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Theatre Topics 12.2 (2002) 177-190

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Reconsidering Stanislavsky:
Feeling, Feminism, and the Actor 1

Rhonda Blair

A few years ago I attended a conference session on feminist theory, theatre, and performance. One of the participants, in describing a performance she had seen, told how she was deeply moved by it and then apologized for having had such a response; in short, she seemed to be apologizing for having felt something. In the session as a whole, there was a skeptical stance toward feeling, narrative, and imagination. Though that particular conference session was centered on reception and this essay is centered on the performer, I believe the anecdote is apposite, since a mistrustful attitude toward feeling and the biological body in general has been common in feminist theories of performance since the early 1980s. These anxieties are understandable, given the power of feeling, imagination, and narrative, and the way that these and pseudo-scientific constructions of sex and race in biological bodies have historically been manipulated to oppress women. However, we feminists must move beyond responses based on received information and routinized antiessentialism (which itself is a kind of essentialism). Recent developments in cognitive neuroscience and neurophysiology can provide a fruitful way for reengaging issues of feeling, consciousness, and performance, and concomitantly, for reassessing Stanislavsky's contributions to systematizing the actor's process.

Science is not a final or absolute authority. It is not bias-free, any more than any theoretical construct is (political, literary, or otherwise); for, while hard sciences study perceivable or measurable objects or events, they de facto interpret those objects and events within a specific context. They are subject to scrutiny in terms of the structures of power, domination, and erasure that are embedded in any human activity with a social dimension. However, it is shortsighted and parochial not to consider applications of scientific knowledge and hypotheses that might inform our understanding of theatre and performance. Science examines and illuminates things that theatre, performance studies, cultural studies, and critical theory do not. Specific to this essay, in the last decades substantial progress has been made in understanding brain function in general. More recently, feminist scientists such as Elizabeth A. Wilson and Anne Fausto-Sterling have significantly advanced our knowledge of or raised fruitful questions about the relationship among cognition, behavior, and sexuality, and how these may be embodied in the brain. These and others lay a groundwork for understanding the species-specific ways in which we operate, as well as the [End Page 177] complexity of variations within the species related to broad categories of sex and narrower categories of individual heredity and development.

Wilson describes why feminists must move beyond received skepticism about biological research. In a discussion related specifically to sex difference, but that addresses the more fundamental issue of the relationship between biology and feminist theory (and is therefore a ground for this essay), she states:

A large part of the difficulty in generating politically engaging feminist critiques of the biological and behavioral sciences must be attributed to feminism's own naturalized antiessentialism. After all, how can a critical habit nurtured on antibiologism produce anything but the most cursory and negating critique of biology? For example, Ruth Bleier (1984) and Lesley Rogers (1988)—both neurophysiologists—respond to the reductionism of contemporary neurological research on sexual difference by gesturing to the outside of neurology (usually figured as culture or the environment). . . . If the brains of men and women are different, they argue, it is because of postnatal, environmental influence. (Wilson 15)

However, Bleier's and Rogers's critique seems to echo not only Judith Butler's endlessly malleable late twentieth-century individual (self as predominantly performative), but also John Locke's late seventeenth-century tabula rasa, failing to account for the complex, ongoing interaction between environment and biological heredity:

[The] gesture to a nonneurological culture or environment not only misrepresents the complex relationship between neurology and its outside, but also, by locating malleability, politics, and difference only in the domain of culture or environment, it abandons neurology to the very biologism it claims to be contesting. (Wilson...


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