Patrice Pavis: "The State of Current Theatre Research"

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Categories of signs

Analysis should not concern itself with establishing a repertory or a system of signs which would provide a framework for any performance and which could be found in every production. Such a system does not exist and enumerating signs or types of signs proves nothing, whether it be a semiotic typology of signs (Pavis, 1975) or a classification of performance types: thus, there is no point in drawing up a 'dead list' of the categories of signs used in any (Western, text-based) performance, categories which the analyst would have to pinpoint, noting when and how often the signs appear. The categories of Kowzan (1970), Elam (1980) or Fischer-Lichte (1983) only deal with the elements which belong to the 'average' Western theatre performance, notably that of illusion and bourgeois realism.Unfortunately, these subdivisions limit performance rather than shed any light on the subject. ]bey force us to think in old-fashioned, ready-made categories which any avant-garde or indeed any mise en scène systematically calls into question. For instance, the way these categories radically separate the human system of the (animate) subject and system of the (inanimate) object is no longer relevant in current theatre practice: the human body is sometimes treated as inert material (Butoh dance) and an object often replaces and signifies a human presence (an item of clothing, for example, or a prop associated with a person). This is the reason why we will not use these old categories in this current work, even if they are part of our Western cultural heritage and even if we have difficulty in doing without them when discussing theatre.
These categories inherited from the classical, indeed antiquated European theatre tradition, whose aesthetics and division of labour no longer have much in common with current practice, shall be replaced with transverse systems or categories, such as the system of chronotopes (see Chapter 3, Part 2), the system of vectorisation,or other transverse tools which enable us to move beyond a compartmentalisedvision of performance.


1.6. New Departures

A desemiotics?

More recent attempts have tried to set themselves apart from that initial sort of semiotics which was too taxonomic and fragmentary by seeking alternatives in the hermeneutic and pragmatic German tradition or in phenomenology (Ingarden, Derrida, Carlson, States, Gardner). Here, it has been most often a question of going beyond Saussurian binarism and "closure of representation," (Derrida, 1967: 341-68) and of suggesting a "generalized desemiotics" and a "theatre of energies" (Lyotard, 1973) instead of a theatre of signs. Lyotard (1973: 104), the most articulate representative of this tendency, has, himself written a radical criticism of the sign from Brecht to Artaud; but his criticism of theatre as "taking place" (lieu-tenance) and representation, and his proposal of an energetic theatre unfortunately remain rather undeveloped and questionable: "It [energetic theatre] does not have to suggest that this means that; it does not have to say it either, as Brecht wished. It has to produce the greatest intensity (by excess or default) of what is there, without intention. Here is my question: is this possible, and if so, how?






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AS/SA Nº3, Article 1 : Page 7 / 16


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1.5.1997