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  • The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy
  • Bruce Heiden
The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy, by Martin Puchner; 272 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, $29.95.

The author of The Drama of Ideas has read parts of Martha Nussbaum's Fragility of Goodness and picked up a few notions about Plato's dialogues: they are a kind of drama, and they may suggest a down-to-earth alternative Plato in tension with the philosopher officially identified with the doctrine of metaphysical Forms. From these notions Martin Puchner spins a grandiose historical narrative of [End Page 401] error and correction. For centuries, he explains, philosophy and theater have followed paths of mutual antagonism solely because they jointly misunderstood Plato, and hence themselves and one another. In The Drama of Ideas Puchner aspires to revive Plato for a new century, reframe what philosophy and theater are, and rewrite intellectual history by tracing neglected traditions that through the centuries preserved the unique perspective of "dramatic Platonism."

An academic theorist who holds an endowed chair in English at Columbia, Puchner seems to regard the history of culture as a flimsy phantom that instantly dissolves and reappears in novel form at the mere utterance of certain magic words. I suppose that those who witness such performances regularly—even graduate students nowadays are expected to attempt them—may soon be hailing "the productiveness of what Puchner calls 'dramatic Platonism.'" Attentive readers of Plato and ancient drama should have a much cooler reaction. The "concept of dramatic Platonism" that Puchner deploys to rewrite history is not, upon examination, a concept at all, but rather an impressive-sounding phrase of vague, elastic meaning. In the author's own words: "In this book, the concept of dramatic Platonism has served a number of historical and analytical purposes. In chapter 1, it provided the lens. . . . In chapter 2, it functioned as a tool for excavating. . . . In chapter 3, it worked as a frame. . . . In chapter 4, it directed our attention. . . . And in chapter 5, it connected . . ." (p. 193). Translation: "dramatic Platonism" is a multipurpose pretext that sheds a specious aura of unity around an assortment of texts. Puchner's final paragraph concludes his project with this virtuosic payoff : "Indeed, it is this act of pointing that is dramatic Platonism's most fundamental gesture. Pointing is the gesture of a body, of a body becoming language; it is a corporeal sign that ends in thin air, a gesture into nothing that draws the eyes toward it and toward the nothing to which it points. It is a Platonic gesture, or rather Platonism as gesture" (p. 198).

Puchner's own repertoire of gestures actually derives from Bakhtin. In Platonic dialogues, or rather the notion of them, the author detects a scent of "dialogism" that invites theorization (here, fabrication) of "the type of Platonism that I think is necessary in today's intellectual climate" (p. 33). Puchner's references to dialogue, philosophy, and drama always denote genres whose surfaces are symptomatic of functions definitive of each respective discourse. Everything is Body; thinkers struggle eternally to subject Body to the domination of abstract ideas, but Body always defeats them. "The Plato I am after," writes Puchner, "is not an idealist but a dramatist, and this means someone acutely engaged with conditions of materiality" (p. 8; emphasis added). As the quotation shows, Puchner himself is acutely engaged with abstractions. His "drama" is not, e.g., a representation of characters making decisions such as a playgoer might describe, but a format constituted by impersonal features like scenic localization, embodiment, and lived experience. Thus in the Socratic dialogue genre it is the "dialogic dimension" itself that draws philosophy away from abstraction toward embodiment. Who argues what to whom, hardly matters: "Even the [End Page 402] most elaborate mental edifices emerge from the interaction among at least two people talking and thinking together" (p. 23). Through their dramaturgy the dialogues "undo the certainties enshrined in tragedy, epic poetry, and other culturally privileged genres" (p. 30).

Of course, the ultimate trophy of dialogism is the doctrine of metaphysical Forms traditionally synonymous with "Platonism." Notwithstanding Puchner's advocacy of...


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