thirty-eighth part, called “subjective powers XXXVIII,” of a series of ‘letters’ written to you, the reader, towards a book called, theatre | writing

subjective powers

That the stage removes consequence from our actions looks to be anything but a subjective power. It suggests a restriction on our powers to act, freely to act, since on its surface we lose agency and can cause nothing to happen. Throw in the knowledge the audience have of the story and the fact our lines are scripted and our actions circumscribed by the necessities of a given narrative, why should an actor risk anything? least of all what is most personal to her, intensities which are singular to her. Shouldn’t an actor do it for the money? or, failing that, ego-gratification? And so, whether good or bad, resemble the selfish actor, who takes the stage, taking the stage by the force of his personal charisma, technical accomplishment and enormous charm?

Yet, this limitation engages a power that is limitless, if it is chosen for, entailing the power to resist fate and to exceed it. The lesson of the surface is that actions do not lead to outcomes: there is no necessity for dying to result in death, for murder to lead to punishment, penance, or there being any victim. Without this necessity fate loses meaning. And, yet, surely Oedipus, of anyone, had no choice?

The mistake is to confuse acting freely with choice, freedom with the ability to choose. This is made clearer by the scripted work, where there is no doubt, even in Hamlet, of what will come to pass. The range of expression an actor has to choose from in speaking those lines, What a piece of work is a man…, doesn’t even approach what she can do with the character. He can resist, and call up the famous indecision, To be or not…, or decide, having already made his decision and, by the decisiveness of the decision already taken, having outstripped fate. In the moment where it thinks it can catch up with him, he is already miles ahead, has exceeded the girding round-about of this little life.

In the unscripted work, say, in the one improvised, there is no less a script, a familiar story, often a family story, if we are to invoke Oedipus. And this is particularly the case when we take seriously the claims to depth made by the one who deeply feels the trauma inflicted on him, even when she only does in the moment that these feelings arise. It has to have happened.

Better if she held a script, with the words, …or not, and read out the question. The lesson of the surface is the power of our woundedness to lead us can be outstripped by another, stronger. We might there empower our wound, let it bleed out the words. And then ask, is that all?

The lesson is both that no outcome is a necessary one and none is more ignoble than the one that has to happen. So, yes, we say a subjective power. And look to be free of an eternity—that is a determinate duration—of subjection by taking the more noble course of making an indifferent necessity our own: power of the subject.

Suzanne Guerlac, in her excellent book on him, writes that for Bergson perception is for action. Perception therefore selects inputs for the sake of outputs. The brain’s role in this is to coordinate sensory inputs with energetic outputs. Perception selects from the sensory field on this basis, limiting the inputs of what passes directly on to the nervous system, which, according to its complexity, either engages a hesitation, a delay, for example in cases of ambiguous sensory data, or reacts, for example, in fight or flight, at once.

The contrast here is not between two different sorts of information, information representing a situation where it is appropriate to sing a song on the one hand and to throw a punch on the other, or between knowledge and instinct, such that fight or flight is somehow the latter, and the knowledge gained through adequate training and coaching is supposed to provide the former. For Bergson, says Guerlac, the brain is not a centre of representations or a catchment for images experience and education have inculcated. Perception serves action. Still, along with the seeming autonomous selection by perception and production by the brain and nervous system of energetic outputs there is the option of suspending the action. This contains, for Bergson, the kernel of freedom.

What is happening in the time of being reported on? This is the time given hearing, in a single sitting, albeit one of indeterminate duration, in a block of duration. What is happening in the time of being reported on? Everything. And nothing.

All our worst fears, all our dreams, transpire in this time. Because the time of being reported on is our time with others. Our worst fear is that they are thinking or speaking badly of us. And Eleanor Roosevelt’s quip does not work: that if we are worried about what other people are thinking of us, we should realise how seldom they do. Or Oscar Wilde’s, There is only one thing worse than being talked about behind one’s back. That’s not being. Our dreams are of being loved; and our fears are of being destroyed by the opinions of others, in the time of being reported on, in others’ reports. Also the dream of social media.

And yet, in the selection of perception we have affirmed a subjective power linked to freedom. And yet, the suspension of consequence in following on from action has been a lesson of the surface. And yet, the suspension of perception is that which an action no longer follows by necessity. Yet is in the time of being reported on, then comes about as a time of pure contemplation. So that—and this is what all the stories are talking about, why we should change them and the lesson of the surface how we can—from selection, to the suspension of action, to contemplation, knowledge is created. The block of duration, that the time of being reported on is, is the subjective power of knowledge.

note: source references available on request–these will be part of the book, if it should come to pass.

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