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):

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 2.51.44 PM

Here is another:

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 2.55.44 PM


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.



Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 8.58.06 PM.png

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. 

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 9.35.38 AM

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s