What is Stand Up Philosophy

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This blog charts my attempts, in whatever way I can, and whenever I can, and as honestly as possible, to stand up for thinking - real thinking, whether in philosophy or politics, or maths - Because thinking needs standing up for!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Performing in ones own voice

It is strange. I am am experienced performer, I relatively rarely get nerves, and yet last night I discovered something that does make me jumpy: Performing- in my own (or near to my own) voice, without a script or paper to work from.
 I was practising intros for my standup show, trying to work out, why I am never that happy with how i frame pieces, a process one must get right with one performs the kind of material I do..
 The piece I was doing was called -A Vindication of the Rights of Performance Philosophy, and took the form of a handbook to help one live beyond of the Death of God. It includes two or three of my more cherished maxims - about identity, freedom and redemption: All of which are difficult ideas to critique(which I kind of was) as they are so much a part of an individuals mental landscape, particularly to a poetry audience at the end of the night (after 10:30).
 And yet it does feel good, as it is make me, in my introductions to take Standup Thought in new directions. It is allowing me, however scary, to make it clear to others how much of what I perform is my own voice (and how how belong to the thinkers I perform). This is absolutely necessary, and without this demarcation I know I am simply not doing justice to philosophy (or my own scholarship). i have therefore a duty make it work, and was pleased by the performance - given the difficulty of the hour, and the piece, I think it could not have been different.
 But I will not give up, and next time will be better still, and there will be a next time very soon.... I just wish did not find it quite so terrifying!

Monday, November 19, 2012

An Idea for all Times

When you think about it, the history of philosophy is essentially a temporal monster, or a time-crime of the highest order; and performing mere exacerbates this fact.
 Or at least it ought to be. Philosophy only has power (or separate existence) as its ideas speak to us here and now. And yet the same ideas have a history of their own, and what was more all its ideas were always peculiarly rooted in their own times : But this strangely does not matter.  I mean Hegel might have thought history ended with the Prussian king, and Marx he revolution was tomorrow, but that does not undermined exactly what they say (any more than the minor Apocalypse undermines Christianity).
   But this does not mean the ideas ought to be pulled apart from their history, or seen as logcal and so true and distinct from their times. On the contrary, their history, what they were solving, and how we feel about tt, is actually part of their identity, and infuses their reality for all time. To know them as powerful ideas now, is also therefore to re-conjure there history.
   More than this, good ideas crystalise for us, that history so that in them it lives again - and in thinking them we feel its power and passion, as a thing gone, and get still present and vivd. The history of ideas is therefore not only a challenge to our conception of the here and now, as learning the history of the assumptions you simply accept makes you rethink them:  but it is also the most vivid of historical romance, and one that really does put the thinker at the centre of the drama. You hear the ideas as they were, and as they are-  and are caught up in the moment of their history, even as you feel that history in the moment.
I am currently working on a performance of Behemoth, Hobbes account of the start of the English Civil. It is a book shot through with the politics of his day (it was written in 1668, but then supressed until after his death), but also the memory of the politics of the generation before (it analyses 1640-1660), and has is its debates, echoes so much of what we think today.  A good performance of it, ought therefore to let all this aspects out -- the audience ought to be back in time, even as they feel the power of the arguments today: To read and perform it is is therefore to breed temporal monsters, or to commit a crime against time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Keeping up the pace

I have blogged before about that integral difficulty of standup philosophy: pace versus explication. That is go to quickly and the audience is lost, as you have said far far too little, but go too slowly, and you do the philosopher justice, but bore, then loose the audience. This dilemma is not only integral to the structure of each piece, but also unique to each performance. Take this piece. It was the end of a long evening of (very strong) performances. It was therefore far too late for most the audience to engage their brains. This meant there was no real point 'doing Plotinus' properly. It would not have worked. Plotinus is hard at the best of time to wrap your head around, even more so at the first hearing  and almost impossible if that hearing is past ten, and everyone is tired... The performance therefore had to not be about explanation, so must as impression. I wanted the audience to get the idea that there was an amazing theory of time, a theory which is similar and yet so different for todays conception of it, in the third century AD. What is more I wanted the audience to get the idea that this theory was linked to St John's gospel, and combines a theory of physics with outright mysticism. Hence the piece has lost some of the subtlety  of the original, and yet has I hoped kept much of its poetry and its power.
 But judge for yourselves:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Jarring Time

One of the oldest theories in western thought, involves restitching ones notion of time, so that it is merely a participation within, or a mired reflection of being in something else. The reason why such an idea is so persistent  is easy to grasp: It is so hard to think of time in the first place; so hard indeed one cannot even be sure that the analogies one uses to encompass it (be it -rivers or fabric, or mirrors) are not in fact the actual reality of what is being described in the first place. To think of time, almost (but not quite) always involves grasping that time in, or as part of, something else.What is more philosophies are defined by the way they define this participation.
 The question therefore always becomes exactly how one understand this participation. Here there are perhaps three basic stratagems. The first one, which is usually attributed to Plato,  argues that time is some kind of reflection of an eternity, and imperfect one at that. It therefore attempts to capture of difficulty of thinking time, by blaming times imperfection itself.
 The second methodology was pioneered by Aristotle, and looks understand think time through something we all understand, and which necessarily involves it, namely movement. Time is the numbering number of movement - and so the way we grasp the difference it makes. So that while we cannot grasp time itself, we still understand what it is, and how it functions.
Finally one might understand time as participation in something other, something greater and enigmatic-  be it the fabric of space-time or the participation in a 'One' beyond all difference. This latter move was poineerd by Plotinus (a third century AD thinker), who saw time as the way we were part of, and part in, the eternity of being, which was itself an expression of the singularity of The One that existed beyond all being. The theory argues that our being in time is our being in something else, something we cannot understand or comprehend (which is why we find it hard to think), a mind numbing idea, but one that came back strong at the start of the twentieth century, in the form of relativity. It is therefore a theory which in a sense we now all know of (even if we do not understand it), and for that reason alone, one well worth performing.
 The problem of course then is how do you do it? how do you perform an enigma, that has confused two thousand years of thinkers? One could perform the confusion itself, but that never appeal to me. Far better to bring out the relationship with  Einstein, but also to link the idea also to a wider fin de siecle feeling that wants time to mysterious. Plotinus will therefore appear as half Einstein, an abstract thinker of genius, and half sub-lovecraft writer, obsessed with what lies beyond the curving of our universe: He needs to be half wooly  mystic, and half abstract thinker of great genius. A conjunction that is, I  think is very interesting, as it gives novel way to explore how all abstract thought, relates to, feeds upon, and yet critically remains distinct from profound imagination. In Plotinus one can really see being a mystic is not enough in itself to be a  scientist, a fact that might need relearning.
 The game with this performance, and what will make it succeed or not is the voice of Plotinus. He must feel like Einstein on acid, as so get the audience to 'feel' they know him, even as his ideas overwhelm with abstraction, and carry one on the strangest of journeys, that is bamboozling, and yet strangely beautiful and even fulfilling. In short I need to get poetry of the ideas, in all their vivid glory right. If I can this piece will move beyond the humour it has to start with and that must run through it, and which carries the audience along, and become truly a 'glittering shard of sepulcral majesty'...

Monday, September 24, 2012

Morality and Matter

One of the things I love about philosophy is its endless ability to ask you to see the world from another perspective. Take my latest performance piece on George Berkeley. Now the piece itself is a lovely little essay from the minor history of thought. It has a certain place in the philosophical canon, and presents an interesting proof for the existence of God, while making a nice point about the nature of being, and the problem of abstract thought, but on the face of it, that is all.
   And yet there must be something so much more to this piece - for it really spoke to the audience in a way that other philosophers perhaps sometimes do not. The reaction to a minor philosopher is itself very interesting (and gratifying), but with with my very strict philosopher's hat on, rather surprising. However, seen from another perspective there is no mystery in it. I think people are reacting warmly to two central (and inter-related) claims in Berkeley's argument. Firstly there is his claim that to accept the radical truth of perception, and the world as we see it, is actually rather a difficult thing to do. We are forever drawn away from that bright perception, and led into other thoughts, or abstract speculations, and miss its power, or simply assume that we know what it is. More than that, one misses where the real world actually is - where it exists - in a me. But secondly, on very deep level,  if the being of the world is tied to my perceiving of it, then its order (as well as those thoughts not derived from perception, namely awareness of others), imply a deep order beyond simple actuality. To give and be given in the world, at the same moment, and in the same thought, opens up that giving, that perceiving, to morality (or we might say ethics). So that what I perceive, what I choose to look at, and the thoughts I derive from that choice, those experiments, are necessarily already ethical in what they encompass. The bright being of perceptions (which is their reality) might predate all our thoughts about them, and so we need to think inside them (that is inside evidence itself), and yet that 'inside' is enmeshed within a moral order, which puts the reality of the perceptions within a wider framework where truth and the way we share knowledge with each other, is itself already part of a wider picture.
   In short Berkeley puts his finger, in an incredibly perceptive way, on one of the central problems of modernity. Once one understands perceptions, not as simple reflections of God given essences (a world where hats and dogs simply are), but rather as part of evidence, that might open out on many worlds (dogs exist, but so too do electrons, quarks, and fundamental strings), then we are necessarily caught up in endless ethical problems of what we should look at and why. The seemingly 'neutral' act of the scientist, who is determined at one level to let the world be and does so free from any assumptions, might be neutral in itself, but on another level it is an act beset by moral questions and ethical implications.
   Berkeley understands even before the 'scientific  age' properly gets going, both the importance of letting perceptions be in our minds, but also the ethical implications about where such experiments might lead. What is more he understands this in way that encourages thought in itself, and wants us to answer him, and do so in a  constructive and generous manner of our own. He gives us much to think about and with, even if we do not agree with him. And it is this generosity, which spoke to Hume, Kant, Hegel and Wittgenstein so powerfully, that still has its great power to move us all. In short  Berkeley is wonderful because he opens us all to being, if but for a while, great philosophers, and to think for ourselves.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

"If Berkeley says there is no matter, then it matters not what Berkeley says!"

   I am just starting to work out how to perform one of the sadly under-read greats of British empiricism - the Irish Bishop George Berkeley. My problem is exactly how to present him. I mean Berkeley is not widely read, and yet his fundamental point, that for humans 'Essence is Perception', so if a thing is in  our minds it is real (for us, at least), is one of the touchstones of philosophy, and is so for a number of reasons. Firstly it is one of those ideas you read and understand, and wonder if it is true. Secondly, there is something rather subtle going on here. For it is not just the world's essence that is defined in perception but also our own. It is then in perceiving a world apparently beyond our minds and yet within which we are, and in which we actually exist: so that we and the world are given in the same created-creative glance. This is then a theory of how one 'is' only through a relation to an elusive Other  (the good Bishop's actual argument being that this Other is actually God). Thirdly, in a world of virtual reality, where truth is defined on computer screen, it is an idea with a new cadence, and power: Our reality does once again lie in perception. - All of which makes rich performance material, and requires the philosopher to be subtle enough to say this, without going beyond Berkeley's text.
  However it is at this point the problems start. You see Berkeley is actually really very subtle. In the midst of his main argument there are all sorts of lovely arguments about the nature of language, of Causes and of God. The problem is that these are arguments that other philosophers would have written greatly about, but which the young Berkeley raises as interesting points, makes a pithy argument about and then moves on. The reader is then left wanting more. This is of course a powerful philosophical trick. It meant that for many years thinkers read and quoted Berkeley, as they made a philosophy and so a living out of what he never quite managed to say.... Any faithful performance of Berkeley must therefore frustrate an audience at the same moment it intrigues it.
   Moreover there is one last point that must be bought out, if never stated. Berkeley only writes one short philosophy book, and does so as a young man. What is more, the main purpose of this book lies not in pure philosophy, so much as theology. He wants to demonstrate that we need to assume God, to perceive the world at all (and so to be). This hurry to God, and the dismissal of the world as a consequence (it is only what God gives to me), can and has made Berkeley a figure of philosophical fun - and even a stooge. Here is a man whose argument appears to actually be straw, and can be attacked accordingly. To get this element of Berkeley out there, so the audience can hear it, and yet also hear the rather interesting and powerful things Berkeley is also saying about our relation with whatever is really outside us, must be the real trick of this performance. If the audience all think the same thing at the end of the piece, then I have failed in my job, and let George down!
   In short, why I have put Berkeley off all this time, is because I have always deeply respected him, and realised that to get him right is a challenge... but one that must be addressed at some time (if nothing else to do justice to British thought, I usually make Locke a figure of fun after all, and perform Hume too rarely). And that time had better be now. For Berkeley is the first great ethical thinker of our encounter with an Other, an encounter which he understands and renders moral in the same moment. He is therefore a philosopher whose time is now, and who has never had more to say to us all, and I can only hope I do not, as so many have, not do him justice!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Many voices to Thought

One of the joys for me of reading and thinking philosophy is the sheer variety of different voices which it conjures up. Arguments resonate both between thinkers or schools of thought, but even more interestingly, within the same thinker. To Be a philosopher, and do it well, appears to me at least, about allowing many voices into one's head. The great philosophers are then directors as much as they are thinkers. The great works of philosophy, but even more the oeuvre of any one philosopher ought to be understood as much as a stage as it is a single corpus of thought... Upon this stage many thoughts happen, many openings are made, many arguments are aborted and yet left open and possible. A stage where much thought does happen, and yet so much more is also happening, or could happen or perhaps will at another time happen.
   For me, of course this is why Stand Up Philosophy works - at its best it ought to liberate not just books from libraries, but also the many voices in the one thinker. This performance of the Four Minute Foucault is my first real attempt to make these voices palpable and relevant. I am of course choosing an easy first target to do this with. One of the glories of Foucault is that there are many voices deliberately within the same text. He rejoices in the diversity of his own thought, and functions as the director par excellence. I am therefore merely following, as it were, his own 'performance notes', while letting the actors speak for themselves.
   The result I hope, is not then just that there are many voices in the one performance, but rather that there are many moods. The piece is at times funny, other times thoughtful, sometimes shocking, occasionally controversial, and once in a way Messianic, while being at other times overtly political, but also historical, and  above all rigorously analytical, and strangely balanced and scrupulously fair. And yet running across these arguments, and so necessary for them to work together, there has to be a measured narrative thrust, which keeps the action moving, the arguments evolving, and the conversation going. The audience must therefore trust the performance, and think it's going somewhere, even if they do not know where that is, or even what will happen next...
   All I can say is, that for this piece, and this audience, I think it worked, and worked well. The only question is, can I do it for a less generous thinker than Foucault - one that attempts to stifle his many voices and pretend that they are not there, and that the book is his and HIS alone? So watch this space - Heidegger here I come!


Thank you to everyone -That strange Performance thing

The Camera is weird. Sometimes it picks up something that one as a performer cannot see  - something which I think about - lighting and atmosphere.
   The film below is a case in point. It is at the lovely Catweazel Club, in Oxford. I felt at the time the performance was a little tired (and so did the camera person), and that I kept getting the word order slightly wrong, which broke the rhythm of the piece - or so it felt to us.
   But the Camera clearly saw something else - something I think about the light, the wonderful set and the audience reaction (this was the first time they had seen Stand Up Philosophy), that makes the video one of the best...
   So Thank you Catweazel Club, for the Venue, and the Opportunity, and Thank you light, you have done it again.
   But most of all I guess I should thank Marx, whom I am yet again impersonating: Actually - perhaps -  thinking about it,  it might have been Marx's unquiet spirit itself,  that took over this performance  - it was after all was his bete noire, the 'bourgeois citadel' of Oxford... I certainly hope so.
 All I know is that the credit is not mine.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The two paths to performance philosophy

   A remark that is often made to me, as a stand up thinker, could be summarised as the following;
 How does one make philosophy dramatic, or exciting, or even relevant? Surely it is dry as dust, and boring? It is, after all, merely smug clever-idiots playing word games and never resolving anything...
Now I am not denying that this remark does cover rather a lot of what passes for philosophy. It has more than its fair share of logic choppers, and meaning(less) wallahs. And yet, the remark is surely wrong-headed for all that. For what is more exciting or more challenging or more simply interesting than really thinking? If philosophy is not fundamentally engaging, and engaging on some level for everyone, then it is nothing. The game is though, always to find that level, and it is this that the stand up show explores.
   There are essentially two main strategies which I have developed within the show. The first, attempts to really get under the personality of a thinker, or perhaps better, to give personality to their works. The aim is therefore to give life to thought, and explore how ideas relate to contexts, passions and history. In these pieces I am doing a lot of 'filling in' of the historical biographies of the thinker, but doing so almost incidentally, so that when I do it right, the audience should get the feeling of a cloud of events, a history which they can appreciate in itself (as another time) and yet also feel it reflects their times. It is out of these events and histories that the ideas I am developing, arise. More than that, the revelations of thinkers must comment upon or even resolve the passions such events cause, both then and now. The performance is therefore designed to build context, share emotions, and only then to really communicate ideas as a resolution to these situations and feelings.
 I hope you can see what I mean in this very short video.

   The second main approach is more obviously ideas-based. I love taking a thinker, or an idea that either we think we know very well, or else regard as frankly bizarre, or think of as too difficult to bother with, and then showing how, actually, in the context of our lives, the idea really does make sense and is important by performing it. I see myself as freeing ideas of their 'assumed' philosophical context, and letting them speak for themselves, and to our times once again. Take for example Leibniz's assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds. This argument was hooted out of history from Voltaire onwards. And yet, when you put it in the context of the kind of moral argument Leibniz was certainly making, it becomes a real proposition once again - a battle-cry which calls to us to be worthy of  life itself. The trick with the lectures is to pitch them right, so that although I am often 'doing real philosophy' in them, it does not feel too difficult to a general audience, and catches their attention long enough for them to get something out of it.
   I hope this video illustrates something of this.

For me, the point of philosophy, is that it is as challenging and as urgent as more conventional drama, and the game is merely to show that this really is the case. Does it work? I hope so, but judge for yourself.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Hoping for Hecklers!

It finally happened - I always wanted one - a Heckler: For how else do you know this is Stand Up? And that you are really getting to people? I love the idea that the audience have the right to answer back, and think it great that people felt happy enough to do so (and that the ideas were worth answering) - but it did raise a problem mid-performance of how I should respond. This problem was all the more tricky as there was only a limited time (around five minutes) for this piece. I could not then simply become Kant ad libbing an answer (which was my instinct), and had to stay inside the essay. My answer was (and you can see it in the performance below), was to engage the heckler, trying to bring him to the argument. But the question was how to do it? Taking my cue from Kant, I felt I had to be gentle - as arguing with Kant is tricky - he is very very good (although always polite), and if you are not used to him, likely to blast you away (as he has usually thought of the problem you are raising...). One has therefore to genuinely be listening to the argument, and note, as one keeps going on, the point which will really answer the heckle.
  In this performance (and I hope you can see it), the answer to the heckler comes at the end - with Kant's masterful (but genuinely difficult) paradox - that in obeying, one is finally free. The point being that real freedom exists in thought alone, and in our human ability to argue and influence one another, and this true freedom is too often occluded or delimited by supposed freedoms 'to act'. Kant is therefore setting the two types of freedom - of 'action' and of 'thought' against each other, and arguing that one is worth protecting from the other. The heckle in the interest of the freedom to act is therefore very much caught within this paradox, and kind of illustrates Kant's point rather well... Which was of course why I was delighted.
  My main worry was that it might be too much to ask an audience to take Kant on. I wanted not to be too aggressive in the reply, and to allow the audience to feel that they can answer, and can position themselves in relation to the argument, while all at the time same being true to Kant. A difficult balancing act - and if you want to see if it proved possible, the video is here.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Performing Kant

One of the jokes made by those 'in the know' in philosophy, is 'I bet you can't perform Kant'. At which point I usually say, 'Well actually Yes, his essay "What is Enlightenment?" makes a good performance.' (you can judge that below). But at the same time I know what they mean, there is something about Kant's style, all the more so in his non-political work, that would appear to preclude performance. He gives all the signals of someone who is unapproachable and 'difficult'.
   However this is such a pity, for as both Hegel and much later Deleuze noted, Kant's ideas, taken in themselves are both pithy, and also have a violent urgency all of their own, Take for example his very famous division of the self into Empirical and Transcendental aspects - that is into our living self (in day to day life), and that which demands that to live at all, to have an experience, we must be a single self. It is a division which sets up or at least expresses, a profound schism in everything one is or could be. For the Empirical self, my life, based on memory and feeling is always someone less than that other self, the one that patterned the world and allowed me to be. Who I am is necessarily unworthy of whom I also am - the meta-me. The result of course is that the empirical self is always changing, and evolving, while feeling it is never good enough, never complete in the face of that other-me which in forming my world demands of it (and me) more than can be expressed in any experience. The problem is seen clearest in the Sublime, where logic demands the transcendental appear in the world, and rends experience, making the act of comprehension impossible and even painful. A feeling that Kant then says is only placated in Art, which the Meta-me cannot master or fully grasp.
   Here then in a nutshell, is very much the modern human experience. One is both at any one time the result of a certain subset of experiences and habits, and yet always aware that there are other things one was, and will be. From which it is follows that is is impossible to ever feel one has truly reached one potential, for the world might be (transcendentally) what the self makes, but it is what (empirically) makes the self. A doctrine, as full of poignancy as it is full of madness,  modernity and necessary futility.
   What is more, this same entanglement, with the same doubling of transcendental and empirical, infuses much of the way we understand the world, much of the way we dress it up and think it. Take for an example so much of traditional economics, where the lusts and desires of an notional self-interested individual, are abstracted and somehow writ large across a population (who all are hence forced become self-interested consumers). And this mandate is then used to attempt to comprehend (or at least contain) all of the highly complex interactions, developments, and innovations that pattern our working and leisure lives. Hence we take one aspect of what we are, render that aspect transcendental, and then think the world through that glass. The Myth of the Market, becomes a reality. The resulting doctrine only succeeds, in that the constant flux of that which the myth grasps at, means that the advocates of the transcendental doctrine, can endlessly re-invent their agency, and understand it anew, and so start the same process over again, and only a huge revolution in thought could ever stop this being the case.
   Kant's thought opens up a simple division of the mind, which is at once painful for the individual, and problematic for society as a whole. Hence Deleuze's repeated claim that Kant is the Hamlet of the North, for whom time has become unhinged. Thence the problem of performing Kant is not one of lack of substance, but of too much potential - too much to say. One must perform Kant as Hamlet, and condense the performance into a single dramatic moment....A tall order indeed, but one I think, if it can be done, would be wonderful Stand Up Thought, and so one that remains for me for now, very much a work in progress.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Finishing the Work - or Performing Spinoza's 'Political Treatise' as Post-Modern Tragedy

How do you finish off an unfinished work?
 This is a problem of course familiar to literature, drama or music ('The Mystery of Edwin Drood', 'Sanditon' etc) - But in philosophy?
   This performance of Spinoza's unfinished Political Treatise answers this problem, by turning the incomplete nature of the work actually into something ineffable about its argument. The last line I use actually comes from Spinoza's masterwork 'Ethics',  where it is its last line, but I use it here (quite erroneously) to describe democracy, and reflect something of its immanence, in Spinoza's argument at least. Hence I develop the idea in the performance, that the final argument of the book, actually captures political change in a dark spiral, where no government is really ultimately stable or ever perfect - a fact which renders the book necessarily incomplete.
   Moreover this unfinished state allows me to actually play with Spinoza and what he is saying. So that the argument I think I have him make, is that 'pure democracy' represents the limit of state understood as if it were the infinite god - as immanence (An argument found in Antonio Negri and the 'Savage Anomaly'). The problem is that this immanent but theoretical pure democracy does not translate at all into the actual, and finite, real situations we live in: As Spinoza says  - We all agree as we are in God, but not as we are in life.
   From which it necessarily follows that humanity faces the deep problem as to how to express their collective reality. The traditional answer, the Monarchy, involved dressing up that collectivity in a single ruler, and so expressed immanent collectivity as if it were a single transcendental unity. That is, as if it were a mystery, whose nature lay at a point  beyond us all, and given to us by God. The ruler is therefore somehow a meta-person. Spinoza's very original twist here is that this position is fine in transcendental theory, but in immanent (actually lived) reality, necessarily results in madness.
  It is far better, Spinoza suggests,  to enshrine arguments in meta-organisations-cum-political-parties which ensure debate, but which will, however, delimit what can be said and thought. The parties become transcendental (and so eternal) if you like, while their debates remains immanent, vital and creative. In our times, we see a number of very 'Aristocratic' parties -  which alone, it often seems, pattern debate, and define what can be thought or said: For example, the ideas of the Left and Right,  The Free Market and Capitalism...
   Spinoza thereby sets up a dual problem in such Aristocracies. On the one hand, debates have to be institutionalized: Revolutions themselves do not change anything, as the power/debates which eventually dominate the emerging system will tend to be the ones already there with their institutions and their organisations, and not the original revolutionaries (so armies and religious organisations win out over people). On the other hand, new ideas that cannot be expressed by the 'offical' argument makers (such as those concerning the environment) remain unsayable and unthinkable by the political system.
   The aim of this piece/performance is therefore to complete the Political Treatise by drawing out the fact that in a modern sense the book, like our political system, can never be finished, for no system is ever perfect, as it actually exists. Thence in the alchemy of performance, Spinoza's death becomes also our own tragedy, for our inability rethink the political system reflects the very nature of this posthumous work.
   Does it work as Philosophy? -  I think so. Does it work as performance? - I hope so, though it is darker and more difficult than I often am - but judge for yourself.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Standing on the Brink...

One of the things I love philosophy for, one of the things that really keeps me coming back to it, is its ability to say the unexpected, and argue convincingly the apparently perverse. It is a discipline adept in turning the oddball into radical thought. And yet this move is so difficult. It is easy to become a mere curmudgeon or contrarian. That is, an individual, who for all their own opinions, remains caught by the discussions of their times, and so fated to be caught by their implicit maxims and preconceptions. It is so very easy you see for debate to become the thing in itself - the arena in which we strike attitudes, become a people and a power - and so stop being what surely every discussion ought to be (if it can) - namely a genuine attempt to look at, and perhaps to understand how we are already caught by movements and powers, that lie beyond and inbetween us all.
   In short, for me philosophy should, if it can, confront what is hard to talk about, and if cannot it should at least proceed in the light of the 'unthought'. If it does not, then the heart surely drops out of it, and it becomes merely a 'discussion' topic, a register of opinions and 'arguments' past and present: a set, or collection of legal cases and precedents. Even more problematically, its thinkers risk always becoming mere heroes of thought - the Men who  taught us all this or that, popular thought or partial prejudice. Names become then attributed to simplified arguments and routinised dilemmas, which are to be presented as if they were philosophy - and as if they were what actually thinking was about.
   The 'Argument-as-philosophy' credo has for me a double disadvantage. Firstly it loses sight of actually what you are doing when you are thinking. We are simply lying about what thought involves, by presenting it always as fait accompli (a standard teaching strategy). But even more importantly, in this rush for argument, we are doing thought a disservice, and making it feel more alien than it is. Real thinking, starts (and ends) with that quiet confrontation with 'that which lies between or beyond us', which we are (occasionally) caught up in. Thought starts the moment  a world I thought I knew begins to feel feel 'uncanny' and tricky. A moment that demands not a sophisticated argument, so much as an openness to what is other than ourselves.
   It is the communication of this last point, that for me forms the bedrock to the stand up philosophy performances, and what makes it different from so much academic philosophy. If you are teaching the subject you need to explain the argument, and summarise a formula and move on - but if you are performing it, you are free to stay with the dilemma, and to explore its passion and power.
   Hence, again speaking personally, stand up philosophy, lies very close to Kierkegaard, in its intent and ethic. It exists as the paradoxical attempt to communicate something irresolvable in words, or formulae, and yet palpable and highly accessible for all, for all of that: - For it is the very power, the very urgency to think. All of which (perhaps) explains why, of all the pieces I perform regularly this is the one I find myself returning to, and watching again and again - for I think is says something about what I feel I am trying to do in genuinely performing thought.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Socrates' Trial - Or Making philosophy for everyone

The Trial of Socrates is the moment in philosophy - the moment it became what it was, the moment if you like, thst Philosophy stopped being a disparate and marginal series of discussions, and became, in the light of Socrates' death, a true subject, distinct in its own right. The questions, the problems, the issues which the trial raised, about the nature of enquiry, and the relationship of thinking with freedom and morality, have remained the mainstays of philosophy, and its legacy. And yet there is of course a barb here. Philosophy in becoming 'a discipline' started the long road to becoming 'too difficult' and so more and more marginalised. One had to become a philosopher, and that took more time, and money, as well as concentration, than most people could ever hope to afford. The Trial of Socrates is the essential story in which philosophy for good or ill is born. But this role as philosophy's 'founding legend' gives it a unique power to reach beyond the normal audience for either philosophy or more widely, performance art. It has a lyrical and dramatic quality all of its own. It was this power that the performance below is trying to get at. A power that meant that even though the performance was at the end of a local Respect Festival, just as people were starting going home and in indifferent weather, it still reached out and built an audience. People who had never heard of Socrates, or only of his name, or wondered where and when western philosophy (and eventually scientific method and democracy) started, stopped and listened, and were caught by the drama that has lost none of its power, and poignancy after well over two thousand years...

Monday, May 28, 2012

Rousseau, or where tyrants come from

For me Rousseau is always unintentionally very funny (in all his pompous glory), and always very instructive. It is perpetually interesting to see an intuitive mind, a man who can feel more that he can prove in action. A kind of Philosophical everyman if you like. All the more so, because one sees the danger of such a methodology. For at times it is clearly very difficult for Rousseau, to distinguish prejudice from thought. This is particularly the case in this piece, from the start of the Social Contract, which is as infamous as it is famous. For in this essay, is enshrined for all to see, a series of mental switches, double takes and jumps in the face of adversity and complexity, that transform idealism into something terrifying and inflexible. What is even more telling, is that it is clear that Rousseau himself, is utterly unaware of what we are seeing. He knows that 'He is a reasonable man', and feels that he is merely responding, pragmatically and robustly to the problems which his argument faces, and is going where it ought to lead...but the modern reader sees something quite different. For here written, quite transparently, and with a chilling if chirpy self confidence, are the series of transformations that warp even the most liberal of modern politicians, of all parties and creeds, and see them move from idealistic ambition, through pragmatic dogmatics to repression. The Social Contract is, more truly than its author could have meant, a manifesto for contemporary democracy, for it clearly re-stages one of the great tragi-comedy dramas of modern times, the drama of political idealism, and its corruption, and does so in the (musical) key of hope. But the really strange part about this movement is not that it happens, but that we sometimes convince ourselves that it will not happen; and that this is the young, idealistic leader, who will somehow at last triumph, if only we support them... So that, and in spite of ourselves, the theatre of our democracy demands that we are all caught up, and complicit in the hope as well as witnesses of the despair. Hence the aim of this performance of the Social Contract must be to sweep the audience along. They ought to start in hope and feel that the performance really might be going Somewhere, that this might be at last The Change or a Utopia We Might Believe In. The movement to the darker side of the argument must be subtle and gradual, so that for the most part the argument must appear to sound reasonable, or at least better than the alternative...and only at the end, should the full implication of all that seemed so clear and reasonable at first, be apparent in all their terrors. An all too familiar drama that catches us all up in it, so that it is the same for Rousseau as it is Robespierre, Blair and for us. We all have a part in the inflexible hopes and the implied villainies, whose complicated nature 'The Social Contract' reveals (if unintentionally) so very well....

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Performance Notes - so Just what is it to be Moral? Leibnitz and the best of Worlds

At the heart of this performance is a difficult question, and a strange answer. The difficult question is simple. What is morality? What is it about a certain set of behaviours that allows us to claim that they are somehow better or different than all the rest? That somehow these actions ought to have an effect or perhaps merit a reward, beyond their immediate outcome. And does such a faith, that not all behaviour is equal, survive into a world where belief in God has collapsed?
   This question has of course had many answers, and has been seen from so many different angles. And yet most of these answers have in some way sought to involve morality in a higher world, a world beyond mere natural gain. Such answers have therefore been typified by ideas of God, Duty or merely the Essence of Man. Leibniz stands out in this debate because he alone makes a somewhat startling claim. He asserts that morality is the same as materiality. That the two go together. He makes this claim, in the context of an argument about why only one world, and that being this one, exists. It alone is, he says, because somehow it is the best, is the richest, of all possible worlds, and so the one God chose to create it. What is more this choice to create this, the richest of worlds, is essentially ongoing, and we as agencies have a key part in it. For matter might be moral in that it is at all, but it is immoral in itself. It contains all possible worlds within its folds - that is, the same lump of stuff might open on many worlds, and be sword or ploughshare at different times or in different places. It is therefore us as individual agencies who by our choices usher in this world, the one that must be the best, and it is therefore our duty to remember this as we act.

   Hence Leibniz is effectually arguing that the world of matter, of stuff, lays upon us, by both its existence but also its potential, the duty to be worthy of it and so of its existence. We must remember therefore that existence does not revolve around us and our particular actions or thoughts, but rather is composed of those actions through the whole of Being. What is more our position in that whole is always perilous. If we forget it, and the true power of existence, then the very matter which we think we control may elude us, and become a part in a world beyond us, one in which we have only the least of effects upon (or even interest in).
   From which it follows that Leibniz's much maligned assertion, that this is the 'Best of all Possible Worlds', is not dogma or doggerel, but the evocation of a very practical empirical programme. Leibniz is suggesting that we must think and so act in the knowledge that the world is beyond us all, and that it is richer than any one of us. So that, as it is our individual actions which, taken together, create this universe (and no other), we must make those actions worthy of that whole, and so worthy of participation in every thing else, and must do so in each action, each reaction, and each moment. - An argument I  find very very beautiful, and very strangely compelling; something which I hope the performance begins to communicate.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Performance Notes - subtlety, and planning a new piece.

I am currently starting on thinking about a new performance piece (which I will preview at Exeter's premiere open mike night 'Taking the Mic' in mid-June), and it is very interesting as I do so, to think about what makes performance thought so compelling, and so fun. The piece I am working on is perhaps a philosophical oddity: It is Spinoza's unfinished Political Treatise. This is a work that appears on the face of it archaic and rooted in the most conventional of Aristotelian/Cicero traditions, where there are three types of pure state; Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy, and a mixed constitution which combines them all. On the face of it the fact is, that Spinoza's essay appears to show exactly how illiberal it is to modern ears (Spinoza eulogizes those who guard convention, restricts his democracy to thirty individuals, and denies women any rights). All of which must be included in any faithful account of the essay, and yet of course if this was all that Spinoza was saying, then I doubt the essay would have had the - albeit intermittent influence - that it has, and would certainly not make good performance.
   What really interests me in this piece is not the convention, so much as the realism. Spinoza is, you see in this essay really trying to get to grips with a very difficult problem: How do we make decisions both individually and collectively? And how should we create organisations to enable these decisions and those thoughts to made and acted upon? The point is that what we decide and so how we can act is actually a product of our organisation at institutional level. So that only certain policies and thoughts are possible in certain societies. And Spinoza is cutting very deep here - he really means it. It is not just that societies can only do what they are organised to do, and what is more should only do so (as to step beyond that organisation is to step beyond the society, into anarchy and oppression - hence Spinoza's praise of the tradition). But far more radically Spinoza is clearly saying that the types of organisation impose upon those who are caught up in them, a certain set of problems and certain allowed set of resolutions to those problems. So that how one organises one's world, and how how understands it are reflections of each other, and part of the same basic problem.
   The strength of Spinoza's essay is then in its honesty. It accepts this limitation head on, and tries within the imperfection, to create at different levels, different ways to understand or to react to governance. The point being that each of these ultimately limited thoughts ought to be as perfect as it can be it itself. What is more Spinoza clearly leaves open the idea that in any one state, and  criss-crossing any one individual, there are many types of organisation, and so many thoughts - none of which have to easily resolve one into the other. A society becomes a conjunction of disparate parts, combined and recombined in differing ways, and these parts involve many individuals, and many parts of the same individual, all attempting at different rhythms and in different ways to comprehend one another.
   In short Spinoza is offering us, from the other end of its history as it were, a very perceptive critique of modern liberal societies and their governance. And as part of that picture he has his finger one of the real difficulties to democracy, understood in its purest form - that is as collective decision making. At that level he says it is simply impossible to organise thinking and so action, unless one restricts the numbers involved. He suggests then, that the perfect democracy can only have around thirty citizens in it (a number which, given these individuals must forge between them a collective agreed plan, seems rather large). In addition, Spinoza is clear that the numbers involved in being a democracy ebb and flow, as it becomes easier or harder for groups to form the kind of collective will and thought which a true democracy demands. By implication, then it is very easy to be a democracy (or Spinoza might suggest a mob), that is opposed to something obnoxious, or 'for' something in general (say peace). But it is very difficult to turn that ideal into actual policy.
   Now of course in our jaded times perhaps none of this is new, and yet of course in Spinoza's time it was practically unheard of, and unthought. I want then that jar of history to be felt, and to matter. The voice of Spinoza (if I do it right) will clarify thoughts we all have about our world and its promises and policies. And yet there will be something at stake here, which I will certainly end with. Spinoza, at the other of this history (the beginning) still had hope, for all his cynicism, that albeit slowly, things might change, new thoughts might become possible. It is this hope for better in the midst of scepticism which I wish to give the audience as a parting thought, and a lingering refrain. So that the piece should be ultimately uplifting and thought-provoking in the most positive of senses....

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Stand up Philosophy: Novels and Me

One of the aspects of thought that has always fascinated me, is framing. Most actions, most thoughts can be taken up, re-thought, if a new context is made for them, or they are seen in the light of a different or a new problem. Perhaps it is this ambivalence that makes them great art. A great art work, is rich enough that not only many frames are possible, but also that no frame can ever sum up all it has to say - for there is always more. A good frame is then one that sets up a very convincing dialogue with that which it attempts to comprehend. But even this gets the exact relationship wrong. The real relationship should never be comprehend and comprehender, so much as that of a strange exchange that between illicit partners. A work of art solves and posed problems, in the work of thought that is being related to it. It should have the freedom to comment on the ideas, and perhaps strain against them or test them, or mutate them; While at the same time, the body of thought ought to enrich the art work, opening out new facets or even kingdoms within works we are told we know so well.
Such an approach to a work is about as far from the typical 'film' type adaptation, as it is possible to be. All too often, any adaption cuts down the narrative structure, or renders it too simplistic, or attempts to summarise it for a modern audience, with a single image or set of images dominating. As such what is created is all too often pastiche's of the original work, which very seldom challenge an audience, or give them anything new to say. Adaptations are therefore all too often the Google Translated of the thought world. Art is somewhat crudely translated according to modern tastes and fashions, and all the original nuance and meaning are lost. And yet, this is not to knock the substance of adaptations merely its practice. That is translating ideas into the modern idiom is a task of framing, and needs to be done with care, so that the original power of the work, and its own problematising nature, shine through. The result then needs to work at least two levels, the production needs to be cogent in itself, and yet inspire one to look elsewhere, to return to that work it reflects, and changes.
From which it follows, that to perform philosophy ought to be to both adapt a work so its is performable, but also through framing it, allow new angles new aspects of the original to the fore. One needs to be perpetually critical of ones approach, and resist the Scylla and Charybdis of either pastiching the philosopher, or depriving him of the right to say something new something genuinely original. The performance could not work if wither I was mocking the thinker, by giving another (say for example a Freudian) explanation of him though the performance; nor again could it work if I was simply recreating uncritically original philosophy. To perform philosophy is necessarily to frame it, and to frame well is to open up a new approach to a thinker, and allow the audience in. Performance philosophy is in short to explore thought as it is were art; each performance is then a voyage of an endless ocean of possibility, and the audiences needs to feel that fact.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Symbol and the Thought

One of the odd, almost covert secrets to what we call thinking, is its relationship with what we write, and how we write it. To solve an equation in one's head is rather difficult, but to have it all written down, and in the right way, is to have it solved. The moment something is out there, the moment it is external, it changes in how we react to it. We see it as something external to us, and can correct it or even react to it as something other than ourselves. To write a thing, is to lose one's own unique right to it. Writing marks the moment the thought stops being simply one's own, and becomes everyone's (oneself included).
And yet, as anyone solving an equation or writing down an idea knows, it is not quite that simple. To write it down is to objectify it, and so be able to check it. And yet as one writes an idea down, as they become anyone's thought, they also remain one's own thinking. Hence one enters into a strange kind of dialogue, between one's 'thoughts that everyone' might read, and as they exist in one's own mind. To write a book is to think as oneself, but also as everyone or anyone, and so to be placed in the strange territory that oscillates between the two.
This process is very much the stuff of philosophy books, which are written as much for the thinker and their own mental process, as for any reader. They are often then both strangely intimate - as they record a mind exploring itself and its ideas; and yet also oddly impersonal - as what is left of that exploration is only the everyman part. Hence they exist as an enigma, as half of a thought process. What is more, a reader of such a work, is actually being invited to complete this whole and use the book as an 'anyone' to negotiate their own thoughts, and so to set up their own internal dialogues, and think for themselves.
The role of performance philosophy as I understand it, is to reflect upon, and catch something of these strange dialogues. One is therefore exploring not the personality of the writer (one is an actor, and never trying to 'get under the skin' of the thinker as themselves) so much as how the 'everyone' of a philosophy book loops both back into the initial writer, and forwards into us all. One is essentially exploring the 'double loop' by which a book binds together its writer and its readers in different mental journeys of their own. This is of course why the history of the text, both in the context of the thinker's own mental development, but also in the sense of wider posterity, matters so much. It is this history that shows, in part at least, the way in which the book changed things, both for its writer but also for us, and even more importantly how it still changes things. However even this history is only a part of the picture, and as such serves as its inspiration or clue. The real power of performance philosophy stands and falls, by how it illustrates or explores or opens out, or perhaps even inverts, the intense relationship between writer, book and reader. A performance works only if this relationship is rendered both palpable, powerful, and present. That is, it works when the book is made vivid, and given its own power to reach across the years, splicing our minds to the original thinker's ideas, and so inciting us to go on a mental journey own. I feeling, a power, I at least strive for in every performance.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

So, what is it about you and philosophy?

The question is often asked - why perform philosophy? What makes you like it so much?
This is a real question for any would be philosopher, and for two reasons. On the one hand the subject, because it has a certain cadence and history, has a real pretension value, that it is well to ward oneself against. To cite Nietzsche or Kant or indeed any bon mots, is enough to look like one knows something or thinks something (a fact that is a personal bete noire of mine). On the other hand, from the perspective of modernity, there is surely a question mark over whether all these thinkers from so long ago, who lived another world, and very different societies, have that much to say to us now. Why should they? And why should we expect them to?
What is more, if you put these two points together, you get a single simple fear - that the study of philosophy is merely ancestor worship for modern times. For where else but in a world of thought do we find our 'thinking ancestors' but in philosophy? Philosophy very easily becomes theology, where a single narrative of 'emerging ideas that changed the world', can be 'seen here in the "pure(est)" form' - which becomes the endless refrain. A form of ancestor worship which makes philosophers its priests, and so called upon to answer anything or everything.
What I suppose gets me down about these philosopher-priests is the assumption of the faith, that in the sacred writings of the philosophers there lie questions (we still are asking) and their (partial and absolute or still relevant) answers; and the authorities are cited safe in the knowledge of this fact.
The trouble of course is that this is simply not true.The history of thought is actually composed of very many questions, some badly formed, some still relevant, but there are also many half questions, or questions we would ask differently, or ones that have slipped in meaning and changed over the years. Likewise the histories contains many answers, many of which we now see as 'solutions' to other questions, or simply try to ignore them or occlude them. What unites the cacophony of different 'takes' on the world are however the minds of their thinkers, who are clearly thinking things out for themselves, and whose logic one can in a sense still follow, in spite of where it is leading. Hence it is the thinker, the named philosopher, who allows one into a world that is quite different from modernity, a difference that in a sense allows you to feel the history of all the time that has passed between the thinker-writer and you the reader.
And yet this weight of time is itself very uneven. Some of the problems of the past cut through to the present, making you see things (perhaps in spite of the thinker themselves) very differently, or just from another perspective, whilst other remain pure history, and it is very clear that their initial thinkers had no idea which would be the case. For me therefore, the study of philosophy is all about changing and partially challenging one's own mental landscape: To read philosophy is to change problems into solutions or older problems, and make modern 'solutions' themselves problematic (i.e. in order to critique it into being a better solution or to show up its unintended consequences for example). It is in short to think, and to be trusted with thought, and not merely given single or simple solutions.
From which it follows that to perform philosophy must always be about communicating, and involving the audience in the endless euphoria of this constantly shifting horizon line. It is to enter the world where ideas are not 'perfect abstractions' or clean simple divinities, but rather messy Greek gods, who endlessly challenge and change one's mind, and have histories and agendas of their own. Agendas which we, latterday Greek heroes, need to understand and navigate, and not escape or hope to master, but rather learn to enjoy and even love. And what could be more dramatic than that? How better to explore it then than in performance? And in answer to the question posed at the start, it is this deep love for difference, and the sharing of a challenge that keeps me thinking, that drags me back to philosophy; that makes me love it enough to perform it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Watching thought in Action

One of my odder 'guilty' pleasures is watching philosophy in action on YouTube. Why guilty? Because the philosophers I watch are all French, and I speak very little French. I am there, not watching them to learn anything, I am merely watching 'thought in action', in a pure form (well at least a form unflustered by the urgency to understand).
Watching too many of these videos and three things strike me. Firstly, there is the real care and yet very complex rhythms and flows of the thinker's speech and thought. They are not speaking in steady streams, even when they are out working out ideas they know very well. On the contrary their speech flows like a river, with rapids, eddies, torrents, strange backwards flows, as well as steady currents, taking one somewhere. Their conversation really is a journey therefore, and as about as far way from normal discussion as you can get. This is not a point being argued for or defended, so much as a flowing experiment in language. It is a flow which I find hypnotising even across the divide of language.
Secondly, to watch Foucault or Deleuze in action is to free one's mind of so many idiocies that are written by their detractors, who want to squeeze their thought into simplistic ideas (and accuse them of this or that). A parallel world of 'criticism' and of 'near' thought, where personality, 'popular' psychology, bad biography, national prejudices, and the fear which so many commentators appear to have about thinking, fuse and coalescence to give us Foucault the pervert, and fascist; and Deleuze the fool, and madman. To watch them in action is to see real philosophy, with all its very carefully nuances, and all its being necessarily thoroughly thought through. But more than that, one gets the feeling, from the voice, from the reaction of others, from the mannerisms, of the real compassion of this thinking. The thought is therefore really reaching out to others, in a resonance beyond simple characterisation or even identity. There might be a poetry in the nuance that is open to twisting by others or by history, but this is not there in the compassion of the thinking itself. But in a sense this is the point - the power and richness of an idea lies in its ability to say many things, and have many accords. It is not just Foucault who can be said to be fascist, but by the same logic Nietzsche, Spinoza, Plato, or indeed pretty much any one whom any critic does not care for... The fact that it is twisted, is of course the twister's issue, while the fact that the idea has the resources to be worth twisting relates back to its original rhythm and power; In short it is a black tribute to the original thought itself.
Thirdly watching a great thinker in action is very far from watching a discussion. Even great thinkers together are not discussing, so much as merging flows, and creating counter eddies in one another's thoughts. Philosophy in true philosopher's hands is less about straightforward discussion with its refrain of 'I respect your opinion but...' and more about flows of thought that capture imaginations, and minds, so that we become a part in it. Great thought therefore reaches inside us all from an unthinkable outside and so enriches minds and allows then to think differently, and it is by this criterion we always judge it. Real philosophy is not really a matter of discussions or endless legalistic 'this is my case' type arguments. A thinker might well not work for their readers or lookers on, but that does not matter, for one of the joys of the world is that one does not have to like everyone, and one can accept that some are likeable in spite of one's own feelings or thoughts or perceptions. Philosophy's true power is, and you can see this in the reaction of the audience and the care of thought in action, to give minds deeper resources, and polish up its power to see anew, a power that does not 'discuss' in conventional discussion form, that well.
All of which I suppose explains why for me, at least, philosophy is very close to being always performance. It reaches out into its audience, and is only good because it challenges and enriches them, using as its currency ideas which are themselves infused by passion, and language. Like good poetry or writing, good philosophy, should leave you wanting more, should also inspire you to provide that 'more' yourself, so that we are all inspired to think for ourselves. Perhaps the only difference is that ideas, if they are really great, should become genuinely part of the living fabric of one's thought as it develops and evolves (in a way very distinct for the bon mots and quotes of a great writer). Perhaps it this fact that makes watching the ideas being unwound in another language so mesmerising, for one is watching that enrichment of minds in action, without being a part of it. That is, one is experiencing in its most basic form, the performance of philosophy, and it is wonderful!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Performer Notes 2: Material Performances

One week, two open mikes, and a fair bit of stand up philosophy.
The first open mike was the long established and lovely Acoustic Night at Bristol (details at; http://www.myspace.com/acousticnightbristol). We went on a whim, it was my birthday, and we fancied a trip to the Big Smoke (or at least Bristol)... The main problem for me was what to perform - always a trouble without knowing the sort of audience in advance. I took in my 'Four Minute Foucault' on the grounds that introducing people to really revolutionary and freeing thought, is one of the funnest things I do. I love people's looks as Foucault deconstructs the prisons of gender identity and personal sexuality in front of their very eyes. It also has the advantage of being a short and very powerful piece.
However when I arrived they suggested that the night might not be that busy, as it was the day before Valentine's Day and all, and did I want to do a longer piece? So, I cursed a little, and rejigged my memory, attempting to remember the Trial of Socrates piece, I chose this as it is by far the most dramatic piece I do, real theatre, and very moving. But as I rehearsed and worked up my memory, the acoustic night filled up and up (all credit to the organisers). Until it became obvious that the full trial piece was too long, so it was back to Foucault, which I had to reload into my memory, just in time to be on.
Given which, I was very happy with the resulting performance, which went down well - I was asked about Foucault at length in the interval, and one kind PhD student said he was doing a PhD on performance and philosophy, and this was the purest exposition he had ever seen of the combination (shucks). So all in all we had a whale of a time... You can see the performance at; http://youtu.be/yEouPgH0xrU
Two days later it was another open mic and a different piece. The open mike was perennial favourite Taking the Mic at Exeter's Phoenix. This was my newest piece (which I blogged about before) which I was trying out, as I usually do, for the first time, on my 'home' audience. The piece was eventually entitled 'What would Marx want to say to us?', and was meant to be an answer to the 'What would Jesus do?' question, that was being asked a few weeks back. The piece is part exposition of what Marx did say, part critique of the financial system, and part confession, for Marx wants to explain why there was no revolution when said there would be... It is a piece therefore I was doing in very much Marx's own voice, and mannerisms (which I was extemporising from paintings and photos of him.) You can see what it was like at; http://youtu.be/Bs2ENnEQxtw.
The reaction was interesting. It was a finely nuanced and open ended piece, deliberately poised between comedy and critique, and as chance would have it, a large number of students had turned up, and they were game for a laugh. They sniggered through Marx's account of why there had been no revolution, laughter I am afraid I frankly that I played up to, camping up Marx's 'I will return' line, so it was worthy of a Bond villain. But all the while I knew that the end of the piece is actually very dark, so that I would be asking the audience to go from comedy to tragedy in a very few lines. A move that has be timed very well if it is to work at all, and one which when I first started out as a performer I would routinely get wrong. Luckily however, the interlinking lines, are the ones that involve the marxist analysis of the modern 'crisis of capitalism', and (Marx's) David Cameron impersonation. They are both then funny and sad, and so allowed the mood to change naturally, and very much as part of the performance. I let Marx then change the mood, as naturally as I could, which seemed to work well enough. I got the impression that I would perform this piece again, and that it would work for the right audiences...
I was left after these two performances in two cities, with the feeling that not only does philosophy really work as performance, but also that people love seeing it, and the doing the thinking it asks of them. For it only works if the audience engage with it, and want to enough to concentrate perhaps more than they were expecting at an open mike, and so far they always do. So that after a week of performing I am not only fired up to do more, but more than usually impressed by the quality of the audiences and heartened by their willingness to think and respond to something fairly different, and frankly quite provocative.
Oh and of course gratitude to the lovely organisers of the Bristol Acoustic Night (and the great sound technician), and as ever Tim and Morwenna of Taking the Mic.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Performance notes 7: Memories are made of....

One of the things that people routinely ask me about the stand up show is about memory. How, they ask, can you remember it all? What is the trick?
A sensible question, and yet one that makes me always feel like a conjuror, who has pulled a fast one. For I suspect if that I did remember the work as they think I must - word for word, I could not remember any of it. The game is to abstract the meaning of the text, and so to reduce it to a certain number of salient facts. What I am remembering is an abstract, which the performance then fleshes out.
And yet that is not quite the whole picture. For actually a single performance uses a number of different types of memory. Firstly there are the deep memories I have of these works. Most of them are based on pieces and thinkers I taught for a number of years, and studied very deeply for very many years before that. When you have read a book one thousand and one times, it tends to stick in the mind. Although there are issues of accuracy about such deep memories. I will therefore before a new performance, re-read the original text, and keep it around as I start on the piece. Secondly, when I am working on a piece for the first time, I often use the fact that I have a fairly developed visual aspect to my memory. I can remember quite well pages, and the arguments that are on the pages. As I perform I am actually following the pages in my thought, turning them over, and imagining the significant phrases.
Thirdly each piece I perform is worked up very much as I work up a story for telling. I do not write it down and draft it as a written text. On the contrary, I gradually work out what I am going to say aloud, repeating, composing, and rehearsing at the same time. It is at this point I decide about the voice and the passion, about who is saying what, and how much of the subsequent history or work of other thinkers I am going to blend into my interpretation of the piece, and how and when. All of which moves then feed back into my memory, creating 'chords' of thought and passion: Remember a phrase and passion comes to mind, remember a passion and one has an idea... I often will play with phrases again and again, fiddling with the emphasis, and the rhythm of the language - I like my performances to sound almost as if they were in blank verse - until I am happy with it (and have driven anyone standing near me quite quite mad).
Once the piece is half baked, I then perform it to my long suffering partner, and she gives me her take on it. She tells me how the mood, and the passions sounds to someone else. This is actually very important, as it never sounds the same in one's own mind, as it does to another. At which point I will discuss the important phrases with her, and work out those passages or sentences I have to get right. These I then commit to memory in the most conventional of senses.
After which, I rehearse a new piece every time I have a minute (when walking, driving etc). The point of these rehearsals is only partially to memorise. Each rehearsal is different, and explores other ways in which the piece might be said. They allow therefore for experiment, to see if I can find a better way to make the arguments in the piece. But also they allow me to explore the different avenues which different phrases lead to. Every performance is different, and to a degree the words I use are ad libbed. It is therefore highly useful to explore different ways you have said something, so that when you are in front of a live audience and use an odd phrase or a set of words that you had not used before, (which actually sometimes happens), you can still keep the piece going.
At which point, one is ready to go live. My first performance of most of my pieces is to an open mike audience, who I know very well. Their reaction will then allow me to accurately gauge the power or difficulty of the piece, and will to a large degree define its fate. Will it be a one off / occasional act or one of my absolute standards? We also video this performance, which is itself vital. For it is these videos I then turn to when reprising the piece. I learn it a second time in a totally different way, from the video, with all its mannerisms, gestures and audience reaction. So that when one is working up a piece for a second time, one is doing so very much in the light of how one performed it live, and what followed. This is actually vital, as it allows one to 'remember' one's timing, and to know exactly which pieces and parts worked and why.
The resulting piece is therefore a strange beast. Never purely oral or written, it oscillates between the two. It is a product of an initial written text, but also living memory (which always repeats in difference), and eventual video recording/live performance. It bounces around the written-spoken juncture, is part one and part the other. A place that really works for me and my mind but also I always feel, rather apt for performance philosophy.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Performer notes 1; So how do you perform philosophy?

I am currently working on a performance piece for next week, and it will serve well as an example of how one works up ideas or books into performance.
First and foremost is something rather obvious: One actually has to have something interesting to say. Moreover this idea must resonate with the audience. There is no point then in having an abstract idea that is too complex to explain, nor yet to simply learn and then repeat the words of the philosopher with no effort to show how and when and why they matter. But this does not mean of course that one cannot perform abstract ideas, and I certainly rework all the thinkers I perform. I perform 'my' version of them, as a philosopher. Nor can one as a performance philosopher ever forget the texts one is performing. It is just that onto these facets of 'straight' philosophy are grafted the need to keep words and ideas engaging and provocative: An exercise in exegesis that I actually find stimulating. If I can explain an idea to a mixed audience (in age/experience of philosophy from lots to virtually none) engage some of them, and keep the subtlety of the original, then I think the idea is really worth something.
Hence I only perform new pieces when I have something actually new to say. For example, next week I am performing Marx, a philosopher from whom I have developed performance pieces before. The question is therefore what do you have new to say? My previous pieces being a summary of the very important chapter on the machine from Das Capital (http://youtu.be/AtNuvR4bBhY), and the very famous opening bars of the eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (http://youtu.be/Eq7TySBsgq0). What I have not done, is a classic overview of Marx, the kind of one that I gave in my university lecturing days. But the game then is exactly how does one translate the lecture hall into the music hall?
This leads to the second main aspect of performing philosophy - it is an awful a lot about finding the right voice for the thinker. Most critical here is the person or character one performs in. I usually think stand up thought ought to have a little bit of first person performance, so that there ought to be a moment when one is being the thinker in question, and yet one does not need to be doing that solely. Additionally even if one is being the thinker, one has to decide exactly how one is being so. That is in what manner or aspect are they present? Are they before an audience as the writer of their work, or as a modern commentator with the benefit of hindsight, and even later scholarship? And if the former, exactly what part of the original are they going to highlight and develop, what part is haunting them and requiring them to write? Alternatively, are they actually haunting us through their work? And if so how is that ghost manifest? Likewise if they are simply present, then what are they going to say? Why have they come back? In what sense are they looking at us, and wanting to speak? Alternatively if one is keeping them in part in the third person, then why are you doing so? And even more importantly how does that distancing attempt to control the thinker or their work. and how does the idea of that philosopher actually strain at this third person element? Could they break free? In short perhaps, this is the point at which one finds the edge of the thought.
In the current piece I am working on, I started with this last option, trying to explain and contain Marx; But he broke free from the containment, and in my mind at least clearly wanted to speak for himself, and had a lot to say. For how could he not be fascinated and repelled by all the history that lies in the one hundred and thirty years since he died? Or how can he not comment on current affairs, and his interpretation of them? The strength of the piece will revolve around how this 'having Marx in the room,' element works. Here one must be as faithful as one can. Marx is a challenging and volcanic thinker, with a pragmatic eye, an ability to overturn dogma (even his own) and an ability to re-work current affairs, and to allow one to understand them anew or askance. But at the same time, he is prone to self-justification, and to an entrenchment of his own views in the face of what he feels to be criticism, or even worse, misuse of his ideas. He has therefore an awful lot to say about recent history. The trick of the performance will be getting this voice right. That is, getting the right amount of self -justification, blended with re-analysis of the political situation, and subtle re-interpretation of his own ideas and approach in the face of what subsequently happened. Central to the performance is therefore Marx's account of why things did not work out as he thought they would, and its climax lies in his relationship with what that might mean, and his posing it as a problem for the audience.
The style of this piece is in a sense my homage less to Marx and more to Nietzsche. For it was Nietzsche who first realised, and exploited the real power of the 'confessions' of philosophers. Nietzsche's Zarathustra draws upon all the freedom of the first advocate to re-think morality, and re-work humanity, a realisation that will then catch us all up in it. It is this ability of the original to re-think what followed that I will draw upon in this piece, and the performance will stand or fall by how convincing then the confessional element of a great thinker truly is, or not.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Performance Notes seven: Whose line is it anyway?

One of the features of philosophy, written or performed, is its relationship with its authors. In a sense every written discipline conjures up and then possibly kills its non-present author, in a whole variety of ways.
For example, both drama and novels exist as the progeny of their author. A Shakespeare play or a Dickens' novel is essentially part of a tribe, whose badge is the name and all it implies, of their distant author or parent. Each work reflects their parent's concerns, while being a thing in its own right. Moreover each work is bought into a relationship with all the other works of the same author, good or bad, short or long, comedy or drama. They all jostle together as siblings reflecting and refracting each other's themes, and ideas, but always each doing so in its own way, while others look on and choose their favourite...
Alternatively science, in the name of constants or formulae or laws, treat the name of their founder or first observer almost as an impresario. One talks then of Newton's laws of motion, as if he was the one who had realized their production. Which in a sense of course he was. It was his genius after all that cleared the way, that defined the stage in which the laws function, and through which they might be observed. In a similar vain, Einstein 'arranges' relativity and opens our minds not only to different ways of producing thoughts about the natural word, but also, that in the form of new experiments, endless new little possible dramas. (For experiments can be very dramatic.)
Philosopher's names are again different. For philosophy almost at its outset, used the names of others to explore thought, calling them up as if they were familiar spirits or demons, or wearing them as dramatic masks. Hence Plato called upon the voice, mask, and so ideas of Socrates to explain his thinking, while Kant wrestled with a Hume whose ideas he felt he needed to counter. Philosophers therefore enter the mind as a way of thought, a set of assumptions and moves, or ideas and observations, that are then treated as something in themselves. The power of a philosopher's ideas lies in their power to allow others to don the mask of their thinker, and to use those ideas to create new thoughts of their own. An idea is good in philosophy if it can take over, and run across the minds of very many other thinkers, and infuse many other ideas.
It is this feature of philosophy that works so very well as Stand up. One is always, in different ways, conjuring with another's ideas. To perform philosophy is to show exactly how and why philosophy works as it does. That is, it is to show how thinking with another's ideas actually allows and develops new thought. And even more importantly, stand up hopes to communicate how that curious state that develops in the mind of the student of philosophy, where they are no longer sure where their thoughts begin, and another's end, is so creative and so powerful. It is this 'in between space', where ideas are shared, and developed, held in common, and so transformed, that defines philosophy; but also perhaps ironically, which makes good stand up, which likewise revolves around a collective reacting to an idea or phrase or perhaps experience. It follows that done properly, stand up philosophy ought to be very real philosophy, for the sharing of ideas between the living and the dead and the creation of odd interpersonal thoughts that necessarily follow, is the stuff of philosophy itself, and the source of some of its power. So that essentially, philosophy is performance, it is always the sharing of ideas attached to philosopher-actors, and it is this vitality, this hidden drama, which stand up exploits and feeds upon, and hopes to communicate.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Stand up Philosophy: Fact or fiction? Performance notes 5.

An odd paradox lies close to the heart of stand up philosophy. Great philosophy is like great story telling, it is always open to reinterpretation and rethinking. One is never therefore simply a 'tribute act', and does not have the luxury of simply performing a script. On the contrary, to work out how to perform thought, is to be thinking at many levels, and with very many kinds of approaches.
First and foremost every performance must actually work as 'Stand Up'. It must therefore have a hook that will carry the audience along, be it the issue raised, the power of the words, or the intensity of the performance, or the humour of the approach. Every routine has therefore to be carefully thought through in terms of how it is reaching the audience, and making some kind of contact with them. Moreover audience participation is one of the central elements in working out how to make the performance work. One does not want too much of it of course, as stand up philosophy is not children's story telling. But not to have it at all runs counter to what the show is all about, as it reimposes the gap between the thinker and the audience. Getting the audience involved is highly nuanced, its aim is to always make them feel very much a part of the actual unwinding history of philosophy.
Secondly every performance needs to be true to the thinker. The ideas have to reflect what they are saying, and summarise something about them and their work. One needs then to extract the pith of the idea, as one understands it, which is always itself an active thought. And yet exactly how one tackles the original text is complicated by the history of how that work was interpreted and worked out across time. There is no point in just performing Cicero's 'Republic' alone, as much of its power lies in the fact that it is the bedrock of modern democratic constitutions. The strength of the performance therefore, lies in the fact that the audience hears this link, and reflects upon it in the context of the tragedy of Cicero's life. Nor is this ever simply a matter of going one way - for sometimes the history and tradition have greatly distorted how we understand what the thinker would tell us. There is nothing more shocking to most Western audiences than what Marx actually wrote, in all its measured reason, and ironic prophecy, and the game of performing him is therefore to somehow bypass the history that would tell us what to think of him and his work.
In short, one might say stand up philosophy only works if it is a real, albeit experimental, form of thinking. Ideas have to be thought through, performed and so shared, in the consciousness that the very act of sharing, transforms the ideas. To perform an idea or hear a performance, can never be the same as encountering that idea in book (or even in most lecture halls). And yet of course, this is indeed the point; Every idea always exists and actually has a power beyond the book and the school room. Philosophy matters in its capacity to reach beyond its specialists, to reach into people's minds and be reflected in the way they think and react. A movement that philosophy shares with not only most other forms of thought, but also with popular ideas and humour. Perhaps all good stand up revolves around being a link in this process. Stand up's role is to pass on semi-oral snippets - be they jokes or phrases or ideas, that will thereby slip into new contexts, and allow for new reactions, thoughts and remarks. All stand up must be fundamentally generous to the work which it shares. A generosity that I hope stand up philosophy not only shares in, but which transforms the ideas and their understanding, and so makes act of performing thought itself always a thought.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Stand up Philosophy: The power of ideas versus emotions - performance notes part s

There is an old truism, that one needs in thought to be very carful about emotions. Emotions lead one astray when one is thinking. They cloud thought, making you want to believe the untrue, or confuse the thought for the felt, as emotions form an intensity which feels like reality. This suspicion is well-founded; it was of such intense fears, and passions, that many a witch persecution is based. It is then no wonder that almost all philosophers, feeling themselves akin to witches, have lived in fear of the mob, and its collective passions: All the more so when the thinkers' ideas have often been untimely, problematic and complex. For how does one tell the collective believers they are not quite right, without becoming a figure of hate?
And yet this is only half the story. For what kind of passion motivates thinkers to think and act against the stream of public feeling? Is it really that they are following truth, pure and simple? And if so, is this not itself a passion? The answer surely is yes. What is more, it is a very singular passion, for it implies the thinker must have the courage to stand up against the mob, against what is currently 'normal' and thought right, a move which of course implies an even great passion for something, be it truth or posterity... To say that the philosopher should act dispassionately is therefore necessarily to miss the point. Most philosophers simply are passionate about something, - for why else write? What else is sustaining them as they sit in that closet, while the rain beats down and they think and write alone? Is it not that they are feeling the excitement of thinking and the urge to communicate those thoughts and the truths they open out on?
Moreover it is clear that passion that infuses their thought, in more diverse and complex ways, so much so that the relationship between the thinker and their passions is necessarily interesting in itself. For to think is of course to, in part, master one's passions, or perhaps better to endlessly reflect upon them. The result is essentially a patchwork of passion and thought. There are moments in every philosophy where the passion is not immediate, or hidden, or perhaps codified in the beauty or simple disruptiveness of an idea (think of Foucault's challenge to our ideas of sexuality here; a challenge that is passionate in the extreme, and yet expressed in logic). While at other times, the passion is allowed its head, in rhetorical flourishes or even sermons (think here of a Spinoza Scholium - little passionate essays that runs across his 'Ethics').
Finally many of the great philosophers are essentially vivisecting their own passions, and displaying the result. To read Spinoza's 'Ethics' or Nietzsche's 'Human all too Human', is to be taken close to the heart of a thinker, and their feelings. The power of the book lies in the way in which it allows you to understand the heart of its creator, and see in that heart echoes of one own being.
Philosophy is therefore caught is a very interesting and complex relationship with the feelings that infuse it, and yet which it must always clarify and reflect upon and through. A complex and often beautiful relationship, that is essentially the stuff of performance art. In showing the passion of thinkers, and how it infuses works of thought, one is both being true to the ideas of the thinker, but also their methodologies and motivations. For 'philosophy without passion is clearly a mistake'. What is more, these passions make great drama, and suck an audience of non-philosophers into a world some they thought they could never know, or perhaps otherwise experience: The world of thoughts and their passions, where philosophy really does mean 'love of knowledge'. A move that then allows the audience an entry point into philosophy, and new perhaps even offers them a new way to understand their own passions and their reaction to those passions.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Encounters with Philosophy as stand up: Part 2 - As difficult

One of the strange oddities about philosophy is its love affair with the difficult. And difficulty itself is such a tricky notion. There are three different senses in which philosophy is 'difficult', and only one of which is genuine.
First and most simply, philosophy likes to think of itself, and is thought as, 'difficult'. The motivation of course here is simple. If it is difficult then philosophers are clever - what is more, if it is difficult then the rest of the world need not bother with it at all. Philosophy becomes then a self-invented 'gold-standard' for knowledge. The course we put people on to prove we are serious in study. It becomes then, as it is sometimes taught (and often thought of ) as totally useless and self indulgent idiocy, whose main refrain is 'look at me, I am so very clever I am...I understand...': A feeling that might well be pretension, or might be honest, but either way misses the point. For me, the entire premise of stand up philosophy is that great ideas, even ones which are complicated in their language and subtle in the exposition, still have a power to move, to change the mind, to make one want to think differently. Philosophy however 'hard' has the power to intrigue, and opens on a poetry of possibly, which allows one to re-think one's own nature. Of course this move might in itself be 'difficult', in that it might involve much thought, and much self correction, however it should not feel it, in the same way that rhyming poetry should never feel artificial and forced. Philosophy should fascinate, delight, perhaps perplex, but always entice, and never feel difficult or impenetrable or even just mad.
The second a sense that philosophy is difficult lies in the fact that it does involve in itself a lot of study, and thought. And yet If the thinker is doing their job properly, the difficulty is more a problem of being time-consuming, rather than being 'hard'. Good philosophy takes time. That is of course rather difficult, it gets on the way of 'real life': But that requirement for scholarship in itself, does not make it 'difficult'. It merely says that the world cannot be immediately reacted to or understood - nor should it. Philosophy as stand up takes a certain position in this aspect of the difficult. Its job is to summarise years of study, to condense them into a performance, so that it should at once be highly textured, opening out on many layers, and shifting interpretations (with perhaps many voices), and yet not to ever drown in this knowledge. One must make the difficult feel natural, normal, even exciting. For as Socrates would say, what could be more exciting that being able to think, genuinely think for oneself? And good stand up makes you really want to think (and not merely argue or strop or simply react).
The final common use for the word difficult in this context is much harder to counter. Something is difficult if it makes the world difficult, edgy, not straight-forward. The difficult turns the world into a problem, and shatters easy had given solutions to that problem. A move, a making difficult, that philosophy, including as stand up, always claims as somehow peculiarly its own. The game is always to make that difficulty not feel hopeless or pointless. It might make the world more tricky, but the difficulty is worth it, or is at least worth trying. A move that is always difficult to make for every individual, but which which stand up philosophy hopes to inspire.
In short stand up is difficult because it makes one want to address the difficulty of the world, and should never be merely pointlessly 'hard'.