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Perhaps more than any other recent writer, Craig Owens explored the relations among the discourses of contemporary art, sexuality, and power. His familiarity with the New York art world and its practitioners in the 1970's and 1980's makes his writing an unparalleled guide to one of the most riveting periods of contemporary culture.
If, as is frequently and strikingly attested everywhere today, boldness in theater proclaims, rightly or wrongly, its fidelity to Artaud, the question of the theater of cruelty, of its present nonexistence and ineluctable necessity, has the force of an historical question. Historical not in its possible inscription within what we know as the history of theater, not because it would mark a stage in the development of theatrical forms or because of its place in the succession of models of theatrical representation. The question is historical in a sense that is both radical and absolute. It declares the limit of representation. -JACQUES DERRIDA, "The Limit of Representation," from L'écriture et la différence
Across those differences which segregate the dominant attitudes towards performance in our century into either expressionistic or analytic modes, there appears a single commitment which may be associated with neither; a challenge to the structure of representation which has been identical with that of theater ever since Aristotle characterized dramatic poetry as mimetic. This identification of tragedy with the imitation, rather than the immediate presentation, of action posits a fundamental dualism at the heart of the theater. Performance and text, representer and represented, are (it seems irrevocably) split. Theatrical representation establishes itself in that rift which it alone creates between the tangible physical presence of the performer and that absence which is necessarily implicated in any concept of imitation or signification. The imitated action (the theatrical signified) is situated outside of the closed circuit established by the copresence of performer and spectator. Thus what is represented is always an "elsewhere." As a result, while the performer is in fact both a presence and a signifier (for an absence), we always regard him as the latter, as a representative for something else-the actor as perpetual stand-in.
The major innovations in performance of the last fifty years have been addressed to this rift, either to exaggerate it (Brecht) or to annihilate it (Artaud). Both strategies shift from re presentation to presentation. Since the presence of the performer is anterior to, and a necessary condition for, any theatrical representation, the impulse which animates that shift might be characterized as modernist, a reduction to that which is unique and absolutely fundamental to the theatrical situation. Modernist performance abandons representation by establishing identity between representer and represented. The performer no longer stands for anything other than himself. (The resurgence of interest in dance at the beginning of this century was a manifestation of the same impulse. According to Yeats's formula, dance has always eluded any such dualism.)
Since the structure of representation is identical with that of verbal language-a system of signs which always substitute for nonpresence-the ambition to overturn an entrenched theatrical representationalism has frequently manifested itself in programs which would radically alter, if not eliminate, the use of speech on stage. The nonverbal spectacle is its offspring. Yet the overthrow of representation cannot be restricted to nonverbal modes, since an identical impulse has also animated the poetic theater of our century. Thus, modes traditionally conceived as antithetical become complementary. In Artaud's polemical writings on theater, it is the conjunction of the nonverbal and the poetic that constitutes the very possibility for the revivification of theater.
While Artaud's modernism is apparent in his move to disestablish the author-"the theater, an independent and autonomous art, must, in order to revive or simply to live, realize what differentiates it from text, pure speech, literature, and all other fixed and written means"-it does not follow that he meant to eliminate speech from the stage altogether. If the theater was to be reconstituted outside of verbal language, the author to be replaced by the director, and the stage to become the locus of research into alternative languages of gesture and scenography which would "always express [thought] more adequately than the precise localized meanings of words," it was simply that the authority of the spoken word was to be undermined. Artaud advocated the overthrow of all hierarchical rankings of theatrical languages, which had assigned speech a position of preeminence, and reduced the mise en scène to a subsidiary role. The theater of cruelty was to be characterized by a plurality of equipollent voices: spoken, musical, gestural, scenographic. If in the spectacles he envisioned "the spoken and written portions will be spoken and written in a new sense," still, the sensuous, physical side of language-everything which characterizes its poetic use-was to be retained:
But let there be the least return to the active, plastic, respiratory sources of language, let words be joined again to the physical motions that gave them birth, and let the discursive, logical aspects of speech disappear beneath its affective, physical side, i.e., let words be heard in their sonority rather than be exclusively taken for what they mean grammatically, let them be perceived as movements, and let these movements themselves turn into other simple, direct movements as occurs in all the circumstances of life but not sufficiently with actors on the stage; and behold! the language of literature is reconstituted, revivified, and furthermore-as in the canvasses of certain painters of the past-objects themselves begin to speak.
Artaud's ambition was thus more than the revivification of theater; it was nothing less than the complete reanimation of poetic language. Or rather, one necessarily implicated the other. This poetic aspect of his enterprise extended to his instructions for the manipulation of scenic elements:
The language of the theater aims then at encompassing and utilizing extension, that is to say space, and by utilizing it, to make it speak: I deal with objects-the data of extension-like images, like words, bringing them together and making them respond to each other according to laws of symbolism and living analogies: external laws, those of all poetry and all viable language, and, among other things, of Chinese ideograms and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
That Artaud's prescriptions for the stage should constitute an ars poetica suggests a historical filiation with a number of modern poets who also identified the stage as an appropriate locus for research into intensifying the purely physical, i.e. sonorous, movements of language. Mallarmé wrote Igitur for the stage. Eliot identified the poetic moments of tragedy as those at which the language reflects back into itself, becomes aware of itself as a theatrical presence. Further, in a passage reminiscent of Artaud's proposal that words be perceived as movements, he suggested that if verse drama were to be given new life, it might look to nonverbal modes of performance such as the Mass and the ballet for paradigms. Both poet and metteur en scène would transform language into an entirely material event. And Valéry, describing his own work for the stage as a concatenation of music and architecture, called the resultant genre "melodrama": "I found no other term to describe this work, which is certainly neither an opera, nor a ballet, nor an oratorio." Like Eliot, he drew a parallel with religious liturgy: "To my mind, it must and does bear some resemblance to a ceremony of a religious nature." Yet he reiterated its poetic nature: "The action, limited and slight as it is, must be further subordinated to the meaning and poetic substance of each of its moments." Like Valéry's "melodrama" (which it resembled in several respects), Robert Wilson's recent spectacle Einstein on the Beach (in collaboration with composer Philip Glass) resists assimilation to any of the conventional genres of performance. Although Einstein was identified as an "opera," and while its score might be anatomized accordingly into arias, duets, choral passages, and ballets, the production lacked the correlation between music and dramatic action that defines that genre. Glass occasionally incorporated concrete aural references to the visual subject of a scene into his score, but his insistence on structure and logical progression only emphasized the independence of music from action. One was reminded of that disjunctiveness between sound and image which Cunningham brought to the dance. Action exhibited a similar autonomy: Einstein progressed as a sequence of highly allusive visual images that appeared to succeed one another according to an internal logic of association. They centered on the figure of Einstein. Habits of his dress and personality; mathematical and scientific models and instruments; the products of technological progress, such as trains, spaceships, and atomic explosions, coalesced to form a complex portrait by association. From scene to scene, the spectator's sense of both scale and duration was altered, perhaps in demonstration of the central hypothesis of Einstein's thinking (that dimension and velocity are interdependent). Because of the frequent arbitrariness of the selection of the images, no detail being too insignificant for inclusion, as well as the freedom with which associations were made-organization was neither chronological nor thematic-Wilson's work has been compared with dreams. If the space evoked in Einstein was dreamlike, one important difference must be noted. Wilson's images, unlike those of dreams, are not open to interpretation. Dream-images are the mediated representations of dream-thoughts; hence, their interpretability. Wilson's images are, on the contrary, immediate, presentational, resistant to analysis. This is supported by the subsidiary function assigned to speech and spoken texts in all of his works. For language is, above all, the medium of interpretation.
With Einstein, Wilson carries ambivalence towards language one step further. Even the published "text" for the production is nonverbal, a series of 113 charcoal sketches made by Wilson himself and reproduced in a book which assembles musical scores, spoken texts, and choreographic diagrams. Arranged as a sequence of cinematic stills, these atmospheric drawings chart Einstein 's division into four acts, nine scenes and five intermezzi (hinges or "knee-plays") and describe three basic scenic motifs: a train, a courtroom, and a field of dancers over which a spaceship passes. This pictographic text proceeds from and extends Wilson's ambition to mount a spectacle which cannot be contained within verbal language:
Wilson shuns recipes and this is why to write about him, who is always so loath to express judgement [sic] or opinions, is to risk encapsulating him in one of those airtight wrappers of culture towards which the whole of his work is directed, if not as an accusation at least as an alternative. To translate into words its expressive complexity means, in a way, to prevaricate on both the author's and the public's emotive participation. To single out a particular linear development or a new definition of theatre in his work is to misrepresent its underlying premise, the attempt to reconstruct on the stage everything which life systematically shatters. [italics added]
Wilson's theater does not intend to provoke articulate response; rather, it argues the poverty of those systems through which such a response might be formed-primarily language, but also all processes of logical thought according to which we parse, analyze, literally come to terms with experience. The ambition to stage a semblance of the unanalyzed, amorphous continuum of sensory data which is subsequently segmented by the formative action of language ("everything which life systematically shatters") involves an implicit argument that the activity of language upon that continuum is a violation of its integrity. Language inevitably produces an endless string of synecdoches which, in spite of their intention to signify, will never reproduce the original unity which is prior to all analysis, all logical thought.
This argument about the synecdochic character of language is hardly new, yet it seems to have exhausted little of its authority. While it has both psychological and philosophical ramifications-Merleau-Ponty, for example, has written that speech "tears out or tears apart meanings in the undivided whole of the nameable"-it also underpinned the revolution in linguistics which dates from the beginning of this century. Saussure's now-famous discussion in his Cours of the arbitrariness of the sign was rooted in the distinction between "form" and "substance"; the latter was considered a nebulous continuum anterior to language:
Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language.... Phonic substance is neither more fixed nor more rigid than thought; it is not a mold into which thought must of necessity fit but a plastic substance divided in turn into distinct parts to furnish the signifiers needed by thought. The linguistic fact can therefore be pictured in its totality-i.e. language-as a series of contiguous subdivisions marked off on both the indefinite plane of jumbled ideas... and the equally vague plane of sounds.... Language works out its unity while taking shape between two shapeless masses.... Their combination produces a form not a substance.
While Saussure's intention was simply to restrict linguistics to the analysis of form, and despite his recognition of the fundamental unintelligibility of the prelinguistic, the effect of his formulation is nonetheless to uphold a traditional distinction between what is thought and what is expressed in language.
Saussure's notion of substance as a shapeless mass was interpreted by the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev as purport: an unformed mass of physical or psychical data which, while common to all languages, is nevertheless schematized differently by each.
It is like one and the same handful of sand that is formed in quite different patterns, or like the cloud in the heavens that changes shape in Hamlet's view from minute to minute. Just as the same sand can be put into different molds, and the same cloud take on ever new shapes, so also the same purport is formed or structured differently in different languages.
Hjelmslev cites as an example of purport the color spectrum, a mass of objective, physically measurable data which is segmented differently by different languages:
Behind the paradigms that are furnished in the various languages by the designations of color, we can, by subtracting the differences, disclose such an amorphous continuum, the color spectrum, on which each language arbitrarily sets its boundaries.
Excerpted from Beyond Recognition by Craig Owens Copyright © 1992 by Craig Owens. Excerpted by permission.
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|Craig Owens: "The Indignity of Speaking for Others"|
|Pt. I||Toward a Theory of Postmodernism|
|Einstein on the Beach: The Primacy of Metaphor||3|
|Photography en abyme||16|
|Detachment: from the parergon||31|
|The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism||52|
|The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of|
|Postmodernism, Part 2||70|
|Representation, Appropriation, and Power||88|
|Sherrie Levine at A&M Artworks||114|
|Allan McCollum: Repetition and Difference||117|
|From Work to Frame, or, Is There Life After "The Death of the Author"?||122|
|Honor, Power, and the Love of Women||143|
|William Wegman's Psychoanalytic Vaudeville||156|
|The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism||166|
|The Medusa Effect, or, The Spectacular Ruse||191|
|Outlaws: Gay Men in Feminism||218|
|Politics of Coppelia||239|
|Sects and Language||243|
|The Critic as Realist||253|
|"The Indignity of Speaking for Others": An Imaginary Interview||259|
|The Problem with Puerilism||263|
|Analysis Logical and Ideological||268|
|Interview with Craig Owens||298|
|The Yen for Art||316|
|Postmodern Art 1971-1986||329|
|Bibliography: Contemporary Art and Art Criticism||334|
|Seminar in Theory and Criticism||339|
|Bibliography: The Political Economy of Culture||345|
|Course Bibliography on Visual AIDS||358|