Thursday, January 31, 2008

Modern Theater Does Not Take (A) Place
by Julia Kristeva

A (Not Too Sympathetic) Discussion

To Raphæl

After I had written this essay, I decided to look up the Wiki on Kristeva. It confirmed most of what I'd surmised from my reading.

Basically, my response to this illustrative piece of Kristeva's writing is the basic opposition I have towards structuralism. If you favour structuralism, then you had better read Kristeva and appreciate her by yourself. This is, strictly speaking, not an appreciation.

Then why have I written this? Well, I have pored over this four-page essay for over four hours. I found elements in it which were poetic and truthful, but I have also found elements which are merely wordplay, dogma, and erroneous.

Kristeva uses the word semiotic in her own terms (perhaps for lack of a better word, perhaps to gain a foothold. When you start out, especially in a foreign country, you need stays. Kristeva is not Kant.) It is not related to the more popular Saussurean definition. This difference is not easy to surmount. In my opinion, she has deliberately chosen this word to undermine the classical definition, which is a common tactic adopted by all feminists (with the exception of Simone de Beauvoir).

I have retained the numbering of the original essay. The critique is not a polished one, nor do I suppose that it will ever be reworked.

1. "[...] Semiology is a theory of the existent."

The extent to which this idea is true is debatable. It would involve a rather involved discussion of what is not illusory.

However, since this is the fundamental building block, the starting premise, I accept it without argument.

[Question: How does semiology actually accomplish its task - that of describing the functions of signs and symbols -? The answer need not cause you any surprise. It is a tautology; it can do so only by the contrivance of signs. By the very same yardstick, the entire project of semiology - apart from a simple and functional understanding - a description of its subject matter - must be treated as highly speculative.]

"Modern theater [...] does not take (a) place."

Modern theatre is supposed to be a very symbolic one. (Take Beckett, for instance.) Again, I accept the argument without proof.

2. The only remaining locus of interplay (of modern theater) is the space of language. Hence modern theater does not exist outside of the text. This is not a failure of representation but a failure of demonstration. It is the failure of theater as demonstration.

[Question: What really seems to be the problem: the inability to demonstrate the sound and fury of a spacecraft taking off? The inability of effectively portray the effects of weightlessness in space? Maybe the inability to show a tree growing over 15 years? What is this problem of demonstration which a good playwright cannot address/manage?]

(I completely agree with the implicit idea behind all this: drama was the medium in Shakespeare's time, it is no longer. It is the Internet and then TV, and to a lesser extent, the movie.)

The technocratic explosion is rightly pointed out as the reason for this deficiency: the audience seem to expect more, more technically demanding plays or demonstrations. (As I correctly surmised.) As it stands, theater has always been severely limited in its demonstrative capacities: and the talents of the actors themselves have remained more or less the same over 100 generations.

Kristeva quotes Mallarmé, who anticipated the disappearance of the sacred locus of the theatre and its ultimate retreat into language.

[Question: Is it any more relevant? I have no experience of modern theatre as such; in Malayalam it has been a resounding failure. In Malayalam, it was present in the works of G Sankara Pillai. The said retreat has already taken place so long ago that the current generation - the 25-somethings - do not know what theatre is, and it is no wonder that they do not even suspect the existence of any. Since the "dolding back" has already taken place, can we still talk about it any longer? It has lost its meaning. It is a fact, and it has happened. We must therefore make something new, invent something afresh, rather than fondly remember what we were used to.]

Kristeva concludes this brilliant and sweeping argument thus:

"...the most advanced experiments in writing address themselves uniquely to the individual unconscious, without speculating on the fantasies of the larger group."

3. Kristeva now stresses on the interplay - the interaction - of life and representation - of symbol and the signified - of the self and the other - or whatever complementary pairs you can think of. When there is an interaction ("to see, to act, to know" - the so-called 'scopic' drive - which I don't know what), it can happen in one of two ways:

a. Without the use of language. (Silent theatre.) It uses colour, sound, and gestures. That is, it does not use speech.

b. Make use of verisimilitude (semblance, appearances). (Stereotypical characters, such as we see in Beckett's plays.) It uses a semiotic assemblage, in a sort of doll's house populated by madmen. It uses speech but only traces of colour, sound, etc. The feeble characters "speak the text." The play is boring, but not by an accident; as the playwrights themselves are under no illusion that their work will be witnessed only by a few who really know what they are seeing. They are writing to an intelligent, albeit severely reduced, audience. (This is also a main difference between Greek drama - which was a sacred ritual - and modern theatre, which is becoming more and more like "going through with the motions."

[May be because :
The dialogues (monologues) are monotonous, and doctored, and seem as such; no attempt is made to infuse "freshness" into the dialogues, because the dialogues have already been written down by the playwright.

4. Kristeva discusses the first type of silent film (or theatre).
The silent theatre of colours, sounds and gestures depicts a time and a place where a deadly impulse of forgetfulness or of death operates. This is essentially semiotic.

  • semiotics (philosophy) a philosophical theory of the functions of signs and symbols
That is, this sort of film shows how communication was done when there was no language. (There is a subtle difference here, in that in the making of the silent film, the filmmaker is probably aware of the possibility, and the importance of speech in demonstration.)

Since there is no language, there is no question of information storage. There is no question of fidelity or realism either; though it can be argued that speech itself is artificial, it is a losing argument. What results is a purely symbolic abstraction, an attempt to pre-empt consciousness as we know it. If it is not a human consciousness that we are depicting in a silent film, the question arises as to whose consciousness it is. This is a socially relevant question which cannot be wished away by answering that it is experimental. If so, then to what end? All experiments have a purpose. Art, in particular, always has a purpose.

It may also be argued that the filmmaker is aiming at evolving a language of colour, tone, sound etc. But the problem with this sort of withering argument is that these are not standard languages, and there is no way one could translate it. This "untranslatablility" is different from the limits of language and expression that we encounter when we try to translate a work from one language to the other. Colour and sound do not speak even similar languages. The only thread that connects all of these different languages is that all of these evoke response from a human. This response is, however, tempered by language, and as such, renders all of such 'experimental' efforts just that - 'experimental.' And without a purpose. If at all it has a purpose then that purpose will only be known to a handful, in which case it reduces to the petty state of private property.

"The only event within this semiotic limit [...] is death [...]"
Indeed!? Why should death be the only event? (Is it an event?) What is the significance of death here? (The difficulty may only be removed if I actually chance to watch this movie by Michael Snow.) Why should death be important in this rather detached language of chromatic patterns?
"Cruelty is a technique."
One has to agree completely with this statement of Artaud:
"... cruelty is above all lucid, a kind of rigid control."
A delicious finale, but quite irrelevant to the subject in hand.

Cinema and theatre, after all, economise representation. The maker chooses what to show, and in which way to show it, and things are done in a way as to evoke a specific set of responses. An effort is made not only to elicit particular responses by showing a select set of images, every effort is taken to snub any indication to the contrary. The blatantly political films are a case in example. Some are so well disguised that even the objectionable main theme is transparent. By watching and appreciating the film, the audience is condoning the content - the symbolism.

"How can we think this economy?"
Kristeva now engages in an 'explanation' of this 'economy.' This is the part which I find most irksome, because what she says - never mind the jargon - is redundant and not relevant. In the first place, experimental cinema can only be minimalist. (Dogville is a modern example.) Such films choose a very few things to concentrate on, reducing everything else to the bare essentials. With the full realisation that the fare is not wholesome, the avid viewer immerses himself in this minimalist demonstration. The fact that a house is depicted by a square marked in chalk and announced by a nameplate does not detract from the real themes. The relevant question is, "How can it ever be otherwise?" Kristeva's question might have been relevant some time back in the 1920s (Metropolis, for instance - which is the epitome of a lavish experiment if there ever was one). At the end of the spectrum we also have Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, which is a brilliant minimalist film.

"In the type of representation which I just described, S2 encompasses S1, but this inclusion remains outside of the representation."
Then why mention it? This is merely wordplay. She goes on to say that the content (symbolism) of such movies ultimately signifies death. Which is akin to saying nothing at all.

5. [This section introduces intractable jargon, and, despite its lyricism, might best be described as philosophical speculation. A few of these words are given below. Readers are requested to enlighten me on their meanings.
actant (defined simply as acting elements - she should haveconsidered reactant, which is a well known chemical term that means the same. Question: are we actually acting, or reacting? Can there be an action, which is not a reaction as well? Is an actor acting, or is he reacting? Pretty useless, these questions. Maybe such questions do not have a place in Kristeva's philsophy.)

The second variant of the silent theatre employs a minute semiotic assemblage of the acting-out and of "madness". There is interplay between the acting elements, and the signified elements manifest themselves in a catastrophic progression towards an act of violence - such as the discovery of an object or the discovery of a scientific object - which burst forth. Each entity remains problematic, incomplete, as a crisis, as a catastrophe.

6. Kristeva expounds that other experiments are also exercises in "taking sides". In order to economise the representation, the maker takes sides, and thus economises both the demonstration as well as the message.

7. From the above discussion, it is easy to see the extent of participation required of the audience to make the experiment meaningful. Hence the traditional division of audience and actors is obliterated. In such a disconcertingly self-conscious effort, it is not easy to overlook the fact that the actors (if at all there are any) are men and women like us; we can no longer watch these movies like we used to watch when we were young. The act of speaking out a script would be calamitous, so we arrive at a new locus of representation.

8. In this incredibly nebulous passage, Kristeva almost destroys the edifice she has built up painstakingly. No one would ever feel that clarity is a quality in continental thought, let alone Kristeva's. Yet, one hopes that this passage would not be there. She rounds up the political situation accurately, but, she refuses to take sides and she puts sand in our eyes as well. The incredible suppleness of the American political system - struggling in the face of Soviet and its own internal economic pressures - is indicated, yet Kristeva tries to save her face by not damning it outright. Instead, she posits the birth of a new theatrical and cinematic oeuvre which is based on a new sensibility, and a new subjectivity, to counter the dangers of dogmatism.

In trying to rise above politics - there was no need - and somehow establish that art is above it, Kristeva shoots herself in the boot. What results is a polemic which is, predictably, quite isolated in its impact as well as its content.

Directors/Artists Referred to in the Essay

  1. Antonin Artaud
  2. Michael Snow. (Film: Wave Length)
  3. Bob Wilson. (Surrealist filmmaker, who made films about Queen Victoria, Stalin, and Einstein)
  4. Yvonne Rainer
  5. Connie Bently
  6. Richard Foreman ("Ontologic Historic Theater")
Critics/Philosophers Referred to in the Essay

  1. Bertolt Brecht
  2. Samuel Beckett
  3. Antonin Artaud

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