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  • Ariadne's Theatre
  • Daniel T. O'Hara (bio)
Interpassivity: The Aesthetics of Delegated Enjoyment
Robert Pfaller
Edinburgh University Press
154 Pages; Print, $24.95

For two or more decades, participation in life in most forms has been touted as the highest value. Even our cultural play is dominated by simulations of warfare, adventure, and sex in online games, demanding participation to the maximum degree. In politics, we seek to get out the vote and bring more folks to the town-hall meeting, to the protest line, to the state, or to the national capitol. At work, everything is organized around the team of workers. In our classrooms, small groups, the reading and writing circles during and after classes, rule. We have self-help groups, exercise buddies, and meditation friends, all of which require participation. It is as if experimental theater's performance aesthetic has become the new norm for all social and cultural, and even political, activities. Rather than being spectators at this overactive life, we are its necessarily-engaged actors, directors, and life-coaches. Exhaustion is bound to set in. Or so it seems, at first, when reading about the new phenomenon of interpassivity, discussed so succinctly and memorably in this book.

What is interpassivity? As the subtitle suggests, it is the delegation of our consumption of pleasure to other people or machines. Whereas in Hegel's famous master-slave dialectic, masters through history have delegated to their slaves (those they have conquered and not slaughtered) all the work of transforming a raw piece of nature into a finished object of culture (a commodity for use and sale), the dialectic of interpassivity shockingly entails the delegation of our consumption to others. And this is a new aesthetic, so it means it is itself somehow pleasurable: We now enjoy delegating to others our own enjoyment, as if the imperative to consume, like the imperative to work, is just too much for us—so we evade it, and this evasion or avoidance is itself a new, paradoxically ascetic pleasure. Both Pfaller and Zizek have done the most to conceptualize this new phenomenon and have both standard and ever-proliferating examples of it.

The best example of interpassivity discussed in this book may be Lacan's proposal for the function of the chorus in Greek tragedy. As Pfaller summarizes from The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1965), the chorus may have had "the function of a spectator present on stage" experiencing "compassion and fear…in place of the real spectators, who were relieved of this task." Similarly, he cites Zizek for commenting on this Lacanian proposal: The canned laugh tracks for situation comedies on TV are the modern mechanical version of the chorus. Pfaller continues, glossing Zizek:

Here a certain mechanical laughter is always already built-in, erupting after every joke and before any possible laughter on the part of the spectator. Therefore these works of popular culture are not only that which is amusing but also that which is amused. The program laughs at itself.

This zombie-like or robotic simulation of a spectator gives Pfaller, he believes, the key to the aesthetic subject per se.

In extending this analysis from the contemporary phenomena of interpassivity to the substance of the aesthetic subject, Pfaller concludes:

The basic pleasure of spectator therefore seems to be an interpassive one: it consists of creating and splitting off another character who serves as a backing for the illusions that one does not share but still finds great. Pleasure in art thus turns out to be a pleasure [not of edifying identification and internalization] but of [critical and projective] 'disidentification' [as the psychiatrist Octave Mannoni notes of patients], of splitting off imaginary spectators…Interpassivity thus appears to be the most general structure of aesthetic pleasure.

Invisible observers and implicit readers, as well as imaginary narrators and implied authors, all participate in this dissociative process of disintegrating sensibility. In this highly ironic and paradoxical manner, the delegation of pleasure "is a necessary precondition for [any] aesthetic pleasure. A theory of interpassivity is therefore the key to a general aesthetic theory." An over-stuffed, conflicted self would thereby become the source and...


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