- Split View
Daniël Ploeger, Pieter Verstraete; 17
Drama and Performance Studies, The Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, Volume 23, Issue 1, 1 January 2015, Pages 351–372, https://doi.org/10.1093/ywcct/mbv018
Download citation file:
© 2019 Oxford University PressClose
This chapter reflects on work in Drama and Performance Studies published in 2013 and 2014 and is divided into two sections: 1. Performing Anthropology; 2. Performance and Capitalism. Section 1 is by Daniël Ploeger and examines publications that consider performance in anthropology, archaeology and game studies through both theoretical analysis and practice-based enquiry. Section 2 is by Pieter Verstraete and focuses on developments in theatre and performance studies scholarship that engages with capitalism and neoliberalism, in relation to histories of the modernist avant-garde, contemporary arts policies, and sound in theatre and performance.
1. Performing Anthropology
In the mid-1990s, the so-called ‘performative turn’ marked the emergence of a broad scholarly interest in human actions and interactions in cultural studies, building on the work of Richard Schechner, Judith Butler and Victor Turner, among others. In a perhaps contrary development, recent years have seen the emergence of performance-based approaches in anthropology and related disciplines which afford application in the field of performance arts practice and theory. This part of the chapter discusses three monographs published in 2013 and 2014 that present such perspectives in anthropology, archaeology and game studies. In The Anthropology of Cultural Performance (Palgrave Mamillan ), J. Lowell Lewis proposes an ambitious structuralist model for an anthropological practice based on performance analysis, whilst Miguel Sicart’s Play Matters (MITP ) reflects on a range of ways in which humans engage in play and playfulness to argue that play is a defining characteristic of humanness. Tim Ingold proposes a practice-based, hands-on approach to anthropology and archaeology in Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (Routledge ), where methodologies from arts practice are employed to investigate the interrelationships between humans and materials in cultural practices and artefacts. A notable characteristic of all three books is that they depart from poststructuralist modes of analysis that have long dominated the field of performance studies. Unlike many art-focused publications on performance analysis and practice-based research, the books reviewed in this section of the chapter draw from a long tradition of rigorous qualitative research, whilst taking into account—and responding to—deconstructivist critiques of their disciplines’ historical methodologies. Thus, their approach to performance studies may provide a refreshing and provocative perspective on research methodologies in theatre and performance arts.
The central theme of J. Lowell Lewis’ The Anthropology of Cultural Performance is the proposition that culture is characterized by a distinction between the performance of special events and everyday life performance. This fundamental distinction, as well as large parts of the rest of the book, is underpinned by two theoretical frameworks: Victor Turner’s concept of culture as an organized social system that evolves through periods of disruption from which special events are created to restore order, and C.S. Peirce’s semiotic analysis where meanings of cultural events—and the power associated with these—are conceived as an effect that signs can have on their interpreters. The special event/everyday life distinction Lewis proposes may initially appear to be an overtly simplistic structuralist reduction. However, the first two chapters of the book offer a nuanced and detailed explanation of the concept as a continuum, where a continuous process of mutations results in the gradual formalization and deformalization of cultural practices over time.
The author supports his pursuit to develop a structuralist methodology arguing that although poststructuralist thought in performance studies has facilitated a useful and necessary deconstruction of a range reductionist concepts, the ongoing ‘attack on logocentrism’ (p. 2) has by now also effected a general reluctance among performance scholars to develop any coherent position in their scholarship. Lewis argues that this attitude prevents attempts at a ‘reconstruction’ after deconstruction, and that the widespread idea that all forms of logocentrism are essentially oppressive ultimately implies that all academic discourse would be meaningless. Instead, he proposes to engage with the term ‘performance’ as a meaningful discursive category which can be employed as a tool in an analytical framework. In order to become useful as such, it is necessary to delimit the term, that is, to determine ‘what it is not’ through a process of critical case studies. Accordingly, Lewis conceives of his book as a project of ‘academic tool-making’ (p. 3).
The book starts with two chapters that provide an exposition of the concept of culture as a negotiation between special events and everyday life. Defining culture as ‘enactment, as a process, and as a series of practices that (in most cases) distinguish once social group from another’ (p. 11), Lewis embarks on his project with a critique of Victor Turner’s concept of the development of cultures. Turner identifies an alternation of times of social stability and periods of so-called ‘social drama’, where the normative order of public life is disturbed. Instead, Lewis suggests that the distinction between everyday life and special events can often not be clearly defined: rather than an opposition, it is a continuum. Key to this concept of a continuum between special events and the everyday is his understanding of performativity. Diverting from Judith Butler’s use of the term to refer to those aspects of gender that are cultural but so ingrained that they cannot be changed at will, Lewis uses the term to describe the ‘potential to enact self-awareness’ (p.7). Building on Richard Schechner’s writing on performance in everyday life, this concerns a subject’s possibility to frame a certain activity as a special event. Thus, people often have the possibility to reframe everyday life occurrences as special events, whilst different people may classify the same event in various ways. In the remainder of his study, Lewis refers to the mediation between these two forms as P/p relations: the interconnections between official Performances (capital ‘P’) and everyday life performance (lower case ‘p’).
This mediation encompasses four elements: as mentioned above, rather than a division, there is a continuum between everyday life and special events; special events and ordinary life can only be meaningful in opposition to each other, so they stand in a relationship of co-implication; special events are intertwined with everyday life through transitional moments, in which the preparation and aftermath of an event take place; and everyday life serves as a ground from which special events emerge and in which they may eventually be subsumed again. Concerning the latter, this process is facilitated by the interplay between performativity (the possibility to frame an everyday life practice as special event) and habituation (the decline of the experience of an event as special which may eventually lead to its incorporation in everyday life). A key factor in the mediation of all four elements is the practice of play, which Lewis designates as a fundamental ‘metagenre of human interaction’ (p. 34). Through its simplification or framing of distinct elements of the everyday, human play facilitates reflection on, and reworking of, social order. On one hand, forms of play that are bound by rules, such as sports or framed events like carnival, often contribute to heightened experiences of freedom from social constraints. On the other hand, spontaneously erupting, free play tends to facilitate reflection on the limitations and boundaries of everyday life performance.
After proposing the concept of play as a mediating practice in the establishment and challenging of boundaries in performance, Lewis completes the outline of his model for the study of cultural performance with a discussion of ritual as the most important kind of special event. Thus, Lewis’ model is three-fold: play is the concept that is used to explore the development of culture through human sociality, performance is the comparative term for different kinds of human events, and ritual is the starting point for an hierarchical ordering of human events on the basis of their relative importance. Through a critique of Emile Durkheim’s definition of ritual on the basis of a distinction between sacred and profane activities, Lewis delimits the term for application in his framework. Drawing from the writing of anthropologist John MacAloon, he suggests to omit the concept of the sacred and instead define rituals as events that are understood by participants to be concerned with issues of ‘utmost concern’ or ‘ultimate importance’, and which ‘foster the creation of social consensus and group differentiation through shared (or distinct) practices’ (p. 56). Also here, there is a continuum that reaches from ritual events to ‘not ritual-like’ events. Whereas rituals concern all or the majority of a society, effect personal transformation, and suggest a stability over time, ‘not ritual-like’ events are optional events, which usually serve as mere entertainment, often involve a passive audience and are focused on innovation and change. Thus, rituals are constructive events that establish frameworks of social order and meaning. However, elements of play develop not only in the context of ‘not ritual-like’ events but also in ritual frameworks, facilitating a deconstructive questioning or challenging of its conventions and boundaries.
After outlaying this tripartite framework for the study of cultural performance, the book continues with an examination of different ways in which P/p (Performance/performance) relations affect developments in culture. The most prominent relations in contemporary cultures are reinforcement, inversion, neutralization, transformation and reformation. A reinforcing special event solidifies existing social patterns through their replication as part of the event. An example of such event is a state parade where the hierarchical organization of different governmental institutions is displayed. Contrarily, carnival is an example of an inversion, where normative cultural relations and values are turned on their heads. This often establishes a space to question and challenge the values and relations in question, but often at the same time acknowledges and affirms these. Events that encompass a repeated process of inversion may expose the arbitrariness and thus neutralize certain social contrasts. An example of this is the performance of gender inversion in relation to queer theory and practice. If an existing social situation is considered undesirable, an event may facilitate a transformative development, as is the case in religious rituals to repent sin, or movements for political change that seek to initiate social transformation through special events like rallies and demonstrations. Finally, reformation concerns ritual events where a micro version of an organizational model of the universe is enacted. Such practices, which are common to small-scale societies and hardly occur in contemporary Western cultures, enable people to come to terms with their relation to larger environmental frameworks.
Although Lewis’ model might initially suggest that developments of social change would originate in concepts and thought, he stresses that the opposite is the case: in cultural practice, processes of change primarily originate in embodied experience. Drawing from Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the body schema, where personality develops through an intertwinement of cognitive and embodied experiences over time, Lewis suggests that cultural performance and its mutations through practices of play are similarly negotiated through an intersubjectivity based on intercorporeal experience. Thus, a subject’s social performance develops from birth through ‘coherent patterns of being as “being with” and “being-without”’ others (p. 115).
In the last chapter of the book, Lewis presents a broader reflection on the field of performance studies, as well as a vision for an ecological mode of cultural performance which he envisages could contribute to the ‘long term viability of humans and our companion species on this fragile planet’ (p. 149). Central to his critique of poststructuralist methodologies is an analysis of Philip Auslander’s concept of liveness. Lewis argues that Phillip Auslander’s suggestion that the live and the mediated are not based on ontological difference is based on a methodological flaw. Auslander’s argument that there were no ‘live’ performances before the invention of recording media simply because the term ‘live’ didn't exist is based on a category error: concepts and language follow experiences, rather than the other way around. Instead, Lewis argues that the distinction between live and mediated is in actual fact a matter of degrees of mediation. Everything we perceive is always already mediated, at least by our senses, but some performances are mediated to a further degree than others, sometimes through technological means.
The remainder of the chapter presents a reflection on contemporary culture in western societies. If culture is defined as human life-worlds ‘in which practices [are] widely shared among small-scale groups of people’ (p. 140), most contemporary societies should be understood as ‘culture-like’ (p. 141), rather than cultural in the proper sense of the word. Lewis argues that in individualized and fragmented consumer cultures only very few shared practices remain, and suggests that both reality TV programmes and performance art are symptoms of this condition. Since both forms often tend to blur the boundaries between the everyday and special events, they contribute to the demise of special events proper as a realm where shared cultural practices can develop. This perspective appears somewhat odd when analysed on Lewis’ own terms. Throughout the book there are references to the individualism and homogenizing tendencies of consumer culture. Considering this, it seems surprising that Lewis does not seem to consider the widespread belief in neoliberal capitalism and its focus on the individual throughout contemporary western societies as a ‘widely shared’ practice in the sense of aforementioned definition of culture. Within this culture, reality TV arguably operates as an extreme reinforcement, which suggests that there is nothing beyond the monotony of everyday consumerism. In the same line of thought, performance art practices that repeatedly mix up notions of everyday performance and special events in various ways could just as well effect a neutralization of the homogenizing logic of reality television and point out the arbitrariness of reality TV’s framing of certain kinds of everyday performances as important.
In the conclusion of the book, Lewis calls for an ecological approach to cultural performance that builds on enactive biological theory, which proposes that environment and organisms are mutually determining to each other. Accordingly, an in-depth engagement and reconnection of humans with their habitat would be necessary in order to build a sustainable culture. One way to achieve this would be through ritual practices focused on a reformation, where sustainable living worlds are developed through engagement in shared interactive processes in connection to the environment. Since ritual practices focused on reformation only function properly in smaller scale societies, Lewis urges reflection on how application of communication technologies to re-establish small scale cultural domains, rather than strive for a globalized culture.
Miguel Sicart’s Play Matters (2014) is published as part of MIT Press’ new series Playful Thinking, which focuses on scholarship about (primarily computer) games and culture. The series is aimed at an audience from both academic and non-academic backgrounds and Sicart has accordingly made an effort to combine the presentation of thoroughly researched original ideas with an accessible contextual framework that does not presuppose prior knowledge of the field. Rather than being about games per se, Sicart’s book is concerned with the notion of play, in relation to both everyday activities and formalized game situations. Sicart argues that although games—and particularly video games—are very present in contemporary culture, they do not matter in themselves. What is relevant is that humans play—in games, but also in less formalized situations. Echoing Lewis’ reflections on play, Sicart considers play and playfulness as essential factors in cultural development and change. Although not explicitly identifying it as such, Sicart also follows a structuralist methodology in his analysis of the characteristics, meanings and uses of play and playfulness.
Identifying the impossibility of establishing an exhaustive definition of play, the first chapter starts with a list of characteristics of play: Play is contextual, in that its rules and meanings are dependent on the broader cultural framework is takes place in; at the same time play is autotelic since it also has its own goals and purposes, as well as set rules and duration; play is appropriative and disruptive in its capability to affect and sometimes transform and disrupt the context in which it takes place; play is carnivalesque, through its negotiation between creation and destruction, which is often accompanied by ‘embodied laughter’ (p. 11); and play is creative and personal through its facilitation of the players’ self-expression in relation to the rules.
This broad list of characteristics then serves as a basis to distinguish between play and playfulness. Whereas the former is an autotelic activity, the latter is defined as ‘a way of engaging with particular contexts and objects that is similar to play but respects the purposes and goals of that object or context’ (p. 21). Sicart refers to examples of playful design in computer user interfaces, such as the animated shrinking program windows in Mac OS X, and everyday life activities such as flirting. Thus, unlike play, which is an autotelic activity, playfulness is an attitude toward activities that are not play in themselves. Whereas Sicart leaves these two categories as clearly separate, it would be of interest to think through this dichotomy in scenarios where the distinction may become less clear in the experience of the subject, for example when we consider ‘play’ in flight simulator video games in relation to the ‘playfulness’ of the video-game-like drone operating environments at the Creech Airforce Base in Nevada, US.
Together, play and playfulness are identified as the constituents of what Sicart calls an ‘ecology of play’, which is at the core of ‘the making of culture’ (p. 34). Within this ecology, toys take a central place: they are the material objects that facilitate play through the appropriation of space. In other words, toys function as the tools in the ecology of play. Similarly, playgrounds are particular organizations of space which facilitate and stimulate play. Building on this understanding of toys and playgrounds, Sicart rejects the term ‘game designer’ and proposes to substitute it for ‘architect of play’. Similar to an architect of buildings (which may be playgrounds in themselves), an architect of play creates objects and places with ‘cues for behaviour yet open for the users to modification’ (p. 90).
Considering the central place of play in culture, this architectural practice has an important political dimension. The particular shape of the material environments of play will usually facilitate certain kinds of play more easily, and make other forms less likely to occur, and hence affect cultural change. At the same time, the autotelic dimension of play itself can—paradoxically—form a challenge to hegemonic power structures. As an example, Sicart discusses the game Metakettle, which has often been played by UK protestors since 2009. Whenever riot police surround a group of protestors and thus form a kettle to prevent them from moving freely, protestors would not try to break out, but instead start a game among themselves where they form kettles within the riot police kettle. Similar to a carnival, this action makes apparent the unequal power distribution and the exploitation of this inequality by the riot police. At the same time, it forecloses an intervention in this process: a violent interruption of the game by the police would only further highlight the disposition of power articulated by the game. Play as political action is ambiguous in its combination of autotelic and disruptive elements: whilst it confronts social issues, it always does so in a playful and self-enclosed engagement with its context.
There are important overlaps and connections between Sicart’s and Lewis’ work. Within Lewis’ methodological framework play takes a prominent place in cultural practice, as a ‘metagenre of human interaction’ (p. 34). Here, the disruptive and appropriative aspects of play mediate the development and mutation of special events and everyday life, performativity and habituation. Thus, Lewis’ engagement with play corresponds with Sicart’s concept of play as world-making. There are also some possibly constructive correspondences in their perspectives on the application of contemporary information technologies. Sicart’s text portrays the proliferation of the transformative activity of play in all areas of culture as a pathway to be ‘in the world’. In this latter scenario, computers take a central place in contemporary society in that they enable the creation of worlds of play that can be immersive to an extend that is hard to achieve outside the realm of computation. Could such parallel worlds also constitute the small-scale cultural spaces Lewis has in mind for the establishment for reformative rituals?
Beyond these areas of possible correspondence, there is a more fundamental shared interest between the two authors, though: Lewis and Sicart both appear very invested in (re-)establishing the notion of humanness as essentially distinct from other animals. Throughout their texts they stress that ‘it is human nature to be cultural’ (Lewis, p. 10) and that play is ‘a manifestation of humanity’ (Sicart, p. 2). However, they do not articulate what the actual importance of this strict distinction between human and animal nature might be with regard to the perspectives on performance and play they are developing, nor do they engage with any critiques of human exclusivity by theorists of posthumanism such as Donna Haraway, Rosi Braidotti and Cary Wolfe. It appears that the humanist premise of an essential divide between human and animal nature is taken for granted. Particularly in the case of Lewis this omission is rather surprising, considering that he does engage with a broad range of other postmodern perspectives on performance and anthropology throughout his book.
Tim Ingold appears less concerned with such rigid distinction in Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (2013). A central concept developed in this work is an understanding of the material world as an interactive field of ‘forces and materials’ (p. 45), rather than the widespread perception of an environment with humans at the centre, who impose their forms onto matter in a unilateral process. A second theme running throughout the book, which makes it of relevance for performance studies scholarship, is a concept of practice-based research in anthropology that draws from methodological approaches in arts practice.
Ingold suggests that there is a fundamental difference between ethnography and anthropology. Whereas the former is concerned with examining the world through observation of artefacts, performance, and documentations, the latter should be based on studying ‘with people’ and hoping to ‘learn from them’ (p. 2; original emphases). Building on this distinction, he draws a parallel between these two disciplines and art history and art practice, respectively. Similar to ethnography, art history tends to analyse artwork on the basis of observations from the perspective of a spectator. Instead, art practices to a large extent evolve around studying the world through practical explorations of its materials, forms, and actions. Accordingly, Ingold suggests to turn to methodologies in art practice to develop new ways of ‘doing anthropology’ (p. 8).
These two elements are explored through an account of a practice-based anthropology course Ingold developed and taught at the University of Aberdeen, and a number of case studies that revisit research in archaeology and anthropology from the perspective of engagement in processes of making. In his course module, the 4 As (anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture), students were asked to explore materials through physical engagement: the course included assignments to collect objects from a chosen site in one week, materials in another. These things were subsequently organized in different ways: objects were discussed in relation to possible actions performed with them, whilst materials were smeared out on hardboard sheets with wallpaper paste. Through these hands-on processes, which Ingold suggests are akin to artistic practice, difficulties in categorization (what if an object is considered on the basis of its materials?) and the role of embodied encounters in the assessment of materialness (traces of bodily action are likely to be present in its configuration) come to the fore, which are likely to remain unconsidered in an inquiry led exclusively by visual inquiry and theoretical reflection. Whilst this example provides a convincing case for the integration of manual practical engagement in anthropology research, it also points towards a limitation in the book’s endeavour to explore how art practices may be applied here: the statement that the students’ ad hoc spreading of mixtures of found materials onto pieces of hardboard ‘however they wished’ constituted the creation of an ‘astonishing series of artworks’ (p. 18) suggests a rather naïve concept of the nature of artistic practice. Notwithstanding this, the book’s case studies provide a wealth of suggestions for a performance-based engagement with cultural artefacts and practices, which may also be of methodological interest for arts practitioners.
Prehistoric acheulean biface hand axes have long been analysed from the perspective of hylomorphism: the idea that artefacts originate from the imposition of a human idea onto materials. However, there are several difficulties with this perspective. Firstly, archaeological findings suggest that the form of acheulean hand was similar on three different continents and remained stable for over a million years. It is hard to imagine how a mental design concept could have remained unchanged for so long, and—more importantly—exist in the same form in places between which no communication was possible. Secondly, it is most likely that hand axes found in the present were at the end of their useful life-span, rather than ‘newly’ made. Thus they cannot be regarded to represent a shape that the makers had in mind during the manufacturing process. Through an account of his own handling of hand axes, and a collaboration with a contemporary stone knapper, Ingold develops an alternative understanding: feeling the shape and balance of weight of the axe in the hand and engaging in an actual manufacturing process make it conceivable that the artefacts were modified guided by the shape of the maker’s hand and her or his sense of balance of the object, rather than the projection of a fixed mental image. Thus, the manufacturing process should not be seen as a concatenation of actions that impose an ideal form onto matter, but as a process of flow where forces and materials interact.
A similar trajectory of inquiry is pursued in the following chapters, in relation to architecture and manufacturing. Starting with a few anecdotal accounts of the discrepancy between the ‘crystalline conception’ (p. 48) of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural designs and the messy reality of the leaking and humidity problems of the actual buildings, Ingold examines how architecture has been understood as a design process that is subsequently realized in material form. Although this perspective has been prevalent since Leon Battista Alberti’s fifteenth-century treatise on architecture, closer observation shows that the relationship between architecture and construction is a lot less clearly defined in practice. Carpenters have traditionally worked on the basis of a practical geometry that is informed by a ‘tactile and sensuous knowledge of line and surface’ (p. 51). Thus, their work should be seen as a negotiation with the material environment, rather than the direct implementation of the mathematical models produced by the architect. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for buildings to develop as an accumulation of a number of different craftspeople-led projects. An example of this is the medieval Chartres Cathedral, which may appear to be constructed on the basis of a unified design at first sight, but on closer examination turns out to consist of a patchwork of quasi-independent projects realized over a timeframe of three decades. An important aspect of such processual development is the notion of a continuous anticipation of the next step on the part of the constructor, rather than a guideline in the form of an overall design for the finished structure.
This is also a prominent feature of the design and manufacturing of everyday artefacts, discussed in the next chapter. In The Blind Watchmaker (Norton ), Richard Dawkins’ argues that although the world is not made by a creator with foresight, living beings adhere to a design that continually develops through evolution. Ingold points out that the form of species does indeed develop over time, but that the notion of an evolving design underpinning this is based on a circular argument, where an ex post facto analysis of a ‘model of behaviour’ is turned into an ‘explanation for it’ (p. 67). Transposing Dawkins’ reflection on evolution to the design and manufacturing of everyday artefacts, Ingold argues that, in practice, craftspeople and artists engage in a ‘designerly process of making’ (p. 72) where the development of work is guided by a constant flow of anticipation and foresight, which effects diversions from design concepts along the way.
In all this, the hand takes a prominent place, and this is what the last chapters of the book focus on. Drawing from a practical experiment in making string from strips of palm leaves by rolling the fibres by hand, Ingold identifies four key aspects of the interaction between hands and materials: hands develop knowledge of material through tactility; interaction between hands and materials develops into rhythmic patterns through repetition, which results in materials holding a memory of their manual manipulation; gestural movements can activate and establish certain forces and energies in materials (the rubbing of the fibre makes the strands of the string hold together); materials correspond in a process of making (the intertwinement of the strand of a piece of string is a process parallel to the hands ‘getting a feel’ for the material). Thus, manual engagement with materials enables us to experience the way in which processes of making involve an exchange of forces between materials and bodies. In relation to this, and drawing from Heidegger’s criticism of writing technologies (Parmenides (IndianaUP )), Ingold discusses what he calls the ‘regression of the hand’ (p. 121) in post-industrial culture where people increasingly engage with artefacts merely as passive consumers and operate physical processes through electronic interfaces that inhibit touch sensitivity. Unlike Heidegger’s pessimistic perspective on twentieth-century technologies as alienating, Ingold sees positive potential in the development of ‘technologically enhanced sensitivity, brought into the service of hands-on engagement with materials in making’ (p. 124).
Nevertheless, Making ends on a technosceptical note, where contemporary information technologies are equated with a desire to establish rigid, goal-oriented cultural patterns, whilst manual approaches would facilitate an open and perceptive development of embodied insights into the world. When we consider Ingold’s refutation of the concept of a unilateral imposition of ideal forms onto matter in the shaping of material artefacts, this strict separation of the technological and the manual seems surprising. An understanding of interactions between people and the world as the interaction of forces and materials also unbalances an understanding of humanness as necessarily unique and positioned at the centre of the environment. In such a posthumanist framework, technological and human body parts can no longer easily be classified as essentially distinct, and a human hand would arguably be no less of a mediating interface than a computer keyboard.
The concept of a meandering interaction between ‘forces and materials’ (p. 45) in the creation of cultural artefacts, which lies at the core of Making, constitutes a useful starting point to reconsider Lewis’ and Sicart’s insistence on the central place in cultural performance of humanness—and what they consider to be essentially human activities such as the imposition of conceptual forms onto matter. If cultural production and performance primarily evolve around an interplay of forces and materials, might the explicit focus on the supposed humanness of certain activities become obsolete?
Notwithstanding the slight reservations readers might have with regard to some aspects of the humanist structuralist approach in the works, the three books reviewed here may provoke a bold and refreshing reconsideration of applications of anthropology in the study of performance arts, as well as broader reflections on the field of performance studies as a whole. Rather than a nostalgic return to the good old days of structuralism, the three volumes develop—in Lewis’ words—a ‘reconstruction’ (p. 2) of an analytical approach that takes into account poststructuralist critiques of semiotics, ethnography and archaeology, and draws from continental phenomenological perspectives on embodiment. The result is a potentially paradigm-shifting proposal that leads us out of what at times appears to be a self-enclosed realm of scholarship that evolves around endless theorizations of circular processes of fluidity, becoming and deconstruction. Let us consider practice-based research in the arts that appropriates elements of Lewis, Sicart and Ingold’s analytical research in anthropology. This could be the beginning of an ‘anthropological turn’ in the practical and theoretical study of performance arts.
2. Performance and Capitalism
Our interest in the next section goes to developments in theatre and performance studies scholarship that venture to conceptualize performance practices as situated within (the history of) capitalism. This interdisciplinary field of study has exploded in recent years due to a renewed necessity to discuss performance practices as part of social movements, the so-called ‘Real’ or ‘Direct’ Democracy movements, but, equally, new media practices as well as historical reassessments of the modernist avant-garde.
One of the focuses within the latter field of study has been a reappraisal of sound (and noise) with all its social and political implications, its acoustic imaginary, its capitalist modes of reproduction, which it inherited from the avant-garde movements. In recent years, numerous scholars have tried to put theatre at the centre of the rapidly developing field of sound and audio culture studies. Among them, Adrian Curtin connects the avant-garde’s experimentation with sound to features of ‘sonic modernity’ in his book, Avant-Garde Theatre Sound: Staging Sonic Modernity (Palgrave Macmillan ). Besides being a compelling historical study, the book suggests how modernist theatre practices matter to contemporary concerns about our postmodern ‘soundscapes’.
In the introductory chapter, Curtin explains the importance of a notion of ‘sonic modernity’ today by referring to Jonathan Sterne’s concept of ‘ensoniment’ as a sonic equivalent to Enlightenment: ‘A series of conjunctures among ideas, institutions, and practices rendered the world audible in new ways and valorized new constructs of hearing and listening’ (p. 9). Based on this idea, Curtin explains how modernity gave rise over time to new ways of relating to sound, producing ‘a plethora of acoustemologies and sound-related developments that informed what it meant to be “modern”’ (p. 9). He focuses on four aspects in the four main chapters: acoustic interiority, mechanical reproduction, invented ‘universal’ languages and affective responses to noise.
His case studies comprise a wide corpus of avant-gardists and modernists, including Wassily Kandinsky, Fernand Khnopff, Maurice Maeterlinck, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Tristan Tzara, Kurt Schwitters, Velimir Khlebnikov, Richard Huelsenbeck and, of course, Antonin Artaud and F.T. Marinetti. Anton Chekhov and Arseny Avraamov are the two exponents who arch across the beginning and ending of the book in a surprising way: Chekhov—not necessarily an avant-gardist and notoriously antagonistic to Stanislavski’s overly crafted sound worlds—is discussed for his modernist ideas regarding psychological sound, or ‘acoustic interiority’. Curtin’s lively description of the enigmatic reference to a ‘breaking string’ in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is compelling evidence for how Stanislavski’s abstraction of the sound as a psychologically inflicted breaking string opens a window for a shift in attention to occur from a dramatic sound world to the performance soundscape, which Chekhov clearly does not approve of. Through Curtin’s contextualization of the reception history, this at first sight insignificant detail reads as if Stanislavski unknowingly gave birth to the modern listening subject and her or his acoustic imaginaries, thus enabling a polysemic understanding of sound as we know it today.
Curtin’s study more or less ends with the proverbial ‘bang’ by focusing on Arseny Avraamov’s mass concert, The Symphony of Sirens, which took place over the course of half a day in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1922, in commemoration of the October Revolution. This one-of-a-kind, major experiment in soundscape design avant la lettre transformed Baku into a giant stage-auditorium, featuring sounds of factory sirens, artillery batteries, hydroplanes, aeroplanes, foghorns, locomotives and so forth. It not only theatricalized and, thereby, politicized the city’s soundscape through different parts of the city; it enacted, for the first time in history, an ‘embodied politics’, an affective force that raised a large-scale noisescape to aesthetic heights never heard before. Despite its propagandist overtones in its attempt to realize what Benedict Anderson has termed ‘unisonality’ or the ‘echoed physical realization of the imagined community’ (p. 192), Curtin is right to point out also the symbolic importance of this carefully crafted soundscape. It performed symbolic anamnesis (as if listening to history itself), but its cognitive effect on the listeners it enveloped must have been more unconscious and overwhelming than a conscious remembering: ‘The workers of the world understood the sound of sirens and even appreciated them, according to Avraamov, which theoretically gave his symphony broad appeal and allowed it to be performed in different cities with a predetermined, shared effect’ (p. 192).
A reference to the 2008 reconstruction of the Symphony of Sirens for headphones by Leopoldo Amigo and Miguel Molina makes this instance of sonic modernity even more vivid for our contemporary ears. This evokes a renewed interest in theatre scholarship for the collective experiences that our individual-oriented performance experiences have too much denied. Curtin’s conceptual hopping from past to present makes his argument not necessarily anachronistic, although he is aware of the limitations and false continuity that his selective historical approach may evoke. This self-consciousness around method is spelt out further in Curtin’s final remarks on historiography as a response to Hayden White’s discussion of whether the historian fictionalizes history by narrativizing it or recovers it.
However, Curtin’s comments on how the modernist avant-gardists sought to impose auditory regimes on their audiences—a legacy of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk—does not develop into a discussion of how it may have led to a more self-aware modernist subject, which demonstrates more continuity with the postmodern listener than suggested so far. Especially regarding this point of contact between the modes and regimes of production in modernity and postmodernity, which are implied on many occasions, Curtin remains uncomfortably silent. He never explains how capitalist modes of sonic experience are constructed and reproduced through the book’s main concepts and ideas, like acoustic interiority, the social construction of technology, affective power of mass listening or even the listening subject.
The value of his study lies rather in Curtin’s revelation of how theatre is still unfairly marginalized in studies of modernism as well as in studies of sound and aurality, for which more research is needed. His attempt at reconstructing specific ‘keynote sounds’ of modernity, as well as how they must have been experienced and how they live on today, is enthralling. At the end, Curtin leaves room for revision—a ‘resounding’, he says (p. 199)—which begs for comparison with other recent publications in the field, such as Mladen Ovadija’s Dramaturgy of Sound in the Avant-Garde and Postdramatic Theatre (McGill-QueenUP ), Sam Halliday’s Sonic Modernity: Representing Sound in Literature (EdinburghUP ), or Daniel Morat’s edited book, Sound of Modern History: Auditory Cultures in 19th and 20th Century Europe (Berghahn ).
I decided, however, to focus on another publication in performance studies that places theatre and performance directly in a discussion of today’s capitalism and neoliberalism after the global financial crisis of 2008: Jen Harvie’s Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan ). It stands in a growing corpus of academic literature that interrogates contemporary issues of labour with regard to art and performance practices against the social and material contexts of neoliberal capitalism. One could perhaps even speak of a renewed ‘workerist’ turn in performance studies that dares to look at the more affective dimensions of labour processes and new social engagements with audiences through the lens of contemporary performance.
Harvie’s scholarship gives a very well documented critical framework to discuss current issues related to art forms that are usually met with contempt by neoliberal zealots for not having the desired financial success as their objective: the many proliferating performance and art practices that engage audience socially. She takes up Claire Bishop’s coinage of ‘the social turn’ to question the impact of these performances in a more widespread culture of collaborating, co-creating and mutually supporting one another. The latter is becoming a necessity in response to the UK’s—and particularly London’s—social and cultural policies of the recent coalition government that tends to favour dominant neoliberal capitalist modes of production above the public need for welfare support.
Her study documents and analyses the artistic responses to widely used policy terms such as participation, delegation, deregulation and, more recently, ‘artrepreneur’ and ‘creative city’. She shows that there is a growing resistance to neoliberalism through contemporary arts practices, finding ‘alternative ways of being which preserve principles of social collaboration and interdependence’ (p. 193). This ultimately affects the division of labour and/or agency that is distributed to performers and audience members inside these performances, and, equally, to the ensembles and venues that are affected by the above-mentioned policy incentives. Harvie gives evidence of a wide variety of artists and art practices in immersive theatre, one-to-one performances, pop-up performances, and installation art that enact a critique of their own procedures through their work. In this way, Harvie explains what she means by the ‘fairness’ that runs under her argument as a breadcrumb trail: in the self-criticism lies the possibility of enabling ‘audiences not only to identify and critique problematic social relations but also begin to resist them, and to seek to form better social relations by participating in models not so much of delegation but of shared responsibility and mutual dependence’ (p. 61). Hence, her ‘models of fairness’ can lead to more fair opportunity for artists who feel trapped in precariousness.
In Chapter One, Harvie argues that the delegation and outsourcing of labour has affected performance and art production, both in content and organization. She makes a very compelling case for how this also affects the audience—and thereby, spectatorship—as ‘flexible and precarious labourers’, through which she gives extensive credit to the work of Nicholas Ridout on numerous occasions. She shows the merits of making audience members aware of the power of collaboration and negotiation within flexible theatre and art practices. But she also reveals the implied critique as they become the ‘epitome of the underemployed theatre worker’ (p. 47), bearing ‘the hallmarks of the precariousness of work in the culture of the new capitalism’ (p. 49).
In Chapter Two, this self-critical relationship with the artists as ‘artrepreneurs’ and the detrimental effects of hegemonic expectations of entrepreneurialism imposed on them is further explored. Harvie explains how pressures of the neoliberal market on artists have been accumulating since the late 1990s due to New Labour policy makers who envisioned potential benefits in an entrepreneurial arts sector—‘the creative industries’—based on an idea of innovation in the emerging ‘knowledge economy’. This resulted in an ongoing economic instrumentalization of artists, arts and culture as ‘economically important’. Harvie gives a respectable overview of the complexity of the policy discourse and the recent history of this entrepreneurial turn in UK art policies, as well as the pros and cons of the culture of individualism, creative destruction and profitability it ensues. However, she ends this rather bleak description of reality with a message of hope, as she observes how theatre and performance also maintain models of collectivism, social collaboration and egalitarianism.
The clamour for change spreads out further in Chapter Three, which focuses on space as a social construct. The core of Harvie’s argument surrounds the ‘creative cities’ rhetoric in London (which currently affects social and cultural policies in many other cities as well). Urban space is ‘socially contested’ in performance and art practices that tend to criticize how spatial relations could preserve inequalities of wealth and access, such as segregation, ghettoization, exclusion, gentrification, contributing to ‘social cleansing’. Harvie refers to so-called ‘pop-ups’, spaces that are temporarily out of use and that are—often with government support—used for other activities to make neighbourhoods more attractive, thus contributing to gentrification. Pop-up theatre practices by groups and organizations like Shunt, Punchdrunk, Arcola Theatre, Sadler’s Wells and Theatre Delicatessen, however, have the ability to politically intervene in how people perceive the world through creating micro-utopian ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’ (Hakim Bey) that ‘challenge conventional structures and practices and encourage alternatives to emerge’ (p. 123). Harvie is, however, very well aware of the potential risks these practices may entail in ‘exacerbating rather than redressing urban social inequality, whether they do that directly or indirectly’ (p. 125). Her encouragement of collective experiences in ‘socially shared’ spaces becomes, thereby, somewhat ambivalent as the performances she celebrates often tend to include those audience members of the so-called ‘creative class’ and exclude other inhabitants of the spaces that are being interrogated through these practices for their social value and, mostly, for their mechanisms of exclusion.
The final chapter comes as a bit of a surprise then, when Harvie unveils the damage that was done by the thirty per cent cuts executed under the ‘Big Society’ umbrella by the coalition government (a crucial matter in the light of the 2015 general election). This seems to be coming rather late, as it appears to contextualize a great deal the previous policy discourses and concepts explained earlier. But rather being than a logical fallacy, the chapter focuses more on the emergence of crowdfunding, corporate collaboration, sponsorship and other mixed modes of arts funding in face of the Big Society policy around (corporate) philanthropy and ‘mixed economies’. After highlighting the current concerns and risks, Harvie also points out the opportunities of the arts’ mixed economies, including protection of artistic independence (against instrumentalization), potential audience engagements, and new networks of support that can enact social interdependence against the vagaries of the market. She concludes that new economic models can ‘help forge resilient, inventive new models of networked artistic, economic and social support that can at least temporarily take up the baton of social welfare and help us envision better futures’ (p. 191).
Harvie’s study is a thought-provoking and, even in its provocative and sometimes ambivalent stance, elaborate attempt in summarizing all the major issues regarding artistic labour and the realities of financial precariousness in the arts, as well their reflection in performance practices. However, the book reduces ‘capital’ to simply financial wealth—a weakness that also befell Thomas Piketty’s economics bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century (HarvardUP )—and speaks of ‘capitalism’ and ‘neoliberalism’ always in the same breath, as givens, rather than two critical categories. Moreover, the book raises the economic conditions and policies of the UK (and for that matter, London) with all its art practices to a level of universality, which is somewhat uncomfortable, if not embarrassing. More comparative research—which is currently being undertaken in cultural urban studies and sociology—is certainly needed. Harvie’s reductionist and at times sociologically flawed perspective may, therefore, cause some eyebrows to be raised.
There is something uncanny about Harvie’s ambivalence regarding the mechanisms of self-awareness—Rancière’s now somewhat exhausted ‘emancipated spectator’—which are key to her appeal to a ‘fairness’ that would lead to models of equal opportunity, especially when one considers that these mechanisms are equally embedded in postmodernist art practices shaped by capitalism and neoliberal policy. In response, I would like consider Nicholas Ridout’s Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism, and Love (UMichiganP ), not just because Ridout and Harvie acknowledge each other in their works, but because Passionate Amateurs offers the reader an alternative argument that is more conclusive in interrogating the current conservative, liberal and centre-left ideologies regarding art and performance in late capitalism, due to its comprehensive historical materialist method.
To escape this conundrum of postmodern art, which also includes a certain level of professionalism, Nicholas Ridout focuses in his latest book, Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism, and Love, on the rather untrained performer, the amateur or ‘social actor’ to interrogate the current ideologies regarding art and performance in late capitalism. He focuses on a significant—though perhaps long-forgotten—sense of community in the theatre, including its social and political dimensions, which he conceptualizes as ‘theatrical communism’, a term that owes much to Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Inoperative Community (UMinnesotaP ).
With this notion of ‘communism’, Ridout surely does not mean ‘communist theatre’ but a communist potential within the practice of theatre, directly placed within and against capitalism. With this, he seeks to develop what he calls a ‘critical romantic anti-capitalism’ that favours a thinking in terms of passion and love, rather than fairness. It is not so much about finding fleeting glimpses of fairness in socially oriented art practices that favour overlooked experiences of collectivism in our capitalist societies, or as Ridout calls it: our romantic anti-capitalist way of looking at art and performances. It is, rather, our task to trace the material, historical and cultural conditions that not only cause but also reproduce the very contradictions of capitalism within the production processes and our perceptions of performance and art practices today.
Thus the book offers us a comprehensive historical materialist perspective on the matter that is much indebted to such critics of ‘community’ as Miranda Joseph, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Rancière, Paolo Virno, but also Hannah Arendt. ‘Passionate amateurs’ form the common thread for their resistance to, and embeddedness in, capitalism. They are the ones who, through their art practices or, as Ridout puts it, their ‘labours of love’, either knowingly or not, try to realize something within capitalism, in pursuit of the communist potential, ‘that looks and feels like the true realm of freedom’ (p. 4) whilst being in what Marx called the ‘realm of necessity’ (p. 5). This seeming contradiction brackets the whole thesis of the book, which traces the communist potential along theatre’s history of troubling fundamental assumptions about work and time that have helped to shape social and cultural life since Europe’s industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century. By the end, Ridout seems to ask the question: is it not really all about the realization today that even ‘the momentary disruption of the normal relations between freedom and necessity’, which we often call love for art, is equally inscribed by ‘the manufacture of that love as a commodity’ (p. 162)?
Ridout unpacks that question through six persuasive chapters, which aim at a ‘discontinuous history’ starting with Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Mosow and ending with the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s No Dice. The first two chapters set the stage for a discussion of work-worker relations of amateurs to theatre practice that is different from wage labourers, since their artistic labour is ‘not work’—it is, rather, a recreational hobby—and they constitute a community ‘which is not (yet) one’ (p. 11). This gives evidence to Ridout of how theatre creates the potential to put work into question, and how participants can be separated from each other as an ‘inoperative’ community (Nancy). Ridout then gives further philosophical evidence of this idea through Marx’s ‘communalism’—or primitive communism—in the Grundrisse, where the idea of being a worker is not yet fixed. For readers today this may be an old or dated discussion, yet Ridout convincingly relates these Marxist ideas to Augusto Boal’s practice, where theatre workers are only workers for as long as they work. Through Marx he reveals the underlying myth in Boal’s work that theatre always ‘retains affective traces of a communal practice in which labour is set aside and hierarchy temporarily resisted, and that the task of his [i.e. Boal’s] own theatre is to reactivate those traces in the name of a contemporary political challenge to oppression grounded in a desire for community’ (p. 28).
This brings us to the ‘outside’ of work, which is always constituted by the necessity of work and the organization of time. The latter brings Ridout to a discussion in Chapter Two of Marx’s historical notion of the ‘working day’, based on a work notion as motor for social and political progress. He sees this in relation to the first production of Uncle Vanya around 1897, in which both work and rest (leisure) are presented as a kind of promise of a new orientation towards work and its time for its audiences (p. 56). Hence, he unveils the historical cornerstones of work–worker relations in place since nineteenth-century capitalism, through relations between work and time that also constitute theatre as leisure today but that passionate amateurs seem somehow to resist.
This line of thought is explored further in the next chapters through numerous historical texts and cultural objects, most notably Walter Benjamin’s ‘Program for a Proletarian Children’s Theater’ (1928), Jean-Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise (1967) and the performance group Nature αTheater of Oklahoma. Through Benjamin, Ridout shows the repurposing of theatre into a model of ‘communist pedagogy’ that underlined its ‘revolutionary value’ (p. 59). Through La Chinoise, Ridout argues for the decline of Fordism and how passionate amateurs in Godard’s movie are the ‘predecessors of today’s precarious collectives’ (p. 178) similar to the actors in the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. The latter’s performance No Dice tells the story of mostly young theatre professionals who are working in a job ‘they mostly hate in order to be able to make the work they say they love’ (p. 114).
Ridout is not fearful of discussing the problems and paradoxes of the theatre profession today by charting its historical developments within capitalism and by even going against the grain of accepted scholarship. His historical materialist approach is at times tedious and hard to follow, due its many philosophical expansions. Yet it always recaptures the attention and convinces its reader in a widely documented understanding of how today’s problems are deeply rooted in a historical process of ‘subsumption of all labour’ (p. 123) to which theatre has an ambivalent relation, to say the least. Ridout’s attempts to reread a notion of ‘communism’ and imagine what it may mean in the twenty-first century are fascinating, if not audacious for a sector that has been very much been under populist attack for not being industrial enough. Whereas Harvie answers to this with a call for (perhaps political) fairness, Ridout’s answer is more sobering: as romantic anti-capitalists, we ought to realize that to enjoy the work of others is not outside—and I repeat Ridout’s final words—the ‘manufacture of that love as a commodity’ (p. 162). It is as such that I read Ridout’s book with much pleasure as both an invaluable contribution to theatre history and its methodology of ‘historical materialism’, which has been too often neglected in recent days, and as a call to look more boldly into the future of what could become a theatrical communism as a larger cultural practice. I am reminded of Alain Badiou’s call in the Guardian of 3 October 2013: ‘We need to rediscover the language of communism’ (Alain Badiou, ‘Greek Anti-Fascism Protests Put the Left’s Impotence On Display’, The Guardian [3 October 2013]). Dear fellow scholars, teachers and practitioners working in the fields of culture, let us discover and fall in love all over again!