(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.
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
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:
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:
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?
PRE CLASS POSTS
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?