What Wittgenstein’s Duck/Rabbit has to do with theatrical duality

On the recommendation of my colleague Grahame Renyk, I finally got around to reading “Infiction and Outfiction: The Role of Fiction in Theatrical Performance” by David Z. Saltz. (Full citation below) Saltz begins with a useful distinction between performance art and theatre: Theatre presents illusions of events whereas performance art present actual events as art.

(Of course, the events/moments that I am interested in live in the grey area between these two poles — moments where actual events or objects or words are embedded in a clearly fictionalizing theatrical frame and still retain (some of) their actuality. But anyway…)

Out of this distinction, Saltz observes that the enjoyment of the fictional story is not the whole story for a theatre audience: “An audience comes to the theater to experience a real event, to see real, flesh and blood actors perform real actions” (203). The cognitive template that structures an audience’s perception of what is happening on stage as a real event, Saltz terms “infiction.” Infiction seems to involve the rules or conventions whereby audiences interpret what they are seeing on the stage. At times, Saltz also folds the rules of pretending followed by actors in establishing those fictional worlds into this term infiction. (Personally, I rather think that these two sets of conventions — although related correlatives — should be kept separate. My preference is to deal with rules whereby audiences are licensed/encouraged to imagine fictional worlds — and to leave the mysterious and almost always invisible practices of actors alone. Likewise the schema employed by actors are not the same as those employed by the audience.) Nevertheless, infiction constitutes the rules of perceiving/creating a fictional world. Outfiction then constitutes the content of that world — the fictional story or narrative presented there.

The introduction of the term infiction usefully draws attention to the fact that “seeing-as” is an interpretation, it is not semiotically cut-and-dried, this equals that. Audiences do not choose to only see Hamlet and completely ignore Kenneth Branagh. Here I agree with Saltz, the nature of theatrical duality — actor and character, prop chair and throne — is more nuanced. It is not an either-or proposition — Hamlet or Branagh — it can be both or indeed something entirely else. Rather as Saltz suggests there are various aspects of a staged object or event that are open to perception, to different ways of seeing-as. And here is where Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit illusion comes in. It is not that the image actually changes but “one’s visual experience itself undergoes a transformation. The concepts “duck” and “rabbit” impose altogether different gestalts on the image; they provide schemes that allow us to organize the actual lines on the page in a different way” (207).

In his examples, Saltz cites the musical as a kind of perceptual schema whereby the formal or interpretive real-world elements of the performance (like spontaneously breaking into song or the superior vocal abilities of the characters as actors) stand alone from the narrative content, yet these rules of perception are central to our apprehension of the event. His other examples take note of different types of stylization. My extension of this idea leads me to  see that reading theatrically ostended objects as “real” then can constitute a particular schema of Saltz’ infiction. So this is very productive. My main quibble with Saltz — on this first reading — is the term infiction. I am left wondering if this is really necessary. These rules for making fiction out  of actual-world objects and experiences I would normally refer to as “theatricality,”  which comes in various styles — more or less representational, following different schematic patterns  — as audiences translate real-objects into fictional worlds. The biggest asset of Saltz’ work here, for me, is the focus on the processes of how audiences “see-as” as distinct from the product of that perception. Teasing infiction from outfiction is a very useful way of thinking about how we view the “real” (subject to certain rules of infiction) and how this process feeds or informs the outfiction.

Works Cited

Saltz, David Z., “Infiction and Outfiction: The Role of Fiction in Theatrical Performance.” Staging Philosophy: intersections of theater, performance, and philosophy. eds. David Krasner and David Z. Saltz. (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2006) : 203-220.


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