CFP ‘Event, Dispositif, Agency in Literature, Theatre, and Beyond (from 1700 to our days)’

Call for papers

Event, Dispositif, Agency in Literature, Theatre, and Beyond (from 1700 to our days)

Workshop at the Free University Berlin – 11 January 2018

Organisers: Dr Alexei Evstratov and the Dahlem Humanities Center

Deadline for abstract submission: 25 October 2017

The workshop will address the problem of reconstructing “artistic” experience, where “artistic” is defined by an event’s sponsors, participants, or audience. We will approach this frame of experience not only as a set of rules of conduct, changing through time, but also as a site of knowledge production. While a certain emphasis will be placed on theatre and literature in Europe from 1700 to recent past, students of other areas and artistic media are encouraged to submit proposals. The workshop will bring together researchers working on approaches to experience and its reconstruction ‘from below,’ from both historical and theoretical perspectives, across geographical areas and art forms. While spurring reflection on the possible sources for the historical reconstruction of an experience framed as artistic, the workshop aims at a broad revision of the studies in ‘reception’ of the arts. This rethinking will draw on recent developments not only in everyday history, but also in the history of the senses and emotions, as well as in qualitative social history.

Keywords: art and experience, art and agency, subject and subjectivity, social history, sociology of the arts, reception, non-expert knowledge, ‘layman aesthetics,’ interactions, social anthropology, art and ethnography, power, dispositif.

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Conceptualising art as dispositif.

Long before John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934), the effects of a work of art (literary text, theatre performance, or painting) on its audience attracted the attention of philosophers and critics alike. Although separated by almost two centuries and by divergent understandings of the role of the subject, Dewey and eighteenth-century founders of the modern aesthetics shared some common assumptions about how people experience art (Fried 1987). One of these assumptions is that certain types of objects or experiences can be less efficient in the way they reach the audience and transform individuals and social groups. In the nineteenth century, a number of attempts were made to inscribe this transformation into medial narratives, speculating, for instance, on the physiological effects of certain types of reading or musical performance. According to another shared assumption, individual and collective exposures to artistic objects are the sites of knowledge production.[1]

A dispositif, as theorised in Michel Foucault’s works, is a mutable system of relations between the elements of a heterogeneous ensemble of discourses and practices (‘the said as much as the unsaid’) that define the way knowledge and its subject(s) are produced in a given social space (Foucault 1994). Our suggestion is to study this system of relations from the point of view of the subject that the dispositif seeks to shape – hence the centrality of individuals and their experience in the workshop’s design. At the same time, a more theoretical reflection on the specificity of the artistic dispositif seems useful, exploring the attempts to reinterpret the notion over the past decades by Agamben and others (see Dodier, Barbot 2016).

Reconstructing dispositif, reconstructing subject.

The criteria of the definition of artistic experience are mutable. As recent controversies in Russia have emphasised,[2] a number of agents — including the State, the church, media, and expert communities — can be involved in the debate about the boundaries of art. However, rather than addressing these public controversies, the workshop will tackle the issues of their impact on everyday experiences of art in the past. Still, we will be attentive to the tension between the etic and the emic perspective on the frames of experience.

How can one reconstruct a dispositif, and, more specifically, the relations that shape it, in the past? Our suggestion is to approach experiences of art as events taking place in a given social setting and a specific symbolic frame. Participants to these events would then act as informants with complimentary and conflicting perspectives on the event and their role in it. Putting the subject at the centre of a historical investigation certainly raises a number of theoretical questions, some of which will be addressed at the workshop. How do different artistic experiences complement each other or enter into conflict when regarded as ‘sources of the self’ by the social actors (Taylor 1989)? Foucault (1983), again, wrote on ‘technologies of the self’, reconstructing the circuit between disciplines of reading and writing, mobilising body and mind. Michel De Certeau (1980), in a different vein, addresses individuals as users (utilisateurs) of culture, with an agency expressed through appropriations of artefacts, resulting in the phenomenon of ‘anti-disciplines.’ What kind of (anti)discipline, if at all, did individuals need to adapt to partake in an artistic event? Despite the growing number of insightful studies in the area, little attention has been given to the ways in which non-expert audiences interacted with artistic frames of experience. These voices will be the focus of the workshop’s attention.

Non-expert knowledge of art and new sources.

To respond to the questions raised, the study of first-hand accounts of the given events seems productive. Do first person writings, such as letters and diaries, offer privileged access to lived experience? Or, perhaps, the constraints of writing, social contexts and conventions cover the individual voice? More generally, what are possible uses of those sources for which an uncontested term is yet to be found, i.e. egodocuments, écrits du for privé, Selbstzeugnisse?

Whatever response one gives to these questions, at least two aspects of first-hand accounts of artistic events and interactions are worth exploring. The first of them concerns the hybrid categories that served to describe an artistic experience, identifying the extent to which the aesthetic notions were absorbed by non-professionals in their presentation of their interactions with art. The second aspect is the ‘subjective’ nature of these accounts. Is there a way to organise individual narratives of experience into a signifying whole, rather than a sequence of anecdotes? We suggest considering writing as an experience on its own, with its own material constraints and symbolic economies, and as a site of negotiation of both the writing subject’s identities and the social significance of the artistic event.


In order to discuss this and other matters, we will meet on 11 January 2018 in Berlin. To join us, please, address a 300-word abstract of your presentation combining historical reconstruction with a theoretical point, and a short biographical note, to by the deadline of 25 October 2017.

The results of the proposals’ review will be announced by 30 October. The travel and accommodation costs will be reimbursed. The organisers will be happy to support participants’ visa applications. The working language of the workshop is English.


[1] This latter point has recently attracted the attention of life scientists and then been transferred to philosophical aesthetics (Schaeffer 2015).

[2] See, for instance, Pussy Riot and Voina art groups, as well as Piotr Pavlenskii’s actions in Russia.


Bibliographical orientations

Agamben, Giorgio. ‘What is an Apparatus? [2006]’ in What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).
Chartier, Roger. ‘George Dandin, ou le social en representation,’ Annales (1994), 49 (2): 277-309.
Darnton, Robert. ‘Readers Respond to Rousseau: the Fabrication of Romantic Sensitivity,’ in idem, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York, 1985).
De Certeau, Michel. L’invention du quotidien. I. Arts de faire (Paris: Gallimard, 1990 [1980]).
Deleuze, Gilles. ‘Qu’est-ce qu’un dispositif ?,’ Michel Foucault philosophe. Rencontre internationale. Paris, 9, 10, 11 janvier 1988 (Paris: Seuil, 1989), p. 185-195.
Dewey, John. Art as Experience (London, 1934).
Dodier, Nicolas, et Janine Barbot. ‘La force des dispositifs,’ Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, vol. 71e année, no. 2, 2016, pp. 421-450.
Foucault, Michel, « L’écriture de soi », Corps écrit nº 5 : L’Autoportrait, février 1983, pp. 3-23. Reprinted in idem, Dits et écrits, vol III.
Foucault, Michel. Dits et écrits, 1954-1988. Vol. III : 1976-1979 (Paris: Gallimard, 1994).
Fried, Michael. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience (Harmondsworth, 1975).
Jacquinot-Delaunay, Geneviève, and Laurence Monnoyer (eds), ‘Le dispositif : Entre usage et concept’, an issue of Hermès. Cognition, Communication, Politique, 25, 1999.
Lyon-Caen, Judith. La lecture et la vie. Les usages du roman au temps de Balzac ([Paris], 2006).
Schaeffer, Jean-Marie, L’expérience esthétique ([Paris], 2015).
Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, 1989).


14 December 1789: the abbot Delille reading & the dislike of USA



At Madame de Chastellux’s we have a large breakfast Party and the Abbe de L’Isle [Delille – AE] reads us, or rather, repeats to us some of his Verses, which are fine and well delivered. Go to Van Staphorst’s and shew him a Letter I have written to the Willings which he is well pleased with. From thence to the Louvre. The Bishop [d’Autun – AE] is there. He mentions a Plan for issuing Billets d’État bearing Interest. I shew him the Folly of such a Measure. He says it is a Plan of Montesquiou [Montesquieu – AE], to which I reply that as none of the Plans likely to be adopted are good they may as well take that of Mr. Necker, since otherwise they enable his friends to say that the Mischief arises from not having followed his Advice. That besides, if Paper Money be issued, that of the Caisse is quite as good as any other. He says that by taking a bad Step France may be ruined. I tell him that is impossible and he may tranquillize himself about it. That whenever they resort to Taxation Credit will be restored, and the Credit once restored it will be easy to put the Affairs of the Caisse in Order. (…) After Dinner the Abbe de L’Isle entertains us with some farther repetitions. Go to Club and thence to Madame de Puisignieu’s and La Suze’s. Both abroad. Thence to the Count de Moustier’s. Sit awhile with him and Madame de Bréhan. Go together to Madame de Puisignieu’s; spend the Evening. Conversation chiefly with de Moustiers. I find that notwithstanding public Professions as to the public Proceedings of America, both de Moustiers and Madame de Bréhan have a thorough Dislike to the Country and its Inhabitants. The Society of New York is not sociable. The Provisions of America are not good. The Climate is very damp. The Wines are abominable. The People are excessively indolent &c., &c. This Morning it snowed. Cleared about noon but not entirely. This Evening the Weather has got round to the Southward and is warmer.

A diary of the French revolution, by Gouverneur Morris, 1752-1816. Ed. by Beatrix Cary Davenport. Vol. 1 (Boston, 1939), p. 332-333.

Image : Joseph Ducreux, Portrait de l’Abbé Jacques Delille

28 September 1789: affairs

Monday 28. —This Morning write. Receive a Message from Madame de Flahaut & at twelve call on her. In chatting on a Variety of Subjects she desires to know what Opinion I formed from her Countenance, which I tell her with much Candor. She tells me that I should never have succeeded in possessing her if I had not declared that I could not be satisfied with meer Friendship and must either be happy as her Lover or abandon her Society. She has been laboring to reconcile the Bishop D’Autun & the Marquis de Montesquieu. Hopes she has effected it. Tells me the Plan of the former respecting Finance, which is in some
Respects defective. Wishes me to have an Interview with them and will endeavor to arrange it. Return Home and write. Then go to Dinner at Dalrymple’s. Drink too much Wine. Our Company Colo[nel] Gardner and Crosby. At eight go to sup at Madame de Flahaut’s. She is in hourly Expectation of her Guests, therefore we are very discreet. This Day is cloudy and threatens rain. I think from the Appearance of the Clouds there has been high Wind at Sea.

A diary of the French revolution, by Gouverneur Morris, 1752-1816. Ed. by Beatrix Cary Davenport. Vol. 1 (Boston, 1939), p. 234-235.