Blesok no. 47, March-April, 2006
Interculturalism: Trends, Exotica, Aesthetics, Poetics and… So Forth!
What do we, in fact, talk about when we talk about interculturalism?
What do we refer to when, more and more often and with an ever greater eagerness, or even casually, we use (or even abuse) this ambiguous, powerful, strongly superfluous culturological term, a term which, since the end of the 1960s, has in an imposing manner grown into a respectable methodological category?
Most importantly, how and why is this respectable methodological category constantly ‘imposed’ on an ever-growing number of scholarly areas which become more and more varied and which in different ways promote the culturological perspective of contemporary phenomena, from anthropology, sociology and comparative literature to communicology? The same can be said of theatrology, a scholarly field which is to us, at this very moment, the most intriguing among them, an exceptionally dynamic “scholarly field within the framework of social science and the humanities which, through a number of scholarly disciplines, strives to interpret the origin, manner of operation, functions and the artistic and expressive determinants of the theatre not only in the diachronical, but also in the synchronical aspect of its forms of expression” (Batušić, 1989:9).
Dictionaries of literary and/or theatrical terms define interculturalism as a specific philosophical and aesthetic PERSPECTIVE which allows a view of the integral cultural system (culture understood and ‘practiced’ as an integral system) as a provocative, dynamic, practically unlimited COMMON field of permanently interactive action open in an Eco-like manner to all THAT and to all THOSE that participate in its permanent ‘happening’, regardless of whether they participate in it “intentionally” (in which case we can speak of programmed participation) or simply because they were ‘caught in the act’/carried away by the inductive force of the very (magnetic) field of interculturalism. Ergo, this definition suggests that the famous field of interculturalism functions in an almost mythical manner – as a field which is practically without boundaries and, in fact, endless.
In more simple terms, the intercultural concept involves the inclusion/activation of (most) diverse cultures which – in a certain context and/or moment, because they have, for a number of reasons, only/randomly intertwined, or perhaps because their mutual contact was intentional in order to accomplish a certain creative or hermeneutical mission and/or goal – pragmatically join forces in/around a concept which had previously been recognized as potentially common. The merging, of course, presupposes an initial contact (of the various cultures in focus) which is then expressed as an inevitable/authentic contact that eventually results in an authentic/direct/immediate communication between subjects that have touched and continue to do so. Since every communication is at least bilateral, and this includes communication between two (or more) cultures, it always inevitably results in the taking over of certain elements that originally belonged either to the culture that has initiated the contact (this culture could be provisionally termed the culture which ‘gives’ or the culture of the First) or to the culture which positively responds to this initiative, i.e., which accepts communication (this culture can be provisionally termed the culture which ‘receives’, or the culture of the Second). Thus, through such two-way communication, the different cultures not only touch in an authentic manner, but also inevitably provoke an authentic, live/genuine exchange between all the participants concerned by this process: the First, the Second, the Third… the number is infinite. It is precisely through the process of such exchange that the participants establish themselves as absolutely equal – at least in theory!
That this kind/type of authentic and productive intercultural communication is not merely a utopian fabrication of daily politics but, on the contrary, a very real, verifiable and productive cultural phenomenon is clear to all those who have heard of the theatrical concept of Eugenio Barba, one of the most relevant and innovative theatrical practitioners of our time. Those who know a little more about Barba and his theatrical anthropology and perhaps have even seen some of his obviously intercultural productions can testify to the fact that such a specific theatrical concept (let us call it the theatre of exchange) has been successfully working for thirty years.
Where does the essence, the inevitability and, especially, the magnetic attraction of theatrical interculturalism, the topic we have chosen to address today, come from?
Does its true ‘story’ – its famed great narrative, to which the title of our conference also refers – really begin with the radical 1960s and has it really been personalized precisely in/through the trans-European and transcontinental adventures of a curious, agile and (then) very young and very unconventional Italian migrant-nomad-marginal figure with an aptly given and metaphorical surname Barba (Ital. barba: beard)?
Was the theatre, nonetheless, the site of intercultural/multicultural encounter and a unique intercultural exchange EVEN before Barba lucidly formulated and effectively transformed into practice his widely known four or five theses on which the entire structure of his ISTA (the International School of Theatre Anthropology) relies?
I believe that each of us would, if they were really expected to give an answer to this hypothetical question ‘in a flash,’ automatically reach for Antonin Artaud and his mythical Paris encounter with the dancers from Bali that took place some time around 1930. Allegedly this, now antiquated, encounter with a completely unknown culture and the communication that was established ‘in a flash’ demonstrates in s essence that the theatre had yearned for the theatralization of otherness/difference many years before Barba, Grotowski, Schechner and others transformed this yearning into a system.
The history of the theatre (which, by the way, is a rather uncritical scholarly discipline inclined to mythologisation of facts and all kinds of exaggerations!) has recorded that, when Artaud, in the middle of Paris, suddenly saw the exotic Balinese people, he almost had a genuine illumination. At that very moment, he clearly saw all that which he had never been able to interpret and understand (although he intuitively felt it). And that is, that the Western theatre was hopelessly stuck in its imitative/logocentric tradition and that it was barely alive; if it was to be saved at all, it should radically turn to its own ritual metaphysical beginnings. Instead of dealing only with narration (which means relying exclusively on speech and – only as much as is necessary – on body language), the theatre, according to Artaud, must radically change its own poesis and semiosis, as well as its own logos and, hence, its own techne. In other words, the traditional European theatre of fictional thought, as it was later defined by Barba and/or Grotowski (Barba, 1996; Grotowski), the theatre which operates with ‘imagined’/fictional characters and their ‘imagined’/fictional psychology should learn (and much at that!) from the traditional Asian theatre of the fictional body. The primary form of expression of this specific theatre (a theatre of a grandiose, millennia-long tradition!) is not abstract (“psychological”), but quite real and visible: it is ‘stored’ in the concrete body of its actors, in their superiorly ‘trained’ bodies prepared for the impeccable performance of the most complex stage missions, including the impossible ones. The performing tradition of the Asian theatre is fully founded in the seemingly simple creative principle: it constantly transposes the corporeality of its actors into that which Barba calls bios (Barba, 1996). And, as we know, bios means life which is renewed/happens on the stage as art!
In an emblematic essay on the Eastern and Western theatre written in 1935, Artaud is very clear: if it was to survive and become creative again, the theatre that was being practiced at the time must not ‘imitate/be mimetic’; instead, it must begin to reveal. That is why it must be re-directed to the unknown and the magic… and in Artaud’s case, this means directed to unknown cultures. The purpose of his journey to Mexico (1936) and the trips to certain exotic destinations he planned but never made (Tibet) was to encourage his intuition and imagination, not multiply and enrich his insights. They were not meant to be tourist-like. “Artaud clearly does not travel to get to know the world better.” (Todorov, 1994:326).
On the contrary, the “inherent nomadism” of this theatre dreamer – perhaps the most abstract and therefore the most inspirational of all the theatre theoreticians, should be understood as, above all, transcultural. His theatrical concept is absolutely extreme and therefore (most likely) impossible/unachievable in standard theatre practice, and not only that of his own time. Namely, European theatre practice, and, again, not only that known at the time of the publication of his prophetic The Theatre and Its Double, but that of the present day as well, is predominantly mimetic and/or illusionist. It is mainly concerned with “telling stories” (Aristotle calls it “action”) or, simply said, with the interpretation of certain emotional, ethical or speculative “content” which should be skillfully presented to the curious recipients. However, the theatre upheld by Artaud is not “interpretative”, on the contrary, it is immediate and (therefore) cruel. Instead of being directed to emotions or abstract intellectual speculations, it aims directly at the essential, the impulses and the instincts. Of course, impulses and or/instincts cannot be interpreted (or, as Aristotle puts it, “imitated”); they – if they are to be authentic and genuine – must be provoked.
In contrast to the European conventional theatre which builds its aesthetics in vitro (according to Stanislavski’s famous formula esli – bi), the Asian theatre operates only/exclusively in vivo. Instead of “telling stories” or “imitation of reality” and production of entertainment (of any kind), this theatre is inclined towards mythopoesis, i.e., towards an understanding and eventually even explanation of those “dark” and “secret” things that surround all, the (mystical) “arch-beginnings”, including those clouded ones from which the essential metatheatrical/paratheatrical epiphenomena originate.
In all the cultures we know (regardless of whether we know them more or less, or whether we define them as “eastern”, “western”, “northern” or “southern”), such epiphenomena, which we usually call myths, rites and/or rituals, seem to recur – almost systematically and in a way that is completely the same/identical.
One of the most passionate “Artaud fans” in world theatre, Eugenio Barba, defines these epiphenomena as anthropological phenomena or sensations. Studying them in a systematic manner, i.e. both theoretically and practically, during the past forty years, he has practically followed and, as much as it is possible, pragmatized/”brought to life” Artaud’s visions. Applied (theatralized) in the form of quite specific performances produced by him and his ISTA, these visions have never ceased to be transcultural. Regardless of the cultural circle to which they “originally” belong, they are always fully subjected to the dominant idea of absolute (anthropological) togetherness, a togetherness that superiorly fuses the Beginning and the End, the Good and the Evil, Light and Darkness, Life and Death.
If the purpose of Artaud’s theatre was to confront the European tradition with its synthetic “arch-beginnings”, for instance with the Eleusian mysteries, Barba’s theatre seems to go even further. Upholding the Euro-Asian idea of the theatre which he quite passionately proclaims/promotes in all his projects, he strives to confront almost all performing traditions in the world with almost all of their hypersynthetic “arch-arch-beginnings”. Moreover, Braba’s theatre strives to do this in an active way by adhering to the principle “everything, now, simultaneously and suddenly.” Acting in accordance with its own creative motto, “same principles, different performances”, the school of theatre anthropology run by Barba is, in essence, more transcultural than intercultural. Searching for the “samenesses” that regularly recur in different cultures, ISTA and Barba in fact promote a kind of supra-cultural concept; in his productions, exactly because of an idealistic and mystical (hypersynthetic) togetherness, but also on behalf of this “archetypal” idea, “diffuse mixtures” are constantly assembled and disassembled from a multitude of cultural personalities, identities and subjectivities.
Here, however, we are concerned with the intercultural aspect of this imaginary, idealistic and almost illusionist theatrical togetherness which – theoretically – should be much “wider” and much more complex than Barba’a Euro-Asian theatrical idea.
To my students, I explain interculturalism (applied to a concrete theatre/theatrical practice) as it has been upheld by Artaud, Brecht, Barba himself, Brook, Grotowski or Schechner and other people of the theatre and researchers, as something that is ‘vertical’, ‘abstract’ or ‘utopian.’ Directed towards ‘the core of the darkness’, as Artaud puts it, it works only with archetypes. It painstakingly looks only for sameness in the differences with which it seemingly deals and for those primeval subconscious and conceptual motives which, as Jung says, are common to all humankind and all cultures (Jung, 1974).
Can such an ‘abstract’ (psychoanalytical?) interculturalism, which is obviously understood from an Artaudian point of view and which, I believe, can be better defined as transculturalism, pass – intact and undamaged – through the process of theatralization and to what extent can this be done?
It is undoubted that it can, although, in most cases, this effort results in performances of a quite specific experimental (transcultural?) type, let us say, like Peter Brook’s legendary production The Ik, whose live performance, probably, none of us has seen. I did happen to see a similar performance staged by Barba himself – though long ago and quite by chance. On the fringes of one of the Italian ISTA seminars, his ensemble, which consisted of seven or eight obviously international actors (including an authentic dancer from Bali!) offered to the citizens of a small Italian town a most intercultural sort of exchange. Although during the performance that was given one evening in August the bewildered audience occasionally clapped their hands and even managed to sing some local song, I still remain unconvinced of the aesthetic and communicative aspects of this event.
Naturally, when we speak of a concrete theatrical practice (meaning a production intended for regular repertory exploitation!) interculturalism can/must be achieved in a less complicated and less demanding manner. This means that it can/must be less Artaudian (and esoteric) and more pragmatic (and recognizable). When I explain to my students the fundamental difference between the exclusive Artaudian interculturalism and such a pragmatic ‘interculturalism of a general type,’ I usually define the latter as ‘horizontal’, ‘concrete’, ‘obvious’ and ‘dystopian.’
What kind of interculturalism are we referring to?
Clearly, the kind of interculturalism that can be identified ‘with the naked eye’ and ‘at first sight’ because it treats cultural difference/otherness a) through an impressive, carefully chosen and ‘well tailored’ story, and b) through a basic sign given or chosen beforehand and, as a rule, tense/dramatic. The ‘story’ of Shakespeare’s Othello is one of those ‘well tailored stories,’ and its protagonist is one of those signs given and evidently chosen beforehand in a most drastic manner; hence, it is also one of the most powerful.
After all, rarely in its long history and at few of its longitudes and latitudes has the European theatre expressed itself as ‘monocultural.’ Moreover, had its best and most famous dramatic narratives (thanks to which it has survived for the past twenty-five centuries) been primarily monocultural (ethnocentric), they would hardly have experienced the kind of reception they still encounter. All national dramatic discourses that we know are populated with all kinds of strangers, newcomers, infidels, heterodox characters and such others.
Argyrians, Trojans, Thebans and Persians march through ancient Greek tragedies…
Moors, Jews, the quarreling Veronesi (the Montagues and the Capulets and others…), Roman generals and Egyptian queens, Neapolitans and Milanesi wander through Shakespeare’s plays…
Characters of all kinds constantly quarrel in the merry soggetti of the commedia del’ arte – and they do that in their colourful and different dialects/languages!
In the fantastic fasili of the Karagyoz shadow theatre not only do the ‘local’ Turks outwit each other, but also dozens of puppets of evidently ‘international’ provenance: elegant Frenchmen, mellifluous Greeks, distressed Jews, impulsive Albanians, exotic blacks, extravagant Arabs and Persians…
All kinds of Marin Držić’s ‘local faces’ preponderantly loiter in the spacious and somewhat ambiguous Rome (strange-but-familiar): Dundo Maroje, Pomet, Petrunjela, Laura… In order to ‘check’ their (uncertain) status in the seemingly open (cosmopolitan) Mediterranean world, the lucid comediographer Marino Darsa Raguseo introduces into the game/play an ‘authentic’ foreigner, the German Ugo Tudesco…
The cursed status of a genuine stranger (the ethnically, linguistically and culturally other) is the key motif of on of the greatest of Balkan comedies, Kir Janja by Jovan Popović, who we all call Sterija… … and so forth.
And yet, the intercultural tension emanated by these and other texts that we have not referred to, as well as the specific and exceptionally well branched but subtle net of intercultural relations that has been woven through their theatralization, has little in common with the exclusive Artaudian concept of alchemic/archetypal theatre interculturalism (transculturalism?) understood as a system of spiritual/metaphysical signs of sameness in differences. As Barba would put it, the principle is the same, only the performances are different.
On the other hand, I believe that the kind of interculturalism known to the theatrical practice of the general/'mass' type and the kind it can bear does not strive towards such exclusive and almost laboratory-like goals. Hence, I dare conclude that, by using, on a daily basis, the syntagm intercultural theatre we commonly have in mind that something which we do not utter. We have in mind the kind of theatre which should not only be better, but different from the kind of theatre that we practice.
It seems that we (still!) have to go back to the beginning of this text and repeat the initial question:
What do we, in fact, talk about when we talk about interculturalism?
That this question should not be understood as some kind of rhetorical figure becomes clear if, for instance, we decide to test its validity in what is today the most popular and the fastest way: with the help of any Internet search engine. By opening recently the “all-powerful” Google I came to the conclusion that, if I want to study the problem I am writing about now (in a Cartesian, i.e., classical/traditional “European” style), I will have to browse through millions of web pages that have references to some of the important aspects of this question. In my attempt to see what and how much has been written on as few as three basic concepts/categories that, as I assume, should theoretically (and seriously?) “concern” the question of theatre interculturalism (see: intercultural theatre, cross-cultural theatre, postcolonial theatre) I realized that they appear in some 1,600,000 virtual combinations of all kinds. How does one enter such a jungle at all? Should the well known story about the unhappiest and clumsiest of all princes, Hamlet, who honestly believes that there should be some method in madness, be applied to these endless webs as well?
Of course, we learned long ago that today we should live (and write, too) according to some other rules. Much as we may be nostalgic for the “former harmonious and unchangeable world”, today we (still) know that “this world can no longer be ours” (Eco, 1962). Hence, we have got used to the fact that, after all, we should think, research, conclude and write “on the basis of some other categories: ambiguity, uncertainty, possibility, probability” (ibid).
This is especially true if we think and write about some specific phenomena that are quite “uncertain” and undoubtedly ambiguous. And such is the intercultural theatre!
As my brief research carried out with the support of the tools offered by Google demonstrated, the virtual variations on the theme of “theatre interculturalism and its complementary phenomena” point to the following inevitable conclusion:
In our inconstant, aporic and fairly ambiguous time, a time whose character is defined/determined by the incredibly speedy rise of two or three planetary phenomena -media domination, individual mobility and the unstoppable coca-colizaton of the Universe (in brief, the globalization processes that are permanently on the rise) – theatre interculturalism can be also treated as just one more of those convenient and practical trends. To be intercultural is, without doubt, to be trendy.
And yet, what kind of trendy interculturalism are we talking about?
Is it the kind Artaud fantasized about, and the very young “Artaud fans” Grotowski and Barba (somewhere in the dawn of the 1960s and in some of the most lucid “early works” that they produced then) spiritedly endeavored to experiment with? In other words, can this “original”, explorative, abstract, vertical, archetypal, psychoanalytical, utopian and, after all, experimental interculturalism at all develop into a trendy phenomenon? Or, is it perhaps (still!) too “exotic” to become a product for “mass consumption” and, conquering theatre stages “all over,” radically influence the habits of wide audiences?
Or is it, despite everything, some “later” variety of theatre interculturalism, a mutation of the initial Artaudian idea and one of the pragmatic compromises made on its behalf? Is the so-called trendy interculturalism of the kind customarily practiced on today’s theatre stages worldwide nothing more than consumer-oriented and quite pragmatic performance practice which, when I explain it to my students, I usually describe as “interculturalism of the general type” (analogous with “wide spectrum antibiotic”)?
This trendy interculturalism can be easily recognized as evident, explicit, horizontal, dystopic and, finally, simplified to the limits didactic interculturalism reduced to the appallingly easily recognizable elements “taken over” from different cultures not for the purpose of their creative exchange between the participants in the process, but for the sake of their shrewd and effective combination (in Barba’s words, editing) into a common whole which then becomes more colourful and dynamic and, generally, more suitable for “mass consumption”!
It is only fair to admit that today we are witnesses of a very interesting paradox: theorizing about theatre intertextuality has become incomparably more productive and more successful than making intercultural theatre productions!
Or perhaps we are wrong? Perhaps we will be closer to the truth if we say that this very interesting paradox was felt by Artaud himself, who was a brilliant but also atypical “maker” of an almost perfect theatre concept which, precisely because of its perfection, was impossible to achieve in everyday practice. As we know, Artaud did not even try to achieve it.
If this is so, and everyday theatre practice indicates that it is (more or less, with certain exceptions that deserve our respect), what is, then, the object of interest of the numerous performances that are customarily declared as intercultural? Try to recall some of them, some that you have seen and remembered, and then try only vaguely to reconstruct their aesthetics. And then, identify their object of interest.
Let us simplify the question. It will suffice if you try to answer how these productions function, after all. Do they function by theatralizing the “samenessses” which should be “joined” with different cultures in an Artaudian manner or (nonetheless!) strive to create harmonious “stories” that consist of edited pieces based on the differences which make the respective cultures specific and unique? These questions concern those inevitable and natural differences which, because of the fact that all the participants in the act of performing and the audience strictly adhere to them, systematically enrich the intercultural theatrical practice of this type with popular plays whose primary goal is often the propagation of “harmonious coexistence” and “ togetherness in harmony.”
If you read the last sentence once again, you will easily notice the qualitative change in its terminology. Suddenly – and not without reason – it seems to cross the line which differentiates and delineates scholarly and political discourse. The categories such as difference, respect, harmony, coexistence, propagation, togetherness are evidently political in their provenance.
Why have they suddenly become part of the theatrological discourse?
Firstly, because politics has become all-present and powerful in an Orwellian manner and as such has permeated (superiorly and relentlessly) all the segments of social life. As one of the most receptive arts of our time, the theatre cannot (even if it wanted to, and it doesn’t!) distance itself from politics, nor can it avoid the trends that it imposes.
One such trend, a trend which is at the moment the most trendy of all, is this famed multiculturalism.
The term multiculturalism began to circulate – and triumphantly so – some thirty years ago when in 1971 the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudot promoted it in order to express his pride in the “harmonious coexistence” practiced in his great country in which members of different ethnic communities who speak different languages and belong to different confessions live happily and in deep mutual respect. Since then, the famed multiculturalism has been promoted as an almost magic formula. Based on high ethical standards such as tolerance and respect for differences, this concept seriously imposed, and continues to do so, the utopian idea that it can work in all circumstances and in every place. The processes of globalization that gained in intensity and were accelerated in the early 1980s understood quite well the potential of the multicultural utopia and began to disseminate it systematically. Today, we can competently speak and write about multiculturalism as the “common denominator” of all kinds of things: tradition, education, politics, music, literature… and, of course, theatre.
When I tried to test the potential of this powerful and clearly trendy phenomenon with the help of the same Internet search engine I have referred to above (Google), it took me two minutes to state the following:
Some three basic concepts/categories which concern certain important aspects of multiculturalism (see: multicultural theatre, multicultural policy, multicultural education), appear on the Web in more than 14,000,000 virtual combinations of all kinds. Yes, fourteen million!
The figure looks so impressive that it automatically cancels the need for any comment or even analysis. This figure leads us directly to the inevitably aporic and ambiguous conclusion: it is indisputable that the famed multiculturalism has become a magic formula, but it is just as indisputable that this formula is too good to be true!
In one of the February issues of the prominent Time Magazine whose cover story was multiculutralism itself, the German politician Angela Merkel felt free to proclaim this trendy phenomenon an experiment which has not succeeded anywhere: in her view, it will never happen.
How does the theatre fit into this trendy phenomenon and does it fit in at all?
Older and therefore “more experienced” than the other performing media (film, television, the Internet) the theatre has relatively easily joined the multicultural mainstream that was additionally “accelerated” by the ever more intensified and varied processes of globalization. It was facilitated by its respectable “accumulated years of service” which, in the form of theoretical and practical experience in theatre interculturalism and theatre anthropology, the great theatre explorers such as Artaud, Brecht, Grotowski, Brook, Barba and Schechner have put into this “great story”. Thanks to their serious theatre explications of these two phenomena, theatre interculturalism and theatre anthropology, we all learned how to approach the third phenomenon in this specific chain, the trendy phenomenon we have described above, designated with the syntagm multicultural theatre.
What is, in brief, multicultural theatre?
It is a theatre which successfully exists precisely on the basis of the magic formula put forward by Trudot, the formula for the “harmonious coexistence” of the differences that determine a certain cultural or creative context. Due to the fact that these differences are numerous, “final and eternal”, they guarantee that they will constantly produce a sufficient quantity of interesting (read: tense) material which will serve for the invention of lively and picturesque stories. The performing potential of such stories, in Barba’s words, the potential for permanent editing and re-editing of their basic elements, is practically inexhaustible. Juliet can be a native Indian woman (or Albanian), and Romeo, a cowboy (or Macedonian), and this will do for the production of a commercial multicultural theatre performance. It will be/become commercial due to the fact that it theatralizes the differences (the most literal ones, the most banal, the most stereotypical ones) in order to be able to market a “didactic” political story about the meaning of order and the meaninglessness of chaos, that is, about the necessity of “harmonious coexistence”. There’s trendy for you!
I would like you to recall that intercultural poetics worked in a completely opposite direction – it explored the samenesses in different cultures and strove to theatralize precisely these elements, believing that the theatre should “dig deep” into the archetypes (into psychoanalysis, philosophy, anthropology), and not send out political and ideological messages. As befits all serious experiments, all intercultural performances were hermetic, with no traces of any commercialization. Their authors even proclaimed that they dealt with the theatre for the sake of technique/procedure and not the result which such a procedure would yield. In the later years of his career, Grotowski completely abandoned making and presenting his plays and decided to close down his Theatre Laboratory. And continued to search for the samenesses –ad infinitum.
Multicultural theatre is something completely opposite. In addition to simplifying to the extreme the problems which were once addressed by the passionate explorers of theatre interculturalism, this type of theatre practice is heavily burdened by the need to constantly “talk about” and/or “propagate” certain “important” ideas or concepts whose impact definitely has no aesthetic value.
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