May 4, 2008

Making a Promise: Performance as Political Coercion

More than ten years before 9/11 brought such concerns to the fore, Anthony Kubiak was trying to tease out the nuanced interweave of terror and theater, of violence and its representation, or its seeming collapse, as Artaud would have it in his theater defying (and destroying) theater of cruelty.

Stages of Terror: Terrorism, Ideology, and Coercion as Theatre History appeared during an era when the terrorist-as-media-artist was a concept that had been cemented in spectacles ranging from Entebbe to the Iranian taking of the US embassy in Tehran and the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the infamous scenes from TWA flight 847 in 1985.

He begins by taking on the common insight that is a symbiotic relation between media spectacle and terrorist act. Much of that talk suggested that acts "done for the cameras" -- as a means of gaining a platform -- were being conjured, in part, by the technology of image distribution. But Kubiak saw rightly that the relation was no more solely a symptom of the camera than Jihadi videos are strictly by-products of the internet. There is a deeper history, a more fundamental and intimate connection. Kubiak, therefore, traces the trajectory that emerges through the tragic history of our artistic and political traditions.

"While terrorism is not theater," he writes, "terrorism's affiliation with political coercion as performance is a history whose first impulse is a terror that is theater's moment, a terror that is so basic to human life that it remains largely invisible except as theater. The history of theater's filiation with psychic and political terror is the perfect twin of terror's own history as politics."

There is a complex interweave of the actual and its showing that marks theater and its difficult distinction from what it is not. This was famously identified as the struggle to disentangle authentic acts from what Derrida, describing Artaud's exuberant failure, called the closed cycle of representation (tragic precisely because of representation's inexorable grip and "its gratuitous and baseless necessity"). If representation already has its hooks in us, what happens when an artist like Stelarc shows the body's being by enduring the tortured piercings, and suspends himself as spectacle?

For Kubiak, the risk is that such performance, whatever its critical intentions, could not expose us to the terror as much as further mute its presence by unavoidably pacifying the encounter. In such an economy it is easy for the real pain to disappear into aesthetic packaging. But that does not mean that its effects are harmless on the spectator or the artist, only that there is a displacement from body to mind. For our encounters with a body on hooks or a protester in flames or a distant explosion all, in different ways, feed what he calls a "habit of thought" that orients itself away from is witnessed and toward what is to come, which is the desire for the future encounter. This can surely come in dream or wish or lucid dread. And this helps us see that the Jihadi videos of today are not merely an archive of the destruction, but a promise of what will continue, almost timelessly, ceaselessly, without measure. Surely this is where the supposedly pre-political, or anti-political violence, makes its political claim. The "terrorist" rhetoric claims that such gestures, rituals, exacting and murderous deeds will go on, leaving the actual deaths -- and there is the link to state sponsored actions in the name of "security" -- lost in the imagery proliferation.

Meanwhile we get caught in the loop. It is a bloody and terrifying show of force and counter-force. What the image hides it nonetheless produces, as expectation. "[When terror] becomes less and less experiential and more and more a habit of thought," he writes, the driving and weakened thought "hungers for the experience of real violence," crippled "in the coercive ambience of its endless reproductions."