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Performing Stupidity
Sara Baranzoni
Philosophy and performance, declares Avital Ronell, take off in the same
place—the street—and in the same act—with Socrates putting his fellow
citizens to the test through dialogue.1 In this street theater of urban
philosophy,2 the “friend of knowledge” hunts down the truth, interrogating people and demanding they come to agreement about concepts, all
while complicating the pathways towards such certitudes. Yet, the Platonic
portrait of this scene presents us with a model of knowledge built on
invariable truth, with Socrates, the Inspector, as the inventor of the
method of anamnesis. This “image of thought,” based on truth as univocity and exactitude, will then be perfected by Descartes, through the
concept of mathesis universalis.3
See Avital Ronell, “Ach! The History of a Complaint,” in Anna Street, Julien Alliot, and
Magnolia Pauker, Eds. Inter Views in Performance Philosophy: Crossings and Conversations
(London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 229.
Avital Ronell, The Test Drive (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 104.
Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time 1. The Fault of Epimetheus, trans. Richard Beardsworth
and George Collins (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 4.
S. Baranzoni (*)
Universidad de las Artes, Guayaquil, Ecuador
e-mail: [email protected]
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Street et al. (eds.), Inter Views in Performance Philosophy,
Performance Philosophy, DOI 10.1057/978-1-349-95192-5_21
According to Nietzsche, with this method, “through immense periods
of time, the intellect produced nothing but errors,” and such errors then
became fixed in propositions functioning as norms, according to which
“true” and “untrue” were determined. Truth has emerged only very late as
the weakest form of knowledge, Nietzsche affirms, and throughout time
this kind of “science” has made people colder, causing them to lose the joy
and pleasure that can unfold with experimentation.4 The test, Ronell
reminds us, is the device created to respond to this compulsive desire to
be sure of everything, distinguishing what is true from what remains
unproven. But, at the same time, it can allow another level of thought,
“a structure of incessant research—perhaps even a modality of being,”5
which provokes amazement, transforming life in pleasure and prompting
the feeling of power.
Unwavering faith in science as a superior form of knowledge has often
limited the movement of self-affirmation of philosophers and performers
to a form of compliance where they dive headlong into attempts to give
scientific value to their hypotheses, exposing feelings of vulnerability and
anxiety about the risk of failing. As Gilles Deleuze states, philosophers and
scholars often tend to apply the “test of truth and falsity” in their desire to
solve problems, which is, for him, the aim of dialectics as calculus.6 This is
similar to what happens when Performance Studies looks for a “less
shallow epistemological grounding”7 in the cognitive sciences.
Without diminishing the innovative possibilities linked to these intersections, we want to explore another sense of the philosopheme of the test
here, one that, according to Ronell, is reminiscent of “a time when
philosophy and science were into each other, about and on each
other.”8 Or, with Nietzsche, reminiscent of life as an “experiment for
the seeker of knowledge,” where “the test” is linked to an experience of
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff, ed. Bernard Williams (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 38.
Ronell, The Test Drive, 5.
Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1994), 159.
Bruce McConachie and Elizabeth F. Hart, introduction to Performance and Cognition:
Theatre Studies and the Cognitive Turn, ed. Bruce McConachie and Elizabeth F. Hart
(London and New York: Routledge, 2006), xii.
Ronell, The Test Drive, 16.
(and on) the body itself.9 This conception implies, we will see, a kind of
knowledge that doesn’t attempt to force all (life)forms to become recognizable according to its own models, but bears instead more affinities
with the “unthought” as a force that hurts and that, through the subsequent questions engendered, enables acts of creation. We will show
how, alongside a test that “offers results—certitudes—on which to calculate and count,”10 a different “politics of risk” is possible, which, as
Nietzsche showed, rather leads to the collapse of certitudes, and to living
through failures and between boundaries. We will finally enter where
“stupefaction and astonishment open the scene of any possible knowing,
even where knowledge emerges from an avowed epistemological deficiency.”11 Opening to thoughts that refuse a dogmatic image of truth,
we will privilege complex relations and the emergence of singularities.
For the thinkers we will gather here, art can never be reduced to a
scientific function, nor inferred from a particular type of pre-existent
proposition. Rather, we will see how the genitality of “a thought which
is born in thought,”12 with all its birthing pains, is able to make the
Linking pain and joy to knowledge leads us to a test that monitors itself
through a (self-)diagnosis, where “the work of the gay scientist draws
upon a history of suffering, exile, and pain, which necessarily becomes a
measure of the field of discovery.”13 It is Nietzsche, once again, who calls
for such a symptomatology,14 which, for Deleuze, is the specific attitude
linked to the astonishing practice of great writers and artists.
Symptomatology doesn’t necessarily introduce a psychoanalytical outlook
Nietzsche, § 324, The Gay Science, 181.
Ronell, The Test Drive, 18.
Ibid., 14.
Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 167.
Ibid., 208.
This perspective, a philosophical movement toward the analysis of social, individual, and
technical suffering, has evident Nietzschean–Deleuzian roots, and is defined by Paolo
Vignola, L’attenzione altrove. Sintomatologie di quel che ci accade (Orthotes: Napoli, 2013).
(nor an opposition to it) to be applied to the work of artists—for, as
Deleuze points out, “authors, if they are great, are more like doctors than
patients.”15 In fact, it is by diagnosing their own particular illness that
writers become capable of analyzing the conditions of their society in its
greatest generality, thereby becoming such great symptomatologists.16
According to Deleuze, what philosophers should learn from the arts is,
thus, to consider, in a Nietzschean attitude, phenomena—things, institutions, societies, and states of mind—as symptoms that reflect underlying
forces so that “any given concept, feeling or belief will be treated as
symptoms of a will that wills something.”17 Taken in this sense, a
symptom is an “eventuality,” or a “fortuitous event,” in which things
“befall, happen, coincide, fall together”18—an extra-ordinary expression
of an organ or organism, which is the sign of an event that happens
within or at the surface of bodies and organs. The pure event, as Deleuze
shows, is not what occurs (the accident), it is rather inside what occurs19
and its symptoms not only cause illness, but also are those by which the
promise of “new health”20 unfurls in the form of new critical weapons
springing out of the very wounds it provokes. Or, in Nietzsche’s words,
they are what is necessary to reach the “enormous, overflowing certainty
and health which cannot do without even illness itself, as an instrument
and fish-hook of knowledge.”21 This is what he calls the “great
health,”—stronger than before precisely because generated through its
Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1990), 237.
“There is always a great deal of art involved in the grouping of symptoms . . . Clinicians who
are able to renew a symptomatological table produce a work of art; conversely, artists are
clinicians, not with respect to their own case, nor even with respect to a case in general; rather,
they are clinicians of civilization.” Ibid.
Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (London: Continuum,
2002), 78.
Etymologically, “symptom” comes from the Greek syn- “together”, and piptein “to fall”,
meaning the reciprocal correspondence of more than one event.
Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, 148.
Nietzsche, § 382, The Gay Science, 246.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human. A Book for Free Spirits, trans. Reginald J.
Hollingdale (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 8.
game with illness—which permits paths to many opposing ways of
In other words, the event, whose ethic is “not to be unworthy of
what happens to us,”22 is the dimension that the suffering subject
should understand and desire in what occurs, and attain through
what Ronell would name a call sent by the symptoms of his or her
body, mind, organs—and then, by counter-effecting it. This movement
is not to be achieved through resignation, but through response in the
form of an answer embodying the apotheosis of the will—to will and
release the event, becoming its offspring and transforming it into an
expression. By this counter-effectuation, the subject is shifted onto the
plane of consistence, that is, of knowledge.
Ronell brilliantly describes the symptoms of the destructive pain of the
body contained in the gesture of philosophy.23 For her, “responding to
the call”24 involves recognizing the pressure of a haunting that always
comes from elsewhere, and expressing something in return that is capable
of actualizing its power. This is the meaning of counter-effectuation: as
Deleuze puts it, considering misfortunes, wounds, and failures as unjust
and unwarranted is the repugnant sign of resentment, while the response
to them should engage a war waged against war, where the wound
becomes the living trace of all wounds.25 And, for Ronell, this philosophical war begins in recording the denunciation of those signs. “I would
say that each work, according to scales of very unique deliberation and
consequence, with distinct backdrop and sound system, registers a complaint”26—not a lament, but the ex-clamation of pain that pushes philosophy forward.
Situating Ronell’s complaint in the perspective outlined here, the cry of
the body, or more broadly, the cry of the world and hence the symptom,
Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, 149.
Diane Davis, introduction to Avital Ronell, The Uberreader: Selected Works of Avital
Ronell, ed. Diane Davis (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008), xxvii.
See Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book. Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 1989).
Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, 149.
Ronell, “Ach! The History of a Complaint,” in Anna Street, Julien Alliot, and Magnolia
Pauker, Eds. Inter Views in Performance Philosophy: Crossings and Conversations (London:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 237–238.
can be read as something very different than the upsurge of a disease from
within. Rather, the clarion call to which we are invited to respond, or
perhaps to offer a non-negotiable surrender after enduring a period of
extreme suffering, comes from the outside. In this sense, we can also grasp
thinking not as an expression of interiority but as an exposition of (and to)
exteriority, where there is no longer any place for the thinker’s “good will”
or “premeditated decision.” The act of thinking appears as “an involuntary
adventure, the movement of learning which links a sensibility, a memory
and then a thought, with all the cruelties and violence necessary”27: the
violence of the sign felt on our skin, the inscription—or registration—of
the complaint, and its expression—to become worthy of it.
Thus far, we have sketched the game of truth with the battle between
illness and health as motor of thought. We are now ready to hear one of
the calls that has always haunted philosophy and that, according to
Deleuze, philosophy has refused to answer: that of stupidity. For him, it
is always the blind faith in the “Cogito”—which considers stupidity and
madness as forces subverting the honest character of thought, and hence
to be fought and avoided—that has prevented us from responding.28 But
what happens if we begin instead to think of these unknown forces coming
at us from the outside as symptoms, affecting the surface of the body and
calling it to thought?
The subject of stupidity has historically been neglected, condemned to
remain on the dark side of knowledge, reduced and assimilated to error.
For Deleuze, stupidity refers back to the “structures of thought as
such,”29 and should therefore become a subject for philosophy not only
as its object, but as the condition of knowledge, starting from the properly
transcendental question about its possibility. Yet, even while philosophers
have always had some kind of awareness of this theme (from the Stoic
stultitia to Hegelian alienation or Schopenhauer’s notions of vulgarity and
stupidity), philosophy has kept its door shut, neglecting what it might
Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 165–166.
Ibid., 149.
Ibid., 151.
have gained from taking stupidity both as an object of study and a conceptual framework. Error has derailed the thought of stupidity, transforming it into a mere limit, a threat, and a danger. In Deleuze’s diagnosis, we
are thus forced to look to literature and the arts to understand how to
behave in the face of stupidity:
The worst literature produces sottisiers, while the best . . . was haunted
by the problem of stupidity. By giving this problem all its cosmic,
encyclopedic and gnoseological dimensions, such literature was able to
carry it as far as the entrance of philosophy itself. Philosophy could have
taken up the problem with its own means and with the necessary
modesty, by considering the fact that stupidity is never that of others
but the object of a properly transcendental question: how is stupidity
(not error) possible?30
Philosophy must take up this theme, gesturing towards stupidity as at once
preventing thought from posing and constraining it to pose itself a question—the transcendental question. For if “thought thinks only when constrained or forced to do so, if it remains stupid so long as nothing forces it
to think,”31 the force that obliges its movement is precisely stupidity itself.
Hence, as Ronell argues, “stupidity, the indelible tag of modernity, is our
symptom”32: it is the wrinkle or the blemish on the skin of a body and a
society, the scar left by the violence of the different, the sign that allows
thought to begin thinking, but to whom no semiosis is referable. It is what
embodies the sound of the “shocking appeal” as it attracts and rejects. It is
an attack on certitudes, on quiet living, the “shock of difference”33 that
leaves us literally without words.
Stupidity is, thus, to be contemplated in the abandonment of oneself,
awaiting “the first leap of . . . difference” to come.34 There is something
monstrous, cruel, and intolerable in the struggle against this elusive adversary: when stupidity appears, we allow the inseparable pre-individual
Ibid., 275.
Avital Ronell, Stupidity (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 11.
Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 238.
Michel Foucault, “Theatrum Philosophicum,” Critique 282 (November 1970): 885–908.
ground of individuation to rise, emerging from the play of difference, yet
without taking form or figure. Thought must confront this indeterminate.
And the philosopher has to be of sufficient “ill will” to persist, motionless,
awaiting the point of stupefaction, to let it slowly grow, to reach the point of
shock, observing the conversation between stupidity and thought as it plunges
into catatonic theater—the “candleless skull” —of the confrontation.35
Indeterminacy or groundlessness is what Deleuze understands as the
animality peculiar to thought: “not this or that animal form, but stupidity
[bêtise].”36 To stir this ground, says Deleuze, is the most dangerous but
also the most tempting of the occupations37: a limit-experience, and an
experience of limits, that can either send us back into the abyss (thereby
blocking the process of individuation so that we regress to the baseness of
weak souls38), or allow thought to take a step, starting from the initiatory
experience of refused sense.
The philosopher’s experience with stupidity is, thus, one of the greatest
weaknesses of thought, but also its highest power, the one that forces her to
think and which leads Ronell to affirm: “as long as I don’t know what stupidity
is, what I know about knowing remains uncertain, even forbidding.”39 As
“any good Nietzschean would comprehend,”40 the point is not to reason by
oppositions or dichotomies. Stupidity is inside the process of knowledge, even
perhaps its most powerful motor. At the same time, it is something we can
never really know, given that not knowing stupidity is the process of stupidity
itself. This is why, while reading Ronell, we find that the closer we are brought
to a notion of stupidity, the more we feel stupid about it.41
The position of stupidity inside the noetic circuit is also what allows
Bernard Stiegler to push clinical analysis further, affirming that stupidity is
Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 275.
Ibid., 152.
Here, weakness is to be understood in a Nietzschean sense, or, at least, in the Deleuzian
reading of Nietzsche, when he interprets the “weak” as expression of reactive forces. See
Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, 105.
Ronell, Stupidity, 4–5.
Ronell, “Ach! The History of a Complaint,” in Anna Street, Julien Alliot, and Magnolia
Pauker, Eds. Inter Views in Performance Philosophy: Crossings and Conversations (London:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 243.
Cf. Davis, in The Uberreader, xxiv.
the logic of the pharmakon (poison and remedy, in itself and at the same
time), thanks to which it is possible to find, within one and the same
element, the resources with which to struggle against its negative aspect.42
Stiegler shows that this pharmaco-logic is the very law of knowledge,
which is thus possible only thanks to, and as the struggle against, stupidity.
To invert stupidity’s negative aspect, we should therefore practice it,
immersing ourselves in stupidity as the necessary condition of engendering
thought, and of thinking as such.
But what is left of the Socratic trauma, that feeling of being without any
solution to the question, without any idea—that sense of being stupid? We
have now arrived at the final point: the possibility of responding to this
rupture with another kind of shock, not as violent, transgressive, or
sensational as the one provoked by stupidity, but capable of exploring its
own displacement, its own stupefaction.
If philosophizing requires the experience of a disturbing confusion in
order to be induced into a movement of thought, a recoiling in relation to
the here and now that demands a response, we should now see how and
under what circumstances such a reply could “pass to the act,”43 that is, in
Stieglerian terminology, to understand what kind of “doing” is necessary
in face of stupidity, without which philosophy would be “nothing but
chatter.”44 Indeed, for Stiegler the question of philosophy is, first, that of
action (“philosophical saying is necessarily also a doing”45), an “acting
out” that develops the potential inscribed in Ronell’s call. It is the same
cry heard by the philosopher in his/her solitude, his/her name shouted
out, which asks, in Deleuzian terms, to be counter-effectuated—that is, to
“test” the event of the symptom, and to turn, as Nietzsche did, philosophy
Bernard Stiegler, States of Shock. Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century, trans. Daniel
Ross (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015), 33.
Bernard Stiegler, Acting Out, trans. David Barison, Daniel Ross, and Patrick Crogan
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 2.
Ibid., 6–7.
into an art.46 It is what makes Ronell affirm “I want to raise myself to the
dignity of the complaint.”47 In what does this passage to the act—the
performative articulation of the experience of stupidity—consist? How can
creation occur after an “interruption of knowledge”?
If, for Ronell, writing is an act that derives from staring at the symptoms
of stupidity and screaming, then its product should resemble Nietzsche’s
“smart missiles” as “a relentless series of complaints launched to our
metaphysical tradition.”48 For Stiegler, too, the suspension of the world
provoked by stupidity must lead to an expression that creatively reinvents
its fault. The possibility of “pressing outside” the limit-experience of
stupidity is, thus, for both thinkers, what should initiate the expressive
series through which “you’re saying yes, almost automatically, suddenly,
sometimes irreversibly”49 to the call.
In this tragic writing, ex-pressed from stupidity, language finds itself destructured, submitted to a treatment that makes it, in its turn, stupid. Or,
idiot, which in Greek links the singularity of an idiom to both the idiotes—
the idiot who can speak only his own language; and the privilege of the
idiom, that may engender invention and the unique event of a poetic
language—but also, to idiocy, implying a contamination with what can
be reactive, reactionary.50 Finally, idiot (idios) means “individual” as such,
as an individuated being, by virtue of being enclosed within a persistent
idiolect—the very singular language that indicates a state of radical autopossession. In this case, “the idiocy of the idiom . . . produces idios, that is,
singularity, individuation.”51 The initial default to which stupidity gives
rise is reinvented by language, so that the coming of stupidity finally
becomes “what is necessary,” that is, in French, le défaut qu’il faut.52
See Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, 197.
Ronell, “Ach! The History of a Complaint,” in Anna Street, Julien Alliot, and Magnolia
Pauker, Eds. Inter Views in Performance Philosophy: Crossings and Conversations (London:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 237.
Ronell, The Telephone Book, 2.
This argument links together three fundamental works on the theme: Ronell’s Stupidity,
Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign, where he engages in a dialogue with Ronell, and
Stiegler’s States of Shock, which responds to both.
Stiegler, States of Shock, 33.
Stiegler, Acting Out, 23.
But we shouldn’t forget the “weak side” of stupidity, that is, the risk of
failing back into base thought. The process of individuation, Stiegler affirms,
can occur only intermittently,53 and the fault that originates thought can
always fail in becoming creator, falling back into a dumbness closed off from
any possibility of individuation. This is why, as Stiegler says, even while
knowing that stupidity can never be avoided and that it is a necessary
structure of thought, we should always struggle against it.54 As it is not
possible to be constantly in an “active” state, stupidity will always come back,
and the struggle against it, that is the pharmacological inversion of the
experience of stupidity itself, is what can reactivate the process of individuation. This intermittent activity is the logic of thought, whereas the pretense
to be able to win the war against stupidity, to declare its defeat by one truth, is
its negative face, that is, stupidity as such. Far from seeking to obtain a
predetermined result, then, it is repetition intercalated by acts of stupidity,
and the default of any probing structure, that makes writing and the arts
“become worthy” of the call that the philosopher, as the artist, receives. And
yet, to face this call, “there’s good complaining and bad complaining, a
noble and a decadent complaint.”55 That is why producing a worthy answer
depends on mastery of “an obscure, chaotic space, the site where intelligence
fails, where it is neutralized and non-intelligence gives way to an analytic
existential of stupidity,”56 of an unmapped territory, indispensable for real
creation, for the abyssal grounding of an authentic language. And so stupidity—this friend necessary to writing—threatens us to the point that “if it
weren’t for this threat . . . who would bother to write?”57 Creating weapons
of style(t)58 as it aids and abets acts of writing, this unexpected friend inflicts
the wounds from which philosophy will never recover.
Stiegler, States of Shock, 45.
Ibid., 3.
Ronell, “Ach! The History of a Complaint,” in Anna Street, Julien Alliot, and Magnolia
Pauker, Eds. Inter Views in Performance Philosophy: Crossings and Conversations (London:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 243.
Ronell, Stupidity, 145.
Ronell, “Ach! The History of a Complaint,” in Anna Street, Julien Alliot, and Magnolia
Pauker, Eds. Inter Views in Performance Philosophy: Crossings and Conversations (London:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 234.
See Derrida’s Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1979), where he plays on Nietzsche’s style as a “stylet” used to injure Plato, among others.
Sara Baranzoni (Italy), PhD in Performance Studies with a dissertation on Gilles
Deleuze, has been Research Fellow at the University of Bologna and is currently
Prometeo Researcher at Universidad de las Artes (Ecuador), where she teaches
“Filosofía y acontecimiento teatral.” Her research interests concern contemporary
French philosophy (Deleuze, Foucault, Stiegler), performance theory, and philosophy of technology. She is co-founder of the philosophical journal La Deleuziana
( and collaborates with many journals and networks. Sara
Baranzoni has published several essays in Italian, English, and French, and edited
three collective books.
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