Performance of Thought

I want to return again to the metastasization of definitions and meanings that frequently surges forth in studies of the baroque in order to offer a more specific set of claims about the performance of thought (what some might call methodology) that I enact in this book’s pages. My intention here is twofold. First, I desire to foreground the maneuvers I make as I consciously and with great care arrange historical fragments into a specific shape. By exposing my work as a historiographer, I intend to draw attention to the act of creation in which all historians (regardless of any stated or implied objectivity) engage. Second, I want to forward this act of creation as necessary for the art of historiography. If, as de Certeau has convincingly suggested, the act of writing history (an act that produces history) always fails to achieve the status of either pure truth or utter falsity, then the historiographer perpetually finds himself in the gap, the very gap that he would vainly seek to erase by endeavoring to write history and, by doing so, bridge the past and the present. This gap (or, rather, this “gesture of coming nearer [that] reduces but never eliminates distance”) begs for art and playfulness instead of science and surety (de Certeau 230).

In his “Barocco: storia di un concetto” (“Baroque: History of a Concept”), Otto Kurz opens the door to artistic historiography by assessing the baroque through an etymological excavation of the word itself and discovering not a permanent historical phenomenon but a shifting, unstable, and quasi-mythical concept housing numerous stories and possibilities. Baroque appears to him like the irregular pearls preferred by sixteenth-century jewelers for their grotesque appearance, and that so delighted the wealthy citizens of Italy and Portugal (16). In seventeenth-century texts, such as letters penned by the Italian librarian Antonio Magliabecchi, Kurz discovers the term barocco as a synonym for “fraudulent usury” or “cheat” (ibid.). He also finds reference to a barocco that signifies the practice of absurd and convoluted reasoning such as that found in Medieval (Aristotelian) logical exercises (17). Kurz contends that despite all those references, “baroque,” as we understand it today, may come from the name of the painter Federigo Barocci (aka Federico Fiori, 1528-1612), a source that may explain its appearance in the Dizionario delle Belle Arti (1797) of Francesco Milizia, who defines the term and gives a list of other baroque artists: “it is the superlative of the bizarre, the excess of the ridiculous. Borromini gave [such] delusions, but [also] Guarini, Pozzi, [and] Marchione in the Sacristy of [Saint] Peter are baroque” (22). “Baroque,” though, also seems to denote a particular style devised by Jesuits, whose use of theatricality in their conversion tactics was well known to the sixteenth and seventeenth-century world (29). By the end of Kurz’s essay, any certainty about a stable baroque identity has faded away beneath a mess ofhistorical traces and genealogies.

The mess constitutes a fantastical arrangement that shifts the baroque from a concrete historical period or a neatly defined architectural or more broadly artistic style into a historical riddle. I suggest that we tread carefully as we decide how to phrase the riddle. Let us not ask what a baroque theatre practice looks like, but, rather: What theatre practices reveal dented, grotesque forms, like that of the baroque pearl? What theatre historical texts contain characters or historical figures speaking through a convoluted or abstruse, irregular logic? Where might we find a theatrical version of the trompe l’oeil common in painting? To fantasize baroque (more on this verb in a moment) means to follow the direction in which these questions point, and to imagine or visualize a theatre practice whose specificity comes into view by asking all of these questions.

For me, a philosophical practice well suited to the metastasizing excesses of baroque fantasy comes from the exceedingly disciplined work of Adorno, whose lifelong preoccupation with aesthetics and the writing of history contained within artworks provokes a number of timely considerations. In 1931, Adorno gave a lecture to the philosophy faculty of the University of Frankfurt titled, “The Actuality of Philosophy.” Actuality, in this sense, does not concern a fixed identity for philosophy; rather, it asks “whether, after the failure of the last great efforts, there exists an adequacy between the philosophic questions and the possibility of their being answered at all” (124). The answer is that, yes, one can answer those questions, but the method of actualizing philosophy’s potential lies in the encounter between objective material and subjective thought (the true locus of philosophy) which unfolds by eschewing all recourse to science (e.g., Kant, Bergson), on the one hand, and all totalizing philosophies of being (e.g. Heidegger) on the other. In this lecture in particular, Adorno characterizes science as that mode of thinking to which philosophy cannot acquiesce. The difference between these two modes of thinking emerges in the way that:

the separate sciences accept their findings, at least their final and deepest findings, as indestructible and static, whereas philosophy perceives the first finding which it lights upon as a sign that needs unriddling. Plainly put: the idea of science (Wissenschaft) is research; that of philosophy is interpretation. (126)

In addition to differentiating between science and philosophy, this claim reveals the first step toward moving away from rigidly empirical studies of the past. A critical, creative historiography, one that does not prioritize the discovery of what really happened, requires philosophical interpretation as opposed to the idea of research, research understood in an extremely specific sense, one “which assumes the reduction of the question to given and known elements where nothing would seem necessary except the answer” (ibid).

Philosophical interpretation assumes as its object neither manifest intentions nor reality concealed within objects, but, rather, that which Adorno names “ unintentional reality. ” Existing in counterpoint to the facts tracked down by the deductive historian, unintentional reality appears within artifacts that, as if by accident, have been smuggled into the present moment in forms as diverse as obscure monologues, puns, architectural drawings, and gardens. Unintentional reality presents itself as historical images that, when arranged into critical constellations and approached through a (negative) dialectical materialist mode of thought, illuminate the unintentional truths of objective reality, thereby making visible the riddle of the past. Unintentional reality is not the answer to the riddle of the past; that is, it does not reveal the Real, but, rather, it is a shock of light that illuminates the riddle momentarily. The fleeting and ephemeral existence of the lighting negates the permanent, enduring riddle of the past by revealing how that-which-is can only become visible through that-which-is-but-only-for-a-moment. As such, philosophy “persistently and with the claim of truth, must proceed interpretively without ever possessing a sure key to interpretation; nothing more is given to it than fleeting, disappearing traces within the riddle figures of that which exists and their astonishing entwinings” (ibid). In other words, embracing philosophical interpretation means renouncing axiomatic methods that would try to guide the historiographer through diverse terrains always with the same map, and choosing, instead, to work out from within the unique labyrinth of each historical fragment. There is no proof of the baroque to find in the theatre practices of sixteenth-century Venice but it is possible to discover what (else) baroque might be/mean/do by thinking creatively about those practices.

To embrace Adorno’s method of philosophical interpretation while studying the past, however, one needs to abandon a relatively familiar definition of the archive. Indeed, a second derivation from deductive historical research occurs here, in the consideration of the archive as an arrangement of historical images. It makes little sense to talk about content when speaking of arrangement, since an arrangement has no content as such. Rather, arrangements require an attention to form and technique, to how one assembles and re-assembles various materials. Whereas positivist historians and historiographers would like to find within archives facts and objects that give way to the unimpeachable truths of a historical situation, Adorno and Benjamin collect diverse materials to assemble a unique archive for each inquiry and to produce an understanding of the past attuned to the dialectical process active within each object. Historical images are never givens. “Rather, they must be produced by human beings and are legitimated in the last analysis alone by the fact that reality crystalizes about them in striking conclusiveness” (131).

Fine-tuned ears will perk up here. If historiographers adopt the process of philosophical interpretation posited by Adorno, are they (we, I) not embarking on a project of producing history? Does this word “production” not sound uncomfortably similar to “invention”? Is Adorno’s materialist production of historical, unintentional reality through the juxtaposition of analytically isolated elements no more than fantastical invention? Yes and no. The term “invention” played its part in the history of the dialectical arts, particularly in Rudolph Agricola’s De inventione dialectica (Of dialectical invention 1479, published 1515), where the word encompassed the all-important act of, first, finding and ordering the right arguments needed for proving a statement and then, second, discovering truth itself. A wealth of invention, however, was, for Agricola, a troubling sign, “something given to ungoverned and almost mad intelligences” (Spranzi 87). Re-functioning this specific understanding of the term, then, one might say that while Adorno’s philosophical interpretation does not amount to making stuff up, it does require the ability to skirt the madness alluded to in Agricola’s term “wealth of invention,” so as to prepare a truly artful inquiry. In this sense, “invention” requires a disciplined art to guide it such that the invention gathers itself at some point and commences judgment (i.e. the act of argumentation) to glimpse and, perhaps, moves beyond the limits of knowledge.

Adorno himself acknowledged the history of the ars inveniendi (the art of invention) into which he was stepping:

If the idea of philosophic interpretation which I tried to develop for you is valid, then it can be expressed as the demand to answer the questions of a pre-given reality each time, through a fantasy which rearranges the elements of the question without going beyond the circumference of the elements, the exactitude of which has its control in the disappearance of the question. (Adorno “Actuality,” 131)

Here, Adorno shifts from “invention” to “fantasy” and transitions from the formal Aristotelian dialectic tradition leading back through the likes of Agricola into his own negative dialectical procedure. This shift marks the third and final Adornian historiographical derivation away from positivist empiricism for which I would like to advocate. In the place of a scientific, research-driven quest for the answer to the question of “what really happened,” I propose, following Adorno, an understanding of historiographical practice as disciplined fantasy. The fantastical dimension lives within the act of invention inherent in the process of arranging historical images into critical constellations. In this act of fantasy, one needs discipline to discern the “circumference of the elements” one has collected. The historiographer cannot choose to say just anything about the material under consideration. To the contrary, he or she must listen to the proposal made by the historical material itself and, in that way, give over the power of subjective reasoning to the irrationality of the object. Adorno’s term for this act of listening, which according to Birgit Hofstaetter equates directly (in Negative Dialectics) with the act of philosophy, is Verhaltensweise (comportment). That word contains within it another word, Weise,

meaning “melody” or “tune.” To listen to the proposal made by historical material in a disciplined way would be to tune oneself to the object under consideration and, simultaneously, to attend to one’s own comportment toward that object so as to maintain critical self-reflexivity (Hofstaetter 161). To write history through disciplined fantasy would be to play the past quasi una fantasia and to discover a baroque historiography.

In this book I try my hand at this disciplined fantasy. Despite this lengthy excursus through Adorno’s ideas, I do not seek to apply a rigidly Adornian or Benjaminian mode of thought at each turn of the analysis. In fact, I stray often from the strictly Adornian and Benjaminian path to seek help from other thinkers whose methods and findings reveal the unintentional reality of the materials I have collected here. Gilles Deleuze, for example, famous for, among other things, his inquiry into Leibniz and the baroque, provides help understanding how to think of baroque performances and practices as dynamic objects, or, as he calls them, objectiles. Michel Foucault’s schematic blueprints of pastoral power and theories of subversions to instrumental governmentalities also guide me through several chapters. Indeed, many secondary sources treating multiple, sometimes far-flung, subjects of knowledge (from Renaissance curricula on medicine to peasant revolts to garden architecture) make an entrance in this study as I attempt to scrutinize the worlds embedded in the primary sources I have culled from various sites. Ultimately, all theorizing required to see the contours of the baroque practices alive in sixteenth-century Venice shows itself as a concerted foray into the art of historiography, an art made thinkable by the creative work of all the thinkers cited thus far.

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