University of Nebraska Press

Sound…is what is not at first intended. It is not first “intentioned”: on the contrary, sound is what places its subject, which has not preceded it with an intention, in tension, or under tension.


Gertrude-the Cry,1 written in 2002 and, significantly, directed the same year by Howard Barker himself, starkly marks a critical juncture not only in Barker’s dramatic career but in his personal life as well (see Barker 2007, 66-7). Barker has drawn attention to the importance of the work of the actress Victoria Wicks, who played the role of Gertrude, and indeed to the significance of his relationship with Wicks for his creation of the play. Accordingly, an uncanny and reciprocally consequential convergence emerges from the juxtaposition of Barker’s own account in A Style and Its Origins and the occurrences in Gertrude. The repercussive quests in the play undertaken by Gertrude and Claudius in pursuit of the Impossibles, culminating in the sacrificial death of Claudius and the ostensible terminus of their relationship, come to converge with, and even arguably occasion, the cessation of a longstanding liaison between Barker and his former lover—Marcia Pointon (68-9). Even more bizarrely, the performance is conducive to the parting of the actress playing Gertrude, Victoria Wicks, from her husband; an actress who is acclaimed by Barker as the source of imaginative inspiration for the creation of the play’s main female character (56, 66). Thus, Gertrude emblematizes [End Page 235] the case where art, among its other disruptive idiosyncrasies, transpires as an ontological intervention (see Deleuze 2004, 260-2); an event through which the ontological borders between the allegedly real and empirical world (more lucidly, Barker, Wicks and Pointon’s life and relationships among them as individual persons and irrespective of their artistic roles) and the aesthetic or fictional world (Barker, Wicks and Pointon as the author, artist/actress and the lover respectively, on the one hand, and Gertrude and Claudius as the characters of the play, on the other hand) are blurred and the aesthetic realm turns into a hauntology (see Derrida 2006, 10) infringing on the current ontology (of the socio-symbolic realm as lived by all the aforementioned individuals). Barker, furthering his account of the foregoing occurrences, proceeds to expound how he came to “imagine” his character (Gertrude) through Wicks and how Wicks (the person) “re-imagined” herself through Gertrude (the character) (Barker 2007, 39, 49, 56); and eventually how the whole aesthetic dynamic at stake affected Barker (the author) ethically and existentially: “In auditioning Victoria Wicks, Barker came simultaneously to a threshold in his personal and artistic life” (49). These remarks—in addition to reflecting and corroborating Barker’s avowed objectives of the “aesthetic will to experience” (122) and the ontological-ethical dimensions of imagination as evident in his Art of Theatre of Catastrophe (see Barker 1991; 35-7, 73-9, 93, 108, 119, passim; see also 2005, 1, 30, 74)—epitomize the fraught occasion where art as “the form of possible experience” and art as “the reflection of real experience” converge and are folded upon one another (Deleuze 2004, 260-1), while the question of ethics underpins the whole process.

Accordingly, ontological, aesthetic and ethical issues appear to constitute the recurrent motifs and pervasive concerns of Gertrude. In this essay, I diverge from the prevalent critical approaches hitherto adopted towards the play (see Rabey, Smith, Gritzner), which invariably tend to posit Gertrude as the cynosure of the play in two respects: as the paradigmatic figure of the play and as the source of the cry and its correlates (transgression, sacrifice and eroticism). It is my contention, however, that it is the cry that forms the eccentric centre of the play; in addition, I will interrogate the standard ascription of the cry to Gertrude, an approach which leaves many of the crucial concerns of the play unresolved. Based on this argument—and given the semantically and ontologically overdetermined nature of the cry (its irresolv-ably indeterminate relation to the body, subjectivity, the Other, and signification) coalesced with its being inextricably bound up with four fundamental preoccupations of the play (logos, thanatos, pathos and eros)—I propose the concept of “acousmatic voice” to be able to effectively capture and account for the aporetics of the cry as well as concomitant problematics of the play. It is my claim that the appropriation of such an equally charged and multivalent concept (acousmaticity), deployed both in philosophy and psychoanalysis, provides us with the viable conceptual means for tackling and unravelling the tensions and contradictions of the play and to explore the cry as the event. [End Page 236] As I will demonstrate, the establishment of this argument also leads to reveal some of the pivotal features of Barker’s later dramaturgy.

To this end, my discussion is composed of four interrelated parts. In the first part, I aim to establish the dramatic and philosophical centrality of the cry by eliciting ample textual evidence of its substantial role as regards the thematics of the play and the dynamics of the characters and their interrelations. Secondly, I suggest the eventful moments of proximal relation and radical transgression to entail a crisis-stricken mode of subjectivity and to be defiant of representation; and, thus, the compelling necessity for the cry with an acousmatic essence as the expression of the “event” and characters’ mode of experience of the Impossibles. Thirdly, elaborating on the concept of acousmaticity, I expound its philosophical and psychoanalytical premises and dimensions juxtaposed with relevant facets of the play. Finally, predicated on the preceding arguments, I scrutinize the play and seek to substantiate the acousmaticity of the cry within it, striving to probe the implications and ramifications of this idiosyncrasy with relation to the preoccupations of the characters; also evincing the trajectory of Barker’s later work and the attitude towards and conception of self, Other and the nature of their relation in general.

The Ontological-Ethical Status of the Cry

The cry is both the blind spot of and the aperture of insight into Gertrude. The transgressive and excessive voice (the cry) that permeates the play features not only as its fulcrum,2 but establishes itself as the ambivalent preoccupation of the characters in the play.3 Indeed, more strictly, the cry features both as the ambivalent object of desire and cause of the abjection of desire for the characters. They not only strive to appropriate the cry, but come to identify with it or to define themselves by or against it. Hamlet feels burdened and agonized with the cry and seeks to control, constrain and even extirpate it. When Gertrude’s cries, while in parturition pains, relentlessly cut across the scene, Hamlet’s onslaught of words are expressive of the intensity of his bodily repulsion and moral opprobrium: “Disgusting / Disgusting / Disgusting… DEGOUTANT / DEGOUTANT / ABSOLUMENT DEGOUTANT” (Barker 2002, 64). Claudius avouches himself as “the student of her sounds” (2002, 23) and Cascan declares himself not just familiar with Gertrude’s cries but as [End Page 237] “the connoisseur of its varieties” (2002, 11). Actually, Claudius is haunted by the cry and discloses it when he bitterly laments to Cascan: “THE QUEEN’S QUIET CASCAN / ISN’T SHE QUIET…QUIET AS THE GRAVE” (2002, 51). Elsewhere, pining for the cry, he moans: “(His hand to his ear) Shh / The wind yes (Pause) / I’m in such pain I’m in such pain / (He smothers his head in his hands and rocks from side to side. … Claudius howls)” (2002, 52). This obsession is carried to the extent that he even takes note of the precise length of time he has not heard the cry: “Three months apparently and you’ve made no cry” (2002, 42). Further in the play, Claudius interrogates Cascan: “Have you heard it? / I haven’t / Not for weeks” (2002, 31). This attitude reaches its critical culmination in Claudius when he states: “I must have it / (Gertrude turns to him) / The cry Gertrude / I must drag that cry from you again if it weighs fifty bells or one thousand carcasses I must / IT KILLS GOD” (2002, 22). This utterance, besides revealing the existential urgency that impels the character to its pursuit, attests to some significant aspects—here, the transcendent dimension—of the cry which are at stake in the play.

If we were to predicate our whole exploration of the cry on a facile conception or interpretation of it, premised on Gertrude’s own acknowledgment that: “The cry’s betrayal / …And it comes from nowhere else” (2002, 44) joined to Bataille’s argument that “The truth of eroticism is treason”4 (1986, 171), and consider the cry as the mundane articulation of such moments, it would be at the expense of abolishing a major portion of the ambiguities and complications of the play as well as the whole (non-)truth and (non-)meaning5 of the cry. Nevertheless, as we will observe during our discussion, the cry is a profoundly over-determined, aporetic and spectral figure in the play, the nature of which defies being clinched with relating it solely to sexual eroticism and as an expression of infidelity. In fact, as will become apparent in the course of the play, the cry, as Saying (that mode of language/speech or signifyingness the function of which is or features as opening onto the Other rather than communication of a conventional or intentional signified, which is the function of the Said), primarily transpires as the betrayal of the Said and all its cognates (see Levinas 1998, 6-8). [End Page 238]

In David Ian Rabey’s discussion of the play, it is Gertrude who occupies the centre stage. Though there are references to the cry interspersed in his examination, yet there are mainly relegated to the fringes of the discussion. In addition, despite the fact that the word “sacred” itself is never mentioned by Rabey, yet from his sporadic descriptions and the associations he makes between the cry and other matters, we can infer that such an interpretation is implicit in his stance. The evidences can be found where Rabey, based on Claudius’ remark, identifies the cry with “an inhuman force, a principle of catastrophic life or vengeful god” (2003, 125); and further on as something which is “opposed or even inimical to human definition and form.” He also passingly hints at the erotic and transgressive facets of the cry as “the juncture and meeting point of ecstasy and death” (2003, 87; see also 181, 41).

Andy W. Smith in his study of the play rightly hints at one of the cryptic and critical facets of the cry which is its being a fusion of “the sublime and the abject,” stating: “[t]his cry becomes the transcendental moment that claims Gertrude as the object of this particular tragedy” (2006, 69). He, in his effort to unfold the nature of the cry, proceeds to establish a link between cry and Kristeva’s notion of “amatory flash.” Amatory flash, as Kristeva explains, sparks forth at the moment of transgressive eroticism and is a commingling of the “erotic fantasy” with “philosophical meditation” which is also a convergence of the sublime and the abject (1987, 66). The principal figure or sensory mode in Kristeva’s essay, and on which Smith’s discussion relies, is the visual. Kristeva, in her paper, demonstrates an attempt at analysing and theorizing the literary techniques and approaches in amatory narrative which seek to render less invisible and more communicable what entirely eludes light of comprehension and representation and hence the discussion abounds in instances of binaries grounded in antithesis of the visible and the invisible (see 1987, 366). In this regard, Kristeva herself points to the notion of “idealization,” present both in her analysis and this mode of narrative, which is indelibly attached to the amatory flash/narrative as a medium of representation and irremediably linked with manifestation. Along with the same line of argument and extending her metaphorical analogy, this implicit disposition is evident also in the contrast she establishes between “shooting star” (illustrating the amatory flash/narrative) and the “sunflower” (standing for the theological heliotropic narrative).

Nevertheless I would contend that Smith, by choosing such a metaphorical analogue for the epistemological investigation of the cry, and identifying it as the pivotal figure for its presentation, unwittingly blurs Barker’s notable move in this regard, meaning, Barker’s deployment of a sensory mode (aural/oral-con/tactile) which, in keen contrast to “the visual representation of the flash” (2002, 368), is not susceptible to specular adequation and objectifying manifestation. Appropriation of flash as the critical term and figurative analogue for elucidating the nature of the cry, by Smith, results in overlooking some crucial aspects of the cry, namely, its aural/oral, chiasmatic (so contaminatingly con/tactile) as well as inter- and trans-corporeal character, both [End Page 239] of which render it highly congruent with the nature of what it is supposed to be expressive of: the trace of différance (see Derrida 1976; 2001a, 85-6; and 2001b, 230), and “pas au delà” of undergoing the Impossibles. Since “flash,” however evanescent in its momentary flaring forth, is essentially visual and pertains to the order of the specular, spectacular and visible; it is liable to visual perception and thematization. Nevertheless, as adumbrated above, among the decisive properties of the cry are its being essentially acousmatic, ex/timate6 and proximal (see Levinas 1998, 81-98; also see Libertson 1982, 278-80), non-phenomenological features which constitute not only its intransigent resistance to the order of discourse, representation and manifestation but also its being radically adverse to specular logic and visual assimilation. In addition, the ethical and the inter/trans-corporeal dimensions of the cry also remain unattended by both critics.

It is my argument, however, that it is the cry, and not Gertrude, that proves to be the aporetic crux of the play. The cry, paradoxically, comes not only to incarnate, but to provide the context for the eventuation of the vexing concerns of the play—to wit, the Impossibles and inter-corporeal proximity—and these are rendered possible principally due to its being inherently acousmatic. In the ensuing argument, the theoretical basis is predicated on the notion of acousmatic voice and the cry as epitomizing such a condition. Accordingly, I shall strive to establish that the cry is acousmatic in four different respects: its source, its cause, its relation to the self and the relation between self, the Other and the cry. The premise that subtends my whole analysis is that the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius is a deeply ethical (in the sense articulated by Levinas and Deleuze variously, yet with striking affinities and convergences, as opposed to moral7) relation, [End Page 240] which manifests itself in eventful moments of intercorporeal proximity (or con/tactile aesth/ethics). My proposition is attested to by Barker’s own description of the play as his “greatest work on love” (2007, 116). I would suggest that there are two principal points that binds them: the aesth/ethic love between them on the one hand, and their intimation of, and unremitting aspiration to, the Impossibles, partially eventuated in the cry, on the other.

The Event of the Impossibles and the Problematic of Representation

Barker affirms his being acutely aware of, and attentive to, the problematics of representation in moments of extremis both in general, and also with a particular focus on Gertrude. He, however, articulates and casts this problematics primarily in ethical, rather than solely aesthetic or representational, terms: “Barker thought all killing and all sex beyond the possibility of adequate representation in the theatre space—it was an ethical not a mimetic problem” (2007, 66). Now, by the same token, given the irreducibly multi-plicitous and heterogeneous nature of the cry, Barker is confronted with an even more convoluted quandary: the question as to how such an apparently [End Page 241] non-representable voice/sound can be (re)produced or (re)presented in a dramatic text and, even more problematically, a performance. The measures taken by Barker (as a director) to dramatize the cry and the attendant moments provide us with clue as to his conception of the nature of the cry as well as the intended manner of its dramatic presentation. Accordingly, in the account he presents in his pseudo-autobiography, Styles and Its Origins, Barker proceeds to explain how he had recourse to a variety of media and interwove them in order to devise a composite apparatus so as to figure the heterogeneous and multiplicitous nature of these eventful moments more viably. As he delineates, he accomplishes this task by splicing loops and snippets from three different composers in combination with pre-recorded scream/voice of Victoria Wicks, coupled with the installation or display of certain graphic and pictorial details projected onto the screen: “…in the sexual encounters of Gertrude and Claudius Barker eschewed a conventional representation of the act and relied for effect upon the startling image of the actress naked but for her shoes, taken standing from behind, all this accompanied by the harsh discordances of Ligeti” (2007, 66-7). Accordingly, this reticulation of human, non-human, and inter-human sounds accentuates its non-naturalistic and non-anthropocentric character and definitely precludes the exclusive ascription of the cry to Gertrude. In this regard, the unobtrusive, yet noteworthy, point is that notwithstanding the far-reaching steps taken by Barker (the director) to adhere to and fulfill the essential complications of the cry, the produced cry in the performance should not be deemed equivalent to, or exhaustively reflective of the facets of, the cry as presented in the text, which is supposed to be imagined by the reader. As such, this also testifies to my proposition that the cry is both textual and non-textual, on the one hand; and both personal and impersonal, on the other; an aporia that will be delved into below.

As evident in the foregoing account, Barker’s remarkable move in dealing with the transgressive moments of the Impossibles and selecting the apt medium for presenting them consists in two undertakings. The first comprises Barker’s introduction of an a-phenomenon and a-form, the cry, which closely conforms to the dynamics of these (sub)liminal moments. Such moments by definition, defy the imposition of any form, disarray any order of mimetic manifestation and are irreducible to discursive language (see Lyotard8). As such, the cry by its quasi- or non-linguistic, non-representational and nondiscursive [End Page 242] nature most intensely approximates such a condition. The second move involves endowing the cry with two closely-related features which here I have identified as acousmatic and proximal. The acousmatic voice, as I will expand upon below, ethically, ontologically and epistemologically owns a chiasmatic status (see Merleau-Ponty 1968, 130-155, 214-5) par excellence. The acousmatic “voice,” as it features in Gertrude, as well as theoretically posited by Dolar (1991; 71-3, 101-3), features not only as an inter-weaving of self and the Other but also as a juncture between body and language. Hence, it is both language and the body and neither of them; indeed, it partakes of the traits of both yet exceeds them. Furthermore, by specifying the sense modality that informs this medium—the con/tactile and aural/oral—Barker emphatically accommodates it to the demands of the instant/event it is to express: the moments of con/tactile aesth/ethics or chiasmatic proximity between Gertrude and Claudius.

Accordingly, I would suggest, the following are among the main reasons Barker refuses to re-present the aforesaid events in the medium of discursive language and representation. Language is a tool of social order and meaning which accords a circumscribed “position” (thetic, socio-political and moral) to the self-conscious subject. Language also posits intentions, and hence identity or at least a virtual subjectivity-intentionality; whereas the pure affectivity which is released in the cry has no such specificity and the lacerating charge of this affective experience depositions the subject, exceeding its volition, conscious intention and individuality, continually making it other (see Levinas 1998, 100-2). Bataille’s delineation of ecstatic experience corresponds to the aforementioned effects: “I become aware of my ecstasy only in retrospect, and even then only the sensation of an effect coming from the outside. … In reality, I am acted upon” (1988, 60). As such, the cry is of the order of an affective event which surges forth from an interior exteriority and an exterior interiority (see Libertson 1982, 6, 25, 104, passim). Language also presupposes a degree of generality, intelligibility, universality and exchangeability, since no signification is entirely singular; as Derrida cogently argues: “The first effect or first destination of language therefore deprives me of, or delivers me from, my singularity. By suspending my absolute singularity in speaking, I renounce at the same time my liberty and my responsibility. Once I speak, I am never and no longer myself, alone and unique” (2008, 61). Yet the eventful moments such as con/tactile proximity, plethoric sacrifice and above all the gift of death are not liable to such generality and do not comply with the imperatives of the symbolic order. Premised on the foregoing points, Barker by deciding not to present such eventful instants in the order of language, but to figure them in a borderline medium—the cry—acts in fidelity to the exigencies of the “event” (See May). As Hamlet professes: “Language [as deployed in the symbolic order] is hopeless” (2002, 54) in such [End Page 243] instants (See Lyotard 2009, 16-19, 60-71; Docherty 113-26; and Barthes 1998, 55-7).

The foremost point to be established with regard to the relation between the cry and the Impossible(s)9 is the substantial evidence that confirms the cry’s being an expression of the Impossibles. No matter which of the permutations or manifestations of the Impossibles we consider at each specific occasion, the invariable idiosyncrasy of all of them is their non-iterability, singularity, alterity and hence eventfulness. Part of the evidence that we should construe “the cry as an event” is that it is unrepeatable. It cannot be reproduced and is not amenable to mimesis; each time it is emitted, the magnitude, the (non)meaning and the ramifications vary from one occasion to another; a fact of which all the main characters, including Cascan, Claudius, and Gertrude are acutely cognizant. This surfaces when Cascan draws Claudius’ attention to the cry’s being “unrepeatable surely” (Barker 2002, 16). Elsewhere Cascan insightfully hints at the unrepresentability and inimitability of the cry and associates it with spontaneity, transgression, extreme exposure to exteriority and desire; characteristics which coalesce to make the cry an event: “Nevertheless I daresay you would not be gratified if my lady stooped to imitate a thing so rare and reverenced as this exclamation is. … Merely to perform what has been so spontaneous an utterance would compromise the depths of her desire and humiliate her perfect and pathetic nakedness I daresay” (2002, 33). Gertrude herself strenuously insists on the authenticity and eventfulness of her cries and refuses to (re)produce a cry “on demand” by Claudius: “MY CRY IS NEVER FALSE…You know it’s never false and if it falters if it dies I won’t pretend it Claudius I will not lie however wonderful my lying is” (2002, 22). When Claudius longingly demands her cry, in a rather imperative tone tinged with an inclination to generalization and banalization: “Gertrude / Do what I say…Even if you lack the inspiration if it is an empty gesture women do it all the time don’t they” (2002, 21), she declines to act in accordance, not only because she wills not to will it as such but also because she cannot will it.

Eventually, the cry’s being “eventful” is reflected in its incommensurable and figural nature. As regards the mode or the technique that Barker selects to render the cry, he resorts neither to image nor metaphor; indeed his approach proves to be highly apposite to the demands and properties of the momentous event, since cry, substantially-materially and structurally, is a fugitive figura (see Barthes 2002, 3-8; and Auerbach 1984, 13-35 2003, 44-49), which traverses both horizontally and vertically. I posit that the relation between voice/cry and language/the signifier is premised on “différance” (in the Derridean sense of the term). Accordingly, the relationship between voice and sense (the signified or meaning) is zeugmatic, aporetic and chiasmatic and hence is not reducible to a dialectical relation with voice/ [End Page 244] cry as the meaningless vector or carrier of meaning. Accordingly, the cry is both form and force blocked together,10 (in)formed by over-determination and superimposition. The cry, as it is present in the play is, on the one hand, the extension or expansion of language, and on the other hand the transcendence, transgression and extenuation of language; as if with each issuing of the cry, language is splintered and lingers behind the cry; yet, in addition to this collapse of the spectacle of sense or meaning, it simultaneously hints at a host of meanings (deemed untapped, inscrutable or even absurd before) and also acts as the condition of meaning. This erosive impact on discursive reason and referential/representational language is articulately bemoaned by Hamlet: “I am saying less (Pause) / I am saying less and the reason I am saying less is that speech falters speech flinches when horror lifts a fist to it (Pause) / The more horror the less speech I don’t say I am the first person who appreciates this” (2002, 54).

Indeed, the play abounds in explicit and implicit linguistic demonstrations11 that foreground the way limit-experiences defy discursive language and disrupt its logic of relation and definition of sense; and when the characters are prompted by an irresistible urge to give voice to the intensity of their cataclysmic ordeals, or to an affective trace traversing them yet other than them, their speech cracks, is fissured and beset with absence and an-archy (see Levinas 1998, 101) in consequence, or in anticipation of, the cry. Cascan’s remark testifies to the point: “In a strange and sinister equation the more we tell the more untold becomes agony and even that which was once said becomes unsayable (Pause)” (2002, 42). Elsewhere in the play, the recondite and equivocal relation that Hamlet establishes between love and language is more eloquent—language as saviour, language as failure: “There is love and if the love is terrible it runs out of language and in this agony of language this dying of the language the coming in alone can save the love from dying with the language the love which otherwise would howl of wordlessness like a starved dog nailed into a room implores the coming in to save it I am saying the coming in does not come first how can it come before the love implores it how it how it’s how” (2002, 27; my italics). This is a performative language, or more strictly, a punctumic-figural language.12 This is a kinetic text that “claws” (see Beckett’s commentary on Endgame) and the figural analogy (between dog and language) depicts Hamlet as the dog who is howling in this “vocal writing” (see Barthes 1998, 66); indeed the repeated “hows” at the tail end of Hamlet’s gestural speech echo the “howl of wordlessness” working both as an expression (of desperation and desire) and yet a sensible [End Page 245] interrogation. In another highly aposiopetic and elliptical13 remark by Hamlet, we observe not only a figural analogue, but the corporeal manifestation of such affective states in the totality of the expressive behaviour: “And my best friend has already (His mouth goes stiff) / My best friend having (Stiffly) My mother then (He shakes his head) / WORDS HOPELESS HERE / (He shakes his head more violently)” (2002, 54).

As such, here we evidently witness notable affinities between Barker and Bataille regarding the deep distrust and doubt they share on the function and contribution of language (particularly discursive-representational language) in such moments. Here Bataille’s compelling statement attests to the way the mode and medium of expression arising from and (presumed to be) corresponding to such excessive moments must be a self-effacing, self-violating language itself, otherwise they are sham or a failure: “the world of words is laughable. Threats, violence and blandishments of power are part of silence. Deep complicity can’t be expressed in words” (Bataille 1988, 40). He pushes the issue to its extreme point by asserting that: “Eroticism is silence” (1986, 264). Nevertheless, I would contend that, Barker, due to his enhanced and extended conception of language and textuality coalesced with the irrevocable and indelible dramatic nature of his text and the consequent access to a boader range and means of aesthetic presentation (his incorporation of various aesthetic media and modalities, particularly music, painting and kinetic/ choreography performance) constitutes a far more overlaid and complex relation between language (speech), body and the relation with the Other; and hence he holds a more optimistic attitude with respect to the capacity of language.

Accordingly, the cry broached from another perspective can be taken to embody the voice or expression of the Impossible. As Bataille argues, the Impossible and its correlates all lie beyond discursive language. Thus, Barker by conjuring the cry and putting it into Gertrude’s inter-corporeal flesh, purports to illustrate its being a projection or expression which reaches beyond her flesh and language and yet is both infinitely immanent and transcendent (in Levinasian sense of the word) to both of them. Here, concerning the aesthetic/critical rendition of the cry, I would like to draw an analogy (drawing on Bataille’s own indication) concerning respective conceptions of and ways of dealing with the (re)presentation of the cry by Barker and Bataille, as Bataille himself contrasts the way Levinas’ proposed notion of the “il y a” features in his own and Blanchot’s work. “Levinas says of Thomas the Obscure that they are a description of il y a (there is). This is not quite right: Levinas describes the il y a (there is); Maurice Blanchot somehow screams it” (206). So the same comparative commentary, I believe, holds for the relation between Barker and Bataille’s respective approaches to and treatment [End Page 246] of the presentation or figuration of the Impossibles: if Bataille’s fictional work manages to intimate the way to the Impossible or to reveal the trace or shadow of the Impossible in his disrupted narrative, Gertrude screams the Impossibles. It is not even a movement by language away from language (as it is usually the case in Bataille) it however, is the onslaught or upsurge of a ravishing force which lacerates the fabric of language dramatically.

Barker’s move in this regard (his treatment of the non-discursive) is akin to Derrida’s elaboration of the logic of Bataille’s work: “The writing of sovereignty places discourse in relation to absolute non-discourse. Like general economy, it is not the loss of meaning, but…the ‘relation to this loss of meaning’. … The known is related to the unknown, meaning to non-meaning” (Derrida 2001, 270-71). This “relation” and its nature are pivotal to the ethicity and authenticity of the rendering and treatment of the event (and the Impossibles) and even more crucial is that, this relation between the two is not a dialectical but a proximal and chiasmatic relation. Such a writing exceeds the confines of meaning and subjectivity yet remains tangential to them.

The Acousmatic Voice

Predicated on the preceding discussion, the transgressive sound or voice (the cry), as it features in the play, is treated neither as an object of aesthetic appreciation and veneration—an approach which perverts the voice into a fetish object and reifies it14—nor is it present as solely a receptacle containing meaning or a medium for the conveyance of meaning; word as the telos of the voice and voice as the vehicle of the word: a Wittgensteinian ladder to be discarded upon the establishment or achievement of meaning (See Dolar 1991, 15). In contrast to the two foregoing approaches, I assume the cry to be an acousmatic voice or (non)phenomenon. Indeed, its being essentially extimate and epistemologically-ontologically ambiguous as well as its being susceptible of being “informed” (both in the literal and Bataillian sense of the term) by eroticism, transgression and sacrifice is primarily to be attributed to its being acousmatic.

The term acousmatic, critically, was first introduced by Michel Chion (1982) who borrowed the word from Pierre Schaeffer. He identifies the first known usage and source of the “acousmatic.” Originally the term was wielded as an epithet for Pythagoras’ disciples and pupils who followed his teachings without being able to see him as he was concealed by a curtain for five years, a situation which can be construed as the very root of the logocentric [End Page 247] philosophical tradition. Accordingly, an acousmatic voice, as defined by Chion and as reformulated by Dolar, is a voice whose source and cause are indefinite, undecidable and unknown. The first two problematic traits of the acousmatic voice pose this grave question: “can we actually ever pin it down to a source?” (1991, 67) The source of the acousmatic voice can never be seen, it stems from an undisclosed and structurally concealed exterior or interior. Thus, it designates a voice without a body attached to it and hence its uncanny effect; as Chion asserts: “The acousmatic situation… entails that the idea of the cause seizes us and haunts us” (Chion 1998, 201; qtd. in Dolar 1991, 67). According to Dolar what renders the acousmatic voice even more uncanny and paradoxical is that even when a certain body is determined as the cause or source of the voice and the voice is fastened onto that body, the effect is not diminished or dissipated. Hence, it is a voice in search of an origin, in search of a body, but even when it finds its body it turns out that the voice does not stick to the body, “it is an excrescence which doesn’t match the body” (1991, 60-61). As such, by virtue of its covert origin and its abject status, the acousmatic voice assumes aura, authority and surplus meaning. But as I will explain more below this is not the whole story.

The third feature concerns the relation between the self from whom the voice is presumed to issue and the voice. In keeping with the points posed above, the corollary of such attributes is that, there is always something totally incongruent in the relation between the possible/visible source of the voice (the appearance, the aspect, of a person) and the voice itself: “The fact that we see the aperture does not demystify the voice; on the contrary, it enhances the enigma” (1991, 70). The voice conceived and considered as such acts contrary to the prevalent function and operation accorded to the voice in philosophical tradition and consequently runs counter to Derrida’s idea of metaphysics of presence and does not fall prey to his critique of phonocentrism (which privileges the voice as a source of an originary self-presence). Thus, in the case of acousmatic voice “S’entendre parler” or hearing oneself speak (which is the primal constitutive of the illusion of interiority and ultimately of consciousness and autonomy) is no longer conducive to the re-assertion of self-identity, self-coincidence and self-presence; rather, it paradoxically instigates an interruption or disruption in the self and occasions the recognition of a yawning gap between the self and the voice. Žižek’s statement confirms the point at stake: “An unbridgeable gap separates forever a human body from its voice. The voice displays a spectral autonomy, it never quite belongs to the body we see, so that even when we see a living person talking, there is always a minimum of ventriloquism at work: it is as if the speaker’s own voice hollows him out and in a sense speaks “by itself,” through him” (Žižek 2001, 58). Thus one could argue that the acousmatic voice can induce both abjection and sublimation, as the voice itself is neither an objectifiable voice nor a voice which could be attributed to a certain subject; furthermore, the person who hears it is smitten with an analogous affective alteration. [End Page 248]

Another factor that enhances the disorienting quality of the voice and paves the way for the emergence of the alterity implicit in the equivocal structure of the voice is the very intrinsic logic of the aural/ vocal. As opposed to the illusory logic of the visual/visible (which is that of distance, stability and safety), with the reverberation of the vocal or aural/audible, such a reassuring detachment and division crumbles; as such the most fundamental divide—that between interiority and exteriority and/or between ipseity and alterity which is “the model of all other metaphysical divides” (Dolar 1991, 38)—founders. The voice directly pierces the interior and suffuses it to the extent that the very status of the exterior becomes dubious, and it invariably discloses the interior to the extent that the very supposition of an interior is contingent on the voice. As Dolar observes: “What is exposed [in the voice]… is an interior which is itself the result of the signifying cut, its product, its cumbersome remainder, an interior created by the intervention of the structure” (1991, 80). The notable point, which has a direct bearing on Gertrude too, is that voice owing to its exposing the hidden structural intimacy and complicity between self and the Other so excessively is accompanied by an effect—or, rather an affect—of shame (1991, 119). Hence, we could conclude that the logic of voice or that of the oral/aural is that of inevitable exposure, contact, contamination, contagion and implication. As such voice proves to be an essentially intermediary, tenuous and fluid space, ceaselessly swinging between an interior exteriority and an exterior interiority; the token of absence and separation, and the mark of an impossible presence, a phantom of presence, invoking death at its heart. This intercorporeal space is a simultaneously positive and negative space in which self and the Other coincide in their “lack”; and as Dolar contends this voice is “the incarnation of their lack” (1991, 93).

To elicit a link from the foregoing points so as to proceed to the last idiosyncrasy of the voice, we could distill that with the acousmatic voice the origin is originally lost or multiplicitous; here the original scene is “ob-scene and uncanny” (1991, 126). In contradistinction to the metaphysical propensity (which strives to maintain the purity of the origin against supplementarity/ alterity) the trace of alterity is not only inerasable from the acousmatic voice but foregrounds the structural self-division and alterity-permeation inhering the voice. This crucial idiosyncrasy immediately evokes the fourth feature of acousmatic voice which is the manifold and highly ambivalent relation between self, the Other and the voice involved in the acousmatic voice. The theoretical-philosophical ground of this proposition can be derived from both Lacan (in whose psychoanalytic theory self is that signifier whose signified, being the Other, is forever and irretrievably missing) and Levinas (his account of the ontological priority of the Other) though they belong to different disciplines (see Voruz 2007, 137-145).

Here the double-edged nature of the acousmatic voice as adumbrated above comes to the fore: voice as an authority over the Other and, yet more importantly, voice as an exposure to the Other. As Dolar cogently observes [End Page 249] “One is too exposed to the voice and the voice exposes too much, one incorporates and one expels too much” (Dolar 1991, 81) No sooner has the self produced a voice/cry that one is also “always-already” yielding power to the Other; the silent listener is in the position of decision over giving recognition, attention and intention. In Dolar’s words: “The subject is exposed to the power of the other by giving his or her own voice, so that the power, domination, can take not only the form of the commanding voice, but that of the ear. The voice comes from some unfathomable invisible interior and brings it out, lays it bare, discloses, uncovers, reveals that interior” (1991, 80). Both receiving and emitting a voice thrust out an excess, a surplus of exposure and vulnerability on the one hand, and a surplus of authority on the other. The elusive presence of this excess, this “constitutive asymmetry” in the voice (1991, 81), an asymmetry between the voice stemming from the other and one’s own voice figures as an ethical guarantor in the relation; as it is the sustainer or mainstay of the difference and the vital écart or distance (see Merleau-Ponty 1968) between the two. The voice, as the excess of the demand of the Other, the demand beyond any particular demands, and at the same time, the demand posed to the Other features as an opening to and of a radical alterity through or from which truth or event emerges.

Consequent upon the notion of the acousmatic as a voice without a body (its being unattachable to a certain body), the voice as the remainder, excess or the trace, there emerges another uncanny ramification of such an attribute; that the third (interfacial-interstitial) space which this voice constitutes and to which it pertains is not solely to be restricted to a space between self and the Other yet simultaneously it beckons to a space beyond; a dimension transcendent to both self and the Other, the secret and affective perception of which both share (see Levinas 1986, 345–59; and Levinas 1998, 12, 20, 79). This voice is never determinable either as personal or impersonal, individual or universal.

Acousmaticity of the Cry

Before embarking on an in depth engagement with the demonstration of the status and essence of the cry, establishment of its acousmaticity and presenting manifestations of its acousmatic nature in the play, I would rather schematically delineate the four fundamental causes or correlates of the cry in Gertrude as an initial step onto our exploration of the play. This excursion helps us contextualize our argument more fully and provides us with a ground for a clearer apprehension of the significance and implications of the cry’s acousmatic status in relation to characters and their concerns. It also accords us a broader perspective onto the play in terms of its thematic premises, its dynamics as well as the preoccupations of characters, because, as it will become evident, these four correlates or sense-dimensions of the cry [End Page 250] are inextricably entangled with the significance and facets of the cry as an acousmatic voice/sound.

As hinted above, regarding the causes and correlates of the cry, when we meticulously survey the play, we can argue that the cry is starkly marked by and associated with four principal issues: logos, eros, pathos, and above all, thanatos. Given the remit of the paper and the scope of the subject at issue here, it suffices to sketch them out and elaborate on each briefly. Throughout the play, the cry’s invariable link with Logos (as representing transcendent truth, meaning, law, unity, totality and metaphysics of presence) is primarily intimated by Claudius. Claudius seeks the cry (initially conceived as belonging to Gertrude and embodying eros and/or thanatos) and appeals to it as a force or phenomenon totally countering or opposing Logos. This sense is evident in his remark to Gertrude: “I must have it (Gertrude turns to him) / The cry Gertrude / I must drag that cry from you again if it weighs fifty bells or one thousand carcasses I must / IT KILLS GOD” (Barker 2002, 22). Elsewhere, he more adamantly professes his transgressive endeavours through Gertrude (presumed as incarnating the cry) as being invariably oriented towards Logos: “Gertrude it is God I’m fighting when I fight in you” (2002, 44).

At times the specifications and descriptions that are made of the cry approach the characteristics attributed respectively to the all-encompassing force of being and continuity, more strictly as a sacred and immanent force (as posited by Bataille), or the transcendental Logos of metaphysics, or even the essential human relationality in the mode of proximal eroticism. In the ensuing remarks almost all four dimensions are tacitly and intimately entangled: “I REQUIRE THE REAL CRY CASCAN ALL MY LIFE I SOUGHT IT SINCE I WAS A BOY AND PRIOR YES PRIOR TO BOYHOOD.” Further ahead he asserts: “IT IS THE CRY OF ALL AND EVERY MOVING THING AND ALL THAT DOES NOT MOVE BONE BLOOD AND MINERAL” (2002, 32). Probably the most explicitly perceptible implication of the cry is eroticism. In the first scene, the cry which reverberates throughout is a fusion of transgressive eroticism, sacrificial death of the king, vocalizations, desperately vocalized yearnings for a heteronomous ontology, proximity, and chiasmatic self-excendance. Accordingly, in the light of the above characterization of the cry as a fundamentally chiasmatic (see Merleau-Ponty 1968; 133-150, 265-6), as an entre-deux phenomenon that possesses a fleshly, forceful and fluid character and eludes self-appropriation and self-reflection (see Dolar 1991, 102), as already hinted at, we can identify the acousmatic cry (along with fluids and denudation), in the play as one of the main loci in which inter-corporeal proximity with alterity and trans-corporeal reaching towards the Impossibles (transcendence) are actualized.

The cry, in a superimposed sense, also incorporates pathos. Pathos, as I intend it here, signifies a twofold affectivity and incompossibility of utmost propinquity (obsessive affectivity of rapport and excessive intimacy) streaked and traversed with the indelible trace of pure differance, an [End Page 251] irrevocable écart (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 124). Conceptually, pathos derives from the sense of the term as articulated initially by Nietzsche in the mode of pathos of distance and later elaborated and extended in a radically recast conception of ethics by Levinas. As such, it entails and comprises proximity and chiasmatic duality in the texture of the acousmatic cry. I would suggest that pathos can be deemed here to designate departure from ethos and logos and consequently incarnating pure affectivity, sensibility, exposure, and responsivity. Nietzsche identifies the pathos of distance as “that longing for an ever increasing widening of distance” (1973, 173) within the self, which effects the enhancement and elevation of the self towards rarer, tenser and more comprehensive states realized through continual “self-overcoming and taking a moral formula in a supra-moral sense” (173). Thus, the pathos of distance can be succinctly defined as “the condition of transient affectivity” (Diprose 2002, 29) which is indispensable for both the formation of relation of the self with other-than-the-present self and with the Other. Levinas discerns “pathos” as an essential affect as well as modality and logic of relationality integral to the erotic, amorous and ethical relationship which is an intrinsically embodied passivity and inter-subjective investiture lived in the first person accusative. In his characterization, pathos is a term whose correlates are love, proximity, and irreducible alterity.15 By the same token, and given the inextricable metonymic relation between the three figural analogues of the affect of proximity, meaning the cry, denudation, and overflowing of fluids, somewhere in the play Cascan calls Gertrude’s nakedness “pathetic.” Claudius is astounded and asks: “Why pathetic…Why pathetic nakedness?” to whom Cascan responds: “All love is pathetic is it not my lord?” (Barker, 2002, 63).

Although there occur numerous moments in the play that exemplify the pathos at issue here, however, no moment of pathos is more paradigmatic than the profoundly ambivalent moment of the death of Claudius in the final scene; an eventful moment which can be considered as both a moment of radical sacrifice (of Claudius) as well as that of the gift of death (from Gertrude to Claudius). This moment of death, since it precedes the most recondite, cryptic and harrowing emission of the cry throughout the play, also testifies to the intimate link between the cry and the ethical import of the affect of pathos. In fact, the impassioned passivity embodied by Claudius in conceding to his death in the ensuing passages evinces the extent of his pathos in this scene: [End Page 252]


CLAUDIUS YOUR DEATH IS NEXT (Pause) / I shuddered when I knew it I SAY DEATH I MEAN SOME WRITHING MURDER call it death (Pause) / Not today not imminently today is grief today is silent walking and staring in the pool of memory terrible reflections in the pool and self-disgust…


Yes (Pause)


Oh do you know it yes you do you know it too I shuddered when did you know how long have you / CONCEALED YOUR (She glares) / I COULD STRIKE YOU


I love you


I COULD STRIKE YOU / (She sways. A pause. Her hand rises and falls) / My darling / Get out of my sight / (2002, 82-3)

Ultimately, it is however noteworthy that the cry in addition to be partially coeval and suffused with the foregoing points, is almost in all occasions concomitant with death and incarnates the death-drive or thanatos thereby emerging as the affective-expressive release of thanatos in the throes and/ or at the very terminus of acts of sacrifice or transgression, intimating that the ultimate reaches of life, self, relation, and death have been bordered on. Both Gertrude and Claudius seem to be driven by thanatotic urge, yet not the normal or suicidal senses or even in the sacrificial mode by Law—but death of an essentially different order: the aporetic gift of death (see Derrida 2008, 36-82; see also Derrida 1993, 31-35, 37-41). Claudius on hearing Gertrude’s lacerating cries tersely asserts that her cries might be attributed to an aporetic craving for reaching death (of self or as release from the ontological logic of the present world) and yet overcoming or surpassing death while being harrowingly cognizant of its impossibility, that is, recognizing that very mortality as the condition of possibility of that impossibility (Barker 2002, 67). This is manifested in the radical and consequential sacrifice and eroticism they undergo, but more saliently in the gift of death (radical sacrifice) which the last scene epitomizes.

Now, if we scrutinize the cry, as it recurrently reverberates in the play, with the characteristics expatiated above in view, all textual evidences prove to testify to its acousmaticity in all four senses of the term. Firstly, the source of the cry is unidentifiable and uncertain. In Gertrude we face a double bind or dilemma: that the cry cannot be demystified and the source cannot be determined even when the origin is ostensibly laid bare. It is irresolvably both overt (Gertrude’s mouth/body) and covert (something extrinsic to Gertrude’s body, something inscrutable and incognito). As such, it seems to arise both from the flesh of the world and flesh of the individual, the landscape and the bodyscape. Throughout the play, the emergence of the cry is [End Page 253] ascribed to different sources by different characters, sources which are not necessarily discrepant and carry all the following possibilities.

Apparently the cry arises from Gertrude. In the course of the play, however, there surface other tokens that impugn the certainty and clarity of Gertrude’s being its source and imply sources which prove to be transcendent16 to her. There are passages which definitely ascribe the agency of the cry to Gertrude (See 2002, 10, 11, 22, 31, passim) and some others that contravene this very opinion. Claudius wonders: “Always I thought the cry was in you / But it’s not / It’s outside / It waits / It walks / Some long hound pacing the perimeter / Frost clinging to it / Clouds of breath” (2002, 87). Another substantial evidence emerges at the very end of the play when she issues the last cry; the stage note reads: “her great cry comes, not from herself, but from the land. She is seized by it” (2002, 92). Cascan perceptively does not try to confine the cry solely to one source and realizes that an array of contiguous or tangential causes are required to converge into the creation of the cry: “this cry I heard beyond the orchard wall and marvelled at its depth its resonance I do not honestly expect to hear its like again what could give birth to such a cry a dying husband an impatient lover supremely beautiful (Gertrude weeps)” (2002, 11).

The second trait of the cry as an acousmatic voice concerns its deeply equivocal relation to self. Though Gertrude might appear as the phantasmatic figure of plenitude to most characters in the play who are dwellers of restricted economy and the symbolic world including Hamlet, Ragusa and Albert (to them, she is both the desirable object and the subject of desire), yet she does not feature thus to the later Claudius. One of the revealing moves in this regard is that her being inhabited with the cry is depicted in such a manner which adumbrates her being inhabited with a vacuity or void. Gertrude is not presented to be in possession of the cry and there abides a deeply ambiguous and différed relation between them on which I will elaborate later.

There are numerous instances which bear witness to her lacking or losing control over the cry or her treating it as an entity or phenomenon exterior to herself that overpowers and inhabits her. Towards the end of the play Claudius comes to realize the acousmatic-proximal nature of the cry and deems it erroneous to ascribe the agency of the cry to Gertrude: “I DON’T KNOW IF IT IS…/ The cry is more than the woman…/ The woman is the instrument / not from the woman comes the cry” (2002, 54). Elsewhere more lucidly Gertrude herself in conjunction with reference to the decentring influence of the cry, attests to the fact that the scope and magnitude of the cry by far exceed her existential (both carnal and spiritual) dimensions: “The cry / The [End Page 254] cry / Bigger / Bigger / Yes / BIGGER THAN MY BODY CLAUDIUS / Yes / (Horrified)” (2002, 80). The eventual irrefutable testimony to the acousmatic nature of the cry and Gertrude’s proximal relation with it evinces itself in the moment of Claudius’ death. There we read: “Gertrude…goes to him, takes his head in her hands, as she does so, her great cry comes, not from herself, but from the land. She is seized by it. Claudius is dead and she struggles with the weight of his body” (2002, 92; my italics). The indicated source is at the farthest remove from her body; and thus the origin is attributed to the most exterior or heterogeneous phenomenon possible: the land. Here, the gap or disparity between the two conceivable sources is so vast that to reconcile them seems almost impossible. In addition to cry’s being bodily explicitly estranged from her, we observe that she cannot exert her personal volition or intention and just yields to its advent. The flagrant consequence of this is the simultaneous expansion and diminution of individual ego/self and corporeal boundaries. She is almost entirely possessed by and enveloped with the cry.

The third attribute of the cry is the ambivalent yet fundamental relation it holds with the Other. The cry appears to be the call (and trace) of both the Other within (an immemorial beyond in the most intimate recesses of the self (see Levinas 1998, 86, 103, and Libertson 1982, 6-7, 48) and the call to the Other without (see Bataille 1988 and Blanchot 1986). At the scene when Gertrude and Claudius have colluded to poison Hamlet, at Hamlet’s swallowing the contents of the glass of wine, she is so ruthlessly possessed with the eructation of the cry that she cannot bring her crying to a halt or throttle it. In other words, she is issuing the cry despite herself (see Levinas 1998, 52-4), as if it is wrung from her by an adverse and compulsive force engulfing her. In response to Claudius’ ceaseless demands, she desperately beseeches: “OH STOP / OH STOP” (2002, 78). Further ahead, again barraged with his calls, she states: “I CAN’T / I CAN’T (Her hands move as if she were grappling an invisible opponent)” (68). In the scene where they are all attending Hamlet’s funeral, Claudius intuits the impending advent of the cry and as if the cry is lying dormant somewhere infinitely interior and infinitely exterior to both of them, he says to Gertrude: “The cry…Waiting”; to which Gertrude replies: “CALL IT / CALL IT” (87). This dialogue verifies not only the degree to which the extimate (and/or the heteronomous) is implicated in the issuing of the cry but also the extent the production of the cry relies on the presence and desire of the Other. There are other occasions that this Other and its call as well as its exigency indicate an impersonal, atheological and more comprehensive force, though.17

In Heidegger and partially in Merleau-Ponty (see 1968, 170, 179, 212; see also Kleinberg-Levin 53-98) the call and response to it are an opening to Being, whereas in Levinas (and again partly Merleau-Ponty), the voice or the cry is an exposure or opening to Otherwise-than-Being (The Other which [End Page 255] is non-ontological and/or hauntological): “Indeed the call is precisely something which we ourselves have neither planned nor prepared for, nor voluntarily performed, nor have we ever done so. “It” calls against our expectations and even against our will. … The call comes from me and yet from beyond me” (Heidegger 1973, 320). I would suggest that the nature of the cry in Barker’s Gertrude, partakes of both dispositions; meaning that, it is both an exposure to Being as the immanent Wild Logos (the sacred realm of general economy) and also to Otherwise-than-Being as the transcendent Autrui or L’autre (inextricably associated with Eros-Thanatos as well as Pathos). What should be noted with regard to this idiosyncrasy of the cry is that, notwithstanding the inter-corporeal and intrinsically intermediary space that cry embodies or/and creates, no trace of simultaneity, coincidence, or symmetry between self and the other is discernible in it or in the relation formed by the issuing forth of it. And this confirms the chiasmatic, abject and hence, the ethical (the fact that the ethical trace is “registered” in the cry) status of the acousmatic cry.

The irresolvable ambivalence which lies at the heart of Edward Munch’s painting—“The Scream”—with certain qualifications, is comparable to the condition or status of the cry in Gertrude. In the painting, the uncanny source of the voice cannot be certainly determined as either internal to the agonized figure inhabiting the scene or the more macabre landscape surrounding it. Barker, by the same token, intimates the ontologically equivocal relation between Gertrude and the cry with the dash he inserts between Gertrude’s name and the word “cry” in the title of the play: Gertrude—The Cry (a form of punctuation that, as Barker himself professes, rarely occurs in his writings.

The last characteristic that substantiates the cry’s being acousmatic is the indeterminable cause of it. Although Gertrude certainly identifies the cause of the cry as betrayal (Gertrude: ‘The cry’s betrayal Claudius (Pause) /… Betrayal /…And it comes from nowhere else” (2002, 44) even this act of determination is shrouded in ambiguities. We are prompted to ask: betrayal of what; the answer to which conjures up a host of possibilities: betrayal of self, betrayal of the other, betrayal of love, betrayal of Law or the interdictions of the symbolic order and edicts of morality. In addition, the question that more persistently preoccupies us is that, if the cry reveals betrayal, why she has not made any cries while copulating with Albert, as she vehemently denies emitting cries then, in the act.

As I have adumbrated above, the causes and the conditions with which the occurrence of the cry is coincident are multiplicitous and diverse (including heteronomy, inter-corporeal proximity, transgressive eroticism, and sacrifice), an attribute which emanates from its being intimately bound up with four fundamental concerns of the play and characters: logos, eros, thanatos and pathos (see 2002; 22, 32, 67, passim). Not rarely, however, the four motifs are irresolvably merged or imbricate. The first and the last scenes of the play paradigmatically illustrate the point at issue. In these scenes the circumstances underlying and triggering the cry emerge as a vortex-like fusion of [End Page 256] transgressive eroticism, sacrificial death of the king, and a crescendo craving for a heteronomous ontology, self-excendance, and a chiasmatic proximity. Elsewhere Claudius’ expression of consternation also substantiates the issue at stake: “Her cries I thought peculiarly similar to those she utters in the act of love yet this was pain surely?” (2002, 62). Nevertheless, the affect and the gesture subtending almost all the preceding events and undertakings is indeed, sacrifice; (of the self, the Other, and the restricted economy) and unobtrusively prevailing is the cry as the emblematic expression of sacrifice as coup de don—gift of aporetic death, love, or time (See Derrida 1979; also see Taylor 1987, 134-9). One of the irrefutable evidences to this effect is that, on most occasions which it resonates, it is accompanied by or even coincides with an excessive corporeal expenditure and loss: outpouring or overflowing of a part of body or that of a bodily fluid such as blood, vomit, crying, convulsive menstrual flows, delirious and hysterical laughters, all illustrating the plethoric manner the subject (and its entrenched ego boundaries and solid folds of the self) are trespassed, violated, expelled, expanded; expressive of at once abject and sublime nature of such states: “MY WALLS WERE FALLING / Yes / MY LIMBS CLAUDIUS MY HEAD / IN ALL DIRECTIONS / Yes / I DID NOT THINK / AT THE CRY’S END / I COULD BE STILL INTACT / Yes / CLAUDIUS” (Barker 2002, 71). Furthermore, if we subject the descriptive phrases that delineate Gertrude and Claudius in the midst of and in the aftermath of such moments, they are vividly reflective of the sheer magnitude and scale of the sacrifice they are affected and afflicted with. On the event of murdering Hamlet, the manner she is depicted, illustrates the intensity of her self-dispossession, dehiscence, and excendance: “Again her cry comes. She is doubled. Still Claudius observes her. … Only now, does Claudius go to Gertrude. He wraps her in an embrace of exquisite tenderness. They remain thus, a trio of extinction…” (2002, 78; my italics).


As the preceding analysis sought to disclose, the significance and corollaries of the cry cannot be restricted to the aesthetic dimensions of the play, but more prominently, they prove to encompass the ontological and ethical facets too. Consequently, the acousmaticity of the cry, as demonstrated, can be concluded to not only enunciate, but incarnate the thematics and dynamics of Gertrude and its characters in four distinct respects. Firstly, the aesthetic (formal, stylistic, and (re)presentational) level; by incorporating the cry and vesting it in acousmaticity, as the most apposite and viable aesthetic vector of the motifs of the play, Barker’s work transcends the dichotomy of text as the referent and text as the autonomous signifier, which represent realist and modernist approaches respectively. And thus, the text should be identified to lodge somewhere between and beyond modernist and postmodernist trends. This trajectory also depicts Barker’s departure from modernism [End Page 257] (Expressionism and Surrealism among its other strands) to postmodernism (in the sense propounded by Lyotard: as a critical and yet de-constructive moment in/of modernism) and beyond.

Secondly, the epistemological level, that is the level of knowledge and/ or perception of the self, the Other and the world, and all three, in turn, with respect to the thematics of the play. More clearly, this level adverts to the way the cry reflects the four fundamental preoccupations of the play (logos, thanatos, eros, and pathos) and complies with the mode of relationality between them (proximity and différance) as well as that of characters with them. Yet, it also concerns the impetus urging the characters to engage with foregoing thematic points, and adumbrates the kind of knowledge underlying the play.

As regards the two aforementioned levels, Jean-Luc Nancy’s rigorous philosophical reflections on listening and its significant implications in relation to sense and subjectivity, along with his elaborations on the attributes of aurality in his book, Listening, can bring our hitherto disparately discussed points about the aesthetic and ethical ramifications of the cry’s acousmaticity into an articulated and perspicuous focus. Accordingly, he juxtaposes the visual and the aural in a comparative analysis, underpinned with a critical view to the specular and ocularcentric essence of Western philosophical tradition, and presents an account of their distinctive features. Taking his hint variously from Lacan and Heidegger, Nancy identifies the visual as being “on the side of an imaginary capture (which does not imply that it is reduced to that),” while the sonorous is “on the side of a symbolic referral/renvoi (which does not imply that it exhausts its amplitude)” (2007, 10). Extending his argument to the question of nature and modality of (both subject-object and inter-subjective) relationality, Nancy characterizes the visual as “tendentially mimetic,” and the sonorous as “tendentially methexic (that is, having to do with participation, sharing, or contagion)” (2007, 10). Though, these two orders or tendencies, as he notes, are not mutually exclusive or incompatible and might intersect or overlap.

Predicated on a meticulous characterization of respective idiosyncrasies of the two sense modalities (the sonorous and the visual), he proceeds to elicit the epistemological, existential and ethical implications of the order or register of sonority/aurality. As Nancy argues, it is primarily aurality/ sonority (over and above all other sensory modes), in general, and the act of “listening,” in particular, that affords us insight into the (non)essence of the self. What is revealed is the primacy and primordiality of hetero-affection over auto-affection, or, for that matter, hetero-affective nature of auto-affection (see also Derrida 1973, 79-82). In listening, as Nancy explicitly states, in the state of self as aurality, the “self” is perceived to be “nothing [substantial, subsistent, or self-present] but precisely the resonance of a return [renuoi]” (2007, 12). Indeed, the aural self, given the inherent liminality of listening, involves being perpetually a self-in-crisis and being in an approach to the self (2007, 7-9). It, more strictly, entails a non-objectifying mode of interminable [End Page 258] self-referral in which self-presence and self-identity are infinitely deferred. The sound of the sense (of the auditory/aural) reveals the “structure of the self” as being not only acoustic but, more crucially, acousmatic, that is, starkly marked by porosity, equivocity, irreducible duality and ex-centricity (8-13). The least repercussion of such a conceptualization is that it comes to the subversion of the essentialist ideas of the self (in all its chief manifestations, ranging from the Cartesian cogito, and the Kantian autonomous subjective identity, to Husserlian transcendental ego, or the phenomenological subject of intentionality and pure interiority (23).

This attitude, as it is evident, I must add, is highly akin to, and congruent with, the depictions of the self (and the way it features in relation to others) in Gertrude. Aurality, and as it is concretized in the cry, hints at what lies at the core of the play: the modality of the experience of the Impossibles and the presentation thereof, coupled with the question of relationality (and its modality: proximity); or more strictly, the self as relationality (primarily with singular alterity) in the mode of auto-affection as hetero-affection. Accordingly, for Nancy, to be listening and to exist as self-as-aurality is, thus, “to enter into tension and to be on the lookout for a relation to self: not, it should be underscored, a relationship to ‘me’…or to the ‘self’ of the other… but to the relationship in self, so to speak, as it forms a ‘self’ or a ‘to itself’ in general, and if something like that ever does reach the end of its formation” (2007, 12; my italics). Thus, listening [as the register of the sonorous] “can and must appear to us not as a metaphor for access to self, but as the reality of this access” (12). And by this “reality,” Nancy primarily intends an ambivalent, fundamentally différential reality; “a reality consequently indissociably ‘mine’ and ‘other,’ ‘singular’ and ‘plural,’ as much as it is ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ and ‘signifying’ and ‘a-signifying’” (12). Consequently, Barker’s acute selection of the aural (the vocal-auditory) as the sensory mode and figural medium of the central concern of the play complies with the questions of (re) presentation, relationality as well as its equally determining modality at stake.

Thirdly, there is the ontological level, or more strictly, the being of self/ subjectivity, alterity, and exteriority in Gertrude. Also at issue in this dimension are the factual conditions of existence and the meaning of being. And finally, and fourthly, there is the ethical plane, or the mode of relationality between self and the other, which is, as elaborated, proximal and chiasmatic. The cry, with its acousmatic nature, is apprehended as a heterogeneous affectivity, and, in turn, effects a heteronomous becoming in the autonomous self. The drastic alteration in Claudius’ attitude towards Gertrude, from conceiving her as the embodiment of Eros/Thanatos, and, thus, as a means to an end (i.e., a counterforce for overcoming Logos) to the loved woman as the singular Other, runs parallel to and is reflected in the trajectory of the perception of (the essence of) the cry and its correlates, that is, from the Woman to the Trace, and viewed from another perspective, from the Woman to the Other. I argue that herein lies the ethical thrust of Gertrude and the sense and significance I have thus far attached to the term, ethics. This ethical [End Page 259] turn evinces itself in the Claudius’ transition from pursuing a metaphysics of desire (in the phallogocentric sense of the term) to an ethics of desire (in the sense elaborated by Levinas); and consequently, recognition of Gertrude as the Other, rather than the Woman.

To briefly elucidate the key concepts at issue above, as we know, the Woman, in Lacan’s conception of the term, is tantamount to the Phallic Mother (the inversion of the Capitalized Phallus and epitomizing the masculine phantasy of absolute fulfilment, of the absolute autonomous identity of primary narcissism, and of metaphysical transcendence). Accordingly, as Lacan propounds, the Woman as one of the Names of the Father, the fantasmatic agency unbridled by the Law and possessing access to the Real, embodies the fullness of Desire (the object à) and the infinite. In Le Sinthome, Lacan indicates that “The Woman in question is another name of God” (2005, 14). And elsewhere he explains: “the complete necessity of the human species [is] that there be an Other of the Other. It is this One that is usually called God, but of which analysis unveils that it is very simply The Woman” (Lacan 1973, 4, 48). Accordingly, the Woman is intimately linked with the Φ, which designates the phallic function/signifier (a quasi-transcendental signifier) and which Lacan calls the signifier of jouissance. In fact, this primordial signifier acts as the condition of possibility of all law or order (Lacan 1998, 103). As such, the Woman does exist as not-all, or, more lucidly, the Woman constitutes the exception to universal rule (Law of the phallic signifier/function), and, thereby, becomes the not-whole (not wholly Oedipalized or undergone castration) (Lacan 1982, 144). On this premise, the Woman is associated with the symptom (in the male as a knowledge whose cause or origin is in the Real) and the Real, where the real is a “beyond [au-dela] that makes itself heard in the dream” (Lacan 1981, 58-59).

Now, as regards the notion of the “trace,” which Levinas associates with the notion of radical alterity (and also illeity), it becomes exceedingly important in Levinas’ writings after Totality and Infinity. In Levinas’ conception of the term, the face (a fraught technical term in Levinas) of the Other—identified by him as the paradigmatic locus of ethical relationship—is figured above all as the trace, bearing the “hieroglyphs of an an-arche” (Levinas 1998, 11, 16, 24; Taylor 1987, 210). As he states: “in the trace of the other that a face shines; what is presented there is absolving itself from my life and visits me as already ab-solute” (1986, 359). Importantly, in the foregoing passage, “an-arche” designates the temporal mode of the trace (i.e., the immemorial), which, in turn, refers to the irrecuperable (to synchrony) and irrevocable temporality of the Other (that is, diachrony and anachrony), postulated as such to establish the Other and the relationship to him/her as untotalizable, unrepresentable, and unmediated by ideality and the universal. Levinas asserts: “The beyond from which the face comes signifies as a trace” (1986, 355). Further, the trace is, ontologically and epistemologically, inherently ambiguous; it pertains to the order of the enigma rather than phenomenon, and, thus, transpires as the anarchy or disturbance of the present order of [End Page 260] being: “alterity occurs as a divergency and a past which no memory could resurrect as a present” (Levinas 1987, 68). Or, the trace is “incommensuarable with the present…over and beyond now, which this exteriority disturbs and obsesses” (Levinas 1998, 86). According to Levinas, the trace is inscribed within the self and invokes/evokes a profound, unmediated, and affective response in the self, which acts akin to a traumatic trace or haemorrhage in subjective identity (1998, 141-5). In fact, the trace, as palpable in the ethical encounter with the face of the Other, is posited by Levinas to convey the absolute singularity, originary différance and infinite transcendence of the Other for the self: “a trace does not effect a relationship with what would be less than being, but obliges with regard to the infinite, the absolutely other” (1986, 357). Thus, Levinas, by articulating the mode, dynamics and the terms of the relation with alterity through the notion of the trace, intends to convey how both the Other and the relationship to him/her are beyond essence, positive presence, and, hence, preclude the possibility of cognitive comprehension (and reduction as the object of knowledge to the same), ontological totality and metaphysics of presence (see 1986, 358-9; see also 1998, 91, 93, 116, 118). Consequently, it is critical not to conflate the Other (associated with the trace) with the Woman (or the One) who, by definition, is the Other of the Other.

Thus, as it was expatiated above, the trace-like, aural, and acousmatic character of the cry coalesces with the perceptual trajectory it undergoes as well as the decisive existentio-ethical transition it portends and provokes to corroborate and accentuate the viability and aptness of the cry in relation to the dynamics, thematics of Gertrude in five principal respects involved: the non-representational nature of the transgressive instants it expresses; the figural medium devised to give expression to those instants; the “relational” nature of the cry and that of the experience it articulates or prompts; the mode of relationality between self and the Other (that is, chiasmatic and proximal); and, finally, the mode of subjectivity and being that the experience of Impossibles entails.

Now, I will concentrate here on the corollaries of the points delineated above and tease out their ramifications in the wider context of Barker’s later drama. Premised on the foregoing discussion, it can patently be asserted that the cry reveals the nature and status of subjectivity and alterity in Barker’s tragic Art of Theatre towards the later stages of its development (during the 1990s and 2000s). In the light of the acousmaticity of the cry, Gertrude eschews identifying the female/feminine as the source, origin, or cause of the cry (as is rampantly the case in Surrealism and Expressionism (see Caws 1993, 17-30, 50-64), in which case, the female would have been susceptible to becoming a phantasmatic spectacle/scene for the specular subject of scopophilic economy; a situational dynamic, which is blatantly symptomatic of and informed by ocularcentrism and phallogocentrism.18 In other terms, since in the case of [End Page 261] the foregoing treatment and conception of the feminine, it is appropriated as the ground or fetishized site for transcendence, self-identity and unity by the masculine subject, if Barker’s Gertrude had subscribed and conformed to this stance, it would no longer qualify as epitomizing a proximal-chiasmatic relation and logic. Nonetheless, as the play illustrates, each time the cry is issued, both Gertrude and Claudius are evoked and addressed by it, though they invoke it with equally passionate passivity (for the explanation of the term “passivity” (see Levinas 1998, 58, 69), and thereby they are both compelled to occupy an accusative position19 rather than a nominal/nominative one. The accusative status of the individual in relation to the heteronomous, intercorporeal, and hetero-affective nature of the acousmatic cry (and its correlates) is explicitly reflected in the way it alters Claudius’ attitude towards Gertrude; to wit, from an objectifying attitude (of deeming Gertrude as the subjective locus of the cry and desiring her) towards a conception of Gertrude as the Alterity and in a tenuous relation to it. This eventually leads to his apprehension of the entre-deux space and the irrevocable différance in relation to both of them and their relation to the cry. This trend culminates in his sacrificial exposure and receptivity to her and her aporetic love: supremely manifested in the gift of death in the final scene.

It is worth indicating that similar states of self/subjectivity, proximity with alterity, and dynamics of heteronomous relationality are palpably discernible in Fence in Its Thousandth Year, and Dead Hands, and Found in the Ground, and Blok/Eko. As such, Barker’s Gertrude patently departs from (yet partly retains) the centrality of subjectivity as an autonomous agency towards the promotion of the state of individual singularity in proximal relationality with alterity and/or exteriority, instigated by a trans/inter-personal or seemingly impersonal impossibility. The crucial point in this regard, which needs to be underscored, is the twofold nature of “autonomy,” which, beside the very fact of (heteronomous) relationality, has suffered neglect and/or misapprehension in current Barker criticism. The critical scholarship has mainly tended to construe the avowed autonomy of the characters either in narrow or loose Nietzschean terms (See Barnett 2001, 458-475; see also Rabey 2003, 46-7, 171-2) or in a restrictively Adornian sense (See Gritzner 2010, 85-93; and Gritzner 2008, 331-339); or yet, it has taken the hardly tenable step of identifying kinship between Barkerian self and the conceptions of self as spawned by the liberal-humanist discourse (the sovereign self characterized by essentialism, disembodiment, monadization and atomization, see Barnett) Barker so fervently dismisses. To a considerable extent, the foregoing stances or interpretations stem from a conflation of or failure to recognize what I would contend are two distinct levels or modes of autonomy at work in Barker. [End Page 262] Firstly, autonomy on a socio-cultural and political level—or more strictly, epistemological and aesthetic autonomy of subjectivity and the artwork respectively, in relation to the socio-historical totality—which constitutes the moment in what Barker calls History.20 Barker, in his uncompromising cultural critique, discerns the totalizing and authoritarian impulses inherent in the logic of late capitalist discourse as detrimental to individual autonomy, causing the atrophy of authentic experience, evisceration of critical subjectivity, dominance of the exchange and use values, and the subsumption of the avant-garde in the collective, popular art and kitsch (see 1991; 49, 90, 99, 103, passim). Accordingly, he counters the aforesaid predilections by firmly endorsing and valorizing autonomy—akin to critical stances and insights posed by Lyotard21 and Jameson,22 but above all, inspired by Adorno and his proposed critical concepts of autonomy, non-identity thinking and mimesis.23 However, even when autonomy is affirmatively accommodated as the prevailing attribute of his art and main characters, Barker preserves the irrevocably mediated and ambivalent nature of the concept (also notably present in Adorno’s position). This edge is substantially absent in critical approaches to Barker’s work premised on the same concept, yet Bela, Galactia, and Skinner can all be considered exemplary cases of the double-edged and ambivalent character of autonomy in Barker.

The second (and almost entirely overlooked) mode of autonomy evinces itself on ethical and ontological levels within the parameters of the Theatre of Catastrophe, and constitutes the moment in Anti-History. This mode of autonomy, as I have argued, is pivotal to Barker’s later work either negatively or affirmatively and can be defined as individual singularity—an irreducible, intrinsically enfleshed ipseity which principally is a less skeptical, more positively attenuated, and heteronomous form of autonomy in a chiasmatic relation to an enfleshed Alterity. Concerning the latter mode which comes to affect and qualify the former, in Barker’s later drama, it is primarily characters’ “individual singularity” (a la Kierkegaard, Levinas24) which is often invariably foregrounded, staked, engaged and retained, rather than or even in spite of their “subjective individuality” (see also Taylor 1987, 204-5). The substantial consequence of this mode of autonomy is that as the characters stagger between the throes of proximal relation in undergoing such volatile, (sub) liminal, and transgressive states with the Other, they are ejected from their subjectivity and propelled towards a heteronomous relation with Alterity/ Exteriority. As such, their status of self or subjectivity is converted drastically through trans-substantiation and trans-portation as they tread the trajectory [End Page 263] of subjectivity from autonomy to heteronomy, from identity to ipseity, and from the subjective position to the subjectile (see Derrida 1998, 62-88). This accentuates the heteronomous nature of transgression (as it features in the play) as pas au delà (see Bataille 1986, 97, 102n). In brief, the individual in the later dramatic works of Barker, mainly, is ontologically chiasmatic, ethically proximal, and aesthetically heteronomous.

There are two salient points in which this drastic alteration in the mode of subjectivity through a process of heteronomy, or more clearly, becoming ipseity of identity in a relation to alterity, becomes evident. The first testimony emerges where Gertrude, in her conversation with Isola, in a telling gesture refers to herself in the third person; an act which is indicative of her being given strictly to an act of self-detachment, self-transcendence and self-overcoming:


You were funny / (She goes to kiss Gertrude on the cheek) / All that about prostitutes (She kisses her) / I took you seriously


People should


People should?


Take Gertrude seriously


Oh she is third person Gertrude is she?


Gertrude is


She is and I don’t criticize (Barker 2002, 44-5)

The second manifestation of the way this moment of emission of the acousmatic voice partially coincides with an accusative existential mode is the interplay between the word “I” and “me” in the ensuing scene. The word which most persistently recurs in the opening passage to the point of obsession is “me.” Use of “me” here, I would suggest, illustrates the way “I” in the throes of the heteronomous experiences such as sacrifice and proximal eroticism, gets attenuated into “me,” an ethical move from egological identity to ipseity, from I to me. This impossible ecstasy or ecstasy of the impossible is a catastrophe for the proper “I.” And relevantly, Gertrude’s most characteristic attribute, pinpointed by Barker, is her being “tragic” or “catastrophic.”25 As such we can affirm that “Me” is the catastrophe-stricken and acephalic “I.” The other notable point about “me” is its both highly singular and yet neutral status; “me” reflects the intense almost indistinguishable proximity reached by both persons while tenuously retaining their individuality. Therefore, the linguistic condition of “me,” with its haunting reiteration, features as the [End Page 264] linguistic analogue of that intercorporeal space between self and the Other and is indicative of the alterations they are affected with in that space. As such their speech forms an expressive fabric in which they are tautly woven together:


I should / Surely / I should / Me




Me / Let me


It must be me who


Why not me


Me who




Because he is your husband it must be me


Let me kill / Oh let me kill for you

Claudius I’m killing / Me



(2002, 9-10; my emphasis)

There are two other latent points in this excerpt. The first is that, the occurrence of “I,” though seldom, does so solely in Claudius’ utterances which, in turn, discloses his however tenuous yet subsistent belief in or hold on to a separate self at this stage. Second, the seemingly adventitious juxtaposition which takes place in the clause “I am killing/ me,” uttered by Claudius, is highly revealing, as if intimating that he is killing himself and thus it lays bare the extent to which the subjective self must undergo exposure, quasi-death (radical loss and expenditure) and transformation and also foreshadows what is to transpire regarding the question of sacrifice and gift of death in the rest of the play. Finally, this frenzied scene tellingly culminates in the longing: “Fuck me / Oh fuck me.”

The conclusion that can be drawn from these elaborations is that they preclude the attempts made to entrench Barker in the German Expressionist26 [End Page 265] movement and to associate his theatre with its aesthetic principles and perceptions as well as its ethical and ideological positions (see Gritzner 2008: 330-338; see also Gritzner 2010, 1-12). Indeed, the cosmos of Gertrude, in total, and the significance of its centralization of the acousmatic cry provide us with a paradigm that serves to gauge and offset the vast differences between the fundamental preoccupations of Barker’s drama and those of Expressionism. The concerns of Expressionism can, in fact, be argued to be more comparable to those informing In-Yer-Face Theatre. The “In-Yer-Face theatre” that emerged in the 1990s, and of which Sarah Kane (if inappropriately), Mark Ravenhill, Anthony Neilson, and Martin McDonagh are considered as exemplary figures, can be characterized by the following features: a confrontational style, pursuit of a certain emotional and sensational immediacy and intensity, their depiction of crude violence and sex on stage, their provocative, blunt language, resorting to shock tactics, precluding contemplative detachment by the audience. Owing to the indicated traits, the young writers who constitute the core of this generational cohort have also been called “new brutalists,” “new Jacobeans,” “theatre of urban ennui” (Sierz 2002), the “new nihilists,” and the “Britpack” (Saunders 2002, 5).

The depiction of In-Yer-Face Theatre by Aleks Sierz, who presents one of the earliest and most sustained treatments of this theatre, can be illuminating, and reveals a host of underlying features and assumptions in this stream that help us determine the similarities and differences between this theatrical strand and Barker’s Theatre of Catastrophe. Sierz characterizes In-Yer-Face Theatre as a “drama that takes the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message. It is a theatre of sensation. … Questioning moral norms, it affronts the ruling ideas of what can or should be shown onstage; it also taps into more primitive feelings, smashing taboos, mentioning the forbidden, creating discomfort” (2001, 4). Significantly, Sierz adds that “it tells us more about who we really are.” And finally, he sums up his account by stating, “it is experiential, not speculative” (4; my emphasis). This very last trait suffices to foreground how far In-Yer-Face (as well and Neo-Expressionist) theatre is from the aesthetic criteria articulated by Barker. As pervasively evident in Barker’s work, ontological, existential, and ethical speculations form the fulcrum of his theory of drama and dramatic work (1991; 24, 33, 69, 91, 96, 185, passim), and yet this speculative dimension, far from being the opposite pole of the novelty and transgressiveness of the experience, an impediment to it, or its restraint, is an indispensable precondition [End Page 266] for it.27 In fact, a meticulous survey and scrutiny of the plays produced by the playwrights associated with In-Yer-Face and Neo-Expressionist theatres, coupled with some of their other foregoing features, reveal them to be even more significantly at variance with the intensely poetic and creative, and also existentially liberating, language, the socio-politically unrecognizable milieu, existentially imaginative, and affirmative advocacy of transformative possibilities of catastrophic conditions which starkly mark Barker’s plays. In-Yer-Face theatre in several respects, including its conception of self (the prevalent dramatization of the dissolution or disintegration of subjectivity/self is flagrantly observable in these plays and establishes one of their salient motifs), sensation, critique, representation, and language proves to be notably casual, indefinite, vague, under-developed or confused. This stance vastly differs from Barker’s rigorously-elaborated and philosophically-oriented aesthetic and ethical principles and ideas that define and inform the conception and depiction of the self, body, language, as well as the ontological dimensions of each of his plays. Even the moral ambiguity at stake in some of the plays produced by writers associated with In-Yer-Face is instigated by and symptomatic of the moral confusion of the contemporary society surrounding certain issues, an impulse which is considerably different that which informs moral ambiguity in Barker’s work, which arises from an irrevocable existential and ontological condition of being human and inter-subjective relationality.

Furthermore, Barker not only refutes essentialist conceptions of the self (as implied by Sierz’s “who we really are” as and discernible in the plays), but equally significant, he does not promote the idea of the self as a chaotic, irrational and immoral bundle of impulses. Rather, Barker poses an understanding of the self as relational (not communally, but strictly, interpersonally), symbolically autonomous and ethically heteronomous, and finally, as an inherently incarnate being in intercorporeal relations. Barker identifies the self as “free, cognitive, and essentially autonomous” (1991, 51). He displays his acquaintance with what in characterizing the contemporary socio-historical and political conditions in sociological, aesthetic, and philosophical discourses passes for postmodern(ism) and even in certain respects evinces affinities with some facets of this hybrid trend (for instance, his deconstruction of different grand narratives in order for little narratives and moments of anti-History to emerge (1991, 171). Nevertheless, he also debunks the apparent façade of diversity, heterogeneity, individuality, and fragmentation as being underpinned by certain imperatives driven by the force of uniformity, homogeneity, and attrition of subjective identity; and [End Page 267] moreover, he diverges from the pivotal assumptions of this trend in crucial respects. One of those which is saliently unorthodox is Barker’s attitude to the subjective self: “The individual remains the only source of imaginative recreation of society, and is the proper subject for art…I am interested in the individual as the potential of many selves. We need to see the self as a potential ground for renewal and not as something stale and socially made” (1991). Equally vehemently, Barker repudiates his drama’s containing or conveying any messages, either in the form of critical realism or of surrealism (see 1991, 38, 48, 51, 67, 85, passim). Barker’s valorizes the notions of spirit28 and knowledge and opposes them to the rampant information and functional conceptions of the subjective self in the dominant neoliberal-humanist and capitalist discourse as well as postmodern trends or discourses.

Whereas plays connected to In-Yer-Face and Neo-Expressionist theatres are strongly disposed to concentrate on diverse manifestations of the dehumanization of humanity (reflected variously in alienation, fragmentation, and reification of the individual), occasioned in consequence of war, sexual abuse, or oppressive socio-political circumstances surrounding them, it is the abolition of such a critical ground for the judgment and evaluation of decline and degeneration, coupled with the absence of a referential socio-political context for the adoption of such a stance to that purpose (the presence of both of which act as the condition of possibility of this stance in the two theatrical strands) that distinguish Barker’s different path. Barker, in his art of tragedy, not only rejects “the lie of human squalor” (1991, 19); but also “the ostensibly inhuman elements” (1991, 144) of his plays and the situations besetting their transgressive characters tend to enhance the existential and relational dimensions of the human in remarkably liberating ways. And, consequently, it can be contended that Barker’s plays principally insist on “the humanity in inhumanity” (64), in principle, for the “the affirmation of human creativity” (27) demonstrating that “Failure is unimportant, the attempt is all” (27), though in the sheer absence of any overarching or underpinning grand-narrative. The crucial caveat, in this concern, is to strictly eschew establishing identity or even the faintest similarity between Barker’s notion of humanity in inhumanity with the essential goodness of human being endorsed in the humanist tradition. Here, I would argue, Barker’s inhuman human can be construed in a sense akin to Lyotard’s articulation of the inhuman belonging [End Page 268] to art and the child and pitted against the inhumanity of techno-science (see Lyotard 1991; 1, 7).

To clinch the issue at stake, it is worth quoting Barker’s own direct remark about this matter, since it cogently corroborates what I have been contending so far. When asked whether he recognizes any kinship between his own drama and the aforesaid dramas—and, in particular, Sarah Kane’s (who should indubitably be regarded as the most renowned dramatist of the late 90s and early 2000s)—Barker responds: “I don’t know her. … I haven’t seen or read her plays. However, what interests me is why she was adopted by the theatre—what made it possible for someone who was superficially problematic, anarchic, violent and cruel to be embraced by the system” (1991, 172). Interestingly, Urban’s critical observation about how many of the In-Yer-Face plays were assimilated and subsumed (in incisive contrast to Barker’s work being banished from all dominant theatre institutes, including the National Theatre, as well as dominant critical circles for the last forty years) attests to this aspect of their work pinpointed by Barker here: “that such In-Yer-Face work could become part of a marketable cultural identity may seem odd at first, but, in truth, the nineties were all about peddling the provocative” (1991, 357).

Here, Barker’s provocation about the validity and viability of critical attitudes and approaches adopted by these theatrical streams is grounded in his aesthetic principles and criteria prevalent in his theoretical work. As such, he maintains that socio-political or cultural critiques (whether with a overt political slant or as an implicit strain) in literary works are unavailing and self-defeating. The reason, in Barker’s viewpoint (consonant with that of Adorno), is that in the adoption and occupation of the same socio-symbolic space and arena and entering into a critical-dialectical relationship with the dominant discourse and ontology, even if for the purpose of disrupting, critiquing or subverting them, the (aesthetic and ontological) otherness of the critical discourse cannot be maintained; and as such, this engagement inevitably renders the latter susceptible to ideological assimilation and critical consumption by the audience and the critics. Barker’s alternative approach is very akin to what Adorno terms “negative dialectics.” As Adorno argues, it is only in its uncompromising otherness that art “epitomizes the unsubsumable and as such challenges the prevailing principle of reality: that of exchangeability” (1997, 227). And Barker along similar lines asserts: “The moment that an action on the stage asserts its veracity by reference to known and proven action elsewhere, theatre is overwhelmed by the world, the world reclaims it” (1991, 73). In other words, otherwise than being, aesthetically, entails the creation of an artistic work which is almost entirely other to the current symbolic order, or even world, rather than embarking on negating or negatively criticizing it: “Writing now has to engage with what is not seen…because real life is annexed, reproduced, soporific” (Barker 1991, 23). Elsewhere, to a fairly analogous effect and purpose, Barker asserts: “The real end of drama in this period must be not the reproduction of reality, critical [End Page 269] or otherwise…but speculation—not what is…but what might be, what is imaginable” (38). Thus, Barker’s suggested solution is the creation of a work and theatrical space which presents its own conception of self and existential ethics, and is ontologically different, and radically imaginative, speculative, and anti-naturalistic. The worlds of Gertrude, Fence, The Ecstatic Bible, The Bite of the Night and Ego in Arcadia, among others, epitomize dramatic renditions of this theoretical attitude and line of argument. This observation by Adorno succinctly captures Barker’s approach: “Art is the social antithesis of society, not immediately deducible from it” (1997, 8 [translation modified]).

Notwithstanding, probably the most notable similarity between German and European Expressionism and Barker’s Theatre of Catastrophe, which has served as an urge to the recognition of continuities between these two dramatic strands, is their promotion of or adherence to the irrevocable aesthetic autonomy of the works of art. Though seemingly they share some certain concerns and literary strategies including a stance which is antinarrative, counter-discursive, and fragmentary, as well as the deployment of the uncanny, abject, and grotesque, and a profound skepticism towards mimesis, nonetheless, even in these ostensibly common points, salient differences are discernible between them. Barker’s drama is not only not informed and steered by the analogous aesthetic insights and ideological positions, but in certain respects Barker’s critical and aesthetic stance proves to be in stark opposition to some of the pervading concerns and defining characteristics of Expressionist drama: its “theme of cultural regeneration” and the “self-conscious artificiality of its creative methods” (Kuhns 1997, 20-42) the ideal of the new man, the symbiosis of ethical idealism and aesthetic idealism, the invariable primacy accorded to the ideological or political content (see Sokel 1959; 34-45, 50-54, 93-97; Weisstein 2011, 1-45), and its “invocations of Humanity writ with a capital H” (John Willet).

Thus, as is evident, the alleged affinities are mainly confined to formal and stylistic properties, and as the preceding argument has sought to demonstrate, we can safely contend that Barker’s strain drastically diverges from this Expressionist Weltanschauung in three crucial respects: its conception of the nature of self (and/or subjectivity), alterity and their relation; its prevailing ethical (ethics of event and ethics of alterity) and aesthetic concerns; and finally, its ontological preoccupations which are of a fundamentally different order, that of hauntology or heterology. [End Page 270]

Alireza Fakhrkonandeh
University of Warwick
Alireza Fakhrkonandeh

ALIREZA FAKHRKONANDEH is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. His thesis is entitled Howard Barker’s Theatre of Aporias: From the Phenomenological Body to the Ontology of the Flesh, Questions of Aesthetics and Ethics in Barker’s Work.


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1. Henceforth referred to as Gertrude.

2. The testimony to this proposition is not to be found solely in its pervasive presence or the scope of its transformative impact on characters and their interplay but its acting as the steering force as well as the bearer of the tensions and meanings of the play.

3. It is ambivalent in the sense that though the characters endeavour to hold it in their grip, yet it appears to be the least objectifiable and object-like entity in the play and ironically they end up being held in its unrelenting grip.

4. Though it should be noted that, here, Bataille is also referring to eroticism as a perversion of sexuality as serving functionally in the profane world of restricted economy.

5. I am wielding the negative conditional prefixes—“non”—in order to reflect the aporetic logic and nature of the cry which akin to the trace and différance eludes being thematized and conceptualized in terms of metaphysics of presence and transcendental egology of the thetic consciousness. More lucidly, I intend to convey the sense that the cry is not an essential entity and a unified meaning to be comprehended or disclosed as it belongs to the order of affectivity, trace of alterity, and the experience of the impossible. In this regard, in accord with the trace-like and différential nature of the cry, I am following Bernasconi’s descriptive style while expounding the Derridean term “différance,” which he delineates in quite analogous terms. Bernasconi, abiding by Derrida’s own definitions of the term, calls “différance” “a non-word or non-concept” (Wood and Bernasconi 1985, 17) intending to accentuate the anti-logocentric nature of this notion and also in order to demonstrate the fact that this aporetic term constitutes both the condition of possibility and the condition of impossibility of its own meaning and meaning qua meaning.

6. The Lacanian “ex-timate object,” an object at the very centre of psychic economies, is conceptualized as the threatening excluded term that can only appear retrospectively, through substitutive objects. This is an uncanny object that exists only through, in and as the process of its recurring or returning to haunt and ‘counter-sign’ intelligible and meaningful bodies. The ‘extimate object’ is neither interior nor exterior. As Mladen Dolar points out, it is ‘located there where the most intimate interiority coincides with the exterior and becomes threatening, provoking horror and anxiety.’ It is simultaneously ‘the intimate kernel and the foreign body’ (Dolar 1991, 6). As Lacan explains: ‘das Ding is at the centre only in the sense that it is excluded. That is to say, in reality das Ding has to be posited as exterior…in the form of something entfremdet, something strange to me, although it is at the heart of me’ (Lacan 1992, 71). For a suggestive reinterpretation of the Lacanian Real/Thing, see Žižek (1989; See esp. 169-99 and 131-136).

7. Here I distinguish between morality and ethics. Given the constraints of space, I will clarify the opposition between the two approaches to ethology in a distilled account. By morality I intend an evaluative, normative, and prescriptive approach to or conception of ethics. More strictly, here, morality designates a set of allegedly abstract, universal and general imperatives and injunctions (under the rubric of rules for action and codes of conduct, and moral strictures) consolidated in the form of a transcendent system of judgment which valorizes and promotes unity. Kantian and Hegelian moral philosophies, and, also, religious understanding of morality are exemplary cases in point (see Hegel 1977; 10, 110, 260-1).

On the other hand, ethics, in my deployment of the term, qualified in accord with the demands and traits of Barker’s catastrophic dramatic world, is predicated on the insights and philosophical propositions provided by two contemporary Continental philosophers: Levinas and Deleuze. Ethics, in my conception of the term, is defined in terms of proximity with alterity (the Other), transitivism of corporeal schemas, figural patterns and affective traces. Correspondingly, the ethical experience involves excendance of the autonomy of the transcendental egology, an ascendance beyond being and striving for self-preservation in an exposure and impassioned passivity towards the other. In Levinas’ elaboration, morality signifies a gesture or move to achieve and constitute a totality and ethics is a movement or exposure towards an infinity (see 1979, 21). In other terms, to Levinas, ethics is first philosophy, prior even to ontology, and to think ethically is to think otherwise than being. Ethics entails an experience of the apprehension—prior to its comprehension as a hypostatized essence—of the other; an experience in which the affective dimension of the other is primary to discernible contours or articulable characteristics of the other. Accordingly, the ethical signifies a nonontological, non-cognitive, non-foundational, concrete and individual relation between two singular individuals; more strictly, it entails an immediate face-to-face encounter with the Other. As Levinas affirms: “Ethics is the putting into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the other” (1979, 43). Elsewhere he explicitly differentiates between morality and ethics term, elucidating his stance: “Moral consciousness is not an experience of values, but an access to an exterior being” (1990, 293).

In Deleuze’s conception of ethics, we can detect significant resonances with that of Levinas, though in an admittedly different philosophical system. What can be inferred from Deleuze’s intermittent and scattered engagements with the question of ethics is that he repudiates ethics as the formulation of normative principles preceding the confrontation with ethically demanding situation; rather, he endorses an ethics that is concerned with immanently-determined and singular catastrophic conditions of becoming-other in the encounter between self and the other, or self and an event which defies representation and identification (see Deleuze 1994, 35-42, 88-90). More strictly, in Deleuze’s view, ethics consists in an immanent and dynamic conjunction of ethos and pathos with the primacy of the latter. Deleuze posits ethics as “a typology of immanent modes of existence [that] replaces Morality, which always refers existence to transcendent values. Morality is the judgment of God, the system of Judgment. But Ethics overthrows the system of judgment. The opposition of values (Good–Evil) is supplanted by the qualitative difference of modes of existence (good–bad)” (Deleuze 1988, 23).

8. In “After the Sublime: The State of Aesthetics,” Lyotard approaches the occurrence of the sublime event (and its presentation in art) in terms of the relation between form and matter. Partly subscribing to Kant, Lyotard contends that in the experience of the sublime, matter is invoked in a way “that is not finalized, not destined.” Sublime matter is that which resists the imposition of forms and concepts. As Lyotard explains, “The paradox of art ‘after the sublime’ is that it turns towards a thing which does not turn itself towards the mind” (1991: 141–2). Thus, sublime matter is paradoxically “immaterial” in so far as an object or thing becomes material only when subjected to the operation of the mind: ‘For forms and concepts are constitutive of objects, they pro-duce data that can be grasped by sensibility and that are intelligible to the understanding. The matter I’m talking about is “immaterial,” an-objectable, because it can only “take place” or find its occasion at the price of suspending these active powers of the mind’

9. Hereafter, to refrain from repeating the brackets each time, I will simply write it as Impossibles though it is intended to be read with brackets inserted and retained.

10. In Lyotardian sense of the word (see 2009, 296).

11. For instances of their pause-pocked, silence-ridden and compulsively repetitive language see Barker (2002; 43, 54, 59, 61, passim).

12. The conjunction is mine; for an extensive definition of the former term see Barthes (1998; 26-7, 42-7) and for the latter term see Lyotard (2009; 14-27, 51, 75).

13. Both rhetorical devices notably enhance the corporeal dimensions of expression and speech; for a further elaboration of the significance and recurrence of the aposiopesis and ellipsis in Barker’s work see Elisabeth Angel-Perez’s “Facing Defacement” and Thomas Freeland’s “The End of Rhetoric and the Residuum of Pain,” respectively.

14. The cry is never and nowhere in the play described as beautiful in the common perception of the word—yet quite contrarily is depicted in excessive terms of being disgusting, dreadful, magnificent or sublime, and whenever it looms it reverberates as a (non)human music of extremes (2002, 10).

15. In this regard Levinas observes: “The idea of a love that would be a confusion between two beings is a false romantic idea. The pathos of the erotic relationship is the fact of being two, and that the other is absolutely other” (1985, 66). Elsewhere, he proceeds to juxtapose pathos with its cognates recapitulating it in conceptually more specific terms: “I have tried to find the temporal transcendence of the present toward the mystery of the future. This is not a participation in a third term…It is a collectivity that is not a communion. It is the face-to-face without intermediary, and is furnished for us in the eras where, in the other’s proximity, distance is integrally maintained, and whose pathos is made of both this proximity and this duality” (1987, 94).

16. The word ‘transcendent’ which I am using here is two-fold; it signifies both an immanent transcendent (an entity or origin absolutely exterior to Gertrude and her body), something either radically arcane—a Bataillian sacred source—or something apparently more mundane and palpable such as nature or the Other; on the other hand, transcendent can designate something transcendental or metaphysical (see Merleau-Ponty 1968; 107, 211).

19. Levinas deploys the term “accusative” to designate the mode of being of self in its responsivity and encounter with the other: “subjectivity is only this unlimited passivity of an accusative which does not issue out of a declension it would have undergone starting with the nominative…Everything is from the start in the nominative” (1998, 112). For further explanation regarding the meaning of the term in the Levinasian sense, see Levinas (1998).

20. For the first appearance of this dichotomy or antithetical categorization—History and Anti-History—see the subtitle to Barker’s The Power of the Dog. Later the binary is adopted and reiterated by Dancer in Hated Nightfall too. Also see Rabey in Gritzner and Rabey (2006, 18).

26. Rabey (2003) identifies a stream of post-war drama which he names “New Expressionism,” a trend which predates In-Yer-Face theatre, which can be deemed its off-shoot, by several decades. Rabey cites the work of David Rudkin, Heathcote Williams and some other dramatists as exemplary figures of this strand. He defines this dramatic strand as “a consciously heightened form of presentation which is unapologetic about its anti-conventional strangeness, in which often ‘exterior facts are continually being transformed into interior elements and psychic events are exteriorized,’ in a passionate expression of, and search for, individual regeneration” (2003, 128). Rabey proceeds to argue that “This form of renewal is prioritised as preliminary to epic theatre’s foregrounding of social relations to address the political collective.” According to Rabey this Neo-Expressionism, dissimilar to Absurdism, with its loss of faith in language, reference, action and consequence, evinces and endorses a renewed faith in consequence. Accordingly, countering the rampant inurement to information and individual passivity it demonstrated a faith in the power of individual defiance to occasion consequential changes and upheavals in the symbolic order and dominant socio-political discourse (Rabey 2003, 128).

27. As Barker clearly contends: “It is precisely in the hinge between the independence of moral will, claimed and performed, and the crushing imperatives of public order and its necessary pieties, that a drama of moral speculation discovers its resources, and fractures the repression of experience that characterizes a culture industry such as we enjoy” (1991, 99). This remark captures the thrust of the issue at point in a condensed way: “theatre is emphatically not the world but a speculation upon it” (1991, 142).

28. Put concisely, in order to dispel any misconceptions in this regard, and shadow of contradiction on Barker’s part for mentioning the “spirit” (which is ostensibly redolent of humanism and essentialism), deriving our evidence from the instantiations of spirituality and spirited characters in Barker’s work, I suggest, the spirit can be interpreted to designate and incorporate the imaginative dimension of human being and the speculative knowledge of living, being-with and becoming, which, in turn, entail an aesthetic practice of self-overcoming and self-fabrication. Thus, the notion of the spirit (as wielded and intended by barker), in its critical, immanent, and incarnate existence, bears striking affinities with the Nietzschean sense ascribed to it by Foucault: “the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformation onhimself in order to have access to the truth” (2005, 15).

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