Practicing Disappearance: A Postmodern Methodology
Practicing Disappearance: A Postmodern Methodology
In this essay, Neil Vallelly answers the question “What is postmodernism?” by demonstrating how disappearance, as envisaged by Jean Baudrillard, “lies at the heart of postmodern theory.” Vallelly also argues for the critical value of postmodernism’s traces in contemporary literature and suggests the adoption of a “methodology that embraces disappearance.”
Things live only on the basis of their disappearance, and, if one wishes to interpret them with entire lucidity, one must do so as a function of their disappearance. (Baudrillard, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? 31)
The use of the past tense in the central theme of this issue - “what in the world was postmodernism?” - implies that postmodernism has disappeared from the landscape of contemporary literary, critical, artistic, and philosophical practice. While previous articles in this collection chronicle the emergence of postmodernism and how it came to disappear, this article asks what we can learn from its disappearance. The answer lies not simply in the traces of postmodernism that remain in contemporary literature, art, and philosophy, but also, rather neatly, in the idea of disappearance itself. Disappearance lies, both directly and indirectly, at the heart of postmodern theory. The rejection of metanarratives, instigated by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition (1979), is essentially an attempt to fight for the things left behind by the totalizing force of modernity. The metanarratives of history, for example, enable some events to reappear in contemporary depictions, while other past events disappear from the narrative altogether. Likewise, scientific metanarratives construct a world that is entirely dependent on the ability of appearances to reveal truths or essences about that world. Postmodernism, by rejecting dualisms, hierarchies, categories, and objectification, and by placing faith in processes, contingency, indeterminacy, and chiasms, puts forward a theoretical model that gives equal weight to disappearances and appearances. This is to say that we can answer “what in the world was postmodernism?” through practicing the disappearance that lies at its heart.
By “appearances,” I refer to the things that reveal themselves in perception. These observable objects or images present the world to us in neat shapes, allowing us to categorize and hierarchize their significances. Yet every appearance carries the inevitability of its disappearance and as such, disappearance must be present in the becoming of an appearance. In this article, I put forward a methodology that places the disappearance of perceptual objects at the centre of analysis. Doing so, I suggest, can reveal meanings not immediately apparent in the becoming of an appearance. Held deep within disappearances are traces of the original intensity of appearances. Traces are what remain from a world that has disappeared and since moved on to other things—they are the residual sites of disappearance. Traces reside in a variety of places—in events, things, bodies, temporality, space—and they manifest through the present without being present. Traces, in this sense, refer beyond themselves to a point in time that has since disappeared and it this beyondness that adds a crucial dimension to the world of appearances.
Crucially, appearance and disappearance bleed into one another in a way that is necessarily chiastic. It is impossible to say exactly when something appears or disappears, or when something is appearing or disappearing. We notice appearances and disappearances, but embedded within these moments of consciousness are the becomings of appearances and disappearances. Undoubtedly, there is a turn in which an appearance starts to disappear, but this turn is not a rupture, a violent displacement of appearance by its antithesis. My point here is that appearance does not come before disappearance; rather, they emerge together but at contrasting speeds, as it were. What eventually occurs is a metamorphosis where an appearance reaches its zenith in perceptual consciousness only to slow, at which point disappearance accelerates. But in the same way that disappearance is present in the becoming of an appearance, disappearance never loses sight of its appearance.
The question for us here is to ask how the traces of appearances that are held in disappearances are of any methodological, critical, creative, or philosophical benefit. This is where I turn to postmodernism, and the work of Jean Baudrillard in particular. Although theorists aligned with postmodernism, such as Lyotard, Fredric Jameson, and Paul Virilio, touch on the importance of disappearance for art, history, politics, and aesthetics, it is in the work of Baudrillard that a theory of disappearance comes to fruition. In The Perfect Crime he writes:
What we have forgotten in modernity, by dint of constantly accumulating, adding, going for more, is that force comes from subtractions, power from absence. Because we are no longer capable of coping with the symbolic mastery of absence, we are immersed in the opposite illusion, the disenchanted illusion of the proliferation of screens and images. (4)
Modernity’s inability to deal with absence stems from the negation of disappearance through the accumulation of knowledge, data, records, and the like. Consequently, the fields of anthropology, sociology, politics, and even philosophy, have turned towards a methodology entrenched in accumulation of appearances. Perceptual experience and the objects of perception have become one and the same; people have been reduced to data-emitting objects; social and cultural worlds are now understood through statistical models; and politics has become a science. In response, I argue that we can reinvigorate these fields, and the methodologies employed within them, by introducing the notion of disappearance into critical practice. I turn, therefore, to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and Tim Ingold’s anthropology, alongside Baudrillard’s theory of disappearance, to set up a methodology that places its faith in disappearance. I then move on to demonstrate how we can put this methodology into practice in the context of research into theatrical production and audience reception. To conclude, I return to postmodernism and reflect on the instructive traces that its disappearance has left for contemporary critical and methodological practices.
The Vitality of Disappearance
It seems paradoxical to attach vitality to disappearance, but this is precisely what Baudrillard proposes in his short book, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?:
Apart from all the phantasies we maintain around it - and in the entirely justified hope of seeing a certain number of things disappear once and for all - we must give disappearance back its prestige or, quite simply, its power, its impact. We must reinvest it not as a final but as an immanent dimension - I would even say as a vital dimension of existence. (31)
“Vital,” here, not only accentuates the ontological fundamentality of disappearance, it also evokes the sense of aliveness and dynamism attached to disappearance. For it would be a mistake to align disappearance with death or non-being. Rather, disappearance lives in the presence of perception, things, and being in general; it is a side-effect of time - not measurable time, but duration, in a Bergsonian sense. “Duration,” writes Henri Bergson, “is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances” (4). To say that things disappear is not to say that they evaporate entirely from a world that has moved on to other things. Rather, in order for lives to forge ahead, things must disappear. But far from vanishing from the present, traces of these disappearances remain in the persons, cultures, and things that “gnaw” into present and future events. It is for this reason that disappearance is “vital,” in all senses of the word, because traces of things that have disappeared live on through the swell of the future.
To understand the vitality of disappearance we should turn to things themselves, to follow the phenomenological axiom. However, the turn towards things must be handled delicately. “We see things themselves, the world is what we see,” Merleau-Ponty reminds us (The Visible and Invisible 3). Yet the self-evident nature of this assertion comes with an important caveat: “if we ask ourselves what is this we, what seeing is, and what thing or world is, we enter into a labyrinth of difficulties and contradictions” (ibid, 3; original emphasis). In short, Merleau-Ponty warns us that appearances can be deceiving and that to put our faith in the objects of perception is to commit what he describes elsewhere as “the experience error” by which “[w]e make perception out of things perceived” (Phenomenology of Perception 5). The burgeoning fields of material culture and object-orientated ontology could benefit from Merleau-Ponty’s skepticism towards things. While the emergence of these fields can be viewed as an attempt to make up for lost time on the part of nonhuman things, which have long been subordinate in the study of human existence, their turn towards things tips the balance between subject and object too far in the direction of the latter. In his most recent book, The Life of Lines, Ingold suggests that the encroachment of material culture theory and object-oriented ontology into philosophical and anthropological practice “presents us with a ghost of a world in which all that has once lived, breathed or moved has receded deep into itself, collapsed into innumerable, jagged and impervious pieces” (16). In such a world there is little room for the vitality of disappearance as things must remain in place in order for social, cultural, and political worlds to exist: if things disappear then so does life itself. But as Ingold reminds us, “[t]he thing about things, is that they occur […]. This is to admit them into the world not as nouns but as verbs, as goings-on” (16). Nouns are fixed in space, allowing us to study them from a variety of angles as if time has been paused. But any meaning we may glean from things that are “going-on” dissolves at the point of interpretation. “The world we inhabit,” writes Ingold, “far from having crystallised into fixed and final forms, is a world of becoming, of fluxes and flows” (80). In short, the world we inhabit is always appearing and disappearing and the nature of this chiasm allows life to forge ahead.
In a previous article, Ingold records (with some dismay) the infiltration of ethnography in the field of anthropology. The need for ethnography, Ingold contends, springs from the unnecessary separation of participation and observation in contemporary anthropological practice. Many anthropologists, he claims, ask “how can the engagement of participation possibly be combined with the detachment of observation?” (“Enough about Ethnography” 387). Ingold suggests that such a question emerges from the infiltration of anthropology by what he calls the “protocols of normal science”:
These questions, however, are founded upon a certain understanding of immanence and transcendence, deeply rooted in the protocols of normal science, according to which human existence is constitutionally split between being in the world and knowing about it. The alleged contradiction between participation and observation is no more than a corollary of this split. As human beings, it seems, we can aspire to truth about the world only by way of an emancipation that takes us from it and leaves us strangers to ourselves. (“Enough about Ethnography” 387)
Ingold notes that the study of human lives is increasingly performed from the outside looking in, dependent on the “excision of knowing from being” (“Enough about Ethnography” 387). “In effect,” Ingold concludes, “to cast encounters as ethnographic is to consign the incipient - the about to-happen in unfolding relationships - to the temporal past of the already over. It is as though, on meeting others face-to-face, one’s back was already turned to them” (“Enough about Ethnography” 386). There is a pervasive sense in contemporary critical practice that we, as theorists, can extricate ourselves from the world that we critique, that the world to which we turn our back will be there again when we turn around. The evolution of recording equipment perpetuates this myth because it creates the illusion of presence in a past event. Recording equipment can be useful to a theorist, as I will discuss in due course, but only if this illusion of presence is embraced as a function of the past event’s disappearance rather than the reappearance of the things that make up that event.
Baudrillard’s discussion of disappearance acts as a particularly helpful reminder to any anthropologist that appearances are not all that exist in the world we inhabit. He tells us that “[t]here are those who play on their disappearance, make use of it as a living form, exploit it by excess, and there are those who are in a state of disappearance and who survive by default” (Already Disappeared 22). It seems to me that the anthropologist, in Ingold’s conception, plays on disappearance as a living form, whereas the data-collecting ethnographer attempts to survive disappearance by retrospectively documenting the practices of human beings. “Ethnography is not a prelude to anthropology,” argues Ingold, “as fieldwork to writing up. If anything, it is the other way around. The ethnographer writes up; the anthropologist - a correspondent observer at large - does his or her thinking in the world” (“Enough about Ethnography” 391). In this sense, participation breeds observation. By doing our thinking in the world, we open ourselves up to the continual fluctuations of the environments we inhabit. Things may disappear without our documentation, but they leave traces that can provide extremely effective pieces of analysis. In order to interpret human lives with “entire lucidity” we must make disappearance a vital aspect of critical practice, as Baudrillard suggests. To do so means that the theorist must embrace the disappearance of the lives and events that he or she observes. The theorist’s job, therefore, is “to show how things become things, how the world becomes world” (Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind” 181).
In many ways, Ingold follows Merleau-Ponty, who, in the preface to Phenomenology of Perception, argues that “our existence is too tightly held in the world to be able to know itself as such at the moment of its involvement” (xvi). The kind of ethnography that Ingold describes is a phenomenological impossibility because, as Merleau-Ponty points out, knowing and being can never be separated in any real sense. Baudrillard argues something similar when he writes that “[b]y the very fact of existing, we are from the beginning in an impossible anthropological situation. We can nowhere test out our existence or its authenticity. Existence, being and the real are, strictly speaking, impossible” (Perfect Crime 40). Both Merleau-Ponty and Ingold, in response to this “impossible anthropological situation,” propose that in order to know anything about the world we must be open to it, but in doing so, knowledge becomes a subsidiary of being. And, since it is impossible for us to document the entirety of the experience of being-in-the-world, it is similarly inconceivable to record the entirety of what we know about the world. Something of an event or a thing always escapes us as we open ourselves to the world we inhabit, and it is perhaps this something that is most beneficial to any theorist.
Merleau-Ponty, like Ingold, bemoans the tendency of Western philosophy to separate lived experience from knowledge of the world. In The Visible and Invisible, Merleau-Ponty describes this tendency as “the philosophy of the negative” in which the philosopher “speaks as distinct from what he speaks of.” He continues, “it [the philosophy of the negative] described our factual situation with more penetration than had ever before been done - and yet one retains the impression that this situation is one that is being surveyed from above, and indeed it is” (87). The separation between the field of immersion and knowledge of it - the view from above - creates a binary between appearance and disappearance. The world is fixed at the zenith of appearance, and the acceleration of disappearance is delayed in an attempt to gain meaning. There is thus a rupture in the passing of the world, a disentangling of appearance and disappearance, into which the theorist places him or herself. But in a world of becoming, a world in which things appear and disappear, “there is no separating the doer from the deed or the thinker from the thought. Agency has yet to fall out from action, and intentionality from consciousness” (Ingold, Life of Lines 124). Both Ingold and Merleau-Ponty propose that the practice of anthropology and philosophy must resist the desire to rupture - they must let things disappear.
It is one thing to say that we must interpret things “as a function of their disappearance,” and it is another to put it into critical practice. For what is left for a theorist who embraces disappearance? Baudrillard tells us that “nothing just vanishes; of everything that disappears there remain traces” (Already Disappeared 25). This is a common mentality for anthropologists, as Michael Jackson writes in Lifeworlds (2013), “that which has been […] always leaves a trace” (xv). But how do we know that everything that disappears leaves a trace? On the one hand, embracing disappearance can be problematic because if a thing fails to leave a trace then we risk missing out on its significance altogether. On the other hand, if we deny a thing’s disappearance then can we come to any real critique of that thing in the first place?
In order to answer these questions, we must first of all understand the critical value of traces. Jacques Derrida explored the idea of traces as a way of overcoming the structuralist approach to language. For Derrida, “the trace is not a presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself” (156). If traces are the absence of real presence, as Derrida suggests, then it is easy to see why most contemporary critiques of human practices favor the approach in which things are recorded as and when they occur. Yet Baudrillard contends that “there is something obscene about the instant replication of an event, act or speech and their immediate transcription, for some degree of suspense is essential to thought and speech” (Perfect Crime 33). This instant replication risks a very real absence of presence in that the theorist is absent from events as they occur because he or she is in the process of observation. “Humans, wherever and however they live,” writes Ingold, “are always humaning, creating themselves as they go along. They are, in a sense, the scriptwriters or novelists of their own lives. And as every novelist knows, characters have a way of outrunning their author’s capacity to write them down” (Life of Lines 140). Events are always escaping our capacity to instantly record them because we cannot write at the speed of light or sound; we cannot hear ourselves thinking or see ourselves acting in the world. We are, as it were, perpetually playing catch up. Attempts to be both in an event and at the same time observe that event as a casual outsider require the theorist to be in two places at once. This impossibility gives the resulting analysis the illusion of presence, but it is a ghostlike presence, one where the theorist is not implicated in the event he or she is critiquing. What remains, therefore, is an inventory of the people and things who made up the event and a retrospective description of what happened, in which the theorist leaves no trace of his or her involvement in the event - it is as if he or she were never there.
It is only through participation that traces of an event remain, and held within these traces are a semblance of the original intensity of an event, an intensity that is yet to be named and categorized. This desire to name and categorize, according to Baudrillard, threatens to shut down the reality of things. “By representing things to ourselves,” he writes, “by naming them and conceptualizing them, human beings call them into existence and at the same time hasten their doom, subtly detach them from their brute reality” (Already Disappeared 11-12). Of course, if we are to critique anything then we have to name and conceptualize things at some point. But perhaps the things we critique require a gestation period during which time their “brute reality” takes on significances that were not immediately apparent during the event. “There is no point identifying the world,” Baudrillard contends, “[t]hings have to be grasped in their sleep, or in any circumstance where they are absent from themselves” (Perfect Crime 6). Perhaps, then, instead of negating disappearance at the point of appearance (by instantly naming things) we could prolong the process of disappearance. Doing so requires that we trust in the ability of traces to accurately represent an event or thing, but since the alternative method leaves the theorist nowhere (or in two places at once) then perhaps trusting traces may leave us somewhere.
My point here is that our immediate experience of things is not necessarily the most accurate. Rather, the significance of these things exists beyond our immediate experience, in the realm of traces. “Critical thought has broken,” writes Merleau-Ponty, “with the naïve evidence of things, and when it affirms, it is because it no longer finds any means of denial” (“Unpublished Text” 3; original emphasis). It seems, therefore, that disappearance has been jettisoned in favor of an epistemology of appearances, that since things outwardly display their significance then there is little need to question what lies beyond these displays. In order to counteract this turn towards things, Baudrillard argues that we must resist the temptation to submit to the world of appearances. “The real is something we must not consent to,” he demands; “[i]t has been given to us as simulacrum, and the worst thing is to believe in it for want of anything else” (Perfect Crime 12). If we cannot believe in the reality of appearances, then we must put our faith in traces. But what can traces tell us about the world that appearances cannot?
Traces can be sounds, smells, words, objects, anything that recalls a certain way of being in a particular moment of time. The body plays a fundamental part in the emergence of traces as past events are, to borrow philosopher Dylan Trigg’s words, “sliced in the pockets of our flesh” (118). In essence, the body carries traces of previous events in movements and perception. Traces are thus latent intensities, waiting to be provoked in some shape or form. This is where recording equipment can be particularly useful for a theorist. If a theorist puts his or her faith in appearances, then reading through notes, listening to an interview, or watching a video recording can only help affirm or refute certain presuppositions made during the original event. The recording equipment enables him or her to see and/or hear the same things again. The theorist of appearances, therefore, goes into a recording of an event searching for things that have long since disappeared. Yet if a theorist embraces disappearance and puts his or her faith in traces, then technology can bring about the simulacrum of presence that Derrida refers to. Without a concrete idea of what things were significant during a past event (because these things were not recorded as and when they occurred) a theorist can return to a recording of that event with a relatively open mind. Of course, the theorist will bring his or her own prejudices to that recording but much in the same way that he or she brought these things to the original event. The theorist never experiences the recording as he or she experienced the original event, but he or she can engender a host of thoughts and feelings that can restore an aspect of being-in-the-world at the time of the original event. These traces of a past presence can energize his or her critique of the event in a way that is both analytical and personal - the critique retains traces of his or her involvement in the original event.
Participant Observation or Observant Participation
I have outlined the ways in which observable events, and the things and people of which they consist, disappear, but the question still remains of how we incorporate this fact into critical practice. One way to do so is to consider the practice of participant observation, which is often a key part of anthropological and ethnographic practice. A methodology that embraces disappearance approaches participant observation in a different way to the prevalent forms of ethnographic or anthropological method that Ingold describes above. Instead of viewing participants as objects that emit data that can be retrospectively pieced together, a theorist who practices disappearance joins with participants in order to observe. “To practice participant observation,” argues Ingold, “is to join in correspondence with those with whom we learn or among whom we study, in a movement that goes forward rather than back in time” (“Enough about Ethnography” 390). What occurs in true participant observation is not the chronicling of past events from the point of view of a former observer, but the imagining of a future in which the past event plays it part. Ingold proposes that participant observation “is like pushing the boat out into an as yet unformed world - a world in which things are not ready made but always incipient, on the cusp of continual emergence” (“Enough about Ethnography” 389). In this sense, participant observation resists the immediate acquisition of knowledge because when the theorist attempts to grab the world at its point of emergence he or she finds that it always slips through his or her fingers - the world refuses to be fixed. Ingold argues that “to observe is not to objectify; it is to attend to persons and things, to learn from them, and to follow in precept and practice” (Life of Lines 157). In essence, participant observation is also observant participation; it is to pay equal attention to participation and observation, not as two separate endeavors, but as a single practice of attentiveness; it is to follow, without resistance, the natural course of events, allowing things to disappear in the knowledge that this disappearance is “vital,” to echo Baudrillard. Through practicing disappearance, we learn not what things were in the past but what the traces of past events mean for us now and in the future.
Social anthropologist Griet Scheldeman provides an example of a participant observation that attends to, rather than documents, events. She was part of a large research project that studied walking practices in various English cities which aimed to collect what it termed “data” through extensive “ethnographic interviews.” During this project, however, Scheldeman noted that using what people said about walking in order to construct knowledge about movement and actions “felt like a serious reduction” (132). She writes:
After a year of fieldwork my initial hunger for phenomenological exploration had all but died a silent death. I had walked with a variety of people, yet this had not given me any particular awareness. Here is why: instead of walking with people, I had been talking with them as we walked. The physical act of walking had blended into the background as my companions talked about how they moved around … and about the terrains they moved through. (133; original emphasis)
Instead of doing her “thinking in the world,” Scheldeman found herself removed from the things that she critiqued. What remained in her retrospective analysis was an absence of presence, an absence that a methodology based in appearances tends to negate. She diligently recorded events as they occurred, collected data from which particular conclusions could be made, and yet she was no closer to understanding what walking meant to the people she observed. In this sense, her analysis left no trace of her participants’ active involvement in the original event.
Scheldeman’s approach changed when she went for a walk with the elderly father of one of her close friends. Her elderly walking partner (William) had warned her in advance that he walked slowly, but she did not truly understand the meaning of this phrase until she walked with him. “Beyond merely talking or thinking with William,” writes Scheldeman, “I needed to move with him if I was to get even the sliver of an understanding of what it means to him to walk slowly. In the process I also became aware of my own movement, by recognising how it differs to his” (140). Although William had told her that he walked slowly, she could only tentatively come to understand this statement by walking with him. Words could only tell her so much, and although the words of the various participants she interviewed during the research project yielded important insights into what people thought about walking, these words could not tell her or anyone else what the physical act of walking was like for these participants. It was by attending to William’s movements that Scheldeman came to form her analysis.
The feeling of presence of Scheldeman’s encounter with William disappeared, but the traces of presence that remained provided her with a more phenomenologically accurate analysis than she had gained through her ethnographic interview. Scheldeman was irrevocably involved in the encounter with William and as such, the meaning of her involvement was not immediately apparent. It was not until the event was in the process of disappearing that Scheldeman came to understand the significance her encounter with William. But in order to access this significance, Scheldeman had to wait. Patience is a key part of critical practice, Ingold argues, because the theorist is “[c]ommanded not by the given but by what is on the way to being given.” He continues, “[i]ndeed, waiting upon things is precisely what it means to attend to them” (“Enough about Ethnography” 389; original emphasis). Participant observation requires an attention span that lasts longer than the appearance of a thing. Scheldeman’s analysis of her encounter with William resisted the temptation to instantly name and categorize, as she had done with her ethnographic interviews. If she had done so, she would have classified the event as frustrating and anxiety-provoking. But by letting the original presence of the event disappear, she was able to form conclusions that may not have been immediately apparent during the event. The frustration she originally felt as a result of the slowness of her walking partner turned into empathy; her understanding of what it meant to walk slowly changed in relation to her walking partner. In short, Scheldeman participated with William in the practice of walking, and her subsequent observations were shaped by the traces of this participation that remained with her after the event.
Practicing Disappearance at Shakespeare’s Globe
In July 2014, I started a seven-month research stay at Shakespeare’s Globe on London’s South Bank. My research focused on the ways in which people experienced light in the 16th and 17th century and to what extent these experiences impacted upon visual perception in the theaters of the period. At Shakespeare’s Globe, I explored how modern reconstructions of these theaters deal with the disparity between early modern and contemporary experiences of light, particularly in the new candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (SWP) that opened in January 2014. The central point of my research was to argue that visual perception is an experience of being-in-light, which includes the respective histories of inhabiting light that each visual experience is built upon. Ultimately, I argued that we cannot simply recreate the material conditions of 16th- and 17th-century theater lighting in order to recreate the visual experiences of audiences in the period. Rather, these visual experiences were built on a history of being-in-light that differs vastly to ways in which twenty-first century audiences inhabit light on a daily basis. At Shakespeare’s Globe, I was particularly interested in how audiences experienced the candlelight in the SWP.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in London
In the first few months of my stay at Shakespeare’s Globe, I rarely went anywhere on the complex without my notebook. In rehearsals, during shows, or observing backstage practices, I furiously scribbled down everything that I observed, scared that I might forget these experiences in the near future. I attempted to negate the disappearance of these experiences by recording every action that was on the brink of disappearing. I found, however, that I was missing a lot. When I sat in the audience, for example, with my notebook open and pen ready to go, I was not being an audience member myself, but observing other people being audience members. In such an approach, Ingold suggests, “the priority shifts from engagement to reportage, from correspondence to description, from the co-imagining of possible futures to the characterization of what is already past. It is, as it were, to look through the wrong end of the telescope” (“Enough about Ethnography” 392). I was in a similar position to Scheldeman before her walk with William: my initial intentions of a phenomenological investigation had turned into a philosophy of disengagement, a gradual distancing from the people and things that were the focus of my research.
I decided to abandon my notebook in the second half of my research stay after returning to the works of Merleau-Ponty, Ingold, and Baudrillard. I immersed myself in events in an attempt to know from the inside out. I found this very difficult to begin with. I continually felt the specter of disappearance, fearing that events were somehow slipping through my fingers without documentation. Yet I soon came to realize, like Scheldeman, that I could better understand what it meant to be-in-light as an audience member by actually being-in-light with audience members. What was initially a distant relationship to events, by way of observation from the outside in, became a lived relation with these events and people from the inside out. Although the experiences I had while participating disappeared, the traces that remained were extremely beneficial to my research.
During the first part of my research stay, for instance, I would record every lighting practice in the SWP, with the raising and lowering of the six stage chandeliers the most significant of these practices. I recorded when they were moved, by how far, and to what extent I felt these movements affected the overall lighting of the stage. I was then able to cross-reference each instance across performances. Although these records were useful for developing patterns of lighting practices, none of this information told me about the actual embodied experience of light in the SWP. Instead, I constructed subjective experience from the data, for want of a better word; I was, as Ingold would have it, looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
The raising and lowering of the chandeliers first and foremost changed how I and the other audience members were immersed in light, and it was this initial change that my research needed to attend to. I came to realize, through the traces that remained from my encounters in the SWP, that being-in-light in the playhouse was a diverse and individualistic experience across all audience members, in which the lighting practices played only a part. The impact these lighting practices had on visual experience differed from upper gallery to lower gallery, from one side of the playhouse to the other, and from seat to seat. Thus, to say that a particular lighting change created a specific subjective effect (for instance, darkened the playhouse or accentuated a certain part of the stage) was highly reductive because it attached a homogeneity to perceptual events that were innately heterogeneous. Moreover, each audience member brought with them into the playhouse a history of inhabiting light in particular ways, at other theaters and in general, which subsequently impacted their experience of each lighting practice in the SWP.
By actually participating in events alongside other audience members, by allowing these events to disappear, I realized how little I knew about the events I had participated in, and that this was precisely the point. For the events were not closed circuits of people and things that emitted indelible meaning into the world, but rather open fields of affect that could only be understood through association. I could not know what other people experienced during the same event, but I could come to some sort of conclusion about what I experienced with them. Ultimately, by embracing disappearance, my analysis retained some of the incertitude that permeated the original event; it retained some of “brute reality” of things.
Embracing disappearance may seem antithetical to the critique of human practices that invariably take the form of appearances, but it is precisely what is needed in contemporary methodologies across various fields. By participating in events at Shakespeare’s Globe, I opened myself to a world that was happening, rather than one that had already happened. This is a key difference in terms of disappearance. My observations were not reconstructed retrospectively upon a world that had disappeared, but attentive to events that were continually disappearing before my very eyes; it was this disappearance that informed the resulting analysis. Baudrillard’s theory of disappearance can be extremely beneficial to contemporary critical practice in a variety of disciplines, especially when considered alongside Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and Ingold’s anthropology, because it reinstates the inevitable chiasm of appearance and disappearance that underpins every event and thing. For without their disappearance, events and things are phenomenally meaningless. That is, they leave no traces, no embodied reminder of their original affectivity, as if they never occurred in the first place. It is extremely important, therefore, that disappearance be incorporated into the evaluation of world of appearances. Where appearance is judgmental, disappearance is attentive; where appearance is retrospective, disappearance is forward-looking; where appearance is reactive, disappearance is patient; where appearance evaporates, disappearance remains.
I return, then, to the theme of this issue. What remains of postmodernism’s disappearance? Baudrillard is perhaps a fine example. His theorization in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place and his comments in the aftermath of 9/11 drew the ire of several American writers, particularly in the media. Walter Kirn in The New York Times (8 September 2002) wrote that the way in which Baudrillard equated the horror of living and working in the twin towers with the horror of dying there in The Spirit of Terrorism gave him “first prize for cerebral cold-bloodedness.” Ironically, in being fully recognized and awarded, albeit negatively, Baudrillard started his own process of disappearance. His obituary in The New York Times (Cohen, 7 March 2007) suggested he was “once considered to be a postmodern guru,” with the implication that his influence waned after the turn of the century. In many ways we can map Baudrillard’s disappearance with that of postmodernism. If, as Brian McHale proposed in an earlier issue of ebr, that “[m]aybe on 9/11 history finally caught up with our postmodern imagination of disaster, and we are now living in the aftermath of postmodernism,” then we can also suggest that Baudrillard’s particular form of postmodernism also reached its zenith on this date and subsequently started to disappear - it was after all, as Baudrillard described it, the “absolute event” (Spirit of Terrorism 4). But while postmodernism (and Baudrillard himself) may be in the process of being historicized, its disappearance has left traces that can be extremely useful to a variety of academic disciplines, as I have shown in the methodology put forward in this article. Importantly, the “was” that floats in the middle of the central question to this issue does not mean that the “is” of postmodernism has completely vanished. For “was” and “is” are a by-product of the chiastic relationship between disappearance and appearance. Thus, as we pose the question “what in the world was postmodernism?” we might also ask “how can we keep its disappearance alive?”
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