Contribution to Roundtable on Liveness

Philip Auslander’s book Liveness refutes the idea that theatre performance is ontologically privileged as a site for critical thinking in comparison to mediatized representations. This Utopian idea that many performance theorists hold is certainly something that should be critically reviewed. Especially in the current mediatized society, Auslander shows that it is impossible to maintain that performance remains untouched by the media. In the roundtable contributions on Liveness various scholars discuss and critique this book, to which Auslander then tries to answer.

Part of the debate comes forth from confusion about Auslander’s use of the term “live performance”. Most reactions concern the specificity of live theatre, the contested ontological difference with mediatized performance and the possibilities it offers as a site for critical thought. Auslander considers live performance to entail more than theatre, but also for example live broadcasts. Therefore, he maintains that live performance has no ontology, only the common element of simultaneity. Liveness is a historical and cultural construct that is subject to change. Moreover, it can only be defined in opposition to recorded, which is why according to Auslander ancient Greek theatre could at the time not be considered live.

Auslander argues that live performance is always already inscribed with mediatization, since in the current mediatized society live performance mimics and incorporates mediatized performance, which has the dominant position in the cultural economy. This conflation of live and mediatized is critiqued by the contributors. Auslander’s arguments are still based on a certain distinction between live and mediatized. Aside from that, most scholars feel that theater is fundamentally different from mediatized representations. The simultaneous presence in space and time of the performers and spectators offers a framework that enables the audience to maintain a critical viewpoint and for the live images not to be dominated by the mediatized ones.


If we consider the framework of the representation, the meaning of live performance seems to gain a new perspective. A live broadcast is framed by the medium of television or radio. Live theatre and rock concerts to take an example from Auslander, are framed not by media but incorporate them. The mediatization in the performance is visible, the construction of certain simulations is visible for the audience. Does this mean that live performance is not a simulation but on some level “real” because the framework is not simulated? Does this make theatre and concerts more authentic?


~ by lisawiegel on February 22, 2009.

10 Responses to “Contribution to Roundtable on Liveness”

  1. Jon’s definition of live: “physically present bodies performing before other physically-present bodies in the same space and time”

    Auslander critiques Jon’s definition and stipulates that live events only have in common the element of simultaneity.

    I find Auslander somewhat problematic here as he refers to time without space. Perhaps though, in light of Auslander’s rebut, one can propose that “live” relates to time in performance and “mediation” relates to space?

  2. But isn’t that the point, exactly? Thinking liveness as spatio-temporal co-presence versus liveness as simultaneous tele-presence? Maybe someone who knows more about this than I do could say in class something about phenomena such as pervasive gaming, which, I guess, offer yet another radical questioning of traditional concepts of liveness.

  3. I was wondering if this is right?

    live = spatio-temporal co-presence
    mediation = simultaneous tele-presence

    liveness = live + mediation

  4. If I understand Auslander correctly, he refers to liveness as simultaneous presence in time. However, live theatre is mostly understood as Jon Erickson defines it: simultaneous presence in time and space,i.e. the co-presence of the bodies of both performer and spectator in the here and now. Auslanders broad notion of liveness is what makes this discussion so complicated and leaves little room for the uniqueness of theatre performance in comparison to media.

  5. I find it interesting that along with the issue of liveness, the issues of realness and authenticity seem to rise. It seems there is this idea that live performances, like the theater, are more real and more authentic. This belief possibly relies on the fact there can not be two identical live performances whereas mediatized performances are the same every time we view them. However why does this make a work of literature, for instance, less real or less authentic?

  6. The live presence of the art work as described by Benjamin has an aura of uniqueness. However, this aura is an old-fashioned aesthetical idea. It can at least be supplanted by other possibilities opened up by the media. (Think of the aura of uniqueness experienced by those watching the first moon walk; there was simply no way this could be experienced live as in spatio-temporal.)

  7. Klaas, just a quick query – are you thinking of those who were the ones watching that first moon walk live (an estimated half a billion people if Wikipedia doesn’t lie)? If so, I guess this is where prof. Kessler implies different dimensions on which liveness could be approached.

    Also a suggestion regarding the questions we pose after these summaries – I was taught to avoid asking ‘yes/no’ questions as they constrain discussions.

  8. Yes

  9. @Joanna: actually Jon Erickson does compare literature to theatre when it comes to “real” and the “truth” of art. But the issue of reality and authenticity indeed seems to arise in other articles of this week as well. I think the point that Erickson tries to make is that in the case of mediatized representations the simulation hides the framework, the fact that it is a simulation of reality. In theatre, the constructedness of the representation/simulation of reality is visible, which gives the spectator a different role in the perception of the play. However, one might argue that mediatized representations are also framed visibly, by a screen mostly. But maybe we are more likely not to question the reality of those images because we cannot see what is real and what not. Mmm, I’m still musing on this.

  10. In response to Lisa’s original question, my understanding of Auslander’s argument is that mediatization need not necessarily be visible to the eye in order to constitute a framework for how live performances can be experienced in a similar way to recorded performances, nor that, when they are incorporated in theatre performances or rock concerts, media lose their ability to transcend the perceived transparentness of the construction and impose a certain mystique of mediatedness on the experience.

    @Joanna, the question of authenticity echo’s those in the debate on Plato’s text on writing; do media somehow ‘corrupt’ authentic, real and true interactions, or should we refrain from thinking in terms of intrinsic and transhistorical notions of what is or can be true and false in what we think, speak, and disseminate? Moreover, how exactly can we understand this urge to try and appoint an ontological base for trueness to a non-mediated form of communication? In this respect I like Klaas’s remark; media do open up new conceptions of what it is to witness live events, without the need to question its truthfulness.

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