In traditional theatre practice, the actors are directed by one person who sits and observes from where the audience will eventually sit. The actors are the observed element in this equation and the director/audience are the observing element. In a clear break from this paradigm, Pulse is a process of ensemble theatre improvisation, derived from a form of conducted jazz improvisation, that effectively removes the director from the process of theatre creation and instils in the actor the eye of the director. Thus, the actor becomes the observed and the observer. Through the application of Spinoza’s terminology with respect to the dialectic of kinesis and stasis and the notion of equilibrium, one can find a metalanguage to categorise the complexities of Pulse and, indeed, theatre in general. Also, by relating some of Michel Foucault’s work on visual art to Pulse, the scope of expressive detail allowed by this non-traditional form of theatre-making becomes all the more apparent.

Pulse finds its origin and precedent not in theatre, but in the distinct style of musical improvisation developed by Lawrence “Butch” Morris. His method of composition, called conduction, is based on the live and unrehearsed interplay between him as conductor and an ensemble of improvisers. Through the use of a vocabulary of ideographic signs and gestures he is able to activate, modify or construct a musical composition in real-time. In Spinoza’s terms, the conductor stands as a static focal point around which the musicians are arranged, like planets orbiting a star. Another analogous image is that of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, a structure not foreign to Foucault. The notion of the panopticon is perhaps the best illustration that the power in this creative relationship is largely one-sided. A central observer has an immediate and inexorable advantage over the observed subjects. Power, in this structure, lies with the observer, not the observed. Similarly, the musicians in a conduction are only given as much input as is allowed by the conductor. For all their improvised offers, they remain effectively impotent because, in the balance of observer and observed, they are at a disadvantage.

Having attended workshops where Morris was presenting conduction, Tanya Gerstle, a lecturer in acting at VCA, began examining how conduction could be used in devising theatre. Drawing inspiration directly from Morris’ format, she imagined actors working improvisatorially while receiving live feedback from a director. However, maintaining the attention of actors who were moving about a space and interacting with each other proved to be far more difficult than it was for a conductor to direct musicians. The spatial anarchy of the stage did not allow for the same power-structure between the static observer and the kinetic subjects to arise. The actors, in moving and interacting, began observing one another. Suddenly, the balance of power shifts away from the director because the actors take on the role of observer and can, in their improvisation, be fed by influences other than the director. Acknowledging this, Gerstle found that the most practical solution was to instil in the actors basic precepts that would guide their work and, thus, largely free the director from having to interrupt. Hence, the role of the director is a pedagogical and aesthetic one. The fundamental precepts and shared performance language that the actors are given are determined by Gerstle and, therefore, influence the outcomes but the final creative power rests with the actors. Eventually, the director is entirely removed from the equation and the ensemble of actors becomes an autonomous entity. However, that is not to suggest that the static eye of the director is annulled. Instead, it is incorporated into the actors. Thus, Pulse springs from conduction but, in the end, revolutionizes it into a creative technique that demands of the actors that they inhabit the static outside eye of the director and take on the power that this entails.

Spinoza’s dialectic of stasis and kinesis can, in traditional theatre, be equated with the dialectic of audience and actor. The static eye of the director and the kinetic nature of the actor have already been touched on, but the static quality of the audience is something quite different. Stasis, for Spinoza, is in its purest form only commensurate with God. This derives from the theory that God is everything. And this pantheistic appreciation of the universe means that God cannot have motion, because motion necessitates counter-motion, and there can be no counter-motion outside of God when God contains all possibilities. Similarly, the audience in a theatre for any given performance contains the totality of possibilities with regard to observation. Each and every infinitesimally short moment of theatre is ephemeral, unrepeatable and unique. Thus, the audience, with their hundreds of eyes, ears and other senses, receive, interpret and make meaning in every possible way for every particular moment. No videorecording, no review, no other form of account can recreate or communicate the experience of theatre for a given audience. Therefore, no interpretation outside of the audience applies—the audience is everything, it is completely static.

The other side of the dialectic is the kinetic actor. The nature of kinesis in an actor is a complex proposition but, to my mind, the essence of an actor is synonymous with kinesis, though this does not imply that an actor must be forever in physical motion. Rather, the kinesis here is an internal one that is, nevertheless, externally palpable. Even in stillness, there is the paradoxical motion of inertia, a phenomenon that might otherwise be described as stage-presence. The actor is constantly alive in the moment, constantly moving forward and outward from within. If this motion stops or breaks, the suspension of disbelief is lost and the audience receives no meaning other than the literal aspect of an actor on a stage. Metaphor, illusion and abstraction rely on the internal kinesis of the actor. Of course, some theatre-makers deliberately undercut this internal kinesis in order to draw the audience’s attention to the very dialectic at work. Indeed, dialectic is used here in the Hegelian sense, in that it would be misleading to consider the static nature of the audience and the kinetic nature of the actor in isolation, because the one cannot exist without the other and it is the interchange, the tension and the equilibrium between the two elements that gives rise to the synthesis of theatre.

So, Pulse requires that the synthesis, or equilibrium, of stasis and kinesis occurs within the actor. The actor needs to remain fully engaged with their kinetic energy and commit to the action they are in but must also have a clear awareness of the piece as a whole—what it needs and how it is composed: spatially, dynamically and texturally. Neither of these engagements is more important than the other and, with equilibrium attained, great theatre arises. In Spinoza’s time, the quality of true equilibrium could only be granted to God, but when theatre is at its peak, when the visceral and intellectual, the micro and the macro, the stasis and the kinesis are balanced and synthesised, the effect is metaphysical and transcendental. At the moment of dramatic success, there exists nothing else outside of the theatre for the audience or the actor—together, at that time, they are everything that is possible, they are God.

Having applied Spinoza’s philosophy to theatre in general and to Pulse, let us now look in more detail at a particular instance of theatre. At the recent Next Wave festival in Melbourne, an installation, created by an ensemble of VCA students (myself included), took Pulse a step further. Not only was the director removed, but so was the traditional notion of an audience. Being in a space largely occupied by visual arts, the audience was transient and mobile. This instance of Pulse asked that the actors maintain their own kinetic eye within the work, the static director’s eye on the work as a whole, as well as consider the kinetic eye of a mobile audience. The mobility and shifting perspective of the audience meant that the composition of the piece needed to be considered from a multitude of angles that changed every time an audience member approached, remained or shuffled away. However, the kinetic quality of the audience is most keenly realised not in their physical freedom but in the fact that they were visible. In this installation of Pulse, the audience was fully lit and not subject to the usual rituals of a theatre space. In other words, the audience was free to speak, gesture, move and otherwise live out meaningful relationships. One of Pulse’s central pillars is the constant interplay between the actor’s imagination and the surrounding world as a source. Thus, the audience became a scene from which the actors could draw inspiration.

A parallel situation can be found in Foucault’s analysis of Velazquez’s painting, Las Meninas. A painting in which a complex array of observers, models, reflections and perspectives results in a picture that “is looking out at a scene for which it is itself a scene.” In the case of the painting, the observer standing before it at the Prado is in the same position as the sitters for an unseen portrait—sitters who are seen in a mirror that reflects the space that the observer is now occupying. There emerges what Foucault describes as a volute of seeing and being seen. Likewise, in the Next Wave installation, a reciprocal link emerges between the observed and observing actors and the similarly observed and observing audience.

This link allows for an improvised theatre that is constantly alive and mutable, open to the finest shifts in space and mood, constantly feeding both audience and actor and unifying them in the experience of theatre. It can take theatre out of the theatres and away from the associated stigma of privilege, and, in so doing, remove that stigma. It can speak to and from an audience that feels disconnected and apathetic, and, in so doing, inspire them. This interplay is simply a heightened version of the existing dialectic between actor and audience—a dialectic that is both powerful and threatened; a dialectic that is political, social and revolutionary; a dialectic that is necessary.

When, in 1929, Sam Taylor’s adaptation of the Taming of the Shrew first screened, audiences were aghast at the legend that read: “Written by William Shakespeare with Additional Dialogue by Sam Taylor” (Johnson 7). Since that time, the notion of Shakespeare’s oeuvre as a pure, untouched and untouchable canonical monolith has come under sustained and largely successful attack. An important catalyst for this has been the enormous influence of Shakespearean cinema on our understanding of the plays. By 1930, there had already been some fifty-four film versions of Shakespeare’s work and this fascination of filmmakers and audiences with Shakespeare has continued unabated (Lemaitre 27).

A discussion of cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare as opposed to stage adaptations immediately raises two fundamental issues. First, cinema is an artistic medium thoroughly distinct from theatre—while a full explication of this is untenable in this essay, it is an idea that will be returned to. For now, one might consider that even a filmed stage play conveys a qualitatively different experience to an audience because what one is allowed to see and hear has, by the very nature of cinema, been predetermined by people (cinematographer, director, editor, studio) and technology (camera, microphones, film stock) in a way that the theatre’s in-person immediacy and unrepeatable essence cannot match. Second, cinema is a product of the twentieth century and, as such, its legacy—the precedents which filmmakers learn from, respond to and react against—all draw on a relatively concentrated historical context in a manner not as pressingly felt by the theatre, which can trace itself back to Aeschylus. So, an analysis of Shakespeare on film reveals features of cinematic discourse and aesthetics—in that the adaptation of a stage play for the screen brings to our attention the differences between the two modes of expression—as well as providing a stronger understanding of how the historical, political and ideological context of the twentieth century has affected approaches to Shakespeare’s works.

With this in mind, let us now begin to engage in an analysis of specific Shakespearean film adaptations. The primary work to be examined is Akira Kurosawa’s reworking of King Lear from 1985, Ran . In order to place this film within a broader cinematic, cultural and historical scheme, I will also bring in Peter Brook’s adaptation of King Lear (1971) and Kurosawa’s earlier Throne of Blood (1957), which is based on Macbeth . Before looking further at these films, it is worthwhile to briefly consider the history of King Lear in performance.

The extreme violence and grotesque aesthetics of certain sections of Shakespeare’s King Lear turned away many pre-modern critics and dramatists. Indeed, in 1680, the play was rewritten by Nahum Tate and performed with the joyous matrimonial union of Edgar and Cordelia and the restitution of a form of righteous order—a structural ploy akin to comedy rather than tragedy. This version continued to be staged throughout the eighteenth century and was supported by the likes of Samuel Johnson, who could not stomach the oppressive tragedy of the final scenes as written by Shakespeare (Harbage 115).

In contrast to this, even though their films are polar opposites in some respects, both Kurosawa and Brook revel in emphasising a bleak pessimism in their versions of Lear . It is an understanding of the text that is informed by the events of the early twentieth century and the resulting chill of the Cold War. Kurosawa’s relation to this context is of particular interest. Japanese culture is deeply linked to the past both in terms of the public realm of political history and in terms of the private realm of familial ancestry. One of the effects of the Second World War, often overlooked by commentators in the largely unscathed United States, was the devastating loss of this history (Galbraith 13). On a human level, generations of Japanese citizens were killed and, on a material level, civil records and documents, centuries-old buildings, paintings and thousands of motion pictures were all lost to the devastating bombing of the mid-1940s. It is in the wake of such all-consuming destruction that most of Kurosawa’s films were conceived. Not dissimilarly, Brook’s artistic vision grew out of the post-Great War milieu that incited poetry like that of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land , plays like Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and philosophical thought like that of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s concepts of seriality and alterity are markers of a society where personal alienation is rife. The idea that we as communities are all linked together on a superficial level of purpose but without any expressive connections, like people waiting together for a bus, is present in Kurosawa’s films as much as it is in Brook’s. Indeed, as will be expanded on later, the alienation and ennui attendant to the rapidly modernising socio-economic structures of Europe find even greater depth in the context of Japanese culture, where conformism and communal existence are such fundamental aspects of the society’s framework. Hence, from this understanding of the historical context in which these adaptations were formed, two main thematic thrusts emerge. First, the imminence of apocalypse, through the unprecedented destructiveness of twentieth century warfare and the semi-automated absurdity of nuclear brinkmanship. Second, the crisis of individual identity apparent in an increasingly anti-humanist paradigm of economics and philosophical thought.

In Ran in particular these two thematic elements are tightly interwoven and, when compared to Throne of Blood and other earlier works, reveal a shift in the broader philosophy that lies behind Kurosawa’s films. Kurosawa himself said of his filmmaking:

I look at life as an ordinary man. I simply put my feelings onto film. When I look at Japanese history—or the history of the world for that matter—what I see is how man repeats himself over and over again. (Richie 115)

This repetition of events is the necessary product of a society in which tradition and communality are combined with a conformity that promotes restrictive patterns of existence. In opposition to this, Kurosawa’s protagonists are generally solitary, autonomous individuals who live on the outskirts of society—the central samurai figure in Seven Samurai comes to mind—or they are heroes who break free of these patterns because of their integrity, outspokenness and rebellious nature—such as the central character of Ikiru who wakes up to himself as an autonomous individual with the news that he is dying. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth , Kurosawa saw this sense of conformity and destructive repetition in the ambition of the eponymous character. Thus, in Throne of Blood , General Washizu’s fault lies not in his ambition so much as his conventionality (Richie 115). He falls back on the predictable pattern of murder after traitorous murder to fulfil his desire and inevitably falls victim to the very same cycle of betrayal when his own men riddle him with arrows. The film’s beginning and end are enclosed by an ominous chorus that speaks of the “proud warrior, murdered by ambition, his spirit walking still” (Richie 117) which serves to frame the cautionary moral fable within the confines of the film. On the other hand, Ran tears this framing apart. The final image of the blind Tsurumaru edging towards a precipice is not the fate of his character in the film alone, it is the fate of a world on the brink of a nuclear holocaust. Not only is Ran a lamentation on the state of the world outside the film, it is also devoid of Kurosawa’s traditional heroes. The destructive patterns of behaviour, the fatalistic conformity that Kurosawa’s heroes rebelled against are reinforced and resigned to again and again during the film. For example, Jiro is consistently reminded by Kurogane that he must follow through with the path he has chosen even when it means the deaths of his siblings and father. He is responding not to his individual feelings or instincts—he appears at least mildly concerned by his father’s madness and his brother’s death—but to the precedents of the past, when his father was similarly murderous and ruthless. As Kurosawa said: “man repeats himself over and over again” and, by the time he made Ran , his belief in the strength of the rebellious individual seems to have given away to an acceptance of nature and karma’s pre-eminence. So, in Ran , individualism is lost and the pre-existing patterns of behaviour are left to dominate with the result that the world is a hellish environment of death and destruction on an apocalyptic scale.

Kurosawa’s cinematic style in Ran and Throne of Blood is infused with the influence of traditional Japanese Noh theatre. Kurosawa explains this influence:

Essentially I am very Japanese. I like Japanese ceramics, Japanese painting—but I like the Noh best of all. … I like it because it is the real heart, the core of all Japanese drama. Its degree of compression is extreme, and it is full of symbols, full of subtlety. … in the Noh, style and story are one. … [referring to Throne of Blood ] I wanted to use the way that Noh actors have of moving their bodies, the way they have of walking, and the general composition which the Noh stage provides. (Richie   117)

By shirking naturalism and favouring the stylisation of the Noh tradition, Kurosawa found a highly effective technique for bringing out the key thematic elements of his films. The very ritualised, regimented and confined nature of Noh performance is closely related to the restrictive patterns of general behaviour in Japanese society that Kurosawa’s heroes tend to rebel against. Hence, it is not surprising that, in Throne of Blood , the Noh elements are mostly associated with the characterisation of Asaji (Lady Macbeth) whose evil is, therefore, explained and emphasised by her acceptance of a dehumanising pattern of behaviour. Her affected delivery, careful shuffling motion, the sound of her garments rustling and her make-up are all typical of Noh theatre (Richie 118).

The use of Noh stylisation in Ran , however, takes on a more complex and multidimensional aspect. First, the association of evil with the ritualised behaviour of Noh actors is not as clearly delineated. Certainly the character of Lady Kaede is reminiscent of Asaji with respect to her appearance, movement and affected tranquillity, yet Kaede has flurries of violence and a capacity for independent thought that annul any chance for a direct parallel. Indeed, Kaede’s personal strength, integrity and outspokenness—traits that run counter to the typical model of subordinate females in patriarchal Japanese culture—almost construct her as one of Kurosawa’s heroes, which only reinforces the sense that Kurosawa had, by this time, become far more pessimistic with regard to humanity’s capacity for good. The other character in Ran whose portrayal is clearly linked to the Noh theatre is Hidetora himself. Again, a certain element of evil is present in his character at the beginning of the film but the Noh stylisation becomes more and more apparent as the film develops and, thus, the Noh make-up and behaviour are more related to his journey from folly and evil to madness and insight than they are related to his murderous past. Some critics have complained that this stylised characterisation keeps Hidetora at an emotional arms length that mutes his reality and, supposedly, his importance. This point of view seems to discount the capacity for stylised acting to engage an audience in the character’s struggle and is symptomatic of an artistically debilitating school of thought that extols naturalism above all else, while ignoring the fact that, when it comes to claims of naturalism, “one and all [are] mere examples of a new artificiality—the artificiality of naturalism” (Craig 290). Returning to the main point, the use of Noh influences in Throne of Blood and Ran with respect to characterisation bring to the fore the theme of individual identity within the restrictive structures of culturally perpetuated patterns of behaviour. While in Throne of Blood the implication is that, were the characters to break free of these patterns, they would also be breaking free of the cycle of murderous evil, in Ran the outlook is less simplistic in that even when a character does break out of their confined social role their acts remain violent—Kaede—or they are cut down at the moment of self-realisation—Hidetora.

The use of a Noh aesthetic in Kurosawa’s cinema is also apparent in technical aspects of his filmmaking. The most important example of which, with respect to the thematic development of his Shakespeare adaptations, is the style of cinematography employed. In Ran especially, the camera is often placed at a great distance from the actors and a deep focal length and telephoto lens are employed to flatten the depth of field. This decision to restrict the film to long shots, that suggest alienation, rather than use close-ups, that suggest empathy, is based on the Noh’s emphasis on the whole body of the actor (Richie 121). The consequent alienation is used to highlight the cause and effect relationships at the heart of the work because, rather than allowing the camera to indulge in the momentary detail of a facial contortion, the audience is shown everything at work in the scene. From this, one can deduce that Kurosawa’s films seek primarily to engage the audience in an intellectual rather than visceral manner. This has been the inference of several critics who see the battle scenes of Ran as mere formalistic pageantry that leaves the audience cold. The mise-en-scène of the battle scenes is certainly spectacular and Kurosawa often shoots the tempestuous movement of men with a focal point beyond the actors to further abstract the imagery. Likewise, the colour-coding of the respective armies depersonalises the warfare as well as creating a brightly hued canvas. Nevertheless, the criticism of this stylisation as “images without depth” (Yoshimoto 358) ignores the potency of this cinematic alienation as a parallel of the depersonalised warfare that typified the twentieth century. When compared to the romanticised violence of Seven Samurai , Kurosawa’s depiction of battles in Ran appears terrifyingly apocalyptic. The dark mud, sparks of musket fire and sinister smoke are all suggestive of the World Wars that consumed millions of lives with no thought of individual identity. The flat composition of Kurosawa’s frame might be alienating but then so is modern warfare.

The flat spatial quality of Kurosawa’s films are related to his fascination with the Noh but they also reveal certain features of cinema and its relationship to theatre. I have for the most part deliberately avoided comparisons between Shakespeare’s King Lear and Kurosawa’s adaptation of it because any such assessment would imply that there is somewhere a pure King Lear devoid of adaptation but it is still important to discuss the problems and issues inherent in adapting a piece of theatre to the cinema—this also serves to avoid the issue of a pure King Lear because we are instead discussing the more general issue of moving from stage to screen. Early conceptions of cinema were firmly rooted in the precedent of theatre. One sees this not only in the staging of films but also in their presentation—audiences sat in movie theatres that had the same proscenium construction as any playhouse. In some respects this is still the case, though the meta-cinema of the Nouvelle Vague and the advent of television and home cinema have undermined this presentational similarity. Still, it is easy to fall back on this parallel and judge Shakespeare on film in relation to Shakespeare on stage. Kurosawa’s films have a theatrical quality in that the telephoto cinematography and deep focus flatten the image in a way that allows the audience to choose the focus of their attention in a way not as easily achievable in a film where, for example, one character is in focus and the others are out of focus. Therefore, the authorial eye of the director remains somewhat less subjective and presents the action as though from a distance, negating any calls of meta-cinema. However, the key difference between a film and theatre is that what is spoken on stage can be shown on film. Hence, Lear’s soliloquy during the storm can be replaced by Hidetora appearing in the midst of a typhoon or Kurosawa can imply a cosmic magnitude for the events of Ran by presenting the action on mountainsides or by cutting away to the heavenly enormity of clouds. The landscape becomes not only a stage but an actor as well. This is felt even more acutely in Throne of Blood which uses brooding scenes of mist, castles and dark forests in a highly effective synergy with the plot machinations. The fact that Ran and Throne of Blood are adaptations of Shakespearean stage plays brings these non-theatrical features of cinema into clearer view.

To provide a stylistic counterpoint to the above discussion of Kurosawa’s films, let us now turn our attention to Brook’s adaptation of King Lear . I stated earlier that the two filmmakers created vastly differing interpretations yet their thematic content was similar. For Brook, the key to Shakespearean drama, or Elizabethan drama in general, was the freedom of blank verse (Reeves 38). In his staged Shakespeare adaptations he used a blank stage to propagate this freedom of expression because it afforded intertwined meanings related, on the one hand, to diegesis and, on the other, to the art of theatre (Reeves 38). For example, the act of Gloucester jumping from the cliff is made all the more compelling if the actor is jumping on a bare stage because one is aware not only of the ‘reality’ of the character’s situation but also of the ‘unreality’ of an actor performing and, from this, the idea of jumping from the cliff rather than the specific event itself is brought to the fore. Similarly, Brook wanted his film adaptation of Shakespeare to be based on the idea of a blank screen. The effect is to prioritise the spoken word rather than the visual image—the polar opposite of Kurosawa’s highly pictorial representation. So, instead of using full shots of actors, the focus is on close-ups that give so much attention to the actor over the background that the actors become delocalised. The ascetic set design and sparse motion allow the words themselves to tell us what we should ‘see’, just as they do in the theatre. While the focus in Brook’s adaptation is on the spoken rather than shown images, the alienating affect of his meta-cinematic touches—tight close-ups with 180 degree cuts, for example—has a comparable effect on the audience as does Kurosawa’s Noh stylisation. This common element of alienation in the stylistic aspects of Ran and Brook’s King Lear bespeaks the shared experience of twentieth century history and the common thematic elements that arise from this—identity and apocalypse. Brook’s vision of apocalypse has none of the formalised imagery of Ran but rather expresses this destructiveness through the spoken word and the oppressive nihilism of the production. With respect to identity, Brook opens the film with a silent tracking shot of blank, expressionless faces that might represent the people of the kingdom at stake. The audience is given no sense of what these people are thinking. It is an explicitly incomprehensible image that yields no sign of what is to come yet in its silence and blankness is as telling an omen as the “darker purpose” line which is cut from the opening scene. It is one of the few nonverbal images of the film and has a similar thematic impact as Kurosawa’s hordes of faceless soldiers—individual identity is impossible in a world of faceless industry and death.

Kurosawa’s Ran and Throne of Blood and Brook’s King Lear are cinematic adaptations of Shakespearean works that pull the texts in remarkably different stylistic directions yet it is their similarities and reflexivity that is most striking. On the one hand, Kurosawa’s films offer us an insight into how the history and social structures of Japan inform his interpretation of Shakespeare and how his fascination with the classical Noh theatre becomes entwined with his thoroughly contemporary allegory for a world on the brink of apocalypse. On the other hand, Brook brings with him a theatrical heritage of a different kind and turns the dialectic between the spoken (theatre) and the shown (cinema) on its head by producing a cinema of the spoken word. In both cases, the impact of twentieth century history—the devastation of the World Wars, the confusion of the industrialised human identity and the looming threat of nuclear holocaust—are related on both thematic and stylistic levels. King Lear is no longer a happy story, as it was for centuries. Instead, these filmmakers respond to its tragedy and its grotesque imagery as befitting the age. In doing so, they reveal truly contemporary approaches to Shakespeare’s work and find new ways to accommodate the theatricality of a play within the scope of cinematic language.


Brook, P. King Lear . VHS.

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Harbage, A. “‘King Lear’: An Introduction” in A. Harbage (ed.) Shakespeare: The Tragedies . New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1964, pp 113-122.

Johnson, I. “Merely Players” in C.W. Eckert (ed.) Focus on Shakespearean Films . New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972, pp 7-26.

Kurosawa, A. Ran . DVD by Wellspring (Masterworks Edition), 2003.

————— Throne of Blood . VHS.

Lemaitre, H. “Shakespeare, the Imaginary Cinema and the Pre-Cinema” in C.W. Eckert (ed. and trans.) Focus on Shakespearean Films . New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972, pp 27-36.

Reeves, G. “Finding Shakespeare on Film: From an Interview with Peter Brook” in C.W. Eckert (ed.) Focus on Shakespearean Films . New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972, pp 37-41.

Richie, D. The Films of Akira Kurosawa . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

Serper, Z. “Blood Visibility/Invisibility in Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’” in Literature Film Quarterly ; 2000, Vol. 28 Issue 2, pp149-154.

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Charles Taylor’s work spans a number of disciplines in its discussions of contemporary political debates. As will be shown, his essays arguing against atomism in the realm of political science—with regard to negative liberty, republican society and the primacy of individual rights—are mirrored in his similarly non-atomistic essays on his conception of linguistics. Indeed, it is in his analysis of language that Taylor finds his most potent rhetorical asset in arguing for a non-atomistic, or holistic, approach to political consciousness. Furthermore, his approach to language could be enriched by supplementing the work of contemporary linguists who are similarly not only working to underscore the non-atomistic nature of language and semiotics but are also finding techniques for analysis and models for understanding that provide a more complete comprehension of language.

Though placing political thinkers under the headings of particular schools of thought is fraught with possibly misleading implications, it is helpful to consider Charles Taylor’s work in the broader context of communitarianism. One of the key ideas of which is that individuals “conceive their identity – the subject and not just the object of their feelings and aspirations – as defined to some extent by the community of which they are a part.” With this context in mind, let us now look at Taylor’s representation of atomism.

The term ‘atomism’ is used loosely to characterize the doctrines of social contract theory which arose in the seventeenth century … [it] is also applied to contemporary doctrines … which try to defend in some sense the priority of the individual and his rights over society …

Thus, the origins of atomism in this context lie in the contractarian writing of thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the central doctrine of this tradition is an affirmation of what can be labelled the “primacy of rights.” As Taylor sees it, this primacy of rights entails that certain rights are ascribed to individuals, while the same status is denied to principles of belonging or obligation to society. In other words, there is nothing to suggest that individuals should be obliged to sustain or interact positively with the community or society of which they are a member—the individual is prioritised at the expense of the community. From the point of view of an advocate of the primacy of rights, our relationship to society, our sustaining it and our obeying its authority are simply conditions placed upon us when we consent to join it. We consent to these conditions because it is in our own self-interest. Thus, society serves a purely instrumental purpose—we join and uphold it because of what it offers us. Interrelated with notions of individual rights is the notion of individual liberty. Theories of negative liberty define freedom in terms of individual independence from others, whereas positive theories also identify freedom with collective self-government. Hence, the same atomistic conception is at work in the notion of negative liberty, while positive theories of liberty are more compatible with the holistic approach of communitarian thinking. Taylor sees that “primacy-of-right theories have been one of the formative influences on modern political consciousness” and, as will become evident, his work questions why this claim for individual rights is given such weight.

The atomistic viewpoint that upholds the predominance of the individual over society contrasts with the Aristotelian notion of man as a “social animal” incapable of surviving outside the polis. Though Taylor admits that most proponents of the atomistic point of view would not necessarily believe that man could physically survive outside of society, as he does in Rousseau’s lonely ‘state of nature’, there is still a suggestion of self-sufficiency if we take the individual as the starting point and society as the derivative. Taylor notes that the matter of physical survival outside of society is not the point of contention here. Instead, the issue is whether or not individuals are only capable of developing their characteristically human capacities within a society. If it is only possible for someone to develop rationality, moral agency and other specifically human potentials within the framework of a society, then how is it possible for an atomistic viewpoint to defend giving precedence to the individual over society? In other words, if a human can only realize their potential by being part of a society, the primacy of individual rights actually works against the individual. The importance of these human capacities is made evident by their inclusion under the heading of individual rights—the right to our own convictions and the right to practice our religion, for example. Thus, the way in which we ascribe rights and our conception of what is human are thoroughly intertwined. Moreover, if we protect certain capacities with individual rights, we are affirming the worth of these capacities and, more importantly, if these capacities can only be developed in a certain kind of society then we are also affirming the worth of that society. Therefore, it would be incoherent to assert these individual rights while denying our obligations to the society. Hence, if we accept Taylor’s reasoning, an atomistic conception of rights is fundamentally confused by its denial of society’s importance in an individual realizing their specifically human potential.

However, Taylor has yet to convincingly show why these human capacities are only achievable within societal structures. It is at this point that Taylor’s analysis of language becomes important. The centrality of language in Taylor’s writing is perhaps best explained by him:

The question of language is somehow strategic for the question of human nature … man is above all the language animal.

Taylor’s perspective on language is best understood in relation to his discussion of the eighteenth-century German philosopher, Johann Gottfried von Herder. According to Taylor, it is in Herder’s writings that the origins of an “expressivist” theory of language are found. To begin with, it is simplest to define the expressivist theory as being opposed to the “designative” approach to language. This latter theory holds that “words get their meaning from being used to designate objects.” From this, the French thinker, Etienne de Condillac, developed a notion of the origin of language to which Herder responded. Taylor provides a neat summary of Condillac’s explication:

Two children in a desert utter certain cries and gestures as natural expressions of feeling. These are what Condillac calls “natural signs.” By contrast, language uses “instituted signs.” The story is meant to explain how the second emerged out of the first. He argues that each child, seeing the other, say, cry out in distress, would come to see the cry as a sign of something (what caused the distress). Then the child would be able to take the step of using the sign to refer to the cause of distress. The first sign would have been instituted. The children have their first words, and language is born. The lexicon would then increase slowly, term by term.

The problem with Condillac’s parable, which Herder identifies, is that it presupposes what is at stake, it begs the question as it were. The children relate a cry (signifier) to a cause of distress (signified) as though it were an instinctive ability. Yet, it is precisely this capacity to comprehend that words or utterances can indeed stand for something that must be explained for the origin of language to be understood. For Herder, it is not sufficient that an observer can identify a correlation between a signifier and its signified object or event, because the true nature of language is an internal subjective experience. Unfortunately, as Taylor admits, Herder does no better in explaining the origin of language but, “by focusing on the framework understanding which language requires, Herder opened a new domain of insights into its nature.”

Herder’s focus on the subjective experience of language is the basis of his expressivist theory. Looking at language from the standpoint of the user, Herder posited that language came about as a new, reflexive stance toward things. Rather than simply designating or classifying certain objects, the use of language is an expressive action. The signifier denotes our relation, our stance, toward the signified. Furthermore, it also acts reflexively in that, on the one hand, it communicates this stance to others while, at the same time, it actualises this stance for the language user themselves. Traditional notions of language held that thought preceded language and, hence, language acted simply as a means of communicating thoughts to others or as a means to organise thoughts. However, Herder’s notion of reflexivity suggests that thoughts are only possible with language. In other words, the reflexive power of language means that, for example, we experience emotion through its expression. As Taylor writes, “expressions … make our feelings manifest.” And to re-emphasise that this capacity is not designative, the expression of emotions is not necessarily achieved through their description—for example, one might express one’s feelings of admiration for someone by praising them. Thus, the emotion is implicit in the language, which is given meaning not through set relationships between signifier and signified but through overarching “systems of meaning.”

Though the phrase ‘systems of meaning’ might be an invention of twentieth-century linguistics, Herder’s expressivist theory has similar implications. Herder recognised that a word has meaning only within a lexicon—like Humboldt’s “web of language” —and a context of language practices. For example, to truly understand the meaning of a word such as “triangle” one must not only be able to recognise what a triangle is but also what a triangle is not, or, one must be able to recognise other things as “nontriangles.” To understand something one needs to understand its opposite—Jacques Derrida recognised this in his work on binaries. In other words, meanings of words are based not on a simple relationship between signifier and signified but on a more complex chain of signification or system of meaning. Thus, Herder swept away the designative theory’s claim that language was a collection of independently introduced words and, in so doing, removed the corresponding atomism that had dominated understandings of language. So, one can begin to see how Taylor’s views on linguistics parallel his views on political philosophy in that both undercut atomistic traditions. However, there is more to be said on this subject because Taylor’s non-atomistic, holistic approach to the study of language goes beyond the realm of meanings to incorporate identity as well.

Taylor makes two key points in relation to language and identity. First, that language is a fundamentally dialogic phenomenon that is fashioned and developed within what he terms a “speech community.” While monologue is possible, from an expressivist perspective, language is only given significance when it is a common asset of a community. This is because the expressivists see the core nature of language residing in the process of speech, which in turn has its locus in conversation (with others). This shared, dialogic feature of language suggests that we are never in full individual control of the language we express and, by implication, the thoughts we realise.

People do not acquire the languages needed for self-definition on their own.

This is an idea that has become more and more significant through the poststructuralism of the last century and it fundamentally opposes the sovereign rational subject of René Descartes—cogito ergo sum—because it decentres the individual from our philosophical consciousness and shows that any claims of individual autonomy must be qualified. Again, one should be able to see the link here between the expressivist model of language, which denies complete subject sovereignty, and Taylor’s views on primacy of rights, where he denies that individuals should be considered self-sufficient creatures separable from their society. So, language is something that is shared by a speech community, but how does this relate to the notion of identity?

The second major point that Taylor makes on this subject, that identity is formed through language, has already been alluded to with respect to the expression of an emotion being synonymous with the manifestation of such an emotion. In other words, if all our thoughts, feelings and beliefs are tied to language, then it is evident that our sense of ourselves is likewise established through language. The reflexive nature of language is the vehicle for self-awareness and self-understanding.

… the expressive conception gives a view of language as a range of activities in which we express/realize a certain way of being in the world.

Thus, as language is a shared activity, our identity is to a certain extent always bound up with the broader identity of our speech community, which is, in turn, shaped by our identity. Once more, Taylor uses the expressive conception of language to undermine the atomistic sense of individuals as autonomous entities.

The word “activities” in the above quotation should be given due recognition. The identity, the “way of being in the world”, that we realise through language is not a static affair. Language is active and, as such, it is a dynamic influence. On the one hand, language can be transformative in that “the development of new modes of expression enables us to have new feelings” because, in being able to express our feelings, we give them a reflexive dimension which not only realises them but transforms them. What’s more, while language is not under an individual’s control because of its delocalised existence amongst a speech community, each and every language user is, simply through the use of language, reshaping it. As Taylor sees it, we come to express/realize a certain way of being in the world against a background of language practices that we can never fully dominate but it is also a background we are never fully dominated by because we are reshaping it. In other words, we are inducted into a language community that has existing practices but as soon as we become interlocutors we become creators of new modes of expression that relate to our personal experiences. Thus, we make for ourselves an identity and a self-awareness that fits into the larger web of understandings and meanings that constitutes a speech community. Extending this idea further, while language is shaped by the community, the community is itself shaped by language because our modes of expression serve to characterise our relationships with others. Our social status and our feelings towards others are all expressed/realized through language.

So, our individual identity is inextricably linked to others in a dialogic relationship. Relating this back to the discussion of atomism that began this essay, this understanding of language and the resulting conception of identity clearly runs in opposition to the atomistic conception of individuals with no obligations to their society. We can only achieve our particularly human capacities through language and, because language is a shared, common set of activities, we require society to fulfil this human potential. Therefore, it is incoherent to set out individual rights that do not carry with them any obligations to belong to the (speech) community that fosters the language necessary to develop as a human being. Similarly, with regard to competing conceptions of personal liberty, Taylor suggests that “freedom requires a certain understanding of self” and, as has been shown in this exposition of his expressive conception of language, “self-understanding is not something we can sustain on our own [because] our identity is always partly defined in conversation with others or through the common understanding which underlies the practices of our society.” Hence, Taylor’s work in undermining the influence of atomism on our notions of rights and freedom is largely based upon his parallel work on expressivism in linguistics.

Another element of Taylor’s work that benefits from his work on linguistics is his notion of a republican society. He outlines his arguments on this topic in his paper Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate. The view of the republic that Taylor supports is one where patriotism is a binding element, where the value of the political society lies not in what it offers the individual—as it does for Locke or Hobbes—but in what it offers to the common good. It is based on an “understanding that the political institutions are a common bulwark of citizen dignity.” As Alan Patten writes, in Taylor’s opinion “individuals view citizenship not merely in instrumental terms, but as a good in itself, which is shared with others, and which is integral to their identities and self-understandings.” The crux of his argument is that atomistic principles have caused a misunderstanding around the distinction between matters that are “for me and for you” and matters that are “for us.” In other words, the atomistic impulse to think of discrete individuals holds sway over our conceptions of political society because we think of our shared goods (welfare, police force etc) as being for you and for me rather than for us. So, what exactly is the distinction? Yet again, Taylor draws on linguistics to make his point. Let us consider a conversation between two people over something as simple as the weather. Prior to the conversation beginning, both parties would have been aware of the weather—it was a matter for him and for her. When they begin to discuss the weather, they make it a matter for them. As Taylor puts it,

A conversation is not the coordination of actions of different individuals but a common action in this strong, irreducible sense; it is our action.

This commonality changes the relationship between people. It familiarises them, builds a common understanding and can lead to a sense of intimacy—an “essentially dialogic phenomenon” in Taylor’s view. So, in Taylor’s thesis, this same monologic-dialogic distinction is evident in relation to goods.

Some things have value to me and you, and some things essentially have value to us. [my emphasis]

Hence, a republic’s shared goods should in fact be considered as “convergent” goods in Taylor’s terminology because their value is as much in their commonality as it is in what they offer to the individual. So, the significance of the nation’s common goods, and my basis for belonging, is not based around the contractarian notion that they provide for me what I cannot provide by myself. Instead, my enjoyment and appreciation of these goods is heightened by the fact that I share the experience with other members of my community, with whom, through our common language, I identify myself with. So, once more, through a notion of expressivism that emphasises the commonality of language, Taylor shows that one must similarly accept a non-atomistic or holistic approach to political society. To place this continuing correlation in context, Taylor writes,

The battle between expressors and designators is one front in the global war between the heirs of the Enlightenment and the Romantics.

So, in the light of this discussion, it should be evident that Taylor’s philosophical approach is centred around a push to overturn the primacy of the paradigm of atomism. He works to undermine the influence of atomism on political matters such as rights, liberty and republican society through linking them to the underlying framework of language that, once understood from an expressivist point of view, reveals the importance of commonality, of communitarianism.

As an addendum to this discussion it is worth noting that Taylor could easily enrich the potency of his linguistic analysis by taking on some of the similarly non-atomistic principles of contemporary linguistics. The shared purpose of Taylor and linguists such as Michael Halliday is striking. Halliday writes that semiotics, the study of signs that originated with the Stoics and saw more recent development with Ferdinand de Saussure, has historically been limited by the notion of the sign as an “atomistic concept.” In place of this, Halliday posits that we must think of “systems of meaning”, where language is one expression of these systems, which also incorporate other modes of meaning such as art and music. As discussed earlier, Taylor has a similarly non-atomistic approach to language. Moreover, Halliday makes the important leap of linking semiotics to its social context, whereas other linguists have focused on psychological or psychoanalytic facets of language. Again, this parallels Taylor’s focus on the “speech community” and the manner in which language shapes social structures. Where Halliday goes further is in creating a model for the analysis of language that incorporates this new social-semiotics. Though this clearly is not the place for a detailed exposition of this model, it is nevertheless worth noting that Taylor’s stand on language is supported and reflected in some of the most significant linguistic studies of the last two decades and, for those who make the link, Taylor’s attacks on atomism and his support for a holistic political consciousness can only be enhanced by the increased depth achieved in applying Halliday’s work in conjunction with Taylor’s. The result is an understanding of a powerfully different communitarian notion of political society compared to the liberal-atomism which has dominated modern political theory.

Works Cited
Halliday, M.A.K. & Hasan, R. Language, context, and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Geelong: Deakin University Press, 1993.
Hjort, M. “Literature: expression or interaction?” in J. Tully (ed.) Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: the philosophy of Charles Taylor in question. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Patten, A. “The Republican Critique of Liberalism” in British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan., 1996).
Sandel, M. Limits of Liberalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Taylor, C. “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty” in A. Ryan (ed.) The Idea of Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
———— “Atomism” (Ch. 7) in Philosophy and the Human Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
———— “Language and Human Nature” (Ch. 9) in Human Agency and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
———— “Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate” in N.L. Rosenblum (ed.) Liberalism and the Moral Life. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989.
———— “The Politics of Recognition” (Ch. 12) in Philosophical Arguments Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995.
———— “The Importance of Herder” (Ch. 5) in Philosophical Arguments. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Further Reading
Descombes, V. “Is there an objective Spirit?”, D.M. Weinstock (trans.) in J. Tully (ed.) Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: the philosophy of Charles Taylor in question. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Gutting, G. Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.