Theatre and the Making of Subjects

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German Theatre Studies Association together with Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz
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Call for Papers: Theatre and the Making of Subjects
28-31 October 2010, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany

The problem of how the subject is constituted stands at a central intersection between the examination of theatrical practices from an aesthetic standpoint on the one hand, and from a cultural studies perspective on the other. Within a theatrical framework, playing with different forms of subjectivity—as a process either of fragmentation or consolidation of the autonomous, self-identical subject—points to the precariousness of constituting the subject since it is destabilized by the playful quality of the theatrical event.

Texts such as Diderot’s influential Paradoxe sur le comédien (publ. 1830) locate this instability at the border of “theatre” and “life”—just like actors on stage, people in society are exposed to a mutual haunting between role-playing and bodily sensibility on the basis of which their respective subject position has to be negotiated. Most readings of Diderot tend to resolve this haunting in favour of a “cold” style of acting which masks the “I” but leaves it unharmed—on the stage as well as in life. At the beginning of the 20th century, from a different perspective, Helmuth Plessner’s philosophical anthropology considers the rupture between role and “I” as a human condition which can best be perceived in the anthropology of the actor. In his eponymous text from 1948 (“Anthropologie des Schauspielers”), Plessner argues that it is theatre which makes humans aware of their eccentric position, of the “insurmountable distance [uneinholbare Abständigkeit] towards the self.” This (philosophical) conceptualization of acting has influenced theatre studies such as Erika Fischer-Lichte’s History of European Drama and Theatre (1990, trans. 2002), which attempts to write the “collective history of identity change in European culture,” which she believes to be “created and preserved […] in individual works of art.”

Plessner’s idea of the eccentric position as being an unchangeable human condition might be challenged by poststructuralist critiques of the notion of the subject since they introduce “discontinuity into our very being,” as Michel Foucault puts in his 1971 essay “Nietzsche, la Généalogie, l’Histoire.” Precisely because Foucault’s thinking takes its starting point in the limitations and the finitude of the subject, and because his writings sometimes tend to develop a utopia, as it were, of “subjectlessness,” Foucault calls our attention to historically contingent positions and formations of subjectivity.

For contemporary cultural theory, subjectivity materializes in individual corporeal processes of its incessant negotiation and emergence against the background of socially given norms. Culture is no longer understood as text and monument, but as a processualization of meaning which is based on bodies and actions. The German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz, for instance, argues in his study The Hybrid Subject (Das hybride Subjekt, 2006) that the performance of culture takes place in the materiality and processuality of the body; actions become constitutive for society insofar as they embody and objectify a symbolic order. From this praxeological perspective—centered on social practices—the process of constituting the subject, or the “subjectivation,” as Reckwitz calls it, is perceived as a constant negotiation/performance (Aus-Handlung) of “subject forms” that are interiorized as practical norms, dependent on knowledge. The process of making subjects unfolds in the three relevant and productive spaces of a) the discourses of the humanities, b) material culture (artifacts, media), and c) cultural as well as aesthetic movements. In its heuristic focus on practices, contemporary cultural theory is deeply imbued by theories developed in linguistics, philosophy, psychology and theatre studies—concerning the latter, concepts such as theatricality, performativity, phenomenology, mediality and visual culture theory have proven influential in this regard.

Looking at artistic as well as at cultural performances, theatre studies are able to deal with “the making of subjects” on various levels. Thus, the conference envisions three sections:

1) Theory regarding the theatrical constitution of the subject in social relations

2) Aesthetic practice dealing with the affirmation or subversion of subject norms; with processes of “subjectivation”; with the constitution of the subject; or its ex-position and fragmentation

3) History of the changing models of the subject and subjectivity in art and everyday culture.

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