Hablar metafÃ³ricamente: Posibilidades teatrales en la era digital
Ioana Juncan (Brown University)
ArtÃculo recibido: 18-9-2012 | ArtÃculo aceptado: 22-10-2012
ABSTRACT: This essay reflects on the quality of the theatre performance as medium in the digital age through a discussion of the theatre of Peter Handke. The aim is to make manifest and engage with habits of thought and perception shaped by the digital, as well as investigate the ways in which they intersect with habits of thought and perception materialized in and mobilized by theatre performance in the specific case of Handkeâs theatre (a theatre created, arguably, at the beginnings of the digital age). Engaging with Ludwig Wittgensteinâs philosophy, the essay looks at theatre performance as a site for the negotiation of the relation between techne and poiesis in the digital age. It focuses on the notion of metaphor in order to examine ways in which both the theatre under investigation and the digital unsettle and re-imagine the concept of identity traditionally understood in terms of unity and sameness.
RESUMEN: Este artÃculo evalÃºa la calidad de la actuaciÃ³n teatral como medio en la era digital a travÃ©s de un anÃ¡lisis del teatro de Peter Handke. El objetivo es poner de manifiesto y relacionar los hÃ¡bitos de pensamiento y percepciÃ³n formados en lo digital asÃ como investigar el modo en que estos se cruzan con hÃ¡bitos de pensamiento y percepciÃ³n materializados y puestos en marcha por la actuaciÃ³n teatral en el caso especÃfico del teatro de Handke (un teatro creado, sin duda, en los inicios de la era digital). En la lÃnea de la filosofÃa de Ludwig Wittgenstein, este artÃculo trata la actuaciÃ³n teatral como un espacio para la negociaciÃ³n de la relaciÃ³n entre technÃ© y poiesis en la era digital. Se centra en la nociÃ³n de metÃ¡fora para examinar cÃ³mo tanto el teatro investigado como el digital alteran y modifican el concepto de identidad tradicionalmente entendida en tÃ©rminos de unidad e igualdad.
KEYWORDS: the digital, identity, medium, metaphor, performance
PALABRAS CLAVE: digitalidad, identidad, medio, metÃ¡fora, interpretaciÃ³n
This exploration begins with the same question that opens one of Peter Handkeâs earliest plays: âWhere to begin?â For Handke, the response comes by means of someone elseâs words:
Where to begin?
Everything is out of joint and totters.
The air quivers with comparisons.
No word is better than the other,
the earth booms with metaphorsâ¦ (Osip Mandelstam cited in Handke, 1976: 3)
Yet to begin with metaphors is not exactly to begin somewhere, but, rather, both here and there and elsewhere simultaneously, for âmetaphorâ returned to its etymological root means to carry or bear across (from the Greek âmetaphereinâ, from meta– “over, across” + pherein “to carry, bear”). It is to begin âin midperformance;â in a landscape with âneither land nor perspectiveâ that perhaps resembles the âfugitiveâ cyberspace we have recently begun to inhabit; or in media res â âin the middle of things,â which is how software, too, can be understood, and which means that âwe can only begin with things â things that we grasp and touch without fully grasping, things that unfold in time â things that can only be rendered âsourcesâ or objects (if they can) after the fact.â
Notwithstanding the differences among these possibilities of reading, all of them require taking seriously the quality of the theatre performance as medium and its implications in the digital age. This is precisely what this essay undertakes to do.
The play in the beginning of this chapter is Peter Handkeâs Prophecy (1966). Prophecy appears to be a series of tautologies performed by four speakers designated through the first four letters of the alphabet, such as:
A: The flies will die like flies. [â¦]
AB: The house of cards will tumble like a house of cards. [â¦]
ABC: The dog will die like a dog. [â¦]
ABCD: Every day will be like every other. (Handke, 1976: 17)
The ironic paradox at the heart of this play deserves attention. The tautologies that make up Prophecy seem grounded â like all tautology, the most well-known of which is the principle of non-contradiction in the form of âA is Aâ â in the traditional Western conception of identity as sameness and unity. Underlying this conception of identity is a strictly determined immutability of a frozen present: if A is A, then A must be in a timeless present, it must be necessarily unchangeable and immovable. In this traditional conception of identity, no departure and no arrival is possible; movement is irrevocably denied.Interestingly, however, the tautological form used in Prophecy is peculiar, replacing the conventional âisâ with âlikeâ â the marker of similarity with difference. âLikeâ opens spaces for transformation and change in-between the word (or group of words) and its repetition.
Handke thus challenges the traditional concept of identity and opens the way for multiplicity in a non-linear temporality. In this way, âprophecyâ in effect describes a paradoxical figure in time presupposing the arrival of the future in the present ahead of its time, but only as an event that is possible (and that must be acknowledged as such) at virtually any point in the time to come. In other words, this is an event that is possible only by virtue of being impossible until it springs into being.
Prophecy â the feature of language that takes up the condition of words as recurrent â no longer has to do with the recurrence of the same and, relatedly, with an explanation of the recurrence of words by means of a theory of universals, as has traditionally been the case in philosophy (Cavell, 1996: 206). Like Wittgenstein in the thought-experiments that make up his Philosophical Investigations, Handke can be said to dramatize in Prophecy âthe fact that a word does not exist until it is understood as repeatedâ (to extrapolate Stanley Cavellâs formulation; 1996: 206). What Handkeâs Prophecy theatrically materializes is what Gertrude Stein termed âloving repeatingâ as âone way of beingâ (Stein, 1993: 62) â a beginning again as one way of being that is in fact becoming (transformation; translation). This is repetition with difference â repetition as a technique for creating difference.
To push this thought one step further and contextualize it historically, this logic of repetition as techne at the core of Handkeâs play, Prophecy, has striking affinities with the logic of repetition embodied by the source code of software. Source code is the executable language of software made up of statements functioning as rules â âthe first language that actually does what its saysâ (Galloway, 2004: 165-6) â a spectral, generalized and human-readable writing (Chun, 2011: 25). It is âdead repetitionâ in the sense that it is always regenerative and interactive and every iteration alters its meaning (Chun, 2011: 25). âVisibly invisible” and ârelating presence and representationâ, it is âindissociable from destructionâ and re-creation, from forgetfulness and memory (Chun through Derrida, 2011: 99; modified). Thus, this is a logic of repetition that challenges the notion of source (origin) as identity and unity based on the trace left behind, substituting it with a conception of source defined by multiplicity.
Prophecy begins again in Peter Handkeâs first full-length play, Kaspar (1967). A play acknowledgedly written under the sign of Ludwig Wittgensteinâs philosophical thought, Kaspar begins with the question of the possibility to âbegin and begin:â âCan Kaspar, the owner of one sentence, begin and begin to do something with this sentence?â (Handke, 1969: 55). That Kaspar begins with a question (in fact, with a series of sixteen questions about (im)possibility, all of which begin with âCanâ) is not without significance. It testifies to a philosophical attitude that manifests itself in Handkeâs play, for, since its beginnings, it is philosophy that has been thought to begin in questioning, which, in turn, is a manifestation of wonder. Reiterating Aristotle, who reiterated Plato who reiterated Socrates, philosopher Karl Jaspers, for instance, wrote that the source of philosophy lies in âlimit-situationsâ such as wonder, doubt, and the awareness of these ultimate situations (Jaspers, 2003: 20). In Wittgenstein, this attitude takes the form of âI donât know my way aboutâ (Wittgenstein, 2009: 55), which, as Stanley Cavell justly remarks, is âthe form specifically of the beginning or appearance of a philosophical problemâ (Cavell, 1996: 325). This general form of a philosophical problem has to do with âlong and meandering journeys,â with criss-cross wanderings âin every direction over a wide field of thoughtâ (Wittgenstein, 2009: 3). In Wittgensteinâs view, therefore, philosophy appears to begin in wonder and wander.
In the spirit of this Wittgensteinian thought, Handke makes the connection between wonder and wander manifest in his later play, Voyage to the Sonorous Land (1989). Voyage to the Sonorous Land is a play with figures such as Wide Eyes, Spoilsport, Actor, Young Actor, and Actress, who âcome from a place of wonder,â âwho wonât take everything for granted, who get homesick if there is nothing to wonder atâ (Handke, 1996: 15). These are figures whose âbasic rhythm of breathing, looking, and listening â¦ is still one of asking, constantlyâ (Handke, 1996: 15). They are also essentially wanderers â wanderers who wander in order to be able to wonder, for âasking goes with walking: to go ask, outside, in the openâ (Handke, 1996: 16) while being inside the theatre. But they are first and foremost actors, so one of the essential questions they need to ask is:
But how are we to play this pure, quiet state of having a question, of being all question and being questioned? I managed to play the stage direction âHe is delightedâ â and even âShe blushesâ [â¦] but someone having questions not yet directed to anyone, himself, or you or a third party, not yet defined, not to be put in words â there hasnât been a part like this in three thousand years. (Handke, 1996: 68)
In effect, this is the question to which the whole of Handkeâs theatre seeks to respond: How can wonder be performed? How should a performance be written on the page and translated on the stage in such a way as to generate a wonder-effect in the audience?
Voyage, as already suggested, engages this question directly. Seeking to âstart from the beginning, with questionsâ (Handke, 1996: 15), it stages âthe long-due drama of asking,â a âplay of questionsâ whose basic thrust âshould be that of an expedition and its basic toneâ (Handke, 1996: 16). The destination of this expedition: the sonorous land â the place of seeing, or, as the translator of the play put it, âthe uncharted territory of the empty space filling with possibilities,â âthe beginning of theatreâ (Honegger, 1996: xxix).
Given its title, it might seem striking that the play is about seeing â about theatre as a place of seeing that is also a sonorous land. This is nevertheless possible (and not senseless) in light of the nature of the seeing involved. This act of seeing is similar to the seeing Wittgenstein calls for as a mode of engagement with the world that leads to clarity (to perspicuous representation, in Wittgensteinâs terminology). As Judith Genova points out, this is a seeing that âthinks differencesâ (Genova 1995: 57). It is a formal seeing â a seeing of relationality in the form of âa complicated network of similarities [and, by implication, of differences] overlapping and criss-crossingâ rather than of unchanging entities (Wittgenstein, 2009: Â§66).
Seeing relationality is not necessarily limited to sensorial vision, for the relation to be seen may well be established between âthe hearing of a nameâ and the mental âpicture of what is namedâ triggered by the hearing (Wittgenstein, 2009: Â§37). This seeing is intimately associated with linguistic performance: it begins with an utterance and, in turn, triggers an act of uttering: âDonât apologize for anything, donât leave anything out; look and say what itâs really like â but you must see something that throws new light on factsâ (Wittgenstein, 1984: 39). As this Wittgensteinian remark makes manifest, the puzzling effect of this puzzling act of seeing is â to play on the different uses of âto seeâ â that of seeing things in a new light and, thus, of wonder.
Handke suggests these dimensions of the act of seeing by playing up the connection between seeing and becoming aware/understanding encapsulated in the use of the expression âI see.â Michael Roloff, the translator of a large number of Handkeâs plays, cogently remarks in this regard that â(re)learning the âart of askingâ will generate the ability to see. We say âI seeâ when we begin to understand somethingâ (Roloff, 1996: xxix). To anticipate again, âI seeâ is used at an earlier point in Handkeâs theatre, in Kaspar, when Kaspar â made to speak through speaking by the Prompters â gives voice to the first of the three histories of his life on stage. Both in Kaspar, and in Voyage to the Sonorous Land, the âIâ and the âseeâ are thrown into performance in a theatre re-configured as a place of seeing (in the Wittgensteinian sense).
Returning to theatre as a place of seeing beginning in and reverberating with questions, Voyage is thus a play that both begins in the beginning and ends in the beginning â or, in other words, finds the beginning in the end. The beginning is âthe whole system workingâ (Marshall, 2005: 67). To begin at (or from) the beginning is to begin both here and there and somewhere else simultaneously. To begin at (or from) the beginning in the theatre is to show the whole invisibly visible system working in order to generate a wonder-effect.
This is precisely what Handke shows in Kaspar. In the note following the series of questions beginning with âcanâ â the linguistic marker of possibility â that open Kaspar, Handke extrapolates and modifies a citation from Wittgensteinâs Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
The play Kaspar does not show how IT REALLY IS OR REALLY WAS with Kaspar Hauser. It shows what IS POSSIBLE with someone. (Handke, 1969: 60)
The play Kaspar shows possibility (âwhat IS POSSIBLE with someoneâ). In the spirit of early Wittgensteinâs Tractatus, it can be said to put forth a picture that is a depiction of a specific state of affairs and that asserts a particular configuration of objects. As in Wittgensteinâs âstructure of the atomic factâ (Wittgenstein, 1922: 2.03; 2.032), in Kaspar these objects seem to hang together in a state of affairs that exists in reality âlike the members of a chain.â The picture of the world that Kaspar presents is that of a whole with holes, of a limited whole.
To create a picture of this world, Handke employs the language of Wittgensteinâs Tractatus and, in particular, of Wittgensteinâs picture theory of language, in bodies of text spoken by the Prompters (Einsager) of his Kaspar, such as:
Every object must be the
picture of an object: every proper
table is the picture of a table. [â¦]
sentence [â¦] is a
picture of a sentence. (Handke, 1969: 81-2)
A table is a word you can apply to
the closet, and you have a real
closet and a possible table in
place of the table, and? (Handke, 1969: 76)
The formulations that make up these passages resonate with Wittgensteinâs view of the object as the meaning of a name represented by a sign (Wittgenstein, 1922: 3.221, 3.203).
While keeping true to the poetic form of the Tractatus, Handke does not reproduce either Wittgensteinâs words or his philosophical ideas. Instead, he puts them into practice in a âjourney to the sonorous landâ of theatre as a place of seeing. The note in the beginning of Kaspar contains directions regarding the character of the objects in the theatrical space and their arrangement on stage required so that they can host a theatrical event. The stage is a picture of a stage; the picture of the stage represents the stage. The stage is an environment with play-objects (SpielgegenstÃ¤nde) positioned on the stage floor such as a sofa (in which Kaspar has slept for a long time before his awakening on stage); a few chairs that â because they are on a stage â are theatre chairs (âA chair on the stage is a theatre chairâ; Handke, 1970: 57); a table (which can be in fact a stage in miniature), and a number of other symbol-objects such as a broom or a map. It is an environment with play-objects and with empty space (âcenter stage is emptyâ â Kaspar, 1969: 61) awaiting to be filled that is always in the present:
The objects, although genuine (made of wool, steel, cloth, etc.), are instantly recognizable as props. They are play objects. They have no history. The audience cannot imagine that before they came in and saw the stage, some tale had already taken place on it. [â¦] Center stage is empty. (Handke, 1979: 60)
The audience should not be able âto imagine that the props on stage will be part of a play that pretends to take place anywhere except on stage: they should recognize at once that they will witness an event that plays only on stage and not in some other realityâ (Handke, 1969: 60). This requirement is ripe with implications. As props, stage objects have the power to âtake on a life of their own in performanceâ (Sofer; 2003: 2). In this sense, the stage prop is perhaps the perfect exemplification of Wittgensteinâs thought extensively developed in the scenarios that make up the Philosophical Investigations (and in other Wittgensteinian writings) that the meaning of a word is its use, that meaning is infinitely mutable and depends on the specific language-games in which words are used. Similarly, the stage prop takes on new meanings depending on its uses on the stage, on the scenic situations in which it is embedded.
The stage prop is the site of continuous transformation and translation (returned to its Latin etymological root, translatere, from trans– âacrossâ + latere– âto carry, bearâ, âtranslationâ designates a journey in-between); underlying its functioning is the principle of inter-relation. The following passage from Kaspar evidences this idea: âA table is a word you can apply to/ the closet, and you have a real/ closet and a possible table in/ place of the tableâ (Handke, 1969: 82). Grounded in the logic of substitution, the prop is thus inherently metaphoric. Metaphor is, to use Wendy Chunâs well-crafted turn of phrase, âa transfer that transformsâ (Chun, 2011: 56). Just like the stage prop, metaphor functions on account of the principle of inter-relation: âThe essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of anotherâ (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980: 5). Given its seemingly infinite possibilities of transformation and translation, the stage prop appears to be a metaphor for metaphor itself.
In a sense, the stage prop emerges as a metaphor machine. The logic that it embodies seems intriguingly similar to that embodied by software, which, as Chun points out, has acquired the unique status of âmetaphor for metaphor itselfâ (Chun, 2011: 2). According to Chun:
Based on metaphor, software has become a metaphor for the mind, for culture, for ideology, for biology, and for the economy. [â¦] Although technologies, such as clocks and steam engines, have historically been used metaphorically to conceptualize our bodies and culture, software is unique in its status as metaphor for metaphor itself. As a universal imitator/machine, it encapsulates a logic of general substitutability: a logic of ordering and creative, animating disordering. (Chun, 2011: 2)
Notwithstanding the similarity, there is difference in this connection between the logic behind software and the logic behind the prop, which I will highlight in the pages to come.
At stake in Handkeâs requirement that the objects on the stage must be (seen as) props and, by extension, that the stage picture represents the stage, is the necessity to take the reality of the theatre seriously as a space for the emergence of possibilities â of ânew possibilities for thinkingâ (Handke in Roloff, 1974: 155). To achieve this, Handke challenges in and through theatre performance the traditional philosophical view of possibility as a shadow of reality, which Wittgenstein has already thrown into contest in his journeys across wide fields of thought.
Notably, later Wittgenstein challenges the conception of possibility as a shadow of reality through the metaphor of the machine. He writes in this regard:
A machine as a symbol of its mode of operation. The machine [â¦] seems already to contain its own mode of operation. [â¦] If we know the machine, everything else â that is the movements it will make â seem to be already completely determined. We talk as if these parts could only move in this way, as if they could not do anything else. [â¦] Do we forget the possibility of their bending, breaking off, melting, and so on? [â¦] We use a machine, or a picture of a machine, as a symbol of a particular mode of operation. [â¦] But when we reflect that the machine could also have moved differently, it may now look as if the way it moves must be contained in the machine qua symbol still more determinately than in the actual machine. As if it were not enough for the movements in question to be empirically predetermined, but they had to be really â in a mysterious sense â already present. [â¦] We say, for example, that the machine has (possesses) such-and-such possibilities of movement. [â¦] The possibility of movement â what is it? It is not the movement, but it does not seem to be a mere physical condition for moving either. [â¦] The possibility of a movement is supposed, rather, to be like a shadow of the movement itself. But do you know of any such shadow? (Wittgenstein, 2009: Â§ 193-194)
In a traditional conceptualization, the machine is the illustration of causal necessity undergirded by the doctrine of determinism and, implicitly, by the notion of the cause as unique source (origin) of subsequent action par excellence. The traditional metaphor of the machine is used to support the view of a clockwork universe. This view is founded on the doctrine of determinism, âimplying the orderly flow of cause and effect in a static universe, a universe of being without becoming.â Thus, this view is intimately associated with the general principle of causality, cogently explained by Lars Skyttner thus:
that every effect is preceded, not followed, by a cause. Just as one cogwheel drives and influences the other in a rational way, a measurable cause always produces a measurable effect in a rational system. Also, identical causes imposed upon identical rational systems, always produce identical effects (Skyttner, 2005: 14).
Wittgenstein questions this use of the term by approaching âthe machineâ in terms of âthe actual machineâ and âthe machine-as-symbol.â As a symbol, a machine is âa part of language [â¦], like samples or gesturesâ and, thus, âthe interconnection of the movements of a machine-as-symbol are forged in grammarâ (Baker and Hacker, 2009: 109). Wittgenstein does not contest the principle of causality underlying the operation of the actual machine, but he does destabilize the notion of identical (and unique) causes producing identical effects regardless of context in his account of the machine-as-symbol. By questioning the view that âpossibility is something which is similar to realityâ (Wittgenstein, 2009: Â§194), Wittgenstein unconditions possibility and, in this way, the event (of the parts of the machine âbending, breaking off, meltingâ, for instance). Were possibility seen as âa shadow of realityâ, the mode of to come â the mutability and multiplicity associated with possibility â would be annihilated, the eventfulness of the event would be neutralized (to use Derridaâs terminology; 2005: 84).
This does not mean that the event is not real. On the contrary, it is incontestably real, âit swoops upon and seizes me here and nowâ but âI do not see it comingâ (to return again to Derridaâs formulations; 2005: 84). Possibility and reality are thus not incompatible, but different: possibility is not a reality of inferior degree, a not yet actualized reality; rather, it entails a way of seeing reality in the continuous present, in the mode of becoming.
The two-fold aspect of Wittgensteinâs machine is embodied in the concept of the medium, which thus emerges at the confluence of techne and poiesis. Having to do primarily with operation and/through iterability and presupposing systematicity, Wittgensteinâs âactual machineâ can be understood in terms of techne. The machine-as-symbol, on the other hand, pertains to poiesis, to creative activity, to a form of doing based on repetition. It is this double bind that characterizes the concept of the medium, and the notion of theatre performance as medium, in particular.
This is also the case in Handkeâs theatre performances as media and in Kaspar, in particular. True to the essential nature of the theatre, Handkeâs real theatrical space is thus configured as a place of seeing and of being seen. It becomes a place for observation and, even more than that, a place for surveillance, as suggested by âthe magic eyeâ that Handke writes into the performance in his prefatory note. Handkeâs magic eye should be constructed above the ramp and has a very specific purpose: to formalize the speech torture to which the actor is subjected; to indicate by blinking âthe degree of vehemence with which the PROTAGONIST is addressedâ, but âwithout diverting the audienceâs attention from the events on stageâ (Handke, 1969: 59).
As a place of seeing (in the Wittgensteinian sense of seeing discussed earlier), the theatre emerges as a space and environment for a theatrical performance conceived of as an event and functioning as an audio-visual medium. In Handkeâs early speech pieces (âSprechstÃ¼ckeâ â generally translated somewhat inadequately as âspeak-insâ), for example, the theatre is staged (in the theatre) as a factory for the production of language. Thus, in Offending the Audience (1966), the actors are required to rehearse and utter invectives directed at no one in particular, but spoken instead as linguistic patterns, overlapping with one another in a machinic way that helps create âa certain acoustic uniformityâ (Handke, 1969: 6). No other picture except for this one of the production of language in a uniform manner should be produced (Handke, 1969: 6). In Self-Accusation (1966), too, the voices of the two speakers should be âattuned to each otherâ in order to produce âan acoustic orderâ (Handke, 1969: 35). In Kaspar, the notion of the theatre as a laboratory of language becomes more pronounced, while the dimension of techne remains in place. What is being tried out here is on the one hand the process of language acquisition and the negotiation between sense and nonsense that it entails (in the case of Kaspar), and different manners of speaking, on the other (in the case of the Prompters). These different manners of speaking should be those of âvoices which in reality have a technical medium interposed between themselves and the listenersâ (Handke, 1969: 59). What is to be seen in Handkeâs theatre performances is, first and foremost, language at work.
Interestingly, Handke even goes so far as to write the act of seeing into his self-reflexive plays, in which theatre-goers play the roles of spectators, becoming performers of acts of seeing. In Kaspar, for example, âevery theatergoer should have sufficient time to observe each object and grow sick of it or come to want more of itâ (Handke, 1969: 61) in the continuous present of the performance, though before the performance actually begins. In the Shakespeare-inspired My Foot My Tutor, Handke directs the spectatorâs gaze, framing it as though with a camera:
If at first we paid too much attention to the figure, we now have sufficient time to inspect the other objects and areas [â¦] We see a large monthly calendar hanging on what is, from our vantage point, the right wall of the room. (Handke, 1976: 31-35)
In this case, seeing becomes another type of doing among the different other actions that the participants in the theatre event (the ward, the warden, spectators) perform in the present of the performance. This active seeing presupposes defamiliarization (what Brecht termed Verfremdungseffekt) and is ultimately a philosophical activity.
The desired effect of Handkeâs staging of acts of seeing within the theatre written into his plays is thus two-fold: on the one hand, it seeks to provide glimpses of the world on (and of the) stage as a limited whole â of a structure in which objects hang together, but whose holes make possible the (unconditioned) event. On the other hand, they aim to focus the readers/spectators/audienceâs attention on the details that make up the whole. This double purpose is significant, for it constitutes a point of difference between the logic of vision underlying the Handkean theatre performance and the logic of vision shaped by the digital, while reinforcing the connection between the two.
According to a recent New York Times article, âGrowing Up Digital, Wired for Distractionâ, an effect of the networked and interactive recently developed digital technologies is the mental wandering they induce. The risk entailed in this wandering is distraction and reduction in the capacity of memory. The practice of mental wandering by means of digital technology has also given rise to different (simultaneous) identities such as those of âthe texter and gamer, Facebook addict and YouTube potatoâ (Richtel, 2010: online). All of these are essentially wanderers, though not in the sense of Handkeâs wanderers.
In Handkeâs case, the wandering to which the theatre performance invites is meant to focus the gaze (and the thought) on wired stage properties in continuous transformation and translation. In Kaspar, for instance, the initial image of appearance on the stage is that of a hand breaking through the curtain:
Behind the backdrop, something stirs. [â¦] After several futile tries at the wrong spots â the audience can hear the curtain being thrashed â the person finds the slit that he had not even been looking for. A hand is all one sees at first; the rest of the body slowly follows. (Handke, 1969: 63)
In Voyage to the Sonorous Land, too, the apparent stillness of the stage is disturbed by the appearance of a hand from behind the backdrop: âSuddenly, a pair of hands appears, from behind the drop, groping, clutching, searching for something to hold ontoâ (Handke, 1996: 5). This appearance of a hand in the background of an empty theatrical space produces a close-up effect on the hand, calling the audienceâs attention to it.
In the contemporary age of the digital, which arguably began to take shape in the early years of Handkeâs career with the invention of software, the close-up on the hand is not without its significance. This is because there is an intimate connection between the âdigitalâ (from the Latin âdigitalisâ meaning âpertaining to fingersâ) and the hand. As Bill Brown points out:
We’re not just in the midst of losing the technologies that make the rhetoric of inscription, impression, trace, and erasure make sense. And we’re not just in the midst of an altered temporality and spatiality, a change in the human sensorium, a proliferation of hyperrealities. The hand itself has become a new scene where dramas of the advance guard-where relations among the emergent, the dominant, the residual, and the obsolete-have become, say, digitized. Which may amount to no more than describing the digital age as a digital age. (Brown, 2004: 452-453)
In the digital age, it is the hand that handles that seemingly makes thought possible, at least in some sense. A recent article published in Wired discusses an experiment that confirms the practical applicability of Heideggerâs concept of ready-to-hand. âReady-to-hand,â refers to âequipment,â which includes âreference and signs in our provisional interpretation of the structure of Beingâ (Heidegger, 1978: 110). As Stephen Mulhall explains, the equipmentâs being ready-to-hand âis constituted by the multiplicity of reference- or assignment-relations which define its place within a totality of equipment and the practices of its employmentâ (Mulhall, 2001: 227). Being ready-to-hand is thus a function of relation: it implies placing a piece of equipment âin the broader practical and conceptual context without which it would not be the thing it isâ (Mulhall, 2001: 226). This handiness at times reveals itself through the objectsâ lack of proper functioning (Mulhall, 2001: 227). Engaging the implications of the Heideggerian concept of ready-to-hand, the experiment realized by cognitive scientist Anthony Chemero undertook to show that tools are in fact part of the users â that they are extensions of the users that condition thinking. The account of this experiment is worth citing at length:
The findings come from a deceptively simple study of people using a computer mouse rigged to malfunction. The resulting disruption in attention wasnât superficial. It seemingly extended to the very roots of cognition.
âThe person and the various parts of their brain and the mouse and the monitor are so tightly intertwined that theyâre just one thing,â said Anthony Chemero [â¦] Chemeroâs experiment, published March 9 in Public Library of Science, was designed to test one of Heideggerâs fundamental concepts: that people donât notice familiar, functional tools, but instead âsee throughâ them to a task at hand, for precisely the same reasons that one doesnât think of oneâs fingers while tying shoelaces. The tools are us.
This idea, called âready-to-handâ has influenced artificial intelligence and cognitive science research, but without being directly tested.
In the new study, Chemero and graduate students Dobromir Dotov and Lin Nie tracked the hand movements of people using a mouse to guide a cursor during a series of motor tests. Part way through the tests, the cursor lagged behind the mouse. After a few seconds, it worked again. When Chemeroâs team analyzed how people moved the mouse, they found profound differences between patterns produced during mouse function and malfunction.
When the mouse worked, hand motions followed a mathematical form known as âone over frequency,â or pink noise. Itâs a pattern that pops up repeatedly in the natural world, from universal electromagnetic wave fluctuations to tidal flows to DNA sequences. Scientists donât fully understand pink noise, but thereâs evidence that our cognitive processes are naturally attuned to it.
But when the researchersâ mouse malfunctioned, the pink noise vanished. Computer malfunction made test subjects aware of it â what Heidegger called âunreadiness-at-handâ â and the computer was no longer part of their cognition. Only when the mouse started working again did cognition return to normal. [â¦]
âThe thing that does the thinking is bigger than your biological body,â he [Chemero] said. âYouâre so tightly coupled to the tools you use that theyâre literally part of you as a thinking, behaving thing.â (Keim, 2010: online; brackets added)
These findings are further supported by the cases in which the hand is fully substituted by technology, which, in turn, is controlled by thought. BrainGate, the machine that âuses thought to move objectsâ (Dreifus, 2010: online) designed by John Donoghue is one such case. Among its applications, it makes possible the movement of a robotic hand by the thoughts of a paralyzed person. Thus, in-between word and thought, the hand beckons us to rethink the relation between the real and the possible and âour ability to take a grip on the world as well as to let it slip through our fingersâ (to use Mulhallâs turn of phrase; 2001: 72).
Kaspar begins with one hand revealed through the curtain, while âthe other hand holds on to a hat, so the curtain wonât knock it offâ (Handke, 1969: 63). Soon afterwards, âthe hand holding the hat becomes autonomous: it gradually lets go of the hat, slips down along his body, dangling awhile before it too stopsâ (Handke, 1969: 64). Kaspar sits on the floor of the stage. He becomes an embodiment of wonder. Kaspar utters his one sentence without yet having a grip (Begriff, which also means concept; Handke, 1968: 13) on it. Kaspar repeats the sentence again and again. Kaspar utters the sentence as an expression of wonder. Kaspar is made noticeable. Kaspar begins to wander on stage. Kaspar uses the hand to touch the objects on stage. Kaspar uses the hand to do something to the objects he touches, punctuating the language produced by the Prompters. Kaspar becomes entangled in the play-objects. Kaspar begins with his self.
Kaspar stages Kasparâs becoming âIâ under the magic eye that surveys the stage. It theatrically rethinks the âIâ as continuously mutable with every iteration and definable as a function of relation in virtue of being public â both in the Wittgensteinian sense that all language, and thus also âIâ as linguistic component, is public, and in the sense that the transformations of the âIâ occur in the theatre, a public space par excellence. The following passage â a series of reiterations of Iagoâs famous line âI am not what I amâ from the beginning of Othello â makes this idea manifest:
When I am, I was. When I was, I
am. When I am, I will be. [â¦]
because I will have become. I will
have become because I am.
I am the one I am.
I am the one I am.
I am the one I am. (Handke, 1969: 102)
Handkeâs play with the âIâ challenges the traditional conceptualization of the subject/object relation. In its continuous becoming and caught up in a network of relations defined by language, the âIâ can be said to be both subject and object simultaneously. In this sense, too, Kaspar is already with his first sentence trapped (âAlready with my first sentence I was trapped;â Handke, 1969: 137).
This conception of the âIâ has thought-provoking affinities with the model of consciousness that cognitive scientist, Douglas Hofstadter, has recently formulated. In Hofstadterâs conceptualization:
The current âIâ â the most up-to-date set of recollections and aspirations and passions and confusions â by tampering with the vast, unpredictable world of objects and other people, has sparked some rapid feedback, which, once absorbed in the form of symbol activations, gives rise to an infinitesimally modified âI;â thus round and round it goes, moment after moment, day after day, year after year. In this fashion, via the loop of symbols sparking actions and repercussions triggering symbols, the abstract structure serving us as our innermost essence evolves slowly but surely, and in so doing it locks itself ever more rigidly into our mind. (Hofstadter, 2007: 186)
Hofstadter introduces the notion of the âstrange loopâ â which potentially has affinities with Wittgensteinâs âmachineâ â to explain the mechanism of consciousness. Importantly, the source of inspiration for Hofstadterâs conception is the universal Turing machine programmable by means of software â a model invented by Alan Turing in 1937 to investigate the possibilities (extent and limits) of computation. The notion of self-reflexivity is embedded in the universal Turing machine, as Hofstadter describes:
Alan Turing realized that the critical threshold for this kind of computational universality comes at exactly that point where a machine is flexible enough to read and correctly interpret a set of data that describe its own structure. At this crucial juncture, a machine can, in principle, explicitly watch how it does any particular task, step by step. Turing realized that a machine that has this critical level of flexibility can imitate any other machine, no matter how complex the latter is. In other words, there is nothing more flexible than a universal machine. (Hofstadter, 2007: 242)
Taking this model as point of departure, Hofstadter understands the human brain as âa representationally universal âmachineââ that, in virtue of the social nature of human beings, becomes a âlocus not only of one strange loop constituting the identity of the primary person associated with that brain, but of many strange-loop patterns that are coarse-grained copies of the primary strange loops housed in other brainsâ (Hofstadter, 2007: 259). The implication of this theory is that âall meaning comes from analogyâ and, thus, that cognition is essentially based on analogy (Hofstadter, 2007: 158).
Hofstadterâs theoretical account is not unproblematic; a critique of it, however, is beyond the scope of this essay. What is of interest, instead, is the affinity between Hofstadterâs scientific account of the âIâ and Handkeâs conception of the âIâ rendered in artistic form. The Turing universal machine seems to lie in the background of Handkeâs own performance of the âIâ as pointed out in the examples above or, even more strikingly, in the notion of the âmodel sentencesâ Kaspar learns. In this regard, the question becomes: âCan Kaspar learn what, in each sentence, is the model upon which an infinite number of sentences about order can be based?â (Handke, 1969: 55). The affirmative response is implicit in the question following the one just cited: âCan Kaspar, with the sentence model he has learned, make the objects accessible to himself or become himself accessible to the objects?â (Handke, 1969: 55). Once Kaspar has learned the model sentence, Kaspar has âa sentence of which you can make a model for yourselfâ (Handke, 1969: 69). Notwithstanding this similarity with Hofstadterâs account, as indicated in the beginning of this essay, for Handke, in the beginning of theatre and of thought there is metaphor, rather than analogy. The question of the relation between analogy and metaphor, and between cognition and thought, remains open.
After Kaspar is âbrought to the point where, with rhyming sentences, he will find rhyme and reason in the objectsâ (Handke, 1969: 55), after he has grasped the model sentences, Kaspar tells his story again. If his words can be believed, Kaspar uses âthe next to last sentence to ask questionsâ and begins âonly with the last sentence of the story to ask what the others had saidâ (Handke, 1969: 133). Then the Kaspars are slammed into by the curtain that jerks towards the center of the stage âwith the shrillest possible soundâ (Handke, 1969: 140). The Kaspars fall behind the curtain, right at the moment when the curtain has come together. This constitutes the final evidence that Kaspar is a play, for, as Richard Foreman writes in the beginning of another play (Eddie Goes to Poetry City), âif this were a play, a curtain would be drawnâ (Foreman, 1990: 3). The curtain has been drawn.
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- I here extrapolate formulations from (Golub, 2001: 220); (Rayner, 2002: 350, 352); (Chun, 2011: 416) (in this order).↵
- The root of this view that came to dominate Western philosophical thought is Parmenidesâ conception of Being as immovable One, âas immovable Necessity, no longer open to change, that is, chanceâ (Spariosu, 1991: 81).↵
- I am referencing here Wittgensteinâs remark: âWe find certain things about seeing puzzling, because we do not find the whole business of seeing puzzling enoughâ (Wittgenstein, 2009: 251).↵