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Freddie Rokem Keynote Abstract

by on February 20, 2012

Discursive Practices and Narrative Models:
History, Poetry, Philosophy

Freddie Rokem
Department of Theatre Studies, Tel Aviv University

Abstract for the Conference:
University of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
19-21 April, 2012

My presentation will begin with an analysis of Aristotle’s famous dictum in the 9th
chapter of the Poetics that “the distinction between historian and poet.…consists
really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of
thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import
than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those
of history are singulars.” To begin with I will examine the implications of this liminal
in-between-ness of poetry, in particular for theatre and performance.

Following this ‘macro-perspective,’ focusing on the discursive practices of history,
philosophy, and poetry as suggested by Aristotle, I will present a case of ‘micro-
history’ based on the friendship between Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht through
which I will examine the relations between their life-stories and the narratives they
create. The maps of the exilic travels of Brecht and Benjamin, after they had fled
from Berlin with the burning of the Reichstag in February 1933, are characterized
by the same zigzagging patterns as the constant crossings of Europe made by Mutter
Courage and her children with their wagon during the Thirty Years’ War.

I will also show that these narratives are structured according to the rules of the
two board games of Chess and Go, which Benjamin and Brecht both practiced and
discussed during Benjamin’s visit to Brecht at his exilic home in Denmark. By adding
the analytical perspective of the two board games it will be possible to analyze the
models of mobility, both in space and time, developed by Brecht and Benjamin as
well as by their predecessor, Franz Kafka.

I want to suggest that the narratives of exile they created during this time can be
compared to a combination of the moves in chess (where each piece has a particular
movement pattern, a genetically determined character script) and the placement of
the pieces on the board in the game of Go, where, as Benjamin pointed out in a letter
to Brecht, the characters are “on the right spot” to start with and from there they
fulfill their “proper strategic function.” In this letter Benjamin (just before his first
visit to Brecht in Denmark) also made an explicit comparison between chess and Go,
a comparison which has also been developed by Deleuze/Guattari in A Thousand
Plateaus. Game patterns and life histories constitute the core of performance and


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