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About the Author
Eirini Kartsaki is teaching fellow in theatre and performance studies at Queen Mary University of London.
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Writing, Performance & Art
By Eirini Kartsaki
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2016 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Of Secret Signals, Absent Masters and the Trembling of the Contours: Walter Benjamin, Yvonne Rainer and the Repeatability of Gesture
Repetition relies on processes of idealization, techniques or technologies of externalization, forms of retention, spacing and the tracing of relations between past and future. Inextricably bound to the construction and deconstruction of habit, tradition and identity, the movement of repetition follows a task of (self-)inheritance along chains of counter-signatures as so many re-cognitions, re-readings, re-enactments, re-uses, re-affirmations and re-appropriations of all that remains. Yet, as Jacques Derrida has so amply demonstrated, the movement of idealisation that makes possible the retention of a mark is, at the same time, what opens it to a necessary corruption of self-identity and the crisis of meaning. Iterability – Derrida's preferred term for the possibility of repetition – therefore describes a logic that links repetition to alterity. Yet, before repetition actually takes place, the signature – a paradoxically singular performance of an iterable mark – is always already haunted by the possibility of 'its' coming counter-signature, 'the time and place of the other time already at work, altering from the start the start itself, the first time, the at once (Derrida 1990: 62). To avow of this virtual possibility of repetition – repeat-ability – in modes of radical performativity, I will argue, is to take up an attitude (Haltung) of non-mastery in any given context, or else: to a being-in-rehearsal.
The performance practices of Yvonne Rainer and others at Judson Dance take an often overlooked interest in engaging with archival remains, developing 'strategies for dancing yesterday' (Lambert-Beatty 2008: 51) by which the live moment of performance lets itself be haunted by an other, past time and place. A not dissimilar concern with the recognizability of re-enacted marks informs the theatre of Bertolt Brecht. In Walter Benjamin's writings on the latter, an important shift of emphasis takes place: a concern with the act of repetition gives way to an analysis of the structure of repeatability that conditions it. Gestures, as the more or less unique and therefore privileged repeatable marks of (Epic) theatre, are the clearly framed time or movement fragments that stand still in the interrupted continuity of a plot or the temporal unfolding of a performance. Momentarily severed from the flow of time, a minimal movement of spacing – time becoming space – renders gestures citable. As citable gestures, they begin to stand in a fundamental relationship to the future, namely, towards the possibility of their repetition in other contexts to come. Such possible future displacements in time and space are bound to entail difference as much as repetition. Citable gestures virtually part with their present context of determination and begin to signal towards the possibility of a future alterity.
Finding similar structures at work in the experiments in dance by Rainer and others, this chapter seeks to trace a certain Brechtian echo in the practices of Judson Dance. An echo, to be sure, which like all echoes, links the movement of repetition to difference. Moving beyond the specific practices and discourses of Brecht and Rainer, I want to suggest that perhaps all theatrical practice rests on a general structure of repeatability, particularly when remaining close to the process of its assemblage, namely, the rehearsal. In a detailed reading of certain extracts from Benjamin's essay 'Programm eines proletarischen Kindertheaters'/'Program for a Proletarian Children's Theatre' (1977), I finally pursue the theme of the repeatability of gesture, as it has leapt from Brecht to Rainer via a shared concern with compositional devices of interruption and citation, by rearticulating it as a politico-pedagogic attitude of radical performativity. As a movement of repetition that maintains a simultaneous reference to the past and to the future, performance as rehearsal begins to describe an experimental attitude (Haltung) towards the inheritance of a past. Designating a radically performative and provisional time-space for the experimental attitudes of non-mastery, the theatre as rehearsal turns out to be the paradigmatic time-space (Zeitraum) of education: an uncertain locality, where knowledge never quite settles and performatives never quite take (their) place.
Prologue: The Kaiserpanorama
In a small text of his collection of childhood reflections, Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert/Berlin Childhood around 1900 (2011), Benjamin, when relating his memory of the Kaiserpanorama – an elaborate early stereoscopic picture-display of mostly foreign landscape scenes – describes an auditory effect of an interfering kind, which to him seems nevertheless superior to the later developments of the phoney magic of musical accompaniment of similar image-scenes on a filmstrip. 'It was the ringing of a bell, he says, 'for a few seconds before the image joltingly disappeared, to give to view, at first a gap and then a new one' (Benjamin 2011: 81, my translation). Upon hearing it ring, Benjamin remembers, a melancholy mood of departure saturated each image. In those brief moments, realizing that it would be impossible to exhaust the 'glory' of the image in one sitting alone, a resolution was made, albeit never followed up, that is, to come again the next day (Benjamin 2011: 82).
The structure of interruption and the rhythm of a jolting discontinuity runs throughout Benjamin's vehemently anti-progressivist thought on time and history, leaping across a wide variety of contexts encompassing diverse periods and media. Whether describing the baroque mourning play's fixation of the dramatic plot to the stilled time-space of the midnight hour, the interruptions of plot and movement in Bertolt Brecht's Epic theatre, the jolts and jerks of the montage technique of early filmstrips, or the manifold images of a revolutionary cessation of happening – the shooting of the clock towers, the pulling of the emergency breaks – that run throughout his famous thesis 'On the Concept of History' (2006), it is always a momentary halt of continuity that opens up a gap, a timespace (Zeitraum) and a time-becoming-space, suspended at the joints of a temporal flow rendered discontinuous.
In the memory of the Kaiserpanorama as elsewhere, a rhythm of interruption and discontinuity finds itself linked to the possibility and desire for repetition to take place, as if interruption first renders repetition contemplatable. The fact that it is never followed up in actuality does not prevent this virtuality from actually affecting the status of what here stands exposed and suspended in time under the blare of a ringing bell. Inexhaustible in a singular viewing that no longer happens quite simply once and for all, the interrupted and suspended temporal experience resists the linear sublation of the flow of the present. Unable to master his experience of the image in a single viewing, yet knowing of its imminent departure following the ringing of the bell, the young Benjamin seemingly does not want to surrender it to the oblivion of a continuous flow or the simple memory-trace of an absent present. Instead, he keeps the image in reserve by arranging with it a future rendezvous, in a movement that is to supplant the melancholic backward-looking glance of recollection with the spectral sending of a remembering ahead.
Given the incompletion of the interrupted experience, a desire for repetition can no longer hope for the simple return of the same. As the time-space of spectatorship affected by this desire is already split, that is, impossible to master or exhaust in a single viewing, deferred and sent forth, stretched towards the possibility of a future return, its repetition to-come implies a necessary alterity. In this strangely deferred, stretched and non-localizable timespace that opens up with the interruptive ringing of a bell, a melancholy mood of departure mixes with the non-teleological hope of a performative resolution to repeat. The young Benjamin seemingly seeks to simultaneously say farewell to what has never quite arrived, while welcoming the deferred possibility of 'its' return in a repetition that paradoxically is bound to be otherwise.
Read in this way, the childhood memory of the Kaiserpanorama inserts itself into a series of other texts and contexts of Benjamin's work, which repeat otherwise the theme of a structure and attitude of repeatability: the affirmation of a constitutive possibility of the differing return of marks, split in their origin, in other contexts to come. For Benjamin, such a possibility never merely befalls the mark accidentally from the outside, but pertains to it structurally, affecting it beyond the traditional oppositions of possibility and realization, the virtual and the actual. In his book Benjamin's -abilities (2008), Samuel Weber discerns this thought of a structural possibility of alterity that affects identity in its 'origin' in Benjamin's recurrent nominalization of verbs by the suffix -ability when formulating many of his most significant concepts. Reading several of the diverse contexts of their appearance, Weber dwells, for instance, on Benjamin's conception of the structural impartability, criticizability, translatability, reproducability or readability of marks and the structural effects the '-ability' has on their identity (Weber 2008: 4). One such context constitutes Benjamin's writings on Brecht's Epic theatre. In Benjamin's reading of Brecht, a concern with the production of gestures as clearly rendered in their citability becomes central. Not unlike the disruptive ringing of a bell in the Kaiserpanorama, Epic theatre's gestures, as Benjamin discerns, are rendered citable by an interruption that halts the forward thrust of continuous movement. Severed from the telos of the plot, the gesture stands still and momentarily exposed before an audience, signalling towards the possibility of its differing (re-)inscription in other contexts, whether past or to come. Virtually parting with itself and its present context of determination, the stilled pose of the gesture is put into motion by the structural pull of its citability. The possibility of this movement – citation comes from citare, 'to put in motion' – links repeatability to an alterity always already inscribed in every so-called 'first time', affecting the gesture in the very now of its occurrence.
Two Times Out of Joint: Yvonne Rainer and Bertolt Brecht
In her book Being Watched – Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s (2008), Carrie Lambert-Beatty makes several, if sparse, references to Brecht, indicating a certain echo across the centuries between two seemingly dissimilar practitioners: one often associated with the modernist efforts of a new political theatre during the last throes of the Weimar Republic and beyond, the other with the budding minimalism of an increasingly interdisciplinary US neo-avant-garde art scene during the 1960s and the imminence of postmodern dance. Yet Lambert-Beatty relates Rainer's own expression of an awareness at re-inscribing a Brechtian reworking of the Aristotelian conception of drama, not as reference to a past moment in a linear art historical narrative, but as the unfinished business of a persisting problematic aspect of the temporal experience of spectatorship.
Theatre is still based on – & people still go to the theatre with – the old Aristotelian notions. If not actual catharsis or purging thru [sic] fear and terror, it is a 'losing of oneself' that one is supposed to experience. One judges a theatrical event according to the degree to which one became 'involved' with it. Yes I know all about Brecht & alienation [...] and how they have supposedly changed all that. But it just ain't so. Theatre is as concerned as it ever was with magic, transformations, transcendencies, if not outright ascendancies and various & sundrie [sic] forms of seduction to assure the 'drawing in' of the spectator.
(Lambert-Beatty 2008: 119)
Rainer's links to the experiments of neo-Brechtianism, however, go far beyond her own identification with the general aims of hindering a spectator's involvement, of his or her being drawn into and along with the linear flow of events, to include some of the very devices with which Brecht sought to allow for a more relaxed and distanced viewing position. For instance, when examining the effects repetition may have on the viewer of Rainer's work, Lambert-Beatty makes the following brief recourse to the discourse of Brecht. 'Thirty years before', she writes,
Bertolt Brecht had written of his attempts to replace the singular flow of drama that 'carried away' the spectator with something more like the looping temporal experience of reading and rereading. The sequential repetitions in the work of Rainer and others at Judson are very much in this spirit, as if they thought dance viewers, like Brecht's theatre-goers, should be provided some version of 'footnotes, and the habit of turning back in order to check a point. In 1965 Rainer wrote of her dance Parts of Some Sextets that moments of repetition made 'the eye jump back and forth in time'
(Lambert-Beatty 2008: 63)
Although Lambert-Beatty does not further pursue the suggested analogies between Brecht and Rainer, between footnotes and 'some version of "footnotes", on closer inspection, 'versions of "footnotes"' in both Rainer and Brecht take on very similar shapes and structures. As footnotes function in a written text, they interrupt and cut into the continuous flow of linearity. Whereas the status of a literary footnote is already uncertain, belonging both to the inside and outside of the body of a text, these 'versions of "footnotes"' inserted into the temporal unfolding of the performance intensify the experience of a split in time, that is, of being in more than one place at the same time. Leaving to one side for now the stakes of such an ontological or hauntological split in the temporal experience of 'versions of "footnotes"', it is clear that what resembles the effect of footnotes for Rainer, according to Lambert-Beatty, is a particular use of the techniques of interruption, repetition and discontinuity. In fact, Rainer's self-proclaimed consistent engagement with the interruption of linearity qua repetition perhaps repeats, much more literally than Lambert-Beatty suggests, a Brechtian concern with temporal discontinuity.
As Rainer writes in her own retrospective notes on Parts of Some Sextets:
It was clear to me that there must not be a flowing or developmental type of progression in the action, but rather whatever changes were to take place must be as abrupt and jagged as possible occurring at regular intervals. So I resorted to two devices that I have used consistently since my earliest dances: repetition and interruption. In the context of this new piece, both factors were to produce a 'chunky' continuity, repetition making the eye jump back and forth in time [...]
(Rainer 1965: 172, emphasis added)
Benjamin's writings on Epic theatre reveal striking similarities to Rainer's discourse. Benjamin describes the essential accomplishment of Brecht's experiments as that of rendering gestures citable. He arrives at this achievement precisely through the devices of repetition and interruption. In the first place, gestures appear as the result of interruptions. What is interrupted is theatre's temporal flow, the end-oriented continuities of plot, action and movement, which are spliced into clearly framed – perhaps what Rainer calls 'jagged' – elements. The fact that temporal fluidity cannot be brought to a halt entirely necessitates the reinsertion of each framed element into the temporal flux to create a 'chunky' continuity, to use Rainer's words, or, following Benjamin, one that moves in jolts and jerks, not unlike the images of a filmstrip. At its largest point of framing, Epic theatre is divided into several parts interrupted by regular intervals, making the clearly demarcated situations of the play clash, as Benjamin puts it, in a state of shock (Benjamin 1966: 29). Through the more minute interruptions and self-interruptions of each action and actor, the clearly framed gesture-fragment becomes subjected to repetitions that, not unlike Rainer's use of such techniques, makes the eye jump back and forth in time. 'One and the same [gesture], Benjamin says, 'summons Galy Gay to the wall, first to have his clothes changed, and then again to be shot. One and the same [gesture] gets him to renounce the fish and to accept the elephant' (Benjamin 1966: 20; Weber 2008: 109). Here, '[o]ne and the same, as Weber observes, 'is precisely what the citable gesture both situates and unhinges in an instant that does not come full circle [...]' (Weber 2008: 109-110). Such unhinging in and of the instant renders the time of its occurrence out of joint. Like the uncertain spatio-temporal status of the footnote, the gesture is always in more than one place at once and is thus never fully contemporaneous with itself, never fully present to itself. Its performance has always already departed from its present context of determination by gesturing from or towards another, whether that of a previous occurrence or a possible future one to come. This in turn implies that the context of determination can never be saturated and mastered in a single viewing, as it is always already split, its time out of joint, stretched between at least more than one place and time, at the same time.
Excerpted from On Repetition by Eirini Kartsaki. Copyright © 2016 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Persisting Forever: Introducing Repetition Eirini Kartsaki Chapter 1 - Of Secret Signals, Absent Masters and the Trembling of the Contours: 15Walter Benjamin, Yvonne Rainer and the Repeatability of Gesture Swen Steinhäuser Chapter 2 - All the Home’s a Stage: Uncanny Encounters Between Auditorium and Oikos Alan Read Chapter 3 - Repetition as Technology of the Numinous in Performance: The Artist Is Present by Marina Abramovic´ Silvia Battista Chapter 4 - When Is a Joke not a Joke? Reading (and Re-reading) Stewart Lee’s ‘The Rap Singers’ Emma Bennett Chapter 5 - The Crying Channel Claire Hind and Gary Winters Chapter 6 -The Cyclical Pleasures and Deaths of Symbolization: How to Become 117 a Cupcake/The Famous’ Adaptation of Frankenstein Lauren Barri Holstein Chapter 7 - A Pointless Pastime? Early Nineteenth-Century Pin-Prick Imagery Alice Barnaby Chapter 8 - Repeated Acts of Intimacy and Harm in Andrea Brady’s Mutability: Scripts for Infancy Gareth Farmer Chapter 9 -‘I Was Not HEARD’: Trauma and Articulation in the Poetry of Geraldine Monk Linda Kemp Chapter 10 - Déjà-vu, Doubles and Dread: The Uncanny and Christopher Smith’s Triangle Ruth McPhee Chapter 11 - Farewell to Farewell: Impossible Endings and Unfinished Finitudes Eirini Kartsaki Afterword: Repetition or Recognition? Clare Foster