Monday, 27 February 2017

The Problem of Dramaturgy Now

...the problem of the Diderot-Lessing dramaturgy is not its lack of a system but its insistence on reason. This is not the only way in which a performance might be created, nor is it the only energy that might drive a play...

Both Heads Up and Blow Up are cases in point. Without denying the reasonableness of either play's structure, they present the artist as captured in passion. Hurley's description of characters facing an apocalypse and Taudevin's tale of anti-patriarchal activism are immersed in the emotional lives of their protagonists and the delivery, surrounded by and driven by music, offers an emotive rather than cerebral thrill. When one of Hurley's characters reflects on their own art (popular music), they draw the comparison with the act of sampling, of weaving together not a structured argument but a web of references and quotations, aiming not at the lineal but at a tapestry. Like the web of Indra, the points reflect each other in a hologrammatic description of the whole. The measured and moderate thrust of reason is replaced by an immersion in emotions.

...the category of 'dramaturgy' (a body of theory about the making process) is often confused with 'dramaturgies' (the specific strategies of making)... neither have any ascendancy over the other, but one moves towards a system, the other is concerned with individual theatre-events...

Disorientation, a structure that spirals, the juxtaposition of chaos and order: these things militate against the precise measurements of the Diderot-Lessing tradition. It's a tradition that has disappeared before, almost still-born as it was swept away by the Revolution and Romanticism as its era suddenly aborted.  

Diderot explains the paradigm shift in art...

The Love Witch

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Dramaturgy of Carnage: Gareth Nicholls @ The Tron


This March Tron Theatre Company is delighted to present Yasmina Reza’s modern classic God Of Carnage, translated by Christopher Hampton.

Michel (Colin McCredie) and Véronique (Anita Vettesse) Vallon’s little boy has been hit in the park by Alain (Richard Conlon) and Annette (Lorraine McIntosh) Reille’s son. With the best of intentions, the grown-ups meet to discuss the matter in a calm and rational manner in Michel and Véronique’s comfortable bourgeois apartment.

It isn’t long, however, before the couples begin to get on each other’s nerves. As the evening progresses (and the rum is drunk), diplomatic civility makes way for all out conflict, leaving liberal principles, expensive flowers and half-digested food in tatters on the floor.

What was the inspiration for this performance?

I’d not read the play before Andy Arnold (Artistic Director of the Tron Theatre) gave it to me, but as soon as I did read it I thought it was special. It mixes of humour, personal politics and four fascinatingly flawed characters together into a show that has real bite and passion.

It holds a satirical mirror up to four middle-class bourgeois people and unveils the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of the way they view the world. You love to laugh at them by the end of the show - but at the same time - I think most people will recognize the tendency towards self-destruction that they all share – and as a director that’s a gift to work with theatrically.

How did you go about gathering the team for it?

Micheal-John McCarthy is a sound designer I’ve collaborated with a number of times. Most recently we’ve worked together on Into That Darkness, A Gamblers Guide To Dying and Tennentamongst others – so he was an obvious choice, he’s great, one of the best. Karen Tennent is designing set and Simon Wilkinson is on lights. I’ve not worked with either of them before but I’ve admired their work for a long time – so I’m excited to be working with them. And my cast are all top notch – their experience and quality speak for themselves. Its a great team.

How did you become interested in making performance in the first place - does it hold any particular qualities that other media don't have?

I’ve always been interested in live events – whether that was a sporting event, a music gig or a dance piece – and watching theatre in my late teens I was struck by how it could encapsulate so many art forms at once. That’s pretty thrilling – a medium that can fluidly use dance, film, music, animation and a whole host of other art forms to tell a story or explore an idea.

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?

I tend to adapt my process depending on the play and people I’m working with. In saying that a key feature of my process is working from character outwards. It’s important we understand the characters – their drives, motivations, obstacles, attitudes – before building the rest of the production or working technically in any way.

God of Carnage is about two couples who are supremely confident in their views of the world. But slowly – as the evening progresses – their true feelings, drives and desires come to light in a hysterical and often unflattering way. Its about what’s not said as much as what is – and a lot of the work in the room will be about understanding what’s bubbling away underneath what’s presented on the surface.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

This show is unashamedly entertaining. It’s fun, over the top and brash. Yet at the same time its an incredibly nuanced and intelligent piece that has a lot to say about the times we live in. I think audiences will recognize these characters and perhaps enjoying seeing their downfalls but I hope it will also make people think about their own politics and the way we all, to some degree, present a version of ourselves that might not necessarily be the entire truth.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

I try to make work that’s exciting first and foremost. Audiences want to be entertained, provoked in heart and mind and to leave feeling or thinking a little differently to the way they entered. I try to keep this at the front of my mind when directing. I use my own instincts, surround myself with brilliant collaborators and constantly ask questions of the work. Hopefully this all adds to the quality of the productions and the audience experience.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?

I think my work stretches across a number of traditions depending of who and what I'm working with. My work with Gary McNair for example sits within a very different tradition or context to my work at the Citizens theatre. I’m sure there are some over-arching aesthetics or themes that tie all my work together -  but i try to leave it to others to say what they are.  

Morality is Fun. Ignorance is Strength

A Horror Comic is Deeply Moral

What is the point, eh?

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Does Patriarchy Exist? (further reflections)

So, I had a look at Kristi Winter's analysis of patriarchy, and know that there are some problems with my relatively uncritical acceptance of her conclusions. Primarily, her analysis concentrates on a single body, and it relies heavily on raw, simple statistics. The choice of the USA congress is a tough call, too: why select that particular body rather than another? If she took, for example, statistics on parenting, would that reveal an egalitarian answer? 

In my laziness - I mean, I am just stealing someone else's research - I'm not that worried whether patriarchy is the partially hidden power behind all western civilisation. My brain can't cope with that level of metaphysics. All I needed was a method that could open a conversation about the existence of any patriarchy at all. Since Winters defines her terms clearly, she creates a foundation for this conversation. It's possible to critique her definition, or point out that governmental bodies aren't that important. But she has facilitated a conversation by articulating her position, hypothesis and methodology. 

And yeah, I know she assumes that 'opportunity of outcome' is more important. That's another argument for another day.

The truth is, I am just testing the water on this - if there is any interest, I might start applying her methodology on theatre, to see whether it is patriarchal. It's a simple place to start, and might get debunked further down the line (my rough calculations suggest that, taking a sample from the major theatre companies, and using Winters' statistical analysis, there will be a patriarchal bias). I know that more qualitative research will lead to all sorts of hanging assumptions (like, what would patriarchal theatre look like, and how far is that mirrored in the actual theatre itself?) and arguments about what is actually 'patriarchal' and so on.

But I may or may not follow this. I may or may not accept Winters' methodology in the future. Like her, I am shaping the foundations of a possible future debate... one that will probably happen in my head.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Gonna Just No?

Much to nobody's interest, I've been worrying about what I regard as an infection in much new (theatre) writing. The habit of otherwise enjoyable scripts to shove too many plot points into the narrative - especially towards the end - has undermined their quality and the power of 'the dramatic moment': too many resolutions, and I start to suffer from compassion fatigue. By way of example, Tamasha's Made in India, which achieved its aim of dissecting the matter of surrogacy, had the sudden introduction of a financial subplot (the protagonist bankrolling the action) which didn't go anywhere, a sudden attack of maternal feeling on the part of the surrogate and a political campaign that allowed the issues to go up a notch. 

Call me Aristotelian, but the focus of a single plot lends far more power to the final resolution: even Shakespeare, who loved a subplot, didn't turn every scene into a mini-play with a new problem resolved within minutes. I mean, for all the idiocy of the last scene in The Winter's Tale, it did, at least, refer back to the first act's bleak tragic arc. 

I watched a couple of films - the tedious After Earth, and then World War Z. As drama, they are dreadful, and they have that same infection. So I guess that's where the patient zero for this can be found: action films. 

Or perhaps soap operas? Or comic books? Because the episodic structure isn't so irritating in film - or in a serialised drama. After Earth was terrible because of the mediocre acting, not the hero's journey that provides an excuse for some half-baked meditation on father-son relationships. And World War Z is just... well, it's a mess, isn't it?

The episodic, however, really irritates me on stage. Maybe that's my problem, my taste: a sense that I am being manipulated. Maybe the technique is being used in a clumsy way (and here After Earth has a prime example of this: check out that scene where the boy hero gets rescued off a mutant eagle. The dramatic tension lasts a good thirty seconds, and I have just ruined it, too, by revealing the twist). 

I might go back over my reviews and collate examples of what I'm talking about: I remember that Jumpy at the Lyceum doing it when the teenage protagonist went through potential academic failure, pregnancy, miscarriage, catching her mum pumping her boyfriend in about ten minutes, each drama simply hand-waved by the end of the next scene. Jumpy had plenty of other problems, mind. 

I find it all a bit much, theatrically. Nothing is allowed to settle and become a serious bit of tension. At its worst - I recall Kurst, which interrupted its concentration on a submarine full of dead sailors to throw in a bit about how one of the crew members on the craft listening in had lost a child back at home - it seems to reveal a lack of confidence in the script's story, or tragic potential. 

I almost bet I can find this in a book about 'writing drama' somewhere. And I bet that's why it is proliferating like a meme of a fascist frog.

Does Patriarchy Exist?

Forgive me for a little self-indulgence. When Big Ideas get chucked about, I like to find out what they mean. I have heard patriarchy used as a justification for feminist activism, but I wasn't exactly sure whether it existed or not. Of course, the answer is always to visit YouTube. 

Kristi Winters tends to get involved in rows with other vloggers, and is a staunch advocate of feminism. In the past, I've found her a little smug - I know that's rare in atheist circles. Nevertheless, the title of this video suggested that this might be a good place to start.

She spends quite a long time establishing her credentials and research methods (which I found quite interesting), but around ten minutes in, she gets down to business. And she does prove that the USA has a patriarchal Congress. So, yeah, patriarchy does exist.

Once she had proved this, I stopped watching to do some calculations on the British parliament. That's patriarchal, too, but not as bad: Winters' hypothesis is that patriarchy can be observed statistically, and by her method, parliament is dominated by men (two thirds of MPs), making it patriarchal.

I'm pretty happy with her conclusions - at least in proving that specific institutions are patriarchal. I also admired her serious methodology. I did notice that the trend was away from total patriarchal control, and if I was any good at mathematics, I could probably predict the year in which equality will be achieved.

(And yeah, the growth mirrors the rise of feminism, so it's not really fair to say that feminism has achieved its aim, making it redundant.)

Anyway, I've got other stuff to do, so I am not quite ready to think about the implications of this yet, and I don't believe that this proves all civilisation is patriarchal (nor does it disprove it, but I'm not mentally agile enough to go Big Picture this afternoon). Winters has presented an effective methodology for making the call on specific institutions, though. If I ever decide to write a piece on 'theatre and patriarchy', though, I have a good place to start: using Winters' definition and method, I could look at the numbers of men and women in a particular area of theatre, and base an assumption on this. 

It's possible to critique both her example and statistical selection, I know. But that wasn't what I was trying to understand. I just wanted to make sure I wasn't throwing about a buzzword. 

Friday, 17 February 2017

Critical Reflections on Made in India

As usual, the following caveat applies to the following opinions: they manifest 'thought-in-progress', not a dogmatic conclusion. The matter of Made in India, Tamasha's theatrical study of post-colonial surrogacy, continues to engage me, especially after a splendid session with Toonspeak's Young Critics. 

At the risk of stealing their ideas - although the ideas' limitation, naturally, rest with me - they inspired me to reconsider two aspects of the performance: whether it can be categorised as a 'feminist' play, and the difference experiences of watching and discussing it.

Through my admittedly minimal definition, Made in India is clearly a feminist script: it is concerned with three women and issues of hierarchy and power. While the disembodied voice of the male politician could be interpreted as the intrusion of patriarchal authority, the power-play comes through the relationship between the women themselves, with the wealthy European, the India Doctor and the financially vulnerable surrogate competing for dominance. 

Casting these conflicts within a context of masculine oppression explains perhaps the ferocity of the battles, and the surrogate's statement of 'my body, my choice' reveals the author's familiarity with wider debates around reproductive rights: nevertheless, the designation 'feminist' here does not necessarily imply a framework of patriarchy is necessary to understand the content.

Made in India does not market itself as an explicitly feminist play: the company is more interested in defining itself in terms of 'new voices' and support for frequently excluded stories 'inspired by diversity'. Made in India, equally, does not provide a solution to the various moral conundrums conjured in the production: the virtue of surrogacy itself is undetermined, let alone the particular hierarchies it imposes on the women. 

Some of its most dramatic moments come when the hierarchies are tested - as when the Doctor threatens to end the European's treatment, and points out how, from the very start of the play, the European has been dominating through her financial power. 

But the hierarchies are in constant flux: it is only when the surrogate attempts to take control that it become apparent that, ultimately, only the position of the most vulnerable can be seen as static.

In my writing of the review (and here is where things might get awkward), I found myself enjoying the experience far more than I enjoyed the 'lived experience' of sitting through the play. Not
massively - there was plenty in the scenography and performances that were pleasurable - but the unfolding of the ideas as I wrote (and then discussed) revealed depths to the script and an encouragement not to embrace any particular resolution but further explore the issues. 

My 'four stars' - roughly - correspond to a statement that Made in India achieves what it sets out to do, with the additional comment that it provokes informed conversation. That's a very particular definition of quality.

And what does that definition imply? That the pleasure or quality afforded to a production is not merely a measure of 'production values' or 'aesthetic excellence', but includes the subsequent experiences that it informs. Made in India is a superb choice for a discussion between Young Critics, because it forces further debate and an opportunity for the critics to impose their subjectivity - and maybe even question it. 

I'll be interested to see how our next discussion on Cuttin' a Rug goes: my hunch is that it might offer a less immediate engagement, and more on theatricality than the substance of the plot, themes and relevance.

I have always insisted that the reader recognises my personal subjectivity, and - being a bit cheeky - only respect my opinion in so far as they are aware of my tastes. My dramaturgical hero Lessing thought that the critic could educate audiences into good taste, but I don't share his rationalist optimism. 

Taste is not absolute, it is the point of connection between a spectator's personality and an art object. I like stuff that forces me to think - even at the cost of insulting my personal beliefs. I'm sure that reveals something about my personality that I'd rather not consider. 

Briefly returning to Made in India, it is a great show for anyone who shares that taste, who believes in theatre as a location for the public discussion of ideas. To be fair, critics tend to like work like that, because they have to have a public discussion about it. I like art that inspires what I shall cautiously call my art. It's not as great show for someone who wants to be simply entertained and laugh or even have a big emotional catharsis. 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Good Nature and Ignoring Audiences

The spectators are partly not connoisseurs, and in part too good natured, and they take the desire to please them for the deed.
Lessing, Hamburg Dramaturgy No.5

While I am reluctant to be as bold as Lessing - who is commenting on the habit of certain actors raising their voice as they exit a scene in order to ensure a round of applause - the good nature of audiences could be a fair reason for the critic to ignore their responses in the assessment of a performance's quality. Having endured a dismal evening at Wonderland - a new musical which takes liberties with Lewis C's fantastical tale of Mad Hatters and tyrannical queens, I pondered how this mismatch of story and song could attract such warm audience approval. In this matter, as in so many, Herr Lessing has anticipated my perplexity.

At one point, Alice (now transformed into a middle-aged divorcee) makes an apparently trenchant speech in which she realises that her ex-husband, previously her authority, is, in fact, a mean-spirited authoritarian. Love is replaced by hate, and this stands for some form of liberation. On cue, the audience interrupted the performance to vigorously approve her new-found independence.

And yet - leaving aside whether hate rather than indifference marks liberation from patriarchal oppression - Alice had not earned her attitude. In the magical world of Wonderland, self-realisation comes from jumping through a magic mirror. A symbol of Kierkegaard's 'leap of faith' perhaps, but an unsatisfying symbol that removes the need for either self-awareness or struggle. This is lazy writing, and the speech's feminism is poorly served by the easy resolution of Alice's long-term repression.

It is a signifier of a trenchant speech, rather than the thing itself. The significance is not within the words but the dramatic pause, the invitation for applause. The audience is invited to participate, to award the play with meaning. 

Perhaps this is the training of television, with its laughter track teaching the viewer how to respond. Rewatching I'm Alan Partridge, the laughter track is briefly replaced after one character's monologue - about shooting up a friend with an attack helicopter - with a ripple of applause. Suitably equipped, the viewer is educated in the shape of 'important moments' without needing the shape to be further refined or contoured. While ignoring audience response is perhaps a step too far, this example suggests a place for suspicion, at the least.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Donald Trump is a Genius.

It must have been about a year ago that I decided that I was a genius. Boy, that was one of my worst ideas yet. Even though I pointed out that being a genius was a personality type rather than a guarantee of anything, like, getting done, it's not really the type of claim that makes me new friends. But I could add that the willingness to sound like an utter dick was exactly the kind of thing that a genius would do.

I feel less satisfied with my statement now that I have realised that Donald Trump probably also counts as a genius. See, it's not boasting. Does anyone really want to share a personality type with Donald Trump? 

Being a genius wasn't always a thing. Pascal was quite upset when he was called a genius by Queen Christina of Sweden. He thought that it meant he couldn't be humble, and worried about God being annoyed by his presumption. Then he got tangled up when he realised that by trying to be humble, he was being arrogant about his humility. I guess he eventually tossed a coin to decide whether swanking about the place was okay. 

Pascal, in around 1651, was one of the first people to be called a genius: according to Ray McDermott (Materials for a Confrontation with Genius as a Personal Identity, 2004), he is the first name trotted out by scholars who want to write a history of 'the genius'. Mainly because he lived on the cusp of a moment when the idea was becoming fashionable: during the 1700s, theorists displayed their descriptions of 'genius' like a hipster's sleeve tattoo. Diderot goes into detail about the nature of the genius (that's where I got my idea from that I'm a genius). Addison chatted about it in his magazine The Spectator, and Forkel's 1802 biography of Bach transformed Johann Seb from jobbing composer to Mighty Man of Music Magic. 

Pascal comes out of it quite well: by the time of Wagner, being a genius was cool enough to be the subject of an opera. Die Meistersinger contrasts the genius with the mere craftsman (Edward E. Lowinsky, Musical Genius -Evolution and Origins of a Concept). There's no prize for guessing which character Wagner identifies with himself. But Pascal was a man of a modest age: God was still a big deal, and the official line was that the past was better than the present, art was an act of imitation and being 'original' was more likely to result in a visit to a dungeon than an honorary degree from Glasgow University. 

As always, it's The Enlightenment's fault. Starting with Addison, going through Diderot and this bishop called Douglas, who defended Milton's Paradise Lost from charges of plagiarism in 1751, up to Goethe in German and beyond him into the Romantic Era, the word 'genius' changed its meaning. In Latin, It had referred to the guardian spirit of the individual, before alluding to a moment of creativity up until the time of Pascal. But Diderot did (as he always does) a great job of defining it to his needs. Realising that he wasn't all that in the creative stakes - although he could churn out a perfectly acceptable article or two - he imagined a personality that could be both sensitive to nature but rational enough to express it coolly. 

George J. Buelow - who dug up Bishop Douglas from the depth of literary history - has plenty to say about how the genius became a thing, even giving a four step description of genius. Step one - something that Diderot and my secret love Lessing confirm - is that the genius doesn't need to pay attention to the rules. In fact, actually knowing stuff is a bit of an impediment to genius. Edward Young (1759) was like yeah, a genius is much cooler if they are also a bit thick. Or, as McDermott puts it when he talks about Adam Smith's notion of genius: if less goes in than comes out, it's the capitalist's wet-dream of a factory, only in the brain.

McDermott also mentions that the idea of genius is a bit of a problem. It ignores the way that ideas are often developed in a collective, and it heads up a hierarchy of intelligence. It's not like Einstein wasn't smart, but the cult of his personality (or that applied to anyone these days who isn't a drooling fool) ignores the necessarily collaborative progress of scientific thought. History becomes a litany of Great (usually) White (usually) Males. So it's got that going against it, too. 

It's not like the time before 'The Age of The Genius' was much better in that regard: they tended to say that the classics provided the model of excellence: fortunately, Quintilian and Aristotle justified this attitude by pointing back to the epic poems and tragedies as examples (while being classical texts themselves). So it has been pretty much a canon of DWM right the way down. But they didn't mind imitation or, to dress it in its Sunday Best, mimesis. The thing about the genius would be originality. 

Now, this isn't going to get me back to Donald Trump any faster, but it might be worth noting that the genius, originality, plagiarism and copyright claims all became a thing in the eighteenth century. Lessing, for example, got really pissed off when pirates sold cheap copies of his Dramaturgy. You know, with a bit of thought, I bet I could get Walter Benjamin's notion of the 'authentic aura' of an artwork into this, somewhere. 

The 'genius' creates more than previously existed - an original object - which is special because it was made by a genius - and copying it is bad because that removes the specialness - which makes it less original - and worth less money - and it's a plot of words to assign financial worth to specific objects and create a market - for ideas as well - and the genius...

Anyway, Donald Trump is a genius. Donald Trump knows he is a genius. And that is a problem. I am just too bored to prove it now. Maybe tomorrow, if anyone actually reads this far.

Materials for a Confrontation with Genius as a Personal Identity
Ray McDermott 
Vol. 32, No. 2, Theme Issue: Ethnographic Studies of Positioning and Subjectivity: Narcotraffickers, Taiwanese Brides, Angry Loggers, School Troublemakers (Jun., 2004), pp. 278-288

Musical Genius--Evolution and Origins of a Concept
Edward E. Lowinsky
The Musical Quarterly
Vol. 50, No. 3 (Jul., 1964), pp. 321-340

Originality, Genius, Plagiarism in English Criticism of the Eighteenth Century
George J. Buelow
International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music
Vol. 21, No. 2 (Dec., 1990), pp. 117-128

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Trump or something

Despite my triumphant assertion that dramaturgy now provides the answer to political analysis, I had a proper nightmare last night. Then I woke up and remembered that Walter Benjamin off the Frankfurt School identified the 'aestheticization of politics' as a feature of fascism. If life becomes art, and politics gets treated like a show, it's a good bet that totalitarianism is happening.

I'm not keen on assessing the psychological condition of public figures, or throwing about comparisons to Hitler. Putting Trump's antics down to the Dunning-Kruger effect, or making lists of how his policies imitate Nazism seem like reductionism, and the latter is too easily dismissed as hysteria. But using a system that I vaguely understand allows me to make similar judgements and pretend that I am on top of the issues. Welcome to the blog of hypocrisy.

If dramaturgy is a valuable tool for the critique of politicians - and this goes beyond Trump, because Hilary Clinton, Putin, Boris and the gang can all be interpreted as petty players - then isn't that admitting that politics has become an aesthetic display? And following Benjamin, doesn't that mean that the trappings of totalitarianism are in place? Rather than being a celebration, the use of dramaturgy to critique Trump becomes a despairing acknowledgement that democracy is in trouble. 

It almost makes me sentimental for the time when Christianity was the moral standard for socio-political standards. Hear me out... it didn't work out, but at least Christianity offers certain rules and standards by which politicians can be judged. There's a meme going around that has a picture of Theresa May, asking how she can claim to be a Christian and enact policies that attack the most vulnerable members of society. That's what I'm talking about.

(Yes, I know, there is a flip-side to that: Christianity used as a way to object to Islamic immigration, for example, or the persecution of homosexuals. It's all very well to argue that these behaviours are not Christian according to a liberal interpretation, but there's a tradition of Biblical justification for some terrible behaviour.)
But I am using Christianity as a contrast to dramaturgy: it is a system with an integral moral system. Dramaturgy merely answers questions about presentation. Approaching Trump's campaign as if it were theatre might even mean praising it, since it achieved its intentions.

A plague on both your houses?

I'd really like to stop talking about the Enlightenment. I've got this piece about the relevance of theatre that will hopefully cause a real shit storm but every time I try to get out, they pull me back in. I guess I am lucky... my academic research is all about (at the moment) how dramaturgy is an expression of Enlightenment thought, through the medium of theatrical critique. And the Enlightenment has become a battle-ground between the progressive left and the religious right. I go onto YouTube to distract myself with some sarcastic responses to Blackpool Grime Media, and I get stuff like this recommended.

The real magic of YouTube is when both sides don't know what they are talking about. Penny Nance and Cenk Uygur have fixed ideas about what the Enlightenment was, and their only commonality is a lack of depth in their thought. 

Nance is advocating a day of prayer, and rejects the possibility of a 'day of reason' as a companion event. Uygur calls her unamerican for her critique of the Enlightenment, which she blames for the holocaust.

Uygur makes a spirited defence of the Enlightenment, pointing out that it advanced scientific research (correctly: the thinkers of the Enlightenment were inspired by the scientific method, especially through the discoveries of Newton). Unfortunately, he seems to think that the Enlightenment came before the scientific revolution, when it is usually seen as earlier, encouraged by Francis Bacon's assertion of method and observation. 

It's fair to say that the Enlightenment did encourage an already dynamic scientific investigation: but it consolidated rather than generated scientific advances. It's a small correction for Uygur, but crucial when he is trying to dispute Nance's chronological chain of causation.

Nance's belief that the Enlightenment led to the holocaust isn't as random as Uygur tries to claim: it's the subtext to the argument put forward by Adorno and Horkheimer in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Given that Uygur is often accused of being a 'cultural Marxist', it is surprising that he doesn't seem to be aware of the Ur-Text of cultural Marxism. Of course, the phrase is slung about by his opponents, and often has a nasty antisemitic subtext, suggesting that it's more a dog-whistle than a serious analysis of anyone's political position. 

Nevertheless, Nance is a surprising advocate of a position first suggested by Marxist atheists. It undermines her religious intentions - Dialect does not encourage a return to Christian values, and even includes Martin Luther in the list of 'rationalist' activists who caused the Enlightenment. Rather than address the scholars who have taken up this claim seriously, Uygur goes for the 'low-hanging fruit', a woman on Fox News banging on about religious morality. 

Uygur correctly counters that the USA itself is a product of the Enlightenment - the good example he doesn't give is that Jefferson, one of the founder fathers, hung out with the philosophes in Paris, had a special copy of the Bible with all the miracles crossed out and subscribed to the deism that was big with chaps like Voltaire (who caught it from Newton). His description of the USA's disestablishment of religion in the constitution, however, is partisan: far from being a complete freedom from religion, it was a necessary decision in a country that was full of religious sects. 

There's a superb discussion of it in the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund's compilation (which I shall dig out and cite later). While Nance might be against freedom from religion (she does see it as leading to moral relativism, which leads to state sanctioned slaughter), her claims aren't against the freedom of religion that the constitution was written to protect.

The irritating thing is that Uygur picks up on the incoherence of Nance's argument and then counters with an argument that is equally incoherent. He's trying to win an argument by appealing to the opinion of his viewers rather than discover the common ground in the debate and suggesting a compromise. 

I might agree that he is right to defend secular rationality and, yes, I want to live in a world that offers me a longer life and better health, but he fails to back up his opinion with... reason. I know complexity is hard to handle on YouTube, but he is just throwing together half-understood histories and ideas to befuddle his opponent. 

It seems unfair to hammer Uygur when Nance is equally culpable of nonsense - and she started it. But her arguments have been taken down so many times (moral relativism is less dangerous than absolutism, yep) that a supposed champion of reason ought to be using it. 

Monday, 6 February 2017

Comédie-Française and National State Propaganda

Anwen Jones (National Theatres in Context, 2007) considers the establishment of the Comédie-Française in 1680 by the king as an attempt to undermine the growth of the 'public sphere' - the space defined by Habermas as emerging in the sixteenth to eighteenth century as the location for debates about politics and society. While I doubt her depiction of a gleeful Louis XIV and Cardinal Richelieu rubbing their hands together at their fiendish plot to defeat an idea that wasn't noticed until the twentieth century, the idea that a national theatre could be instituted as a way of controlling performance (to the ends of the state) isn't unattractive. 

Jones contends that the activity of the actors in the subsequent century reveals a tremendous ambiguity about the role of state support: when they were awarded citizenship, for example, by the revolutionary government under Robespierre, they were equally worried that the all-new, all-democratic state would allow any clown to set up a rival theatrical venture...

And when I say clown, I'm not kidding. They'd already had one legal skirmish with Théâtre de la foire - which was more like a big festival - and got legislation that banned performers from - hold on, this can't be right - using words... la foire had loads of acrobats and harlequins and clowns, and the CF didn't mind that, as long as they... didn't chat about what they were doing... or told a story... or something...

Anyway, even though being the national theatre wasn't all sunshine and chuckles - the king made them move out to the west end of Paris, which isn't as convenient as the west end in Glasgow - the CF managed to sustain itself even after the revolution kicked off and started having these weird parades and fêtes which were like the revolution's big idea for replacing theatre and establish popular acceptance of the new regime. 

It's not that other national theatres are likely to start prosecuting circuses to maintain their cultural dominance - probably a bit late for that, now - but does the example of the CF suggest a potential for the medium of theatre as a medium for state propaganda? And how far can the notion of 'state' theatre be extended? Does state funded count?