Arts and Political Transformation
What Adam Driver’s love of theater teaches us about hope
In his recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Adam Driver offered up some great insights on theater. But what I liked most about his conversation with Colbert was not so much what it taught me about theater but what it taught me about humans.
Reflecting on the intensity of theater and why he founded Arts in the Armed Forces, Driver talks about how live performance can make “people start breathing in rhythm.” It connects us as humans. But the reason this happens is what’s key: It connects us as humans because, as he notes, it helps us “articulat[e] a feeling” that we are likely having trouble articulating on our own.
Watching other humans act out compelling scenarios is a tool that helps us “to get it out,” as Driver puts it. And the ‘it’, of course, is the fullness of human emotion, pain, elation, and poetry that pulses inside of us and between us but that we mostly wrestle to get a handle on. It’s a deep insight that runs through ancient philosophy. And Driver puts it best when he reminds us that the arts help us “say the thing.” Wow. And: yes.
Colbert drives the point home with his own emphasis on how all of this works like some sort of “magical transformation”:
We all have so many emotions but we’re often so poorly trained to share them with each other that we will go pay money to sit in a dark room and watch people on stage have them for us. And there is some magical transformation that happens in us by witnessing the freedom that’s happening on stage…And it frees you in some way.
Articulating a feeling. Saying the thing. Magical transformation. (Yes, yes, and yes).
But notice how all of this answers more than just the question “what happens when people experience live theater together?” All of this also answers the larger human question “what kinds of political agents are we?” and with it “how can we get better at politics?” And that’s because recognizing the kinds of creatures we — and our neighbors — are in the theater also tells us something really important about the kinds of creatures we — and our neighbors — are in politics.
…we are not simply Rational Machines…we are Emotive Waterfalls…
Whether it’s political philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice helping us see how good literature can help foster good politics, or political scientist William Connolly’s Aspirational Fascism framing politics within the context of human fragility, we are reminded time and again that we are not simply Rational Machines ruled by emotion-free reasoning. On the contrary, we are Emotive Waterfalls. Driver and Colbert help us see this when they help us see that the power of theater lies in its ability to clear out the muck that can block our emotive flow. Theater gets us to our best, and at our best we are creatures whose intelligence is emotional intelligence filled with and fueled by “feels.”
But of course this is also true in politics. We are complex creatures for whom truths do not merely arise cleanly and calmly, abstract and aloof. We are complex creatures for whom truths gush forth alive with the colors and textures of all of our past memories and present experiences. We are not just minds-on-a-stick. Which means that even our best feats of reason are inflected by our fears and furies, dreams and desires.
If I already hate your views, I am less likely to hear what you are saying, much less hear you out.
The way we respond to good theater tells us something important about what makes humans tick. Not just in the theater — but in the bedroom, boardroom, and war room. We are always already rooted in the messy emotive whirl of all that we and our families and communities have been through. The arts are so powerful because the arts activate us into this swirl, sometimes taking us deeper in and sometimes releasing us from it entirely. But the fact that we swirl this way is also what makes politics so tricky: If I already hate your views, I am less likely to hear what you are saying, much less hear you out. And if you are my beloved friend, I might so trust your every word as to miss entirely the flaws in your logic or the fictions you are weaving my way. Recognizing this about ourselves doesn’t magically solve politics; but it does help us think more accurately about the problems that plague us — which in turn helps us think more effectively about the kinds of solutions we need to devise.
…for all the ways we are fueled by hate, we are also fueled by hope.
Which brings us back to magic. When we realize the kinds of creatures we are, we learn that for all the ways we are fueled by hate, we are also fueled by hope. Hope has the power to make us over — to open us to new ways of being and seeing, and to new ways of relating to the world and to the people around us. Hope helps inspire us to dismantle wretched structures. And it also helps dispose us to feel more protective of more of our neighbors (even the ones whose wretched structures we are dismantling). Hope helps us pursue justice. And it does so precisely because we are complex emotive creatures — precisely the kinds of creatures whose energies are opened, deepened, calmed, and inspired by the arts.
Hope is the magic of human transformation. It connects up to whatever it is about us that thrives in the presence of good live theater. And it’s one of the most powerful secret ingredients for emancipatory politics.
Sarah Pessin is professor of Philosophy and Interfaith Chair at the University of Denver. She explores the intra-human and inter-human condition at the intersections of phenomenology, ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of race, interfaith civics, and political philosophy. Visit her at sarahpessin.com.