—from a lecture given at the University of California, Los Angeles, in extemporized English and arresting French accent, on Dec. 9, 2013; transcribed from a problematical tape by Calvin Bedient


I shall begin this lecture by what I might call Plato’s paradox. In Plato, we find, first, violent opposition to epic poetry and also to dramatic poetry—the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. In The Republic, the most important point of all the books is precisely the struggle against poetry and against theater. So for Plato it’s something that’s in at the heart of the philosophical struggle.

On the other side, Plato gives philosophy a purely theatrical form. He writes only in the form of dialogues between people. And Plato is certainly the philosopher who is very often played in theater. So we have a paradox. We have something like a theatrical exposition of the most violent conceptual attack against the theater. In fact, my lecture is an attempt to elucidate the contradiction.

The paradox is a very curious one. Plato is in some sense the inventor of the current meaning of the word philosophy. We can say that Plato is the first philosopher. But the form he gives his philosophy is by no means a classical form. In fact, hardly any philosopher after Plato uses the theatrical form Plato invented, the form of dialogue to expose the philosophical concepts. (I know of only two interesting  exceptions: Malebranche’s Dialogue between a Christian Philosopher and a Chinese Philosopher on the Existence and Nature of God, and Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist.)  

In fact, as you know perfectly well, the dominant form in philosophy throughout its history is not at all the dialogue but the academic critique. It is not an invention of the first philosopher, Plato; it’s the invention of Aristotle, who is in some sense the second philosopher. But Aristotle is not at all an enemy of theater, as we can see in his Poetics; he is a good friend of tragedy and of theater in general. So we have a complete paradox: the enemy of theater creates philosophy in theatrical form, and his disciple, a friend of theater, writes philosophy in the least theatrical form possible, the academic dissertation.

The first point is a contradiction between Plato’s theoretical position concerning  theater and something like his practical position, which is of a theatrical nature. In Aristotle, there is no contradiction at all. Aristotle is not a philosopher of contradictions, but a philosopher of quiet difference: the first inventor of conservative philosophy. Not a philosopher of the complete change of life, but an academic philosopher of encyclopedic knowledge. So Aristotle has no problem with theater. Theater is something different from philosophy, that is all. Philosophy is an objective knowledge, and theater is a subjective pleasure. Philosophy  concerns the soul, rational reason; theater concerns the passions, terror and pity.

So for Aristotle the only relationship between philosophy and theater is such that philosophy must rationally explain what theater is. It’s the Aristotelian beginning of the academic branch of philosophy named aesthetics, the explanation of what a work of art is. Now, the title of my Handbook of Inaesthetics indicates my own opposition to the existence of something like aesthetics. I am not at all on the side of Aristotle, but on the side of Plato. I can say in passing that in philosophy there is only one contradiction—the contradiction between Plato and Aristotle. It’s an old contradiction, but probably a true contradiction.

The paradox of Plato is not of an aesthetic nature. Plato does not say that tragedy is not a pleasure or that tragedy is not a beautiful thing. On the contrary, it’s because tragedy is a very profound and strong pleasure and a magnificent thing that philosophy and the philosopher must be suspicious. For Plato, and this is the most important point, philosophy is not knowledge: it is not knowledge of theater, of aesthetics, of science, or of politics.  It is an action, the goal of which is to transform the subject. Philosophy is a movement. Certainly it is in some sense a use of knowledge. But philosophy is not by itself a form of knowledge. We cannot give philosophy the definition “it is a kind of knowledge.” Philosophy is an active dimension of thinking, and the goal of philosophy is really the complete transformation of subjectivity. And why? Because for Plato, subjectivity and the subject in general are corrupted by dominant opinions. You know that Socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting young men . . . The struggle against dominant opinions is a fundamental part of philosophy, which is something like the struggle against the corruption of youth. Plato’s definition of ordinary corruption is forced opinion: dominant opinions as forced opinions. And so philosophy is not only a movement, but a struggle against the dominant opinions. The question of philosophy is really the struggle against intellectual corruption, subjective corruption. 

To return to the question of the divide between philosophy and theater: is theater ultimately something on the side of dominant opinions? Does it impose on youth, young men, men, dominant opinions that corrupt their mind? Philosophy is a public action, if you will, and theater too is a public action. Theater is an action, not a form of knowledge. Philosophy attempts to transform subjectivity by rational means, and theater too transforms subjectivity—but by what sort of means, that is the question. Theater is something that happens, but the transformation of subjectivity by theater—we don’t precisely know the means of that transformation, the goal of that transformation. For Plato that is the question of theater. 

So for Plato the relationship between philosophy and theater cannot be reduced to a quiet difference, as in Aristotle. In fact the relationship between philosophy and theater is rivalry, because they have something of the same orientation, the same goal, namely, to transform subjectivity. And so the theater is either a friend of philosophy, or an enemy of philosophy. We cannot have something like a peaceful vision of the relationship between the two. 

This is precisely the reason why Plato writes philosophical dialogues, thus adopting in some sense the theatrical form. Plato assumed that philosophy can organize its means in a vivid manner, and not only in the flat form of the academic dissertation. If we want to organize the struggle with theater, we must adopt the new form of philosophy, a form that is as vivid, as strong, as real, as the form of theater. We must adopt the means of the possible enemy, which is probably theater. 

We must return for the moment to the rational definition of theater, and so to aesthetics in the Aristotelian sense. Aristotle’s Poetics distinguishes three different parts. First, there is something of an imitative nature in theater, because it is re-presentation of life and not presentation as such. Second, tragic theater, which for Aristotle and for Plato is the heart of the question of theater, like epic poetry, in fact, represents, imitates, violent situations and actions: civil war, treason, murder, and so on. We can see that theater is a representation of exceptional subjectivities, not of the ordinary facts of common life. And third, all of this provokes in the audience a sort of identification with precisely exceptional subjectivity, identification with the victims and also with the heroes, and with strong affects like terror and pity, but also with admiration, enthusiasm, and so on. So the construction of the classical idea of theater defines theater as a complex of imitation, exception, and identification—an affective identification, a passionate identification, with an exception.

For Aristotle, the violent affects of identification with an exception is a sort of medicine for the subject. If you see images of violent exceptions, first you experience a  jouissance, because although you see the violence, you are banished from it, not assigned it. You are an exception to the exception. You are outside of what is imitated. And so, for Aristotle, tragedy is something like a subjective medicine for the subject itself and has the function of returning the subject to normal subjectivity via what is violent and obscure in the subject. It has a beneficial function at the psychological level.

For Plato, all that is suspicious. First, imitation, images, are not good in themselves. We know perfectly well today, in fact, that the power of images can be, and very often is, the most important form of reactionary propaganda. We cannot see images as being a good thing in every case. Second, the pleasure of the imitation of exceptions, of terrible subjectivities, is not good in itself. Murderers, masters, monsters, are exceptional but they are not necessarily a good thing. So the pleasure of the exception, too, can be a very suspicious pleasure. So we cannot say that the imitation of human life necessarily has a good effect. 

Certainly, truth is also exceptional—a most difficult problem for Plato. There are good exceptions, but there can also be bad exceptions. Forced views and forced convictions and forced images can also be exceptional and very monstrous. Obscure and forced opinions, as opposed to the discovery of the truth, can have dramatic consequences in the real itself. And so the therapeutic value of identification is not at all self-evident to Plato. 

Ultimately, Plato proposes a sort of philosophical theater, and so a theater that is not the tragic theater of Aristotle. This philosophical theater, the dialogue of Plato, is not an imitation of what exists, but the movement of thinking oriented by truth. It’s a real movement, but it’s not an imitation of what exists as such; it’s the imitation, the writing, of the movement of thinking itself. And naturally in the movement there is also the experience of what force is and the progressive negation of force. Naturally, too, the philosophical theater is not the representation of exceptional violence. But there is a sort of violence in the philosophical theater, which is the struggle against the different forms of refusal of the search for truth, against the reactionary defense of force and oppressive opinion. And so it is not a reasonable dialogue between two reasonable people; it is really a form of the struggle for truth and not the pure and peaceful and academic demonstration of the truth as such. At the level of affects, it is not the struggle of dark affects like terror and pity, but something like luminous affects of the clear understanding of a problem—something like real pleasure. Thinking is a pleasure, it is  not contrary to pleasure. This is a very important point for Plato. When you really understand something, it is not only a rational victory, but something like real pleasure. And so there is also some affective dimension of the philosophical theater. There is some joy when we find the solution to the problem, collective enthusiasm for a positive change of the world, new forms of friendship and love, and so on. All that is the positive labor of philosophical theater. And the goal is not identification with images; it’s sort of positive transformation, a real transformation. It’s the moment when we are able to see and to do what seemed to us purely impossible before. If you read the dialogues of Plato, there is always something like that: the discovery that something that was impossible to think and to do before is now possible to think and to do. And so it is the discovery of something like a possibility that was impossible. We can define the philosophical theater of Plato as the theater of the progressive possibility of the impossible. But if theater is a theater of the possibility of the impossible, why is the theatrical form necessary? Why not simply the constructive movement of an Aristotelian critique?

To solve this problem we must go back to the origin of Greek culture. Theater was created in Greece and comes from religious ceremony. What is the point where theater becomes something different from a religious ceremony? Theater is the invention of a split in the ceremony, an opposition between two subjects, the irruption of division within the unity of religious ceremony. Theater begins when we have an opposition between two subjects, two opinions, two conflicting visions of the world. So the difference between religious ceremony and the becoming of theater is the passage from one to two—something like that. But it’s also, and this is probably the most important point, the operation of negation. For if you have contradiction you have negation. Religious ceremony is naturally the ceremony of affirmation, the ceremony of common affirmation, common faith, in the different forms of the ceremony itself. Theater is the formation of negation, that is, of the operation of the need to discuss the question of the truth, because we have two points of view, we have two visions. We have a strong contradiction. So the question of the truth becomes a movement. It is the struggle between two different positions, maybe three or four, given the evolution of theater, in the non-religious dimension where truth has no guarantee. Theater is the beginning of truth. It is the beginning of the experience of negation in the field of conviction itself. Theater is the birth of division. Theater is really the beginning of something new in the movement of truth, which is the fact that we must go through negation to something like a true conviction. 

. . . Plato in some sense comes after theater. For Plato, philosophy cannot be a  lesson, a passive reception of purely academic discourse. Philosophy must be the struggle, the movement, the contradiction between two different positions: a subjective movement with an experience of negation, and not a passive position of the disciple of the master. And so we have the active form of dialogue. The Greek word for dialogue means to speak through: to speak in contradiction and not in the immediacy of truth, to speak through difficulties. In Plato, the dialectical labor is the final labor of the movement to the truth. 

So we can see that the relationship between philosophy and theater is a strange story, in that the truth in Plato is something near theater with its dialectical vision of the movement of the truth. Plato must propose a new theater against the theater that is really not a search for the truth, but the pleasure of the imitation of exception. He must propose a theater that is not the negation of theater, but a new theater, a theater of the possibility of the impossible; not a theater of identification, but a theater of transformation. Of real transformation. Aristotle, on the other hand, is also after theater, but in a sort of quiet peace with theater because its proper vision cannot be of a philosophical nature. And so the friend of theater is ultimately indifferent to theater in philosophy, and the enemy of theater is in fact the inventor of something theatrical in philosophy itself.

Is there something of all that today? I think that, yes, today we have two different positions concerning theater. On the one hand we have an Aristotelian theater today—today in a broad sense, the theater of the past century and today. And it’s interesting to speak of the Aristotelian division of theater here [in the United States] because there is a great American theater that is that kind of theater: the theater of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. These are two magnificent examples of the theater that is absolutely within the question of purification of subjectivity through a description of violent passions, the night of the subject—generally in the time of one night, the night of great familial exploration. In the nineteenth century, it’s the theater of Ibsen, largely; certainly the theater of Strindberg; and part of the theater of Chekhov. Finally in this theater you can find the resolution by saying what is  unsaid. In it, . . . we have always a moment when something like a secret is finally said, something about the family, about sex. This is clearly in the Aristotelian vision of the theater. It is a theater of continuity, not discontinuity; of passionate movement to a sort of new peaceful situation, which is the solution of the problem.

The other theater today is political and ideological theater, in which the question is not at all the continuity of the family, the disclosure of the secret, but a question of choice, of pure choice, and the choice is always in the form of a discontinuity. To come to understand the true choice, the true vision, creates a rupture in the course of the situation. We have Brecht in Germany, but it’s also the situation of Claudel in France. . . .  And it is certainly a large part of Sartre’s theater, which is the theater of the choice that reveals the meaning of existence. You know that Brecht speaks explicitly of a non-Aristotelian theater. . . . My conviction is that if you are not in this tradition or in the tradition of the clarification of a situation, you are not in the theater. There is no third possibility. In the second case, we have the theater of discontinuity, and in the first case a theater of a sort of continuity, which may sometimes be the theater of repetition: Chekhov is perfectly clear that the theater is the theater of a sort of continuity and repetition. In Tennessee Williams, you have the crisis, certainly, but the movement of the crisis is not the creation of discontinuity; it the immanent movement of the crisis itself.

I can conclude now with the philosophical theater. Ultimately, the great difference between the two is the question of what constitutes the ideal of existence. The Aristotelian ideal is the ideal of the good life; the good life is possible in the sense of subjective peace with the world and with others—the world as it is, and the others as they are. We can find by some means—for example, the theater of identification—that sort of peace, and this peace is the good life. On the other side, we have the ideal of the true life, which is different because it’s a subjective struggle of the true life to change the world. And also it’s a view of important conflicts with others, not general peace with others in general; and it cannot reduce this conflict to a peaceful unity. True life is by necessity a life that is a form of struggle, because the tenor of the world is not something that can do without some difficult choices, some structural transformation. And so we can see in theater and philosophy and in the complex relation between theater and philosophy the question of what is ultimately definition of happiness, something like that. Happiness is the good life, the peaceful acceptance of what exists; or happiness is a choice to change the destiny of what exists, which is not pure necessity.  Finally a choice of what must exist. . .


Badiou in the Q & A (selections):

~ In psychoanalysis we have the question of circumstances that block possibility, but it’s not an impossibility of a general situation; it’s a sort of complex of misunderstanding, and the description is the progressive clarification of misunderstandings. It’s the classical vision of psychoanalysis . . . the ordinary vision. . . .  We have also a more tragic conception of psychoanalysis, for example the Lacanian one, which is that it’s the real that is impossible. The problem . . . is something real in the impossibility itself. When you create the space of the possibility of the impossible, you touch the real. It’s not the peaceful effect of language that clarifies the situation, but something like the form of an act that touches the real and produces a new space for the distinction between possibility and impossibility. . . . The people in the American theater are not in the Lacanian theater. In fact the theater of Lacan is the th eater of Claudel, Jean Genet . . . 

I think the theater of Beckett is the most limpid example of the demise [disparition] of representation. It is theater as a process of going outside the Aristotelian vision. It is not a theater of passion, psychology, and so on. It is really a theater of the idea, the pure theater of the idea as such, as precisely the possibility of the impossible. So there is always in Beckett the theater of impossibility, the impossibility to speak, the impossibility to move, and so on. We have the feeling of impossibility, but there is always the point of possibility within the feeling of impossibility. . . .There is no irony in this theater. In Happy Days, when the woman who is buried in the ground and cannot move says “Oh, happy day,” . . .  that is the point. It is a day . . .  where love is reduced to the pure existence of love without any external reason. So it is really a definition of what a beautiful day is.


~ I think that indeed today, there are many attempts to create a theater that is not in the form of representation but very near the form of pure presentation. For example, we have the attempt to create what is called theater without theater. For instance, you are in the street with other men and women and you are an actor in some sense; you all do exactly the same thing as in ordinary life, but with maybe some very small differences, and you experience the reactions of people. All that is the process of pure experimentation of the possibility of understanding concrete everyday reality at a point that is neither completely inside it nor outside it, hence theater that is very near pure presentation but with an infinitesimal difference. Another possibility is to make a theater without any representation of a story, of a person, but by a sort of pure exhibition of the body as such, in its it possibility of movement, or with expressive possibilities . . . to present the body in a form that is not within the universe of representation. . . . [And] there is a theater that provokes some form of interruption in the imitation of everyday life, and after the interruption the theater is only the consequences of the interruption, which are not within the representation. . . . All that is the experimentation of today. . . . Finally, any human affirmation can be of an artistic nature, can be something like a theater, and it is a theater without theater in the demise of theater. If there is a theater without theater, it’s because everything that exists is theater; or if there is theater without theater, it is because there is no theater at all.

Today there is a very fundamental crisis of theater, which is precisely the crisis of the split with the Aristotelian tradition of theater as a disposition that is probably not sufficient to propose a contemporary theater. And my whole story today is, in a sense, an archaic one.

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