Aesthetica Preprint, 65 (August 2002)

Elio Franzini: Theatre, the Feast, and the Revolution. On Rousseau and the Encyclopaedists

The polemic on performances (which started in 1758 with d'Alembert's encyclopaedic entry "Geneva" and inspired Rousseau's Lettre à M. d'Alembert ) foregrounds how the Enlightenment had broken up into various factions. The emergence of these divisions opened up a philosophical debate which turned into an aesthetic-political dispute and, eventually, into revolutionary praxis. The philosophical debate focussed on the cognitive meaning of "representation" (which was interpreted by Rousseau as a perverse mask, by Voltaire as a static naturalistic form, and by Diderot as a dynamic genesis of meaning), that is, on the relationship between unmediated and mediated knowledge, between nature and life, passion and reason. In his Lettre, Rousseau uses the term "theatre" in a way that subsumes Voltaire's and Diderot's interpretations and unites them under the masking fiction of representation. To theatre, Rousseau opposes the notion of feast, which he presents as a performative and cognitive model..
From this perspective, the dispute can be seen to exceed its historical boundaries and influence the French Revolution, when the debate takes on exceptional historical and theoretical significance. Rousseau's approach, in fact, survives in the festive events that, during the Revolution, are a prelude to Terror. On the other hand, Diderot's "encyclopaedic" attempt, which aimed to overcome the intrinsic limitations of Rousseau's position, foregrounds the political and cognitive significance of the shift to the thermidorian period. At the same time, it also underlines the meaning of a philosophic project like the Encyclopedia which, to this day, retains its profound value as methodological foundation of modern thought.