Oliver Feltham: What is Contemporaneity in Theater?
What is Contemporaneity in Theater?
(S. 45 – 58)

The time of theater and the time of the polis

Oliver Feltham

What is Contemporaneity in Theater?
Atomism versus Atavism

PDF, 14 Seiten

Feltham’s article addresses the moment of contemporaneity in the realm of the theater, and its ability to produce phenomena that have both a temporal and a political structure. On the basis of a detailed contrast between Dario Fo’s performance La fame dello Zanni and another performance by the Compagnie Carabosse, the article investigates the relation between the act of a performance and its spectators. Theater, the author argues, is able to present corporeal experience as the ground for the contemporaneity of different times, times built on “atavistic temporalities of the commons” as opposed to the pure circulation of goods in the polis.

Theater as a live art has a peculiarly complicated relation to time, and to the present, especially because sometimes it proves to be a mimetic art, and sometimes not. Not only is it a matter of the temporality of the theater itself, and then of the time of the play, and of the performance but it is also – and this since the original Greek dispensation of theater – a question of the time of the city, of the polis, of the community, if such a thing exists. 

The object of this paper is theater as the production of contemporaneity, a temporal phenomenon which also turns out to be corporeal and political. The material consists of two theatrical performances; one by Dario Fo, titled La Fame dello Zanni (The Servant’s Hunger) and performed in what appears to be a university lecture hall in 1977 for RAI Due, Italian state television, and the other a public installation of fire by the Compagnie Carabosse on the Canal St Martin in Paris in May 2003 as part of the Festival du Printemps des rues. This investigation of contemporaneity is the continuation of a project on modern theater, the first part of which was published and then reworked under the title “An Explosive Genealogy: Theater, Philosophy and the Art of Presentation.”1 That article employs a conceptual framework found in Alain Badiou’s philosophy to identify and trace a consistent procedure of transformation that takes place in modern theater from what I call the Meyerhold-event through both Artaud and Brecht and beyond. The result is the identification of a tenuous, almost indiscernible art of presentation that not only traverses the boundaries of theater and mass media, but also explodes the distinction between philosophy and art, two supposedly separate domains according to Badiou’s conception of philosophy. In that article I was particularly concerned with how philosophy relates to theater in the original Greek dispensation – it always does so through a third term, the polis, or education – and how that dispensation persists in what has been called modernist theater, such as Brecht’s learning plays. The question of whether there is a modern dispensation of the relation between theater and philosophy forms the horizon of the present enquiry into theater and temporality. 

Two performances. One performance is live, a one-off public spectacle, with no actors but an installation, and an enormous audience that just happens to find itself at the site of the event. The other performance is filmed in front of a live television audience and it now exists as a youtube clip. It is a solo with no script, décor, costume, or props – a solo that inscribes itself consciously in the rebirth of commedia dell’arte. The two performances are opposed, but both good examples of contemporary theatrical practice understood in the wider sense.

I. Slow fire on black water

One evening in May 2003 I am out in the 10th arrondissement. I start to cross the canal St Martin at the Rue Eugene Garlin bridge and stop: something is different; the quays are crowded, the canal is on fire. Globes of fire drift on flat black water that stretches out, narrows and disappears into the maw of the night-shaded lock, its length and its drive to vanishing point illuminated by lantern-strings of fire sullenly hung between the trees. The banks of the canal hum with people, no longer there to picnic, to suck on beers, to mash camembert into baguettes, but to gaze, to wonder.

The spectacle disunites the crowd. There is unease. And yet there is also slack-jawed wonder. And then the jaws tighten, the muscles tense, because there is unease. All is not well with this crowd. The people are disunited precisely within their curiosity as to other people’s reactions. People arealso disunited because the spectacle itself is ambivalent. It is ambivalent because its elements are primal; the water is on fire. The fire is consuming itself; wisps of black smoke drift and shade and render opaque the faces of the crowd. These are not pretty fireworks – the fire does not burst into colour and disappear in a pure aerial ephemeral display. These are clay pots of fire, and they continue to burn, and they drift above water, held in a skeletal frame, and they hang from cords slung between the trees, they shock in the waxy smokiness of their orange flames and in their ubiquity. Fire pots hang on low flimsy strands between the trees, firepots hang perilously close to overhanging branches, firepots dangle within reach of young unburnt arms. The spheres, emptied globes, four meters across, float with opaque intention down the canal, every intersection in their metallic frame hung with a fire pot, crosses on fire, but crosses made global, made spherical, made to float on an unnameable ether: balls of flame drifting between the crowds on black depthless water – a vulgar invocation of the inhuman reach of the milky way. To burn is to destroy, flames are not innocent in Paris, November 2005 taught us this. 

Each individual gazes, momentarily, then longer, at the fire pots, the immense unexpected spectacle, so quiet, so alien. Each looks, a slackjawed yokel and thus undifferentiated in the moment, trying not to be caught looking for too long, not wanting to be taken for a slackjawed yokel, not wanting to be taken in, and undifferentiated, rendered indeterminate, by the fire. We evaluate the other’s reactions to the same spectacle and distrust the possibility of commonality in the face of slow fire on black water.

It is a night mass, the flat black rectangle of depthless water the nave, the fire the candles illuminating the altar, but the altar is missing and there is no predication, no choir, no prayer. A secular mass then, an empty invocation of what could be or could have been a spiritual commonality of a community: this is a spectacle for an absent community. And yet in order to be such it must, it does create a present. But what kind of present? A present as capture and seizure, as interruption; the present of the act of staring that is thus always too long or too short to grasp what is to be seen. And as capture and seizure by a spectacle for an absent community, this present is evacuated: it is a time of suspension in which anything can happen. 

The time, an early Žižek would have said, of a vanishing mediator; the time, Jean-Luc Nancy would say, of the exposition of the always already exposed ecstatic being of the community, the being of having nothing in common.2 The same kind of evacuation or opening occurred not in a single present but over a short period in the streets of the northwestern outer arrondissements of Paris during the riots of November 2005. 

But this particular theatrical production of a present as an emptying, as suspense, as exposition of social anxiety is nothing new: it is a present as exception, and this is a well-known habitual figure in the history of public art – it is precisely the time of the carnival, of the upending and overturning of social hierarchies as thought by Bakhtin. In so far as the carnival is ritualized, that it comes around according to seasonal rhythms, these exceptional presents lose a little of their exceptionality. There is of course a well-established tradition of public spectacle in France: from Louis XIV’s parties in the Versailles gardens to Robespierre’s festivals for the universal spirit, from to the Bastille Day flyover of the Champs Elysées to Bertrand Delanoé’s Nuit blanche. Ritualized exception loses its subversive potential: it has a definite moment in the calendar, everything returns to normal on the following day, just as Bakhtin writes of the carnival. Indeed, the slow fire on black water was produced by the Compagnie Carabosse within the setting of the Festival du Printemps de la rue, and they also created a similar installation for the 2008 edition of the Nuit blanche in the Jardin des Tuileries. 

But in that very moment the spectacle was no ritual; it was a shock, a surprise and the present it created had the full force of exceptionality. Can one then speak of the theatrical production of contemporaneity? Contemporaneity – like time in Heidegger’s critical note on Hegel’s uncritical repetition of Aristotle’s vulgar conception of time – contemporaneity cannot be thought on the basis of the now, of the present, alone; even if it be an endlessly already past or deferred present of absence. The present of the time of community qua presence is impossible: it is either always deferred or it has already passed by, but in an inaccessible past, a past without present, a golden age. Rather, contemporaneity implies not the present but the co-existence, the intersection of at least two different temporalities. 

According to the conception of modernist theater as a generic truth procedure, a modernist work is a corporate creative act (Vladimir Meyerhold’s phrase). If this is the case, the theatrical production of a contemporaneity must involve the active creation of a collective body. The present created by the fire spectacle evacuated any consistent collective: it exposed the absence of community and the interruption of all myth in Jean-Luc Nancy’s sense, but it built nothing; it exposed being-in-common as nothing more than the state of having nothing-in-common but an experience of anxiety and inconsistency, social tension, the vacuity of an atomized factionalized society.3 Each individual is inside himself or his group and the crowd is outside the individual. Pure externality is created by atomic internalities. The only exchange is constituted by the frisson and irritation of demands for cigarettes and unwanted harassment. Globes of fire: signs, footlights, décor of a tragedy that never happened, if not the tragedy of daily Parisian life. To be exact, this spectacle did not create a collective body, in so far as those who saw it were not completely spectators; in a properly theatrical spectacle, the spectators are included in the spectacle, they are always already also participants – theater as modernist, as part of a generic truth procedure, itself undoes and actively destabilizes the active/passive distinction that Rancière philosophically destabilizes in his essay “Le Spectateur emancipé.”4

This idea of theatrical contemporaneity as necessitating a structure of inclusion, specifically of inclusion of the spectator as always also a participant is brilliantly clear in Dario Fo’s performance of La Fame dello Zanni, the Servant’s Hunger.

II. A collective body of hunger 

Dario Fo’s performance of La Fame dello Zanni is available as a clip on youtube. I invite any reader of this article to immediately verify this claim: please look it up and watch the clip. It can be accessed via any moderately fast internet connection on earth: this is in keeping with the performance’s initial broadcasting on public television, and its roots in popular street theater. 

In the absence of an effective hyperlink in the present text, a description of the performance will suffice to anchor my analysis. The performance lasts for eight minutes and consists of eight sections, which are all more or less a minute long. It is a one-man show, a monologue making extensive use of mime, and using no props, décor, makeup or costumes. The monologue is not in Italian but rather in “grammelot,” a made-up language consisting of a mix of words borrowed from local dialects in the Po valley, Italian, onomatopoeic words, and gibberish. For this reason I have taken more than poetic license in my transcription. 

1. Transcription of La Fame dello Zanni

First section: the servant declares his hunger. He exclaims that he is so hungry he would scoop out one of his own eyes and eat it, tear off an ear and swallow it and then the hand and arm that was feeding it into his mouth. Then the swallowed arm would grab his intestines from the inside, pull them up through his throat out into the air, squeeze all the shit out of them and knead it together into a string of plump shit-sausages to be savoured one by one, licking his fingers afterwards. He even would eat his smelly feet! His legs, bum, dick, stomach, shoulders, and head – all that would be left would be the mouth trying to eat itself, gnawing away continuously.

Second section: the hunger is turned on external objects. I would eat a donkey exclaims the servant, stroking a large juicy donkey in front of him. He turns directly on the audience and threatens to eat them one by one. He could eat entire mountains and shapes a mountain range in front of him, filling out the horizon. He then looks up into the sky and threatens God: “Lucky you are so far away, I’d eat you! And a nice dish of seraphim for dessert!”

Third section: cooking an imaginary polenta. The servant complains that his hunger is killing him – he appeals to the audience, “what can I do?”. He imagines a massive casserole in front of him, at least up to his chest and a meter wide brimming with boiling water over a fire, the water bubbling “gloop,” “glup,” “pop.” Here we go, he exclaims, time for some spices, and adds salt to the water. He then shakes an oversized sack of polenta into the boiling water, stirs it with a solid stick of cinnamon. Look at it bubbling, the polenta! How lovely! It smells wonderful. 

Fourth section: cooking an imaginary ragout sauce. Another fire is lit, a casserole placed on it, oil, garlic, salt, tomatoes, some salami and other meat added. The servant sniffs the steam evaporating off the sauce and exclaims at how good it smells. 

Fifth section: killing and cooking a chicken. A third fire is lit on the other side of the polenta, a casserole placed on it, and oil, salt, herbs, rosemary and onions added, the latter causing the servant to cry. The servant grabs a squawking chicken and with much effort and protest on the chicken’s part, wrings its neck, rips off the head and, after a moment’s consideration, eats it. He slices open the chicken, scoops out the internal organs and again, after hesitating, gulps them all down. He stuffs the chicken with lemons and onions, dresses it with oil and herbs and then sews the carcass back together with string, ties a knot and bites off the excess string, which he also eats. 

Sixth section: mixing the three dishes. Suddenly he remembers the polenta, grabs the wooden spoon and stirs it. He then checks on the ragout sauce, lifting the lid and savoring the steam: “It’s hot!” He adds a dollop of wine that sends off an enormous gust of steam. He picks up the casserole and tips the ragout carefully into the polenta, scraping the bottom with a spoon. He mixes the polenta and ragout sauce, anticipating with glee the moment of adding the chicken, which is almost ready. He grabs the chicken out of its pot – “ooh it’s hot!” – chops it into pieces on a board and accidentally slices off a finger – “My finger!” – then shrugs and eats his finger. He adds the chicken pieces to the ragout and polenta exclaiming at the cinnamon flavor. Suddenly he remembers to add all of the oil and juices from the chicken pot. 

Seventh section: eating the imaginary polenta, ragout and chicken. The servant lifts up the central heavy casserole above his head and carefully tips it into his mouth, making a gargling noise, sliding the whole meal down through his cavernous mouth into his throat and stomach in one continuous stream of food. He sets down the casserole, scrapes the bottom with the spoon, licks the remainder off the spoon and then eats it as well.

Eighth section: imaginary stomach ache and eating the real fly. Suddenly the servant goes quiet and still, and then starts to moan in a faint voice, grasping his stomach and complaining of the pain. Whilst he is lamenting, a fly buzzing in front of his face distracts him. He follows the fly with his eyes and nose and forgets the stomach ache. He threatens the fly that he will catch it and eat it if it doesn’t go away and stop annoying him. The fly ignores the threat and settles on the servant’s nose. The servant, cross-eyed and gleeful succeeds in grabbing the fly off his nose and imprisoning it in his fist. He shakes it next to his ear and exclaims at the lovely buzz it makes. He peers into his fist and exclaims how beautiful his fly is, he looks again and is delighted to report how fat and juicy it is. He then displays the fly pinched between thumb and forefinger and shows off its legs to us before picking them off one by one and eating them. Oh look how juicy! The head is delicious. The wings are so tender, just like butterflies, to be savoured in the mouth. He finishes the fly off by eating the abdomen – “oh yum!” “Mmmm!” “Mmmmmmm!” – he swallows very deliberately and emphatically and exclaims “What a meal!” (che mangiata!)

This performance creates a collective body of hunger by constructing a consistent world that stretches beyond the time of the theater to the time of servants and workers in Renaissance Italy and the time of the audience, a world that includes us, and includes unreachable hierarchical instances such as the Gods. The primal vector of this construction is the hyperbolic and all-encompassing hunger of the servant. The second vector is the confusion introduced between imaginary objects – the polenta – and supposedly “real” or real objects such as the fly and the spectators. The third vector is Fo’s staging of an atavistic return to a common substrate.

2. Hyperbolic hunger

The defining gesture of this entire performance is eating; opening the jaws, chewing and swallowing. The location of the forever-delayed satisfaction of hunger is not the stomach but the jaws: what ­imaginary satisfaction the servant draws from miming a huge meal is not located in a full stomach – which is the result he needs after all – but in the activity of a voracious set of jaws. The hunger dominates the person of the servant to become all encompassing; it defines him, and in turn it is personified in his jaws, which become so important that they would separate themselves from their own corporeal location by eating the servant’s very body. The paradoxical result of the mime of the first section is that the jaws are all that is left of the servant’s body because everything else has been eaten, and the only thing stopping the jaws from eating themselves is that they can’t due to a paradox of self-reflexivity. In Lacanian terms, the jaws could only eat themselves through a fusion of the subject of enunciation with the subject of the statement, but the subject of enunciation is irreducible, as Lacan’s analysis of Descartes’ cogito shows. Likewise the agent of the jaw’s activity is irreducible to consume themselves the jaws reassert their own existence. So the hunger that Fo portrays is hyperbolic in a metaphysical sense; not only would it consume its own material support – the body – but it states the impossibility of consuming itself as pure activity. 

The hunger is also hyperbolic in its physical and cosmological extensions: not only will animals larger than the servant be consumed, but all taboos concerning cannibalism will be broken and the audience will share in the experience of becoming an object of the servant’s hunger, each audience member being edible. Geographical and topological features, although inorganic and dwarfing the servant, will also become objects of hunger as it absorbs and engulfs entire mountain ranges. Then breaking all taboos concerning blasphemy the servant turns to God and threatens to eat him too, thus trumping any other maximum item of hunger, since if God is omnipresent and sustains the cosmos, with God eaten so is the cosmos, and by implication the jaws – save for the irreducibility of the subject of eating, as remarked above. 

The servant’s hunger recognizes no distinctions that might allow an eventual separation of objects into the categories of edible and inedible: animal or human, small or large, alive or dead, performer or audience, organic or inorganic, material or divine – it is all one to the servant in his hunger. So this is a democratic hunger: all are equal in potentially providing satisfaction, all are united in being potentially the object of consumption. But not only do we share in the feast through being designated as objects of hunger, but also participate as subjects, as people who would also like to eat polenta, ragout and chicken, who take sections three through six of the performance as a cooking lesson and imagine all the savors and ingredients and cooking sensations along with the servant, not least because he appears to be making not just a meal for one person but an entire feast’s worth. 

How is it possible for spectators – not just those in the television studio, sitting on the floor between the cameras, but also those watching youtube – to share in this collective hunger? What if all they feel is disgust when Fo mimes the servant eating his own shit, or offended when he threatens to eat God? What if they simply feel indifferent and do not appreciate this kind of theater? All of these reactions are quite possible. However, the first two, disgust and offence, do place the spectator in a relationship to the servant’s excessive hunger and thus he or she can become caught up in the collective body of hunger, albeit in a marginal or negative position. The third reaction, that of indifference, simply excludes the spectator from this collective experience – at a purely contingent level, not everyone has to get involved, as is the case with any theatrical performance. 

This particular performance by Fo succeeds in creating a contemporaneity, and it does so by constructing a collective body of hunger in line with Meyerhold’s definition of modern theater as a “corporeal collective act.” But how is this collective body constructed?

3. Mime as imitation or presentation: the fly-event 

In Fo’s performance both the action of miming eating, and the objects of this mime – the servant’s organs, the mountains, God, the ragout, the fly – oscillate between being real or imaginary. Fo does not mime being a servant in 1500s Italy. He presents a “servant” to the audience, who talks to the audience and thus does not exclusively inhabit an exotic historical setting, but also inhabits the here and now. Moreover, it is the servant who mimes eating polenta as a solution to the problem of his hunger: mime is a real tactic that appears to afford the servant some satisfaction, some pleasure, despite its imaginary nature. Indeed it seems an entirely pragmatic reaction to his situation: rather than waiting for food, rather than suffering in silence, invent your meal! You’re not poor after all! You can eat anything you manage to present to yourself!

In so far as he draws enjoyment out of make-believe, Fo’s servant presents an allegory of the theatrical situation per se, in which we all draw enjoyment out of make-believe. Like us as spectators, the servant gets some satisfaction and delight from the game of pretending. 

But the division between what is mimed and what is real, what is represented and what is presented, what is evidently imaginary – the oversized bubbling casseroles – and what is real or imaginary for the servant, becomes confused with the entrance of the fly. The servant is in the middle of lamenting his stomach ache, brought about by overeating, when the fly distracts him. He completely forgets about the stomach pains and follows the fly with intent, threatening to catch and eat it. This implies that the stomach pains were mere make-believe, part of his game, and that the fly is real. Moreover, once he catches it and exclaims in delight at how juicy it looks we know that it must present the possibility of a different kind of satisfaction to that of the polenta and ragout. If the fly were of the same ontological status within the performance as the ragout, the servant would not be even the slightest bit interested in eating it – he is full! And why would he eat a fly when he can eat polenta and chicken? So the fly must possess an alternative ontological status, it must promise a more lasting satisfaction than the mimed meal. Indeed when he finally finishes eating it the servant exclaims “What a meal!”. 

The fly is real within the performance because it stops the evidently imaginary stomach ache and is the cause of genuine satisfaction and repletion at the end. On the other hand, it is imaginary for the spectator inasmuch as we are quite sure there was no real fly in the television studio that landed on Fo’s nose. But then, within the performance, the fly event retrospectively recasts the entire polenta episode as imaginary. This implies that from the standpoint of the spectator we cannot judge what counts as real or imaginary for the servant. The servant appears to join us, and our standpoint, by judging the polenta episode to be imaginary, so the ontological difference between character and audience member is momentarily bridged or erased. But then he judges as real – the fly event – what we hold to be yet another imaginary episode, so he immediately separates his ontological standpoint from ours. Moreover, it is ironic if not incredible that this supposedly oversized and all-engulfing hunger could be satisfied by the most petite of dishes: one juicy fly. Does this imply that this terrible hunger was all an act? Or is the servant so poor, so reduced, his expectations so low that the fly is a genuine feast? We – or at least many of the audience – shared in his hungry anticipation of the pleasures of polenta and ragout, whereas more than most of us would be disgusted with having to eat a fly. The fly episode dramatizes the social situation of the servant (and perhaps that of the itinerant actor) in contrasting imaginary plenitude with the poverty of the real, imaginary multiplicity – internal organs, donkeys, mountains, God, seraphim, etc. – with real singularity. But does the servant’s mime contrast imaginary community with real solitude? Again, in so far as the servant at one moment interpellates the audience by threatening to eat them one by one, the divisions between his imaginary situation – he is not alone – and his real ­situation – he is alone (till the fly comes along) – and the spectators’ real situation – they are not alone: these divisions are confused. 

It is precisely this confusion, this oscillation between imitation and original, imaginary and real, that renders the servant’s actions so communicable: if he can imagine his own feast then so can we, we can imagine eating and sharing in his feast. We are joined to the servant in that he, like us, distributes objects into the categories of the imaginary and the real. And so we redetermine and encompass his performance from our standpoint, with our judgement and our categories. But then the inverse is also true; he redetermines our situation, he makes us like him, he includes our situation within his own presentation by allowing us, like him, to draw pleasure from make-believe, and by upsetting our originally confident categorization of imaginary and real objects. 

Such is the general condition of an action that creates a community, an action that I call an alliance: each member of the alliance, each person or standpoint that is involved in the action must be able to envelop and comprehend the other persons and standpoints involved in the action. To comprehend another member of an alliance is to be able to redetermine, in one’s own terms, their position and their relationships. The servant redetermines the audience members’ relationship to him, as sole performer, by turning them all into potential morsels of food: this is the operation of hyperbolic hunger. The audience redetermines the servant by qualifying his mimed objects as imaginary for us, then as imaginary for him in contrast to the object that is real for him but imaginary for us: this is the work of the fly-event. 

Of course, not all alliance-actions are theatrical, and contemporary communities can come about in all kinds of situation, not just in a RAI television studio or on youtube. This particular alliance-action happens to be theatrical: theatricality can be defined as the gaining of real satisfaction through presentations whose distribution between the real and the imaginary is undecidable. 

But many theatrical spectacles destabilize our habitual categories of real and imaginary – there must be something else about Fo’s performance, apart from the hyperbolic hunger and the fly-event, which enables it to create this collectivity, this alliance. The third element in my interpretation of The Servant’s Hunger is what I call the exposition of a corporeal substrate.

4. Exposing a corporeal substrate

Fo creates a collective body of hunger at a sociological level – polenta and ragout is an ordinary and relatively cheap dish that everybody might eat, barring food allergies. It is not a refined dish that distinguishes those who consume it as gourmets or nobles due to the cost of the ingredients. It involves neither caviar nor truffles. It can be swiftly adapted for vegetarians, swapping tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and eggplant for the mincemeat. Not only is it a democratic dish, but the ragout is eaten in a democratic manner, devoid of social distinctions; that is, the servant, in his hunger, has very little in the way of table manners, eating directly out of the pot and from the serving spoon not to mention the vile things he eats beforehand. There is absolutely no tableware or cutlery, not to mention a serviette and he does not chew each mouthful thirty-six times as a young gentleman would. Hunger per se, intense hunger, has no specific object: the servant shows us this; it could be satisfied by anything, and as such it does not receive social markers, save that of being applicable to everybody. 

But it could be the case that I come from another continent with other culinary traditions and polenta is neither an ordinary, nor a cheap, nor even an appetizing dish for me. But even in that case the servant grabs me and includes me on another level, beyond the sociological: the corporeal. All humans, I venture, know what hunger feels like. Even the most privileged have occasionally skipped a meal and found themselves momentarily subject to an aching stomach. And hunger is not the kind of sensation we presume to be peculiar in its individual qualities. I do not know what it feels like for you to be hungry, but I imagine that the sensation is more or less the same as when I feel hungry. Hunger certainly admits degrees – we can feel peckish, and we can be famished – and hunger does manifest itself in extraordinarily different behaviors, from wolfing down a hamburger as we walk down the street to eating minute quantities of macrobiotic greens every half-hour so as to avoid arousing a stomach ulcer. But hunger as a sensation is not particularly distinct: it has a rough location somewhere in the abdomen; it is a dull roundish ache, and it can set off the saliva glands. We accept that it is an utterly Pavlovian sensation in its conformity. What I do with my hunger is quite different to what you might do with yours, but I presume your hunger does not involve sharp knifing pains, and that it does not occur in your chest, or your legs. 

It is the indistinctness of hunger, its lack of individuality as sensation, which makes it such a ripe subject for empathetic identification: the spectator can easily sympathize with the servant situation. And it is in so far as we imagine his hunger, that we are all the more eager to participate in the cooking lesson. Without entering into moral or political analyses of the servant’s society, the spectator moves from empathy to immediately judging that it is not a good thing for a human being to go hungry – it would be better if a servant could eat, and more than a fly. Why shouldn’t a servant eat real polenta and ragout? Surely this servant with his wonderful imaginative powers, his charisma, and his talents for telling stories deserves to eat a chicken! The performance gives the hyperbolic hunger just one objective determination, one external symbolic designation: it is a servant’s hunger. The very title of the piece – La Fame dello Zanni – connects a corporeal and familiar sensation with one social category. In doing so it implicitly suggests that although everybody knows what hunger feels like, it is socially concentrated in the lower classes, amongst those who serve – the dogsbodies. And so the piece immediately draws our attention to the contrast between the democratic meal, in which all can share, and the existence of social hierarchy, between the universal sensation, which all can experience, and the unequal distribution of goods in society. A collective is created through Fo’s performance, through the presentation of the servant’s hyperbolic hunger and the fly-event, but it is a problematic and disjunct collective. On the one hand, a corporeal substrate of community is uncovered in the theatrical space: we all possess stomachs, we have all gone hungry, if only for a little while, at least once, and we could all go hungry again. And on the other hand, society is divided into those who go hungry, and those who do not, those who eat badly, and those who do not. The collective body of hunger must stretch across the commonality and the distinctions, the corporeal sameness, and the symbolic disjunctions. But its capacity to do just that resides in the force of its exposure of the corporeal substrate, the common stomach. 

Together, through our participation in the cooking lesson, we discover our stomachs and our saliva glands – I’m hungry as I write! – and a commonality of sensation is generated not least through the work of Fo’s grammelot, the dialectal macaronic mishmash of guttural and glottal gibberish and indistinct Italian words which voices the hunger, which vibrates the hunger through the servant’s body and throat till the spittle flies. Synaesthetic atavism! The word made not flesh but into a need for flesh! The servant’s voice gains in depth and timbre as his body wastes away. The force of his voice grounds itself on nothingness, on an aching void, and his guttural onomatopoeic utterances are heard-felt in our own stomachs, bypassing the symbolic order – but not just our own stomachs, in our neighbours’ stomachs, in a stomach that includes us, whose void is so large it will swallow all beings whatsoever, imaginary, real, potential and actual: atavism of the commons. This is the bodily substrate of any political economy. 

In so far as we can feel the servant’s language as hunger; in so far as that hunger is not individual but in its hyperbolic and its empathetic reach is collective; inasmuch as it is not socially distinguished but basic; and in so far as it takes us back to our internal perception of our own bodies, our stomachs, which are immediately part of this collective body, and thus it takes us back to a commonality of sensations, to the commonality and joy of sharing a long-awaited meal with strangers, of sharing in a not only moveable but invisible feast – in so far as the servant’s hunger does all of this, it weaves relations between the objects of this performance and confuses the categories of imaginary and real to the point of creating an atavism: a return to the commons. That is to say, we find this collective body of hunger in ourselves, and we momentarily realize that it has always been there like a substrate but was forgotten, covered over by social distinctions and proper identities, covered over by the divisions between actor and spectator, live audience and youtube visitor. 

III. The time of theater and the time of the polis

Not all theatrical performances create a contemporaneity. To create a contemporaneity is temporarily, ephemerally, to construct stable relationships between different temporalities. These must include temporalities of the polis, the city-state, but not only the simple temporalities of the circulation of goods, and names, and fashions; rather they must include the atavistic temporalities of the commons. The conjunction of theater’s ephemeral temporality with the atavistic substratal temporality of the corporeal ground of the city-state is an experience of contemporaneity. Theater does present the city-state to itself, but not as self-identical, rather as disjoint from itself – time, as Hamlet remarks, is out of joint. Theater is capable of exposing the city-state’s condition as a disjunction between its dominant and hegemonic temporalities – those of the circulation of goods and signs – and its material ground. But rather than exposing this disjunction as pure inconsistency, as anxious atomism and the potential clash of factions, as did the ­Compagnie ­Carabosse’s fire spectacle on the Canal St Martin, theater can also expose such a disjunction by constructing, for a brief moment, an evening’s interlude, a consistency, an alliance of different times. This is a contemporaneity, and it is not a dividing and vanishing moment – now, then – but a world to be inhabited.


1 Oliver Feltham, “An Explosive Genealogy: Theater, Philosophy and the Art of Presentation,” Cosmos and History: The Praxis of Alain Badiou (Melbourne: Re-press, 2007).

2 Note that one cannot object – as one commentator did – that to speak of an empirical example of Nancy’s concept of the inoperative community is to confound the ontic with the ontological: the ontological is none other than the being of the ontic.

3 See Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

4 Jacques Rancière, Le spectateur emancipé (Paris: La Fabrique, 2008).

  • Kunst
  • Dichtung
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  • Walter Benjamin
  • Gegenwartskunst
  • Theater
  • Marcel Duchamp
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  • Theodor W. Adorno
  • Ästhetik
  • Kunsttheorie

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Oliver Feltham

ist Professor für Philosophie an der American University in Paris. Er ist Spezialist für kritische Theorie und frühe moderne Philosophie und hat darüber hinaus ausführlich zum Werk Alain Badious gearbeitet, den er auch übersetzt hat. Er arbeitet momentan an einer Gegengeschichte politischen Handelns.

Frank Ruda (Hg.), Jan Völker (Hg.): Art and Contemporaneity

Frank Ruda (Hg.), Jan Völker (Hg.)

Art and Contemporaneity

Broschur, 176 Seiten

PDF, 176 Seiten

Although art always takes place in time, its manifestations – actual works of art – can be characterized by the specific and close connection they maintain between contemporaneity and timelessness. Their relation to time must be differentiated in a twofold manner: on the one hand, there is the relation to the time in which they are embedded, and, on the other, the relation to the time that they themselves create. In particular historical conditions a specific temporality of the artwork emerges. Both temporalities are superimposed on by one another, namely as a timelessness of artworks as such. The book assembles a variety of thinkers that confront one of the most crucial questions when dealing with the very definition, concept and operativity of art: How to link art to the concept of the contemporary?