Pleasures of the flesh

How a nerve-shredding new dance production from Dave St-Pierre has divided the critics.

"Attention-seeking behaviour" is a term given by grown-ups to infantile provocation, gratuitous disruption or unruly display. Think of toddlers, tantrums, the "terrible twos". Theatre performance is also - on some level - a kind of attention-seeking, albeit a sanctioned, grown-up kind.

Well, last week at Sadler's Wells Theatre, in Dave St-Pierre's piece Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde! (translated as "a little tenderness for crying out loud", which excises the smutty/shitty overtones of the French), the two kinds of attention-seeking collided explosively - and there was fallout. People either loved it or hated it. There were plenty of walkouts; also, a standing ovation. "An amazing evening of theatre," enthused Judith Flanders at artsdesk.com, while the Observer's Luke Jennings called it "lazy, derivative and very, very provincial" and the Telegraph's Mark Monahan slammed it with a zero-star rating.

It was certainly impossible to remain unaffected - but was that a response to serious theatre or a reaction to bad behaviour? The polarising moment, for many, was a scene in which the company men, wearing blond wigs but otherwise bollock-naked, invaded the audience with a volley of high-pitched shrieks, scampering over seats and sitting on laps, jiggling their willies in people's faces and shoving their bums around - a horde of toddlers in adult guise running amok among civilised grown-ups.

In some parts of the theatre, this produced quite a party atmosphere, albeit with a dangerous edge. Elsewhere - perhaps because boys will be boys - the boisterous spirits became more directly confrontational (just in front of me, a dancer tried to give Monahan an earful of dick, and Jennings had his specs taken and spat on). When the performers eventually returned to the stage, the sense of relief among the audience was palpable, though undermined by "Sabrina" (Enrica Boucher), the evening's compere, who gave us a withering smile and said "Congratulations! You have just survived the first twenty minutes."

During the remaining hour and a half, there were further assaults on sensibilities and sensitivities, though mainly on stage rather than in the auditorium. There was mock-masturbation, more spitting, lots of screaming, various terrible twosomes (dysfunctional couples are like mother's milk to contemporary dance). Oh, and Sabrina shagged a cake.

Some of the scenes looked obviously influenced by the late, great choreographer Pina Bausch (who once called St-Pierre's dancers "my pornographic illegitimate children"): a line of men hitting their own faces; a solitary woman, a wreck of quivering nerves, who is kissed in turn by each of the men. The dancers robed and disrobed, the men donning their squeaky-voiced, blond-wigged personae as they doffed their clothes. Sabrina, offering a wise-cracking, tough-talking commentary on the action that menaced the audience and dissed the dancers, stayed clothed until the final transcendent scene, when the stage turned into a big puddle of water. The dancers slid across it on their tummies, or thrashed like spawn in a pool - and Sabrina finally became one of them, all as naked and innocent as the day they were born, doused in water as if it were amniotic fluid.

Most, like the Guardian's Judith Mackrell, found the finale an "astonishing coup de théâtre" - attention-grabbing in the grown-up, theatrical way. Much of the rest you could call attention-seeking in the infantile-behaviour way - wilfully provocative, unruly, gross. You might find it disarmingly childlike or tiresomely so, but either way it is hard to ignore.

Still, hard to ignore is not the same as worthy of attention. So here is why I found the piece worthwhile - transfixing, even. For me, the iconic moment was not the attention-seeking audience invasion, but the opening scene (echoed later on) of two duets. In one, a woman implores, pleads, yanks, tugs at her impassive partner; in the other, a woman rails, beats, punches, flails against hers. They looked like toddlers' tantrums, one showing naked need, the other raw rage; both revealed a blind, consuming desperation for attention. You could take them as yet more dysfunctional twosomes, but I read them as St-Pierre's relation to his audience: needing, provoking, forcing us into some kind of reaction. St-Pierre hadn't just mixed two opposed kinds of attention-seeking - one infantile, the other adult - but joined them.

The boundary-breaking felt physical. Once the audience had been invaded I felt as tenderised as meat, my nerves shredded - as if the social skin between audience and performers was now bruised and raw (though not in my case violated: I hadn't been on the receiving end of any unwanted attention). And from then on, I was sensitised: the scenes of brutality, need and innocence felt as tender as a wound.

Sanjoy Roy is the New Statesman's dance critic

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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