Theaters of Comity and Cruelty: The Ethics of Performing Selves

(x-posted to The Valve)

In his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, Alexandre Kojeve gives a succinct and compelling account of the irony of the “fight to the death” which occurs (in G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit) when two subjects risk their lives in a confrontation. For each combatant, this fight is for recognition of the uniqueness of their subjectivity, what Hegel calls their “personality.” Kojeve writes:

Death….continues to lack the significance required for recognition….And if one of the adversaries remains alive but kills the other, he can no longer be recognized by the other….Therefore, the victor’s certainty of his being and of his value remains subjective, and thus has no “truth.” (14)

Thus, for thinkers of subjectivity after Hegel and Kojeve, a critical problem emerges: how to stage the battle to the death without, on the one hand, actually producing death, and, on the other, the battle becoming merely feigned. Theorists who have taken up the metaphors of the stage have done so because the ironies of performance correspond to the irony of the struggle “to the death” for recognition. Through the play of performance, there is symbolic death, and symbolic victory, undertaken consciously with the fundamental goal of synthesizing the initially contrary ethical goals of mutual preservation and subjective recognition. The most important consideration here is that the tragic violence finally be transferred to the drama itself, rather than to any of the participating subjects, and thus drama (and dramaturgic representation) undergoes a constant process of dissolution and reconstitution, death and resurrection.

In order to grasp the death of the theater, a death that in turn resurrects the slain players, we have to identify the kinds of acts with the symbolic meaning and legitimacy of violence. Among the most important of such symbolic acts are furious bursts of laughter. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler embarks on a close and admiring analysis of Michel Foucault’s response to the codification of homosexuality – in particular, the interest in describing essential differences between male and female homosexuals. Butler, quoting an interview with James O’Higgins, notes that Foucault responds to O’Higgins

… by laughing, suggested by the bracketed ‘[Laughs],’ and he says, ‘All I can do is explode with laughter. This explosive laughter, we may remember, also followed Foucault’s reading of Borges, reported in the preface to The Order of Things. (139)

Butler goes on to quote the preface, where Foucault describes the “laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought….breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things.” She cites the correspondences between this shattering laughter, and the laughter of Pierre Riviere at his own “murderous destruction of his family, or, perhaps, for Foucault, of the family” (140). She also links it to the excessive and liberating laughter of Georges Bataille, as he is figured in Jacques Derrida’s Writing and Difference.

Nonetheless, Butler differentiates herself from Bataille (at least from the Bataille of Derrida’s essay) through a series of references to feminist theorists who ironize the violent (i.e. “shattering,” “murderous”) sovereignty of laughter by showing it arising within the most petrifying and petrified representations, as inseparable from them. Butler’s theory of performance is based on a series of tensions; we should remember that the subversive potential in Borges is expressed through an illogical series that is nonetheless a list. Butler describes the “laugh of Medusa” in the works of Helene Cixous, which “shatters the placid surface constituted by the petrifying gaze and which exposes the dialectic of Same and Other” (140). The dialectic is exposed, not ended; Medusa the petrifier is also the source of shattering laughter. For Foucault’s own hero, the hermaphroditic Herculine, Butler writes that “laughter appears to designate either humiliation or scorn, two positions unambiguously related to a damning law” (141). Ultimately, the violence of laughter reverses itself. Its chaotic, violent nature is bound up with the laws of representation and sexual difference, dialectically enabling the repetition of representation.

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman gives a particularly compelling account of the psychological relief inherent in the subversive forms of satire and parody that perform Hegel’s drama of recognition, the relationship of “bondsman” and “Lord,” as the Butlerian alternation of “humiliation” and “scorn.” For Goffman, the failure of representation is built into his notion of a doubled stage, or “stage” and “backstage.” Goffman writes:

When the audience has left or has not yet arrived, the performers will sometimes play out a satire on their interaction with the audience, and with some members of the team taking the role of the audience. (171)

Goffman recognizes that representation as a whole does not come to an end when the performers are “backstage.” It is merely the performance of “employee” and “customer” that is suspended and then parodistically shattered. These representational inversions, in the form of shattering laughter, are critical to the preservation of morality because, as Goffman writes,

Our activity, then, is largely concerned with moral matters, but as performers we do not have a moral concern with them. As performers we are merchants of morality. Our day is given over to intimate contact with the goods we display and our minds are filled with intimate understandings of them; but it may well be that the more attention we give to these goods, then the more distant we feel from them and from those who are believing enough to buy them. (251)

Ironically, this is a kind of Marxist analysis without a revolutionary impulse. By imbuing the products they are selling with the luster of the performance, salespeople allow the everyday morality of the marketplace to take its course. But, in the process, the employees become alienated from the customers, who are here being explicitly “recognized” and made to feel masters of both people and things, in part because the customer comes to confuse the performance with the purchase. So this oppressive and paradoxical relationship, like the relationships of sexual difference that concern Butler, have to be worked through backwards via parody, shattered with laughter.

In his essay on Antonin Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation” (from Writing and Difference), Jacques Derrida presents the Medusan coincidence of contraries in theater as the intimate relationship between “play” and “closure.” Derrida writes, “Closure is the circular limit within which the repetition of difference infinitely repeats itself. That is to say, closure is its playing space. This movement is the movement of the world as play” (250). Here “play” performs both the pleasurable and the destructive function of laughter, and “closure” repeats the deadly action of representation: “To think the closure of representation is thus to think the cruel powers of death and play which permit presence to born to itself, and pleasurably to consume itself through the representation which eludes itself in its deferral” (250). Derrida’s use of the term “closure” allows us to think through another element of the fatal tendency of representation: the problem of an ending. The ending of representation, which is the tragic performance of a Hegelian struggle to the death, can only be fatality or a series of fatalities, as it is in Greek tragedy, in Shakespearean tragedy, and so on. Thus, for Derrida, the only way to escape “the representation of fate,” the death of the other, is through the “thinking” of the “fate of representation,” the theatrical closure which is the deferral of permanent closure. His ending connects the idea that “representation has no end,” reminiscent of Goffman’s doubled stage (and drawn from Artaud), with the necessity of symbolic death as the sign of victory and closure: “And it is to think why it is fatal that, in its closure, representation continues” (250). It continues, but not in the same way; like the employees playing “employees” in the backstage parody, it becomes an image of itself.

Given Butler’s work on performance, one would expect that the discovery of failure, like Herculine’s discovery of humiliated laughter and Artaud’s play of closure, would itself become a new spur to representation and performance. That is precisely how Richard Poirier imagines it in The Performing Self. Poirier, describing the method and impulse behind James Joyce’s prose, writes,

Creation follows on the discovery of waste. Fictions….produce, in reaction against waste and loss, the desire to create new fictions, the desire to create new fictions, the excuse for new performances, new assertions of life. Joyce initiates a tradition of self-parody now conspicuously at work in literature. But he does far more than that. He simultaneously passed beyond it into something which writers of the present and future have still to emulate…to create and create again under the acknowledged aegis of death. (39)

Thus, finally, we have each part of the cycle of theatrical representation, which perpetuates itself through a series of reversals. In an echo of Freud’s thesis (advanced, among other places, in Civilization and Its Discontents) that the aggressive impulses can only be successfully repressed by being directed inwards, against themselves, we see the aggressive impulse for recognition displaced into various theatrical settings: the workplace in Goffman, the “theater of cruelty” in Artaud, performative literature in Poirier, the Self and Other of sexual difference in Butler and Foucault. There we see violence and killing transformed into the symbolic, tragic drama. Inevitably, the moment arrives when this spectacle threatens to become its own principle of death, through a Medusa-like petrifaction of both victor and vanquished. Then the representation itself has to become a subject of fate, overturned and shattered by parody and play, inaugurated by laughter. The aegis – hallmark or inscription – of death, the insignia that reveals the fatal outcome of representation, is also the shield that saves the “bondsman” at the moment when representations are reversed, so that, as Poirier observes, they can begin anew. The slain players arise from the stage, and bow; once the space of representation expands to encompass this irony, under the aegis of a battle to the death, it can become the ironic preservation and triumph of life.

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