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Freddie Rokem. Philosophers and Thespians: Thinking Performance.

Freddie Rokem. Philosophers and Thespians: Thinking Performance. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010. Pp. xii + 227. $60.00 casebound, $21.95 paperbound.

This is an exemplary book of both comparison and drama. It describes four historical encounters between thespian-like philosophers and philosophically inclined thespians. The encounters are constituted variously by texts, conversations, letters, meetings, and shared projects. In a study that extends from antiquity to the painful eve of the Second World War, the Israeli author offers an antecedent, written after the fact, of an earlier book he devoted to theater after the war.

The book begins with the Socrates of the Symposium and the poetic drama of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus. Rokem describes the kind of dramatic and theatrical devices Plato gave Socrates to use, paradoxically and agonistically, to articulate specific philosophical ideas and the terms by which philosophy would establish itself as a new discipline in contradistinction to theater, poetry, and the arts. The book then moves on to study the conflicted character of Hamlet as both would-be thespian and would-be philosopher. Here the author describes how philosophy is performed by the play and how performance is taken up as the subject of the play's philosophy. After this, the book turns to the brief correspondence between Nietzsche and Strindberg, in which matters of madness and misogyny arise as a matter of both content and authorial form. Finally, the book turns to Benjamins and Brecht's shared reflections on Kafka's story "The Next Village" and concludes with reflections on Benjamins performative storytelling. These reflections are the most incisive of the book. With Benjamin, Rokem explores what it means in an "age of plagiarism" (Benjamins phrase) to engage a text, to bring it to meaning and new meaning, or to give it life by quoting, cutting and pasting, and even writing it out again. The book is as much about performed thought, to adapt Rokem's own subtitle, as it is about specific encounters between thinkers who perform and performers who think.

Although it looks as though the hook can be described in terms of four disparate encounters, this impression is belied by the many threads of continuity--pertaining to madness, travel, utopian desire, naming, disguise, and exposure--that weave them into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The last chapter makes most explicit the performativity of thinking and writing that is apparent in the encounters Rokem records and in his own authorial mode of address. To be and always to be is to think, to act, and to perform. Philosophers and thespians share in thinking and doing, in word and action. Rokem's method of writing and thinking--a method of eyewitnessing and commentary--intends to match and indeed does match his subject matter. The match makes this a most worthwhile book to read and to review.

Of great interest is the stress Rokem gives to theme of agon: the strife, antagonism, and competitiveness that is both evident in and the basis of all the encounters he treats. Yet Rokem's aim is not to take a side, one against the other, but to investigate rather the discursive space, as he puts it, "between." He does not therefore investigate struggles in which one side presents itself in genuine denial of the other. He is more interested in how each side inflects and influences the other in productive ways.

One might think that Rokem's choice of encounters stacks the deck, that he should have looked also at encounters in which one side offers a genuine denial of what the other has to offer. In a sense he does, especially if we take the Plato of the Republic or the Laws at his word and persist in thinking that he only had something against the arts and nothing for the arts. He did have something against the arts. Yet he did not argue against them in ways that precluded either his including the arts in his ideal city, albeit under strict conditions of regulation, or, as Rokem stresses much more, his adopting the strategies and devices of the thespians for his own philosophical means and ends. The strength of Rokem's account is to show why, given the competing views expressed in the Symposium, Plato and Socrates cannot be taken at their word, given the dramatic and theatrical devices of irony, rhetoric, and disguise they employ. Rokem is most interested in the performativity involved in Plato's saying what he said but in leaving unsaid what he could not say for the sake of philosophy and perhaps also for the sake of theater. Nevertheless, I would have liked to read more about why Plato or Socrates wanted to articulate philosophy in such opposition to drama, theater, or poetry, before Rokem sought the space "between." How would Rokem make the argument, and could he make the same argument, in relation to the "driest" of Plato's texts, the Laws, and with what consequences for his argument and conception of Plato's philosophy?

In different terms, I would have liked to read as much about the agony and occasional violence of the agon as about the productive encounters between those who mostly took something from both sides. Similarly, in choosing Hamlet, the most famously philosophical of the plays, Rokem makes his task easier than it might have been. What would the encounter be like were Rokem to consider a play by Shakespeare where the contrasting and competing philosophical and dramatic postures are far less explicit but nevertheless at work?

In significant part, Rokem's aim is to describe the encounters in order to show us today how productive thinking can become when rigid boundaries that pertain to academic disciplines are crossed. Inspired by Benjamin (and many others), he describes thinking as always being on the move, as a walk, a journey, a far-reaching travel, as a wandering that is always also a wondering. Neither Rokem's aim nor his own Denkbilder is very original, but he has many interesting insights and succeeds in conveying the critical urgency of his view, given the present state of an academic culture of disciplines that tends to respond to the recent collapse of disciplinary boundaries by becoming ever more territorial. A war on terror, as Rokem knows so well and articulates through the theme of exile, is at the same time a war on territory, on what competing persons and groups call "home" It is an age-old theme but no less pertinent or urgent for that fact.

True to method and form, Rokem reaches a resting place at the end of each chapter but rarely a resting place of great finality. I have to admit to finding his endings a bit too tentative. He ends the book with a double signature--his own and an addendum. It is a dever rhetorical device but feels a little like a trailing off. On the one hand, I am philosophically sympathetic to tentative endings, to leaving things open; on the other, I am dramatically inclined toward rather harder punches. My own double reaction left me wanting to know more and much more, again, about a parallel history that could have tracked the writing of philosophy, on the one hand, and of theater, on the other, as though there were no connection at all. From the side of philosophy--and it is the side I know better--many philosophers write not in explicit denial of theater, aesthetics, and the arts but simply as though the issues pertaining thereto had not arisen and did not need to arise for them. J. L. Austin's famed treatise, discussed by Rokem, on what we do and perform when we use words, focuses on ordinary language locutions and perlocutions as though theater, if relevant at all, were a mere extension of ordinary life and its speech acts but not the model for those ordinary acts. Whether we move from life to art or, in reverse, from art to life is one of the most fundamental decisions. Deciding one way or the other has led either to there being or to there not being encounters between philosophers and thespians. Rokem focuses on philosophers who sought out thespians as their "other" or "missing half"; a parallel history suggested but unwritten in his book would assess how it could ever have been or seemed to be that philosophers wrote as though there were no thespians or thespian issues worth either addressing or acknowledging. Although many claim dialectically that the most undramatic- or unrhetorical-seeming modes of philosophical address are still dramatic and rhetorical, the difficult question remains as to how philosophy resists its identification with theater. An encounter is an agonistic meeting of minds. The competitiveness, however productive, prevents a unity of project and concern that is simply an identity. Philosophers are not thespians and thespians are not philosophers, but what matters most, Rokem convincingly teaches us, is what they do in relation to each other when they engage each other with words.

LYDIA GOEHR

Columbia University
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Author:Goehr, Lydia
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2011
Words:1483
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