- Performance: A Critical Introduction, and: The Twentieth-century Performance Reader
Today’s academic discourse is well-populated with p-words. Nestled amongst a variety of prefixes and suffixes (re-, post-, -ance, -ivity), the word “perform” functions as both a vehicle for and object of a host contemporary forms of inquiry. Sometimes this proliferation provides exciting and welcome opportunities for engaged conversation, especially for those attempting to reconcile a variety of interdisciplinary, global, aesthetic, social, and epistemological shifts. Other times the proliferation generates extreme intellectual anxiety and a somewhat ungrounded exchange of key words. Anyone who has witnessed a cross-disciplinary discussion based on p-words and questioned whether the discussants were operating with the same reality principle (never mind whether the p-word had the same referent) has seen this second tendency in action. Anyone who has witnessed a cross-disciplinary discussion that used performance discourse actually to confront and to investigate different reality principles (and with them different referents) has seen the former gloriously at work.
Both published by Routledge in 1996, Performance: A Critical Introduction by Marvin Carlson and The Twentieth-Century Performance Reader edited by Michael Huxley and Noel Witts attempt in different ways to contribute to this discursive sphere. Both books make use of a kind of umbrella gesture. As Carlson titles his book with the single word and Huxley and Witts place a definite article before it, both attempt to cast a wide net with the word performance in order to illustrate the limits placed on the term in varying contexts. Yet, each book has a slightly different conceptualization of what boundaries it is loosening and in what contexts that loosening occurs. This difference is itself an illustration of the kind of opportunity and dilemma of performance discourse, demonstrating how the same term investigated in books by the same publisher in the same year can vary in assumptions of referentiality, addressive structure, historical trajectory, and implied future.
Marvin Carlson gives the same title to both his introduction and conclusion: “what is performance?” In between, he offers three sections (eight chapters) that track different disciplinary legacies, artistic histories, performance practices, and pressing issues and sub-topics. Such a project inevitably invites a crisis of category, and Carlson himself calls attention to how the heterogeneity of the topic leaks out of the chapter boxes he has created. Indeed, this kind of a project could be a case study in organizational methodology, one that compared and disputed the advantages of sorting one’s socks by color, size, or pattern. Carlson has decided that the best strategy is to sort by different principles at different parts of the book. Part I, “Performance and the Social Sciences,” explores a range of disciplinary uses, histories, and associations in three chapters on “anthropological and ethnographic approaches,” “sociological and psychological approaches,” and “linguistic approaches.” While one might immediately imagine a combination that puts Victor Turner in the first chapter, Erving Goffman in the second, and J. L. Austin in the third, Carlson’s chronicle suggests the instability of even these semi-canonical figures in a too-neatly bounded epistemological frame. Different concepts, topics, and concerns actually require a tolerance for a kind of intellectual peripeteia on the part of both critic and reader; these and several major thinkers (Derrida, Bakhtin, Schechner, Searle, Burke) emerge in a variety of places depending upon whether one discusses a concept of “play” in anthropology, “role” in sociology, or “act” in linguistics. [End Page 377]
Continuing to employ the assimilatory and encyclopedic writing conventions that many have found so helpful in a book like Theories of the Theatre, Carlson’s Performance uses different indexing schemes in Part II: The Art of Performance and in Part III: Performance and Contemporary Theory. In the former, Carlson encapsulates a history of contemporary experimental performance, noting both well-known as well as less celebrated innovations in the performing arts that form a kind of genealogy of experimental...