Theatre performance, Deleuzian immanence and ethics

Johan Petri, 2016. The rhythm of thinking: immanence and ethics in theater performance. Thesis for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Fine Arts and Performance in Theatre and Music Drama at the Academy of Music and Drama, Faculty of Fine, Applied and Performing Arts, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. ISBN 978-91-982-4230-0.


The author is active as a director, playwright, dramaturge, and composer. An aim that permeates his artistic work is to bring together text, music, and dance. In his dissertation, Petri describes the work on three scenic/musical productions that he has directed/arranged, as well as theories and thoughts behind these. The works are John and the mushrooms, a performance for children, four years and over, produced by the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm in 2010, with music by John Cage; vorschläge, produced by Alice Collective for Sound&Stage Art in 2009, with music by Mathias Spahlinger; and Ryoanji – a meeting, produced by Alice Collective for Sound&Stage Art in 2012, with music by John Cage.

In his doctoral thesis, Petri discusses these scenic/musical works in relation to a theoretical framework built in the first place on writings of Gilles Deleuze, Brian Massoumi, and Rosi Braidotti. The text covers 485 pages, mainly distributed over descriptive sections, essays, conversations, and interviews. The dissertation is published as a book and as a multimedia platform.

In the book and its connected material, Petri attempts to investigate the meaning of the notion of immanence in the collective process of theatre-making. The productions discussed in the dissertation have an improvisational character and build on collective creativity, unpredictability, and chance. In his artistic work, Petri wants to transform theoretical and philosophical discourse into concrete compositional structures; he wants to formulate dramaturgical discourses beyond semantic language, question ideas of composition as an expression of an intuitive and emotional creative force or as expressing the artist’s emotions, to use a formulation by Cage quoted by Petri in the dissertation; and, finally, Petri wants to investigate and dissolve hierarchical structures in artistic creation and out of this formulate an ethical positioning.

Petri distances himself from representation and narrative storytelling, and, as a consequence, from the convention that a theatre work is built on a dramatic text. He uses the word ‘composition’ for structuring factors in the music as well as in the scenic performance.

At the center stands, as previously mentioned, the concept of immanence as defined and explained by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Another concept Petri uses to describe his artistic work is univocity. Immanence, in the understanding referred to by Petri, stands for the idea that there is only one stream of life, or one level of being, a perpetual movement, a flow of becoming, of differences. The definition of univocity is closely linked to that of immanence: univocity stands for a non-hierarchical, non-binary outlook on being as a flow of differences. Not least, Petri sees representation as an example of the kind of binary, hierarchical relation (the one between fiction and reality) that is opposite to univocity.

Petri’s artistic ideal is one of maximal artistic freedom. The performer should as little as possible be steered by hierarchies, be these composers, stage directors, conductors, or choreographers in their traditional functions, or ingrained patterns of thinking and perception, such as causality, representation, or ideas about ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

In his reading of Deleuze, Petri is influenced by the process philosophy of the Australian philosopher and social theorist Brian Massumi, according to whom change is a continuous transformation, saturated with potentiality. Everything is perpetual becoming.

For Rosi Braidotti, another thinker who has inspired Petri, the subject is something that finds itself in the process of constant change, a nonunitary coming into. This thinking also affects Petri’s use of the word ‘ethics’ in the dissertation and its subtitle. Braidotti talks about an ‘ethical pragmatism’, according to which the subject is not an individualistic core representing a moral intention or rational consciousness. Instead, ethics is about how the actions of each individual affect others in the world. In Petri’s aesthetics, this idea is given a practical application within his dramaturgy, which aims at making the scenic composition relate to each individual involved.

A source of inspiration for Petri, besides Deleuze and his interpreters, is John Cage, both through his musical works and through his oral and written comments to these. But there are bridges between philosophy and these artistic points of reference. For Petri, Cage’s orientation towards Zen Buddhism stands out as akin to the continuous process of becoming, which forms the grounding content of Deleuze’s ontology. To be sure, the concept of ‘difference’ does not have any place in Cage’s vision, but Petri sees Cage’s non-hierarchical outlook on things as related to Deleuze’s idea about univocity.

What in the first place attracts Petri in Cage is the fact that, for him, communication is a sequence of interchange beyond semantical language, but it also becomes a questioning of mimesis as a grounding dramaturgical tactic. Petri sees Cage’s creative energy as filled with social and political content and as an expression of his aversion to controlling structures and the implementation of overarching ideologies. For Petri, Cage’s use of chance in his work also becomes an expression of an aim to exclude purpose as an artistic expressive strategy.

The first of the scenic works that Petri presents in his dissertation, Johnny and the mushrooms, was inspired by Cage. The production also included the staging of a scenic/musical work by Cage himself, Water walk from 1959. In this playful piece, a performer, originally the composer, moves between various objects associated with water and produces sounds out of them. The piece brings together scenic and musical elements in a way that highlights Cage’s role as a precursor of performance as a stage art. In the production Johnny and the mushrooms, the ambition was to find out a directorial concept beyond hermeneutics.

In the second production, vorschläge, built around music by Mathias Spahlinger, the aim was, in the composer’s spirit, to push the role of the director into the background and find out an improvisational form that builds on the ‘individual sensibilities’ of each of the participating musicians. For Petri, Mathias Spahlinger represents a radical questioning of hierarchies in collective creation. The overarching aim was still that the work should reflect the ideal of immanence and univocity.

In the third production, Petri returns to Cage, using the latter’s composition Ryoanji as the basis. Petri worked with dancers, whom he, rather than choreographing, gave a series of instructions/suggestions as departing points for their own investigations. The aim was here to bring about a relation-of-nonrelation, an expression borrowed from Massumi, with the meaning that the performers should be offered the opportunity to experience continuous becoming. Apart from that, no final result was expected or sought.

As a reader, one could wish for more convincing support for the supposition permeating Petri’s discourse: that creative freedom is tantamount to the reduction of constraints. Rather, and paradoxically, his radical recipe can sometimes stand out as a rigorous set of rules. It is not only that Deleuze’s ontology is transformed into a kind of normative aesthetics, but also that there is a demand for the artistic work to bear the distinctive feature of this ontology. The fact that ideas are given such a dominant role sometimes puts the performers into serious difficulties. The actor Staffan Göthe talks about the complete emptiness he could experience onstage in Johnny and the mushrooms. Some of the musicians in vorschläge argue that if they lack intention with their music, no music will come out. It seems to be one thing to formulate thoughts that question meaning, purpose, and identity, quite another thing to use one’s physical presence before an audience to corroborate such ideas.

Petri’s ‘theory-heavy’ way of approaching artistic practice does not, however, lay a heavy load on his writing, which flows smoothly throughout the many pages. The discourse is well-articulated and infused with energy. The rhythm of thinking offers a fascinating insight into the application within an artistic field of philosophical ideas that today play a considerable role within artistic activities, as well as within academia.

Erik Rynell