Performing Arousal: Precarious Bodies and Frames of Representation

Edited by Julia Listengarten and Yana Meerzon
262pp. Bloomsbury/Methuen

Reviewed by Don Rubin*

If you love theory more than theatre, you will love this book. If you love to use words like alterity, precarity and heteronormativity in your written interrogations, you will also love this book. On the other hand, if these elements are not really your glass of tea, you probably won’t find this collection of 16 very academic essays on the general subject of sexual and political arousal particularly stimulating. Indeed, the provocative title may be the best thing about the volume. What its two editors and most of the writers included here have managed to essentially do is to turn a potentially fascinating subject into a trendy melange of jargon signifying, I’m afraid, not much.

This is not so much a volume of insightful critical theory – which could have been a contribution to knowledge — as it is a precarious and flaccid body of writing with too many connected parts for its own good: a leg of history, a shoulder of ethnography and occasional reportage from some odd nether regions, all mixed together with a whole lot of self-satisfied navel-gazing. That is, the volume lacks both sexual focus and political form. Specifically, things like the ‘exilic abject’ (whatever that is and however dubiously it might connect to the subject of performing arousal) and Oscar Kokoschka’s headless sex puppet don’t really seem to want to spend time together; nor do things like Feminism and, what is called here, African necropolitics.

To paraphrase a recent Oscar-winning film title, this collection of essays seems mostly to be just Academics Talking and the talk is not so very interesting. This, despite the noble attempts of the two editors to interconnect things that don’t really connect. I daresay that for most working theatre professionals and probably a lot of theatre academics this volume would probably put them to sleep before hitting the halfway point. If this is “wokeness,” I’ll take sleeplessness. With pleasure.

Growing out of two recent American conferences — one on “Performing Arousal” sponsored by the American Society for Theater Research in 2018 and another based on a seminar put together by the two editors in 2019 for the American Comparative Literature Association — the real subject of the book seems to be feminism but too many roads are taken along the editorial way: politics, precarity, immigration, race, the visual arts and even a bit of queer theory. Theatre itself is left in the dust.

Most of the essays, in fact, deal primarily with the work of visual and/or literary artists such as Oscar Kokoschka, Salvador Dalí and Vladimir Nabokov. The few essays that do really deal with performance as such are honorable exceptions — Rebecca Clark’s essay on the avant garde American performance artist calling herself Narcissister and editor Julia Listengarten’s essay on the Russian group Pussy Riot. Both these essays stand out.

Clark tells us that Narcissister “calls her genre of performance ‘avant-porn” (207) transforming herself with two-faced masks worn on her head and between her legs into “the sex doll, the Barbie doll, and the topsy turvy doll” (208). Unfortunately, the reader is offered no visual material. Only Clark’s fascinating conclusion: “The crux of the affective ambivalence in her work is that it emphatically insists on…self-enjoyment…. She is the object that arouses itself. She is the sex doll who’s learned how to masturbate” (217).

For her part, Listengarten offers a useful and fact-filled history of Pussy Riot, the Russian female protest group that used site-specific events “to revolt against systems of power, to upset existing frames of representation, and to arouse confusion, anger, shock, and condemnation” (132). Connecting Pussy Riot to the earlier USSR dada-esque protest group Oberiu, Listengarten frames it as “an offshoot of the Russian street art group Voina (war in Russian)” (133). The group sought to conflate “the sexual with the political,” according to Listengarten, centering it on the “marginalized and sexualized” female body, what she calls “a commodity of capitalism” (140). Later its work shifted to “music videos, art installations, and occasional performances in galleries and traditional theatre venues.” An interesting note: many of us will remember the 2017-million-woman Pussy March in Washington but how many realized that Pussy Riot’s own face covering– the balaclava – was apparently the inspiration for the refashioned knitted pink pussy hat worn that day to protest Donald Trump’s presidential administration (136).

One whole section of the volume deals with political arousal per se and here Bertolt Bertolt and Peter Handke are discussed briefly yet the work of very few other pioneering theatrical provocateurs who actually used sexuality as a frame — Richard Schechner and Guillerm Gomez-Peña for example –are pretty much ignored. What we get instead is little more than sloganeering about subjects like “the phallic grin,” “necropolitics,” “the cadaverous body of the patriarchy” and curiosities such as “hybridity anchored in self-determination” (126). Many of these slogans are actually found in an essay by a French academic discussing the play Bintou by the important Franco-African dramatist Koffi Kwahulé. But at least Kwahulé’s work is rooted in real theatre.

Too many of these essays are about truly obscure performance events that only scholars fighting for tenure and promotion could love. What is argued as research here too often seems to be interrogated in some kind of inverse proportion to the tiny number of people who actually saw a particular work. Most of the discussions are not about theatre pieces intended to communicate, challenge or celebrate something (anything). Most seem to be art installations or curiosities which, without this reportage, might well have just quietly faded away.

The editors write in their Introduction that the volume wishes to consider arousal — both sexual excitement and political awakening — “as a mode of theoretical and artistic inquiry to encourage new ways of staging,” arousal as “a project of social, cultural, scientific and artistic experimentation….” (1). So far so good but then they amplify it into academese. “The collection also addresses the semiotic and phenomenological materiality of the performing/performed body as a fetishized, racialized, idealized, fragmented and displaced object” (2). The goal: to reimagine “sexuality, arousal, body, and gender” thereby somehow challenging “sexist and racist assumptions” (3).

I must admit here that I have real trouble with theorizing things such as women’s lips and I really don’t see a need, 90 years after the fact, to hold Dalí’s 1936 “Dream of Venus” (created for the New York World’s Fair) as something to be held up to 21st century values. Did it really depend “upon the hypersexualized and prostheticized female body to arouse voyeuristic male spectators” thereby exposing the ways in which “gender, race, class, and disability intersected” and did it really situate “women, people of color, and people with disabilities as hypersexualized, abject and other” (28-9)? Indeed, did it really embody “male fears of castration, impotence and disability” (35)? As theatre people, do we really care?

The fact is that many of these essays seem to be written by academics who have only recently stumbled onto actual theatre and performance, academics wanting to re-theorize long-theorized surrealist and dada experiments in some kind of au courant fashion. It seems that young theatre researchers have to keep themselves busy and they are looking under every stone for material. I am sure it makes them feel good to think theatre people care about what they are writing. Some even seem to live it, like queer scholar-artist Johann Robert Wood who says in his own essay in the volume about his own work, “Performance is how I theorize my life, and theory is the way I perform it.” I wish him only well in this curious multi-tasking. I have never seen his work myself but at least his process seems clear to him. That it is not clear to me as a theatre person I accept as my own failure. Perhaps it could ultimately be taxonomized under Performance as Therapy.

Let me say finally, that while I certainly recognize that some theatre scholars, some theatre critics and maybe even some working theatre professionals may feel totally comfortable in this oddly expanding world of what is called here “Levinasian spectating,” I am, unfortunately, not. As a scholar and critic with a working past of some 6,000 nights in the theatre, I no longer get the connection between theatrical art and this kind of sociological, anthropological, and racialized theorizing. I am admittedly old and though I do not yet wear my trousers rolled I simply do not see a need at any level for most of this academic blather to bother the minds of any theatre professional. Am I alone in my thinking?

One final note: surely if one is going to publish a book so filled with material from the visual arts a wide range of good-sized colour images to support the arguments is necessary. Unfortunately, the volume is short here as well: only a half-dozen or so small, black and white photos are included in the 262-page volume. Not anywhere near enough to arouse interest in the precarious body of what is, in the end, a really frigid academic text.


*Don Rubin is an Emeritus Professor of Theatre Studies at Toronto’s York University and co-founder of the Theatre Department’s MA and PhD programs. He has lectured at universities across North America, Africa, Europe and Asia. Editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, he has published widely on theatre. He is Critical Stage’s Managing Editor as well as its Book Review editor.

Copyright © 2023 Don Rubin
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