “virtuality” for “possibility”) in the passage that led to our very long detour into the question of the virtual.  We never really fought our way clear on this, but the conversation definitely left me with a strong sense that I wanted to think more about the history and etymology of the word “virtual.”  It certainly, for me, is inextricable from a sense of the “virtues” (the  qualities, attributes, or other discernable aspects of the perceptible features) of an entity or situation being present — in the absence of that which would produce those “virtues” under normal conditions of perception. (I spent a little time with the OED definitions, to investigate at a very basic level the etymology of the term — where one can indeed make out how the word “virtue,” with all its very different implications, walks across to its current usage in a phrase like “virtual reality”; click here for the OED’s stuff, which amounts to a fourteen-page essay on the term and its cognates). But what this has to do with “simulation” or the “simulacral” — I realize now I cannot say with any confidence.

I mentioned my short catalog essay on the Meditations of Ignatius of Loyola and the pre-history of virtual reality.  It appears as a contribution to this very moving book of photographs by the Greek photographer Tassos Vrettos.

We spent some time on the “meditation” as a prayer form — and the implications of that for the Descartes we read.

Then, by way of valediction, we tried our exercise in proprioception — as an effort to let the body lead on an inquiry into the Cartesian mind-body problem.  Could everybody fill in their thoughts about that below (anonymous, and by number)?

1) Fully mobile, the hands’ major muscles produced sharp sensations that muted any other feeling. When I kept to sub-muscular or maybe minor-muscular movement, then the fingers’ ridges against one another could register in my awareness. One hand pressing against the other was the closest thing to stillness that could still be felt. Equal pressure, no movement, the same texture against the same texture, I couldn’t feel a thing. It was a relief to put my fingers on the table, kind of like taking a cold bath.

2) After having my hands apart from each other during the long breaths we took before the exercise, when I first touched my left to my right, the right felt like a foreign object. Embracing this, I moved by left along the different parts of my right hand, attempting to discover its contours and different textures; the meatier section of the bottom right-hand side of my right hand, as well as the skin between and on the sides of my fingers felt particularly strange. I used my left hand to touch the right, as if it were a tool and not also a hand. This I also found to be a strange experience, that I was able to suspend my belief that the tool I was using to explore my right hand was also a hand. I then began to use both as tools; I rubbed them both against each other so that both hands were simultaneously tools and objects of inquiry, but I went quickly back to using the left on the right. I found it difficult to easily categorize all of the sensory data I was experiencing. What I also found interesting was the difference or space between the actual experience and my ability to find words to express that experience simultaneously in my mind.
As I was touching the base of my fingers, I thought suddenly of the following late poem of Paul Celan (from the cycle Lichtzwang), which I think also speaks (though maybe a bit tangentially) to what I was experiencing in the space between feeling and language:


3)  Exercise in proprioception notes:  Above all, in my head, as I touch my own hand, is the body-memory/idea of a dead hand – the hand that has fallen asleep (the sense of meeting one’s own arm and hand as a dead weight, at night, awakening suddenly and pulling one’s own arm across the bed).  I am now touching THAT THING. But I find it uncanny how difficult it is to feel THAT in THIS.  In time, I come to rest, mentally, on the problem of where all of this feeling is “happening” — it is uncanny to contend with the brute fact that it is occurring in my head, in the solid thing that is inside my skull, in the paste-jelly of that opaque and dense stuff that is behind my face.


For you, number 3


Albrecht Dürer, Saint Jerome in his Study, 1521

4) Hands together, images flooding, is it prayer, should I kneel, one finger against another, tension, electricity, Michelangelo’s ceiling, Wagner, power, too far, focus, meditation, and then the palm, really that sensitive, does each section map onto the body, Eastern medicine, perhaps. Touch as knowledge of the self, if only I could see them, but I can, in my mind’s eye, gesticulating, moving the air, together, prodding each other and darkness.

5) This was a time for intimate self-care and self-love, for my hands to be introduced and get to know one another. Sometimes one hand would cradle the other and hold it very gently like a bird. Sometimes they were like two disembodied creatures each swimming in their own ocean. Sometimes my hands made me feel like I was praying or begging or waiting. Sometimes they seemed to be on a journey of their own, without me, and I was merely the observer of their alien play. One hand asked, “How would you like to be touched?” And the other one always knew how to answer.

6) “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” ~ Paul Valéry

This aphorism captures the ideal of experiencing something in all its singular, inimitable particularity, without the meddling mediation of the intellect. In his essay, On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense, Nietzsche memorably describes how concepts dull our ability to perceive. “Let us consider how concepts are formed,” Nietzsche writes:

“Each word immediately becomes a concept, not by virtue of the fact that it is intended to serve as a memory of the unique, utterly individualized, primary experience to which it owes its existence, but because at the same time it must fit countless other, more or less similar cases, i.e. cases which, strictly speaking, are never equivalent, and thus nothing other than non-equivalent cases.”

“A concept,” Nietzsche concludes, “is produced by overlooking what is individual and real.” During the first half of the proprioception exercise, I explored my left hand using my right pointer finger. I noticed I was tracing the contours of an object I had already mapped out in my mind, according to my pre-formed conception of a hand. This made things pretty boring. I was feeling what I knew I would feel, and my expectations were confirmed in an encounter with the known.

But was it really known? Had I ever really felt my hand? Or was I just being lazy and ignoring what was, as Nietzsche says, “individual and real”?

This question brought Valéry’s aphorism to mind, which works just as well if we replacing seeing with feeling, so that it reads: “Feeling is forgetting the name of the thing one feels.” My idea of “hand” seemed to be getting in the way of my feeling it, so I set myself the task of trying to forget the notion of “hand” entirely, focusing instead on the physical sensations coming from my exploring finger. Things got more interesting. The object became stranger, richer in meaning. I found five slender somethings, each composed of all manner of knobs, strands, and cushy bits. At the end of each I discovered five peculiar rock-hard shells about the size of a dime. Down towards the base, I felt a light film of moisture covering cushioned rubber and a few blobs of sandpaper. On the other side the surface was dry and flecked with…goose down?

Of course, even here I was categorizing. But instead of using a single noun – “hand” – I employed a range of nouns and adjectives, some of which alluded to other preconceived objects, like sandpaper. Was this getting me closer to “true” feeling? It seemed to be. At the least, it was enlarging the range of meanings associated with the object under investigation. But it still seemed I’d only gone halfway – that the truest encounter of all would require me to forget language entirely. What if I could do away with all those predicates pinning my perceptions under the blunt conventions of language? If I could do this, would that even be thinking? Or something unconscious? Would it be more “real”? How could I blog about it?

As is often the case with our class discussions, we’re back to ultimate questions: What is the nature of the “reality” we seek to represent? What is the “truth” of a feeling?  I think it’s worth pointing out that my sense of what got me closer to the truth in this exercise – namely, moving away from a Cartesian “clear and distinct idea” towards a whole host of overlapping descriptions – is diametrically opposed to what held as common sense for 17th and 18th century theorists of acting, who assumed the best way to represent the truth of a feeling was to hold the concept clearly in the mind.

Did a pre-given mental template of ‘hand’ really prevent me from feeling more “truthfully,” or is that just the arbitrary “truth” of my epoch? After reading The Player’s Passion, I’m not so sure…

7) This exercise made me reflect upon touching and contact. My hands slowly became more comfortable to touching each other, to discovering each other. There was a moment when I wondered which hand was touching which, and also the warmth in the middle of my hands made them sealed—a whole single unit at times. I became familiar with the texture of my hands more than I had never done before. Closing my eyes incentivized such familiarity as I let go of anything else that was on my mind, and I fully experienced the surface of my fingers and hands. At times, I felt that my hands were conductors of energy and that gave me a sense of inseparability between them.

8) Sitting on a chair with a straight back I closed my eyes, after a minute or so of deep breathing I started to experience an vertical movement on the back of my closed eyelid, a film strip was rolling through my eye sockets. With my mobility suspended a cinematic consciousness had taken hold, an Eisensteinian montage flashed before my eyes, starting with images of that week and receding to earlier memories, fragments of thought interrupted with bursts of light.

My straight back slowly curved as I leaned forward; my hands came together as if in prayer. I could feel blood pulsating through my fingers, throbbing steadily as they came into contact. My eyes were closed, my hands were shackled, I was submissive, but to what? The vertical movement of the film strip was replaced with a swirling vortex as my right index finger slid down my left one cutting it open, in a swift and delicate movement it continued the laceration up my left arm, the cut was deep and the skin folded out exposing the tissue (more Greys Anatomy then The Revenant). I was a cadaver and my body was being dissected. But it was me who was doing the dissecting. (This I struggled to come to grips with). I found myself in a funny dual position, gaining identity through command over my own inanimate body.*

I pinched myself, a Freudian reality test brought me back into the classroom and I was left with the memory of these two experiences and a large number of questions.

*(I feel it’s important to note that it was my right [stronger] hand doing the cutting. I tried it the opposite way later and it just wouldn’t work, my right side was able to fight against the incision, it didn’t want to be overpowered, my left had no choice).


Comenius’ Orbis Pictus (1658) – the first ever picture book for children. Notice how the skin continues onto the page, the page itself becomes skin.

9) Switching my attention from one hand to the other, an obsessive question arose: where am I? In the bones I feel, in the fingerprints I am discovering for the first time, in the ethereal invisible space between my hands? Where is my body, when I think thanks to it?


In order to unveil the origin of our touching-touched hand experiment, you can check Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The visible and the invisible


More on proprioception, gesture, knowing the self, constructing the self…

LHP: I recently saw the video piece Gestures by artist Hannah Wilke and started to consider it in the realm of proprioception. It seems proprioception is largely defined as an unconscious knowledge/perception (this is something to investigate further, and the conditions or pathologies related to hindered proprioception), yet our hand to hand touching/contact exercise reflected a physical type of recognition. This physical recognition and engagement with the self — here forming and deforming the face, a feature of prime interpersonal recognition — seem at play in Wilke’s piece. Here’s a small portion: 

Wilke Gestures

More on the work: Gestures by Hannah Wilke, 1974, 35:30 min, b&w, sound
“Gestures is a series of performance-based works in which Wilke faces the camera in extreme close-up and performs repetitive or durational physical actions. At times she kneads and pulls her skin as if it were sculptural material. Often her gestures — rubbing her hands over her face, smiling so hard that she appears to be grimacing, sticking out her tongue — take on a loaded significance when seen in the context of gender performance.”



Our class today made me think about interdisciplinarity. Why is it worthy, and how? I quote Susan Buck-Morss’ “Hegel and Haiti”, which offers I think an excellent answer: “Disciplinary boundaries allow counterevidence to belong to someone else’s story. After all, a scholar cannot be an expert in everything. Reasonable enough. But such arguments are a way of avoiding the awkward truth that if certain constellations of facts are able to enter scholarly consciousness deeply enough, they threaten not only the venerable narratives, but also the entrenched academic disciplines that (re)produce them.” Take that as my apologies while suggesting the second chapter by Henri Bergson’s La pensée et le mouvant on what “possible” means.



Following on from last week’s class, I’ve taken a stab at defining “virtual” and “possible” with the help of Bergson’s essay, ‘The possible and the real,’ which Chiara linked to above. (I found an English translation, which some kindly blogger broke down into parts 1, 2, and 3.) If you thought we lingered too long over a trivial distinction, then you might want to think again! According to Bergson, clear thinking “about the relationship between the possible and the real” is no less than a “preparation for living well” that will make us feel “happier and stronger.” And what could be trivial about living well? Or feeling happier and stronger?

My blog post ended up turning into a mini essay that would break the bounds of propriety and word count to paste in its entirety here. For those who want the Reader’s Digest version, I’m pasting in a helpful breakdown of the difference between the virtual and the possible that I found in a book called “Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual: Bergson and the time of life,” by one Keith Ansell Pearson:

Virtual and Possible

In my mini essay I try to unpack this a little and link it to the Bergson essay above.


Attempting to link all this to virtual reality, I’d hazard to say that virtual reality, if we understand it as something that is programmed and thus exists within a closed system, does not conform to Bergson’s sense of the virtual as indeterminate multiplicity, but rather, to his sense of the possible as a notion of the future states of a calculable world.

So virtual reality is not truly virtual but only possible! Oy vey.


Attempting to link this to the theater, I’ll go for a pun:

The possible is preformed (and illusory)

The virtual is performed (and vital)



I found myself thinking about the proprioception exercise on my way back to the library and suddenly found that I was already there, my thoughts were interrupted by my arrival. Nothing out of the ordinary had occurred on my walk, rather I was so encapsulated within my own thought that I had become oblivious to the monotony of the repeated left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot movement – I simply was not aware that I was walking. Now this speaks to our earlier discussion, I had just experienced two modes of being:

  • A non-mediated mode – (my walk to the library or David Levine’s drive to school / work).
  • And a deliberate and purposeful subject/object mode.

In The Basic Problems of Phenomonology Heidegger speaks to this non-mediated action in an attempt to get beyond the subject / object distinction: “The idea of a subject which has intentional experiences… encapsulated within itself is an absurdity which misconstrues the basic ontological structure of the being that we ourselves are” (64)

As Hubert Dreyfus (the Don) explains:

“He (Heidegger) seeks to undermine this view by returning to the phenomenon of everyday skilful activity. He finds that, when everyday coping is going well, one experiences something like what athletes call flow, or playing out of their head. One does not distinguish one’s experience of acting from ones ongoing activity, and therefore one has no experience of oneself as a subject causing that activity”

This phenomenological examination posits that we (as human beings) are related to the world in an ‘organized, purposive manner’ yet without the need for a constant accompaniment of a subjective state. I was surprised when my thoughts were interrupted as I had arrived at my destination. How much else of our lives is spent in this mode of non-mediated action and how much is spent in a deliberate subject/object mode? And how is this a useful framework to begin a diatribe against Diderot’s ideal actor and Descartes cartesianism?



Matthew Strother & Isabel Ballan


In order to provide a frame for this class I’d like to briefly return to Chiara’s analogy from our first session: the relation of the actor to the character is paradigmatic for the relationship of the body to the mind/soul, in that one somehow engenders the other. This I think leads to a concern underlying some of our readings this week: namely, how an understanding of the way the mind and body interact may or may not help us understand what goes into a convincing performance. We see this worked out in Descartes’ interactive dualism, Stanislavsky’s Emotional Memory, and enlightenment theories of acting in The Player’s Passion.

Some guiding questions:

Do the workings of the body give rise to workings of the mind, or vice versa? (Where does the actor begin: with the body’s expressions of the imagination?)

How are authentic (or authentic seeming) emotions conveyed most convincingly to the viewer? Is there a difference between authentic and authentic seeming? Must an actor feel what she portrays or does convincing performance only depend on s command of the body? In general, what is the fundamental relation between interior and exterior, and how do we harness the powers of either/both most effectively in performance?



I’d like to follow up on Isabel’s framework with a question about the role of understanding in a “successful” performance (which, of course, also begs the question: what constitutes a successful performance!). In thinking about the “fundamental relation between interior and exterior” thus far, we’ve focused more on the categories of emotion and feeling. So, with Ion, we asked if the performer was possessed or in possession. With Stanislavsky, we asked – and are asking – about how to authentically undergo and convey interiority. Likewise, The Player’s Passion opens by stating emphatically that emotion stands at the center of ongoing controversies about the relation between mind and body – and by extension, at the center of debates about acting theory. 

But, equally pertinent, especially in a class about performing critical texts, is the question: to what extent must a concept be “understood” to be communicated? And is this separate from or subsumed by the question of authentic or authentic seeming emotions? Can a player’s passion substitute for good old “understanding” – especially of complex ideas – or must it complement it?

In the first class, David asked the question: How does embodying a thought make it communicable? It might be interesting to ask how intellectual understanding plays into this process of embodiment. With/through/apart from the emotions? To what extent is the intellect, alongside the imagination, central to an effective performance?

Walid Raad Performance Lecture

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What, if anything, made this a “Performance Lecture”?


LHP (Lucy)

Right before starting his presentation (is that word neutral enough?…no word is!!), Walid Raad, standing at a podium (a certain gravitas!) in a university (hallowed halls) lecture room (can we say theater?), the artist-lecturer-performer, proceeded to claim, correcting the generous introduction, “this is not a performance” (or something of the sort if I remember correctly!). It certainly was a lecture, a talk to and in front of an audience. And it was educational – we were learning about an artist’s work and projects. But was it also a performance? What separates “performance” and “lecture”? What makes the words placed adjacent a new concept rather than a tautology? Rehearsal, script, elocution, underlying narrative can belong to both. Multiplicity is also applicable and certainly for Raad, who presented “Walkthrough” in a specified atrium each week, multiple times during the entirety (October 12, 2015-January 31, 2016) of his recent New York exhibition. “Lecture” has a hold on truth, edification, facts, while “performance” relates more to the realm of fiction, some sort of deception, also entertainment and art. “Deception” at various levels of consciousness and tone seems inherent to Raad’s projects. The Atlas Group is an archive of mixed fabrications. If some sort of deception/staging is a performative element then perhaps in considering the lecture a part of his project, the latter becomes performance. But when another professor lectures, is fabrication absent? A story is created, images are fixed together, ideas tethered, jammed, put forth. Maybe even some “deception” is involved, some information is withheld, pieces that don’t fit are excised. To an observation: I was watching a woman’s reactions at the back of the auditorium as Raad spoke. She was slightly smiling, giggling to herself it seemed. Listening to a lecture about car bombs and Lebanon and horse races and war and history and facts, “juridical” facts, facts, facts! No laughing matter. She was immediately in on the performance (the fabrication inherent in his work) as I assume many in attendance were. I take it she knew Raad was not “just” giving a lecture. He was “performing” a lecture.

DGB: Quickly on this — some of you with an interest in the “parafictional” may want to check out the syllabus of the IHUM seminar I taught on “The Art of Deception” a few years back. It ended up issuing in this sort of queasy catalog essay, “In Lies Begin Responsibilities.”


CC (Chiara, in response to Lucy above):

Your question addresses that of the nature of the public, which within the context of a performance-lecture is not composed by spectators, yet by auditors who constitute what in rhetoric is called “particular audience” (PA).

In short, the PA:

  1. is delimited in time and space, and it is contemporaneous with the event on stage (you don’t have it in cinemas, because of the reproducibility of movies, nor in theatres, because the play pretends to be set in another time/space compared to yours);
  2. is homogeneous in itself (we were there as scholars);
  3.  previously agreed in being the audience for that performer/orator (it is not there by error, nor to disturb, sabotage, waste time);
  4. accepts to involve the performer in a dialogue and to be involved by him/her in a dialogue, following some specific shared rules – we shall discuss this point in class, if and when you like, also because the issue of interaction is implied by David’s assignment.

These conditions are necessary in order to establish the “parresiastic pact” (see M. Foucault on “Discourse and Truth”) and we satisfied them all.

In fact I would focus on the “question time” of Raad’s performance, which I believe represents its critical and risky moment.

  1.  Aren’t the questions on what he explicitly shows & says rather comments on his work, that in fact he foresees and elicits? (and 1 sub a: At what extent can a question in a fictional situation staged by a extremely shrewd artist and taking place in the artworld be “questioning” and not “confirming”?)
  2. Shouldn’t questions be “out of place” to be genuine? Yet, if this is the case, are they still questions (see point 3 above)?


I also found it particularly performative to make explicit at the opening of the lecture that Raad was going to give a “talk” a “performance lecture”. In retrospect, this statement, ostensibly making clear to the audience the format of what they had all settled down in their seats to see, pointed to the fine line between the forms of the lecture and the performance lecture, questioning where it is appropriate to draw such a line. It would seem strange to state explicitly that one is going to “only give a talk” rather than a performance lecture, but as the talk opened, I naively believed him. As he his claims became stranger and stranger and his documentary evidence increased in proportion to the strangeness of his arguments, I realized his opening statement was a provocation, not a simple statement. I think it would be interesting to try to pinpoint when it became possible to locate his “talk” within the category of “lecture performance”, for myself and for others. I personally would also be interested in reading a history of the lecture performance and how/whether its definition has changed over time.



By beginning his “performance” by telling us that what would follow would not be a performance, Raad immediately brings us into a sphere in which there is very little distinction between performance and “real life.” His presentation of his art takes place in the same liminal space, in the same vertiginous moment of “as-if,” that he deals in when he makes the art itself. Through his presentation of his art, he gets even farther than he does within his art alone toward the project of blurring the lines between art and life, between “truth-discourse” and “fictional discourse” or performance. One slides into the other. Art and performance do not exist in a totally separate sphere from “real” life but in fact make up the “real” space in which we habitually live, destabilizing it constantly, rendering real life uncanny, “defamiliarized,” strange. We are always situated somewhere in-between, in the virtual, perhaps. He surprises the audience by giving the example of being in love: “Haven’t you ever been in love?” he asks. What happens when we are in love, he implies, is somewhere between the real and the fictive, a dream world in which we act out our lives with total earnestness. He quotes Lukacs: “We approach facts by complicated mediations, through which they aqcuire immediacy,” perhaps as Swann approaches the reality of Odette through Botticelli’s portrait of Tziporah.


After the lecture, I spoke with a colleague who was experiencing discomfort. “I want to think of my discipline as a tool that I have internalized and am constantly honing in order to produce objective truth,” he said. Had we not just seen a mimicry of exactly this? Raad embodied a discipline originated in his mind and developed into an intricate and well-oiled apparatus through which he produced, interpreted, and delivered his material. My interlocutor, however, wants this apparatus to have preceded him, to be instated within him in a process of education, and to remain the mirror to which he holds up his truth. Raad’s radical subjectivity, to which he showed us no outside, performed a challenge to this pedagogical model that, it seems, called into question the nature of the scholarly equipment contained within the academician (us?).

CLASS FIVE (3/2/16)

Blackboard 5


The majority of our seminar conversation today centered on Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le Comédien, and we were guided in this discussion by Chiara’s framing introduction.  She suggested that the text was properly read as having three significant preoccupations, which she outlined as: 1) scientific/physiological (i.e., the text is concerned with physical and psychological dimensions of the human person — as they relate to acting in particular, but also reaching beyond that); 2) pedagogical/critical (i.e., the text is concerned with making French theater  — and acting from the stage — “better”); and 3) political.  We spent most of our time on number three.

Chiara went so far as to suggest that Diderot wants his readers to contemplate the actor as a kind of model or archetype of democratic citizenship — a notion that many of us had a lot of trouble making sense of, in light of what seem like many passages in which the psycho-emotional vacuity of the actor (his or her amoral emptiness and characterological plasticity) are emphasized.  And not in ways that seem flattering.  It was hard to wrap one’s head around the idea that any of this could be construed as normative/exemplary.

The truth is, however, I was myself persuaded, by the end of the conversation, that Chiara is on to something very important about the text — so I feel especially indebted to her for pushing the claim on us.

The upshot, as I grasped it (elaborations and/or animadversions welcome), went something like this: republican/democratic political citizenship requires a new kind of lability and perspectival range; we need citizens equipped to “see the world from the perspective of others,” which capacity will facilitate democratic decision-making; at the same time, a “hot” or “sentimental” version of this capacity for identification with the other is undesirable (since it tips open emotional volatilities that can lead to unsound or excessive empathy); what is needed, instead, is a “reasonable” version of this faculty, one rooted in judgement and focused on “mediated” and “Apollonian” inwardness with others; the actor (the really skilled actor), in Diderot’s view, exemplifies this skill, since this is what it is to body-forth a character.  More generally, theater provides, in his view, a key locus for this kind of social-political work.  It is more than just a site for politics and collective political work (in terms of content and/or subject); it is, ideally, a crucial environment in which reality can be “performed” (without being “contradicted”) — and this is essential to what Chiara seems to mean by the “mediation” necessary to collective (democratic/republican) life.

I am not really sure I get that last part.  Or that I have paraphrased it correctly.  (Chiara?  Clarifications? Graham, You have paraphrased it correctly).  But I came out of the seminar part of the class wholly convinced that the sections of the text where FIRST seems to be running down the moral character of actors, what is in fact going on (when one looks more closely) is that he is decrying the low regard in which theatre is held in his time, and explaining away the turpitudes of actual actors by reference to the demimondaine social status of the whole theatrical world.  I think Chiara is right that Diderot wants us to consider the actor’s highly cognitive and calculating sense of the life-form of another person as a very serious form of knowledge, and one that deserves close consideration in a democratic polity.  It has things to teach us.

Right before we broke, I even found myself dimly descrying something that felt like the lineaments of a very radical theory of human understanding itself.  One that took as its exemplar an actor on stage performing a character for an audience.  This “situation” seemed, for a moment, to represent a form of knowledge that might even be contrasted, productively, with Descartes’ account in the Meditations. In the latter, the knower goes inward, and severs, slowly and self-consciously, all ties to others — in a kind of hyper-centripital exercise in auto-spelunking.  What is “discovered” in there (in the form of an idea) can then be “taught” in a post-hoc project of pedagogical transmission.  By contrast, the “Diderovian” model posits a kind of real-time balance of centrifugal enactment and centripetal self-scrutiny — which are put into conjunction for the purpose of achieving and demonstrating (simultaneously) an “understanding.”  Of what?  Of a person (in the form of a character).

Which leads me to reflect on what it might mean to “perform” (theatrically) an idea. This is, of course, what this class is supposed to be about…

Relevant, here is the work of the Jackson Pollock Bar, which does what they call “Theory Installations.” See this example (which riffs on, among other things, Robert Morris’s 21.3):

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Here is another:

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Back to our class.  After the seminar part, we did an exercise derived from An Actor Prepares:


Could everyone take a moment to jot down a few of the notes that came out of the exercise?  We can discuss on Monday evening…

1) Channeling emotions through a body part that allows us for mobility—such as hands and facial gestures—is ironically easier than using our eyes only for such endeavor. In this exercise, I recognized that I unconsciously use my eyebrows (too much) to channel/transmit an emotion. Isolating the muscles around my eyes was the most difficult part. It was as if for the first time I felt that my eyes were not the window to my feelings but a mere part of my face who needed the rest to express itself. For the second and third part of the exercise I tried to concentrate more to experience the feelings I had jotted down to them portray it with my eyes. In this exercise I felt that the rest of my face was actually expressing such feeling but little to no change seemed to happen only in my eyes; once again, my eyebrows were taking over the expression of my emotion. In my partner’s eyes I also saw the same minimal change—and oppositely to me, she did not move her eyebrows at all—which make it very difficult to guess the emotions she was trying to portray.

When given a performance or a presentation, keeping eye-contact with the audience—or a member of it—seems to be a recurrent advice; either as a sign of respect or to catch their attention. This exercise made me realize that eye-contact is also a passive activity in the sense that the lecturer cannot really transmit emotions just through their eyes, or at least not in a complexity level appropriate to the matter of their lecture. Can we say then that eyes keep an audience attracted to the presenter but the rest of our body parts—gestures, body language, hand movements—are the real instruments to transmit meaning?

2) This exercise, which ostensibly focused on the projecting of emotion through the eyes, reminded me just how much I use my entire body in projecting and sustaining emotion. When I wanted to portray anxiety, I found that I had to breathe quickly, almost pant, my chest heaving, in order to engender the feeling of anxiety within me and allow it to pour forth through the eyes. I was aware of how little, perhaps, emotions are detected through the eyes and how much our guessing of each other’s feelings has to do with body language and, especially, movement. My having to keep still while projecting these emotions was perhaps the most difficult part of the exercise. When I’m impatient, I want to pace; when I’m anxious, I rock on my heels; when I’m bored I yawn and tap my fingers.

The exercise also made me consider just how much and whether certain emotions are conveyed through eye-contact. Some, I found, seemed more suited to a shifting of the eyes away from the other, an unwillingness to meet the other’s eye (for example, the feelings of discomfort, impatience, anxiety, embarrassment and the like). How does one maintain steady eye-contact and still portray extreme embarrassment?

Finally, I was made aware of just how much discipline it takes to look someone in the face and take seriously a moment of direct and prolonged eye-contact. It takes a curious combination of extreme vulnerability and openness on one side, and internal calm and self-control on the other. Looking someone in the face, I have discovered, is an art, a skill that I can get better at.

3) In all of these exercises, it takes me a moment (more like two) to adjust, and this adjustment period is congested with hysterics. I’m in agreement with Chiara that this is a defense. We went from zero to sixty on the road to intimacy, switching from polite class discussion, necessarily reserved, to eye-to-eye action, the sort of which I, honestly, have not engaged in recently, and which proceeded from quite different circumstances the last time I did. So, it took me a minute.

Composure kept, I found that I could only emote composure or fear of not being able to emote anything but composure through my eyes. This was a disappointing revelation. My partner and I found each other exchanging gazes that said I am looking at you without laughing, ok I’m going to try to make an expression, why can’t I make an expression, should I turn the volume up, I have no control over my face, why do I have no control over my face, is it your turn, ok it’s your turn.

4) Looking directly into someone’s eyes demands a concentration and focus, particularly as a result of the discomfort it seems to cause. Yet why discomfort? What to look at while staring into another? Just the eyes, which parts, but then again the surrounding face, distracted, look away, don’t, don’t get distracted. Acting was involved as the exercise was a forced, unnatural looking. What context demands such a gaze? Perhaps the intimacy of the direct gaze, locking onto someone else in such a way, directed, penetrating gaze, is an attitude reserved for moments of utmost intimacy…or the inimical stare down!

An eg. necessary: UFC 184: Ronda Rousey vs. Cat Zingano Staredown

Rousey stare down

There is power in the act of staring solely at another, a link created between two people, a vulnerability in visually forsaking the surrounding environment. But are you really “getting” the person through their eyes, the windows into the soul? Or is it just an empty look at iridescent orbs? Can the eyes convey and emote? To try showing anger, fear, happiness, seriousness, etc. through the eyes alone, seemed nearly improbable, yet in practice possible. Directing the eyes, moving specifically, allowing a feeling to overwhelm the body, recognize how the eyes fit into the projection, and then isolating them you can achieve subtle characteristic changes.

5) First off, let me say up front that my partner and I totally failed to convey our “affective orientations” to one another. “Bubbly” was interpreted as “tender,” “indulging” as “sadness,” “fear” as “caressing,” etc. Was this a failure of acting? Or was there something so limiting about restricting our expression to the eyes – those so-called “windows to the soul” – that no emotion was legible? The exercise seemed to belong less to our time than Quintilian’s, when pneuma were thought to transfer the passions of an actor through his or her eyes into the eyes of the spectator(s).

That said, I confess to holding on to some intuitive sense of Quintilian’s theory. My whole approach to the exercise was to try and conjure up the feeling “within” and then “project it” (somehow) through my eyes. Perhaps when it comes to theories of acting and theories of the soul, I’m less of a good modern skeptic than I thought? It’s interesting to think that, some three centuries after L’homme machine began to influence theories of the actor, there is still resistance to the idea of the actor’s face as nothing more than a dead, mechanical mask.

6) My partner and I were also not successful in correctly identifying the emotions we were attempting to communicate to each other. During the 30 seconds we had to prepare the emotion, I found it not only difficult to enter into that state of emotion, but already felt as well that I would not be successful in communicating it solely with my eyes, much less the entirety of my face. It really emphasized how much we rely on the entirety of our faces, not simply our eyes to communicate; when we speak of giving someone a look, we are definitely not just referring to our eyes. But there was something also strange about using our hands to cover our faces – as someone remarked during the exercise, the gesture of using both hands to cover the lower half of our faces, to cover our mouths, was somehow reminiscent of the similar gesture used to cover the face when trying to suppress a laugh. This was definitely true for me, and I think contributed to how easy it was to laugh during the exercise.

In the second exercise, where we simply stared at each others faces, it was almost a shock to now have the ability to see the entirety of my partner’s face. In staring so intently and for such a long time at their face, I realized not only how uncomfortable I felt, but also how much I tend to move my eyes around a person’s face when I’m speaking with them. It felt very artificial staring motionlessly into my partner’s eyes, reminding of staring contests that I did with my brother when we were kids, almost giving the exercise an antagonistic quality. But also, paying simultaneously such careful attention to my partner’s facial movements, I was also intently focused on my own; this meticulous attention brought out to me the rigid quality of my own face, as if it were a mask. It was a paralyzing feeling, being so painfully aware of my own expression for such an extended period of time.

7) I concur with the above on awkwardness, hysteria as a defence mechanism. In relation to getting ‘into’ character though, I found myself using two modes. 1) Going back to a time(s) in my life where I had felt that emotion and trying to relive it in the theatre of my mind, trying to feel how I felt and hoping that my muscle memory would do the rest of the work. 2) I would also just say the word repeatedly in my head in an attempt to conjur the experience from darkness.
I must admit, neither worked too well.



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A friend of mine who looked at the stuff for our class recently drew my attention to Yvonne Rainer’s 1985 film The Man Who Envied Women — and specifically to several remarkable passages of “performed” academic discourse.  The film is not available online, and I could not even find any clips, but I did secure a VHS copy through Princeton, and got it digitized.  It is on the Blackboard site for the class, under “video reserves.”  You can only  stream it on campus.  I am not suggesting everyone has to watch all of it, but explore it — there are some very striking (and painful) moments.

Also, I noticed this in the Chronicle Review.  Dunno quite what to say about it, but it seemed relevant to the course — for better or worse.  Irritated comments welcome.

One more thing: Some of you will know Jeff Dolven, in the English department.  I have a lot of admiration for the first chapter of his book Scenes of Instruction. It is a very powerful evocation of some of the basic “dramaturgy” of teaching and learning.  Definitely worth reading.

LC–This is the opening scene to Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister harmóniák, Hungary, 2000). The film’s protagonist, János, directs the local drunks in an impromptu performance of a solar eclipse, an allegory for the dark times fallen upon their town (Soviet occupation, WWII, a circus come through hauling a whale carcass), after he is bidden to “show us.” I was moved by the oblique but, nonetheless, palpable high stakes of the pedagogical/directorial interaction between János and the drunks, who perform the natural phenomenon as some kind of embodied representation of their plight and its passing. 

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More broadly, the film as a whole (which I enthusiastically recommend) is concerned with the enactment of text on a number of levels. On the most basic level, the film is an adaptation of László Krasznahorkai’s book The Melancholy of Resistance (1989), and seems to utilize the text in some ways more theatrical than cinematic. The medium through which the text operates remains a question, I think. In one scene,  János’ uncle reads aloud from a notebook and into a tape recorder. He will deal, he states, with a question of technique vs. philosophy (around the 34 minute mark of the film, if you’re interested), and goes on to defend the musical harmony of the gods against the technical parsing of Andreas Werckmeister, whose tuning system rests on twelve half tones, seven notes, etc. The core issue here is that of techne as opposed to poeisis, which I think, given the film’s title, expands out to trouble the performance of the actors and characters by asking how close we can get to the thing itself/to the Idea, at least thrice removed in this particular scene by a variety of mediums, including the body of the actor, but perhaps evoked all the more so therein (I don’t think Tarr or Krasznahorkai come down on the side of Plato, unless its Puchner’s Plato). At other times in the film, the bodies of the actors are completely immobilized, as if waiting for a script to bring them to life. 



As a footnote to Roach and Diderot, mine The puppet’s paradox


Isabel Ballan & Elaine Fitz Gibbon


I’d like start with a part of a sonnet by Shakespeare:

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharg’d with burden of mine own love’s might.

The speaker of the poem tells us that he feels so much that he is unable to successfully act the part of a lover; that excess of emotion gets in the way of acting; and that the perfect actor, unlike the “unperfect” one, would be able to regulate his or her emotions, rather than be overwhelmed by them. Like Diderot, Shakespeare implies that, in order to be convincing as an actor—either as one who performs “love’s rite,” or as an actual “actor on a stage” (that is, either in performance or theater)—one must have self-control; one must not overflow with natural and unmediated emotions. Shakespeare seems to be going further, however, in saying that one is the most genuine or authentic—one is in possession of the strongest, most virile love—when one is able to moderate and compose it artfully, that is, when one is able to be a successful actor and imitator. This gets us into questions of authenticity both on-stage and off: to be authentic, must one be led by feeling or intellect—or neither? Better perhaps to be Kleist’s puppets, pure and perfect machines whose art is all the more graceful for its being automated and unconscious, perfectly naïve and instinctual, and spontaneous just as it is heartless.

One might also turn to Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey for a depiction of this complex relationship between acting and authenticity. Dorian loves Sibyl Vane as long as he admires the perfect art of her acting abilities; Sibyl Vane, in turn, is only able to act well as long as she does not know what real love is. Once she falls in love with Dorian, however, she is no longer able to act; her genuine emotions eclipse her ability to render them mimetically. She tells Dorian, “I might mimic a passion I do not feel, but I cannot mimic one that burns me like fire”(94). As soon as Dorian sees that she is no longer able to act, he ceases to love her; it was her perfect imitation of emotion that drew him to her. This is perhaps Wilde’s ironic commentary on how inauthenticity compels us somehow with its heightening of reality, its somehow feeling more real than reality itself and achieving heights that reality cannot achieve. And this, in turn is again reminiscent of Diderot’s theory of acting: the actor, if she makes use only of herself and her own sensibility and internal resources, is a paltry and wanting actor; but one who takes on herself qualities that life cannot contain achieves the sublimity that is the true hallmark of art.


In our readings this week, what I found particularly intriguing was Diderot’s description of the ideal actor as someone with the ability to reflect upon himself with objectivity, with the ability to control absolutely any sentimentality he might feel, and in the ideal case, not feel at all: “In complete absence of sensibility is the possibility of a sublime actor” (17).

Roach, in his historical contextualization of the Diderot in the 19th century in Chapter 5, discusses briefly Kleist’s short text, Über das Marionettentheater from 1810. I found this particularly intriguing, as it points to the tension between the mechanical and the spontaneous, the accidental in Kleist’s text as well as the Romantic period more generally. Isabel and I would like to ask how the perfect, non-sentient being of Kleist’s marionettes might help us better understand Diderot’s articulation of the sublime actor’s ability to complete manipulate his physical presence on stage in order to thus manipulate his audience. How is possible that these marionettes are perceived as being more authentic, more sublimely graceful in their movements than their human counterparts? What might the relationship be between Diderot’s shell-like human actor, the naive child-like playfulness of the low-class entertainment of marionettes (as described by Kleist) and the uncanny? Additionally, I would like to add that the discussion of the Marionette theater in Kleist’s text takes place within the context of dance (one evening, the narrator comes upon a dancer at the city’s opera, “Herr C”) and the two discuss the marionettes particularly in their relation to dance: “Er versicherte mir, daß ihm die Pantomimik dieser Puppen viel Vergnügen machte, und ließ nicht undeutlich merken, daß ein Tänzer, der sich ausbilden wolle, mancherlei von ihnen lernen könne” // “He assured me that I need not be surprised at his delight in the pantomime of these marionettes; and he hinted that they could be very effective teachers of the dance”. How can we view the difference and similarities between theories of acting in spoken theater, dance and opera in light of Roach’s and Kleist’s texts?

To bring us into the late 20th century and back to our first class in our discussion of the difference between “theater” and “performance” as well as Chiara’s pointing us towards the particular audience in our discussion of the Raad talk: the portrayal of a meeting of AA around the middle of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest I think brings up some interesting questions about authenticity and sincerity in performance. Here, where the emphasis is on the ultimate goal of achieving complete empathy with the performer, telling the truth as one experienced it is the necessary condition for a successful performance (irony must be wholly absent). Though it is not theater, the performative aspect of speaking is strongly emphasized. How do irony, sincerity, authenticity and acting practices described by Diderot and Stanislavski function in a non-theatrical context?

DFWallace_Infinite Jest_AA_performance excerpt (Relevant passage is from bottom paragraph of 367-middle of 369)

In describing the tensions in the relationship between the actor, the public and the playwright, I also found Diderot’s text interesting in relation to our discussion of the philosophical difference between the “possible” and the “virtual” last week. In Diderot’s eyes, the sublime actor is one that can portray a scene, or an emotion, in countless ways; in not being bound by his/her own private emotions, s/he possess the ability to infinitely vary their performance. The mechanical quality of their being (that they are a shell, able to adopt any emotion that might be required of them, without allowing their inner being to be affected by their performance) allows for a spontaneity that cannot be found in an actor that seeks to portray an emotion based on their own emotional experience. Such a mediocre actor’s performance will lead only to stale repetition, whereas the sublime actor works not with the material of his emotional experience but rather strives towards a representation of an ideal form of what he is to portray. I think Roach’s contextualization of Diderot in Chapter 5 is particularly interesting and will be helpful in our understanding of our further reading of Stanislavski, particularly his notion of “second nature”.


In regard to our discussion of the chameleon and the Woody Allen film “Zelig“: a fascinating article from the Newyorker on Frédéric Bourdin.

CLASS SIX (3/7/16 – 5pm)

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This was our Rehearsal/Performance Class — led by David Levine



This session we dug in on “Art and Objecthood” — and began experimenting with what it feels like to try to “perform” sections of this essay. Though the plan had been to run the whole session as a kind of acting-practicum under David’s leadership, the reality was we spent a lot of time just trying to make sure we understood Fried’s argument — the line of the argument itself, as well as its “mood” and “motives.”  As we paired off to work on communicating bits of the essay, the emphasis was on giving voice to specific sections, and to issues of articulation and pacing in the expression of the ideas.  Just trying to memorize a sentence or two, and to say that to another person in a way that felt “felt” (that felt “inhabited”) gave us plenty to do and think about for the last hour of the class.  It will be interesting to see these problems worked out in action at “The Best New Work” in two weeks…



LHP: Fried – Diderot – Street as Theater

Michael Fried’s “absorption” shall we say with the theater and theatricality is certainly apparent in “Art and Objecthood.” I recently read this article on some of his top/favorite books, the first, no shocker, by Diderot, Salons. Fried explains:

“Diderot is a great philosopher and arguably the best-ever art critic. My own work as an art historian has engaged closely with his, especially Salons (the art-critical texts) and his related writings on painting and the stage. In my early book, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, I discovered something about Diderot previously not recognised: the importance he placed on the relation between the painting and the viewer. That issue was also central to the development of French painting in the mid-18th century – between Chardin and Greuze – and Manet and his generation over 100 years later. It’s a topic with resonance beyond the modern period. The basic idea is that painters inevitably construct a certain sort of relationship with the viewer. In the 1750s, Diderot put forward a set of claims as to how that relationship was supposed to work for a painting to be successful. I argue in my book that those claims and imperatives turned out to be foundational for modern painting and modern art generally.”

The relation between the work of art and viewer is a point of particular interest for Bridget Alsdorf (Princeton Art and Archeology professor, currently teaching a course on Manet and the enormous amount of literature his work has garnered, including dear Fried’s Manet’s Modernism: Or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s (1996), steeped in notions of theatricality) in her catalogue essay “Vallotton’s Theater of Death” (p. 20-25) in The Avant-Gardes of Fin-de-Siècle ParisShe focuses on prints by Swiss (active in Paris), Nabis artist Félix Vallotton that “explore death as a form of theater for idling crowds,” relating them to contemporary discourses on crowd psychology and mass behavior as well as spectatorship and “badauderie” or gawking.

The suicide (Le Suicide) 1894. Félix VALLOTTON

Félix Vallotin, The suicide (Le Suicide), Woodcut1894.

This notion of moving through the street as if it were a theater (can we consider modes of interactive/immersive theater like Sleep No More?) may be seen in Vallotton’s prints, which position the viewer of the work as a spectator. I just took a look at an amazing publication Badauderies Parisiennes: Les rassemblements physiologies de la rue (1896) (cover pull-out image below) at Rare Books at Firestone in which Vallotton’s prints are centerstage.



From Alva Noë’s Strange Tools. Art and Human Nature about Fried’s Art and Objecthood (pp. 78-79, 241-242, 261-262)

CLASS SEVEN (3/23/16)



So in this meeting we pushed us through to the late nineteenth century — along the same thematic line of the last five weeks: theatricality, pedagogy, epistemology (and, to a considerable degree, politics). Our core texts — Darnton on Mesmerism, Fourier’s Quatres Mouvements, and Tresch on “physiospiritualism” and “technésthetique” across the revolutionary meridian of 1848 — put us in the way of the linked problems of possession, trance, and hypnosis.  And the reading thronged with vibrant and idiosyncratic (if also, finally, somewhat marginal) figures. There was picaresque scenography in abundance in these pages.  In the end, the combination of charismatic teacher-leader-guru-sage(frauds?) and their coteries of “true-believers” raised some critical hackles.  The politics of “harmony” is an unstable business — and perhaps not wholly to be trusted. Or so some of you seemed to wish to insist by the end of class.  Schaffer’s “self-evidence”? Maybe.  But evidence beyond the theater of the self felt increasingly urgent as we plunged into the the Fourierist phantasmagoria in which “Armies of Love” were seen falling upon each other in hotly contested contestations of lubricous gymnastics as perhaps could only be imagined by a fevered, lonely, and awkward early-nineteenth-century traveling salesman.

That said, I do think everyone was basically persuaded by Darnton’s argument about the latent radicalism of the mesmerist program. And we spent some time on that. And the idea of Fourier’s Phalansteries as a kind of “participatory art project” (or are they performance art?) has stuck in my head (Bishop’s Artificial Hells, anyone?).  I admitted to loving Fourier (though I acknowledged the misogyny, and do not think it is redeemed by the “progressive” character of the Fourierist program), and to having read the text a number of times — but I had never noticed how much attention the author pays to theater in a formal sense:


The phalanx is an amateur theater company. And it is tempting to suggest that in Fourier’s utopia life itself becomes like a perpetual exercise in collective “social-practice” artistry. Relational aesthetics as an actual political theory.  (In Part III of The Four Movements, by the way, there is a nearly endless footnote on, among other things, the decline of theater in the provinces — and the need for better acting everywhere — worth reading).

The Tresch (which I had not read before) significantly refigured my feeling for the legacies of Fourier. I found his argument — for a rich and extensive “middle ground” between the “mechanical philosophy” and “Romanticism”; indeed, for a swampy shared terrain that may be more significant than either of its ideological marches — both persuasive and totally exhilarating.  This was the part I double underlined for our purposes:


Our conversation turned to a consideration of the way that the Diderot-style “ideal actor” perhaps needed to be reconsidered as a kind of cyborg, in that the actor’s body is not wholly separable from the techno-mechanisms of the theater: the lighting and effects and scenographic technologies.  In musing in this direction we had doubtless been infected with some of the “ontological transvestism” of Tresch’s historical subjects — perhaps most extravagantly J.J. Grandville’s unforgettable Un autre monde:

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In the end, I felt that the big question we sat with can be discerned (in a fragmentary form) on the photo of the blackboard above: “If the theater, taken in its socio-spatial totality, amounts to a kind of enacted collective understanding (i.e., if collective understanding is what happens in a theater), is that a good or a bad thing? Are we in Plato’s cave, or have we finally arrived at the ‘happy day’ of big, communitarian, intersubjective paideia?”

Is this what we wanted?  All to be in the same zone together?

But what if, um, we are all just feeling it. And we are, like, totally wrong? What if we are about to drink the Kool-Aid? What if we already did?  (I wrote my dissertation about Guyana, so I feel this phrase in a particular way when I use it).

Matthew was in the mood, by this point, for some old school criticality.  He wanted someone who was not too comfortable in that “theater” with everybody else. Someone who kept stepping outside, say.  For a breath of fresh air.  For a little critical distance.  The Bacchae was mentioned.

For a moment in here I paused, and, holding the chalk, I felt like I was actually on the cusp of “understanding” the particular way that our post-Cartesian tradition has internalized a kind of fundamental unwillingness to be “ok” with the feeling of being right about something. Only a kind of bottomless dis-ease will suffice.

But this was probably only a feeling.  That I was understanding anything — or doing so in any “new” way.  It probably wasn’t even new for me.  But it felt like it, for a moment.

Was this in fact an actual example of the sort of nonce-knowledge, the kind of “understanding-trance” that the whole tradition is afraid of?  That special kind of enchantment that can happen in the theater of the seminar room?  Maybe.



DGB Postscript on all of the above: It occurs to me that Rancière’s account of Joseph Jacotot (in The Ignorant Schoolmaster) is relevant to these themes — to trance and understanding, to utopian pedagogy, and to Fourier’s historical moment more generally.

 * * *

A small to-be-noticed thing that came up in the reading for today:  In Schaffer’s essay on “Self-Evidence” there is this great passage:


Which not only beautifully exemplifies the kind of celestial pageantry invoked by Tresch in Grandville and elsewhere, but also affords a concrete historical instance of the scene Lee offered us from the Werckmeister Harmonies back in Week 5:

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 * * *

By way of exercise, then, we worked in pairs for a while on our excerpts from “Art and Objecthood” — each taking one phrase or sentence and experimenting with its use as a “spell” or “incantation.” We worked to turn those words into something that had power, on our tongues, to mesmerize and enchant — to “entrance” our listener.  It was an interesting exercise.  Brief, but it afforded an opportunity to try to turn a sentence in a critical essay into a genuine “speech act” of world-transforming power.  It was perhaps a test of everyone’s ability to suspend disbelief.  But for me it felt like an opportunity to experiment with the disconcerting proximity between suspended disbelief and…, well, belief.



Lucy Partman & Matthew Strother


I wanted to get us started with a dive into mesmerism. The well-spring of fluid-related metaphors shall commence, heinously cliché and pretentiously punny, no matter! Onward, the fluid awaits! In Darnton’s Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France we find the “all puspose fluid” conveniently co-opted into pre-French Revolution political rhetoric, a pseudo-scientific base and cause which Rousseau-infused republicans and anti-establishment types could absorb and utilize for their political agendas.

For a poorly received, though nonetheless amusing film regarding the prophet of this most appealing, though hotly contested phenomenon–by B. Franklin himself–see Mesmer (1994), trailer, and full movie available on the tube! ALAN RICKMAN as Memser. Need I say more. And I bring up Franklin and also Jefferson–who it seems ardently rejected mesmerism, perhaps a destabilizing moral quandary for his fledgling nation–as I am interested in response to such pseudo-science in America. Phrenology, another “big heavy” in the panorama of 19th-century French and European thought, practice, spectacle, and, oh (oy!) yes, performance, was widely practiced and received with many an open arm in America.  


On this train (or wave), I had a look at this article related to an exhibit at the Poe Museum (“Poe Museum’s New Exhibit is Mesmerizing”).

Edgar Allan Poe was on the band wagon, perhaps more so in jest and for satirical purposes, fielding great material from the mesmeric under and over currents in the following works: “Mesmeric Revelation,”  Columbian Magazine, August 1844, 2:67-70 and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (reprint), The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe (1850), 1:121-130.

Let’s look at David Knight’s ardent statement in “Scientific Lectures: A History of Performance”: “If education is a matter of lighting fires rather than filling bottles, then we should still see professing as a performance.” How do you feel about this? What is “lost” when performance is stressed in pedagogy? Knight suggests that the need for seriousness in professional 20th-century science relegates the performative in the realm of science as a form of spectacular popularizing. Perhaps dramatizing science should be reserved for igniting the first sparks in potential young scientists, but what about in the university lecture halls? Do the general public still flock to scientific lectures for entertainment? Could that be beneficial, moral?

An important technical, research-oriented question came up in Knight, who asks: “How do we know what one of Davy’s lectures was like?” As historians, how can we best reconstruct the experience of performances, especially pre-recording era performance? But also, let’s consider performance art. How can pieces of performance art be “correctly” re-created? Can they be? (See Hal Foster’s latest book Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, 2015).

In The Romantic Machine, Tresch positions the performative and spaces of performance in the traffic zone between art and science, machine and romanticism. The ‘two cultures’–and it seems the distinction if not as cultures, but at least as separate disciplines did exist in pre-Revolution France, as the age of the Humboldtian polymath was coming to a close–intermingle in spectacular displays of scientific devices and on the instruments and machinations of musical and operatic performances. Could the realm of performance/drama/entertainment be the–ultimate?– middle ground between art and science? Could it keep these ever-differentiating fields in closer proximity? Similarly, I would look back to Knight who claims “that scientific lectures, instruction tempered with entertainment, kept our playgoing ancestors from becoming narrowly specialized and deferred any ‘two cultures’ for a long time.”

The visual material related to the period, issues, and ideas in this week’s reading is, in my opinion, phenomenally diverse and endlessly captivating. Considering depictions of pedagogic performances I want to offer the following:

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Engraved illustration of the collecting room for Caspar Friedrich Neickel’s Museographia published in 1727. In this copper plate etching curtains are drawn to reveal the spectacle of the private scholar with his collection (cabinet of curiosities, “kunstkammer”). Though the scholar is alone, such collections were often visited, objects displayed, and their respective narratives explained (“performed”?).


Hello mood lighting! Science for everyone, the children are captivated, the young scholars ponderous, a woman, well she’s there, but also not (foreground silhouette). The new hearth, the new religion–consider depictions of the birth of Christ, the central light and all surrounding, no baby Jesus in the center in this painting exuding light–it’s science! Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (or, A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun), ca. 1766, oil on canvas, 147 cm × 203 cm (58 in × 80 in), Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, England. This was painted prior to An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (National Gallery, London) referenced in Knight’s article.

On a less serious note, or more, satirizing of performative phrenology by the infamous British caricaturist George Cruikshank:


George Cruikshank, “‘Calves’ Heads and Brains: or a Phrenological Lecture,” September 1826, Engraver: “Bump, L. Delineator: Lump, J.” Colored Etching, The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. Read more here (can also view in high resolution so you can read the fabulous text at bottom and all around!).

Another, why not?


“Detail from a satirical print by James Gilray, 1802 titled Scientific Researches! – New Discoveries in PNEUMATICS! – or an experimental lecture on the Powers of Air” (Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, exhibit.) With this we can think about the body as an object of research, the body as evidence… (considering the evidence in”Self-Evidence” by Schaffer).

826px-Thomas_Eakins,_American_-_Portrait_of_Dr._Samuel_D._Gross_(The_Gross_Clinic)_-_Google_Art_Project Close up

Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic (or, The Clinic of Dr. Gross), 1875, Oil on canvas, 240 cm × 200 cm (8 ft × 6.5 ft), Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Here’s a close up too. It’s visceral! Extreme realism! This piece was deemed inappropriate for display in an art exhibition when Eakins first painted it. Instead, it was exhibited with other hospital equipment and contemporary medical technology.

Another creation from the period which Tresch spends time discussing in section two of The Romantic Machine is J.J. Grandville’s (1803-1847) Un autre monde : transformations, visions, incarnations, ascensions, locomotions, explorations, pérégrinations, excursions, stations, cosmogonies, fantasmagories, rêveries, folatreries, facéties, lubies, métamorphoses, zoomorphoses, lithomorphoses, métempsycoses, apothéoses et autres choses published in 1844 (Paris : H. Fournier, libraire-éditeur, rue Saint-Benoît, 7). The title of the book alone had me mesmerized! Tresch incorporates images from this remarkably complex, hilarious, satirical, generative, smorgasbord… into his own book. We have an original in Rare Books and you can view a digitized version here. And not to forget the utopian socialist other world/system/order put forth by Fourier in his Theory of the Four Movements and other works, we have Grandville’s illustration of the idyllic world of harmony and lemonade seas! And we are back to the fluids!




I was very intrigued by the question which emerged out of our discussion on Diderot two classes back:

Does the situation of the actor (as a person responsible for embodying a person/character for others represent a model (archetype?) for human understanding and human action? A model/archetype that ought to be understood to supersede on, say, a “cartesian” model (where understanding is achieved by a solitary thinker cutting itself off from world/sensibility and book/people to “figure things out” and then “teach” others.)

This model was connected to the idea of the actor as an ideal republican citizen. By extension, the theater where the actors perform was seen as the society that can be managed in a democratic way. This left me wondering: Who runs the theater? The theater is not a neutral space. It is controlled by a larger network of people (owners, producers, managers, technicians) and has, in every instance, different layouts controlling how actors interact with actors, actors interact with audience, and audience interacts (or doesn’t interact) with the audience.

This week’s readings complicate the simple analogy that says “actor is to citizen” as “theater is to society” by introducing different kinds of theaters, and showing how these spaces produce different forms of knowledge. We have Fourier’s phalanx, where people really do learn in a theater how they are going to incorporate into Harmony; we have the scenography of proof and demonstration, where understanding is “staged” in very particular condition before an audience with particular expectation; and we have the magic halls where Houdin’s acts are interpreted in many different ways, depending on the perspectives one brings into the theater.

This is all by way of asking: how does the situation of the theater in turn effect the situation of the actor as model for human understanding and action?


Also, this line from Romantic Machines:

“Uncertainty over the increasing presence of new technologies in everyday life was reflected by the fantastic’s alternations between wonder and dread.”

made me think of this Bjork video:

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For Ernst Jentsch’s first theorization of the unheimlich in 1906 read here.

For present instantiations of mesmerim, see The Abramović Method.

For the most recent understanding of the body as mesmerizable see Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality as he is called. You can start from here.

I’m very sorry to have to miss class today! As I’m not able to attend physically, I thought I might be there in spirit by sharing something I saw last night: the production of Louis Andriessen’s vocal-theatrical work “De Materie” (yesterday was the premiere of the new (American stage premiere) production at the Park Ave Armory)Bildschirmfoto 2016-03-23 um 12.04.02.png

Throughout the performance I found myself thinking about our class and the question of the tensions inherent in the performance of theoretical/philosophical texts. This four-part non-opera does not contain a traditional dramatic arc, consisting instead of four what might be called “images”, moving the listener/viewer back and forth through time, and in the case of the 4th part, space. Despite the highly heterogeneous nature of their material, all four parts can be unified in their interest in the relationship between matter and being, materiality and spirituality, existence and freedom. The first part sets three disparate texts: the 1581 Dutch Act of Abjuration, a treatise on ship building and a philosophical treatise on matter by the Dutch philosopher David van Goorle. The first two are sung in straight-tone style by the chorus; the excerpt from van Goorle’s treatise is sung by solo tenor, setting it apart from the otherwise homophonous vocal writing. Watching a man dressed in ascetic period dress passionately declaim a text on matter from the rafters of the Armory, I found myself thinking about the effect the setting of this text at the high point of the first part of a large-scale theatrical, but almost defiantly non-operatic work was making. Paired with the minimalist (or post-minimalist) style of the writing, the straight-tone choral singing, the sudden focus upon the individual of van Goorle, there seemed to be a conflict, or a plurality of conflicts, bubbling beneath the surface of the movement. The sparse monotony of the harmonic language fought with the lushness of the orchestration, of the very harmonies expressed by the orchestra; the unadorned, homophonic writing for the chorus fought with the luscious texture it created in its union with the orchestra writing; the acoustics of the sheer force of sound booming around the cavernous space was itself almost theatrical. And then this defiantly non-dramatic text made highly dramatic in its sudden isolation of a single individual voice. With the variously human or animal-like shadows visible upon the lit walls of the camp-like tents set up throughout the hall hammering in time to the percussive blows of the orchestra, the work seemed deeply conflicted about its own status. But this conflict was productive. It pointed to the dramatic nature of what might at first seem to be dry texts: van Goorle rebuts Aristotle with vigor; the 16th century Dutch throw off the oppressive chains of the Spanish crown, the text reaching its climax in naming William of Orange their new leader; the reality of the shipbuilding treatise becomes visceral in the booming blows of the orchestra, the work famously opening with 144 iterations of the same chord, played fortissimo. This strange combination of texts early modern texts, of a predominately American minimalist style highly influenced by a pop aesthetic, of a sparse production that emphasized the dramatically cavernous space of the Park Avenue Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall pointed precisely to the tensions inherent to the performance of theoretical texts, perhaps uncovering their secretly dramatic nature, perhaps also uncovering the strangely powerful desire to efface or deny the operatic in post-war avant-garde music, though this desire might be eternally fated to be unsuccessful.

PERFORMANCE (March 26th)


A performance of David Levine’s “The Best New Work” at the Princeton Art Museum, featuring Laura Beckner.

Some videos HERE


Here’s a chronological section of the experience through images/captions:


Walking around performing AV&K, stops by museum visitor, visitor questions the performer, performer proceeds to “answer” in the words of Greenberg. Fabulously hilarious!


A very scenic launchpad for decrying Repin!


Dude to the left did not avert his gaze once from the hand-held tech, as the visitor/audience watched and performer continued, with feeling!


It got dramatic!


Captive audience.


Words of AV&K thrust onto / in front of work of art…dissonance, generative musing, psychobabble?

What an experience. Engaging, nuts and absolutely funny. The viewer reactions were captivating, especially viewers that seemed totally mystified/confused. But was the whole performance just “entertaining” (or baffling to the unaware/uniformed)? And if that’s the case, is that an issue, is it problematic?  Theory flung at art objects for what purpose? As a type of audio-visual experiment? I did not leave with an understanding of the text (and I hadn’t walked in intending to attain one). There are hints of institutional critique (thinking to Fraser’s Museum Highlights and masquerading as tour guide) at play with choice text and works of art (and museum institution) left in a state of use and abuse, disregarded, trivialized (spectacularized). Or one could find in the collision of spoken text and visual the potential for generative/new/random (aleatory) associations. The concept of “spectacle” comes to mind, making the spectacular, spectacularizing and the potential for animation performance allows. And I return to the funny–the humorous, a trance-like, hypnotic type of laughter induced, following and trying to keep up with the leader-performer. But were the actual words “funny”? Or was it just a situational awkwardness of sorts?


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Beckner chose to deliver a passage on Mussolini’s appeal to the masses by way of their aesthetic tastes in this room full of Italian paintings and sculptures, suggesting something less than a completely arbitrary relationship between content and setting. In what registered to me as the end of a scene/movement, she gestures toward a gilded thing in a vitrine and proposes, “The masses must be provided with objects of admiration and wonder” (video embedded in the still above).That shiny object is a 17th-century gilt bronze and silver angel attributed to the French sculptor Jean Regnaud during his time in Italy, perhaps once a piece of a reliquary holding an instrument of the Passion, probably the nails, its label speculates.


The small angel becomes a false idol in relation to the performed text and hit perhaps more dramatically than would a modernist work nearer the aesthetic Mussolini used to distract from the brutality of his rule. It made the described subjugation of the people register as more biblical than bureaucratic.


I was struck by the way the performer moved back and forth between being total obliviousness to her audience–totally inside her own head, moving as if through her own fog–and totally aware of her audience, making eye-contact and interacting. But the mode of interaction with the audience felt less like the performer descending from her own self-created world, and more like the performer ushering the audience into *her* plane of existence. The audience became a part of this odd virtual in-between space of performance art.

The performance also made me interact differently with the space of the museum. I was aware of the museum as a sanctified space that was now being made into a space to *live in*, made into a kind of home for a brief time. I felt compelled to lean on objects as if they were furniture, to take advantage of the acoustics of certain rooms in order to sing or declaim poetry. What happens to a museum when the entire space becomes stage, becomes virtual playground?

I was also intrigued by the activity of looking for the performer, of finding her and losing her again. Was this also a part of the experience of the audience? The disorienting idea that this performer will go on whether you (or any given audience member) is there at all? (This was thrown into particular relief when the performer entered a bathroom and continued with her monologue even though only one or two people could hear her.)

What was going on when the performer stopped her monologue to observe a painting? I found myself watching her watching a painting. The activity of being an audience member thrust itself to the fore, as did the activity of looking at artworks in a museum. These moments made me think of the performance as a kind of satirical version of a museum tour guide who does not wait for museum goers to follow her and often gets lost in her own thoughts, rendering her role superfluous…



I had a lot on my mind as I watched the performance on Saturday, and I really look forward to talking about it together tomorrow.  The whole thing definitely stimulated my thinking as we look forward to our final project, and the experience of watching Laura do the piece enormously sharpened for me many of the questions I think we need to resolve for ourselves as we move toward a pedagogical/performative activation of “Art and Objecthood.”

Below, a short clip I took — the final image of the bystander (her fingers are in her ears, as you will see) says a lot about how one museum-goer managed the situation.  I think this image heightens for me the challenges we face as we seek a form of text-performance that is closer to teaching — since this is really important to me.

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It is such a bummer that I missed the “Best New Work” this past weekend; thank you everyone for your videos/pictures/comments! After watching them, some things came to mind. However, I apologize in advance if I am misinterpreting what actually happened on Saturday; I have tried to reconstruct what the performance was all about based on what I just saw on your posts.

The first thing I want to bring up is the idea of talking about art in an art space vs talking about something that has no relation to the physical space we are performing in. I think that one of the reasons that makes this performance stronger is its content relation to the museum. As Graham points out, now looking at our project we should aim for a text-performance that resembles teaching. However, I am not totally sure how more (or less) powerful/challenging/rewarding could be to perform/teach about art in a non-artistic space. Looking at the videos, I see how Beckner looks at some objects and paintings, which sometimes relate to what she is saying. Nevertheless, her conversational tone, hand gestures and interaction with the space in general (not relying on the spatial artistic personality of the museum too much) seem to me the powerful components of her performance. I think this is something we could reflect on moving forward. Why do we need to perform in a museum for it to be more of a “teaching” exercise?

As some of you pointed out, she looks at times as a tour guide—or at least, some bystanders confuse her as one when they first see her. I could not tell from the video who she was actually looking at all the time. I saw that sometimes she looks at some people (e.g. the guy who was doing work (?!) in the museum) as if she was engaging in a conversation with him. In a more “teachy” performance as our final project, should we indeed be conversational and interactive?

Finally, I want to comment on the corporality of Beckner’s performance, which I found fascinating. She laid down and abruptly sat down, used hang gestures, and changed her voice tone appropriately. In watching and admiring her performativity, I also wonder if she was creating a dependency on it to converse and situate herself in the space. I felt that such performativity drew people’s attention to her and to even wonder what she was doing; at times, it added to the oddness of performing a text in a museum. Can we imagine her doing the whole text just in one space without moving? How would the oddness/performativity be seen as more or less of a “spectacle” in this hypothetic scenario?



Kitsch, “a product of the industrial revolution” – an ersatz version of ‘genuine culture’, whoch the dominant bourgeoisie sold to the proletariat who had lost its folkic traditions in its move to the cities. Mass produced kitsch became the ‘first universal culture ever beheld’ and supported the ‘illusion that the masses really rule”. This was what made kitsch integral to the regimes of Hitler, Moussolini, Stalin and others.

I have been trying to work out what made me feel uncomfortable with the performance. Yes it was entertaining, it made me laugh, sometimes chuckle out loud, but this was never at the words, never at the ‘acting’ but rather, as has been said above at the awkward interactions with the members of the public who were not ‘in’ on what was happening. A certain exclusivity was given to those ‘in the know’ – those aware of the ‘performance’ and in some contexts this could be fine, but the joke seemed to be on the members of the public who weren’t, those who were confused by what was occurring. There is a certain elitism in theory itself (although Avant-Garde and kitsch is arguably more criticism), a certain elitism enshrines academia, this in itself is no bad thing, but with the rise of knowledge and information economies a certain updating of Greenbergs essay is due, not one that leaves it as empty, not one that makes it Kitsch. (as Hermann Broch charecterizes it on the year the Nazi’s take office, “the evil in the value-system of art”.

There were other moments, that I must admit I was slightly seduced by. The talk of POWER and the third Reich whilst sitting in front of a large painting of an eagle. The Eagle as audience or bestower of power? But a recent trip to Broodthaers had left the eagle image firmly imprinted in my memory. The metaphor lacked though, it seemed cheap, easy perhaps, the same with pointing to certain artefacts, perhaps a shiny… it all seemed rather nice, rather quaint. I struggled to scratch below all of this, and at the moments when I did, I realized I sat an uncomfortable side of a power dynamic between actor / general public

Kitsch, “a product of the industrial revolution” – an ersatz version of ‘genuine culture’, whoch the dominant bourgeoisie sold to the proletariat who had lost its folkic traditions in its move to the cities. Mass produced kitsch became the ‘first universal culture ever beheld’ and supported the ‘illusion that the masses really rule”. This was what made kitsch integral to the regimes of Hitler, Moussolini, Stalin and others.

I have been trying to work out what made me feel uncomfortable with the performance. Yes it was entertaining, it made me laugh, sometimes chuckle out loud, but this was never at the words, never at the ‘acting’ but rather, as has been said above at the awkward interactions with the members of the public who were not ‘in’ on what was happening. A certain exclusivity was given to those ‘in the know’ – those aware of the ‘performance’ and in some contexts this could be fine, but the joke seemed to be on the members of the public who weren’t, those who were confused by what was occurring. There is a certain elitism in theory itself (although Avant-Garde and kitsch is arguably more criticism), a certain elitism enshrines academia, this in itself is no bad thing, but with the rise of knowledge and information economies a certain updating of Greenbergs essay is due, not one that leaves it as empty, not one that makes it Kitsch. (as Hermann Broch charecterizes it on the year the Nazi’s take office, “the evil in the value-system of art”.

There were other moments, that I must admit I was slightly seduced by. The talk of POWER and the third Reich whilst sitting in front of a large painting of an eagle. The Eagle as audience or bestower of power? But a recent trip to Broodthaers had left the eagle image firmly imprinted in my memory. The metaphor lacked though, it seemed cheap, easy perhaps, the same with pointing to certain artefacts, perhaps a shiny… it all seemed rather nice, rather quaint. I struggled to scratch below all of this, and at the moments when I did, I realized I sat an uncomfortable side of a power dynamic between actor / general public