Intoxications of the Critical

Or: In bed with Madonna without having sex

Sarma 28 Feb 2003English

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Contextual note
This lecture was presented on the 28th of February 2003 on the Sarma colloquium Unfolding the Critical. The lecture of Thierry De Duve it responds to is published elsewhere on the site under the title "Critical Reflections. In bed with Madonna".

As a young boy I was fascinated by the world of Jules Verne. Especially his novel 20.000 Leagues Under the Sea. The story made a big impression on me. It must have been the enormous distance (20.000 leagues!) which separated that world from the world in which I was living that attracted me: fantasy grows with distance. I came to understand more fully what that novel meant (to me) when I came across an analysis by Roland Barthes in his book Mythologies. There he compares two different ships: the “Nautilus”, the mysterious submarine of the strange captain Nemo in the above mentioned novel, and the “Drunken Ship” (“Bateau ivre”), described in a poem by Rimbaud. To my surprise Barthes did not consider Jules Verne to be an adventurer. Verne’s world is a closed universe with its own categories of time and space, its own existential principle. It is, according to Barthes, this permanent tendency to closure that makes him so popular among children: children are fascinated by spaces in which they can hide from the outside world. A tent in the garden, their own room, even the space under a table can function as such a closed universe. This closed world means a world under control. Barthes is very critical and even negative about Verne’s worldview. For Barthes it represents a typical progressive bourgeois attitude of the nineteenth century, an attitude of permanent appropriation of the world, of reducing the unknown to the schemes of the known. Verne was obsessed by quantity. And indeed the Nautilus is full of objects, furniture, books, machinery,... Verne’s world is a finite space with a limited number of objects that can be categorized. The ship, a frequent image in the works of Verne, is therefore not a symbol of departure or adventure, but a code of closure. The fascination for ships is the fascination for being locked up with as many objects as possible. It is the desire for a finite space, and not the desire for an unknown destination. The ship is in the end the same as a house.

For Barthes there is only one way to avoid that the ship is appropriated by man, and that is to do away with man and to leave the ship to itself. That is what happens in the poem “Drunken Ship” by Rimbaud. There the ship itself is the principle character and hands itself over to the forces of water and nature. The ship becomes a travelling eye, it produces constant departures, it touches the infinite horizon. As such the drunken ship is the exact opposite of the Nautilus: it is the symbol of a real confrontation with the unknown. And that is in the end what Rimbaud meant when he said we had to be absolutely modern.

I was reminded of these two ships when I was reading an essay by Peter Sloterdijk on the subject of essays in general. Sloterdijk tried to define the essay, or better what he called “essayism” (the essay as a way of thinking), by referring to an image he had found in the work of the Japanese philosopher Nishida. Nishida used the image of a shipwrecked person who tries to construct a raft on the open sea as a metaphor for the position of contemporary thinking. These three images, these three ships, started to make some sense when I was thinking about the “critical”: the Nautilus, the drunken ship and the raft being constructed on the open sea, all three had something to say about the “critical”. This balancing between safety and risk, openness and closure, active and passive,... referred to the difficulties in defining the notion of the “critical”

(When I read the text by Thierry De Duve I became fascinated by his “in bed with Madonna” metaphor. And even if there is some wetness involved in that idea, I did not immediately see the link with my sinking ships. Well, let me start with Madonna anyway and let’s hope that I don’t miss the boat.)

Not by accident is Thierry De Duve’s point of departure of the unfolding of “the critical” a feeling of embarrassment due to a confusing remark on the position of the artist and the work of the art critic. I would like to start my unfolding of the “critical” from a similar, but in my case permanent, state of confusion: my own professional position as a dramaturge in a theatre company (in case the ro theatre in Rotterdam). With a variation on the title of Thierry de Duve’s text I could have called mine: “In bed with Madonna without having sex”. And if you hear a note of frustration in this title, then you probably heard right.

Thierry de Duve talked about the fact that knowing the artist personally is not only not his first concern, but it does not add to his interpretation of the work itself. As a dramaturge working in team with a director I am in a position of knowing, even having to know, the artist personally. And not only that: I am a close collaborator in his artistic projects. But I never considered myself to be an artist. And I am not considered to be one either, although my ideas or suggestions can play an important role in the development not only of the artistic concept, but also in the process of creating the performance. Other collaborators of the director are considered and consider themselves to be artists: the scenographer, the costume designer, the light designer, the music composer, they are all artists. They are not only in bed with Madonna, they have sex with her. Than why not me?

The answer to that question is somewhere hidden in the multiple folds of what this colloquium calls “the critical”. So, let me start unfolding. What struck me first was the concept of “the critical” itself. It is an adjective used as a substantive. So, in a way it is neither of both. Not an adjective and not a substantive. Not something that is attached as a quality to something else (as is the essence of an adjective) , nor an autonomous entity (as is the essence of a substantive). As a concept “the critical” is open. And that is a quality that is highly valued in modern or post-modern discourse. But one could also say: it is ambiguous, ambivalent and in itself divided, not really knowing what it stands for.

The notion of criticism is ambiguous and in itself divided because the notion of culture is ambiguous and in itself divided. For the 19th century English writer and thinker Matthew Arnold, culture was the reservoir of the best that was known and thought in a society. He believed that culture could soften, although not neutralize, the destructive effects of a modern, aggressive and materialistic urban life. By reading Homer, Dante and Shakespeare, by listening to the Flemish polyphony, Mozart, Händel and Beethoven, by looking at paintings or sculptures by Van Eyck, Michelangelo and Da Vinci, we keep permanently in touch with the best that mankind created. By doing so we get a deeper understanding of ourselves, our tradition and our society. This is the Nautilus, the ship of culture, filled with the reassuring presence of the canon.

This humanist notion of culture has been heavily criticized during the last decades of the 20th century. Culture is nowadays analyzed in terms of conflict, power relations and the acquisition of symbolic capital. We still use the word “culture” to talk about our highest personal ideal: the ideal of being a “cultured” or a “cultivated” person. However: being an ideal, culture is also always, as Werner Hamacher points out convincingly, “culture’s shame for perhaps not being sufficiently culture”: “No culture is Culture, culture itself, no culture can measure up to its claim to be culture. (...) It is, therefore, not a possession, this culture, but a projection and a reproach, an attempt to reach a goal - itself, that other - that is by definition unattainable: ever another culture, and each time guilty of not being the other culture and of not being whole.” Culture is always a split concept, a permanent conflict between its realization and its goal, its ideal and its insufficiency. Culture in other words introduces from the outset conflict in cultures and conflict between cultures. The consequences of this interpretation of culture are far reaching. Culture is used as a polemical term for the distinction between culture and non-culture, culture and nature, culture and barbarism,... and thus as a weapon in the struggle against other cultures, as an instrument of denunciation and barbarization of other cultures: “Culture is always also a declaration of war.” (Hamacher) Postcolonial criticism, feminist criticism, gay criticism, etc. all declared war on a certain notion of culture.

But before the scope gets too broad (and I really start drowning), let me return to my starting point: the uneasy situation of the dramaturge in the artistic project in which he is involved. I want to analyze this position as a possible manifestation of “the critical”, as one of its many folds. And at the same time, also as symptomatic for the ambiguities inhabiting “the critical”.

One of the most fundamental ambiguities of the position of the dramaturge - and in my opinion of “the critical” as such – is the difficult-to-negotiate, maybe even impossible-to-achieve balance between proximity and distance. Being closely involved in the artistic project of the director, the dramaturge has to keep a certain distance, a so-called “critical distance”. His position is related to a certain non-involvement in the artistic project. But that necessary non-involvement has its limits. Being overly non-involved (in other words being too “critical”) can engender too much distance between dramaturge and director, to the point where they can’t communicate anymore. At that moment the dramaturge steps outside of the artistic framework. The “critical” is a delicate exercise of balance between loyalty and rebellion. To be as rebellious as possible without wanting to dethrone the king. If one becomes too rebellious one has to follow through and leave the kingdom for another one. But this still sounds too metaphorical. Let me try to be more concrete.

Being at a distance here means - among many other things – that you talk another language. As a dramaturge you speak (and in order to be and remain a dramaturge you have to speak) another language than the language of the artist. This implies that the critical has an alienating function. It alienates the language of the artist. It is a translation into another language. This work of translation is a delicate operation, not without risks, especially in the theatre. One of the most difficult-to-erase popular prejudices in theatre is the opinion that the language of the dramaturge is academic, theoretical, abstract, intellectual, etc. (these are some of the nicer reproaches). I would agree to all these words if they were not constantly and very naively used as the negatives of the organic, the intuitive, the passionate, and so on.

“The critical” is linked to language and translation, and therefore to loss but also to explicit communication: it tries to explain and to conceptualize. Thierry De Duve said that he expected from his writing “some scientific or philosophical ‘truth’.” Truth is of course a strong word and Thierry De Duve puts it between quotes. Does it mean that the critical language has a knowledge that the work of art does not have? Doing some Benjaminian gymnastics one could ask if “the critical” – as it is a translation – is the lost language of the work of art? Or is it the other way round: will the critical always be at a loss when it is confronted with the work of art? The “critical” draws the work of art in a whirlpool of languages. To a certain extent it repeats the gesture of dissemination already performed by the work of art itself. The critical is the unfolding of languages, of language itself: the paradoxes, the contradictions, the social and ideological construction of language itself.

Let me continue the unfolding and return to the broader cultural perspective I already introduced. Thierry De Duve defines his work as ‘a practice that seeks explanation, not invention’. From the perspective of my profession I would like to add another dimension to which invention and explanation both have to relate: production. It is no accident that theatre performances are also called productions. In contrast to terms like “invention” and “creation” which are more linked to a romantic aesthetics, a term like “production”, with all its materialistic overtones, refers to a process in which the artistic work is deeply affected by material and ideological production constraints. A work of art is never made in an ideological vacuum. This is most clear when the artwork comes into being in an existing framework, when that framework is its condition of being. Like any other organization, an artistic organization is a power structure and an ideological apparatus. The “critical” involves an awareness of the political, social and economic network in which the artistic institution is developing. This awareness can however not undo this network.

The pressures on theatre companies – especially the bigger ones (like the ro theatre in Rotterdam) – are manifold nowadays. Theatres, because they are places of public gathering (and as such considered to be highly political), are at the crossroads of a complex of external demands. Theatres should present a program in which a broad social mix of the public can recognize itself. They should reflect the multicultural society, the youth culture, the developments in the new media. Theatres should be part of the economics and politics of the city management. They have to compete with the ever-growing entertainment industry. For the time being theatres are still protected by the system of subsidies. But political populism can offer a serious threat to that in the near future.

Still, it would be too easy to describe the relationship between theatre and the claims of society and of the governmental cultural policy in black and white terms. That would turn art and art criticism into a sentimental heroic gesture of rebellion. It is more complicated than that. Modern art itself is the result of the cleavages in society due to the growing autonomy of the political, economical, social and cultural spheres. This evolution that took place in the 19th century is unthinkable without the development of the free market, the always shifting public taste and the consumer attitude. Criticizing this too easily and too naively means undermining the foundations of modern art. The Dutch philosopher Henk Oosterling introduced the term “hypocriticism” to define a criticism that is fundamentally aware of its own impossibility and at the same time of its own necessity. Oosterling defines hypocriticism as a combination of the problematizing force of thought on the one hand and a synthetic image on the other. It is especially this synthesizing task of the “critical” that is most challenging. However deep the awareness of intellectual and artistic fragmentation is, when it comes to the “critical comment” there is always an expectation of at least an attempt to construct a coherent overview, a structure that uncovers hidden relationships. As Thierry De Duve said, a certain “truth”. The most important question to ask is on what scale we can still synthesize and for whom is such a synthesis meaningful? For a few decades now we have been living with the idea of the end of the “grand récits” as Lyotard phrased it. So how big can our récits still be? What view can they hold? What do we have to know? What do we have to read to be “critical”? What matters and what not? How deep do we have to go into aesthetic, philosophical and political theories? Does a “critical” attitude involves the study of Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, Manuel Castells or Toni Negri, to mention just a few of the important contemporary thinkers? And how far should this study go? If we have to choose - and we are obliged to choose – what to choose?

This question of the overview is what distinguishes modern theory from the classical theory. As the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk points out, the classical theory was a happy theory because it had the overview one has when standing on the top of a mountain. From this perspective the landscape is like a map that can be read. But modern theory – or call it criticism – has to do its job without this overview. Modern times are characterized, according to Sloterdijk, by a sequel of “explosions”. We no longer see a landscape, but a chaos of events. The “critical” now means confronting these explosions, both metaphorical and real. It is impossible to produce a contemplative theory of the explosion. Instead of “contemplation” Sloterdijk proposes “intoxication”. Not looking for an overview, but becoming part of the explosion, and this perhaps both metaphorically and real. It is the drunken ship of Rimbaud that hands itself over to the violent and anonymous will of the water.

Sloterdijk also talks about a fever. It is tempting to make a distinction between the Nautilus as the rationally and the drunken ship as the libidinally invested image. But the Nautilus is also full of the personal obsessions and autoeroticism, which are always also part of the “critical”. But I mentioned a third ship: the raft of Nishida. Although I am fascinated by the extremes of the Nautilus and the drunken ship, in the end I prefer the image of the shipwrecked person who constructs the raft on the open sea. There is no doubt that he is handed over to the elements, but he is still constructing. Not to fight the elements, but to survive. He still resembles Nemo a bit, he wants to keep certain things, but the certainty and the safety of the Nautilus is gone forever.

The “critical” is somewhere in between the closed world of the Nautilus with its well defined concepts, history, methods, and the drunken ship handing itself over to whatever comes. This in-between is not a compromise, for how could it be. Every critic has his or her personal Nautilus : a safe haven with analytical concepts, methods, and histories. But this safe haven can no longer secure us anymore. It is no longer a collective canon. As Sloterdijk pointed out: we are drowning, water is everywhere and we are soaking wet. We are not searching and observing the river anymore as Nemo used to do in his Nautilus, we are drifting in the open sea, left to the will of external forces, trying to construct a raft from what wood is left.

This is a very dramatic way of putting it. But maybe that is also one of the strategies of the “critical”: to dramatize and to (self-)enact the oppositions, the paradoxes, the aporias. But there are less dramatic images. In his lecture Thierry De Duve several times used the word “touch” and he talked about the ethical dimension of this being touched. There is a famous poem by Rainer Maria Rilke in which he tells how he was walking in a museum and how he was struck all of a sudden by an archaic Apollo torso. Although the statue did not have a head, the poet felt that it looked at him and addressed him. These are the words it spoke to him: “Du musst dein Leben ändern” (“You have to change your life”). And that is in the end maybe the most fundamental call of the “critical”: to change our lives, without being able to say in what direction. As I said in the beginning: in bed with Madonna without having sex. A certain unfulfillment will always be our share.