Legacy and Re/volution: Talkin’ bout an evolution
Cultural turns mark centuries. At the beginning of the 21st century, a chain of turns gazes at us in the rearview mirrors of the fields of linguistics, cultural anthropology, philosophy, visual and performance studies. Look at language patterns as a way to map the world. Excavate rituals and theatrical spectacles to trace what is performative. Concentrate on questions of time and space and geography to understand spatial gravity. Criticize racism and ethnocentrism to mark a place for the postcolonial body. Focus on the importance of iconic references and visual intelligence and see how the world sees through perhaps similar eyes. 19th century concepts of objectivity link themselves to the history and catalogue of images and image-making. In the brain pictures exist to describe complex human statements about happiness and love, guilt and free will and even the need for the sacred and the divine. It has been said to an inordinately exhaustive degree that we live in a visual culture, that we are guided, indeed, by what we see and what we believe from what we see.
Yet, as continued research in neurobiology exclaims, the way the brain responds to and interprets what is seen is fragile. There is more than a margin of error in how visual perception shapes a view of the world. Seeing and witnessing are different things. If there is a civil contract to framing an event through art, or through more instantaneous and less obviously tutored practices of capturing the real and its losses via, for example, a digital camera phone, then the act of seeing is an act of citizenship. How we choose to see, what we decide is seen or not is linked inexorably to civic responsibility and the manner in which individuals and societies address cultural grievance, misery and urgency. There is an ethics to seeing. It is not an even or equal playing field. The fragmented, post-post-modern self, however, collapses acts of seeing and doing –and ethical witnessing and action – as the boundaries among work, leisure and place continue to erode. A YouTube music parody co-exists in the brain alongside a Presidential address and a photograph or digital capture of a bombing in Gaza. The brain sorts through images and filters patterns of shapes and colors. Memory catches flashes of real and desired feeling, and grafts upon these shapes and colors in the brain’s rotating and indexing visual bank, superimposed personal images altered by the unreliability and imaginatively digressive quality of remembrance. It is perhaps ironic, then, that the last two centuries of cultural turns have focused so much on visual culture and its interpretation, and that science and technology have devoted so much of its research and energy to the development of progressively sophisticated information and entertainment devices (not to mention surveillance and military devices) geared to the visual imagination and its hyperlink-ing strategies. I say ironic because it is quite evident (to paraphrase Swiss sociologist Peter Atteslander) that “We only believe what we see, and we only see what we want to believe.”
Now, I am not remotely suggesting that visual culture and its interpretation should be ignored. It would be absurdly jejune and ridiculous for me to even broach this especially in the context of thinking about or analyzing theatrical signs and how they operate in the field of live performance. What I am asking though is for us to listen as well as see, and begin to take in what is more than likely to be the 21st century cultural turn: the acoustic turn.
Four years ago (in 2005) scientists from Humboldt University in Berlin met researchers from Princeton to discuss “sound politics – an acoustic turn in cultural and media studies.” This turn refers to the delicate interaction of the sense of sight and hearing in culture and society. Embedded in the move toward the acoustic turn is a critique of how sight has been inordinately privileged in cultural criticism, and has diminished attention to and on the act of listening and the interpretation of what is felt when an individual or animal is listening to something or someone.
In the nowhere everywhere of the globalized boom-and-bust body, visual signs have nearly obliterated (a
nd I am deliberately exaggerating here to make a point) the capacity to listen and turn the ear and the mind to the language(s) beneath the signs offered by the multinational neoliberal complexes of power tied to the politics and economics of Free Trade. Staggering about in a socially inequitable landscape, the individual within the crowd tries desperately to get by as catastrophe rears its necessary head to allow a new cultural turn to occur. Mired in infinitesimal blips, bytes and attention-grabbing minutes of downloadable images and sounds of amusement, disaster and virtual human connections, the individual is prized away from the crowd, away from movement, and into a heady and sometimes ecstatic but not transcendent stupor of infinite internal possibility – “infinite jest,” to quote the late David Foster Wallace – that denies true transformation and evolution.
We want revolution in our lives. We want change. The words ring in our ears. The sounds echo across time, but what kind of revolution do we seek?
John Berger in his book Hold Everything, Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance [in “Wanting Now,” NY: Vintage, 2008, pg. 8] states that
the promise of a movement is its future victory; whereas the promises of incidental moments are instantaneous. Such moments include, life-enhancingly or tragically, experiences of freedom in action. (Freedom without actions does not exist.) Such moments – as no historical ‘outcome’ can ever be – are transcendental, are what Spinoza termed eternal, and they are as multitudinous as the stars in an expanding universe. Not all desires lead to freedom, but freedom is a desire being acknowledged, chosen and pursued. Desire never concerns the mere possession of something, but the changing of something. Desire is a wanting. A wanting now.
The wanting that ignites political action is often tethered to immediate outcome and a temporary restructuring of social institutions, but revolution demands the transformation – the evolution – of the actual structure of a society. Revolution demands acute listening and witnessing to the morphic resonances that abound in culture and nature – in the eco-systems of a planet in flux.
How to stage a revolution in our theatres? What legacies are left us in the 21st century as we look back at what those who came before us decided to listen to in society and take action upon to seek change? How is the structure of a society understood? And is our theatre reflective of that level of understanding?
My questions here have less to do with technical advances in the disciplines of design and engineering, and more to do with the philosophical foundations of how we see and how we hear in culture – what we choose to see and hear and not. Ethics again. Yes. Civic responsibility. Spiritual responsibility.
Much time is devoted to discussion of the instantaneous desires for immediate change in our theatres, especially in regard to the family story that is encoded in the struggle for expression of cultural difference. Here I am talking about the family story writ large as the story of a culture: who is parent, child, and whose identity is acknowledged at the family table. The political impetus behind the quest for expression of difference is important, of course – it is related to what is seen and what is not and the lens of history that records visually and aurally the stories told and not told through whispers, secrets, murmurs, and songs called forth from people within a movement that for reasons of economics and social standing are disallowed the possibility of viable action and power in society. Class, you see. To speak of cultural difference without speaking about class sentimentalizes social conflict and reduces the authentic struggle for the true witnessing of difference as merely just another family story: a sentimental drama centred on the desire for approval, and not the desire for freedom in action and an active engagement with the world.
It is not a coincidence that the current state of economic collapse and signs of catastrophic culture resulted in a radical if centrist move in the historically galvanizing vote that elected President Barack Obama to the US’ highest political office. The story of the vote for Obama is yet to be fully written and will certainly take time to be expressed in our cultural mirrors, in part because the story cut across differences in class, culture and ethnic difference. This election was multi-vocal, not univocal, and its various, dizzyingly complex registers of speech, tone, and voice are linguistic and aural markers for change. The drama of the election was not sentimental. It cannot be reduced, however much pundits may try. It cannot be, it refuses to be “entombed in nostalgia” to quote President Obama. It is perhaps something of a pre-digital moment, if I may make the temporal leap, of the kind a poet like Yeats, far removed in temperament and history and politics, envisioned in his own multi-vocal poetry and advocacy for an ever fluid Voice in literature: ever in between, never fixed on one point but shifting between the many, and aligning itself through active listening to the spiritual and material world and its currents and undercurrents of sonic reverberation: acoustic energy.
If our theatres are to move and evolve through revolution, then the many voices that exist within the field and the multiplicity of tongues possible in non-essentialist manifestations of ethnicity and gender must rise through a wanting in the now and not in some future incarnation codified by a stable image and sound acceptable to one or another faction of society. I speak here of the kind of multi-vocal possibilities expressed within a narrative, be it linear or not, be it on a Main stage or not, within the body of performance and of the performer, and in the non-commodified signs that dance in theatre’s bloody musical design (bloody music is my own term for theatre and what it offers as sensual experience, both in the making of it and in its witnessing. –[see essay “Bloody Music” pending publication in issue of Gramma international theatre journal summer 2009]
The family story (writ large) has hijacked much of the conversation around cultural difference and the kinds of stories that can or cannot be told in many of our US theatres (and my focus centres on the US in this reflection only as point of immediate reference). The condition of approval weighs in at nearly every conversation that takes to task the mismanagement of spiritual ideals by intelligent but often compromised (compromised by class, economics, cronyism and convenience) boards of directors and artistic directors at institutions large and small: the mismanagement of the ecology of a living, breathing theatre that speaks local to the global and vice versa and that is not beholden to the narrow confines of subject matter for currency or transactional value in the common market of annihilating difference and subjugated quick-hit pleasure. “See me” is the ongoing refrain that runs through conversations that span forty-plus years of debate, argument, protest and movements dedicated to the visibility of society’s neglected artist children and adults. The gaze aims outward, sometimes inward, but mostly outward, and power – the elusive magnet tied to capitalism and its arteries of consumption – is often the target rather than the deflecting point by which to re-center and re-think social structures in which our theatres (not our buildings) exist.
The triumph of neo-liberalism at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries cannot be understood only as a move to the Right that can be reversed by re-polarizing politics according to an earlier mode of government policies. Similarly, undoing or merely re-polarizing the way decision-making has been policy in many arts institutions will not deliver necessary evolution. The refrain “see me” which in and of itself begs for the gaze to be returned might be more profoundly replaced by “hear me” and thus demand a spiritual connection to the inner and outer voices of practitioners laboring in the fields – some say wilderness – of fabulation. The walk needs to be taken down un-trod paths, through movements that challenge and embrace the legacies of revolution by practitioners and leaders who sought to take history into their own hands and away from the consolidation of power in socially opaque and inaccessible ways.
Individuals in society take stock in buildings: in glorious edifices that speak of power but often not to power. Glamour can blind even the most dedicated evolutionary with its artful bewitchment. But science teaches us that hearing may indeed have new relevance in many cognitive contexts (scientific, medical and economic). Image does not supersede what is heard. Perception lies in the ears as well as the eyes and other senses. Revolution asks that the individual move outside themselves and into the din of the crowd: to listen to the fabric of not just one life but the interconnectedness of lives and how one action can lead to a chain of actions, and yes, everyone is implicated in the historical course of events, and only through listening and witnessing the chain of implications can links be re-wrought, re-made, re-fashioned out of new cloth, steel, breath and song.
Dream song. Human song. In and out of time. Before history had a name. Before the gaze was averted and a subject was made of ruin. After Auschwitz, the gulag, Hiroshima, 9/11 and seemingly countless genocides and atrocities, bankruptcy is commonplace, and the individuals’ task has been to constantly sift through the wreckage of history, to retrace the threads that led to catastrophe in order to envision new cultural myths. In order to envision, however, the recognition of ruin must occur. Its grievances must be uttered into the archives of others, and then released into the archive of memory that picks up the flash of an image, the fragment of a stolen melody, and the thieving blasphemy of prejudice’s bad stain.
Listen to the stories being sung,
to the voices expressed sometimes without a recognizable vocabulary.
Grammar let loose on an ancient bleeding tongue
scoring flesh-bone-and-spirit music for new world’s song.
Memory strip of an acoustic elegy
re-born into the politics of sound
sounding a revolution of a theatre
re-awakened to its purpose,
its poetry –
sustainable in its practice,
caring for young and old,
refusing the river of forgetting
and inviting instead the bounty of remembrance
and the recording of not just one field
but whole blazing fields
of voices loud and soft,
of languages distant and near,
of bodies truth-bound to lie
in the necessary fictions
that are our lives.
Here in the acoustic turn
Let despair be rattled out of its cage
And dialogue with the impossible
That exists all around us reclaimed.
Too sudden an evolution
Is merely momentary change.
[This text was written for the 2009 NoPassport Dreaming the Americas Conference at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at CUNY Graduate Center held February 13-14, 2009 in New York City.]