what we call true

[notes on the Just Performance conference at Brandeis this weekend]



Khoen said: “It is beyond what words describe.” He said this using words. This paradox is the best we can do, and it is one we need to keep alive. It is the essence of the live.


The classical western figure of justice is one I go back to again and again. Sword in hand, justice is a blind butcher and what justice kills is experience, namely the presence of experience – it’s liveness, it’s particularity (it becomes a case, it is encased as a type), and also in the sense of the sentence, at the verdict – it will have happened, as if it could ever stop happening, when in physics we know that’s not the way time works. The only way to get the scales to balance is by chopping.


Blanchot: the aim of justice isn’t the truth (necessarily) it is a verdict  an attorney doesn have to know if a client has or hasn’t done a deed in order to argue. The trial is about our ability to say, say conclusively, that the client did or didn’t do it. The etymology of verdict is “speaking the truth” but perhaps more accurately “what we say is true;” “what we agree to call the truth.”


Survivors want the truth and the truth doesn’t stop. Mention was made of the drama of lynchings, of genocide. Thesea re trule dramatic but they are bad dramas. Lynchings, and genocide by siege, for example, have an end in mind. (The aftermath of genocide – negationism, or suppression of story – slowly starves survivors of reality).


A healthier play is over only when you can’t tell it apart from what the audience is doing… when the audience doesn’t need the play to do the play anymore; the writing ends when the playwrights are more audience than writers – audience in the sense that they are already departing the play and onto new action.


Justice, experientially (rather than on paper), is asymmetrical. In a process of forgiving, what must be forgiven is justice itself – which will always be lopsided. There is no redress for a lost child – no redress for a changed biography (you can’t make a thing not-have-happened). Justice is also asymmetrical in that it is incomplete in itself – because it is conclusive, when nothing in reality is.


The best we can do is endorse story telling. Blanchot – life as an act of testifying – the life of the survivor is between the story and the action – is in the telling itself. “I am alive to tell the story.”


Performance is the failure of justice – the failure – the space – the not-yet-created, or the decreating space where story never stops being, and is never done.


In theater-for-social-change we can tend to push for the art of the affidavit: a firm and terminal statement. We talk about production, performance and plays as if we’re interested in producing product or outcomes, as if acting is something to observe rather than what we breed in shared intuition, and as if a play is what survives rather than the codes of playing. Define the word “esthetics” as “intimacy;” products tend to alienation where organic processes bind. In testimony, when the story has been captured – when its content is evidentiary product rather than adored for its action – it removes the teller from the audience, allowing the story to enter the archive and the teller to be buried – archived without a label. A football game is more poetic and more just than many theater experiences and trials, because the audience is embraced as a co-creator, and – there’s always next year (the process is endless). Poetry is legalese when it doesn’t include the audience.


Where there is process there are logistics. Where there are logistics there’s business – this is true in the peace process and the theater process – both can become self perpetuation on the basis of commerce.


The verdict in which the International Community is most invested is the innocence of the international community, in the sense that “we may be done with it.” Are the courts, as theaters, built in such a way that the needful audience is outside the walls – denied, except by proxy, the experience of the performance – whose idea of justice is already imperiled in terms of mourning and being?


Define “culture” as “the way we distribute power.”


Bias is sustainable because it is compatible with the architecture of authoritative power – cultural and legal – which likes oppression. Bias doesn’t bubble up – it is a structural requirement, tacit in more cases that may be readily apparent.


Justice, alive and ungainly, interminable, social, is enacted beyond the will of the state, beyond the will of the performer (Yuyachkani), and sometimes, uncomfortably, beyond the will of the survivor (some of whom don’t want memorialization)… victimhood is not a unifying category.


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