Friday, February 03, 2006

On Slippery Slopes and Straw Men

Over on "Superfluities" (see blogroll), George Hunka responds to my post below entitled "On the Connection Between Sentiment and Idea" with his own, entitled "Taking a Breather." In it, he makes two points. I'd like to start with the second:

"Second, when you put together the theater ideas that "theatre is not harmless" and "the values we express, and the techniques we use to represent those values, affect people," you're at the top of a very slippery slope indeed. Nobody is suggesting censorship (and let me repeat that so there's no misreading: nobody is suggesting censorship), but those same thoughts in that combination have been used to rationalize that censorship, and so I'm deeply wary of them from whatever quarter they emerge. The Puritans thought the same thing when they saw the sensual, rich, violent, sexual theater of the Jacobean dramatists, and when they came to power in England in 1640, their first move was to close it down."

The slippery slope argument is slippery indeed. Here is an extended discussion (thanks to of this argument, which has reared its fallacious head more than once when the topic of artists' responsibility has been broached:

The slippery slope argument may or may not involve a fallacy... However, the slippery slope claim requires independent justification to connect the inevitability of B to an occurrence of A [emphasis mine]. Otherwise the slippery slope scheme merely serves as a device of sophistry.

Often proponents of a "slippery slope" contention propose a long series of intermediate events as the mechanism of connection leading from A to B. The "camel's nose" provides one example of this: once a camel has managed to place its nose within a tent, the rest of the camel will inevitably follow. In this sense the slippery slope resembles the
genetic fallacy, but in reverse.

As an example of how an appealing slippery slope argument can be unsound, suppose that whenever a tree falls down, it has a 95% chance of knocking over another tree. We might conclude that soon a great many trees would fall, but this is not the case. There is a 5% chance that no more trees will fall, a 4.75% chance that one more tree will fall, and so on. There is a 92.3% chance that 50 or less additional trees will fall. On average, another 14 trees will fall. In the absence of some momentum factor that makes later trees more likely to fall than earlier ones, this "domino effect" always terminates.

Arguers also often link the slippery slope fallacy to the
straw man fallacy in order to attack the initial position:

A has occurred (or will or might occur); therefore
B will inevitably happen. (slippery slope)
B is wrong; therefore
A is wrong. (straw man)

This form of argument often provides evaluative judgments on
social change: once an exception is made to some rule, nothing will hold back further, more egregious exceptions to that rule.
Note that these arguments may indeed have
validity, but they require some independent justification of the connection between their terms: otherwise the argument (as a logical tool) remains fallacious.

Now, George is very definite that he knows that I am not suggesting censorship. He's right, I'm not. However, what he does say is that arguments like mine -- that "theatre is not harmless" and "the values we express, and the techniques we use to represent those values, affect people" -- have been used in the past to censor or even shut down theatres, and therefore are likely to be used for that purpose again. We dare not risk it. Thus the slippery slope.

1. The consideration of moral effects can be used for censorship and the shutting down of theatres, therefore
2. Any acknowledgement of the moral effects of plays will inevitably lead to the shutting down of theatres. (slippery slope)
3. Censorship and shutting down theatres are wrong.
4. So, the consideration of moral effects is wrong.

The "independent justification" he offers is the example of the Puritans. Fair enough. The Puritans have oft been used as the monster under the bed for theatre people, because they combined both religious power and political power (the Freddy Kreuger and Chucky of the morality play we are writing) in squashing the theatre. First, a little historical correction. While it is true that the Puritans were no fans of theatre, an examination of the records that led to the closing of the theatres reveals that their reasons had less to do with the morality of the theatre per se, and more to do with the circumstances of their coming to power. The Puritans had deposed a hereditary king at a time when the divine right of kings, "a theory which argued that certain kings ruled because they were chosen by God to do so" (, was a widely and deeply-held belief. Being deeply religious people themselves, the Puritans were extremely nervous about the ramifications of their having deposed and beheaded Charles -- would God smite them for killing his chosen leader? They decided that it would look better to God if they didn't seem to be celebrating too much. So, among other things, they closed the theatres and prohibited other party-like activities as well, and, one would assume, attempted to look as serious and downcast as possible. Of course, my argument isn't that the Puritans were closet theatre lovers, since the fact that for the 18 years they were in power they never quite got around to opening the theatres again. However, they did license William Devenant to produce a series of plays with music which he turned into quite a lucrative undertaking. After the restoration of the crown in 1660, Devanant was given by the newly-restored king one of two only patents that were awarded for theatre production. So during the Puritan Era, there was only one theatre: William Devenant's. During the wild and decadent era of Charles II, when clearly morality was of no concern to anyone, there were a grand total of two theatres, one of which was run by -- you guessed it -- William Devenant. Thus, the consideration of morality, or the lack of consideration of it, didn't seem to have much effect on how much theatre was being done in England from 1642 until the 1700s.

All of which is to say that to be "deeply wary" of the discussion of the effects of art on humanity because the Puritans found theatre immoral and they censored the theatre is to over-react.

Furthermore, I am suggesting that artists themselves, not some outside agency, think about these things. Despite what libertarians say, with freedom comes responsibility -- it is part of being a member of a democratic society. If artists wish to have the benefit of freedom of speech (and, of course, we do), we should also demonstrate awareness of the responsibilities that go along with that freedom. One of those responsibilities is to respect the fact that theatre affects people and to behave accordingly.

George also writes: "I can't agree with the contention, "It is sentiment that leads to an idea, and those ideas and sentiments shape reality. The stories we tell about life shapes that life and the way we see and respond to it. The values we express, and the techniques we use to represent those values, affect people." For the playwrights we're discussing, the opposite is the case. To say otherwise would be to blame Guernica for the Spanish Civil War." This is a straw man argument: to "present a misrepresentation of the opponent's position, refute it, and pretend that the opponent's actual position has been refuted." ( again: Again, let's break down what he is saying my argument is:

1. There was a Spanish Civil War.
2. Picasso painted a picture attacking the Spanish Civil War.
3. Therefore, Picasso is responsible for the Spanish Civil War.

Of course, this is not what I have said at all. Here is my argument:

1. Picasso painted an anti-war picture about the Spanish Civil War.
2. When some people looked at it, they experienced anti-war feelings.
3. Therefore, the picture affected their feelings.

I'm not certain how this can be refuted. People experience emotions at plays -- isn't that true? Emotional experiences affect people -- isn't that true? Opinions can be affected by experiences -- isn't that true? Why should an artistic experience be any different than any other experience? I'm certain I could easily find examples of people who have said they were changed forever through contact with the arts -- are they lying?

Matthew Freeman (see blogroll), apparently concerned that George and I might bust a vein arguing, urges us to lighten up. Referring back to his admirable post about the artist as friend and doctor, he writes: "I tell the dirtiest jokes to my friends, not my professional colleagues and I certainly couldn't if I were talking to a group of students." Fair enough. But does he grab his friend "by the scruff of the neck and shake [him] until [he] gets the message"? Does he want to "shock and disturb" his friend, "force" his friend to see something ugly, and make sure that his friend's "personal space [is] invaded"? I doubt that Matt treats even his closest friend like that, and if he did, I doubt his friend would remain his friend for very long, because friendship is based on trust and that would have violated it.

Like George, Matt implies that I am suggesting that I, or someone else equally heinous, wants "to play Arbiter of Good Taste." This is certainly not the case -- again, this is to say that someone outside the process should enforce a set moral code. I am suggesting, however, that the artist seriously consider those issues part of his responsibility as an artist. Furthermore, I would suggest that accusing anyone who might even raise the possibility that the arts might affect the observer of being the John the Baptist of censorship is, itself, practicing censorship. Apparently to discuss this possibility places one at the top of a slippery slope that endangers the artistic community and threatens the installation of an Arbiter of Good Taste. Now that sounds to me like censorship.

But Matt (who for some reason sees this discussion being about dirty jokes ;-)) wants us to lighten up a bit. And I'll admit, seeing the dinosaurs fight can be a bit unnerving. But to say nothing in the face of things you find dangerous is to be complicit in the results. George and I are both fighting about something that stands at the center of our value systems, and we see the values we each espouse as being dangerous to what we care about most. I doubt if either of us thinks we're going to persuade the other to switch sides. But in the process of making our arguments, perhaps others might be prompted to consider their own ideas in this regard.

They might be affected by our conversation!

On the Connection Between Sentiment and Idea

In response to George Hunka's question, which has been echoed rather frequently in the blogosphere: "[J]ust why [does] Scott thinks artists should say anything at all?," I will offer a few quotations from critic Lionel Trilling:

"Goethe says somewhere that there is no such thing as a liberal idea, that there are only liberal sentiments. This is true. Yet it is also true that certain sentiments consort only with certain ideas and not with others. What is more, sentiments become ideas by a natural and imperceptible process. 'Our continued influxes of feeling,' said Wordsworth, 'are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of our past feelings.' And Charles Peguy said, "Tout commence en mystique et finit en politique' -- everything begins in sentiment and assumption and finds its issue in political action and institutions. The converse is also true: just as sentiments become ideas, ideas eventually establish themselves as sentiments.

If this is so, if between sentiments and ideas there is a natural connection so close as to amount to a kind of identity, then the connection between literature and politics will be seen as a very immediate one. And this will be especially true if we do not intend the narrow but the wide sense of the word politics. It is this wide sense of the word that is nowadays forced upon us, for nearly it is no longer possible to think of politics except as the politics of culture, the organization of human life toward some end or other, toward the modification of sentiments, which is to say the quality of human life."
The Liberal Imagination

"[M]y own interests lead me to see literary situations as cultural situations, and cultural situations as great elaborate fights about moral issues, and moral issues as having something to do with gratuitously chosen images of personal being, and images of personal being as having something to do with literary style..."

"The rest [of my students]...move through the terrors and mysteries of modern literature like so many Parsifals, asking no questions at the behest of wonder and fear. Or like so many seminarists who have been systematically instructed in the constitution of Hell and the ways to damnation. Or like so many readers, entertained by moral horror stories. I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: "interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men.'"

"...a power which will lead a young man to say what Goethe thought was the modern thing to say, "But is this really true -- is it true for me?"

"On the Teaching of Modern Literature" (in Beyond Culture)

With Trilling, I would say: theatre is not "harmless," as Allison Croggon says. It is sentiment that leads to an idea, and those ideas and sentiments shape reality. The stories we tell about life shapes that life and the way we see and respond to it. The values we express, and the techniques we use to represent those values, affect people. I have written extensively about this, especially in my post "Corrupting Young Minds." Computer programmers use the phrase "garbage in, garbage out" when referring to data crunching. The same could be said of the sentiments we ingest.

Joshua writes, "It's not the crudeness or the confrontational that matters, but what you accomplish with it that counts." In other words, the ends justifies the means. I disgree. In the 1960s, the Free Speech Movement promoted free speech by shouting down anyone who disagreed with them. This is a contradiction. You have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. If you dislike brutality, then using brutal means to make your point is a contradiction. Fighting fire with fire leads to more fire.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

More on In-Yer-Face Theatre

Several people have taken issue with my attack on the seeming lack of theatre history evidenced on the "In Yer Face Theatre" website section defining the style. And George is right: I have not read Sierz's book, nor do I find it listed as being in my library, nor in the library of the other two universities that serve as our interlibrary loan system. Nor has the book been reviewed in Theatre Journal, the leading academic journal in America. Apparently George assumes that I, "as a teacher of theater and drama at a major state university" should be aware of every book written on theatre. I would assure him that at my small (3000 student) public liberal arts college, where my teaching load is far higher than my colleagues' at the major research universities in the state, and where I also serve as the administrator of a general education program, time for reading every British tome that happens to be reviewed in New Theatre Quarterly is not possible.

Perhaps Sietz is aware of theatre history. Fine. Nevertheless, his definition doesn't exhibit much awareness, since it claims as unique things that have been done ad nauseum over the past century.

That question aside, I ask anyone who'd care to respond just what the value is of "In-Yer-Face Theatre"? What does it hope to accomplish? Why is such an approach effective in accomplishing it? How does it add to our understanding of the world in which we live? How does adding more violence, brutality, objectification, and crudity add to the art or to the world?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

And the Point Is...???

I recently visited a site that George has on his blogroll: In-Yer-Face Theatre. After clicking on "What Is In-Yer-Face Theatre," I found this explanation:

In-yer-face theatre is the kind of theatre which grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message. The phrase 'in-your-face' is defined by the New Oxford English Dictionary (1998) as something 'blatantly aggressive or provocative, impossible to ignore or avoid'. The Collins English Dictionary (1998) adds the adjective 'confrontational'.

'In-your-face' originated in American sports journalism during the mid-1970s as an exclamation of derision or contempt, and gradually seeped into more mainstream slang during the late 1980s and 1990s, meaning 'aggressive, provocative, brash'. It implies being forced to see something close up, having your personal space invaded. It suggests the crossing of normal boundaries. In short, it describes perfectly the kind of theatre that puts audiences in just such a situation.

In-yer-face theatre shocks audiences by the extremism of its language and images; unsettles them by its emotional frankness and disturbs them by its acute questioning of moral norms. It not only sums up the zeitgeist, but criticises it as well. Most in-yer-face plays are not interested in showing events in a detached way and allowing audiences to speculate about them; instead, they are experiential - they want audiences to feel the extreme emotions that are being shown on stage. In-yer-face theatre is experiential theatre.

WHY? My basic argument is really simple: in-yer-face theatre is contemporary theatre. What was distinctly new about 1990s drama, what could not have been written 20 years earlier, is the type of in-yer-face play which shocked and disturbed audiences, creating a new aesthetic sensibility. In other words, in-yer-face theatre is to the 1990s what absurdism was to the 1950s, or what kitchen-sink drama was to the Macmillan years.

HOW? How can you tell if a play is in-yer-face? Well, it really isn't difficult: the language is filthy, there's nudity, people have sex in front of you, violence breaks out, one character humiliates another, taboos are broken, unmentionable subjects are broached, conventional dramatic structures are subverted. At its best, this kind of theatre is so powerful, so visceral, that it forces you to react - either you want to get on stage and stop what's happening or you decide it's the best thing you've ever seen and you long to come back the next night. As indeed you should.

First of all, this manifesto is an excellent argument for the need for more theatre history in our undergraduate curriculum. While "In-Yer-Face Theatre" may, indeed, be what sets the 90s off from other drama, it is the 1890s not the 1990s. Or at least the early 1900s. Has the author every heard of Artaud? Jarry? The Dadaists and the Surrealists? Wedekind? Give me a break. The only thing that makes "In-Yer-Face Theatre" different is that our society allows "artists" to get away with a helluva lot more now. Although Wedekind, in Spring's Awakening (written in 1891) did have a group of young boys performing a circle jerk...

Now, over the months I have been blogging, when I have written about artists who have a hostile attitude toward the audience, I have been poo-pooed. Am I wrong, or is this not a pretty damn good example? If not, then we have very different definitions of "hostile."

My question is: is this really an advance? Aside from allowing young theatre artists the thrill of yelling "fuck" in a crowded theatre, does this do anything other than simply move our society even further toward the crassness, brutality, crudity, inarticulateness, objectification, and banality that permeates almost every inch of our world already?

Perhaps I am slipping into the role reserved for middle-aged men of being outraged by the young (I can hear in my mind's ear the voices of critics condemning the "open sewer" of Ibsen's Ghosts a century ago). If so, then I willingly assume the role, since it provides young people with something solid to push against. To that end, let me say that this idea of theatre seems adolescent to me, like it was created by angry teenagers who broke away from Grand Theft Auto and said, "Hey, let's do a show! My Dad's got a dildo!"

My reaction to In-Yer-Face Theatre is to shout "Get Outa My Fucking Face Until You Have Something Intelligent to Say, Punk!" But then, that's just me... Curmudgeonly. Cranky. Valuing intelligence... Man, talk about old-fashioned.

Practice Makes...

I'm back! On Monday, I moved into my new office in the brand new building on campus. It is a wonderful space, and the first time in my academic career (now 15 years old) that I have had a window. Actually, two! This morning, I pulled my armchair up to the window, and with the morning sun streaming over my shoulder I read Corneille's The Cid while Mozart's 40th Symphony playing on the CD player. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. All I needed was a pipe, and the whole Oxfordian image would have been complete...

But -- and this was a HUGE but -- there was no internet service in the building until this morning. At first, I was OK. But soon, I found my hands were shaking, and I kept clicking on the Internet Explorer icon willing it to connect. I KNEW that there were discussion going on here and across the theatre blogosphere, and I was missing them!!! Well, this morning just as I headed to class, the service was restored. I nearly wept.

Anyway, I am still unpacking while I wait for my third bookcase to arrive. In the meantime, I offer a snippet of an email I received from a good friend of mine who is one of the finest acting teachers I have ever known. He has trained many actors who went on to become well-respected stars of theatre and film. In response to my post about thinking and doing, he wrote:

Technique: Often I find myself invoking the late Ralph Lane who proclaimed the aphorism, "practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent." This, oftener than we realize, should be invoked in regard to acting, directing, drawing and painting, writing and reading, and a batch of other skills. Among the people who learn to do by doing, there are those who learn permanently to do badly, and there are those who "do" mindfully (truly exploring and questioning cause and effect) and learn profoundly from the doing.

When learning the process or practice of technique, it is profoundly useful to have a teacher who provides extremely useful feedback about her/his observations of one’s technique. I don’t have much certainty about what makes the best learners and what makes the best teachers. Some learners need encouragement and specific description of what’s working and what’s not working. Some need merely to get the kind of feedback Johnny Wooden (great UCLA coach who won by far more NCAA championships than any other); Australians who observed his teaching & coaching technique said he pursued the following practice technique: Explain the drill (how & why it’s to be done); when a mistake is made, blow the whistle, step in, show how the drill’s to be done, how it was done (mistakenly), and again show how it’s to be done(with no personal comments either derogatory or encouraging). As a sidelight only: players report that the winningest coach in history never even mentioned winning; it was assumed that you wanted to win.

The message I take away: As a teacher, be sure that the principles I teach are ones that I’m confident are universal or at least nearly universal. Be certain that I’m teaching the principles and not merely personalizing the learner’s response to my urgings. When I see the learner applying these principles, I need to be certain I watch for the principles and not merely whether the overall project is successful in my eyes or the eyes of others.

When somebody who really, really knows about something lays it out like my friend did above, I find myself thinking, "Why couldn't I have put it that way?" Wisdom developed over years. I don't listen enough.

Thanks for the comments.

Listen, I'm not saying people shouldn't "do" theatre until they have been trained -- hell, I directed my first play when I was 17, and ran my own summer theatre (doing plays by Miller, Odets, and Gilroy) when I was 18. I learned a lot about directing and producing, and I wouldn't trade that experience. But I also became much more confident about my abilities than I deserved. It wasn't until ten years later, when I produced and directed a production of Ibsen's Master Builder at the grand old age of 28, and I crashed into Ibsen's incredible challenges, and was gently trashed in the newspapers that I realized that maybe I didn't know eveything I needed to know. I went off to grad school -- where I found they wanted me to keep practicing day and night.

Balance practice and thought, and make both rigorous and broad. And make sure that a John Wooden-substitute is in the vicinity to blow the whistle and demonstrate how it is to be done. That's the ticket!

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...