Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tuesdays with Bruce-ee

This entry is not the one I am planning on contributing which will dwell more on my personal reflections on cognitive studies specifically. I felt this dialogue might be a helpful and enjoyable contribution in the meantime. In the tradition of Plato, I wrote out a hypothetical conversation between two halves of myself: me and me-as-skeptic. The voice of the skeptic I have attributed to Bruce McConachie, a leading proponent of applying the ideas and methodologies of cognitive studies to theatre and performance studies. Specifically, "we" are reviewing the work I did on my thesis which was heavily informed by Foucault and some other 20th century continental philosophers. I imagine since I wrote this, there are moments when I don't do my best to invite an outside reader into the conversation, for that I apologize. There is a lot more signposting in the thesis which makes for nicer, guided reading and arguments. This is a bit more free form and in my own head. Also, in the following I allude to This was the website for the Final Destination Hell House I attended in Chandler, Arizona. That website is no longer operational. If anyone is interested in seeing a re-creation of the chart of statistics they kept, let me know. Enjoy:

The venerable Dr. Bruce McConachie.
Here's hoping he doesn't mind me equating him to an old mentor who dies of cancer but not before teaching me a few lessons about life, love, and myself.

Allan Davis: So, a few months ago I completed my thesis “A Hell House Divided: Performing Identity Politics through Christian Mediums of Proselytization.”

Bruce McConachie: Oh really, what did you say?

Allan: Well, I discussed how discourses surround and inform the use of particular mediums of proselytization employed by contemporary USAmerican Evangelical Christians.

Bruce: Discourse, huh?

Allan: Uhhh . . . Yes? . . . Anyway, I examined the bodies of actors and spectators in Hell Houses, soft-sell conversation-based proselytization, and new media like the Internet. In each, I found what I came to call the “discourse of neutrality.” Basically, the dynamics of proselytization reinforce boundaries of identity as they seek to foster permeability through conversion. This process reasserts the definitions of the community’s identity while employing means to extend that very identity to others. Those means or methods include “mediums” or “tools.”

Bruce: And how does the use of “discourse” help you out or come into this argument?

Allan: Well, I was getting there. See, Evangelical Christian discourses do not argue that mediums are inherently fashioned for proselytization or salvation; rather the mediums are inherently neutral—they could be employed by the forces of good or evil. Unlike more recognizable criticisms from Fundamentalist Christians, Evangelical Christians do not assert that the very structure of rock music or a haunted house is evil. Instead, it is the content which fills the empty vessel that determines whether the medium is in that instance good or evil.

Bruce: Yeah, see, I don’t think that answered my question.

Allan: Umm . . . Let me try explaining exactly what I argued. I found that describing the mediums—be they bodies, conversations, or the Internet—as neutral not only implicitly necessitated the use of the medium but also tied into a paralleling discourse of authenticity.

Bruce: *cough*

Allan: Yes, a paralleling discourse of authenticity. If a medium can be used for good or for evil, and the followers of Christ fail to use that medium, then only Satan and evil will be taking advantage of the medium. Furthermore, the use of the medium is always connected to a conversation about presenting who Christians really are or what the truth about Christ and the world really is. Mediums are adopted on the premise that they will extend the identity of the community by reaching more people and facilitating conversion, but the dynamics of each medium actually informs the shape of the identity as the community negotiates its beliefs and positions relative to its use of the medium. So while there is a vibrant discourse of neutrality surrounding various mediums of proselytization, because the mediums are used to proselytize they are anything but neutral. Yet the very perception of their neutrality comes from and creates beliefs about a dichotomized Christian cosmology. There is a Heaven and a Hell because an individual and even a haunted house could go either way.

Bruce: Okay. So why describe everything in terms of discourses?

Allan: Because that’s what it is. It’s a socially and historically contingent paradigm disciplined by language. I think the situation fits Michel Foucault’s description of a discourse in The Order of Things and The Archeology of Knowledge really well. There is an entire system of knowledge, ways of knowing, that depend on structures of power to create truth and the tools for organizing truth and making it knowable. Everyone operates within arbitrary language and other processes of signification. I do not believe that either the body or the Internet is neutral in the process of proselytization, but I acknowledge that conversations and social processes legitimize or validate the community’s epistemological perception of both truth and the mediums they use to spread that truth.

Foucault. If only I could wear a turtle-neck sweater like him.

Bruce: That doesn’t sound a bit convoluted to you, does it?

Allan: Maybe I should be more specific about who else informed my thinking and that can illuminate why I used Foucault’s idea of discourse. First off, I found Theodor Adorno’s criticism of existentialism in The Jargon of Authenticity quite useful for explaining the power dynamics involved in controlling the shape of “how things really are. And maybe a criticism of jargon did not feel like too much of a leap to a critical analysis of discourse. They do not mean the same thing, but they are both related to linguistics. I also made use of Richard Schechner’s discussion of “restored behavior,” as he explains it in Between Theatre and Anthropology, to assert that Evangelical Christians can disagree over tactics (like whether to use Hell Houses or soft-sell conversations) and yet all involved hold cosmological and cultural cache because in both instances using the medium creates the reality of identity and history. So Hell Houses actually show things how they really are in the act of showing things how they really are. Likewise, proselytizing by having one-on-one conversation is what it really means to be a Christian because performing the behavior confirms the idea that that is who Christians really are.

Bruce: Well I’ve got some things to say about the idea of “restored behavior” but go ahead and continue for now.

Allan: Well quite honestly, the thesis started with body theory and questions regarding the use of bodies in Hell Houses.

Bruce: Well now you don’t say. That sounds very interesting. Tell me more about that.

Allan: You really want to talk about cognitive theory and performance, don’t you?

Bruce: You tell me what you said first.

Allan: Part of my research included attending three Hell Houses; each provided a significant number of interesting moments where bodies played an interesting role in the performance. In writing, I focused on the time in Chandler, Arizona when I personally almost vomited after the depiction of an abortion and the time in Tulsa, Oklahoma when Guts Church staged a date rape scene which required a male actor to mount his female counterpart. To understand these moments, I primarily used Elizabeth Grosz’s theory regarding the body as described in Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism.

Bruce: What does she say?

Allan: Well, Grosz explains that there are four ways in which the body has been understood or described: (1) scientifically or along lines of a natural taxonomy; (2) as a vessel infused by an animating will; (3) as a medium, a middle ground that receives information from the external world for an internal self to understand and then as a means by which an internal self articulates itself to an external world; and finally (4) as a process. She uses the example of the Mobius strip to explain the fourth model. In a Mobius strip the internal and the external aspects of a chain fold into one another, constantly inverting. Grosz explains that a body is never a stable object or thing. It is always in a state of flux and redefinition. I was introduced to Grosz and this idea in Jayna Brown’s Babylon Girls. Brown offers a compelling example of the body as a process by describing how an individual woman could only play a Topsy character or a Mammie character at distinct times in her life. She couldn’t always be Topsy or always be Mammie. The body is not a stable thing, naturally or socially; it is always changing. The body physically ages and it moves across time. It signifies different things at different points of our lives. Also our bodies can enter into different discursive fields within a single day, to say nothing of the span of a human life. That said, Grosz makes room for an internal autonomy and agency which, while shaped by the omnipresence of the discourse, still has the capacity to counter with its own contribution to the construction of the body. In other words, the internal defines the external as well as the inverse. It’s not all Foucauldian doom and gloom where subjectivity is a construction from structures of power assigned to us.

Bruce: So you use the notion of discourse even when you’re arguing that it’s not really a discourse because there is a possibility of resistance?

Allan: Excuse me?

Bruce: Well, it sounds like you’re saying that there is a system of language surrounding the mediums of proselytization. Bodies are talked about in a particular way so bodies are how they are discussed for people in that system of language or community.

Allan: Yes.

Bruce: But you were interested in bringing in a feminist theorist who explains that people have described the body as a vessel or a medium while she believes that it’s really a Mobius strip. So you believe the body is a Mobius strip that is informed by this system of language while there’s also room for autonomy or agency.

Allan: Yes.

Bruce: So then is that really a discourse? Is it helpful to you to use Foucault when your premise is that the notion of discourse is disruptable?

Allan: Well Foucault does not say that discourses can’t be disrupted. In fact he says that it is at the moments of rupture in a society, in a discontinuity, that the structures of power are revealed.

Bruce: I just wonder if there might not be a better approach for you at hand if you’re already moving in the direction of disagreeing with Foucault. But why don’t you go on? How did you talk about the time when you almost vomited?

Allan: I used Grosz’s discussion of Julia Kristeva’s theories about bodily fluids. I knew the church in Arizona kept track of how people responded to their Hell House. They keep a list of statistics on their website online. Rather than counting the number of souls saved, what they monitor (in an admittedly tongue-in-cheek way) is how people respond in a bodily way to what they see. For example they count how many people cry, vomit, or fall into a fetal position.

Bruce: Really?

Allan: Check it out. So yeah, crying and vomiting are both at the top of the list. Grosz and Kristeva theorize about why we socially respond with disgust to fluids like vomit, semen, pus, or menstrual blood, whereas tears are treated differently. They suggest there is a hierarchy of propriety. Tears are “read” as clear and therefore cleansing, whereas vomit is chunky and viscous; expelling vomit removes bile and poison. When a spectator vomits in a Hell House in response to the stimuli, his or her body is implicated in an entire system of meaning. Vomiting becomes proof that Hell is literally being scared out of you to make room for God; the viscosity and acidity of vomit become linked with the actions represented (i.e. drinking, premarital sex, suicide, abortions, etc.). The spectator’s body is seen as rejecting those sinful actions which are not “natural.” The discourse of a Hell House explains that such a moment is a time when a person comes to know things as they really are; I, however, argued that it was the discursive framework of the Hell House that constructed the body as a vessel so it could take on that meaning and that Hell Houses created the testifying, Christian body.

Bruce: Semiotics and psychoanalysis through and through?

Allan: Well it is Kristeva.

Bruce: Fair enough. But wasn’t she focused on literary studies? Wasn’t her work centered on the horror incited by literally reading about vomit and reading about tears? Wasn’t her entire theory built on linguistic representations to begin with? Whereas peoples bodies really did throw up and cry and fall into fetal positions in real time and space where you were at. How does Grosz appropriate a literary theory to analyze feminist corporeality?

Allan: I’m not sure. It’s been a while since I read it. My guess is that Kristeva, like any self-respecting continental philosopher, saw both the problematic and beneficial consequences to appropriating the tools of literary semiotics to the task of social semiotics. I don’t remember if Grosz addressed that issue or not.

Bruce: Just saying, it might be worth keeping in mind that it is worth differentiating between someone reading about vomit and someone actually vomiting.

Allan: I know; that was part of my argument. That actually vomiting creates meaning even if it is only affirming the meaning implied by the discourse framing the act.

Bruce: I understand. I only suggest that perhaps there might be a better approach than using Kristeva. What about that whole rape scene in Tulsa?

Allan: Let me start by saying that my analysis of Hell Houses was greatly informed by Ann Pellegrini’s article “Signaling Through the Flames.” In it, she asserts, that while there might be an entire system of knowledge at work with pastors trying to teach kids what appropriate behavior might be, it is also quite possible that the very medium of theatre and performance carries the capacity to “queer the pitch of the message.” That was what I found intriguing about the moment in Tulsa when the depiction of a date rape scene resulted in a male actor mounting his female partner. I speculated what might be meant if either performer experienced arousal. To a lesser extent I also discussed the fetishistic possibility for voyeuristic spectators. What does it mean for an actor or audience member to experience arousal during a performance meant to condemn the particular form of sexuality represented in the Hell House? How is that harmonized with the theological apparatus framing the entire performance? Do bodies resist the omnipresent discourse?

Bruce: So what did you say?

Allan: I think even if a body becomes aroused that while it might disrupt the narrative or discourse presented, more often than not the experience will simply be folded back into discourse for explanation.

Bruce: So then you do believe in discourse? Is the body really a Mobius strip then?

Allan: Let me explain. First, off Grosz’s theory led me to Merleau-Ponty’s theories on intentionality. Merleau-Ponty suggests that it is not external stimuli which incites arousal but rather the notion of intention, a trajectory of action. For an actor, the arousal might never occur because the intentionality is infelicitous. The actor was merely getting on top of the girl and moving his hand up her thigh; when the audience left, he dismounted so the scene could be repeated for the next group coming through. The intention to condemn the form of sexuality that was represented might always speak louder than other intentions. However, at the same time, performing “as rapist” may at some point shift the intention to a sexual act trajectory to be completed. I argued that even if arousal occurs, the religious discourse will always frame disruptive moments of such “deviance” back into its own hierarchy of propriety, its own order of things. Arousal would only further indicate the need for salvation and the presence of an evil animating will that is exacting influence over the actor or spectator’s body. . . . Okay, so yeah, in other words, I read the speculation back in to the totality of Foucault.

Bruce: Yeah, you might need to work on that. To what extent do you think it is possible for theatre to queer the pitch of the message? Do you actually believe bodies are always-already implicated and coerced into a system of language and power? Or can bodies offer a means of resistance because they are always-already in process?

Allan: I think theatre can queer the pitch of the message because bodies are in process, but I don’t think that recognizing the coercion of the discourse necessarily negates the possibility of resistance. Instead it indicates the room for some type of de Certeau style of tactic. At the same time it also suggests why that resistance does not tend to happen.

Bruce: Do you remember the Elizabeth Hart quote from my book that you included in your Cognitive Theory Handout?

Allan: You mean the one that talks about using cognitive theory to act as a middle ground between Foucaultian discourse theory and phenomenology? The one that says, “[we must shift the terms of the debate] toward a view that finds common ground—literally, within the human body—between phenomenological and semiotic approaches, insofar as the ‘semiotic’ is restricted to language rather than encompassing all other modes of theatrical communication (i.e., criticism has tended to reduce all language to the play of signs). If, as cognitive linguists assert, language emerges from structures within the embodied mind, taking its forms from the constraints of the mind-brain-body nexus, then what we are really looking at are not philosophical opposites but two aspects of the same set of determinants.” You mean that quote?

Bruce: That’s the one. You know, according to cognitive theory, things like behavior, emotions, language, and decision-making are all predicated upon our sensorimotor experience, which is processed through embodied cognitive apparatuses. Those apparatuses are informed by language—socially and historically specific circumstances and meaning. However, those apparatuses function within embodied minds.

Allan: Okay, so here’s my initial uneasiness with cognitive theory. I don’t feel like I know anything about it; and what I do know makes me think it’s trying to reassert a universalistic perspective on humanity after the linguistic turn challenged the core of humanism. At the start, I just want to know if cognitive theory simply refines the vocabulary I already use and brings me into the greater conversation of cognitive studies. Or does it enhance the methodology and conclusions that I reached? Furthermore, what does it do to the process of historicity? I realize that might not seem to be a big deal since I’m writing about Hell Houses, but I do not feel that it is appropriate to compare medieval representational practices with Hell Houses and drama ministries because their historical moments are so vastly different. Maybe I’m just still hung up on my personal Michal Kobialka-lite training, but I’m convinced that it is anachronistic and ahistorical to call medieval drama “theatre,” whereas Hell Houses can be discussed in terms of theatre because they are produced in a culture where the performers and spectators have a language and paradigm for theatre. That term means something that those medieval performances were not; to identify them as such occludes discontinuities—those fissures in space, time, and society that are not only at the heart of Foucault’s theory of the archaeology of knowledge but also historical difference itself. Cognitive theory just seems to wash over that by expressing frustration with Foucault, asserting that human bodies are transhistorical and therefore constant in a way that social contingency is not.

Bruce: That’s a weighty argument. Cognitive theory does challenge many of the tenets of New Historicism and Foucault’s theories of subjectivity. The reservations make sense; it is a turn in the discipline of the academy. [Pause] What do you know of conceptual blending?

Allan: Only what I’ve read in your book. According to your glossary, it’s a theory that proposes that the mind, using working memory, gathers information from at least three input spaces which results in the selective projection of information into a new “space” (the blend). In this blend, new meaning emerges and may itself serve as “input” for further conceptualization. I don’t know that I particularly understand everything that that means but I know that it’s a way of thinking about life and art. In your introduction you mention that the idea of a blend can explain why people believe some behaviors and actions are appropriate in one setting but not another. There’s a type of spatial mapping that goes on in our mind, but these maps are created based on embodied experiences with an embodied consciousness. You suggest that has a way of reassessing Schecnher’s theory of “restored behavior.”

Bruce: That’s right. See, performance is not “behavior.” Behavior is a matter of conditioned responses to external stimuli. That does not leave much room for play and variation which inevitably occur in any performance. Furthermore, simply restoring some kind of cultural practice that occurred before does not, by itself, constitute performance. It is only action without meaning; the meaning lies in the cognitive process of blending. The mind must work to frame concepts that sustain blends that are appropriate, otherwise the cultural performance will cease. The idea of blending is helpful for providing terminology that distinguishes between social role-playing and playing roles in our everyday lives. It encompasses performance on the stage and in our everyday lives.

Allan: Conceptual blending might be a way that I can think about how an actor or spectator in a Hell House process the performance? I could discuss the rape scene arousal or the act of vomiting as a type of blend?

Bruce: Possibly. I suggest you look at Jill Stevenson’s new book Performance, Cognitive Theory, and Devotional Culture: Sensual Piety in Late Medieval York. She argues for an idea she calls “sensual piety” that is based, at least in part, on the idea of blending. In fact, while she develops her idea while discussing medieval religious drama, her last chapter addresses applying the concept of sensual piety to contemporary religious performantive practices of American Evangelical Christians. It might prove helpful to you because it models cognitive theory and specifically makes a transhistorical argument.

Allan: The fact that it is directly addressing Michal Kobialka’s area of expertise does not hurt either.

Bruce: Good point.

Allan: Well thanks for your time, Dr. McConachie. You’ve helped me think through some of the theoretical interventions I was working from when I wrote my thesis. As well as offer some insights on some new directions I could take what with the cognitive turn in the field and all. I’ll be sure to let you know how things develop with my future projects.


  1. I liked this. In my mind, you two were sitting next to each other on a long train ride, the first several hours of which consisted of you working up the nerve to admit you recognized him. Also, since I was reading this on my phone, when I got to the picture of Foucalt, I could only see the top of his head, and I thought it was Lord Voldemort.

    Fun fact: when I try to type "Voldemort" on my phone, it thinks i'm typing "Bloodsport." I think my phone is a Jean Claude van Damme fan.

  2. Didn't feel like stitching my paragraphs together. Therefore, 3 thoughts:

    1. I wonder to what extent cognitive theory requires an abandonment of the arbitrary/relational/constitutive model of culture, if not language. Seems to me from studying history a bit that that cultural is very evidently relative and in many ways not transhistorical, whether arguing so depends of Freud or not. I've not been convinced by arguments that appeal to strong universalism , but those have mostly been from Dawkinsian/evolutionary or conservative/classically influenced perspectives. So, I need to understand cognitive studies better, as well as the roots and implications of my own thinking :)

    2. It's interesting is that the tools (post)structural-influenced scholars use are mostly obsolete in their original fields, from Marxist economics to Freudian psychology and Sausserian linguistics. At least, those theories have been subsumed into the disciplines and are no longer at the bleeding edge, having given way to more positivist, scientific approaches. Nothing wrong with borrowing someone else's old tools if it gets the job done for you, though.

    3. I wonder is what direction History could take when it eventually starts to adopt cognitive approaches. Historians, being a stodgy bunch, are always a bit behind the rest, and though Foucault influenced a lot of cultural and social history the discipline as a whole is fairly fractured and directionless, with tensions between old style narrative, microhistory, annales-influenced scientism, and a few ideas borrowed from literary theory floating around. History necessarily assumes some kind of universalism anyway - why study the past at all if there is no hope of relating to historical actors and movements? - but I haven't heard much about historians dealing with cognitive issues.

  3. Brett: I like the image you had because while I did see McConachie at ASTR in Montreal, when I looked up a picture to post here, my first reaction was, "I don't remember him looking like that."

    Casey: In connection to your first thought, I'll admit that I'm not that well-versed in cognitive studies. Perhaps my perception that it negates constitute models of culture are a bit overstated. A critique of McConachie's book in a review did state that it treated critical social theory as a bit of a straw man in order to exalt cognitive studies to its Messianic position. The co-editor, Elizabeth Hart, received less criticism on this area and her essay definitely acknowledged the relational/constitutive aspects of culture.

    When it comes to your third point, taking a history class has told me there is so much about the discipline of history that I do not know. When it comes to theatre history, many academics treat theatre and performance as a cultural thing that might have different permutations: playwrights write differently, actors perform differently, architects build spaces differently. But ultimately theatre is a thing, something almost universal because people are performing in a way that is not ritually efficacious nor is it general every-day performance.

    This is not how I have learned about history nor how I like to think about it. For me when people in the medieval period performed passion plays, that was not theatre. They may have called it theatre and we might call it theatre but I do not think that that term is used in the same way or fits into paradigms in the same way. I want to read the book on cognitive studies and medieval drama because the idea is that you could use cognitive theories to discuss how medieval Christians thought about performance. Jill Stevenson refers to it as a sensual piety being at play. And then, because human bodies are human bodies, she posits in her conclusion that the cognitive construct of sensual piety could then be appropriated to describe/analyze contemporary modes of religious performance like Hell Houses. I have always been wary about making that leap. I just don't think that because medieval cycle plays were put on Christians and depicted Heaven and Hell, that that automatically makes them comparable to current American Evangelical Christian drama ministries. Such comparative work just seems like sloppy history. But I think what I'm learning is that I don't quite understand where the field of history is. I sit on the Hayden White/Foucault/de Certeau side of literary theory informed history and I was under the assumption that that was all the accepted form. I am learning through some hard knocks, this is not the case.


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