This article begins by way of a mimetic gesture: I choose to withdraw the object that I am speaking of and to therefore copy, in reverse, the very gesture that I want to address. This article has its genesis in an archive of performance where there are things – scripts, notes, letters, plans, drawings – referring to events which I have come to theorise under the term ‘unhappened’ (1). It is about what happens to the process of thinking historiographically when the archive churns such things up, and about their capacity to trouble the order they appear in. It contains impasses, disappointments and moral invitations. It is about the improbable and the impossible, about clandestinity and about the future.
Archives of performance thrive on the very unavailability of the material they are meant to safeguard: a deeply and collectively understood equation of performance with the fact of its disappearance on the one hand, and an understanding that performance remains by way of movements different from what Derrida described as ‘house arrest’ on the other (2) – a knowledge that those remains might be found in bodies, gestures, glances, sighs – means that, in these archives, absence is particularly present.
Archives of performance are, effectively, collections of traces of events whose ontological contours are fundamentally different from the events they are supposed to chronicle or document. Although these traces might be seen to be performative entities themselves (3) and although their effects might be able to short-circuit the retroactive, even interferonic logic of the archive (4), they remain, nevertheless, traces: if the event were a purchase, what we would have in the archive would be a receipt, or something like a CCTV recording, objects which will always leave the door open to a whole series of detective’s speculations about fakes, or about stagings, or about tamperings. What if the clock on the till had been turned forwards or backwards, or if the second customer is out of camera range, or if the photo was taken ten minutes, months, years later…? As places where an intrinsic ephemerality meets the work of art, and hence also of artifice, archives of performance seem to educate us to frayed edges, to unsolvable mysteries, to shapes that won’t fit.
Upon entering an archive these days we know that our archons tend to corruption; we know that our work will generally be that of ‘pushing at the document where it is most opaque’ (5), not of being flooded with luminosity. We understand that our stance as we enter needs to be armed with some skepticism, which will protect us and show us up in equal measures, and that that skepticism will have to be re-attuned at every documentary encounter we make. We give up, that is, on the idea of finding something we may want to call ‘true’, and find we have some creative decisions to make ethically, or some ethical decisions to make creatively. Perhaps, to borrow Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s course of thinking, after giving up on the true we split into cynics and ironists:
This is the common ground of irony and cynicism: (…) neither god not History can guarantee the relation between signifier and meaning. But from that point onward, irony and cynicism split: irony suspends the meaningfulness of the signifier and freely chooses among multifarious possible interpretations. Cynicism starts from that same suspension but narrows the space of interpretation: only what is powerful – efficient, competitive, and successful – is good.(6)
Although Bifo’s discussion of ethical stances stretches beyond my scope in this article, those who enter the archive and find an unhappened event can broadly split into similar camps. The cynics, here, have the choice – which could also be seen as a fair and just historiographical responsibility – to disregard the unhappened event. If they wish, they can also take the power to evict it: in an archive which documents events, a document of an unhappened event is an error, a glitch and should be thrown out – some things, it turns out, aren’t even worthy of house arrest. The ironist can ‘simply refuse the game, and re-create the world as an effect of linguistic enunciation’(7). From now on, I propose a thoroughly ironic stance.
The ‘unhappened event’ is, of course, a contradiction in terms. While an event can ‘not happen’, the act of unhappening is not one contemplated by any kind of vectoriality. If the event is etymologically rooted to a Latin ‘coming out’ (e-venire), ‘events’ unlock themselves from the grey wall of things without temporality and cut through, emerge, become something. The adjective unhappened, then, sucks the event back into the formlessness it came out of at the same time of its coming out, posits the event as real and then drags the event out of the sequentiality of the real, out of maps, calendars, annals, that is, out of the very stuff of the archive. What is recorded, traditionally, is what has ‘come out’ – and the recording of something which has not, immediately inscribes itself into an ontological category which is neither relic nor omission, neither present nor absent – neither, let us very simply say, here nor there.
The unhappened event is not a cross in a Greek poem, a bit of law rubbed out, a face cut out of a photograph, a blacked out surname on a passport – unlike these things, which are in a sense events without document, the unhappened poses the document without event. While a more vernacular use of the term might indicate a reversal of an event, the set-up I invite us to think here is one in which various temporalities are at work: coming out and at the same time coming in, the challenge posed by the unhappened might be one of ironic interception although it has its birthplace in a sort of radical mistrust – it may be a challenge of impossible filiations with the unrealised because unrealisable, the improbable, maybe even the odd, or the ridiculous.
An uninvited guest, someone in incognito, a piece of paper sans-papiers. In order to get there at all, the unhappened event has smuggled itself into the archive illegally, perhaps in the belly of a plane or hanging underneath a lorry. Neither a citizen of the real nor an inhabitant of unreality, the unhappened event sabotages the archive both in its temporal sequentiality and, as Benjamin would have it, in its ‘victorious’ narratives (8). And like Benjamin’s historical image, the unhappened event is a flash of various temporalities, and it flashes in and out of sight, and may not always be discovered, understood or even seen at all.
Working from Pasolini’s ever-saddening article of 1975 positing the disappearance of the fireflies as historical event, Didi-Huberman has spoken of fireflies as ‘clandestine communities’, able to keep modes of thinking, desiring and making open ‘in spite of all’: ‘to give credit to what the machine wants us to believe is to only see darkness or the blinding light of headlights… it means only seeing the all and choosing not to see the space – an interstitial space perhaps, an intermittent or nomadic space, an improbable space – of openings, of the possible, of the flash, of the in spite of all’ (9). In the same text, Didi-Huberman accuses Agamben of wanting to see ‘the horizon behind every image’ (10). The ‘alls’, the ‘horizons’ of the archive are the structures which oblige us to believe that in the archive what there is is what there is, and to ignore or forget about what is given to be forgotten, that is about what there isn’t, or what there doesn’t seem to be.
Yet even the fact of giving way, the fact of subtraction, carries a value though that value may be weak, dim, and even contradictory, ridiculous or impossible: the value of the ‘opening’ which is also the possible, the flash, and importantly the ‘in spite of all’. The in spite of all of the present becomes a nonetheless in the past: it becomes an oh well, a nevermind, a maybe next time – even though there may not be a next time. This is where the unhappened strikes me as precious: the door opened and immediately closed, the blade of time protruding and immediately reabsorbed may just serve some sort of glimmer of something in the future. The invitation we may want to take up from the archive, then, might be that of attuning ourselves to the music of that nonetheless; something, maybe, like dancing to Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That all There Is’: if that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing… Ironically, of course, since the dancer of the nonetheless has only irony as a rhythm. Mouth bent into a knowing half-smile, left eyebrow just slightly raised, a dance under something like a post-political sky in which we may just need to make our own rules if we want to set the opaque alight.
Counteracting the counterfact
The clandestine unhappened event, though, gets fabricated in the past, not in the present: it is not the product of a tampering in the present, but a glitch that was already there. We could say that an unhappened event is unused: we can say that we can take it, that it’s free (by which I mean not ‘gratis’ but ‘empty’, like an unreserved seat in the theatre of history…). My historiographical hope with regard to such events is that in paying attention to them the then might show something to the now, not viceversa: the player who had never been invited to the table who makes a flash, a hitherto unseen image, appear. Everybody round the table gasps.
This clandestinity, then – formulated in the past but usable in the present – carries a certain coefficient of control: we are unable to fabricate ex novo the way we may feel free to invent a presence in the place of an absence, for the unhappened is not an absence but an almost, a never which feels like a might have been. Because of that ‘might’ the unhappened event carries something like an unselfconscious gravitas – just enough to subtract itself from the prison of counterfactuality, from ‘what ifs’ badly covering up ‘if onlys’, from desire so nostalgically bound to a past done wrong that it has lost the will to long in the now.
While most counterfactual historical thinking lies in the pleasure of relocating the archival power of events (that is in supplanting one arché with an imaginary other), the category of the unhappened thrives on the pleasure of constantly awakening a kind of awareness, a kind of attention towards the fact that dominating narratives are constellated, punctuated, surrounded by weaker lights, by soft entities, by things that give way but which nevertheless exist, and do so by way of subtraction. This is a pleasure of a political kind because it writes the invisible into the parable of the visible – it reminds us that, even if we can’t see it, there’s an underdog lurking somewhere in every story. It reminds us that there is always a lot that we’re not seeing – in a sense this is liberating and hopeful, because we might find allies we didn’t even know we had.
A look at potential futures with a cold awareness that their potentiality is now lost is precious because that lost potentiality holds an energy (the negative energy of not having happened) that is past continuous, and as such it can stretch into the present and invent something else.
Looking at the unhappened is a form of ‘let’s keep dancing’: it is a form of making do with the nonetheless, of finding ways to thrive with the crumbs from under the table. It is also a means of ‘re-powering’ certain gloomy panoramas of the present. Weak, in essence, by being devoid of past or of past present, the unhappened event has nowhere to go other than the future, but not a conditional future: ‘future future’. Perhaps a post-punk kind of future, or to dance a last dance with Bifo the ‘post-future’ (11), the one that doesn’t look the way they told us it might, the one made of images without horizons, the one which invites us to take the time to ‘re-create the world as an effect of linguistic enunciation’ (12). And the enunciations which unhappen now can stay suspended in that e-vening and in-vening, until someone still to come decides they might just board a lost train of thought.
Flora Pitrolo obtained her PhD from the University of Roehampton, London, where she worked on a thesis entitled ‘What Was Before isn’t Anymore: Image, Theatre and the Italian New Spectacularity 1978-1984’. A scholar of performance, her research focuses on the theatre image, on how images might survive in performance and on their affective circulation through space and time. Currently working as an Assistant Researcher on a project on contemporary European theatres at the University of Kent and as an Associate Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, she is also amongst the founding members of London-based public art collective The International Western and one half of the team behind re:volt, a mixed-media event series about archives of Macedonian
( 1 )
This term emerged from a Performance Studies International panel with P.A. Skantze and Ella Finer, to whom I am indebted for helping me find the word, use it and continue to interrogate it.
( 2 )
Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trad. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 2
( 3 )
See, for example, Amelia Jones, “‘Presence’ in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation.” Art Journal 56, 4 (1997): 11-18 and Philip Auslander, “The Performativity of Performance Documentation.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 84 (2006): 1-10.
( 4 )
I use the word ‘interferonic’ – the death that defeats death – to push too far the interventions made by Rebecca Schneider - arguing alongside Ann Pellegrini - about how ‘the panoply of deaths’ that the late-20th century has produced may be the only way of securing remains for the era of the object: ‘[K]illing the author, or sacrificing his station may be, ironically, the means of ensuring that he remains’. Rebecca Schneider, “Performance Remains”, in Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History, ed. Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield (Bristol: Intellect, 2012), 145. See also Rebecca Schneider, “Hello Dolly Well Hello Dolly: The Double and Its Theater”, in Psychoanalysis and Performance, ed. Patrick Campbell and Adrian Kear, London: Routledge, 2001 and Ann Pellegrini, Performance Anxieties: Staging Psychoanalysis, Staging Race, New York: Routledge, 1997.
( 5 )
Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 5
( 6 )
Bifo - Franco Berardi, Ironic Ethics / Ironische Ethik (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2011), 21.
( 7 )
Berardi, Ironic Ethics, 20
( 8 )
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico 1999), 247, 248
( 9 )
Georges Didi-Huberman, Come le Lucciole: una Politica della Sopravvivenza, trans. Chiara Tartarini and re-translated by the author (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2010), 27
( 10 )
Didi-Huberman, Lucciole, 53
( 11 )
I refer to ideas outlined in Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, After the Future, trans. Adrianna Bove et al. Edinburgh: AK Press, 2011.
( 12 )
Berardi, Ironic Ethics, 20
Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Ironic Ethics / Ironische Ethik. Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2011
Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, After the Future, trans. Adrianna Bove et al. Edinburgh: AK Press, 2011
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn. London: Pimlico 1999
Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. New York: Basic Books, 1985
Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trad. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995
Georges Didi-Huberman, Come le Lucciole: una Politica della Sopravvivenza, trans. Chiara Tartarini. Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2010
Ann Pellegrini, Performance Anxieties: Staging Psychoanalysis, Staging Race, New York: Routledge, 1997
Rebecca Schneider, “Hello Dolly Well Hello Dolly: The Double and Its Theater”, in Psychoanalysis and Performance, ed. Patrick Campbell and Adrian Kear, London: Routledge, 2001
Rebecca Schneider, “Performance Remains”, in Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History, ed. Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield. Bristol: Intellect, 2012