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Pinter & politics Arrow vol 2 no 2 contents
About borderlands volume 2 number 2, 2003

Pinter, Radical Critique, and Politics

Vivienne Jabri
University of London

1. The invasion of Iraq prompted Harold Pinter to call for Tony Blair’s resignation. There is no ambiguity in his message, that this war was wrong, that Parliament and the British public were misled, that claims about imminent threats were exaggerated, that intelligence material was manipulated. Pinter speaks directly to the public, addressing audiences from the million or so strong demonstrating in London against the war in Iraq to the more confined numbers of the National Theatre. His is a voice that protests, repeatedly calling for resistance, condemning acts that violate.

2. Pinter enters the fray in the scene of the international. Not so long ago, this scene was veering towards a rather bewildering optimism; that democracies did not fight each other, that globalisation meant the vindication of interdependence in place of power politics, that postcoloniality centred upon hybridity and the fusion of cultures, that postmodernity meant the celebration of difference. Not so long ago, and even persistently now, there was/is much talk of the scene of the international being that of a global civil society, concerned with human rights and cosmopolitan law. The demise of the state was one casualty, the state upstaged by global forces that were more about homely things, consumer goods accessible by everyone, well everyone who could join in with the club of consumers, the game of the marketplace. The scene of the international was indeed equated with that of the marketplace, of unrestrained exchange where the road to happiness was to be full participant in the Gap/Nike culture that made of us all global citizens, fused within a global culture that had, at the end of time, become universal.

3. The scene was disrupted by events not written into the script when the Berlin Wall was demolished. We had thought that the East, in Europe, would simply join into the marketplace of democracies, transform decades of oppression into limitless consumerism, where the capacity to buy and sell would defeat any ideological fervour. Somehow, the plot was not so much lost as interrupted. For we in the west had assumed that the "age of extremes", to follow Eric Hobsbawm (1994) was of a bygone era, that genocidal tendencies just simply belonged elsewhere. Could we have written ethnic cleansing into the postmodern plot? Could we have foreseen the incarceration, massacre and systematic rape of entire communities simply for being community, with language, possessing identity and history? Could we have foreseen that there were characters in the script constituted by a desire to obliterate from the scene those who simply did not fit an ideology based on ethnic purity and demographic calculation? The scene of the international, taking place in the heart of Europe, was once again one dominated by imagery that awakened memories; emaciated bodies, the mass transport of women and children, men killed simply for being the men folk of a community, women raped by former neighbours simply because, now in the era of broken taboos and the sudden breakdown of societal rules, they could be.

4. Those of us who wish to include Horkheimer and Adorno (1997) into the scene of International Relations, have always rejected the linear plot of progress so beloved of Enlightenment thinkers and Victorian narrators alike. For we are, persistently, haunted by the dialectic, that the enlightenment of some meant darkness for others, that progress for some meant the possession and subjugation of others, that uniform instrumentality and the reification of science meant subjection into servitude, if not to the sovereign king then to a mass culture that reduced humanity to compliant conformity. With Michel Foucault (1991), we delved deeply into the message contained in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, for we saw that the engine of modernity was the rationalisation of society, its compliance achieved through panoptic surveillance and the incarceration, and at times elimination, of those deemed other, deemed too disruptive of the liberal order of things. With Michel Foucault we saw war at the heart of a modern civil order based on exclusions. Then we saw the systematisation of such exclusions through progress of the technologies of control that worked upon bodies, that divided populations into calculable cells, that turned government into practices of accountancy, that ultimately formed the subjects of high modernity.

5. Walter Benjamin, a contemporary of Adorno and Horkheimer, asks in an essay entitled "The Author as Producer": "What is the relationship between form and content, particularly in political poetry?" (1999: 769) He goes on to state that this "kind of question has a bad name.." and that what is required is a dialectical approach to it. For Benjamin, the dialectical approach places the work of art into its social matrix, both in a sense being related in mutual constitution. Hence, the dialectical reading of the relationship between form and content is one that precisely inserts poem, drama, novel, into their "living social contexts" which are, for Benjamin, determined by the "conditions of production." But Benjamin is not simply interested in how the literary work relates to the conditions of production; rather, how its "technique" shifts the terrain of the known, exceeds the expected and, more importantly, exposes the present, thereby problematising it. Writing of Brecht’s Epic Theatre, Benjamin shows us how this worked according to the "principle of interruption": "I am speaking of the procedure of montage: the superimposed element disrupts the context in which it is inserted…The interruption of action, on account of which Brecht described his theatre as ‘epic’, constantly counteracts illusion on the part of the audience." (1999: 778)

6. Brecht, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Michel Foucault, all brought forth into the scene of International Relations as interruptions to the plot that tells us of progress, that tells us of transformations towards an imagined emancipatory order. We have all been rudely awakened, even those of us who took these authors seriously. We knew that in the midst of talk of hybridity and the celebration of difference there was emergent not just a series of social movements that sought to contain the inequalities sustained by globalising capital, but a politics of reaction that sought to reify the local and the particular. The certainties of International Relations have been disrupted by the scene of the international, where fragmentation and uncertainty reign supreme, where relatively risk-free warfare has its paradox in endangering us all, where the neo-realists of old remind us that their reading of the international was indeed the one that provided a recipe for the containment of power. In Brechtian mode, perhaps it is now the turn of the critics to disrupt the plot, to expose the present in all its totalising dangers.

7. Pinter is a powerful voice in the British public sphere. He carries with him social capital that few others possess, for his is a voice not just of protest but of a form of legitimacy that comes with being a member of the British establishment. He is a dissident who has access to the public sphere. This paper is not about Pinter’s various public pronouncements against tyranny and war. It is rather about theatre as a location of dissent and much more. When I state that it is about more than political theatre, I want to suggest that Pinter’s work relates to how the most everyday aspect of lived experience can be violently penetrated by the most unimaginable cruelty. That the very act of speech and communication can be rendered an impossibility. Over and above the capacity to speak, Pinter’s vision is one that portrays untrammelled power through the reduction of the self to what Giorgio Agamben (1999) would refer to as "bare life", the corporeal self, the embodied self reduced to its sheer corporeality, exposed in all its vulnerability. More than any other contemporary playwright, Pinter reveals to an audience the complexity of power and how power operates upon the body of the subject. An audience comes to be witness to its own vulnerability as its visceral corporeality is made all too evident.

8. This paper rereads two of Pinter’s "political" plays, Mountain People and One for the Road. Both portray tyranny and the impact of untrammelled power. Both shock the onlooker with the pounding of words, repetitions, stage noises like the loud screeching of chairs, the ground-trembling stamping of army boots, gestures that menace, and an imagery that can confound the audience despite its seeming clarity. This is no mere portrayal of cruelty in its abstract sense, in some theoretical discourse that seeks to render knowable that which evades the usual epistemological criteria. Rather, the onlooker is somehow participant, engaged corporeally not just in the play, but far beyond it, beyond the confined space of the theatre. This engagement takes a number of different forms, for the fusions that take place in the moment of the play, shift temporally and spatially, so that the viewer’s own history, specific temporality, is brought forth in traces and fragments that bear no easy categorisation. There is sympathy with the cause, solidarity against the tyrannous, but then there is much more still, that which is beyond articulation, where speech simply stops. There is need to trace the interstitial space that contains the work of art, in this case the two plays mentioned, and the onlooker, the interpreter. The movement in this space defies easy capturability, for the subject shifts all too easily, leaving traces of impression and memory. But then this is the subject emergent, the moment wherein self and history meet, where recognition comes forth, where the scene of the act can no longer be thought of as a separate realm.

9. Works of art that interest me, works that come in many forms and from across societies and cultures, express both critique and creativity. Art in its most unpredictable sense, disrupts the given order of things, challenges that which is taken for granted. In this form, art brings in the viewer or reader, so that they become at one with the artist and the work of art. There is no disciplinarity here, but a complex interstitial interaction, where subjectivity emerges and exceeds its own being. There is, in this interaction between artist and viewer, artist and reader, some hesitancy, as well as uncertainty; the work of art brought to life but at the same time exceeding its meaning, exceeding its subject-matter, its subjectivity. (Jabri 1998: 591-611) This uncapturable excess somehow defies easy interpretation, useful categorisation; the work and the world somehow never reaching a point of contiguity, where we might say, "ah! This is the meaning of this work". What is important to recognise is that the excess of subjectivity, that which is defiant of capture, paradoxically, suggests its presence in the interstitial space where the work and the viewer meet. (Jabri 2002)

10. International Relations, as discipline, and as orthodoxy, seeks predominantly to describe events in global politics, where the term theory is often applied to what are essentially descriptive accounts of interactions at the global level, descriptions that are often framed in causal terms. Even where structural continuities are taken into account as, for example, in constructivist approaches to the subject, the discourse is representational, assuming a form of correspondence, even as such correspondence is recognised to be a product of the constitutive role of language. In many senses, International Relations the discipline, with all its taken for granted, formulaic representations of the world, is far removed from the world, specifically where this world remains unrepresented, somehow beyond easy predictability. International Relations with its givens, the state, order in international society, strangely has little to contribute to politics and how we might conceive of the political. Where it becomes political is when it recognises the complex interplay between the social, economic, and political spheres, as these penetrate the everyday lived experience of the subject through the institutionalisation of regulatory practices that produce particular subjects and that inhibit or constrain particular others. International Relations as discipline becomes political when it recognises the contested nature of political authority, of legitimacy, and the parameters of what might constitute community. It becomes political when it recognises the multiplicity of locations wherein the political comes into play, where the subject of politics emerges.

11. International Relations, in all its conventionality, rejects all forms of ambiguity, preferring instead all-encompassing conceptual frameworks that are, simply, representational. Where the ethical enters discourse, it is once again reduced to formulaic dichotomies that seek the negation of complexity, so that moral agency is either autonomous and universal or confined within the space of cultural specificity. Just as the universal remain unproblematic and unproblematised, so too the particularity that is culture. We know from Derrida that all dichotomies, all such dualistic reductions, are not simply there as a mode of representation, some heuristic device that then enables us to go on. (Beardsworth 1998) We know that when we construct a dichotomy such as universality/particularity the former element comes to somehow occupy the hierarchically prevalent position, that it is all-encompassing and rational, that it is expressive of limitless autonomy and freedom. We know too that the latter term represents confinement and determinacy, a form of conventional locality and undefeated historicity. The moment of deconstruction begins to unravel the givens, to reveal the power that is contained even in ethical discourses that seek to deny the constitutive role that power plays in this construction. That which is universal is universalising, a process that actively renders the particular universal, that seeks uniformity and compliant subjectivity, that normalises mass culture into universal desire.

12. If there is a moment of transformation that can be identified with the feminist, critical, and poststructural turn in the discipline of International Relations it is the moment wherein interest in the subject of politics and their lived experience was brought forth into our discourse. That which we could not locate in the orthodoxy of the discipline was present in the genres we sought to import, namely art, philosophy, and sociology. As the early Frankfurt School critical theorists had already recognised, any theoretical (and historical) understanding of the complexity of the relationship between self and society relied on a prerequisite of interdisciplinarity; that lived experience was not simply a matter of subjectivity, but of subjectivity situated within and constituted by the continuities of structure. This recognition had a profound impact on the early days of critical thought, and especially its considerations of the nexus between art and politics.

13. Looking to critical and poststructural thought, a number of us located in International Relations have sought to retheorise the political and how the subject of politics emerges. The starting point for such a retheorisation is the question of how the subject of politics emerges and the locations in which such emergence takes place. The formative assumption is that the subject of politics is produced and reproduced in relation to the discursive and institutional continuities of social and political life. To think of art and politics is hence to think of the location of art in society, the production of the work, and the relationship between artist and viewer, artwork and audience, both constituted within an intertextual space that is intersubjective. Seen in this light, art moves beyond representation and enters a complex, interactive, social space. It is precisely this sociality that brings forth the political. To make this assertion is to argue against the claim that interest in subjectivity amounts to a "privatisation of politics", for to focus on the subject is precisely to raise issues relating to the production of the subject and the subject’s relations with others.

14. In arguing against the view that interest in subjectivity privatises the political, I am taking the view that the point of connection between art and the political is precisely the revelation of that which remains hidden, the centring of that which, in dominant practices, is excluded. I wish to argue this point through the works of a British playwright, Harold Pinter. Specifically, I want to revisit his overtly political plays, Mountain Language and One for the Road, to reveal a number of complex encounters; encounters that produce the subject of politics and reveal political subjectivity. Both plays highlight silencing the voice of the other as dissident, as the linchpin of political oppression and totalitarian rule. They also indicate a deep awareness of the gendered basis of violent practices, irrespective of whether these take place in the domestic arena or in the most visible public locations.

15. Mountain Language is a deeply disturbing play. It is disturbing in that over and above its stark portrayal of oppression, its language reveals how oppressive practices emerge in the everyday, and in particular, in the normalising discourse that seeks to delimit and differentiate the normal from the abject, that seeks to unproblematically demarcate (and construct) zones of civility and zones of barbarism. At first glance, the setting is a state that prohibits its minority community from using its own (Mountain) language. In the first scene, a group of women are seen waiting to be admitted to the prison in which their husbands and sons have been confined. An older woman has been savagely bitten by one of the guard dogs, occasioning a complaint from a younger woman, who appears to be western. There are guards everywhere. Simple sentences are repeated, shouted, and above all, there is the silencing through menace. Then there is the denial of normalcy, and through such denial, obliteration. Then there is the stark gender divide, the women of the Mountain people, the male guards, issuing limitless aggression, an aggression that penetrates the space of the audience, the civilised arena of the theatre. Any member of the audience could be both victim and aggressor. Pinter’s fragmentary and repetitive language breaks the rules of discourse; there is no understanding here as the endpoint of dialogue:

Young woman: she’s been bitten.
Officer: who? Who’s been bitten?
Young woman: She has. She has a torn hand. Look. Her hand has been bitten. This is blood.
Sergeant: (to the young woman) What is your name?
Officer: Shut up.
(he walks to the elderly woman)
What’s happened to your hand? Has someone bitten your hand?
Who did this? Who bit you?
Young woman: A Doberman pinscher.
Officer: Which one?
Which one?
SERGEANT steps forward
Sergeant: Sir!
Officer: Look at this woman’s hand. I think the thumb is going to come off. (To elderly woman). Who did this?
(She stares at him)
Who did this?
Young woman: A big dog.
Officer: What was his name? What was his name?
Every dog has a name! They answer to their name…Before they bite, they state their name. It’s a formal procedure. They state their name and then they bite. What was his name? If you tell me one of our dogs bit this woman without giving his name I will have that dog shot! (Pinter 2001: 6-7)

16. Then in the second scene, we see the old woman with her prisoner son. She speaks to him in their language, but is commanded by the guard not to speak the forbidden language. The prisoner protests that she cannot understand:

The guard: Whose fault is that?
(he laughs)
Not mine, I can tell you. And I’ll tell you another thing. I’ve got a wife and three kids. And you’re all a pile of shit.
Prisoner: I’ve got a wife and three kids.
Guard: You’ve what?
You’ve got what?
What did you say to me? You’ve got what?
You’ve got what?
(he picks up the telephone and dials one digit)
Sergeant, I’m in the Blue Room…yes…I thought I should report Sergeant, I think I’ve got a joker in here. (Pinter 2001: 15-16)

17. Read in representational terms, Mountain Language could portray the condition of the Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere in the region, oppressed, their language banned, engaged in a protracted struggle for recognition. Yet as these fragments indicate, there is much here that is about subjectivity and the emergence of political agency. Centrally, these fragments portray a landscape that is at once comedic and tragic, wherein war penetrates lived experience, as we see revealed in stark imagery, the vulnerability of the personal in situations of violence, occupation, and militarised rule. As Austin Quigley points out, Pinter does not simply repeat the slogan of the personal being political. Rather, the political becomes in every sense the personal, both in its reduction of the personal into an instrument of war, and through the individual’s resistance not just to such instrumentality but to the equation of the personal and the political. (Quigley 2001: 10)

18. Mountain Language is not simply about an oppressed minority whose language is forbidden. Above all else, it is, like others of Pinter’s plays, about the language games that contain relations of domination; between men and women in the most intimate relations to the most overtly political encounters in the prison cell. The guard in asserting his power over the old woman and the prisoner insists that their language cannot be used, is forbidden, then proclaims that "what’s more" he has a wife and three children. When the prisoner responds that he too has a wife and children, the guard is incensed. Here Pinter moves beyond the specificity of the conditions of the oppressed minority and enters society at large, our immediate society and the peaceful locale of the theatre audience. The question that hangs over us in this interaction is one of who possesses the right to speak, to be subject and agent, in conditions where a constructed normality can only be located amongst the powerful. The guard has the right to a family, the prisoner does not, the guard has the right to normalcy the prisoner does not, the guard justifies his power to forbid speech through his proclamation of normalcy. It is because he represents the majority that he can, has the right to torture the victim and forbid his language. A profound silencing takes place, not just of ordinary speech (where the old woman is forbidden to use her language when offering her son an apple), but of the right to be human and of the prisoner’s capacity to articulate his humanity.

19. Pinter’s Mountain Language is precisely about the practices of silencing constitutive of structures of domination and the play of power through language. In this play and in his other less overtly political ones, the silencing of the other takes place through direct violence and through the denial of the subjectivity of the other, the reduction of the other to bare life. Violence immediately suggests the end of dialogue, enacting not just the destruction of the body, but of its capacity to speak, to articulate agency and history. Even as the oppressed are allowed to speak, they have already and irretrievably been silenced:

Guard: Oh, I forgot to tell you. They’ve changed the rules. She can speak. She can speak in her own language. Until further notice.
(The Old Woman remains still, even as her son pleads with her to speak)
Sergeant: Look at this. You go out of your way to give them a helping hand and they fuck it up. (Pinter 2001: 22)

20. The body matters in Pinter’s work, the tortured matter and are brought forth into the public arena of the theatre. (Foucault 1991; Butler 1993) The dramaturgical moment is hence composed of verbal manifestations of control as well as the corporeal, for in Pinter, we are persistently and repetitively reminded of the body, and in particular its suffering, as the ultimate location of control. But even as the embodied self is silenced and destroyed, it re-emerges in its deathly aura, as the sight of memory and ultimately a political agency that seeks to remind the audience of its perpetual presence. So the tortured in all locations come to acquire voice, come in a sense to foreshadow our complacency in the face of a mode of justificatory politics that seeks to vilify dissent.

21. Nowhere is the corporeal self as site of the inscription of power more apparent than in Pinter’s One for the Road, first performed in 1984. We see two victims of torture, Victor and Gila, a husband and wife, separately interrogated by Nicolas, their interrogator. Their seven-old son, also incarcerated, will appear before Victor in due course. Through their demeanour and body language, it is evident that both Victor and Gila have been subject to torture. Like Mountain Language, One for the Road illustrates Pinter’s power in the verbal portrayal of power and subjugation. Over and above the verbal pounding, both also evoke bodily gestures as instruments of limitless aggression directed against the corporeality of the victim. The first scene shows us Nicolas standing closely over Victor:

Nicolas: What do you think this is? It’s my finger. And this is my little finger. This is my big finger and this is my little finger. I wave my big finger in front of your eyes. Like this… (1998, p 223)

22. Then power enters the personal, subjugates it, as Nicolas talks of Victor’s wife Gila, who has been subject to repeated rape:

"Your wife and I had a very nice chat, but I couldn’t help noticing she didn’t look her best. She’s probably menstruating. Women do that.
Tell me… truly…are you beginning to love me?
I think your wife is. Beginning. She is beginning to fall in love with me. On the brink…of doing so. The trouble is, I have rivals. Because everyone here has fallen in love with your wife… (1998, p 231)

23. In this portrayal of power, Pinter is not simply reflecting the condition of totalitarian states where torture is normalised as a technique of government. Pinter is here as in Mountain Language engaged in exposing the present and the power relations contained therein. For these are scenes that are played out in our theatres, mostly in the metropolitan cities of the west, exposing the present to audiences that are by and large aware of practices of oppression that go on elsewhere, at some distance removed from the proximate present. But Pinter’s oeuvre is precisely about our condition in the present, exposing power in all its manifestations, as it penetrates the everyday and the most mundane, enacting exclusions that daily target the other in our midst, even where this midst is both local and at some distant removed. Pinter’s point is not simply the fact that torture takes place, but the exposition of the consequences of totalising power, for even as this power imposes its will, it engages in a politics of justification. Nicolas, once again, in his interrogations of Victor, his victim:

Who would you prefer to be? You or me?
I’d go for me if I were you. The trouble about you, although I grant your merits, is that you’re on a losing wicket, while I can’t put a foot wrong. Do you take my point? Ah God, let me confess, let me make a confession to you. I have never been more moved, in the whole of my life, as when – only the other day, last Friday, I believe – the man who runs this country announced to the country: We are all patriots, we are as one, we all share a common heritage. Except you, apparently. (232)

24. There are difficulties in writing of Pinter’s work in the context of International Relations, a context that is predominantly identified with a positivist legacy that centres upon truth as correspondence, that sees inquiry as constituted by the object/subject dichotomy, that defines substantiation in terms of empirical testing. Considered within the purview of positivist International Relations, theatre belongs within the realm of aesthetics and not the "science" of politics. Considered in this way, the aesthetic is given licence to create, whereas the scientific study of politics can only mirror the realm of reality. When the shift is made away the object/subject dichotomy, away from a positivist IR, we begin to acknowledge the inter-subjectivity of discourse, that word and world are mutually constituting, that theatre can provide a space of reflection on the human condition.

25. There is scope for doing great violence to Pinter’s work if the ambiguities contained there are reduced to simple representational form. As I mentioned earlier, when Mountain Language was first performed at the National Theatre in 1988, it was read as being predominantly about the condition of the Kurds in Turkey. There are, however, ambiguities in the geopolitical context of the play, so that what at first hand seems remote is rendered menacingly proximate. As Drew Milne highlights, there is always ambiguity in Pinter’s work, an "indeterminacy of meaning…achieved through the negation of inferred, naturalist subtexts.." (Milne 2001: 197)

26. The encounters portrayed in this paper cannot be read in terms of specific socio-political contexts; rather these encounters defy the rules of language and taken for granted realms of meaning. The comedic, the absurd, and the most menacing are portrayed in language and dramatic form that defies reduction to representational interpretation. There is, however, the constitutive backdrop containing author and audience alike, where the encounter with the dramatic form is imbued with the condition of the present, the condition of the individual self as the self comes face to face with the dramatisation and problematisation of that which the viewer thought she knew. The analytic of power that Pinter provides is located in every utterance, gesture, movement. And centre-stage is the corporeality of language, the disruption of meaning, and ultimately, the challenge to those who, through language, through gesture, through actions, abuse and violate as they move through the deepest interstices of social and political life.


Vivienne Jabri is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Director of the London Centre of International Relations at the Department of War Studies, King's College, University of London. Her research interests centre on critical and poststructural social and political thought with application to war, political violence, and identity/difference. Her publications include Discourses on Violence (Manchester University Press, 1996) and (co-edited) Women, Culture and International Relations (Lynne Rienner, 1999). She is currently writing a book on war and late modernity. Email:


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