textes et entretiens > 03.2005 divers - krassimira kruschkova
Traces of Absence. Jérôme Bel as “Afformer”(1)

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“Je suis Jérôme Bel,” an actor introduces himself through the microphone at the beginning of The last performance, a stage piece by the French choreographer Jérôme Bel. “I'm André Agassi”, another one introduces himself, dressed in tennis attire – it is Jérôme Bel himself, who will later in the play claim: “Je ne suis pas Jérôme Bel.” The text does not practice what it preaches, writes Paul de Man in his Allegories of Reading with respect to his own deconstructive reading technique. The same applies here to the performance text. For performativity, the enactment of words, fails, comes across as a slip of a tongue as long as (stage) language is constituted in oscillation between its performative and referential dimensions, as long as (stage) text literally disfigures itself. Bel claims not to be Bel but Agassi, and the one who claims to be Bel later on, says that he is not Agassi. These are Bel’s chiastic(2) turnabouts, the outspoken crossings of representation in his ironic theatre: and does representation appear there or is it simply crossed, crossed out ?

The actors in The last performance come on stage one by one. Each person takes the place of another by filling the spot of the previous person. Each one of these short performances features a minimum representative gesture, which spells the given/claimed identification: ’Jérôme Bel’ sets his watch and goes off stage after it beeps; André Agassi hits tennis balls onto the wall and goes off; ‘Hamlet’ says his ‘To be or not to be’ and leaves; ‘Susanne Linke’ dances the beginning of her choreography to Schubert’s music Wandlungen (1978) and leaves. This goes on for several times in different variations as performers change roles ever more reduced until in the end the verbal performance consists solely of negations in the respective language: “Ich bin nicht Susanne Linke”, “I’m not Hamlet” etc., and the supposed essential signs of presence now become traces of absence. The solo act of Susanne Linke, several times preformed by different performers is, for example, being reduced to holding a small curtain (instead of the famous mirror = stage) behind which the choreography sequence is being shown/covered from the start: an ‘ob-scene’. Later on, only the curtain, moved to the rhythm of the dance, suffices. There is no-one dancing behind it: the audience reconstructs the performance mentally. Brecht’s gesture of “showing the showing” is what is being deconstructed here. During the performance which follows the citation–principle, each cited, copied or translated original, as well as every idea of primary or natural incitement, is being changed – following exactly Walter Benjamin’s Kunstwerk–article or his Aufgabe des Übersetzers.

The other author(ity)–irritation can be read in the very title of Jérôme Bel’s Jérôme Bel (1995), where the author himself does not appear. But the chiastic X–signs of the self-excluding representation, of the presence of an absence are there: a naked performer draws crosses with a lipstick on those parts of his body that cannot be seen, on his soles, palms, armpits, eyelids, tongue etc. The act of writing crosses the unseen through this manifested writing of crosses and, therefore, makes it visible: again, we have an ‘ob–scene’ of covering/uncovering – frivolous, lighthearted, superficial.

Let’s go one more piece back: Bel’s first staging, Nom donné par l’auteur (1994), is played in the name and is at the same time playing with the name of the author. The author gives the title (to the play) at the same time giving up every naming through this act. The name is provided by the author and it is materially present, but not actually produced: two people communicate in this play – Jérôme Bel and the performer Fréderic Seguette – and they do it by using objects instead of words and here they let objects communicate without subjects. A book, a vacuum cleaner, a carpet, a ball, etc. are materially brought into paradoxical correspondence (purely aleatory effect or reference ?) and made to speak. The broken thread between the signifier and the signified is supposed to bring together what cannot be related to one another. Throughout the performance, huge letters are carried and put on stage, reshuffled and carried away only to appear again in different order – anagrammatically. The letters S, E, N and O are used in this way, sometimes all of them and other times only some, to create different words in different languages and different directions (S, E, N, O), with the aim of ironic elimination of their hyper-lingualism, or of their ScENO-graphy; the last that can be read is: N O (N) S E N S. Dissemination – in a sence (sens) – in all directions (sens).

But let’s go back to The last performance. The on–stage ‘I’ is shown by being crossed out: like using a torn picture of the author of Hamletmaschine that must be shown beforehand; like skipping the personal pronoun ‘I’ but in the fourth repetition of the last monologue of Ophelia/Elektra in Robert Wilson’s Hamletmaschine; like it has already been shown in Heiner Müller’s “Ich war Hamlet (…) Ich bin nicht Hamlet” – like „I am Hamlet (…) I am not Hamlet,” which also literally appears in The last performance. For, Bel’s “Je ne suis pas Jérôme Bel” only makes sense in relation to his “Je suis Jérôme Bel”. Every affirmative, performative say yes! to oneself as author is but a palindrome – a turnabout, backward–reading, denial, removal.

Paul de Man’s deconstructive procedure of the “determined elimination of determination” (Hypogram and Inscription) is at work here; or his “performance of disfiguration” (Shelley Disfigured) as a executed revocation of execution. And this is no resignation but an affirmation of difference, or, as Jacques Derrida reminds us in his La différance: on the contrary, it must be confirmed, as Nietzsche brings confirmation into the game in the form of laughter and dance. Bel’s funny and witty choreography uses Nietzsche’s ink there (according to Nietzsche dancing should also be possible with the pen).

Werner Hamacher invents a word for “the making possible of what cannot find fulfillment in any form, the making possible and making impossible as a simultaneous action and non–action: as an afformative of the language”. (3) We can now activate this “afformative” between de Man’s ironic and skeptical and Derrida’s differentiated, affirmative point of view (Hamacher allows it to be “absolutely imperformative” even if it’s “not aformative, not a negation of the formative”(4)) and simply take it as manifold and a sign–post as it is. Here, we could also read the affirmatively self–denied performance of the author as ‘afformance’(5) as a brought in and out of the game–confirmation of an entr’acte, of non–action, of a mimic art without imitation (Jacques Derrida: La double séance).

And if affor means addressing oneself to, the ‘afformance’ finds itself in the proximity of prosopopoeia, the figure of apostrophe, which allows adressing and excluding simultaneously, wich is giving to a missing a mask and a face (Paul de Man: Autobiography as De–facement), bringing it forth and away – “afformatively”: the apostrophe turns itself over as “a parekbasis”(6) to the audience and turns away from the reference. “Je suis Jérôme Bel. (…) Je ne suis pas Jérôme Bel.”

Serial acts in The last performance open the theoretical and theatrical scene at the same time, which automatically diminishes, displaces every performative setting. The contamination of “afformative” (between affirmation and performative) could allow for deconstruction speaking in “plus d’ une langue” (Jacques Derrida: Mémories. For Paul de Man), in more than one language/no more language at all: as if following Derrida’s own contaminations which allow the creation of more than (one) word: différance (from différence and différent) or ammétaphore (from métaphore and amphore) or perfumativ (from parfume and performativ) or agrapher (from agrafer and graphein) or deconstruction itself (from destruction and construction) etc. These are translation splinters and echoes, which play their own games of short circuits. The same as the stage ‘afformance’ is a displacement of affirmation, assurance, confirmation, proof, an affirmation or a reference with no referent (Derrida: La double séance).

“It takes place when it doesn’t take place”(7) says Derrida’s hymen–staging which is here being proposed as the paradox of stage writing. Every belief that the writing of hymen (in Derrida’s sense at the same time representing a woman’s virginity membrane and penetration) takes part in an action is wrong: it takes place only as a mistake. Bel’s take-back of the performance is also a sublime mistake, the “hymenographic” (Derrida) take-off of the ever–virginal membrane of dramatic representation without imitation, to be read ironically as ever returning drawbacks. Bel says that, following Roland Barthes’ “Le degré zéro de l’écriture” and “La mort de l’auteur”, he wants to go back to the zero–point of the dance. Theoretical vocabulary is being tried out on stage as the traces that the stage writing leaves upon theoretical writing are being tested.

The terms theatre and theory are comprehensible only in the realization of their chiastic interchangeability, which never works out. And if the contemporary scene (of theatre and theory) inversively involves its ‘afformance’ in the plot, it is as an apostrophe of missing/mistaking in a new phase of theatre–practice as staged theory. In such mise en abîme of theatre and theory, in their intermingled staging endlessly written into itself through repetition, “afformatively” opens a deep reflection of an abyss, as if it was a repetitive gift of withdrawal. It is a birth with no fertilization, a setting beyond performativity. The reference is being removed to wherever its ‘afformance’ moves, the ironic affirmation referring to the scene alone.

Jérôme Bel’s The show must go on (2000) also relies on the scene only to leave it. What in his earlier works he did to the body on stage he now does to the body of the stage: he removes it, he steals it. Because in spite of all: The Show must go on, so the (stolen) title of his staging. The stage is dark with only a DJ on it, behind a mixing board putting on nineteen CDs one after the other: Leonard Bernstein, Galt Mac Dermott, David Bowie, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Nick Cave, Edith Piaf, etc. The Queen song from which the show takes its title ends the music circle. During the first two music numbers, and occasionally during the rest of the performance, the stage is dark. The image is literally shifted to imagination. Jérôme Bel leaves the image to the imagination, the scene to the scene. The scene is a scene is a scene is a scene. Now all this becomes a bit insecure as nineteen actors step forward and stop. They barely move, then present themselves. They present their gaze, they thus present the audience. In the irritating literal confrontation (the front choreography before the mixing board dominates) the viewer is met and expropriated by his own gaze.

Tonight, tonight/The world is full of light or Imagine all the people fills the dark of the room full of people, and what lights up there is the image of imagination itself. It refers to itself and negates itself at the same time by supposedly referring to an off–stage reality of the songs. The impossible decision between the literal and the referential is spelled on stage through this irreducible opposition. The appearance has a memory, a collective and individual memory the code of which remains unreadable against the moving identification pattern (the music hits). The act of remembering is what is being staged as it functions from the outside, on the surface. Memory is used as a projection wall and a mirror (like Derrida’s hymen, which is at the same time a projection wall and a mirror) for the presented figuration and literacy, for ideological inscriptions which are always related to an expropriated, a non–original body.

At Let’s move it there are only minimal movements, every actor moving only a certain part of his/her body: tongue, elbow, finger, behind, penis etc. The figurative meaning of the ‘moving’, touching scene is again being spelled. The performers build, frontally positioned, towards the audience a line of movement hieroglyphics, a line of body–letters which can be anagramized at any time. Someone is also moving the curtain. Whether the curtain or the tongue is moving depends on no hierarchy of meaning. The body turns into the stage and the stage becomes the body. The hanging tongue becomes the curtain or the quotation marks of the performed songs and the displayed curtain becomes the ironical tongue stuck out into the face of the stage, “afformatively”: Let’s move it, move it. But who is moving and who is touching whom? The show has the lingua of the scene, its language and its tongue at the same time, the curtain is having its performance and it’s opening the mouth/eye/ear of the stage. Thus, the body parts and the songs can always be re–assembled in order to bring across their ironic ‘anagraphy’ in different ways.

The DJ arranged a spotlight for his own dance/song (Private Dancer) only to leave the place of his imagination (in every sense) very quickly. The Show (of recognition) must go on, the instantly recognized images lend themselves with an uncanny availability to the songs: The Titanic, the couple at the bow, multiplied on stage in more couples, turns its manifold medial rounds (instead of the panning shot) with an exaggerated economy where the couples simply turn showing thatway the popular movie pose of Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet during which Céline Dion’s voice never stops singing. The presence of anagnorisis becomes the uncanny, spooky present of the scene, the presence of absence. What we are receiving is a gift but it feels like the Gift (poison) of outwardly controlled identification. What is being given thatway is not. What is being perceived as a given premise is simply not taken (off) by Bel’s scene. What is being shown on the scene is literally the denatured body in all its representations. Exact in its minimalist literacy, the body is the body is the body is the body – subverting each attempt to read its gestures as discursive signs, since every referentiality has been destabilized. Revealing the uncertainty of referentiality of the textual bodies themselves as well as of those bodily texts, Bel endangers the validity of each stage convention, authority and authorship. The more ‘natural’ (actually literal) the acting looks on stage, the more it harks back to its artificiality. What we have there is the gap between nature and culture, which keeps opening every minute in different places of the language and body texture. Every authorship of the actor and every act of the author is deconstructed. A yellow light, a projected ray of light appears from the scenery above the stage at We all live in a yellow submarine (played at Wiener Festwochen 2001). For the first time voices of now absent performers can be heard: behind the scene, the voice is there synesthetically where the picture (the light) is coming from. The picture appears out of the voice, which is also absent: theatre pure. A splendid theatre with no authority. Illuminated literacy beyond the sentimental identification practices shows (in the form of a ray of light) the concentrated emptiness of the scene as if it were a light coming through an open door, an invisible door. The scene installs an opening, an absence. The illusion ends when this light goes on. Moreover, when the stage event of Hello, darkness is marked/minimized by darkness, and of Sound of silence by the repeatedly interrupted silence (repeating the sound of silence of course), Bel’s deconstruction applies to conventions of the scene and the scene of convention.

And when the actors, each with a walkman on their ears, start listening by a sign of the DJ, this listening is – what else – literally conducted, directed and since it has been prompted, it is deconstructed. In this lurking silence the pause, the entr’acte is exposed, that which is shown is being left out, i.e. it becomes left out. And, if the crisis of representation crosses the presenting of the unpresentable, the seeing of the invisible, the hearing of the unhearable, here it is literally so. We see what is not shown and hear what (without a walkman) cannot be heard. And, if we can guess without effort that the performer just standing, listening to his walkman is at that exact moment listening to I’m still standing, that performers dancing are dancing to Let’s dance or that the performers repeatedly hugging each other tenderly and, at the same time, being endlessly lonesome, they are so to the tune of Come into my arms – it’s only because we already know Bel’s principle according to which performers do what they hear, and perform what is being sung in the songs. The paradox of this prompted removal gets pushed to the top and prompted speech (Jacques Derrida on Atonin Artaud) becomes silent. At Killing me softly with his song, the performers, while singing, lower themselves to the floor and stay like that without moving at all. It is a staged death. The death of the staged. The song says He was singing my life with his song, meaning that someone had sung out my life, sung it to death, sonorously sucked it out. What (as always) is being represented in foreign words, is life which, constituted as a symbolic order, gets lost and one gets lost within it. Beyond any engaging touch, the happy sadness, the intelligent sensitivity of the show touches the ab-sence of the scene, touching only through its images.

Jérôme Bel’s The show must go on puts on, as its title says, a show beyond the borders of its possibility. It is a paradox choreography of sonorous transfer of body and movement patterns pushed over the top. The choreography steps over the border of stage possibilities in two respects – it reflects on it and steps over it, trespassing its own discourse and meta-discourse. The scene refers to itself, brings and destroys itself.

The meaning in the titleThe show must go on sets a precarious staging task. Bel’s scene is empty for a good reason. And what astonishes again and again is that its vacancy is intensifying with each moment. It reflects its emptiness onto the scene giving it an always-different swindling disappearance. The ironic Bel directs the staging of the viewer. But does the viewer stage something or is he being staged? Doesn’t the most satisfied audience fall into a trap set by the nimble hunger-artist Bel, who is stealing turn by turn the anorectic body of his stage and also the scene assigned by the viewers, in order to let watching and writing mould one into another by supposedly only intensifying the hearing. Instead of synthesis and a synthesizer – a synesthesia.

After Bel, in his The last performance, has finally learned how to leave the stage by minimizing scene after scene and annulling them in the end, the scene goes on leaving the scene, in a post scriptum, in a ‘post’ instead of the ‘last’ performance. The supposed come-back removes all that is represented, setting into its place nothing but the productive nothingness of the scene. The show must go on: affirmative displacement, ‘afformance’ which marks the scene as a tone somewhere between the figuration and the literacy, as a longing sound, a longing for vision.

The stated interest in life/death of the author opens an invisible door to the stag: As a blind spot in the eye of the hurricane, as Roland Barthes’ punktum, taken away from the (photographic) eye, the play opens the door to the invisible. The presented death leaves the scene: another Take up the bodies (Shakespeare): In The last performance the Hamlet-performer goes away from us literally and performatively, by leaving the stage after saying his line to be only to continue his not to be from behind the stage – and so he literally is not, whereby the staged play floats somewhere between the literal and the performative. It is simply a staged grammatisation of being and not being: “I’m Hamlet… I’m not Hamlet”. The same goes for “my drama is not happening” (Heiner Müller: Hamletmaschine). This, too, is One Manifesto Less about One Hamlet Less (Gilles Deleuze on Carmelo Bene’s staging). The (theoretical) scene can do nothing but wave its head – but “afformatively”.

Bel’s mystified chiasmus continues: Bel gives his own name to the staging Jérôme Bel, after already giving a name (away) in Nom donné par l’auteur, and then he presents himself as the author/choreographer in Xavier Le Roy (2000), letting however Xavier Le Roy do the choreography. Therefore, the concept only belongs to the author – not even the concept of the choreography but the concept of this swindling disappearing authorship. The autor himself disappears. He only gives a name to the play: Xavier Le Roy, but, at the same time, takes Xavier Le Roy’s name as the name of the proper author – a generous takeover. Whatever is supposed to be given, Bel does not accept, he gives it back, makes it insecure, deconstructs it.

In Jérôme Bel’s The last performance, one of the performers, introducing himself as Calvin Klein (after claiming “I’m not Hamlet”) and dressed as Jérôme Bel, sprays perfume on stage and using his jacket waves it towards the audience. The stage presence of inhaled air, both by the performers and the audience, – airy as it is – happens in a fleeting, volatile form, as a “perfumative” (Derrida’s contamination of perfume and performative): as ‘afformance’, as presence of absence. ‘Calvin Klein’ as ‘afformer’ speaks out the names of his fleeting, escaping creations: Obsession, Contradiction and behind the scene: Eternity and Escape.


1 This text is part of a longer one by Krassimira Kruschkova: “Actor as/and Author as ‘Afformer’(as Jérôme Bel as Xavier Le Roy)”; Frakcija. Performing arts magazine, issue no, 20/21, 2001, 58-65

2 Chiasmus (Gr.–NLat., from the Greek letter X =crosswise); the inverted syntactic position of words or parts of speech with respect to one another

3 Werner Hamacher: “Die Geste im Namen. Benjamin und Kafka,” in: Entferntes Verstehen (Frankfurt a.M.: Surhkamp, 1998), p. 323

4 Weren Hamacher: “Afformativ,Streik” in Christian Hart Nibbrig: Was heißt “Darstellen”? (Frankfurt a.M.: Surhkamp, 1994), pp. 346-360. Hamacher explains in detail his neologism, to be thought of as “the constitution of language itself,” it is “not just another language act among others, but a performative par excellence; in spite of this, it must, due to its Ur-structure, its estranging aspect and its possible figurativity, remain suspended, whereby all the dependent performatives are also suspended;” thus they can “no longer be conceived of as simply a performative, but as its formation-prerequisite and also its “removal.” Cf. Weren Hamacher: “Lectio. De Man’s Imperative,” in Entferntes Verstehen, p. 190, fn 14

5 If the afformative implies exclusion and a sort of affirmation, so this text labours on “afformative” affirmative exclusion of the ‘?’ in Hans–Thies Lehmann’s most interesting note “Afformance Art?” in his book Postdramatisches Theater (Frankfurt a.M.: Verlag der Autoren, 1999, p. 459-61) – in the sence of a “postdramatic” theory of theatre

6 Cf. Bettine Menke: “De Mans Prosopopöie’ der Lektüre. Die Entlerung des Monuments, in: Karl Heinz Bohrer (ed.): Ästhetik und Rhetorik. Lektüren zu Paul de Man (Frankfurt a.M.: Surhkamp, 1993), p. 37

7 Jacques Derrida: Dissemination (Chicago, 1981), p. 212f