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by DERRICK DE KERCKHOVE Director, McLuhan Program Originally published in: Sub-Stance, no. 29, May 1981, pp. 23-36. Put in simple terms, my theory is that Greek theater was one of the developments of the phonetic alphabet specifically, and that its effect was to transform the sensory life of the Athenian community. The Greek stage projected the prototypes of Western man as models for the acquisition of private consciousness. The theatrical processes amplified and extended to the non-literature members of the Athenian culture, some of the discreet effects which the phonetic alphabet generated among those who could already read and write. While they were attending stage productions illiterates might be deemed to develop their attention span, their concentration, their critical faculties and their capacity for abstraction, their manipulation of language, and even train their visual skills from peripheral to centralized and directional vision. They might be encouraged for the first time to define and fragment experience in sequences and reorganize its patterns in a unified visual space. All these effects and others made the Greek culture what we think it has been, and were initially dependent upon the apprenticeship of the phonetic alphabet. Theater and the Alphabet: Prometheus Bound Though it has variously been considered as something between religious ritual and social entertainment or between folkloric pageant and the highest expression of Attic culture, Greek tragedy was probably not an art form primarily. It is more likely that it was a technology of change which arose at the point of conjunction of several previously unrelated strains: the practice of sport competition, the cultural policies of a prestige oriented bureaucracy, the growth of literacy, the bardic tradition and, as Gerald Else pointed out in his essay on The Origins and the Early Forms of Greek Tragedy, the need for Athens to develop a mark of distinction among other Greek states, and efface the memory of a previously unremarkable cultural background. Theater, as well as lyric and choral poetry, appear in the wake of a more fundamental innovation, the phonetic alphabet, the mother of all the muses as Aeschylus called it in his Prometheus bound. Indeed, playwriting depended for its fullest development on the transcription of the old oral epics into written forms. This is also a point which has been made convincingly by Gerald Else, but it needs to be taken a few steps further to understand some of the psychological implications pertaining to writing down an oral form. Transcribing anything in any kind of writing involves a degree of abstraction which tends to reproduce the signified experience in a somewhat desensorialized mode. But the phonetic has this distinctive quality over all other scripts and alphabets: first, it represents not images, but sounds, and second, it represents all the sounds needed for the coding of oral communication. The major property of the phonetic code is that it demands (and consequently develops) the ability to analyze sequences and follow a linear mode. A point which ought to be made here but which can only be developed later is that the phonetic
alphabet is also a strictly oriented code which is biologically determined from left to right. What I would like to emphasize here is that where other forms of scripts may establish a direct relationship between the signifier and the signified, the use of the Greek alphabet is predicated upon the mediation of a mental combination of phonemes which have no meaning by themselves. The phonetic is therefore far more abstract than any other alphabet and contrary to its closer cousins, the Hebraic and the Phoenician varieties, it does not rely on any contextual evidence for its decoding. All this is to say that when a professional scribe or a literate bard wrote down an oral epic, he was unwittingly changing the nature of the information as well as the relationships of his body and mind to its content and delivery. He would be fragmenting the poem to process it through the alphabetic code, and the fragments of the story would appear as specific actions, roles and heroic or exemplary attitudes. In fact he was not writing down a story, he was representing sounds. And surely the sounds would be read aloud and retell the story, but in the meanwhile the information would have been completely abstracted from the storyteller even as he was writing it down. The nature of memory must have changed: you did not memorize sounds and images, you memorized a code which gave you instant and permanent access to those sounds and images. Eric Havelock has done invaluable research in this field and he explains in his Preface to Plato that whereas the performance of epic poetry would involve the whole body of the performer as well as the whole body of his audience without implying that there be a strict hierarchy of mental processes over physical ones, the act of writing knowledge down would liberate the memorizer from all mnemonic devices other than mental. This is one of the main aspects of what I call the desensorialization of the Greek culture. Drama was thus borne out of the various physical techniques of memory evolved for the oral epic but which were broken loose and rearranged by the phonetic alphabet. From the point of view of communication, one could say that theater was to the oral epic what writing was to speech; it was a revolution of sensory relationships pertaining to the major modes of transmitting and exchanging information on a personal and a social level. Oral poetry, the alphabet and theater were all different aspects of what the Greeks called mimesis, but I suspect that the alphabet introduced an important change to the traditional notion of mimesis. It is possible to surmise that where the mimetic practices ascribed by Plato to epic poetry were age old conventions of re-enactment, the new, coded, conventions of mimesis were uniformly geared towards imitation proper. In simpler terms, theater would present models of experience to spectators which were removed from the action, where the traditional epic performance would still involve its audience very closely in a ritual remaking of the action. Havelock even refers to almost pathological forms of identification. It is important to remember however that initially theater must have exerted a very powerful manipulation of its public�s sensory projections. One of the most interesting insights of classical scholarship into the nature of chorus dancing is H.C. Baldry�s opinion that it probably �was the sort of physical reaction to the play which the audience might have shown if they had risen from their seats� (The Greek Tragic Theatre, London C & W, 1974.). This is likely but ultimately the theatrical situation led to a repression of all sensorial responses to the action on the stage. Charles R. Beye reminds us that heavy fines and sometimes ejection from the theater were imposed on those who created disturbances during the daylong performances. Civilization, as Voltaire said it many times, begins with just this kind of repression. In the beginning the tragic dramas did not so much process information as they orchestrated sensory stimulations. It is probably that the experience of theatrical performances, even for the short duration of their occurrence during the year, would 2
introduce a new bias in the relationships between body and mind. As the public was exposed to highly involved actions based on common knowledge and yet prevented from responding physically by the seating arrangement and the distance between the orchestra and itself, the need to control and convert physical impulses into mental ones must have arisen. However the highly volatile and emotional public of Athens would not �think out� the plays with the clear mind and the quick and ready judgement of our present day theater critics, but experience them through a maze of physical and emotional contradictions that could not be resolved through the mere exercise of one�s rational faculties. Under those circumstances the danceforms of the actors and the chorus would help to relieve the tensions and frustrations by providing a surrogate involvement through a skillful balancing of music, dance, song and speech. If the spectacle of tragedy led progressively to a process of intellectualization and body control, then the figure of Aeschylus� Prometheus tied and bound to his rock is the very image of the spectator bound to his uncomfortable seat in the theater rows. Prometheus is the archetypal figure of Western man, repressed, long-winded, uptight, narcissistic and morbidly intellectual. He is the Woody Allen of Greek tragedy. He is the actor who does not move, let alone dance. The title of the play and the elaborate enactment of Prometheus� binding in the very first scene indicate that this immobilization of the central figure should be granted the utmost attention. As an emblem of muscular control, Prometheus can only respond by speech to environmental sensory stimulations. Thus divorced from action, this speech is the closest theatrical approximation of thought. The first speech of Prometheus is in fact a monologue and it expresses in thought-like patterns the tensions and frustrations endured through the physical repression. The last words reveal a surprising frailty in the Titan: �The air whirs with the light rush of pinions. Whatever approaches is fraught with alarm for me� (Line 125-6). If, in true Greek mythological tradition, the nature of the punishment fits Prometheus� crime, then the correlation between his paralysis and his previous intellectual enterprises in saving mankind from the wrath of Zeus must appear under a new light: one can only use one�s brain at the expense of one�s ability to be actively involved in daily life. Narcissus� involvement with a mental image also resulted in paralysis. However the metamorphosis which strikes Prometheus does not result in death but in an epistemological revolution. Later in the play, Prometheus claims to have invented �grammaton te syntheseis�, the assembling (or synthesis) of letters. With the science of numbers, the alphabet is the master technology and Prometheus the master technician. It might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that under the guise of Prometheus, Aeschylus put the alphabet and most of its revolutionizing effects on the stage. More important than the figure is the new ground of its operation. Among all the arts and sciences that Prometheus enumerates as consequences of his inventions, there are two conspicuous omissions: Geography and History. The reason they are not listed is that both will be demonstrated in action through the figure of Io. Theater and Space: Io Unbound As the writing of tragedy turned into abstraction the concrete knowledge of oral poetry, it
also made it available for innovation and adaptation. Fragmented segments of common lore gave rise to interpretations and counterinterpretations. The old sagas lost their character of inviolability to become objects of intellectual speculations. Beginning as it did alongside with the recitations of epics in competitions organized by the Pisistratids, tragedy started out as a manipulation of the powerful sensory involvement of the audience which was used to the performance of epics. Later tragedy evolved as a manipulation of representations because the governing principles and lines of force of the medium used for its creation led naturally to a mediation. I believe that this process from unmediated action to mediated representation is the essence of the theatrical phenomenon and that its most important effect was to change the nature of space and time in the experience of the theater public. The theater of Dyonisius at Athens was one of the first matrices of Western visual space. It was also the place where knowledge and experience would be processed as narrative and history. The �Theatron� is both the place �to see� and the place �from where one can see�. In terms of the sensory life of the archaic Greek community, the major shift effected by the combination of theater and the alphabet was to play down the audio-tactile involvement and promote a new sensorial synthesis under the governing of the eye. In 1935, F. M. Cornford wrote an article on �the Invention of Space� which he attributes �to the Greek philosophers of the three centuries between Thales and Euclid� (p. 217). This perceptive essay might have received more attention, especially coming from such a renowned scholar, if Cornford had not limited his investigation to science and philosophy, but he does make one point very clear. On textual evidence he feels that he can ascertain the fact that the notion of infinite space was just as baffling to common sense in 5th century Athens as that of relativity still is to us today. What is more is that he detects a growing confusion of terms between physical space and geometrical space which is purely theoretical. The point I would like to make here is that the theater of Athens was a place where under the gaze of the public, practical, physical space and a theoretical one, that of the stage, coincided. Assuming that the spectators were gradually being deprived of a direct and immediate sensory involvement with the action, and that their response was being rechannelled in a visually dominant synthesis, then it follows that their ordinary environmental references were being gradually emptied of their content and that a new spatial condition was being created for them. It was a neutral, abstract container for a programmed experience, a spectacle. It seems possible that the role of the theater was to educate the Athenian public at large to the new sensorial synthesis of fixed visual space. Just as the phonetic alphabet is a technique which converts all the sensory inputs of oral speech into a single visual sequence, the theatrical performance is a process which assimilates all the sensory inputs of ordinary oral communication into a sequential and causally oriented spectacle. The apprenticeship of literacy demanded the assimilation of new modes of learning and new methods of classifying information. The real difficulty was probably to internalize coherent models for organizing the information which was being generated by the abstracting power of the code. The need for a container and a classifying procedure must have been paramount. It is possible that the simple fact of learning to read and write would provide the literate segment of the Attic community with such models at least in embryonic forms, but how 4
would those who could neither read nor write be expected to assimilate and mentally integrate the radical changes in the superstructures of the political and bureaucratic organizations of Athens? How could they be led, for instance, to accept the daring reforms of Kleisthenes at the end of the 6th century, reforms which would transform the space of Athens from the close-knit allegiances of the phratries into the artificial geometrical divisions of municipalities? To accept this desacralizing of the homeland, the population must have been prepared somehow to substitute a sense of space which was governed by organic relationships with one which posited space as a given, absolute dimension of experience. In Solon�s time, Ge, mother Earth, was still a divine being, �a mother to the Olympian gods�. Not quite a century later it became real estate. It was a move from fullness to emptiness, from presence to absence. For such a change to be internalized by a population which was 95% illiterate, there must have been a full-scale model available. I suggest that the whole theatrical set-up in the city was that model. Theater is, par excellence, a necessary stage of exteriorization for the new visual synthesis fostered by the phonetic alphabet. It is the projection and the extension of a property exclusive to the eye, that precisely of synthesis. No other sense can arrest space to coordinate all sensory stimulations in a permanent and coherent order. The position of the spectator contributed presumably in educating him to a specialized use of his eyes, that of centralized and sustained visual aiming, by opposition to peripheral vision which is more involved in a collaboration with the other senses to gather and process information. He would also benefit from the spontaneous development of his attention span and exercise growing powers of concentration, all things which are natural to those who can read, but remarkably difficult to achieve by those who can�t. The consequence of this education to visual synthesis was that the neutral space of the stage could be projected beyond the confines of the theater and that the new spatial concept or model could be applied to daily life. Hence the confusion among the Atomist philosophers between their notion of the geometrical Void and their experience of physical space which they soon posited as infinite in principle. It may be to the experience of theater that they owed the inspiration for a synthesis: � geometrical space itself may be compared to the outline of a country revealed for the first time to the coordinating geographer. It was not realized from the first that the figures employed in the scattered theorems demanded a space of infinite extent. If we suppose this discovery to date from about the middle of the fifth century, then, since the theorems seemed to be established beyond doubt, we can understand why the space they implied was accepted by the atomists as the framework of reality (�The Invention of Space,� in: Essays in Honour of Gilbert Murray, London, Allen & Unwin, 1936). Cornford makes no reference either to the senses or to theater in his essay, a fact which is all the more surprising that it is to Cornford that we owe the brilliant insight that Thucydides may have borrowed from the art of dramatic composition his principles for writing History. It is indeed possible that the principles of causality were applied to narratives on the stage before anywhere else if only because the space of the stage provided the dramatist with a unified and permanent field of references for the linear development of an action. 5
If all this is true then one can begin to understand why Aeschylus held such fascination for the evocation of territorial space in all his plays, as witness the lengthy recount of the travels of Xerxes� armies in the Persians, the foretelling of Io�s errance around the Aegean in Prometheus Bound, or the detailed itinerary of the �lampados to sumbolon�, the beacon message, a system of telecommunications invented by Queen Clytemnestra to obtain early distant warning signal about the war at Troy. Could this peculiar fondness for mental spatialization indicate that something new was in store for the public to experience, namely the emotion of geography? Io seems to erupt on the stage of Prometheus Bound for no other reason than to prompt the shackled god to give a public lecture on the geography of the Mediterranean world. But his is precisely what makes her appearance so relevant to the full didactic implications of the play: Io will be used to demonstrate a way to control space in the physical world. In stark contrast to Prometheus, Io is the figure of mobility; also a victim of physical and sensorial aggression, the cow-girl is driven to frenzy by the sting of the gadfly. The complementarity of Io to Prometheus must have been more evident on the stage than on paper. Io�s problem is to regain control of her motion in space. The technique proposed to that effect by the benefactor of the human race it to learn to chart one�s course in a space which can be made reliable and permanent by recourse to geography: �en eggraphou su mnemosin deltois phrenon�, says Prometheus: �Engrave it on the writing tablets of your mind� (line 789). I will resist the urge to strum the etymological chords on the word phrenon, only to point out that this very explicit metaphor again makes an essential correlation between the alphabet and the spatialized organization and classification of knowledge and experience. Theater and Consciousness: The Creatures of Prometheus So far, I have tried to suggest that the theatrical performance has loosened the spectator from the bonds of his sensory involvement with the environment by immobilizing him at a certain distance from the action, and by manipulating his emotions (which I deem to be the extensions of his sensory responses) so as to introduce a relative objectivity in his relationship with the action. The theatrical setting may also have reshaped the pattern of his perceptions in a sensorial synthesis governed by vision. These changes would lead in time to a new, more intimate development. Initially a process of exteriorization for a new way of being-in-the-world, the experience of theater would lead to a stage of internalization and assimilation of a mode of consciousness which was already available to the literate members of the community. Theater enabled spectators to subject the content of their experience to the analytic powers of the eye. Similes of social interaction were played out in front of them on a symbolical plane. This was a sort of education to the literate imagination. Images of experience were tried out before they were actually lived. The stage could be conceived as a rehearsal area for many prototypes of experiences, attitudes, emotions and mental processes which were incarnated by the actors or the chorus and would become the basis for the Western way of life. The stage and all its contents would eventually be interiorized individually by each spectator and become what we call
�consciousness�. Classical scholars like R.B. Onians and A.W.H. Adkins have established quite convincingly that the image of man such as it can be deduced from Homer and later texts of Archaic Greece does not present clear outlines or limitations, that perceptions are diffuse and that the seat of the decision-making processes is difficult to locate. Earlier texts have no word to designate the single body, and all sensations are deemed to occur somewhere in the midriff, from the liver to the upper thorax. Early medical texts reveal that up until the beginning of the 6th century, the brain, or �egkephalos,� was assumed to be a cooling system. Is it possible to claim that the use of the alphabet as it enabled the writer to control and appropriate language first anchored a sense of self among literate people? It does seem plausible in that the textual evidence from the 6th century onward traces an apparent parallel course between the developments of alphabetization and an irreversible redefinition of the body, the brain, and the �psuche� or soul. Lyric poetry registered the first traumas of selfhood and the god Eros, a later creation of Greek mythology, may have been invented only to account for the complications introduced by a personalized and rationalized version of libido. I realize that I am running a precipitous course through what constitutes today the concerns of an arduous and scattered scholarship, but assuming that this general direction is legitimate, then I would like to suggest that the role of the actor on the stage was primarily to project a detached, personalized and homogeneous image of the human body for the benefit of clarifying the public�s opinion about itself. One might object that nothing prevented the traditional bard to project just that image, but I would answer that only the distance afforded by the theatrical setting would make such a projection exemplary and thus successful. It is the separation of the function of the eye from the other senses which liberates the imagination at the theater and which sustains a durable image of personhood. Jacques Lacan never realized, in his famous essay on the mirror state in the formation of the self (Lacan, J. �Le Stade du miroir�, in Ecrits, Paris, Seuil, 1970), that he was being trapped into the literate bias of Western humanism. He failed to notice that the self he was referring to was exclusively the product of a visual selection among many other possible sensory relationships. Theater does indeed function in a complex way analogous to the mirror state (Shakespeare said it first) in that it presents the visual and kinetic aspects of the single body as autonomous from the environment, and then, by the way of analogy internalizes that image as a source of subjectivity. The limits of the individual can only be defined and remain stable inasmuch as his perceptions other than visual confirm his permanent separateness from the environment. Introjecting, by analogy, the situation of the actor on the stage, the spectator begins to conceive himself as contained in the larger, unlimited space of the world. This is the very nature of theatricality; it is a permanent and I believe exclusive feature of Western consciousness. Regarding itself as an object which can move freely upon and within a stable space, the image of the body is an intrasubjective representation which is programmed in real and symbolic actions, social attitudes, and memory processing. In other words a sort of imaginary �self� predominantly visual in its representations will begin to invade a perpetual montage of experiences played and replayed before and after the actual interaction with the environment and with other persons. Here again we meet Prometheus, �the one who thinks ahead� as opposed to his brother Epimetheus, �the one who thinks back.� Were it not for this brother the case made here for the meaning of those names might appear specious, but it seems evident that etymologically at least these words are not opposed but complementary. They could be
interpreted as �forward� and �backward� projections and they refer to techniques of processing information rather than to the common acceptance as �prudence� and �folly.� In Aeschylus� play the contrast between archaic man and the new technological creature of Prometheus is made in no uncertain terms: In the beginning, they saw without seeing, they heard without hearing and they spent their long life like shapes in a dream in confusion and without purpose (lines 447-449). Then follows the enumeration of the mechanemata and techne, the inventions and techniques which Prometheus taught mankind to help it help itself. Chief among them are of course the alphabet and the science of numbers. In effect what Prometheus claims to have done is to promote man from an undifferentiated to a highly defined state of being. Every technology that he describes brings a new definition to man�s relationship with the environment and a new pattern of activity, a new source of autonomy and control. Elsewhere, Prometheus says that he delivered men from the fear of death and that he �placed blind hopes within them� (line 252). It is difficult to determine exactly what is meant by tuphlas elpidas, the blind hopes in question, but whatever they were, they were placed in the people, en autois, which indicates that mankind has also been endowed with a semblance of interiority. Prometheus� own interiority is demonstated on the stage so to speak, as it is constituted around a secret which he holds against Zeus, his oppressor. Zeus is the total consciousness of the universe and he has access everywhere all the time except in one single place, the mind of Prometheus. In a way one can interpret the whole play as the dramatization of the various processes which make up a separate identity and define it. The figure of Prometheus and that of his creatures are developed under the eyes of the Athenian public as a physical condensation or an allegory of psychological differentiation. Theater and the Brain: Prometheus against Zeus It is worth while to note at this point that the first undeniable reference to a fixed, mental space in Greek epistemology is a mnemonic device invented by the poet Simonides of Keos sometime in the middle of the fifth century. This man who was well acquainted with the theater at Athens for having won there several literary competitions is credited with having taught a new art of memory founded on the commonplace, the topos koinos. Before it became an abstraction under the pen of Aristotle, the commonplace was actually a place, or rather an idea of an actual place. What Simonides recommended to his pupils was to imagine a room or some other clearly defined and permanent area and to set in its various parts the things and the notions that they wanted to remember in the order that they would require at the moment of recall. I would like to refer those who wish to pursue this investigation further to Frances Yates� remarkable book on The Art of Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966). They will find there what Cicero had to say about this invention and they may be just as surprised as I was to discover once again in Cicero�s comments a close association between writing, the primacy of vision and mental spatialization.
It seems obvious to me that Simonides lifted the idea of the commonplace straight out of the theater. He may have been the first Greek thinker to conceptualize the interiorization of a visual space patterned upon the model presented to all Athenians by the stage, and to use it as the framework of memory, reflection and mental information processing. His invention was recorded officially and revered for centuries, which means that at the time it was truly new yet welcomed in a highly fertile ground. What should be stressed here however is that Simonides had not only invented an art of memory, but also an art of forgetting. Indeed his commonplace was a neutral space capable of being filled or emptied at will just like a theater. The conclusion that I take the liberty to jump to is that in less than a hundred years the practice of a theater had introduced in Athens a fundamental change in the nature of one of the most essential psychological functions: from being a configuration of complex relationships involving the whole body, memory had become a container, a mental box to store and classify representations and abstractions. And this is only the surface of other deep, unsuspected psychological revolutions which fermented in a society in rapid transition. The combined effects of the alphabet and the theater isolated, redefined, verticalized, centralized and lateralized the human body. Of these effects, only the last one needs further exploration in this paper. The other are all quite evident in the upright figure of Prometheus, isolated at the confines of the universe, redefined by repression and the careful application of his bonds, verticalized by his position, but also by the predominance of his mental activities over any other, centralized around a secret which is equated with his identity and finally lateralized, but this is only an assumption, by his recourse to the alphabet. This is the most uncharted course of my research and I can only propose to state it without even pretending to substantiate it here. The reason I feel compelled to speak about it at all is that it ties in directly with the development of memory as a container and that it is so far the best explanation I have found for the mysterious nature of tragedy. Though it is not the time nor the place to do it here, it is relatively easy to establish that the practice of the phonetic alphabet could promote the neurological activities of the left hemisphere of the brain and consequently over a certain period of time engage a gradual shift of dominance from the right to the left. The study of Greek epigraphy shows in fact that such a shift may have occurred on a cultural scale in Athens first and in the rest of Greece later. The earliest samples of public inscriptions in Attica show that the orientation of the script followed the pattern provided by the Semitic model which the Greeks adopted and to which after several stages of development they added vowels. Those early inscriptions were generally written from right to left. Then, around the 6th century B.C., follows a period when a curious thing occurred: a new style of writing called the boustrophedon appeared and it was written both ways from top to bottom. It is interesting to note that all the letters were inverted regularly according to the direction of the line. This means that the eye could follow both orientations just as easily as a dyslexic child can read what a normal reader considers to be an inverted script. Towards the beginning of the 5th century another change marks the orientation of the script. It is called the stoichedon style and it posits that all letters must be equidistant and be patterned along a strict vertical line. This brings an end to the boustrophedon and forces the engraver to choose a single 9
direction of writing so that he can properly align all the vertical sections of the letters which have one. At the very end of the Vth century, in 403 to be precise, the reform and the homogenization of the many varieties of scripts lead to the adoption of the Ionian alphabet and to a definitive orientation of the writing from left to right. This is the only rule established by a bureaucracy that has not been changed or broken for 2500 years. Assuming that all that precedes is as clear-cut as I make it sound, then the various stages of development of Greek epigraphy which follow closely the times and the place of the theater in Greece may indicate that there was some correlation between this unique invention of Athens and an early shift of hemispheric dominance in the Athenian society at large. Though popular exploitation of the theme has somewhat tarnished its reputation I believe that among all things that have been said about the specialization of the hemispheres of the brain, one of the safest to work on is the hypothesis that left hemispheric dominance is one of the specific characteristics of the Western mind. Regarding this question prudent speculations from authorized quarters have ventured the hypothesis that centralized, analytical, classifying and causal processing of information also indicate a left hemispheric dominance. In other words, there is a possibility that what I call memory as container the development of which I attribute to the frequentation of theater, could be associated with this shift of dominance from the right to the left hemisphere. I cannot afford to quote here too much evidence for such a complex matter but here is an interesting statement made by Professor R. Fisher in his essay on the Cartography of Inner Space, presenting a theme which might once again bring together theater, the self and writing: The separateness of subject and object during the daily routine levels of arousal (in the Istate) has been elaborated in our customary, rational Aristotelian logic and language � a two-valued (either-or, true-or-false) logic that discounts the creative interaction between observer (subject) and observed (object). This separateness of subject and object � is a reflection of the relative independence of cortical interpretation from subcortical activity and reflects a predominantly rational left-hemispheric, analytical, time-bound, and objective ideation (in Hallucinations, Behavior, Experience and Theory, R.K. Siegel & L.J. West ed., Wiley, New York, 1975, pp. 220- 221). This process of separation between subject and object which Havelock calls the separation of the knower from the known, was initiated by the phonetic alphabet, and then considerably amplified and accelerated by the invention of the theater. The yearly weeklong attendance to stage performances also extended to the non-literate Athenians some of the effects of this metamorphosis. Because this new stance in relation to the total environment implied a radical change of attitudes and beliefs, it is quite probable that the metamorphosis did not strike everyone at the same time, in the same way, or to the same extent. Moreover, since this revolution affected the most intimate structures of the public psychological make-up, it seems reasonable to assume that the great majority of this public underwent several crises of perception which warranted some powerful ordering principle. This is where tragedy comes in. Theater initiates and intensifies a crisis of perceptions in its public. This in turn finds its expression in tragedy which always presents a conflict as its basic structure. This conflict is not primarily of a religious, moral or political nature, it is the result of the violent 10
juxtaposition of two unreconciled sensorial syntheses. It is the expression of the contradiction between a right and a left-hemispheric predominance. It is also its solution. The resistance opposed by Prometheus to Zeus is the basis of the tragedy of Aeschylus. There is not need to prove that. But this resistance is also the nucleus of the fundamental duality. In his resistance Prometheus builds his own identity as separate from the world and, at the same time, separates humanity from Zeus. It is this portion of his domain taken away from his all-encompassing power that holds the sovereign god in check. Conversely Prometheus is immobilized, a punishment which at first doesn�t seem altogether appropriate since the Titan did not use force but cunning in his rebellion. One would think that Zeus might have been wiser to make Prometheus mad, but that he cannot do because he has absolutely no control over that area of himself, Prometheus� mind, once this enclosure has come into existence. Ultimately there will be, a long time hence, a reconciliation between Zeus and Prometheus, that is a fruitful collaboration of the two hemispheres on a new basis. All the later trilogies of Aeschylus are tragedies of reconciliation. This is not so for the drama of Sophocles or Euripides. There are reasons for that too. Tragedy: From Prometheus to Oedipus Tragedy then arises from the need to resolve the problems generated by a state of latent collective schizophrenia. Its basic principle of operation is quite simple: tragedy is a system of communication which manipulates the sensory projections of its public in order to translate them into meaning. These sensory projections are what we call emotions and they extend all the way down to center stage where they are picked up and processed by dancing, music, singing, and speech. This energy is fed back to the public in the shape of meaning. Thus tragedy is like the alphabet which inspired it, a process of fragmentation which translates the senses into meaning and throws the knower out of the known. This process soon develops previously inexistent critical faculties which in turn promote the activities of the left hemisphere of the brain, which in turn facilitate the subject�s access to a visual synthesis of the environment, which in turn intensifies the separation between object and subject, and so on. James Joyce said somewhere that the mirror was the fastest system rotating without wheels. For the sake of purely literary studies, I have identified or invented four stages of metamorphosis which can illustrate in a rudimentary way the whole spectrum of tragedy�s appearance, development and extinction. Each stage underlines a specific pattern of identity build-up. The first stage is that of singularization: a critical element is discovered in a community and expelled or destroyed. The established order recovers its unquestioned domination. Such dramas tend to appear highly religious in nature because religion is the most comprehensive expression of a social order in archaic societies and it lends itself well to channel nonrational modes of perception. The anomic element appears to be the victim of a terrible misfortune, or some curse originating in some seemingly benign offense or mistake, a slip of attention or a moment of absence. The Original Sin or Laius� legitimate desire to have a child belong to that category. 11
Stage two is the formation of private identity: the anomic element is stronger, more durable, and it incarnates a new order which is validated by its confrontation with the establishment. It is the stage of compromise. The anomic element is granted the right to survive as long as it submits to the old regime. Most of Aeschylus and Pierre Corneille�s plays belong to this category, Aeschylus being by far the most daring of the two. Stage three is the favourite among literary critics, it is that of crisis. It is also the high point of the metamorphosis, the moment of arrest and tenuous equilibrium before the balance tips definitely to the other side. At this point the conflict cannot be divided into two opposing figures, it must be seated within the hero himself. The need for a chorus is markedly lessened and refined matters of personal psychology begin to surface. Madness strikes everywhere, which is in keeping with the fact that the public is entering the most intense phase of schizophrenia. Sophocles, Racine and Shakespeare have all cultivated this stage. Precisely because of the intensity of the crisis, it later appears as the most aesthetically pleasing stage. The last stage is that of resolution. The basic framework and structure of the tragic plot are undermined by rational argumentation. The old order is ridiculed or denied flatly, which are the only ways to deal with it since the authenticity of a perceptual synthesis can never be refuted by reason. Democracy and the human dimension are victoriously protected against the last shreds and superstitions of bygone rules. It is the era of Euripides and Voltaire. One exception to this casual survey is Euripides� Bacchae. The exact situation of that play deserves further study and has not yet been accounted for. Theater must then be considered not only as a form of art or entertainment but as one of the main bearings of the Western experience which, in my opinion has been wholly dependent upon the invention of the phonetic alphabet. If theater today is a dying genre, it is not because it cannot face the competition with other forms of popular entertainment, it is because radio, television and other oral media of communication are challenging literacy, which supports and nourishes theater. Simultaneously we are witnessing increasing threats to what I call the Western experience, namely the personal use of one�s body and mind in a space which is supposed to be infinite and a time which is supposed to be irreversible. The previous hypotheses on a theory of Greek theater have attempted to establish some of the structural interrelationships between phonetic literacy, the development of theater and Western man. Article copyright � 1981 by Derrick de Kerckhove Copyright � 2002, The McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology
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