This text was read at TaPRA Worcester on 9/9/15. It is rough but it would be great to hear what colleagues think.
Bergson and Performance by Nik Wakefield
Waiting with others. Standing in a line outside in the cold. Maybe it is snowing. All making the act of registration. To place the name on the list. One is defying an offer of exemption. The offer could be a sympathetic response to his achievements. He refuses the offer and renounces all previous honours given by the government. After seventeen years spent in bed because of arthritis he finds himself in line with the others to place his name on the list of registered Jews. A crippled old man having long ago disappeared into a quiet obscurity from the fame of packed lecture halls and meetings with presidents. Perhaps all along he is awaiting this performance of waiting. It is an act of inclusion that leads to more waiting. A performance that expresses without pale the very freedom his philosophy had so long been an instrument of. Not that he had long to wait now, for death would come to meet him only weeks later in the form of a bronchitis that it is no great leap to imagine might have been acquired while waiting in line in the cold. And then on January 4th 1941 Henri Bergson died at the age of 81.
Is it not the case that performance is looking for some chunk of meaning in a constantly diminishing future? Do we not face extinction?
Perhaps a joke, as the old saying goes that comedy is tragedy plus time. But we are late, and the increasing imminence of erasure of our species cancels out the time for tragedy to become comedy. So we wait with not very long to wait. And I wonder whether the ability to define tragedy places us in a very difficult position, in which we must admit that the commonplace contains within it a tragic future, and that likewise the tragedies of the past have so many ways to return to the unremarkable.
Does a life gain honour through the manner of death? Or is that a mistake of imagining that that death was always a part of that life, and not what it is, unforeseeable, a free and new act. Bergson himself warned against our habit to believe in a retrograde movement of truth. What is true now was not necessarily true before.
What this is is an attempt to grapple with the difficult task of writing an introduction to the mutual significance of performance, as it is construed now, and the philosophy of Henri Bergson, emerging as it did from a man whose life, as a performance, was no sideshow. In this I attempt to write in the middle of the tension between the Deleuzian Bergsonism that awaits refreshment to current problems, and the historically specific dramatization of a set of problems. In the former, Deleuze champions the methodological intuition of Bergson, the creativity to solve problems. In the latter, there are three major philosophical works which contribute important developments to the notions of duration, memory and evolution in addition to a uniquely active and visible public life, including being sent by the French government to convince Woodrow Wilson to enjoin the United States in the first world war, which Bergson did successfully.
To boot there are a number of important edited collections on Bergson, as well as monographs that try to get to grips with his elusive philosophy. These books, and their introductions especially, write mostly from a place of impoverished visibility, fighting for the importance of Bergson in this or that domain and this or that time. These authors do so very successfully, and each of them unpacks the importance of Bergson’s philosophy and the mutual light shed on it and the other related subjects around it. I also see in those books a laudable distillation of Bergson’s philosophy as well as a critical and creative positioning alongside it. Their authors understand Bergson on a more experienced theoretical level than myself, which they show by easily doling out words such as morality or immanence with such grasp of Bergson’s tactical precision that it allows them to make it look easy. I for one took very much time to appreciate the rhetorical strategy Bergson often employs to provide a metaphor only to subtract from it the problematic implications. Sometimes this left me underlining a sentence that I realized later was absolutely against Bergson’s argument. But perhaps that is an example of the problems anyone encounters when traipsing around the field of someone else’s discipline without much training, which I do often in philosophy and am sure I have metaphorically forgot to close the gate at some points.
Before I attack this issue of how I would like to see performance and philosophy related, I want to stick with this notion that Bergson’s life is a usefully problematic outlier to the question of the relevance of performance to his philosophy. To put it simply, the life offers all the theatricality of any good work for the stage. Bergson is said to have caused the first ever traffic jam on Broadway in New York, with people piling in to hear him speak. It is a curious story, as Broadway runs southward, and Bergson was supposed to have been speaking at Columbia, at which time was north of where most people lived in New York. In any case these flashbulb moments, along with the solemnity of the decision to place his name on the list of registered jews in the rumblings of the second world war, as an artist I find in this life much action from which I learn. Here is the importance, that he did things, which mean something to me, and they make me want to perform. By perform I mean act, or do. I mean respond to the problems that are currently set out. I position myself in this as an artist who may create forms that lead to theory, and someone who stands to be galvanized by theory.
Performance and philosophy both attempt to create, out of something, the nothing that is a solved problem. So much of Bergson’s philosophy is the ethics of positivity, which Bergson shows in his story of grabbing a book from a shelf, and quickly returning it unsatisfied, thinking, this is not poetry. I have created a something called not poetry, and administered it onto that book, which always was prose. Nothing only ever happens when something is taken away. I am joining together two Bergsonian ideas here – to say that by solving problems, which is Bergson’s mode of invention, a nothing is created. Nothing is the lack of a problem that was something. Both performance and philosophy bubble away at creating nothings.
So why should a volume of Bergson and performance not exist? If you are worried about performance being subjected to instrumentalisation of philosophy and vice versa, I ask whatever made any of us think that instruments were simple or easy to make and play, or to put it another way, that illustrating was without creativity and the need for dexterity?
To be less roughshod, why should a volume on Bergson and performance exist? Because performance is an inherently temporal medium of art and Bergson’s is a philosophy of time. But for what should I write these kinds of obvious statements, especially when I am here addressing you and no one else, people whose deep understandings of performance and philosophy are well beyond such reductions. This is why I favour the actuality of Bergson’s life, and why I resist so strongly any supposed requirement to justify the self-evident.
And yet there are passages of Bergson to which we could turn for explicit treatments of theatre, for example his analysis of sympathetic spectating in Time and Free Will, or the dramatist of the future in The Creative Mind, or the writer who in his Two Sources of Morality and Religion wonders ‘What sight is there more amazing than that of a theatre audience in tears?’ And from any of these we could perform any number of deductions of essence along with apologies for a lack of understanding of the nuance of performance practice.
In which case I suggest a Bergson and performance of a completely different vein, one that rides on the anachronistic perpetual reinvention of the intuitive methodology while also performing cartographically accurate renderings of temporally specific value judgements, ie realizing that the past might help the present, and that what we desire of the future drives our present action.
Or instead of looking for the kind of book I want to read, I make the one I am reading the kind of book I want.
Part Two, days later.
Two timeless issues emerge in Bergson’s philosophy that I think contemporary performance practice is well situated to offer solutions to. Time and freedom. In Bergson’s first major work, Time and Free Will, he basically argues for freedom by offering a concept of time based on experience. I wonder though if it emerged in his research in that order? The book is in three parts, first an analysis of immediate psychological experience, second a reductio ad absurdum take down of clock time that introduces pure duration, and thirdly a kind of robust linebacker defense of free will garnished with a retributive handshake with Kant. In later works Bergson will maintain that freedom is axiomatic, a kind of gravitational force of the world. Freedom in the next book, Matter and Memory, is an activation of matter as the past. Bergson develops a sense of memory as working in the now. Then in Creative Evolution, Bergson completes his holy trinity with creativity as the holy spirit to his time and freedom as the father and son. Bergson was a catholic jew, after all, which goes some length to explaining his preoccupation with time and freedom, with his major innovation being creativity via evolution, the scientific dogma that problematizes the mythic creation of the world according to believers.
This murky difficult territory, where things like universals, responsibility and spirituality meet with the advanced science of contemporary life, and hit the brick walls of conceptual or epistemological limits. In this we see the breakdown, so much more easily, that occurred between Bergson and Einstein. Einstein insisted on light as the universal that makes relativity possible, while Bergson wagged the finger of leaving something open for philosophy, for intuition, with its specific methodological openings, to add and work with science. But science beat Bergson into its competitive wrongness, and Bertrand Russell’s earlier admonishment of Bergson as being only understood by ants and bees returns now as a positive praise in contemporary posthumanism.
To put it plainly, Bergson is useful now because the complexity of his intuition fits the complexity of today. Surely Bergson, who laughed at the prospect of being filmed, who said he was not a performer, would laugh at the prospect today of needing, for example, to do one’s work and do the work of marketing oneself online. Moreover, the identity crises caused by the state of coming after postmodernism comes into relief with a skeptic dose of adding time to our understanding of history. This is to say, Postmodernism places itself into a grand narrative on the basis of claims to have lost faith in grand narratives. Its big step in the development of history with a capital H is its pseudo rejection of the capital? The duplicity of the gesture is perhaps the most ironic move of all. Better yet, perhaps this gesture is the oxymoronic foghorn that announced the then imminent arrival of schizophrenia on a cultural scale? This schizophrenic conceptual and historiographic maneuver gives way to the anachronistic celebrations of retro as authenticity and worse the increasing childification of contemporary culture. Perhaps the fumbling hesitance and resistance to being pomo was just a form of cunctation in order to relieve the pangs of accepting our own illness cum medicalization that followed the episodes of hedonism as celebrated by the great wedding afterparty of contemporary art and high finance in the 1980’s. Here we are, decades after, potentially post-scizophrenic, which means perhaps that I know my condition and continue to perform it. Moreover, the best we can do nowadays is be post this or that, always after, and never during or before. Both the future and the present have been consumed by the past. Time is eating itself.
In the gut of all this, and it is not easy to say, art must be the spiritual activation of matter and life. It is creativity and the exercise of freedom. Art, and especially performance, colonise time. Performance has the potential to wrestle back time from schizophrenic capitalism, to be slowly free, for example. And the really important caveat of this is that for art to be free it must retain some separation, virtual or actual, from life. What makes art free is that it is a realm that can be avoided. Art is an expression of freedom because it has to be chosen.
Fame is the product created by a system of symbolic value imposed on the performance of everyday life. How can we help denying the fantastic personifications of desire that fill our attention, that provide us with the props to stage our success? The importance, ethically, of Bergson today is the rejection of Platonist imitation, and surely imitation is the bottom denominator of conformist capital. Imitation calculates the degrees to which life masquerades as art through fame. Maybe I’m grasping at straws, instrumentalising Bergson, but my analysis emerges after years of trying to get what it is Bergson was trying to say. And the way I read it, steeped as I am in the muck of western culture, is that art and life are our big problems, with time as the middle ground and the border.
What I am arguing here is that perhaps what I have learned from Bergson is that at least, one alternative to the stupid binaries of modern thought is, at least, a formulaic addition to consider conceptual triads. Maybe what I have learned from Bergson is to think in threes. To consider relations not as either or, but as active formulae. Bergson at 17 won a mathematical prize, and much of his early work emerges from a reading of Riemann’s work on number and qualitativity. Threes are useful today, in which the binaries of identity politics, the state assemblages of borders and even the historical configurations of war are being replaced by multiple-sided performances.
Threes are also useful for performance, which for too long has been reduced to two, the double, the repetition, the twice-behaved behavior, the reenactment. Acknowledging the third invites the audience. It also possibly accounts for the other realms of temporality that are so crucial to a holistic understanding of performance, past, future and present.
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