Post-Dramatic Stress Disorder


As far as invitations go, this was a quite polite one to a beheading, which from the outset I suspected was intended to be my own. Late last week, I received a message from George Hunka (of Superfluities Redux and other critical and artistic ventures) that read simply: “Certainly worth a look from the both of you, I think” (the message was also addressed to Andy Horwitz) and containing a link to an article recently translated by Theater magazine. Entitled “Post-Dramatic Theater and the Bleeding Heart of the Seventies,” by Berlin-based critic and artist Robin Detje, the piece is…well…I want to call it a jeremiad (the author refers to it as an “essay provocation” in the article and as a “manifesto” in comments on SR, so something strong) against the continued dominance of “Post-Dramatic Theater.” In Berlin, I guess, because postdram (I’ll explain below…) feels like a pretty slim slice of the pie here in New York and even smaller elsewhere in the US.

Thus was the gauntlet thrown down. Post-Dramatic Theater, I suppose, is our bailiwick here at Culturebot, and Detje’s provocation, via George, was a challenge to defend all the things we regularly praise (as well as our occasionally snarky–mainly due to this author–critiques of other practices). I remain somewhat ambivalent even as I write this. Culturebot certainly doesn’t define itself as devoted to “Post-Dramatic Theater,” and I daresay you can find plenty of non-postdram (it’s like I’m back in college rolling my eyes at references to the “Po-Mod Squad,” but I’m lazy and have no intern to do global find-and-replaces) coverage in these digital pages, most self-evidently in the case of dance and choreographic works, which make no claim to the theatrical tradition whatsoever.

As I explained in comments on Superfluities Redux, our attachment to the concept of “performance” here at Culturebot (we normally refer to the blandly neutral concept of “contemporary performance”) is not an ideological statement endorsing Hans-Thies Lehmann (the guy who wrote the book on Post-Dramatic Theater) or any other theorist. Our approach is far more fundamental: we’re talking about live performances. We’re not literary critics (well, that’s what I started out as, but anyway…). We have better things to do than quibble with how well one production or another deals with a play-text. It’s a fun game, I grant you, and one I’ve played before, but at a certain point, we’d just seem like snobbish twats if we devoted all our time talking about whose interpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire was fuller or more apt or most adequately realized the nuances of the text. Whether it’s text-based or not, it’s a fucking play. It needs to be dealt with as a live event, the sum total of the material aspects of its realization, and dealt with on that level. We’re more than happy to apply the same critical standards we employ looking at the Wooster Group or Sarah Michelson to a quality Off-Broadway play. The problem is that from our perspective, the average Off-Broadway play readily submits itself to a whole series of ideologies in terms of how it’s performed. The psychological-realist acting, the way the sets are envisioned, etc., etc.

Idealistic playwrights who take issue with our occasional anti-playwright attitude should perhaps take note of the fact our issue is less with the fact you wrote something as it is the fact you wrote something un-questioningly for mainstream theater production, the same beast so many playwrights find fault with, while never stepping back to think critically about whether the very faults they find with the production model (NPD hell, anyone?) are not informed by a set of ideological assumptions that likewise inform the very aesthetic practices they present onstage.

But with that said, it’s probably true that Culturebot is primarily concerned, at least insofar as we’re speaking of “theater,” with the Post-Dramatic variety. Which I guess is a fine way to define us. Contemporary performance embraces performativity as the fundamental aspect of a live performance; Lehmann’s book–which I must embarrassingly admit to not having read yet, another part of my ambivalence about being drawn into this argument–is seen by most members of this community (if that’s the right word) as essentially arguing that for various reasons we need to embrace the performativity of live performance. All well and good and I guess I can accept the term if that’s what we mean by it. That said, Lehmann’s book is also a history, concerned with certain socio-historical circumstances and making various arguments about them.

Now I get a little more ambivalent. Reading Detje or George’s lengthier essay on Detje, I think these two may both be more narrowly defining theatrical “performance” than I would, in order to make a point. Both are artists, too, neither of whose work I’ve ever seen, but in George’s case, I know that the theater tradition he’s influenced by includes Beckett, Robert Wilson, Heiner Muller, Sarah Kane, and Howard Barker. Which isn’t exactly what I’d call “mainstream theater,” nor outside of the tradition I see myself in. Certainly all those playwrights (and George, I think, identifies himself as a playwright) challenge what I’d define as the mainstream performance ideologies. I may find them more or less revelatory or inspiring, but we’re not in O’Neill-Miller-Wilson territory here.

So, suspecting we might be splitting hairs, I also bothered to go and read one of Detje’s sources–Bernd Stegemann’s essay “After Postdramatic Theater,” published in Theater Heute in 2009, exploring the legacy of Lehmann’s book ten years on (sadly it’s not available online; it was published in English in Theater magazine 39:3, 2009). In it, Stegemann lays out a far more detailed critique. I find it more compelling but ultimately unsatisfying.

Stegemann begins with Muller, writing:

Heiner Muller’s famous saying–“My drama is no longer pertinent” (“mein Drama findet nicht mehr statt”)–is a statement on societal mood, ideological stance, and aesthetic position all in one and could  be viewed as a starting point for this new art of the theater. But here the first difficulty in confronting the term postdramatic becomes apparent. For Muller’s statement refers to a crisis of drama, which consists of its apparent inability to convey the complexity of the modern world: the problems of the present exceed the the representational capacity of the situational dramatic art.

Well hell, I’ve never read Lehmann, but no. No, that’s not the issue. In fact, after reading Detje and Stegemann three or four times each, I remain impressed at their willingness to pretend to be painfully ignorant of cultural production beyond the stage. Stegemann at least mentions Kafka, but film–let along TV or video or the Internet–are apparently completely alien concepts to these critics, except insofar as postdram’s engagement with–however fleeting–these rather historically important means of production can be used to label postdram “bourgeois.”

(A side note: I do love the degree to which critical discourse about art–situated squarely within a semi-scholarly or academic context–consists of polysyllabic name-calling, in which the true point of any argument is to prove that someone else is “bourgeois.” It gets my latent Maoist blood boiling. I’ve long felt that our moralistic vision of the brutality of the Soviet Terror, particularly vis-a-vis its treatment of avant-garde artists, has obscured the very real critique that an actually revolutionary society produced of such artists. We pathologize so we don’t have to deal with its conclusions. Mayakovsky may have been an early supporter, but once the Soviets were in power, they quick realized people needed cookbooks that, you know, helped people cook, and furthermore that radical artists whose work was focused on offending bourgeois mores were rather dependent on the bourgeoisie to provide an object to revolt against. Our liberal moralizing about Stalinism obscures the fact that such is likely the fate of provocative/transgressive artists in any revolutionary society.)

The point is that Post-Dramatic Theater could also be seen as just another evolutionary response to new technology. If photography precipitated Modernism in the visual arts and socio-economic Modernity precipitated late Romanticism, we could just acknowledge that Post-Dramatic Theater, with its focus on performativity, is just another response by the non-playwright producers of live performance to adjust to a world in which in the core principles of drama–in Stegemann’s analysis: character and conflict, and, implicitly, narrative–can be better presented through non-theatrical means. This failure of analysis is doubly shocking because in Stegemann’s conclusion, he introduces the concept of “believability” into his critique, writing:

[W]hat makes theater such a gripping event for the audience members that their attention is worthy and rewarded? A concept may help here, even though at first glance it may appear to be an outdated one: when it is believable, theater earns the devotion of its audience.

With all due respect to Stegemann, this strikes me as not so much outdated as hopelessly naive. Note first that by its own logic, it assumes that an audience could–nay, should–find a drama that takes place in a theater, on a stage dressed to be a remarkably huge living room, featuring actors who have to almost yell every line just to be heard, more “believable” than a video of people in an actual living room, speaking at actual living-room volumes. Second, and somewhat more complexly, it assumes that “believable” is essentially the same thing as “verisimilitude”–the photo-realistic presentation of external “life” onstage. A self-aware performance mimicking the style of, say, a sitcom (I’m thinking of David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones here, a decidedly non-postdram work) is apparently not believable, even though anyone in the audience would recognize–and find “believable”–the aesthetic as that of a sitcom. In his attempt to defend drama from the travesties of Post-Dramatic Theater, Stegemann has apparently rejected the possibility of satire and parody as well, which is why he hangs his hat on the completely un-quantifiable concept of “believability” rather than something even vaguely more specific, like “verisimilitude.”

Is this unfair? Maybe. Again, Stegemann–like Detje–locates his definition of Post-Dramatic Theater as a rather narrow band. In fact, in his conclusion, Stegemann’s central complaint is that, within Germany, the wholehearted acceptance of Post-Dramatic Theater as a model has excluded dissenting artists from support in their artistic endeavors. Apparently, according to his logic, by supporting postdram at all I’m endorsing the continued support of Jan Lauwers, Jan Fabre, no doubt some other Belgian “Jan,” a bunch of Germans, and the Wooster Group–all to the exclusion of others. I’m doing no such thing, and the practical issues of state funding in Germany are utterly beyond me, aside from the general sense that attacking a broadly defined artistic practice for the sake of arguing, in essence, that young artists deserve support, seems rather extreme, misdirected, and likely ineffective. (And for the record, Culturebot remains committed to the advancement of form and providing a solid critique of the current funding models in the US–and elsewhere, should a knowledgeable commentator want to offer an elsewhere-perspective.)

But let me turn back to Detje, in order to try to make sense of that essay’s critique of postdram. Detje is also an artist, a practitioner, who positioned the essay as a “manifesto.” What can we make of Detje’s vision for a post-Post-Dramatic Theater?

Well, within Detje’s critique, there’s a willingness to accept the radical impetus of the early practitioners, like the Living Theater, followed only by despair later at the continued acceptance of the particular set of practices ascribed to postdram:

What we’re dealing with here is post-dramatic theater. Its proponents have prescribed a kind of high-tech medicine for the stage: there is a beeping machine producing discourse, which will be live-streamed onto the stage, and a beeping machine for theory that prohibits all forms of immediacy. Each beeping machine proves that we are in the now. Invariably, post-dramatic theatre can be spotted squatting on stage behind a mess of Macbooks and tangled cables. In this world, the artist is the epitome of the tragic, hyper-networked but lonely monad, flung into a world of technology. And on his hard-drive, there is the musty smell of a thousand seminars.

For Detje, postdram is essentially the hangover of a radical experiment of the Sixties and Seventies, when entered “the shamans of revolution (and masturbation).”

Artists wanted to prove they could stand the erotic – and autoerotic – demands of the revolution. Radicalization permits the revolutionaries of theatre and life to do something great: in a self-induced fever, they equate the struggle for liberation with the struggle for satisfaction. The un-erogenous body is a victim of structural violence – and, conversely, the erogenous body is a weapon in the revolutionary battle. Being totally into yourself suddenly passes as a political act. For a short, historical moment, politics and therapy are united under the vague slogan of “liberation”. For the duration of a batted eyelid, theater’s narcissism and its political aims converge.

And now we’ve reached the polysyllabic insult just barely less common than some quasi-Marxist formulation of calling someone else “bourgeois”: accusing them of mental masturbation. Again, I’ll just assume I’m given some credit for being able to detect the difference between self-congratulatory onanistic art and something more important or meaningful or, at least, ambitious. I don’t pretend to defend every work ever conceived that could be labeled “Post-Dramatic.” With that said, I have to express my continued sense that dramatic theater, at least as practiced today, is more often than not guilty of onanistic indulgence.

To stick with our masturbation metaphor, a number of years ago, I was working on an article about pornography and got into a long conversation about cum-shots with a pornographer. For the polite sake of assuming ignorance, I’ll explain: in the world of straight porn, a video tends to end with male ejaculation, most commonly on–rather than in–the actress, with a particular emphasis on facial cum-shots. All on the same page? So, what we got to talking about were the particulars of the facial cum-shot: namely, the obsessive focus on making the actress look at the camera–POV style–eyes open during, or at least following, being ejaculated upon.

My subject had a novel interpretation: for him, this need to see the actress looking at the avatar for the onanist was essentially a moment of empathy, in which the consumer of porn could empathize with the actress. This struck me in many ways as bullshit. For my part, it seemed a classic example of the “Gaze of the Other” (pace Sartre): The reason one would want the object of one’s erotic fantasy to “look” at back at the objectifier is all about power. If you’re quite literally turning another person into an object of sexual fantasy, part of completing that dialectical interaction is having them look back at you, and in that gaze understand yourself to be the erotic actor.

The fascination with the male orgasmic moment as pertaining to theater is actually pretty common. Writing in “From Elements of Style,” collected in The America Play and Other Works, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks uses the male climax-arc as a metaphor for traditional narrative, writing “we all want to get to the CLIMAX,” and side-noting:

in X-vids the cum-shot is the money shot. Yeah but it’s not a question of the way girls cum vs. the way boys cum. I’m not looking at a single sexual encounter but something larger, say, in this context, the history of all sexual encounters all over the globe, all animals included.

In this context, Parks–who’s a sort of liminal figure between dramatic and postdram theater, particularly where her early work is concerned–is setting out her vision of the almost mythic components of works like The America Play. Regardless of whether the narrative occurs on the realist, gender- and temporally-specific orgasmic level, or the mythic, I suppose meta-orgasmic level, the structure of the dramatic endeavor remains committed to some process of sexual satisfaction. The audience will go to the theater, sit, experience a theatrical presentation in which conflict occurs, ultimately resolving in a climactic moment.

But I’m interested particularly in the epistemology of the cum-shot (possibly the least sexy thing I’ve ever said) the audience is proffered at the end. Seen from the perspective I laid out above, dramatic theater exists to create the straight-porno cum-shot: a power moment exists at the end in which the audience is asked to identify with either the objectifying-agent or the object of erotic satisfaction. This moment–much as in pornography–is highly scripted, contrived, and clearly disinterested in the satisfaction of the object of it. Drama, like porn, gives the audience a perspective to identify with and asks them to be identified as such. Within this erotic dynamic, in other words, the play makes its “point”–the resolution of its conflict is designed consciously by the playwright to present the audience with a choice: agree with me, or get a facial.

I know most playwrights aim for something higher, with vague appeals to some hard-to-define sense of “asking or provoking a question” rather than “providing an answer.” They don’t intend–or see themselves–as arbiters of a vaguely sub-dom porno script. And I’ll maybe grant that, at its best, dramatic theater can achieve this, both in terms of its literature as well as its material production. But I’m not much of a dogmatist, either. I remain skeptical that–even accepting the potential for meaningful achievement–dramatic theater, with its characters and conflict and narrative, is somehow inherently superior or more essential an art-form than what gets lumped under the “Post-Dramatic Theater” label.

In fact, I’d argue it’s naive to draw the distinction. To even do so is to ignore that dramatic theater is also a form of performance–one, to repeat myself, with a set of ideological assumptions behind it. These may differ between dramatic forms. Surely we can all accept that there is a difference between the Festival Dionysus in Athens, what happened at the Globe Theater in Shakespeare’s time, and what we could see today at Playwrights Horizons, Signature, or whatever. But the defenders of dramatic theater want to elide these differences, apparently, based mainly on purely mechanical distinctions (and ignoring the inherent Eurocentrism of their argument at the same time, which only further problematizes their argument) regarding the idea of conflict, character, and narrative.

All three are often present in Post-Dramatic Theater, of course. Just not in the same way, or playing the same role within the theatrical presentation. The defenders of dramatic theater imagine their practice is somehow essential–ignoring the realities of film and television and, well, pretty much any other form that can present people having some story happen to them (and another elision I’m also making: the fact that film and video and television all quickly developed a self-referential skepticism despite their efficiency at verisimilitude, further diluting the argument for dramatic essentialism). Post-Dramatic Theater, to make a rather banal point, often takes these stories or representations as a starting point for an exploration, interrogation or–to use an oft-misused term–deconstruction of such a form. One might even be tempted to argue that Post-Dramatic Theater is often animated by a desire to respond to the overwhelmingly vast array of representations contemporary society provides us through diverse media, including dramatic theater.

But that would not, apparently, be Detje’s point (or Stegemann’s). For them, starting from an obsession with identity/character, discourse/conflict, and experience/narrative, Post-Dramatic Theater is apparently nothing more than a celebration of identity and Self, an autoerotic fantasy enacted onstage. From the narrow confines of their critiques, I can admit: yes, sometimes that’s the product, but not inherently a facet of the material process of Post-Dramatic Theater. Reading Detje, with all the references to “heart” (which George finds problematic as well), accusing Post-Dramatic Theater of “emotional anaemia” and an “absence of euphoria,” I get the distinct feeling Detje’s arguing for a sort of nouvelle-Artaudian theater, with all the crucial viscera: the blood and sweat, piss and shit, tears and cum. Detje concludes:

The theatre of the 1970s was still able to play with a bourgeois body wanting ecstatic de-bourgeoisification, and able to romanticize the act of ecstasy as a political act of liberation, a revolutionary deed. Post-dramatic theatre is bodiless: if we prick it, it doesn’t bleed. Its narcissism is all in its concept, in the desire to prove its own modernity—which is all too easily done. It simulates just enough dissidence for us not to run away in fear. But above all, post-dramatic theatre hums the tune we want to hear – the great song of compliance.

What a remarkably backwards–and condescending–argument. Contemporary society–which Detje laments earlier in this same section–is replete with representations, sentimental narratives, emotional excitements, porn. And Detje’s solution is…trying to take these same forms further? The cum-shot is no longer enough to satisfy the complacent contemporary bourgeois consumer; theater must go a step further and start producing German bukkake, I guess.

Can I be forgiven for calling the entire argument nonsense? An anachronistic attachment to visceral experience–which Detje explicitly invokes by writing, “[W]hoever wants a better theatre shouldn’t demand a more traditional theatre but better times. Or worse ones”? That’s not a revolutionary logic, nor even one of resistance, but rather the logic of capitulation in the face of a mass of representations and sign-valuation–the whole apparatus of (I guess I’m a Marxist now) Late Capitalism–thoroughly ignored in an effort to formulate a critique based entirely on the idea that audiences are so stupid that they can only accept–and should only be offered–theater they find dramatically–in terms of character, conflict, and narrative–“believable.”

* * *

The “No Symbols Where None Inteded” Stuff, or, Things That Would Have Been Incorporated (Time and Patience Permitting)

  • The story of how Benno Ohnesorg’s assassination was just an extraordinarily successful Stasi plot to destabilize West Germany, thus problematizing Detje’s analysis
  • Something about Jacques Ranciere would have been good somewhere…
  • A defense of “cheap” sentimentalist (e.g., Hollywood) in dramatic presentation against the pretensions of “High Art”
  • A quip about the dependency on “McLuhan” as a modifier of “cool”
  • A proper Frankfurtian analysis of of cultural production vis-a-vis contemporary dramatic and post-dramatic theater
  • Proper citation of other discussions informing my thought, including an email exchange which read, in part:
I partly think he just regrets the current moment – he doesn’t like that we live in a more and more disembodied social/economic/political world culture – well, too bad. This is the one we’ve got – one where just to try to understand something about how sneakers get made is fucking complicated, and has something to do with the derivatives market and Greek debt and sex trafficking and guerrilla marketing in West Philly playgrounds. I guess we can all be nostalgic for Fordism now? When an Artaudian response to “mechanized man” made sense?

15 thoughts on “Post-Dramatic Stress Disorder”

  1. George Hunka says:

    I don't believe that either Detje or myself is arguing that "dramatic theater is also a form of performance–one … with a set of ideological assumptions behind it." Quite the opposite, in fact; that forms of performance that come under the "post-dramatic theatre" umbrella should be subjected to just as rigorous an ideological scrutiny as what I suppose we can call the "dramatic theatre." This point may be obscured by the fact that it is, indeed, post-dramatic performance which is under the microscope here, but neither of us suggests that dramatic performance isn't susceptible to the same inquiry. For example: Though I didn't see it myself, Young Jean Lee's recent "feminist" performance piece integrated no text at all, and some of the controversy that arose from that production arose from ideological issues presented in the piece through gesture, music, and scenography.

    "Bourgeois" is still a perfectly good word, though of course as a culture changes its definition becomes protean as well. We still have classes here in the U.S., and to define "bourgeois" as an urbanized middle- and upper-middle-class with a certain amount of post-secondary education doesn't seem far off the mark. This class, like every class, shares at least some of a common discourse demonstrably different from that of a lower-class or upper-class population.

    Finally, there is that email exchange with which your essay concludes, especially the idea that we "live in a more and more disembodied … world culture." Apart from my suspicion that the world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was just as complicated (the rise of the mercantile class in the Netherlands and its effects on world trade were just as baffling and confusing to the poor 1712 London consumer looking for a new pair of boots), we're just as embodied now as we were fifty years ago. When Samuel Johnson was asked to refute George Berkeley's idealism — that the world was all appearance, and that nothing was really real — he kicked a rock with his foot and said, "I thereby refute it." I'm afraid I have a reaction just as glib. The next time you see someone on the street talking into a cellphone, seemingly "not there," on the street in that moment, or you see someone Tweeting away in a theatre lobby — well, kick them, and see just how disembodied they turn out to be.

    1. Annie Dorsen says:

      Hi George. I'm outing myself as the email correspondent in question. — and of course I am a compete materialist, not going at all for any nonsense like the world is shadows on a cave wall, or fragments of another sphere can be glimpsed if we sit really still and quiet during a Maeterlinck performance while trying to recall that passage from Novalis, or The Truth is Out There, or we're all just the dream my neighbor's cat is having. My point wasn't that you can't kick the guy standing in front of you. It's that you can't kick ME. Right now, while I'm talking to you. The shocking majority of my human interactions on most days occur online. I've had romantic relationships that were conducted 80% via Skype, including the sex parts. As Detje would say, so sad too bad monadic and nomadic. The world is just as concrete as it's ever been, but our social, economic and political interactions are increasingly carried out in binary code. And this is a big actual concrete change, as big as radio/telephone/electric light, and it's one which will surely change us, and has already. Is this really news? Or a point that has to be argued? Somebody get Clay Shirky on the line!

      1. Robin Detje says:

        Hi, Annie!

        I received an anonymous myself, regarding this discussion, and it suggested that it might be so wild because the stuff I actually rage against in my essay has not been widely shown in the US. But having said that, it might still be true that I am simply not hip enough for this, for you, for anything. Knowing myself, I find that very likely.

        I don't find the „living in binary code“ thing sad, nomadic or anything at all. I quite frankly don't find it that exciting either, because I have the feeling that even those binary code beings, while they might believe they are totally now, follow some rules from decades and centuries you probably think are over.

        And most of all – we can live in binary code all we want, we will still die as bodies.

        You seem to know much about our times and what they did to us and what follows from that for the correct way to create art today. And I am glad somebody knows how to do it right. I myself believe we live in a total mess. We are Frankenstein's monster with some body parts from the 19th century, some from the 60s, 70s, 80s, some from today, though we don't really know which ones they are. And they might switch centuries in our sleep. And then we have a bookshelf full of – unfortunately – Zizek. Aaaargh!

        I find this mess a great starting place to create art. To try and make the monster walk. And for me, hipsterdom is not a solution. So even if I might get myself excluded from Culturebot with this – I gladly take this risk.

        1. Andy Horwitz says:

          Hi Robin –

          I'm the founder of Culturebot and, sadly, have not been following this conversation – my day job (all of us at Culturebot work for free, it is not funded by anybody but all-volunteer) has kept me otherwise occupied. But I do get all the comments via email. I will try and catch up this weekend. HOWEVER we do not exclude anyone from Culturebot (other than for hate speech) and we're definitely not hipsters.

          Glad you're here and hope you'll stay part of the discussion. Looking forward to digging into what you, Jeremy, George and Annie are going on about!

          1. Robin Detje says:

            Andy – please don't worry. I don't seriously feel excluded, and I didn't mean to offend you with my hipster comment. Sorry if that came out wrong!

      2. George Hunka says:

        All due respect to yourself and Mr. Shirky, Annie, I'm not sure that the people who put DARPANET together and Tim Berners-Lee dismantled the three millenia of metaphysical philosophy that came before — at least, no more than the invention of the printing press or the telephone did. To even say that the digital era "will surely change us, and has already," suggests that even these are open to metaphysical speculation, agree or disagree. These new digital tools are just that — tools — and they no more change us than the hammer changes the arm that wields it.

        Anyway, it seems that your perspective resembles Sam Johnson's even more than mine does. Which isn't bad company, necessarily.

  2. George Hunka says:

    That first sentence should read:

    "I don't believe that either Detje or myself is arguing against the idea that 'dramatic theater is also a form of performance–one … with a set of ideological assumptions behind it.'"

    I am perhaps a little more disembodied than usual today.

  3. Jeremy M. Barker says:

    Thanks for the response George. To respond to your first paragraph: I get the feeling the assumption remains that "performance" somehow lives exclusively in a world of jouissance, indefinite meaning, postmodern relativism in which judgment or scrutiny are impossible. I certainly agree that performance should be subjected to critical scrutiny–a portion of my essay, I think, is given over to arguing my disagreement with Detje's and Stegemann's analysis. For them, "Post-Dramatic Theater" is a very fixed sort of practice with a given set of assumptions underlying. I disagree with that analysis–performance and an emphasis on performativity is not just a celebration of artistic self, it's an investigation into various norms, values, means of production and means of representation, starting with a deep skepticism toward mimetic modes that have been inherited. It shares with critics like a skepticism toward the affect of mass media, mid-cult, etc., and it's affect on how we see ourselves and experience the world as emotional, thinking agents. It just comes to different conclusions about how to respond to that.

    In response to paragraph 2: I use the term "bourgeois" too, and I certainly agree with the fact that we live in a society divided by social and economic class, etc., etc., etc. My issue with how this plays out in scholarly/critical discussion is that it's often used to identify a set of artistic practices or products with what it defines as a debased or inauthentic set of mores, sentiments, etc., that can be identified as "bourgeois". It's akin the Andreas Huyssen's critique of Jameson's "Postmodernism" in "Twilight Memories." Huyssen's issue was that Jameson's argument about pastiche assumed that the process of memory through the lens of aesthetic was exclusively an act of "forgetting" rather than what it self-evidently was: an act of memory and engagement with history and experience. I'm not sure Huyssen would agree with me, but my own sense was that Jameson had built in a moral judgment in his critique which was used to assume some ways of engagement are superior or more authentic than others. We could have a legitimate conversation about whether such and such a form is or is not, but to simply label a practice "bourgeois" for the sake of assuming that everyone agrees that whatever is "bourgeois" is bad seems reductive to me. Particularly in the case of avant-garde art, there's a long and complex relationship between it and the bourgeois (as well as titans of capital) that cannot be reduced to mere oppositional posture.

    As for paragraph 3: I can't speak for someone else, and I think the argument may have been more subtle than is given credit here (it is just an excerpt), but while I certainly agree that life has traditionally been pretty complicated, we can surely all agree that the contours of that complexity change over time, and at any given moment require re-engagement of artistic forms to deal with them. The difference here is over the particular successes or failures of performance and drama to address them. I'd add that Detje was also quite willing to make broad assumptions about the present moment.

  4. George Hunka says:

    I can't comment on how either Detje and Stegemann read the Lehmann book, but I will say that I came away from it with the conclusion that all Lehmann was really trying to do was to form a vocabulary for the criticism of this work, which spanned a considerable spectrum of performance experience — descriptive, rather than prescriptive. I will certainly agree with you that some of what we might call traditional dramatic theatre may be congratulatory, even masturbatory, about its own cultural assumptions — if you'll agree with me that some contemporary performance MAY BE just as self-congratulatory and masturbatory about its own cultural assumptions. Wide generalizations about the one are just as questionable as wide generalizations about the other.

    Well, I'd never argue that bourgeois equals "bad" — not when I seem to be a member in good standing of that class myself. I'm tempted to say that morality has little to do with it, but that how bourgeois values function, and whether or not they are critiqued or accepted, are in the long run the most important part of the discussion about this discourse. I suppose I'd fall in the Huyssen camp in this debate, but like you, I'm not sure he'd want me there. (Indeed, the label "bourgeois" is probably more applicable to me than "playwright"; it's been about five years since I've completed a play and so probably do not deserve the honorific.

    I agree that both your correspondent and Detje may be prone to broad assumptions about the present moment; but conversations must begin somewhere, and these may be a first step.

  5. Robin Detje says:

    Jeremy – just a very short Q&A following your piece, me doing both the Q and the A, of course (and I'm certainly not in the beheading anybody business):
    Would I like to see a "nouvelle-Artaudian theater, with all the crucial viscera: the blood and sweat, piss and shit, tears and cum"? Oh yes. The man was mad as a hatter. No way this could work. But watching it fail could be great fun.
    Does anything in my essay suggest I would like to go back to the Seventies, Eighties or the theater of the 19th century or to whatever was there before PostDram? I don't think so. But you might be in the trenches of some titanic struggle I don't know about and therefore read that into it.
    Does the Post-Dramatic theatre I am writing about have anything to do with "performance in a wider sense" or even performance art? I wish it did. I would write about it differently. Body Art had this Artaud thing I seem to be turned on by. (Stuck in the Seventies again, oh my…) I am much less turned on by bureaucratic re-enactments of reality TV concepts, which are so deeply authoritarian at heart when they bundle the life of real people to the artistic expression of the happy few who are smart enough to market it and to market themselves as "artists". Go be educational somewhere else! Though, yes, you might well be a sign of the times. Which still doesn't make you artists in my book. (And the art I describe here is definitely not resisting late-capitalism, it IS late-capitalism. It is siphoning people's data for it's own gain like Google is siphoning our data.)
    Yes, you are right, "contemporary society is replete with representations, sentimental narratives, emotional excitements, porn." I want to believe art can resist. I WANT TO BELIEVE! But I do think maybe really good porn could still be a way out. Cut the money shot! Really good cum-free porn.

  6. brian says:

    Y'all gotta read the new Sarah Schulman book, THE GENTRIFICATION OF THE MIND. It goes into A LOT of these issues from a very interesting POV, how the effect of AIDS on urban centers in general and performance culture in particular has impacted and perpetuated the dominant values of consumerism and fascism. It's essential to this conversation!

  7. George Hunka says:

    Given the way that performance culture has been commodifying itself over the past few decades through branding, funding, etc., this does look like a very relevant contribution to the debate. (And I live on the Lower East Side myself, so it's a neighborhood issue as well.) Thanks for pointing this out to us, Brian.

  8. sven miller says:

    Hi, I have been invited by my friend and colleague Chance Muehleck to follow and participate in this discussion, or, as we like to call it in Germany, debate (I understand that this word might have a more automatic/ preparatory bend in American). I have been researching and invested in the Postdramatic since the late 1980's, first through performance training and practice in Germany, and subsequently, through various educational and professional undertakings in a North American context. Since 2006 I have taught the Postdramatic as a form in universities and colleges, while further exploring it professionally as a director, writer, installation artist, and dancer in Europe and North America.

    Today i came upon an essay by Giorgio Agamben, entitled "What is the Contemporary?" I am pasting the introduction here, and my own comments and the thoughts it triggered in response, subsequently. I hope for a lively, and fierce "debate"… 🙂

  9. sven miller says:

    One Meaning of Contemporary/ Contemporariness/ Being A Contemporary:

    What is the Contemporary? by Giorgio Agamben

    1. The question that I would like to inscribe in the threshold of this seminar is: "Of whom and of what are we contemporaries?' And, first and foremost, "What does it mean to be contemporary?" In the course of this seminar, we shall have occasion to read texts whose authors are many centuries removed from us, as well as others who are more recent, or even very recent. At all events, it is essential that we manage to be in some way contemporaries of these texts. The "time" of our seminar is contemporariness, and as such it demands [esige} to be contemporary with the texts and the authors it examines. To a great degree, the success of this seminar may be evaluated by its – by our – capacity to live up to this exigency. An initial, provisional indication that may orient our search for an answer to the above questions comes from Nietzsche. Roland Barthes summarizes this answer in a note from his lectures at the College de France: "The contemporary is the untimely." In 1874, Friedrich Nietzsche, a young philologist who had worked up to that point on Greek texts and who had two years earlier achieved an unexpected celebrity with THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY, published the UNZEITGEMAESSE BETRACHTUNGEN, UNTIMELY MEDITATIONS, a work in which he tries to come to terms with his time and take a position with regards to the present. "This meditation is itself untimely", we read at the beginning of the second meditation, "because it seeks to understand as an illness, a disability, and a defect something which this epoch is quite rightly proud of, that is to say, its historical culture, because I believe that we are all consumed by the fever of history and we should at least realize it." In other words, Nietzsche situates his own claim for "relevance" [attualita], his "contemporariness" with respect to the present, in a disconnection and out-of-jointness. Those who are truly contemporary, who belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands. They are thus in this sense irrelevant [inattuale]. But precisely because of this condition, precisely through this disconnection and this anachronism, they are more capable then others of perceiving and grasping their own time. Naturally, this noncoincidence, this "dys-chrony", does not mean that the contemporary is a person who lives in another time, a nostalgic who feels more at home in the Athens of Pericles or in the Paris of Robbespierre and the marquis de Sade than in the city and the time in which he lives. An intelligent man can despise his time, while knowing that he nevertheless irrevocably belongs to it, that he cannot escape his own time.
    Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one's own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is THAT RELATIONSHIP WITH TIME THAT ADHERES TO IT THROUGH A DISJUNCTION AND AN ANACHRONISM. Those who coincide too well with the epoch, those who are perfectly tied to it in every respect, are not contemporaries, precisely because they do not manage to see it; they are not able to firmly hold they gaze on it.

    "Consumed by a fever of history…" – "contemporariness…a singular relationship…which adheres to and keeps a distance…" (with/ to and from time).

    Pondering this, what is our singular consumption(s) today, the fever which possesses and wrecks our brains (that we are quite rightfully so proud of)…a myriad of things come to mind – political correctness, tolerance, inclusion, progress, globalisation, sustainability, environmentalism, equality. The list goes on, is long, and does not escape, in my view, singular, shared, or not, a certain glibness and lip service in the service of profit, security, building power, maintaining status quo, and operating under the deceit of economic, social, political, cultural progress and betterment.

    And as an artist, and a theater artist, I ask: what does this mean for the theater, and for us in it? How do we give significance to theater, and its practice, and join or dis-join it to and with the audience perception and experience, to give it significance, and impact, and pregnancy with ideas which promote social, political, personal and cultural liberation and well being and, which are a basic, unwritten, human right, and might require resistance, rebellion, anarchy, combat, not to repeat a time and its mechanics that was obsessed and "enfevered" with its own historical legacy and the creation of itself in its own image, a period that led to the devastations of the twentieth century and two World War.

  10. gio xach says:

    in it? How do we give significance to theater, and its practice, and join or dis-join it to and with the audience perception and experience, to give it significance, and impact, and pregnancy with ideas which promote social, political, personal and cultural liberation and well being and, which are a basic, unwritten, human right, and might require resistance, rebellion, anarchy, combat, not to repeat a time and its mechanics that was obsessed and "enfevered" with its own historical legacy and the creation of itself in its own image, a period that led to the devastations of the twentieth century and two World War.

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