Boettcher's Theater-State: a review

by on Sep.02, 2011

from the Cremaster series

We have had enough of a haphazard magic, a poetry that no longer has the support of science.

–  Artaud

 For science would go completely mad if left to its own devices

                                                    – Deleuze and Guattari

 In Jack Boettcher’s new book Theater-State, the bracing head-on mix of art and science, that dream of so many poets and philosophers, has finally come to pass. And what does that future look like? Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series comes to mind. The biological is fused with the technological, and aesthetic experimentation cannot be separated from scientific experimentation. A beautiful jellyfish might hold the key to immortality; a Megahighway is created that is shaped by the desires of the drivers (much to the fear of many pedestrians); a mysterious principal completely reinvents his environment depending on whatever anthropological interest he might have at the moment; and an academy that resembles a well-funded Montessori school carries out educational experiments as a-moral as anything found in Shelley’s Frankenstein —–including a class in which students are given an actual seat in the parliament of “the newest country in Central America.”

This future is neither dystopian nor utopian, though. It simply is, in all of its discordant complexity. And yet we can clearly see our reflections in this picture of the future. Everything is in motion; American society has reached the state of being an ongoing theater. As Janus, the main protagonist in the book, thinks at one point, “Nothing remained as mapped for very long.” The world of essences and depths has vanished. We have now reached a place of perpetual transformation.

Boettcher presents this delirious vision of the future through a fairly familiar story: that of the well-meaning but emotionally confused adolescent making his way through life. (If Barney had made Donnie Darko, it might resemble Boettcher’s book.) But using such a familiar narrative is one of the many astute moves in the novel. By following Janus through the story, this future becomes less exotic, less fantastic, and before long it seems not only plausible, but like a presence near the reader, as if this future is only a few days or even hours away. The fact that this future is fantastic (not in the sense of being great, but in the sense that all is spectacle and performance) makes Boettcher’s ability to bring this vision so close to us truly remarkable.

Of course, Janus’ problems are not typical. His work on jellyfish holds the very distant promise of eternal human life, and he is being heavily pressured to fulfill that promise. He is emotionally involved with two young women, one who is not really a student, but an actor pretending to be a student, and the other who has a secret and disturbing relationship with Principal Stone. He is also narcoleptic. We are told, “After twenty-three weeks gestational age, Janus spent most of his fetal hours dreaming…As a result, Janus would meet the world outside his mother a little more winded and weary than most, having lived through the Technicolor sagas and fantasias of his fetal mind’s debris.” The result is that, for Janus, even sleep has become part of the dynamic everyday flux of things: he never knows when it will suddenly overtake him. And it is another sign of how many of these characters lose control of their lives. Some exalt in this instability, seeing their environment as a high-stakes game to be followed almost blindly (Principal Stone, Cassie), while others are troubled by it (Janus, Katydid).

If Janus is the sympathetic figure in this novel, principal Stone is both its racing pulse and black hole. Art, Science, and Capital are the three forces he lives by, and frequently one so overlaps the other that it is impossible to pry them apart. For example, he has a holographic double that both allows him to do many things at once (its utilitarian value), but which also lets him create a kind of pose, or scene, in front of others (its aesthetic value). And his approach to knowledge leads to him continually reinvent both himself and his environment. During the course of the novel he becomes obsessed with prehistoric cave painting, Mayan belief systems, and Western nautical culture from the 16th century, and with each new obsession his office is radically transformed. In some ways, Stone resembles the dandy des Esseintes from J.K. Huysmans’ A Rebours. Like Huysmans’ dandy, Stone is not interested in an “objective” study of a particular world-system: rather, he wants to be wholly immersed in it.  He truly lives in a “theater-state.” But also like des Esseintes, he is scarily calculating, willing to manipulate any given situation to what he perceives to be his advantage, no matter if that means impregnating students, or hiring actors to play students in order to know what is going on in the most hidden corners of his school.

I would be hesitant to call Boettcher’s book a satire, though it does have satirical elements. Like David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, Boettcher sees the near future as being even more infused with capital than today. The scenes involving the group members of Dallas Future Ventures are especially biting. But unlike satires such as Metropolis and 1984, which are clearly meant to be warnings of things-to-come, Theater-State is more ambivalent about the future.

I kept asking myself as I was reading the book if this future world was exciting or terrifying. But much like our own world, it is a little bit of both. To me as a reader, the loss of authenticity, and the virtual realm of being in a “theater-state,” are not only positive developments — they also reveal a “truth” about the world that a great deal of Western thought has been trying to cover up for centuries. But the other meaning of “theater-state” is also at play. The wealthy are still in a great deal of control, even though capital creates all sorts of effects beyond that control; the “state,” which in this novel is really the international corporate realm, glibly performs for itself, disregarding the human cost. Stone arranges for a group of his students to have a seat in the parliament of Costa Sita. The MegaHighway, which is a toy for those with enough resources, is also a deathtrap for those in its path.

Of course, a more conventional book would make an implicit argument for a return to stability, to a more normalized and essentialist concept of the human. Spectacle as evil, theater as a loss of presence, performance as a betrayal of the authentic self.

But Boettcher, greatly to his credit, doesn’t have any Rousseau-ian nostalgia for some (wholly imagined) past based truth and transparency. If anything, it could be argued that Boettcher gives us a Deleuzian vision of late capitalism, a capitalism that through its acts of deterritorialization creates the conditions for its own destruction, thus creating a “theater-state” without the control mechanisms of any Sate (whether it be governmental or a corporate entity acting in the mode of a state).

This brief, wonderful book raises such important questions, and yet I should emphasize that Theater-State is also a pleasure to read. It is filled with stunning images of the micro world (marine life especially) and the larger world (Stone’s ever-changing office, the swamps, the artificial Mayan pyramid and ritual mask). It is a spectacle in its own right. When we read it, we enter the theater-state ourselves.

5 comments for this entry:
  1. Derek White

    Thanks James, looking forward to reading it.

  2. Johannes

    Yes, as always, great review.


  3. Ben Spivey

    Thank you for such a great review James. I’m glad that you enjoyed the book.

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