Work in Progress: New Performance Methods

I’m currently working on something and it has become quite absorbing. I know I’m going in a fruitful direction because I ache when I cannot steal any writing time on a given day.

I am using my understanding of some Lacanian psychoanalytic concepts to formulate some new performance strategies. I’m letting the work move out from a nod to psychophysical (and psychoacoustic) performance traditions since I consider myself a product of those traditions. But like a good Lacanian I’m trying to problematize the place of the body in these methods. Not with a desire to invalidate anything, of course; just find a place at the table. Or to use another image: to find a new off-shoot.

I am trying to get to the point where I turn some of Lacan’s variables–S1, S2, S, a–into active playing principles. (Note: Due to some weirdness in the editor I can’t fathom, every time you see a capital A in the formulas that follow, it should be a lower case a–even just then; some right arrows are also messed up; Lacanians, forgive me.) I’m also finding a way to situate the notions of desire and drive in a working process which will try to be both psychophysical and more rational at the same time. And most ambitiously, I’m taking Lacan’s final ideas on the notion of the symptom–as both a kind of terminal effort at identification and as a working “know-how”–and trying to establish a group approach to a particular set of materials as a working in–what I want to call–a particular symptomatic atmosphere. And I’m attempting to render it all in an everyday language, not remotely like the shorthand jargon I’ve just employed. Some philosophical speculation, but I’m trying to keep it playful.

Thus far:

I warmly embrace the idea of improvisation being used as a method of research and plan to carry out some improvisational research in what follows. I ask you to be patient and stay with this one. It’s going to take some time to prepare the field and start moving in the direction that interests me. My final aim is for some new structures to emerge that performers can use to explore and create. My process is improvisational and tentative. I will write as if I have you with me as a companion and sounding board, and I will assume you don’t have a temperament for jargon or arcane concepts. I’m ultimately after something new to do and a way to explain it using everyday language.

The kind of performer I will be speaking to is one who is interested in the psychophysical and in what I am tempted to call the psychoacoustic (if you favor methods claiming Grotowski as a father, or “Eastern” body systems or martial arts as influential, or if you’ve worked with Viewpoints or the Vocal Sequence). In more commonplace actor parlance we are talking about processes which favor outside- in over inside- out strategies, methods in which emotional truths of a performance event emerge from the concrete actions and activities of the living body and not from more abstract processes of reflection, recollection, comparison, and identification. But since I plan in what follows to improvise with a psychoanalytically inflected discourse, already I’m not happy with what I’ve just said. From a psychoanalytic point of view, the easy distinctions I’ve just tried to employ comparing body-centered performance approaches to something else are less than helpful, leading me astray from my present interests and toward the usual deconstructables. Let’s go with performance methods, instead. It’s more neutral, more all-encompassing. I’ve grown reluctant lately to oppose outside-in to inside-out. I must admit that recently I’ve encountered some examples of psychophysical performance systems that have struck me dumbly in awe of their systematizing depth and integration of complex multi-cultural body calligraphies. But Actor’s Studio strategies of recollection and em-bodied awareness are just other ways of asking for something unique from a physical system.

At any rate, it was in contemplating all of these diverse physical systems that I thought: the exoticism is the event. Any kind of system, whether body-centered or more “method” in approach, has a certain self-sustaining, self-sufficient interest as a part of what it offers. It offers its performance events as novel and worth witnessing because of that novelty; its exoticism creates a ready-made stage frame. Any performance method has that built in. Watch, now, what the body undergoes as a result of this process. Certainly one could imagine psychophysical and Actor’s Studio exoticisms fusing in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire “realized” by a cast of fifty Akido masters all of whom can cry on cue. We are not there to watch yet another performance of Williams’ play. The play is incidental to the exotic bodily display. Watching Suzuki’s King Lear I sensed that the true event was registered in my wonder at the perpetual crouch of the performers and the machine-gun intensity of their vocalizing.

What is exotic in a performance system (I am not yet sure why I am doggedly insistent on using this word exotic, I’m guided by an instinct that may or may not prove to be right) is expressed in what the system does with the performer’s body. Every system has a definition of the body (explicit or implied) and an ideal vision of the body’s possibilities, and, consequently, it asserts an aesthetics and an ethics as it operates on and with the body. What the body is and does is going to determine the nature and art of the performance. By all means, say it: Duh! And now I know why I wanted to begin this improvisational thinking-through by mentioning psychophysical performance methods.

In every performance system there is a knowledge of and for and in the body (most explicitly and comprehensively elaborated, perhaps, in psychophysical systems). By finally asserting this primacy of a body knowledge, I am able to focus my psychoanalytic view and ask: Is there a way to formulate a performance method (psychophysical, psychoacoustic, “method,” or otherwise) that does not know what a body is? Psychoanalysis, through the influence of Lacan, has become an inquiry not just into our past experiences and their residual traces on our psyches but also into types of knowledge and ways of knowing. “Knowing a truth” has been problematized as both a claim and an activity. Establishing a knowledge system is a process as beset with ambivalence and equivocation as is our navigation of personal desires and our management of symptomatic suffering. If I’m after a psychoanalytically engaged performance system–which I am: through this improvisation my purpose is becoming clearer, then by acknowledging an ignorance of the body, I’m making a good start. Lacan assures us that ignorance is an important part of a proper analytic stance. It follows, too, that if I do not know what a body is, then, by extension, I do not know a great deal, since we posit the body as either a source or a constituent component of many things. As we’re dwelling in such spacious ignorance, other kinds of truth might emerge.

If we place the body under a question mark (I’m not advocating erasing all evidence of a body ever being present, mind you; that would hardly be possible, this is more about questioning knowledge rooted in the body and how we perform with such knowledge), a given of conventional wisdom suddenly becomes a problem. Consider:

Maybe, because of your fancy deconstructive sophistry, I can’t tell you in so many words what a body is, but I still know it when I see it. And Dr. Johnson kicks the stone, “…thus.”

Here, the knowledge of what a body is is grounded in the experience of seeing something. Prior to words, systems, and interpretations there is the facticity of what is there before you. The fundamental confirmation. Akin to other fundamental recognitions and confirmations leaning on tautology: I am I, you are you, this is it, here we are. Meaning and understanding, and a basis for building knowledge, rest on an experience of recognition, on the presence of the image. To know our body because we link a set of sensations with a body we see, either someone’s body out there or the whole of our own in a reflection, is a way of grounding an experience of truth, of meaning. But if we don’t know what a body is, then we are placing this pre-discursive certainty in question. “We don’t know it when we see it; we don’t know what we are seeing.”

So if we try to work with a performance system that does not know what a body is, you can begin to see we are moving toward something rather strange.

One quick thought experiment to help you see just how strange. Try to imagine a human being who is born into and raised within an environment in which all reflective surfaces have been removed (going outside is fine, but no ponds or standing water). Aside from that, a perfectly “normal” upbringing (seeing a reflection in the eyes of others would be the only glimpse which it would be impossible to eliminate unless the mother avoided eye contact…). How would this child learn? How would he or she come to have an identity? How would the person learn language? What all would be affected by removing the experience of “seeing yourself?” And what of the experiences of those blind from birth? Do they have experience of a fundamental semblance on which to build? Is the lack of image somehow compensated for in another way or does another structure develop? How does coming to understanding differ and how is it the same compared to those with sight? And how do we who see find a basis on which to understand how their experience might be different? How does lacking an image affect one’s experience of sexual difference? (A Lacanian might speak of how the image does not ground meaning solely through what is seen, necessarily, but through a person’s early attempt to organize a number of conflicting drives, with actual vision being only one small component; the blind have plenty of other drives they are attempting to organize into a meaningful “image.” The idea of drives is going to be important in this psychoanalytic performance method, so I’ll return to it soon.)

So now let’s take stock of where we are with this new performance method we’re trying to formulate. We are saying that we don’t know what a body is: that right there is pretty strange and promising for our approach. Pretty exotic. Unique. I’d pay to see a performer who didn’t know what a body was. I have no idea what that would look like or be like. The truth is, however, as I think about it, as if I am to be that performer who does not know what a body is, I have to wonder what I am supposed to do. If I don’t know what a body is, what am I to be exotic with? I also have to admit that anytime the word body is used, I would be lying if I said I had no response, no experience of familiarity or understanding. We are all fairly sophisticated here, too savvy for me to get away with coyness. When I say that I do not know what a body is, we all know I am talking about new ways of organizing information, of finding new ways to uncover material for exploration. Other words can be used, of course. Other “bodily” issues can be examined and findings diverted into a new channel around more traditional ways of talking about them. Our methods are striving to express experience in new ways, all previous certainties in the concept of “body” always now under a question mark

Perhaps this reliance on a phrase, I don’t know what a body is, is trying your patience. Such a statement, you may think, is meaningless outside of a context or without reference to a set of particulars. Yes. And such questions of context and particulars are at the very heart, I think, of where our method is going. Begging your patience, I want to stay with the body a moment longer. There’s more I want to do, and it will, I hope, move us into a very particular and distinctive landscape. I’m going to take the word body and do some associating. These associations are mine alone, but my hope is that enough of what I uncover is material many of us share to acknowledge a principle or two. For me, body, as a unit of meaning or as that which can point toward meanings, interferes with its own reception. Here’s a classic instance of Freudian overdetermination: the word body, no matter the context, no matter the speaker, presents itself to me co-mingled with a subtle atmosphere of sexual arousal. Linking it with a definite article does very little to temper the effect. It’s an instance in which, no matter the context and no matter the particulars, body draws vectors from whatever arbitrary elements happen to be surrounding the word at any particular moment and directs them to a very specific place, nailing me to that place without fail. This dimension of the word body is there whether I want it to be there or not. Why is it there? I doubt my response is shared universally by English speaking people, but I am also sure I am not alone. Ask yourself what the word body triggers for you. If the word body can occupy a meaningful place in some kind of system of “objective” knowledge, it can also be a complicator of meaning, a disruptor of understanding. I don’t know what a body is. The word body seems to know more about me than I do about it, no matter the particulars or the context.

I have been dwelling on the idea of body, since, in psychophysical matters, the idea of the body plays an ambitious part in founding a knowledge and a method. In contrast with the idea of the body and how it lends itself to a particular concern, the word body is overladen with a network of conflicts and confusion. In psychoanalytic terms, this is how desire presents itself. Body is one thing as an element of discourse, as a factor in the expression of knowledge, and as the supposed object of examination, but it is quite another as what can be called a signifier of desire. What, then, in this psychoanalytic performance method, is the body to do? If there is no body knowledge and no coherent body spectacle, what constitutes the event? Where lies the investigation? What is explored? How do we realize this strangeness inherent in a performance which doesn’t know what a body is?

Body is a word. Body is not corpus. Corpus is another word. Perhaps it would be clearer to say we want to perform without thought of a corpus, without knowing how to constitute a corpus. A corpus lies still, we assume, and can contain a multitude of potential notions. A corpus can be studied, systematized, manipulated. Body, as a word, has this extra quality; we note in our response to it that its function as a linchpin of understanding is almost superceded by its work as a signifier of desire (and yes, if I continue to associate, corpus, too, is clotted with extra substances, pointing as it inadvertently does to the sacramental and the necrophilic; clearly signifiers of desire lurk everywhere). If a word is functioning as a signifier of desire, then, what is it doing? Lacan’s response, leaning upon Freud’s research into how the unconscious works, would be: a signifier of desire is always pointing to other signifiers. Where, then, does the potential for movement lie in our performance method given we don’t know what to say about the body? From signifier to signifier. Lacan uses some variables: from S1 to S2.

What would it mean if a performer dispensed with everything but these variables? Obviously I’m leading up to the assertion that a great deal lies waiting for the performer in these variables and in their relation. Once we say we are going to occupy the world of meanings, let’s even say that we might just consent to regard the world of meaning from a certain distance, then we are contending with S1 and S2. As performers, let’s avoid seeking definitions for a moment and just work with our instincts. I offered the observation that these two variables hold the potential for movement; I also suggested they are responsible for any experience of meaning. Movement as meaning? Am I talking about literal physical movement? I am tempted not to try and answer that. As a performer perhaps it would serve you to not have that certainty. Look at the two variables: there is a sameness and a differentiation at work simultaneously. In what lies the sameness? In what the differentiation? I’m going to be a little cute here, I know: the variables share the letter while being distinguished by the number. Letters are the stuff of a language, the material available; numbers indicate the possibility for some kind of organization of that material, the relations and distinctions at work. Number also implies an infinite set of possibilities for organizing the stuff of the language. It’s the number at work on the stuff which implies time and a relationship: not then, but now, not here, but there. We can deploy some other markings with our variables and kind of emphasize the notion of meaning in movement: S1–>S2, and with that basic one established we can explore other possibilities, S1<–S2 or S1<–>S2. To use just two variables and one or two arrows is to distill and abstract a great deal; it would be more accurate to render a very complex web of variables and arrows. But contemplating two variables can call forth a number of questions that might be passed over as we chart out a web of meanings. Is there anything before S1? Given the infinite nature of our network, is it truly possible to speak of an originary variable? What would it mean to regard an S1 as unique? And so on to the idea of the S2 if we grant S1 a special place. What are the implications? And if we see the possibility for the S2 to not only point forward to future S’s but also back to the S1, what are the implications?

Linkages, chains, nets, networks, passages, synapses, circuits, connections. As a performer you could imagine sparking jumps from node to node, carrying the impulse of an arrow from an S1 to an S2. You can also imagine being the variable and offering yourself in a relation with another performer who holds the place of another variable, or you imagine that the arrow moves through the attentions of an audience. You can see the net as already existing and your play involving a tracing of the strands, or you are revealing links in the very act of seeking passage. Infinite free play, the workings of an associative machine. In a sense, you are attempting to realize the impossible free play of meanings in systems liberated from…what? In our state of imaginary freedom, we are not yet talking about desire. In many ways, to move with desire is to acknowledge you have certain limits on your movement, as if your feet are shackled. This is another way to talk about signifying chains. Desire is limitation to free play. Desire is what makes S1 and S2 particular for an individual, it’s what makes the numbers count out a history. It’s desire’s grappling with particular limits that moves speech, and in the questing and questioning movement from signifier to signifier, the speaking subject is revealed. Where meaning is concerned, what is it that we rely upon? How is it that a jump from an S1 to an S2 can be experienced as meaning? And by what? The subject: that which can embody (the body appearing, again) a question, that which can experience meaning in the movement among signifiers. As a performer in this psychoanalytic system, you are a desiring subject, moving from signifier to signifier in a fashion weighted and inflected by desire. How is such moverment accomplished? By any means (“necessary”). By speech. Through the unfolding of an event. Through “movement.” By means of your “body.” And always in a relation (S1<–>S2). Lacan offers a variable for the subject (you can use a question mark, but it’s physical appearance prevents access to certain qualities of the subject important in psychoanalysis): S.

Another variable. And there’s at least one more on the way. And I’m reluctant to offer absolute, or “psychoanalytic,” definitions for these variables because I want our performer’s instincts to work with them as true variables, as place holders and possible positions, as points around which ideas might begin to gather. I want only to define these variables with respect to one another and maybe, later, to just a few other psychoanalytic concepts. How, then, can a performer make sense of this S, this subject? Let’s start, as we did with our S1 and S2, by noting the variable’s graphic reality and, again, running the risk of being too cute (I’m imagining some teachers and colleagues rolling their eyes), seeing what that brings to mind. Another S, we note. In other words, in some ways we see more of the same. Yes, signifier and subject both start with S, which is accidental, yet it’s also useful; this commonality of the S has been exploited to fullest in this system. Another signifier is at issue, as is the stuff of language. The subject is seeking a signifier which will fully meet its needs. The subject is trying to find itself in language. And to touch specifically upon the psychoanalytic origins of this, we might say it is trying to find itself in speech. The subject seeks a signifier for itself. But no signifier can stand alone and point only to the subject. The subject, in fact, knows this and wants the signifier to point past it in a way, to a beyond; the signifier, in fact, is always in part pointing to a beyond because it points to other signifiers. The subject is also referred to as the subject of desire since it is perpetually caught up in this quest among signifiers for identity and linkage and something beyond. Simple example: “How can I possibly put this into words?” Or: “The word escapes me.” Or: “Do you understand?”

Or: “What am I saying?” Notice the S has a line through it (the true Lacanian variable is divided by a diagonal slash, but I take what my HTML editor offers). The subject is a divided subject. What we want to say, no matter how articulate or gifted we are as pundits or raconteurs, does not perfectly coincide with the speech we, in truth, produce. Often we are painfully aware of this; often we are not until someone points it out to us. My favorite way of imagining this (which I confess just occurred to me, confirming for me again the value of an improvisatory approach) is to think of the slash as creating two mirrored and then reversed isomorphic halves of the S. The slash also produces a magnetic polar charge which interferes with the halves being able to join. As with two like charged sides of magnets, the closer you try to bring the halves together, the more they slip and slide out of synch; never will they join and complete the S. This impossibility of union is also how we account for the interminable nature of desire. The slash is also meant to evoke the division between conscious and unconscious. And what is the division between conscious and unconscious if not a gap between those meanings to which we aspire and a certain fixed nature of our being over which we have no control.? Often from a Lacanian you will hear some variation of the expression “the unconscious lies in the Other.” This fixed nature of our being in a sense belongs to some Other because only this Other can see it and say something about it. Our subject, then, our S, is always caught between what it knows and wants and attempts to achieve through speech, and a certain crucial truth which will always be out of reach because it belongs only “to the Other.” As a performer, are you not perpetually caught between your aim and intention to connect with an audience and that question of the audience’s willingness to accept you and your presence? An audience’s want is rooted in some aspect of your being over which, no matter your skill and conscious charm, you have no control. Or to put it in very universal human terms: “Why is it that I cannot make that which I love love me in return?” We want the Other to see us as lovable, but we cannot control, ultimately, what the Other sees. And we are hard pressed to accept any measure of truth in what the Other sees unless we have somehow managed to create and control it. The knowledge that lies in the Other: we don’t want to know anything about it.

So with our three variables we can begin to find positions in structures. And depending on the positions, these variables can mean different things. These variables and positions can be offered up as a creative source of material. In the place of a performing body we offer movement among variables. It’s easy to see how the subject (S) can be positioned between things, as either a stumbling block or a victim caught in the middle: S1–>S–>S2. Or we can see a subject attempting to complete a circuit in an effort to achieve some measure of self-understanding or successful communication: S–>S1–>S2–>S. Or we can use our slash to denote something out of the subject’s reach, something in the domain of the Other: S–>S1/S2. There is a Lacanian theory of discourse which uses these variables in various positions to theorize various uses of speech; its tempting to see the resulting structures as so many little scenes. Just looking at the few structures I’ve offered as examples you can see how situations or struggles or events might emerge. Lacanian theory, however, has an extra variable. We have arrived at the phrase, “last but not least.”

Desire emerges, we have proposed, as a subject caught up in the limits of language trying to gain access to a certain sense of the beyond. The subject relies on signifiers to achieve its goal. Signifiers are words, symbols, signs, images, sounds, anything through which we try and transmit to others that which we have to transmit, anything which allows the subject to move what it feels inside to an outside and to the Other. The Other essentially says, “Here, you can use these things to attempt to make contact.” Psychoanalysis proposes that this signification process is imperfect. There are things inside which cannot be translated through a signification process. There are things which stay unsymbolizable. And that means, in a way, there are things beyond the grasp of the subject. Not only is there something that cannot be symbolized, but since it cannot be symbolized it will not be altered or modified in the translation process. The subject is aware of its existence but is not in a position to work on it through signification. Now, am I indulging in a kind of mythologizing or just reflecting on some aspect of common experience? I am, I think, offering one inflection of something common to human experience which can also be described by the word “unspeakable.”

The unspeakable. There’s an essay topic for you. Yes, take it in all of its meanings, connotative and denotative. Imagine a white room in an art gallery. The artist’s installation consists of a number of white cards placed on the walls each with a different word printed upon it in black ink. The words: I would rather not reproduce them here because they are all unspeakable. Nothing in the room but these white cards with words, but you, the observer, might begin to feel the presence of something else, something palpable and palpatating and perhaps unpleasant or perhaps arousing. The truth of your response is beyond your ability to speak it away or rationalize it.

The soprano’s nose starts to bleed as she sings the National Anthem. There is a truth present beyond what we want (and one, perhaps, we all try not to talk about). And yet…it is also possible to be fascinated.

Or to temper this beyond and offer it in a different way: “One day I’ll find a way to show people what I truly am like…” We express that wish but then we might find ourselves renouncing such a thought as we are unable to locate the division between that inner sense of warm abundance we wish to share and the questionable scenario playing out on some shadowy private stage. Both the inner warmth and the shadowy drama seem to partake of a common substance. A substance, I might add, which vaporizes the minute you make an attempt to signify it.

Where is this beyond located exactly? Is it hidden away in us or does it lay waiting for us in the Other? Why can’t we put it into words or at least determine if it’s inside us or out there? Do we want to, really? This situation is represented by our fourth variable: a. In French, Autre is the word for Other; the little a means, a little piece of the Other. So the a is a thing, a something, an object, an unspeakable thing, something so intimate we’re not even sure if it’s actually a part of us or part of something else, something missing and residing elsewhere. Is the beyond within or without?

Remembering our desire to find a way to perform without knowing what a body is, I want to say that through the a, the body returns to us in a strange and unrecognizable way. Yes, in an unspeakable way.

But that doesn’t stop us from trying to speak it. Or make it speak to us. Trying to make the body signify something with our assorted psycho-physical systems, our performance strategies. All the ways we attempt to tap in to this body as a meaning source, from activated sense memories to chattering chakras to leaping tigers. This a compels us to grasp for something essential; its unspeakable nature captivates us. In fact, this subject of ours (S) is forever attempting to come to grips with it. We can even write a structure for the effort: S<>a. The subject attempts the impossible. How? By putting it into words (S1–>S2)? And not getting it quite right. Words fail. What, then, is prior to the words, or what can bring the subject closer and bypass the words? Will images do it? Will some kind of overladen distortion of words do it? Again, I am making reference to that shadowy scene playing out on a shadowy stage. In psychoanalytic parlance, this S<>a is called the structure of fantasy. Let’s see it lurking beneath every effort at signification: S1–>S2/S<>a. Let’s see it also as fixed in the midst of the signifying chain: S1–>(S<>a)–>S2. Could we call this what is imagined rupturing what can be spoken? Or alternatively what is imagined inflaming what can be spoken? I want to assert that much of a performer’s effort dwells at this level, through working with this structure. Until I get to a point where I can offer my ideas about how, practically, this might happen, see what you make of it. Try some experiments with our four “placeholders”: S, S1, S2, a. You might use them to analyze some common situation we share. What in such a situation can we associate with each variable and how, then, do they interrelate? Or try dressing each variable with some particular “colors” and associating each with some particular actions. Use the variables to chart a certain bodily ordeal. Now, about the drives

To begin to understand the drives, I should say, first, that I did clean the a up a bit for its first appearance and introduction. So far my descriptions have touched on the mystical, the metaphysical, hinting, perhaps, that the a is a via negativa leading on a good day to a divine communion. I’ll set that possibility aside and say that where the drives are concerned, the a is a target for a powerful longing, a longing so primal and constitutional to us as living beings, it is best to think of it as existing prior to all notions of experience and identity. The site of this longing is the body in relation to some Other presence, a presence which seems to be a source for sensation and sustenance. The Other establishes a link between meanings and stimulations for the body, a kind of very primitive vocabulary the body is driven to use to pursue this Other connection, this Other’s perpetually extended offer of completion. This bodily longing for completion is intimate; everywhere it is possible for the body to open itself to the world (and therefore to the Other) the drive for the a exists. And at each of these openings there is the possibility of an object the Other might share. If you are familiar with Freud you may have encountered mention of these drives, the oral and anal being two examples, with food (the mother’s breast) and feces being those drives’ complementary objects. Lacan goes so far as saying that everywhere on the body where there exists a rim (mouth, anus, urethra, ear, eyelid), there exists a drive toward an a and an object for that drive (food, feces, urine, the phoneme, the gaze) trying to serve as the a. These drives are called partial drives because they are not constituent pieces of some whole or parts of some master coordinated system. Partial and disorderly they remain, driving without cessation or compromise toward the promise of the a. In Lacanian terms, then, to be subject (S) to a fantasy (S <> a) is to believe it is possible to come to some arrangement with the drives, to find an image which will coordinate the drives and answer them totally. If we use the word “grip” to represent the unpredictable nature of our linking term (<>), then we can say in fantasy we are always either trying to “get a grip on” or we are “in the grip of” our drives.

Instead of a body, then, we speak of drives. In fantasy, perhaps, we try to resolve things through an image of the body. In day to day activity, in our active implementations of intentions, in our struggle to make moments of life cohere as meaningful paragraphs, we might say, “This is my body. This is what my body does.” As performers we might use such thought in our preparations and explorations, and it might efficiently serve us. But if we explore possibilities for a “body” in a psychoanalytic framework, we try to see the uncoordinated work of drives beneath the agency of the body. In fact, we can see the “body” as a signifier, an S1, and we can see the installation of an S1 as a sublimation of the work of the drives. For a moment we can position the a at just the right distance from such a signifier, we can have fantasy shimmer in just such a way beneath the signifier, and we can control the dispersion of meaning as the S1 yields to inevitable movement toward S2, and we can isolate the S1 as an instance of something rare and particular, as the ideal. Within the Other, this S1 occupies the honored spot; it’s a signifier shining forth as the embodiment of an essence. Our poor subject (S), looking toward the Other for guidance, is offered the S1 as the place where everything starts (and ends). And how tempting it can be as a performer to believe that within the Other there is a place where everything starts and ends, particularly if you can position yourself to seem to stand within such a place and as a part of such a signification–and to act with a conviction because your method, your know-how (S2), is tailor made to serve the ideal (S1).

In our psychoanalytic performance method, we resist saying things start and end with the S1. We choose ignorance over mastery, questions over assertions, trivial details over true guidelines, inchoate drives over blueprints. And yes, it’s fun to find myself suddenly marching to the rhythms of a manifesto. I hadn’t planned on things moving in that direction. It’s insidious the way the S1 sneaks up on you. Let me try and get a grip by assuring you that I am making my strong assertions in an effort to formulate something about a practical working method, and this will be my last bit of theoretical speculation. Ignorance over mastery, questions over assertions, trivial details over true guidelines, messy drives over clean blueprints: I would like to conjure up something I will call a symptomatic atmosphere and ask for it as the minimal set of conditions necessary for psychoanalytic performance work.

This is difficult. I have known for some time that I wanted to develop this idea of a symptomatic atmosphere as a fundamental condition for psychoanalytic performance, but now that the moment has arrived, I find myself stalling-out a bit. It’s perhaps because the concept of the symptom, thanks to Lacan, has gotten pretty complicated and contentious, and I make no claims for having sorted it all out. How to begin? Talk of the symptom is often connected with what Lacan asserts are the three orders of experience, so maybe I will get somewhere by giving my nod to those.

Somewhere along the way, Lacan decided that the ultimate visual aide for furthering psychoanalytic education and theoretical elaboration was the knot. Why? This may come across as a bit flip, especially since I am not a mathematician and can’t really back up what I’m about to say, but I think the knot is an ultimate way for topology to materialize impossibility, and it was always the materialization of impossibility, the attempt to bring paradox to flesh, that Lacan found most intriguing about topology. Do you actually have to know anything about the mathematics of topology to appreciate the use of knots in psychoanalysis? I think an appreciation for the mystique is quite sufficient, and after all, psychoanalysis appeals, I think, to those of us who desire to acknowledge a nebulous thing like mystique as a powerful and concrete functional principle. Additionally, knots allow for linkages of heterogeneous elements, hence their usefulness in characterizing the three linking orders: the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real.

Let’s imagine a knot made up of three distinct rings which interlink in such a way that each link appears to guarantee the cohesion of the structure. In other words, if you cut any one of the three links, the knot falls apart, the links are set free to float off on their own. This knot (called a Borromean, by the way) is one way to look at human reality as the interlinking of three rings, realms, domains, concepts, what have you. Their interlinking and interdependence is our reality. One link can be called The Imaginary. It’s the way we organize reality based on what’s there in front of us, on the image, on what we see. As living creatures, we react and respond to what we see. We make judgements and determinations. We formulate meanings: “Oh, I see…I get it.” And self-understanding: “We have much in common. We are so similar.” And ascertain threats: “You are not to be trusted.” Imaginary dynamics work through a binary process consisting of you and some other and a resolution through a perception. The image, the essence of a sense of either/or, is very basic, primitive, and powerful. Images cohere and guide our feelings. And things are, indeed, what they seem to be and are, indeed, shaping the core of our emotions in this realm of the Imaginary. (As an aside, I often wonder: if our dominant sense were smell instead of sight, as it is with dogs, would we have to call it the Olfactory rather than the Imaginary?, but it would organize our reality in the same way: sight or smell is telling us whether something is good or bad, dangerous or beneficial, friend or foe, etc.)

The second link, the Symbolic, can be most perversely illustrated through William Burrough’s observation that “language is a virus.” We are organisms that have to a certain extent become hosts to a vital system whose survival and mechanisms are beyond our control. We are “subject” to the laws of language, we are subject to the laws of the land, we are subject to the laws of technology and physics (to the extent to which we have found a language, mathematical or otherwise, which allows some of us to speak of such things). For every S1 there is going to be an S2, and we can believe that we are responsible for all of the linkages, but most take place whether we take a hand in it or not. Ancestry and the workings of kinship are vivid examples of the Symbolic order. Whether we want to acknowledge the fact or not, all of us are sons and daughters, all of us have names floating in our wakes we did not choose. Or consider the old verity: “Ignorance of the Law is no excuse.” The farthest-reaching implication of that statement is that there are, written on a piece of paper somewhere (or floating in cyber-space,) a series of marks which, unbeknownst to you, will perhaps determine one day how you will spend the rest of your life and how you will die. I do not mean to dwell upon the notion of helplessness as I try to illustrate the Symbolic. Obviously it is possible to act as a capable player in the Symbolic universe (using the Imaginary to conjure us into the image of capability and self-confidence, of course). But from the point of view of psychoanalysis, the workings of the unconscious rely on symbolic mechanisms (it’s the only way to produce any sort of content, after all), so it’s crucial to understand the ways in which the S1–>S2 functions under the radar and out of sight.

One link we can call the workings of the Imaginary; another, the workings of the Symbolic. Our third link, with the peculiar name of the Real, can be described, then–given the way in which the Symbolic and Imaginary seem between them to have reality covered–as anything that doesn’t work. This definition of the Real is close to a way to talk about symptoms, but more of that later. The Real is what cannot be articulated or explained. The Real is what neither notions of identity nor an encyclopedia can address. And yes, the Real is a certain kind of bodily experience that leaks beyond the edges of the Symbolic and the Imaginary. But it gets its own link in the knot because it can have its own kind of precision, incision, and repetition. Remember that our three links are heterogeneous, yet interlinked; the Real, however, is harder to speak about as a separate theoretical component. The notion of the Real has its origin in psychiatric and psychoanalytic experience and can best be thought of in connection with the horrors and bafflements of psychosis. For us as performers, it’s perhaps most useful to think of the Real as a sense of outer limit or a dead end or some unbidden bodily expression or experience. Often anxiety is spoken of as an indicator of something in the Real being at issue.

To speak of a particular human being, then, is to speak of the interlinking of these three rings into a knot. For a psychoanalytic performer, the links and ways they knot define a terrain for investigation. Our variables–S, S1, S2, a, offer paths and positions within that terrain. Desire and drive perhaps describe modes of travel or the types of maps available. A symptom describes the climate. Clearly I want it to describe the climate since I want to give life to this notion of symptomatic atmosphere. Let’s see the symptom in psychoanalytic experience as a progression, as a movement through various ways of experiencing x, where x designates what it always tries to designate: the unknown. (Using this definition, our initial curiosity about “what a body is” could be seen as a symptomatic expression: “Doctor, I woke up this morning and suddenly realized I don’t know what a body is.” This is good. We want to create a symptomatic atmosphere with such notions.)

Our unknown x, then, is a question, ?, and therefore a part of the speaking subject, S. In a classic psychoanalytic structure consisting of an analysand and an analyst, our unknown x begins its progression as a question or concern or complaint or demand the analysand poses to the analyst about something that no longer seems to work the way it should. That is the nature of a symptom at the outset. Through the symptom some bit of the Real, one of our three links in reality, appears in a new and unsettling way. Why does the analysand pose the question to the analyst? Because the analyst (often in the guise of doctor or therapist or teacher or confidant) is supposed to know something about it, have some priviledged knowledge of the Real, and may even have an answer. If things move forward as they do in psychoanalysis, the unknown x is not met with an answer or prescription. The analyst, rather, directs our questioning subject back to this mysterious x and encourages him or her to find the x’s place within the knot that makes up the analysand’s (the patient’s) individual reality, that particular knotting of the Real with the Symbolic, and the Imaginary. The existence of the x, this new manifestation of the Real, is tied in there with everything else.


As this knot is worked over (it’s not exactly something you could un-tie, nor would you want to) in the presence of the analyst, the nature of the unknown x progresses through an interesting transformation. The analyst is no longer seen as a Master of the Real (or of the Symbolic or Imaginary for that matter) and instead takes up a more intimate and troubling position as the cause of speech itself, perhaps the cause of desire itself. The analyst becomes part of the nature of the unknown x. At this point the x is considered a proper psychoanalytic symptom. This transformation of the x is actually seen as a narrowing in to something more precise and particular for the subject. And after that, things can get even more narrow and specific. You can perhaps begin to see how the questioning of the x can become the questioning of the a, that mysterious bit of the Other the subject isn’t sure whether to seek within or without. The x takes on features of the a and so becomes caught up with consideration of the drives, and to see the x in the Real of the drives is another extreme transformation.

What’s next for the symptom, for the x? To borrow from Lewis Carroll, you talk until you get to the end and then you stop. And according to Lacan, you stop because the subject is finally able to see the x transform into some irreducible element, some “bit of nonsense,” free of possible further questioning. And then the subject, in a touching coda, claims this final version of the symptom in an act of identification.

Such is the journey of the symptom. In light of that, what might it mean for a performer to work in a symptomatic atmosphere? At any given moment in this psychoanalytic method of ours, we can pursue, embody or resist meanings, and we can do so as we encounter three different presentations of the Other: in the Audience, in our fellow performers, and in our own physical reality. Isn’t a symptom what is, ultimately, at stake in any consideration of the Other? A symptom is a quest for the meaning of matter, a quest at all moments haunted by the possible non-meaning of matter. And that is the best statement of the climate of psychoanalytic performance work I can muster at present.

Ah, but what does it all look like? Demonstrations are in order, are they not? That’s part of the excitement of any performance system, after all. They’re so very demonstratable. And that is because, in part, the body knows its place. In my earlier questioning of the role of the body in a psychoanalytic method, I somewhat destabilized the place of the body. I have, in fact, through my thought and questioning, tried to trouble the body’s Imaginary consistency. The idea of a performer’s body only has consistency in the realm of the Imaginary; in the Symbolic and the Real there is no stabilizing image on which to rely. Stating this has just now allowed me to articulate a principle strategy for psychoanalytic performance: the psychoanalytic performer attempts to de-stabilize the Imaginary and then privilege activity in the Symbolic and the Real (same as in traditional psychoanalysis, actually). All of the concepts I’ve introduced so far from the four variables to the notions of desire and drive and symptomatic atmosphere can be used to both destabilize images of consensus and bring forward Symbolic and Real possibilities for exploration. To try and show this is, of course, is to step back into an Imaginary structure and offer the accompanying guarantees. But an example of some kind is in order. After all, even though I’m trying to dispense with a few reliable certainties, I am trying to offer performers some new things to do.

This idea of de-stabilizing the Imaginary will get unpacked more thoroughly as I go. For me this is one of the most interesting aspects of this performance approach because usually a performer is attempting to achieve a certain level of mastery and accomplishment within the Imaginary. A performance usually wants the Imaginary to ascend or at least achieve a certain undisputed prominence. Often a performer’s goal is to help build a fantasy and then hold it in place while it works its magic. Get the audience to sign on the dotted line…

And as I formulate the idea of de-stabilizing the Imaginary in order to bring forward possibilities within the Symbolic and the Real, I can’t help but entertain thoughts of another possible strategy for a psychoanalytic performance approach. If there is a knot present, there is an attempt to loosen it, to understand it, to chart its workings and maybe reconfigure it. If a knot is distinctly not present, however, can one be tied? It’s tempting to offer possibilities for two performance approaches, one for loosening knots and one for, dare we say it, tying them. We can propose two approaches as long as we understand that they may not be structurally complementary like, say, differential and integrative calculus (though a mathematical analogy is always appealing because of the mathematical mystique). In the Lacanian view, if any of our three links are apart, you can’t just cut them, link them, and tape up the severed ends. Any attempt to link the rings is going to involve a compromise arrangement, perhaps one in which a link is doubled over in order to bind with the others or in which a fourth link is introduced as a way to bind the other three. In other words, a binding strategy has to be created. And if a fourth link is created to facilitate things, Lacan proposed in his later thought that this fourth link must be something of a symptomatic creation, a willed embodiment of meaning, and might this be an exciting possibility for us a psychoanalytic performers who attempt such a creation within our symptomatic atmosphere.

Yes, it can only get more obtuse and abstract as we start speculating about a fourth symptomatic knotting link. Better to move on to something more tangible. Let’s say we have enough theory for now.

Psychoanalytic Performance in Practice

We begin to establish our symptomatic atmosphere by agreeing we will not direct our bodies to do specific things in order to pursue some kind of “group training” through various body and behavior technologies. Along the same lines, we refrain from undertaking, as a group, any guided imagery. At the same time it should be said that body, behavior and imagination can be employed at any time, singly or collectively, to pursue questions of meaning or non-meaning. No instruction or training, just freedom.

Let me add at this point that any directions from a master should be subjected to some unknotting. Such directions usually fall under the heading of S1 if issued by mandate or some version of an embodied voice, S2 if a collection of guidelines or instructions that may at one time have been in a textbook. All S2’s have some S1 lurking behind them somewhere. We can start to investigate our craving for such guidance through S and a. Or you can dislodge an S1 by turning to other S2’s.

How and what do we perform? And who do we want to answer that question for us? Let me, rather, offer a thought that came into my head one evening as I was picking up my kids from the dance studio. I sat in the car and didn’t go in right away. The clock stated that I was ten minutes early. If I went in right away there was a chance I would have to make conversation with other waiting parents. I thought something like: that would take too much out of me.

That would take too much out of me. That thought may be all I want to offer at this point. You can try to ask me questions, but I don’t have to answer them. What else was going through my mind as I drove to the studio? Did I have anyone specific in mind who I wished to avoid? What did I see that sparked my reluctance? Do I commonly avoid such situations? Something specifically about the dance studio, perhaps?

Am I willing to give more information? Perhaps doing so would take too much out of me.

So as a performer, I’ve attempted to start evoking a symptomatic atmosphere. At this point I might want to make a decision. Do I want to speak? Maybe I offered my fragment (my specimen?), my that would take too much out of me, through speech, not as a bit of writing. Perhaps a fellow performer underlined the phrase as I was sharing material with the group, my speech, but now fragmented and examined by someone else. I need to think about whether or not I want to continue speaking or withdraw and let the fragment orient the work. If I continue to speak, there is the possibility that my fellow performers will want to explore the event of my speaking as they try to grapple with the content of my speech. They can choose to see me standing in the place of the subject (S). If I consent to stand in the place of the subject, I am offering my particularity to the group (my “story,” my “body,” my S1’s, S2’s, my a, my desires and drives). Of course, it is not an all or nothing situation for one participant. Any performer at any moment can choose to stand in the place of the subject, either by speaking or through some other signifying activity. What is useful, and really quite necessary, is for the performer to find a way to notify others the he or she is choosing to stand for the subject because there also needs to be “working communication” among performers that is free from scrutiny. The group, before working, can establish some kind of protocol for how speech will be used.

For the purposes of illustrating performance strategies and situating the role of a performing body that does not know what it is in such strategies, I’m going to try and simply things by shutting my mouth at this point. That would take too much out of me is the last thing I’m going to offer as a subject (as a “speaking” subject, and obviously I’m not speaking but writing, just try to go with it…). That little culminating phrase and the scrap of anecdote that led up to it are now there for the performers to explore. First, a warning about what to avoid.

Performers trained solely in traditional improvisational approaches will want to stay in the Imaginary register. Please don’t stay in the Imaginary register. A traditional performance approach might involve an attempt to represent a situation that somehow illustrates the bit of anecdote or its culminating fragment, the performers striving to elicit sighs of recognition from the viewer. I’m even hard pressed to waste valuable typing time trying to write out an example of such a thing. A performer’s hidden motive in such work is often re-assurance: re-assuring the audience through a display of the consensual and familiar and re-assuring him or herself that he or she’s still “got it” (talent to entertain) and can still “get it” (some kind of approbation) from an appreciative audience. A psychoanalytic performer can always pass through the Imaginary register and bestow meanings on actions or create identifiable characters with familiar motives, but he or she is aware that imaginary elements are tools to employ and not the sole ends to attain. In the clinical realm, remember, to be “in the grip of the imaginary” is to be convinced that the sad melodrama playing out in your mind’s eye is true. This is not the truth our performers are after.

That would take too much out of me can be read in its entirety as either an S1 or an S2. It can be a consequence or it can have consequences. As an S2 it might be a cover-up for something, a way to distract or to stop discussion. What is a subject (S) trying to do with such a phrase?

The word that is an S2 for what S1? Or does it point toward an imagined act? A dreaded act?

Too much? If it’s an S2, we can ask “too much of what?”

S2’s can be pursued which elaborate upon out of me. Points to thoughts of me as some kind of container, perhaps.

Would has a certainty to it. A prediction. S1 as an oracular pronouncement. As opposed to using could, a word urging caution. Something slightly presumptuous and grandiose about would.

You could play with take too much as some kind of primal command (again S1).

Our fragment is wonderfully image-free. This moves us toward defining a relation to the a, toward a state of affairs that cannot be represented. S1–>S2 can only rub up against it.

For S<>a, explore the relational positioning implied and see all terms as reversible: I would take too much out of you, I would take too little out of you, I am too much to take, I am too little to take, I want to be excessive, to be excessive you need me, you put too much into me, you can put too much into me, you can take too much out of me, etc

In terms of desire, something with the Other involving excess or parsimony.

In terms of drive, the quantification of a substance that can be held onto or lost is clearly anal in character, but you need not limit examination to the anal. Excess and parsimony with respect to mouth, voice, the visual, the rim as entrance and exit, the body/self as container, etc.

Let me back up a moment and touch upon something obvious. That would take too much out of me is a phrase that refers to a possibility of exhaustion. I don’t mean to neglect that aspect of the phrase as I subject it to more interpretive manipulations. Certainly a performer can examine the whys and wherefores of a situation one wishes to avoid because it would be exhausting. And it is certainly not too obvious to explore the nature of the situation and the fear of exhaustion. The phrase is functioning as a metaphor in this instance. Even here S1 and S2 are at play. Why this particular substitution and not another? Why not employ the phrase that would be too tiring. In uttering the phrase that would take too much out of me, what desire might the subject be expressing? Why such a response in such a situation? Is there some compelling S1 pointing to the more mundane notion of exhaustion which in turn is signaling to an S2 like that would take too much out of me, some unspoken S1 that quietly supports the subject’s certainty or conviction.

S2 can often be used to point to wider realms of information and knowledge (as well as to that storehouse of “Other” knowledge working in the unconscious). Our phrase is an expression of economics. What linkages might be followed along those lines?

How to do more with the a? It is with the a that a psychoanalytic performer can bring to bear the idea of body uncertainty, most immediately by following actions which heighten such uncertainty, by using their capacities to inscribe or write what I want to call events of “sensation, not sense”. Lessons are available elsewhere on this site for using the Vocal Sequence, a useful method for finding ways to perform or inscribe such inscrutable moments. Other psychophysical methods can be employed. Inclusions of various media are possible. Think of it this way. Imagine the audience or a fellow performer occupying the place of the Other. You attempt to do something which can function as the most crucial and intimate aspect of the Other’s being, as if you are attempting to restore the most important missing element, some piece that may even be beyond the scope of meaning. The psychoanalytic truth of this missing thing, however, is that we don’t know whether it, this most intimate element, brings fulfillment or destruction or one enclosed within the other. Lacan called this most intimate twofold state of completion–an impossible state spoken of mostly as a substance–jouissance.

I had originally thought that I would succeed in putting together this speculation about psychoanalytic performance without mentioning jouissance. But I realized that if I want the psychoanalytic performer to employ methods structured by not knowing what a body is, I have to give some idea about what remains once the body of meaning is set aside. What’s left is a body that is not yours. Maybe we can call it the Other’s body. You can also call it the inscrutable body or the body of jouissance. Since we set aside all understanding of it, we are at the mercy of it as something Real, something un-mediated through meanings, something beyond desire, something moving through the drives to something else. End of the line, final stop: jouissance. It’s meant to be very confusing.

And overwhelming. How can a performer use such an idea to orient his or her efforts? This is no real way, after all, to talk about working with your jouissance. The poor subject would try to utter such a thing, perhaps, but in jouissance the subject vanishes. The psychoanalytic performer can work with a question, however, pertaining to jouissance as long as we think of it as the Other’s jouissance. It’s the Other’s body (as jouissance) we are working with, after all. And it’s there in thinking about the a and in the subject’s vexing relationship with the a. Or is it possible to write a new S1 guided only by the promptings from the body of jouissance. What kind of signifying architecture (through S2) can rest upon it?

Psychoanalysis itself can be summed up, I think, as an extremely long conversation about the Other’s jouissance (with unavoidable transformative consequences, naturally). I’ll be eager to hear if teachers and colleagues let that one stand (since I do realize I may be a bit reckless from a clinical point of view with such a characterization; such a preoccupation with the Other’s jouissance is in many instances a feature of a psychotic structure; I’m thinking of ways in which a subject’s fundamental questioning of the nature of the Other’s jouissance can lead to certain neurotic solutions; obviously, the notion that the psychotic terrain can be explored creatively by a performer must be approached with great caution). Anyway, the psychoanalytic performer has as an option to orient actions toward the question of the Other’s jouissance. (Surely our love of gossip and tabloids are two examples of our preoccupation with the other’s jouissance. This does not have to be an obscure concept.)

Back to our phrase. That would take too much out of me. Let it echo in the vertigo of your body’s absence. Use the questioning of the Other’s jouissance to compel your actions. Think of every arrangement of our four variables as an effort to do something about jouissance, to manage it, dissolve it, hide it, answer it, to (heaven forbid) obtain it. Your body, now accustomed to the uncertainties of being a body of jouissance rather than a body of meaning, enters the action in new ways, finds unexpected passages through the maze the variables set.

I think I’ve gotten about as inscrutable as I can get, so at this point I’ll stop. If you as a performer find some new approaches or strategies using this “psychoanalytic orientation” and if it leads to new kinds of material and events, if it helps find new ways to employ the psychophysical, then it’s been worth it. I’ve kept my discussion as content-less as I possibly can. Let me know about your work with actual content.

Please offer comments on the Performance Group Potlatch.

Final Note. Some of you may have been disappointed to find the above rather chaste. And you may well ask, “What kind of ‘psychoanalytic’ performance method worthy of the name doesn’t discuss sexual relationships?” Two reasons. Since I’m hoping eager and impressionable students will be reading this, I am reluctant to be quoted chapter and verse by those who might conspire to accuse me of being a corrupting influence. But also, allow me to cite a sentence from Lacan as my chief reason for not mentioning the sexual relation. Anyone know? The first to submit the sentence (en francais, naturellement) …wins a free romantic dinner for two at the cozy bistro of your choice.

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