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Why 'Live'?

Review of Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), x + 179pp. ISBN 0-415-19690-6 [ISBN-13: 978-0415196901].

Pietro de Simone

Auslander, Liveness, cover image
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When we speak the word 'life'," wrote Antonin Artaud, "it must be understood we are not referring to life as we know it from its surface of fact but to that fragile fluctuating center which forms never reach."1 Artaud, whose own life consisted of being sent as a young adult to a sanatorium by his parents for bouts of wildness and headaches, as well as becoming a frequent recipient of electric-shock therapy later in life, not to mention a reclusive opium addict and self-induced sleep-walker, also devised his "theater of cruelty" as a magical concoction of groans, screams, pulsating lighting effects, gestures, and oversized stage puppets and props, or as he put it, a "controlled danger" intended to shock and awe spectators as if it were an exorcism. Part ritual, part circus, the full impact of theater, Artaud believed, could be delivered through "continuous creation" where the purity of the performing experience itself, its immediacy, its liveness, would be paramount—not the language, not the spectator, not even the noise.

Today Artaud's reveries seem toothless and outdated not just for the surrealist anarchy they were known for. While they seem to have had a direct influence upon post-war attempts to make the human body itself the location of performance, from Peter Brook and Julian Beck to Jerzy Grotowski's "Poor Theater," their rejection of the idea that motion pictures could do what even the most lively theater piece could not, and more, may be the most obvious example of their limitations. Indeed it is difficult to deny the uncertain status of "live" performance today. Even Richard Schechner, founder and elder statesman to the Performance Studies movement (and an Artaud disciple as well) admits the serious, perhaps insurmountable, challenges now face performance art.2 Ticket sales for theater and concerts continue to wane due to inflated prices and the quiet disappearance of indie-venues promoting local talent. As audience expectations have become increasingly spectacular, formed more by TV and cinema than from traditional performance venues, artists themselves, regardless of genre or form, are beginning to move from traditional drama and do-re-mi-fa musical training into desktop technologies and "new media" forms. That music, in particular, is increasingly created through software and sampling, downloaded and shared online, and consumed on iPods, has made many wonder whether music needs a "live" audience at all.

Philip Auslander speaks to these issues in Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture by arguing that "live" events (whether theater, concerts, sports, even courtroom testimony) are now themselves pale replicates of mass-media technologies, especially television. At one point in the book, when acknowledging an intellectual debt to Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Auslander admits that "live performance has indeed been pried from its shell and that all performance modes, live or mediated, are now equal: none is perceived as auratic or authentic; the live performance is just one more production of a given text or one more reproducible text" (50). Unlike those who demonstrate how technological advances have influenced, provoked and shaped performance practice, Auslander, Professor at the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, goes further by claiming that the distinction itself between mediated and live has grown increasingly suspect. Knowing he will tap into the anxieties of those who perform in front of a paying public, at the end of the book Auslander presents a dire forecast for live events , informed not by indicators in social-psychology nor by technological determinism, but by semiotic readings of the postmodern spectacle, where "virtual" performances of icons, advertisements and bots proliferate, imbricate, and erode the legitimacy of appealing to anything "real."

Riffing off themes found in Benjamin's essay while making cool use of the patois of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, Auslander seems particularly comfortable in pop-culture scholarship, giving us an easy enough read with arguments adamantly stated even if, at times, speciously constructed. To cite one specific instance, while it may be true that the very desire for liveness, its very discourse even, is a symptom of the age of sound recording and television, Auslander overstates the point a bit by writing "the ancient Greek theatre…was not live because there was no possibility of recording it" (51) despite, let us remind ourselves, having been performed flesh and blood in front of a living breathing audience, or what we today call "live." Nitpicking aside, Auslander has written an important book. By calling attention to the incursions of mediatization into liveness, it forces consideration of the reductive binaries often separating them. At the heart the treatise lies the abandonment of the ontological approach to understanding liveness. Given the severe incursions made by "mediatization" into "the entire spectrum of performance genres," we are told it is no longer helpful to cling to worn anachronisms like "authenticity," "ritual" and "spontaneity" when trying to define what liveness is (7). To do so would falsely render performance art impervious to the cultural economies of representation so central to media market strategies. While it is not clear as to what Auslander believes actually happens when human beings share a physical space in speaking, acting, and performing, he contends that the exclusivity of liveness, the "you just had to be there" credo which he believes remains implicit in much of contemporary Performance Studies, may be alive but it is not well. Even attempts to cling to what some may deem the quintessentially ephemeral existence of performance—its appearance and disappearance through its bare devotion to the now—as proof of a "unique" ability to destabilize systems of representation as well as the powers which order them, merely deny the ways liveness simulates mediatized events.

The strength of Auslander's book is the historical trajectory it develops from Benjamin's "Work of Art" essay. In that piece, Benjamin argued that the technological reproducibility of artworks not only liberated them from the elite social groups that owned them and controlled their viewing but, more importantly, divested them of their ideological "aura" as well. Here Benjamin believed, somewhat crudely it now seems, that as spectators developed new modes of seeing introduced through the technologies of photography and cinema, they would no longer perceive artworks to be inseparable from religion and aesthetics. Benjamin also held that the new age would not just destroy "the traditional value of the cultural heritage" by releasing art objects from their "parasitic dependence on ritual;" it would also generate new art-forms that would themselves be "designed for reproducibility."3 So, in other words, since painting and sculpture were incapable of addressing a mass audience directly, they would lose relevance as the arts of technical mass-reproduction, specifically film, became culturally dominant. Stage-drama too, for Benjamin, would undergo profound change, as actors would no longer be called upon to act-out roles in front of a living, breathing audience, as they had for thousands of years, but come to rely upon those who recorded, edited, and pieced together fragments of their work into composite form. Benjamin believed this development to be playing itself out among his contemporaries when he noted the crisis in the theater and the deep feelings of alienation in actors. It became no longer necessary for them to identify with the role of their character. Performances would thus be "captured" onto reels of magnetic tape, detached from the conventional settings of community space, and ultimately stripped of the charismatic dazzle that was so indicative of stage-presence in traditional performance ritual. As Benjamin's essay makes clear, on one hand, the urban masses would increasingly come to interpret civil society, politics, and class through the visual culture created by the camera, while the dramatis personae, no matter how gifted or exceptionally presented, would wane steadily in their ability to engage audiences critically if they could not enter the mass circulations of reproductive proliferation. "The audience's identification with the actor," Benjamin declared, "is really an identification with the camera."4

Auslander admits, as a nod to Benjamin, the damaging impact of the film industry upon theater but also demonstrates that it was television's ability to broadcast events as they happen, to "go live," that truly enabled the appropriation of liveness. Early television, unlike cinema, he says, remade the theatrical experience by both extending and replacing it through its immediacy. "Television was imagined as theater" (23). Though Auslander is disappointingly brief on the point, he rejects the view that television cannot involve or touch viewers in ways that live events do. While he provides little to suggest that television's coupling of liveness with mediatization is somehow tied to their respective spin-offs, exhibitionism and voyeurism, his writing is convincing enough when confined to the hyped-histrionics pervading television culture, extending from "camera-ready" performers to the applauding-on-cue audiences who smile and shout as if they themselves are on display. The implicit claim here is that sitcoms gradually became the standard by which live performances would be judged while the latter became their sloppy impersonation.

The book takes a nice turn just about two-thirds through by taking into account the value of liveness for performance in courtrooms. Of course, while video and taped recordings are used regularly to provide evidence and testimony, Auslander maintains that legal proceedings in the courtroom continue to privilege liveness by making it mandatory for juries and judges ultimately to see witnesses perform memory retrievals in front of them. He reminds us that the real purpose of testimony is not the communication of information recalled but the strength of the performance in its recollection before the accused and jury. Yet Auslander insists that the priority given to liveness over that of mediatization in courts of law, and conceivably other arenas of contest and high drama, is grounded in an "ideological" presumption that proceedings are more likely to reveal something about the testimony or moral character of parties when they confront each other face-to-face.

The book's overall treatment, given over to "pop" and "rock ideology," may leave readers wanting more analysis of the other performance idioms Auslander mentions, namely classical music, jazz, theater, and sports, which ostensibly rely less on mediatization. To put it bluntly, for many, looking for an ontology of liveness in the likes of Madonna and Jimi Hendrix will only get you so far. These tendencies make Auslander vulnerable to the criticism that he underestimates, if not misunderstands, the relevance and value of the performing action itself. Though he seems to admit some inconsequential distinctions between human beings actually coming together with their bodies and imaginations to perform, and what gets heard through microphones or seen on video screens, it is difficult to imagine him trying to make the kinds of insights into performance that only performers tend to acutely make. In other words, would it make any difference to him at all that those who perform, say Pakistani qawwli, or improvisational theater, or Italian opera are repeatedly prompted, even challenged, by the presence of other human beings to go beyond memorization and technical repetition? And that it is precisely this fragility in performance which opens up the possibility for something unexpected and fascinating to occur? Surely, at least from a performer's point of view, few stage actors want to duplicate past performances exactly; and not every performance is the same. Dancers know this also, as do musicians, athletes, and most anyone in the public eye. Yet, Auslander seems oblivious. It may be true that the stock phrases used to describe liveness are clichés; but clichés often smack of a truth. For many performers, what is central to what they do is engaging the—dare I say—"ontological" element of contingency as it unfolds around them. This may also lead them to refuse having their work video-recorded or filmed (without some financial or legal compensation, of course) believing the camera or recorder can capture what Artaud referred to as "the surface of fact" but will fall flat on what is really important in the performance. Unlike recordings which ostensibly document events, performance-space not only translates into public-space and public action but enables performers to live-out their performances in historical time with timely, even if momentary, relevance. It is in this respect that performers have often had to "re-invent" themselves in order to stay in advance of the technologies and cultural economies that date them.

If Benjamin naively hoped that reproductions would be interpreted the same way regardless of personal distance, that is, of the times, histories, and prejudices of those viewing them, Auslander, to his credit, seems a bit more sensitive to the plurality of perspectives and play in performance for(u)ms. The greater issue raised by the book, perhaps inadvertently, is not merely the relevance and potential of "liveness" but of human action. Auslander shows that the distinguishing characteristic of the culture of mediatization is not just the hegemonic scale to which it has grown but the subtleties by which it has affected our lives. Yet by merely referring to and rarely engaging viewpoints which make the relationship between liveness and mediatization "oppositional," he does not satisfactorily address, much less articulate, what makes these differences and tensions possible.

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Online resources verified on December 24, 2006.

1. Antonin Artaud, Theater and Its Double, translated by M.C. Richards (New York: Grove Press 1958), p. 13.

2. Ershad Kamol, "Theater in Turmoil," Star Weekend Magazine, Vol. 5 Issue 83, February 24, 2006. <http://www.thedailystar.net/magazine/2006/02/03/focus.htm>

3. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books 1969), p. 224.

4. Ibid., p. 228.


About the Reviewer:

Pietro de Simone is an independent scholar living in New York City. His areas of interests include political theory, hermeneutics, disciplinary power, technology, and performativity..

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
de Simone, Pietro. "Why 'Live'?" Other Voices 3.1 May 2007. May 19, 2024 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/pdesimone/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Pietro de Simone, Why 'Live'? Other Voices 3, no. 1 (2007), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/pdesimone/index.php› (accessed May 19, 2024)

APA Style Citation:
de Simone, Pietro. (2007, May). Why 'Live'? Other Voices, 3.1. Retrieved May 19, 2024, from http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/pdesimone/index.php


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