An Apologia (Letter to My Detractors)

Dear Detractors,

This post is addressed to the speakers and audience at a plenary session at this year’s ASTR (American Society for Theater Research) conference, and everyone who heard about it at the time, and everyone who heard about it later, I don’t actually expect any of them to read it, but that doesn’t much matter.

The plenary speakers were two early-career scholars (or maybe one was a graduate student); the audience was rather small, maybe 50-60 people, almost all also early-career scholars or grad students—a fact which I found disconcerting. The two papers seemed to me to be quite good, but I felt there was a significant problem for both of them, and I decided to say as much. Had I been a bit smarter I would have raised my concern as a question, or maybe just shrugged and moved on, but no such luck. I said four things:

  • I’m an older white man, who works in theater studies and social theory.
  • I thought the papers were both quite good.
  • However, performance per se was rather secondary or marginal. Discussing meanings, symbolism and representation is not the same as discussing performance.
  • However, against #3, the papers could have a home, just not here. The two scholars needed to “go big,” as I put it.

These statements were taken as extremely out of line and as in some way blind to the material on performance in them, attacking the papers’ quality and the speakers themselves, and striving to push them out of the field.  Unfortunately I am not very articulate in extemporary contexts (or most social contexts, actually), so I expressed my concerns quite poorly (the third item particular put everyone on the defensive), and with far too much abbreviation because I secretly believe in telepathy.  I ended up appearing as The Face of Oppressive and Narrow-minded Elder Scholars and whatever other horrible things, and word spread quickly.  (The road to hell, and all that.)  It probably didn’t help matters that both speakers were young women.  I did manage to extend a personal apology to each of them, because I had indeed been patronizing and assumed they weren’t already doing what I hoped they would do (one of the two in fact had taken at least one and maybe more steps in that direction), plus to some extent I came bearing a fair amount of disciplinary history and inappropriately projected it onto them; hence also my clarification/self-defense here, intended for the broader community.

Obviously the first two items aren’t controversial.  However, I still think the articles weren’t particularly on performance: they were articles that (to differing degrees) used performance and other approaches to interpret cultural developments or as component subjects and therefore would fit better elsewhere, most likely cultural studies or some cognate discipline.  As the speakers delivered their papers, I looked around the room, its sea of young faces, and thought, How many here have twenty years of experience doing archival work?  Twenty years soaked in the history of New York City or Cleveland?  Twenty years in cultural studies?  Twenty years of arguments on historiography?  Who can support the speakers by giving deeply informed comments?  In an audience this small?  Five?  Two?  Most likely none, which seemed borne out by the questions they were actually asked.  Although the papers seemed quite good to me, I certainly don’t have all the expertise to say they actually were good, and it didn’t seem like anyone else did either.

I’ve been an outside reader for journal articles often enough to know that one of the questions they’re usually supposed to answer is whether the article is a good fit for the journal.  I don’t know whether other readers actually discuss the issue, but I certainly do.  An article on Restoration theater architecture probably won’t fly in Modern Drama.  (It’s conceivable, but a stretch.)  At least once and maybe twice I’ve recommended rejecting an article not because I thought it was bad, but because it was submitted to the wrong journal and consequently wasn’t going to get its best readers.  Given a journal’s limited space, sometimes readers have to make these judgment calls.  The same goes for book publishers: the University of Michigan Press is good for some topics, Routledge for others, and so forth—and if you talk with their editors they’ll tell you so (in fact they often want proposals to explain why they’re the best publisher).

Theater and performance studies people like to be warm and welcoming, which is nice, but unfortunately it hasn’t done much to promote intellectual rigor—performance studies in particular has turned tended to be an amorphous home for “interesting stuff” because there’s no real theory of what performance is.  Sorry, but that’s the reality, and the progressive exit of major senior scholars is telling.  I’ve even overheard grad students grumbling about it.  I’ve attended way too many presentations with inept social analysis and grade-school anthropology that would be laughed off the podium at their respective conferences but get a round of applause from us because we’re warm and welcoming people who fortunately know squat about the other fields.  On top of that, we’re a minuscule field that tends toward parochialism.

Importantly, the two presentations did not seem like scholarly slop, hence my desire to speak up.  But if scholars want to do interdisciplinary work, they need to get out—get out, that is, of our parochial corner and into the (probably) larger field that knows a whole lot about what you’re discussing and possesses the expertise to comment on work that isn’t specifically on performance but rather uses performance as one approach to larger topic.  Even better, you should show how powerfully the performance approach can inform their understanding of topics in that field.  The greatest compliment I’ve received in my entire scholarly life came from a professor of sociology and social theory (my “other” field), who in effect said, “Damn, you theater scholars are smart!”  Why the hell would you not strive for such a compliment?  And if you want it, where the fuck do you think you’re going to get it—from other theater and performance scholars?  In other words, as I put it (too elliptically) at the conference, “go BIG.”  That doesn’t mean (as apparently some people thought, including the speakers) “Go away, I don’t want you here.”  Hell no.  Like parents pushing the kid out of the nest, they (hopefully) don’t mean “Get lost, we never want to see you again,” they (hopefully) mean “We love you and we want you to become the best at whatever it is.”  And I’ll add, “Please come back whenever you have things to say specifically focused on our interests and expertise!”  You get very limited funds to attend conferences, so why the hell waste it on people who can provide warm and fuzzy applause for your interdisciplinary work but no real help?  An audience of 10 people who have the expertise to help you is worth 100 who don’t.  It’s fine to feel that you’re not ready yet—but in the case of the two speakers’ papers, my sense was that they were already or are close to being able to head into the Big Leagues, and I wanted them to give it a shot.  These two papers were not built for the ASTR audience, they were built for a different audience, whatever the authors and audience imagined.  Conversely, if you just want to get the warm and fuzzies for a bit longer by presenting ill-suited papers at ASTR, you certainly have that right—but don’t for a moment assume everyone in the audience will be thrilled.  Certainly not me, I’m both intellectually honest enough and stupid enough that I might accidentally tell you what I think.  (Nicely, if I can, but I had to construct my scant social graces through careful observation and they aren’t reliable. If you want to avoid me, just present really, really bad papers and I’ll give up on you.)

“But Tobin,” you might ask, “who’s to judge whether something’s sufficiently on performance or not?”  Pffttt, push comes to shove, that’s dead easy.  It’s certainly not me, I’ve never had a tenure-track position giving me power over anyone, my only powers are to comment and to be an asshole (independent scholarship means never having to be cordial to get tenure).  It’s not most of the professors either.  In fact it might be people who never participate in conferences at all.  It’s editors.  Book and journal editors.  Focus, people!  The law of the academic jungle isn’t “Present papers or perish,” it’s “Publish or perish.”  Presenting papers is merely a way to sharpen your articles.  Remember what I said about outside readers screening articles for their suitability to the journal?  Well, we’re only the second pass: the first pass goes to the editor.  The editor has only limited space and they’re committed to serving the journal’s/book publisher’s mission and intended audience (within which they or may not have room for personal goals), which may or may not match yours.  They’re also swamped with submissions.  They simply can’t afford to send all of them to outside readers, who incidentally are hard to come by: they may need to reject articles based on their own quick overview (or in the case of journals, possibly a grad student’s, which is pretty frightening). So you’ll have to be very clear about why the editor should give a damn about you, and if you submit to the wrong journal or book publisher, you’ll waste a whole lot of everyone’s precious time and effort, most of it yours.  Ditto for attending the wrong conference.  Though I’m an older white man who works in theater studies and social theory, you shouldn’t assume I was there to gate-keep, which is all too tempting (and lazy).  I was certainly acknowledging my potential biases, which is de rigueur despite being blindingly obvious, except for the crucial part about my work in social theory.  But also subtextually: “I’ve been around the block a few times with interdisciplinary work, I can tell you a thing or two about the roadblocks and shortcuts and strategies, please listen up!”

If you’re worried about my politics and biases, you’re welcome to plumb my personal history and my publishing work (new edition of Theatre Histories textbook now in progress, and the team of writers I gathered is stellar and wonderful). You might be able to dig up some of my history with ASTR, though probably not the juicy bits during my tenure as Treasurer when I wanted to put dues and conference fees on an income-based sliding scale, which turned into a nasty battle that I lost. (Some people’s politics transform when you touch their pocketbook. Years later, most of the idea was finally instituted.) And you probably won’t discover my two stints of union organizing. But a lot of info is publicly available. Or just ask me: I’m both honest and stupid enough to tell you.  Am I going to meet all your political purity tests? Hell no, concrete reality hasn’t enabled me to meet even my own, that’s probably true for everyone else in my generation, and the generation after you will definitely excoriate you for your own failings, so grow some humility and get off your ivory tower. Plus, statements that were completely acceptable a mere five years ago could be out of pocket today, which is fine but presents interpretive challenges. As Fredric Jameson says, “Always historicize!” (Wait—you don’t know who Jameson is??)

Look: if you’re going to engage in interdisciplinary scholarship—real scholarship, not the warm and fuzzies—you better gird up because in many of these fields, scholarship is a blood sport. Like Katniss Everdeen, you’ll need to be bow-and-arrow sharpshooters.  A few of your scholarly predecessors on this end are so horribly oppressive and narrow-minded, they’d like to give you a couple thoughts for your advancement and survival. To wit: go out, get big, and go get ’em, tiger.  We’ll always be here for you.  But make us proud, goddammit. Make us proud.

With love and battle axes,


There are three domains—just not exactly Bhaskar’s

There has been a series of blog posts on the Critical Realist Network site regarding the necessity of Bhaskar’s three ontological domains (the real, the actual, and the empirical). The first post, “Let’s stop talking about the three domains of reality” by Tom Fryer and Cristián Navarrete, contends that they’re confusing, redundant, and ultimately entirely unnecessary since everything is real. In response, Dave Elder-Vass wrote “Maybe two parts of reality instead of three?“, in which he retains the real/actual distinction but absorbs the empirical into the actual as just one among many events. I’ve replied with “There are three domains—just not exactly Bhaskar’s,” arguing that we need all three domains but Bhaskar’s empirical domain must be transformed into the semiosic domain (a position I first took in my critical realist article, and have drummed for ever since). The page contains a link to a PDF version.

UPDATE: The four posts constituting the discussion (Tom & Cristián’s, Dave’s, mine, and then one by Ruth Groff, “There Aren’t Really Three Domains: or, Metaphor Is Great, Except When It’s Not“) will be published as an article in the Journal of Critical Realism. I will announce when that happens.

“Questions, Virtuality, Problem Fields” article

Since there’s material in The Question of Theater book (evidently still under review) that may be of wider interest, I’ve gathered its discussions of questions, virtuality and problem fields, and have been reworking them into a social theory type of article. It’s giving me an opportunity to discuss the compatibility of critical realism’s ontology with Deleuze’s, the latter being the basis of the concept of virtuality at play. This also has the salutary effect of cleaning up the material that will be in the book.

The Question of Theater: Synopsis

The completed draft of the book has gone to some friends for comments. I’ve revised the title slightly to The Question of Theater: Online Role-playing, Postdramatic Theater, and Reflexivity. Here is a synopsis.


I discuss my own experience in Second Life and how I became interested in online role-playing, even though I am not a role-player myself. The question of whether it is a form of theater raises the issue of how to define theater. There has been little study of online role-playing from a performance standpoint. Importantly, I will not be discussing online role-playing as games, even though much of it occurs in a game context. I will also examine Lehmann’s theory of postdramatic theater, because it raises other questions about the definition of the theater. My approach will be to analyze theater’s social ontology, that is, its fundamental social components and structure, based on critical realist social theory.

Chapter 1: Role-playing

The chapter discusses the history of role-playing, its main genres, the basic techniques, larp (live action role-playing) theory on relationship between larp and theater, and the similarities and differences between online role-playing and theater.

Chapter 2: Virtual Worlds

Following a line of thinking initiated by Deleuze (with older forerunners), virtuality is conceptualized as potential, not tied to any technology (novels can create virtual worlds, for instance). Building on psychological and sociological research on digital virtuality, I define three main dimensions of the experience of virtual environments: immersion, engagement, and presence. Virtual worlds are distinct from virtual environments by being peopled, which carries a number of ramifications (mostly discussed in chapter 4). The chapter concludes with a return to the concept of virtuality, setting it in relation to positivism, realism, and fiction.

Chapter 3: Problems of Presence, Embodiment, and Spatiality

I begin with an overview of theories of presence in theater, largely summarizing Cormac Power, and critique his own theory. Again plumbing research on digital virtual worlds, I identify three types of presence: self-presence, spatial presence, and social presence. These are secured by embodiment and emplacement in both the physical and digital realms. These issues are united in Brian Mennecke’s concept of embodied social presence, which plays a role in theater.

Chapter 4: The Two Homologies

The chapter develops a social ontology of theater, based on the ontology of society in general, consisting of structures, agents, and discourses; and the ontology of agents, composed of embodiment, causal efficacy, and intentionality. Organized activities and organizations, including theater, have a similar trifold ontology, making them homologous to both social ontology and agential ontology. But theater has a second ontological structure consisting of the performance event, the performed event, and the performance score—a structure that is also homologous with social ontology. The performance event itself is structured by two dualities: the activities of performing and attending, which can be distributed anywhere from totally separate groups to everyone doing both; and the intrinsic and extrinsic aspects, which are the states of being mentally in-character and in-world, versus being out-of-character and out-of-world, which are always concurrent. The state of being in-character and in-world is one of cognitive and affective transportation into a fictional virtual world, a type of possible world. Theater’s social ontology makes it a model of social agency. But agents are reflexive. That raises a question that reverses the argument: if there were such a thing as reflexivity conducted by a collectivity using all three aspects of agential ontology, what would it look like?

Chapter 5: The Question of Reflexivity

Individual reflexivity, in which an agent determines the actions she takes in the world, is motivated by questions (e.g., “how should I do X?”). Collective reflexivity, when conducted verbally, proceeds the same way as individual reflexivity, but people in groups usually do more than talk and listen: they notice each other’s body language. In embodied collective reflexivity, the participants’ bodily actions are prominent bearers of meaning. Theater, however, doesn’t quite fit the model of embodied collective reflexivity. But there is a special type of reflexivity: metareflexivity, in which we ask about ourselves. Metareflexivity is recursive. Verbal collective metareflexivity is recursive the same way as individual metareflexivity—but embodied collective metareflexivity is another matter, because agent’s ontology of embodiment, causal efficacy and intentionality are in an emergent and stratified relationship. To understand that sort of recursion, I turn to Peirce, whose system of trichotomous analysis treats exactly this type of relationship. Using it to determine the structure of embodied collective metareflexivity leads to an ontology that matches theatrical performance, including its organizational substructure and audience responses. But it doesn’t fully account for the importance of fiction. The explanation lies in the basic operation of metareflexivity: asking a question. In this case asking a question must be done at least in part through the body, which requires a series of virtualizations. These virtualizations explain the distinction between in intrinsic and extrinsic aspects of the performance event and the actor’s dual state.

Chapter 6: Edgy Performances

Here I focus on two types of performance that challenge or press the limits of my definition of theater: postdramatic theater and extreme larp. The term “postdramatic theater” was coined by Hans-Thies Lehmann to encompass neo-avant-garde theatrical forms that had arisen since the 1960s or so. My focus in this chapter is on his theory. Postdramatic theater, he contends, displaces the text, alters the performer/audience relationship, and has little or no fiction. In reality, postdramatic theater typically uses a completely conventional separation between actors and audiences in which performers retain control. Lehmann creates two incompatible models of postdramatic theater: one in which it has some fictional content, and another where it has none. In practice most postdramatic theater consists of plays, with dramatic fiction. When there is no fiction whatsoever, postdramatic theater is effectively a type of performance art. Extreme larps have sought to thin or break down the fiction/reality distinction and the equal powers players are usually given to control role-playing. The goal of thinning the fiction/reality distinction is often to create “bleed”: powerful emotional or other effects. But it can also seek to seek to make everything part of the fiction. Another type of extreme role-playing occurs in BDSM, which aims to create bleed as well. Some larp theory claims that BDSM includes larping but shouldn’t be considered larp due to its goals; I argue that goals do not establish a significant difference. Although postdramatic theater and extreme larps trouble the fiction/reality distinction in different ways and toward different ends: postdramatic theater aims for epistemological uncertainty, often for the sake of a moral shock, whereas extreme larp seeks experiences and emotional responses.

Chapter 7: A World of Questions

Questions play a prominent role in the definition of theater I present. Most theories of questions entail positing possible worlds, a concept that originated in philosophy and was adapted to serve theories of fiction. It has been extended to the concept of virtual world, but without clearly delineating the relationship between possible worlds and virtual worlds. To identify this relationship I turn to Deleuze, who distinguishes two oppositions: real vs possible, and actual vs virtual. The virtual is real. To illuminate these concepts I draw an analogy to traveling from one point to another, with all the choices and impediments that may entail, and I describe the terrain which all of these traverse as a problem field, the structure of which is its virtuality. That field is also peopled—a virtual world—and therefore also structured and impelled by intentionalities. In theater, problem fields are encountered in the transformation from page to stage, with all the options and decisions entailed in casting, blocking, design, and so on. Thus theater is not mimesis, but world creation. The view that the virtual is real bears on the problem of fictional truth and fictional reality. In theater the actual and the fictional worlds are open totalities that remain mutually porous.

Chapter 8: Modes of Performing Agency

Not all agency is conducted in the same way, and this has consequences for performance. I examine four dimensions of such diversity. The first of these dimensions returns us to social theory to examine two types or senses of collectivity: the categorial We of groups connected to social structures, demographics or affinities, and the interpersonal We of relationships between known individuals. This distinction separates theater from activities such as children’s fantasy role-playing, BDSM, and psychodrama. The chapter’s second topic concerns the variants and siblings of theater. I evaluate a range of performance genres, from opera to entertainment wrestling to recorded forms like film and TV. The definition of theater allows us to specify in terms of social ontology why a genre is or isn’t theater, and introduce a concept that distinguishes film and TV. The third subject considers the research demonstrating that people do not process their reflexivity in the same way, visible especially in their decision-making process and priorities. The differences are principally manifested in the performed event. The final section turns to the historically and culturally variable concepts of the self, manifested in both the performance event and the performed event.

Chapter 9: Players of Neoliberalism

Online role-playing and postdramatic theater were both born under advanced capitalism, and both turn out to be suffused by the neoliberal concept of agency: highly individualized, competitive, self-reliant, and hedonistic. I show that Lehmann’s concept of postdramatic theater is deeply shaped by neoliberal ideology, as is his concept of a “politics of perception.” However, substantial political change can only occur through collective action, which Lehmann’s neoliberal spectator cannot sustain. Moreover, only with fiction can theater imagine the world being different, and because Lehmann’s theory of postdramatic theory rejects referentiality, he cannot consider the currently urgent and real politics of perception: the demand for visibility and equality on stage. I then turn to online role-playing, which started in small-scale forms but was then incorporated into corporately-produced virtual worlds. There have been claims that the guilds in games like World of Warcraft are neoliberal managerial training forms; I find these arguments dubious on factual and logical grounds. A better argument concerns the “theme park” character of games like World of Warcraft that encourage the exercise of a neoliberal form of agency. Moreover, in these games the game-play itself generally pursues neoliberal ends. Yet, contradictory aspects also emerge—in particular, the value many players place on sociality and collective activity. Both in the games and in online social worlds like Second Life, there is an emergent egalitarianism and trace of utopianism, which suggest a largely but not entirely submerged liberatory potential.


Theater, which only occurs as a social event, needs to be defined primarily based on its social nature.  It has a specific social structure that prioritizes fiction, embodiment and presence. Analyzing theater in terms of social ontology provides a way to develop a coherent definition of theater that avoids the ethnocentrism and idealism of aesthetic definitions, and the baggy generality of anthropological definitions. Social ontology also provides a way to assess the extent that new genres of performance fit within the category of theatre. Online role-playing may be the first modern theater genre with grassroots rather than elite and individualist roots.

“Theatre and Embodied Collective Reflexivity” published

The final version of “ Theatre and Embodied Collective Reflexivity” has now been published by the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. You can download it from the link above (the published version, by permission). The abstract reads:

Theatre is a distinctive type of social reflexivity. The question is how, like other social practices, theatre’s social function shapes its form. By examining theatre in relation to social ontology, the components of agency, and the requirements of an embodied form of collective reflexivity, one finds that theatre is characterized by a double homology with social ontology. Furthermore, conducting embodied collective reflexivity requires the performer/character distinction, which is fundamental to theatrical performance. Social ontology, then, sharpens our concept theatre’s structure and the meaning of its practice.