Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture

Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture

by Craig Owens

ISBN: 9780520077409

Publisher University of California Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Photography

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Sample Chapter

Einstein on the Beach: The Primacy of Metaphor

If, as is frequently and strikingly attested everywhere today, boldness in theater proclaims, rightly or wrongly, its fidelity to Artaud, the question of the theater of cruelty, of its present nonexistence and ineluctable necessity, has the force of an historical question. Historical not in its possible inscription within what we know as the history of theater, not because it would mark a stage in the development of theatrical forms or because of its place in the succession of models of theatrical representation. The question is historical in a sense that is both radical and absolute. It declares the limit of representation.
JACQUES DERRIDA, "The Limit of Representation," from L'icriture et la diffirence

Across those differences which segregate the dominant attitudes towards performance in our century into either expressionistic or analytic modes,1 there appears a single commitment which may be associated with neither; a challenge to the structure of representation which has been identical with that of theater ever since Aristotle characterized dramatic poetry as mimetic. This identification of tragedy with the imitation, rather than the immediate presentation, of action posits a fundamental dualism at the heart of the theater. Performance and text, representer and represented, are (it seems irrevocably) split. Theatrical representation establishes itself in that rift which it alone creates between the tangible physical presence of the performer and that absence which is necessarily implicated in any concept of imitation or signification. The imitated action (the theatrical signified) is situated outside of the closed circuit established by the copresence of performer and spectator. Thus what is represented is always an "elsewhere." As a result, while the performer is in fact both a presence and a signifier (for an absence), we always regard him as the latter, as a representative for something else the actor as perpetual stand-in.

The major innovations in performance of the last fifty years have been addressed to this rift, either to exaggerate it (Brecht) or to annihilate it (Artaud). Both strategies shift from re presentation to present ation. Since the presence of the performer is anterior to, and a necessary condition for, any theatrical representation, the impulse which animates that shift might be characterized as modernist, a reduction to that which is unique and absolutely fundamental to the theatrical situation. Modernist performance abandons representation by establishing identity between representer and represented. The performer no longer stands for anything other than himself. (The resurgence of interest in dance at the beginning of this century was a manifestation of the same impulse. According to Yeats's formula, dance has always eluded any such dualism.)

Since the structure of representation is identical with that of verbal language a system of signs which always substitute for nonpresence the ambition to overturn an entrenched theatrical representationalism has frequently manifested itself in programs which would radically alter, if not eliminate, the use of speech on stage. The nonverbal spectacle is its offspring. Yet the overthrow of representation cannot be restricted to nonverbal modes, since an identical impulse has also animated the poetic theater of our century. Thus, modes traditionally conceived as antithetical become complementary. In Artaud's polemical writings on theater, it is the conjunction of the nonverbal and the poetic that constitutes the very possibility for the revivification of theater.

While Artaud's modernism is apparent in his move to disestablish the author "the theater, an independent and autonomous art, must, in order to revive or simply to live, realize what differentiates it from text, pure speech, literature, and all other fixed and written means"2 it does not follow that he meant to eliminate speech from the stage altogether. If the theater was to be reconstituted outside of verbal language, the author to be replaced by the director, and the stage to become the locus of research into alternative languages of gesture and scenography which would "always express [thought] more adequately than the precise localized meanings of words,"3 it was simply that the authority of the spoken word was to be undermined. Artaud advocated the overthrow of all hierarchical rankings of theatrical languages, which had assigned speech a position of preeminence, and reduced the mise en schne to a subsidiary role. The theater of cruelty was to be characterized by a plurality of equipollent voices: spoken, musical, gestural, scenographic. If in the spectacles he envisioned "the spoken and written portions will be spoken and written in a new sense,"4 still, the sensuous, physical side

of language everything which characterizes its poetic use was to be retained:

But let there be the least return to the active, plastic, respiratory sources of language, let words be joined again to the physical motions that gave them birth, and let the discursive, logical aspects of speech disappear beneath its affective, physical side, i.e., let words be heard in their sonority rather than be exclusively taken for what they mean grammatically, let them be perceived as movements, and let these movements themselves turn into other simple, direct movements as occurs in all the circumstances of life but not sufficiently with actors on the stage; and behold! the language of literature is reconstituted, revivified, and furthermore as in the canvasses of certain painters of the past objects themselves begin to speak.5

Artaud's ambition was thus more than the revivification of theater; it was nothing less than the complete reanimation of poetic language. Or rather, one necessarily implicated the other.6 This poetic aspect of his enterprise extended to his instructions for the manipulation of scenic elements:

The language of the theater aims then at encompassing and utilizing extension, that is to say space, and by utilizing it, to make it speak: I deal with objects the data of extension like images, like words, bringing them together and making them respond to each other according to laws of symbolism and living analogies: external laws, those of all poetry and all viable language, and, among other things, of Chinese ideograms and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.7

That Artaud's prescriptions for the stage should constitute an ars poetica suggests a historical filiation with a number of modern poets who also identified the stage as an appropriate locus for research into intensifying the purely physical, i.e. sonorous, movements of language. Mallarmi wrote Igitur for the stage. Eliot identified the poetic moments of tragedy as those at which the language reflects back into itself, becomes aware of itself as a theatrical presence. Further, in a passage reminiscent of Artaud's proposal that words be perceived as movements, he suggested that if verse drama were to be given new life, it might look to nonverbal modes of performance such as the Mass and the ballet for paradigms. Both poet and metteur en schne would transform language into an entirely material event. And Valiry, describing his own work for the stage as a concatenation of music and architecture, called the resultant genre "melodrama": "I found no other term to describe this work, which is

certainly neither an opera, nor a ballet, nor an oratorio." Like Eliot, he drew a parallel with religious liturgy: "To my mind, it must and does bear some resemblance to a ceremony of a religious nature." Yet he reiterated its poetic nature: "The action, limited and slight as it is, must be further subordinated to the meaning and poetic substance of each of its moments."8

Like Valiry's "melodrama" (which it resembled in several respects), Robert Wilson's recent spectacle Einstein on the Beach (in collaboration with composer Philip Glass) resists assimilation to any of the conventional genres of performance. Although Einstein was identified as an "opera," and while its score might be anatomized accordingly into arias, duets, choral passages, and ballets, the production lacked the correlation between music and dramatic action that defines that genre. Glass occasionally incorporated concrete aural references to the visual subject of a scene into his score, but his insistence on structure and logical progression only emphasized the independence of music from action. One was reminded of that disjunctiveness between sound and image which Cunningham brought to the dance. Action exhibited a similar autonomy: Einstein progressed as a sequence of highly allusive visual images that appeared to succeed one another according to an internal logic of association. They centered on the figure of Einstein. Habits of his dress and personality; mathematical and scientific models and instruments; the products of technological progress, such as trains, spaceships, and atomic explosions, coalesced to form a complex portrait by association. From scene to scene, the spectator's sense of both scale and duration was altered, perhaps in demonstration of the central hypothesis of Einstein's thinking (that dimension and velocity are interdependent). Because of the frequent arbitrariness of the selection of the images, no detail being too insignificant for inclusion, as well as the freedom with which associations were made organization was neither chronological nor thematic Wilson's work has been compared with dreams. If the space evoked in Einstein was dreamlike, one important difference must be noted. Wilson's images, unlike those of dreams, are not open to interpretation. Dream-images are the mediated representations of dream-thoughts; hence, their interpretability. Wilson's images are, on the contrary, immediate, presentational, resistant to analysis. This is supported by the subsidiary function assigned to speech and spoken texts in all of his works. For language is, above all, the medium of interpretation.

With Einstein , Wilson carries ambivalence towards language one step further. Even the published "text" for the production is nonverbal, a series of 113 charcoal sketches made by Wilson himself and reproduced

Robert Wilson and Philip Glass,  Einstein on the Beach, 1984 . From left:  Sheryl Sutton, Lucinda Childs. 
First performed in 1976 at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City. Photograph copyright ) Paula Court .

in a book which assembles musical scores, spoken texts, and choreographic diagrams. Arranged as a sequence of cinematic stills, these atmospheric drawings chart Einstein 's division into four acts, nine scenes and five intermezzi (hinges or "knee-plays") and describe three basic scenic motifs: a train, a courtroom, and a field of dancers over which a spaceship passes. This pictographic text proceeds from and extends Wilson's ambition to mount a spectacle which cannot be contained within verbal language:

Wilson shuns recipes and this is why to write about him, who is always so loath to express judgement [sic ] or opinions, is to risk encapsulating him in one of those airtight wrappers of culture towards which the whole of his work is directed, if not as an accusation at least as an alternative. To translate into words its expressive complexity means, in a way, to prevaricate on both the author's and the public's emotive participation. To single out a particular linear development or a new definition of theatre in his work is to misrepresent its underlying premise, the attempt to reconstruct on the stage everything which life systematically shatters . [italics added]9

Wilson's theater does not intend to provoke articulate response; rather, it argues the poverty of those systems through which such a response might be formed primarily language, but also all processes of logical thought according to which we parse, analyze, literally come to terms with experience. The ambition to stage a semblance of the unanalyzed, amorphous continuum of sensory data which is subsequently segmented by the formative action of language ("everything which life systematically shatters") involves an implicit argument that the activity of language upon that continuum is a violation of its integrity. Language inevitably produces an endless string of synecdoches which, in spite of their intention to signify, will never reproduce the original unity which is prior to all analysis, all logical thought.

This argument about the synecdochic character of language is hardly new, yet it seems to have exhausted little of its authority. While it has

both psychological and philosophical ramifications Merleau-Ponty, for example, has written that speech "tears out or tears apart meanings in the undivided whole of the nameable" it also underpinned the revolution in linguistics which dates from the beginning of this century. Saussure's now-famous discussion in his Cours of the arbitrariness of the sign was rooted in the distinction between "form" and "substance"; the latter was considered a nebulous continuum anterior to language:

Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language. . . . Phonic substance is neither more fixed nor more rigid than thought; it is not a mold into which thought must of necessity fit but a plastic substance divided in turn into distinct parts to furnish the signifiers needed by thought. The linguistic fact can therefore be pictured in its totality i.e. language as a series of contiguous subdivisions marked off on both the indefinite plane of jumbled ideas . . . and the equally vague plane of sounds. . . . Language works out its unity while taking shape between two shapeless masses. . . . Their combination produces a form not a substance. 10

While Saussure's intention was simply to restrict linguistics to the analysis of form, and despite his recognition of the fundamental unintelligibility of the prelinguistic, the effect of his formulation is nonetheless to uphold a traditional distinction between what is thought and what is expressed in language.

Saussure's notion of substance as a shapeless mass was interpreted by the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev as purport: an unformed mass of physical or psychical data which, while common to all languages, is nevertheless schematized differently by each.

It is like one and the same handful of sand that is formed in quite different patterns, or like the cloud in the heavens that changes shape in Hamlet's view from minute to minute. Just as the same sand can be put into different molds, and the same cloud take on ever new shapes, so also the same purport is formed or structured differently in different languages.11

Hjelmslev cites as an example of purport the color spectrum, a mass of objective, physically measurable data which is segmented differently by different languages:

Behind the paradigms that are furnished in the various languages by the designations of color, we can, by subtracting the differences, disclose such an amorphous continuum, the color spectrum, on which each language arbitrarily sets its boundaries. While formations in this zone of purport are for the most part approximately the same in the most widespread European languages, we need not go far to find formations that are incongruent with them.12

If thought is conceived as a shapeless mass, just as on the (pre-)phonological level sounds form an indistinct continuum, then both the plane of content (the signified) and that of expression (the signifier) will require, according to Hjelmslev, description in terms of both form and substance. While the analysis of form belongs in both instances to linguistics, that of substance lies outside its domain: "The description of purport . . . may in all essentials be thought of as belonging partly to the sphere of physics and partly to that of (social) anthropology . . . . Consequently, for both planes both a physical and a phenomenological description of the purport should be required."13

Wilson undertakes such a description in Einstein on the Beach . A phenomenological description of purport would presumably aim to recover that unity which underlies the constantly changing appearances of things (including linguistic objects) as they surface in experience. In Husserl, that unity is understood to be a function of (synthetic) consciousness, of a transcendental subject. Einstein implies both that aim and that understanding. Each of three motifs (train, trial, and field) is broken up into a set of images which, since homologous, may be reintegrated. The locus of this process of reintegration is the consciousness of the individual spectator. Structure is thus inborn, that is, emerges while the work is performed as the spectator spontaneously apprehends the relations obtaining among images. Thus, coherence is not a result of any logical sequence of images (the series train-trial-field repeated three times) as program notes suggest, but resides in intuitively grasped similarities among images derived from a common motif. This is clearly demonstrated in Wilson's text. The train, as it appears in Act II, its observation deck receding into the night, reappears as a building in Act IV. This relationship, rather than the individual images in isolation, is the subject of these two scenes and makes them a unit. Similarly, the sharply delineated triangle of light projected by the locomotive's headlight in the opening scene is congruent with that which streams from an elevator shaft in the final scene a visual linking of end with beginning. And the fluorescent bed in the center of the courtroom during the trial scenes in Acts I and III becomes, in Act IV, a column of light which slowly ascends into the flies and which, in turn, is reminiscent of the strip of light which painted itself down the backdrop in the first scene. These images do not function as isolated signs; instead, their conjunction reveals patterns of interrelationship which make Einstein a complex, resonant, experiential unit, or gestalt.

To the extent that Wilson generates a unified field through visual means, his theater is nonverbal. Nevertheless, the techniques according to which his imagery is manipulated can only be described as poetic.

Here poetic does not mean evocative or allusive, but indicates a particular process of establishing relationships between images. Wilson's manipulation of images is primarily analogical, that is, metaphoric. Metaphor, based exclusively on purely material or sensuous features, has been isolated by the linguist Roman Jakobson as the fundamental structure of all poetic texts. If the two poles of language are selection and combination, the first based on equivalence (metaphor), the second upon contiguity (metonymy),14 Jakobson characterizes poetry as the transference of equivalence from the pole of selection to that of combination.15 In poetic language, words are combined into rhythmic, alliterative, or rhymic sequences because of their equivalence as pure sound. In this way, new semantic relationships are established or lost ones restored on the basis of purely physical parallelisms.

It follows from Jakobson's characterization of metaphor that the poetic image must of necessity transcend the constraints of the signifying chain (what one might call the metonymic force) in its movement toward meaning. Metaphors are never context-sensitive. They do not reach out to other, contiguous elements of the chain that might determine their meanings. Two images standing in a metaphoric relationship are unaffected by those pressures from without which would have us perceive them as somehow absolutely different because of their different positions in a linear, i.e. horizontal, sequence. Rather, the proper direction of the metaphor is vertical, each metaphor appropriately located in a set of equivalent images. The principle of equivalence or congruence that characterizes that set and confers significance on each of its members becomes a kind of transcendent center toward which each metaphor gravitates.

If Einstein on the Beach describes a linear time span (roughly the lifetime of Albert Einstein), it nevertheless remains a resolutely nonlinear work. Events do not preceed or follow one another according to any (temporal) logic. As a result of their metaphorical aspect, Wilson's images resist falling into any meaningful linear sequence. The imposition of a logical scheme (train-trial-field-train-trial-field, etc.) only emphasizes the arbitrariness of Einstein 's temporal structure. The circularity activated by that formula effectively checks any linear development. In an analogous way, a recursive treatment of spoken texts works to neutralize the ordinary directionality of spoken language. A single text is repeated again and again, its final word being nothing more than a cue to the speaker to begin again, until that linear time in which all narrative and all spoken discourse operate is effectively suspended.

Since metaphor works to suspend the temporalizing effects of the sig-

nifying chain (its syntactic or syntagmatic dimension), it has frequently been associated with a corresponding motive. Metaphor reveals an atemporal principle of similarity (be it a result of divergence or convergence, that is, of homology or isomorphism) that constitutes the possibility of any relation of images whatsoever. That principle has, in varying contexts and to different ends, been identified as a law, a form, an essence; yet whether one grants it regulatory or ontological status, it remains that with which poetry has been principally concerned. The poet has been continually charged with the responsibility of uncovering that which renders all relationship possible. It is thus, through its metaphoric base and not its thematic content, that poetry participates in the investigations of metaphysics.

Yet this motive is operative only within a particular attitude towards language, the primary characteristics of which have been identified and analyzed by Jacques Derrida:

To concern oneself with metaphor a particular figure is . . . to presuppose a symbolist position . It is above all to concern oneself with the nonsyntactic, nonsystematic pole, with semantic "depth," with the magnetizing effect of similarity rather than with positional combination, call it "metonymous," in the sense defined by Jakobson, who rightly underlines the affinity between symbolism (not only as a linguistic notion, but also, we should claim, as a literary school), Romanticism (with a more historical that is, historicist orientation, and more directed towards interpretation), and the prevalence of metaphor. [italics added]16

Certainly the arguments that everyday language is essentially synecdochic and therefore in need of rehabilitation, and that it is the function of poetic metaphor to restore language to its supposedly primary nature, may be traced to a specific body of theory articulated at the end of the nineteenth century: the poetic of the French Symbolists, particularly as enunciated in the critical and theoretical writings of Stiphane Mallarmi. According to Mallarmi, the revolution in poetry, which he dated to Verlaine, was involved in a return to "certain primitive resources in language."17 Fascinated with speculations concerning the primal symbolization processes of mankind, he sketched a theory of the suggestiveness of words rooted in "a belief that a primitive language, half-forgotten, half-living, exists in each man. It is a language possessing extraordinary affinities with music and dreams."18 This primitive language was conceived as a pictographic idiom of hieroglyphs which was the predecessor of the more abstract medium, verbal language, with which philosophic and scientific systems have been erected and which corresponded to a particular state of the world which preceded the deployment of time.19

For Mallarmi, the poet's task was to recover that data of prehistory. Poetry sprang from an impulse to restore to objects their original resonance or complication which logic and language had stripped from them. And metaphor (rhythm, rhyme, etc.) made that restoration possible:

The poetic act consists of our sudden realization that an idea is naturally fractionized into several motifs of equal value which must be assembled. They rhyme ; and their outward stamp of authenticity is that common meter which the final stress establishes.20

This conception of language remains tacitly operative in the texts of phenomenology and gestalt psychology (in which the task of reassembly and reintegration remains primary). It also persists in at least one other contemporary discipline the structural anthropology of Claude Livi-Strauss. Whereas phenomenology would dispense with the identification of that data with prehistory (each of us has access to it in the raw material of perception), Livi-Strauss emphasizes its link with the primitive. His descriptions of la pensie sauvage center upon metaphor, which is isolated as the primary vehicle of myth:

The effectiveness of symbols would consist precisely in this "inductive property," by which formally homologous structures, built out of different materials at different levels of life organic processes, unconscious mind, rational thought are related to one another. Poetic metaphor provides a familiar example of this inductive process.21

Thanks to the myths, we discover that metaphors are based on an intuitive sense of the logical relations between one realm and other realms; metaphor reintegrates the first realm with the totality of the others, in spite of the fact that reflective thought struggles to separate them. Metaphor, far from being decoration that is added to language, purifies it and restores it to its original nature, through momentarily obliterating one of the innumerable synecdoches that make up speech.22

If as Livi-Strauss claims, the poetic and the mythic are essentially analogous functions, then they themselves stand in a metaphoric relation and must be conceived as a single function. If the techniques according to which myth reproduces an original, prediscursive unity or totality are primarily poetic i.e., intuitive rather than logical and rooted in metaphor then it follows reciprocally that the "purpose" of poetry will be to create myths. Here, Livi-Strauss rearticulates the operation prescribed in all of the great texts of literary Symbolism: those of Mallarmi, Valiry, and Eliot, and certainly of Artaud.23 And the word which best describes that operation, mythopoesis , becomes profoundly tautological.

Einstein on the Beach , an essentially metaphoric structure, cannot be isolated from this poetic motive. Because Wilson participates in this mythopoeic impulse, his attitude towards language may be ascribed to a particular linguistic and poetic position and his formal strategies assimilated to a specific performance tradition, itself identified by its argument about language. Elsewhere, he has been quoted to the effect that Einstein was chosen as central figure because he exhibited characteristics of both thinker (physicist, mathematician, representative of the analytic) and dreamer (musician, visionary, representative of the idealistic).24 Accordingly, Wilson's desire was to synthesize those divergent modes of performance (analytic, expressionistic) noted at the beginning of this essay. Hence, his collaboration with composer Philip Glass and choreographer Lucinda Childs, both of whom have previously worked in an analytic mode. Still, this synthetic ambition is profoundly mythopoeic, an inductive reintegration of previously distinct orders; and Wilson's desire to transcend the polarity of contemporary performance modes remained wholly contained within one of its terms. As a result, the profoundly intuitive character of the frame provided for the work of Glass and Childs qualified and at times subverted the objective nature of their styles. (At the same time, the strength of Wilson's images seemed diluted by the presence of antithetical material.) Had Einstein achieved encyclopaedic status the claims that have been made for it would be justified. As it is, Wilson's work, which has so frequently been hailed as totally innovative and without precedent, remains enmeshed in a particular tradition, the coordinates of which have already been mapped.

Excerpted from "Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture" by Craig Owens. Copyright © 1994 by Craig Owens. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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