(Panel 1) Dialectics of Nature
Professor Peter Billingham (University of Winchester), ‘“The Mobius Effect:” Beyond the Binary Boundaries of Dialectical Materialist Analysis’
This paper focuses upon the metaphor and paradigm of ‘The Mobius Effect’: a potentially radical re-imagining and revisiting of the dialectics of Cultural Materialism. Relating to ‘The Mobius Strip’, a mathematical phenomenological concept discovered by the nineteenth-century German mathematician and philosopher August Mobius, ‘The Mobius Effect’ is a complex signifier of metaphorical transcendence. ‘The Mobius Strip’ is an elliptical form which is essentially non-navigable as it has no boundaries. It has two seemingly mutually exclusive surfaces which, at a crucial twist in the ellipse, momentarily become one and the same surface. Focusing on examples from the late plays of Edward Bond, my paper will explore and articulate the ‘Axis Twists’ in Bond’s dramaturgy in which the conventional binary dialectics of Marxist cultural analysis is, as in the ‘The Mobius Strip’, afforded a radical signification of subject-reflexive awareness-as-transcendence.
Camilla Royle (King’s College London), ‘Complexity, Change and Action: The Dialectical Biologists’
Dialectics has had some influence is in the biological sciences. Several biologists have employed dialectics in their work, many of them influenced by Levins’s and Lewontin’s 1985 book The Dialectical Biologist or involved in the Dialectics of Biology Group, formed as a result of a 1982 conference. Stephen Jay Gould, known for his popular science writings as well as his more academic achievements, has been described as a “dialectical paleontologist”. This way of thinking has fostered an anti-reductionist approach to biology with a greater emphasis on complexity and historical change than in much of mainstream thinking within the discipline. For Levins and Lewontin processes of flux are inherent to biology and it is stasis that requires explanation. The dialectical approach has also inspired an awareness of the role of organisms in their own evolution. Organisms are seen as active players in a relationship where organism and environment are engaged in a continual process of producing each other rather than one influencing the other in a linear way. The dialectical biologists have generally avoided the stultifying influence of the version of a dialectics of nature adopted, with disastrous results, as official dogma in the Soviet Union under Stalin. However, for many of them their philosophical grounding in dialectics has meant that there is an explicitly acknowledged political element to their work. Understanding the dialectical biologists can give an insight into the way dialectics is performed in practice by a group of intellectuals who have adopted it as a “certain habit of thought”. This paper will draw on interviews with some of those biologists who have taken a dialectical approach as well as secondary research.
(Panel 2) Performing Temporalities
Katja Geerts (University of Antwerp), ‘Performing Temporalities: Slow Motion as a Dialectical Method in the Choreosophical Work of Rudolf Laban’
This paper explores the somewhat neglected connection between Rudolf Laban’s choreographical work and early film culture, in particular 1920s French film theory – conceived around the same time as Laban’s major writings. I will focus on the conception of the film technical phenomenon of slow motion in modern dance, suggesting that modern dance was highly influenced by the emergence of cinema and its potentiality of revealing (temporal) dualities within dance. Rudolf von Laban was a celebrated Hungarian choreographer, educator, architect, artist and researcher whose work must be situated at the heart of early twentieth-century modernity. He is known for his choreographical work (artistic and theoretic – choreosophy), educational practice and graphical notation system (Labannotation). Central to his work, and at the heart of his quasi-mystical conceptions of Choreosophy, is the dynamics of movement. I will point out that Laban’s conceptualizations of movement seem to converge on the analytical potential of slow motion as emblematic for both the materiality and ontology of his performances. Movement, for Laban, happens during the transference between opposite poles: between mobility and stability, activity and pause, exertion and relaxation, and between symmetry and asymmetry. This in-between might be visible in slow motion, Laban writes.
Consequently, I will examine the appearance of cinematic slow motion in modern dance as a dialectical method for the analysis of movement. This piece will begin with a brief discussion of the conception of rhythm as central to the aesthetic debates of the 1920s. I further support my analyses by investigating Laban’s conception of rhythm and its connection to cinematic delay. Throughout my paper, I hope to reveal the choreographic inspiration modern dance found in early cinema through a theory of dialectical slow motion on the one hand, and the methodological potential of a performance-oriented approach to slow motion on the other.
Dr Simon Bowes (University of Greenwich), ‘Diachrony and Heterotopia: Temporality in Kings of England’s Where We Live & What We Live For’
“Sometimes I’d like to write a book / A book all about time / About how it doesn’t exist / About how the past and the future / Are one continuous present” – Vinokurov in Berger, 1984: 21).
“Utopia is a place where everything is good; dystopia is a place where everything is bad; heterotopia is where things are different” – Meade, 1995: 13-31.
In response to the thematic concern of ‘Possible worlds: utopias, fictions, temporalities’, and ‘constructing narratives, rewriting genealogies’, I propose to examine the texts of two signature works by Kings of England: Where We Live & What We Live For, Parts 1 & 2 (2009; 2014).
Each text weaves together a series of citations and allusions to works literary and philosophical, forming the basis of a performed essay on time and aging. Notably, myself (now 34) and my father Peter (now 80) are the works’ principal performers.
Proceeding from the familiar proposition of the intergenerational performance (such works suggesting temporal structure where time is embodied, made visible, intelligible, legible) my father’s elderliness seems to affirm: ‘The body is aging, the body is preparing to die’ (Berger, 1984: check ref). From within this temporal structure, we face its other. This other temporal structure – which may only be predicated on a fiction – produces and reveals a desire for a time lived-in only insofar as it is longed-for. The provocation from Vinokurov assumes an urgent centrality – articulating the desire to make legible a thought of time lying outside the linear and chronological. Here, something like a dialectic emerges as we subvert the narrative of genealogy, seeing a ‘possible world’ in the asynchronous, incommensurate, times of the lives of father and son. The paper explores the event of performance as a diachronous, heterotopian field where obscured temporalities may, for a short time, be revealed.
(Panel 3) Dialectics and Pedagogy
Performance Lecture: Dr Katja Hilevaara (Queen Mary) & Dr Emily Orley (University of Roehampton), ‘Making Making Matter: A dialogue about performance and scholarship’
We will present a performance/dialogue/experiment in making and talking, that articulates and questions our own working process and aesthetic, while asking what it means to make the making of work matter as an end in itself. We propose not only to discuss our research but that the discussion becomes the research itself. By exploring the materiality of the paper we read and write on, and examining how it is made, we will question hegemony of textualism and the pressure we are all under in the Academy to produce evermore outputs. We will experiment with the making of a dialogue (with words, spoken and written) while breaking matter (paper). This is the dialectic we wish to set up and work through. Can we make and think, practice and theorise, do and write about doing, without devaluing one and prioritising the other? As practitioner-researchers, we have been collaborating for the last six years to produce a series of short performance installations. We prepare our work at length, engaging with the sites in which we find ourselves, only to perform it for a few minutes before removing all traces of it. It is the act of making and unmaking images that matters to us. The making is our principle research activity. The making is our research outcome. But then how is it assessed? How can we persuade the Academy that it is the making (the being in the presence of making, the being inspired to be making yourself, the remembering of making) that has the impact? How can we make this intangible act matter? Or rather, if we transform it into matter, will it still matter as much?
Provocation Panel: What role can dialectics play in contemporary pedagogy?
Jenny Duffy (Northumbria University)
Sarah McCormack (Independent Scholar)
Eve Wedderburn (Middlesex University)
(Panel 4) Materiality of Urban Space
Dr Campbell Edinborough (University of Hull), ‘Constructing Dialectical Images in Sound and Space: Adapting Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project’
In November 2014 a specially created audio walk, A Roving Soul: Walking the City with Walter Benjamin, was presented as part of the School of Advanced Studies’ Being Human Festival of the Humanities. The piece invited listeners to put on headphones and take a stroll through an urban environment of their choice guided by the critical thought of Walter Benjamin.
Focusing specifically on Benjamin’s late work on the Paris arcades, the audio material was designed to be experienced as a fragmentary collage, echoing the form of his uncompleted research. The piece placed commentary from leading Benjamin scholars alongside proposals and suggestions that encouraged listeners to re-assess their habitual engagement with urban space.
This paper will examine the process of adapting Benjamin’s work, considering how the participatory framework used within the audio walk allows listeners to recognise and construct dialectical images during their unique journeys through urban space. The paper will describe how dramaturgical approaches associated with participatory and interactive art highlight the listener/participant’s role as a maker of meaning, creating conditions of reception that can be used to invoke the kinds of dialectical thinking developed by Benjamin.
The audio walk can be downloaded here: http://www2.hull.ac.uk/fass/drama,-music-and-screen/news-and-events/events-archive/november-2014/a-roving-soul.aspx
Cecilie Sachs Olsen (Queen Mary), ‘Materiality as Performance’
In this paper I will introduce the notion of ‘materiality as performance’ as a dialectic concept that seeks to interrogate the interplay between practice and representation, in order to open up for alternative urban imaginaries that investigate what urban space is and means. In geography and performance studies there has been a tendency of separating practice and representation: In geography representation has been critiqued for fixing and rendering inert the liveliness of things, resulting in a turn to new approaches that foreground the performative and practiced. Often the focus is on what representation cannot encompass, promoting an abstract theorizing of the non-representable, rather than making an effort to understand and communicate the relation between the two. A similar discussion can be found in performance studies in relation to privileging ephemerality as the constitutive trait of performance, seeing it as an event that disappears in the act of materializing. By privileging this understanding of performance and practice with loss and disappearance, do we ignore the possibility of practice and performance to disrupt the established and given order of things? What happens with the articulation of urban imaginaries if the concern is with what cannot be expressed rather than what can?
I will use the example of collective, creative and practice-based explorations within socially engaged artistic practice to elucidate these questions and illustrate how the notion of ‘materiality as performance’ may open up for an expansion of our urban imaginary. This implies a revision of embodied urban experience as involving not only the ephemeral and immaterial processes of affect and sensations, but also how embodied practices remain in the materiality of urban space. I will illustrate how socially engaged artistic practice, by exploring our presence in the material fabric of the present, may interrogate and destabilize the separation between practice and representation, privileging a view on the latter not as that which makes practice disappear but as a set of live encounters with privileged remains.
(Panel 5) Postdramatic Dialectics
Dave Calvert (University of Huddersfield), ‘“Everything has a fucking value”: Negative Dialectics in Back to Back’s small metal objects’
This paper will discuss the 2005 production small metal objects by the Australian theatre company Back to Back. Responses to the company’s work – whether from spectators, critics or the makers themselves – frequently recognises a sense of unresolved tension on the part of the audience, which is often attached to the perceived intellectual disabilities of the performers. While the contradictions surrounding learning disability are brought into play through the company’s repertoire, I will argue that this is part of a wider critical process.
The central action of small metal objects is an unexpected refusal to move by Steve, the show’s drug-dealing protagonist played by Simon Laherty. As the performance takes place in a busy public space, such as a railway station, this choice obstructs the action of the fictional narrative, the progress of the performance itself and the everyday commuter traffic bustling around the actors. The static figure of Steve thus literalises and extends Walter Benjamin’s observation that ‘the conditions which epic theatre reveals is the dialectic at a standstill’. Following Barnett, I propose that the production is post-Brechtian, observing a dramaturgy that is consistent with the critical procedure of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics.
In particular, the static figure of Steve / Laherty invokes Adorno’s notion of the constellation, situating him at the intersection of several restless and conflicting concepts. The spectator’s experience thus becomes an encounter with this figure as the remainder of an exhausted classifying procedure which, like Hegelian dialectics, is motivated by the flattening principle of exchange value. In doing so, the play, like Negative Dialectics, assembles contradictions in order to pursue the unknowable and extra-ideological value of objects: as Steve comments about his own collection of seemingly worthless trivia, ‘everything has a fucking value’.
Verónica Rodríguez (University of Barcelona), ‘“Tearing a Hole Through Everything and Everyone”: David Greig’s Theatre’s Dialectics’
Seeking for her partner’s healing, Catriona, one of the many characters that The Boy embodies momentarily in The Events (2013), a recent play by Scottish playwright David Greig, which departs from Anders Breivik’s massacre in Oslo and Utoya in 2011, urges Claire to get up, suggesting leaving together and learning how to manufacture a bomb in order to tear a hole through everything and everyone (2013: 47). This example is illustrative of Greig’s understanding of the possibilities of dialectics.
Against the backdrop of standard dialectics, which places antithesis and thesis together to arrive at a synthesis, Greig draws on Adornian dialectics instead which adds the element of contradiction to the dialectical process, resulting in the holding of thesis and antithesis in the same thought until the tension breaks the fabric of rational reality allowing a transcendent glimpse of the world as it ought to be (Greig 2007).
Greig pursues the practice of this kind of dialectics in his theatre, which he notably explains in his essay “Rough Theatre” (2008). The aim of rough theatre’s use of dialectics is to break the narrative superstructure, one dominated by the power of capital, around which the contemporary subject articulates her life.
The main aim of this paper is to address how Greig’s plays perform the above-explained kind of dialectics, which is crucially entangled with spatial questions. In order to frame the phenomenon theoretically, I draw on David Harvey’s theory of space, Bauman’s theories of liquid modernity, Jean-Luc Nancy’s theory of creation of the world and on three of Greig’s inspirational figures: W.S. Graham, Theodor W. Adorno and Bertolt Brecht (as well as on recent insights by contemporary theatre theorists Dan Rebellato and David Barnett) to show how crucial the intersection of dialectics and geography is for Greig’s theatre in the context of globalisation.
Dr Michael Shane Boyle (Queen Mary), ‘Performance and Dialectical Innovation’
“Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. […] It doesn’t explain change. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.” —Jill Lepore, “The Disruption Machine” (2014)
“Every age has a theory about the past and the present,” writes historian Jill Lepore, “Our era has disruption.” Lepore’s recent withering reproach to “disruptive innovation” in The New Yorker ignited fierce public debate over Chris Christensen’s atavistic theory that celebrates irredeemable rupture as the motor of capitalist development. While disruptive innovation originated in American business schools in the 1990s to define the logic that drives financial engineering and Silicon Valley start-ups, it now suffuses global efforts to restructure everything from education to health care. In the same period that “disruptive innovation” took hold in popular consciousness and public policy, there emerged several new and renovated paradigms for studying performance that embraced the articulation of “disruption” to “innovation” (See Schechner 2010; Lehmann 1999). This paper begins by offering a symptomatology of contemporary theories for experimental performance by identifying what their perspectives on historical transformation share with the business management theory of disruptive innovation. But in doing so, I do not abandon the categories of innovation or disruption. Instead I recuperate Bertolt Brecht’s own concept of “innovation” to formulate a theory of “dialectical innovation.” This historical materialist lens for describing experiments in contemporary performance looks to preserve the communist potential of contingent invention in an age defined by the radically conservative Weltanschauung of disruptive innovation. I take recent work by German director René Pollesch as an example of performance that derives its experimental quality through a constitutive relation with the very historical conditions it looks to undo, rather than formal rupture with the present. Dialectical innovation, I argue, describes the possibility today for the anti-capitalist performance strategy Brecht once termed functional transformation (Umfunktionierung).
(Panel 6) Brecht and Political Performance
Shane Kinghorn (Manchester Metropolitan University), ‘Speaking machines: the dialectical voice in contemporary verbatim’
This paper questions the political efficacy of two recent examples of verbatim theatre, Sochi 2014 (2014, Tess Berry-Hart) and Home (2013, Nadia Fall), both of which exhibited elements of ‘epic’ dramaturgy and the ‘democratic’ intention to include a multitude of marginalised voices, drawing attention to the plight of disenfranchised communities.
Paget (2007) connects the genre’s presentational style back to Brecht and Piscator: within the ‘broken tradition’ of political theatre. Verbatim practice opens up a space where the contradistinctive approaches of Stanislavski and Brecht might co-exist – but if there is an implicit obligation to impose a narrative structure and encourage emotional connection with individuals, does this contradict the Brechtian impulse to foreground their immediate social framework? The paper asks whether apparent absence of authorial hierarchy is actually reinstated when a multitude of voices is harnessed to the same ideological apparatus, becoming a ‘speaking machine for some overall intent of the group or director’ (Erickson, J: 2003). Notably, the pieces included the use of songs, ‘beat boxing’ and rapping; did these function as ‘distancing’ devices – or stylistic diversions? The paper examines integration and foregrounding of testimony as ‘authenticating’ presence and the actor’s live, interpretative function (‘ghosting’ the absent protagonists whose edited words and voices are captured through interview). The paper asks whether the plays, staged respectively in Islington and the South Bank, ultimately encourage an interrogative political engagement – or comfortably reflect their audiences’ liberal unanimity.
Dr Christina Papagiannouli (University of South Wales), ‘Directing Dialectics: The Director as Discussion Facilitator’
Written from a practice-based perspective, this paper looks at the use of dialectics in online theatre directing. In the Etheatre Project, I applied Brecht’s dialectical and interactive approach to directing, using V-effect techniques to break the fourth wall and allow critical participation of the audience in the cyberformances. In a political cyberformance, the role of the director is to promote real-time discussion between the audience and the performers via a chat box and assist the active participation of spectators in the performance. In particular, I look at forms of cyber-adaptation, cyber-ethnotheatre and cyber-collaboration as directing methodologies for producing dialectical forms of political cyberformances, with reference to the productions of Cyberian Chalk Circle (2011), Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear (2012) and Etheatre Project and Collaborators (2014), respectively.
Audience interaction is crucial for the dialectical, and thus political, character of cyberformance, which makes feasible Brecht’s ‘act of being a spectator’. In Cyberian Chalk Circle, the audience judged Grusha for getting married, made decisions about Simon’s life and debated contemporary socio-political issues, turning UpStage into a political space for real-time adaptation. In Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear, audience members replied to questions in a questionnaire during the performance, taking active part in the co-creation of a real-time verbatim cyberformance in which they became the performers and the witnesses of the represented performative. In Etheatre Project and Collaborators, the audience became part of the collective ensemble, sharing personal stories alongside those of the collaborators. These examples demonstrate that cyberformance’s use of the Internet as a debating space for political expression and participation forms political and dialectical spaces through performance within cyberspace.