Note on Alain Badiou’s “Theatre and Philosophy”

Rhapsody for the Theatre

In The King Is Alive (Kristian Levring, 2001) a lost group of tourists search in thetre for the means to endure isolation, but find in the process unlikely self-assertion. What begins as a diversion in the face of despondency turns into a vital insight. This is it. Not to survive, not for the future, but for the perpetual instant—over and over. What is peculiar in theatre—it seems obvious—is its relation with time. In the sense that, if theatre achieves a truth as any other art—and each truth is eternal—, the provisional execution of theatre stutters these tiny absolutes in each representation. It creates—either crunching it or multiplying it or elongating it—new relations with time; so much so, that the characters of The King Is Alive spark new leanings to crime or victimhood. They do not unmask themselves; they do not show their inner self as they would in drunkenness: they get to be someone else—on the improvised stage first, but not exclusively. While other stories about a group of individuals facing misfortune attempt to show what the characters are made of, Levring’s shows what the characters will be made of depending on their relation to the play—Shakespeare’s King Lear, no less, where three sisters dispute their hierarchy in their father’s heart. In the climax, the actions are not determined anymore by their odds for survival, but by their role in the play. Theatre—the dynamic between the text and its execution before a spectator—suffices each time, but it cannot ever exhaust its own possibilities. One may argue that art in general is always about to come, inextinguishable, since each experience of it is whole. But there is a different way of being whole and partial at once in theatre, for no execution of a play could possibly be the one the same way a poem admits versions that refer to a definite text. If a new experience of the poem is always on its way, the poem already is, which cannot be the case in theatre. Each time the same and entirely different, each time sufficient and merely promising, theatre poses questions foreign to other arts.

Alain Badiou

Alain Badiou - Source

It is with these general notions that I approach Alain Badiou’s “Theatre and Philosophy” (1998), a sober commentary—he calls it “introduction”—to his own Rhapsody for the Theatre (1990). Erudite and succinct, Badiou describes first the constant ramming theatre has had to bear from philosophy since Plato, despite the evident fact that “the theatricality of Plato’s dialogues is undeniable.” Generally speaking, philosophy has not been generous to theatre, notwithstanding the numerous crosses between these two traditions. To partially pay this debt, Badiou begins explaining “the categories through which philosophy seizes upon art in general, and theatre in particular,” which would unveil the current status of these relations. These categories are Didactic, Classical and Romantic, meaning—respectively—a vehicle to the external truth, a therapeutic diversion of the external truth, and truth itself reached not by but in art. Badiou asserts that nothing new with regard to these categories has been invented in the XX Century, and that all apparent innovation is mere saturation. It is in this context that he introduces the possibility of a new category in theatre—while subtlety adjusting his observations from art in general to theatre, a single and radically unique kind of art. Here is where I must object: there has been indeed “a category through which philosophy seizes upon art in general” other than the three described above, one in which—as in the Romantic one—“art alone can concrete truth,” but truth is critical of the notion of “the solar stability of the Idea.” Badiou acknowledges the existence of truths—as opposed to the truth—but also requests characteristics for them that I believe are challenged by the sparkling enunciations natural to the theatrical dynamic. He says: “A truth (for there is never ‘the truth’, there are only multiple truths) is eternal, singular and universal.” But a truth is not a status rei, but an accurate enunciation about the status rei. The key word here is “accurate”—meaning “careful”—an enunciation made as carefully as possible for it to approach us to the res, not to replace the res. Without diving into the details, it must be evident by now that, as an enunciation, a truth must be determined by the elements present in any act of communication—roughly: code, channel, message, context and participants. This condition for each truth, which can only exist within the limits of its code, restricts its alleged universality—though I see no objection to the singularity and eternity of a truth. Philosophy could be yet to conceptualize this as a category that would describe its relation to art—that I ignore—but it seems to me that the tools to do that are already present at least in hermeneutics and phenomenology. A quick glance at some developments in the last century would show this realization already embraced by the arts. It happens in the echoing of voices in Juan Rulfo or in the elaborated resonance of Mallarmé’s blanks; it happens in the violent erasure of pompous finesse on a Richter canvas or in the looping of Fripp’s stretched riffs. Indeed it has been the artist’s awareness during the last century—a relation between art and truth that rounds the former and limits the alleged universality of the latter. Theatre in particular is far more susceptible of igniting this dynamic, though, as suggested in The King Is Alive. And the reason is that theatre cannot but be an ongoing artistic expression, both always a project and fully accomplished—as long as it is brought to the scene: as Badiou emphasizes, theatre is not its text. The execution of King Lear in The King Is Alive is somehow already contained in previous performances, as they are all future iterations that we cannot foresee, each of them rounded upon themselves, each of them the rendering of a truth often untranslatable: a singular and eternal approximation to the res (the play) but unlikely universal. Badiou hints at such dynamic with the proposition of an immanentist relation between philosophy and art: “theatre produces in itself and by itself a singular and irreducible effect of truth. There is such a thing as a theatre-truth, which has no other place except the scene.” As luminous as this statement is, there seems no reason to constraint Badiou’s idea to theatre; he is speaking of all art. What has no other place except the scene is not the artistic truth, but both the whole and provisional dimension of truth that theatre brings, of which Badiou did not speak—though he evidently suspects.

Alain Badiou bis

One last word. Notice that the example used in this blog post is not theatrical but cinematic. A finished product like a play can never be. This condition makes the artistic product easier to comment; in other words, it exemplifies indirectly the evasive nature of theatre. But I also wanted to use this example because I fear certain unfairness when Badiou seems to underestimate cinema in Rhapsody for the Theatre—as if the praise of one art depended of the disparagement of another one. It is true that there is an industry of cinema, but that is as much a product of and for opinions as the thoughtless theatre Badiou identifies as artless. The industrialization of cinema does not touch its artistic potential.

Aguillón-Mata, August 2016