letters and fragments: on narrative, cohesion, and realism

“Language is the universal whore and anything that reminds us of this, even in in that hallowed hall of ‘originality’, the novel, is no bad thing I say.” — BiomechanicalKing

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A little while ago I discussed with my Torontonian friend Daniel Karasik a novel that I’d sent him: Axolotl Roadkill by Helene Hegemann. This polarizing book, which first had its author praised as a literary sensation, and shortly after caused a flat-out plagiarism scandal, is the fictional diary of Mifti, a teenage girl who, after the recent death of her mother, is undergoing “conscious, purposeful negative development” by way of submerging herself in Berlin’s club scene.

It’s difficult to categorize Axolotl Roadkill, even to describe it—which I think is ultimately a testimony to its strength. Some have called the novel surrealist, but I think it more accurately vacillates between realism and surrealism, gauging constantly the boundaries between “reality” and imagined, hallucinatory spaces in a boundless world freed of conventions, ethics, and morality.

“There’s no such thing as originality, just authenticity” – Helene Hegemann

While explaining my thoughts on the novel to my friend, I articulated some fundamental ideas about theatre (and literature) that have been on my mind for a while, but which I haven’t said out loud, on (virtual) paper. And perhaps the divide that he and I encountered in our assessment and experience of the novel is an ideal starting point to discuss some of the formal, aesthetic characteristics of what I have called a “Dramaturgy of Resistance.” So I’m quoting (edited) parts of my emails to him here:

“What I love most about the novel is that it’s NOT a static document, that it’s essentially the opposite of a wholesome, coherent narrative. It’s something like a living, breathing, pulsating participant of our world; I tend to think of it as a convulsing insect in a fight against death. What I mean by that is that the novel doesn’t TELL me how the world works; rather, it ENACTS it: for example, it grapples with questions of identity and authenticity through literary form—through copying and pasting, through questions of authorship, of (auto-) biography, etc. The way the words are arranged, i.e. the TEXT itself (which I think is anything but smudged, by the way, and actually very carefully composed) ENACTS the endlessness, cyclicality, and breathlessness of modern existence.

A bit like music, perhaps, the novel actively rejects any conventional type of narrative and clarity, because such a framework doesn’t structure the world—which is disorienting, elusive, dangerous, boring, mad, and constantly vacillating between highs and lows. What Hegemann sees and writes about doesn’t fit into a container of coherence—arcs as we know them are gone in this world, a world that spins breathlessly on a microlevel, but turns slowly (if at all) on a macro scale. A world in a manic-depressive mixed state. A giant stunted orgasm. A world between states of extreme agency and total unagency. A world at the max. That’s the drama and affect of this novel.

For me, coherence is just too slow. I also feel easily berated by characters talking to me about “issues” and “problems.” So I totally thrive off Hegemann, whose work I get to imagine and inhabit; it’s like poetry—I get to “autocomplete” it, in a way. I get to have agency in a stagnant, deadlocked world that usually only suggests agency. I get to be politically, ethically, morally active and self-determined—in the sense of Adorno. That, to me, is an inherently theatrical process: Hegemann treats her reader like an audience.

Maybe it’s our two different points of view that cause our experiences of the novel to diverge. Maybe, as you say, your perspective is “Anglophone.” But maybe the term “Anglophone” has become an excuse for, and symptom of, a kind of conservatism. Maybe this law of coherence and clarity, which dominates Anglophone theatre and drama especially, actually reflects a subconscious acceptance of (and desire for) hegemonic structures—politically, economically, morally, ethically, and socially. Maybe we should actually be examining these (narrative) structures. Maybe we should be questioning hegemonies by way of (aesthetically) challenging narrative structures and vice versa.

Regardless—my point is ultimately that if the container of narrative coherence actually correlates with the content of a work, then I’m totally fine with it. In other words, if there’s a literary/dramatic/theatrical POINT to coherence, then I totally buy it. If coherent narratives are a kind of golden standard though—a container that’s taken for granted—then I’m totally not on board. USING coherence is key, I think. It can reflect a kind of longing for, or creation of, stability, for example. But then there needs to be made an actual point about that.”

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

—William Blake, “The Tyger”

Christoph Gielen, Ciphers

Christoph Gielen, Ciphers

The Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form. — Michel Foucault

A discussion of the Anglophone law of narrative coherence also merits a look at the role of realism in English-language theatre. As I’ve articulated many times, in Canadian theatre, realism—or rather, as I believe, a new, imitative TV-style considered and equated to “realism”—has become paradigmatic. It has infiltrated our thinking about theatre to the point where it has pushed out our ability to think theatrically, going hand in hand with the push for clarity and rigidity—the stringent literalism—that I observe as being praised as the highest standard of “theatrical craft.” This not only means that modes of abstraction, surrealism, expressionism, etc. have taken a backseat, but it also appears as though anything that’s not “realist” is often considered something other than drama: “performance art,” or something along those lines (which is actually something different altogether). This type of thinking—this reduction of theatre to a kind of craft as opposed to an art form—leads to aesthetic (and ideological) stagnation. It suffocates the tool with which we make theatre: our imagination. Art then turns into a megaphone, instead of an object that exists in the eye of its beholder. It kills the relationship between artist and spectator.

I recently encountered an interesting analysis of the Isla Vista shootings by American playwright John Steppling, who draws startling parallels between popular storytelling, emaciated imagination, and Elliot Rodger’s pathology:

Elliot Rodger made a video. A startlingly narcissistic bit of performance. What first strikes one is that Rodgers pathological make up reflects the pathology of the ruling class over all. Narcissism, projection, lack of empathy, misogyny (obviously), loss of affect and a mirroring of autistic process, and a deeply entrenched raw festering self-hatred.

Rodger wanted girls. Sex. Except he didn’t have much idea exactly what that meant. Sex was pornography. More important was possession. Status. Power. A BMW needs a trophy girl. Rodger apparently frequented ‘How to pick up girls’ sites, and body building magazines. But this son of great privilege exhibited no curiosity about the world.As my friend Exir pointed out … Rodger could only think in the most generic way about what he desired. He dreamed cliches. And not even, from what we know, very convincing cliches. He obsessed about being an Alpha Male, without quite knowing what this meant. This is the world of an evaporated imagination. Rodger wanted a cyborg girlfriend. He wanted to live in a graphic novel. He thought only terms of accoutrements.

(…) Complex narrative structure is met with bewilderment, if not hostility. The audience is so deeply trained for passive reception, that the demand for engagement, on any level, is met with derision. The snark culture. The fan is getting to experience their own private mini privilege. A privilege without material reward, but no matter. There is a feeling of control in getting to choose the channel you want to watch. Never mind every channel essentially shows the same thing. All of it is predicated on a model for society that Elliot Rodger lived in, in which his imagination atrophied.

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Elliot Rodger, self-portrait

It seems necessary to note at this point that actual realism is not the enemy. Much to the contrary, it is legitimate and important, both historically and currently. But, like narrative coherence, realism needs to be used on point. It needs to be implemented and applied sensibly—for a reason. We must remember what realism actually is: a style, an aesthetic. Realism exists only, and is thus only accessible, if it gives “reality” an aesthetic treatment. It turns “reality” into (and uses it as) a concept. For that’s actually what realism is: more than mere reproduction, it is a set of conventions—a complex artistic composition of signs—that emerges out of, and exists within, a specific set of historic, socio-economic, and artistic circumstances. It is not a default container.

We have to think about what realism in the theatre once was, and what it has become. It is my contention that we need to make (again) a theatrical form of it; that we need to engage with it explicitly. Which means that realism needs to be re-examined and shaped to work in the theatre—and thus in our world. Looking to our HBO-objects of “storytelling-envy” for a moment: take Mad Men, for example, or GIRLS. Both of these shows employ realism as their basic, fundamental style. Both of them also challenge it—they have a meta-level. It’s subtle (sometimes more, sometimes less so), but both these shows explicitly use their medium to convey their message—their medium is the message. These shows shape realism into TV-realism. I have rarely seen that happen on Canadian stages.

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What does realism mean onstage?

What is its function?

What can realism, as an aesthetic, reveal to us about ourselves?

Why do we use it in the theatre?

Why do we use it today?

How can it be used?

What is the stage’s relationship to ‘the real’/ the ‘realistic’?

How and where do they meet?

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A successful realist aesthetic manages to make us question that which it suggests to portray: the “real,” its boundaries—and thus realism itself. But in order to achieve this, realism must contain a level of distance to itself; it must gaze at itself like an object in a mirror; it must look at itself outside of itself in order to reveal (layers of) itself. See Betty and Joan above. Because when realism is merely an imitation or reproduction of “reality”—whatever that even is: any concept of “reality” seems far too large and subjective to be within anyone’s grasp—then it’s kitsch. And kitsch kills the imagination. Because it leaves no room for interpretation

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Aesthetic resistance is not simply the awareness of history, but the ability to use history, to inform and grow an awareness of the world around one, and to fashion Utopian futures, and to awaken from the numbness of advanced capital. Culture is meant to stimulate curiosity, for the lack of curiosity today in large numbers of the young is staggering. – John Steppling

In an (art) world that strives for clarity and coherence, that’s structured around rigid ideals of narrative, ambiguity has become a provocation. It has also become the only way of being radical: concerted contradiction, incoherence, disjunction, rupture—externalizing part of the meaning-making process to the observer—prevent submersion into capitalism’s hyper-absorbent mainstream. It is important to remember that these modes do not exist in contrast to, but rather in conversation with narrative, cohesion, and especially realism. Most importantly, they produce movement (from with-) in systemic, “narrative” gridlock, and they formally, theatrically represent this world—and potential worlds of tomorrow. It is in the in-between spaces, in dialectics, where aesthetic resistance lives. And the theatre, or, more broadly speaking, performancea space that’s fundamentally fluid—is the artistic home of these dialectics.

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Lana Del Rey, Young and Beautiful

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