- Philosophy and/or Performance: A Discussion of Richard Shusterman’s The Adventures of the Man in Gold
The first thought that comes to mind when reading Richard Shusterman’s The Adventures of the Man in Gold is how refreshingly unorthodox its author is. Shusterman is a respected aesthetician, responsible for books such as Surface and Depth: Dialectics of Criticism and Culture (2002), Body Consciousness: A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics (2001), and Pragmatist Aesthetic: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art (2000)—all disciplined, carefully argued contributions to the philosophy of art and/or the body. The new book steps off path. It presents a different kind of philosophical intervention, one that encourages reconsidering philosophical methodology and its less-explored possibilities. You will be reading a work that, for all its unconventionality and close kinship to art, still invites being approached as philosophy.
The book—not its themes but the physical object in your hands—is not easily describable. It combines words and images. The words—the book is bilingual with pages split between French and English—mixes autobiography, descriptions of events relating to the “Man in Gold,” and academic commentary. The images are photographs by Yann Toma featuring Shusterman posing as the Man in Gold at various stages. The production of most of the photographs required the implementation of a unique technique: long exposures in the dark lit by Toma’s manipulation of a lamp in response to Shusterman’s/the golden man’s immobile body. As the lamp moves during the exposure, the emerging picture, though static, manages to capture movement; it is as if you were watching a dance while looking at a still photograph. Images and storyline do not always coincide: some images correlate with events described; others do not. Nor is the relationship between Shusterman and the golden man straightforwardly accountable (Shusterman is not precisely role-playing or acting, but more on that later). [End Page 116]
Such a book capsizes reading conventions. Respond to it solely as philosophy, and you will miss its point in one way. Relate to it merely as performance, you distort it in another. Both modes should intertwine and, ideally, not as parallel possibilities of reading but as somehow morphing into a single engagement. Disambiguating what such a reading may mean calls, at the outset, for a teasing out of the possibilities and limitations entailed in both responses: the capacity of the book to be assessed as a contribution to philosophy and its ability to stand as a worthwhile performance.
First, philosophy. In what sense may this book instantiate a form of philosophizing? Readers familiar with the trajectory of Shusterman’s previous work will not be wholly unprepared for the drift of the present. In view of Shusterman’s work on Western philosophy’s marginalization of the body, in light of the development of his “somaesthetics,” in consideration of his decision to train as a Feldenkrais instructor, it is only natural for him to explore uncharted ways of giving voice to an embodied attempt to think. Yet if The Adventures of the Man in Gold partly constitutes a prolonged invitation to the philosopher’s body to step in and become a real dimension of philosophizing, philosophers sympathetic to this objective will wish to be clear about the inquiry as such. What is Shusterman’s question? Which concepts are subjected to examination? How do the appearances of the Man in Gold dissipate some uneasy vagueness? Shusterman does not clarify such issues, suggesting that his goal—at least in this book—is not to demonstrate and rationalize some thought-out mode of embodied thinking. And yet, it is hard to dispel a sense that embodied thinking is part of what this book attempts to put on the table.
It is easy to trash this attempt. If a question is not asked, if a knowledge-claim is not advanced and justified, how can embodied adventures become a form of thinking? And even...