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May 28, 2006

Research Notes: The addictive synthesis in theatre

Follow-up to Research Notes: Rosi Braidotti on addiction and ethics from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

Our discussion of addiction with Rosi Braidotti led me to propose a positive, social and ethical form of addiction, which I will now call the addictive synthesis. The following day I discussed this with Jon Stevens of Theatre Studies, who has a wide ranging understanding of theatre, virtuality and actuality.

Theatre is a repetition without finality, a repetition/rehearsal (same word in French). The most effective theatre approaches the limit and retreats, taking the audience on that journey to the edge.

In the Spanish Tragedy, Hieronymo’s desperation to get his friends to understand his plight becomes so extreme that he actually cuts out his own tongue and throws it at them. Blood sprays across the front row. The horror seems real. The political implications (in the original staging) could well have seen this violence flood outwards from the stage and into a society seething with injustice and censorship. But the play drives on in its own narrative direction, pulling the players and the audience back from the edge of collapse.

Centuries later, when theatre has lost its ability to go to the edge and back, Artaud sought to recover this power (in his essay on theatre and the plague):

Above all we must agree that stage acting is a delirium like the plague, and is communicable. p.18

...conditions must be found to give birth to a spectacle that can fascinate the mind. It is not just art. p.18

The plague takes dormant images, latent disorder and suddenly carries them to the point of the most extereme gestures. Theatre also takes gestures and develops them to the limit. Just like the plague, it reforges the links between what does and does not exist in material nature. p.18

For theatre can only happen the moment the inconcievable really begins, where poetry taking place on stage, nourishes and superheats created symbols. p.18

Like the plague, theatre is a crisis resolved either by death or cure. The plague is a superior disease because it is an absolute crisis after which there is nothing left except death or drastic putrification. In the same way, theatre is a disease because it is the final balance that cannot be obtained without destruction. It urges the mind to delirium which intensifies its energy. p.22

Most importantly, this theatre is a mobile plague, sweeping across the country. The movement of the travelling company from one city to another is not incidental. The programme of repetitions/rehearsal is repeated in a new setting each time, a new audience, a new set of reactions and interactions. As the reputation of the players builds and preceeds them, the audience becomes even more receptive and superheated, in expectation of becoming infected. Imagine what it must be like for the players, repeating their words and moves, and each time anticipating the differences both subtle and extreme.

Now consider street theatre, even more an addiction played out in varying circumstances. And the theatre of cruelty – the programme of repetitions melds with the stage and its agents, a single exposed body stripped bare and made mobile.

The addictive synthesis is the life and drive within theatre.

May 26, 2006

Research Notes: Rosi Braidotti on addiction and ethics

A short note about a seminar given by Rosi Braidotti, and an explanation of my interesting example of an ethically sustainable addictive behaviour.

Yesterday I attended yet another excellent seminar as part of the What is Philosophy? graduate research project. Professor Rosi Braidotti set out to defend Deleuzian research from charges of ethical relativism and providing more efficient control mechanisms for the use of gobal capitalism. This was done with remarkable energy and wit. The result, I believe, was to establish convincingly that Deleuzianism can have a consistent and pragmatic ethical approach to a wide range of situations. However, this requires a rethinking of the role of addiction, [inter]dependency, risk and identities, with an emphasis on positive modes of growth and intensity – an emphasis quite contrary to the prevailing culture of compensation and the valorization of suffering.

Braidotti book
Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics by Rosi Braidotti

That is very much a partial and inadequate summary. If you want to know more, I would suggest joining the What Is Philosophy? project, so that you can listen to the full podcast audio recordings of the lecture and following discussion.

As a taster, and as a record of my own contribution to the discussion, I have clipped a short section in which I respond to the claim that addictive behaviour is necessarily narcissistic. Rosi had presented the concept of addiction on two slightly contradictory ways. On the one hand, there was a discussion of Deleuze’s alcoholism (dealt with in the Logic of Sense). This behaviour was a distinctly self-absorbed testing of ‘what a body is capable of’ (Deleuze’s favourite Spinozism). Deleuze was concerned with how the alooholic repeatedly approached the limit of their addiction, the point at which it approaches incapacity or even death, and then swiftly pulls back from the edge. Such a rehearsal/repetition is only ever a reinforcement of limits. Going beyond the limit passes across a threshold (Deleuze differentiates thresholds and limits) such that the addiction is no longer possible. Such a model is, as you can imagine, not what our critics may happily accept as the basis of an ethical system!

We could, as I think Rosi attempted, redress this by arguing that life itself is about addictions, and that there are some addictions that are positive and sustainable, and others that are destructive and lead into ‘black holes’ (Deleuze and Guattari’s term). The obvious problem with this argument is that an economic system like capitalism is quite capable of creating addictions that are both locally safe in this way (for the individual) and at the same time globally destructive, or oppresive to other classes, races, nations or species. Individuals can quite obviously be manipulated, sustained or destroyed where necessary, through the production and manipulation of their addictions. Even when such behaviours seem to introduce constant novelty (fashion), that novelty is carefully controlled and limited. Consequently, the notion of safe and sustainable personal addiction fails to save us from the charge that Deleuze and Guattari simply provide more efficient mechanisms to the hands of global capitalism.

At this point I got quite excited. I have been looking at a range of addictive behaviours that are neither narcissistic nor exclusive of significant and uncontrolled creativity. These patterns of behaviour are entirely dependent upon an engagement with contsantly differing contexts (people and places). I offered the following example:

There is a man who has a powerful addiction to a series of behaviours. These behaviours are repeated/rehearsed according to a carefully controlled programme. Each time the programme of behaviours is repeated, it is done so in a new context. This variation may be subtle or dramatic, and often means the man travelling to new countries around the world. Why does he do this? Each repetition gives him a new perspective on himself, on his stable set of behaviours. In some cases he is exploring subtle fine detail. In others he is searching for dramatic contrasts. But this is not just about the man himself. He isn’t just using the world as a mirror. Rather, the repetition of behaviour each time gives him a register for understanding a new part of the world, its environment and its people. This is where the example gets really interesting. What really motivates this adventurer is that he finds that the people he meets in these locations also benefit from the relationship that is established between their world and his. They learn, and even break out of their stereotypical lives. The man and his addiction acts a bit like a virus. Often he is able to establish new relationships that endure and grow into something big and worthwile. And so, when nomadized in this manner, addictions can be positive and creative rather than entropic and narcissistic.
* To hear my example, and the following discussion, click on the play button below.