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Speaker Spotlight: Sophie Seita

Sophie Seita is a poet, playwright, translator and scholar who is currently a Junior Research Fellow in English at Queens’ College, Cambridge. She has written My Little Enlightenment Plays: A Performance Lecture which takes place on 25 October.


What inspired you to create the My Little Enlightenment Plays?

Sophie Seita: My Little Enlightenment Plays is a project that emerges from research, feminist politics, an interest in collaboration and community and takes the form of three performance pieces (and a number of shorter variations based on these pieces), publications, objects and installations. The first piece, Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly, began as a response to an exhibition in New York in which I and several other artists and writers were asked to produce work in dialogue with drawings of theatre sets; the idea being that a set is usually posterior to the writing, which was here reversed. About a year later I came across the genre of it-narratives (professed autobiographies of objects) during my research about the history of the book and publishing history. This then led me to Diderot’s Indiscreet Jewels and Luke McMullan (a poet whose academic work is partly on the 18th century) introduced me to Margaret Cavendish and Fontenelle, and I wrote the second piece, Les Bijoux Indiscrets, or, Paper Tigers. I was and still am thinking a great deal about paper (as a writer’s or artist’s material and as a metaphor) and also about documents (influenced by scholars like Lisa Gitelman or theorists like Derrida) and the connection between documents, identity and the rights of people (say, to remain in a country). There’s a line in Marx, which suggests that ‘if commodities could speak, they would say this’ - my piece dramatises this imaginary leap via the it-narrative, and of course there’s a gender critique in there, too, with Diderot’s ‘talking vaginas’ (the fable’s emperor is given a ring of truth that will amplify the whisperings of women’s genitals - a fact that has led Foucault to begin his History of Sexuality with Diderot and to subtitle it in French: La volonté de savoir; ‘the will to know’). Commodities, according to Marx, conceal their social relations or their story of being made; the it-narrative reverses that.

As for ‘inspiration’ more broadly - I’ve been inspired by writers like Kathy Acker and Christine Brooke-Rose (their mixing of genres and modes; their use of formal constraints); the Musiktheater pieces of Bertolt Brecht; Gertrude Stein; the plays of Apollinaire, Cocteau and the Dadaists; opera (especially Mozart); melodrama; the abstract choreography and costumes of Oskar Schlemmer and Sonia Delaunay; the gestures of Pina Bausch. While the writing addresses issues around unbridled power, misogyny, imperialism, the performances are driven by a wish for greater hospitality in contemporary poetry circles and the art world and try to address that practically by inviting a number of different collaborators.



What will you be doing for the Festival of Ideas? The event is called a performance lecture - what links do you see between theatre and attending an academic lecture?

SS: For the Festival, I won’t be performing any of the three finished pieces, but will rather be experimenting with format a little. I will combine an academic lecture with a performance. I should also say that ‘plays’ in the title is to be understood both as that genre of writing but also as a verb. So, ‘my little enlightenment’ (whatever it may be) is playing - like a toy, a music box, or a song. The pieces sit somewhere between performance art, experimental theatre and poetry and even classical music in an expanded sense of what a ‘score’ could be. Eventually the project will also be exhibited as an installation piece (with sculptural work and audio pieces), a publication (probably including all three ‘plays’ and various ephemeral material and photographs) and also a scholarly essay. So what I intend to do in the performance lecture is to find innovative ways of sharing my research and my thinking. Poetic, dramatic, or academic languages are different forms of knowing and producing knowledge, with different affects. I want academic work to be challenging and rigorous yet also lively and engaging and beautiful and transformative.


Where have you performed the plays so far and what has the response been?

SS: I’ve performed both full versions and shorter variations of the pieces at Company Gallery (NYC), Issue Project (NYC), La MaMa Galleria (NYC), Cité Internationale des Arts (Paris), Parasol Unit (London), Arnolfini (Bristol), and Bold Tendencies (London). What pleases me most about the responses so far has been the attentiveness to detail with which people from a variety of backgrounds and interests have watched the performances. That they ‘get’ the humour, the satire, the politics, the musicality, the need for some strange and difficult language sometimes, but also my desire to invent affective spaces that can be moving, enchanting, and empowering.


What kind of crossover is there between your academic research and performance work?

SS: Increasingly I believe that I cannot quite separate the two. The way I think of what I do is that I am fascinated by questions about - to put it simply - form, the politics of form and community. Sometimes these questions might be historical, sometimes contemporary, sometimes both. Sometimes in order to answer these questions, I’ll write an academic article or a conference paper and at other times the ideal form for that engagement will be a poem, a performance, an exhibition, a collaboration with someone else or something that falls between disciplines, media, or genres.


Your research is interested in the avant-garde. Do you consider what you do avant-garde?

SS: That’s a tricky question. I certainly identify with many aesthetic, political, and social strategies, forms, and commitments of various historical and contemporary groups and individuals who have been labelled avant-garde - many of which/whom I also discuss in my research. While I’m convinced that the term ‘avant-garde’ retains critical and creative purchase, it’s not important to me that my work is considered ‘avant-garde’, but that it is ‘good’. I want it to be meaningful to others and to contribute to conversations and practices within our contemporary social and creative worlds.


How did you go about creating the My Little Enlightenment Plays?

SS: As with my academic work, My Little Enlightenment Plays involves a lot of reading and research into, for example, 18th-century salon culture; the role of women (as salonnières, as translators, as writers); 18th century practices and languages of description, cataloguing, bibliography and pedagogy (encapsulated in that mammoth project of the Encyclopédie); scientific, creative, or popular objects, instruments and forms (like zoetropes, magic lanterns; paper silhouette portraits). As regards the actual texts and performances, I sometimes borrow a plotline, character names, or certain features of the language of my source materials; or I rewrite them, replace several words, I ‘translate’ them so they end up becoming ‘my’ little Enlightenment pieces, but also highlight that process, that gesture of conversation with other materials. In performance, I somewhat hand over my material to the other performers and, while I have a very clear vision, I am keen to collaborate. This attitude towards sharing materials is an important form of generosity, I think. One could describe both the writing and the performance as meticulous forms of improvisation over a set theme or harmony: leaving room for many trills and ornaments.


What links the plays?

SS: All three pieces are feminist and queer interrogations of historical and contemporary power relations, the concepts of friendship and hospitality, and the role of art and poetry in our lives. While there’s no narrative link between the pieces, their language and my use of working with source materials is similar; and my attitude to a performance that is interested in artifice and distance at the same time as it makes room for a humorous and inclusive closeness. My engagement with the Enlightenment is not simply to send up its values of progress, secularism, scientific (or empirical) knowledge, universality, rationality, individualism, and self-improvement in a sweeping gesture of arrogant dismissal, but to question our very own investment in some of these categories and to test their contemporary limits and possibilities with an assiduous desire and attention. I’m asking how we can claim the speculative and associative in creative work - something beyond the immediately logical or useful - and follow its utopian promise towards imaginative ways of producing and distributing knowledge.


How relevant to today’s post-truth world are 17th and 18th century approaches to rationality?

SS: Poets have always dealt in a currency of other truths, ‘alternative facts’ - that this phrase has recently been perverted is deplorable, but it ought not to lead us to conclude that writing or thinking that is occupied with things that aren’t ‘hard facts’ or isn’t scientifically evidence-based is therefore less valuable. To answer the question more directly: the Enlightenment’s obsession with truth, rationality, and empiricism and our inheritance of that obsession is short-sighted when it excludes other forms of knowing. Any historical phenomena, ideas, and movements invite comparison to the present: thus, we are always invited to ask whose voices and stories are heard and whose are ignored or suppressed. It’s not so much the case that the Enlightenment is the only intellectual movement or period that is particularly suitable in a reassessment of the uses and abuses of rationality today, but it’s one upon whose foundations not just many of our ideas about democratic and economic systems but also our disciplines and our very understanding of the role of learning rest. As regards reason and rationality, I believe in the continuing importance of appealing to people’s rationality (in, say, the advocacy of animal rights and gay rights), but the Enlightenment is of course inevitably compromised as a legacy. The question is really if its utopian thrust can be salvaged or if its imperialism and chauvinism are overbearing. How can we create a diverse and hospitable republic of letters, an ever-expansive salon, that promotes freedom of thought? It seems unlikely that the language of rationality alone will get us there, but perhaps the language of the poets can.

Viewed from a disciplinary perspective, my interest in the Enlightenment also relates to a development within literary study and critical theory of reconsidering how we read. While the Enlightenment’s and today’s scholars’ business has been to debunk beliefs and institutions of power, some scholars are now also asking where such demystifications lead us practically, and if there can be other forms of writing, reading, and making arguments that are closer to a politics of care. In my book on avant-garde communities, for example, I argue for a hospitable reading of avant-gardes that does not resign itself to default answers about the avant-garde’s past revolutionary ‘failures’ or its impossibility for the present or future. Lastly, I also doubt that we are in a post-truth world more so than we were before. Rumour and propaganda are not new, but there are perhaps easier and quicker ways of verifying them. What’s more, this binary of fact and feeling is fascinating but unhelpful when it comes to poetry and poetic knowledge.


Language is at the centre of your plays. What questions about language do you want your audience to come away with?

SS: As with anything I do (whether I write an essay or a performance text), I hope that audiences and readers rejoice in how language can offer us a multiplicity of meanings, unusual and new modes of thinking; how it can conjure other worlds; how it can articulate a phenomenon or a feeling in fresh ways and ways that may then also affect our own actions, interactions, and ways of being - at least the kinds of uses of language that I hope to fashion and that attract me to writing by the historical and contemporary figures and groups I study. More abstractly, the pieces are also a form of ars poetica; and obliquely they’re also satirical and serious reflections on trends within contemporary poetry and art circles.


What new work are you working on now?

SS: I’m working on a London and New York performance of the third piece in the series, titled Emilia Galotti’s Colouring Book of Feelings, which is in dialogue with Goethe’s Theory of Colours, Christian Gellert’s The Tender Sisters, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, Olympe de Gouges’s The Necessity of Divorce and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Emilia Galotti. It’s a piece that responds to the later Enlightenment’s turn towards sentiment and sentimentality as opposed to rationality as being able to produce moral action. It also toys with anachronistic science, the charming para-psychology of colour and flower symbolism, the politics of erotic Platonic dialogues and the parlour-games of the witty précieuses. I’m also starting to think about the exhibition I mentioned earlier - what form it could take and how I can bring different audiences together again.