Paul A. Kottman. A Politics of the Scene. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007.  260pp.   ISBN-10: 0804758344   ISBN-13: 978 0 80 475834 5.

Renuka Gusain
Wayne State University

Renuka Gusain. "Review of Paul A. Kottman, A Politics of the Scene." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:>.

  1. A Politics of the Scene examines how scenes are a “fundamental category for thinking about political life”(4) and suggests that drama, as “a limitless collection of singular scenes of interaction”, might provide an essential resource to redefine politics—a definition, Paul A. Kottman insists, that is categorically not universal (101). This book argues that political philosophy has not only denied its roots in drama, the “figural ground from which it emerges”(4), but has also formulated itself on that very denial. The premise of the book is the ontological parity of world and stage—the ontology that the world is essentially a stage—and Kottman traces how politics arise from and respond to this ontology. His speculative theory of “a politics of the scene” is proposed as one alternative to “a comprehensive taxonomical account of what constitutes a polity” and he suggests that we “articulate ‘the political’ in terms of the infinite variety of interactions and relations of which political life is composed” (100).

  2. In juxtaposing the dramatic works of Shakespeare and others with the major political treatises of Plato and Hobbes (The Republic and Leviathan respectively), Kottman stages a “scene”, one that successfully argues for the centrality of drama for politics. He maps the figuration of the world as a stage in the development of Greek tragedy and Plato’s political theory (that paradoxically seeks to overcome the horizon of dramatic experience) as essential to the emergence of political philosophy. The aim is to “radically reconsider the tension between dramatic experience and politics by suspending the authority and methodologies of more traditional political science or political theory” (18).

  3. The book is divided into two parts: Part I containing 4 chapters that delineate the theoretical and philosophical rubrics and arguments of the project, and Part II containing another 4 chapters that move toward a different articulation of politics of the scene in plays. The detailed Introduction scrupulously defines and explains concepts such as “scene”, “figurality”, “horizon” and “expropriation”, all of which are indispensible to the central argument. Kottman examines these concepts historically, rhetorically and theoretically, and in the ensuing chapters offers close lexical analysis and a “semantic trajectory” of words like “theory”, “theatre”, and “mimesis”, which leads to acute insights into the nature of politics. For instance, while analyzing Books III and X of The Republic in Chapter Two “Plato: Mimesis,” Kottman arrives at a definition of mimesis as “impersonation”, that “inaugurates the “politicization of mimesis, or makes of it a problem that concerns political existence” (42). 

  4. In the early chapters Kottman compellingly distinguishes between Hannah Arendt’s idea of action and Aristotle’s praxis, and examines Adriana Cavarero’s argument about political theory being an oxymoron, in an effort to trace how Plato’s discourse displaced drama with theory. Chapter 3 shows how Leviathan, even more forcefully than The Republic, “doubly negates” and disavows the dramatic horizon of the world stage that is “the potentiality of human interaction that is at once ontological and political” (55).  Chapter 4 offers a fascinating analysis of a “visual figuration” (78)—the famous frontispiece of the 1651 Leviathan by Abraham Bosse—for the purpose of delineating the theoretical claims of Hobbes’ discourse. In this chapter Kottman also begins to draw from Shakespeare and includes contemporary references to Osama Bin Laden and CNN transmission from war zones, to argue and illustrate how “Hobbes’ Leviathan embodies—or, in a certain sense, prefigures—a modality of visibility that strikes terror in the eyes of the body while breaking decisively with any particular here-and-now horizon of theatrical visibility or show of force” (88). Here he strikes a note of concord with recent media and visual studies and scholarship on the war body, embodiment and affect theory.

  5. In Chapter 5 Kottman explains why he has “chosen dramatic scenes as the operative theme of this book, and as a resource through which to envisage a politics of the scene” (101). He draws from the “relational ontology” of Heidegger, Nancy and others to show how scenes emerge out of “an ontological horizon of interrelatedness” (106). As Kottman succinctly sums up: “a politics of the scene aims at an understanding of politics that forgoes a full philosophical definition of human political (or ethical) existence for the sake of preserving the significance and value of undefined relationships for politics” (106). Chapter 6 begins by examining audience response to Phrynichus’ play The Fall of Miletus. Kottman points out that even though no script of Phrynichus’s play is extant, we know that it was about the military defeat of the Milesians, an event that occurred two years before the staging of the play in Athens. Kottman uses this context and Herodotus’ account of the audience’s reaction to explain how “the play reminded them [the audience] of what they already remembered” (118) and how a scene becomes “the living affirmation of a shared memory” (119). The audience's shared experience and their affirmation of the relation of those on the scene leads to the development of the idea of the address of one witness to another. Developing this idea further in the next chapter, Kottman proposes, “what binds speech to political existence is that the act of speaking makes a scene” (154). This chapter offers a close analysis of witness, testimony, speech and death, through a unique perspective on Yorick’s skull, the ghost of Old Hamlet and Horatio.  

  6. The final chapter combines keen formalistic reading with a sophisticated theorization of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet as an example of “Shakespeare’s political exploitation of the ‘relational scene’”(181). The chapter concludes by emphasizing the primacy of active response of one participant of a scene to “the fact of being-with-others in the world” (184). The Epilogue returns to the opening epigraph of the book that is also the Duke’s declaration about “this wide and universal theater” in As You Like It. Kottman shows how the literalization of the theatrum mundi image, “a recuperation of the proper meaning of drama … paves the way for a rearticulation of the ontological horizon from which a politics of the scene might emerge and find its own discursive articulation” (187). He traces a trajectory of this image from Plato to Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre, reiterating that the world is not simply like a stage; the world is a stage.

  7. If “to speak is to make a scene” and to make a scene implies “the futurity of active relationships between and among those who were on the scene” (154), then this book stages a polysemous scene: it presents a unique way of seeing, of staging politics and dramatic scenes, and it readdresses a range of theorists in such a way that like a scene “it immediately leaves behind the potentiality for a future” (139). The book draws on and critically complicates a range of political philosophies, particularly that of Arendt from The Human Condition and Cavarero’s development of Arendt’s ideas in For More than One Voice, a book that Kottman himself has translated into English. It is stimulating to see these engagements and “exegetical analyses” (18), especially in the case of Cavarero, an exciting feminist political philosopher, who has rarely (if at all) been discussed in relation to Shakespeare studies. It is also refreshing to read about political philosophy (and Shakespeare) without the mention of the triumvirate ABZs—Agamben, Badiou, Zizek. This is a thought-provoking addition to scholarship—to critical theories, political philosophies, drama and media studies, all of which can engage with this book through various tangents. We will undoubtedly benefit from this careful thinking of the scene, the rethinking through Shakespeare and this sheer breadth of coverage. 

Works Cited


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© 2010-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).