Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture










SCREAM No. 72 December 2015

    Through chauvinist inability to comprehend different paradigms of thought, violence will lead to the ultimate unimaginable return of extreme Fascism as witnessed more than seventy years ago!

    This is a terrifying scenario that one hopes is wrong ...

    So reconsideration of "libertarian socialist" ideas is both timely and necessary ... in spite of the cartoonist Michael Leunig's apparent blind eye to the murder of fellow Libertarian cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 ...

    Ultimately what is needed is a 
    THEATRE BEYOND THE VIOLENCE that might contribute to a more functional and relevant theatre

        Jurgen Weber's sculpture in Nurnberg, Germany, is based on Hans Sachs'
        "The Marriage Merry-go-round (Carousel)" written in the sixteenth century. 
        The above section from the sculpture was abstracted from it and is only a small 
        portion of this amazing work designed to cover a subway ventilation shaft in a 
        square surrounded by churches and very ordinary urban buildings.

        Marriage is perhaps culture writ in microcosm. It is a traditional and valued institution that when it works, it can be an enriching source of stability and foundation. When it doesn't it splits into repressive and insidious violations of human potential. The bitterness and anguish resulting from the frustrated dreams of unrealized fantasies that marriage engenders are so ultimately destructive on the human psyche that it leaves stains on all those affected by it. The pretense of happy marriage and the perpetration of its institution is illustrated by the false smile of its most ardent advocates: mostly older men who control societies and belief systems. For those who control the institution of marriage, either forced marriage or voluntary marriage, it is essential that women are maintained as baby factories for the perpetration of DNA clusters to advance on-going family, clan or tribe ... all of which are male/patriarchal dominated structures.

        The temptation for art and especially theatre is to play to this phenomenon and tug at the romantic heartstrings or worse hail culture as sacrosanct embodiment of universal truth. For the child in a dysfunctional family and the citizen of a dysfunctional or authoritarian society, there is no escape and the straitjacket of forced conformity is smothering the potential for creative existence. Any question of freedom of choice is nonsensical in such situations. 

        Nineteenth Century philosopher and activist, Mikhail Bakunin, expressed fears for authoritarian controls over society and culture that have been fully realized in both post-soviet countries and in so-called democracies which try to reduce thinking down to platitudinous absurdity. The ideas of liberty as measured against the destruction and social strait-jacketing of human potential are contradictory concepts that are in evidence today. Bakunin's "libertarian" socialism/communism needs a re-consideration given the throwback to superstitious religious dominance in the world today. The threat of death being an acceptable bi-product of mocking absurd religious practices needs a contradictory force; with such force not forthcoming from the political social will of society, it can only come from art and artistic creating ... a kind of new creativity. All artists should consider Mikhail Bakunin's writing even if not taking it all literally and NOT as some kind of instruction manual. While "libertarian" thought is now associated with generally right wing free-marketers with vested interests in controlling state mechanisms, there are other ways of considering the possibilities of libertarian idealism. Note the work of Daniel Guerin on this subject. Guerin wrote clearly and with authority on the power of libertarian activism at the beginning of the twentieth century. Perhaps an unexpected clarification of this need for a libertarian ideals is best articulated by Noam Chomsky in a   video Debate from 1971 with Michel Faucault. Chomsky ironically goes so far to say that a reign of terror like that of the French Revolution might even be acceptable to achieve the intent of liberty.

        The point about libertarian thinking is that it must break through the barriers of entrenched controls; be they world views, social customs, belief systems, religious doctrines and yet still be true to basic human need and potential. The freedom encouraged is not one of laissez-faire capitalism. Rather it is one of using reason and acceptance of the enlightenment urge. The fear of freedom has reared its ugly head in a way not totally unexpected by the libertarian intellectuals of the mid twentieth century.

        Erich Fromm in 1941 / 1942 argued a very simple thesis that the release from the bonds of medieval serfdom that came with the advent of the Reformation and later with the Enlightenment left MANKIND alone in a universe that was terrifying and so created the need to invent or re-affirm the kind of social slavery that gave security under tight religious and social controls. It meant a turning to authoritarianism to give solace and security for an isolated being desperate to believe in, and be a part of, something bigger than the island of individuality.

        No wonder when individuals try to attack large institutions of power they become vilified by the lonely individuals who seek solace within authoritarian world views. It gives rise to justifying the murdering and slaughtering of libertarians by revenging jihadists and / or fascists and fundamentalist Christians as seen in the recent Colorado Springs murders desperate to silence opposition to their insecurities and emotional scaffolding. The fact that the very term "Libertarian" is associated with individual irresponsibility rather than anti-authoritarianism is a Testament to the power of this gravitation to traditional authoritarian thinking.

         In recent times this phenomena is easy to identify. To see the attack on Sam Harris by Ben Afflek, who accused Harris of racism and bigotry without offering any substantial evidence or support for such an allegation on the subject of Islamism suggests that in the mind of many otherwise liberal minded people there is a blind spot and even a Chauvinism when it comes to different mindsets from outside the Western Enlightenment perspective. To imagine that religion could still be a motivation for political idealism and even terrorism seems beyond the possibility of the Western Chauvinist imagination. Harris argued that embedded within Islam were texts that might give rise to beliefs that justified terror in the minds of radical adherents. But the likes of Afflek abetted by radical Islamism's apologists like Raza Aslan deliberately misrepresent Harris's call for rational discourse into an issue of racism and so encourage the name calling and abusive retaliation that comes with the tag.

        Thus Islamism's terrorist activity is made to  appear to come from more easily identified classic models of poverty, class struggle and less abstract notions of perceived racism, lack of respect and even satirical art. That the protagonist might be a devout and totally sincere religious advocate following a particular religious belief or ideology seems beyond the Western liberal Chauvinist mind as demonstrated by Ben Afflek and many of my friends on social media. The root cause of radicalism is proported to be economic. The Chauvinist seems to argue that if we change the economic circumstances then the potential radical Islamist will become a contented and satisfied Capitalist adopting the mantle of Western hegemony whilst happily practicing whatever cultural variant such a person was born into. The point is the EXTREMISTS DO CLAIM MOTIVATION FROM AN INTERPRETATION OF RELIGIOUS DOCTRINE and do not necessarily spring from low and impoverished economic circumstances even if these are breeding grounds for recruitment. The Western Liberal Chauvinist cannot imagine such a paradigm and so ridicules all suggestions that we should heed the actual statements of the protagonists as being valid. Instead the Chauvinist uses insults and generalized attacks to divert attention whenever an alternative argument is raised. Harris argues that the power of belief is the prime motivating force that gives massive power to political and terrorist action. It is this argument that is being marginalized by the Western Liberal traditionalist and chauvinist approach to the subject.

        Even the eminent Noam Chomsky used every means to destroy Harris when in email debate with him while at no stage actually confronting the central notion of intent as a moral consideration. Harris was out of his depth and was made to look foolish and with well chosen words from Chomsky, had his position and credibility diminished.

        It is certainly one thing to win debating arguments and divert attention to Harris being an apologist for American Exceptionalism, it is quite another thing to answer the central questions posed by Harris that cultural beliefs instigate actions that are horrific and in need of confrontation. Harris has put himself into the public eye with his own emperor's new clothes exposed and his weaknesses are well documented. However, like the classic fool, his insights and questions remain unmatched and largely vilified by people who prefer to divert attention away from proverbial elephants in small rooms ... Had Chomsky not immediately seen Harris as some kind of threat to his own belief system, there might have been some more room for a meaningful discourse.

        In 1971 Chomsky described his political position as being that of an Anarcho Syndicalist and on the discussion of political violence discussed a principle of "relative injustices".

        While Chomsky cannot be accused of intellectual arrogance (ie. he has certainly over a lifetime proved he has much more substance and commitment than most intellectuals anywhere on the globe) he did seem far more interested in defending his position and destroying the opposition than in trying to see or understand where Harris was coming from. Unfortunately such polarization is a forerunner of where all discourse is heading in a world of positions and agendas that can only aid the most unscrupulous activists. It seems the Western intellectual has no academic tool for discussing religious motivation as a root cause for terrorism or anti-liberal and anti-enlightenment values.


        Who would have thought twenty years ago that Charlie Hebdo, a group that had a long history of attacking racism, corruption, repression from governments, extreme right wing movements such as The National Front, Fascism, privileged religious institutions, exploitation of women, anti-Semitics, power of the media, along with various wars engaged in by the West against third-world countries and often based on economical justifications ... would anyone have thought such a group would then be vilified by the Left of politics and liberal intellectuals who then found justifications for murder?

        In spite of preambles about how atrocious the crime was, it was claimed Charlie Hebdo employees were murdered almost justifiably by those who were offended by Charlie Hebdo's position on cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. It was claimed Charlie Hebdo was racist because it attacked icons associated with Islam and thus was offensive to the "race" of Muslims who are predominantly Arab, African or Asian. There was no concern about the magazine's constant attack on Christian identities and institutions. Subsequent attacks by ISIS prove such justification for the murder of Charlie Hebdo employees as nonsense. The killings in Lebanon and subsequent Paris attacks had nothing to do with mocking Islam. AND ... Nor did the murders of Charlie Hebdo!

        Hearing well-meaning priests at sermons speaking of the need for Catholics to be sensitive to other cultural sensibilities in reference to the Charlie Hebdo murders was sickening in its naivety. Noble as the sentiment might seem such sensitivity would make no difference to the aims of militant jihadists! Jesus has been mocked ad-infinitum by post-modern and leftist artists the world over for more than a hundred years and no one (at least no one with any real credulity) has deemed it right to kill such mockers! Once upon a time they might have ... but realistically, it hasn't happened.

        Michael Leunig, a leading Australian cartoonist, at the DAN Conference in Brisbane (11 April 2015 at Sommerville House) when asked, at a Q&A about fellow cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo and their murder, responded that they, workers at Charlie Hebdo, should have "expected to be killed" for the things they were doing.

        "EXPECTED TO BE KILLED" (Michael Leunig, 11 April 2015) ...

        The libertarian instinct gives way to authoritarian self censorship when the threat of violence hangs over one's head like a large sword. The satirist who made previous swipes at Christian institutions spoke with no sense of irony in his comment regarding employees at Charlie Hebdo. At that moment so much of Leunig's work suddenly seemed more like narcissism than spiritual insight.

        If we consider the right to violent action is acceptable as a result of criticism and even gross insults, we are pandering to some lowest common denominator of human discourse. Religions and world views that accept such action ARE part of the problem and to move beyond the violence of sanctioned imperatives, there needs to be a force that can match physical violence. To move beyond the violence engendered by political activists of all persuasions and world views requires everyone in the public domain, (ie. politicians, philosophers, media, artists) to reaffirm human values.

        It is very telling with all that is happening in the world at the moment, there is so little presented in theatre dealing with the issue. If we take out DV8's "Can We Talk About This" and "The Will To Freedom " by Maike Brill  Australia has seen little if any consideration through theatre of the central issue of our time: ie. the necessary dialogue to understand and deal with the rise of religious fundamentalism and its effects within Western cultures. The West's tendency to see all world motivations as a mirror of its own, provides a fatal flaw resulting from the denial of cultural and religious belief as being the often strongest motivating force for political and social Acton.

        The Marxist "forces of production " is not the only consideration in political control. Artaud speaks of the tyranny of culture and theatre as a means for breaking it down (See The Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, RD Cranor, Spring 2010). Cultures are collectivist entities that do not arise from no where. They are grounded in deeply divisive historical events and founded upon beliefs in the way humans might organize and live. Yet now, apart from in France, we see very suspicious and even discursive regard to the foundation of Western thought emanating from The Enlightenment period. Insecurity over Modernist thinking and its pitfalls has seen a crisis of values and an ironic sense of individual freedoms resulting from the Enlightenment. It has meant there is difficulty in measuring pre and post Enlightenment successes. For art and theatre there are obvious difficulties when discussing competing ideas and notions of value in religion, culture and aesthetics. American Exceptionalism and the effects of Western Colonial exploitation and its on-going effects; the hypocracy of world politics as alliances are made with devils to deliberately undermine the human potential of whole populations all go to undermine any discussion of competing values and cultural beliefs. A point repeated often by Chomsky who rightly identifies hypocrisy in so much that is presented at a political level.

        Even accepting this, there might still be a point in looking deeper into the notion of culture and seeing what is actually believed and what might give rise to certain actions.

        The Postmodern notion that all cultures and beliefs are essentially equal relies on Richard Rorty's deduction:

        "... that we simply do not have a concept of objective reality which can be invoked either to 
        explain the success of some set of norms of warrant, or to justify some set of standards over 
        against others. " (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Richard Rorty, June 2007)

        The Rorty articulated principle of Ëqual Value makes it difficult to attack another belief system. Leunig's recognition of this allows him to attack his own area of belief (Christianity) but makes him critical of the Charlie Hebdo attacks on areas within other belief systems. This difficulty means he prioritises Charlie Hebdo's attack on Islamic icons as being a greater evil than their murder. This same priority has pervaded much that has been written on the murders. Noam Chomsky's attack on Sam Harris was later qualified as being because of Harris's concerns on areas outside of his own area of cultural self interest. Chomsky argues that it is paramount for intellectuals to fight and draw attention to attrocities and evils within their own areas of influence and the rest is simply about making one "feel good. "

        This is of little comfort to those who see a need to clarifiy ideas and sharpen an adherence to a value system that is clearly under attack from extremes of all kinds. It is easy to marginalize people like Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali without engaging the actual arguments and thesis put forward by them. The Liberal intelligensia that use every debating device they can find to isolate the positions held by Harris and Ali ignore the very salient fact that both need body guards because of constant threats to their lives by adherents of Islamist ideology. Surely this point alone suggests a relevant self interest that brings the issues close to home. Regretably. how many would lament the murder of either of these people? Hirsi Ali's artistic partner, Theo Van Gogh, was murdered after threats were levelled against both of them. Essentially, the Liberal establishment didn't give a stuff ... If anything, he was being cast as a racist or person deserving to die ...
        The contribution of Liberal Intellectuals to the murder and terror against individuals is a crime and waiting for some exposure in the future. The Charlie Hebdo massacre is the tip of an iceberg of compliance and complicity by Western Intellectuals and commentators who see no irony in their intellectual positions and semantic gymnastics.

        The problem for activists like Harris is that they have no intellectual history through which to forge and frame their arguments. Science is one thing. But, as we saw in the confrontation with Chomsky, Harris was left standing alone with the sword in his hand. Materialist methodology as originally articulated by Marx, but with much updated literature, might provide the sort of academic framework needed tocompel attention in a very tricky intellectual universe. The dialectics within the Marx / Bakunin debate could be a productive source for effective argument; even if only to understand more of where the Intellectuals' attack actually comes from. Harris's reliance on facts is simply not enough. Reason is one thing. Context for reason is a totally different thing. This is where Harris might focus in the future ...

        Uncertainty makes for a severe disadvantage when confronting value systems that espouse absolute god-given certainty as a basis for living and activating social and political action. The tendency in Postmodernism is for irony or for art extolling only experiments in form with no discernable content. The notions of theatre and art as proponents of Socialism, Feminism, Education and even Freedom are seen as Modernist tendencies of little relevance today. Instead, Narcissism with little attempt to see beyond or feature beyond the mirror to Postmodern angst, is the prime motive and platform in art and theatre today. The relationship between A and B is prime; little or no attention is given to wider factors giving rise to our very notion of relationship.

        However, there is more to art and theatre than knee-jerk narcissistic reaction. The reliance on our limited and largely pre-determined experience that depends on accidents of birth and DNA within the straitjacket of culture is a reliance that artists use in a myopic way that is of little value in the function of art as opening doors to perception.

        Family, culture, philosophy and art are all related in a framework of Narcissism that binds perception. Its worst excess can be found in the affirmative art that extolls totally religious and belief system thinking. While Rorty had a point that the excesses of one Belief system are no worse than the excesses of another. People die whatever ... Chomsky's suggestion that a tyranny might be justified (referring to the French Revolution) could also apply to ISIS and their murderous campaign against other Muslims and the West ... all murderers have justifications. The US assassinations of leftists in Latin America and elsewhere had justifications.

        So where does theatre stand on these subjects? Are artists still going to persist with plays and productions about middle aged angst and one's narsisssistic predelection for personal depression and family relationship, or are there going to be more incisive and penetrating treatise on contemporary society? As Brecht found, there needs to be an act sooner than later or the results maybe unthinkable.

        It is one thing to respect a culture. It is another to respect actions that might be considered as harmful. A family is a culture in microcosm. Relationships within it have their own reality and cycles of growth and decay. To identify abuse within a family is not to identify the notion of family as necessarily the problem. However to blindside oneself to the abuse within family is like the Church trying to hide it's members abuse of çhildren fearing that by coming clean and recognizing what was happening it might diminish the status of the church.

        If it takes the heavy handed and very blunt satire of a Charlie Hebdo to identify the horrors and draw out the poison within families of culture then it should not be the target of containment but, like the All Licensed Fool of Elizabethan times, it should be protectted ... not admonished for its clarity in targeting abuse; choosing the icons of identity to draw attention to the wrong and destructive actions being perpetrated within such cultures.


        Perhaps theatre needs to learn from Charlie Hebdo the courage to create and challenge; all be it in different ways and with an infinity of intentions. Not all theatre needs to be radical or satirical. It isn't suggested that theatre should only be antagonistic. However, theatre does need to reconsider its own value and what it accepts as worthy and worthwhile. It needs to take care and take greater responsibility for its presentation as something that does more than pacify its audience and seek to return a profit for the financier. It needs to revisit the notion of providing dialectics on its stage and engage dangerous arguments in the form of the thesis and antithesis. It means theatre practitioners need training, not only in the crafts of theatre, but in philosophical methods and understandings in order to see the larger pictures framing humanity. It requires a willingness to engage a theatre of cruelty where there is acknowledgement of one's own culpability; a degree of willingess to acknowledge the violence hidden in the shadows so that it can be revealed so as to pre-empt it in the real world beyond the stage.


        If we are to move beyond the violence generated by competing agendas within a violent world, we need to focus a theatre that clearly accepts the following points (regardless of cultural and political sensibilities):

        1. all genders are to be accorded the same respect and same entitlements within social settings

        2. no one be persecuted for being gay; rather they be offered the same respect and entitlements of Hetero-sexuals

        3. all people have the right to accepting and rejecting paradigms of thought (ie. religion) without threat of death nor ostracism should they change their minds and leave any organization or institution controlling such thought

        4. all people have a right to a private space where thoughts can roam free of the State or Institutional scrutiny

        5. all forms of thuggish coercion (be they from individuals, groups, families, states or Belief Systems) need to be resisted AND clearly not accepted

        6. all theatre begins with a predisposition towards people in powerless positions; be they from economic and cultural circumstances, personal disabilities, rejection from the norm of society

        7. all theatre adopts positions antithetical to power over individual thought and action

        8. theatre may use any non-violent means be it satire, drama, comedy, ritual, role play, revitalizing of classic works to target its objectives within the scope of the above criteria for a theatre beyond violence

        9. adopt all locations as possible for theatrical presentation and so not being restricted to spaces and venues too closely associated with the power establishment

        10. seek funding sources without any strings attached regarding subject matter and POV of theatrical presentation

        11. adopt a Libertarian Socialist agenda of making the individual's right to survive and creatively adapt to a changing universe as paramount in the writing, constructing and presenting of Theatre

        12. create awareness of the binds of Culture and biology (ie. DNA)  as they limit the potential of individuals to make choices and reach potential (This has revolutionary implications as awareness is the first step in change)

        13. keep on developing this list to take theatre from its currently irrelevant and bland doldrums.

        This was inspired by events of the last few years and my own inactivity in applying what I know best to try and contribute to the changes necessary.

        POST SCRIPT:

        Yes, my father was a very religious man. I see others who are also devout in their religious beliefs. I cannot hate them. I cannot fear them. I can only respect them as I do my father. So when I see people expressing hate for religious groups or for those who have no religious affiliation I can appreciate the rules of the universe that suggest you must keep a sense of prudent proportion in all things and realize you are not totally right on anything. I must remember the dinner table discussions with my father and my mother's disgust at our arguing over religion in 1970 or 1971. I recall this with a kind of affection. I now teach Drama and Theatre in a Catholic school. Yet I can't say that all things Christian are fine? NO. But in about 2008 I was able to stand in front of the whole school, a school owned by the Catholic Church, where I worked and state categorically at a forum in front of the whole school that I was "agnostic" or "atheist" while accepting the notion of 'Love' as propagated by the MSC community and the people who ran the school. No one tried to kill me or sack me as a result. And I realized how within any cultural tradition there were accidents of birth through which anyone could seek the truths of our existence. And some of my closest friends were Priests and Brothers within the Catholic tradition! And they accepted me and basically were able to engage with my thoughts and arguments ... some of which were antagonistic to theirs ... And like my Father, my close friend James was a very spiritual man. James was an MSC Brother and a man I respected and loved very much. He died a few weeks ago and left a legacy that is one of love and engagement with a universe of possibility. I never heard a word of hate from his mouth. As he progressed into death he wrote music and poems that reflected the human journey. In a strange way, he reminds me of the Sam Harris who authored "Waking Up". Knowing people like my father and James Maher makes it impossible for me to hate. My leftist friends who hate everything Christian and admire everything other than Christian while never realising the ironies of their positions could never have known someone like James. The size of our universe is large. Accidents of birth create people within different cultures and traditions. If our world could stop trying to reduce all life and culture to a managable and fixed certainty, the violence inherent in our differences would simply disappear ...


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