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In Praise of Preposterous Propositions

TDR 43:1 (T161, Spring 1999), 8–9

I would like to speak out in favor of theory as play, as an essentially aesthetic activity, as a means of having fun, as a mode of turning things upside down just to see what falls out, as a sport where one mixes ideas together to see if they explode. Honestly, with all the talk about subversion these days, one would think that playing the trickster would be a popular mode of discourse; with heroes such as Derrida and Artaud (neither of whom is completely out of fashion just yet), one would think we would be ready to engage in Bacchanalian orgy of mentation, or at the very least a little dry flippancy. But no such luck. Most papers ride forth in the armor of 40 pounds of cited authorities; most theoreticians feel that they are being radical if they make liberal use of the most popular buzzwords. I myself, whenever I wish to make some point in a paper, somehow feel that I am expected to justify its importance by citing numerous sources. As a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education has noted, academics seem to have lost their sense of humor. And yet as this is apparent, others are talking about the degree to which even scientific inquiry is aesthetically motivated, and it is not in the least uncommon to find dry jokes sprinkled into scientific works (Scientific American has added a column called "Anti Gravity" which explores the more entertaining side of science).

But I am not talking about jokes, either. I am not talking about silliness, which can be laughed at and forgotten. I am talking about a willingness to play the devil's advocate; I am talking about an awareness of the fact that it is far better to be usefully wrong than to be uselessly right. Few people would agree with everything that Artaud said, but he has been one of the most influential thinkers in theatre of this century. Extreme propositions may be virtually indefensible, but they are remarkably provocative. Consider the impact Judith Butler has had by asserting that identity is constructed entirely on the surface of one's body (so to speak), one hundred percent social inscription. This assertion is counter to what any one of millions of well-trained psychologists could tell one, but it has had a galvanizing effect. And who cannot admire the chutzpah of a Jean Baudrillard who avers that death should be viewed "as a form of social relation"?

Obviously, assertions are best when backed up with examples. But calling useful examples and analogies to one's aid is quite different from cowering behind 17 stacks of cited authority. We implicitly recognize that preposterous statements are the most interesting by returning to them in art and theory (analyzing dadaists, futurists, and so forth), but how rarely do we have the nerve to say something under our own bylines that has a good chance of being outrageously wrong.

Possibly the most promising avenue for revitalizing the fine art of playing the devil's advocate is internet discussion groups. On these, people feel much safer speaking their minds (sometimes a bit too safe, if one judges by the flames that occasionally shoot forth). It is possible to send forth to a group of hundreds of scholars assertions such as that life exists only for the purpose of producing art-or even more preposterous ideas-in the hopes of having them toyed around with. The problem does remain, however, that few people are willing to lose arguments, especially in the sometimes acrimonious atmosphere of internet discussion groups, and even more so in the world of academic conferences and publishing, where one tends to feel that all play is for keeps.

Richard Schechner - a man who in his time has not been afraid to make assertions on his own tick - bemoaned the decline and fall of American theatre experimentation a decade and a half ago. If we go back and look at what appeared in the pages of TDR during the I960s and '70s, the time which he lionized as a great surge of experimentation, we notice that there is no shortage of manifestos and almost insupportable assertions by such luminaries as Foreman, Kirby, Wilson, and others. If we look in its pages more recently, we see little that is so incautious. And in periodicals such as Theatre Journal, which prints essays that appear to pride themselves in their forward-thinking, even subversive attitudes, we don't see much beyond timorousness pretending to be temerity. I have no intention of trying to discern a cause-and-effect relationship between the disappearance of manifestos and other left-field screeds and the relative shriveling of the arts scene; there are rather a lot of variables involved that I haven't even begun to address. But I am suggesting that if we want excitement, we should make it ourselves; and if we don't want excitement, what the hell are we doing in the theatre?



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