Criticism as a Play-Space

Merve Tokgöz*

Not a “minute of the world passes,” says Cezanne,
that we will preserve if we do not “become that minute.”

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

In this paper, I will firstly explain the relationship between affect and play, and how play resists representation. Following this, I will touch on Daniel Stern’s concept of affective attunement that points out how a baby stimulates their caregivers to use expressions having some artistic elements like music, tempo and rhythm. Hence, criticism as a play-space might pave the way for a transgenerational encounter field which, consequently, allows us to think of a kind of criticism that breaks dichotomies to go beyond representations and the prevalent forms of thinking. 
Keywords: late capitalism, Daniel Stern, affective attunement, play, criticism

In the collective volume The State of Art Criticism, Michael Newman indicates that “critics represent the public by taking the point of view of a public visitor to the exhibition” (52). However, in the case of children’s theatre and performance criticism, the function of representation cannot work because the critic is often an adult and experiences the work as an adult who is not the target audience. A question arises about the target of criticism, which tends to focus on the parents instead of the children. That approach brings two issues: one is that we have an understanding of criticism as the last link of the chain of measuring appropriateness for children. Consequently, criticism turns into what Susan Sontag criticizes as the treatment of“the work of art as a statement being made in the form of a work of art” (22). It produces information and evaluations about the work, so it misses and reduces the particularity of work of art and the experience of the spectator. In other words, criticism becomes one of the mediating actors who decide the encounter of the play and the children.

Roland Barthes claims that criticism does not say the final thing about a play: It is not a “translation but a periphrase”(36). It cannot assert the meaning of the artwork by giving information or analyze it from a scientific point of view. Criticism creates “a new flowering of the symbols which constitute the work”(36). Barthes approaches criticism as an expansion of the aura of the artwork; namely, the time and space in which we experience the work of art in different configurations. 

The other issue is that when the mediating function is the only one and criticism does not concern to include children in itself, it produces the power relationship between adults and children, and these two issues are very interrelated. Jonathan Levy claims that children in theatre are a “captive audience” because “they do not choose to come” (11). Adults are the ones who still monopolize decision-making make according to their own and current social values. As Carol Lorenz, argues,  theatre for young audience “has traditionally been a theatre of agreement, of integration propaganda” (96). Therefore, taking criticism as a mediator cannot be excluded from the rationality operating in the production and realization processes of theatre. Criticism as a mediator means that it cannot be presented as an activity or an event, since children are not given a space to discover, explore and experience. The artworks for children have already been approached or created in terms of a statement or a message that is meant to be learnt. Hence, criticism becomes one of the parts of this mechanism supporting the dominant paradigm.

Furthermore, considering today’s societal changes and conditions under late capitalism, individuals have been turned into human capital that can be understood in financial terms, as something to invest with the task of improving its competitive position, according to Wendy Brown. Thus, this way of thinking that instrumentalizes each thing it encounters and cannot think of the object in itself is a part of the social and economic formation surrounding us. That said, it is of great importance not to reproduce the rationality of this order. Especially with children, instead of integrating them, it is far better to go with them on a journey that is undefined; that is leave the adult world and its determined zones that prevent the emergence of the new and the different.

In short, the prevalent form of rationality instrumentalizes each thing according to its utility. To think otherwise, criticism needs to keep the particularity of the artwork and the sensory experience around it, rather than reducing it to a specific meaning or subsuming experience under a certain category. Hence, criticism here is considered in a space of becoming in which the determined boundaries of being are dissolved. Accordingly, O’Sullivan states, “A kind of writing—or intervention—which does not reduce or seek to limit the art experience, but rather opens it up to further adventures” (“Writing on Art” 115). 

Before going any further, I would like to describe briefly what is specific to art experience. As Deleuze and Guattari explain it, “The work of art is . . . a bloc of sensations, that is to say a compound of percepts and affects”(164). Therefore, further adventures underlie a bloc of sensations, so when O’Sullivan says “does not reduce or seek to limit,” he is accurate, in the sense that sensations and affects refer to excess beyond something defined and concrete. Thus, trying to subsume them under a certain category means lessening, limiting, hindering and suppressing them because the characteristic of affect is being not representational opposed to ideas, according to Spinoza. There is an idea of the loved thing, or there is an idea of something hoped for, but hope as such or love as such represents nothing because they are constantly in motion, so they cannot be captured as representations.

Mazis, in Emotion and Embodiment, defines e-motion as the move away, moving out from; they are not being but becoming, and so are we. Then, there is a constant interaction, which also connects the audience, between what happens on the stage and audience at the bodily level, regarding the body as an affective space. At the same time, the audience has no commonality in terms of what they feel but, in O’Sullivan’s words again, “It transforms, if only for a moment, our sense of our ‘selves’ and our notions of our world” (The Aesthetics of Affect 128). 

The transformation of “selves” has a strong connection with the development of the self in the pre-linguistic infant. Likewise, Daniel Stern, in The Interpersonal World of the Infant, suggests that the different senses of self, once formed, continue to develop and coexist throughout life. I will now describe the significance of horizontal relation with children, and why children’s theatre and performance criticism might be a powerful way to navigate further adventures, rather than to reduce and limit art experience by using Stern’s depiction of the sense of a subjective self.

Daniel Stern and Affective Attunement

“How can you get ‘inside of’ other people’s subjective experience and then let them know that you have arrived there, without using words?” (138). This is the rhetorical question Stern asks in order to describe the special emotional, non-linguistic communication between the infant and the caregiver that allows the creation of the subjective self. He calls it affective attunement, which means that nine months after birth, a change usually occurs between the infant and the caregiver. The caregiver’s imitation-like behaviour to their child constitutes an intersubjective dialogue the infant senses to be understood as his or her feeling state. Stern emphasizes that the behaviour is not a pure imitation and adds that it is very difficult to differentiate a behaviour as affective attunement. He gives some precise examples to understand, for instance: 

A nine-month-old girl becomes very excited about a toy and reaches for it. As she grabs it, she lets out an exuberant “aaaah!” and looks at her mother. Her mother looks back, scrunches up her shoulders, and performs a terrific shimmy with her upper body, like a go-go dancer. The shimmy lasts only about as long as her daughter’s “aaaah!” but is equally excited, joyful, and intense.


What is striking here is that, as Stern claims, the caregiver communicates within the same modality as the infant. What is specific to the infant’s modality is that they perceive reality amodally, which refers to perception as an abstract representation rather than actual concrete objects. So, in the infant’s world, these are energy and intensities. 

The infant invites us instinctively to use the broader scope of expressions having artistic qualities such as tempo, rhythm, intensity, movement, shape and duration. Also, amodal perception indicates unity or translation from one sensory mode to another because those qualities can be abstracted by any modalities of perception. Due to the fact that the baby does not have any categories of language to organize their perceptions, they have unmediated awareness. To elucidate this point further, he gives the rhythm as an example that can be abstracted from sight, audition, smell, touch or taste. Those abstract representations are embedded in all experiences which allow us to feel a perceptually unified world. Hence, the development of a subjective self is connected to our perception of the world and both appear in intersubjective relatedness.

The ongoing evolution of self from different channels throughout life also might be associated with Deleuze’s understanding of the individual as a bunch of processes, as he states that:

What we’re interested in, you see, are modes of individuation beyond those of things, persons or subjects: the individuation, say, of a time of day, of a region, a climate, a river or a wind, of an event. And maybe it’s a mistake to believe in the existence of things, persons, or subjects. 

(Negotiations 26)

Concerning the amodal perception, Stern proposes another quality, vitality affects, which are different from categorical affects such as happiness, sadness and anger. He describes vitality affects as “a way of feeling, not a specific content of feeling” (56); vitality affects are embedded in all experience and only arise from “encounters with people” (54). Considering so far what Stern claims, it might be said that rather than approaching infants as a tabula rasa, they lead us to a different kind of relationship that allows us to go beyond certain definite behaviours and expressions for stating our affective universe.

As opposed to classical understanding, which places self and consciousness to the mind, our selves and notions of our world are shaping neither completely outside nor completely inside us but in the intersubjective matrix. Hence, paving the way for an open dialogue with children has the potential to form and experience a new way of thinking outside of the conventional patterns through not only using language but the wide range of expressions.

In the case of theatre and performance criticism, it holds that involving the children in the process of criticism and creating an open dialogue with them contains a great potential to think of an alternative way of criticism rather than approaching it as a categorical discipline. Especially, when we think about what can be talked about something that is no longer there or what remains after a performance, the answer might be a trace that can only be found by tracing the change in one’s affective world. Therefore, if affects are not representable and criticism is not a translation, then comments and judgments on performance should not be the product of the rationality that always equates the object to its utility other than its own value. It is because the equation brings the problem of losing the difference and particularity of both performance and experience of spectators.

Rather than a vertical relationship with children that teaches, sets rules, stereotypes and categorizes, a horizontal encounter enables one to express the inner affective world as Stern indicates. Thus, a transgenerational critical dialogue might provide a new way of thinking and sharing art experience that allows connect, relate and communicate the impact of a performance. As Stern claims, “Two minds create intersubjectivity, but equally, intersubjectivity shapes the two minds”(78). The significance of intersubjectivity is destabilizing the current reason or rationality.

Based on the explanations and the examples given by Stern, while children appeal to adults for using artistic expressions, the ludic quality in that communication is distinguishable. It is because what is perceived by children does not fall under a category that it enables the object to appear differently in every context created by children. Moving forward in this analysis, I will specify some of the characteristics of play to think criticism as a play-space in which non-cognitive faculties can be mobilized and unconventional forms of expression and communication can take place, so it can provide a basis for the transgenerational encounter.

Playing and Becoming
Richard Schechner: “[playing is] the ongoing, underlying process of off-balancing, loosening, bending, twisting, reconfiguring, and transforming.” Photo: NYU, TYSCH, web

Richard Schechner sketches a compelling theory of play which shows how there is always something resisting and excessing while defining playing. He suggeststhat playing, rather than an isolated or separate event, is “the ongoing, underlying process of off-balancing, loosening, bending, twisting, reconfiguring, and transforming” (43). Based on this description, playing amazes and unbalances, creates a space that dissolves the boundaries of self and brings closer to becoming, than being. Further, Christopher Harker, based on his observations of children’s plays at an elementary school, claims that playing is an embodied experience where affects are immanent because the action of play stimulates primarily non-cognitive skills. This does not mean that play is irrational, but simply that it prioritises a different faculty.

Tara Woodyer construes the experience of playing as follows: “There is a disappearance of time as the player becomes ‘lost in the moment’ and emerges as part of, or strongly identifies with something beyond, yet also including the self. A sense of being is subsumed by a sense of becoming” (321). Playing brings opening yourself to go with the flow, and therefore it is a constant attempt for configuring alternative ways of being in the world. Hence, there is an affective quality in playing because while the player goes with the flow, the flow also consists of other elements or bodies constituent of the play, so it generates an intersubjective matrix. That characteristic locates playing “at the intersection of being and becoming”(Harker 53). On the other hand, as Gagen shows in her article, it has a possibility to mirror hierarchical roles of relation, in terms that playing performances normalize and maintain gender norms. Thus, play-space is not utopian emancipating practice but a creative destruction characteristic of play that might lead to an escape from actually existing structures, and it involves a capacity to alter the way we experience the world by different reconfigurations that offer an alternative form of thinking. 

Imagining and practicing criticism as a play-space requires a different kind of aesthetics, in the sense that it reformulates the established ties between seeing, doing, and speaking across generations. Therefore, it is a part of the performance or art experience and the challenge here is sustaining the fundamental ludic characteristic after the performance. The performance should not be whole or complete; the presence on the stage should evoke an absence to open the door for creative destruction, as if it is a body without embodiment.

The incompleteness or revealing the incomplete is crucial for criticism in order to shift from the zone of determination to the zone of indetermination; that is, away from the total schemata culture draws to make itself seem consistent. It orchestrates and conducts actions of different groups of individuals according to their defined competencies to sustain itself. Thus, the absence and fissures might be the points to take the rest of the determined part to pieces. 

It might be asked why prioritizing becoming, and why criticism needs it. Firstly, I think that criticism involves all twisting, reconfiguring, off-balancing and transforming processes. To remember Barthes again, criticism is not an explanation of the work of art but “a new flowering of the symbols which constitute the work”; and playing might be the space for this new flowering. On the other hand, if art is “a portal, an access point to another world . . . to the world of becoming” (128), criticism needs not to shrink or close the portal but keep it open or even expand it.

Another point is that playing is an irreducible affective activity in itself and for itself, meaning that it frustrates any attempt for instrumentalization which is positioned outside of today’s forms of thinking and practice. The category “for children” evokes competence and appropriateness that both include and exclude children. We need spaces for imagining and thinking otherwise, to go beyond categories obstructing chances for an open dialogue and reproducing current power relations as in the case of theatre for children and young.

Jacques Ranciére outlines the power of spectator in theatre as “the power each of them has to translate what she perceives in her own way, to link it to the unique intellectual adventures that makes her similar to all the rest in as much as this adventure is not likely the other”(17). Approaching criticism as a play space allowing transgenerational encounters carries a possibility to form, a different sort of reality by using existing materials through constructing new, intuitive relationships. 


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*Merve Tokgöz studied Political Science and International Relations at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey. She is currently an actress at DasDas Stage, assistant director at Primat Studio, a member of ASSITEJ (International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People).

Copyright © 2020 Merve Tokgöz
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