Iconoclasm and the Rhetoric of Energy in Soceitas Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet  

‘Iconoclasm and the Rhetoric of Energy in Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet’, in: Frakcija 15: Disturbing (the) Image: 14-21, 1999. Published in Croatian as ‘Ikonoklazam i retorika energije u Hamletu Soc. Raffaeillo Sanzio’, Frakcija 12/13: 176-180.


As thus represented, minds are not merely ghosts harnessed to machines, they are themselves just spectral machines.  Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind

The expression ‘Iconoclastic Theatre’ invites a reflex of caution.   The history of the term ‘iconoclasm’ and of cognates such as ‘idea’, ‘image’,  or ‘ideology’ is,  as W.J.T. Mitchell points out in his book, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, one of competing conceptions of truth, adequate representation and inquiry. 1  The charge of idolatry – the worship or veneration of images – is always predicated upon a superior and less derivative form of knowledge.  Thus Plato’s deprecation of opinion (doxa) presupposes the intelligibility of the Ideas or Forms which, as objects of knowledge, are supposedly ‘self-predicating’, exemplifying qualities without referral to a more fundamental reality.2  Similarly, empiricist, idealist and Marxist critiques of representation have always enjoined the rejection of one or another, idol, or idea-idea, in favor of some demystified candidate which places us in greater proximity to truth, reality, history, etc.  In the work of Bacon, Lessing, Marx or Nietzsche, the rhetoric of iconoclasm is associated with an emancipatory project, yet (as the decree of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III against the worship of images in the eighth century amply demonstrates) it necessitates processes of denigration, extirpation, exclusion or control. Thus in his discussion of Loacoon Mitchell argues that Lessing’s genre distinction between painting and poetry is governed less by their appurtenance to pure a  priori forms of sensibility – space and time – but by an ethnocentric valorisation of a dynamic, ‘male’ temporality which must differentiate itself from the asemic spatiality of icons:

The rhetoric of iconoclasm is thus a rhetoric of exclusion and domination, a caricature of the other as one who is involved in irrational obscene behaviour from which (fortunately) we are exempt.  The images of the idolaters are typically phallic (recall Lessing’s account of the adulterous serpents on ancient statues), and thus they must be emasculated, feminized, have their tongues cut off by denying them the power of expression or eloquence.  They must be declared ‘dumb’, ‘mute’, ‘empty’ or ‘illusory’.  Our god, by contrast – reason, science, criticism, the Logos, the spirit of human language and civilized conversation – is invisible, dynamic, and incapable of being reified in any material, spatial image. 3

Another complication adduced by Mitchell – and one that shall concern me in this paper – is that ‘iconoclasts’ such as Marx or Freud, have invariable recourse to figures representing the process of image formation itself; that is, through icons of iconicity; or ‘hypericons’. Plato’s cave, Locke’s tabula rasa and Marx’s representation of the ideological inversion of the world in terms of a camera obscura are all hypericons.4

The use of figures to figure figuration, naturally raises questions about the epistemological and ethico-political pretensions of would-be iconoclasts.  Whether we wish to expunge or merely defame images, we must deploy certain critical figures which circumscribe the field and model the behaviour of the object.  This is very possibly a theoretical necessity.  However, it is certainly a theatrical necessity: one instanced in the requirement that the production and derangement of images should testify to an energy which impresses, deforms or shatters a representational medium.

We can think of the medium, diagrammatically, as a receptive surface.  In order that the image can be recorded, used, or altered, energy must be applied to the surface; perhaps in the form of an inscribing stylus, or light glancing from the surface onto the retina of an eye. Anything so inscribed can be broken, disassembled or reconstituted in whole or in part in variant contexts. This too, demands energy. A variant of the figure can be found in The Intepretation of Dreams, where Freud describes the dream-thoughts brought under the ‘pressure’ of the dream-work having their ‘elements..turned around, broken into fragments and jammed together – almost like pack ice’.5 A piece from Chapter’s recent series that will occupy me in much of this paper, Soceitas Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet, exemplifies the same iconographic principle; it too presents an energetic model of desire, language and representation, this time in the form of a theatrical hypericon.

A theatrical image can be naively distinguished from other kinds of image by its medium of inscription: the bodies of performers, their accessories, costumes, sets, music or effects.  We can improve the definition of the theatrical image by making use of the classical distinction between the original, and its likeness or copy: mimesis.  A theatrical image, then, would be a representation whose meaning consists in implied similarities that it shares with the experience or life-world of its audience.  In Western ‘mainstream’ or ‘traditional’ theatre this relationship is overseen by a text which situates the action in some notional time and place (‘Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away…’) and inserts the actions of the protagonists within a plot whose development is constrained, as Paul Riceour argues, by a logic of action, temporality and symbol congruent with the ‘world’ of the audience (even where the fictive setting is fabulous or alien).6  The theatrical image might, as a consequence,  appear to have a temporal, narrative form and thus fail to conform to the preconditions of inconography or iconaclasm, which both imply a spatial existence.  However, the implications of Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s auto-critique, as I hope to show, concern the very theatrical registration of these two Kantian forms of intuition.

Soc. Raffaaelo Sanzio’s Hamlet preserves an obvious relationship to the Shakespearean text in its play of titles, citations and narrative allusions. But the text no longer prescribes the development of the performance, or a logic of action, in time and space.  The performance as such consists in considerable part of repetitive gestures involving a) the whole surface of the performer’s body b) the physical, technological space of the set. The technological space includes a metal bedframe, stuffed children’s toys, plastic sheeting, writing materials and a large number of electrical devices (of which more later).  The accompanying program notes suggest tentative equivalences between some of the toys and characters in Shakespeare’s text: thus Ophelia is associated with a talking doll, Hamlet’s father is, perhaps, represented by the teddy bear.

The repetitive procedures which emerge from the permutation of these two spaces resist thematic interpretation: for example, in terms of the ‘family scene’ of Hamlet.  Thus a sequence in which the performer ‘fucks’ the Ophelia doll, implies a masturbatory violence which is simultaneously (and neither) sadistic and masochistic. Like many other repetitive sequences in the performance, it recalls the description in Beyond the Pleasure Principle of the game with the spindle played by Freud’s grandson Ernst.  According to the text the sounds which the child utters during the game are ‘a long drawn out “o-o-o-o” followed ‘with a joyful “Da”’ upon retrieving the spindle from behind the bed.7 On Freud’s first interpretation, Ernst’s game mimes the departure (fort) and return (da) of the mother.  However, since the mother is also the desired object, the game must gratify an impulse for revenge which can only be realized if the child mimes his deprivation of the object of desire. As Leo Bersani argues in The Freudian Body, Freud’s attempt to interpret the fort/da game founders upon the theoretical impossibility of ascribing it a coherent object.8

In Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet, repetition itself affords a principle of temporal development independent of the relationships and referents in Shakespeare’s drama, just as the fort/da ultimately cuts loose from the patriarchal scene of the Freudian text to pursue an independent career.  Textual references such as the reduction of characters to child’s toys (the Ophelia doll, the Father/teddy bear), the citation of Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s drowning,9 the visual pun on ‘dead man’s fingers’ near the end are disposed paratactically; without any syntactic or semantic connection to adjoining citations, or referential and expresssive relation to the performer’s actions on the stage.

The use of parataxis invites comparison with the solecism which characterizes Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ in Shakespeare’s text. Hamlet frequently juxtaposes sentences without regard to ‘relevance, informativeness or consistency’.  Thus his report to Horatio of the ‘wonderful news’ imparted by the Ghost: ‘There’s never a villain in all Denmark – but he’s an arrant knave’ is followed by:

1) acknowledgement of the near tautology,

2) an abortive dismissal,

3) a remarkable truism (‘every man hath business and desire/ Such as it is’)

4) a diversion ( ‘and for my own poor part/I will go pray’).10

As Horatio retorts, ‘These are but wild and whirling words’ – but they are symptomatic of a more generalized strain in the mimetic logic of the theatrical image.  In the soliloquy of act III, scene 1 Hamlet describes death as, ‘The undiscovered country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns….’ while the the action which frames the soliloquy presupposes Hamlet’s accepting, at least as a strong possibility, that the Spirit he has recently encountered on the castle walls is that of his murdered father.

Soceitas Raffaaelo’s Hamlet amplifies the earlier texts’ verbal and logical derangement in a kind of a mimesis of its mimesis: language here, is characterized by extra-linguisticality.  However, this  formal operation is juxtaposed with what I referred to as the ‘energetics’ of the piece.

Energy – in its most literal sense – is concretized in the staging of Hamlet.  Luminous arrays of positive and negative signs over the stage are powered by car batteries distributed across the floor of the proscenium.   At the periphery of the stage an assortment of electrical engines and a spark generator – quaintly reminiscent of the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001 – convert the electrochemical energy of the batteries into a cacophany of guns and turbines, the immolation of a stuffed toy on the electrified iron bedframe, and, via the irradiation of the audiences’ sensory surfaces, into electrochemical energy within nervous systems.  The set and audience of Hamlet is an enormous transducer of energy; a function that is framed and thematized by the presence of batteries and machines.

This real energetics is iconoclastic, if only because it is not an image but a multiplicity of events overflowing the borders allotted by convention to the theatrical image. However, Hamlet’s energetics is also figural and rhetorical: a hardwired icon of psychic automatism.

The notional energetics of Hamlet prefigures the diagrammatic relation between inscribed figure, scriptural surface and violence; inviting an unavoidable comparison with the energetics of Freudian metapsychology. Far from destroying the theatrical image, it generalizes its theatricality by proposing itself as an anterior scene.  It is as if both performer and set comprise a homuncular motor whose violent overcharging antecedes the linguistic and psychic pathologies of the Shakespearean text.

In so far as Soc. Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet presents a hypericon of the textual unconscious – the unseen, behind the scenes –  it repeats the Freudian iconography, yet has the virtue of re-framing some of the theoretical instabilities in Freud’s account.  Freud’s model of the mind as a psychic heat engine governed by a principle of constancy – the tendency for free energy in the system to seek discharge, whether in dreams, neurotic symptoms or conscious activity – is fatally compromised by its conflation of energy and information  (The model of energy seeking discharge by the most conducive route is patently inadequate as an account of the minimal recognitional capacities of the mind; there is no scientific rationale for extending it to an economics of desire, or of the image).

Soc. Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet transposes the botched engineering solution of psychoanalysis into the comedic image of the Ghost in the Machine – to employ Gilbert Ryle’s celebrated phrase.11  Because the body considered in itself is only a zombie, devoid of psychological characteristics, its operational limitations must be supplemented by a spiritual homunculus.  In this instance the élan vital is Hamlet-the-performer who offers us the spectacle of a pathetic body which stutters, shits, drools, scrawls and masturbates with the ejecta of its inner life; that impossible non-lieu where the real Hamlet suffers as cause and not merely as symptom.

This rhetoric of anteriority – despite being affirmed by the Society’s dramaturge Chiara Guidi  during their post-performance talk – is clearly at odds with the piece’s textual materiality.  By the ‘materiality’ of the text, I mean its power to circulate in the form of ambivalently repeatable inscriptions independently of any privileged or source meaning.

In Hamlet textual materiality is exhibited, as we have seen, in the paratactic deployment of freely circulating written and vocal inscriptions: such as the repetition of disjoint phrases – ‘My dream is a crime’/ ‘Love me! Love me!. Love me!’ – or in the performers’ inscription of ‘words’ on a blackboard which allude to so-called ‘natural’ languages without actually belonging to any.  This potentiality is addressed at both a philosophical and performative level in the work of  Jacques Derrida  who argues that  all signs or texts – linguistic or non-linguistic – must be repeatable: ‘a sign that could only occur once would not be a sign’.12  Since the identity of the sign is constituted by repetition there can be no signifying essence in advance of its repetitions.  There can be no pure meaning or interiority that is sheltered from the chance and fatalities of repetition; that is to say, of history.  Derrida uses the neologism ‘iterability’ (from the sanskrit, itara, other) in preference to ‘repeatability’ since the repeatable essence of the text is always divided by difference:

Every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic, spoken or written (in the current sense of this opposition), in a small or large unit, can be cited, put between quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable.  This does not imply that the mark is valid outside of a context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center or absolute anchoring.  This citationality, this duplication or duplicity, this iterability of the mark is neither an accident nor an anomaly, it is that (normal/abnormal) without which a mark could not even have a function called “normal”.13

If, as I believe, Derrida is substantially correct in proposing iterability as a condition of possibility and impossibility of meaning, there must be a fundamental incoherence afflicting any project – whether theatrical or psychoanalytic – which purports to interpret a derivative text in terms of an experience, desire or intention that is anterior or originary.  Even the ‘non-meaning’ of automatism or the play of the fort/da are textual, in so far as they are both wrought from repetitions of repetitions.

I do not intend these observation as criticisms of Soc. Raffaello Sanzio’s theatrical project.  They are, perhaps, worries about the applicability of the term ‘Iconoclasm’: if this is to imply a theatre of time, energy, of auratic moments, or of some other ‘ontological Eden’.14  Nothing could be more nostalgic or hopeless.  However, Hamlet seems far too rhetorically vigilant to sustain such a naively expressionist reading.  It is an allegory of theatre as a nineteenth century machine; a transducer of chemical energy into mechanical or radiant forms.  Such a machine, figurally, would also be a transducer of desires and passions; an expressive instrument.

‘Late twentieth century machines’, as Donna Haraway observes, ‘have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed… Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert’.15  If we were to replace Hamlet’s nineteenth century engines with, say, one of the industrial robots employed by the Australian performance artist Stelarc in his piece, ‘Third Hand’ – in which  the behavior of the robot is linked by complex cues to a real-time computer model of the behaviour of the performer – the pathos of ‘Hamlet’ in his dead kingdom of machines and auto-erotic toys would be impossible to sustain.  The relationship between Stelarc and the robot in ‘Third Hand’ is no longer symbolic, expressive or instrumental, but functional.   It represents nothing because its motivating principle is not expressive or formal but determined by a complex feedback process which the performer can regulate but no longer predict or entirely control.  Hamlet, by contrast, invokes an ideally compliant theatre of matter-energy exchange: ‘ideal’ in that it is presented only as a potential or reserve, like the energy stored in its car batteries.  The absence of even the image of a functional relationship makes possible the piece’s remarkably insistent textual materiality.  It is by the consequent denial of a recognizable logic of action that we recognize the character ‘Hamlet’ as an impersonal power of negation:16 a prince whose excrement is a sign and whose ‘death’ is a metynomic allusion to the death of another.

The iconoclastic energies of Hamlet are thus not directed at this or that theatrical image but at a certain hypericon of theatrical mimesis: one ironically redolent of those deployed by avant-garde critiques of theatrical representation – Artaud’s in particular.  The theatre of expressive intensities advocated by Artaud is, as Derrida has argued in La parole soufflée, merely a variation upon the theatrical text and not its utopian – or oriental –  other.17 Societas Raffaello Sanzio have nonetheless accomplished a critical re-framing of the theatrical image – one which exhibits its dependence upon the regulation, control or exclusion of powers extrinsic to the theatre’s ‘representational engine’.  To this degree, at least, theatre in its traditional form both engenders the a priori, dead space of icons and constitutes the dynamic temporality and anterior space presupposed by contemporary iconoclasts.


1) W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

2) Plato, The Republic, Desmond Lee (trans.), (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1974).

3) Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, Chapter  Four, p. 113.

4) Ibid., pp. 5-6, p. 158.

5) Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, James Strachey (trans.), (London: Penguin, 1991).

6) Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Vol. I, Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (trans.),  (1983; London: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

7) Sigmund Freud,, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, C.J.M. Hubback (trans.), (London: International Psychoanalytic Press, 1922).

8) Bersani, Leo, The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (Oxford: Columbia University Press, 1986).

9) William Shakespeare, Hamlet, T.J.B. Spencer (ed.), (London: Penguin, 1980),  act IV, scene 7.

10) Ibid., act I, scene 5.

11)  Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1978). See Chapter One, ‘Descarte’s Myth’.

12) Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, David Allison (trans.), (Evanston Ill.:  Northwestern            University Press: 1973). See Chapter Four.

13) Jacques Derrida, ‘Signature Event Context’, Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman (trans.), in    Gerald Graff (ed.), Limited Inc. (Evanston Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988), p. 12.

14) This phrase is employed by J.G. Ballard in his story ‘The Terminal Beach’, in: The Terminal Beach, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966).

15) Donna Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980’s’, in: Coming to Terms: Feminism, Theory, Politics, Elizabeth Weed (ed.), (London: Routledge 1989), p.176

16) Gordana Vnuk makes this observation in the Chapter prospectus for the season of Iconoclastic Theatre.

17) Jacques Derrida, La parole soufflée, in: Writing and Difference, Alan Bass (trans.), (1967; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).








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