Fragmentary musing ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fragmentary musing

I am sometimes puzzled by a disconnect between form and content. No, let's go further: I am baffled by how a perceived form can obliterate what I find myself forced to describe as "content", or vice versa. Perhaps it's simply a poet's failing, but I have a great deal of trouble separating one from the other in any work of art, since the fusing of formal imagination and subject seems to me to be art's very definition. You may, by doing a deal of violence to a work, divide the two, for the purpose of dissection; but that too easily ends up being a forensic examination of a dead truth, lying devoid of a pulse on the critical slab.

29 comments:

Cameron Woodhead said...

Are you going to see the poetry/stage/film experiment based on the Anne Carson poem Irony Is Not Enough: Essay On My Life As Catherine Deneuve Alison? I'll be interested to see what you make of it in light of the above.

I always think of distinctions like form/content as porous borders or consensual fictions. Sometimes they're covenient for analysis, sometimes not - sometimes they're downright unhelpful: eg. literary vs non literary theatre.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm a paid-up Carson fan, so absolutely. Also, I liked Luke Mullins's last adventure with Carson, Autobiography of Red, very much.

Alison Croggon said...

.. and yes, you often make these distinctions to make it possible to discuss something. But I think you have to remember that they're basically false.

Born Dancin' said...

The distinction between form and content is sufficient but not necessary, I reckon. It can be a useful of making a point when you haven't got time or space to get more particular about something, and at other times it can be an obstruction (making that distinction when it comes to The Animals & Children... for instance, would be wandering down the wrong path, imho). And most people get form/content discussions for the shorthand they are. You don't need to be educated in Russian formalism to comprehend the pairing. But as Tom Pynchon puts it: excluded middles are bad shit.

It's also interesting that people don't generally make a distinction between form and content when it comes to theatre criticism (or do they?). The nature of the mode tends toward transparency, so we rarely hear discussions of the subtext of a review unless it's regarding some silly personal problems X may have with Y. But I think we all probably say a lot in our writing that isn't there on the surface. I only say 'we' because this comment thread has become a little critic gathering, but all welcome. I'll make tea.

Cameron Woodhead said...

@ Alison: Anne Carson is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, living poets in the world is what I reckon. Not many writers can so unerringly shoot for the heart and make the mind dance into the bargain.

@ JB "But I think we all probably say a lot in our writing that isn't there on the surface."

My favourite quote on this subject is (again) from David Foster Wallace (I'd say sorry but I'm actually not at all). Here tis:

"When I say or write something, there are actually a whole lot of different things I am communicating. The propositional content (i.e., the verbal information I'm trying to convey) is only one part of it. Another part is stuff about me, the communicator. Everyone knows this. It's a function of the fact there are so many different well-formed ways to say the same basic thing, from e.g. "I was attacked by a bear!" to "Goddamn bear tried to kill me!" to "That ursine juggernaut did essay to sup upon my person!" and so on."

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Cameron - My favourite oft-quoted theorist on this is probably Sontag, in that shining essay Against Interpretation, in which she untangles some of the form/content sins of critics. I like the idea of an erotics of criticism.

Epithets like "greatest living poet" make me flinch - I'm not sure that Carson deserves such rhetoric. Which is not to say she's not an astonishing writer, but a poet of such intellectual and emotional precision deserves a just enthusiasm that doesn't make you think, well, what about Adonis? or Geoffrey Hill? or Ingeborg Bachmann...?

John, whether that assumption holds probably depends on the context of debate. I've witnessed too many discussions across too many artforms over too many years to be sanguine that the idea that "content" is a quality that is simply poured into a pre-existing "form" isn't a common misconception and not just a convenient fiction.

As for criticism being a form - well, yes, absolutely. I think all of us are more or less conscious of this, and working between a blog and print as we all do throws this into relief. Among other things, it can show how the constrictions of particular forms can determine a great deal of content: it makes a lot of difference when reviewing for the Oz, for instance, when I have 100 or 400 words, which have to be couched according to certain journalistic conventions, as opposed to meandering here, not only in style but in what I can pursue. This year I've written several more in=depth, academic-style essays for various specialist magazines, which is different again - mainly, I figured, because such essays (must) lack the raw immediacy of a review, require more reflectiveness and are suddenly in the past tense. Etc. Which is no more than saying that different forms of publications force their own requirements, which may or may not be subverted/distorted/worked around.

I guess you by subtext you mean the subjective predelictions or tastes or ideologies of a critic? Certainly. Which is why I like having all these reviews archived, because hopefully as a whole (assuming somebody reads them like that, which is doubtful, but anyway) they create a context of ideas that demonstrates a particular exploration, not only of theatre, but of life. But pursuing subtext is often a perilous pursuit, fraught with error...

And yes, if others want to weigh in to this criticfest, please do. I'll bring biscuits.

Born Dancin' said...

Oh no, I didn't mean subtext as a personal bias embedded in the writing. Probably the wrong word to use entirely. I meant more the subconscious of the piece of writing itself, perhaps, or the force which moves in a different direction to the surface meaning of the criticism. For instance, I read a Fringe Buzzcuts review earlier this year that was utterly praising of a work and at the same time I felt that I didn't really want to see it as a result. I had to go through and look at the way certain key words and the shapes of phrases conjured up a sense of the piece that was in opposition to the literal reading, to me at least (it would have had another effect on other readers). I guess I'm just saying that the one review can say very different things, and how useful it is to play with that, and that I think it's something we all do and probably enjoy.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, I think that's true. Although it's impossible - and ought to be, too, despite moments when you wish it wasn't - to control how one is read: an act of reading is always a dance between reader and maker. I guess part of criticism is about establishing that subjectivity - however fictional or unstable it might be - so those who familiarise themselves with it will be able to read between the lines. I guess the plainest example of counter-reading was the Age's own Neil Jillett, who was very reliable - when he damned a film, whole communities rushed to see it...

Alison Croggon said...

Also - there's a very permeable and difficult line between "bias" and critical aesthetic. (One presumably honourable, the other to be deplored). How you distinguish one from the other? Is it, in fact, possible? But this is getting too interesting, and I am supposed to be doing something else.

Cameron Woodhead said...

"Epithets like "greatest living poet" make me flinch - I'm not sure that Carson deserves such rhetoric. Which is not to say she's not an astonishing writer, but a poet of such intellectual and emotional precision deserves a just enthusiasm that doesn't make you think, well, what about Adonis? or Geoffrey Hill? or Ingeborg Bachmann...?"

I say shit like this from time to time knowing that people will flinch. The flinch interests me.

Semerkand Tv İzle said...

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Fenerbahçe Bucaspor Maçı Canlı İzle said...

what is permeable ?

Düğün Salonları said...

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skellis said...

Adding my 2c worth a little late here, but I quite like Thomas McEvilley's very clear articulation of "content arising directly from the formal properties of an artwork".

Content subsumes form (I can see that venn diagram!), which I suspect is more useful than thinking of them as, for example, being on a continuum or as a binary.

He suggests that "all statements about artworks involve attributions of content, whether acknowledged or not" and in doing so he opens up a much broader conceptualization of 'content' in art/performance.

McEvilley's book is "Art and Discontent" (1991) and I'm quoting from a section called 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird' (p.80).

Anonymous said...

If the expression of an artwork is in its dichotomy, then it is this tension that must be wrestled with to understand the voice of the work. In other words the distinction between form and content is instinctual, intellectual and necessary in the creating of some thing. The ‘trouble inside’ an extraordinary artwork is the crystalisation of twins: the image and the reflection, the remembered and the imagined – of dichotomies that are also recursive loops or simply indivisible. Of frames and images, emerging one through the other. The practicalities of an artwork (which themselves are so many things) are a means of accrual, but dissolve in the movement of a good work. And this one work, even when it has achieved that rare simplicity, must be heard, translated, admitted or refused. To divide form and content in the description of a work cannot be looking in the right place. To ‘listen’ is to choose and to accept the preparations. Good recipes experiment with ingredients, but perhaps are characterized also by a kind of stricture. This is the stricture of the art of cooking, but also a stricture of the gut.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi all! Rather belatedly catching up here... Fenerbahçe, "permeable" means a membrane that can be penetrated, usually by liquids or gas, used here metaphorically to mean an uncertain division.

Hi Skellis - I'm not sure that I understand how content can subsume form, although I can understand how form can give rise to content (and vice versa, actually). Doesn't Wallace Stevens - who wrote the poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird that I presume that essay leaps from - have some useful aphorism about content being an expression of form, form an expression of content? (If he did, I can't find it...) In other words, I can't see how in that "intimate struggle" Anon refers to above, one property becomes dominant, even if it is often spoken of as if that is the case. (And maybe I think too that if one property does dominate, the artwork has failed - ie, I'm always looking for that "dissolving" of each in each).

Mightn't the tendency to discuss an artwork primarily in terms of content be rather an impoverishment of vocabulary in speaking about the "meanings" of form, ie that it's easier to speak of content so that by default, content is what is spoken about?

In any case, this assumes that we can tell at a glance what is content and what is form. I'm not so sure they're that easy to distinguish. I find it interesting, for example, that Aristotle says "plot" - which one might take to be a formal property - is the "argument" of a play, or what might be called its content. (Or is plot generally taken to be content?) Which may be no more than what McEvilley is saying, but if so, it bothers me, since it might end up unintentionally obscuring what we are already not very good at discussing, ie the material nature of an artwork.

Mother of Invention Acting School said...

If form and content is a false distinction, then we should be able to use the terms interchangeably. But what happens? We can comfortably talk about the content of a work being timely, but if we say the form of the work is timely, we feel an awkward clunk. Similarly, we might say that the form of a work is clumsy, but if we try to say that the content of the work is clumsy, again, we flirt with nonsense, if not embrace it totally.

To paraphrase Wittgenstein, the meaning of a word is in its use, "for a large class of casses" at least. That we cannot comfortably use these words in the same manner signals that they are distinct, although in a given work of art, it is absurd to think of a work that has form but no content, or vice versa.

I like Sontag, but finally came to believe that she overreached on this one.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi MOI - I can think of examples where content is clumsy (bad political argument) or form is timely without any difficulty at all. Thinking here in terms of timely form of Falk Richter's Electronic City, which I saw the other night, although there are squillions of examples - the popular Victorian melodramatic novel was of its time, say, and the steampunk variations written now are an entirely different thing. Forms change with their times, just as content does, or we'd still all be painting pictures of hunts in caves.

I'm not suggesting that form and content are the same thing (although Thomas McEvilley seems to be arguing that, at least from what Skellis said). I am suggesting that the preference of speaking about content over form, simply because it's easier to do so, is falsifying, or at the least distorting, and that it's much harder than we generally assume to distinguish one from the other.

It's easy to think of a work with form and no content - John Cage's 4'33'. Though its lack of content is of course its content.

Alison Croggon said...

Interestingly, although I had no trouble thinking of a work with form and no content, I can't for the life of me think of one with content and no form.

Born Dancin' said...

I just tried to post a medium-length comment with no characters as a blog version of 4'33" but darn blogspot has a no-form-without-content-even-if-that's-the-content policy.

I keep confusing this discussion with the distinction between plot and story espoused by the formalists. Story being (very) roughly analogous to content while plot is more time-bound - the time of narration and order of events is something that can be concretely described, while the temporality of what's referred to can be much broader and more complex. In a way, the materiality of form you describe is a brute fact and is harder to debate, but 'content' can't always be reduced to agreed-upon specifics. The content of a work always depends on the audience's experience of its telling (or showing or whatever).

Without the time-bound encounter with a work's 'form' how can we reconfigure something approaching 'content'? That is, in this case, form is the phenomenological materiality of something, content our assimilation or interpretive reconstruction of it.

Just riffin' here.

Anonymous said...

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Cameron Woodhead said...

4'33" does not have no content. That's the point. The music's in the lady fidgeting with her pearls next to you (or whatever). Even the musicians walking on stage and preparing not to play can be regarded as content, imho.

(Weird and kind of interesting factoid re: 4'33". In the last few years, neuroscientists have discovered that the processing centre in the brain responsible for the pleasure we derive from music - the nucleus accumbens - is also implicated in the benefit derived from the placebo effect. Coincidence? I think not.)

Amelia said...

They SHOULD be indistinguishable but are often not(is there a word for leaning on each other in an endless cycle?)

I like something a russian once said about every story needing to invent/imagine its own form, its own way to tell itself with its own unique logic... this for writing and directing - esp 'classics'. Maybe this is because all stories have been told before but it has never been this point now in history...

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Amelia - that echoes a conversation yesterday where we said that exactly, how each work insists on its own form, how form and content arise together. I literally can't imagine a story without imagining its form (shape/style). I'm not sure either comes first. Although I guess I have decided to write a sonnet and then sat down and written a sonnet...

Cameron, there's a rather gorgeous BBC orchestral performance of 4'33" here on YouTube - well worth the watching through. And yes, the content, if that is what it is, is precisely the shape of the particular performance, especially including the audience. But maybe here the content is the audience rushing in to fill a vacuum, expressing its own desire for the content that remains so resolutely absent. (Which, apropos of John's point, doesn't make it any less content). I once saw a pianist perform 4'33" at a Surrealist Festival that used to be held in Melbourne. After a minute of silence, the audience got restless, and started making comments, laughing, shouting at the performer, getting more and more rowdy until the performance ended. It was hilarious. And it really felt like a rebellion against the contentless. "I have nothing to say and I am saying it / and that is poetry"...

I'm intrigued by the idea that content is a quality in part created by a work's audience. On the story/plot dichotomy, and to return to Aristotle's point about plot and argument: is a quality like style - less easily describable, and much more complex than the linear function of plot, more an aspect of "story" - a function of content rather than form? (How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?)

Cameron Woodhead said...

"I'm intrigued by the idea that content is a quality in part created by a work's audience."

Me too, and I think it probably is. I went to see a show the other day where I was the only person in the audience (and no, this situation wasn't intended by the artists). I couldn't really find a way to avoid mentioning that in the review. It affected the whole experience.

j said...

"I'm intrigued by the idea that content is a quality in part created by a work's audience."

That, to me, is a fundamental....

Cheers from 'somewhere' in the blogosphere...

Madeleine F said...

Form and content in music/sound compositional thinking are tightly entwined:one of the effects of the incredible 4'33" was the creation of an ever expanding series of concentric circles, around the idea of form-content, heard-notated-imagined.
a fugue holds both its form and content within the first bar...

Mother of Invention Acting School said...

Hi Allison,

"Of its time" and "timely" don't mean the same thing. "Britain's Got Talent" is not timely just because it is of its time. I think most people would stare at you blankly if you said that the form of a Victorian novel was timely.

Similarly, I don't buy what you say about clumsy content. It's not the content that is clumsy, but the choosing of it. Content doesn't move, or speak, or think, so it can hardly be clumsy.

The Cage example strikes me as a little sophistic, but I can easily respond sophistically and say that the silence is its content, as you said.

And you did say that it was possible to separate form and content by doing violence to a work of art, which seems to me to say that they can't be legitimately separated. The truth is that not only are they not the same thing, but they are not the same kind of thing.

Alison Croggon said...

MOI, what you say seems to me to be insupportable when contemplating any halfway interesting work of art. But that's where this whole discussion began: my total bafflement at anyone being able to think about form and content in such absolute and limiting terms. Thanks for illustrating so neatly that such notions are not a strawman of my mind.