The show is almost over.
James Brown sings 'Please! Please! Please!' and he drops, taking all his weight on his knees, intricately crafted, as yours and mine are, of bone and cartilage and tissue and blood. Something snaps down there, as it does every night. Something will not work again, something tiny, something big. The purple mantle falls upon his shoulders. Compassionate hands and faces, as stylised as a Giotto madonna, lift him, hover near him. Slowly, moving to every other beat, he stutters to stage left.
Screams. His body jerking, writhing, pumping like an engine. Runs to twice the beat, seizes the microphone.
And sings. Again. Please.
I can see the stains, red through the green or blue or silver of his trousers and I can see the sweat all over his face. They will try to take him away again and he will come back again. And again. And again. Please.
And, please, he is gone.
He sang for me and he hurt himself for me. For me who never heard or saw him. He kept dancing back for me. And then he disappeared for me. For me who yelled and wept, me too. I went home, but he will be back tomorrow night. Please. Please. Please.
James Brown appears and disappears. He dances. He holds no fixed place - in the world, in my mind. Is this a cause for sadness, or for rejoicing? For trust, or suspicion? Is this death, or life? Who cares about such things, and why do they care?
The ephemerality of the likes of James Brown has been made the basis of a theory of the purpose of popular art by Hannah Arendt, who sees popular artworks as consumer products.
The commodities the entertainment industry offers are not "things," cultural objects, whose excellence is measured by their ability to withstand the life process and become permanent appurtenances of the world, and they should not be judged according to these standards; nor are they values that exist to be used and exchanged; they are consumer goods, destined to be used up, just like any other consumer goods (205-206).
What is right about this statement must not blind us to the possibility of misleading interpretations of it, including Arendt's own. She says, for instance, that the 'standards by which [entertainment] should be judged are freshness and novelty' (206), that is, perhaps, the standards applied to new appearances in the world. Surely, however, this does not entirely correspond to the standards suggested by popular artworks themselves. Although it certainly is true that popular artworks are constantly replaced by other popular artworks, it is also true that the high turnover is a result of mass production and distribution before it is of consumption, and that repetition and convention are as directly related to popular art's popularity as freshness and novelty.
There is evidence of durability on several levels. The most obvious of these is generic. Crime stories have been a staple of popular literature (indeed, of popular art in general) since printed material was first distributed among the masses. The same can be said for stories of romance, on the one hand, and of sexual activity, on the other.1 But specific, individual elements are also being constantly recycled. Popular music furnishes many examples of this sort of durability. "Old" tunes, some of which originate in various folk traditions, reappear in new guises decade after decade. Contemporary dance music has been particularly active in mining the past, re-presenting virtually the entire history of popular recording in the new style, much as swing did in the 1930s. (However, the same thing also happened in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, more selectively and covertly within the mainstream of pop tradition.)2 The media's potential for preserving performances and other popular artworks has had and will continue to have a conservative influence on what is done at any given period.
If there is any interest in and even a reverence for the past manifested in some forms of popular art, it is no less true that there is an interest in and reverence for generic qualities that are, in a sense, more a matter of the durability of the hic et nunc than of tradition. Freshness and novelty are not the only standards by which one should judge, say, a dance recording, which is first of all an example of a genre as obviously conventionalised as a horror film, a superhero comic or a baroque concerto. Yet it would also be a mistake, it seems to me, to regard the generic qualities of such a record as markers standing for the past. They are, instead, indices of contemporary group or type affiliation. Many contemporary dance records do feature recycled, sampled bits from the past. Both elements of the dance recording - its contemporary generic "style" and its historical "material" - are, nonetheless, evidence of a certain durability popular artworks have, and indications that criteria in addition to freshness and novelty must be brought to bear in understanding such work.
Arendt places the consumption of popular entertainment outside of conventional economic frameworks ('nor are they values that exist to be used and exchanged'3). Her understanding of entertainment (and thus, some might say, popular art) is that it is 'irrevocably part of the biological life process' (205). This is one with Aristotle's distinction between relaxation and leisure. Aristotle says that relaxation is therapeutic, 'the remedy of pain caused by toil' (8.5.1339b 15), but that true happiness is not to be found therein because relaxation is inextricably bound up with labour and with the past and is never undertaken for its own sake. Relaxation, then, in a sense always mistakes its object. The ephemerality specific to relaxation, its distinctive, ungraspable quality, arises from the melancholy hidden inside it. What it looks at is gone. Relaxation is about disappearance.
Arendt recognises that, for these reasons, entertainment and relaxation are inescapable necessities of the human condition: 'we all stand in need of entertainment and amusement in some form or other, because we are all subject to life's great cycle' (206). This cycle is common to all because it originates in the animal element in humanity. It is biological, and 'biological life is always, whether labouring or at rest, whether engaged in consumption or in the passive reception of amusement, a metabolism feeding on things by devouring them' (205).
The grand metaphor signifying humanity as animal laborens is, then, the metabolic process, and the cultural experience of popular entertainment is to be understood as equivalent to that of eating. Consumption, which makes things disappear, is the activity most directly related to entertainment and most proper to it. Popular art is for consumption, even for nourishment. Like the meals we eat, popular artworks' 'duration in the world scarcely exceeds the time necessary to prepare them' (209) and, like food, they are 'necessary for life, for its preservation and recuperation' (206). Some things must disappear so that other things may endure. And it is just because its disappearance is necessary that entertainment is not, strictly speaking, "art" at all (indeed, Arendt never uses the words "popular art"). True art does not exist in order to fulfil needs: it 'transcends needs and functions' in its reification of the secular realm (208). And true art, of course, does not disappear.
There is, of course, some question of how thoroughly popular artworks are "devoured". Although at present there is no evidence for perdurance on the scale, say, of the Acropolis' reign as a recognised work of art (and perhaps there never will be), there is equally no indication that popular artworks 'disappear in consumption' (207) any more than ballets or symphonies do. A nostalgia industry purveying "original" copies and reprints of old films, television programs, records, books, comics, radio shows and the like has grown alongside the entertainment industry. It has not managed to preserve everything, but it has acted as effectively as elite libraries and museums to conserve works the latter have until quite recently treated as unworthy of preservation. Once preserved, these works generate audiences whose delight is to experience them again and again: they become "classics", cherished for their own merits and for their supposed influence on other works.
But Arendt is surely less concerned with literal disappearance than she is with the metaphoric analog of the biological activity of consumption. In response, it seems pertinent to ask whether audiences appear to use popular artworks mostly to fulfil an inner hunger or in some less compulsive way, and the answer to that question is that we do not know very much. If people need entertainment in the way Arendt seems to claim, it should follow that their "consumption" of popular works would be compulsive and indiscriminate. Most people (you and I, for instance) do seem to assume that They, the audiences for popular artworks, are undiscriminating, although we would not say that of ourselves. But an undiscriminating audience would, by definition, "consume" anything. Nothing would be more popular than anything else, which is precisely not the case.
Consuming popular art, if that is what happens, is less like eating than it is like dining. In spite of its ubiquity, popular art manages everywhere to escape the everyday and to present itself as Event, as an appearance. Each successive television program begins with a visual and musical announcement that sets it apart from what has gone before and proclaims that something exceptional is about to occur. Watch this space! Popular art feels that it must sell itself to an audience with such fanfares, and this suggests that it does not want to be confused with the mundane business of life, and, moreover, that it cannot rely on the compulsion of necessity to bring audiences to it; indeed, that it is all-too-aware of its status as an object of taste.
The very qualities Arendt relates to ephemerality - freshness and novelty - are also qualities which make popular artworks appear to us and which suggest that they are to be remembered, just as special events are remembered rather than forgotten. Popular music is particularly marked by devices to facilitate recognition and retention: attractive "hooks", strong rhythms, catchy melodies, simple lyrics, sweeping emotions. It is common for people to have popular tunes "on the brain" and, periodically, to recall one or another such work from the entropy around them.
Needs are always with us, and we do not require reminders of their presence, but popular artworks do not behave as though they were made to pass into nothingness after quelling our needs, but rather as though they are trying very hard to resist destruction and to find immortality in the memory.
There are, it seems to me, certain activities which do correspond more or less explicitly to the characteristics which Arendt has suggested are those of entertainment. One of these is certainly using popular artworks for entertainment in her sense: treating them like consumer goods necessary for life. Popular art, however, is not the only thing that can be so used; and I think it is fair to say that elite art - true art - is, and has been, used as relaxation proportionately quite as often. Those radio stations which program "good music" all day long with few, if any, interruptions for commercials or news, fulfil a monotonous need for constantly vanishing entertainment far more obviously than popular stations which insist in shrill tones and with a stock of hyperbolic adjectives and sound effects that each record is an important musical experience - although either kind of station can be, and is, used for relaxing by its audience. The point is that what is used for entertainment may not correspond to what is made as entertainment, as indeed Arendt recognises when she deplores the gutting of elite works to make 'entertaining' versions of them (207-208). Mass distribution by itself however, 'does not affect the nature of the objects in question' (207), and, presumably, works need not be physically altered by their use as entertainment. Thus the forces or qualities which make popular works appear cannot be assumed to be in some way overwhelmed or nullified by the use of popular art for relaxation, no matter how pervasive that use happens to be.
In The Human Condition Arendt compares the artist's playfulness with 'the playing of tennis or the pursuit of a hobby' (111), two activities which seem to correspond much more closely to her understanding of entertainment than does popular art. Indeed, there are numberless everyday past-times which serve as necessary forms of relaxation, and which are so marked by their appearance of ordinariness as well as by a much greater degree of actual ephemerality than that which obtains in the popular arts. Such pastimes may be pursued passively as well as actively (spectator sports are primarily used as entertainment, and so are most amateur participant sports); their function is nevertheless always to relax their subjects and to heal the pain of living, in the broadest sense. Moreover, that function is often advanced as the principal benefit these activities offer individuals and society. What contemporary culture calls "leisure" usually connotes that time which would be best spent in pastimes, and not the leisure described by Aristotle (and implied by Arendt) - time freed from all necessity, even the necessity to relax.
It would seem that entertainment as Arendt conceives it, does not arise simultaneously with labour but is, rather, generated out of labour: it is an effect of which labouring is the cause. Six days we do what we must, and the seventh we do nothing for the sake of what we must do on the other days. The seventh day is a day of waiting and regeneration, granted to us by divinity, by nature, by government, in order that we remain able to do what we must do - for divinity, for nature, for government. Some people, of course, believe that we labour in order to relax, but those people are deluded. We labour in order to live, just as we relax finally for the same reason - because we have to.
All of this bestows a grim dignity upon relaxation, and it is not bad to have relaxing dignified, but there is something missing - not from entertainment, but from this account of it. Beginning in an affirmation of the everyday, I have wound our way to some place surely not intended - the barren precincts of Frankfurt - and I can see Teddy and Max silhouetted in the sunset before us, beckoning me through the back door. It seems as though I have looked at ephemerality and seen only a disappearing. I have missed the appearing, the coming-to-be, the filling up - indeed, the freshness and the novelty Arendt gave us at the commencement of the journey. Look again.
Arendt says "consumption", as we all tend to do these days. But in Totality and Infinity, Emmanuel Levinas, referring to the same set of circumstances, uses the word "alimentation". What disappears for Arendt nourishes for Levinas: 'All enjoyment is in this sense alimentation.... Enjoyment is precisely this way the act nourishes itself with its own activity' (111). Thus living from enjoyment - '"good soup", air, light, spectacles' (110) - is not reducible to, nor properly explained by, the disappearance of its objects.
This sinking one's teeth into the things which the act of eating involves above all measures the surplus of the reality of the aliment over every represented reality, a surplus that is not quantitative ... in satiety the real I sank my teeth into is assimilated, the forces that were the other become my forces, become me (and every satisfaction of need is in some respect nourishment) (129).
Looking again, I see a sunrise, flowered fields, the kind old man and a front door, after all. Levinas' account of enjoyment (for him, as for the others, not an account of the best there can be, only the best we begin with) describes the way in which 'I' and the world agnostically and mutually imply each other - and lead inevitably elsewhere. Entertainment is as integral a part of this fundamental human relation as eating or sleeping, just as it is for Aristotle and Arendt: 'I but open my eyes and already enjoy the spectacle.... What the subject contains represented is also what supports and nourishes its activity as a subject' (130). But equally, Levinas is describing a biological or, rather, elemental world, marked by the rhythms of continuity, the world iterated as it is before the events of the story begin.4
Relaxation is one day, 'to ourselves', albeit for life itself. One day that is always passing. But also, one day that will come again. For, as surely as they are characterised by their fading away, relaxation and entertainment are marked, like the seasons, by their eternal return. James Brown keeps coming back.
And this too, Arendt gave us, in the alliance she made between entertainment and 'life's great cycle', which identified ephemerality as a manifestation of repetition. What repeats, in her account, is precisely what cannot repeat and what is, for that reason, in Adorno and Horkheimer's understanding, the grand illusion of mass culture: freshness and novelty. Where the sacred was once, there is now newness. Where necessity reigned, there is now exception. Where all was uniform and the same, there is now specificity and difference.
But how can we repeat the new?
The experience of repetition is the object of Soren Kierkegaard's Repetition: An Essay in Experimental Psychology, first published in 1843. The book touches upon entertainment in more than one way and rewards endless re-reading.5
Kierkegaard begins by distinguishing recollection from true repetition. Recollection is of the past. It 'begins with the loss' (39) and 'first makes a man unhappy' (33). Its purpose is a redintegratio in statum pristinum, which is never fully possible. Surely this is very like Aristotle's relaxation, and it is the repetition James Brown dreams of when he sings, 'Please! Please! Please!'. The first part of Repetition is devoted to recollection masquerading as repetition, and in it all ends in failure (you may imagine James Brown collapsing before the microphone). A young poet falls in love, 'yet at once, on one of the first days of his engagement, he was capable of recollecting his love' (38). Please. Unable to regard his beloved with anything but melancholy because he knows he loves an ideal not her (please), and unable to participate in a farcical deception designed to turn her against him (please), the poet flees (collapse). Recollection alone guided his emotion. 'His soul lacked the elasticity of irony' (48), which might have led him to a more satisfying love; he 'did not understand repetition, he did not believe in it, and did not desire it with energy' (49). And here it looks as though James Brown knows more than Kierkegaard's poet does initially, for he can scream and dance back and scream and dance back night after night. We shall see.
At any rate, the poet's flight frees Kierkegaard's pseudonymous author-protagonist, Constantine Constantius (whose name stammers out his predilection for recollection as well as a propensity for true repetition), to make a pilgrimage to Berlin, looking to relive a particularly happy period of his life. The effort results in a sorry travesty of what had been and Constantine returns convinced
that no such thing as repetition exists, yet it is a sure truth that by firmness of purpose and by dulling one's talent for observation one can attain a uniformity which has a far more anaesthetising effect than the most capricious diversions, and which with time becomes stronger and stronger, like a formula of incantation ... forgetting the world ... and by the world forgotten. (82)
Later writers will ally this deliberate numbing with a critique of industrialism, sometimes of capitalism. And, indeed, some notion of recollection surely lies buried beneath much of the common criticism of repetition in the popular arts. Repetition is usually presumed only to reiterate what has been and often to lead to a species of anomie which sounds very much like a social-psychological version of Kierkegaard's melancholy. In these terms, the repeated work can only signify an absence or a loss: it is deemed empty, trivial, an illusion. What such folks see when they look at James Brown - and what they care about - is a mechanical man, a wind-up toy who mimes the assembly-line without knowing what he is doing.
Kierkegaard's distinction between recollection and repetition suggests that such an understanding can be supported only if it is presumed, as such analysts invariably seem to presume, that a popular artwork is a substitute for something that is absent (like labour), rather than something in itself.6 Recollection is unhappy because what is is not what was: it tries to see through what is to what cannot be again. If popular artworks are used as compensations for other experiences, then their repetition may indeed be treated as a species of recollection. But if, as Arendt's formulation may tend to suggest, they are valued for the presentness of the experience they evoke, then recollection will not suffice, and another explanation for their reiteration must be sought.
As it happens, Constantine has been vouchsafed a few hours of enjoyment during his lifetime, a few hours which he recalls near the end of the first section of the essay.
The body had lost all its earthly heaviness ... every function enjoyed its completest satisfaction, every nerve tingled with delight on its own account and on account of the whole, while every pulsation, as a disquietude in the organism, only suggested and reported the sensuous delight of the instant. My gait became a glide ... like the billows of the wind over a field of grain, like the yearning bliss of the cradling waves of the sea, like the dreamy gliding of the clouds. My very being was transparent.... Every thought proffered itself freely ... the silliest conceit not less than the richest idea.... The whole of existence seemed to be as it were in love with me, and everything vibrated in preordained rapport with my being. (78-79)
This is an experience of satiety. If in recollection all is lost or disappearing, in an experience of this sort everything appears at once. As Constantine moves in this state, he glides in unity with nature - but specifically with those elemental aspects of nature characterised by constancy in repetition: the wind, the sea, the heavens.7 Physical and mental burdens dissipate and existence becomes gloriously ego-centred. However, Constantine's contentment reaches its peak at one o'clock, then vanishes, taking with it the hope of ever repeating the experience even 'at particular instants' (79).
Many of the qualities of Constantine's one-off experience of enjoyment are shared by what Kierkegaard ultimately identifies as true repetition, most notably its presentness - 'the blessed certainty of the instant' (34) - but also its ego-centredness and self-satisfaction, expressed in the 'dithyrambic joy' of the poet's last letter to Constantine in which, having attained true repetition, he can describe it only as 'his own consciousness raised to the second power' (135).
Of these, according to Kierkegaard, repetition's overriding experiential characteristic is its presentness. In this it manages to express the universal as an exception; for experientially the present is marked by its absolute difference from past and future. It is not old, but neither is it new; it is what is, what exists eternally, what is universal. The parallel with popular entertainment is marked; for a popular artwork, in the form of a conventionalised presentation, also expresses the universal as an exception - the convention as a particular instance, the type as a token. What James Brown does has always been done before and always will be done again, but he does it always here and now; this time it is always unique. In the experience of popular art the centrality of both the general and the specific is unavoidable, just as it is in Kierkegaard's "psychological" understanding of repetition.
Certain of the self-satisfying qualities of repetition are to be found in the linkage between presentness and enjoyment which we have noticed before. It is worth remarking that, for Kierkegaard, the equation contentment = present is reversible: one term always implies the other because, presumably, the universe is finally good, i.e. God's, as the story of Job teaches. Repetition 'makes a man happy' (33) and 'is the beauty of life' (34) because it is of the present and partakes of neither the melancholy illusion of recollection nor the glittering illusion of hope; it is 'the daily bread which satisfies with benediction' (34).8 Certain crucial qualities of true repetition are, then, present in the (reiterated) experience of enjoyment Constantine may now only recollect.
The young poet who, like James Brown, finally does experience true repetition, expresses what has happened to him in a series of images of doubling: 'I am again myself, here I have the repetition.... Did I not get everything doubly restored?... I am born to myself' (43); and he is only able to achieve this state after having isolated himself from the world in virtual stasis, reading and re-reading the Book of Job. What is repeated in true repetition is 'everything', 'my own consciousness', 'I'.
Of course, James Brown does not isolate himself. He moves a lot instead of staying still. And, most of all, what is important is that we are looking at him, not what books he reads. So James Brown's propensity for true repetition is not the issue and never has been (I have been lying a lot, again). It is our repetition that is in question, with the guidance of the Book, and the Dance, of James Brown. Heed the poet again:
Although I have read the book again and again, every word is new to me. When I come across a word it is at that instant born, primitively, or makes a primitive impression upon my soul. Like a drunkard I imbibe little by little all the intoxications of passion, until with these slow sippings I become almost dead-drunk. On the other hand, I hasten toward the book with indescribable impatience. A half word, and with that my soul plunges into his thought and into his outbursts. More swiftly than the plummet seeks out the bottom of the sea, more swiftly than the lightning seeks the conductor, my soul slips into his thought and there remains. (110)
Not that it need be asserted that the actual experience of James Brown or any other popular artwork is usually (or indeed, ever) the experience of repetition as Kierkegaard describes it, only that this art's insistence on reduplication and presentness suggests very strongly that one purpose of popular art may be to give to each member of its audience at least the opportunity to have 'everything doubly restored' in 'consciousness raised to the second power'. This might be taken to imply that the function of popular art may be in some sense religious, insofar as repetition, like most of the experiences with which Kierkegaard concerned himself, is ultimately or properly a religious experience, or so he asserts in a "Polemic" on Repetition, quoted in part in Walter Lowrie's "Editor's Introduction" to the book (11-15).
In this understanding, the experience of repetition is an epiphany, a manifestation of the sacred in the profane. Here again we are in territory already familiar in writing and thinking that more or less overtly annexes popular art to religion and/or the realm of the sacred.9 Moreover, there seem to be direct parallels between experiences of the sacred and the sort of thing any one of us is apt to experience in performances like James Brown's. Yet, at the same time, aspects of Kierkegaard's account of repetition are plainly at odds with what we know of popular entertainment, and those aspects are the ones most clearly signed as religious.
Most obvious of these is surely that, for Kierkegaard, true repetition need occur only once. What is repeated is not the event, but the subject. Indeed, "doubling" describes what happens rather better than "repetition", because doubling is basically a spatial concept, whereas repetition inevitably evokes some notion of temporality and of action. Repetition is etymologically linked to acting. Its root appears to be the Latin verb petesso, which Lewis and Short give as 'to strive after or seek for repeatedly or eagerly, to pursue' (1364; see also Partridge 489), and which survives in English as "petition". Kierkegaard wanted to make the point that 'repetition in the world of individuality means something different from what it is in nature' (qtd. in Lowrie 15) and did so partly by affirming that 'eternity is the true repetition' (126) and by denying the importance of action in the poet's quest for repetition, during which 'he keeps perfectly still' (qtd. in Lowrie 14). The temporal dimension of true repetition is supposedly that of an eternal present, but very little in Kierkegaard's description of the experience suggests the possibility of action or even of what we would now call duration. It is true that the poet refers to the 'movement' of ideas in the Book of Job and 'in one's own interior' (110, 126), but this internal, spiritual movement is something very different from action.
From what is said in Repetition and Kierkegaard's "Polemic" it is impossible to distinguish an idea of eternity, or complete time, from one of timelessness, or no time; and it sounds very much as if the truly religious person steps out of time altogether into timelessness rather than into time at its fullest, that is, eternity. True repetition's being 'drowned by the noise of life' (qtd. in Lowrie 13), and the religious individual who 'reposes in himself' (137) are images of spatial difference which denigrate time and change; and I think it indisputable that Kierkegaard, by relying so heavily on the spatial opposition between inward and outward as the principle contrast between religion and reality, tended to suggest that religion is a space-without-time. Indeed, Constantine, summing up all that has occurred, says that had the young poet been truly religious, 'the whole question about the temporal would have become indifferent to him' (136), which again implies the disappearance of time in timelessness rather than its affirmation in eternity.
Kierkegaard insists that the highest form of freedom desires repetition and fears change (qtd. in Lowrie 12), but any action implies change and the seeking and striving in the Latin root of "repetition" are specifically and overtly occupied with change, which suggests strongly that the idea of repetition may be productively understood in alliance with change rather than in opposition to it. The reiteration of action, even on the most elementary level, does involve a change from statum ante to statum post, parallel to the experience of similarity most usually denoted by the term "repetition".
But action, a physical concept (unlike motion or movement), brings us forcibly back to 'the noise of life' which so impedes religious awareness. If repetition is to be understood as Kierkegaard would wish, we must deny that repetition is action, that it is of this world first of all. Such an argument denies that repetition is anything other than identity or revelation or, broadly speaking, affirmation - that is, it denies that repetition is repetition. Repetition, then, is not religious in the sense the Kierkegaard has described that which is religious. It is of the present, it is satisfying, it is inward, and it is a doubling - but it is also action and change: becoming, as well as being, stuttering, stumbling, running back, escaping - living (again).
Now, as it happens, another part of Repetition is explicitly concerned with matters that cannot fail to evoke ideas of entertainment, ephemerality, action and experience. It occurs in the first section of the essay, takes up some seventeen pages (57-74), and constitutes most of what is written about Constantine's trip to Berlin - and this is strange, because it does not deal with the activities of that trip except marginally, but rather with what he has gone back to recapture. Although in the "Polemic" Kierkegaard claims that what is said here 'is either in jest or only relatively true' (qtd. in Lowrie 15), we must assume that he attached some importance to what is said or else he would have devoted less space to it, and I am entitled, if only in accordance with the right of misreading, to spin some gold from it if I can.
Constantine, it seems, has returned to Berlin in order to relive the evenings of delight he once spent at the Konigstater Theatre watching popular farce. Almost at once a contrast between individuality and plurality is invoked, as Constantine identifies the love of the theatre as that stage in a young man's imaginative development when he desires 'to see and hear himself as an alter ego, to disperse himself among the innumerable possibilities which diverge from himself, and yet in such a way that every diversity is in turn a single self' (58). Here plurality is one with the otherness of a work: the subject, in multiple identifications, diffuses outward to the stage. But the way a work disperses itself into an audience is also evoked, and in a most ingenious and appropriate manner. For Constantine at one point is constrained to describe the best means of experiencing a farce, and does so in the following suggestive terms:
One takes one's seat in the first tier of the boxes; for here there are relatively few people, and when one is to see a farce one must be seated at one's ease, without feeling in the remotest way embarrassed by the solemn pretence of art which causes many to let themselves be jammed into a theatre to see a play as if it were a question of their eternal salvation.... In the first tier of boxes one can be fairly sure of getting a box alone by oneself.... One sits there alone in one's box, and from this position the theatre appears empty. (69-70)
Yet it is not his intention to cut himself off from the audience. On the contrary, he regards 'that other orchestra, the voice of nature in the gallery' (70) as the essential background to farce.
Thus it was I lay back in my loge, cast aside like the clothing of a bather, flung beside the stream of laughter and merriment and jubilation which foamed past me incessantly. I could see nothing but the vast expanse of the theatre, hear nothing but the din in the midst of which I dwelt. (71)
In this manner we may take Constantine as representing both himself and the crowd: an individual and a collective identity. The point is an important one and well warrants Kierkegaard's elaborate metonymy; for farce, it seems, is not addressed to individuals - to "real readers" as even Kierkegaard's own writing is at last (129 ff.) - but, rather, to groups of people: audiences, crowds. The audible reaction of what Aristotle would surely call the "vulgar" portion of the audience - those seated in the gallery and second tier - is a continuing and 'steady accompaniment, without which the farce could not be performed at all' (63). Not only the pleasure of the farce, but the farce itself could not exist without it. The appreciation of the members of this audience is not based upon cultivated aesthetic judgment but is, rather, a celebration of the miracle of the theatre:
a purely lyrical explosion of their sense of contentment; they are not in the least conscious of being an audience, but want to take part in what is going on down in the street, or wherever the scene is laid. (63)
From the laughter of this audience is born the improvised performance that is farce's defining formal property. The great actors of farce are creations of the audience's response.
They are not so much reflective artists who have made a study of laughter as they are lyrical geniuses who plunge into the abyss of laughter and then let its volcanic force cast them up upon the stage. They have therefore hardly calculated what they will do, but let the instant and the natural force of laughter be responsible for everything. (65)
Character, setting, action and dialogue are equally affected by the audience. They 'are sketched on the abstract scale of "the general"' (64) in order to allow for the widest spread of audience participation. The abstract generality of farce 'produces an indescribable effect for the fact that one does not know whether to laugh or cry' (62), presumably in part because of the unsophisticated way in which farces are fabricated. The hands of traditional artistry, Kierkegaard says, are not capable of directing and shaping the abstractions that popular art requires (62). The uncertainty of the response in turn produces a new entree to the work for the audience, acting now as individuals rather than en masse.
For, since the effect depends in great part upon the spontaneous creative activity of the spectator, the single individual asserts himself to an unusual degree, and in his own enjoyment is emancipated from the aesthetic obligation to admire, laugh, be touched, etc., according to the prescription of tradition. (63)
True enjoyment of farce requires a reductio ad statum pristinum, a return to the unspoiled state of youth or of the enthusiastic mob in the gallery and second tier. In farce
everything is naive, and therefore the spectator as a single individual must be spontaneously active; for the na‹vet‚ of the force [sic] is so illusory that it is impossible for a cultivated person to be naive in his attitude towards it. But in his spontaneous reaction to the farce consists in great part the entertainment of the individual, and he must venture to enjoy it without looking to the right or to the left or to the newspapers to find a guarantee that he really has been entertained. (64-65)
The cultivated spectator (who surely might just as well be feminine and whom we will meet more formally in a moment) transforms herself, again metonymically, into the crowd. She suspends her individuality, as it were, and during the performance maintains herself 'in the state where not one single mood is present but the possibility of all' (65). As well as the multiple identities represented on stage, she has taken into herself the myriad potentialities of the audience with its fleeting, contradictory responses. No longer quite herself, she is refracted internally much as she sees her image shattered into a 'multiplicity of shadows' (58) on the stage before her. Kierkegaard describes this state ecstatically as a loss of self into eternity and a regaining of a 'happier self' in the 'laughter and merriment and jubilation' of the audience (71). Constantine only raises up now and then to look at the farceur, Beckmann, to laugh and sink back into the empty din in which he, literally, finds himself.
But while Constantine is finding himself at the theatre, he is also finding an other. The other he finds, and who is presumably necessary to the finding of one's self as well as to such a thorough enjoyment of farce for the cultivated spectator, is a young girl, modest and unassuming, utterly ignorant of his gaze and the happiness she occasions in him. Constantine ends by dividing his time between looking at the stage, the audience and the girl (71-73). Only then is his enjoyment complete.
This aspect of the episode is decidedly peculiar. If Constantine's isolation from the audience and the stage is not quite what might be expected, his Peeping Tom proclivities seem at first to have nothing whatever to do with where he is or what he is supposed to experience. And to call what he does "voyeurism" does seem warranted. He himself compares this relation with an earlier, recurrent, episode in which he was wont to stave off insomnia. He would drive out of Copenhagen, sneak away from his coachman, hide in a thicket until dawn and watch another young girl who 'walks about wonderingly ... then she stoops down and plucks fruit from the bushes, then she skips about lightly, then she stands still in thought.... Then my soul at last finds rest' (73). So Constantine at the theatre is not merely a casual, or opportunistic, voyeur: he has a history of it. These days we would want him watched by the police.
... Because we know what he sees. We can read his account of what he did in the theatre and in Copenhagen and spot the very moments when he came. Ah, Constantine, we see you! We see you! We know what you are doing with those little girls! We know what we see when we look, we know what we are doing with James Brown, the sex machine, night train, prisoner of love. We are all dirty people looking dirty looks, and you are no different, Constantine, with your mens' eyes!
And yet, surely if there is perversion or pathology here, it is first of all in our seeing. And if there is something to be learned here these days, it is something about his looking. For the innocence of what Constantine does is as remarkable as its abnormality. He takes nothing from these women and his looking cannot be construed as an act of aggression. He conceals himself in order to spare those whom he watches rather than, even in his mind, to dominate them more effectively. Unlike the pathological voyeur who delights in the power his seeing has given him and only conceals himself, the agent of that seeing, Constantine abhors the thought that the objects of his gaze might become aware of it:
this would have been a sin too against her, and the worse for me; for there is an innocence, an unconsciousness, which even the purest thought may embarrass.... If she had felt merely a presentment of my mute gladness, half fallen in love with her, all would have been spoilt, not to be made good again even by her whole love. (72)
In spite of being 'half fallen in love', Constantine seems to be removing himself from fleshly desire by looking, much as the rest of his activity in the theatre has lifted him from his body. It would seem that what he sees sustains him in an asensuous world of feeling instead of rousing his passion.10 He only looks at the girl when he has 'returned to himself' after a period immersed in the farce and the audience or when 'a more pathetic mood crop[s] up' in the play (72). In either case, the looking gives him strength: refreshment to bear the jubilation, 'resignation to bear the pathos' (72). In the same way, his soul 'at last finds rest' after having looked at the girl outside Copenhagen and he can return to the daily round.
Paradoxically, but perhaps as a reasonable consequence of his love of the theatre, it appears that Constantine can find himself only in another; for what he seems to obtain from the sight of these women is not a loss of self into eternity (which he already has in plenty in the farce) but rather the will to resist such a disintegration of the self - whether into eternity, in the farce, or into despair, out of sleeplessness. His looking keeps him together at the very moment he might otherwise break apart. Radical isolation has led him dangerously close to nothingness, a state compellingly encapsulated in the image of Constantine in his box dwarfed by the ringing caverns of the Konigstater Theatre. Only looking at another brings him back. Significantly, that other is marked by the simplest, most elementary difference from Constantine: it is female. In all other respects it, like the farce, is empty (in the sense of pure) - 'an innocence, an unconsciousness'. I take it that the most abstract and most basic sign of human otherness is all that is needed to hold onto one's self, that the young girl embodies that tie with humanity necessary for true enjoyment. Honi soit qui mal y pense.
Enjoyment, entertainment, indissolubly conjoined with looking, repeated looking. Not one glance, but many. On the one hand, an idea of repetition as singularity: a repeated self, saiety, contentment, completion. But within this, not dwelt upon yet constitutive of it, an idea of repetition as multiplicity: the poet reads and re-reads Job, the farce is performed night after night, and, as we have seen, Constantine looks and looks again. The singular is what Kierkegaard wishes to expound - in part surely because of a philosopher's love of paradox, but also because singular repetition is the proper focus of "an essay in experimental psychology": singularity is what we experience as repetition in a positive sense. But multiple repetition is what we came to read about and what we do not understand - except insofar as we understand 'life's great cycle', the world's iteration, and the melancholy recollection marking a failed repetition.
In Constantine's looking again I think there is the pattern of another understanding of multiple repetition, one which can be filled out from Levinas' account of the enjoyment of living from the iterating world. For Constantine's looking finds its motivation precisely in the spectacle and the fundamental human relation established by the spectacle. His looking is but opening his eyes. Again. And again. Constantine looks again and again, as the poet reads and re-reads. Each is looking at what appears before him, not seeing what he desires to see (which is representation). And, indeed, to enjoy the spectacle one must see what one looks at, the representation and the surplus of meaning that precedes representation.
What Kierkegaard teaches (and experience confirms) is that this surplus, the ground of the doubling of true repetition, is apprehended only by looking again. I can only see the exception while the iteration of the look establishes the universal. Repetition is also the repetition of looking again - looking, then, at what appears.
Perhaps there is more here. Perhaps any acting (again) achieves - more cautiously, can achieve - repetition. Perhaps action is what is repeated. For what distinguishes looking from seeing is, at least in part, what distinguishes acting from making. Making is what leads to loss and recollection. Making, impelled by desire, reduces the world to representation behind which the world disappears, making insists upon the sameness of each with each, the absolute difference of one from another. But action starts each instance anew, makes a new beginning the end of which cannot be known. Action is in and of the world, yet overflows any representation of itself as ripples overflow the lips of a cup, as James Brown's dancing overwhelms the understanding. In action the world reappears as it has always been and will never be again. James Brown dances the world. He dances it anew every night. And, by looking (again), we dance it with him.
1. Authority for these statements about popular literary genres can be found in Victor E. Neuberg, Popular Literature: A History and Guide from the Beginning of Printing to the Year 1897; J.M.S. Tompkins, The Popular Novel in England 1770-1800; Robert Collison, The Story of Street Literature: Forerunners of the Popular Press; pieces by Margaret Williamson and Anna Clark in Jean Radford (ed), The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction (23-46; 47-72); Morse Peckham, Art and Pornography: An Experiment in Explanation (287-298); Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture, among other locations.
The Newgate Calendar first appeared in English in 1774, and longer accounts of crime and detection also date from that period. Neuberg's discussion of ballads, jestbooks and prose works to 1600 includes numerous instances of accounts of criminal activity (e.g., material concerning Robin Hood: 1555). Neuberg points out, in a chapter on the seventeenth century, that 'homicide, sex and public executions were topics which had formed an element in popular literature from about 1550. Details of violent death, sometimes linked with adultery, and the fascination with the occult world were the mainsprings of a taste for violence and the bizarre which the printers were about to exploit in several ways: broadside, pamphlet and play' (83). Unfortunately, Tompkins says virtually nothing about the literature of crime per se, or, indeed, about what she nonetheless describes as 'the hellish brew of the sensational writer' (277), although she is aware that criminal literature existed, for she refers to William Godwin's having prepared himself for Caleb Williams by reading extensively in the genre (269).
Two ballads from the midsixteenth century, which Neuberg quotes, deal with romantic love (2630), and are clearly intended to be read as representative works of the period. The romances of chivalry and the Renaissance fiction in the collection of Captain Cox also belong in this category (48). Although he does not say that such matters constitute a major preoccupation of popular literature before 1600, Neuberg does remark that, 'love and romance were always popular, of course,' when discussing the ballads of the seventeenth century (73), and I assume he considers the point so obvious as not to be worthy of demonstration. In the same manner, Tompkins does not discuss a genre of romantic love fiction, but does offer a composite description of an ideal masculine type, derived from the female novelists of the end of the eighteenth century, that recalls similar types even unto the present day (130), and, again, I draw the inference that the genre or, at least, the motif was commonplace.
Neuberg's third ballad from the midsixteenth century is a bawdy one, and he takes for granted that jestbooks of this period were concerned with sexual matters (3033, and 40: 'the ribald quality of many of these tales does not need to be stressed'). Walter Kendrick, citing David Foxon and following many others, suggests that Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) was the first true pornographic writer (58-66). Tompkins, like Neuberg, ignores 'hardcore' pornographic writing, but does devote two pages to the career of Treyssac de Vergy, who appears to have specialised in 'soft-core' pornography from 1769 to 1772 (2426), and mentions a genre of 'Nunnery-tale books' which were 'as a rule, scandalously indecent' (277). The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, of course, dates from the mid-eighteenth century (1748-1749), and was surely not the first pornographic novel published in English.
2. Dance music's recycling can be illustrated by what was in one record bin on one day in 1980: "Popeye (The Sailor Man)" (Virtue V112078P), a traditional song given new lyrics in 1929; "Singin' In The Rain" (Carrere ED11), also from 1929; "There's No Business Like Show Business" (A&M Disco SP 12024) from 1946, and sung in the disco version by Ethel Merman, who introduced the song; "The Locomotion" (Epic ES 12027) from 1962 (this was before Kylie Minogue's international dance hit of the song). I have also heard dance versions of, among others, "The Yankee Doodle Boy" (1904), "You Go To My Head" (1938), "Brazil" (1943) and "Rock Around The Clock" (1955), not to mention the score of the motion picture, The Wizard Of Oz (1939). These titles represent only a fraction of the number of songs that have reappeared in dance versions, and are intended only to suggest the extent of the pool upon which dance music draws, which is nothing less than the whole of popular music. (In this context, see also Signifying Rappers by Mark Costello and David Foster Wallace, passim, esp. 53-61 and 85-95)
Four titles recorded by the Benny Goodman Orchestra will illustrate Swing Era recycling: "King Porter Stomp" (New Orleans jazz, first recorded by Goodman's orchestra in 1935); "Loch Lohmond" (traditional Scottish folk ballad, first recorded in 1937); "Bach Goes To Town" (early baroque, first recorded in 1938).
In 1947 Ted Weems' 1933 recording of "Heartaches" became a hit. This may be an extreme example of what recycling there was in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but it does not appear to be an anomaly in context. Ian Whitcomb points out that "Music! Music! Music!", "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now" (1909) and "Lady of Spain" (1931) were hits in the 1950s as well as "Because Of You" from 1903 (205-206; 212). This list is not complete.
3. I am not trying to be disingenuous here. I have read Debord and I know what he says. But I do not believe that every discussion of "media consumption" must engage with Debord.
4. I am sorry for this brief, poor report of thinking that is both protracted and rich. The account of enjoyment to which I refer can be found mostly in Section II of Totality and Infinity, which is called "Interiority and Economy" (109-183).
5. It would be churlish of me to launch into this discussion without mentioning Bruce Kawin's book, Telling It Again and Again, which also discusses this text of Kierkegaard's.
6. In the writing on photography, one way in which this position is commonly articulated is through an evocation of death.
7. Kierkegaard expertly manipulates images of air and water to this end in the first section (39, 56, 59, 71). In the second these are transmuted into the thunderstorm out of which God speaks to Job (100, 102, 117119, 125) and into 'the breaking wave which hurls me up above the stars!' the poet's last words (127).
8. In this regard, see the prescient discussion that closes Edgar Morin's L'spirt du temps, linking Being and becoming, here and elsewhere, individual and cosmos, to the contemporary 'culture of the present' (244-255).
9. Among those books that attempt this argument might be included The Stars by Edgar Morin, The Death and Resurrection Show by Rogan Taylor, Fandemonium! by Judy and Fred Vermorel, and the two Hollywood Babylon volumes by Kenneth Anger.
10. I do not mean that sexuality is absent in this relation, only that the relation cannot be reduced to lust. Cf. Levinas: 'the other sex is an alterity borne by a being as an essence and not as the reverse of his identity; but it could not affect an unsexed me' (121). Here, as elsewhere, the correspondence between Levinas and Kierkegaard is striking.
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Peckham, Morse. Art and Pornography: An Experiment in Explanation. New York: Basic Books, 1969.
Taylor, Rogan. The Death and Resurrection Show: From Shaman to Superstar. London: Anthony Blond, 1985.
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Vermorel, Judy and Vermorel, Fred. Fandemonium! The Book of Fan Cults & Dance Crazes. London: Omnibus Press, 1989.
Williamson, Margaret. "The Greek Romance". The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. Ed. Jean Radford. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. 23-46.
Whitcomb, Ian. After the Ball. London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1972.
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