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Marcus Otto

Theatrum mundi - A Mediterranean imaginary of modern ‘cosmopolitan’ performativity

The concept of a theatrum mundi became one of the main features of aesthetic re-presentation in the Baroque in which Christine Buci-Glucksmann sees the paradigm of aesthetic (post)modernity.[1] It was intrinsically interwoven with an allegorical (rather than a symbolic) world view which had its ancient origins in the ‘cosmopolitan’ Mediterranean landscape of pre-socratic greek antiquity. Instead of being a pure renaissance of the classical greek tradition the modern imaginative revival of the theatrum mundi hints at the specific modern aesthetic condition of immediate presence and performativity distinguished from the classical notion of representation. Moreover it corresponds to the genuine Mediterranean culture of allegorical hybridity, Dionysian theatrical immediateness and its immanent agonality of the social (demonstrated by Nietzsche and reevaluated by Foucault) which gets sublimated but still insists in the utilitarian hypostization of universalized functionally differentiated and temporally mediated institutions as well as in the corresponding holistic conception of a world society.

Therefore it seems promising to me to treat this theatrical world view as a Mediterranean vantage point for modern social theory of contemporary globalization. In this context the Mediterranean stands for an approach to social theory which avoids the culturalist dichotomy made prominent by Weber between oriental sensuality on the one hand and occidental rationality and ascetism on the other hand. Since the Mediterranean according to Weber and Braudel marks some kind of what one could call with Arpad Szakolczai a ‘permanent liminal’[2] space between these two poles geographically as well as historically it can also serve as a model of its own for social theory - especially if one is occupied with the genealogy of a theatrical (re)presentational world view out of immediate corporeal materiality and ludic practices. That is to say that the emergence of modern theatrical culture out of agonistic cults within the Mediterranean can tell us something for social theory of modernity.

This also offers the opportunity to undermine the conventional micro/macro-dichotomy by theorizing the not at least mimetic relationship (Gabriel Tarde) - which often enough results in melancholy - between the imaginary self-institution of society (Castoriadis) and its en-acting subjectivities on the ‘global stage’. Only from such a transgressive or liminal ‘micro-theoretical’ perspective does it make sense to speak of the world as a stage... 

“...the world is a stage, and a stage is a structure for putting on temporary displays, so there is no storage space.”[3]  

Here theatricality signifies the irreversible passing away of presence as the very condition of the modern world. Yet despite this fundamental experience of temporality or even just because this experience modernity seems to be ever more obsessed by the artificial (medial) evocation of immediate presence. Thus the modern theatrical life style is intrinsically paradox. It mimetically ‘displays’ its very own lack of permanence. 

If such a diagnosis should have a historical reference at all than the early modern Baroque would be of course the first candidate. Here theater was regarded as a rather universal cultural and artistic model - in the aristocratic masquerades as well as in the popular and religious spectacles. In the corresponding allegorical tableaus the genuine aesthetic and therefore fragile dimension of the social became manifest. Yet at the same time as a consequence of such a theatricalization of the world “art fully becomes socius, a public and social space occupied by baroque dancers” as Deleuze pointed out.[4] This genuine theatrical art of sociality manifested the performative dimension of the social world. This introduced and undermined at the same time the distinction between actors and spectators since it constituted an intrinsically involved collectivity which embodied less a reasoning public than a very sensual ‘gaze’. The exposition of the body and the ostensibly voyeuristic ‘art of viewing’[5] thus became coextensive elements within a veritable ars vivendi. As I will argue below this inherently refers to a Mediterranean vitality of the social in the shape of local practices and cultures (Braudel) which insists underneath the globalizing process of occidental universalism.  

This voyeuristic artificiality of the social which lead to a supplementation or even substitution of life by art was accompanied by a wholly new focus on the body and hence on the corporeality of the social. The social space appeared as a space full of allegorical bodies and their diverse interactions. Social order in the first instance got visualized in the very material shape of  genuine choreographies of interacting bodies. At stake was an embodying allegorical presence rather than a mere symbolic representation of social order, a ‘monumental’ and repetitive mise en scène rather than a ‘documentary’ revision and ‘storage’ of social order. Nevertheless the modern institutions and the modern absolutist state with its representative court in particular resonated from this rather corporeal baroque culture. They just emerged as a melancholically ‘emptied’ space out of the over-flowing spatiality which characterizes the baroque theatricalization of the social world. But underneath the representative institutions of the emerging modern state there insisted within the Baroque an allegorical as well as melancholic obsession by the corporeal - vital and/or morbid - constitution of the social and especially by the morbidity of dead bodies. This coincided with intensive experiences of corporeal temporality and the spatial exposition of the body. Thus William Egginton argues convincingly that modernity since the Baroque is characterized by a decidedly theatrical mode of experiencing temporal presence and spatiality.[6]  

This modern revitalization of the theatrum mundi which preeminently took place in the catholic baroque culture not at least inheres a Mediterranean genealogy from pre-classical ‘oriental’ and Dionysian Greece via Arab presence just to the catholic baroque. Baroque culture thus celebrated itself as a melancholic revival of ancient Mediterranean culture which the Renaissance had sublimated under the ‘discovering’ of an ancient humanism. By this emerging discursive formation which later culminated in enlightened Classicism there took place a (re)-centering of the world on the perspective of a reasoning and feeling human subject. Yet in the intrinsically feminine Baroque[7] this anthropocentric - and of course also androcentric - representational world view under the name of Apollo was again fragmented and de-centered by an implicit and sometimes explicit recourse on its sublimated Dionysian inclinations within its Mediterranean genealogy.

In its classic sense theatrum mundi referred to a vision of a world in which the human actors played just the roles God had chosen for them. Hence God also judged them transcendentally for their performance of their respective life role. Nevertheless within this explicitly transcendental theatrical model of social life there were inherent some différances which were actualized in the Renaissance and especially in the Baroque. Foremost this was an emerging self-referentiality of theatrical performances which eventually undermined or cut-off just the transcendental reference referred to above. For example the notion of person before it refers to a quasi-transcendentally responsible individual signifies an acting body supplemented by a mask so that the very principle of individuality stems from theatrical performances: the very material act constitutes the actor and not vice versa.

The baroque revitalization of the ancient Mediterranean metaphor of the theatrum mundi finally hints at a performativity which defines itself as ‘cosmopolitan’. Yet this doesn’t imply any kind of harmonious coexistence between different cultures in the conventional sense but rather an agonistic vision of the social which Nietzsche inspired by Jacob Burckhardt envisioned and which Foucault reevaluated.

Hence Paul Valéry designated the mediterranean world as a veritable ‘machine for the production of civilizations’ in which different cultures interacted and got in an agonistic competition with one another. Thus the Mediterranean functioned historically as a veritable theatrical interface between different cultures and so-called civilizations. At the same time the Mediterranean reminds us of the ‘dramatic’ vitality and quality of social life which often gets sublimated melancholically in the ascetic rationality of occidental institutions. It is therefore no accident that the ancient Roman Empire in the Mediterranean served as the model for the modern political concept of sovereignty.[8] This historical imperial state of the Mediterranean inspired modern occidental visions concerning the possible institutional ‘containment’ of Mediterranean heterogeneous vitality.     

What does this mean for social theory of modernity and especially for the currently prominent theory of world society? I would suggest that modern world society emerges as a revitalized Mediterranean imaginary of the world as a cosmopolitan ‘theatrum mundi’ in which the imagined self-institution of society is again and again enacted through the repetitive and mimetic ‘theatrical identification’ of melancholic subjectivities. Global social systems and institutions thereby serve as framing directories of significations. But underneath these global institutions there still insists the agonal character of sociality which preeminently manifests itself in the theatricalized and aestheticized exposition of bodies within agonistic choreographies of an emerging social (dis)order.

World society appears paradigmatically on the displaying screens which are constituted by the significant co-presence of the gaze and its enacting exponents. As William Egginton points out the gaze has an insisting psychoanalytic dimension which is oriented towards what he calls ‘theatrical identification’.[9] In this context I would argue for ressentiment as generating socio-cultural mechanism within the theatrical constellation between actors and spectators which somehow paradigmatically merge into a universalizing and neutralizing gaze. 

Hence global institutions as the market, political organization, and of course military violence are intrinsically constituted theatrical as the different stages of the recent Iraq affair once again reminded us. These global institutions and their corresponding social systems are finally characterized by hyper-simulative tendencies from the beginning inherent in the theatrical realm. Therefore they all function in their very differential perspectives to together shape a holistic vision of the imaginary self-institution of (world) society (Castoriadis). To achieve this they organize a compensatory storage space by selecting, imitating and (re)producing authenticized documents and at the same time trying to get rid (which of course never fully succeeds) of the very materiality and vitality of the theatrical performances out of which these documents actually emerge. An analogous problem was at stake more than one century ago when Gabriel Tarde quarreled with Durkheim on the anatomy of modern society. Thus Tarde’s social theory which sought to conceptualize the emergence of modern (mass) society out of mimetic processes still can tell us something about contemporary images of ‘global society’ as theatrum mundi.

[1] See Christine Buci-Glucksmann: Baroque reason. The aesthetics of modernity, London 1994.
See for this inherently paradoxical concept Arpad Szakolczai: Reflexive Historical Socioogy, London 2000; pp.219.
Harold Rosenberg: Act and Actor. Making the Self, Chicago 1983; p.74.
See Gilles Deleuze: Die Falte. Leibniz und der Barock, Ffm. 2000; p.201.
See Mieke Bal: Looking in. The art of viewing, Amsterdam 2001.
William Egginton: How the world became a stage. Presence, Theatricality, and the Question of Modernity, New York 2003.
See Buci-Glucksmann: Baroque Reason.
See not at least Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri: Empire, London 2001.
See William Egginton: How the world became a stage. Presence, Theatricality, and the Question of Modernity, New York 2003.