Good-Bye Ideology. Hello Performance
Topoi: An International Review of Philosophy, 2011, Vol. 30, No. 2
Published online: 13 September 2011
© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011
Abstract This article looks at the practice of Fred Newman’s performance-based methodology—informed by the work of Marx, Vygotsky and Wittgenstein—in addressing the assumed gap between thinking and doing, reflection and activity, or to use Marx’s terms, interpretation and change. Changing the world involves mass activity. However, acting en masse has historically generated and depended upon ideology, which tends toward the elimination of reflection and dialogue, thus severely handicapping the development of the activity for change. How do we participate in the human activity of changing the world and simultaneously comprehend/reflect on our practice in such a way that allows for its further development, unencumbered by the dead weight of ideology? Is it possible, as Marx postulated, to bridge the gap between reflecting and doing, between interpreting the world and changing the world? The affirmative answer—‘‘perform’’— is presented in historical and philosophical detail.
In 1845 Karl Marx, in his ‘‘Theses on Feuerbach,’’ wrote, ‘‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’’ (Marx 1973). Since then, there has, of course, been a lot of philosophy (some more insightful and challenging than other) and many attempts to change the world (some more successful, some less; some more brutal, some less). The assumption in Marx’s eleventh Theses—an assumption shared by almost everyone else before and since—is that there exists a gap between thinking and doing, reflection and activity, or to use Marx’s terms, between interpretation and change. It’s a gap (or a distinction) that has existed in the Western tradition since at least the Greeks.
It’s a gap that Marx and his followers attempted to bridge or, to use Wittgenstein’s language, ‘‘to make vanish’’ (Wittgenstein 1961). For Marx, the philosopher, the job was to abolish philosophy qua philosophy, that is, to walk away from reflection as a pursuit cloistered (or, at best, distinct) from the gritty, messy and sometimes bloody realm of doing/ activity/changing. As Marx puts it elsewhere in the ‘‘Theses on Feuerbach,’’ ‘‘All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice’’ (Marx 1973).
Yet bridging the gap between interpreting the world and changing the world has not proven easy. An obvious critique of Marx, in this regard, or more precisely of his followers, is that as they successfully built mass movements they ‘‘translated’’ Marx’s methodology and philosophy. Translation implies the acceptance of the very bifurcation between theory and practice that Marx sought to overcome. ‘‘Translated’’ Marxism quickly jelled into ideology, that is, into a fixed, inflexible system of conceiving, seeing, or if you will, interpreting the world and our activities in it.
Collective activity that challenges the world-as-it-is, that asks people to move beyond what they already know and to put their livelihoods, families and lives on the line, appears to need the comfort and support of a guidebook, a map, an ideology, be it religious or secular. These collectively D. Friedman (&) Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036, USA e-mail: email@example.com 123 Topoi (2011) 30:125–135 DOI 10.1007/s11245-011-9096-5 Author's personal copy constructed ideologies, once embraced, generate their own morality, traditions and language. The dialogue of philosophy, constrained within the rigid frame of ideology, becomes replaced by the (often violent) sectarianism of right and wrong/correct and incorrect/orthodox and revisionist. The ability to reflect on one’s activity becomes highly constrained and compromised as the ideology devolves into an ever more closed system. Thus speaks the 150-year history of Marxism and numerous other movements for social change from ancient to modern times.
If we start from Marx’s humanistic and activistic premise that the point is to change the world, not interpret it, we are left with an apparent dilemma. Changing things obviously involves mass activity, however, acting en masse, at least up until this point in history, appears to generate and depend upon ideology, which tends toward the elimination of reflection and dialogue, thus severely handicapping the development of the activity for change.
The question addressed here is: if ‘‘All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice,’’ then how do we participate in that human practice and simultaneously comprehend/reflect on our practice in such a way that allows for its further development, unencumbered by the dead weight of ideology? Is it possible, as Marx postulated, to bridge the gap between reflecting and doing, between interpreting the world and changing the world?
The way to make the problem vanish, I propose, is to perform. Performance, of course, has many (and, in recent years, continually evolving and divergent) meanings. It is, in the best sense of the word, a disputed, and thus a living term (Carlson 1996).
As I understand and use it, performance is not limited or primarily confined to the stage (or screen). It is a human capacity, found in all cultures. It is a self-conscious social activity in which human beings are simultaneously whothey- are and who-they-are-not (or who-they-are-becoming). Performance is a doing that is not possible without constant reflection/adjustment/improvisation. It is, on a basic level, a pretense and hence has built into its very doing the need to be conscious of where the pretending is taking us, and to make ongoing decisions based on what is being generated by the performance itself. It is therefore, active and reflective at the same time. A performer has no need of ideology; a performer needs to accept the offers of her fellow performers. To the extent that those offers are accepted and built upon, something new is created. Further, because performance incorporates that which does not (yet) exist, it is an activity that is constantly, by its nature, changing the world, that is, bringing new possibilities into social existence. Performance is both mundane in the sense that it is day-to-day, moment-to-moment, and, in the long run, profound in that the totality of new human performances is nothing less than a recreation (that is, a new performance of) the world.
This understanding of performance derives in the first place from the theatre, the only institutional framework, East or West, that sanctions performance, that is, that gives societal permission to adults to play, pretend and ‘‘make believe.’’ The awareness that an actor is simultaneously the actor and the character she is playing goes back at least to Denis Diderot’s work, The Paradox of Acting, which he completed writing in 1778 but which was not published until 1830 (Diderot 1883). In the twentieth century, this paradox was fore-fronted with polemical passion by Bertolt Brecht, the German communist playwright and director. Brecht was the first to see the philosophical and political implications of this paradox, advocating that both actor and audience remain conscious and appreciative of the fact that the actor, even when portraying a character, did not ‘‘become’’ the character; she remained an actor pretending to be someone else. This appreciation, Brecht believed, allowed both audience and artist to better reflect on the performance even as they were creating and experiencing it (Brecht 1964).
Brecht, however, did not address the philosophical and political implications of this paradox were it to be extended beyond the stage, that is, outside the institutional framework of the theatre. For Brecht the paradox of acting remained an aesthetic issue with political (ideological) implications. The reflection he was promoting was a cognitive appraisal, a reflection about society outside the theatre. What is being explored here is far more subversive; it is performance as a philosophical/political/revolutionary activity going on off stage in everyday life, an activity, unconstrained by ideology or even ‘‘aboutness,’’ that has the potential to provide a way out of the conceptual and creative limitations of ideology.
It may be helpful at this point to unpack the historical, philosophical and political contexts that have led to this understanding and practice of performance.
Let me start this unpacking by saying that I have no formal training as a philosopher. I’m trained as an actor, director and playwright and I hold a doctorate in theatre history. I have worked for 40 years doing radical political, experimental and community-based theatre and am currently the artistic director of the Castillo Theatre, which I 126 D. Friedman 123 Author's personal copy helped to found in 1983, and of its youth theatre Youth Onstage!, which I started in 2003. I have also been a community organizer and a political and cultural revolutionary, a social change agent for all of my adult life. I have approached theatre making as part of the larger creative process of organizing for social change and human development.
The Castillo Theatre emerged in the early 1980s as part of a broad community organizing project led by Fred Newman. While I am not a philosopher, Newman comes out of the analytical tradition at Stanford, where he earned his doctorate under the mentorship of Donald Davidson. After 8 years of teaching at various colleges and universities and getting fired repeatedly for giving all his students ‘‘A’’s, in 1968, with a handful of student followers, Newman left the academy for good, becoming a community organizer in New York City’s poorest communities. His grounding in philosophy and his ongoing philosophical (that is, self-reflective and dialogic) approach to organizing has played a crucial role in allowing this initially small grouping of primarily white middle class sixties’ radicals to: (a) successfully organize in America’s poor and working class, primarily Black and Latino, communities and from that initial base to organize middle class and wealthy people in support of these efforts; and, (b) use their organizing experience to discover how to break out the trap of ideology which had so handicapped previous radical activists.
Like virtually all twentieth century radicals concerned with the elimination of poverty and inequality, Newman and his followers soon embraced Marxism. But from the first embrace it was obvious to Newman how philosophically underdeveloped (that is, how dumbed-down) Marxism had become since Marx and how little room Marxism as an ideology allowed for its own development. In particular, Newman and his followers, emerging from the very performatory sixties with its emphasis on the unity of the personal and the political, were struck by how the subjective side of social transformation—culture, psychology, education, family organization and personal relations—had been neglected by the socialists and communists. The orthodox Marxists had focused almost exclusively on economic and political struggle leaving virtually all the social activities and institutions that shape our emotionality, our ethics and our views of who we are and what’s possible in the hands of those institutions invested in the status quo.
From their beginnings, Newman and his fellow organizers not only built unions (the National Federation of Independent Unions, the New York City Unemployed and Welfare Council) and left wing electoral parties (the New Alliance Party), they also began developing social therapy, a non-psychological approach to therapy that relates to emotionality as a social creation not an inner-psychic phenomenon, and established schools with names like the Working Class Room and the Robin Hood Relearning Company. Much of the educational and social therapeutic work was initiated and coordinated by the New York Institute for Social Therapy and Research, founded in 1978, which, under the name of East Side Institute, is today a thriving grassroots research and training center introducing psychologists, educators, social workers and community organizers in dozens of countries around the world to its performance-based approach to learning, development and therapy. The Institute has also played a key role in the development of activistic performance by providing the institutional context in which Newman and his collaborators could reflect on, dialogue about and deepen the lessons generated by the grassroots organizing that the movement has constantly engaged in.
In outlining the evolution of this activist/transformative approach to performance, I want to emphasize that the onthe- ground organizing and the theorizing about the organizing were virtually simultaneous. However, because the performance approach to social change didn’t originate with theory, I will talk about the activity first, then the reflection on/philosophizing about the activity, and finally take a quick look at the larger political/cultural/intellectual context in which this evolving praxis took shape.
As with anything that emerges from practice, it is impossible to pinpoint exact origins. The escape from ideology to performance developed gradually in the 1980s from a constellation of sources. Among them were the All Stars Talent Show Network, a community-based performance program for inner city youth, and the Castillo Theatre, an experiment in non-traditional, non-didactic political theatre. Both provided a context in which the link between performance and social development became increasingly visible, enabling Newman to build on Marx and others and break out of the fly bottle of ideology.
The All Stars Talent Show Network grew organically out of the New York Unemployed and Welfare Council, where members of the Council repeatedly told Newman’s organizers that they should do something for their children, who had nothing to do but hang out on the streets and get in trouble. So, the organizers asked the young people what they wanted to do and the young people said they wanted to put on talent shows. This was during the birth of hip-hop and youth in the Black and Latino communities were eager to showcase their break dancing, rapping and other performance skills. The organizers and the young people (and some of the parents) worked together to produce a talent Good-Bye Ideology 127 123 Author's personal copy show in a local church basement. It proved popular and so another one was organized. As of this writing, the organization that emerged from this initial project, the All Stars Project, involves ten thousand young people as performers, producers and audience members every year and is active in New York City, Newark, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area. The All Stars Project, Inc., has built out from the talent shows to generate a number of other developmental after-school programs in New York and other cities, including the Development School for Youth (founded 1998), which helps young people from poor communities learn the performance of the business world and provides them with paid internships in the corporate world, and the aforementioned Youth Onstage! (2003) that functions both as a free performance school and as a youth theatre producing socially engaged theater in New York City. The work of the All Stars Project has inspired similar programs in countries as diverse as Holland, Brazil, South Africa and, most recently, Uganda.
In the late seventies and early eighties, all that success was yet to come. At that time, political youth organizing among the African American poor proved very challenging. The victories over legal segregation achieved by the Civil Rights Movement stood in frustrating contrast to the fact that the vast majority of African Americans remained trapped in poverty and underdevelopment. Black leaders who had attempted to address the abolition of poverty— Malcolm X, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers—had been assassinated. Riots in response to these assassinations, to police brutality, etc. had left many urban African American communities physically devastated. The schools were (and remain) totally unequipped to understand and deal with the developmental differences between the Black and other communities. The crack epidemic was beginning. Black youth in poor communities were demoralized, politically and otherwise. Traditional progressive political and social issues fell on cynical and deaf ears.
Beyond the specifics of content, however, it became increasingly clear to Newman and his followers that the cognitive model of teaching, in which one person knows and the other(s) doesn’t, wasn’t working—not only in the schools but also as a means of organizing. Cognitively based teaching was experienced by Black youth (and many of their elders) as a way of talking down. Given the centuries during which cognitively based knowledge was developed by and for a white-dominated society and systematically denied to African Americans and largely used against them, it was no wonder that knowledge had come to be considered ‘‘white.’’ Newman and his fellow organizers on streets of New York’s Black ‘‘ghettos’’ began to see that an insistence on cognitive learning was a denial of the young people’s way of being. The understanding of the African American poor was more of an understanding from within a situation, a group, a culture than a ‘‘knowingwhat’’ or ‘‘knowing-how.’’
In this context, the suggestion of producing talent shows not only clued the organizers into something the young people wanted to do, it established a common ground upon which they and the youth could meet and interact developmentally. From the vantage point of the organizers, performance was necessary to make a break from the dominance of cognition. Instead of asking, ‘‘What do you know?’’ or ‘‘What do you believe in?’’ the questions became, ‘‘What are you doing?’’ and ‘‘What are we creating together?’’ It was not so much an issue of knowing your history and culture, as it was an activity of together creating our history and culture.
At the same time, the Castillo Theatre was taking shape. It was launched in 1983 by about a dozen organizers and activists with arts and theatre backgrounds, including me, within the movement that Newman was leading. From the start, it was approached not primarily as an aesthetic project, but as an organizing activity. Unlike earlier political theatres, Castillo was neither about propagating and agitating for a particular ideologically driven political agenda nor about ‘‘bringing art to the people.’’ It has always been interested in creating theatre with the people. For nearly 30 years, Castillo has been bringing people from poor and working class communities—people who don’t usually see live theatre, and certainly never anticipated creating it— together with professional theatre artists and radical political organizers to grapple, through performance, with social, political and philosophical questions.
The early years of Castillo were characterized by roughhewn theatrical experimentation. Among the early experiments, were: A Demonstration: Common Women, the Uncommon Lives of Ordinary Women (1986) which brought together non-actors from the community—specifically welfare activists, mostly Black women, and white radical lesbians—for a performed confrontation that spun off into a montage of scenes, poems, songs and video clips; From Gold to Platinum (1986), a political science fiction play about a second American Revolution which was devised through a series of meetings and improvisations with community organizations throughout New York City; All My Cadre (1987), a soap opera about a group of young and restless leftists in New York City; and a 7-hour interactive production of Heiner Müller’s Description of a Picture/Explosion of a Memory (1992), which included audience members painting pictures and writing poems and essays in response to the performance.
Three years after it began, the founders of Castillo invited Newman to direct (his first project was A Demonstration) and soon thereafter he began writing plays. He became artistic director and playwright-in-residence in 128 D. Friedman 123 Author's personal copy 1989, a position he held for the next 16 years. His first play was Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday (1986), which tackled the question of identity when a white Jewish middle-aged straight man and a young Black lesbian meet and discover that they have the same history. Castillo has since staged 44 Newman plays and musicals, the majority of them directed by him (Friedman 1998).
Newman’s texts play with philosophical ideas, most often the nature of language, and, as with Mr. Hirsch, the fluidity of identities, and the limitation of ‘‘identity’’ (and, by extension, of identity politics). They sometimes have philosophers and writers as characters. Wittgenstein, Freud, Kafka, Russell, for example, have all appeared in Newman’s plays. Some, such as The Story of Truth (A Whodunit) or: Philosophie dans la Théâtre (1998), deal specifically with philosophical questions, in this case the foundational philosophical issues of psychology, the scientific paradigm and science itself. The Story of Truth is built around a confrontation at an academic conference between a character named PoMo and militant modernist named Sikko, inspired by the real life Alan Sokal. It was first performed at the 106th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco in 1998 (Newman 1999).
Many of Newman’s texts also play with historical figures and political movements. Sally and Tom (The American Way) (1995), for example, is a musical that looks at the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, a 35-year-long relationship which embodied the contradiction between democracy and slavery and the legacy of racism that continues to define so much of American history and culture. Lenin’s Breakdown (1994) portrays Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution, as an old homeless man who checks himself into Bellevue, a mental hospital in New York City, looking to understand the failure of his life (and of twentieth century communism). Other Newman plays deal with ethical questions and dilemmas. In Sessions With Jesus(2002), for example, Jesus returns to earth (the Upper West Side of Manhattan to be precise) looking for a therapist. He needs a therapist because he is hearing the voice of Osama bin Laden asking for forgiveness. Jesus, of course, is all about forgiveness, but he’s having a hard time forgiving the mass murderer.
Under Newman’s theatrical and philosophical direction, Castillo evolved into a forum in which the challenges, conflicts and issues facing the communities it was relating to/organizing in could be performed and discussed. Instead of the ideologically based manifestos and polemics that had characterized radical political movements of the past, Newman, through the Castillo Theatre, brought into being a performatory playground of the social imagination, which both challenged its audience conceptually, perceptually and politically and provided a context for non-actors to perform. In addition to Newman, Castillo has, over the years, produced some 30 other political and philosophically inclined playwrights.
Relative to the discovery of performance as an alternative to ideology, what happens on Castillo’s stage is only one element of its activity, and perhaps the less important one. For nearly three decades the Castillo Theatre, the All Stars Talent Show and their umbrella non-profit, the All Stars Project, have labored to create a unique and independent funding base. It does not take government funding and is not reliant on foundation money.
Being first and foremost community organizers, the builders of Castillo took to the streets. They solicited contributions by setting up tables on busy street corners and subway platforms and canvassing door-to-door. Soon the street operation was up and running 7 days a week. All Castillo builders were, in the early days, volunteers and the street organizing was done in the evenings after paying jobs and on weekends. They set themselves quotas. Castillo needed a certain amount of money to pay the rent and produce the season and so if the organizers didn’t, for example, make the goal set for a particular Saturday in 8 hours, they stayed out ten or twelve or whatever it took. Each solicitation provided an opportunity to talk politics, to talk culture, to have a conversation on the need to build new kinds of institutions. In addition, they soon discovered that giving is a political act, and that when people give they have a stake in what is being built. This strategic funding model has resulted, nearly three decades later, in a remarkable level and breadth of financial support. Tens of thousands have contributed over the years. Currently there are some 5,000 individuals who are contributors to the All Stars Project, and through their personal involvement an additional 300 corporations and foundations help underwrite the development programs. In addition to financial support, corporations are also sponsoring internships for youth and providing volunteers.
Obviously, this model of organizing/funding is dependent on a dedicated core of activists maintaining the work over an extended period of time. The challenge in all this, and its relevance to the understanding of performance as a developmental/transformative activity, grew out of the fact that the people doing this street and door-to-door soliciting/ organizing were not trained salespeople, fundraisers or, except in a few cases, actors. They were, more or less, a cross section of New York with various amounts of organizing experience under their belts. This was a very difficult thing for many of them to do. No matter how much one believes in one’s cause, given the culture we live in, asking strangers on the street for money seemed, to some, to be begging and felt humiliating. When people on the street or at the door were nasty or attacking, as they quite frequently were, it was hard, particularly for men, not to be nasty, Good-Bye Ideology 129 123 Author's personal copy attacking or angry in response. Finally, the people doing this organizing had various levels of social skill and ease. For some, it was difficult to simply look a stranger in the eye and try to start a conversation.
What made it possible to sustain this intense work— which from the late eighties through the late nineties was a major organizing activity of Castillo builders—was approaching it as a performance. Since many of these same activists were going from the street to rehearsals at the Castillo Theatre where they were often performing characters very different than themselves, or working with young people to perform in the talent shows, or participating in the conversations of a social therapy group or training at the New York Institute, it gradually occurred to them that they did not have to just be themselves on the street. They could make the choice to perform rather than behave in prescribed and predetermined ways. In fact, it became clear that if they remained only the humiliated, angry and shy people they were, there was no way to hold conversations with and raise money from strangers. They had to find a way to become someone else (or, more accurately, who-they-were-becoming). Thus the ‘‘street work,’’ became, over a period of years, the ‘‘street performance.’’
Newman, writing in 1989 primarily for a readership of Castillo Theatre activists, summed up the political/philosophical/ theatrical implications of their common experience like this, ‘‘…in a world so totally alienated as ours doing anything even approaching living requires that we perform. To be natural in bourgeois society is to be deadin- life. Unnaturalness is required if we are to live at all. … The avant-garde (at least some of it) urged the re-organization of the performers (to make them less performatory). But if life is performance shouldn’t we instead get the audience to perform? Perhaps the performers must organize the audience to perform’’ (Newman 1989). That, in a variety of ways, is what Castillo has been working to do ever since.
The performance work of the All Stars Talent Show Network and the Castillo Theatre have always been a part of a larger/richer organizing mix, a development community, as its organizers came to call it, that included independent electoral activity, educational and after-school initiatives, and the ongoing development and expansion of social therapy. Yet there is nothing inherent in any of these activities that would necessarily have led to a conceptual/ practical leap from performance being fun to do on stage or helpful as a fundraising tactic to the understanding/ practice (praxis) of performance as a means of social transformation. That is where Newman’s access to the inherited legacy of philosophy and his ability to bring a reflective and dialogic approach to interacting with and learning from activity becomes so important.
In examining the conceptual and intellectual tools that made this transition possible, it’s helpful to return to Marx himself. While this may appear puzzling to those accustomed to viewing Marxism primarily as an ideology, it will not surprise those who consider Marx’s greatest contribution to be his methodology. In the very same ‘‘Theses on Feuerbach,’’ Marx writes, ‘‘The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or selfchanging can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice’’ (Marx 1973, p. 121). Throughout the ‘‘Theses’’ he uses ‘‘revolutionary’’ and ‘‘practicalcritical’’ activity interchangeably. Changing the world and human beings changing themselves, Marx maintains, is a unity and happens through practical-critical activity—a methodological point soon lost on most of his ideologically over-determined followers.
Yet for Newman, Marx’s articulation of practical-critical activity became the spark that ignited a new activistic understanding of performance. Newman and his colleagues came to regard the performances they were doing on stage and off, as well as what they came to call the ‘‘performed conversations’’ of the social therapy group, as the practical-critical activity appropriate to and necessary in a society that alienates its members from each other and from themselves and that successfully projects—through public education, psychology, television and popular culture in general—a pervasive and seemingly unchangeable ‘‘reality.’’
While the origin of this performatory approach to practical-critical activity can be traced back to Marx, his sketchy writings in this regard were not sufficient to generate what I will now begin to call the performatory turn in Marxism. The most important conceptual catalyst in this regard comes from the research and insights provided by one of Marx’s early twentieth century followers, Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky, a supporter of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War, was one of the first psychologists in the new Soviet Union. As a discipline, psychology was still in its infancy, with Freudianism and behaviorism vying for hegemony. Vygotsky broke through this divide with a social-cultural-historical understanding of human life. His theoretical and empirical work passionately affirms the socialness of human beings, providing an understanding of growth and development as an ongoing creative and collaborative process. While his life was cut short by his death at the age of 38, his followers kept his ideas alive, throughout the long period of repressive rule.
Vygotsky’s concern, as both a psychologist and a revolutionary, was with helping people to develop the skills— 130 D. Friedman 123 Author's personal copy many of them basic, such as learning to read and write— needed to build a new society in a nation that was basically illiterate and devastated by war and famine. He was the first to apply/develop the Marxist dialectic (the unity of being and becoming, of changing the world and selfchanging) relative to the subjective realm, in particular, to the arenas of human learning and development. He approached human development, as Marx did, as a social activity, taking place not in biologically predetermined stages (as the Swiss natural scientist turned developmental psychologist Jean Piaget did, a notion that dominates the mainstream to this day) but through the interaction of children and adults, in which the children creatively imitate, or in his words, perform ‘‘as if a head taller’’ than themselves and through this process learn language and all the other social skills of being human in their particular culture (Vygotsky 1978, p. 102). Vygotsky called the social activity through which this development happened, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The key dynamic of the ZPD is that people with varying levels of experience and skill work together as, if you will, an ensemble, with the result that all participants grow and develop. Everyone in the ZPD is simultaneously both who-they-are and whothey- are-becoming, with the emphasis, for those interested in development, on the becoming (Vygotsky 1978; Newman and Holzman 1993).
Newman and his circle of organizers were introduced to Vygotsky by Lois Holzman in 1976. At the time, she was doing postgraduate work at Michael Cole’s Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition at Rockefeller University after receiving her doctorate in developmental psychology and psycholinguistics from Columbia University. The Lab, which has long since relocated to the University of California, San Diego, was/is a unique interdisciplinary group of progressive social scientists exploring new methodologies for understanding the role of culture on cognition as an alternative to the dominant psychology that, they believed, perpetuated social inequality. In its early years in the late- 1970s, a team headed up by Cole compiled and translated some of Vygotsky’s writings into a book entitled Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. This publication played a significant role in popularizing Vygotsky, especially among educators. When Holzman met Newman, Mind in Society was still 2 years from publication; however, she and other members of the Lab were studying it in manuscript. She would go on to become Newman’s primary intellectual partner in the creating of a cultural-performatory approach to human life and the reinitiation of human development. Their many books and articles have established them as the most radical within various movements alternative to the dominant psychology and social sciences (e.g., postmodernism, critical psychology, and activity theory).
Vygotsky’s key contribution both as a developmental psychologist and relative to Marxism’s escape from its ideological fetters grows from his embrace and development of Marx’s method, that is, his articulation of dialectics relative to the practical questions of how it is that people learn and develop. He put it this way, ‘‘The search for method becomes one of the most important problems of the entire enterprise of understanding the uniquely human forms of psychological activity. In this case, the method is simultaneously prerequisite and product, the tool and the result of the study’’ (Vygotsky 1978, p. 65). The importance of this articulation can’t be overemphasized, for here Vygotsky is breaking with the established scientific model, in which method is understood as a tool that will, when applied, yield results. According to the scientific model, the relation between the tool and the result is linear, instrumental and dualistic, that is, tool for result. Vygotsky, building on Marx, proposes a non-linear, non-instrumentalist, non-dualistic method, a dialectical method, in which the ‘‘tool’’ and ‘‘result’’ come into existence together, an approach Newman and Holzman have come to call tool and result methodology. It’s a method not based on the natural sciences but in the observation of and interface with the social interaction of human beings (Newman and Holzman 1993).
Holzman unpacks the implication of this methodological breakthrough this way, ‘‘This conception of method as tool and result cannot be separated from Vygotsky’s conception of what it means to be human. Among the many wonderful and terrible things we do, human beings have the capacity to ‘do dialectics.’ We transform totalities; we create ‘tools and results.’ Vygotsky understood the human developmental process dialectically, as an ongoing, continuously emergent social-cultural-historical collective activity. In contemporary language, we human beings create our own development; it doesn’t happen to us. The evidence? Our capacity for dialectics: from infancy through old age we are ‘who we are’ and, at the very same time, ‘who we are not’’’ (Holzman 2006, pp. 112–113). Vygotsky’s development of Marx’s method thus leads, rather directly, to an activistic concept of performance.
While Vygotsky concentrated his studies almost exclusively on the family and classroom where children work and play with caregivers and teachers, Newman and Holzman found in his concept of the ZPD a useful way of understanding what went on in social therapy groups, the All Stars Project and the organizing and production work of the Castillo Theatre (Holzman 2009). In each of these activities they began to perceive an improvisational performance in which the participants were able, at times, to perform beyond who they were and together create new versions of themselves. People were developing not through knowing more (or different) things, and not by a Good-Bye Ideology 131 123 Author's personal copy knowledgeable therapist applying the ‘‘correct analysis,’’ to their emotions or history, but by creating new activities (new ‘‘tools and results’’) together through an improvised ensemble performance. The clear implication was that such developmental performances could also be created in other social environments—other ZPDs—as well, and that play and performance, not knowing, ideological or otherwise, was the means of creative human growth.
The other major conceptual breakthrough that helped lead Newman and Holzman toward an activistic approach to performance came from Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein is part of what has been termed the ‘‘linguistic turn’’ in intellectual life in the second half of the twentieth century. While the linguistic turn refers to many things across many academic/intellectual disciplines—including, but not limited to social constructionism, and psychological and psychotherapeutic approaches such as collaborative therapy, discursive psychology, and narrative therapy—its gist is a move away from viewing language as representational, that is, words and grammar as simply a means of representing things in the objective world (and/or subjective things, that is, ‘‘thoughts’’ in the mind), to language as a relational activity that shapes how we see.
While many understand Wittgenstein’s contribution to be primarily the exploration of the ‘‘use value’’ of language, Newman and Holzman have focused and built upon what they view as his understanding of language as a social activity. As they read Wittgenstein, language is not a static toolbox that we can put to various uses; it’s a continuously evolving meaning-making activity. They understand him to have viewed language not as representing anything but instead, to use his words, ‘‘the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life’’ (Wittgenstein 1953, paragraph 23).
It was Wittgenstein’s contention that this misunderstanding of the nature of language was constraining the development of philosophy (and human development in general); philosophy was so tangled up in its dead language and its deadening understanding of language that it could not go much further on its old terms. Language, by Wittgenstein’s view, is not a tool for explaining what is (which, of course, is the presumption of virtually all Western philosophy, science and ‘‘common sense’’) but a continuous social activity (‘‘language games’’ he called them) by which human beings ceaselessly shape and reshape their perception, their ways of seeing.
The implications of Wittgenstein’s later work, at least for Newman and Holzman with their eyes steadily on the questions of social transformation, are enormous. Language that represents or explains implies an epistemological (including an ideological) framework, i.e., there must be something objective/static to know that we then express. Language as a social activity of meaning making implies a continuous improvisatory performance that we each engage in conjunction with others. The interesting question for Newman and Holzman becomes not, ‘‘How do people use words?’’ but ‘‘How do people create meaning?’’ In grappling with that question, Vygotsky (and again, Marx) proved helpful.
Wittgenstein’s view of language as a ‘‘form of life’’ segues well with Vygotsky’s formulation that speaking and thinking are a dialectical unity in which language completes— rather than expresses—thought. ‘‘The structure of speech is not simply the mirror image of the structure of thought. It cannot, therefore, be placed on thought like clothes off a rack. Speech does not merely serve as the expression of developed thought. Thought is restructured as it is transformed into speech. It is not expressed but completed in the word’’ (Vygotsky 1987, p. 251). Vygotsky observed that children learning to speak did so long before they were ‘‘explaining’’ anything, indeed, long before they could possibly ‘‘know’’ what they were saying. Indeed, he noted, the child’s thought was, in fact, often completed by others. Thought and language develop in tandem through social interaction that might best be understood as a performance with others. The adult pretends that the child is a language user and the child, performing with the adult, grows into the role. All of which can be viewed as a specific (and obviously important) substantiation of Marx’s contention in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, that, ‘‘Activity and mind are social in their content as well as in their origin; they are social activity and social mind’’ (Marx 1967, p. 129). Newman and Holzman took Vygotsky’s research into child development and began using his discoveries to help understand/develop the social change organizing work their movement/community was engaged in.
Thus the ‘‘linguistic turn’’ has helped lead, at least in the case of Newman and his colleagues, to a ‘‘performance turn’’ in both the practice and conceptualization of Marxism. Wittgenstein’s breakthrough in philosophy was to shift the focus from what words and sentences mean to the activity of making language. Newman’s breakthrough in organizing has been to shift the focus from cognition—the teaching/learning of the meaning of Marxism (or anything else)—to the collaborative performative activity of creating something new together.
Through three decades of grassroots organizing experience combined with the embrace of and building upon the work of Marx, Vygotsky and Wittgenstein, it became evident to Newman and his colleagues that performance was not simply a tool for a result, it was simultaneously a tool and a result, the result being development. Performance, as they have come to understand it, is the tool for development and the development itself. The way out of the fly bottle of ideology had been gradually discovered. It 132 D. Friedman 123 Author's personal copy was not a matter of coming up with a better version of social science or a more sophisticated variant on Marxist theory. It was, instead, a matter of creating new possibilities through the non-ideological activity of performance. The world cannot be re-conceptualized, but it can be reperformed.
Of course, during the 30 years in which the praxis of Newman’s mass organizing political tendency was growing organizationally and conceptually much else was happening in the world. Relative to social change and ideology the most immediately impactful were the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies and the emergence of postmodernism as an intellectual movement, both of which created the historical/cultural/intellectual context in which a nonideological, performatory approach to social change could develop.
By the end of the eighties, not only had Marxism long since petrified into the deadweight of ideology: more immediate in its impact, the real-politic ‘‘communist’’ societies collapsed. As a result, most progressive activists and intellectuals, with various degrees of enthusiasm or regret, threw the baby (Marxist methodology) out with the bathwater (Marxist ideology). During the same final decades of the twentieth century, postmodernism, in all its disturbing, provocative and liberating variations, revealed possibilities beyond the limits of the modernist legacy, which, of course, included among its social products Marxist ideology.
Postmodernism is too large a tendency to discuss in depth here. Suffice it to say that it’s a diverse and often contradictory amalgam of thought and activity that, in most of its variants, rejects modernism’s bifurcations of outside/ inside, objective/subjective, mind/body, cognition/emotion, and, in the context of the newly emergent discipline of performance studies, between performance and daily life. In addition, postmodernism rejects what the scientist (including the ideological Marxist) calls ‘‘reality’’ and what the religiously minded (including the ideological Marxist) calls ‘‘truth,’’ positing in their place a complex social, historical and perceptual process constantly being constructed and reconstructed by human beings themselves. In this, postmodernism resonates with the early Marx, who wrote in 1844, ‘‘…as society itself produces man as man, so it is produced by him’’ (Marx 1967, p. 129).
Also helpful in challenging the assumption of ideology was the related rejection by postmodernism of what Jean-Franc¸ois Lyotard in his seminal work The Postmodern Condition called ‘‘metanarratives.’’ Lyotard, a former Marxist, rejected as a social construct or myth any overarching story used to explain human life, including ideological Marxism’s schematic overview of history. The postmodern condition, Lyotard maintains, grows out of the eroding power of the metanarratives originating in the modern and pre-modern epochs. The modern period he characterizes as dedicated to cognitive knowledge that legitimated itself, ‘‘with reference to a metadiscourse … making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such the dialectics of the Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of Wealth. … Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives’’ (Lyotard 1984, pp. xxiv, xxvii). Marxism as an ideology is thus, by Lyotard’s account, best understood as one of modernism’s metanarratives.
Without a metanarrative constraining or explaining human activity, the focus moves from cognition and ‘‘script’’ to performance and ‘‘improvisation.’’ As Marvin Carlson puts it, ‘‘This orientation … shifts attention from general intellectual or cultural structures to individual events, and from the determination of a general truth or general operating strategy to an interest in ‘performativity’— activity that allows the operation of improvisatory experimentation based on the perceived needs and felt desires of the unique situation’’ (Carlson 1996, p. 138). Indeed, Nick Kaye in Postmodernism and Performance writes, ‘‘the condition of ‘performance’ may be read, in itself, as tending to foster or look towards postmodern contingencies and instabilities,’’ and that performance ‘‘may be thought of as a primary postmodern mode’’ (Kaye 1994, pp. 22–23).
It’s therefore not surprising that performance studies, as a distinct academic/research discipline emerged side-byside, so to speak, with postmodernism. While performance studies cannot accurately be described as a postmodernist phenomenon per se, it did come into being during the same period, and it obviously shares with postmodernism an interest in performance beyond the traditional framework of the theatre.
Newman has pointed out that the task of activating performance in daily life could not be seriously approached as long as the fiction called ‘‘theatre’’—or for that matter the one called ‘‘real life’’—were accepted (Friedman 1999, p. 168). Performance studies in particular and postmodernism in general have challenged the theatre/real life dichotomy. Performance studies’ major insight is not that the theatre is artificial (we all knew that all along) but that so-called ‘‘natural’’ or ‘‘real’’ life is neither natural nor real. Performance studies, building on anthropology, has revealed daily life to be filled with ritual, filled with prescribed ways of talking, walking, moving our faces, holding our hands, etc. Our everyday lives are vastly more codified than anything on stage. In fact, this codification is Good-Bye Ideology 133 123 Author's personal copy how we can understand each other at all (Turner 1982, 1988; Schechner 1985). For Newman, as a mass organizer, these insights made it clear that the monopolization of performance (as a skill assumed attainable only by the ‘‘talented’’ and permissible only in strictly prescribed circumstances) denied creativity and meaning-making to the vast majority of the population. For Newman and his followers, realizing that the border between theatre and daily life was porous made the creation of new performances not only possible but also necessary to further human development.
This is not to say that the prevailing understanding of performance in the field of performance studies is the same as the activist/transformative understanding/practice of Newman and his followers. Some 30 years into its development, there are many understandings of performance within the field. However, still prevalent is performance studies pioneer Richard Schechner’s working definition of performance as ‘‘restored behavior’’ or ‘‘twice-behaved behavior,’’ which he describes as ‘‘actions that people train to do, that they practice and rehearse’’ (Schechner 2002, p. 22). This is not, of course, limited to the stage. ‘‘Restored behavior,’’ he writes, ‘‘can be actions marked off by aesthetic convention as in theatre, dance, and music. It can be actions reified into the ‘rules of the game,’ ‘etiquette,’ or diplomatic ‘protocol’—or any other of the myriad known-beforehand actions of life’’ (Schechner 2002, p. 28).
Thus for performance studies, performance is essentially a restorative activity, one that allows daily life to happen and that, at its most creative, provides us with a new interpretation of our previous behavior. It is, to use theatre language, scripted—and the structure of the script is, inevitably, ideological (be it religious or secular or some combination). The performance praxis developed by Newman and his colleagues, on the other hand, is primarily concerned not with reproduction or interpretation, but with change. It obviously makes use of the behaviors and rituals of daily life, but does so with the perspective of playing with them to create qualitatively new relationships and activities. Its social function is development, not restoration.
Thus, the breakthrough Newman has created by/in developmental projects discussed here might be understood as part of the general shift to postmodernism and the cultural turn from cognition to performance that is more and more evident around the world. That said, neither postmodernism nor performance studies had a direct causal impact on the development of Newman’s performatory approach to social change. That approach is rooted, as described in the body of this paper, in the movement’s organizing work and Newman’s and Holzman’s study and development of Marx, Vygotsky and Wittgenstein in the light of that organizing.
The world is hardly free of the grip of ideology. From the attacks on the World Trade Center, to demands of the ‘‘Tea Party’’ in the United States for the dismantling of the country’s social safety net, to the Naxilite insurrection in central India, ideology continues to make its influence clear. At the same time, the uprisings of the Arab Spring in 2011 hint at the possibilities of mass social movement liberated from the constraints of ideology. They are revolutions in which performatory improvisation, at least as of this writing, is a substantial force. If Marxism, which for nearly 150 years was related to by tens of millions as the ideology for the liberation of the poor, can shed its ideological skin and enter daily life as a performatory practical-critical activity, the possibilities for human transformation and development are beyond the ability of any metanarrative to tell.
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