There is a time for the theatre.—If a people’s imagination grows weak there arises in it the inclination to have its legends presented to it on the stage: it can now endure these crude substitutes for imagination. But for those ages to which the epic rhapsodist belongs, the theatre and the actor disguised as a hero is a hindrance to imagination rather than a means of giving it wings: too close, too definite, too heavy, too little in it of dream and bird-flight. (Nietzsche)
But of course the rhapsodist, who here appears only one step removed from the shaman (“…dream and bird-flight”) must also be called a kind of medium or bridge standing between “a people” and its imagination. (Note: we’ll use the word “imagination” sometimes in Wm. Blake’s sense & sometimes in Gaston Bachelard’s sense without opting for either a “spiritual” or an “aesthetic” determination, & without recourse to metaphysics.) A bridge carries across (“translate,” “metaphor” ) but is not the original. And to translate is to betray. Even the rhapsodist provides a little poison for the imagination.
Ethnography, however, allows us to assert the possibility of societies where shamans are not specialists of the imagination, but where everyone is a special sort of shaman. In these societies, all members (except the psychically handicapped) act as shamans & bards for themselves as well as for their people. For example: certain Amerindian tribes of the Great Plains developed the most complex of all hunter/gatherer societies quite late in their history (perhaps partly thanks to the gun & horse, technologies adopted from European culture). Each person acquired complete identity & full membership in “the People” only thru the Vision Quest, & its artistic enactment for the tribe. Thus each person became an “epic rhapsodist” in sharing this individuality with the collectivity.
The Pygmies, among the most “primitive” cultures, neither produce nor consume their music, but become en masse “the Voice of the Forest.” At the other end of the scale, among complex agricultural societies, like Bali on the verge of the 20th century, “everyone is an artist” (& in 1980 a Javanese mystic told me, “Everyone must be an artist!”).
The goals of Immediatism lie somewhere along the trajectory described roughly by these three points (Pygmies, Plains Indians, Balinese), which have all been linked to the anthropological concept of “democratic shamanism.” Creative acts, themselves the outer results of the inwardness of imagination, are not mediated & alienated (in the sense we’ve been using those terms) when they are carried out BY everyone FOR everyone— when they are produced but not reproduced—when they are shared but not fetishized. Of course these acts are achieved thru mediation of some sort & to some extent, as are all acts—but they have not yet become forces of extreme alienation between some Expert/Priest/Producer on the one hand & some hapless “layperson” or consumer on the other.
Different media therefore exhibit different degrees of mediation—& perhaps they can even be ranked on that basis. Here everything depends on reciprocity, on a more-or-less equal exchange of what may be called “ quanta of imagination.” In the case of the epic rhapsodist who mediates vision for the tribe, a great deal of work—or active dreaming—still remains to be done by the hearers. They must participate imaginatively in the act of telling/hearing, & must call up images from their own stores of creative power to complete the rhapsodist’s act.
In the case of Pygmy music the reciprocity becomes nearly as complete as possible, since the entire tribe mediates vision only & precisely for the entire tribe;— while for the Balinese, reciprocity assumes a more complex economy in which specialization is highly articulated, in which “the artist is not a special kind of person, but each person is a special kind of artist.”
In the “ritual theater” of Voodoo & Santeria, everyone present must participate by visualizing the loas or orishas (imaginal archetypes), & by calling upon them (with “signature” chants & rhythms) to manifest. Anyone present may become a “horse” or medium for one of these santos, whose words & actions then assume for all celebrants the aspect of the presence of the spirit (i.e. the possessed person does not represent but presents). This structure, which also underlies Indonesian ritual theater, may be taken as exemplary for the creative production of “democratic shamanism.” In order to construct our scale of imagination for all media, we may start by comparing this “voodoo theater” with the 18th century European theater described by Nietzsche.
In the latter, nothing of the original vision (or “spirit”) is actually present. The actors merely re-present—they are “disguised.” It is not expected that any member of troupe or audience will suddenly become possessed (or even “inspired” to any great extent) by the playwright’s images. The actors are specialists or experts of representation, while the audience are “laypeople” to whom various images are being transferred. The audience is passive, too much is being done for the audience, who are indeed locked in place in darkness & silence, immobilized by the money they’ve paid for this vicarious experience.
Artaud, who realized this, attempted to revive ritual voodoo theater (banished from Western Culture by Aristotle)—but he carried out the attempt within the very structure (actor/audience) of aristotelian theater; he tried to destroy or mutate it from the inside out. He failed & went insane, setting off a whole series of experiments which culminated in the Living Theater’ s assault on the actor/audience barrier, a literal assault which tried to force audience members to “participate” in the ritual. These experiments produced some great theater, but all failed in their deepest purpose. None managed to overcome the alienation Nietzsche & Artaud had criticized.
Even so, Theater occupies a much higher place on the Imaginal Scale than other & later media such as film. At least in theater actors & audience are physically present in the same space together, allowing for the creation of what Peter Brook calls the “invisible golden chain” of attention & fellow-feeling between actors & audience—the well-known “magic” of theater. With film, however, this chain is broken. Now the audience sits alone in the dark with nothing to do, while the absent actors are represented by gigantic icons. Always the same no matter how many times it is “shown,” made to be reproduced mechanically, devoid of all “aura,” film actually forbids its audience to “participate”—film has no need of the audience’s imagination. Of course, film does need the audience’s money, & money is a kind of concretized imaginal residue, after all.
Eisenstein would point out that montage establishes a dialectic tension in film which engages the viewer’s mind—intellect & imagination—& Disney might add (if he were capable of ideology) that animation increases this effect because animation is, in effect, completely made up of montage. Film too has its “magic.” Granted. But from the point of view of structure we have come a long way from voodoo theater & democratic shamanism—we have come perilously close to the commodification of the imagination, & to the alienation of commodity-relations. We have almost resigned our power of flight, even of dream-flight.
Books? Books as media transmit only words—no sounds, sights, smells or feels, all of which are left up to the reader’s imagination. Fine…But there’s nothing “democratic” about books. The author/publisher produces, you consume. Books appeal to “imaginative” people, perhaps, but all their imaginal activity really amounts to passivity, sitting alone with a book, letting someone else tell the story. The magic of books has something sinister about it, as in Borges’s Library. The Church’s idea of a list of damnable books probably didn’t go far enough—for in a sense, all books are damned. The eros of the text is a perversion—albeit, nevertheless, one to which we are addicted, & in no hurry to kick.
As for radio, it is clearly a medium of absence—like the book only more so, since books leave you alone in the light, radio alone in the dark. The more exacerbated passivity of the “listener” is revealed by the fact that advertisers pay for spots on radio, not in books (or not very much). Nevertheless radio leaves a great deal more imaginative “work” for the listener than, say, television for the viewer. The magic of radio: one can use it to listen to sunspot radiation, storms on Jupiter, the whizz of comets. Radio is old-fashioned; therein lies its seductiveness. Radio preachers say, “Put your haaands on the Radio, brothers & sisters, & feel the heeeeaaaling power of the Word!” Voodoo Radio?
(Note: A similar analysis of recorded music might be made: i.e., that it is alienating but not yet alienated. Records replaced family amateur music-making. Recorded music is too ubiquitous, too easy—that which is not present is not rare. And yet there’s a lot to be said for scratchy old 78s played over distant radio stations late at night—a flash of illumination which seems to spark across all the levels of mediation & achieve a paradoxical presence.)
It’s in this sense that we might perhaps give some credence to the otherwise dubious proposition that “radio is good—television evil!” For television occupies the bottom rung of the scale of imagination in media. No, that’s not true. “Virtual Reality” is even lower. But TV is the medium the Situationists meant when they referred to “the Spectacle. ” Television is the medium which Immediatism most wants to overcome. Books, theater, film & radio all retain what Benjamin called “the utopian trace” (at least in potentia)—the last vestige of an impulse against alienation, the last perfume of the imagination. TV however began by erasing even that trace. No wonder the first broadcasters of video were the Nazis. TV is to the imagination what virus is to the DNA. The end. Beyond TV there lies only the infra-media realm of no-space/no-time, the instantaneity & ecstasis of CommTech, pure speed, the downloading of consciousness into the machine, into the program—in other words, hell.
Does this mean that Immediatism wants to “abolish television”? No, certainly not—for Immediatism wants to be a game, not a political movement, & certainly not a revolution with the power to abolish any medium. The goals of Immediatism must be positive, not negative. We feel no calling to eliminate any “means of production ” (or even re-production) which might after all some day fall into the hands of “a people.”
We have analyzed media by asking how much imagination is involved in each, & how much reciprocity, solely in order to implement for ourselves the most effective means of solving the problem outlined by Nietzsche & felt so painfully by Artaud, the problem o f alienation. For this task we need a rough hierarchy of media, a means of measuring their potential for our uses. Roughly, then, the more imagination is liberated & shared, the more useful the medium.
Perhaps we can no longer call up spirits to possess us, or visit their realms as the shamans did. Perhaps no such spirits exist, or perhaps we are too “civilized” to recognize them. Or perhaps not. The creative imagination, however, remains for us a reality—& one which we must explore, even in the vain hope of our salvation.