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Reviewed by:
  • A Politics of the Scene
  • Robert Henke
Paul Kottman . A Politics of the Scene. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2007. 260 pp. index. $60. ISBN: 978-0-8047-5834-5.

The brilliance and originality of this book consists specifically in its radical recasting of the metaphorical, figural uses of "theater" and "drama." The theatrum mundi trope, with which Kottman begins the book as he addresses Jacques's famous "All the world's a stage" speech in Shakespeare's As You Like It, carries far less weight in contemporary visual and digital culture than it did from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. But in a careful, convincing, and radically humanistic manner, following Hannah Arendt and Adriana Caverero, Kottman resuscitates the metaphor by repoliticizing it.

In the first half of the book, Kottman shows how the political theories of Plato [End Page 1404] and Hobbes depend on the figural use of theater, even as their ultimate formulations utterly undermine theater in its spontaneous, relational, and political particularity. In a careful and nuanced reading, Kottman demonstrates that Plato, following the Pythagorean tradition, takes the "passion for seeing" embodied in the theatrical experience as a vital "prephilosophical" activity, but one beyond which the true philosopher must progress if he is to be able to see clearly the otherworldly realm of immutable ideas on which the polis must depend. "Representation" in Hobbes ultimately has nothing to do with theater but designates the consolidation of the multitude into the one sovereign who acts for all of his subjects, who have entrusted their political agency to the monarch from a desire for self-preservation in a hostile world.

Kottman proposes an alternative conception of the theatrical —or really dramatic —metaphor whose work is mainly negative or oppositional in the sense that it attempts to clear out a theoretical "scene" of multiplicity, particularity, and spontaneity that the grand, visually totalizing theories of Plato and Hobbes do not allow. If the method is negative, the tone and implications are positive and generative. The "politics of the scene" proposed by Kottman is defined as a field of human interaction set off at a particular time and place by the speech and/or action of a particular person or group, which results in a new or altered relationship among those on the scene. Two correlative assertions follow. First, necessary to the scene is that it bequeaths the possibility of a subsequent witness, or testimony, of those who were on the scene. Secondly, following Arendt and especially Caverero, Kottman foregrounds the political valence of the human voice, emphasized for its vocalic uniqueness rather than semantic content.

A cursory glance at the book's overall structure, part 1 devoted to Plato and Hobbes and part 2 to ancient Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, might suggest an apportionment of theory and the applied analysis of dramatic texts, respectively, but it is more helpful to conceive of the entire book as a theoretical meditation on the theatrical-dramatic metaphor. Otherwise one would want to see more ground covered, particularly in the chapter on ancient Greek drama, which restricts itself, in regard to primary dramatic texts, to a brilliant if singular discussion of Phrynichus's 493 BCEThe Fall of Miletus, for which there is no extant text. (Rather than signaling, tout court, an irrevocable distance between the aesthetic product and the original events it represents, as Kottman argues, the institutional and literary product of tragedy could be seen to negotiate, in continual tension and alternation, immediacy and distance.) After a superb reading of Macbeth in the banquet scene of Shakespeare's play as a Hobbesian sovereign manqué, Kottman reads Hamlet for the way in which the scenes project the possibility of future testimonies exchanged by those on the scene. This seems clear enough for the first two ghost scenes of the play, but the fact that Hamlet and Gertrude, in the third ghost scene, manifestly cannot witness to the same thing (she sees no ghost) leads one to ask how plays like Waiting for Godot might work in Kottman's reading, with Vladimir and Estragon continually referring to past events for which they can never share even a shred of common testimony. [End...


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pp. 1404-1406
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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