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.

Book update

The book has undergone significant revisions due to various factors. Some are the same forces that have dogged the project from the start: unexpected topics arose, sometimes required me to invade other fields, others resulting in significant rethinking. But most significantly, an external reader (the infamous Reader 2) for my forthcoming article in the Journal of Dramatic Theatre and Criticism wanted me to discuss postdramatic theater. Doing so in the already tight space I was allowed for the article was out of the question, and I don’t have any personal interest in that genre, but Reader 2 had a point: postdramatic theater, at least in some of its versions, rejects fiction or seeks situations in which it’s unclear whether the activity on stage is fictional or real. Since my argument makes fiction a necessary part of theater, clearly I needed to contend with postdramatic theater’s project. Doing so required more space than I anticipated, ultimately turning into a full chapter plus part of another. With that much attention, postdramatic theater became more or less on a par with online role-playing. The book’s title needed to change in order to reflect the alteration. So the new working title is The Question of Theatre: Online Role-playing, Postdramatic Theater, and Social Ontology. The new title also has the benefit of emphasizing the scope of the project, as the previous one (Online Role-playing and the Question of Theater) risked making the topic seem narrow; the new title will, I hope, attract more readers. But — spoiler alert — they won’t be happy with some of the things I say (or more precisely, say about Lehmann’s theory), so I’ll attract a lot of pissed-off readers.

I write this post as COVID-19 is still in the early stages of ravaging New York City, where I live. It’s conceivable that I might not live to see this project come to fruition. Unfortunately it is nowhere near completion: a chapter, the introduction and the conclusion all have yet to be drafted, and the existing chapter drafts are all very rough: material will move, some topics are but waved at, I need to do a second round of research, various issues need more thorough analysis, the writing needs sharpening — the list goes on. It would be a pity, at least to me, for these years of research, analysis and writing to go to naught. So if I become seriously ill, I may set up a post to publish automatically after a certain time, and make what I’ve written publicly available, warts and all. Unfortunately it’ll only be up as long as the website is paid for, but one takes what one can get.

The Place of Materiality in Peirce’s Thought

Peirce made contradictory statements about the place of materiality in the categories. At one point he declared matter to be a Second (Essential Peirce, vol. 1, 297). Elsewhere he described “the permanence of mass, momentum, and energy” as a type of Thirdness (Essential Peirce, vol. 1, 279), a position that reappears later (Essential Peirce, vol. 2, 186–87). There’s a logic to both stances. But on another occasion, Peirce wrote more extensively:

We not only have an immediate acquaintance with Firstness in the qualities of feelings and sensations, but we attribute it to outward things. We think that a piece of iron has a quality in it that a piece of brass has not, which consists in the steadily continuing possibility of its being attracted by a magnet. In fact, it seems undeniable that there really are such possibilities, and that, though they are not existences [i.e., Seconds], they are not nothing. They are possibilities, and nothing more. But whether this be admitted or not, it is undeniable that such elements are in the objects as we commonly conceive them. (Essential Peirce, vol. 2, 269; Peirce’s italics)

His emphasis on possibility suggests a position similar to critical realism, which identifies three ontological domains: the real, the actual, and the semiosic. The domain of the real consists of causal powers and generative mechanisms as they exist transfactually, whether or not their powers are being exercised; they exist as possibilities, capacities and tendencies. Powers and generative mechanisms are ontologically anterior to their actual interactions—their cause-and-effect relations—which produce the events that constitute the domain of the actual. Finally, we perceive and interpret some portion of the actual: such interpretations compose the semiosic domain.1  Strictly speaking, the domain of the real includes not just material entities, but also ideas, since they too have causal powers, a point that accords with Peirce’s analysis that the sign is “a power . . . to determine some interpretant” (CP 1.542; Peirce’s italics). Thus the domains parallel Peirce’s categories, and might be equivalent to what Peirce called “universes” (Essential Peirce, vol. 2, 478-79; but cf. 435, which seems to drive his universes in an idealist direction). These parallels justify my position that materiality should be considered a First.

But why the inconsistency among Peirce’s statements? One reason could be that his views evolved. But another is that context matters, so it could be he has different aspects of materiality in mind during the various instances he addressed the matter. From this perspective, consider his case for the concept of “real possibility.” He gives the example of a diamond that had formed but then had been destroyed before ever being pressed by anything hard: was it hard or not? Clearly, a diamond is a diamond whether it’s been tested for hardness or not, because a diamond has a certain set of properties, so if it had instead been tested, it would have been hard (Essential Peirce, vol. 2, 354-57). He concludes,

what does that behavior [of a material substance] consist in, except that if a substance of a certain kind should be exposed to an agency of a certain kind, a certain kind of sensible result would ensue, according to our experiences hitherto. As for the pragmaticist, it is precisely his position that nothing else than this can be so much as meant by saying that an object possesses a character. He is therefore obliged to subscribe to the doctrine of a real Modality, including real Necessity and real Possibility. (Essential Peirce, vol. 2, 357; Peirce’s italics)

The diamond’s hardness is transfactual—testing it for hardness is contingent. In other words, whether or not the diamond is actually tested, as a real entity, if it were tested it would exhibit its powers and tendencies, including the hardness it had when it wasn’t tested (see also CP 1.422). So as something bearing certain possibilities which may or may not be tested, it is a First. Otherwise his use of the word “possibility” would be meaningless or misleading. But should a particular condition or circumstance arise, it would behave in such-and-such a way, as a natural necessity. It follows a law, which is a Third.

I’m uncertain how to parse this, but my but guess at the moment (I’m sure Peirce scholars have explored it thoroughly) stems from Peirce’s distinction between two “generals” (generalities): qualities and laws. I’m inclined to view the qualities qua Firsts as static, whereas law-like behavior is the tendency (Thirdness) that regulate its actions or behaviors (Secondness). There are also probabilities that are rooted not in material qualities but in other ones: if you repeatedly flip a coin, the probability is that you’ll increasingly approach an equal number of heads and tails, which I suppose is the result of the coin’s formal properties (having two flat sides makes it far more likely the coin will land on a side rather than the slim edge). But material’s aspects as both First and Third would seem to leave Secondness out of the picture, except insofar as it’s a degenerate Third, perhaps insofar as one doesn’t examine its behavioral tendencies.

Peirce, Trichotomies, and Emergence

In this post, I’m going to amplify my comment in the previous post that Peirce’s trichotomies are a type of stratified emergence.

In “A Guess at the Riddle” and “The Categories Defended,” Peirce sets forth a number of arguments defending his use of three categories: (1) Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness are distinctive, such that Secondness isn’t simply a matter of two monads, and Thirdness isn’t just a combination of dyads; (2) anything higher (Fourthness, Fifthness, etc.) can be reduced to a combination of Thirdness; (3) looking the other direction, that Firstness and Secondness can’t be collapsed into Thirdness; yet at the same time, (4) Secondness contains an element of Firstness, and Thirdness contains an element of both Secondness and Firstness, and in this relation of containment, the lower categories are not present as mere parts, but as necessary parts.

I will not review Peirce’s categories and the arguments above; in this post I’m focusing instead in this conjunction of qualitative distinctions, irreducibility, and necessary containment. It is remarkably similar to the modern concept of emergence, according to which a new entity (property, structure, etc) develops out of preexisting, more basic ones. The emergent entity has causal powers that could not be predicted from its constituents and cannot be reduced to them. It depends on its constituents for its existence, but it’s also capable of “acting back” on them, such as by setting boundary conditions or controlling their activity (downward causation).1 New powers mean new “levels” of entities: emergence leads to the stratification of reality. The most basic is the physical stratum, which has its own strata, e.g., sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, and four fundamental forces. From the physical stratum emerged the biological stratum. Biology depends on the workings of the physical stratum, but it also does new things, like reproduce itself and evolve. From the realm of biology emerged creatures able to interpret signs in their environment and produced among themselves; humans are the most sophisticated of these species, but it is scarcely alone in possessing some form of semiosic capacity. But the semiotic relationship—meaning per se—isn’t reducible to biology, it’s a different kind of power. (Obviously reductionists disagree.)

That example is diachronic, but once the entity has emerged, its stratification continues synchronically: semiosis still depends on and contains a biological substrate and biology still depends on and contains physical processes as long as that creature lives. Emergence doesn’t only apply to entities (ontically); as I’ve argued previously, it also characterizes ontology, as conceptualized in critical realism.2 The domain of the real is that of powers and generative mechanisms existing as substantive but (so to speak) static possibilities or potentialities. When they interact, concrete events and manifestations arise, constituting the domain of the actual. Of these, a subset are perceived, experienced or detected, which for Bhaskar constitute the empirical domain. He adjusted that later to the subjective domain, but I argue that it should be conceptualized more broadly (and less anthropocentrically) as the semiosic domain.

The three domains clearly parallel Peirce’s three categories (see e.g. CP 1.23-24, 1.325, 8.216). More, Peirce conceptualized the three categories as having a line of dependency that is fully consonant with emergence:

Thirdness as such . . . can have no concrete being without action, as a separate object on which to work its government, just as action cannot exist without the immediate being of feeling on which to act. (Essential Peirce, vol. 2, 345)

The categories, then, describe an emergent relationship.

However, Peirce’s categories more emphatically incorporate action and process than critical realism (and the latter’s is far from weak). I say this because Peirce constantly underscores the active, processual, evolutionary character of semiosis. This is undoubtedly best known through his argument that every sign becomes—or better, has the potential to become—the object of a new sign, which in principle means it could spawn an infinite process of semiosis, growing in complexity, specificity, vividness, generality, or in some other manner:

Symbols grow. They come into being by development out of other signs, particularly from likenesses or from mixed signs partaking of the nature of likenesses and symbols. We think only in signs. These mental signs are of mixed nature; the symbol-parts of them are called concepts. If a man makes a new symbol, it is by thoughts involving concepts. So it is only out of symbols that a new symbol can grow. (Essential Peirce, vol. 2, 10)

Another processual element resides in what Peirce called the logical interpretant: a habit-change, consisting of “a modification of a person’s tendencies toward action,” and also such things as a habitual association of ideas or a way of thinking, which we might describe as actions of thought (CP 5.476-78). This is one more instance of dynamism and transformative elements in his thought, one in which a rule itself may changes and semiosis can ultimately reenter the body. Nor is all of it necessarily conscious:

The action of thought is all the time going on, not merely in that part of consciousness which thrusts itself upon attention, but also in those parts that are deeply shaded and of which we are too little conscious to be much affected by what takes place there. (Essential Peirce, vol. 2, 23)

Today we’d reject the idea that what happens in the subconscious doesn’t affect us, but my point is the depth to which semiotic activity goes.

But Peirce’s signs (particularly symbols) don’t only grow through their activity: they also ramify. Saussure’s sign-structure, the simple signifier + signified combination, is static. The only differences among them that one might point to are as parts of speech (nouns, verbs, etc), but these involve no structural distinctions in the Sr/Sd relationship: the relationship was solely an arbitrary, conventional one (Peirce’s symbols). In contrast, from the very first Peirce had three distinct sign-types (icon, index, symbol), arising from different types of relationship between the sign and object, relationships that were themselves defined by his three categories. Over the years Peirce realized that this taxonomy, although satisfactory for many purposes, was in logical or scientific terms too unrefined, and he identified ten categories, which in his later years he expanded to 66.

As I explained in my previous post, the methodology behind these distinctions is governed by the trichotomies. They operate as an engine of ramification, and they do so because the relationship between them is emergent and stratified. In the two paragraphs following his argument that symbols grow, he writes:

we may liken the indices we use in reasoning to the hard parts of the body, and the likenesses we use to the blood: the one holds us stiffly up to the realities, the other with its swift changes supplies the nutriment for the main body of thought. . . . The reasoner makes some sort of mental diagram by which he sees that [a] conclusion must be true, if the premise is so; and this diagram is an icon or likeness. (Essential Peirce, vol. 2, 10)

Thus in the reasoning process, icons have a special weight or function, a point that melds well with cognitive science’s findings concerning image schemas. (See also CP 2.170.) The symbol produced at one point in thought changes the quality of its sign-structure (or the emphasis of its quality) from conventional to iconic—and, moreover, to a potential, as it is not inevitable that a new step in reasoning will occur.

In addition, when he developed the ten sign categories, Peirce realized that the icon-index-symbol distinction was already too concrete and actual, in fact a Second, and he would have to back up to identify consisting of a triad of semiotic Firstness, a set of thoroughly qualitative potentialities. Thus in his derivation of the ten categories, the icon-index-symbol triad came second, and the next was determined by Thirdness (consisting of rhemes, dicents and arguments). But note that because the three triads are distinguished by the trichotomy of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness, the structure of ten sign-types is itself stratified and emergent: they have a necessary order, a line of dependency, and because they are qualitatively different they cannot be reduced to any of the others.

For these reasons, I hold that Peirce’s system of trichotomy provides a method for analyzing emergent entities, and perhaps of emergence as such.

However, two additional points. First, the fact that Fourthness, Fifthness etc can be resolved into combinations of Thirdness implies that the growth of symbolic thought will remain at the level of symbols, and not produce a novel type of sign. This is particularly significant when considering reflexivity as recursion: purely discursive (especially linguistic) reflexivity loops within semiosis, although it may reach a final interpretant in the form of a habit-change. (There’s an ethical point about reflexivity there!) Of course, nevertheless within the level of Thirdness, there can be (and is) increasing degrees of complexity.

Second, Peirce didn’t explore the fact that because signs are triune—a form of Thirdness—it’s possible to back up further to find the forms of Firstness and Secondness preceding the semiotic relationship. This is what I am doing in analyzing agency, which is rooted in our material being. But agency itself is triune (embodied, causal, and intentional), and as agency, it is a Second. The Firstness preceding it, I’ll hypothesize, is the natural one I discussed above: physics, biology, semiosis (biosemiosis, including non-human semiosis). Perhaps there is a triad preceding even that, but that notion might lead us into “triads all the way down,” an infinite regression of who knows what sort.