Great Reckonings in (and on) Little Boxes

Sarah Bay-Cheng’s visit to Mellon School 2018 offered attendees (are we Mellonites? Mellonheads?) an occasion to think seriously about the digital as framework through which to understand our efforts at public engagement. In brief, her lively talk sketched out the interplay between the persisting figure of the box set and interventions from the world of contemporary art and performance into our increasingly thoroughgoing digital culture.


There were a gajillion takeaways from the talk, and this rumination will do justice to few of them, but as they’ve been sinking in over the past the past several days, I’m struck by several thoughts. First is Bay-Cheng’s notion of the box is an abstraction—a geometric ideal that never appears perfectly in nature, even as boxes themselves are particularly compelling as material objects. Boxes themselves function as surface, solid, screen, membrane, boundary, container. Even as we are pressed to think outside-the-box, thinking the box itself offers us a potent spatial metaphor for a great number of conceptual problems and contemporary concerns.


Bay-Cheng’s examples—from art and theatre and digital culture—asked their audiences (and us) to think especially about the terms of inside and outside: how digital technologies connect and separate us, how they collapse and remake distinctions between public and private, and how (often surreptitiously) they draw lines of access and exclusion. In this way, screen mediates both through spatial illusion and physical boundary.


What I experienced here is that in fixating on the box, we fixate on the boundary itself but we might also use the notion of the box also to turn away from looking intensely at the boundary, turning both inward and outward.


First inward: So much of what we do as theatre academics is to consider what we do together inside of boxes—literal and conceptual. Certainly there’s my title’s invocation of Bert O. States’s Great Reckonings in Little Rooms, a reminder taken right from the beginning of Bay-Cheng’s talk that the theatre is a box, but so is the classroom, and so is the academy. We come together in boxes all the time, close them up, turn out half the lights, and forget that there’s any box at all.


In this way, I am briefly reflecting on what the safety of the box as protection, shelter, or even womb (I know, I know, the thought of cubic wombs is ….weird). How does the experience of being the spectator inside the box foster important experiences, or nurture difficult conceptions? Might it be important to be allowed (perhaps only briefly) to forget the boundaries that envelop us, or the world that lies beyond them? I think of the Mellon School as that kind of enterprise—though one already mediated outward through screens (this blog, facebook posts, Twitter and Insta tags #MellonSchool2018) to cultivate a desire in others to enter this “box” in future iterations of the school.


The other way in which I’m thinking about the provocation of last evening’s talks is to pose also the turn from the box outward to the landscapes in which our boxes sit. For even as we might think of this school as a little theatre box all its own, our theme of public humanities asks us to think more aggressively outward than even we theatre folks are used to thinking. Understood in this way, the public humanities becomes an opening of the box, a going-out and an inviting-in. We are being asked more and more to engage a broader public beyond the academic monolith, away from the boundaries of our ivory box. This means that we must survey the landscape, and go out into it, to meet whomever we may meet.


This going-out and inviting-in (it must be acknowledged) comes with risks. We see the economic risks of offering up more free labor, of changing the grounds of our promotion processes to honor different kinds of writing, of disturbing the profit model of the neoliberal university invested in exclusive access to expertise. We note the discursive risks of being misunderstood, of being asked the wrong kinds of questions, of being trolled online. We note also the bodily risks, of the change to our daily rhythms to meet the news cycle, or of the physical threats those online trolls pose.


But I think we’re all discovering that as practitioners and scholars that we’re comparatively well prepared to do this work. We understand that there are publics beyond our classrooms, and we have at our fingertips (or our friends’ fingertips) modes of presentation that have been refined over centuries into a repertoire of extraordinary power to delight and to instruct.


And of course, the appeal and use of our discussions of the digital as public humanities—to return this metaphor to the (hyper)real world—is to rethink the box not just as set and frame, but as screen and surface, as a mode of connecting bodies that are otherwise distanced, and a set of tools to help us both think and do the humanities in public.


Post by Ryan Claycomb

See also: Ryan Claycomb