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.


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