Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jacques Rancière Day 5

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Jacques Rancière taught a class entitled: POLITICS OF AESTHETICS wherein we discuss the relationship between what is allowed to be seen and the dominant political regime.

NOTE: As with all my notes from the European Graduate School, there will likely be mistakes because I did not record the lectures, I made notes as they spoke, so I am perhaps interpreting what they are saying as I am writing.

Kinoeye as a practical activity: it's the peak of the Communist aesthetic and it's the new sensorium with the idea of art as art beyond...

We have a text today by Brecht (1939) "On the Experimental Theatre" that bids farewell to the idea of aesthetic utopia. Critical art as a mediation that is able to change reality by prompting decisions. Political art as mediation in a struggle for Communism.

Brecht reads this as an initial division, entertainment and instruction. This is a decision, Brecht seems to forget that those that made agitprop wanted to dismiss, by making theatre another activity in the world. Meyerhold wrote a lot about this - no distinction between work and entertainment.

Blending two forms of activity - media as performance, an activity with its ends in itself; at the same time this is a blended with theatre as working activity that must be rationalized like any other industrial activity. Meyerhold makes similar parascientific investigations as Eisenstein. All theatrical activity has to be identified and defined with in a multiplicity of competences.

Brecht seems to ignore all of this.
Meyerhold realized a radical Constructivism, and Reinhardt transformed natural, would-be showplaces into stages: he performed Everyman and Faust in public places. Open-air theatres saw productions of A Midsummer Nights' Dream in the midst of a forest, and in the Soviet Union an attempt was made to repeat the storming of the Winter Palace with the use of the battleship Aurora. The barriers between stage and spectator were demolished. At Reinhardt's productions of Danton's Death in the Grosses Schauspielhaus actors sat in the auditorium, and in Moscow Ochlopkov seated spectators on the stage. (3)
These were matters of abolishing the conceit that an actor is on stage and there is an auditorium but the spectator should be a passive recipient - theatre as a site of agitation. People no longer gathering to observe a spectacle but to take part in the spectacle :
At times the theatre did well in endowing social movements (the emancipation of women, perhaps, the administration of justice, hygiene, even, in fact, the movement for the emancipation of the proletariat) with definite impulses. Still it cannot be secreted that the insights which the theatre permitted into the social situation were not particularly profound. It was more or less, as the objections pointed out, a mere symptom of the superficial character of society. The intrinsic social legalities were not made perceptible. Consequently the experiments in the province of the drama led to an almost complete destruction of plot and the image of man in the theatre. The theatre by placing itself in the service of social reform suffered the loss of many of its artistic efficacies. Not unjustly, though often with rather dubious arguments, do we lament the prostitution of artistic taste and the blunting of the stylistic sense. In fact, there prevails over our theatre today as a consequence of the many diverse kinds of experiments, a virtual Babylonian confusion of styles. On one and the same stage, in one and the same play, actors perform with utterly dissimilar techniques, and naturalistic acting is done within fanciful scenic designs. (5)
Brecht resists the the aesthetic of montage and its break with the idea of aesthetic unity. The assemblage of montage was to shatter the idea of unity and instead produce specific shots and shocks. Farewell to the idea of the aesthetic revolution. Brecht sees that there has been this transformation in the methods of sensory perception but these don't add-up to an aesthetic revolution where ends and means fuse; they are simply techniques and these don't transform the performance. Thus he says the Revolution never existed.

What happened to the international avant-gardes?


The instructional elements of a Piscator production or of a production like my Threepenny Opera were, so to speak, installed; they did not result organically from the whole, they stood in opposition to the whole; they interrupted the flow of the play and its events, they thwarted sympathetic understanding, they were cold showers for those who wanted to sympathize. I hope that the moralizing parts of the Threepenny Opera and its didactic songs are to some extent entertaining, but surely there can be no doubt that this entertainment is different from that which one experiences from the scenes of the play proper. The character of this play is two-pronged, instruction and entertainment stand together in open hostility. In Piscator's productions the actor and the stage machinery stood together in open hostility. (8)
There is no instructional element in Threepenny Opera because they belong to Modernist art which thought to dissolve distinctions between high art and the common entertainments. The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny - it's wonderful but you have to pay. Thus the demystification of Capitalist freedom, but it is also overcoded by the demystification of the message itself - "oh it's all about money and happiness, so who cares?"

The stage, why did instructional theatre fail?
1. Because something was lacking: a clear view of society and its evolution, due to a lack of understanding of human relations.
Man today knows little about the legalities which control his life. As a social being his general reaction is emotional, but these emotional reactions are vague, inexact, ineffective. The sources of his emotions and passions are just as bogged up and polluted as the sources of his knowledge, Man today, living in a rapidly changing world and himself rapidly changing, lacks an image of the world which agrees with him and on the basis of which he can act with a view of success. His conceptions of the social life of human beings are false, inaccurate, and contradictory, his image is what one might call impracticable, that is, with his image of the world, the world of human beings, he cannot control the world. He does not know on what he is dependent, he lacks a clear grasp on social machinery which is necessary to cause the desired effect. (10)
It's a strange message. The point of theatre was not about giving a message but as a mediation by inspiring decisions. This text raises a new problem: that we live in a society, that we live in a world, that we don't understand that there is self-dissimulation such that we are alienated by our own automaton-like acting in the world. The practice of theatre has to be determined from the place of the ignorant, the spectator. Doing art politically is an issue of blindness and making the blind see. The task of the theatrical artist is to find the view of what is lacking.

2. This task becomes problematic because it counters theatrical practice itself. Theatre should provide light; but theatre is supposed to impose illusion on the audience. What is required is this sympathetic understanding (the French term is identification) such that the viewer doesn't question the action. The attention of the spectator is precisely what purifies the spectator, in catharsis we displace our attention such that we expect one thing and get the opposite.

What has to be presentedare techniques such that identification is not possible. Brecht employed shattered dramaturgy as well as card slogans that broadcast what will happen, songs that broke the continuity of the plot. The problem with this solution is that of montage: what does distanciation mean (rather than alienation)?

These methods of fragmentation are not new: Meyerhold's mise-en-scene used to present classical plays with breaks in continuity; the rules attributed to these techniques can be new, though thus the spectators can judge. But what does judging mean? For example, King Lear - we must judge him, but what do we mean? He's good or bad? Do we attempt to understand why he acted in these ways?

It became the case that presenting things in an historical context became the right way of understanding our world. This practice of historicization, more disturbing - these two forms of judgment may collide because we judge within historical situations. We understand the character's historical moment, but then we cannot judge because it is clear that they are not of our context. The play may show how capitalism works but what can we do with this? If we destroy capitalism we enact an era of chaos. What judging does is enhance the pleasure of knowing, but knowing means not changing. Thus we are back at Rousseau, watching what pleases us means we don't need to change anything.

Mother Courage
Roland Barthes interpreted this famously in 1955 "Mother Courage Blind" To whom is this play destined? Not for fools trying to get rich from war, but those suffering from war and don't know how to deal with it. She is so much a part of the war she cannot see it. We see what she cannot, we see through her; she is a victim of what she cannot see. We are at once and she is us; we are lead to the demystification of this fatality of being in a world of constant war. This is the Law of Inverted Effect again (which Rousseau was against) - this is not a matter of moral education, but of ignorance vs. awareness.

The problem arises again, what is the consequence ... develops from knowing she is blind?

The problem can be more radical: she's not blind at all, she's quite aware of her business's dependence on war.
  • She is a good Marxist - she knows it's about the money, sure there's religion and blah-blah-blah. 
  • Brecht knows she's not blind, he writes it during the war as an exile, thinking about what happened to the German proletariat. The play is performed in Berlin at a time when the Communists are talking about peace; the audience is full of people that profited from the war. 
  • The problem is that knowledge isn't enough, that it can be complicitous; there must be something more. 
  • The effect of knowledge must be accompanied by an overlying of judgment.

Consider Laocoon: Clement Greenberg's "Towards a Newer Laocoon" (1940) this is in reference to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's (1766) Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (this is a great link if for no other reason than you can see what has been reported recently on boingboing about the Google Books scanners' fingers).

The sculpture (right) cannot do the same thing as writing about Laocoon. The sculpture can translate, but he must be disfigured and monstrous.

This was at a time when there was this notion that all the arts could correspond. Lessing said that poetry was the art of time and that sculpture was the art of space. This was revived in the 1940s as part of the Leftist critique of the aesthetic ideal - that the specificities of the individual arts had been forgotten. That Modern art is about the specificity of individual materials. American realists were at the fore at this time and abstract painting "was" modern art at the time.

Adolphe Appia abolished all those pathetic trappings of Wagner: castles, animal skins, forests, etc. and instead put in abstract paintings. At the core of performance is the thing-in-itself. Performance became a transformation of the plastic arts, not so much about a specific place per se; this was developed in America in the mid-1920s by a part of the Left.

(NOTE TO SELF: this has me thinking about Reality TV and the Entertainment Engine)

Schiller was about the creation of free sensibility from instrumentalism. The problem with the internet: montage was supposed to be a break, connecting what should not be connected. Everybody today can make their own montage when artists are still using montage to try to illuminate.

Because I can't spell the artist's name correctly, I cannot find the images which Rancière used to illustrate his points here:
Jacqueline Mechesper (spelling? Similar montages as those in Adbusters). Brechtian problem, what is the effect of this presentation, any body can do this. When montage is available to everybody like Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", now this provocation is available to everyone as both producer and consumer. What is the political potential of this strategy?

Look to Martha Rosler as well for montage:


There must be another effect produced.

The point isn't to make art so as to enact political action but creating sensorium wherein anyone may participate.

There are those in France now that say we are unable to sense anything at all, such as Baudrillard. Do we think of the sensible as possibilities or about relationships to material; constructing new forms of ability to relate? What is appropriate? What is necessary?

Politics is about world creating, art is about world creating. If we think of being radically novel, what is the use of that?

[END OF CLASS]




[Marginalia - notes I wrote: we must make it our context. will the future medium be organ harvesting? crowd-sourcing as new sensorium (SETI project)? biotechnological enhancement as new sensorium (flourescent chimp)? what would be this Confucian image? Baudrillard as the overthrowing of the balance sheet of Modernity.]

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