Politicality of Reading and Listening in the Performance The Discreet Charm of Marxism by Bojan Djordjev

Politicality of Reading and Listening in the Performance The Discreet Charm of Marxism by Bojan Djordjev

Tanja Šljivar
This text focuses on Bojan Djordjev’s theatre piece Diskretni šarm marksizma / The Discreet Charm of Marxism (2013), by analysing the politicality of the practices employed in it – the one of reading aloud and the one of listening to what is being read, and by enquiring what kind of transformation such acts could bring to the contemporary stage and the public sphere. It examines the politicality of such a community, formed by coming and being together in theatre to read aloud and listen to others reading Marx’s and Marx-related texts. Moreover, the paper advocates for collective reading and listening as autonomous performative and theatrical practices, which have community-formative qualities. Since Djordjev defined Diskretni šarm marksizma as a “six course dinner piece”, this article aims to look further into what happens when acts of reading and eating in a group become interchangeable. Is it possible to imagine a communist revolution, which began on a theatrical stage, when audience members surrendered to each other’s reading voices in the tactile act of listening (as a special form of attention in theatre) to political texts, first and foremost The Communist Manifesto?
Karl Marx; Bojan Djordjev; Marxism; dinner-performance; reading aloud; listening; political performance; dialectical materialism; performative reading; self-education; performance research.


In this article I will analyse the performance Diskretni šarm marksizma / The Discreet Charm of Marxism (Bojan Djordjev, 2013), performed in Yugoslav Drama Theatre at the 49th BITEF Festival in Belgrade, in September 2015, as a piece based on the transformative and political potentialities of the acts of reading aloud and listening to what is being read.1 The Discreet Charm of Marxism premiered at DasArts in Amsterdam on June 5, 2013 and was then shown at BITEF as a co-production of DasArts, Netherlands, and The Walking Theory, Serbia. At BITEF, the performance I saw was in English, due to attendance of international guests; the Serbian version was shown the following day.2

Djordjev is the author and performer of the piece, and the host of what he calls a “six course dinner piece”, describing it as:

[…] a reading group according to the dramaturgy of a six course meal. The audience is invited to dinner but instead of consuming food they are served texts consisting of Marxist quotes on class positions/investments in a critique of capitalism, varying in length and mode of consumption depending on whether they come as “starters”, “fish”, “roast” or selection of “local cheeses”. The audience is invited to communally consume/read/discuss the food. The “food” and entire dinner iconography is rendered through paper and graphic layouts, while real food and drinks are served in the library shelves – as books. (BITEF 2015)

What is clear from this passage is that, on the one hand, the author of the piece is trying to maintain the kind of excitement of the initial encounter of bodies and texts that often arises in the frame of reading groups, and on the other, he is underlining the sensuality of the act of reading the texts, interchanging it with the act of eating the food. The trait which provided the dinner/food iconography was the graphic layout, created completely, and impressively, by graphic designer Katarina Popović. Seemingly paradoxical, the food iconography was provided by the very materiality of the text.

The Menu (Bojan Djordjev’s Diskretni šarm marksizma). The 49th BITEF Festival in Belgrade, September 2015. Photo courtesy of Jelena Janković.

Let us look more closely at the menu, and the additional descriptions of the physicality of the peculiar food-text served during the evening. The dinner piece starts, as usual, with an apéritif served in the theatre foyer, in the empty glasses for gin and tonic and Aperol Spritz, in which drinker-reader was to find printed quotes by Terry Eagleton and Franco Berardi Bifo. Along with the apéritif, guests were also offered amuse-bouche served in the form of origami fortune cookies containing sentences of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Marx, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Gáspár Miklós Tamás, and Jacques Rancière. After consuming the apéritif and amuse-bouche, the audience was invited to enter the studio which was decorated as a very odd restaurant by the set designer and visual artist Siniša Ilić. On the tables, in front of each seat, large papers mimicking place mats and napkins were placed together with pencils and erasers mimicking cutlery. They were, in fact, tools to note one’s own thoughts on what is being read and said during the dinner and finally, producing common and shared knowledge. In the studio, on the right side of numerous black minimalistic rectangular dining tables, a buffet was already laid out with a choice of salads, Serbian-Slovenian sélection de fromages and transatlantic fish. Lettuce-shaped papers were served in salad bowls, with verses of a poem by Nazim Hikmet Ran and different kinds of cheese were actually circle and triangle-shaped excerpts from Slavoj Žižek’s texts. The “transatlantic fish”, as an entrée, was arranged as fish-shaped texts, served on writing pad boards mimicking plates, including texts by David Harvey and Terry Eagleton, which were to be shared equally with your dinner companion. Maracujá sorbet was a specific interruption of previously established signifying patterns of exchangeability of food as a material and text as a material, since it was a song “O que será (a flor de terra)” by Chico Buarque de Hollanda performed by Serbian singer-songwriter Ana Ćurčin. Finest and most eagerly anticipated, as always in the best restaurants, was the main course – a choice between roast and vegetarian stew, specially served to audience-eaters by the host himself. The meat was cut, as a proper roast should be, with a huge paper trimmer and it contained passages from one of the most influential political texts in history – Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto (1848). The vegetarian option had the same ingredients of The Communist Manifesto, the difference being that it contained all the separate excerpts from the roast served as one integral text-meal on A3 size paper. All appetisers, spreads, salads, fish, and main courses, too, could be eaten with a slice of bread garnished with fundamental Marxist notions originating from the glossary of an English edition of the cartoon book Marx for Beginners (1976) by Rius. In the same sense in which one needs bread as a foundation for other food, one would also need a basic insight into notions such as economic base, class struggle, materialism, dialectical materialism, communism, in order to be able to understand and digest all of the other texts-meals which were served. Finally, the meal ended by returning to Marx with two dessert choices, differing in density of their line spacing: a “lighter” option of Black Forest gâteau and a “heavier” Dobos cake. At the end of the evening, everyone had a small digestif saying: “You will not say that I have had too high an opinion of the present time and if, nevertheless, I do not despair of it, that is only because it is precisely the desperate situation which fills me with hope.” (Marx 1848, cited in Djordjev 2013a)

This description of the text piles, of something that could even be described as a text surplus, brings me to the example of the performance Speak Bitterness (Forced Entertainment, 1994). Although the two pieces differ significantly in their topics, performative concepts and outcomes, and although Speak Bitterness is not primarily (or not at all) conceived as a participatory piece – whereas The Discreet Charm of Marxism almost completely depends on participation of the audience, there is at least one common denominator for both pieces – audience’s curiosity arising from the physical presence of a large amount of printed text on stage. In his book Certain Fragments, Tim Etchells describes situations which occurred at some of the shows when, after listening to hours and hours of confessions read out loud, audience members would approach the stage to touch and read by themselves the papers from which performers had been reading: “The audience often gather at the long table to examine the text which is strewed all across it – were they really reading stuff from that? Is there anything we missed?” (Etchells 1999: 59) Here, an interesting observation was made – the audience is aware that reading aloud could have also been performed (here meaning falsified), whereas reading in silence with their own eyes could not possibly delude them in a way in which listening to performative reading could. Similar curiosity was evident at the very beginning of The Discreet Charm of Marxism, even before the welcoming speech by the host-director Djordjev, when the audience intuitively oriented themselves towards a buffet over which texts were arranged as appetisers. The question of the truthfulness of the act of reading aloud, the question of different realities of listening and seeing, could be compelling in relation to what comes later in the piece, when everyone gets to read from his or her roast or stew, from The Communist Manifesto. Are the participants of the communal reading group also possibly lying to each other when reading Marxist theory, or more directly, were communist leaders lying to us when they were reading Marxist theory aloud?3

What piques the audience’s curiosity is the physicality of the text and of the page. Annemarie Matzke, member of the performance collective She She Pop, writes on this particular physicality of the text in Forced Entertainment performances: “Like a co-performer, text is present on stage, physically held by actors as a utilitarian object” (Matzke 2004: 172); whereas Etchells describes it like this: “the text features as paper or script – a physical object which can be picked up, handled, subjected to scrutiny, curiosity, indifference, contempt” (Etchells 1999: 105). Matzke’s conclusion could be seen as highly provocative, since she is making a case for performers (either understood as texts or as humans) being used on stage as utilitarian objects. If it is not only food as a (theatre) material that is interchangeable with text as a material, but also, if text as a material is interchangeable with the human body as a material, I would argue that such theatre material is not only in tension with meaning, but when (and if) it acquires one, such meaning proves to be unstable and interchangeable with any other meaning. Through this there arises another question of using the human body as theatre material, which is susceptible, as any other, to “scrutiny, curiosity, indifference, contempt” – the one of the politicality of such a body. In the case of participatory pieces, such as The Discreet Charm of Marxism, the material of the collective body of the performers consists primarily of the audience’s collective body.

Ric Allsopp, one of the founders of the journal Performance Research, proposes the concept of the “itinerant page” – of the page as a performance space: “The page, the folded sheet, on its way to or from the book. The sheet, as double-sided, itinerant surface. The surface as bounded area prepared to receive, to give, to be written, to be read.” (Allsopp 2004: 2) And one could add, in the case of The Discreet Charm of Marxism, to be eaten.

Food, body, voice, and text are all used as materials in this piece, and their interchangeability and intersection are what opens a field of potentiality for the political to emerge in a space which “links stage, feast and agora into a single disposition.” (BITEF, 2015)

Politicality of reading

In his welcoming speech, our host-director-performer Djordjev, among other things, says: “Food is about sharing, about coming together – this food in particular does not work if eaten in solitude.” (Djordjev 2013a: 2) The whole ritual of eating-reading is about coming together, about forming a temporary community. I would like to examine the politicality of such a community, formed by coming together in a theatre to read aloud and listen to others reading aloud Marx’s and Marx-related texts. The space and time in which we gathered to listen and to read was Serbia in September 2015, in the midst of the refugee crisis. While the Balkan route was passed daily by at least 3,000 new refugees, when the wire fences and walls were built on the border between Serbia and Hungary, when people were sleeping on the streets and in parks around Belgrade Central Station, people without any stability, security or possibility to go back or forth, we gathered in Yugoslav Drama Theatre to read Marxist literature. Mladen Dolar describes Party Congress readings in the Soviet Union. The addressee of these endless readings, the ideal listener, was supposedly “the big Other of history”. Through listening, the history was to occur. Despite Dolar’s clearly humorous and metaphorical use of this example, of course it could also be argued that this history did not occur through listening, but by proclaiming and acclaiming what is being listened to. In political speeches written by and for Soviet leaders, places for applause were marked, where the reader could easily imagine the auditive effects of the approval to come.

What was at stake, during the performance, was acknowledging that history, in Belgrade, in September 2015 was already occurring, that in the midst of the refugee crisis, we had already had enough of it. Or the other way around: Yugoslav socialist history had already occurred, and, in the performance, we were dealing with its remnants and almost forgotten utopian fragments. So, what was the purpose of this gathering, of this reading-eating session? On a piece of Slovenian cheese, the following quote was to be read:

What we need is to withdraw — don’t be afraid to withdraw and think. You know, Marx’s thesis eleven: philosophers have only interpreted the world; the time is, we have now to change it. Maybe, as good Marxists, we should turn it around. Maybe we are trying to change it too much. It’s time to redraw and to interpret it again, because do we really know what is going on today? (Žižek, cited in Djordjev 2013a: 2)

The Buffet (Bojan Djordjev’s Diskretni šarm marksizma). The 49th BITEF Festival in Belgrade, September 2015. Photo courtesy of Jelena Janković.

More than choosing between interpreting and changing the world, this gathering was about taking a step back. Both Serbian and European Union authorities were unable, and this unfortunately remains true till today, to properly react, respond, and act on the crisis. However, we as the audience of the piece were coming together, forming a temporary community, and pursuing self-education as its essence. While opposing the idea of “staging pages for the big Other of History”, we weren’t reading for it, we were reading for (and to) ourselves. Perhaps Allsopp partly described what we were doing in the conclusion of his essay Itinerant Pages:

The intention to remake the page as a ‘difficult space’ – to make the page a site or radiating ground rather than a stage, not just neutral ground for criticism or documentation of conventional textualities, but as a site that can attend to the “lie of the land” – where the work is sited and situated, again opens up the page as a collaborative and potentially resistant site of performance. (Allsopp 2004: 6)

A large part of this performative coming together was mediated through the strategy of exchanging food for text, which had been introduced as a joke, told at the very beginning of the event by Djordjev:

The recipes are old – classic – but brightly and vividly bring out the flavour of ingredients. And it gave me great joy to look for original, authentic ingredients, not the skimmed, low-fat, processed contemporary versions, but the full-flavoured ones, the ones able to ignite us in the right way. (Djordjev 2013a: 2)

Exchanging the realities of eating for the realities of reading, and vice versa, quickly became the inside joke of the reading group. During the continuation of the six-course dinner-piece, the following remarks were made: “Just read it out loud. And we can chew and chew again.”; or one made by a Russian woman in her fifties: “I am a vegetarian – I know this roast is interesting, but in practice it is very dangerous.” Here, the joke could have even been doubled, possibly without the intention of the person who made it – because, at the dinner we were attending, both vegetarian and meat main courses actually consisted of the same, for the woman in question, problematic ingredient, namely The Communist Manifesto. In this case, jokes on food intolerances and allergies would have proved more successful. Following the initial interest created by the very presence of the text, the second community-formative component was laughter after someone who lived in real socialism expressed doubts on the subject matter by using the very tools – jokes – proposed by the host at the beginning. Jokes were encouraged throughout the whole piece by the director and his assistant Pavle Terzić, especially when cutting the roast-paper by highlighting that in order to be entirely enjoyed, meat also has to be “carved and cut up properly”.4

When we think about ordinary dinner-parties and the practices and customs that accompany them, it is clearly considered rude to reflect too much on the food, apart from politely praising the host’s cooking. Putting oneself, or one’s eating habits in focus while dining is particularly impolite in these cases. In The Discreet Charm of Marxism, reflecting upon one’s “eating habits” and attracting attention while “chewing”, or even chomping and slurping, is in part the strategy through which the performance functions. Here, I would like to tackle the question of corporeality of the act of eating text. What happens when such action is not only understood as a director’s formal and stylistic decision and strategy but also as a real physical action surpassing metaphors and going directly into the real and into the political. There was a case of a Belgrade pensioner who, during the presidential elections in 2012 in Serbia, ate four ballots while drinking yogurt on the side:

I won a court case against an investor who wanted to take my apartment. However, since he is a policeman, everyone is protecting him and they refuse to act upon the law. When you are a policeman, it is the same as if you were the state itself, so the citizens have to put up with torture. […] thus, I decided to […] protest against the state, loud and clear.5 (Nezavisne 2012; my translation – T. Š.)

What about the potential for resisting oppression contained in the act of swallowing paper and the text written on it? The pensioner was obviously disgusted by the “menu” she was offered during the elections, so she decided to annihilate it by eating it. Djordjev described the texts selected to be “eaten” on stage during The Discreet Charm of Marxism as “original, authentic ingredients, not the skimmed, low fat, processed contemporary versions” and finally, “the full flavoured”; what if those texts could also provoke such purely physical disgust when bodies of eaters-readers encounter them on stage? If we think of the act of eating in terms of the digestive system – mouth, throat, gastrointestinal tract – and in terms of gluttony, could we also possibly stuff ourselves to surfeit with such food up the point of food poisoning? Isn’t Djordjev’s intention to “link stage, feast and agora into a single disposition” also detectable in the physicality of certain organs, especially mouth and throat, organs indispensable for all three apparatuses?

Let us read here the excerpts from Romeo Castellucci’s notes on Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s performance Giulio Cesare / Julius Caesar (Societas Raffaello Sanzio, 1997):

For example, when an actor, at the beginning, inserts an endoscope into his nostril and takes a journey into the flesh, into an intimacy which is impossible to see otherwise. […] And this is the scandal: to go after an almost pornographic origin of words, as if the throat of an actor had the same kind of problems that he faces with regards to the shame connected with one’s genitalia. […] To see in the throat of the first actor this element of the female genitalia, because the vocal cords that are shown, immediately reduce, as an association of ideas, to the vagina. And the vocal cords are seen palpitating while muscles contract – that which later, in another moment, we consider to be discourse and word – but prior to all that there is flesh, the muscle contraction. The story of a word which is a sigh is, yet again, a lie. Words have the same destiny as does the body, hence the presence and the wonder of the flesh. (Castelluci 2006: 7)

Could rendering almost pornographic organs closely connected with procedures executed in the frames of stage, feast, and agora, subvert all three of them, separately and together?

After the roast is properly cut and distributed, the succession of singular readings of passages from The Communist Manifesto, regulated by numbers written on each piece of paper-roast, constituted this central and longest part of the dinner-performance The Discreet Charm of Marxism. The person with number one starts reading, the collective discussion follows, and this repeats until number 24 is chewed-read. This act could also be understood as queering the practices of dinner parties, and here the reference of the piece’s title to Luis Buñuel’s famous 1972 film is not insignificant.6 The piece could, therefore, be understood as queering the bourgeois norms of dining together by the very act of listening to your fellow dinner party attendees chewing-reading. This reading-chewing aloud is first of all social: “In this sense, voice is a form of social touch that can activate reactions in bodies, literally, by vibrating them. Social, because it can reach out and touch multiplicities of bodies rather than just one or few”; and also, potentially, political. (Bonenfant 2010: 77) And in the same way in which both Buñuel and Djordjev queer the site of the bourgeois dinner, the reading of Marxist texts aloud queers the historical practices of reading aloud, performed by the Communist party in the Soviet Union. When one is chewing-reading they do not do so for themselves, they do it for everyone else present on stage, and when one is reading aloud they do not do so for the illusion of the big Other of the history, but with the knowledge that the history is, also, that very act of reading aloud for others.

Moreover, going back to the differentiation between the audible and the visible, as already proposed by Etchells, it would be interesting to examine the stability of different political realities of the visible and the audible, or as Dolar puts it:

[T]he visible world presents relative stability, permanence, distinctiveness, and a location at a distance; the audible presents fluidity, passing, a certain inchoate, amorphous character, and a lack of distance. The voice is elusive, always changing, becoming, elapsing, with unclear contours, as opposed to the relative permanence, solidity, durability of the seen. (Dolar 2006: 79)

What might be the most political gesture of the evening is this assumption of one’s own voice. It was, obviously, partly induced by the participatory frame of the event, but it was, essentially, a willing, voluntary gesture to read aloud to others and to listen to others reading. If the history, and the visible reality, despite their stability and distinctiveness, are such that the refugees are on the streets of Belgrade, then the audible reality of others reading might prove to be more promising, despite its elusiveness and unclear contours. It was exactly the rhythm and pace of successive readings of these, previously meticulously chosen, sorted, and designed excerpts of The Communist Manifesto, the fact that it was always one person at a time reading, one person behaving according to the strict procedures of the performative frame, one person using their voice to read Marx and Engels to everyone else in the hall, that was political in the sense of providing the very certainty and stability lacking in the visible reality at the time. The voice of the respective reader was never acousmatic, or disturbing, its source was known to everyone, easily detectable and this was the effect of this remarkably transparent theatrical and performative procedure. Unlike all the social, political, and humanitarian procedures and circumstances at the beginning of the refugee crises in which we found ourselves, this one, comprising reading aloud, was the highly structured one. Dolar argues that it is precisely the “same structural position of the voice and sovereignty” which constitutes the politicality of the voice: “which means that it can suspend the validity of the law and inaugurate the state of emergency.” (Dolar 2013: 120) If Serbian authorities were unable to name the state of affairs in the country at the time as a state of emergency, which it essentially was, the voice of the on-stage reader in The Discreet Charm of Marxism, was most certainly able to do so.

Djordjev finished his welcoming speech by quoting Shakespeare's opening verses of Twelfth Night (Shakespeare 1600-1602), saying:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting
the appetite may sicken, and so die.
Allow me to welcome you to this dinner with a slightly modified version:
“If text be the food of revolution, read on!” (Djordjev 2013a: 3)

So finally, what was explicitly formulated as a political aim, demand, and possible outcome of reading Marxist texts aloud, in a frame organised as described above, was namely no less than revolution. Are the masses of refugees passing the Balkan route revolutionary subjects as well, and to what extent, would be a crucial question of such an emerging revolution.

Politicality of listening

My aim in this subchapter is to follow the model of democracy proposed by Dolar: “the ideal democracy would be the one where everybody could hear everybody else’s voice”, in order to examine forms of being together in theatre while listening to each other’s reading voices. (Dolar 2013: 109)7 The procedurality of the piece, at least for its duration, enabled such a democratic ideal. One reads and occasionally, if ignited by their own oratory, stands up, and everyone listens to the reading before taking part in a discussion on it. And this is repeated until everyone has read, until everyone has heard everybody else’s voice. It needs to be mentioned here that vegetarian guests of the dinner-piece were not invited to read aloud. This strategy could certainly be seen to represent a subtle means of exclusion of certain groups from democratic procedures and discourses. But, having in mind that they were given “larger servings” and complete texts which they could follow both by listening and by silent reading, it can also be argued that those who were served with vegetarian stew were even more empowered than the meat eaters. The discussions after each and every reading should be regarded as proper spaces of exchange of all the voices, vegetarian and omnivore alike. After coming to a communal understanding of the procedurality of the piece, it was also possible for meat eaters not keen on public appearances to ask to change their meal for the vegetarian, and vice versa.

The Readers (Bojan Djordjev’s Diskretni šarm marksizma). The 49th BITEF Festival in Belgrade, September 2015. Photo courtesy of Jelena Janković.

Now, I would like to look more closely at the phenomenon of listening as a special form of attention in theatre, and its political implications. The egalitarian exchange that was taking place in the form of mutual listening and reading was largely enabled by a subject’s capacity to listen to another subject read, to listen for as long as it takes, to listen to a monologue, to remain concentrated and cautious. In his essay Enactment in Listening, Deniz Peters offers the following definition of the phenomenon of listening: “Listening, I claim, is not a passive consumption of organised sounds, but rather is an activity. This activity is embodied; more precisely, it is an invisible enactment of what is heard.” (Peters 2010: 81). Whereas Bonenfant has the ambition to redefine the very notion:

Here we arrive at a redefinition of listening. Listening becomes the act of paying intense somatic attention to the ways that our bodies engage with the sonic stimuli around them, in order to decide which emanators of vocal sound to gesture toward, which of these to want and to seek, and in which baths of sound to swim. These stimuli are not just sound. They are tactile. (Bonenfant 2010: 78)

These authors have ascribed the following attributes to the act of listening: active, invisible, embodied, tactile. It is, on the one hand, the performative frame of the event, and on the other, the topic of the contemporary communist revolution which intensify each of these features. What if the revolution to come should be invisible and tactile at the same time? In other words, as Bonenfant shows, the one undertaking the act of “queer listening” – the one who identifies as a queer (or revolutionary) listening subject: “listens out for, reaches toward the disoriented or differently oriented other.” (Bonenfant 2010: 78) Which listening capacity is required from refugees who receive explanations crucial to their survival and the continuation of their travels, very often in languages they do not understand? And what about their disobedience and their “right not to listen, or to remain silent” – is it possible to also regard it as “a genuine stance”? (Vera List Center 2015)

Subversiveness, queerness, and immediacy are the core political traits of the act of listening as we practiced it during the event, but they do not remain the only ones. It is the activity, even performativity of the act that constitutes the listening subject as political or, ideally, as revolutionary.

In The Listener’s Response, his essay on modes of listening in theatrical spaces and situations, Pieter Verstraete, argues that it is a matter of how sound as manifestation plays upon spectator and turns them into a listener:

The specific theatrical context, with its regulating mechanisms, has the potential to turn the spectator into an acute listener, making her attentive to the filtering and imaginative positionings of listening which give salience, coherence, meaning and relative ‘closure’ to otherwise fragmented experiences. (Verstraete 2010: 81)

Following my argument that it is the procedurality of this performance and its clear and strict sequences of reading and appurtenant listening which enabled audience members to rely more on the audible reality than on the visible one, it could be possible to construct a figure of the theatre listener in opposition to the traditional, and historically predominantly passive figure of the theatre viewer. Furthermore, I would also like to investigate the possibility of constructing the subject of a theatre listener as the emancipated, or even the revolutionary one. Verstraete introduces the notion of “auditory distress” by going back to the 1977 essay Écoute by Roland Barthes and Roland Havas in which the two authors formulate the act of listening as a mode of protection. Subsequently Verstraete shows that, in contemporary soundscapes, acoustic disruptions are inevitable and even welcomed, and that:

[…] the ear’s agency in resisting its ‘indefensible’ and ‘accumulative’ susceptibility and its lingering ‘breakdown’ – such as tinnitus, earaches and hearing impairment to various degrees – is part and parcel of our modern hearing culture. (Verstraete 2010: 88)

He conceptualises the sound in theatre in terms of auditory distress, as a particular, defining aspect of listening, that outlines many of the auditory experiences in theatre by explaining that: “The highly attuned and controlled space of the theatre hall never adequately compensates for the intervening power of sound, eliciting subjective responses in the audience: one simply has to listen.” (ibid.: 89)

One could argue, that we, the listeners of The Discreet Charm of Marxism, gathered in the Yugoslav Drama Theatre in September 2015, to keep the unwanted sounds of our contemporaneity at bay, to repress the multitude of public voices revolving around the refugee crisis, none of which was able to respond to it adequately. We gathered to form our own, temporary, theatrical, and performative auditory distress, the one we could make sense of and rely on, and to open up a possibility, through common listening, for the community of listeners to come into existence:

Similarly, an audience in the theatre is exposed to the intervention of sound that produces sensory excess, thereby producing a temporary acoustic community with some shared responses to the ensuing auditory distress. (ibid.: 91)

The fact that our responses were shared was the exact conditio sine qua non – the core of our community. We were responding commonly and cognitively to the soundscape of the performance, and thus, we were able to form a temporary community of listeners. Although it was possible to predict and, to a certain extent, even to control the succession of auditory distress in this performance, its specificity and particularity was the fact that we were listening to other people reading aloud, and not other people speaking, and this required the specific attention of all listening subjects in the community. The readers’ oral reading skills varied widely, since the audience included professional actors as well as people completely unaccustomed to giving public performances and speeches. However, it was still less demanding to listen to unskilled readers reading Marxist literature to us in a theatrical, controlled situation, than to listen to the media cacophony of unskilled politicians in the outside world.

Escapist, as it may seem, the activity of listening, as described above, is still creating the space for its subjects to become queer, emancipated and revolutionary or, as Verstraete prefers, “historical”:

Hence, a deeper exploration of the modalities of this relation between the spectator as listener and the mechanisms of the theatre that play (upon) her allows for a deeper awareness of the process of becoming a historical listening subject. (Verstraete 2010: 94)

This possibility of becoming a historical and revolutionary listening subject emerges both through understanding the procedurality of the performance, and through the content of texts that create the soundscape, and the auditory distress in it. The fact that no sound amplification, such as loudspeakers or microphones were used when passages from The Communist Manifesto were read aloud, urged listeners to be ever more attentive, more receptive, more active and more political, or as Verstraete puts it:

In this play upon our auditory attention, the performance offers glimpses of awareness as to how our modes of attention are shaped and, equally, of how a cultural discourse is reflected in the ways we manage our attention in relation to objects of perception. Auditory distress is the vehicle to such awareness. (ibid.: 93-94)

Our capacity to listen on that day represented our capacity to become political subjects. Very often, the capacity of refugees to employ listening as a mode of protection, to detect and listen to the right thing in the multitude of guidelines, also represents their capacity to become political subjects in the European Union. It goes without saying that the tension and opposition between arts and politics cannot be resolved by this, or for that matter any, performance or article, and that certain naivety and above all bourgeois elitism is inherent to this and every other academic text and performative event. And that by no means can any performance replace the state’s proper reaction to humanitarian catastrophes and crises.

Conclusion – A revolutionary monologue

In conversation with the writer, Djordjev suggested the concept of egalitarian exchange of monologues as a means through which The Discreet Charm of Marxism actually happens in theatre spaces. In democratic discourse, dialogue exemplifies an ideal of equal exchange of opinions between all parties and is understood as a political and discursive tool intertwined in the core of all democratic procedures.8 In the same manner in which Žižek proposed withdrawing and rethinking the world, Djordjev suggested questioning the presupposition that dialogue is a preferable and more useful tool in reaching democratic goals, and the presumption that the contemporary communist revolution would ever be interested in reaching them. Who gets to speak on stage, about what, in which manner, why, and for how long is, in my opinion, the core political question of any imaginary revolution that is to take place on any theatre stage. This performance revolved around this question and reading, listening, and speaking subjects were all equally entitled to deliver a monologue, for example:

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air. (Marx and Engels, cited in Djordjev 2013a: 10)

Ana Dubljević, a choreographer friend who accompanied me to the dinner-performance, after sipping some white wine, went to the toilet and came back with two female, middle-aged, cleaning ladies employed in the Yugoslav Drama Theatre and offered them food and wine served on the bookshelves.9 She gave them a short introduction into the concept of the performance, explained that people were taking turns in reading, and then discussing the prospects and living and working conditions of the contemporary proletariat. Their response was: “Ah, so you have been talking about us this whole time?” Had this occurrence been a public one, it would have been in tune with any of the wildest dream sequences in Buñuel's films. In any case, representatives of the working class also spoke on stage that day, even though their speeches were neither monologues, nor previously scripted.

In delivering a monologue by reading aloud, the tension between the reader and the listener is the one of surrender, and surrender is the first step to acquiring autonomy, over and over again. On the side of the reader there is a fear of interference, the fear of intrusion of the new listener, a figure Glenn Gould calls for:

At the centre of the technological debate, then, is a new kind of listener – a listener more participant in the musical experience... He is also, of course, a threat, a potential usurper of power, an uninvited guest at the banquet of the arts, one whose presence threatens the familiar hierarchical setting of the musical establishment. (Gould, cited in Mauer 2010: 103)

And on the other side, listeners are deprived of the privacy of silent reading, of reading with their own eyes, or as Alberto Manguel argues in his History of Reading: “Being read to deprives the listener of freedom, it condemns the ear to someone else’s tongue.” (Manguel, cited in Grobe 2016: 571) As corporeal and physical as both descriptions are, they do successfully demonstrate what was at stake during the dinner-piece - an attempt of surrender. And this surrender was political.

Silvia Bottiroli asked Chiara Guidi of Societas Raffaello Sanzio the following question: “From hearing to listening, I think, there's another step; whereas to hear is something that happens suddenly and unintentionally, to listen requires an inclination, a will, a need, a question. What does it engender in the theatre?” (Guidi et al. 2010: 110) And Guidi’s answer to the question was: “I think listening may engender feelings, or the roots of a thought.” (ibid.: 110)

We indeed gathered over a need, over a question: What is a proletarian and/or revolutionary subject of today? What could a communist revolution of today, when free circulation of commodities is stimulated, and free circulation of humans is obstructed, look like? And where and when exactly is the revolution to take place? Through reading aloud and through listening to each other read, we were opening our auditory selves to a possibility of a new world, a world in which a communist revolution would turn from audible to visible reality. In ourselves, we found a germ of thoughts and emotions which could lead us to such new reality.

Before completing this text, I saw The Discreet Charm of Marxism once again. This time it was shown in Čačak, a provincial town in Western Serbia, in the Nadežda Petrović Art Gallery in early October 2017. The refugee crisis had not yet been resolved, but rather put aside, and the majority of refugees were (re)moved from the city centre to temporary aid centres and shelters on the outskirts of Belgrade – they were, in a sense, made invisible. This time, the audience was local, and the language of reading was Serbo-Croatian. The performance was shown as part of Djordjev’s trilogy on capitalism, as one of the performances of his solo show-reel/exhibition Uslovi zajedničkog razmišljanja / Conditions for Communal Thinking (Bojan Djordjev, 2017). The other two works in the trilogy are: Šta sam naučio o kapitalizmu? / What I Have Learned about Capitalism and, in collaboration with Siniša Ilić: Orijentacija u 100 revolucija / Orientation in 100 Revolutions. Such frame of “communal thinking” has proved to be absent from (and thus absolutely necessary for) the Serbian public sphere. The majority of audience members were female service and sales workers, whose unstable and private nostalgia for communism was here turned into purely political and public feeling. The nostalgia turned into a possibility for (re)imagining better conditions for all of us equally, without exception, or as Djordjev said during this performance: “This is a space of conversation, not of competition.”

Tanja Šljivar
Independent scholar


1 Bojan Djordjev is a performance artist from Belgrade, educated in theatre and art theory in Belgrade, at the Faculty of Drama/University of Arts, and in Amsterdam at DasArts. Apart from Belgrade, his works have been shown in Berlin, Brussels, Amsterdam, New York, Shanghai, Vienna, Zurich, Zagreb, Rijeka, and Ljubljana. Directing credits include performances based on Hervé Guibert, Elfriede Jelinek, James Joyce, Goran Ferčec, Ivana Sajko and Tanja Šljivar, and three operas including Philip Glass’ adaptation of Cocteau’s Les enfants terribles. He is a co-founder and a member of the editorial collective TkH (Walking Theory) platform and Journal for Performing Arts Theory. (https://www.tkh-generator.net/portfolio-type/tkh-journal/) As an artist he is interested in using theatre as a place for collective thinking, a machine for processing complicated discursive propositions such as economy, art history, politics, and critical theory. His recent works revolve around finding artistic and theatrical public formats for Marxist thought as well as researching the artistic heritage of the Left in Yugoslavia and elsewhere. In spring of 2016, he took a trip to Buenos Aires on a cargo ship in order to study intricate choreography of world trade which resulted in the piece SAID TO CONTAIN: perhaps,a collaboration with Maja Leo, Laura Kalauz et.al. https://bojandjordjev.wordpress.com/biography/ (accessed on November 1, 2019).

2 This article is a revised chapter from Tanja Šljivar’s MA thesis “Oral reading as a performative practice” which was submitted and accepted in autumn 2017 at the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany, at Institute for Applied Theater Science, and mentored by Prof. Dr. Gerald Siegmund and Prof. Dr. Bojana Kunst. In the thesis, the notion of “performative reading”, which refers to performative practices of reading aloud, on theatrical stage, as employed in fully realised theater productions – the point at which we generally expect texts to be memorised by the performers delivering them. In the thesis, such reading is compared with several other affined reading practices – from the most usual silent reading, over reading aloud in the frame of literary events, to reading aloud in institutions such as court, church, and university. It is one of the two case studies for the thesis, and the second one deals with the performance Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose (Ivana Sajko, 2010). Chapter on Sajko’s piece has been published in English as: Šljivar, Tanja. 2020. “Self-referential reading in the performance Rose is a rose is a rose by Ivana Sajko.” Od mobilnosti do interakcije: Dramsko pismo i kazalište u Bosni i Hercegovini, Crnoj Gori, Hrvatskoj, na Kosovu,u Makedoniji, Sloveniji i Srbiji, edited by Leszek Małczakand and Gabriela Abrasowicz, 293-310. Katowice; and in Serbo-Croatian as: Šljivar, Tanja. 2019. “Čitanje naglas kao performativna praksa.” Scena: Časopis za pozorišnu umetnost 3: 80-92. Novi Sad.

3 Mladen Dolar also tackles this question when writing the following on the Stalinist regime: “Party congresses were always staged as monotonous readings of an endless string of endless speeches, during which history was supposed to take place, but which had an irresistibly soporific effect – this was definitely history without any drama. The speech will be published anyway the next day in densely covered pages of the official newspaper, so nobody listens (nor does anybody read the paper). Yet the performance is essential and indispensable – not because of the delegates in the hall, nor of the people supposedly gathered in crowds around radios and loudspeakers, but as a scene staged for the benefit of the big Other. The performance is meant for the ears of the big Other of history.” (Dolar 2006: 117) But what if the performance was false the whole time? What if what was read during the Party congresses was never what was actually written on the papers?

4 At the time of writing this text, Pavle Terzić is still a student of the Faculty of Drama Arts in Belgrade. He was recently charged with a misdemeanour by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Serbia, for being one of the organisers of the post-election Protests against Dictatorship in Belgrade in April and May 2017. The newly elected president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, at the time these protests against him and his reign took place, insisted that they were calm and democratic means of expressing the citizens’ discontent, only to take measures against young protesters now, six months later.

5 “U sudskom sam sporu protiv investitora koji mi je oteo dio stana, dobila sam ga na sudu, međutim, pošto je policajac, svi ga štite, i ne žele da postupe po zakonu. Kad ste policajac, to je isto kao i kad ste država, pa građani moraju da trpe torturu. […] pa sam iskoristila mogućnost da ne prekršim zakon, a jasno i glasno iskažem protest protiv države.” (Nezavisne 2012)

6 The surrealist film Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie / The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, 1972, France), omits classical narrative structures, but concerns a group of six upper middle-class people, who repeatedly try to have dinner together, despite constant and inventive obstacles resulting in failures. Buñuel's placing of characters in peculiar, bizarre and obscure situations while attempting to have dinner-parties, unmasks his intended target – the hypocrisy of bourgeois norms and rules. In one character’s dream – based on one of Buñuel's – they unexpectedly all find themselves on the theatre stage, during another aborted attempt to dine, while being observed by the theatre audience. “I have forgotten my lines,” utters frightened Henri Sénéchal (played by Jean-Pierre Cassel). Although Djordjev, in part, repeats this joke, when putting us, guests of dinner-performance, on the theatre stage, he does not put us in a desperate situation of forgetting or not knowing the lines – they are written everywhere around us, for us to read aloud. Another Buñuel's film – Le fantôme de la liberté / The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, 1974, France) is also relevant to Djordjev’s piece. They share title homages to Marx – in Buñuel specifically a reference to the opening sentence: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism” (in French, “spectre” is translated as “fantôme”). Buñuel replaces communism with liberty and makes them equal already in the title of the film in which he continues to humorously attack bourgeois norms and conventions, as well as taboos and obscenities. He accordingly demonstrates who gets to deem perfectly natural objects and acts as perverse and how they do this. Buñuel’s strategy in directing the most famous scene of the film, in which attendees of the dinner-party are gathered around the table, while seated on flushing toilets, conversing on human waste, and defecating in front of each other, whereas they eat in privacy of the separate, small rooms resembling toilets was in part appropriated by Djordjev, when directing this performance. So, the joke with which Buñuel asks what is the actual difference between the acts of eating and defecating, is analogous to the one with which Djordjev asks: what is the actual difference between the acts of eating and reading. The question that also concerns Djordjev is how these two acts are connected with the bourgeois practice of theatre-going.

7 Of course this ideal could easily be contrasted with the hate speech widespread on social media and anonymous comments on articles published online. Questioning democratic procedures should always be inherent in democracy on its way to transforming to a form of socialist democracy. We have witnessed social media ruining people’s lives (Tiziana Cantone being one of examples). There is a limit to the ability to read hate-speech directed at oneself.

8 For example, one of the primary political issues for Serbia, as well as the Euro convergence criteria for the country, is to take part in negotiations with the Kosovo government, facilitated by the European Union. These negotiations are primarily known as “dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina”.

9 An interesting piece of trivia is that the wine for the performance was provided by a winery owned by Zoran Živković, former Serbian prime minister, because of the coincidence that he and BITEF Festival have offices in the same building.


Tanja Šljivar is a Yugoslavia-born playwright. She holds MA degrees in dramaturgy (University of Arts, Belgrade) and in applied theater studies (Justus Liebig Universität, Giessen). She primarily writes for stage and her plays have been published and staged in several European countries and theatres such as Atelje 212 Belgrade, Bosnian National Theatre Zenica, Deutsches Theatre Berlin. Besides writing for stage, she also writes texts for visual arts projects, performances, dance pieces, screenplays, fiction, and theory texts. In 2019 she worked as an artistic director at the National Theatre in Belgrade. In 2020 she was awarded a research grant from IAS at Central European University Budapest to write her debut novel.


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Suggested Citation

Šljivar, Tanja. 2020. “Politicality of Reading and Listening in the Performance The Discreet Charm of Marxism by Bojan Djordjev.” Yugoslav Performance Art: On the Deferred Production of Knowledge (ed. by Goran Pavlić). Special Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 11. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2020.00011.241.

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms.


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