DIE STIMMEN DER NACHT

A Panegyric on Aristotle’s Poetics
A history of tragedy – Mimesis and the terrorist epic

In 1984, news anchorman Ted Koppel, who with Ronald Reagan rose to national fame during the terrorism of the Iran hostage incident, expressed a now familiar (and largely unexplored) sentiment in a Harper‘s magazine interview. “The media, particularly television, and terrorists need one another”, he said. “They have what is fundamentally a symbiotic relationship. Now this is a rather curious statement, for in symbiosis each element functions as a complementary other; thus terrorists would not only create an economy of the media event, but the media would create terrorists in a kind of mutual mimesis. And not merely in the sense of providing would-be revolutionaries with a medium within which to function : the news media, by providing us with what is new and seemingly original, represents and informs terrorism for the first time. Terrorism first appears in culture as a media event. The terrorist, consequently, does not exist before the media image and only exists subsequently as a media image in culture.

This bio-economic association was developped along a slightly different axis later in the same article when journalist Charles Krauthammer called terrorism since 1968 (apropos 1968), “media terrorism”; an essentially new, international form of violence that “needs” and manipulates media as the raison d’être for its existence : “Since the outlaws cannot buy television time, they have to earn it through terrorist acts. Like the sponsors of early television who produced shows as vehicles for their commercials, media terrorists [sic] now provide drama – murder and kidnapping, live – in return for advertising time.”

The title of this special, provocative issue of Harper‘s is “Lost in the Terrorist Theatre”. The issue in fact begins with a series of direct associations between terrorism and performance : terrorism’s “bloody theatrics” follow closely the “script” of the “terrorist productions”. Sprinkled throughout the interviews and essays are numerous quote from various sources explicating terrorism’s theatrical theory and production practice. Taken together the assumption seems to be that the theatricalization of political violence did not really occur until the great age of video began during the eight of the Vietnam action, but nowhere do we see the explication of the other aspect of the symbiosis, the aspect that sees the appearance of terrorism as a natural extension of performative terror, a terror that precedes the mediadrome and gives it birth.

I would then suggest an inversion : I would suggest that while the symbiosis between terrorism and media is an authentic one, the emphasis ought to be reversed – the media do not merely need and support terrorism, they construct it mimetically as a phenomenon. And the phenomenon is so constructed because American culture as a whole needs it, desires it, is fascinated by it, and utilizes it as a central impulse in its foreign and domestic policy. I would further suggest that while terrorism is not theatre, terrorims’s affiliation with political coercion as performance is a history whose first impulse is a terror that is theatre’s moment, a terror that is so basic to human life that it remains largely invisible except as theatre. The history of theatre’s filiation with psychic and political terror is the perfect twin of terror’s own history as politics. That history – the operation and objectification of terror as a first principle of performance, from thought, to mise en scène, to terrorist act – is the subject of this book.

Anthony Kubiak, Stages of Terror: Terrorism, Ideology, and Coercion as Theatre History, 1991.

PRESENCE/ABSENCE

The relationship between these 2 states is what Anthony Kubiak sees as “the implicit dialectic of the stage.” And the heart of that relationship, the shift from being to non-being, he names as “terror”.

Terror, the threat of non-being, is what calls life into question and so gives it its reality.
Terror is what, in the catharsis of danger and pain, re-presents life as life.

Kubiak’s book is called Stages of Terror (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana). It was written in 1991. It is an attempt, no less, to write a history of theatre as terror. More than that, it argues that theatre’s ability to name that terror at the base of life has always been one step ahead of the society in which it has played. That the culture of perception which it has engendered in all its forms has, far from mirroring its society, found ways of developing for that society an understanding of the terrifying interplay between power, production, coercion, ideology and identity—an interplay that is based upon the application of terror and its close allies, violence, pain and panic. This may seem to be a bleak reading of theatre and of history itself. I don’t think so. It is bracing to witness with clarity the powers that cloak themselves in all sorts of coercive masks within our society and it is true that theatre above all is the artform that can, that has and that should reveal those masks—even if it does so (as in Restoration comedy) by applying them even more rigidly.

Four days after the attack on the twin towers, Patti Smith wrote: “Once, in another century, I penned with arrogance, ‘I am an American, and I have no guilt.’ Now I feel compelled to utter, ‘I am an American artist, and I feel guilty about everything.’ In spite of this I will not turn away. I will keep working. This I perceive as duty. As I pray to God that in days to come, I will not awake and rise with the blood of the Afghan people dripping from my hands” (Interview magazine).

Well, we have witnessed how little effect her prayer has had. State terror has launched all its self righteous power pitilessly against a people redefined as the enemy because their home was the supposed source of an act of anti-state terror. At the time of writing, the central protagonist, ‘The World’s Most Wanted Man’, has slipped through the holes in the net, which is to be expected because we need to ‘want’ him more than we need to have him.

All this is constructed reality, pretence, feeding our desires for Violence while it distracts our attention from how much the new world order is oppressing us too. Theatre has foreseen this pretence: “The history of theatre also seems to tell us quite plainly that what is seen is in essence false because what is seen is inessential. The ‘ocular proof’, then, is always a lie, because it is always infected by the desire to see, and to see what one desires” (Kubiak).

Richard Murphet, Terror, theatre & The Hairy Ape, RealTime issue #47, Feb-March 2002, p.4

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