Naomi Rokotnitz, Trusting Performance: A Cognitive Approach to Embodiment in Drama

Naomi Rokotnitz, Trusting Performance: A Cognitive Approach to Embodiment in Drama (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan 2011) 197 pp. £50.99 EPUB, PDF, £64.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-230-33737-4

Through her exploration of four key plays written and performed throughout history, Rokotnitz presents her audience with the hypothesis that art doesn’t just imitate life but it is a direct exemplar of human behaviour. So studied, theatre can enlighten us as to how humans work or, more specifically, how the mind works. Rokotnitz’s technique is to examine and analyse not only the way the audience relates to the production before them in these specific case-studies but she also draws conclusions from the ways the characters interact with each other within the play itself. To support the inferences she makes, Rokotnitz draws on an arsenal of evidence from psychology, philosophy, biology and neuroscience, and touches on many different themes in the process, including the nature of being and the possibility of secure knowledge. In framing her thesis, Rokotnitz focuses on a problem similar to that of Descartes’s scepticism, namely, how we can trust the knowledge that we have. In a nutshell, knowledge and trust is characterised as embodied and interpersonal; we can be secure in our knowledge as others act as checks and balances. We interact with others in a fundamentally embodied way such that we cannot help but mirror and empathise with one another – it is almost a reflex and an integral part of our bodily functioning (Rokotnitz points to the famous ‘mirror neurons’ as evidence), so we can trust it and trust in others to be similarly wired up to empathise and interact with us.

Rokotnitz sets the scene, like Descartes, in presenting the scepticism she attempts to dispel. Using King Leontes, from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a paranoid and jealous husband who accuses his wife of having an affair with eventual tragic consequences, Rokotnitz aims to demonstrate how when someone has their trust breached, they can be inclined to not only throw out the object of that previous trust but also to shut out the entire world, using an extreme form of reason. However, as she notes, Leontes is not beyond hope and through the play’s comical structure, the character is able to learn from his mistakes and build trust again. This is only able to occur through his awareness of the fallibility of his own reason – our control of our emotions through reason, argues Rokotnitz, is still based on some emotion and our emotions go on to colour our reasoning about a situation – and that truth can be based on other factors than reason. Rokotnitz mentions that, in the absence of reason, our bodies may fill in the gaps of reason using inferences from past experiences or analogies not to gain some truth but to find a solution which is useful or helps us get by in that moment in time. What is important for trust or 'faith', then, is not cold, calculating reason alone (this only leads us into radical scepticism) but a hybrid of reason, emotion (through feelings of love and trust for someone) and creativity (the ability to make inferences and draw on metaphor, in this case). These three things are embodied by characters in The Winter’s Tale (as Leontes, Hermione and Perdita respectively). For Rokotnitz, Shakespeare’s play demonstrates through Leontes’ descent into madness how poorly reason fares on its own as a method for securing knowledge. Since having faith requires having someone to have faith in, trust is inherently interpersonal.

Rokotnitz carries on from the themes of the previous chapter, taking the extreme opposite of Leontes’ reason-based character as a positive kind of unreason and attempting to show what postmodernist, absurdist theatre teaches about the nature of human language and cognition. Drawing on a play which is essentially a mismatch of reality and fiction, originality and recreation, old and new, Rokotnitz aims to show that even in the absence of any logical connection whatsoever, humans are predisposed to still draw connections between seemingly disparate points. A character who does this himself in Stoppard’s Travesties is Tzara; while cutting up and rearranging at random a piece as deliberately meaningful as a sonnet should, we might expect, not produce anything meaningful at all (let alone more meaningful) and yet Tzara achieves just that. He does so, suggests Rokotnitz, by taking elements that are already familiar to us and so, although the arrangement is new, we are still able to glean meaning from them; progress, she argues, is this 'communication between the old and the new' (56). It is this flexibility of interpretation and meaning creation that Rokotnitz suggests in Chapter One is holding back Leontes. It is the same process of meaning creation that the audience partakes in with the play itself; we string together a narrative out of the parts of fictionalised history (as with the meeting between Tzara, Joyce and Lenin) and historicised fiction (as with the inclusion of Gwendolyn and Cecily from Oscar Wilde’s famous play The Importance of Being Ernest). In this way, the audience is invested in the characters whether or not they empathise with or like them. Here, Rokotnitz draws on Heidegger’s existentialist phenomenology which characterises being partly as being towards others, or recognising others in the world. In this way, we can't help but feel connected despite slipping into solipsistic individuality through pure reason. She seems to suggest that being with others is something we can’t help but feel; it is a fundamental part of our being.

In order to truly understand this element of being, however, we must understand how exactly it is that we relate to each other. It is this topic that is explored in Chapter Three through Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good. Rokotnitz details the transformative powers of drama as the characters in the play, convicts and officers stationed in Australia, put on a production of their own. The character of Liz undergoes such a process, mutating from common thief to aristocratic lady using only a piece of wood as a fan but she also goes through a more permanent change as demonstrated through her altered language. This supports the hypothesis, thinks Rokotnitz, that our speech and bodily action affects our cognition; by acting as someone else we can literally, if we choose to, transform ourselves into that person. Moreover, in so far as life is like a production in that there will be conflicts and challenges posed by other people and worked out with other people, the other 'actors' we cohabit with will help shape the character we adopt or play. Even as audience members we act and react to events of the play, even though we are not in the ‘midst of the drama’, claims Rokotnitz. To add strength to the transformative claim of Our Country’s Good, Rokotnitz cites a production of the play by inmates at Blundeston Prison who continued to read, write and act after the production was over. Thus, it seems, our trust in other people is steeped in our empathetic interactions with them and their ability to change us – for good or for worse. Our own characters are always undergoing change; perhaps the only permanence we can have is that there will always be change and it always coevolves with our bodily interaction with other people in the environment.

Here, Rokotnitz moves on to a criticism against an intracorporeal foundation for knowledge; the question of what happens when we cannot trust our bodies to give us reliable feedback about the environment. The main character of the last play, Kaufman’s 33 Variations, goes through this existential crisis when she is diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease). However, even then, Rokotnitz rejoins, truth is still available to us. Drawing on Heidegger again, we can still be certain of the finite nature of our existence (a feeling Heidegger calls 'being-towards-death'). This is a positive force, for Rokotnitz, in that when we become aware of our potential death, our selves aren’t somehow diminished but are altered in the same way that the convicts are transformed through their adoption of different characters in their play. Dr Brandt, for example, in 33 Variations, not only gains insight into the topic she is researching but also gains a new understanding for her daughter’s attitude, which she previously could not appreciate. A new self is constructed in the deterioration of her body, one that is still heavily committed to the projects she is interested in and the people she inhabits her space and life with.

From this empathetic and processual point of view, Rokotnitz aims to demonstrate how pure reason is not the desirable route to truth, nor the only way. We can, in fact, build on a foundation of interpersonal interaction and change by taking the reciprocal moulding of mind and world, self and other as the base on top of which our knowledge is secure. If Rokotnitz’s assumptions that we can draw from drama as though it were life are sound, then this is a very tempting escape from solipsism as an alternative to Cartesian dualism. And I think this assumption is, in fact, very sound. Where else can we draw fiction from if not from life? As with Stoppard’s Tragedies, for something to be comprehensible to us it must be presented to us within a framework with which we are already familiar. Since we cannot help but be situated in a life and a body, even if drama presents fictionalised lives and bodies the framework remains. Thus drama makes for a kind of literal metaphor for the interpersonal epistemology Rokotnitz is arguing for and lends weight to her argument.

Jodie Russell, University of Edinburgh