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Le théâtre au miroir de la théorie

Caliban’s Cave: Theatre’s Scandalous Ethics

Liza Kharoubi


Le théâtre a souvent été un objet de crainte en philosophie, comme s’il représentait une dangereuse limite: Platon est le parfait exemple de cette « tentation » dramatique. La raison de cette perplexité devant l’objet théâtral mérite toute notre attention. Cet essai défend l’idée que le complexe de Platon – ce dramaturge converti en philosophe – révèle un enjeu éthique d’envergure. Renversant l’allégorie de la caverne, je propose d’envisager le théâtre comme la caverne de Caliban, l’esclave de Prospero dans la Tempête de Shakespeare. La caverne de Caliban plutôt que la prison de Prospero, car l’esclave au théâtre domine métaphoriquement le maître et la poésie des ombres y défait la lumière de la connaissance. Je plaide donc pour une philosophie de la caverne, une tentative de pensée à partir de l’ombre, et dont le théâtre me semble être un prototype fiable. Cette anamorphose théâtrale du mythe de la caverne dévoile une vérité d’ordre politico-pratique plutôt que cognitive. J’invoquerai indirectement les travaux de philosophes britanniques et américains contemporains pour décrire cette forme de praxis théâtrale ; si leur objet n’est pas les arts de la scène à proprement parler, ils ont toujours démontré un intérêt profond pour ceux-ci.

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  • 1 Quoted by Stanley Cavell in « The Interminable Shakespearean Text », Philosophy the Day After Tomor (...)

I do not believe that Shakespeare can be set alongside any other poet. Was he perhaps a creator of language rather than a poet? I could only stare in wonder at Shakespeare; never do anything with him.

  • 2  Levinas, Le Temps et l’Autre. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1983. p60.

Vous me permettrez de revenir encore une fois à Shakespeare, dont j’ai abusé au cours de ces conférences. Mais il me semble parfois que toute la philosophie n’est qu’une méditation de Shakespeare.

1In this paper, I will be taking the perspective of ethical philosophy: I will describe the theatrical object through a personal reading of some contemporary philosophical texts on ethics. However, the examples of theatre I am referring to in the background of my study (and in other papers which address theatre more directly) are contemporary performances which expose disturbances of the relation with others, plays as different as Martin Crimp’s Attempts on her Life, Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, Dennis Kelly’s After the End, or Sarah Kane’s Blasted, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Love of the Nightingale but also Pinter’s and Beckett’s plays, contemporary performances using disruptive technology such as Blast Theory’s Kidnapped or The Builders’ Association’s Super Vision, violent or traumatic theatres such as Rodrigo Garcias’s, Angelica Liddell’s, Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s, or Howard Barker’s for instance. The common denominator in all these plays is the central presence of corrosive violence and fundamental injustice, whether that violence is invisible or physical, verbal or graphic.

2I will first construe the “temptation” that theatre constitutes for philosophy as an essential “messiness”, as the opposite of logical rigour and demonstration. Theatre challenges systems, didacticism, rules, and eventually morality. On stage, the tempting ground between pathos and logos, cognition and imagination, silence and speech, is a moving target. This lack of determinacy is something that the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum indirectly noted in her book on Ancient tragedy, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy. She writes: « Interpreting a tragedy is a messier, less determinate, more mysterious matter than assessing a philosophical example », and she pursues « If then I sometimes write poetically, it is because I have decided that no other way of writing could at this point be as fair to the claims of the text and the conception being investigated » (Nussbaum 13,17). I consider that this perturbation of security that the stage provokes is essential to ethical thinking, to the development of the ethical imagination. “Messy” is positive, but it is not accurate enough to describe what is ethically at stake in a theatrical surrounding. Theatre, for the philosophical mind, is clearly a zone of imbalance, danger and obscurity. Obviously, temptation is a term that also challenges morality. It brings about shame and scandal, the unreasonable and ultimately the irrational, the profane. The figure of Caliban, the son of Sycorax the witch, was partly chosen as the epitome of the theatrical temptation in that sense. Theatre is the scandal of philosophy: its practitioners must be excluded from the city of Reason. Yet, I interpret this fact as the complex of the philosopher rather than as the failing of theatre art. In this refusal of the philosopher to consider theatre as essential for the construction of the community, there is a misunderstanding on the nature of ethics. This is what I will attempt to show in this short paper. Theatre’s scandalous propositions on ethics, be they tragic or comic, may not suit all palates, but they have the merit of emphasizing one important difference between morals and ethics. Simply put, ethics enables (human) subjects to respond and react to urgency and violence, to murder and war, to outlive and resist them, whereas morals is only a system of prescriptions to reach an ideal vision of goodness. I place theatre art at the centre of this ethical striving, as one of the most efficient “ethical techniques” of resistance. This also means that ethics is a non-normative activity, or production.

3With all the paraphernalia of spectres, monsters, puppets or even technological creatures that theatre exposes, theatre’s vision of the ethical subject is eventually more complex and real than that of the moral philosopher. The Platonic complex, which is very well described by Martin Puchner in his enticing book The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theatre and Philosophy, is an ethical issue more than an anecdote in Plato’s biography. Martin Puchner insists on the fact that, according to Diogenes Laertius, Plato was first and foremost an ambitious dramatist who burnt his play when he became Socrates’s student. Puchner asks:

But why did Plato burn his tragedy? Much is at stake in the answer, for Western philosophy has tended to construe a history according to which Plato had to consign to the flames his ambition as a playwright in order to be reborn as a philosopher. Nothing could be further from the truth. Plato continued to write in a dramatic mode throughout his life. The conflagration on the steps was not an end but merely a change in direction that would give rise to one of the most unusual careers in drama. (Puchner, 4)

4Why does Plato exclude the playwright from his Republic if he is to be considered a dramatist? What is the role of his tragedy, and of his dramatic mode of writing in the development of his ethical and political philosophy? Plato’s philosophy is a good example to approach theatre as temptation. But Plato is not the only one. Wittgenstein’s epigraph about Shakespeare can be construed in the same distrustful sense when Wittgenstein’s style itself might sometimes be taken as stand-up comedy. The silence that surrounds Shakespeare for Wittgenstein is the same silence that shuts Ethics out of his City of Language in the last sentence of the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must keep silent”.

5The reason for this philosophical perplexity in front of theatre and ethics deserves indeed some attention. It is contended that Plato’s Complex — the dramatist turned philosopher— unveils serious ethical issues. What kind of issues? Questions like freedom of expression, exclusion, but also kinship, friendship, murder and violence. The violence of exclusion from Plato’s Republic is one of the forms it can take. The rejection of theatre has a deep ethical significance especially when considering the paradoxical theatricality of the Myth of the Cavern from Book X of the Republic. What if we choose to empathise with the shadows, to argue for a philosophy of the cavern and think with the spectres, the slaves and the pariahs? Turning the Platonic allegory inside out, I envision Theatre as Caliban’s Cave rather than “Prospero’s cell” as the stage directions stipulate in the Tempest, giving precedence to the slave over the master, to the poetry of the shadows over luminescent power. This anamorphosis reveals a political-practical truth rather than a cognitive one. The theatrical stage reverses the allegory: on stage, the shadows have a compelling strength, which is stronger than the lights of Ideas because, unlike abstract ideas, the shadows have faces. The ethical Imperative doesn’t come from a commanding Truth but from a humbling and anarchic unknown. Likewise, the Performing arts don’t show ideas, they make the audience feel the power of the ethical imagination pre-existing enlightened cognition through the sapience of flesh: this ethical imagination is what I propose to describe.

  • 3 As some of these works conjure up arguments from the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, I have (...)

6What do we perceive and feel, what do we get from going to see a performance for instance, especially a violent one? Some contemporary philosophers who have developed a substantial reflexion on violence, trauma and suffering, have incidentally shown a deep theatrical awareness. Among them are Martha Nussbaum, Avital Ronell, Simon Critchley and Alphonso Lingis3. Those philosophers are all concerned with ethical issues and I here propose an interpretation of theatre ethics through a personal reading of their texts.

Simon Critchley: Staging the resistance to Nihilism

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
The Tempest, ACT IV, 1.

7In the opening chapter of his book Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, Simon Critchley asserts that philosophy does not start in wonder but in disappointment:

The sense of something lacking or failing arises from the realisation that we inhabit a violently unjust world, a world defined by the horror of war, a world where, as Dostoevsky says, blood is being spilt in the merriest way, as if it were champagne (Critchley 2007, 3).

8Therefore, the task of philosophy is further defined as “militant resistance to nihilism”: to “this declaration of meaninglessness, a sense of indifference, directionlessness or, at its worst, despair that can flood into all areas of life” (2) he bravely opposes the power of critical reflection. For Critchley, nihilism has two main consequences: indifference to the course of one’s own and others’ lives (“passive nihilism”) and destructive action. In this latter “active nihilism” category he gathers together anarchists and terrorists from Blanqui, Fourier and the Futurists, to Bin Laden. Violence would thus be the ordinary expression of nihilism, which can be translated either as destruction or as indifference and insulation. Critchley explains: “The philosophical task set by Nietzsche and followed by many others in the Continental tradition is how to respond to nihilism, or better, how to resist nihilism” (Critchley 2007, 2). In giving Nietzsche’s example, Critchley already paves the way for his own reflection on the temptation of nihilism and on the role of humour and tragedy in performing ethical thought. Theatre may well be the way to flesh out the temptation of nihilism for our minds; the stage is replete with expressions of nihilism from Shakespeare’s As You Like It to Beckett’s Breath. Yet, the stage resists being capsized by nihilism.

9What is the “motivational force” that could enjoin us to resist? Resistance has to be fed and sustained by positive ethical thinking:

My polemical contention is that without a plausible account of motivational force, that is, without a conception of the ethical subject, moral reflection is reduced to the empty manipulation of the standard justificatory frameworks: deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics. (Critchley 2007, 9)

10It seems that Critchley opposes this kind of “resistance” to the massive political disappointment he diagnoses in contemporary democracy. This “drift of the present” (8) is the result of a weak conception of ethics such as utilitarianism and virtue ethics that insufficiently pledge the individual to others. The major issue of tragedy for Critchley for instance, is the awareness and acknowledgement of others: tragedy as a genre mirrors what can be called the drama of subjectivity, torn between Me and You. It pictures the split nature of the ethical subject. Existential solitude is not only delusive but it is ethically pernicious: the “Enchanted Island” in Shakespeare’s Tempest could work as a paradigm here and reveal the philosophical utopia of solitude. The Island becomes the place where the acknowledgement of the Other has to be extorted through theatrical and technical devices (magic), which eventually vanish. The representation of the stage as an island has philosophical implications for the image of subjectivity. When Simon Critchley distinguishes between the passive and the active nihilist, he writes:

 In a world that is all too rapidly blowing itself to pieces, the passive nihilist closes his eyes and makes himself into an island. The active nihilist also finds everything meaningless, but instead of sitting back and contemplating, he tries to destroy this world and bring another into being. (Critchley 2007, 5)

  • 4  Lévinas, 1998, 35.

11The solitude of the stage is a form of psychosis: theatre precisely shows that solitude is but a mirage of thought. Likewise, there is never a stage without an audience: “Un théâtre vide est affreusement désert” says Lévinas in De l’Existence à l’Existant4.This dual reality of theatre is a fact that cannot be overruled: envisioning the theatrical structure in this fashion allows us to picture what Critchley means by the « ethical subject ». The ethical subject is not an individual but a « dividual »:

“The ethical subject is, in my parlance, hetero-affectively constituted. It is a split subject divided between itself and a demand that it cannot meet, a demand that makes it the subject that it is, but which it cannot entirely fulfill. The sovereignty of my autonomy is always usurped by the heteronomous experience of the other’s demand. The ethical subject is a dividual. (Critchley, 2007, 11)

  • 5  See Critchley 2007, 21.
  • 6  See Lévinas 1998, 25.

12Critchley asserts the primacy of practical Reason over Pure Reason5, meaning that the subject is first and foremost an ethical subject. How then is the self bound to otherness and what enjoins the self to acknowledge that otherness? In other words, what is the nature of this “motivation to act morally” that we should seek? I believe that it is not rigorous to equate this “hetero-affectivity” to compassion or pity; being “affected by the others” in Critchley’s and Levinas’s sense feels closer to the experience of maternity. It means being not only emotively affected by the other, but being physically transmuted by the other. From an ethical perspective then, we are all mutants. That may be why theatre creatures are never stably human. In Shakespeare’s dramaturgy for instance, the monsters, angels, fairies, and witches6 that haunt the stage turn out to be the necessary condition of a dynamic theatrical praxis.

13The drama of practical subjectivity consists in acknowledging that we are deceptively insulated, and that an ethical subject is a contaminated subject. From Critchley’s description of subjectivity as “dividualism”, I derive an interpretation of Theatre as an interstitial form, split between a stage and an audience but without any possibility of complete separation. From the stage to the audience, there is a strange gap very much like a black hole’s horizon of events – a space-time leap from one existence to another and from one body to another, which is paradoxically “continuous”. The “Fourth Wall” could be imagined as a “Schwarzschild line”, a time-frontier between two universes. The “Schwarzschild line” evokes this limit at the brink of a black hole where time looks totally distorted by the tremendous pull of gravity. In the black hole’s vicinity, time would look infinitely slower to an observer from Earth, whereas someone standing on the brink of the black hole – however wild this thought may seem – would see earthlings’ life accelerate until he can actually see their future, and the future of the surrounding stars and of the whole universe. There is no way back from this experience7, and yet, some information and images can circulate from the inhabitant of the black hole to Earth. The manner in which the stage relates to the audience is a matter of time. Theatre makes us understand that resistance is a matter of time. With Martha Nussbaum I will try to picture resistance as theatrical techne and theatre as the art of painting time.

Martha Nussbaum’s techne as resistance: Performing Freedom

14Martha Nussbaum’s philosophy revaluates literature as the central nexus of practical reason with an emphasis on the discussion of Ancient Tragedy and Modernist American novels. Through critical reading of Ancient Philosophy and Greek Tragedies, Martha Nussbaum depicts a precise anatomy of the theatrical device. She starts with a definition of techne (craft, art, science) as opposed to tuche (luck, chance, risk):

The Greek word (techne) is more inclusive than any one of these English terms. It is also very closely associated with the word ‘episteme’, usually translated ‘knowledge’, ‘understanding’, or science’, ‘body of knowledge’ (…) In fact, to judge from my own work and in the consensus of philologists, there is at least through Plato’s time, no systematic or general distinction between ‘episteme’ and ‘techne’. (Nussbaum, 94)

  • 8  See Giacomo Rizzolatti, Corrado Sinigaglia, Les Neurones Miroirs, Paris: Odile Jacob, 2008.
  • 9  Let us mention the recent conference « Les neurones miroirs et la nouvelle psychopathologie : un a (...)

15Techne is what offers “practical resourcefulness” (Nussbaum, 95) against the vicissitudes of experience. The philosophical question thus becomes what is at the origin of techne, and how does it work? Interestingly, Nussbaum’s description of theatre as the language of techne, of practical resourcefulness, comes to a head in an interstitial chapter of The Fragility of Goodness entitled “Interlude 2: Luck and the Tragic emotions” (Nussbaum, 378) based on Aristotle’s version of tragic theatre, where she revisits the concepts of mimesis, pity, fear and catharsis. From the audience’s standpoint, theatre can therefore be defined as the technology of “hetero-affectivity” (Critchley 2007, 60). Hetero-affectivity, like our immunological system, reacts with creative empathy or what science effectively calls “mirror neurons”: “Oh I have suffered with those that I saw suffer” (Act I scene 2, Shakespeare, 63) says Miranda, the mirror-neuron8. In The Tempest, Shakespeare’s portrait of mimesis conflates with the most modern theories of neurosciences and philosophy9. Miranda’s magic mirror is an open door, like Alice’s looking glass.

  • 10 “Hast thou, spirit, performed to point the tempest that I bade thee?” (I, 2, p70).
  • 11 Shakespeare, 71.

16According to me, this emotional openness to others’ intentions and affects doesn’t only retain compassion or commiseration. The audience can be the receptors of the other’s pain or joy in a positive way, in a sort of active passivity, an active receptivity – a resilient vigilance that would apply not only to our own pain but to that of others (hetero-resilience). Catharsis is mentioned by Nussbaum as “a process-word”, the “performing” of performance, that I compare with Shakespeare’s “sea-change”10: something is happening on that Tempest island, a modification, an alteration, a metamorphosis, a horizontal gesture of openness to other forms. Something is changing the things it touches: Alonso turned into a precious coral, Ferdinand into a sea-weed medusa head, “The King’s son Ferdinand, with hair up-staring – then like reeds, not hair” (Act I, scene 211). Identity boundaries have dissolved: things no longer look as they used to because they have been interfered with, contaminated. Indeed, the theatrical space proves not to be an empty space but a haptic, feeling space changing the things it touches. The gestures that are performed are not indifferent gestures, they are touching, like Lévinas’s caress.

17Performance described as the technology of touch is achieved when the identity of things is violated by a foreign presence, when the theatrical gesture can be envisaged as the caress of an opening and feeling hand. In that respect, I am particularly attentive to the fact that Prospero is a magician and that his power comes from the gesture of putting his mantle on and off, from the movement of his hand. The legerdemain of the magician’s hand shapes the characters of Ariel and Caliban, decides of their freedom and of the audience’s liberation. This mise en abyme of gesture through magic shows the impact of “touch” in theatrical matters. Catharsis reflects these dramatic gestures. In Nussbaum’s reading of Aristotle, catharsis is precisely a “removal of obstacle”, a “clearing up” (Nussbaum, 389), “an absence of impediment”. Catharsis designates a momentary liberation from pain through contact with others. Catharsis has to be interpreted in terms of touch, like an emotional massage. From Nussbaum’s definition of catharsis, I conclude that to maintain the effect and be able to come to terms with disaster, the telling and the listening must never stop, like Sheherazade’s story or Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. The artistic process is infinite and relentless. Likewise, Levinas’s undeterred injunction to the philosopher is intractable: “Il ne faut pas dormir, il faut philosopher” (Lévinas 1998, 35). The mimetic-cathartic instrument theatrical literature plays gives value, resistance, commitment to a form of human freedom.

18The bond that attaches the ethical subject to others is therefore primarily physical, or rather gestural. The theatrical prototype will now help me describe the perceptual imprint of the other as an “imperative” and show how this touching gesture enjoins our moral self. The American philosopher Alphonso Lingis was the first to evoke a “perceptive imperative” (Lingis 1998), which I find particularly relevant to discuss the relation between the stage and the audience. The “perceptive imperative” presses upon us from far away into the present, like radio galaxies signalling through time. Our relation to others in time is indeed more complex than what the immediacy of the words “communication”, “dialogue”, “conversation”, may suggest.  

 From techne to Technoflesh with Alphonso Lingis and Avital Ronell

  • 12 Lingis, Dangerous Emotions, 96.

19The advantage of the perceptual perspective on ethics is that it does not suppress the bodies involved, it acknowledges the violence that underpins the relation between self and other. This violence is highly perceptible in the discomfort the audience feels towards certain representations – in front of Rodrigo Garcia’s or Romeo Castellucci’s performances, for instance. The exacerbated reception of these plays is of particular interest to me since it totally excludes indifference. The process at stake in the ethical imagination, namely the “technology of touch” is totally efficient here. These performances polarise the audience and distort their perception like a black hole. However, this polarity is not gravitational, it is erotic, charged with physical tension. We here construe “erotic” as Levinas does in Le Temps et l’Autre, as love without concupiscence. The power of flesh that theatre divulges paves the way to an approach of ethics, which is (very) far from moralistic preoccupations. Theatre eroticizes the stage and the audience’s in-betweenness. The space that it creates around bodies is not neutral or indifferent, it is electrified by emotional tension. From stage to audience, theatrical techne makes the distance phosphorescent with emotional urgency and violates the conventions of communication by constantly diffracting the address of speech, turning the audience’s experience into what Lingis describes as “erotic vertigo”12. For Lingis, laughing at ourselves in the mirror is enough to turn on the othering machine: “Looking at oneself while laughing turns into an erotic vertigo”. Lingis tries to circumscribe this positive “radiance” that words give off, and that a certain kind of linguistics misses: “Linguistics misses the use of words when it envisions words as discriminators, functioning to delimit and contrast” (Lingis, 97). Maybe theatre makes up for that loss by restoring this perceptual vertigo to the reality of language, which symbolises the bonding to others.

20In its own rhythm, the imperative comes from outer space; it is a perceptive pressure, pulsating and deeply moving. It belongs to our perceptual story. At this point, it is valuable to mention that Alphonso Lingis’s philosophical practice expresses itself in performance, like a strange sort of storytelling slam: in conference, Lingis does not simply read his papers, he stages them often in darkness with candles, music, props, sound-effects and projected images that can surprise traditional conference attendees. This American philosopher, the translator of Emmanuel Levinas into English, exposes his own philosophy to the dangerous zone of affects and emotions. In his books, the layout is also unlike other philosophical essays: photographs always open a new chapter while the writing slowly and poetically burrows into the page. His iterative and sensual style mimics its own production: his philosophical storytelling feels like a tale from the Arabian Nights, and yet his poetic fiction is highly conceptual as though he were mapping out a new imaginative ground for philosophy. By performing philosophy he answers philosophical questions with a different “posture” or “style”. The philosophical text turns into an event. With Lingis, the temptation of the stage unveils the seminally ethical sense of any philosophical discourse: the existence of the philosophical discourse should be conditioned by concern for others in the first place. His performances deal with encounters, face to face with unknown people, which often precede any dialogue or friendship. This approach of otherness takes discomfort for granted and reneges any possibility for a consensual theory of ethics.  

  • 13  See also Julia Boll, The New War Plays: from Kane to Harris. London : Palgrave, 2013.

21Likewise, the violent theatres that work as a backcloth to this essay are not built on dialogues: the verbal interchanges between the participants look like fragments from an atomised dialogue, from a “blasted” dialogue. The verbal and non-verbal communication is charged with threatening tension and aggro-effects, sometimes culminating in the temptation of cannibalism as in Dennis Kelly’s After the End. In these violent theatres, war and agôn reign supreme on stage13. But wasn’t that what Nietzsche had already found to be at the origin of tragedy? The American philosopher Avital Ronell notes:

I think it is irresponsible not to be Nietzschean, in this sense of risking the greatest indecency, of crossing certain boundaries that have seemed safe and comfortable, and are managed at best by general consensus. But that’s just it: one is precisely stuttering and stammering as one tries to release oneself from the captivity of very comfortable and accepted types of assignments and speech (from “Confessions of an Anacoluthon”, Ronell 2008, 4).

22Contemporary tragedies are hardly a prescriptive model to reach political peace. Still, I will argue that theatre participates in the construction of the ethical-political imagination. Staging catastrophes, crises, and wars is a way of addressing urgency, of showing concern, and of offering a quicker response than any discourse could. When dealing with catastrophic events, or traumas, the stage appears ready to respond and resist. Performance touches the audience in a timely way.  It features the emotional aberration that a catastrophic event means for our minds, and the vortex of destruction it awakens. Expatiating on Lingis’s reflexions, I would say that theatre belongs to “catastrophic time”, which he defines as “the empty endurance of the void” (Lingis 2000, 128). Interestingly enough, the “catastrophe” has always been a theatrical concept from Aristotle to Beckett as it defines the temporal existence of theatre. Watching theatre from this perspective means placing Time rather than Space at the centre of the performing object. The consequences of this aspectual change are ethical, as I will try to describe.

23In Lingis’s thinking, catastrophic time is the time when no project can form – a black hole. In the text where he approaches this matter, the philosopher-narrator addresses the reader as “you” and the reader slowly witnesses him changing into a mythological hawk or eagle, to describe this catastrophic dimension of human actions:

From inhuman distance, with the fearsome far-sightedness of birds of prey we see that sinister spectacle of stupidities and deceits, pillage and tortures that is the history of our species. With soaring raptor eyes we see ourselves devouring plants, birds, fish and fellow mammals, our earthbound organisms trampling exquisite microecosystems with each step. With fierce eyes, we see the lethal tides of summer and winter, which exact agony from all living things. In the remote distances we see the skies emptied but for the stars burning themselves out as fast as they can. Is there not something catastrophic in thought?   (Lingis 2000, 135)

24This dreamtime vision that is present in all thinking processes, in creation and in philosophy, exposes the helplessness and nakedness of human life. Thinking, like theatre, is understood as a denuding process. For Lingis, this denuding that appears in “catastrophic thinking” also has an erotic effect:

We see the devastated banks and police stations in the wake of a tornado, as when we witness a revolution that overturns the entire hierarchy of a society, we feel an excitant wildness. It is not simply the justice that may arise from this levelling: it is a kinship with tempestuous and torrential nature that fires us; we come to understand that revolutionaries are not driven by utopian sentimentality. (Lingis 2000, 133)

25This paradoxical and conflictive pleasure might well be what the audience is eventually on the lookout for in tragedy. By staging this catastrophic, almost inhuman relation to an audience, performance reveals how asymmetrical relations to others can be, how unfair and unequal. On that basis, conversation in Lingis’s words can only be “a summit, a vortex, and a black hole of intensity” (Lingis 2000, 91). Theatre provides indeed a valuable prototype to understand the emotional inadequacies of language and think the asymmetric reality of social encounters. From Lingis’s reflexions, I concluded that not only does theatre eroticise space, it turns itself into something animal. The theatrical object itself is animal. Animality and ethics are far from being contradictory, and Lingis shows precisely this in the metamorphosis of his narrator. Caliban might then be the symbol of the helpless animality of the theatrical object. The animal is here an avatar of the complete Other – and, paradoxically enough, so is the Machine.

26On the other end of the technical theatrical device, one can wonder how the audience reaches out to the stage. The audience’s assumed passivity doesn’t mean that spectators are not active in a certain way – the forces unleashed on stage circulate through their collective body, sending them back transformed. In the audience’s active receptivity, the perceptive imperative never stops calling. In addition to emotions though, language also circulates. The audience participates indeed in a linguistic process that I would compare to what Avital Ronell calls “the tele-postcard” in reference to Derrida’s “epistolary witchcraft” (Derrida La Carte Postale, 41). The epistolary witchcraft is relative to these strange writing and reading gestures at stake in postcard (non-)communication. Avital Ronell’s reinterpretation helps us understand differently what Derrida writes, from the contemporary perspective of information technology. In the Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric speech, she takes into account the evolution of communication technology to picture human relations. In her post-humanist theory, television and new media give a new dimension to Derrida’s “witchcraft”. Here is how her book opens:

The Telephone Book is going to resist you. Dealing with a logic and topos of the switchboard, it engages the destabilization of the addressee. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to learn how to read with your ears. In addition to being asked to listen for the telephone, you are being asked to tune your ears to noise frequencies, to anticoding, to the inflated reserves of random indeterminateness -- in a word, you are expected to stay open to static and interference that will occupy these lines. (Ronell 1991, viii.)

  • 14  See « La Raison du plus fort», Jacques Derrida , Colloque de Cerisy, 15 Juillet 2002.
  • 15  « Imagine une ville, un état où les cartes d’identité seraient des cartes postales. Plus de résist (...)

27Her “biophonic” book, between orality and writing, mimics a tele-experience where the address of speech is constantly diffracted, hijacked by parasitic elements of distance. Derrida noted that “carte” in French is the anagram of “écart” and “trace”14: projecting this image of the tele-postcard onto the reality of the stage, I would argue that theatre actually mimics the drama of ethical relations, torn between distance and proximity in time and space. This polarity calls for an interstitial resisting fabric15 whose description would perfectly adhere to the theatrical space-time. This resisting fabric, I call “technoflesh”. An ethics of the technoflesh, understood from Ronell’s philosophy, would thus designate a never ceasing coming and going of calls and answers: it would reveal responsibility as the answerability to the untimely phosphorescence in language in a technical and technological context. Language conveys the urgency of the others’ calls. My question thus becomes “what calls” in theatrical language, what kind of gesture makes language phosphorescent and circulatory? “When I write, says Ronell, I am always taking a call, I am summoned from elsewhere, truly from the dead, even if they are my contemporaries”. (Ronell 2008, 285) Further development on the Machine Other in performance cannot be undertaken within the limits of this essay but could be the central subject of future work.

Conclusion: Reinventing the Polis 16 with Poets

  • 16 « Contemporary anarchists have created a new language of civil disobedience that combines street-th (...)

“Ethics without politics is empty. Politics without ethics is blind”.
Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding.

28The community performance practice surreptitiously builds, is a “community of people who have nothing in common”, to borrow Lingis’s book title:  

Community is usually conceived as constituted by a number of individuals having something in common – a common language, a common conceptual framework – and building something in common: a nation, a polis, an institution. (…) Is there not a growing conviction, clearer today among innumerable people, that the dying of people with whom we have nothing in common – no racial kinship, no language, no religion, no economic interests – concerns us? (Lingis, 1994, x)

29This community has nothing to do with friendship, philia or any rational ground for collectiveness. It is only based on the circulation of emotions, of pleasure and pain, of language, on the eroticisation of flesh, which sets into motion the ethical imagination. The eroticisation of flesh in performance is what joins a body of people together, beyond good and evil, beyond pleasure and pain, and transforms the theatrical object into a living Other, an animal machine or machine-Other. That is why I like to conjure up Caliban as its symbol. The eroticisation and the animality should be considered as fundamental to any thinking about ethics. The consideration of our animal flesh is central to the development of an ethics that is not just an ideal quest for the Good. Theatre develops the ethical imagination because it doesn’t discard flesh from serious discourse and it creates a physical awareness of intersubjectivity. In short, theatre is the technology of flesh and actors are techniciansof flesh. The technology of flesh begins with the acknowledgement that dramatic subjectivity can only be a plurality or a “plurilogism”, a plural thinking. In this respect, theatre shows itself as the art of acknowledgement, releasing multiplicity into the subject:  

Who are the people? They are not, in my view, the expression of a national essence, the alleged unity of a race, the citizens of a nation-state, the members of a specific class like the proletariat, or indeed the members of a specific community defined by religion, ethnicity, or whatever. The people cannot be socially identified and policed by any territorializing term (Critchley 2007, 129).

30The technology of flesh creates a form of social glue by opening collective channels of affect. In this process, catharsis could be interpreted as the experience of getting out of one’s island: becoming, not at all purified, but acknowledged as other, as a vulnerable multiplicity. In Nussbaum’s language, theatre would make us confront our own “fragility”, accept our “injurability” with fear but also with “fortitude”. But this fragility towards external events is more acutely felt as injustice when it is a political fragility, a vulnerability in front of another man’s power. Caliban’s cave, immersed in darkness and invisible to the eye, reminds us that “catharsis” is the recognition of the obstacle and of the scandal. Caliban’s cave is seen as the “singularity” of the stage, the black hole, the stone that can’t be transformed, the obstacle or the scandal that prompts ethical resistance. The audience never sees what is inside Caliban’s cave, the prison rock where the savage beast is shackled because he tried to rape Miranda. He cannot be “imprinted” with goodness and yet he speaks in the finest poetical language because he belongs to theatrical techne. Anybody can turn into a singularity, into an animal or machine Other at any time. This riskiness of encounters is the ongoing scandal of philosophy.

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Critchley, Simon. Ethics, Politics, subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas & Contemporary French Thought. London: Verso, 1999.

Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. London. New York: Verso, 2007.

Critchley, Simon. On Humour. London: Routledge, 2002.

Derrida, Jacques. La carte postale. Paris: Flammarion, 2004.

Lévinas, Emmanuel. De l’existence à l’existant. Paris: Vrin, 1998.

Lévinas, Emmanuel. Le Temps et l’Autre. Paris: Fata Morgana, 1979.

Lingis, Alphonso. Dangerous Emotions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.  

Lingis, Alphonso. The Community of those who have nothing in common. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Lingis, Alphonso, The Imperative. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Nussbaum, Martha. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Ronell, Avital. The Telephone-book: Technology, Schizophrenia and Electric speech. University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

Ronell, Avital. The Über reader: selected works of Avital Ronell. (Ed. by Diane Davis). Chicago University Press, 2008.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. London: The New Penguin Shakespeare, 1968.

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1 Quoted by Stanley Cavell in « The Interminable Shakespearean Text », Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005. P48.

2  Levinas, Le Temps et l’Autre. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1983. p60.

3 As some of these works conjure up arguments from the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, I have explicitly re-introduced Levinasian key concepts, such as the “caress” and his particular approach to ethics, when commenting upon their works.

4  Lévinas, 1998, 35.

5  See Critchley 2007, 21.

6  See Lévinas 1998, 25.

7 See also Kip Thorne (trad. Alain Bouquet et Jean Kaplan), Trous noirs et distorsions du temps : l’héritage sulfureux d’Einstein, Champs Flammarion, 1997.

8  See Giacomo Rizzolatti, Corrado Sinigaglia, Les Neurones Miroirs, Paris: Odile Jacob, 2008.

9  Let us mention the recent conference « Les neurones miroirs et la nouvelle psychopathologie : un autre regard sur la douleur et l’empathie », Hôpital Américain de Paris, 30/11/13.

10 “Hast thou, spirit, performed to point the tempest that I bade thee?” (I, 2, p70).

11 Shakespeare, 71.

12 Lingis, Dangerous Emotions, 96.

13  See also Julia Boll, The New War Plays: from Kane to Harris. London : Palgrave, 2013.

14  See « La Raison du plus fort», Jacques Derrida , Colloque de Cerisy, 15 Juillet 2002.

15  « Imagine une ville, un état où les cartes d’identité seraient des cartes postales. Plus de résistance possible ». (Derrida, 43)

16 « Contemporary anarchists have created a new language of civil disobedience that combines street-theatre, festival, performance art and what might be described as forms of non-violent warfare » (123). Simon Critchley mentions the « Rebel Clown Army » and « Ya basta ! » as examples.

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Liza Kharoubi, « Caliban’s Cave: Theatre’s Scandalous Ethics »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 18 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 29 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Liza Kharoubi

Liza Kharoubi est Maître de Conférences en Etudes Anglophones à l’Université d’Avignon, Agrégée d’Anglais et docteur de l’Université Paris IV-Sorbonne. Ses intérêts de recherche croisent la littérature et la philosophie contemporaines, et plus particulièrement les arts du spectacle et l’éthique. La recherche menée vise à réfléchir sur les enjeux socio-politiques mais aussi pédagogiques du développement de la littérature et de la pratique théâtrale aujourd’hui. En juin 2012, elle a participé à la Mellon Summer School à l’Université d’Harvard à Boston sur le thème “Theatre and Philosophy” qui fédère outre-atlantique un nombre grandissant de chercheurs.

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