An interview with Alain Badiou: theatre and philosophy, an antagonistic and complementary old couple

During your talk in Avignon’s ‘Theatre of Ideas’ series you evoked the tensions at work within the 2,500 year-old couple of philosophy and theatre.  In your view are these fruitful tensions, or, on the contrary, destructive ones? Nietzsche’s ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ offers evidence enough of this difficult relationship, while Socrates (helped by Euripides) wanted to sound the death knell of tragedy and herald the triumph of reason…

Alain Badiou: There have been two fundamental currents in philosophy ever since its origins, and not just one. What Nietzsche called philosophy is a Platonism that he had largely fabricated. So you could make a lot of objections to Nietzsche even based on Plato himself. Nietzsche counterposes a certain construct of philosophy to the original fundamental power of Tragedy, the Appollonian and Dionysian, but this is still only one definition of philosophy among many others, which he uses as a sort of war machine. It ought not be forgotten that Nietzsche went so far as to say that ‘the philosopher is the criminal of criminals’ – he did not qualify his assertions.

I think that in reality the relationship between philosophy and theatre is an ambiguous one, from its very origins.

To counterpose the Apollonian to the Dionysian, reason to the power of the tragic, is a very strong image but it does not explain this ambiguity. This relation is an ambiguous one because the central philosophical question that defines philosophy’s relationship with theatre is, I believe, the relation between ‘presence’ and ‘representation’. Or, you could say, between being and appearance – that is why the relationship between philosophy and theatre is problematic.

There are three different tendencies, one tendency that says that the illusion is our very being in the world, that the world itself is an illusion, and that it is thus absurd to say ‘don’t fall into illusion’ since this illusion is in all senses our law. Another current says that it is representation that constitutes our experience, as Kant says. According to Kant the configuration of the world by representation is constitutive of our experience, and there is no sense in saying that we must escape it. And there is the current that considers illusion as a significant feature of experience. But that can also mean a dialectical current that says that illusion or representation are all the more necessary because they are a mediation, a moment, a dialectical time of knowledge itself – I am thinking of Hegel’s thesis in this regard.

So, to put it very simply, Nietzsche’s argument can only be applied if we accept a dualist moralism, with the idea of a straight opposition between being and appearance, accompanied by the moral directive that being is good and appearance is bad. And if you think that, well you must not have much time for theatre, and that explains why, in particular, religions have often had no love for the theatre.

The relation between philosophy and theatre must not be reduced to the tensions between religion and theatre, unless you have a religious interpretation of philosophy. At root, in Nietzsche there was a vulgar interpretation of Platonism, namely a straight dualist counterposition between illusion – appearance – on the one hand, and on the other hand thought and the idea of good. The counterposition of the perceptible world and the intelligible world – well, that is what they teach in the classroom. This vulgar interpretation of Platonism has become a widespread one, particularly in the Christian tradition. Evidently, in this tradition the theatre is suspect because it means the play of illusion, the seductive power of semblance. Hence the Church’s excommunication of actors and its anathema against the theatre. Hence also the conviction that this Nietzschean tradition weakens or even destroys authentic tragedy. Authentic tragedy is the sublime expression of the Dionysian impulse.

But I would maintain that this is a caricatural description of philosophy, already entailing a religious interpretation of philosophy, and it is also a caricatural interpretation of Plato himself: it is a vulgar Platonism, and if you take a close look at what Plato actually said, it is not quite the same. You have to pay attention to the remarkable fact that Plato is the only philosopher who expressed himself using the theatrical form, and his Phaedo is the absolute of tragedy.

The great Plato was a theatrical Plato, and this tells us well enough that in reality, reducing Plato to a reason that suppresses tragedy is just a polemical tool, an act of violence. Nietzsche’s real enemy is Christianity, and he condemns philosophy because it serves the purposes of Christianity – well, that is my reading. It is necessary to free the theatre-philosophy relationship a little from this polemic of Nietzsche’s, which is very particular and ultimately supposes that philosophy is essentially identical to Christian moralism. Ultimately, what Nietzsche calls philosophy is, in reality, Christian moralism.

What explains the disgust that theatre displays with regard to the image of the philosopher? The figure of Socrates in ‘The Clouds’, or indeed Hortensius in Marivaux’s ‘Second Surprise of Love’ evokes a philosophical discourse that is obscure and lacking in meaning.

In theatre the philosopher is quite regularly represented as a comical figure. Just as philosophy’s polemic against theatre caricatures theatre, so too is theatre’s interpretation of philosophy a caricature, since it represents the image of the pedant. What is interesting to understand is why it is that the philosopher appears comical in theatre.

In reality, the philosopher character is comical in two different registers. Firstly, he is comical because he is a Pedant figure. The character employs a ridiculous rhetoric, speaks Latin, and makes up incomprehensible words. The target here is the pedant figure, the image that the theatre uses to represent the university professor philosopher. We can follow Lacan in talking about how such university discourse is a vain pedantry, an empty rhetoric. Philosophy is here presented as pedantic and exaggeratedly obscure – and that certainly does exist. It should moreover be understood that the theatre makes fun of everything, and comedy makes fun of all authorities, from princes to pedants and from philosophers to salesmen and coquettes. Comedy does not set itself any restrictions. So we ought not whine about the fact that the philosopher is seen as a pedant, that merely proves that he is part of real life.

The best examples of people spouting abstract jargon are to be found in philosophy. If you get a comedian who is a little bit snarky to recite a passage of Hegel then you’ll make everyone laugh, in fact even I could do it. Indeed, Plato would say that in that example it is not really philosophy that is being mocked but sophism, since the typical pedant speaking nonsense is in fact a sophist.

The other comical aspect of the philosopher is the fact that for various reasons he is ill-adapted to the world. Indeed, I think that it was Plato who first pointed to this aspect of the philosopher in his references to Thales falling into the well. Plato knew that this was comedic, and there are many amusing passages, particularly in his dialogues regarding Thales, where he tells of how he fell into the well while he was gazing at the stars. A lowly slave laughed seeing his boss falling into the well. There we have a display of how ill-adjusted the philosopher is to the world, incapable of watching what he has beneath his feet; but we also have the fact of the people’s amusement at seeing such behaviour. So here we are in comedy – the popular audience sees the philosopher falling into a well and has a good chuckle. Plato was well aware that the philosopher is comical, and that he thus has the potential to bring a smile to the popular audience’s lips.

We can think of Aristophanes – for the relations between Plato and Aristophanes were outlandish. Aristophanes wrote a play that made an unprecedented, vehement attack on Socrates, who he brazenly mistook for a sophist spouting jargon. But Aristophanes himself became a theatrical character in Plato’s Symposium – so we have one character set against another. Each made a little theatre of the other, it was a quarrel that took place via the intermediary of theatre. It is really striking to see that Plato’s reply was not philosophical in the strict sense but theatrical, and to note that Aristophanes’s speech in the Symposium is a piece of theatre – and that is why it is so often staged at the theatre.

There is a very important aspect of the philosopher’s ill-adjustment to the world, which concerns the question of love and women. This is a really classic problem, one that has some history in the theatre, since in a certain light it is even the case of Alceste in Molière’s Misanthrope. At root this character has a philosophical posture, he has thought-through moral values, but they do not work for him with Céliméne. You could even say that he would be ready to make important concessions – or, to put it another way, it raises the question of the relationship between philosophy and love, passion, affection, and perhaps even femininity.

It must be recognised that the theatre makes the philosopher a somewhat sombre figure of fun, in the case of the Misanthrope but also in Marivaux. The theatre makes the philosopher’s relation to love a subject of comedy, but it must also be admitted that philosophy, too, has always made an issue out of this. Indeed, it is a problem of the relation between philosophy and the philosopher and amorous passion, sexual desires. The theatre has made a comedy out of it because it makes all contradictions into comedy, and in this case it picked up on the contradiction between the pedant and love, which it finds most amusing.

Philosophy also knows that love and everything that goes with it greatly encumbers philosophy and puts it in a difficult position. I think that the most striking texts in this regard can be found in Stoic philosophy, in Pascal, and laid bare in Kierkegaard. There is a whole philosophical tradition that has studied the particular difficulty of being in love, of passions, of impulses. Or rather, it concerns the problem that the feminine poses philosophy in general. In Plato’s Symposium we see the embarrassment that these problems pose to the philosophers, and perhaps the strongest expression of this is the fact that it is not Socrates who gives the philosophical position on this question; rather, it requires the intervention of a woman, Diotime. It is worth noting that she is the only woman who speaks throughout all of Plato’s dialogues.

He knows perfectly well that if he is going to talk about love then he inevitably has to talk about sexuality, and perhaps even have a woman talking, as he does. Women had no voice in Greek philosopher, but here, yes, Socrates gets her to speak. In reality there is always a tennis match between philosophy and theatre: the ball may now be on one side of the court but it will soon be knocked back over the net. There is a bizarre kind of knot entangling this pair, and I believe that this was the case ever since the beginning, in the image of Plato who wrote the dialogues.

Philosophy poses as problems the very things out of which the theatre makes comedy and tragedy. There is thus a tennis match between, on the one hand, the theatre’s transformation of human experience into comedy or tragedy, and on the other hand, the transformation of human experience into a philosophical problem, that is, into pure thought.

What is the origin of the negative image of the comedian in philosophy? I am here thinking of Rousseau in his ‘Letter to d’Alembert’ in which he asks ‘What is the comedian’s talent? The art of imitation, of taking on another character as if it were his own … yet the most noble role of all is to be a man’.

Rousseau’s diatribe is explicitly moral in character. It is an entirely moral judgement, and as a consequence this piece should be understood as a polemical manner of expounding the constitutive traits of his morality. Lest we forget that he wrote plays for the stage, he wrote a kind of operetta, he was absolutely fascinated by the theatrical milieu. So it is a paradox, and he said it himself: ‘I would prefer to be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices’: he was a man who liked to contradict himself. He saw no problem in contradicting himself – that is, he thought ‘I will contradict myself, and it is up to you to deal with my contradiction’.

All his Confessions were written in this vein, and we know that the moralist Rousseau frequented prostitutes in Venice. Rousseau’s vision of human existence is that it is paradoxical: sometimes he is caught up in a terrible moralising tendency, yet then again he was the first to speak about sexuality in an explicit fashion.

For me, in the ‘Letter to d’Alembert’ Rousseau is on the side of prejudice, with his vehement moralising, and also a type of violence, always bordering on an exaggerated aggressiveness that is almost useless. In a text directed toward representation, he thus makes semblance, imitation, a category worthy of moral judgement: that is the fundamental approach we see in the ‘Letter to d’Alembert’, as is also the case with certain passages in Plato. This consists of making the category of imitation appear as a sort of fraud, a swindle carried out before the court of morality, literally identified with Alceste. For Rousseau, Molière made this character look ridiculous whereas he is in fact a genuine moral hero, since it is he who stands against imitation, worldliness, and lies. For Rousseau, the theatre that derides Alceste is an immoral imposture. However it is not evident that this should be the case, since many times the Misanthrope has been played as the very incarnation of conscience.

Rousseau made the theatre appear before the court of morality, and evidently when you do so at that level of generality – when it is imitation itself that is corrupt, detestable – then you can only consider theatre as a whole as a corruption. And thus you come to uphold a form of entertainment that imitates nothing, that is, a ‘theatre’ that presents the people to itself: not a representation of the people, but the people presenting itself to itself without any imitative mediation. So this theatre that is no longer theatrical goes under the banner of pure presence. In the case of Rousseau, it is the pure presence of a people assembling, what he calls the ‘civic festival’.

Today, many theatre companies seek to deconstruct representation. At root, this means bringing the actor back very close to the real of his body, and making a critique of imitation by going beyond representation. This is a very significant tendency in contemporary art, and thus we might arrive at the slightly bizarre conclusion that there is a Rousseauian tendency in contemporary theatre.

As I underlined already in my talk, the most hardened enemies of theatre have often created possible tendencies for theatre itself. In reality, the debate between the real and form, the real and representation, has forever been a debate internal to theatre. How many times has theatre criticised the artificiality of this or that actor? How many times has theatre wanted to finish with the theatrical conventions of the preceding period? This is living theatre, theatre that portrays life.

This is the spitting image of Rousseau. Indeed, even though he criticised the comedian, as did the Church, in terms of semblance, the false, he nonetheless proposed something else that is equally theatrical. The great civic festivals of the French Revolution were absolutely theatrical.

I would say that there is a whole Rousseauian tendency in theatre today, insofar as it wants to deconstruct representation and bring life onto the stage. Theatre wants to replace the comedian with the real of the body. There is no text more vehement in its attack on the theatre than the ‘Letter to d’Alemebert’, and yet in a certain sense it proposes another theatre and, in the last analysis, another art. There is a rather simple formula for this: theatre made by the audience. For Rousseau, it was the crowd, his people, who had to make theatre. It is as if theatre foresaw such objections. A magnificent example is the medieval representation of the Passion of the Christ [the ‘miracles’] where the people of the village play the Passion of the Christ,the only thing that they could play.

I am convinced that the philosophical objection to the theatre will always simultaneously sustain a certain conception of theatre. When you attack theatre, in reality you instantly start going about supporting another possibility for the theatre.

In ‘Philosophy and Event’ you address Lenin’s claim that ‘in politically inactive periods art is a combination of mystique and pornography’. Then you note that today pornography has stolen a march on mystique. How can you explain this multiplied presence of the body, denuded of all its attributes?

We are living through a moment where there are no widely shared powerful collective discourses. No kind of landmark, no parameters for any kind of creation, even if this creation itself serves the criticism of the dominant discourse. That is the contemporary situation. There is a standard, consensus democratic discourse without any real power; so in this moment, art is making a desperate search for the real. What is the real, in such conditions as these? After all, everyone can tell that the slice of the real in this standard discourse is very weak, that it does not touch on the real to any great extent.

Artists are carrying out this desperate search for the real, and will distrust any representation, because it is coded within this weak discourse. At root, I think that from this point of view they are all Nietzscheans. Indeed, Nietzsche thought that the dominant discourse in his epoch was still Christianity, which was then dying. When he said ‘God is dead’, his real meaning was that Christianity is dead.

Today we are faced with a discourse that looks like a carcass, one that is on the brink of death if not dead – so what must we turn to? We must turn back to life, we must search out the real of life in the depths of the critique of this weakened, dying discourse. Hence the vitalist tendency in art at this type of conjuncture.

The naked body, the multiplied presence of pornography, responds to a vitalism that looks to the body as its only real support. The body is capable of symbolising the real, giving a real feel of the power of life. To plunge down into the capabilities of the body is to discover an indubitable, living real, whereas all discourses, appearances and representations are suspect. The body – well, it is right there, the body with its desires, its search for immanence. The only true resource is thus situated at the level of the body.

I see this question at the level of an internal process. I do not criticise it like Lenin does. You can box yourself in like that, but ultimately what is the problem with the body? If you want to attain the body, you have to denude it of the suspicious speech [parole]attached to it, the speech coded by others, which comes from outside, from the ‘big Other’ as Lacan would say.

It is similarly necessary to denude it of its costume, of the clothes that represent fashion. Nudity has always been a category of the real, and the naked body is the closest thing to the real there is. The most instinctive, impulsive, desirous acts of the body are also, ultimately, the most real. Here we get to the question of excremental or sexual functions – not because of any fascination with these functions, but because of our will to attain the real, free of the symbolisation of images. They are an irreducible, minimal testament to the real, and that is why I think that the presence of nudity, raw sexuality, and delight and suffering, become essential ingredients of any quest in hope of finding an untamed real.

The irreducible character of bodily impulses can be part of a certain nihilism, coming to mean: there is nothing except this. Unlike in the collective discourse, there’s no ‘hot air’ in the naked body: it is right there, and so it is compatible with nihilism. Today, then, theatre is either nihilist or, in a certain sense, utopian. Theatricality is now constrained to pass by way of this nihilism, which can produce very powerful images.

In order to escape this, it must make a non-nihilist promise: that is, to make sure that something happens that is able to give sense to the collective order. That is the challenge that faces our theatrical space today. 

To conclude this interview, could you return to your proposal of making theatre compulsory for everyone?

When I said with some irony that I wanted to make theatre compulsory, what I wanted to say was that what theatre presents are always uncertain choices. Theatre is the presentation of a possible system of orientation, it places the spectator in front of existential hypotheses, and the consequences of these hypotheses. The theatre does not accommodate itself to the world such as it is – no, not at all, it does not accept any convention. It shows paradoxical situations, and thus, as Rousseau says, the spectator sees what is happening and how the characters evolve on the basis of the restrictions imprisoning them.

I think that theatre is an art of the possible, and I speak of compulsory theatre because I think that it is important to teach young people not what is, but what is possible. If you look carefully you will see that the art that really teaches that is the theatre, especially because it has so many possibilities for showing what is possible.

One same play can be staged in very different ways by different productions. The theatre teaches us not only about possibilities but also the possibilities of possibilities. When we see two different actors playing the same role, theatre not only tells us the history of a possibility, but also shows us that there are several possible ways of recounting this history of possibilities. So an actor, a mediator among possibilities, wants to show us that as a skilled actor he can express possibilities in another way. As if theatre were the possibility of possibility. That is why it is a very flexible art, and, from that point of view, I believe that it is an innocent art. Every time anyone has tried to establish a doctrinal theatre, it has bombed, and that is why people are still always putting on old plays from 2,500 years ago… so yes, let’s make theatre compulsory and see what happens!

Alain Badiou was interviewed by Quentin Margne of Inferno Magazine

Avignon, July 2012.

Translated by David Broder.

See all of Alain Badiou's books here.

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