Academic journal article About Performance

In Front of Our Eyes: Presence and the Cognitive Audience

Academic journal article About Performance

In Front of Our Eyes: Presence and the Cognitive Audience

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Despite the growing body of literature on 'presence', there remain relatively few hypotheses that address the central question of what presence is or attempt to account for, and detail, the processes with which presence is associated. Criticism has tended to defer these matters and instead to focus on arguments concerning the significance of presence (Phelan 1993), denials of this significance (Auslander 1999), accounts of presence's fundamental ambiguity (Power 2008) or how the mystery of presence might be articulated through a poetics and reference to concepts such as the uncanny (Goodall 2008). In this paper, it is not our intention to take issue with these views, we propose instead to ask what presence is and to consider why its properties so preoccupy theatre practitioners. In doing so, we explore several areas of experience associated with presence that are frequently invoked in theatre studies: unmediated communication, the idea of being in the moment and experiences of the mysterious or ineffable. In exploring the processes that enable, constrain, and thus characterise the communicative circuit between authence and performance, we emphasise an embodied view of the human that locates the mind and its experiences in the processes and purposes of bodily action rather than in perceptual representation or phenomenology, and draw upon views that suggest there is a functional basis for presence and its mysterious phenomenal quality (Gallese 2005; Metzinger 2003). In this, we contend that since the performance-spectator relationship is about minds in the act of producing and receiving information (Bennett 1997), exploring the theatre event via cognitive processes has a significant contribution to make to critical perspectives that locate the performance-authence relationship in social and cultural phenomena. We note in particular that cognitive science complements performance studies through shared concerns with emotion, meaning, memory, perception, attention and consciousness (cf Riva 2006). And that it has a particularly distinctive contribution to make to debate by arguing that the component processes of communication (such as theory of mind, empathy, semantic understanding, perception, and intersubjectivity) are contingent on direct contact with the world and constrained by evolved mechanisms that automatically attune the mind to external events and other people in predetermined ways (Gallese 2001).

COMMUNICATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION

The question of "perceptual, direct, 'live' communion" (Grotowski 1968, 19) between performer and authence is one of the most contested in twentieth century theatre. In one tradition of analysis, the idea of communion between performers and authence is inflated as a key theatrical concept. Under such analyses, the somatic, the sensory, emotion, aura or the idea of putting nature to work are alleged to hold the key to theatrical and even to spiritual or mystical experiences (Artaud, Kantor, Grotowski, Barba et cetera). Conversely, ideas about the significance of 'liveness' and the 'auratic' are just as often reduced, under-represented or even denied with performance defined as a consciously mediated practice founded on culture, language, logic, conventions, symbolic communication and the manipulation of data (Brecht, Auslander, Fuchs). The dialectic between these positions might be seen to form the core of debate in twentieth century theatrical theory - with the competing claims that privilege either the value of physical or the value of symbolic communication presenting alternative schools of performance that may be deployed in different contexts.

In cognitive science, the issue of whether or not human beings have direct contact with the world has been similarly contested, with Cartesian views that privilege representation in contest with sensorimotor views that suggest that experience and communication are not founded on representation (Dennett 1991; Clark 1997). …

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