Metaphors of Spectacle: Theatricality, Perception and Performative Encounters in the Pacific


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When Louis-Antoine de Bougainville first glimpsed the high peaks and luscious vegetation of Tahiti on the 5 April 1768, probably only the second European ship’s captain to do so, the metaphors that sprang to mind and that he recorded in his logbook, were theatrical ones: ”The aspect of this coast, elevated like an amphitheatre, offered us the most enchanting spectacle”. For the next ten days, during which the two ships, La Boudeuse and L’Étoile lay at anchor in Matavai Bay, Bougainville and his fellow shipmates and explorers encountered a seeming unbroken succession of ‘scènes’ and ‘spectacles’. Whether of the pastoral type – two Tahitians lying under a tree with one playing an air on the noseflute, a scene ”worthy of Boucher’s brush” – or of an erotic nature – the famous self-presentation of a naked ‘Venus’ on board ship to lusty Phrygian shepherds (the French sailors) – or when describing actual dance performances, or in each case, the vocabulary is drawn from the theatre: it is almost invariably a ‘scène’ or ‘spectacle’. When Georg Forster first glimpsed Tahiti and the sight of countless canoes, the figure he employs is at once theatrical and commercial: “Die Menge von Kanus, welche zwischen uns und der Küste ab- und zugingen, stellte ein schönes Schauspiel, gewissermaßen eine neue Art von Messe, auf dem Wasser dar.” (1967:103) The theatrical metaphors that abound, are, it shall be argued, not just stylistic embellishments but rather symptoms of deeper-seated fundamental categories of perception which can be embraced by the term ‘theatricality’.

For the purposes of this paper, theatricality shall be broadly defined, following Elisabeth Burns, as an historically and culturally determined ”mode of perception". While Burns is concerned with exploring the ways theatre and role-playing in social life are laminated, the focus here will be on the links between representation and perception. Theatricality as a mode of perception means that things and actions, peoples and places, are not in themselves theatrical, they possess no inherent theatricality, but rather are rendered such by a combination of aesthetic conventions and discursive practices, which determine in turn around which phenomena we place the ‘frame’ of theatrical apprehension. Theatricality can be understood as discursive practice which intersects theatre (as an institution and aesthetic form) with wider cultural contexts. The theatrical mode of perception is thus a complex one, consisting of interlocking, mutually conditioning elements from different genres and forms of representation. Expressed more concretely, theatricality is a mode of perception and representation that either merges verbal, visual and corporeal dimensions or forms a bridge between them.

An important aspect of the concept that I wish to stress here is its metaphorical charge. The title of this paper, metaphors of spectacle, takes the notion of metaphor seriously, and most of the uses of the term theatricality will be metaphorical ones. Lexically speaking, a metaphor transfers meaning from one semantic field to another. Its effectiveness is therefore often judged by the degree of disparity or similarity between the two fields. Metaphoricity has a built-in gesture of disjunctiveness that lends itself to making the unknown known. In the context of the theatrical aspects of the internet, the German philosopher Mike Sandbothe has argued that metaphors, and the metaphorical field of theatricality in particular, are characteristic of transition periods: ”Die Metapher ist ein Ausdruck, der in sich selbst changiert, d.h. den historischen Übergang als semantischen Übertragungsprozeß zur Darstellung bringt”. When times or situations are ‘out of joint’ then metaphors may be the most accurate way of rendering comprehensible phenomena perceived which no longer correspond to pre-existing categories and scientific concepts. As Sandbothe notes: ”Eine Metapher ist nicht unpräzise und schöngeistig, ein Begriff nicht per se präzise und wissenschaftlich.” Moving from the internet to mid-eighteenth century voyages of discovery – and the modes of representation and perception produced by them – may seem a huge leap backwards for mankind, but in terms of the perceptual changes wrought and the discussion Bougainville’s, Cook’s and other explorers’ reports engendered, the feeling of semantic movement and dislocation was probably fairly similar.

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Christopher Balme

Institut für Theaterwissenschaft

Universität Mainz

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Metaphors of Spectacle: Theatricality, Perception and Performative Encounters in the Pacific


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