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SubStance 31.2&3 (2002) 201-215

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The Politics of Discourse:
Performativity meets Theatricality

Janelle Reinelt

When discourses are in flux (of course from one point of view they always are in flux), in periods of unsettled meanings, political struggles exist at various sites of contestation. This productive dissonance is currently the state of play within discourses of performativity and theatricality. Their relationship to each other, and their meanings and uses within their own terms are equally in question. In this essay, I will argue that volatility within these discourses affords an opportunity for forging a new understanding of both their practices and of the consequences of their usages. Further, the identification of certain of these applications with specific nations or regions, what we might call "local struggles," enables a challenge to the limits of these discourses in light of an increasingly urgent imperative to rethink and resituate performance theory in relation to our contemporary transnational situation.

Mises en Scène: Performance / Performative / Performativity

These terms—performance, performative, and performativity—share a cognate base, but although they are frequently used together or even interchangeably, they have had had at least three separate but related scenes of development. I will begin by distinguishing them for purposes of clarity, but they will inevitably bleed together as the essay progresses.

Scene One: "Performance" has been used to differentiate certain processes of performing from the products of theatrical performance, and in its most narrow usage, to identify performance art as that which, unlike "regular" theatrical performances, stages the subject in process, the making and fashioning of certain materials, especially the body, and the exploration of the limits of representation-ability. 1 Peggy Phelan's Unmarked is only one text that celebrates staging disappearance in performance: "representation without reproduction." Embedded in this notion is the singularity of live performance, its immediacy and its non-repeatability. Convinced that performance can simultaneously be empty and yet gesture toward value, Phelan finds an oppositional edge in nonreproductivity. "Performance uses [End Page 201] the performer"s body to pose a question about the inability to secure the relation between subjectivity and the body per se; performance uses the body to frame the lack of Being promised by and through the body, that which cannot appear without a supplement" (150, 151). This understanding of performance leads to valuing the processes of signification in performance, and to radical skepticism about the presence or truth of any metaphysical claim within performance.

This use of the term performance is related to a general history of the avant-garde or of anti-theater, taking its meanings from a rejection of aspects of traditional theater practice that emphasized plot, character, and referentiality: in short, Aristotelian principles of construction and Platonic notions of mimesis. The rejection of textual sovereignty, of authorial or directorial authority, in favor of the free-play of performance links early avant-garde experiments at the beginning of the century with the 1960s and 1970s Living Theater, Open Theater, and Jerzy Grotowski's Polish Theater Laboratory. In our postmodern moment, as Elin Diamond writes in her own account of this history, "In line with poststructuralist claims of the death of the author, the focus in performance today has shifted from authority to effect, from text to body, to the spectator's freedom to make and transform meanings" (3).

Scene Two: Following another set of meanings, the field of performance has expanded since the 1950s (initially through the work of anthropologists such as Milton Singer and Victor Turner) to include cultural performances, giving equal status to rituals, sports, dance, political events, and certain performative aspects of everyday life. Linking theater performances to these other kinds of cultural performance enabled a political project of great potential as it developed through the 1970s and 1980s: not only did distinctions between high and low culture, primitive and mature, elite and popular seem to disappear, but also a methodology based on deliberate socio-political analyses of the operations of these performances began to develop in the work of Richard Schechner, most prominently, but also in performance theorists who were committed...