Blesok no. 21, June-July, 2001
Theater аs а Cultural System
(From the book "The Semiotics of Theater" by Erika Fischer-Lichte)
The internal code of a cultural system regulates: (a) which material products are to be valid in the system as units of meanings, i.e., signs; (b) which of the units thus identified can be combined in what manner and under what conditions with each other, i.e., it governs a syntactic code; and (c) to what these units can be related and under what conditions (i) in connection with different possible syntagmas or (ii) in isolation, i.e., it regulates a semantic code.
Thus, the code of every language, English, German, or Chinese, regulates (a) which sounds are to be identified as the smallest units of meaning, i.e., as words of this language; (b) the possible combinations of this words in order to form syntagmas; and (c) the allocation of significations to these sound signs both as a lexical and as a contextual meaning. In other words, both the production and the understanding of utterances within a language function on the basis of a code that we shall term the internal code of the language. The same is true of all cultural systems: these regulate the process whereby meaning is produced on the basis of a respectively specific internal code on which the production or interpretation of all meanings is then based.
An external code is involved if, first, several of these codes are subordinated to another code as their hypercode in the sense that the generation and interpretation of their systems of rules are based on it, and second, the meanings produced by the individual cultural systems can now be understood in their function and meaning for the overall culture at a second level, as it were, namely, on the basis of a hypercode. Lévi-Strauss has shown that a commonly shared code is at the root of the structure of codes of such different cultural systems as, for example, language, family relations and marriage practices, eating habits, and the myths of various tribes indigenous to Latin America.
The meaning of the signs and/or sign complexes generated by a cultural system can thus only be constituted comprehensively, given the application of both the system's internal code and the external code shared by it and other systems.
The codes on which cultural systems are based differ in terms of stability from one culture to the next. Thus, the syntactic code of language is quite stable in Western culture – it has only undergone minor modifications over the centuries. By contrast, the code regulating clothing habits – fashion – is particularly prone to change: it has been in a process of continual restructuring over the last few decades.
The potential instability of every code stems from its historical specificity, and this is expressed in the dialectical relation of code and message. Meanings are generated and messages formulated on the basis of the code. The messages formulated in this manner can be of such a nature that they make it necessary to restructure the underlying code. This restructuring, in turn, enables new meanings to be produced, which themselves lead to the formulation of new messages, etc.
The early sixteenth-century European code for astronomy envisaged the possible message that the sun circled around the earth. This message was, on the one hand, drawn up on the basis of an internal code for astronomy and, on the other, was only possible against the background of the external theological code which structured the whole of social life at the time by decreeing it an iron law that humans, created in God's image, could only be placed at the center of the universe.
When a new message arose that was also based on the code for astronomy, namely, that the earth revolved around the sun, this initially led to a restructuring of the code. However, this process caused the internal code for astronomy and the external code of theology to contradict one another. Following vain retroactive attempts to annul the restructuring of the astronomical code, it became necessary to restructure the external theological code in such a way that it would be possible to uphold the validity of the message it insisted on, namely, that humans were created in God's image. At the same time, it was also necessary to revise the message which had previously been based on this and was now invalid, namely, that humans were factually and not simply spiritually the center of the Universe. The restructuring of the theological code that was subsequently effected led inevitably, in its capacity as the external code of other cultural systems, to a restructuring of the latters' respective codes in such a manner that these were then able to generate new meanings that could be used to formulate messages. These subsequently resulted in the final instance in the theological system being stripped of its function as the external code for the whole culture in question.
The system of different codes present in a culture is, in other words, a dynamic structure in which changes can continually occur that cause a reorganization of the overall structure. Both the codes which function as internal or external codes for the cultural systems and the meanings generated by such codes can therefore only be adequately described and grasped with respect to their respective historical specificity.
Theater, understood as one cultural system among others, can therefore be construed as fulfilling the general function of generating meaning on the basis of an internal code. This code regulates (a) what is to be valid as a unit of meaning – as a sign – in theater; (b) in what way and under what conditions which of these signs can be combined with one another; and (c) which meanings can be accorded these signs both in specific contexts and, in part, in isolation. Furthermore, the theatrical code may depend on the rules of an external code with respect both to the production and to the interpretation of its signs and/or sets of signs. These conclusions, which touch on the question of the extent to which theater is just one cultural system among others, already provide the justification for suggesting that theater is a cultural system sui generis. For the internal code of theater constitutes itself precisely as an internal code, i.e., a quite specific code that is to be distinguished from all other codes of the culture. It does so by prescribing the use of quite specific signs and quite specific syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic rules during the process in which meaning is constituted.
Before, however, going on to describe, analyze, and discuss the details of the theatrical code's special nature, we shall briefly examine the fundamental differences between it and the respectively specific internal codes of other cultural systems. It has thus far been assumed that all cultural systems function to generate meaning. The individual systems clearly fulfill this function in quite different ways, if one ignores the fact that they respectively fulfill it on the basis of particular, unique internal code. I, for example, use the sound /hammer/ only as a sign, for instance for an object with which I can drive a nail into a wall. Yet I not only view the object “hammer” as a sign for the fact that I can hit a nail with it, but also actually use it in this function in order to drive a nail into the wall. I can use the hammer precisely for this function because the object “hammer” denotes a particular function on account of its specific material nature. Here the sign function serves, as it were, as the precondition for its utility function. I can, however, hardly drive a nail into a wall using the sound /hammer/. For the sound can only be used meaningfully in its function as a sign and not in a utility function.
A fundamental distinction must therefore be made between those cultural systems which deploy signs to denote a certain utility function, and those in which signs do not have a utility function. Whereas the firs type of system includes, among other things, clothing, food, utensils, tools, arms, and buildings, the second involves language, traffic signs, mimic signs, religious customs, painting, theater, etc.
It is, however, by no means the case that those cultural systems which involve signs that do not denote a utility function form one homogenous group. Thus, for example, linguistic signs used in poetry are diametrically opposed to those used in all types of nonpoetic applications, and iconic signs in painting are opposed in this respect to iconic signs used in pictograms, traffic signs, etc. Likewise, mimic and gestural signs used in theater are the opposite of those mimic and gestural signs used in everyday situations. The meaning of these signs can change in nonaesthetic contexts to the extent that meaning quite generally is a semiotic unit, the constitution of which depends on the three semiotic dimensions – i.e., the syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic dimensions. However, the meaning can be changed to a far greater extent if the sign is used in an aesthetic application, for in this case the autonomous semantic dimension ceases to play a role as a stabilizing factor. Aesthetic meaning differs fundamentally from nonaesthetic meaning in terms of this potential intensification of what is in principle an ever-present capacity to change.
The first differentiation made above must, in other words, be complemented by a second distinction, namely, between cultural systems which generate meaning on the basis of aesthetic codes and those which generate it on the basis of non-aesthetic codes.
The metod used here, namely, distinguishing the different cultural systems from one another by viewing them as respective opposites with regard to the special way in which they fulfill their general function of generating meaning, leads us to a second question. Does theater – quite aside from the fact that it, like all cultural systems, follows a specific internal code – contrast in principle with the other systems which generate meaning on the basis of aesthetic codes? This question cannot be answered by referring to individual, possibly distinguishing factors, but rather only by taking into account a whole complex of such factors which relate to one another in a particular way and are relevant only as a whole – as a bundle of factors, so to speak. These factors refer above all to two sets of problems: (1) the ontological state of the artwork; and (2) the conditions for its production and reception.
The major feature of the network of signs which the cultural system of “theater” respectively produces – the performance – is that it cannot be separated from its producers, the actors. The material artifact of theater does not – and here it is unlike a picture or the text of a poem – have an autonomous existence in isolation from its producers. The transitoriness of theater, as Lessing called it, is defined not only by its occurrence in time, like music or an oral reading, but also by the fact that its realization remains inextricably tied to its originator and has no transferable, repeatable autonomous existence.
A further important feature of theater arises from this, the specific ontological state of theatrical performance: namely, its complete contemporaneity. Whereas I can observe pictures that were painted many hundreds years ago, read novels that were written in times long past, I can only watch theater performances that occur today, in the present. I can, as Steinbeck fittingly puts it, only involve myself theoretically, and not aesthetically, with past theater performances. For the web of signs of the performance is indissolubly bound up with the actor who creates them, present only in the moment of their production. Nothing is changed by bearing in mind that some of the signs here – such as costumes, props, stage decor – outlast the process of performance. For what can endure are individual signs torn out of their context, but never the web of signs from which they originate. This cannot be handed down as tradition.
The specific conditions of theater production and reception are intimately connected with the special ontological state of theatrical performances as artworks. Given that the network of signs only exists in the process of its production, any reception of it has to occur at the same time: production and reception of a theater performance are synchronous. The moment an actor produces a sign by means of which he wishes to generate and communicate particular meanings, that sign is perceived by the audience who in turn produce meaning by attributing particular meanings to this sign. That is, in the case of a theater performance, we have to do with two aspects of the process of constituting meaning which occur simultaneously.
The synchronicity points not only to the specific ontological state of theater performances from which it derives; it also magnifies another essential feature of theater as a cultural system. For a theater performance does not just produce a web of signs that canalso be received in the process of its production. Rather, a theater performance that does not take place before an audience, i.e., cannot be received, is not a theater performance. The audience is in fact a constitutive part of theater – without an audience there can be no performance. In other words, in addition to its specific ontological state, performances are characterized substantively by their public nature. Even if they take place before only one spectator, they nevertheless occur in public, for this one spectator represents the public in his capacity as a spectator. Theater always occurs as a public event.
By virtue of these two features, each of which comprises quite specific factors determining the process of the constitution of meaning, theater as a cultural system contrasts fundamentally with all the other cultural systems which create meaning on the basis of an aesthetic code. For these two characteristics are not to be found in such a combination in any other acoustic genre.
It can be concluded, then, that the cultural system of theater is based on two constituent elements that must exist if it is to be theater: the actor and the spectator. These two constituent elements implicitly contain a third. For the actor is only an actor and not just person A, B or C to the extent that s/he portrays someone else, X, Y or Z, i.e., plays a role. In other words, the minimum preconditions for theater to be theater are that person A represents X while S looks on.
Now, in order to depict X, A (1) dons a particular external appearance, (2) acts in a certain way, and (3) does so in a certain space. Such a general description of the actor's activity does not provide a clear account of the differences between his activity and that of all other members of the culture. For these three characteristics hold for all people in all cultures: every person prepares his/her external appearance in a particular way and acts in a certain way in a particular space. On the basis of this general distinction all that could be said would be that the difference between what person A does as person A and what s/he does when portraying X consists solely in his/her donning a different appearance and acting in a different way in a different space. There is, however, a fundamental, qualitative difference between the two processes.
If person A in her capacity as person A prepares her external appearance in a special way, for example by slipping on a fur coat, then she probably does this because she is cold and wishes to warm herself. The fur coat denotes a certain utility function in which it is also used de facto. Furthermore, A may, if she is meeting other people when wearing the coat, perhaps put it on in order to show that she belongs to a certain social stratum, has a certain income, has a particular taste, etc. Everything for which the person's external appearance, in this case the fur coat, may be a sign is intended to be referred to the person himself: it is a sign for something that concerns person A as person A.
If A carries out an action as A, e.g., manufactures a jug, then she does so either because she wishes to use it herself or to sell it or give it to someone. She manufactures it for a specific purpose. If she has an audience while making it, then she may be manufacturing it in order to show how skilled, how fast, how diligent she, A, is. If A cries, then we can assume that a certain emotion may be the cause: she cries perhaps because she is sad. If she cries in the presence of others, then this is a sign for them that A is sad. If A seeks out a certain spatial location, then she does so for a concrete purpose. Every space specially prepared by humans denotes a utility function, be it a living room, a stable, a church, a town hall, an office, a restroom, etc. A acts in such a space because she wishes to attain a goal connected with this space. The same is true if she seeks out a space not prepared by humans, such as forests, meadows, river banks, etc. In addition to fulfilling such utilitarian functions, spending time in a particular space may also be meant as a sign that she has something to do there or belongs there – a sign that is intended to say something about person A. In other words, if person A prepares her external appearance in a certain way as person A and acts in particular way in a particular surrounding, then she does this either in order to attain a concrete end or in order to show others something about herself, person A.
If, by contrast, A prepares her external appearance in such a manner as to depict X – if, for example, she puts on a fur coat – then she does this quite clearly not because she is cold but in order to make a statement about X. Perhaps X is cold in this situation or – if X is Ferdinand in Schiller's Love and Intrigue and wears a present-day fur coat – X is a person with characteristics similar to those who wear such coats today, etc. A, in other words, prepares her external appearance not to achieve a specific end, but in order to say something about X. If A produces a jug while depicting X, then this occurs not in order to use the jug for some express purpose, but to generate a sign of something that concerns X: her ability to manufacture a jug, her skill, or her dire situation which forces her to make jugs, etc. If A cries while depicting X, then she does not cry because she, A, is sad. Rather, she cries in order to show that X is sad or that X is someone who cannot control herself, or that X wishes to appear emotional in the eyes of others, etc.
Everything that A does while representing X is done not to achieve a specific end – because everything which she does in this case is done not for herself, but for others, for the spectators. Nor does she do something in order to say something about herself as person A, but exclusively in order to shows something that refers solely to X.
The space in which A acts when playing X is special space to the extent that it denotes a quite specific utility function, namely, that of being able to signify different spaces. It may, on the one hand, be a space expressly built or decorated for the purpose – whether a proper theater building or merely a simple wooden stage made of planks that can be assembled anywhere. On the other hand, this special space may be situated in a space that denotes another utility function, such as church, school, canteen, marketplace, fairground, meadow, railway station. Thus, that special space whose function consists of signifying a random number of other spaces can be realized in any space. For when A acts in order to portray X, then the space no longer denotes its original utility function, but rather the special space of the performance; in other words, it signifies whatever particular space X finds herself in.
A can act as A both in the presence of others and on her own. When A, by contrast, acts in order to portray X, then everything she does, the way she does it, and where she does it is related to the presence of spectators, for whom A's external appearance signifies that of X, her actions and behavior that of X, and the space in which she acts the space in which X acts.
To this extent the same underlying situation is to be encountered as is to be found in culture in general, in that both cases can be characterized globally as involving humans preparing their external appearances in a particular way and acting in certain way in a particular space. However, whereas in culture, meaning is generated in genera; as a whole by the cultural systems activated by this process creating primary signs, in theater meaning is produced by generating signs for the signs created by other cultural systems.
Thus, in a certain sense, theater involves the “doubling up” of the culture in which that theater is played: the signs engendered by theater respectively denote those signs produced by the corresponding cultural systems. Theatrical signs are therefore always signs of signs which are characterized by the fact that they may have the same material constitution as the primary signs which they signify – a crown can signify a crown, a nod of the head can mean a nod of the head, and a scream a scream, etc. It follows from this that an especially close connection must obtain between theater and culture. The signs of theater can only be understood by someone who is acquainted with the signs produced by the cultural systems in the surrounding culture and knows how to interpret them. Theater, in other words, reflects the reality of the culture in which it originates in a double sense of the word: it depicts that reality and presents it in such depiction for reflective thought.
Theater depicts culture to the extent that its signs signify those generated by the different cultural systems. It therefore places the culture at the scrutiny of a distanced and distancing gaze to the extent that the theatrical signs can only be generated with reference to the spectators. Culture is accordingly divided up in theater into a culture of those who depict it and culture of those who watch it. The audience as a public which represents the members of that culture as a whole can act as proxy for this overall number and thus, in the act of spectating, gain distance from the culture depicted and from itself. In this manner, theater becomes a model of cultural reality in which the spectators confront the meanings of that reality. In this sense, theater can be understood as an act of self-presentation and self-reflection on the part of the culture in question.
This specific characteristic of theater – which sets it off from all other cultural systems – may, from the viewpoint of cultural studies, be the reason for the widespread occurrence of the phenomenon of theater. For whenever a culture constitutes itself by generating meaning through the creation of signs with the help of various cultural systems, it has, in so doing, provided the signs which it needs to make theater possible. For theater does not require the invention of specifically theatrical signs if it is to come about, even if theater in various highly developed cultures deploys such inventions. Rather, theater resorts to signs that are already present in the culture anyway. It takes up these signs without making use of the primary functions for which they were produced by the respective cultural systems in the first place. The new function given these signs in theater, namely, that of being signs of signs, enables the culture in question to take a reflective stance on itself.
In other words, wherever culture constitutes itself, it creates the preconditions for the constitution of theater. For the signs that theater needs are always available in a culture; the moment they are used in the above-mentioned new function, theater can be deemed to have come into being.
Theater is played in the widest range of different cultures: in the agrarian cultures or so-called primitive cultures based on hunting or fishing; in the sophisticated ancient Middle and Far Eastern civilizations, such as those of Persia, Turkey, India, Malaysia, Japan, and China; and in all of Western culture. Wherever there is culture there are forms of theater.
Research into other, unknown cultures has repeatedly confirmed just how widespread theater is as a cultural phenomenon, and its high profile has prompted a wide range of different attempts to interpret it. The existence of theater has been explained, for example, anthropologically, sociologically, and psychologically. Viewed from the standpoint of the cultural sciences, theater appears initially to be one of many possible cultural systems. Theater can, like farming, hunting, housebuilding, tool manufacture, weapons, crockery and clothing, commerce, table manners, rules on clothing, the system of social relations, religious customs, language, law, myths, literary traditions, etc., form a constitutive part of that which, as the sum total of all such systems, we call culture. Yet, cultural studies must provide an explanation for the striking fact that theater is one of the unique constituent subsystems in almost all cultures known to us – especially striking because it is not one of the cultural systems that function to satisfy primary physical needs.
Theater is, on the one hand, a cultural system among others, i.e., it exhibits the same general feature as all the others, by virtue of which it can be defined as a cultural system sui generis, one that is significantly different from other cultural systems because of the special functions which it alone fulfills.
Culture is understood here in quite a broad sense as something created by humans as opposed to nature, which has originated without human activity. Everything which humans produce is “significant” for themselves and each other, because humans in principle live “in a signifying world”, that is, in a world where everything that is perceived is perceived as a signifier which must be judged to have a signified, i.e., a meaning. Every sound, action, object, or custom produced simultaneously involves the production of a meaning. The generation of meaning can therefore be regarded as the general function of all cultural systems; it is this function which allows them to be defined as cultural systems in the first place. In other words, theater, understood as one cultural system among others, has the general function of generating meaning.
Cultural systems do not produce meaning per se – this would be a contradiction in terms – but always generate something that can be perceived with the senses as sounds, actions, objects to which a particular meaning is attached in the context of the culture in which they are produced. The production of meaning thus ensues via the creation of signs.
According to Charles Morris, a sign fundamentally consists of three nonreductible constituent elements: the sign-vehicle, something that denotes what is designated, and the interpretant. Morris derives three two-sided relations from these three elements: first, the sign's syntactic dimension, namely, the relation of the sign to other sign-vehicles; second, the semantic dimension, namely, the relation of the sign to the objects it designates; and third, the pragmatic dimension, namely, the relation of the sign to the user of the sign. Semiosis, the process by which a sign is accorded a meaning, occurs in all three dimensions; its product, meaning, can therefore only be adequately described and understood within this three-dimensional structure. Meaning arises when a sign is related by its user to something within a context of signs; the meaning can change if the sign is (a) inserted into a different semiotic context; (b) related to something else; or (c) used by another user. In other words, the meaning of the sign changes if one of the three dimensions changes. For meaning is a semiotic category.
This three-dimensionality provides an explanation for why it is that different people, and this is a well-known fact, can attribute different meanings to the same sign – whether it is a word, a drawing, a tool, or a building.
It can be assumed that within a culture the users of the signs of that culture attribute a meaning to them which contains a common, binding, relatively stable semantic component, i.e., the denotations and, furthermore, possible additional components of meaning, the connotations. The latter can be commonly used by classes or social strata; by a particular political, ideological, or religious group; by a group with a certain world-view; by other groupings; by the different subcultures; by individual families or other small groups. Indeed they may be valid solely for one individual, and they are, in general, subject to faster and more far-reaching changes than are the denotations. Meaning is, in other words, always to be grasped as a complex composed of an “objective” element that is intersubjectively valid in the culture in question and of “subjective” elements that may differ greatly.
Both the denotative and connotative elements of meaning have their respective history: they are the product of what the members of the culture have experienced in the different roles they occupy – as members of the culture, of a social stratum, of a certain group, of a family, or as an individual. Meaning is always shaped by history and the course of people's lives – and this is naturally true above all of the connotations.
The meanings generated by the different cultural systems will exhibit a high degree of stability and homogeneity in a culture which, on one hand, fixes and restricts the possibilities of experience within quite clear bounds for the different groups (e.g., children and adults, adults and old people, men and women, tribe and tribal chief, shaman and the non-initiated) and, on the other hand, successfully occludes outside influences. By contrast, a culture which either does not have strict regulations governing the possibilities of experience by the single persons and individual groups or permits – indeed even induces – frequent contact with other cultures, will be characterized by instability and heterogeneity in the meanings constituted in it. On the one hand, this latter culture will encourage the division of the complex of meaning to denotation and connotation, given that even it cannot get by without a minimum of mutually-accepted meanings. (This division is irrelevant in cultures with stable and homogenous meanings, for the sign produced by a cultural system always signifies the whole complex of meaning.) Therefore, the culture will set off those situations in which in principle only the denotation and/or the denotation linked with certain connotations is to be granted validity from all conceivable situations. On the other hand, a certain number of meanings (understood here as a complex of denotations and connotations) will be selected that mean the same to everyone and are binding for them, for these are judged to be the pillars bearing the basic values of this culture.
Both types of cultures – and all the “admixtures” which exist between the two – are characterized both by the meanings generated by their respective subsystems and by the degree of their stability and bindingness. Both these features are historically specific.
The meanings generated by a cultural system are not isolated, i.e., are not independent of one another, but rather form interrelated complexes; these are comprised either of various meanings taken together or, frequently, of combinations with meanings produced by other cultural subsystems. For these meanings are not produced arbitrarily, but according to certain rules, on the basis of a code. A “code” is understood here to mean quite generally a system of rules for producing and interpreting signs or complexes of signs. A culture always exhibits meanings shared by more than one person if its members all refer to the same code when constituting meaning; divergent meanings arise if different groups use different codes with regard to one and the same sign.
A distinction must be made between so-called internal and external codes. Internal codes are the basis of one respectively specific cultural system; indeed in extreme cases, such as autonomous artworks, they are the basis of a product of that system; external codes are the foundation of several, and in extreme cases of all, cultural systems within a culture.