35. Festival


The exemplarity of human ethics lies not in its being the prescriptive origin, but the descriptive model of ethics.”1
Silvia Benso

In the last but one post, we had a gander at Silvia Benso’s work on touch, attention and tenderness when thinking about ethical encounters and there was the promise of more of such thinking in the form of festivals. However, before we resume our ‘gandering’ with Benso I want us to ‘goose’ with Gadamer. Accepting that I have quite possibly overstretched the early 1900s idiom for looking, in my uses and abuses of ‘gander’, let us proceed, or waddle, undaunted.

When re-considering play in The Relevance of the Beautiful, Gadamer isolated the change within the spectator, from onlooker to participant, to draw out his new aesthetic perspective:

“We need only think of the theory of epic theatre in Brecht, who specifically fought against our being absorbed in a theatrical dream-world… He deliberately destroyed scenic realism, the normal requirements of characterization, in short, the identity of everything usually expected of a play.”2

the Classic Stage Company's staging of Bertolt Brecht's “Galileo.” Credit Sara Krulwich - The New York Times.fw
The Classic Stage Company’s staging of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Galileo’. Credit Sara Krulwich – The New York Times

The spectator can no longer sit back and allow the play to unfold before them and escape from themselves throughout its duration, instead they are forced to look at themselves as well as the play and in effect participate with the art that they are with. They are present just as much as the art they see. Because of the connection, of spectator to work, Gadamer believed that “it is quite wrong to think that the unity of the work implies that the work is closed off from the person who turns to it or is affected by it.”3 The mediating construct of this participation and connection, of course, is the concept of play, which applies itself to every form of art:

“All art of whatever kind, whether the art of substantial tradition with which we are familiar or the contemporary art that is unfamiliar because it has no tradition, always demands constructive activity on our part.”4


To elaborate his idea and ensure that it had no possible connection to aesthetic consciousness Gadamer delved back into ancient history and recalled the Greek concept of theoria and articulated the particular meaning of theoros as “someone who takes part in a delegation to a festival.”5 As he explained, this person “has no other distinction or function than to be there.”6 The theoros is not there to interpret, record, or understand, but solely to participate and experience what is before them:

Theoria is a true participation, not as something active but something passive (pathos), namely being totally involved in and carried away by what one sees.” 7

As if to complete the separation from aesthetic consciousness, Gadamer wrote the following:

“Being present has the character of being outside oneself… In fact, being outside oneself is the positive possibility of being wholly with something else.”8

Mardi Gras.fw

The subjective prioritisation of aesthetic consciousness (which, if we remember, was Kant’s position as given by Gadamer and discussed in post eleven) is replaced, not by an annihilation of the self but by an opening of the self to possibilities beyond one’s limits. This occurs by allowing the other to fully present themselves without one’s self-consciousness or consciousness manipulating the potential possibilities of experience. Gadamer described this using the term “self-forgetfulness”, whereby being a spectator means to give “oneself in self-forgetfulness to what one is watching… it arises from devoting one’s full attention to the matter at hand, and this is the spectator’s own positive accomplishment.”9 If we dwell on this statement for a moment it is possible to see the full sense of Gadamer’s meaning because giving one’s full attention to something should actually mean forgetting one’s self. One’s pre-occupations, regrets, desires, insecurities and presumptions should be cast from the forefront of one’s mind when attending as a spectator. Perhaps an easy example is provided by the phrase ‘lost in the music’ whereby we allow ourselves to be taken on a journey. This never happens when cynicism, interpretation, blunt ignorance, or lack of openness acts as our guide.

Lost in Music.fw

There is a striking point to be made here regarding cynicism. In the throes of a party or festival how many times has your enjoyment of the proceedings been interrupted by the ‘witty comment’ of a friend who has your ear at a vital moment to remark upon the ‘obvious agenda’ behind a certain person’s behaviour/dress-sense/participation. At those moments one has the sense of being brought crashing back to reality and joy being killed. The reason being that the cynic has just slammed the door of openness that you were innocently holding open to imbibe the view. Cynics, witty commentators and killjoys never leave the comfort of their own misanthropy and internal musings to experience real life. Life’s rich pageant is purely something to be witnessed from behind their reinforced glass observation pane. My suggestion in order to actually live, therefore, is for you to slip from their side and dare to step into the refreshing breeze of life with the spirit of Gadamer’s self-forgetfulness to keep you aloft. Cut the cynical mooring ropes that bind you to the misery of cynical existence and drift into the wonderment of engaging, participation and living. It won’t always be pleasant, however it will be authentic – a subject for a future time when we travel with Jean-Paul Sartre. For now though, back to Gadamer.

Gadamer’s next point in The Relevance of the Beautiful is again a re-thinking of a concept in Truth and Method. Rather than approaching the idea of festival from the framework of theoros and self-forgetting, Gadamer focused on the inclusive aspect of the spectator:

“If there is one thing that pertains to all festival experiences then it is surely the fact that they allow no separation between one person and another. A festival is an experience of community and represents community in its most perfect form.”10


The self-forgetting of theoros through experience now becomes a self-forgetting through community. A connection is brought about, through the festival, of one with another so that a genuine experience is lived through where one feels, rather than thinks, the connectedness of those around them. Gadamer related this concept back to art when he wrote:

“I am thinking of the national Museum in Athens, where it seems that every ten years they rescue some miraculous new bronze from the depths of the Aegean and set it up again. On entering the room for the first time, one is overcome by an all-embracing festive quiet and one senses how everyone is gathered together before what they encounter. The celebration of a festival is, in technical terms, an intentional activity… It is not simply the fact that we are in the same place, but rather the intention that unites us and prevents us as individuals from falling into private conversations and private, subjective experiences.”11

 NAMA_Poséidon and crowd.fw

Such an experience is a community experience of art, but Gadamer also brought it back to a personal experience of art:

“It is characteristic of festive celebration that it is meaningful only for those actually taking part. As such, it represents a unique kind of presence that must be fully appreciated.”12

Whether it is to twist Gadamer’s words at this juncture, or merely to play out the two lines of his thought, I believe that we can see in his work a distillation point where one can achieve a sense of community with the art work itself. The “unique kind of presence” or ‘community’ could also be felt with the work and is not necessarily tied to the attendance of other people. We can be open to the unique presence of an artwork, as we can be open to the unique presence of the other, could we not?

Perhaps, at this point, though, we need Benso rather than Gadamer. As we saw in a previous post, with her synthesis of Levinas and Heidegger that aimed to bring about a ‘love of things’, Benso has much that can be offered on the matter.

Knuckles 2.fw

In The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, Benso tries to give context and provide a known example of where an ethical encounter of tenderness can take place. To that end she investigates what it is to be in a festival.

As a starting point, time is taken as a medium to present the difference between the festival and the everyday. In the latter, Benso states, time is ‘unidimesional’ because it has a “unilinear directionality corresponding to the advancement of progress in its different variations (reason, the Idea, the victory of the proletarians), thus instituting the modality of time as continuity.”13 So, according to Benso, ‘everyday’ time is linked directly to the idea of progress, rationality, and by association totalisation. Just as vision totalises by assimilating into understanding, so to does time by providing a framework for that assimilation to happen: we progress and understand through time. The resonances with knowledge gaining as opposed to wisdom seeking start to make themselves felt in Benso’s descriptions of everyday time.


In contrast, festival time, Benso reflects, operates by calendars and exhibits “the notion of an interrupted temporality, in which each moment presents the possibility of multiple, innumerable, and therefore immemorial inscriptions the trace of which is, nevertheless, maintained in the citation of the date.”14 By celebrating a particular calendar day, for example Christmas day, other previous Christmas days and future ones all become present on that day outside of linear time, in a rich and satisfying blend of memories, current events, and aspirations. The “discontinuous and nonhomogeneous”15 aspect to festival time interrupts and gives respite from the constant pressure and flow of everyday time and existence. The necessity of a pause comes into play when we experience a festival and at these moments the pressure of linear time gets re-directed around us so we can step outside of ourselves and begin to really look at our world:

Festival Time.fw

“It is [festivals] interruptive character that renders them the most appropriate situation through which the ethics of things can be fulfilled. In their being a suspension of the banality of the everydayness, festivals also suspend that everyday, nonfestive attitude which is prone to a consideration of things in terms of objects… therefore opening up a different space: the space of what is meaningful in itself, without reference and insertion into a previously constituted system.”16

However, a danger that Benso recognises comes from potential similarity between the festival attitude and a “Kierkegaardian aesthetic individual,”17 because the two appear to culminate in the same end: Gratification and the search for pleasure. The difference is that the latter is interested in the “exploitation of objects” for “their own enjoyment,”18 whilst the former expresses “a love for things which maintains them in the separateness of their alterity.”19 (Let us remember that the term ‘alterity’ can roughly be translated as ‘otherness’.) In addition, she writes, “it is only where alterities are allowed to reveal themselves and flourish that festivity can be found.”20 Things, therefore, cannot be regarded as objects if alterity, or otherness, is to be preserved, and festivity, by providing a suitable environment, assists in this preservation. Kierkegaard’s aesthetic individual is consequently warded off by Benso’s appreciation of a ‘Levin-egger’ fusion that can allow for a space whereby otherness can be present in things. That space, of course, is a festive space.

Festive Space.fw

Another danger, considered by Benso, was the potential for festivals to metamorphose into the products of necessity, and become a means to an end:

“When festivals search for a foundation of their own origin within themselves, they betray their own character of response to the call of the events and become ceremonies, parades, masquerades at the service of regimes. That is, festivals lose their ethical component and turn into political ideologies, mythological creations of an ontological rationality rather than responses of an ethical subjectivity, exaltation of the orgy of feelings rather than celebration of the modesty of alterity.”21

A festival is not a ceremony designed to achieve a certain end, it is not meant to serve a higher purpose or give a required result; it is purely a celebration and nothing more. The celebration of a festival allows a unique separateness to occur where neither the subject nor the thing subsumes the other into its world and, further, it is where the conditions for an ethical meeting between the two can be potentially obtained.

Subject and Object.fw

Hence, by preserving alterity within a festival, as it was when Benso investigated touch, attention and tenderness, we find an environment that can be added to a catalogue of ethically conducive requirements. So that with the negation of a totalising vision by touch, the humility of attention, the ‘way of being’ of tenderness, and the environment of festival we can become equipped to encounter a thing ethically.

Benso’s synthesis of Heidegger and Levinas, with her introduction of touch, attention, tenderness, and festival, shows how a love of things can be possible, and that Levinas’ categorical statement that “things have no face,”22 potentially, can be overcome without the integrity of his work being destroyed. The “face” of things is given by the possibility of the ethical encounter and is made realisable by Benso’s working with Levinasian and Heideggerian ideas rather than against them. However, all her technical innovations and persuasiveness find themselves overshadowed by the very simple belief that was stated in the prelude to her synthesis: “The exemplarity of human ethics lies not in its being the prescriptive origin, but the descriptive model of ethics.”23 That this belief was shown to be worthy is a credit to Benso’s work and it enables her to state justly:

“The ethical authority of the Other…, should not obliterate another form of alterity, which is different from the otherness of the other person, and whose presence is less apparent, less evident, less loud: the alterity of what Levinas’s ethics neglects, things.”24

Respect for things.fw

In reference to our second reading of Levinas and art (see post thirty-one), we can now see how the environment or abstract art – each being a ‘thing’ – can be encountered ethically. At the same time, we can also realise that their alterity might not have the enormity of a human other, as Levinas described, but nevertheless they do have an alterity that we can relate to, participate in, and ultimately treat ethically.


  1. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 139.
  2. Gadamer, H-G., ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’ included in The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Edited by Robert Bernasconi. Translated by Nicholas Walker, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 24.
  3. Ibid., 25.
  4. Ibid., 37.
  5. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 124.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 124-5.
  8. Ibid., 125-6.
  9. Ibid., 126.
  10. Gadamer, H-G. ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’ included in The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Edited by Robert Bernasconi. Translated by Nicholas Walker, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 39.
  11. Ibid., 40.
  12. Ibid., 49.
  13. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 185.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., 186.
  16. Ibid., 191.
  17. Ibid., 192.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 196.
  22. Levinas, E. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1998, 140.
  23. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 139.
  24. Ibid.

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