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‘Strobe Light Consciousness and Body Technology in the Theatre of Antonin Artaud.’

'I do not work in the domain of any universe whatsoever, I work within unique duration.' (Artaud, 1976: 120). (1)

'In this Theatre, lets undo space.' (Artaud, 1978: 252)

Antonin Artaud's documented ‘madness,’ the theatricality of his persona and his insistence on his own ‘otherness’ have created a prejudice in our understanding of Artaud's ideas about the theatre. The prejudice of 'otherness' means that one feels compelled to define the nature of Artaud’s subjectivity in order to understand his work and/or to separate the more formal elements in his theories for pragmatic application. Artaud's theories are to a certain extent practiced in his own writings, which are performances in by themselves. Artaud’s investment in his theories was a practice that concentrated a great effort in trying to define what our spectatorship should be like. Artaud was interested in conveying to his audience what was the metaphysical ground that he tried to inhabit. Therefore our attention to his ideas should not be based in a definition of his persona and the specific formal elements described in his writings, but.on the relationship of described theatrical means to the metaphysical universe that he tries to inhabit. Artaud discovers a home to this metaphysical universe in the theatre itself, which he considers as 'its double' and revealing of its 'cruelty.' He sees the stage as a theatrical 'otherness' that functions or behaves according to a specific metaphysical organization. Artaud's project is metatheatrical in spirit because it needs the theatre in order to create its own type of reality. Theatricality reveals itself in the end as antithetical to the project known as reality. As Artaud says in the voice of father Cenci: 'in real life we do more and say less and in the theatre we talk endlessly and accomplish very little. I [Artaud/Cenci] will be the one to restore the balance at the expense of real life.'(1978: 154) The purpose of this paper is to present Artaud's vision as a metatheatrical world that is perceptual in nature and whose innovation is to produce a metaphysical universe that is defined by its own theatricality.

The concept of theatricality as an alienated presence is phenomenological to the extent that perception takes precedence over form and content. Theatricality, in this approach, is merely a presence, an appearance that needs a performative agent (like the stage villainies of father Cenci) in order to sustain itself in the realms of space and time. The perceptual conceptualization of theatre and its relation to metaphysics can be traced back to Schopenhauer's notion that the effect of tragedy leads to a sublime perception of the world, and to Nietzsche's ideas about the perception of the Dionysian chorus in Greek tragedy. Both views are related to Artaud's vision and can be helpful to our understanding of its metaphysical nature.

Schopenhauer locates the perceptual nature of tragedy in the experience of the sublime, which makes the spectator turn away from the interests of the will. The essential theatricality of the tragic catastrophe, according to the German philosopher, alienates the spectator from his own will to life. This alienation is a sublime renouncement that allows the spectator a metaphysical awareness of 'the aspect of the world which, directly strives against our will.' (1883: 212) The effect of sublimation is provoked mainly by the presence of suffering on the stage which reveals a will in the world that supercedes human will. Tragic catastrophe remains encased in its theatricality as a vision by which the spectator wakes up as from ‘the bad dream of life.’ (1883: 213) Perception of tragedy, for instance, alerts the spectator to turn away from human will and towards a sublime perception of the world.

Nietzsche presents another aspect of the perceptual nature of theatre in his concept of the chorus as a vision of the Dionysian mass of spectators 'just as the world of the stage, in turn, is a vision of this satyr chorus.' (1968: sec 8, 63-68) The chorus’ trance induces the spectator to forget his social identity and to perceive the drama as part of a Dionysian mass. The theatricality of the world of the stage is assured by the perception of the chorus which, acts as a bridge between a normal perception and a vision where the divine nature of the drama is actually experienced. In this case it is not the tragic suffering but the Dionysian spirit transmitted by the chorus that transforms the perception of the stage into a phenomenon of divine nature. The functioning of Artaud's theatre can be related to these two aesthetic concepts. The first one is a double coding that is not semiotic but gestural: for instance, the concept of the tragic catastrophe as a gesture that indicates a movement towards the sublime --from a position of 'seeing' to one of 'being seen' by the world. The second concept is the modification of consciousness by a performative agent that results in the transformation in the nature of the perceived stage reality. This occurs, for example, in the audience's reaction to the Dionysian chorus. Artaud, like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, seeks to transform the stage presence into a metaphysical vision. While Schopenhauer relies on the theatricality of the tragic catastrophe and Nietzsche on the performative trance of the chorus, Artaud tries to give that kind theatricality and performative power to the space and time of the stage itself.

The metaphysical basis of Artaud's theatre deals specifically with the issue of presence in the realms of space and time. In relation to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, Artaud moves towards an intensified theatricality in the realm of space/time by moving away from an identification of presence with force. For instance, the "will of the world" conceived by Schopenhauer and the divine nature of drama in Nietzsche’s view remain both attached to an original power in infinite space, or time. Henri Lefebvre has pointed out that the relationships between force (energy), time and space are problematical. He argues, for example, that 'one can neither conceive of a beginning [an origin of such force in time and space] nor yet do without such an idea. As soon as that (albeit essential) activity which discerns and marks distinctions is removed from the picture, the interrupted and the successive are concordant.' (1991: 22) The 'interrupted and the successive' may appear, in this view, as our intuitive, albeit paradoxical apprehension of the realm of space-time. This is an intuitive perception that combines two contradictory ideas about time, one that is a chronological continuum and theoretically infinite, and another that is diachronic, that is, a moment of perception that interrupts the infinity of space.

Our positivist mind favors the idea of a continuous time because it helps us in our grasping of events and their causality. In relation to this mental habit, one might say that our experience of a time as an interruption of infinite space is repressed. Nietzsche tried to guide us out of our slavery to causality by suggesting that 'space and time do not exist in themselves. Changes, he said, 'are only appearance (or sense processes for us,)' (1967: 545) so that a succession of moments gives the appearance of change even though the occurrences are not connected to each other when seen from the perspective of an ‘interrupting’ time. Nietzsche does not deny in the end the 'succession' of time, but he interrupts the false mental picture with an awareness of its fatality. Nietzsche imagines fate as a cycle of eternal return in which the same moment reappears to interrupt through repetition the chronological continuum of time.

Artaud, on the other hand, tries to move out of the chain of succession in time. He seems to think that what maintains us fixated in the movement of a successive time is a concurrent perception of a continuous space. Continuous space may create universes of causality and language that alienate the body and the senses from a truer and non-deferred experience of time. Artaud searches to avoid, consequently, an activity in infinite space to reach an authentic feeling of life-- he says, for example, 'I do not work in the domain of any universe whatsoever, I work within unique duration.' (1976:120) This statement is comparable to another that says: 'In this theatre, let's undo space, / new notion of space which we will multiply by tearing it, by undoing it thread by thread, by digging it down to the cord.' (1978: 252) Artaud seems to express a desire to experience time and space in a different relation to each other, perhaps a relation that would reveal their theatricality.

Theatrical space is a fundamental factor in Artaud’s dramaturgy because it functions as material evidence of the potential of true presence. Artaud might have understood that what limits the possibility of pure presence and theatricality is the anteriority of an empty stage to theatrical representation. This anteriority led Schopenhauer to rely on the content of tragedy to move perception away from the reality of drama and life. Nietzsche, on the other hand places the chorus between the spectator and the stage to fill the drama with presence. In both cases there is a process of sublimation that partially negates the theatricality of the vision in favor of the infinite space of the world or the infinite time of the gods. In both cases time and space fail to come together as a theatrical presence

In order to correct the metaphysical void of the stage, the theatrical must allow 'time' to appear in space and 'space' to be fulfilled in time. Artaud discovers, I believe, this theatricality and tries to inhabit it through a 'consciousness that gives to the exercise of every act of life its blood-red-color, its cruel nuance, since it is understood that life is always someone's death.'(1978: 98) In this perspective, life and death are experiences of perceptual change, grasped by consciousness as a discontinuous process through which the body becomes different. This discontinuous process is akin to the appearance of disease. This connection made Artaud think of the plague, a disease that appears, in his own analysis, with no conceivable cause, and develops spectacularly, with enormous 'spiritual freedom.' (1978: 22) Cruelty, Artaud suggests, is also the psychological equivalent of life's presence in time. Cruelty, he says is in fact 'a movement of the spirit, which is actually modeled on the gesture of life itself. With respect to metaphysics, it is the idea that if life accepts extension, thickness, weight and matter, it must, as a direct consequence, accept evil and all that belongs to evil, to space and to matter.' (1978: 110)

The fulfillment of space in matter and the presence of time in the discontinuous process of change are two contiguous processes that become possible through a specific experience of time that Deleuze/Guattari call Chronos.(2) (1987: 492) Chronos is unique duration and is not infinite, but reappears again and again in our immediate experience of space. Chronos, in other words, becomes manifest in space, without originating there. Its materiality consists of a continuously differentiated realm of appearances. Matter and bodies reveal their multiplicity of shapes, movements and light by creating a rhythm or pulse that is alien to the changes and successions that are otherwise perceivable in a 'spatialized,' infinite, conception of time. Chronos is the time of live appearance, of trans-formations and of death as unique and unrelated phenomena.

The referentiality of meaning and of language also seems to be lost in Chronos , in favor of the intensity of appearances and their spectacular nature. In this respect, the 'Theatre of Cruelty' is related to Chronos when it professes the 'triumph of pure mise-en scène.' (Artaud, 1978: 237) The mise-en-scène is envisioned as a 'poetry in space' (1978: 37) that transcends the communicative power of referential language and interpretable action. Artaud, in short, demands for his theatre a Schopenhauerean surrender of the false will to interpretation and a Nietzschean embrace of theatre as vision.

Artaud suggests the specific relationship of the actor technique to the realm of space/time in a late work titled 'Alienating the Actor.' He suggests that the performer should 'give everything to that which does not exist and has no being; and nothing to what is, can be seen, has borders or is a place where one can stay or remain.' (1948b: 7-14) The negation of space as a medium for self and expressive concretion clearly suggests the inhabiting of a nonreferential, liminal time that reveals a specific form of theatricality, of gestures and scenic forms. The Artaudian expression appears thus within a time in which the appearance of ‘theatrical’ matter is the only event. Artaud sees theatricality as 'the conflict of gestures, of words, of movements or noises’ which are ‘first of all a conflict, a gathering of adverse forces, of impacts, that time, rather than space can unravel.’ (1978: 255) This domain of time can reveal a form of conflict that is ‘metaphysical’ and theatrical at the same time, negating thus the ‘realities’ offered by an infinite spatial domain.

In an effort to convey the nature of this theatrical vision, Artaud plays with the tropes of translation and expression and ends up favoring translation. He says that

'every true sentiment is actually untranslatable. To express is to betray it [the true sentiment]...but to translate it is to conceal it. The truthful expression hides that which it manifests. It opposes the spirit to the factual void of nature and creates a kind of fullness in thought. Or, if one prefers, with respect to the manifestation of nature, it creates a void in thought.’ (1978: 69)

Artaud tries to define what is capable of transmitting a 'true sentiment' by its position between nature and thought. He believes, in other words, that theatre can connect the actor and the spectator to the 'true sentiment' by remaining faithful to the fact that neither perceivable nature nor active thought is directly connected to this 'true sentiment.' Therefore, what should 'appear' in theatre, is a gesture that manifests the true sentiment by concealing it. This form of 'translation' that Artaud embraces is in opposition to the semantic expressivity of language. Translation seeks to bypass the semiotization of language, in which there is a distance and polarity between the spaces of content and expression. The act of translating is therefore given superiority as a form of theatrical communication. The truthful expression is therefore actually a translation, and the metaphor can be stretched to imply a simultaneous translation, a gestural double of presence comparable to the chorus' Dionysian translation of divine presence, which appears and remains concealed at the same time in the vision of the stage action.

Interestingly, the Artaudian gestural presence is not anchored in a Dionysian force that it embraces, but exists in a relation of opposition to 'the factual void of nature.' In 'The theatre of Cruelty,' Artaud indicates that the appearance of nature is an illusion as long as it communicates 'the idea of a preconceived universe' (1948a) which would be the locus of spatial and linguistic referentiality, as well as of an original force. Artaud avoids both referentiality and force by placing himself or the actor at a dead point between the void and appearance, the liminal time of Chronos, in order to interrupt, with the mise-en-scene of a gestural system, the chronological continuum of an infinite space-time. Artaud describes the point of precipitation of live appearance in liminal time as the 'dead point of space' which could be described as a space with no time. The theatre provides a virtual field of potentialities where the actor can enter this metaphorical void that must be filled with a momentum for the spatial appearance of matter and bodies. Artaud conceives the actor's activity on the stage as a technology that puts ‘time’ in movement, an act that he describes metaphorically as ‘the use of the wheel’ (1970: 259).

The technological trope of the wheel reveals an Artaudian will that fights the interpellation (3) of nature as the producer of bodies. Artaud desires to plant a new seed in our consciousness: a seed of spiritual culture that feeds on, yet opposes the naturalization of forms--to be cultivated, Artaud says, is 'to burn forms in order to win life--it is to learn how to feel whole in the constant movement of forms that one destroys consequently' (1970: 259). We arrive here at the mythical aspect of Artaud's theatre in relation to which issues of representation somewhat miss the point because Artaud conceives theatre as an act of transformation of reality.

The Artaudian expression is not an itinerary towards the spaces of content, but a performative act that 'populates the space in order to cover the void'(1968: 207). Artaud's theatre creates thus a protean world that ignores the god of Creation and the infinite extension of nature. The mise-en-scène, which embraces the gestural technique of the actor, is conceivably a technology that produces a liminal time, located between the extension and force of nature and the intention and referentiality of thought. In that liminal time of pure theatricality, theatre can 'present physically and in a natural manner the mythical act of making a body' (Artaud, 1948b: 15).

I would like to advance now the conceptual picture of a 'strobe light consciousness' as a helpful image that suggests the experience of Chronos, that is, time in its diachronic relation to space. The strobe light shows an indefinite series of static shapes that give the illusion of movement but actually interrupt the continuity that gives shape to an observable event. The 'event' appears therefore with a different set of relationships. The strobe light provokes, for instance, a perception of the surrounding space as finite and wholewhen it reverberates on all sides with the intermittent light and envelops the observer in "interrupting" moment between the nothingness of darkness and the totality of lit space. I would like to apply this picture, so to speak, to the concept of an Artaudian consciousness, which places itself in that liminal temporal field. The liminality of the moment created by the strobe light negates both the infinite void of darkness and the potential referentiality of a reality outside of the field of perception. These semantic possibilities are interrupted by the intermittent light and make the event purely theatrical and temporal. The existence of infinite space is replaced by the ‘will of theatre’ in which time, not space becomes the domain of appearance and perception. This 'time,' or Chronos, reinstates a tactile connection between a perceived ‘world’ and the perceiving subject. In other words, as under a strobe light effect, the body and the surrounding ‘world’ change or become different together, so that the scopic distance conceived in spatialized perception is transformed into a temporal relation of simultaneous presence.

The effect of temporal rather than spatial presence is crucial to Artaud's total theatre because it allows the activation of a mimetic consciousness in the spectator. Stimulation of the spectator from all sides has a countereffect in the consciousness since ‘in the same way that there will be no respite, nor any unoccupied place in space, there will be no respite, or void in the spectator's spirit or sensibility' (Artaud, 1978: 122). The mimetic effect on consciousness that Artaud describes here might be compared to the Nietzschean vision, 'born, as it were from [the spectator's] own rapture.' There is nevertheless an important difference, that is, the fact that the simultaneous presence of appearance and consciousness are the two sides of the same coin, they are both gestures, a figuration, to use Artaud's term, waiting to become a transfiguration and whose great magical agent is the void itself. This transfiguration cannot be spatial, cannot go back to the neutralizing spaces of spatial referentiality, therefore the Artaudian gesture must remain in the theatricality of liminal time. Theoretically, Artaud's theatre would be irreversible since it would trap both our bodies and our consciousness --that is part of the revolutionary aspect of his vision, which calls for the abolition of space as we know it.

In his comments on Lucas van den Leyden's painting 'Loth and his Daughters,' (The Louvre Museum), Artaud gives us a description that conveys the particular theatricality that may be perceived through what I have termed 'a strobe light consciousness' (1978: 33,34). The idea of simultaneous presence and the involvement of the various senses can be appreciated in the following statement:

One might, in the crackling of fireworks, see through the nightly explosion of stars, rockets and solar bombs, a sudden visual revelation, in the hallucinatory light, of the details appearing in relief from the nocturnal landscape. The light and image of trees, tower, mountains, houses remain forever linked in our spirit with the idea of this ripping sound. The submission of the diverse aspects of the landscape to the presence of fire in the sky can be best explained by saying that, while possessing their own light they remain yet connected to it, as a kind of slow echo, as live points of reference born from it and placed there to allow it to exert its full destructive power.

This description indicates a relationship between the sight of the fireworks, the totality of the landscape, and the different senses. A simultaneous presence of these elements forms relations of meaning that are purely theatrical.

On the stage, the agents of theatricality are the actor and director, who create a mise-en-scène of scenic elements and gestures. The nature of this gesture, which I qualify as technology, because of its opposition to a referential universe, would be that of an interrupted or suspended movement-having the particular temporality of a 'pause' or 'syncope.' The 'pause' places gesture in the temporal rather than scopic realm, that is, a domain where consciousness can acquire presence. A gesture is indeed an act of spirit that is not made to be seen but to provoke a momentum leading to the next gesture, temporally superimposed on the first. The Artaudian gesture is rhythmical and rejects an infinite spatialization of perception and cognition by producing a liminal time that pauses between the invisible and the visible. The gesture brings a 'strobe light consciousness' and the body together in an interrupting temporality that gives back to appearance its forceful and fateful necessity. Appearance ceases to be henceforth a scopic experience in space and becomes charged instead with the temporal theatricality of the syncope and the palimpsest.

Artaud's mise-en scène produces gestures, and whether they emerge in the form of words, noise, movement or music, it is a matter of interrupting, through a body technology, the continuity of space. True sentiments may be evoked once the theatricality of liminal time has been produced. Artaud explains that in the theatre 'a line is a noise, a movement is like music, and the gesture that emerges from a noise is like a word, precise as a phrase' (1963: 208). The theatricality of a gesture is its objective quality, its temporal precision, and is equivalent here, to the theatricality of a consciousness. Artaud's strobe light consciousness and body technology must work in liminal time in order to create a mise-en-scène that resists the sublimation of the visible.


All translations of Artaud are my own.

Deleuze/Guattari define Chronos and Aeon as two distinct conceptions of time.

Interpellation is the term used by Althusser for the address given to the subject by the voice of ideology.


Althusser (1971), ‘Ideology and Ideological State apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation),’ in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Tr. Ben Brewster. London: NLB.

Artaud, Antonin (1948a). 'Le Theâtre et la Cruauté' in 84, No 5/6: 121-130.

Artaud, Antonin (1948b). 'Aliener l'Acteur' and 'Le Theâtre et la Science" in L'Arbalète (Marc Barbezat: Paris), No 13, Summer 1948: 7-14, 15-24.

Artaud, Antonin (1963). 'Le Theâtre et les Dieux' in Les Tarahumaras. L'Arbalète, Marc Barbezat: Paris, pp. 196-208.

Artaud, Antonin (1976) Oeuvres Complètes I. Paris: Editions Gallimard.

Artaud, Antonin (1978) Oeuvres Complètes IV. Paris: Editions Gallimard.

Deleuze, Gilles/Guattari, Felix (1987). A Thousand Plateaux. Tr. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lefebvre, Henri (1991). The Production of Space. Tr. Donald Nicholson smith. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.Nietzsche, Friedrich (1968) Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Tr. and ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: The Modern Library.Schopenhauer, Arthur (1883). The World As Will and Idea, vol. III. Tr. R.B. Haldane and J Kemp. London: Trubner & Co.