Performing Science and the Virtual

Theatre and science, Sue-Ellen Case observes at the start of Performing Science and the Virtual, are deeply interwoven in the European tradition, historically and as strategies of representation. Both the stage and laboratory construct a space apart from everyday reality within which actions are governed by codes of behavior, costume, gesture, and function, whose effect is to secure for white-coated scientists and costumed performers an “othered presence”, making them avatars of a separate – virtual – realm. The term ‘avatar’ widely used in cyber culture is of Hindu origin and meant originally a descent of the god Vishnu to earth. Case, who observes in passing theatre’s extraction from religious ritual and its borrowing of the architecture of the virtual from medieval cathedrals, wants to preserve this ‘spiritual’ sense of an avatar, valuing its mixture of immaterial and material referents for figuring human subjectivity in virtual spaces.


Performing Science and the Virtual enacts a triangular dance between the vertices of theatre, science, and religion. Or, in her terms, between three traditions of representation, each with its own kind of avatar and virtuality: the tradition of theatre/performance producing an order of action and gesture that is “somehow other than ‘real’” (163) whose avatars inhabit a “characterological space”; that of science/technology producing a range of audio-visual effects and avatars inhabiting an essentially immersive space, and what she calls the “spiritualist” tradition offering rites of transformation and incarnation whose avatars relate to a transcendent space. Accompanying these is Case’s lesbian/queer-feminist political consciousness ever alert to the workings of heteronormativity and the making, maintaining, and unmaking of gender distinctions.


The result is an unconventional and campy ride – wide-ranging, energetic, rarely dull, at times wonderfully incisive –  over the terrain of science-performance. We move from the mercurial intricasies of alchemy, its sexing of matter, and its eventual extirpation (as part of an “ethnic cleansing” establishing a European identity against Judeo-Arabism), to twenty-first century cyber-avatars (monetary credit, digital divas), performances of cyber-masked neo-minstrels, and transgender avatars (anxiety of a male-to-female lesbian whose girlfriend has become a female-to-male heterosexual). In between, “expressionist schematics” concerned principally with killing machines and/or alienating techologies — Kaiser’s Gas plays, Capek’s RUR, Rice’s Adding Machine, Treadwell’s Machinal – contrasted to the beloved speed machines of “futurist futures”, we get “Cold War alchemy” focused on outer space, the UFO mania, and alien abductions, a brilliantly articulated account of the virtual aural space created by Beckett’s encounter with the tape recorder, a revealing take on John Cage’s closeted music and Merce Cunningham’s dance presence, a quick survey of trash performance modes (queer, cyberpunk)and a sample of “twentieth century Fausts” (Scientology, the Heaven’s Gate cult), some brief takes on mid and late twentieth century plays which stage science, the channeling activities of New Age mediums, and the terminally camp performer Sun Ra, the “Pharoah from Outer Space”, whose photograph from his “Space is the Place” performance dominates the cover of the book.


A huge, unruly and very selective dance through several centuries of cultural production in which Case’s investment in the science-performance nexus and choice of material is predominantly oppositional. She’s interested not in the staging and/or performative servicing of science but in its counter-performance, in figures who rebel against or subvert mainstream scientific rationality or offer other visions. Two such figures are paradigmatic for her. Goethe, high art aristocrat, and Madame Blavatsky, bizarre icon of low art, grassroots performance.


Thus, we meet (at some length) Goethe, working scientist and opponent of the dominant Newtonian paradigm’s separation of observer and observed, and Goethe, literary intellectual and author of the plays she calls Faust I and the later version Faust II. The earlier version of Faust portrays science more or less as alchemy in the witches’ kitchen, features a ‘real’ woman, Gretchen, ruined by Faust, and stages what Case calls  “virtual gender in the form of witches” (45); in the second, science is no longer alchemical and Faust’s deal with Mephistopheles is enmeshed in the newly-established apparatus of promissory notes, mortgages, and paper money which serves as the play’s alchemy and the site of “a vortex of virtualities”(48), a “cornucopia” of virtual spaces conjured into being as Faust whizzes (like the emerging figure of a tourist) across the planet from one virtual realm to another, ending in the Alps gazing enraptured on Helen of Troy, an “animated cypher – an avatar” (47), the virtualization and indeed “apotheosis of gender”.


And we meet (again at length) theosophist extraordinaire Madame Blavatsky, the “P.T. Barnum of global(izing) mysticism” (60) exploring the astral plane, an activity Case likens to navigating the contemporary world wide web of information. Blavatsky dismissed science’s understanding of objective ‘observation’ and its lifeless experiments and strove instead to corporealize knowledge: she communed with and took dictation from an all-wise, male figure, Koot Hoomi, of vaguely Eastern origin, who would sometimes be inside her body and sometimes, she reported, walking about and visible to others, thus introducing into the west’s imaginary the idea of a corporeal Hindu-style avatar (mother of contemporary practices of channeling) and initiating the construction of a “virtual Tibet”, making her for Case a “harbinger of the ever-increasing synthesis and rupture between science and popular perceptions of the virtual” (62).


Case doesn’t let disciplinary boundaries or definitional niceties cramp her style. In her usage, the terms ‘virtual’ and ‘avatar’ shuttle constantly between their many very different senses. Almost anything ‘other’ or spiritual or imagined or unreal gets to be called virtual, whilst her avatars include Marx’s spectre of communism, Blavatsky’s Koot Hoomi, cult leaders L. Ron Hubbard and Alistair Crowley, performer Sun Ra, digital diva Lara Croft, and the already mythical Helen of Troy. Overall, the slippage between these terms gives rise to an associative and illustrative rather than analytic connection between her excursions; the effect is to give her entire account a resonance and intensity at the expense of any sustained argument (about science or performance or, for that matter, the nature of virtuality) which, as she says in the introduction, is not her intention to deliver.


Case has little interest, then, in engaging with performances of science that don’t foreground an ideological or political contestation, and she cannot muster much critical enthusiasm for them. She is dutiful but impatient with the big-bellied masculinity of Brecht’s Galileo, is dismissive on gendered political grounds of Caryl Churchill’s treatment of cloning in A Number, passes off Frayn’s innovatory staging of quantum uncertainty within the structure of his play Copenhagen as merely a “witty” device, and doesn’t mention Stoppard’s play Arcadia with its equally noteworthy staging of chaos theory. (Somewhat differently she makes not a single reference to Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in her discussion of the Faust theme and Goethe’s play.)


Of course, Case is entitled to her sympathies, emphases and exclusions. And to her aesthetic: she warns that her usual camp writing style has been transposed in Performing Science and the Virtual from the text to the material itself, hence perhaps her lack of enthusiasm for ‘straight’ renderings of science, and the camp ironies and puncturings of her choices: Samuel Beckett next to alien abductions, Pauline Oliveros against John Cage, Goethe’s theory of color over Newton’s optics, Madame Blavatasky’s “phenomenal physics” gleefully blotting out Darwinian evolution, and so on. And yet some exclusions seem odd. She says nothing about performing science in the medical amphitheatre, so animal magnetism and Anton Mesmer’s theatrics of trance, for example, make no appearance. And nothing about electrical magnetism. (Her take on electricity is confined to brief remarks about “electric dolls” and a grim, full-page photograph of Ruth Snyder strapped into the electric chair.) A truly odd reduction given electricity’s hold over the nineteenth century’s grassroots imaginary and its role at the center of what Erik Davis in Techgnosis calls the “electromagnetic unheimlich”. Relatedly, Case shows no interest in the hugely popular spiritualist movement that emerged in the wake of telegraphy; an enterprise that understood its experiments – seances – as a ‘scientific’ contacting of the dead through a Morse-code like signaling system, thus replacing the telegraph’s electrical mediation by a female medium sensitive to spirit presences. Surely a perfect coming together of science, grassroots performance, and gendered spiritism. But if such omissions (and numerous others) are odd, they are so more as missed opportunities and evidence of a certain kind of tunnel vision than faults in a work that makes no claim to comprehensiveness. In any event, they don’t detract from the provocations and lightning-flash illuminations of Case’s highly original engagement with performance and science.




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