Academic journal article Critical Studies

Acoustic Violence in Contemporary German Theatre

Academic journal article Critical Studies

Acoustic Violence in Contemporary German Theatre

Article excerpt

In contemporary German theatre, acoustic phenomena (i.e. music, voices, sounds and noises) play a crucial role. Their aesthetic function is no longer restricted to representing dramatic actions; it consists above all in the sensual and emotional effect that such phenomena may exert upon the audience. Central to this are the violent - in the sense of distressing and threatening - effects of acoustic phenomena. This essay focuses on acoustic violence in contemporary German theatre with special attention to the dimension of violent effects on the auditor. It argues that violent impressions generated by acoustic means have a special capacity to highlight the audience's own presence and experience within the theatrical space and to thematise co-presence. The essay addresses the following points: 1) violence (including acoustic violence) and injury against the actor; 2) acoustic violence against the auditor; 3) forms of acoustic violence that range from seducing to overpowering; and 4) the generation and thematisation of co-presence through acoustic violence.

The view that a special relationship exists between art and violence1 is neither surprising nor new. Karl Heinz Bohrer, for example, finds it hardly disputable "that art and literature have an inherent connection with aggression and violence" (Bohrer 2004, 188). Certainly, Bohrer bases his claim not on artistic content (representations or motifs of violence and cruelty) but on aesthetic style, the formal level of art. Drawing on Montaigne and Lucan, he points out that style itself contains an element of violence: "Lucan's epigram says - and Montaigne follows him here - that good speech is speech which pierces and injures" (ibid., 190). From the notion that artistic works effect injury and violation in the viewer or listener, Bohrer goes on to explain the frequent occurrence of violent themes in art by the fact that "their formal expression suits the great artist's innate affinity with a style that wounds" (ibid., 191).

Three sets of inferences can be drawn from this idea, all important for my deliberations in the following. Firstly, Bohrer does not consider violence in art solely on the level of content, in the sense of representations of brutality and cruelty; by addressing the formal level, he also brings into play the effect of art, which may be attractive and distressing or wounding in equal measure. Secondly, he defines violence not solely in the sense of physical wounds or injuries: in a broader sense, violence is at work as soon as we feel disconcerted or even captivated by something. This is not meant merely metaphorically, but rather involves a perceptive subject being commandeered and altered in bodily and affective terms by objects of art. Finally, violence, to follow Bohrer, is something intrinsically bound up with art, something that cannot simply be kept discrete from the artistic process, morally condemned, and excluded. Neither, therefore, can violence be understood as something purely negative and ethically problematic. It has an inherent productivity, being capable of generating art and aesthetic experience as such.

What is true of art and violence in general can also be applied to the particular case of theatre. Representations of violence and the evocation of distressing effects have been part of theatrical processes from classical antiquity to the present day, to varying degrees and with varying evaluations. A crucial role in that process has been played by acoustics, a term which embraces such diverse phenomena as music, voices, noises, and silence or not-speaking. Because these phenomena have the quality of spreading across space and the capacity to affect and involve people physically and emotionally, they seem particularly fitted not only to representing violence but also, or especially, to producing it and making it productive as a factor of effect. In the following, I will therefore examine acoustic violence in contemporary German theatre, focusing on the dimension of distressing, violent effects - the dimension of violence against the authence. …

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