Staging Consciousness: Theater and the Materialization of Mind

Staging Consciousness: Theater and the Materialization of Mind

by William W. Demastes


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Staging Consciousness argues that theater is a living invalidation of the Western dualism of mind and body, activating human consciousness through its embodiment of thought in performance. While consciousness theory has begun to find ways to bridge dualist gaps, Staging Consciousness suggests that theater has anticipated these advances, given the ways in which the physical theater promotes nonphysical thought, connecting the two realms in unique and ingenious ways.

William W. Demastes makes use of the writings of such varied theater practitioners as Antonin Artaud, Jerzy Grotowski, Samuel Beckett, Tony Kushner, Sam Shepard, Spalding Gray, Peter Shaffer, and others, illuminating theater as proof that mind is an extension of body. The living stage incubates and materializes thought in a way that highlights the processes of daily existence outside the theater. This book offers a new way for theater practitioners to look at the unique value of the theater and an invitation for philosophers and scientists to search for new paradigms in theater, the oldest of art forms.

William W. Demastes is Professor of English, Louisiana State University. His previous books include Theatre of Chaos: Beyond Absurdism, into Disorderly Order.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472112029
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 06/25/2002
Series: Theater: Theory/Text/Performance Series
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

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Staging Consciousness: Theater and the Materialization of Mind

By William W. Demastes

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2002 William W. Demastes
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0472112023

Chapter 1 - Toward a Materialization of Consciousness in Theater and the Sciences

"There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow," concedes Hamlet in the late stages of Shakespeare's masterpiece, a famous image the point of which is repeated moments later in the play when Hamlet observes, "There's a divinity that shapes our ends." This rather humbled Hamlet toward play's end-falling into destiny's lap-is a far cry from the self-confident, ego-centered, proto-modern man who in act 1 declares of the world, "O cursèd spite / That ever I was born to set it right."

In these few choice lines from Hamlet Shakespeare proleptically outlines both the problem modern society has created for itself and the way to fish ourselves out of the mess we've gotten ourselves into. Post-Cartesian (post-Galilean, post-Newtonian) Western culture has arrogantly assumed command of setting the world right, dissecting it for its secrets and reconstituting it as we see fit. What Hamlet learns-too late to save himself but in time to save Elsinore-is that he is very much part of that world and has been called upon to serve it rather than to manipulate it. Belatedly realizing that he is integrally part of that creation he is trying so hard to fix, Hamlet learns that, rather than fixing the world as might some cosmic mechanic with special expertise, he must accept his part in the great ebb and flow of nature that will ultimately fix itself, albeit with a little help from humanity.

Giving in to "the Force"-recalling Hamlet's much-reduced twentieth-century incarnation, Luke Skywalker-is precisely Shakespeare's seventeenth-century advice to Hamlet and to Hamlet's audience. But how can twentieth-century audiences do that, encrusted today as we are by the scientistic spirit of Hamlet's Wittenberg? Can we today only "feel the Force" playfully depicted in our entertainments, or is there a serious charge built into that latter-day command that we can actually activate?

Modern science from the Renaissance to the present day has persistently preached to us the virtues of viewing the world from some objectivist, Olympian height and controlling the world/environment beneath us, that world placed before our feet to manipulate as we please. We have consistently striven to dominate our world to our own ends rather than to accept our place within that world and to immerse ourselves in its enfolding, creative energies. Science has preached to us that the world is a "dumb" mechanism ruled by empty coincidence and susceptible to our ever-increasing capacities to control it. And we have increasingly accepted the attendant insistence that any ascription of meaning or purpose to this universe is little more than wishful fiction making. After all, as the earlier cocksure Hamlet remarks (the act 2 Hamlet who still believes in his powers), "nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so."

So today we watch Hamlet and are touched by the transformation of its central character as he moves from being a tormented though distant analyst-striving to find a way to set the world right-to a fully engaged participant who learns to play his part in the bigger picture. But there's always a sneaking suspicion among modern audiences that the fall of a sparrow Hamlet envisions simply means that the sparrow's life has come to an end. Providence, fate, and destiny really have no place in our ontologies. We are simply what we make of ourselves. Believing anything more is foolishness or mere superstition. Sure, some of us might see certain omens or signs that might tell of a larger design of which we are to be part, but we quickly engage our rational faculties and discount any such silly notions. We might shudder slightly at the ill omen of a cracked mirror, but we quickly recover to signal that our concern is over the inconvenience of replacing the piece. We may experience momentary concern when a black cat crosses our path, but the shadow soon passes. Some of us are even heartened by the sight of a rainbow, but few of us really sees signs of any covenant in this commonplace act of refraction. Science has taught us to know better than to expect signals from some "undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns." In fact, science has pretty much convinced us-sometimes seemingly against our better instincts-that this "undiscovered country" does not even exist and that sighting such denizens of that domain is merely proof of one's madness.

Toward the end Hamlet learns not to unquestioningly valorize what he has learned at school in Wittenberg: he has learned to accept that Wittenberg does not offer all there is to know of existence, that there truly are "more things in heaven and earth . . . , / Than are dreamt of " by rational minds. But then Hamlet was not mired in a culture so thoroughly inundated by the spirit of science as for centuries ours has been. He was there at the beginning of this revolution and so was better able to turn away from the tantalizing opening tunes of a dissecting scientific certainty, retraining his ear to hear the harmonizing music of the spheres, instead. Perhaps living at the apparent end of this period of tyrannical empirical certainty, we, too, may soon be able to follow Hamlet and retune ourselves to a long-forgotten integral natural harmony and to become participants in rather than mere auditors/ observers/manipulators of this world.

The Risen Spirit of Scientism

There is little doubt that modern Western culture has handed the manufacture of truth over to the sciences. The scientific claims to objectivity have mesmerized our culture, leading to a general acceptance of scientific premises and conclusions. Traditional physics and its attendant scientifically supported mechanistic reductionism-breaking down nature-as-machine and engaging in piecemeal study-have long ago supplanted any humanities-initiated metaphysics and the artistically inspired imagination that have sounded a resistant note to such a process. A mechanistic worldview has replaced vitalism and mystery, and reductionism has triumphed over organicism. There is little doubt, too, that the contemporary arts to a great degree have conceded the dominance of the sciences, often merely imitating scientific enterprises by generally withdrawing to slice-of-life dissections or escaping to solipsistic, elitist enterprises of personal discovery having little to do with larger, more integrally organic issues. The arts even frequently adopt coldly analytical scientific procedures in the bargain.

It is not entirely clear, however, that the scientific juggernaut should be considered the culmination of human endeavor, the many triumphs of that process notwithstanding. Rationalist science has admittedly produced innumerable beneficial technological breakthroughs and has "explained" countless once-mystifying natural events. But it has also led to global ecological crises of untold proportions. In many ways, however, these ecological troubles which are so frequently (and recently) attributed to this scientific juggernaut are the least troubling legacies of scientific progress when one considers the attendant spiritual devastation it has unleashed. The mechanistic conclusions of the reductionist scientific process leave little more for humanity to conclude than that the universe is an inert, amoral, causally created mass of discrete entities tumbling toward their respective final positions in a universe void of purpose or any real direction other than that of attaining an inevitable universal heat death.

Many scientists, of course, see no problem with this "worldview" and simply pursue knowledge without any hunger for moral stabilizers or any longing for greater purpose than to piece together the puzzle of existence placed before us and to manipulate that knowledge for still greater human control and material advancement. Life is the culmination of temporary organizing conditions, uniting otherwise inert matter that will shortly once again become inert. Positivism (reality is only that which is physically measurable) and reductionism (to understand reality one must understand its elemental components) rule the day. Take what we see, break it down, see how it works, and reconstruct it for our own purposes. Science has proposed, as Joseph Wood Krutch has observed, "a declaration of faith in the senses . . . and in the visible world as opposed to the unseen." The "unseen," at very least, is simply not important or, at most, does not exist.

This amoral, mechanistic perspective is, of course, a relatively new perspective in the long history of human thought, though it perhaps feels to us like it has been a universal constant or that it is the natural culmination of the evolution of human thought. After all, we at least appear currently to be in control of our own collective destiny: science has solved many of life's former riddles/mysteries, and technology can manipulate that newfound knowledge to fit the needs (even the whims) of its human masters.

From our (post)modern vantage point the argument goes that the vitalist perspective that the mechanistic worldview replaced has no basis in empirical evidence and so should be discarded because it really offers no concrete hope for a better (material) future. The vitalist position rather quixotically posits that some higher order (often called God) has imposed a purpose onto the cosmic fabric and that the universe is in the process of fulfilling what it has been set up to do. There is, of course, no solid evidence to support this vitalism, according to traditional science or the culture slipstreaming behind science's advance. In fact, this "topdown" perspective is undermined by the many "bottom-up" triumphs of the reductionist scientific approach. Clearly, contemporary science and technology have discredited vitalist illusions. In moments of intellectual weakness we may choose to long for such a progressive world of meaning/purpose/design, but we ultimately need to accept the facts of positivist empirical study. So goes the argument.

Interestingly enough, however, the monolith of traditional mechanistic science is beginning to reveal cracks. Quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and the growing pursuit of complexity (wherein the whole is more than the sum of its parts) within the more traditional sciences are examples of such moves to adjust the paradigm from the mechanistic to a more organic vision that in many instances at least tentatively supports some of the conclusions posited by the vitalists. These cracks don't entirely discredit the mechanistic vision, but they do suggest that we revisit the vitalist perspective, perhaps update it, and then consider at least the possibility of an unseen hand (though the anthropomorphism of traditional religions is not strictly necessary) controlling cosmic events. In fact, without needing necessarily to invoke a vitalist higher being, reductive science itself is beginning to question the dumb blindness of the universe it has envisioned.

While scientifically inspired technology has produced untold triumphs, it has also produced unexpected by-product dangers. And in many cases more and better technology is not the answer to the problems created by technology in the first place. Rather, there is a begrudgingly growing sense of respect for natural patterns of order that can't be controlled or dominated by our superior technology. For example, Laurie Garret, in The Coming Plague, has proposed that the relatively recent and alarming increase in incurable diseases is the complex result of our technological "triumphs" placing the world out of balance, creating unnaturally ripe conditions conducive to rapidly developing strains of disease, and making humanity-and the globe-susceptible to numerous plaguelike onslaughts. The unanticipated developments she documents, and many more like them, lead inevitably to the question: what are these unanticipated and uncontrollable forces that we are throwing out of balance? (Are these akin to the forces of providence Hamlet learns to live with?)

In the process of trying to answer these questions, mechanistic views of the world are being challenged at various levels by a sense that we need to enter (or reenter) the realm once allocated to artists, religious figures, and other non- or anti-empirical dreamers and visionaries. But this time we must enter with a full sense of the kinds of evidence our culture relies on to validate those visions. Rather than invoking a sense of mystery from on high and insisting on faith or "visions" to sustain us, this new (re)turn must accept the reality of the empirical world, working from the bottom up (material to spiritual) rather than from the top down.

Seemingly following a trajectory parallel to this agenda, some scientists are beginning to think like dreamers and artists, in the process rocking the boat of mechanistic reductionism. Their reevaluations in many cases actually echo positions and perspectives advanced by their humanist colleagues. In fact, Western culture may be on the verge of a reengagement of the arts and sciences that it has abandoned at least since scientistic ascendancy in the Renaissance. It is perhaps possible that these first halting scientific steps toward reevaluation may lead to a reunion of the arts and sciences.

In an earlier study entitled Theatre of Chaos: Beyond Absurdism, into Orderly Disorder, I suggested parallels between ideas presented in the theater (primarily contemporary British and American theater) and the revolutionary twentieth-century sciences of quantum mechanics and chaos theory. Noting crucial points of convergence, the study observed that the theater, quantum physics, and chaos theory have conjoined to challenge the linear and causal foundations of traditional reductionist science as well as our cultural worldview, which is built upon those foundations. Quantum physics has worked at the subatomic level of existence to undermine the scientifically supported concept of the world as linearly causal. Likewise, chaos theory has made similar challenges at the level of the visible, "real" world. With the help of such breakthroughs a 1914 statement by Henri Poincaré (considered the father of chaotics) resonates more fully than ever: "Modern man has used cause-and-effect as ancient men used the gods to give order to the Universe. This is not because it was the truest system, but because it was the most convenient." What these new sciences present is a revolutionary belief in systems of complex behavior irreducible to the former reductionist, strictly linear cause-and-effect doctrines. There's more going on out there than we've previously been willing to see or even to look for. It may not be a convenient proposition, but it appears to be more true.

Events flow in unexpected, nonlinear ways. But randomness is not what is located in this flow; rather, what has been posited is an existence that is richly varied, grounded in myriad patterns of interrelating forces whose actual interplay can never precisely be anticipated. In that rich soup of creative existence on the edge of chaos (between the domains of strict order and unfathomable randomness) is a varied pattern of life rather than the one-to-one interactions of automata previously assumed to be the model for life.

In theater terms chaos theory is a creative, interactive fusion of naturalism/determinism and absurdism/randomness, the two dramatic extremes that have held sway in the twentieth century. Because the naturalist's insistence on the determinism of existence fails to acknowledge the rich variety of the universe, an absurdist vision of the world as random seemed a viable latter-day counter-option to assume. But it now appears that the absurdist position was too extreme: existence is not random, as the absurdists oppositionally concluded, only more complexly ordered than previously imagined by the naturalists. The world can best be explained by a philosophy that falls somewhere between naturalism and absurdism. To use a scientific description, existence is controlled by the unpredictability of nonlinear determinism.

The arts and sciences both are reintroducing themselves to a sort of neostructuralist notion that life is richly patterned. The result is that we are seeing more and more viable patterned alternatives to an entrenched linear reductionism. Significantly, however, these revolutionary insights have yet to be pursued to their full, potentially even more revolutionary, conclusions. Can we accept that the diversity and richness explicated in these new visions are merely more complex forms of an empirically verifiable, still meaningless mechanism? Or is there an emergent quality that transcends positivistic comprehension and asks that we look to uncover some "mindful hand" at work? Sighting patterns is clearly an advance beyond our former isolating and reductionist tendencies, but thus far we have fallen short of pursuing the sources/causes of these structures. What (or who) is responsible for them?

While science can perhaps be faulted for failing fully to consider the option of some mindful hand at work, it is a bit surprising to be able to make the same charge against the arts. Consider that this lingering positivist urge to avoid the big question can be seen to exist within the theater community as well. While a critical shift toward pattern sighting has indeed occurred in the theater, the theater likewise has stopped short of seeking the source of these newly sighted patterns. Recent shifts in theater challenge our obsession with reductionism by challenging, for example, the traditional obsession with the psychology of character, predicated as it is on a system of thought that strives to comprehend discrete units of life through systematic, linearly causal reduction. As Elinor Fuchs has reported in The Death of Character, this still-lingering urge to understand individual motive is being replaced by an increasing regard for more pervasive systems of pattern revealed through an experience of performance as a single organic unity. Evaluating the alternative theater scene in New York City, Fuchs observes of character that "much of its signifying power has been taken over by abstract pattern" (44).


Excerpted from Staging Consciousness: Theater and the Materialization of Mind by William W. Demastes Copyright © 2002 by William W. Demastes. Excerpted by permission.
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