Brains, Persons, and Society *** ABSTRACTS
Cervelli, Persone e Società ***ABSTRACTS
James R. Hamilton
How spectators converge on the same characteristics of what is observed in a theatrical performance
This paper is a contribution to a defense of theatrical performance as an independent art. To defend the claim that theatrical performances are works of art in their own right, we need to show how theatrical performances are identifiable by appeal to something other than texts “of which” they are performances. The strategy I propose is to show how audiences identify theatrical performances by demonstrating how they understand theatrical performances. In this way, I believe, we can show that spectators need make no references to anything beyond what is happening in the performance as it is happening in order to identify performances.
The first step is to accept minimal success conditions for attaining basic comprehension of a theatrical performance. By “understanding” I do not mean getting a full measure of the significance of the performance. Nor do I mean grasping what the performers were aiming at, nor what styles they employed and to what effect. Nor do I mean having a full appreciation of the performance’s artistry. Instead, I mean only what it is and what it takes for a single spectator to demonstrate she has grasped the gist of what is presented to her in the performance.
But the account we propose for the mechanisms by which spectators achieve even this minimal level of comprehension – whether or not theatrical performance is an independent form of art – must also conform to the facts that theatrical performance is a social practice, that spectators and performers are disposed to interact in the conditions under which theatrical performances are observed, and that theatrical performance is a temporal practice. So, although we aim to explain how a single spectator gets the gist of what is presented, we must do so by reference to what other spectators are getting at the same time. That is, we must show how spectators converge upon the same characteristics of, for example, the story – its characters, events, objects – in a narrative performance.
Two problems to be solved
So, how do they do that? To answer this question we need to solve two problems, one concerning performers and one concerning spectators.
With regard to performers, we must know what informs a spectator that certain features of the performers are characteristics of or facts about some element of the performance and that others are not. This is no small feat; for example, each performer has a significantly greater number of features than does any character in any performed narrative. With regard to spectators, the problem is that each spectator brings a different context and history to any performance. They may all recognize they are at a theatrical performance: if any one of them knows they are attending an off-Broadway production, probably they all know this. But they may not share other aspects of their backgrounds with respect to theater, and there are likely to be some aspects of any spectator's social background that no other spectator brings to the event.
Strategy and main claims
The strategy I propose is to make use of discussions of "feature salience" to be found in the work of David Lewis and others. In any standard coordination game, finding a feature salient is a matter of each party finding some feature standing out for her and reasoning to the conclusion that the same feature will stand out for others and that they too will reason as she is reasoning: and thence reasoning to a conclusion about how to act. By reference to similarities and differences between standard coordination problems and the situation of spectators, I will defend the following central claim:
Features of a performer are salient to spectators for a fact or set of facts just when learner-spectators, under a suitable common knowledge requirement, can notice those features as regularities in the behavior of the performer and when each learner-spectator concludes (a) that some pattern – and hence some set of facts – obtains, (b) that whenever those features appear in the same context then the same set of facts obtains, and (c) that every other learner-spectator will conclude both (a) and (b).
As in standard coordination problems, conditions (a) and (b) specify that a feature is salient if it is thought to guide responses, if it is seen as projectible. And, just as in standard coordination problems, condition (c) specifies that a feature is salient if it stands out as projectible for a population.
I show that the
solution to two problems set forth above turns on how to state the
knowledge requirement. And I propose a statement of that requirement
the job. The result is that our theory matches the fact that even quite
disparate spectators grasp pretty much the same characteristics