Re: On Reality

Maaike Bleeker also makes the argument that the objective world is an illusion that even the deconstructing performance modes of the postdramatic theatre cannot reveal. In her lucid “Showing What Cannot Be Seen: Perspective on the Post-dramatic Stage” (available free on line) francis_bacon_gallery_5Bleeker uses perspective as seen or “used” in painting, as  “a model, a conceptual metaphor, or a ‘searchlight’ that helps me to ‘see’ vision in the theatre in a new light.”

In her comprehensive analysis Bleeker debunks Lehmann’s argument that in postdramatic performance the guiding, totalizing “frame” through which meaning is made in the dramatic theatre, is replaced with a muliplication of frames that paradoxically grants the spectator, through the confusions and ambiguities, the ability to see what exists in that moment for “what it is.” Instead, she uses Evelyn Fox Keller’s analysis of modern attempts to make-invisible the subject’s subjective perspective and the invention of an objective or the perspective-less reality. Because no discourse can be engaged without engaging a unique perspective, the subjectivity inherent in any arguement or representation of reality was hidden, made invisible through a myriad of techniques:

“The effect of these strategies is the disappearance of consciousness of representation qua representation as perspective and point of view become invisible. This invisibility, and not the absence of any point of view, according to Fox Keller, is constitutive of objectivity. It also produces the dilemma of subjectivity that we can see at work in notions of vision in which what is seen is equated with what is over there, that is, independent from any particular observer.”

FrancisBaconThat is to say, Bleeker uses Fox Keller’s arguements to suggest that any identification of the world or its objects “as it is” is an illusion and that this is critical in how we understand seeing in the theatre. Wile perspective may be hidden but it is not absent. Therefore while Lehmann is correct in identifying the fallacy inherent in the unifying vision of the world represented in the dramatic theatre- this is an artificial perspective- the world revealed through the multiplied frames of his postdramatic theatre, which shows the world “for what it is,” is equally illusionist or “secondary.”  That the objective world- that reality- is revealed, either through a sophisticated construct that imitates nature to the hilt or the deconstraucted naval-gazing modes of postdramatic forms is an impossibility.  And any presence supposedly unleashed, revealed, shared or experienced in this theatre is merely an “effect”:

“Both artificial perspective, and its subsequent deconstruction of visible frames, she argues, is constitutive of our notion of the world as objectively given, of the world ‘as it is’. This suggests the possibility of a different reading of drama as perspective and its subsequent deconstruction on the post-dramatic stage as well. A reading in which deconstruction is not understood to give access to some metaphysical plenitude as it was always there yet blocked by the dramatic frame. Instead, seen this way, both drama and its deconstruction appear as constitutive of presence as effect, as a phantom.”

Here Bleeker responsibly accounts for postmodern arguments against any totalizing account of reality- or any account of reality, for that matter- and the impossibility or re-presenting it. Rightly, presence is acknowledged as a deeply problematic concept. As she writes early in the essay “the already constructed” is a realm impossible to escape. There is so much written on the body already always.  And yet this is just what postdramatic theory attempts to do- it suggests that there might be a way to represent the real, the authentic, and that more than the materiality present can be considered. Some kind of metaphysical plane can be accessed through the revelation of the “true” subject, unmediated by social constructions (such as the dramatic theatre’s “frames”) that hinders the spectator’s experience of the real. But in maintaining the “conceptual oppositions,” Bleeker tells us, “like representation and presence, meaning and materiality- and all the others that come with it…” the postdramatic stage aligns itself with the modernists who also wanted to reach/touch/access the “real world.” Both seeking an objective plane free of the subject’s whim and passion. Where contingency is masked.

However, there is Fox Keller’s rereading of the possibilities of postdramatic model. She suggests that by juxtaposing the “real”, this thing that is starkly contrasted to the illusionary, make-believe of the dramatic form with all its mediating “frames”, the whole meaning of “perspective” is brought to bare in the minds of the spectator. The explicit inquthenticity of the dramatic “world” throws into relief the matter of authenticity of what is seen- naturally a question that then colours the reception of the “real” or what is being passed as authentic. The seer questions the seeing when all is understood to as “secondary” representations- all as unreal; begging the seer to ask, what else is there?

“…as Fox Keller’s deconstructive reading of perspective suggests, it can be de-naturalized by showing what seems to be ‘there to be seen’ to be as secondary as what clearly manifests itself as sign.
As Fox Keller points out, the objective world as seen from no particular point of view is just as much constructed along lines of human needs, projections and desires as is the more obviously constructed perspectival image it seems to oppose to. Not because it is intentionally framed as such by means of a construction that overlays what is actually there to be seen. But because to appear as natural, objective, just there to be seen, implies a particular point of view towards it, a vision within which this is the world as it is. The model of perspective as a definition of the ambiguous relationship between what is seen and the point from where it is seen as such can help to expose this relationship.”

So…where is the object in this. This is, after all, meant to be a blog dedicated to the exploration of emerging dramaturgies of theatre of animation. Where are the damn puppets? Well, that is hard to say. Currently they are being transferred from the back burner to the front burner of my analysis. I’m am developing an idea that gives the animated object a status that the performer can never achieve- hence their popularity in contemporary performance that de-contextualizes the performing object from its traditional domain (the puppet theatre, for example) and it’s formal techniques. That is, the object is authentic. More soon…

*These paintings are the work of Francis Bacon.

The Platonist Impulse and Contemporary Arts Practice

I am starting with a map for my research that looks something like this:

1. Placing this practice in history, locking down the modes of practice in theatre history with all the names, dates, and geography that implies. This will include a look at performance modes such as the physical theatres of the 20th century, puppet theatre since the modernists, and object-based theatre in the 20th and 21st centuries.
2. The nuts and bolts of theatre of animation, the key concepts at work and how they function on the spectator. Not only what are characteristics of this tradition but also what is the meaning of those dramaturgies. For this I will look at the object from a philosophical and psychological perspective (I have a hunch both are equally at play in the performance of puppet theatre and especially in theatre of animation.
3. Case studies, applying section two to several performances that embody theatre of animation as I have put it forth from my research.

So with that in mind I have decided to start in the middle, perhaps the least logical starting place but the subjects in this area are the most appealing. I have several books in my bibliography already that are going to drive me deep into the heart of the issue at work in this section. I perceive these issues to be the object as a metaphor that includes a metaphysical consideration of the place of human beings in relationship to objects and the immaterial aspects of  “live-ness” as well as the issue of death in being a creator of “life” (or the metaphorical “life” granted objects in the performer/spectator marriage.) Additionally I will look at the influence and appeal of the grotesque in contemporary performance practice, the semiotics of synthetic and organic bodies, and the politics of (post) modernist thought that may or may not drive the impulse in theatre of animation to centralize the uncomfortable question: what/who is real and will you (the spectator) participate in this fictionplato despite it supernatural qualities?

I start with Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets. Although her entire study isn’t wholly relevant to my research, Nelson does present a compelling history of western culture’s relationship to the metaphysical and how this turbulent past has resulted in a fascination with the grotesque and the religiosity of contemporary arts practice. I will do my best to summarize her reading of our cultural relationship to the suppressed impulse to search for/know/experience/create the divine (something that has quite a lot to do with our desire to create/share/and experience object theatre, particularly puppetry.)

In the beginning Nelson establishes the important antagonistic relationship between Platonism and the Aristotelian dogma that has dominated western culture.  Nelson establishes the fundamentally different relationship of each to the metaphysical and suggests that the dominance of Aristotle did not go unchallenged and in fact Platonism was the catalystig66-mummy-ap-02 for social and cultural movements that are more relevant (read visible and influential) now more than ever before. First she reminds the reader of his important allegory of the cave and the dichotomy between a world where the actual can only be perceived as a shadow of what is. There is an important split that establishes a realm beyond the one we mere mortals can empirically understand or perceive, a world that belongs to the various Gods, daemons, and chosen ones of our belief systems. Conduits to this metaphysical world can be created and there may even be manifestations of the holy or divine on Earth. Nelson discusses the various ways the Egyptians and even the Late Antiquarian Christians that continued some of these practices whereby the dead were given passage to the ‘other’ world. Their bodies and objects were treated in the ceremonious ways that would ensure their route to the other world was clear. This outlook- which the Aristotelian dogma resists- includes the concept of a soul, a life-force that is connected in some way to a world that is not the physical world we understand via our senses.

In the Renaissance this idea was taken up again (though they had undergone changes in the wake a reforming Christianity that attempted to do away with the pagans icons and erase the influence of relics and icons that might confuse and confound the faithful worship of God the Father and Jesus Christ- here Nelson discusses at length the Iconoclasts and the anti-Iconoclast fissure.) It was in Renaissance that the divine became tangible once more in the grotto, a conduit for those seeking the metaphysical plane and what may dwell there. And while the impulse to discover or encourage the divine capacity of oneself could be seen in the work of alchemists and other religious sects, the gnosis impulse was born out in Christian practices as well.

However, the impulsive need to either know God or become God was forcefully dismembered in favour of a materialist worldview when there were significant advances in science, and the religious and political cultural mandates brought on by the Protestant Reformation and the French Enlightenment. This period saw a total rejection of the possibilities of knowing/experiencing/perceiving the metaphysical, the supernatural, the transcendent in our real or material world.  What we know, or can possibly know, we must know from the senses originating in our bodies that exist in the physical world that can be understood through the logic and rationale of the sane, empirical mind.

Before this shift the senses were understood in theological terms, the mind was the doing of the Creator or the result of divine influence. After this decisive reform the senses were discussed either as scientific ITALY-ART-RELIGION-MICHELANGELO-CRUCIFIXclasification or through the framework of modern psychology. Nelson identifies the 17th century as the real turning point in western history when philosophers like Bacon and Descartes laid the foundations of progress on the empiricism that saw scientific revolutions in our understanding of the world and the subsequent technological and industrial changes to civilization. The understanding of the individual as a private psychology also changed the nature of our secret search for the divine; in other words, this rationalist emphasis on the mind as the Originator saw the search for divinity shift its focus inward.

Additionally this shift saw the mechanization of our contact with the natural world and many of our cultural systems become more like machines that the previous organic organizing matrix. The allegory of cave was blown to smithereens and the empirical mind was crowned king. And yet…and yet the search continued via the arts. The alchemists died out, perhaps, and the Gnostics were burned all up maybe, and the Protestants had no décor in their white washed scentless churches, but the impulse to seek or know more than was visible was not subdued. In fact it became wide spread- perhaps even despite ourselves- western civilization turned the arts into churches where the secular citizen could seek the spiritual.

Nelson suggests that Freud’s idea of repression might be useful in understanding how the forbidden search for the divine/the divine self manifest itself post-1700. The machines that were meant to signal progress in rationality and the popularizing of psychological theory spawned a cultural obsession with the grotesque expressed in the arts, particularly literature. It was a secular execution of an interest or yearning for spirituality that manifest itself via portrayals of the daemonic, the evil, and unknowable, sometimes indescribable  forces that seek to destroy all that is good in the individual. These dark icons of the otherwoldliness represented nature disrupted, rejected, mutated, and the great societal machine clogged with the undeniable unknown.

However Nelson argues, our interest in the lower depths of our metaphysical identities reflects our search for its opposite; that is, our interest in the grotesque is the step down, to underworlds and psychological ghettos, that would allow us to rise above and toward the divine or good. It is a mask that veils our yearning for the spiritual otherworldliness discredited by our materialist worldview.  Because we have been disallowed the unknowable artists invented monstrosities. Further, they identified this monstrosities, these grotesque figures or forces, as emanating from within themselves or their genetic heritage. It was a search for the unknowable in ourselves, the spirit we were culturally forbidden but knew resided in there still. But in being disallowed, it became an ugly, rotted force- the consequence of repression.

“But the real reason behind our secular fascination with the demonic lies at a deeper level than the fact that the Protestant/materialist/scientific perspective routinely brands the supernatural (and hence the transcendental) as superstition…Our culture’s…prohibition on the supernatural and exclusion of a transcendent, non-materialist level of reality from the allowable universe has created the ontological equivalent of a perversion caused by repression. Lacking an allowable connection with the transcendent, we have substituted an obsessive, unconscious focus on the negative dimension of the denied experience.”

Importantly Nelson reminds us that our seemingly sadistic impulse to realize the grotesque masks our desire to achieve the divine: “To go higher, you must first go lower.”
The secular world of the arts become the “Trojan horse for the supernatural in our rationalized existence.” The icons of our search for a spiritual connection with the metaphysical are first and foremost writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Marry Shelley, Kafka, E.T.A Hoffmann, Kleist, Rainer Rilke, Giacomo Leopardi, H.P. Lovecraft and Bruno Schulz, famously the author of “Street of Crocodiles.” Nelson connects the rise of puppets, objects and the fantastical elements of these writers and artists to such contemporary corollaries such as video games, virtual reality and the virtual worlds, popularized film and television fantasies, comic and graphic novels, and the sustained interest in the live performance of objects.

In essence the creatures, characters, and scenarios of this work are the icons that once inspired the earnest belief of the ancients- our own western ancestor pre-1700 who endowed objects with a connection to the powerful world of the unknown. At some point objects stopped having a real connection with the divine and just stood for the divine. The belief that objects are literally a part of or actually come from (or lead to) the divine may now be impossible to believe. But to imagine that they can…that is what we are on about. Whatever reverence or supernatural credence we give an objects (be it a fictional character or a 3D statue, etc.) is the work of our imagination. That does not mean, however that they are not useful conduits to the metaphysical or give us the feeling of being connected to or in fact being supernatural.

“After the year 1700, Western artists and writers would continue to express, though often in an unconscious manner, hidden and increasingly taboo notions of immortality, divinity, and the incorruptible body.”

*The first image is of our man Plato. The second image is a pair of Egyptian mummies. The third image is a 15th C. wooden crucifix. And the last image is a still from the Bros. Quay film based on Schulz’s story “Street of Crocodiles.”

Tell a lie and find a troth

“The idea of the puppet is itself ironical. Here is a character, more or less closely related to life, moved about by a human being who is its master. No one misses the analogy between the puppet dominated by man, and man dominated by forces greater than himself.” -Marjorie H. Batchelder 1947

Steve Tillis’ Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet has been the most influential text in my search for a critical understanding of the puppet and puppet theatre. I will come back to his text many times in the future, but his chapter “Coda-Metaphor and the Puppet,” bares some relationship to an essay by a Senior Lecturer at Royal Holloway Matthew Isaac Cohen. In his “Puppetry and the Destruction of the Object,” Cohen attempts to make instructive parallels between the “triadic relationship between puppeteer, puppet and spectator to demonstrate that puppets in performance can provide powerful lessons in how to deal humanly with other people.”  His argument draws on what Tillis puts forward in his explanation of the person/puppet metaphor:

“In the metaphorical sense, people are perceived by other people to have life, while at the same time, they are imagined to be but objects. The power of the puppet as a metaphor of humanity depends on this inversion, and on the ontological paradox that remains. Ultimately, it is a question of who, or what, creates and controls.”

Like Tillis, Cohen articulates the origins of the supposed “life” of the puppet in the imagination and investment of the audience. Only in the collusion of performer and spectator can the inanimate be born into animacy. And this willingness to co-conspire in the transformation of thing into being, is rooted in the spectator’s recognition of the object as ontologically akin to herself.  As Cohen puts it:


“Puppets are alien others and closely associated with the person. They are ‘not me’ and also ‘not not me.’”

For Cohen, the puppet is a perfect site for human beings to contemplate their own status in the world and their agency (in this discourse as agents of destruction.) First he recalls the work of Freud and others in examining the juvenile impulse to become liberated, differentiated, and in control of themselves through exhibitions of largely symbolic destructive behaviors. Cohen posits puppets and puppet performance as similarly symbolic exhibitions of human agency. In both the destruction of puppets and in the destructive gestures of puppets, a symbolic agency to destroy is exhibited. Puppets, mediated by human control, cannot in themselves present any real or truthful display of destructive behavior. They can however, prove useful mirrors.

The puppet in the puppet theatre is a false figure from the outset. Ones impulse may be to argue that puppets are ‘so life-like’ or ‘real.’ Puppets and objects on stage are never and will never be real. They are ‘real’ or ‘live’ only in the moment when spectator imbues them with ‘life’, admittedly one conjured from the particular design, movement and possibly speech of that puppet.* This does not devalue puppets in the slightest. Indeed, for Cohen, it is exactly what gives them their potential for profundity. Cohen writes, “Acting is about truth, while at its core puppetry deals in dissimulation.” Drawing on Francis Bacon’s 1597 Of Simulation and Dissimulation, Cohen summarizes dissimulation in this context as the process by which “a man lets fall signs and arguments, that he is not that he is” (Bacon.)

From Old Trout Puppet Workshop's "Famous Puppet Death Scenes"“As an art of dissimulation, puppetry provokes us ‘to discover the mind of another. For to him that opens himself men will hardly show themselves adverse; but will fair let him go on, and turn their freedom of speech to freedom of thought. And therefore it is a good shrewd proverb of the Spaniard, Tell a lie and find a troth. As if there were no way of discovery but by simulation.’”

So in the puppets inherent falseness he disarms the spectator and gains entry into the deepest of internal spaces where the puppet has freedoms a human actor will never attain. Because, unlike the human actor, the puppet is, metaphorically, the spectator herself and does not have another identity besides. That is, the body of the actor, the physical embodiment, prohibits the spectator’s from making the investment they can make in the puppet because the puppet’s very life lies in mind of the spectator. Tillis finishes his book:

“The power of the puppet, as a metaphor of humanity and as a term applies to people, arises out of the paradoxical praocess of double-vision [seeing object as both having and not having life], which is central to the puppet. The theatrical audience and the world-audience must grapple, ultimately, with matter of ontology, with matter of being. The puppet-stage and the world-stage present figures that are a challenge to comprehend; it is the task of their audiences, which are nothing less than humanity, in part of in whole, to arbitrate the nature of being.”

Puppet: "girl-with-bat"

With this, Cohen argues the puppet helps us understand ourselves and may be relevant to our understanding of the human capacity for brutality. In our youthful hunger to experience and see the tangibility of our own agency we commit destructive acts, again, largely symbolic but nonetheless meaningful. The need for agency does not end with any demarcation of age or social status so the pursuit and exhibition of agency continues throughout life. In the puppet theatre we see this played out in puppets that act violently and puppets that are acted upon with violence and depending on the tradition and other performance conditions we may even intimately relate ourselves. But Cohen extends this analysis, examining how the performance of the puppeteer (the agent of action) can reveal the puppeteer’s private desires in acts displayed via the puppet. The puppet then, becomes the vehicle of the desire, the one to make-happen or control events, and the puppeteer is seemingly freed of his or her agency in the act of destruction. This freedom- or appearance of freedom- is dangerous when humans are, for one reason or another, objectified in the eye of their abusers/puppeteer. As Cohen notes:

“The adult puppet drama of destruction is not simply an expression of inner drives and desires. Psychiatrist Harry M. Tiebout (1959:611) comments that ‘only certain elements in Umwelt [thing world] are subject to manipulation and control.’ We might extend this to note that entering the umwelt of puppets opens up the seductive possibility of renouncing agency. The puppet-things can exert agency over people, the puppeteer can become the puppet as social strictures are suspended and destructive strips of behaviour patterned into puppets are played out. The adult’s encounter with the puppet thus tests moral mettle.”

Here Cohen means quite a lot more than the puppets of the theatrical stage. He means those whose existence is perceived as on par with the inanimate object and who are acted upon with the same sanguine cruelty one could enact on the resilient puppet of the theatrical stage.

*This is a reference to Tillis’ useful definition of the puppet in terms of three sign-systems of design, movement and speech.

The first image is a Punch and Judy sketch from Hugh Lofting. The second image is one of Old Trout Puppet Workshop‘s puppets from their “Famous Puppet Death Scenes. The final image is a puppet from Canadian artists Beans and Bueller on their WordPress page: Rabid Weasels.