I. PSi 15: (Mis)Performance Studies (Panels)

The 2009 Performance Studies International conference took place in late June at Zagreb’s Center for Dramatic Art.  Although this Eastern European setting may seem a linguistically and geographically improbable setting, the University of Zagreb has a thriving cadre of critical thinkers focused on performance.  Their efforts– apparently led by Marin Blažević, who was omnipresent at the conference– came to my attention via recent publications on contemporary dance in Performance Research by Una Bauer and Bojana Bauer.  (I remembered Blazevic from last year’s Peformance Studies meeting, where he moderated Erika Fischer-Lichte’s keynote address.  He had won my affection by incisively asking Fischer-Lichte to account for her understanding of art’s relation to culture, which revealed a decidedly modern belief in the “transformative power of art” (the title of her newest book in English is something like this, too)– that is, a hierarchical privileging of theory, at least as theory is realized in advanced art beyond present cultural horizons.)

Zagreb may seem relatively remote, but it is worthwhile traveling to attend PSI, even merely to present a twenty minute presentation.  The conference is indisputably global and offers an opportunity for contact with scholarship from beyond the U.S. and Britain.  However, Performance Studies does have its own conventions, and as I describe my scattered path through its offerings, I intend to point out common themes or assumptions that bind its disparate disciplinary area.  In so doing, I am going to divide this entry into three sections: 1) a general description of conference, 2) a more detailed discussion of the privileged role that the performance group Goat Island has achieved within Performance Studies, and 3) an archived presentation of my own contribution to the performance, “Murmurs, Mispronunciations, and Malentendus: The Medium of Language in Recent Choreography by Mantero, Hay, and Forsythe.”

This trio of strategic errors in spoken language was inspired by the conference theme, “Misperformance: Misfiring, Misfitting, Misreading.”  It might be supposed that PSI’s goal was to identify how failure functions within the intentional boundaries of performance, but such broad discussion was subordinated to study of disruptive phenomena across artistic, historical, and disciplinary contexts.  Moreover, the theme was derived from J.L. Austin’s use of the word “misfire,” which its organizers plainly state in its rationale: “Since our broad notion of performance and its possible misfires owe a great deal to Austin’s philosophy of language, rooted as it is in the paradigmatic Western metaphysical dichotomies of play vs. seriousness and success vs. failure, efficiency vs. loss, we are often forced to perceive and value cultural forms and events in terms of binary oppositions.”  The word “misfire”– like misinvocation, misapplication, or misexecution– belongs to a class of utterances that Austin calls “infelicities,” cases in which performatives do not achieve what their spoken intent and are “not indeed false but in general unhappy” (Words 14).  Misfires designate acts that are prohibited or fail, and whose effects are void or unfinished.

I have no intention here of trying to address the extensive discourse ensuing since Austin’s 1955 presentation of the performative in a series of lectures at Harvard– in fact, I have never developed a definitive reading of his seminal “How To Do Things With Words.”  However, as made evident by his foundational role in the theme of “misfires” and the frequency with which his principles were cited throughout the conference, Austin appears to function as a foundational figure in the field of Performance Studies.  Of course, Austin is an odd forefather, one whose legacy has been impacted by poststructuralism and gender studies, which have changed Austin’s ideas into a form that he would have almost certainly repudiated.  Furthermore, as is rarely acknowledged Austin’s text is elusively entangled within a constellation of competing influences.  He rejects Wittgenstein, admiringly cites Kant’s name, inserts a variety of antediluvian hegemonic prejudice, establishes a structure ready-made for Derrida’s mise-en-abyme analysis, but nevertheless approaches several crucial areas of scholarship still in evolution: doing/practice, social circumstance/context, and language– not to mention the way in which performatives do not correspond to the criteria of true and false.  In short, Austin is an enigmatic foundational figure, one whose legacy I would feel loathe to cite without considerable qualification.

Regardless of such ambiguities, Austin was invoked in many panels at PSI.  He made a particularly central appearance in Jon McKenzie’s talk, “Counter-Performatives: Economic Meltdowns, Techno-Snafus, and Beyond,” part of a panel focusing on research, organization, and technology.  McKenzie is well-known in Performance Studies circles for “Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance,” (and now that I am reflecting on my own titles for book-length studies, I am baffled that he used the word “performance” twice), which belongs to a class of books once part of my M.A. exam list, but which faded into a state of indefinite limbo as it failed to speak to my own work.  After PSI, I am less likely to ever read “Perform or Else.”  This is not to malign the quality of McKenzie’s scholarship– on the contrary, his presentation was as exactingly systematic as its subject, a reading of the concept of “counterperformatives” developed by sociologist of economics Donald McKenzie’s “An Engine, Not a Camera.” Ultimately, Jon McKenzie wished to direct this economic model of performativity upon the social contexts that originally inspired Judith Butler, namely, the controversy and activism surrounding queer culture in the United States.  Of course, unlike Butler, he seemed unconcerned with the singular, personal experience of social exclusion, and instead emulated an almost structuralist model that sought “to perform theories of performativity.”  In this light, the abdication of aesthetic praxis– be it social or artistic– for the logical laws of theory seemed much less compelling than they perhaps did ten years ago, and his clinical detachment immediately solicited skeptical responses.  As one audience member suggested, he did seem to be returning to a kind of “pre-Derridean” Austin, by eliding the fallacies of subjectivity– and desire– within analytical systems.

Justly or not, McKenzie’s talk thus dominated discussion.  This potentially exaggerated emphasis was also due to the absence of evident overlaps with the panel’s other papers: a talk by a junior professor from Trinity University on the locomotive as a symbol for theatrical realism’s inability to maintain its formal coherency, and thereby, “the repressed,”; a British doctoral student’s examination of Darwin’s theatricalized photographic studies in the 1860s/70s, very much written under the sign of Jonathan Crary; and a strange, rambling monologue against a generalized concept of consumerism by a kindly Portuguese grandfather, who was I believe, an archaeologist.  (It was amusing and somehow fitting when I saw him the next day strolling into Zagreb Airport’s duty-free shop…)  The mismatched diversity of these presentations also characterized a panel I had seen the preceding day, entitled “Mislocated Scripts,” in which two graduate students from Portugal and Japan, struggling to describe poorly documented stagings of Brecht and Shakespeare in remote cultural conditions, labored beneath the shadow of more eminent name, Stanford’s Carl Weber.  As one might guess, Weber was speaking about Heiner Müller, and in particular, Müller’s intentionally skewed encounters with Shakespeare.  Unfortunately, Weber’s paper amounted to little more than a book report recounting Müller’s history with Shakespeare.

Such absence of argument in the work of a senior scholar was discouraging, especially in a conference with no keynote speakers.  In the absence of such main academic events, the conference had arranged panels of distinguished speakers and developed “shifts,” hybrid lecture-performances.  Having heard the name of one of the “distinguished” speakers, I attended one panel featuring three British scholars: Nicholas Ridout, Joe Kelleher, and Sophie Neld.  This panel, “Was That What I Thought It Was…”, organized itself around “mis-spectatorship” as its theme, in particular, “visual and aural hallucinations in the theatre.”  Kelleher discussed the recently much-lauded Latvian director Alvis Hermanis’ 2005 performance “Ice,” Neld discussed the problems of representing death, giving special attention to the painstaking presentation of the Hussein brothers’ ravaged corpses in Iraq and her own personal reaction to the Bodyworks exhibition, and Ridout analyzed the narrator’s juvenile encounters with the star actress Berma in Proust’s “Recherche.”  This was by far the most well-coordinated, polished, and animating panel that I attended; its papers were sumptuously written, charismatically presented, and thought-provoking, and yet… they also demonstrated a few telling characteristics of the conference and the discipline, at least as inflected by its dominant British strand.

For one, these papers were decidedly “performative”–  that is, their tone and language were rhetorically elevated, and their argumentative mode proudly proceeded through lyrically wrought personal reflection.  This was immediately evident in Kelleher’s paper, which discussed his own “hallucinations” in the theatre, comically subordinating Hermanis’ work to the self-deprecatory inadequacy of Kelleher’s French as he tried to grasp the transpiring events at a theatre in Belgium.  This emphasis upon subjective experience as a material of analysis was actually relevant to the panel’s content, and it likewise characterized Neld’s personal reaction to Bodyworks and even Ridout’s more conventional, but slyly empathetic identification with Proust’s image of naively star-addled projection.  In fact, their personalized model of high literary expression seemed consistent with Proust’s overly erudite irony and provided the common ground for their diverse inquiries, from Kelleher’s initial recollections of 19th century French theories of synaesthesia to Proust’s complex relation to late Romanticism.  As such, these papers reaffirmed a model of literary expression, in which the the reflux of negated narrative potential returns as an uncanny excess, a hallucinatory petina that reminds the individual of their negative connection to representational totality.  Death is the limit– and the unifying link– of this structure.

However, I think Hermanis’ work has become popular because it suggests a different aesthetic direction.  In his discussion, Kelleher mentioned that Hermanis distributed several photos during the performance, including one that depicted the actors in clothes and places presumably referred to in the spoken text.  Rather than hallucinatory, I think that these photos, as is consistent with the two Hermanis works I saw in Berlin, which are “documentary” performances– actors retelling their memories of their fathers, for instance– produce an effect akin to Barthes’ description of amateur photos in “Camera Lucida”: the “ça-a-été,” or “that-has-been.”  Stated otherwise, the photo introduces an awareness of an event or life that is incontrovertibly elsewhere, beyond the synthetic capacities of sense.

The panel concluded with a comment referencing Ann Pelligrini’s critical efforts to identify underlying foundations of the sacred in the field of Performance Studies– a project that strikes me as important and consistent with the secular shift from act to acting/doing.  It also prompted me to consider the role of religion in my own research, which I think has a mystical inflection, even directly touching upon the spiritual across all of its subjects (Rainer, Akerman, Cha, and Forsythe).  I think this is a difficult cusp of change.  On the one hand, religious longing can evidently be a reactionary mode; on the other, mystical modes of expression may not be irrelevant to the critical transformation of representational practice .  Admittedly, these concluding reflections are cursory, but the sacred was certainly germane in context of “Was That What I Thought It Was…”  Its mention provoked Nicolas Ridout to an interesting admission regarding confessional writing, which enabled the lyrical charm pervading this panel: he confirmed that confessional writing exists in order to eradicate doubt…”I was here.. I saw this…”

For example, having been, seen, and heard at Performance Studies International #15 in Zagreb, a conference devoted to the infelicitious foundation of a discipline that may not even exist…

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