It has been said before that everything we do is performance. In other words, all of our interactions throughout our lives are performative; we wear our different masks depending on who, where and when we are performing. We perform differently for our bosses than we do for our friends. This is not to suggest that there is a fakery involved in our daily interactions, but that to some degree, we are all somewhat cognizant of the various stages in which we live and perform. Yet, I find it rather useless to say everything is performance, instead I find it much more interesting to look at the various levels, or degrees, of performativity to be found in our lives. With this paper, I'm going to explore a couple of different performance(s) and try to generate applications from this discussion.
Again, I believe that there are performative elements to all of our interactions, but that these elements differ in degree and kind. For instance, I think we would all agree that a different level of performativity occurs during a casual conversation with a friend than that of a performance of Hamlet on a proscenium stage. The latter example falls into a theatrical category with a defined performer/audience dynamic; a dynamic that can of course be problematized ad nauseam. The former situation has more subtle performative aspects contextualized within a "real" interaction- again, this too can be problematized. These potential problems are not the focus of this paper, although they will come into play I suspect. Also, I think it would be unfair to say that there are no similarities between the two events above, they have some shared links that allow us to call them both performances, more on this later.
In looking at the various incarnations of performance that we find ourselves in from day to day, I hope to set up some notions of performance that may possibly serve as the basis for some sort of methodology. For the sake of concision, I am going to stick with the two examples above (a staged play and a conversation) throughout the paper, even though I realize that there are many more examples to be had. I believe the issues gleaned from the gaps and links between a stage production and the performance of an everyday conversation will hint at possible gaps and links to be found in general. This will at the very least, give us a starting point upon which to build further ideas.
I also want to explore the dialogic audience/performer dynamic and some issues of the power involved in this dynamic as I see it manifesting itself across these various instances of performance. Within this dynamic, I am curious as to who is, or is not, in control of the creation of meaning during a performance, whether it be a play or a conversation. Finally, I want to discuss some possible applications raised by the various issues discussed. I believe that we can apply a performance dynamic to help us further understand the world we live in.
To begin, I want to develop some form of a working definition of performance. Stern and Henderson define performance as an act that is "interactional in nature and involving symbolic forms and live bodies" (3). It can be an act that involves the interactions between a performer and a text, an audience and a performer, and/or two people talking. The symbolism occurs at the "intersection between text and context," with the text being anything ranging from a script to a social norm for interaction. This is where and how the page is brought to life on the stage through the performed gestures and actions, and where a conversation comes to life through the interaction of the two participants. The context of these occurrences is the "social, political, historical, psychological and aesthetic factors that shape the way we understand the text" (17). It is the culture in which we, the audience, are influenced. A performance is thus positioned within the cultural discourse of its place and time (Auslander 8). So, when and where it occurs influences how and what occurs. The context shapes and limits the possible meanings of a performance that the performers and the audience can interpret. So, whether is be a conversation or a stage play, it occurs within its context of time and space.
Issues of text and context lead to thinking of a performance as an event that lives in the present, in the here and now. A performance cannot be reproduced; it can be repeated, but then it is a different production (Phelan, Unmarked 146). Each production is a (re)presentation of the performance. It is a different conversation, a different play. Each performance varies from the last, each affected by the present time and place. Each performance is filled with the potential of the present. It is happening in the here and now. It is a presence "imbued in performance" through the knowledge that "it will occur this way only this time" (Heuvel 12).
In a performance, more than one type of presence exists. There is the enduring presence of the performance itself, and there is "the series of presents which constitutes whatever 'present' meaning" the audience has of the performance (Sayre, Object 19). In other words, the performance exists and endures along with the current meaning(s) found in the audience's responses, whether detailed or fleeting, which create and sustain a process of presents. So, every (re)presentation, every new conversation you have, takes place within the rubric of your experience of past performances and past conversations.
I believe a performance is also metonymic, an "additive and associative" process that works on "contiguity and displacement" (Phelan 150). To borrow Peggy Phelan's example, "'The kettle is boiling' is a statement that assumes water is contiguous with the kettle. The point is not that the kettle is like water," as in a metaphor, "but that the kettle is boiling because the water inside the kettle is" boiling (150). Performance is metonymic in the sense that a performance echoes that from which it springs forth and echoes the process of performing itself. A performance simultaneously represents the text on stage and itself as well. This idea is analogous to Sayre's example that "the spoken breath is identical with the event that it describes because it is the event" (Object 16). In the process of performing, both text and performance are (re)presented. The embodied orality of the performance opens up its metonymic potential. You have the presence of the text and the presence of the participants in the here and now. Whether it be conversational or theatrical, these performances occur within a dynamic with warm bodies together in time and space.
In a performance, several levels of metonymy can be identified that help to highlight the complexity of the spectator-performer dynamic. First, metonymy in performance itself exists as described above. Second, metonymy occurs in an audience's experience, which "involves the active role [of] the audience... in creating the emergent meanings" of the performance (Stern and Henderson 406). The viewers reinterpret a performance within each experience they have with it. In other words, they themselves are a type of performer, creating meaning in their interpretation of the aside made in a play or a conversation. Third, the viewers become aware to some degree of this present interpretation to the performance, becoming "spectators of their own performances, becoming a kind of performer" (Phelan 161). The audience becomes introspectively aware of their response(s) to a performance. In this awareness, the performing audience members are engaging their present experience of a performance within their collected experience(s) of it (Sayre, "Performance" 103). The audience members are simultaneously representing a performance in their performative viewing as well as representing their interpretation of it. Or, more simply, the audience/listener is making meaning just as the performer/speaker is. Within this dynamic the power of meaning becomes the meeting of both parties, together the performer and audience create the meaning that occurs within that time and space. Without one or the other, there would be a lot less to talk about.
With this dynamic in mind, I want to look at the power involved in the creation of meaning during these performances. The meaning that flows between performer and audience and between both parties involved in a conversation. Looking at the latter situation, there have been an umpteen gazillion theories and models developed about the development of meaning that occurs during conversations, the most basic being: sender-message-receiver. In general these theories deal with the interaction that occurs between two people in conversation. Of course there are conversations with more than just two people and there are differences to these conversations, but I believe that the dynamic is similar. Essentially, you have people talking and listening to each other within whatever context they happen to be interacting.
Along this line, both individuals are contributing actively and orally to the meaning shaped in the conversation, in other words, they're speaking to each other. But they are also listening to each other and interpreting each other's remarks- creating the meaning of the conversation for themselves with which they then act on to further the conversation. So, the power of meaning creation is very fluid in this situation, both speakers/listeners are continually adding to the meaning of the conversation through their vocalizations and interpretations of each other's thoughts. It is a two way street with lots of traffic on it. This of course is also further complicated by non-verbal issues and the unsaid connotations that fly freely throughout conversations. A raised eyebrow, a smirk, a leaning away with the body, all add subtle (and not so subtle) meanings to the conversation taking place. All in all, the meaning comes from the interaction of the two participants in the process of the conversation.
Looking at the stage, the dynamic seems to have more defined boundaries, but as I stated earlier, these boundaries can be problematized. To start, you have the performer up on stage and the audience seated out in the theatre. A variety of stage arrangements put the audience and performers into different spatial relationships with each other that obviously influence the interaction between the two parties, an intimate little theatre with a stage in the round is vastly different from a Broadway show with three tiers of balconies. Nevertheless, the boundaries of a staged play are generally more formal than that of a casual conversation. Although many types of conversation have formal boundaries, an interview for example, and certain "staged" performances are much less formal; guerrilla theater comes to mind. Even so, like a conversation, a performance has the interaction between two participants.
The audience has some sort of spatial arrangement and interaction with the performers. Here is where the performance dynamic kicks in, you have a live audience with live performers in the here and now. It is an immediate, visceral dialogue between the two parties, the audience reacting to the performers and the performers responding to the audience's feedback. Like a conversation, it is a two way street with information flowing both ways. Not only are the performers shaping the meaning of the experience, but the audience, in their interpretations and responses to the performance, shape the experience as well. With this in mind, it is much more clear as to how two performances of the same production cannot help but be different. Each audience helps to subtly shape the experience of the performance unlike any other audience, and the same can be said for the performers. In this way, each performance definitely occurs, and only occurs, in the present here and now.
Despite the overt differences to the experience of a conversation with a friend and the experience of a performance of Hamlet on stage, both exchanges contain the interaction between the two involved parties. In both cases, all the participants are actively engaged in creating the meaning that arises out of the experiences. The power dynamics are blurry and shared, with everyone involved being a necessary component to the present performance and the unique meanings that arise in that here and now. It is a two way street that needs the chaotic flow of traffic from both directions in order to have an order of sorts. It is through the process of the performance, the interaction between the two, that shapes the experience and creates the meaning.
Meaning will be lessened (there will be less to talk about) if only one of the participants is present. An audience with no performers may make for an interesting experiment in crowd behavior, but the dialogue is lost. Performers with no audience seems analogous to the situation implicit in the question if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If there is no audience, was there a performance? I'm not sure, and even if a case can be made that yes there is a performance without an audience, again, I would say there is less to talk about, the dialogue is gone. And having a conversation with yourself may be an interesting example of intrapersonal communication and one could possibly argue for the stance that you are your own audience in such a scenario, but again, no dialogue is occurring and there is less to say.
I believe that what interests me about the dynamics involved in both of the above examples is the interconnectivity of the two parties involved in both situations throughout the process of the performance. This interconnectivity highlights how both parties are necessary to this process, you need them both and that each time you get them together there will be a difference in time and space. A difference that leads to various and potentially unique experiences of the performance in each present here and now. Both members of the conversation are needed, and both performers and audience are needed as well. A "performance breaks down the illusion of rational control and power over meaning" (Heuvel 5). The meaning would not occur without one or the other, neither is in control, but both are needed. Or, at the very least, it would occur differently.
This fascinates me in terms of how it might be applied to help explore meaning more thoroughly with more multi-faceted results. Of course, with various meanings being explored, we open a whole new can of worms in terms of evaluation and analysis that needs to be explored itself. But, it seems that performances themselves could be a way to further explore and understand how meaning is creating in the various performances of our lives. Not only could we dig into the metaphysical aspects of these issues, but we could introduce ideas into different contexts with different dynamics and see what different meanings arise out of these experiences.
Where does this leave us? And where am I going with these ideas? These are questions that I am not sure I have full, complete answers, but instead would suggest using a performative dynamic to attempt to explore them further. In other words, create performative situations in which to explore these ideas so that the dialogic dynamic of the experience would potentially give you various answers with which to ponder. So, instead of giving answers, I am suggesting a new way with which we can ask and explore questions. A way that employs the dialogic aspects of performance into its process and in fact is all about process, a continuous exploration. As meaning occurs between the participants in performance, so should it take place at the interaction of theories and applications.
Recognizing that the creation of meaning is a processual experience, I contend that academia needs to continually (re)address and (re)explore ideas for the potential issues that may be raised. As our understanding of ways of meaning evolve, so too must our interrogation and application of them. I believe that we should incorporate multiple media (manuscripts, web-based hypertexts, playing cards and performances) together to fashion more fluid forms of exposition from which to pursue and understand meaning(s). Ideally, we should be flexible enough to allow for a continual (re)presentation and (re)exploration of ideas in the process of their performance(s).
Issues that I believe may be addressed more thoroughly are: the dispersion of information in performances- whether they are conversational or staged, dialogue happens; the embodied, ephemeral performances of ideas- opening more dialogues around the ideas in various presents; the flattening of hierarchies- leveling the playing field in the interconnected power of creating meaning; active collaborations among colleagues- actually doing work together, a continuous dialogue; a focus on the processes of study- looking at how we study and how it effects what we create and perceive; experimentations in interface- trying to interact with each other and information in different ways to evoke various experiences and dialogues; fragmentations of theories- watching ideas splinter apart in this two way street of dialogue, growing with each new dialogue; innovations in our methodologies- focusing on different, and potentially better, ways to explore ideas, continually (re)presenting experience. As I stated above, my aim is not to come up with answers, but instead, to find better ways in which to ask more appropriate questions.
Again, I do believe that there are performative elements to all of our interactions, but that these elements differ in degree and kind. I think that by utilizing these differences we can develop a process to further explore our creation of meaning. In looking at the incarnations of performance in talking and stage, I have tried to set up some notions of performance to develop some sort of methodology. I looked at the gaps and links in the audience/performer dynamic as seen in both conversations and staged productions and tried to start a realization of some possible applications.
Using performance to explore ideas seems more evocative of how we actually create meaning in our daily interactions with various levels, or degrees, of performativity. If, like I believe, this is the case, then it would seem to me that a performance dynamic would be one of the most invigorating and useful dynamics within which to explore and understand a variety of issues. This said, I am still not sure exactly how this could play out and fit into academia today. As it is now, we construct performances, stage them and then write papers about them. A process to be sure, but one in which the most serious attention is paid to the manuscriptive analysis of the performance. It is my firm believe that vastly different meanings can be engaged and evoked if we applied the processes found in the performances of our lives to the questions we are attempting to answer. As Vanden Heuvel notes, a performance is "in many ways a more authentic representation [of reality] because it recognizes and enforces a conception of reality as plural and parallel, indeterminate and hypothetical, the co-creation of spectators-players--in a word, potential" (7). A performative paradigm gives us the potential to further understand and evoke the plurality of meanings that we continually create together in the here and now.
Auslander, Philip. Presence and Resistance: Postmodernism and Cultural Politics in Contemporary American Performance. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992.
Heuvel, Michael Vandon. Performing Drama/Dramatizing Performance: Alternative Theater and the Dramatic Text. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993.
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Sayre, Henry. The Object of Performance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.
---. "Performance." Critical Terms for Literary Study. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
Stern, Carol Simpson and Bruce Henderson. Performance: Texts and Contexts. New York: Longman, 1993.