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  • Re: Blau, Butler, Beckett, and the Politics of Seeming
  • Elin Diamond (bio)

We want continuity and we deny continuity […]. The past needs blood donors.

The theater is a means of transfusion.

Performance […] is always under suspicion. Seeming is seminal.

—Herbert Blau (1982:94)

I. Performativity

Citing, Appearing

In the radical antifoundationalism of postmodern theory with its vertiginous displacement of sign, concept, identity, and history, we find an equally fervent embrace of the “re.” The “re” points most immediately to a doubling or repetition within the sign, a means of displacing its unitary authority. But it has also come to suggest temporality, history, and politics, marking the desire to reconfigure, reinscribe, resignify the law (cultural, social, linguistic), even as we carry out its operations. Judith Butler’s important discourse on performativity is a case in point. Introduced in early texts, including her ground-breaking Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990a), and elaborated in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (1993), performativity extends the nonreferential sense of J.L. Austin’s (1975) concept of performative utterance (that which enacts what it names) in order to push past the impasses of constructionism. For Butler, gender identity is not only a construction; it exists only in the doing, in a “stylized repetition of acts” (1990b:270–71). But because the word “acts” suggested to her first readers a humanist subject intentionally acting her identity, Butler, in Bodies That Matter, has specified that “performativity is not a singular act [but a] reiteration of norms [or] regulatory schemas” (1993:12, 14). This “reiterated acting acquires an act-like status in the present [only because] it conceals or dissimulates the conventions of which it is a repetition” (1993:12). Given her feminist politics, Butler observes that in reiterating or “citing” these conventions we may also resignify (somehow alter or displace) them. Moreover, to the extent that the “law” of gender and sex is [End Page 31] knowable only in its citations, we may understand it not as substance, but as the “appearance of substance” (1990b:270), yet no less coercive for being so.

Meditations on appearance, repetition, bodily texts, temporality, history, and the illusory and elusive workings of power have been at the core of Herbert Blau’s theatre theory for at least four decades. In life-long dialogue with modernism, Shakespeare, psychoanalysis, the politics of the left, and, since the 1970s, deconstruction, Blau has probed and troped on the sublimations and displacements of postmodern performance practice, including his own 35 years of theatre-making. Concerned with the “precipitations” and specular boundaries of performance, Blau’s writerly discourse explores and enacts the slippage of seeming into being at the “vanishing point” of spectatorial desire. Blau might wonder about the desire lurking in “performativity” especially when it “materializes” on the street or the stage as performance. For Blau performance promises nothing more (nor less) than a riddling of Horatio’s anxious question concerning Hamlet’s famous ghost: “What, has this thing appeared again tonight?” “If it doesn’t,” Blau comments in his Hamlet-haunted Take Up the Bodies: Theater at the Vanishing Point, “the play is obviously in trouble.”

And if it does, can we really believe it? If we ask too many questions the subject is likely to disappear, like the dream of love, into the questions, so that the questioner is left with the dreaming. And the fear that it might be theater.


This “thing” (the real?) that precipitates theatre, that which is not theatre, may turn out, we fear, to be theatre too, “with all [its] indeterminacies of illusion and resistances to illusion, including the illusion of resistance” (Blau 1982:94).

Now that this thing, “performativity,” has appeared, what is not “it”? The iterations of gender that seem, as Butler puts it, to be “singular acts” are rather “dissimulated repetitions” of a “regulatory norm” or “ideal.” Butler’s Foucaultian move is not just, as in logic, to query what ontologically must be given in order for a concept to appear, but rather to argue that a concept performatively produces (and thus fictionalizes) the ontological ground from which it appears to appear. Hence, for example: “[Gender is] an...


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