Theatre and theatre criticism in a society of singularities


In his recent treatise „The society of singularities“1, the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz describes the shift of paradigm from a society of generalities to a society of singularities on all levels. His analysis can easily be applied to the area of theatre2. The following twelve statements only represent an attempt to demonstrate this applicability. They do not assume to be a critical examination of the theory of Reckwitz.

1 The area of theatre is a market of singularities.
Markets of singularities are markets on which unique goods (things, events, places, groups, persons) are traded. Their singularity is not a naturally inherent quality, but something which is assigned to them and which has to be acquired3. Because these are things for which there is no need, but which are believed to be valuable for themselves, without having any particular function, markets of singularities are markets of attention and markets of valorization4. Therefore, every theatrical production which wants to be successful has to be declared to be a singularity and has to find the attention of the public.

2 Theatre criticism is a universe of valorization with the practices of observation, valuation and appropriation.
Theatre criticism is an institution (subsystem of society) for valorisation of theatrical productions. The practices of observation and valuation obviously are part of theatre criticism5. But appropriation is also part of it. Appropriation is not just observation, it is experience, where attention is concentrated on the self, not on the object6. In this universe, theatrical productions are singularized and desingularized (e.g. exposed as fashionable imitations of Castorf or epigones of Martaler).

3 Theatre productions are singularities if they posses self-complexity and interior density.
Goods (events, places, people, groups) are declared to be singularities if they are complex, i.e. they have a diverse cross-linked internal structure, and if they give the impression that they are „dense“, i.e. not completely transparent, opaque, possessing an indissoluble ambiguity7. A theatrical production has self-complexity if its different semantic levels (stage design, movement, costumes, text, facial expressions, music, etc.) have traceable interdependencies. A production is dense, if these interdependencies are not fully comprehensible to the viewer at the moment and cannot be converted into meaning immediately, but are an attraction for the possible formation of meaning8

4 Theatrical productions as singularities may have aesthetic, narrative-hermeneutic or ludic qualities.
The qualities of a singular theatrical production can be either in its sensuous (aesthetic quality) or in the meaningful and narrative attributes (narrative-hermeneutic quality) or in the evaluation of life forms (ethical quality) or in its interactivity or playfulness (ludic quality)9. Theatrical productions usually each focus on one of these qualities. At present, many theatre producers are interested in interactivity, while world-clarifying stories are less fashionable. In productions that aim at ethical qualities, the theatre of singularities is not concerned with the affirmation of universal rules of behavior, but with an offer for the construction of one’s own behavioral maxims10.

5 The theatre sector is a market with overproduction.
The increase in the number of premieres while the number of second performances of new plays is decreasing is such a phenomenon of overproduction on singularity markets, as well as the increasing number of productions, projects and additional events („5th department“) accompanying a steady or decreasing number of viewers of German city theatres. Not everything that wants to be singular is recognized as singular. This leads to wastage of money, time and labor in the theatre, but is inevitable in a singularity market11. This is especially true for the internet12.

6 Theatre criticism is an attention filter.
Because singularity markets are characterized by overproduction, filters are needed that control the audience’s attention by selecting. Theatre criticism is such a filter. Despite the dwindling importance of theatre in relation to other areas of culture, the theatre continues to occupy an important social space due to the general culturalization of all social areas. The art-specific genre of the review spreads to all social areas13. As a result, theatrical criticism gains a rather increasing significance within the area of the theatre. Although it is a remnant of the age of generalities, when it was still the norm to go to the theater, it receives growing attention when it participates in the manifold valorisations, upgradings and downgradings14..

7 Scaled ratings of theatre productions increase the audience’s focus on individual, already successful productions or theatre makers.
Singularities should be valued for their uniqueness and cannot be compared to other entities in similarity relationships. In order to achieve an overview in the confusing market for the consumers, however, judgmental comparisons are nevertheless made15. The majority of prizes and competitions use qualitative-competitive methods of comparison. Singularities are not judged as being un-comparable entities, but are compared according to criteria (remarkable, original, complex). However, the main competitions (Theatertreffen, Mülheim, Heidelberg, Faust) refrain from quantitative scaling and provide qualitative justifications to hint at the incomparability of the singular theatre productions. Rankings that scale in quantity (according to attention rates or the frequency of reviews as in Amazon16), however, increase attention for those who are already receiving attention17. Such forms of evaluation also spread in the theatre sector (Choices, K.West). They reinforce the “invisibility” of the productions not mentioned.

8 The media of theatre criticism have a second-order attention problem.
The attention filters are themselves subject to competition for attention and singularity competence18. The competition between “Theater heute” and “Theater der Zeit“, the competition between “Nachtkritik” and “TheaterMagazin” on the internet, are competitions for attention, but also for competence of judgment. For example: the advertising slogan of Friedrich Theaterverlag: “We recognize art” is the promise of reducing complexity.

9 The singularity competence for theatre criticism diffuses on the internet.
Due to the easy publication possibilities in the internet, the competence for the public assessment of singularities such as theatre productions no longer lies only with experts, but also with laymen, cf. „Nachtkritik“-Kommentare19. And the internet is an affect machine20. That is why these comments are often emotional.

10 The relationship between observation, evaluation and appropriation in theatre criticism is changing because of the internet.
Laypersons rate mainly on the basis of their experience, experts on the basis of analysis by concepts and by comparison21. But experts have to make their judgments in such a way that they are comprehensible to laypersons. Therefore, there is always a rest of appropriation experience in the judgments of experts. The tendency, however, is to expand this proportion, to the point where analytical judgments have to be attested by the emotional effect on the critic. This is due to the fact that judgments of experts (theater reviews) are in competition with lay judgments (comments, audience reviews).

11 Theatre is particularly concerned with authenticity and meta-authenticity.
Authenticity has become a central social requirement. Because authenticity is a demand in society, it is also performed outside of the theatre by people. It is created for an audience, it is not simply a gift of nature or an internal relationship of the self22. This social requirement is also extended to the theatre, also demanded from actors. They should authentically perform themselves or at least embody a role “authentically“. In theatre, however, also an ironic reconstruction of performative authenticity can be created, which gives the actor a meta-authenticity23.

12 City theatres are assets on the singularity market of the cities.
Cities are also competing in a singularity market. City politics is singularity management 24. It has to recognize existing peculiarities, develop them or, if necessary, create new ones. The city theatres are such existing special features. In order to be attractive, they must cultivate or develop a peculiarity appropriate to the city. City politics must take into account both the external impact on visitors and the attractiveness for the residents. Even for small cities there is the possibility of using niches25.

  1. Andreas Reckwitz, Die Gesellschaft der Singularitäten. Zum Strukturwandel der Moderne. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2017. The page numbers in the annotations refer to this edition.
  2. In the Theatertreffen blog 2018 Dirk Pilz has already tried to present the consequences of Reckwitz’s theory for theatre and theatre criticism. In the yearbook 2018 of “Theater heute“, Andreas Reckwitz, in conversation with Franz Wille and Eva Behrendt, has once again presented the basics of his analysis of society, though without referring to theater directly.
  3. „Die singularistische soziale Praxis nimmt grundsätzlich die Struktur einer Aufführung an, so dass Performativität ihr zentrales Charakteristikum ist. {…} Singularitäten existieren also als Singularitätsperformanzen vor einem sozialen Publikum.“ S.72
  4. „Singularitätsmärkte sind Attraktivitätsmärkte, und diese haben die doppelte Struktur von Aufmerksamkeitsmärkten, die um das Problem der Sichtbarkeit zentriert sind, und Valorisierungsmärkten, die um das Problem der Bewertung der Qualität von kultureller Einzigartigkeit kreisen.“ S.149
  5. S.64-71
  6. „Das Erleben ist ein Wahrnehmen um seiner selbst willen – ein selbstbezügliches Wahrnehmen.“ S.70 Gerhard Schulze explains the concept of experience („Erlebnis“) with “inner orientation” (p.38). The experience is not about reaching a certain external goal, but about putting yourself in a certain state. Gerhard Schulze’s study “Die Erlebnis-Gesellschaft” is the most important forerunner of Reckwitz’s analysis of society in Germany. Gerhard Schulze, Die Erlebnisgesellschaft. Kultursoziologie der Gegenwart. Frankfurt/New York: Campus, 1992.
  7. „Die Grundlage ist, dass Einheiten des Sozialen im Zuge ihrer Singularisierung als Eigenkomplexitäten mit innerer Dichte begriffen werden. {…} Komplexität bedeutet bekanntlich: Es gibt eine Reihe von Elementen oder Knotenpunkten, zwischen denen Relationen, Verknüpfungen und Wechselwirkungen existieren. Wenn ein solcher Verflechtungszusammenhang gegeben ist, spricht man von Komplexität, deren Beschaffenheit als Dichte bezeichnet werden kann.”
  8. Excursus: Andreas Reckwitz and Nelson Goodman on the criterion of “density”:
    Reckwitz refers to Nelson Goodman in a note to the term “density”:
    „Anm. 43. {…} Das Konzept der Dichte entwickelt Nelson Goodman in Sprachen der Kunst. Entwurf einer Symboltheorie. Frankfurt/M. 1998, S.133ff. Goodman versteht ihn allerdings rein kunsttheoretisch, während ich ihn hier generalisiere.“ Reckwitz p.52
    The difference in the use of the term between Reckwitz and Goodman is not only the difference between theory of art and theory of society, but also between description and evaluation.
    While Reckwitz uses the term without any further definition, Goodman defines it very precisely in the context of his theory of symbols: “A scheme is syntactically dense if it provides for infinitely many characters so ordered that between each two there is a third. {…} In such a dense scheme {…} no mark can be determined to belong to one rather than to many other characters.“ Nelson Goodman, Languages ​​of Art. An approach to a theory of symbols. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2nd ed. 1976 p.137. Among the four symptoms of the aesthetic, Goodman associates two with the notion of density: “Three symptoms of the aesthetic may be syntactic density, semantic density, and syntactic repleteness.“ Goodman p.252.
    Goodman expressly opposes the use of his aesthetic symptoms as criteria of aesthetic valuation: “The distinction here drawn between the aesthetic and the nonaesthetic is independent of all considerations of aesthetic value. That is as it should be {…} The symptoms of the aesthetic are not marks of merit; and a characterization of the aesthetic neither requires nor provides a definition of aesthetic excellence.“ Goodman p.255.
    Goodman defends the somewhat old-fashioned view that aesthetic experience is a form of understanding. Therefore, for him, the question of aesthetic valuation is secondary: „Works of art are not race-horses, and picking a winner is not the primary goal. {…} In short, conceiving of aesthetic experience as a form of understanding results both in resolving and devaluing of the question of aesthetic value.“ Goodman p. 262
    But according to Reckwitz, “density” in the society of singularities is a „mark of merit“ that is used to assign singularity to entities. On the other hand, Reckwitz’s entire theory is intended to be descriptive. Reckwitz does not valorize himself, but describes valorization. Should Reckwitz be understood in such a way that the new middle class adopted Goodman’s concept of “density” without knowing it, but instead of using it as a symptom of art, used it as a symptom of singularity and rated these singularities positively?
  9. S.87-92
  10. „Das Ethische wendet sich nicht an alle, sondern kommt als Dimension der Singularisierung in Form von Individualethiken und partikularen Gruppenethiken vor.“ S.90
  11. „Es werden immer sehr viel mehr neuartige Güter mit Besonderheitsanspruch kreiert und auf den Markt gebracht, als schlussendlich vom Publikum mit Interesse wahrgenommen und als Besondere anerkannt werden. Den meisten produzierten Gütern bleibt der Singularitätsanspruch versagt. {…} Verschwendung ist damit für Singularitätsmärkte nicht pathologisch, sondern konstitutiv.“ S.156. „Singularitätsgüter sind im Prinzip ungewisse Güter und kulturelle Märkte Nobody-knows-Märkte.“ S.157
  12. „Die Kulturmaschine bringt ganz generell eine strukturelle Asymmetrie zwischen einer extremen Überproduktion von Kulturformaten (und Informationen) und einer Knappheit der Aufmerksamkeit der Rezipienten hervor.“ S.238
  13.  „Die Ökonomie der Singularitäten läuft gewissermaßen im Modus der Dauerrezension.” S. 168
  14. In 1992 Gerhard Schulze described this in his analysis of “Niveaumilieu” and “Hochkulturschema”: “Auf den großen, aus eigener Kraft kaum zu bewältigenden Bewertungsbedarf des {Niveau-}Milieus antworten die Bewertungsprofessionen, deren Dienstleistung extensiv in Anspruch genommen wird {…} Damit die Welt in Ordnung ist, muss sie hierarchisiert sein.” Gerhard Schulze, a.a.O. S.285
  15. „Gerade für die Spätmoderne sind jedoch {…} Versuche kennzeichnend, zum Zwecke der Komplexitätsreduktion die absoluten Differenzen der Singularitäten in graduelle Differenzen des Allgemein-Besonderen (etwa in Form von Rankings) zu übersetzen.“ S.67
  16. „Genau eine solche Kombination von Ranking und Häufigkeitsverteilung ist charakteristisch für die Bewertung kultureller Güter auf vielen digitalen Plattformen.“ S. 177
  17. Matthew-effect: “Wer Aufmerksamkeit hat, dem wird Aufmerksamkeit gegeben.“ S.162
  18. „Bewertungs- und Aufmerksamkeitsproblem zweiter Ordnung: Welche Bewertungsinstanz ist zuverlässig und verdient es, dass man ihrerseits Aufmerksamkeit schenkt?“ S. 168
  19. „Durch die digitalen Medien {ist} die Kompetenz zur Valorisieren von kulturellen Gütern erheblich diffundiert. Sie hat sich – je nach Perspektive – demokratisiert oder nivelliert.“ S.168
  20. “Das Internet ist zu erheblichen Teilen eine Affektmaschine. Seine zirkulierenden Bestandteile erregen, unterhalten, stimmen freudig, entspannen, hetzen auf oder bewirken, dass man sich angenehm aufgehoben fühlt.“ S.234f
  21. „Der Laie bewertet die Eigenkomplexität des Gutes primär auf der Grundlage seines Erlebens. {… Der Experte}: „Er hält Abstand zur Erlebenskomponente (auch wenn die davon ausgehende Affizierung nie völlig verschwindet) und wählt einen analytischen Zugriff auf die einzelnen Elemente und Relationen, der die Eigenkomplexität und die Andersheit des Gutes herausarbeitet und zwar häufig mit dem Mittel des Vergleichs. {…} Die Kunst des qualitativen Vergleichs besteht darin, die Eigenkomplexität der Singularitäten dabei nicht (übermäßig) zu reduzieren, sondern zu bewahren.“ S.168
  22. {weil „Authentizität eine zentrale soziale Erwartung geworden ist“} „… Subjekte daher gezwungen sind, sich selbst als singulär und authentisch zu performen.“ S.247
  23. „Der Postmoderne Pop-Musiker kann seine Echtheit auf der Bühne ironisch demonstrieren (so die Bewegungen des Anti-Rockismus der 80er Jahre), er gewinnt aber durch dieses souveräne Performativitätsspiel, so es gelingt, selbst eine Authentizität, die man als Metaauthentizität umschreiben kann.“ S.139
  24. S.388
  25. Winner-take-all-Strukturen können durch den long tail relativiert werden, das heißt durch eine Variation von vielen kulturellen Nischen, die jeweils nur eine kleine, aber doch stabile Anhängerschaft um sich versammeln.“ S.393

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