The Theater of Truth: The Ideology of (Neo)Baroque Aesthetics

The Theater of Truth: The Ideology of (Neo)Baroque Aesthetics

by William Egginton

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The Theater of Truth argues that seventeenth-century baroque and twentieth-century neobaroque aesthetics have to be understood as part of the same complex. The Neobaroque, rather than being a return to the stylistic practices of a particular time and place, should be described as the continuation of a cultural strategy produced as a response to a specific


The Theater of Truth argues that seventeenth-century baroque and twentieth-century neobaroque aesthetics have to be understood as part of the same complex. The Neobaroque, rather than being a return to the stylistic practices of a particular time and place, should be described as the continuation of a cultural strategy produced as a response to a specific problem of thought that has beset Europe and the colonial world since early modernity. This problem, in its simplest philosophical form, concerns the paradoxical relation between appearances and what they represent. Egginton explores expressions of this problem in the art and literature of the Hispanic Baroques, new and old. He shows how the strategies of these two Baroques emerged in the political and social world of the Spanish Empire, and how they continue to be deployed in the cultural politics of the present. Further, he offers a unified theory for the relation between the two Baroques and a new vocabulary for distinguishing between their ideological values.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"William Egginton's latest book undertakes an ambitious synthesis of intellectual traditions in the service of a grand vision of the baroque."—Donald Gilbert- Santamaría, Modern Language Quarterly

"The Theater of Truth departs from the recent work on the Baroque and its apparent familiarity with that period by positioning itself instead in an unfamiliar proximity with the familiar present. The consequences of this "anachronistic" challenge are illuminating to an extent that reminds me of the best results of the Frankfurt School, and of the reach of Adorno or Benjamin."—Julio Baena, University of Colorado

"Egginton's book impressively fulfills its ambitious purpose of exploring the baroque as historical period and as style, as well as its relation to the neobaroque and—most importantly—its role as a fundamental discourse of modernity. This exceptional work has far-reaching philosophical and aesthetic implications."—Marina Brownlee, Princeton University

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The Theater of Truth

By William Egginton


Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6954-9

Chapter One

Of Baroque Holes and Baroque Folds

The purpose of this chapter is to test a philosophical hypothesis about a historical period against literary evidence. The hypothesis belongs to Gilles Deleuze, and it concerns his description of the Baroque taken as a cultural and philosophical whole, albeit based on his reading of the works of Gottfried Leibniz. The literary evidence against which I wish to test this hypothesis comes from the seventeenth-century Spanish author Baltasar Gracián, in particular from several passages of his Criticón that deal with artifice and its relation to human being. In the chapter's first section I argue for describing the Baroque in philosophical terms as a problem concerning the separation between the space of representation and the space of spectatorship. I then explain this claim historically with reference to changes in the theater and painting from the late Middle ages to the Baroque, and support the claim by way of a discussion of baroque spatiality in literature and visual arts. In the next section I outline two philosophical strategies-a major and a minor one, which I respectively call, with Deleuze, holes and folds-for negotiating the fundamental separation of baroque space, and then indicate where these strategies are at work in a variety of baroque artifacts. In this section I also confront and ultimately reject Deleuze's appropriation of baroque cultural production exclusively for a philosophy of folds in order to claim, in the chapter's last section, that baroque cultural production-and here I work specifically with Gracián's writing-has, from the outset, created the possibilities of a minor strategy that undermines the pretenses of the major strategy.


José-Antonio Maravall famously argued that the Baroque should be considered as a historical structure rather than more specifically as a stylistic descriptor. Moreover, for Maravall the Baroque had to be understood as an international phenomenon; analysis that remained too focused on a single national context risked missing the forest for the trees (Maravall, Culture xvii). For the purposes of this discussion, I will assume the basic truth of these claims, but regarding the former I will expand the discussion and regarding the latter I will remain somewhat more specific. On the one hand, in respecting the notion of the Baroque as structure, I want to move beyond what for Maravall remained a mostly sociological view of the Baroque-and a largely functionalist one at that-and open up a philosophical perspective on the Baroque; on the other hand, although I will draw on some examples of baroque production outside of Spain, for the purposes of this discussion the emphasis will remain on the Spanish context.

Insisting that the Baroque be understood philosophically means that there is at work in everything we recognize as baroque an effort of thought to deal with a common problem. This problem of thought was not such an issue prior to the period of dominance of those artifacts we call baroque, and will have undergone some significant change in order for the dominance of baroque production to have waned. The common problem I identify at the heart of baroque phenomena is widely known, has been called by many names, and has been described in bewildering variety. For the moment let me borrow the term used first by T. S. Eliot and more recently by Geoffrey Thurley to describe a problem they associated more with romanticism than with any earlier period: namely, "the dissociation-of-sensibility" (Thurley 18). Dissociation-of-sensibility refers principally to the modernist critique of the romantic and realist tendencies of the nineteenth century, and specifically to the subordination of art to something outside of, greater than, or more important than art-such as the absolute, for romantics, or the world as it is in itself, for realists. But as Michel Foucault, in The Order of Things, and Martin Feidegger, in his entire oeuvre but specifically in his classic essay "The age of the World Picture" (Heidegger, "age" 115-54), have argued, dissociationism is perhaps the fundamental characteristic of a European modernity dating to more or less the beginning of the seventeenth century-to the period, in other words, known as the Baroque.

As I have argued elsewhere, if modernity can be characterized philosophically by a sort of generalized dissociation of the world of the senses from an interior world of the knowing subject, the model of this essentially spatial organization can be found in the thoroughgoing structural changes undergone by spectacle in the time leading up to the Baroque. This change in the organization of spectacle and its ramifications for conceptions of space are illustrated by the emergence during the sixteenth century of a technique in the staging of spectacle called "the theater in the theater." For a modern theater-going audience, it goes without saying that a theater scene could be part of what is represented on the stage in a theater. The modern audience, for instance, can be expected to negotiate the complexities of a performative action taking place on that stage within a stage-such as a wedding ritual or a religious conversion-without losing track of the several levels of reality being represented. To take an example from Lope de Vega's 1608 play, Lo fingido verdadero, Ginés, actor to the roman emperor Diocletian, performs the conversion of a pagan to Christianity in which he himself, pagan actor, is converted to Christianity. At this point in the play one of the spectators within the play, a member of Diocletian's entourage, exclaims in admiration, "There's no difference between this and the real thing!" (Lope de Vega, Comedias 275). At first glance this might seem unproblematic. Upon closer examination, however, an apparent paradox creeps in. How, to be specific, are we to understand that there is "no difference" between Ginés's performance and a real conversion? On the one hand, if the spectator is speaking truly, and there really is "no difference," how do we as spectators even begin to understand the reference of the sentence, namely Ginés's performance, which we must be able to distinguish from "reality" for the sentence to make any sense at all? On the other hand, if the spectator is lying, and there really is a visible difference between Ginés's acting and his real conversion, then his real conversion could not take place, and the play's plot becomes impossible.

What is happening here is, in fact, neither of the above options. Rather, what occurs is that the spectators in the real world fluently project the very distinction that constitutes them as spectators into the space thereby distinguished from theirs: that is to say, they override the paradox with ease because they are accustomed to dividing the world into a world on the stage and a world off the stage without applying the rules of the one to the other. This division of the world, however, is not limited to cases where our skills as spectators are called upon in the theater or, today, in front of televisions or at the cinema. The point to grasp is that once entire populations became fluent in assuming and projecting this division in order to function correctly as theater spectators, that fluency became a generalized spatial structure for conceptualizing the world as a whole.

It is for this reason that the paradigmatic philosophical text of the early modern period, Descartes' Meditations, ultimately posits the division of being into two fundamental substances: a thinking substance that looks out onto a world of extended substances. As Richard Rorty, another contemporary critic of dissociationism, claims, prior to Locke and Descartes there was no "conception of the human mind as an inner space in which both pains and clear and distinct ideas passed in review before a single Inner eye" (Rorty, Philosophy 50). But this conception has a clear cultural model: spectators watching actors performing before them as characters. Look at what Descartes says in his Meditations on the subject of what can and cannot be false: "Now as to what concerns ideas, if we consider them only in themselves and do not relate them to anything else beyond themselves, they cannot properly speaking be false; for whether I imagine a goat or a chimera, it is not the less true that I imagine the one rather than the other" (Meditations III, 6). Descartes' formulation is clearly derived from the model of the stage, for the distinction between ideas that do not relate to anything beyond themselves and ones that do is precisely the distinction between the world of actors and that of the characters they portray: although I can doubt that what I am seeing on the stage is a true representation of reality, I cannot doubt that I am seeing something.

As I said at the outset, if the Baroque can be described in philosophical terms, it is because there is at work in everything we recognize as baroque an effort of thought to deal with a common problem. With reference to the modernist critique of previous artistic attitudes, I have called this common problem dissociationism, and have located its roots in the spatial practices of early modern spectacle. I have furthermore pointed to the origins of Descartes' paradigmatic act of dissociationism-the separation of being into thinking and extended substance-in the theatrical division of space into that of the spectator and that of the representation. Now let us look at the problem of dissociationism as it emerges in several examples of baroque cultural production.

Heinrich Wölfflin is often credited with having rescued the Baroque from its almost universally negative perception among art historians, a perception revealed in the fact that (in his time) the term baroque "in general use [...] still carries a suggestion of repugnance and abnormality" (Wölfflin 23). Recognizing a series of stylistic innovations common to painting and architecture in the period following the Renaissance, Wölfflin proceeded to provide a theory for a period and style that did not have one of its own. The core of his theory is what he calls "the painterly style" as applied to architecture:

If the beauty of a building is judged by the enticing effects of moving masses, the restless, jumping forms or violently swaying ones which seem constantly on the point of change, and not by balance and solidity of structure, then the strictly architectonic conception of architecture is depreciated. In short, the severe style of architecture makes its effect by what it is, that is, by its corporeal substance, while painterly architecture acts through what it appears to be, that is, an illusion of movement. (Wölfflin 30)

This distinction between what something is-its corporeal substance-and what it seems to be is essential for Wölfflin's theory the Baroque and is essential as well, I would argue, for any understanding of the Baroque. It is perhaps unnecessary at this point to note that the language Wölfflin uses to characterize baroque architecture is precisely the language of dissociationism, the language that pits appearances against corporeal substance. The point of his description and its generalization to baroque art, however, is that what we identify as stylistically baroque-and what shared a dominance in the historical period known as the Baroque-depends on the play of appearances in relation to a corporeal substance assumed to exist beyond that play of appearances. Furthermore, the play of appearances is very much the effect of the basic spatial configuration I outlined above, because baroque space produces an effect of depth on surfaces, just as theatrical space provokes the possibility of mise en abîme, where characters inhabit characters inhabiting characters.

The production of depth on surfaces is most evident in the baroque, painterly technique of trompe l'oeil, used to great effect by such architects as Balthasar Neumann in his Würzburg Residenz-where only our knowledge that no real dog could actually stand for so long on the narrow molding bordering the ceiling to the grand staircase can convince us that what appears to be a dog standing outside the painted ceiling is not real-or Johann Michael Rottmayr's frescoes in the Palais Liechtenstein in Vienna, where what is pictured is indistinguishable from its architectural framework. In its most extreme form, anamorphosis, the painterly manipulation of perspective can make images appear or disappear entirely on the basis of the viewer's position. As Rémy Saisselin writes, "it was precisely this love of illusion, of the pleasure of surprise, of enchantment, coupled with the blurring of the distinction between illusion and reality, which was essentially baroque" (Saisselin 46, qtd. in Ndalianis 171).

The Spanish cultural historian Emilio Orozco Díaz also defines the Baroque generally in terms of the increased fluidity between spatial levels or strata:

It responds to a conception and vision of spatial continuity that views the immense work as occupying a continuous space, as if situated on an intermediate plane in relation to the other planes that exist in front of and behind it, within which we the spectators can be found.... This expressive, spatial interpenetration is essential to the artistic conception of the Baroque; it produces the authentic incorporation of the spectator into the work of art. (40)

This last sentence is of great importance because, as I suggested with the example of Neumann's dog, one of the effects of baroque trickery is to engage or compromise the viewer in the represented space-to try to blend or bleed the distinction between the space of the spectator and that of the representation. The play between the frame or border separating these two spaces and the dissolution of that frame is paramount in baroque artifacts, and represents what is perhaps most recognizable about baroque style, what Orozco Díaz calls the overflowing of borders.

Take what is probably one of the most famous examples of baroque painting, if not of European painting in general, Diego Velazquez's Las meninas (1656-57). As Foucault's influential reading has shown (Foucault 3-16), all the play and paradox of the age of representation are caught up in the intricacies of this painting, which questions the viewer's relation to the viewed space, to the point of view of the painter, and to that of the center of political power itself. In Foucault's words, "[a]s soon as they place the spectator in the field of their gaze, the painter's eyes seize hold of him, force him to enter the field of their gaze, assign him a place both privileged and inescapable, levy their luminous and visible tribute from him, and project it upon the inaccessible surface of the canvas within the picture" (5).

Foucault's reference to assigning the viewer a both privileged and inescapable place points to the implication of baroque spatial play in conceptions of power-and perhaps in the very idea of political agency-prevalent in the societies of early modern Europe. Such an idea of political agency is clearly at work in Baltasar Gracián's writings, especially in his manuals of advice for courtly politics. For Gracián, life at court is a relentless battle for influence or power. One's greatest weapon in this battle is knowledge: the knowledge one has of others and the control one wields over what and how much others know about oneself. The powerful man is, for Gracián, one who knows how to manipulate public knowledge about him. He cultivates an intimate core, which Gracián calls his caudal, his capital or resources. and if there were a leitmotif among his strategies for how to get ahead in the dog-eat-dog world of early modern society, it would be best expressed in the motto incomprensibilidad de caudal, or incomprehensibility of resources. This has nothing to do with actually having infinite resources at one's command. The point is rather that the depths of one's resources should never be made known to others. What others do not know about your hidden resources they will respect and desire, and the result will be more power for you. The most powerful person in any society is the one who manages to convince all others that his inner resources are the most unfathomable, and hence infinite in terms of social capacity: "greater affects of veneration are inspired by public opinion and doubt as to how deep one's resources go, than by evidence of them, as great as they may be" (Oráculo manual maxim 94).


Excerpted from The Theater of Truth by William Egginton Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

William Egginton is Professor and Chair of German and Romance Languages and Literatures at the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage (2003), Perversity and Ethics (Stanford, 2006), A Wrinkle in History (2007), and The Philosopher's Desire (Stanford, 200

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