– Spring/Summer 2001

Performance as Metaphor

Bert O. States

Performance is clearly one of those terms that Raymond Williams calls 'keywords', or words (e.g. realism, naturalism, mimesis, structure) whose meanings are 'inextricably bound up with the problems [they are] being used to discuss.1 Find a word that is suddenly emerging from normal semantic practice (a word you are hearing, say, a dozen times a week), and you can bet that it is a proto-keyword spreading on the winds of metaphor. And in this process the word's standard dictionary meanings seem to fall into a dormancy while the new 'key' meaning, not yet clear, gets tested and extended far and wide, revised, qualified, and finally settles into the vocabulary as if it had always meant what it now means.2 Keywords are usually two-edged in that they belong to the fields of both ideology and methodology: they are at once an attitude and a tool.3

It goes without saying that the field of theatre studies is rapidly being re-shaped by the principle of performance, abetted by the rise of multiculturalism, interdisciplinarity and gender studies. So far the major task has been to coax out the various manifestations of performance, to find, so to speak, our neighbours in places we haven't bothered to look for them before. By and large this coaxing has had the character of a colonization, since a keyword, seconded by ideology, never stops ramifying itself until it has claimed as much territory

  1. Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, New York: Oxford, 1976, p.13.

  2. It is hard for a new meaning of a word to find its way into the dictionary, and some never do. In one sense, the dictionary is a reliable guide to meaning, but in another its definitions are perpetually out of date because new 'street meanings' are continually evolving. The operative definition of a word - I am referring mainly to keywords and their derivatives - amounts to how it is used at a particular 'moment' in culture, not what it means in the dictionary. In a sense, the dictionary tells us only what a word has meant (most of which it still means). Whereas the street meaning is always in the 'experimental' or metaphorical stage of evolution. The infamous Seagull effect of Chaos theory would suggest that words like theatre, theatricality, and performance do not mean the same thing this month as they meant last month, though the change may be as subtle as the change in the continental drift. This is possible because the very recurrence of a word in new contexts constantly expands its semantic base. This process is aggravated, however, in the case of words like theatre, performance, text and so on because they are so hyper-active as metaphors. (See Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts, Bloomington: Indiana, 1984, pp.67-89 on the evolutionary aspect of metaphor.) Moreover, one of the problems with certain words, keywords especially, is that they cease to be words at all at some point, at least 'neutral' words, and become symbols of institutions and institutional or revolutionary thinking. Words, in a sense, are like land and property: they are indifferent to their own disposal and dispersion but the cause of strong differentiations among their user/owners. For example, the poststructuralist assault on the terms mimesis and representation was manifestly waged over the idea that people believed mimesis implies imitation in the sense of a copy. No serious aesthetician would advance such a silly idea, but post-sructuralists claimed that this was a widespread belief, saw only a narrow 'naturalistic' meaning in the word, and lumped it in with other 'received' no-no words like the self, truth, meaning, identity, character, the author, humanism, reality, presence, etc. that signified the old ideology. If mimesis is taken in its original Aristotelian (as opposed to Platonic) sense, the most radical performance artists are still committing the sin of mimesis insofar as they engage in performances in which they are 'not themselves, but not not themselves'. A convenient definition of mimesis occurs in Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method (New York: Crossroad, 1985): 'The concept of mimesis … did nor mean a copy so much as the appearance of what is represented. Without the mimesis of the work the world is not there as it is there in the work, and without reproduction the work is not there.' (pp.121-22).

  3. Deconstruction is the most spectacular recent example: the word had been lying there since the nineteenth century ('Deconstruct: to take to pieces'); but it never had a place it could call a home, much less a cause to celebrate, until the idea occurred to us, in the advanced stages of modern skepticism, that things weren't really taken to pieces but were 'always already' in pieces to begin with.

  4. Judith Butler, 'Performarive Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory', Theatre Journal 40, 1988, pp.519-31.

  5. John R. Searle, 'Metaphor', in Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1986, p.102.

  6. Umberto Eco, 'Ur-Fascism', New York Renew of Books, 42, June 22, 1995, p.14

  7. Wittgenstein's celebrated treatment of this problem of concepts with 'blurred edges', particularly games, occurs in Philosophical Investigations, New York: Macmillan, 1968, sections 66-71, or pp.31-34

  8. Richard Schechner, By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual, New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, p.28

  9. R. Williams, op. cit., p.11

  10. Ibid., p.77

  11. U. Eco, Role of the Reader, op. cit., p.87

  12. What encourages this jumping, among other things, is the diverse power of the word's suffixes: -iny,, -ancc, and -ative. Someone who wouldn't include sculpture and painting among thc pcrforming arts could scarcely deny their admittance to performance art, where both seem to flourish. Moreover, many activities outside the arcs have a performative quality, in a metaphorical way, and once it is pointed out one soon begins to speak of their performance. So there is no hope at getting a clean shot at a core meaning. We can hope only to understand the logic behind its proliferation as a keyword.

  13. Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An essay on the the Orgainization of Experience, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986, p.13

  14. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: Doubleday, 1959, p.15

  15. R. Schechner, op. cit., p.28.

  16. E. Goffman, op. cit., p.72.

  17. Bruce Wilshire offers a critique of Goffman's theory in Role Playing and Identity: The Limits of Theatre As Metaphor, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1982, pp.274-81.

  18. Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1982, pp.68-69

  19. One of the things that marks a poor play is its 'unrealistic' depiction of its conflict: it poses either weak extremes (breaches), convenient developments to the crisis, or easy solutions - that is, solutions that in real social life would scarcely occur, given the odds. The sudden unexpected arrival of a rich uncle might be a good example, though under some circumstances the rich uncle is part of the form (sentimental drama), hence part of what we expect.

  20. Richard Schechner would probably disagree with this 'one-way' judgment. For example, referring to Turner's social drama he says: 'Artistic action creates the rhetorical and/or symbolic possibilities for social drama to "find itself", and the events of ordinary life provide the raw stuff and conflicts reconstructed in art works'. [Between Theater and Anthropology, Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1985, pp.116). And in his previous book. Essays in Performance Theory: 1970-76 (New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1977), he applies Turner's social drama theory to the 1975 imbroglio of President Gerald Ford's dismissal of the cabinet members and then to Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet (140-44), finding that both follow Turner's social drama pattern perfectly. First, I don't disagree with Schechner's sense of a two-way street in the least. It is quite true that social action uses the rhetorical and symbolic language of artistic works (not to mention the rhetoric of religion, military strategy, and perhaps even science and domestic life); but this is far from a structural adaptation. Second, my point is that social drama came first; it invariably follows the same pattern (as Schechner says, 'it has always been this way in politics, from the village level on up' [p.143]), and drama modelled itself directly on this pattern. There was simply no other choice, and I would be surprised if the 'dramatic conflicts' that take place in the psychical, physical, and animal worlds, if we cut them at the right joints, didn't follow a similar pattern. Particularly enlightening on this subject is Rudolf Arnheim's discussion of the struggle between the catabolic and the anabolic forces in the field of entropy (he calls this 'the structural theme') in Entropy and Art: An Essay on Order and Disorder (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974).

  21. See Zenon W. Pylyshyn, "Metaphorical Imprecision and the 'Top-Down' Research Strategy," in Andrew Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, p.429

  22. E. Goffman, op. cit., p.254

  23. Ibid., p.106

  24. Ibid., pp.80-81

  25. On this matter of the theatre metaphor as interpretative tool, see María Minich Brewer: Theatre provides, on the one hand, a vast integrarive reference for interpretation and, on the other, it narrows the field to the place of the desiring subject within those interpretive frames' ('Performing Theory', Theatre Journal 37, 1985, p.17).

  26. Philip Auslander discusses the beginnings of performance art in Presence and Resistance: Postmodernism and Cultural Politics in Contemporary American Performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992, pp.35-55). See also Michael Vanden Heuvel, Performing Drama/Dramatizing Performance: Alternative Theater and the Dramatic Text (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1991), chiefly pp.1-66

  27. Susan Sontag, Styles of Radical Will, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969, p.4

  28. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, London and New York: Routledge, 1993, p.146

  29. R. Schechner, op. cit., p.41

  30. I refer of course to Austin's famous term 'performative utterance' in which 'the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action' (How To Do Things With Words [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975], p.6).

  31. Ibid., p.22

  32. Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre on Theater, New York: Pantheon, 1976, p.162

  33. Tom Stoppard, Tom Stoppard in Conversation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994, p.264. A useful way to differentiate theatre's 'invisible' acting and staging from the visible presentation of performance art is offered in Richard A. Lanham's 'At and Through: The Opaque Style and Its Uses', in Literacy and the Survival of Humanism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983). Lanham proposes a distinction between the opaque style and the transparent style, which works like a 'simple At/Through Switch' (p.58). The transparent style (invisible theatre) is the style of pure signification, or of the signified (meaning); the opaque style is the style of the phenomenon itself, of the signifier (presence). Needless to say, there are no pure examples and the 'simple' At/Through switch turns out to be quite complex.

  34. P. Phelan, op. cit., p.4

  35. Ibid., p.147

  36. Ibid., p.146

  37. Ibid.

  38. Ibid., p.31

  39. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1997, p.224

  40. P. Phelan, op. cit., pp.36-37

  41. Phelan certainly has a valid point in claiming that performance consists in its commentary on its own medium. Here is one huge respect in which performance as used in the term performance art signifies something different from its meaning under normative circumstances (say, in theatre of concert performance). Performance art was, and to a great degree still is, aimed at deconstructing the normal assumptions of traditional performance (see Michael Vanden Heuvel, Performing Drama/Dramatizing Performance: Alternative Theater and the Dramatic Text, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991, pp.8ff). Understanding performance art outside the context of 'normal' theatre and art would be as fruitless as trying to understand the Declaration of Independence outside the context of British imperialism. Thus the true performance of performance art occurs between whatever form it takes and the background presuppositions whose gravitational pull it sought to escape. Performance, in one sense at least, wasn't confined in the performance itself (as when Olivier plays Othello), but in a 'betwixt' ontology, somewhat as the 'ontology' of crossed sticks depends on the events at Calvary and all that followed. Even so, I see nothing essentially original about performance art, by which I mean only that it isn't doing anything different from what art has always done: waged an eternal struggle against the strangulations of its own repetitions. All of the topics Phelan takes up in her book are true performances (in my opinion) in the sense that each artist uses the medium as part of what the message is: Trisha's absence and the play with filmic space in Rainer's The Man Who Envied Women, the substitution of descriptions and photographs for the paintings in Sophie Calle's Boston exhibition, Cindy Sherman's use of her own body as a disappearing act, and so on. In each case, it is the medium giving birth to new offspring, fed with its own blood. Bur I think this is what painting, photography, film, and theatre have always done. The true performative moment of art (in Phelan's sense), the moment before its retreat into becoming either classic or dead (or both), occurs in that cultural zone of time when it can be seen (or heard) as reactive, as poised between the present practice of art and the possibilities of future evolution. This is a highly ambiguous process, however, because normal art is always changing and the rebel art is always to some extent , repeating itself and thus giving rise to a set of ossifying characteristics. After this it enters the stream of what we know and what has therefore to be constantly redone, like Penelope's tapestry.

  42. Mikel Dufrenne, The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973, p.51. Dufrenne's aesthetics, I should add, equates presentation of a work with performance (in French, execution). Even the plastic arts, 'in being perceived aesthetically, give "performance" in the sense of offering sensuous presentations to the spectator' (ed. note, 17n). Or, as Dufrenne puts the idea: 'The work must offer itself to perception: it must be performed in order to pass, as it were, from a potential to an actual existence' (p.19). Hence, the reader, like the stage actor, becomes the performer of the written work. '[D]oes not every reader have to be a performer in order to make words pass from the abstract existence of the written sign to the concrete existence of the uttered sign, at least if the sign takes on its full meaning only when uttered?' (pp.51-52). It should be said, however, that Dufrenne does not make this claim of the spectator of graphic art: perception of the work does not equal performance. The spectator only 'collaborates' in the performance of painting, sensuously displayed by the (absent) author. The difference seems to be that in the presence of a painting we perceive the sensuous organization, in reading a novel we must imagine it for ourselves with the text's help (p.59).

  43. Roman Ingarden's well-known term for this enactment of the text is 'concretation', meaning that the reader 'must perform a vivid representation in reading. And this means simply that the reader must productively experience intuitive aspects in the material of vivid representation and thereby bring the portrayed object to intuitive presence, to representational appearance' (The Cognition of the Literary work of /Art, Evanston : Northwestern University Press, 1973, pp.56-57). Ingarden does not refer to this as performance, as Dufrenne does; even so, the same principle (and term) applies to the work of the actor who 'concretises' the text of the author.

  44. M. Dufrenne, op. cit., p.59

  45. See Between Theater and Anthropology, 1985, p.35; By Means of Performance, 1990, p.43; The Future of Ritual:Writings on Culture and Performance, New York & London: Routledge, 1993, p.I

  46. R. Schechner, Between Theater and Antrhopology, op. cit., pp.36-37

  47. Ibid., p.35

  48. Ibid., p.36

  49. Ibid., p.41

  50. Ibid., p.51

  51. R. Schechner, By Means of Performance, op. cit., p.43

  52. Ibid., p.25

  53. R. Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology, op. cit., p.51

  54. Ibid., p.36

  55. Ibid., p.51

  56. Ibid., p.42

  57. R. Schechner, By Means of Performance, op. cit., pp.20-21. The term 'performative event', very common in theory, is a real fudge, but it is almost impossible to avoid. What is the difference between a performance and a performative event? To adopt the performance lingo, we might say that a performative event is not exactly a performance but it is not exactly not a performance.

  58. Ibid., p.19

  59. Ibid., p.37

  60. R. Schechner, By Means of Performance, op. cit., p.28

  61. R. Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology, op. cit., p.97

  62. Of course, if you put a cow on the stage and made it part of the action of a play, that's another matter entirely. The familiarity of the animal disappears and is replaced by the shock of its appearance in an unaccustomed place. This, I take it, would be the source of the fascination with Hippo-drama in the nineteenth century.

  63. This is Heidegger's term of course. See 'The Origin of the Work of Art', in Poetry, Language, Thought, New York: Harper, 1975, pp.32ff

  64. R. Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology, op. cit., p.52

  65. Roger C. Schank, and Robert P. Abelson, Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding: An Inquiry into Human Knowledge Structures, Hillsdale: Lawrence Erihaum, 1977, p.67

  66. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, New York: Macmillan, 1968, p.34

  67. I am not saying something that Schechner doesn't realise. For instance, see his essay on the relation of social drama to aesthetic drama in Essays in Performance Theory: 1970-76, New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1977, pp.140-56. Indeed, with a few changes his diagram on Social Drama/Aesthetic Drama (p.144) might be adapted to my point. I do share Victor Turner's reservations that the diagram 'suggests cyclical rather than linear movement' (From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1982, p.74) between theatre and society; that is, it overemphasizes the respect in which theatre influences life. When Schechner suggests that Gerald Ford 'takes techniques from the theatre' in order to conduct his cabinet shake-up to best public advantage (Essay in Performance Theory, pp.143-44), I would ask where the theatre learned these PR techniques if not from realpolitik itself. In other words, anything the theatre knows was taught to it by reality. Maybe people deliberately 'theatricalise' themselves in dress, manner, or life-style according to popular theatre stereotypes (James Dean, Madonna), hut where did the stereotypes originate?

  68. Robert P. Crease, The Play of Nature: Experimentation as Performance, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993, p.96

  69. Ibid., p.100

  70. Ibid., p.103

  71. Wolfgang Iser, The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, p.4

  72. Gerald Edelman, Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection, New York: Basic Books, 1997, p.265

  73. Ibid., p.32

  74. Again Edelman: 'We must look at all acts of perception as acts of creativity. [Memory] is nor a replicative recall of stored physical descriptors. It is an imaginative act, a form of dynamic recategorisation with decoration by exemplars. Its very lack of repetitive precision … is the source of creative possibility for generalisaiton and pattern recognition' ('Neural Darwinism: Population Thinking and Higher Brain Function', in How We Know, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985, p.24

  75. Ibid., p.109

  76. Ibid., p.110

  77. The best sustained case for the thought-parallels between scientific and artistic discovery is made by Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation, New York: Macmillan, 1969. 'The logical pattern of the creative process is the same in humour, scientific discovery, and art; it consists in the discovery of hidden similarities' (p.27). This is more complex than it sounds in this reduced form. The thing we must bear in mind in studies like Crease's and Koestler's is not that they are arguing for an across-the-board identification between science and art, only that the mental process of discovery is the same, along with certain procedures. There is not an awful lot of difference, in short, between finding the right metaphors and designing the right experimental model (which, as Koestler points out, is always 'a caricature of reality … based on selective emphasis on the relevant factors and omission of the rest' [p.72] - just what we do unconsciously when we interpret a metaphor.) So when we separate art and science as different pursuits of understanding, we ought to know precisely what we're separating and what is identical. To quote Nelson Goodman on the point: 'Even if the ultimate product of science, unlike that of art, is a literal, verbal or mathematical, denotational theory, science and art proceed in much the same way with their searching and building' (Ways of Worldmaking, Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1978, p.107

  78. R. P. Crease, The Play of Nature, op. cit., p.111

  79. Is this not exactly the main reason for 'reviving' old out-of-fashion plays in which we (the stage director) suddenly detect a contemporary theme? Or, to reverse the order, why we do classics in updated locations (a Creole Othello, a Barbados Winter's Tale, etc.)?

  80. R. P. Crease, The Play of Nature, op. cit, p.119

  81. H.G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, op. cit., p.99

  82. Herbert Blau, The Audience, Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, p.17; see also Vanden Heuvel, Performing Drama, p.36; and Schmitt, 'Casting the Audience.'

  83. On this same line, the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, defines performance as 'The recitation of poetry either by its author, a professional performer, or any reader either alone or before an audience; the term normally implies the latter' (p.892)

  84. The ur-forms of all performance would be the day dream and the nocturnal REM dream, the most private instances of 'restored behaviour'.