Filling the Theatrical Cavity: Who Are the Selves of Our Modernity?


In the first part of a four-part series originally published in Política común intellectual historian Martin Jay responds to Giacomo Marramao's The Passage West: Philosophy After the Age of the Nation State, his investigation into the meaning of politics and philosophy in an era of declining state sovereignty. 

Giacomo Marramao’s The Passage West is such a whirlwind of a book, so filled with provocative ideas and startling theoretical juxtapositions, that it is impossible to approach it as a whole in the space I have here. Rather than attempt a general response, let me focus on just one theme, which is nonetheless central to the book’s larger argument. I want to examine Marramao’s claim that the self is best understood as a “theatrical cavity” rather than a coherent, substantial unity, a punctual agent capable of self-mastery or a serial aesthetic self-fashioner. Against the nominalist assumptions of methodological individualism, Marramao contends that “the subject is always a social event, and each individual is like a theatrical cavity (cavità teatrale) that acts as an echo chamber for the diverse motifs and languages of society”. Drawing on the critique of self-interested “economic man” trenchantly made by Karl Polanyi, he contends that: “within each individual one finds a community. Each of us is like a theatrical cavity in which the voices of communitarian traditions that have molded and constituted us echo”. Thus, if there is a notion of sovereignty appropriate to the self, it is not that of the autonomous, disembedded agent who exercises his will independent of external control, but rather that of the “general economy” of expenditure and transgression championed by Georges Bataille, in which surrender and dispersion rather than self-control and mastery of others is the mark of distinction. And moreover, if we are made up of such internalized communities, the latter should not themselves be understood as integrated and coherent unities, but rather as contested territories with overlapping jurisdictions and permeable boundaries.

The phrase “theatrical cavity” will be familiar to anyone who recalls the Italian Arte Povera movement of the late 1960s, led by artists like the Greek-born Jannis Kounellis, whose work included installations and drawings that resembled stage sets. In l979 Kounellis told an interviewer: “One needs to consider that the gallery is a dramatic, theatrical cavity [...] my work is not surrealistic, the effect is theatrical, it is Baroque”. Pitting baroque spatiality against what I have called elsewhere (1993, 2011) the dominant “Cartesian perspectivalist” visual culture of modernity is, as often noted, a frequent ploy of both postmodernist theory and practice, with its disdain for transparency, lucidity, coherence and order. Theatricality implies the illusory play of appearances rather than the quest for authenticity, a preference for masks that are masks all the way down and hide no genuine faces. The concept of the self that it promotes is accordingly less organized, integrated, and boundaried than that implied by Cartesian perspectivalism. More extravagant than disciplined, it is a self that plays as much as it labors, morphs into different forms more often than reifies into an armored character. It is also less capable of rational calculation, moral autonomy or what a later age would call the self-preserving reality principle of the ego. Although Christine Buci-Glucksmann, whose work did so much to link postmodernism and the baroque, titled her most influential study La raison baroque, there is little evidence of any traditional notion of reason in her account of its development and current significance.

Nor is there much trust in reason to be found in the appropriations of the baroque idea of a “theatrical cavity” in The Passage West. Virtually all of Marramao’s references to rationality, in fact, call its various manifestations into question, at least as bearers of genuine enlightenment and emancipation. He disdains, for example, the “technocosm” that surrounds and constitutes us, imperiously dictating predetermined standards of rationality modeled, exclusively, on criteria of functionality and efficiency”. Nor does he have much patience for the alleged rationality of either the modern state or the modern market place: “the current age, far from sanctioning the triumph of liberal-competitive rationality, appears to be marked by a crisis of the market provoked—to be precise—by the crisis of that sovereign nation state which had made possible, through its dispositifs of internal and international rules, the birth and development of a historically ‘determinate’ market, rationalized in the form of the contract, i.e. of the exchange between abstract, legally ‘free’ and ‘equal’ subjects”. Such a version of the subject, he scornfully remarks (with reference to its embodiment in Robinson Crusoe), is “nothing other than the utopia of possessive individualism, that is, of that homo œconomicus that represents the anthropological referent of the modern market”. Nor, pace social contract theorists, can social cohesion and solidarity be derived from rational choices: “the ‘cement’ is not the architecture projected by means of a convention. On the contrary, society is held together by precisely those ‘sovereign’ expressions of existence that rationalist modernity despises or relegates to the ghetto: art, laughter, eroticism, and so on”. Finally, while stepping back from the more essentialist implications of incommensurable communitarianism, Marramao adopts much of its critique of abstractly universalist notions of reason, including Habermas’s communicative variant. “Not only is the instrumental and strategic dispositif of universalism ethnocentric (i.e, the technologies, the conventions, the formal rules of democracy)”, he follows them in arguing, “but so is its ‘communicative reason’, that is, the very idea of rational dialogue. Persuasion, in other words, is viewed as a more civilized model of the conversion of the ‘barbarian’ and the ‘infidel’”. “The Occident”, he warns, “knows only one modality of the universal: that of domination. This domination has its root in a particular declension of rationality, which is ever more central than the logic of power”. Or to put it in a nutshell, when other cultures make their “passages to the West,” what they find is a rationality that pretends to be universal, but really is beholden to a model of the self—punctual, self-possessed, disembedded, armored, and engaged in a quest for rational consensus—that fails to acknowledge the other echoes that rebound inside a theatrical cavity that never produces resolution into a single harmonious chord.

As an antidote to simplistic notions of a hegemonic version of the modern self, such as the “possessive individualism” made famous by C.B. Macpherson half a century ago, Marramao’s introduction of the metaphor of a theatrical cavity is a suggestive addition to the already very formidable literature on the vicissitudes of the “self”. But can it serve as a new dominant paradigm? The best treatment we have of the history of the “self” in the modern era, Jerrold Seigel’s magisterial The Idea of the Self (2005), takes over seven hundred pages to guide us through a maze of conceptualizations of selfhood from Locke to Foucault and Derrida. And, lest we think it exhausts the options, note that it confines itself only to Western European thinkers, thus ignoring the myriad alternatives that might be out there in the global context in which Marramao insists we are all now situated.

So, as might be expected, a number of questions remain in considering Marramao’s elaboration of his own alternative. For the sake of ideal typical simplification, it might be helpful to begin by positing three primary models of modern Western selfhood: the self-possessed, calculating individual of liberal market economic man; the reasoning, intersubjective communicator who seeks consensus through persuasive argumentation; and the neo-Baroque theatrical cavity through which the disparate values of myriad cultural communities echo. We then have to pose three clusters of related questions. Firstly, can we make a case for one of these alternatives as somehow more compelling and plausible than the others as an accurate description of the modern self? And if so, can we describe the others as mere illusions that should be exposed as such, indeed perhaps even as ideological mystifications that serve an ulterior purpose, such as the disciplining of a labor force in capitalism or the creation of docile populations by centralizing states? But if we choose to make such an argument, are we performatively contradicting the claim of the third model, that of the theatrical cavity favored by Marramao, that there is no authentic self? Can we, in other words, both deny an essential self and say that we can privilege one of these versions over the others? Can we, in other words, say that the authentic self is precisely the self that is by its very nature inauthentic?

The second pressing cluster of questions involves the historical narrative that is being woven out of the succession of different models of selfhood. Can we posit a pre-modern self that is radically different from its allegedly modern successor, however we define it? Is this a self that is fully embedded in a solidaristic community that resembles what Hegel famously called a Sittlichkeit, a unified ethical whole way of life? Or is this merely a fantasy of lost wholeness that was always already a source of nostalgic lament? Was it in fact already disrupted when Antigone defied Creon over the burial of her brother’s body or Socrates was expelled from the Athenian polis? Did it really exist in a medieval Europe in which Christendom never fully overcame residues of paganism, converted defiant Jews who resisted the “good news” and pacified heretics who challenged Church orthodoxy? If we concede that it may not have ever really existed, we can, to be sure, still identify a meaningful epochal change by saying modernity arrives when the fantasy of a lost wholeness becomes widespread. But then the following questions arise. Whenever something we can justly call modernity began in earnest—the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial and French Revolutions?—did one of the three models come to dominate the others, which were pushed to the margins, or were they all jostling for supremacy, with one hegemonic in certain places at certain times? Were they, moreover, evenly distributed among the population, or were there important differences in class, gender, religion, and region, which make a mockery of any claim to identify “the modern self” tout court? The Passage West is not always as clear as it might be in giving us a well-worked out historical argument about the ways in which the various models have prevailed in specific times and places and with specific populations, a problem which is exacerbated when the scope of the argument is extended from “the West” to “the Rest”.

Finally, putting aside descriptive questions, we have to pose as explicitly as possible the prescriptive ones that accompany any attempt to spell out the implications of each of our ideal types (not to mention others we have pushed to the margins). Is there a version of the self that we want to foster as a norm for possible future realization, or a cautionary example of what we want to avoid? The model of “possessive individualism”, to begin with a salient example, was developed by a Marxist militant who had nothing but scorn for what he saw as its complicity with capitalist market ideology. But is there something worth preserving, its advocates might respond, in the legal fiction of the individual “person” who is equal before the law, no matter his or her qualitative differences? Is there, moreover, something worth defending in the ideal of the inviolability of each of our bodies against the demands of predatory others or the unwanted intrusion of the community? There is also a critical distinction, its defenders might point out, between mere possession and property rights, the latter being grounded in an intersubjective recognition that implies reciprocity and conveys legitimacy. If the rhetoric of proprietary ownership, for all its implications of reified commodification in an economy of exchange, can serve as a bulwark against forced seizure—rape or enslavement—as well as physical coercion—discipline and torture—should it be abandoned before we come up with another metaphor that can do the job better?

Similar questions have to be addressed about the costs and benefits of the communicative rational model of the self and its theatrical cavity rival. The former may be accused of naïveté in its attribution of disinterested neutrality to a self that is willing to suspend judgment until it weighs the better argument. It may also be charged with diminishing cultural difference and forgetting the non-rational demands of the emotions and the body. But is a self that inhabits what Wilfrid Sellars famously called the intersubjective “space of reasons” not worth valuing over selves that can only assert or obey, and never justify their beliefs or learn from the justifications of others? The latter model, extolled by Marramao in The Passage West, may be taxed with reducing selfhood to an uncritical echo chamber of beliefs and prejudices that it passively records rather than consciously vets. It may be too quick to trumpet the virtues of heteronomous inclusion of otherness within, and too eager to undermine the possibility of the courageous “Selbstdenken” that thinkers from Lessing to Arendt have identified as the premise of resisting conventional wisdom and social coercion. In its defense, however, it can be valued for acknowledging the dialectics of interdependency and the fallacy of sovereign self-mastery and integral wholeness.

There are no easy answers to any of these questions and it is the credit of The Passage West that it compels us to acknowledge their exigency. Let me close with one final observation that will illustrate the difficulties of coming up with definitive answers. As noted above, the metaphor of a theatrical cavity depends on an extrapolation from a baroque notion of the self as an unstable hall of mirrors (or better, chamber of echoes) in which appearances multiply and authentic essences are undermined. This is clearly not an integrated, sovereign, disembedded, punctual, isolated self-possessed, individuated subject. But must it be also bereft of the qualities of a communicative self operating in a space of reasons?

In a recent study titled Baroque Self-Invention and Historical Truth, the American literary critic Christopher Braider explores another aspect of Baroque culture than that foregrounded in Buci-Glucksmann’s account of manic, ludic dissembling proto-postmodernism. Examining the proliferation of dramatic monologues in the theater of the period, he notes that: “early modern dramatists represent consciousness less as a living stream, a spontaneous upwelling of unmediated thoughts, impressions and feelings, than as an essential verbal phenomenon” (Braider, 132). Imagining the self in dialectical terms, drawing on a familiar tradition of legal disputation, they portray “inner experience itself as a rhetorical situation: a kind of Ciceronian tribunal before which the speaking subject is summoned by its own deliberative faculties, there to debate within and against itself the sic et non or pro et contra of whatever course of action the dramatic circumstances dictate” (Braider, 133). Although still often honoring the power of external forces—the fate and fortune that determine our actions no matter what we will—and ironically undercutting reasoned choices by revealing their unintended consequences, these playwrights nonetheless bear witness to the birth of a modern self that knows truth is produced by argument, discourse, critical self-examination and a willingness to suspend judgment before acting rashly. Internal disputation is thus a testing ground for the growth of an external public sphere, in which the same principles guide intersubjective reasoning.

Although this is not the place to develop the argument, we might find something similar in that most typical of modern art forms, the novel. The interiority of its protagonists is often depicted as a disputatious space of reasons, which is then made manifest to the reader by a narrator omniscient enough to have access to them. The passage from interior to exterior is, of course, invariably rocky and once again ironic outcomes often defeat the intentions of the most reasonable of novelistic heroes. But if we take the experience of reading novels as itself part of the learning process of modern selfhood, it is precisely this lesson that provides a higher level recursivity, which is folded back into reasoning itself. Or at least, at its best, such would be the result. Communicative rationality is, after all, always, like democracy itself, “to come,” a desideratum that can be approached only asymptotically, and with many regressions as well as advances. Despite all the pitfalls of following the “passage west,” surely this is a valid reason for hazarding a voyage that the rest of the world would be foolish to spurn. We can therefore agree with Marramao that “the objective should be that of the reconstruction of a concept of ‘deliberative democracy’ that is distinct from the communitarian and from the procedural one; a concept, therefore, which is able to produce an effective interaction between universalism and difference, and not merely a rhetorical one” (105). But so doing might well require our escape from selves that are only theatrical cavities and rediscover their ability to serve as spaces of reasons, reasons that can be shared, justified, and tested even in the globalized world of unprecedented complexity and bewildering change so vividly depicted in Marramao’s remarkable book.

- this piece was originally published in Política común.

- In part two of the series Hayden West provides his response to
The Passage West.

- In parts three and four Marramao responds to commentators on his book.

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