“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.

“Embodied Collective Reflexivity” draft available

I’ve now completed a version of my article “Embodied Collective Reflexivity” {DELETED: see [Download not found]} which I’ve submitted to the Journal of Critical Realism. The link is to the “author’s original manuscript,” which has a few minor differences from the submitted version. Comments are welcome. This is the abstract:

Most work on reflexivity has focused on individuals exercising their reflexivity through discourse. However, agents have three major aspects (intentionality, causal efficacy, and embodiment) and they are fundamentally social. This article examines the possibility of collective reflexivity conducted not just by saying, but also by doing–that is, through their embodiment. By expanding the concept of “performatives” to encompass not just speech acts but also acts that speak (i.e., embodied activities as socially meaningful), and applying the work of Charles S. Peirce in order to develop an ontology of embodied reflexivity, it becomes possible to hypothesize what social practices meet the criteria of embodied collective reflexivity. At least one social practice does in fact meet those criteria and reveals additional aspects of what constitutes embodied collective reflexivity.

The social practice I have in mind is of course theater.

Embodied collective reflexivity: an update

At long last, I have a full draft of an article in which I rethink the ontology of performance, in terms of embodied collective reflexivity, and I’ve sent the draft to a couple trusted readers.  The basic issues are the ones I outlined in my blog post of 13 July 2015.  They seemed straightforward enough, but I constantly ran into roadblocks or potential counterarguments, so threading the needle proved quite difficult.  And of course I could be barking up the wrong tree.

The basic points are these:

  • We (more or less) know what reflexivity consists of for individuals: it’s a recursive practice in which one’s thought reflects on one’s own thoughts and actions, assessing past ones and preparing for new ones.  But agents are not just thoughts — they are not just intentional beings, but also embodied and efficacious in the material world.  It should be possible for agents to be reflexive not just through thoughts but through their entire embodied being.
  • If so, however, the structure of the recursion underlying embodied reflexivity can’t be the curvilinear one of thought returning to thought, but one that involves all three of those modes of existence and reflects the relationship between them.  However, intentionality, causal efficacy, and embodiment do not stand in a linear relation: instead, they’re related through emergence, which the recursion must account for.  Peirce’s trichotomies achieve that.  Consequently embodied reflexivity must be constructed on a Peircean basis.
  • Agents also don’t exist alone, they always have social relations with others.  One of their key everyday challenges is sussing out others’ intentions (involving Theory of Mind), which has to occur through perceptions of their speech and actions (including self presentation, e.g, clothing, as an action).  That must be a crucial part of a collective mode of reflexivity.
  • Speech and actions are ways of doing things in the social world.  The basic point is made by Austin’s concept of speech acts, which he calls performatives, but the latter should be expanded to include “acts that speak.”  Theory of Mind is predicated on assessing others’ and producing one’s own performatives; an embodied and collective practice of reflexivity is intrinsically one of performers and spectators.  Hence “Peircean performatives.” (Or perhaps I should say, “public Peircean performatives.”)
  • We can see where that leads!

There’s more than one Scylla and Charybdis along this path, most of them concerning how one distinguishes these activities from ordinary social interactions. Hopefully, however, this approach provides a more thorough and explanatory account of the ontology of performance that I developed previously.

Theater ontology revisited

The lack of a recent blog post is the result of a problem that arose as I was working on an article about online roleplaying games, and the solution soon led to an idea for another article which now has my attention, since the theory I’m developing there has to be pretty well shaped before I can return to the article on online roleplaying.

But briefly, I found that that the ontology I developed previously isn’t wholly satisfactory.  It’s unclear what creates the ontological doubling and the “ontological shift,” and why this ontology works the way it does.  Also, my introduction of what I called “metadiscourse” as a quasi-ontological level was something of a hedge and I’m no longer convinced it’s justified.  On the other hand, while I tend to emphasize the character of theater as a model of social agency (e.g., in my case study in the forthcoming edition of Theater Histories), I don’t think I sufficiently attended to its functional nature as societal reflexivity.  My underlying assumption was that just as theater as an institution is emergent from general social relations, so too does theatrical performance emerge out of the theater institution, and for that reason it possesses the same structure-agency-discourse ontology that society has.  But that doesn’t necessarily follow.  These weaknesses are, I believe, connected.

If, however, one considers the fact that by and large, institutions and practices emerge from society in order to serve some purpose, then one should consider theater’s purpose and how that might be reflected in its ontology: basically, form follows function.  So if theater’s primary function is to conduct societal reflexivity, then it’s likely that the ontological doubling and shift arise from that.   (Because of the level of discussion about social reflexivity, I plan to submit this new article to the Journal of Critical Realism.)

For a while, then, my focus will be on reconceptualizing theater’s ontology, since my argument that roleplaying games are form of theater hangs, first and foremost, on the definition of theater.


Embodiment and Automation

Does a puppet show count as theater?  My theory is that it does: the puppet constitutes a form of displaced embodiment.  This extends to online RP – the avatar is a type of displaced embodiment.  Because an agent is controlling these alternative bodies, the requirements for my definition of theater are met.

But what if the puppets are controlled by a machine?  Is this still theater?  Here things get squishy.  If the audience is unaware that the puppets are machine-controlled, then as far as it’s concerned, the performance is theater.  But if the spectator is told that the performance was mechanized, they almost inevitably reevaluate what they experienced.  They might feel a sense of dismay, they might be thrilled by the ingenuity of the mechanics, or something else, but it’s highly unlikely they wouldn’t reevaluate the performance in some manner.

In terms of my definition of theater, the mechanized puppetshow wouldn’t be theater because there’s no possibility of intersubjectivity or a reflexive social relationship.  Experientially, however, it’s not so clear.  Some people might still want to call it theater.

One possible solution is to say that any definition of a cultural practice is going to have some fuzziness around the edges.  Although we often would like definitions to be clear-cut, in reality they often aren’t.  Take biology for example.  From an evolutionary point of view, the answer to the “chicken and the egg” problem is straightforward: what came first was the egg because what laid it was, genetically speaking, not quite a chicken.  A few genes were slightly different.  That means there are some fuzzy borders around the genetic definition of chicken.  There’s no reason why something is extraordinarily complex as a cultural practice should have a definition with absolutely borders.

Still, we know what distinguishes the egg from the not-quite-chicken, and it would be nice if we could identify the areas of fuzziness in definition of theater.  It would seem from my comments above that whereas the ontology of theater is fairly strict, its phenomenology is not.

But Second Life raises further problems.  Avatars’ movements are all controlled by programmed animations.  One popular form of entertainment in SL is dance performance.  In this genre, avatars perform choreographed movements, but all the person behind the avatar has done is set the animations running (typically, by “sitting” on a disk or other object containing the animations).  I would wager that audiences generally respond to these performances much like they do to a live performance in RL.  But the dancing could be performed equally well by a bot; in fact, arguably, the person behind the avatar has simply turned their avatar into a bot.  There have been various performances that are quite explicitly by bots, in which the artist has left her computer on, running multiple instances of a program to keep the bots operating (I have in mind Jo Ellsmere’s work particularly; see for instance Mask, Biomechanical, and Obedience).  In any case, not only has embodiment been displaced, but we have a question of how much performer agency actually remains when most or all of the performance has been automated.

Ultimately, then, the concept of intersubjectivity is probably going to be reconfigured if artificial intelligence produces computer behavior that passes the Turing test, or – as in the movie Her – meets the criteria of reflexiveness and intentionality that we associate with human agency.