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Schmitt, Hamlet, and the Irruption of the Real

Roy Ben-Shai’s article “Schmitt or Hamlet: The Unsovereign Event” appears in Telos 147 (Summer 2009). Jesse Gelburd-Meyers follows up with some questions.

Jesse Gelburd-Meyers: If the irruption of the “real” into the play both constitutes an event and leads to the transformation of the play into a tragedy, then does the irruption of the sovereign’s political decision into the flow of historical reality make that drama which takes place on the world stage into a tragedy? Under this framework, is the concept of the political one which is fundamentally tragic?

Roy Ben-Shai: On the one hand, yes. I think that if we apply the categories Schmitt develops here to his discussion on the political, then the political can be shown to be fundamentally “tragic.” On the other hand, my emphasis in this essay, which I take to be Schmitt’s own emphasis, is on the non-subjective nature of the tragic as such, and by implication perhaps, of the political. In other words, no less important than seeing the continuity of this essay with Schmitt’s earlier and more famous texts, is to see the revision it contains. What is being dropped out is the moment of decision as the ground (subiectum) of the tragic/political event. As far as individual characters go, the tragic is what befalls, not what is enacted or decided upon. But this feature is essential to the tragic as such. Here, in this modern tragedy, we identify no specific guiding force, neither an immanent nor a transcendent sovereign entity, but only an imbrication of human beings living through the impacts of a transitional and chiasmic period.

Gelburd-Meyers: Schmitt suggests that tragedy gains its tragic essence due to the “irruption of real time into the time of play.” However, this seems to only hold if there is in fact a substantive difference between the “play” of the type that Shakespeare brings to life on a stage and the “play” that exists in the broader historical milieu. However, considering the prevalence of acting in real life, such as when a parent becomes something different for his/her child or when a prospective employee acts the part of the paradigmatic worker in an interview, and the fact that the real “taboo” of Mary Stuart’s responsibility for the murder of her husband was speculative and may have only existed in the imagination of the play’s spectators, that the distinction between “real” and “play” may not be as self-explanatory as Schmitt seems to suggest. With events that occur in real time being so largely determined by the imagination, and with the actions of the play being so substantively similar to the manner in which people act in the real world, what is it that makes the “real” and the “play” truly distinct?

Ben-Shai: It is surely true that the play-reality distinction is not to be made superficially, as that between what happens on and what happens off the theatrical stage. Schmitt makes this clear; there is a sense in which the whole world is a stage. But then, what and where is “the real”? Is it outer-worldly? In this regard, what makes Hamlet representative is the “play within the play.” It is precisely on the stage, not off it, that tragedy (reality) takes shape. If there is a tragic event, it can only irrupt into the play, as a disturbance within it, and not somewhere outside of it. Therefore, in a true tragedy the stage is not a duplication, or a mere mirror image, of the structure of play that permeates the human world in its entirety; it is rather a scene that provides an opening, within this overarching playfulness, for something different, and disquieting, to irrupt.

I have suggested that Schmitt challenges certain dichotomies we commonly tend to posit, such as theater-reality and reality-myth. Rather than oppositional to reality, theater and myth are perhaps paradigmatic locales for the irruption of the real, or the real irruption. It is in everyday life that play is the rule (your examples to this are well taken) and something like “reality,” in this strong sense, can barely show its face. On the one hand (and this perhaps goes back to your first question), we need to remember that tragedy is, after all, a kind of theater, or at least a public spectacle of some sort (despite the fact that in common contemporary parlance the adjective “tragic” has become synonymous with “sorrowful,” “unfortunate,” or “catastrophic”). On the other hand, what distinguishes tragedy from all other theater plays (whether comic or mournful) is that in tragedy the theater is not merely a performance or playacting. What is unique to tragedy is that it gives way for a real drama to vibrate publicly in a way that it normally does not. The spectators’ knowledge is such that they not only hear what is being said and see what is being performed, but also hear what is not said, what is evaded, and see what is not performed—but they hear this and see this on stage. The play that Hamlet stages for his uncle’s court teases out this common knowledge, not only for the stage characters, but for the spectators as well.

Particularly insightful is your claim that the “taboo,” for example, exists in the imagination of the spectators. But isn’t this a social imaginary? This seems to me to be Schmitt’s point. It exists between them, in the intricacy of their public sphere, in real dangers and insecurities they commonly believe (and have reason to believe) to be exposed to; it is not something they fabricate. Otherwise, the theater, which is indeed a public display, would not be effective as such. Your question calls me to think, therefore, that perhaps another dichotomous opposition can be challenged here, namely, that between imagination and reality. Accordingly, we would question the subjectivity of imagination, on the one hand, and the connotation of reality, on the other, as what is unequivocally and outspokenly present-before in perception (“objectivity”).

Finally, and I will not develop this much further here, your question seems to me to call to mind a category that Schmitt uses in other texts, namely, that of real danger or existential risk. It is, for example, real danger (for one’s existence) that makes the friend-enemy opposition, and with it the moment of the political, operative. Experiencing risk for one’s life “ups the stakes” and brings one to confront the limit of immanence/play. The question remains whether this risk (which is actually fear) is “real” or imaginary. I think this is a very good question.

Gelburd-Meyers: Is it possible that Schmitt is mistaking correlation for causation? Namely, that he is mistaking the fact that Hamlet is a tragedy and that there exists, outside the play, rumors that cannot be explicitly discussed in the play, for the idea that because there are rumors that exist outside the play, which cannot be discussed, the play is therefore tragic? Could it not rather be that both the scenario which persists in the real world and Hamlet is tragic because of qualities that they both have, which constitute a kind of tragic criteria?

Ben-Shai: I would say that “irruption,” as Schmitt conceives it here, is neither causation nor correlation. I refer you back to my previous response. Both causation and correlation (or simultaneity) presuppose a duality that the notion of irruption stands to disrupt. Irruption, as I tried somewhat schematically to explain in the paper, is not a relation between an “outside” and an “inside” but a disturbance, a break-in, which does not refer us back to a pre-existing or independent “something” which irrupts.

“Reality” is not for Schmitt, as I understand it, that figure invoked in traditional epistemology, of “the thing in itself,” or “real events and occurrences.” Reality just is irruption, and as such is inherently exceptional (this is a very unique conception of what “reality” is). Consequently, the event in this case, as already suggested, happens on stage, in Hamlet. It is not that there is reality “out there” all of the time, and occasionally it irrupts through the masks of everyday playacting. The real occurs in the irruption itself, so that it answers through and through to the logic of exception and not to the logic of a persistent “outside”/”beyond.”

This is the formal answer to the question. But how to reconcile this with Schmitt’s historicist references, which seem to point a finger precisely at “real historical events” that take place outside of Hamlet‘s text? I have suggested in the paper that exceptional artworks, those of mythic/tragic stature, require the blurring of traditional distinctions and divisions, such as between art and history. Schmitt really believes that Hamlet bears the “taboo” in its text (in its wording, its plot, its philosophical content, and its style), and that it bears King James’s singular personality (itself embodying the chiasmic-transitional epoch in which he lived) in the unorthodox figure of Hamlet. The thought is that, unless we are relatively ignorant to history we would read Hamlet with a socio-political context in mind, and Schmitt’s historical references would serve as clarifications and insights into the play itself rather than simple reflections or allusions to external historical data. At times, art and literary history cultivate ignorance by providing and promoting interpretations that simply ignore the context. It is not, however, the case that taking the context into account is an expansion of the frame of reference, or a gaze “beyond” the artwork. The opposite is true: ignoring the context is a reduction of the artwork and frame of reference (and this reduction itself belongs to a certain historical and political context).

Finally, it is only by force of their mythologization in Hamlet that these historical events and personages can be described as “real” in the first place. Without it they would be mere historical facts, or stories, stuff for the history books. Therefore, even if there is something like causation or correlation involved, it cannot be a simple linear connection between temporally or spatially distinct elements, but something more intricate or dialectical.

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