- Performativity and Performance, and: Performance and Cultural Politics
Routledge has published two collections of essays that illustrate, in their disparity, the still unresolved tensions within theoretical studies of performance and performativity. Parker and Sedgwick, under the aegis of the English Institute, assemble essays that, while themselves interesting and insightful, are not integrated sufficiently to form a successful collection. Diamond, on the other hand, provides an astute introduction to her volume that directly tackles the relationships between performance and discourses of performativity and cultural studies, enabling a productive reading of and between the essays she collects.
Perhaps predictably, the three performance scholars included in the Parker/Sedgwick volume engage most directly with the prolonged examination promised in the title. Joseph Roach, Sandra Richards, and Elin Diamond (appearing in both volumes) focus on the interdependence of performance and cultural memory, the tension between literary texts and the materiality of theatre, and the performing body as site of performative catharsis. These three are all clearly and directly concerned with understanding the intertwined meanings of performance and cultural practices identified as performative. Most of the other essays, however, drop performance out of the equation, preferring, for instance, to rework katharsis through Aristotle’s Poetics and Politics in order to secure drama for the field of literature (Andrew Ford), or to examine “Renaissance readings of the catharsis clause” found in a variety of textual commentators and critics (Stephen Orgel).
The problem may be located in the introduction to the volume, where Parker and Sedgwick situate the discussion within the context of J. L. Austin’s speech-act theory. Although the purpose of the book is to “demonstrate the extraordinary productivity of this new refusal to take any aspect of performative relations as definitionally settled” (14), it finally never leaves the context of English literature. The editors’ own references are most often literary—for instance, James’s Golden Bowl serves a discussion of marriage as theatre. Identifying the anti-theatrical prejudice at work in Austin’s exclusion of actors’ utterances from ordinary speech-acts, Parker and Sedgwick link performativity with queerness in order to identify its subversive potential, writing that
arguably, it’s the aptitude of the explicit performative for mobilizing and epitomizing such transformative effects on interlocutory space that makes it almost irrestible . . . to associate it with theatrical performance. And to associate it, by the same token, with political activism, or with ritual.
However, this promising entry into the discourse of performance backs down before the distinction between scripted and unscripted utterances, concluding that postmodern analysis has taught us how “contestable . . . must be the relations between any subject and any utterance” (14). The editors’ claim to demonstrate “this new refusal to take any aspect of performative relations as definitionally settled” (14) is, finally, too weak an overriding principle to support these nine essays.
The first and last essays, by Timothy Gould and Judith Butler respectively, are in fact detailed engagements with Austinian categories. Gould, in one of the most elegant and interesting of the volume’s pieces, identifies a gap between the coherence of an illocutionary act (one which intended to result in certain effects) and the field of perlocutionary effects (the consequences or results of the locution). He then uses the text of Antigone to illustrate this gap, pointing out that Antigone’s speech acts occur in a situation where the citizens of Thebes could not make sense of the politics of her acts: “We could say either that she is too far outside or that she is too far inside the social order for her words to make much sense as mere human utterance” (34). While this dramatic text does illustrate Gould’s gap within the dramaturgy of the play, he stops short of explicitly joining performance with the performative he has been describing. Thus the play is just another text, which might as well be a novel or a court ruling, instead of an occasion to...