Friday, January 8, 2010

I Can See Your Ideology Moving

The scene: A windy seaside town in England. An arts festival (entitled, perhaps pretentiously, The Windy Seaside Town Biennale) is in full swing. An audience of skeptical locals, theater-seat-radicals and bloodthirsty performance-art lovers, sated after fish and chips and lashings of warm ale, is watching a man speaking to a picture of Karl Marx. More unusually, the picture speaks back to the man, for this is Ian Saville, socialist magician and ventriloquist, demonstrating his revolutionary art.
At the back of the hall, the art critic Sally O’Reilly watches curiously, almost unable to contain the questions that crowd her mind. The audience is laughing …

Ian Saville holding his talking picture of Karl Marx. Photos Jonathan Allen.

Sally O’Reilly, Ian Savvily

IAN: Hello, Karl Marx.
MARX: Hello.
IAN: How are you?
MARX: Not too bad.
IAN: Are you enjoying the show?
MARX: I’m enjoying it immensely.
IAN: Actually, Karl, I was just wondering ...
MARX: Yes?
IAN: If in your day ...
MARX: In my day, yes?
IAN: . ..whether you ever had anything like this.
MARX: In what way?
IAN: Well, I wondered if you ever had this sort of socialist culture—socialist songs, music, humor, or even socialist conjuring tricks?
MARX: We had socialist culture, of course.
IAN: You did?
MARX: Oh yes. We had socialist songs, music, humor. All that sort of thing. But we didn’t have socialist conjuring tricks.
IAN: You didn’t?
MARX: No, although it’s a little-known fact that originally I wanted my theories done as conjuring tricks.
IAN: Did you really?
MARX: Oh, yes.
IAN: What was it that stopped you from doing your theories as conjuring tricks, then?
MARX: Engels.
IAN: Friedrich Engels, your collaborator.
MARX: Yes.
IAN: In what way did he stop you?
MARX: Well, I used to come home after a hard day at the British Museum ...
IAN: Yes.
MARX: ... and I’d go into my house. Through the door, of course.
IAN: Yes.
MARX: And I’d go into the living room, and I’d say, “Engels.” (Pause. Louder:) “Engels!" (Pause. Louder:) “ENGELS!!" (Pause:) Because he didn’t live at my house.
IAN: Didn’t he?
MARX: No. He lived in Manchester, and I was in London. So I’d write to him, and in the letter I’d say: “Look here Engels, I’ve discovered this important new principle. We’ve got to get it out to the general public somehow. What about this idea—what about bringing it out as a rope trick?
IAN: And what would his reaction be to that suggestion?
MARX: He’d say something like: “No!”
IAN: He was against the idea, was he?
MARX: He’d say, “No! Bring it out as Capital Volume I,or Theories of Surplus Value, or The Grundrisse, or Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts …”
IAN: In other words, bring it out as a book. He was telling you to bring out your theories as a book.
MARX: Yes. Actually, I was trying to avoid that word. For your sake.
IAN: Anyway, I’m glad you didn’t bring out your theories as magic tricks, because I don’t think you could explore the level of complexity in a rope trick that you could in three volumes of Capital ...
MARX: Yes, I’ve noticed that with your tricks.
IAN: Is there anything else you’d like to suggest to help me with my socialist magic tricks?
MARX: I’d like to say that “all previous magicians have only interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it.”
IAN: And I’m sure these people will change it. Though not immediately, of course. You see, this show is so effective that sometimes, when I say, “Change the world,” people immediately want to get out there and change things. So they leave. Sometimes even before the show is over. But you can wait till the end. Because you probably won’t be able to get much changed this evening. And tomorrow’s the weekend. But anyway. Are there any other constructive criticisms you could offer me, Karl?
MARX: Well, what I’ve noticed is that you’ve only dealt with a small part of the picture. I know you’ve done something about class and solidarity, but there’s a whole world of ideas and emotions to be tackled with this socialist conjuring business. I mean, for example, you haven’t mentioned anything about surplus value.
IAN: No, I haven’t. I’ll get onto that straight away.
SALLY: (from audience): Just a minute!
IAN: Excuse me, I’m trying to get on with a show here.
SALLY: I don’t think so. In fact, this is a reconstruction in written form of something that only properly exists as a piece of live performance.
IAN: That’s one of the most pathetic heckles I’ve come across in a long time.
SALLY: It’s not a heckle. It’s part of a critical commentary.
IAN: Isn’t that the same thing?
SALLY: No, criticality takes a position of reciprocity and exegesis in relation to the artwork, not disruption or negation.
IAN: I’m not sure I understand a word you’re saying.
SALLY: You don’t have to understand. This is for the readers.
IAN: The audience.
SALLY: Never mind. What I want to know is: Why are you using magic tricks in this way? Do you seriously believe that illusions such as these can change the world?
IAN: Pardon?
IAN: Listen, comrade, rather than shouting your remarks from the back of this smoke-filled room, perhaps you could join me up here on the stage.

(Sally steps up. Enthusiastic applause from the now nonexistent audience.)

IAN: Thank you. And your name is …?
SALLY: Sally O’Reilly.
IAN: Do you mind if I call you Rosa Luxemburg, just for the purposes of this next trick?
IAN: What about Emma Goldman?
SALLY: Better, but I’d still prefer to stick to the name I was born with.
IAN: I don’t know whether to interpret this as bourgeois individualism or a commendable refusal to go along with the petty demands of authority.
SALLY: Will you just get on with the trick?

(A muffled voice is heard from a suitcase onstage. It seems to be saying: “I am not actually here, but let me out nevertheless.” Ian opens the suitcase and removes a Bertolt Brecht ventriloquial doll.)

BRECHT: She’s absolutely right. Get on with the trick. Never mind all this theoretical stuff. Doing something in the real world, that’s what’s important. The truth is concrete.
MARX: Yes, you must engage in praxis—the seamless fusion of theoretical and practical activity in order to maximize your effectiveness for change.
BRECHT: And while you’re at it, you could engage in a bit more practice. I can still see your lips move every time you say my name.
IAN: Listen, how am I supposed to engage in anything when I’ve got three ventriloquial figures continuously commenting on what I’m doing.
SALLY: Just a minute, I’m not a ventriloquial figure.
IAN: You could have fooled me.
SALLY: I’m just a writer who is complicit in the contingent construction of this narrative progression.
IAN: Never mind that. Listen here, Marx and Brecht. The reason I’m doing magic tricks …
SALLY: Oh yes, I wanted to know about that too …
IAN: … is precisely because magic is an engagement with real objects in the real world, a sphere of performance in which the audience is constantly invited to ask themselves about what has really happened. They don’t see a symbolic representation of reality, but an actual manipulation of things …
SALLY: Ah, but the things are not, in reality, behaving in the way you lead the audience to think they are …
MARX: That’s right. You are engaged in illusion.
SALLY: Which must tend to weaken your audience’s ability to deal with the problems of power, exploitation, and oppression that you try to expose. And anyway, these objects you manipulate are symbolic representations—they are not the real working class or a factory owner. You are dallying in the idle sport of allegory. Why don’t you demonstrate your intentions instead of merely illustrating them?
BRECHT: Wait a minute. Allow me to jump to the sap’s defense—on your first point, at least. The rest is too incoherent to deal with. There is a big difference between the sort of illusion practiced by the White House or Tony Blair, where the fact of the illusion is itself covered up, and what he is doing, which is an honest display of something we know to be a trick.
IAN: Exactly. We’re dealing here with known unknowns, rather than unknown unknowns, to quote someone or other … And by displaying the trick honestly, the audience’s consciousness of the changeability of the world is reinforced.
BRECHT: I wouldn’t necessarily go that far. Anyway, will you get on with the trick? This contingently complicit writer is getting more anxious about the direction of this narrative progression by the minute.
IAN: OK. I’ll do the trick. This is a daring exposé of the workings of the money system. But in order to do it properly, I’ll need to borrow a certain amount of capital. Do you, by any chance, have a banknote upon your person?
SALLY: A what?
IAN: A twenty pound note, or perhaps a fifty dollar bill …
SALLY: Sorry mate, I’m broke, skint, brassic, stymied, impecunious, strapped, a bit short, subject to the falling rate of profit. The buying power of the proletariat’s gone down, as Bob Dylan has pointed out.
IAN: If you don’t have the money, I can’t do the trick.
SALLY: That’s OK. Given that this is actually a piece of writing, the mere mention of the money serves as a commentary on the role of the writer as producer of an exchangeable commodity, a notion which tends to be overlooked by the reader imagining a disembodied apractic authorial voice …
IAN: Apractic? Is that a real word?
SALLY: No, I just made it up, as you can see from the spell checker. I like making up words that are soundiferous of sense—it keeps language alive, if a little strangulated in the ears of others. Anyway, here is my hard-earned, but in this context merely notional, £20 note.
IAN: Thank you. Could you just sign your name across the Queen’s head there, thus defacing the note and adding some individuality to it.

(She signs the note. Ian puts down the Marx and Brecht figures.)

IAN: Now: what is money?
SALLY: Well, erm …
IAN: That’s all right, it’s a rhetorical question, so you don’t need to answer. But since we have Karl Marx here, let’s have his take on the matter.
MARX: (Now speaking without moving his lips, since Ian’s hands are nowhere near Marx’s mouth controls) Well, as I see it, money is not a thing in itself. It’s a relationship between people.
IAN: As can be seen by the fact that the relationship between me and Sally has gone into steep decline from the moment I asked her for her money.
SALLY: I wouldn’t say that. I am now much more intensely interested in what you are about to do. That can only deepen our relations, so to speak. Depth is not always a decline.
IAN: That may be, but you’ve just talked over a laugh. OK, so money determines the relations between people in capitalist society, and despite the many changes in the world since Karl Marx’s days, despite the growth of the Internet, the advent of modernism, postmodernism, and hair extensions, that fact is as true today as it was in 1844 …
MARX: When I wrote Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.
IAN: Precisely. But to return to this banknote; it also has a material dimension. Although the money itself is a relationship between people, that relationship is located at this precise moment in the symbolic reality of this piece of paper, an object which can be manipulated and reformed like any other matter. And paper has particular qualities. Did you know that it’s possible to fold paper twelve times, if you’re very careful about the direction of folding; but the point is that there is a limit. And I am going to fold your banknote just four times, since I don’t want to incorporate any element of danger into this act.

(He does so, while saying:) Mass-action-for-a-radical-transformation-of-society-from-a-society-based-primarily-on-profit-to-a-society-based-on-human-need.

SALLY: Blimey, whatever happened to alakazam?
IAN: This is easier to spell. Anyway, the point is that this transformative power of money distorts the relations between people and enables exploitation to flourish unchecked in our society. Money is itself a trick, and if you could see its real nature, it would be something like this:

(He unfolds the note, to find that it is now transformed into a piece of paper with, on one side, the word “MONEY,“ and, on the other, the half equation “= oppression and exploitation.” He hands the transformed note to Sally.)

Now, if I were a bourgeois magician, I’d change that back into a £20 note. But as I’m a socialist magician, I’ll leave you with something much more valuable—a use value where before you had only an exchange value …
SALLY: But I’m well aware that by the end of this trick you are going to find my signed note in a sealed envelope in your zipped-up wallet, because it wouldn’t be acceptable in our money-based society for you really to confiscate the property of a member of the audience.
IAN: True enough.
SALLY: So have you really changed anything with your little allegory?
IAN: I don’t actually expect to be able to bring an end to exploitation with a magic act. I do expect to make people laugh.
SALLY: And is a laughing audience a prefigurement of a potential non-exploitative society?
IAN: No, it’s a roomful of laughing people.

I Can See Your Ideology Moving Sally O’Reilly, Ian Saville
Source:Cabinet Magazine, Issue 26 Summer 2007