Artaud and sedition ~ theatre notes

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Artaud and sedition

My mini-essay on Antonin Artaud in my review of Jet of Blood, in particular my (yes, provocative) speculations on the connections between extremist politics and Artaud's writings, has provoked some interesting discussions in the blogosphere. George Hunka at Superfluities has a couple of thoughtful responses here and here. I also got a nice note from Pierre Joris of Nomadics, saying he thinks I'm a bit unjust to Artaud. He included a soon-to-be-published essay in which Pierre considers the Theatre of Cruelty as the basis for a contemporary poetics and extends a useful Deleuzian distinction:

This ... distinction between combat-against (which is war, is will to destruction, is judgment by god proclaiming destruction as something “just,” is mutilation, reduction, will to domination) and combat-between which is the on-going expression of a powerful vitality that is involved in change, in becoming (Deleuze uses the example of the baby). Turn the word “war” around and you get “raw” — the crudo, the cruel is the opposite of “war.” As I put it in the Nomad Manifestos: being is on the side of death, becoming is on the side of life, is always a violent action, “cruel” in the terms we are using right now. Becoming is also an, if not for me the, essential incarnation of the “nomad war machine.” The prevailing new-agy, peace-loving, peace-nicky, p.c.-y sit-down, sit-in approach to both external conflict and internal struggle refuses to make the distinction between combat-against and combat-between and is therefore unable to acknowledge the sheer violence — cruelty —that inhabits & is the growth-vector of all living forms, of life. And so the life that is creative, that is a becoming, will be “cruel” — it will be involved in what the Islamic mystics have called a “jihad” — here is another term that was kidnapped by judgmental Islamic (i.e. monotheistic) clerics in an effort to change its meaning from combat-between to combat-against.

It's a distinction I ignored in my comparing Artaud to Osama Bin Laden and Pol Pot. However, I'm not entirely convinced that it's a distinction Artaud is careful to make himself, although some of us might want to: it seems to me that Artaud, in arguing against the objections to his conception of the Theatre of Cruelty, made a different argument. "Cruelty," says Artaud, "is not synonymous with bloodshed, martyred flesh, crucified enemies. This identification of cruelty with tortured victims is a very minor aspect of the question. In the practice of cruelty there is a kind of higher determinism, to which the executioner-tormenter himself is determined and which he must be determined to endure when the time comes. Cruelty is above all lucid, a kind of rigid control and submission to necessity. There is no cruelty without consciousness...It is consciousness that gives to the exercise of every act of life its blood-red colour, its cruel nuance, since it is understood that life is always someone's death." Artaud is not saying that torture, for example, is a distortion of the Theatre of Cruelty: he is saying that it is only a minor part of it. What mattered to Artaud was not brutality, which is too brutish to call up in him anything but distaste (although he does not reject it), but the consciousness which understands its own suffering in practising it.

Nick at Rat Sass went off the deep end:

Alison Croggon at theatre notes has obviously read more criticisms on Artaud than actual writings by Artaud. She parrots the negative critiques that have always been attached to this singularly important theatre theorist. So nothing new in her attempt to marginalize Artaudian theatre by classifying it to the experience of the lunatic asylum, war zone and concentration camp. However, Alison extends this old criticism to new a level by outrageously and unconscionably comparing Artaud to violent terrorist killers Osama bin Laden and Pol Pot. She goes so far as to suggest that Artaud would have celebrated the 9/11 attacks as “the greatest work of art there has ever been!”

Nick read my review again, calmed down, and in his comments we're having an interesting coversation. My (slightly polished) answer, in part, to his objections, might be of interest here:

What is a terrorist? It’s a word that is almost meaningless, given that the same acts (randomly killing people in order to manipulate a civilian population through fear) are labelled terrorist in some cases and legitimate warfare in others. An artist like Artaud illuminates the hypocrisies of these false divisions. I wouldn’t apply Bush’s false definitions to an argument about Artaud: Artaud is a better tool for applying to Bush.

Of course revolutionary artists are, in a crucial and profound sense, activists, and many actually are activists, although artists always fit uncomfortably in political worlds. Artaud was not interested in social revolution (though there are very few modernist artists who did not flirt with the huge ideologies of the time, whether communism, socialism or fascism), but he was still interested in changing the world. And his ideas, from the point of view of a State that wishes to exert absolute control, are as dangerous - maybe more dangerous - as any social activist. And he meant them to be, he wanted them to exert real effects in a real world.

What worries me about what you’re saying here about separating “poetic” from “political” activism is that they are not so easily divided (from the Romantics to the Modernists on) and you run the danger of doing what the State wants, ie, of claiming that art is “above” politics and has no relation to or purchase on the “real” world. This is a very complex argument, and I don’t have the space or time to make the proper distinctions here. Art is an enactment, of course, and creates its own alternative and virtual space, which is a different space to that in which those acts which we call terrorist (and those other acts which are not called terrorist) exist. It is a space of possibility. That is what is dangerous about it as far as the State is concerned; it does not want certain possibilities to be articulated. That is also, of course, why the State objects to terrorism. It does not object to people being murdered or tortured or having their homes or families destroyed, although this is what it claims is wrong about terrorism. If it did object to these things, it wouldn’t practice them itself. As far as the State is concerned, terrorism is wrong, as art is wrong, because it suggests other worlds than this one are possible.

The difference between terrorism and art is that terrorism, unlike art, is almost wholly nihilist and so, unlike art, kills people. I don’t think even Artaud is nihilist: no artist can be, because he or she practises art, which makes as well as destroys. The best description of terrorism I ever read is in Blaise Cendrars’ amazing short novel, Moravagine, where he describes the anarchists in Russia: it’s a terrifying description, because he shows the attraction of the pure act. But again, this is where I come back to Artaud, because the pure act is what he wanted to achieve, and I personally have problems with the whole idea of purity.

Some of your objections seem to me to come out of fear. Well, I guess there’s good reason for that. My country has passed new Sedition laws that mean that I could go to prison for seven years for things I have already written. Even, perhaps, this post. As far as the State is concerned, Artaud’s ideas and Osama bin Laden’s are equally threatening. Hence the bizarre and otherwise reasonless prosecution of the Critical Art Ensemble. But what if they are equally dangerous, even though one is art and the other is “real”? I think the State is pretty good at identifying threats to its pursuit of absolute power. And make no mistake, that kind of State is what we’re getting, in Britain, the US and here.

Which brings me to the question of Sedition. Via the excellent Freedom of Expression blog, and of course Ben over at Parachute of a Playwright, the latest on Attorney-General Phil Ruddock's summary rejection of any changes to the Sedition provisions in the Anti-Terror Bill, despite the recommendations of the Senate Committee last year and a review by the Australian Law Reform Commission.

As media organisations, lawyers, artists and anyone interested in human rights have all pointed out, repeatedly, the Sedition laws are a fundamental and serious threat to freedom of speech, since they do not distinguish between legitimate dissent and incitement to violence, and they are already having pernicious effects as the culture self-censors to avoid breaking the law. And here's the rub: in order to defend freedom of expression, must we claim that art has no political or social agency at all, that it exists, in effect, outside the world we live in?


Paul Martin said...

I feel that using the name of Osama bin Laden is wrong. We assign meaning to this name, similar to how we assign meaning to the name Adolf Hitler.

We do not know what part bin Laden played in the events of 9/11. We believe he was involved with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and we believe that he has been involved in various acts of terrorism against US interests prior to 9/11. But it is slowly emerging that what actually happened on that fateful day is not exactly as it has been officially stated.

We believe Osama bin Laden to be the greatest evil because George W. Bush says he is. I'm not going to go into conspiracies or theories here; anyone can research the subject on the web. I'm just pointing out that we may be inadvertently perpetuating a lie.

I know this is not adding to the discussion of Artaud (who, in my ignorance, I acknowledge I know nothing about). But having read the reference to bin Laden, thought I'd have my two cents worth. ;)

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Paul

Yes, it's a bad idea to mention Bin Laden, because people immediately stop thinking and react emotively... but on the other hand, does that mean that we must avoid what might be legitimate comparisons, despite the danger of being misunderstood? I was referring to what I saw as a fierce moral imperative in Artaud's work, and it seems to me similar to the moral extremity of the Wahhabites, the Fundamentalist Muslim sect to which Bin Laden belongs, in how it sees destruction as a cleansing act. Artaud also uses Christian images of suffering and death (crucifixion etc) fairly frequently (eg in The Peyote Dance)...

As for what Bin Laden is, or what he is said to be...I guess I said what I meant about that in my comments on terrorism. Personally, I do not believe that terrorism can be art, no matter what Stockhausen did or didn't say, although you can argue that the spectacle of 9/11 was the ultimate Situation in how it hijacked our media coverage.

And perhaps at this point I should make clear that I utterly repudiate terrorism of any kind. However, it ought to be possible to look coolly at these phenomena without running for cover in moral panic.

Paul Martin said...

We live in troubled times, but not in the way that politicians would have us believe. It is indeed tragic when the greatest threats to peace, freedom and democracy are the very people who claim to be protecting these virtues.

Sylvia Drake said...


Your blog is the first place I've heard of the Sedition laws of which you speak--if you have a moment to spare, might you point me to a starting point for understanding the situation? It sounds disturbing indeed.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Sylvia - yes, it's is disturbing (even more disturbing that it's had so little coverage!) A good resource, with lots of links to things like the Law Reform Commission report, is the Oz Sedition blog.

Diego said...

Hello alison, i am diego from mexico city, i have some doubts on this play of artaud, the only one I can find with this title of him is "the spurt of blood" 1925.
The one you review is "Jet of Blood" and this one I can´t find.
Are they diferent? or based on?
If that is the case do you happen to know where I can find this plays on the internet? or s published book?
sorry for these practical questions.
hope you have some time to answer.
best diego

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Diego - they are the same play, just different translations! So you already have it.

Anonymous said...

'Spurt of Blood' is a precusor to Theatre of Cruelty written in 1928. It was a response by Artaud to being kicked out of the Surrealist movement and was intended as a parody of other 'unperformable' surrealist plays such as 'The Glass Ball' by another Surrealist playwright. So is the 'cruel' and torturous quality people so seem to desire relevant to a production of this play at all? Surrealism seems to be its point - the rest is interpretation post 'Theatre and its Double'.