Monday, January 24, 2011

Quotes from "Mourning Sex" by Peggy Phelan

Read several chapters from Peggy Phelan's book, Mourning Sex over the break. It was dark and dreamy- part memoir, part musings, part art theory, part anthropology. She approached the book as a body; each chapter was named after an ailing body part-- Immobile legs, Uncovered rectums, Bloody nose, Shattered skulls...). The most resonant chapter was "Uncovered rectums: disinterring the Rose Theatre." I responded so strongly to this chapter in part because it was written about the discovery of the remains of the Rose Theatre, located in London's Southwark borough; I visited this area to see the nearby Globe theatre while in London. Phelan refers to the remains of the building as a disinterred body; discussing architectures relationship to the human body. My thesis work deals heavily with this relationship, and Phelan's remarks were helpful, and in some cases, revelatory.

The following are some of the passages I found the most provocative in Mourning Sex:


"Maybe bodies come to be 'ours' when we recognize them as traumatic. Sensing they need a foothold, we take them into us. Sooner or later, we are burrowing into them. The holes in them help us feel attached. But that attachment is also what motivates the catastrophe and curative lure of the touch." (Phelan, 18).

"Discovering the remains of the Rose actually meant discovering the remains of a double architectural body. The question posed to the architects who were hired to revise the plan for the original office building was: How can we make this new building allow us to see multiple distinct architectural bodies?"

I am using the word 'body' here quite deliberately; I'd like to suggest that the Rose Theatre is and was a mutating, 'theatrical' body. As the demands upon Henslowe's theatre increased in 1592, he transformed and added to the building; as archaeologists and politicians debated the remains of the Rose in 1989, new plans were drawn up to re-animate the footings that remained. In these mutations, the Rose of 1989 changed from an archaeological site into an architectural one. In this transformation, the Rose became less an 'object' full of racks, coins, and artifacts, and more a 'subject,' an unruly, even contradictory form that refused to stay dead. In short, reversing Beaumont-Dark's prediction, the 'rubbish' of the Rose became a building - a structure and an activity.
The architectural question about the Rose can best be understood as a theatrical challenge: how can the single body of the actor display two (or more) distinct but coherent 'selves'? And how is the articulation of that doubleness always already dependent upon a notion of a 'proper' (singular) body? How do buildings themselves, in their solidarity and singularity, contribute to the notion of 'a proper body'?" (Phelan, 79-80).

"Architecture has of course long been considered theatrical. Buildings are said to 'stage' ideas about space and time, to dramatize arguments about form. Architecture also establishes a specific relation with and among its inhabitants <...> and often insists on a mimetic relation to the human body. In this insistence, architecture is performative as well as theatrical, for it actively shapes and forms the bodies that inhabit it <...> Housed in flesh, we build houses; human form forms the buildings which keep us in them. The mimetic relation between buildings and bodies is difficult to destabilize." (Phelan, 81).

"Hollier points out that the invention of architecture was motivated by a desire to forestall and forget death. This desire functions according to the rule of psychoanalytic desire, which is to say the desire is focused on an object which perpetuates, rather than satisfies, that desire. In order to forestall or forget death, architecture invents the tomb which both distracts us from the specificity of the dead body and underlines the stone cold fact of death itself. As Hollier puts it:
The monument and the pyramid are where they are to cover up a place, to fill in a void: the one left by death. Death must no appear: it must not take place: let tombs cover it up and take its place... One plays dead so that death will not come. So nothing will happen and time will not take place. (Hollier 1989: 36).

The tomb is appealing precisely because it is static and still, unlike the decomposing body it covers. If death were guaranteed stillness perhaps it would be less dreadful. Architecture offers us this monumental stillness and helps transform dying into death. <...> Theatre itself is the space in which death is made to play, to be a play. <...> And the dramam of the Rose excavation, complete with actors jumping in and climbing out of the grave-like pit, threatened to make death in the contemporary city too visible.
<...> The Rose forced architecture to abandon its customary notion of itself as a spatial art, and to reinvent itself as a temporal one (Note 24: Rachel Moore argues: "we look across boundaries of space at the living rather than across time at the dead" (Moore 1992:23). It may well be that spatial art forms are fundamentally philosophies of vital bodies and temporal art forms are philosophies of dying bodies. It may be that the work of mourning requires movement and motion - the transformation of space into time.)" (Phelan, 83, 94).

More about the Rose Theatre can be found here.

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