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The immortality of Foucault’s thought makes yet another mark on English-language scholarship with the arrival of the most recent edition of his lectures. Under the Nietzsche-inspired title, “Lectures on the Will to Know,” this publication offers Foucault’s first annual lecture to the Collège de France, 1970-71. For those of you familiar with the impressive dynamism of Michel Foucault’s life work—much of which exists in English translation thanks to dedicated translators such as Graham Burchell, A. M. Sheridan Smith, Lysa Hochroth, and Catherine Porter, and to editors such as Paul Rabinow, James D. Faubion, Arnold I. Davidson, and, of course, Daniel Defert—you already know that any simple application of this French thinker’s work, or any single use to which you may put his thought, misses the mark. That is, despite the tendency for theatre and performance scholars to poach theories and concepts from other fields, Foucault’s ideas offer so much more than a one-off frame for a study of, say, disciplined bodies, or an easy citation for further reading into the paradoxes of Victorian culture. Foucault, the name and the body of work associated with it, constitutes a mode of thinking, a tactical map for grappling with the discontinuities of history. If you dive head deep into this particular body of work, as I did about nine years ago, then you might experience the wonderful sensation of discovering the art of thinking that Foucault honed over the course of a lifetime which was, in a certain sense, cut short with his early death in 1984; in another sense, however, the art of thinking he developed lives on in his work and can never die.

Now, here’s a bit of information that will offer you a glimpse of how important Foucault’s work is to me and, more importantly, how excited it makes me. I visit the Palgrave-Macmillan website regularly (like, once a month) to check on the process of the upcoming publications from this lecture series. Once I see that a book is ready for publication, I order it in advance from Amazon, and I do this so that I might forget about it, and then, one day, a box arrives at my house or my office (I switch it up) and I get a wonderful surprise. This particular publication actually motivated a re-appraisal of my home library because, I mean, where do you put Foucault’s work? Philosophy? Cultural Studies? Having decided to rearrange the books in my library by subject, I had to think about Foucault’s home and who his neighbors might be. Ultimately, I settled on placing the books, the count of which is now up to twenty-five, in the “historiography” section because, again, what we’re dealing with is a method of study, a plan of attacking numerous historical conundrums, and an art that, given the discipline required to learn it, we might call martial. To me, historiography names a specific thinking practice motivated by a drive to think through, not about, the past, and I have developed this understanding thanks in large part to the work of Foucault.

But why should you care about this art, this body of work, and this particular publication? The answer has to do with Aristotle and the problem(s) that the Poetics poses to scholars in our profession. Foucault has demonstrated his appreciation and respect for classical Greek tragedy in previous works, most notably in the lectures from 19 and 26 January 1983 dedicated to Euripides’ Ion, but this appreciation appears to have existed from an early stage in his career since the 1970-71 lectures revolve around the appearance and articulation of Truth in Classical Greek tragedy. I would like to invite all of you who plan to teach classes related to or touching upon Ancient Greek tragedy to check out “Lectures on the Will to Know,” because the argument leveled there provides a model for engaging with Aristotle’s Poetics and the possibility that plays such as Oedipus Tyrannus express a worldview that the Poetics, and its subsequent uptake by theatre historians, has obscured.

Here’s a brief breakdown of the argument, mixed with my own commentary linking Foucault’s claims to our situation as theatre historiographers:

  • Aristotle’s Poetics cannot be understood without reference to all of his other treatises (Rhetoric, Politics, Physics, Metaphysics, etc., etc.) — AND YET, theatre scholars neglect this rule and like to ignore the material conditions of the Poetics
    • Namely, that it was written approx. 100 years after the golden age of Athenian drama and it was part of Aristotle’s scientific assessment of the world around him
    • This scientific turn marked Aristotle as distinctly different from his teacher, Plato, and that’s important because Plato’s philosophy was certainly linked to and motivated by the theatre of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, on the one hand, and steeped in a distinctly different sensibility from that of his student (Aristotle).
  • On a deeper level: Aristotle’s understanding of the world and of TRUTH (like, the big concept of TRUTH) differs tremendously from the understanding of TRUTH that exists in the plays he talks about in the Poetics
    • In other words, according to Foucault: Aristotle seemed to think that Truth was something that all people necessarily wanted, and they wanted it because it was good for them and even pleasurable
    • BUT, again pace Foucault, take a look at a play like Oedipus Tyrannus and you will notice that the TRUTH of that play is not at all something old Swollen Foot wants. Philosophically speaking, we can say that Oedipus drives toward the truth, but he does so despite the fact that the TRUTH of his identity scares the hell out of him and all but kills him
  • Foucault’s implicit conclusion (which he builds up to from 9 December, 1970, to 27 January, 1971) is that the philosophical stance toward TRUTH enacted by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides is altogether different from the philosophical stance adopted by Aristotle

–       Will’s historiographical conclusion: If we study Aristotle’s Poetics as a helpful tool for understanding Ancient Greek drama, then we first have to realize that Aristotle was trying to write history in his own way through his Poetics. It appears that he was trying to invent specific rules and goals for Ancient Greek tragedy, goals that help individuals of his time achieve Truth as he (i.e., Aristotle) understood it.

–       Add to all of this the fact that the Poetics is an incomplete set of notes transcribed by several students of Aristotle’s and then assembled years later, and we see that teaching Aristotle’s Poetics over and over again is quite problematic

Now, the thrust of this argument, which Foucault does not entirely flesh out but rather leads us toward, is that Classical Greek Tragedy was a kind of performance philosophy. Through theatre, the Ancient Greeks embodied and enacted Truth, one that, should we believe Foucault, we have a hard time viewing in the present because of the Poetics. Not only is our path to this Truth blocked, but so too is our view of the performance philosophy of the Ancient Greeks blocked because the practice of their theatre has been forgotten in favor of discovering the causes and/or (political) e/affects of said practice. But don’t take my word for it. Read Foucault.

Or for that matter, read any number of the exciting books out on this topic, such as Martin Puchner’s The Drama of Ideas, the collection edited by S. E. Wilmer and Audrone Zukauskaite titled Interrogating Antigone, or Freddie Rokem’s Philosophers and Thespians. But, and here’s my point, read these alongside Foucault’s work. We should fight the temptation to limit our understanding of Foucault’s work through the constant invocation of such terms as Discipline or The History of Sexuality, and reappraise the vast body of his life’s work as, perhaps, a form of performance philosophy in its own right, one that can offer tremendous insight into the teaching of theatre historiography and the doing of historical research.

Will Daddario is the Chair of the Performance and Philosophy Working Group within Performance Studies international and a core convener of Performance Philosophy.

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Last year I submitted a course syllabus and accompanying (ir)rationale for “TH3171 – Theatre History from the Ancient Greeks to the Neo-Classical Age” to this forum. The (ir)rationale allowed me to elaborate on my choice to teach the canon against itself, as it were, by teaching skills for deconstructing the materials we encountered as we encountered them. I named my plan of action tactical failure: “I have chosen not to construct a radically global theatre history syllabus that can address [Steve] Tillis’s concerns and blaze new trails through the halls of the university, but, rather, one that allows me to perform the limitations of the traditional theatre history survey timeline along with, and for the benefit of, my students. This tactical failure takes a cue from Beckett’s motto in Worstward Ho, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’”

I’m writing now to report on that experience. In the words of Lisa Le Feuvre, “Even if one sets out to fail, the possibility of success is never eradicated, and failure once again is ushered in.”* These words describe a paradox at the heart of failure pedagogy; namely, that the results of tactical failure will likely lead to great confusion. Did I succeed in failing? Is that even possible? What precisely have I succeeded in doing by performing the limitations of traditional theatre history survey courses? Did my performed failures elucidate anything for the students or were they just plain old infelicitous attempts at action—non-exciting failures (fizzles?), as opposed to productive failures? After reflecting on the highs and lows of that particular course, I came to two realizations:

  1. Tactical failure [as described in my (ir)rationale] helps to teach students the value of self-reflexivity and the benefit of asking good questions: What is this source that I’m reading? Who translated this text? How much of my contemporary, U.S.-based, privileged viewpoint is shaping my reception of this medieval play (for example)? These questions are fantastic, and students recognizably appreciated grappling with them.
  2. Tactical failure did not offer clear strategies for reading old texts, nor does it offer insight into the art of theatre scholarship, by which I mean the craft of doing research.

In short, tactical failure encouraged students to research topics on their own, but it did not teach them the skills to undertake that research. After reflecting on that experience, I decided to approach the 2012 version of TH3171 from a completely different angle. My main goal was to teach strategies for undertaking historical research, thereby introducing theatre history through the doing of historiographical inquiry. I divided the semester into three sections. Section one presented Ancient Greek tragedy, Sanskrit Drama, and Noh Theater as the foci of a case study on Ancient Theater. Through lectures and class discussion, I modeled strategies for learning about these historically specific theatrical practices and introduced students to how historians and theatre scholars have gone about studying these events that happened so long ago. Section two introduced the concept of comedy and asked students to track how comedy had changed from the time of Terence to Molière’s day, and from seventeenth-century France to the world of Aphra Behn and Restoration England. Section three presented a rigorous research project to students that challenged them to practice the ideas we have explored in the first two parts of the course. Guided by detailed prompts (available on the Faculty Club page), students generated research journals and blogs to share their research process; they locate diverse materials—texts, visual art, secondary sources—that lead to an in-depth understanding of an assigned topic such as Yoruban ritual, Russian Theatre pre-1750, and Tudor Drama (to name but a few). Distilling all of their information, students presented a lecture or a performance to the rest of the class that elucidated their specific topic and helped the class to understand how they went about their historical research. By asking them to construct an annotated bibliography while undertaking their research, I was able to collate all of their sources and distribute a lengthy bibliography to the class at the end of the semester.

The experience of teaching this syllabus called to mind the words of Margaret Werry and Róisín O’Gorman: “Failure is an argument for acceptance. To embrace failure is to surrender the will to control.”** Instead of revealing the inability of canonical works to illuminate the mysteries of the world through tactical failure, I found myself letting go of the reins to the class so that the students could collaborate with one another and inch towards their own discoveries. The relaxing of my grip on the class did not mean that I could not teach lessons. Reading Odai Johnson’s essay on Terence and genocidal memory (in Theater Historiography: Critical Interventions) during the first section of the course, for example, allowed me to turn the class’s attention toward the power of absence in the archive. It was only through the doing of the research project, however, that students could put the knowledge gleaned from that article into practice. The effort of completely remaking my theater history syllabus yielded great surprises and a sense of satisfaction among the students that they were learning skills they could transfer to other courses. I will happily re-deploy this syllabus in the future, and I invite you all to borrow from and adapt my assignment prompts to fit your needs.

Citation:

* Failure, ed. Lisa Le Feuvre, (Whitechapel Gallery, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010) 12.

** Margaret Werry and Róisín O’Gorman, “The Anatomy of Failure: An inventory,” Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts vol. 17, no. 1 (2012): 110.

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While driving to the office on 25 January 2010, Megan was listening to a broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) that was presenting an uncanny story from the recent earthquake off the coast of Haiti : “When the quake struck at 4:53 p.m. on January 12th,” said reporter John Burnett, “Signal FM [a radio station in Port-au-Prince] was playing ‘Hotel California.’ The Earth groaned and the building shuddered, but just before the DJ ran out, he had the presence of mind to hit the ‘repeat’ button…So for the first thirty minutes of Port-au-Prince’s descent into hell, the only thing you could hear on the radio was the Eagles’ standard—over and over and over.” Megan’s and Will’s recent article in Theatre Topics, “Hyperlinking and Hyperthinking through Theatre History: Haiti, Hotel California, Woyzeck, Hegel, and Back Again,” builds up around that bizarre story and culminates in an argument for Theatre History professors to embrace the power of serendipity.

When this story aired on All Things Considered, Megan and Will were in the opening weeks of the University of Minnesota’s TH3172, which traditionally covers a historical trajectory from the French Revolution to the present day. Slated for discussion that week in class was Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, but Megan couldn’t shake the complexity of thought and feeling that the news report instigated. The challenge became clear: how could we link from present-day Haiti to Georg Büchner? The stakes of this challenge were even clearer: to teach students to develop a critical, historically-savvy self-reflexivity requires teachers to fight against the urge to muscle through the syllabus and, instead, to embrace contemporary events of the size and scope of Haiti’s earthquake.

By hyperlinking across time, space, and ideas, we asked our students to engage in hyperthinking—a way of thinking about history (or theatre or any topic) that involves making connections among seemingly disparate entities, and justifying these links and leaps. Couched within a larger discussion of Theatre History curricula and the potentially productive role of failure within the classroom, this article will hopefully fuel conversations already sparked on theater-historiography.org. You can access it through your library’s subscription to Project Muse. The citation information is as follows: Lewis, Megan and Daddario, Will. “Hyperthinking through Theatre History: Haiti, ‘Hotel California,’ Woyzeck, Hegel and Back Again.” Theatre Topics vol. 22 no. 2 (September 2012): 183-194.

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A palpable absurdity permeates my being whenever I prepare to teach a theatre history survey course. This absurd feeling, something I would describe as an out-of-tuneness with the actuality of the task facing me, reverberates wildly through my bones. What, frankly, are we to do, we who teach these courses? As Steve Tillis has argued in his essay, “Remapping Theatre History,” we teachers of theatre history in the United States find ourselves heirs to a centuries-old Eurocentrism that forecasts a dreary classroom experience. More than Eurocentric, Tillis argues, we frequently succumb to a bland parochialism, “‘parochial,’ that is, in the sense defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘relating or confined to a narrow area or region, as if within the borders of one’s own parish; limited or provincial in outlook or scope’” (Tillis 1). That is, despite the multitude of perspectives that have opened onto South American, Middle Eastern, African, and Asian, and Australasian theatre histories in the recent years, theatre history survey classes in higher education continue to abscond back within the well-protected walls of European theatre history.

Of course, the solution to this parochialism cannot simply rest in an adoption of non-European material at the expense of the Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans, Medieval monasteries, Cid controversies, and Elizabethan playhouses, can it? I mean, we’re supposed to figure out a savvy self-reflexive method of pairing the parochial with the global to present a thorough historiographic deconstruction of all that we know, aren’t we? This is the point at which that out-of-tune feeling begins to resonate in my toes. I have three weeks to put together my syllabus. I don’t want to quarantine my students within the tiny parish of traditional theatre history studies. What do I do?

My decision: to fail tactically. To face this absurd challenge in front of me, I have chosen not to construct a radically global theatre history syllabus that can address Tillis’s concerns and blaze new trails through the halls of the university, but, rather, one that allows me to perform the limitations of the traditional theatre history survey timeline along with, and for the benefit of, my students. This tactical failure takes a cue from Beckett’s motto in Worstward Ho, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  This failure does not take success as its opposite; rather, tactical failure describes the practice of mapping the limit of thought, setting sail towards that limit, and embracing the perplexity that comes from reaching it. In the spirit of this mission, I present this Theatre History Irrationale to accompany my syllabus posted on this theater historiography site.

To fail tactically with my students, and, through doing so, to embrace the problem of theatre historiography: this is the goal that undergirds my syllabus. To achieve this goal, I embrace not only the Western theatre history tradition but also the futility of attempting to cover that canon of works in any depth in the span of fifteen weeks. Each of my lectures and class discussion frequently fall in on themselves and expose what Matthew Goulish calls the “irreducible complexity” of, in this case, historical inquiry. I want to encourage my students to engage in that complexity instead of bypassing it for easy answers. To do this, we need to learn how to ask questions. We, my students and I, need to learn how to see what has been rendered invisible by historical narrative. We need to sift through the historical ground from which specific plays emerge in order to grapple with the modes of thinking that allow such plays to exist.

One such example of this philosophy in action is my unit on Classical Roman Theatre. I have assigned two class periods, a total of four hours, for our exploration of this material. This year, I paired a chapter from Donald G. Kyle’s Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome with Seneca’s Oedipus. The students read these two texts and I supplied some additional contextualization through excerpts from History of the Theatre on the phenomenon of the “closet drama,” passages from Horace’s Ars Poetica, and some tidbits on Seneca’s relationship with Nero. Once we had orientated ourselves within the matrix of these materials, a problem emerged: to which historical line of sight does Seneca’s play belong? Should we read it as a closet drama that abides by the rules of decorum set out by Horace, or should we treat it as a spectacle of death akin to the munera of Seneca’s day? For the majority of class, the students developed arguments to support one of these perspectives. I asked them to pay special attention to the stakes of their argument. So What? What does it matter if Iocasta’s death was merely described in words on a page or if an actress actually disemboweled herself in front of an audience? Why should we care about this question at all?

Despite the multiple and well-argued answers to these questions, our conversation was cut short by time. We reached no solutions. I announced that we were leaving Rome and jumping ahead nearly ten centuries next week. The students groaned, a sound I interpreted as a desire to keep digging through Seneca. Death, its particular significance in the spectacles of Ancient Rome, its relation to Seneca’s play, and its ambiguous treatment in Horace became floating themes that will continue to haunt our future classroom discussions. My lesson plans did not bring any answers to the students, just as I had willfully acknowledged prior to starting the exercises. Instead, what we did experience was how to wrestle with a diverse set of historical materials and events, and we gained an understanding that the need to wrestle outweighs the need for certainty.

Of course, this failure is neither good nor bad. It is, at best, a delay. Tactical failure-as-delay helps to provoke inquisitiveness and teaches the art of producing arguments instead of the acquisition of knowledge. This type of failure applies to my own process of learning as well. This fact became vividly clear while trying to unpack the ambiguity of Aeschylus’s play The Persians. Is the play a victory lap for the Athenians after a harrowing war with Xerxes’ forces, or is it a complicated display of empathy through which the other becomes more knowable? For two of my students, both of whom claim Persian descent, neither question mattered. Both students were so furious with the depiction of the Persians that they didn’t even listen to the in-class conversation. For my TA, the mere presentation of this play created trouble because, she felt, it was likely that the students would have no other representation of Ancient Persia to supplement this Greek-centric portrayal. After receiving this feedback, I decided to bring the conversation around the upset into the classroom and to explain that I had failed as a teacher. In fact, I suggested, teaching is a never-ending string of failures through which the wealth of the unsaid becomes visible. I admitted that, having taught The Persians for the first time, I would like to pair Aeschylus’s play with a Persian theatrical piece in the future. At the present, however, I am unfamiliar with that aspect of theatre history and I need to mark that fact for everybody. In the future, I’ll try again, fail again, and fail better.

I call this supplemental document an “irrationale” partially because it does not adequately defend the choices I made while creating my Theatre History syllabus. I make no effort to defend those choices because I feel they need no defense. Instead, I intend this irrationale to highlight the tactical use of limitations and failures in my pedagogical strategy. While my syllabus may appear no different than the material Tillis (rightfully) scrutinizes and queries in his essay, I want to express the thought that what we teach is only half the story. How we teach the material we choose to share with students seems to be the more fruitful avenue of inquiry. Within that how exists a practice of teaching. By allowing that practice to embrace failure and the limitations of the canon as teaching materials I try to help students learn the art of questioning and I work on developing a reciprocal method of learning through which I teach the students and students teach me. In fact, there is a third party: the historical material itself. This third party acts as a spectral beacon that helps us to triangulate our ontological and epistemological position in the present, though the perpetual appearance and disappearance of the historical signal means that, ultimately, the students and I are left wading through the deep ocean of the past together.

Will Daddario is teaching the theatre history sequence at University of Minnesota—Twin Cities Campus in 2011-2012. You can find his syllabus in the Faculty Club area.

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