[-empyre-] a brief comment to Rustom

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Mon Nov 24 04:16:13 EST 2014

Thank you so much, Rustom; I do have a comment and questions.

On Sun, 23 Nov 2014, Rustom Bharucha wrote:

"For whom are they a 'performance', or, more specifically, 'theatre'? 
Does this apply only to those who 'believe in the religious ideology of 
ISIS', as Alan assumes, even though there is no empirical evidence to 
suggest that this is, in actuality, the case? Perhaps, it would be more 
accurate to say that it is 'we' - representatives of a spectrum of 
dissenting views whose liberal assumptions are antithetical to the 
ideology of ISIS - who are in a better position to claim that these 
beheadings are performances."

I find myself in the discussion, at times, in the midst of theatrical 
theory or performance studies, and I also find myself incapable of drawing 
these distinctions which perhaps matter so much. I think the beheadings 
are a performance, as you say, they are staged; they are regulated, 
structured, concerned with the mise en scene, etc. There's a long 
tradition in art of bloodletting, torture, and so forth - any number of 
performers in the late 60s/70s worked with these process, from Nina Pane 
to Chris Burden, to artists committing suicide as acts. The fundamental 
difference is that these were done to the self, not to others, of course.

In the long run, perhaps it doesn't matter as much as the effects of 
symbolic acts themselves, and here is the crux, for me; the beheading is 
symbolic, is interpreted from any number of positions, but is deeply 
effectual: for at least one of the participants, it is the last act she or 
he will ever know.

The right, as I mentioned before, is brilliant at this; in a past Bush 
election, a rumor was spread in the rural areas of West Virginia, that if 
elected, the Democrats would "take away our Bibles" and throw anyone in 
jail caught reading them. The Democrats lost, and they usually didn't. In 
a popular book at the time, What's the Matter with Kansas, Thomas Frank 
described the process of getting people to vote against their interests: 
"According to the book, the political discourse of recent decades has 
dramatically shifted from social and economic equality to the use of 
'explosive' cultural issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, which are 
used to redirect anger toward 'liberal elites.'" (Wikipedia) These 
cultural issues are used as symbols - just as the "Tea Party" title itself 
is symbolic - and I'd argue that these uses are also performances of slow 
terror - if the Democrats get in, our very form of life will be changed 
for the worst. So the right talks about Obamacare as promoting, requiring, 
"death panels" to get rid of seniors, and so forth.

In the long run, aren't these all symbolic acts, symbolic processes, and 
perhaps it doesn't matter whether or not a "performance" is involved? Are 
we stuck on this terminology, which is useful within the enclave of formal 
and informal cultural production, but perhaps itself creates a situation 
of exclusion, so that beheadings, for example are bad art or not really 
art, or bad performance or not really performance - when in fact they move 
peoples and audiences in far more frightening and perhaps meaningful ways 
than what we ourselves do? I'm speaking, myself, as a 'failed artist' in 
this regard - and there is so much good intention in the expression "never 
again" - and then "it" happens, again and again and again...

- Alan

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