Monday, April 17, 2006

Day Two

One of the ways to get easily confused when jumping into the kind of theory represented on my third list has to do with the multiple uses of the term "performativity." I've already mentioned the performative utterance in speech act theory; that use of performative does not on the surface correspond to a study of performance in the traditional sense of theatrical art—and in fact Austin deliberately excludes theatre from his study of the performative. But in addition to Austin's use, the word has accumulated other theoretical uses as well as considerable cachet. There is the deconstructive use of the word (Derrida's critique of speech act theory and contributions by Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller, for example) which lays the groundwork for the popular way Judith Butler used the word in Gender Trouble to explain the construction of gender (the performance of gender relies on iterability just as Derrida says speech acts do). And then there is its centrality to the ever-expanding field of performance studies, which, also inspired by iterability, has taken up ritual and ceremony and everyday performance of all types in addition to the traditionally theatrical. So all these theoretical projects—speech act theory, deconstruction, queer theory, performance studies—make use of the word, but not necessarily in the same way. What does any of it have to do with getting on a stage and performing a poem, for example? It seems that around the word "performativity" there has developed what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls a "carnivalesque echolalia of extraordinarily productive cross-purposes."

That phrase, so apt and so exquisite, is an example of why Eve Sedgwick is one of my favourite writers. It comes from the introduction to a book she co-edited with Andrew Parker, published in 1995, Performativity and Performance. Some of the essays in the book approach Austinian theory directly; some of them are more affiliated with the broad scope of performance studies and talk about theatre, performance art, or AIDS epidemiology; they include an essay by Judith Butler that I will come back to later; the introduction, though, gives a sparkling clear outline of some of the connections between those various uses of the word, and what we are to do with it in the real world. At the end of the intro (which is co-authored by Parker and Sedgwick, but which I can't help reading as Sedgwick's voice because of its inimitable style and diction, because it reminds me of Epistemology of the Closet, because I know Eve Sedgwick (she teaches at the Grad Center) and because it deploys words like "wussitude" and "nonce"), it is pointed out that perhaps even more interesting than the over-worked epistemological questions related to speech acts (how can we really know intentions, truths, or identities?) are the more practical concerns of how we can actually do things with words.

Sedgwick also emphasizes that Austin's original efforts to exclude or even stigmatize the theatrical and fictional are tellingly overdetermined: not only does he call them "parasitic" uses of language, they are also "ill" and "etiolated" (unnaturally pale, sickly, weak). This resonates with de Man's characterization of the performative as "aberrant". It is enough for Sedgwick to suggest a few other adjectives: abnormal, effete, perverse, to drive home that performance may always in one way be queer performance. Another interesting thing she does is to suggest the rich possibilities available in discussing the agents involved in any performative speech act: not just the speaker and the addressee but the interpellated witnesses. She examines, for instance, how Austin's most re-iterated example — that of the utterance "I do" at a wedding — necessarily implicates not just the bride and the groom and the minister but the entire audience as well — and therefore has a forcibly normative function.

There's more to come on speech act theory, and much more to come on performance theory: I want to mention J. Hillis Miller's Speech Acts in Literature, which is much clearer and more engaging than I expected for some reason and which synthesizes some of these issues; Benjamin Lee's book also gives an overview and talks more about the linguistic side of the debate; and next up I plan to talk about Judith Butler's Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. Later I will get into the theorists of performance studies: Richard Schechner, Victor Turner, Peggy Phelan, and so on. Tomorrow, though, I plan to spend the day at Poet's House in SoHo, taking a break from theory and just reading poetry.


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