Thomas Harrington

Vaclav Havel and the Semiotics of Public Masking

Havel, the great scholar of theater and social semiology, would have no problem correctly identifying our current mask theater as the destructive and repressive farce that it is, and those that refuse to play along as the bearers of light, and the custodians of the creative energies we will need to reconstruct and sustain freedom in the world.

For me, one of the worst inventions of the contemporary university is political science, a discipline that, with its mainly presentist and transactionalist orientation, tends to dramatically minimize the always very intimate relationship between politics and culture, especially the cardinal importance that public rituals have in every effort to radically reorient the operational concepts of the “reality” among the citizenry.
When, in his speech to the US Congress 31 years ago, Vaclav Havel said that “consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around,” he spoke not only as a politician, but as a man of culture, and more specifically, a man of the theater, a place where the semiology of the stage is often as important as the words that come out of actors’ mouths.
Thirteen years earlier, in the most decadent years of the Soviet period in Czechoslovakia, Havel  wrote “The Power of the Powerless,” an essay in which he uses his very detailed understanding of the symbolic codes of the stage to explain certain mechanisms of the system of oppression then in force in his country.
He focuses his exposition on a fictional manager of a fruit and vegetable store in his country who every morning  puts up a sign in the window of his shop that says “Workers of the world, unite!” The playwright then wonders to what extent this gentleman, and people passing in front of or entering the establishment,  believe in the words written on the poster. He concludes that the vast majority of them probably don’t think much, if at all,  about its content. The, referring to the greengrocer,  he goes on to say:
“This does not mean that his action had no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: ‘I, the greengrocer XY, live here and know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore have the right to be left in peace.’  This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s  superiors, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers ”
In this way, according to Havel, the greengrocer  is saved from a confrontation with himself,  and the feelings of humiliation that this inner encounter would bring on:
“If the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan ‘I’m scared and therefore I’m unquestionably obedient’ he would not  be nearly so indifferent to its semantics even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation on display  in the shop window, and quite naturally so, as he is a human being, and therefore has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome his complication, his expression of loyalty must  take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction…..”
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