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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 505-507
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Perform or Else:
From Discipline to Performance
Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance. John McKenzie. London: Routledge 2001; pp. 306. $24.95 paper.
Beyond its usage in the contexts of theatre and the performing arts, concepts and theories of performance have been applied extensively to diverse fields of academic study, various economic and technical areas, and in popular discourses. Performance is regularly used to describe, measure, manage, or assess people, objects, machines, or systems. Educators and psychologists devise performance standards and criteria for testing; likewise, engineers and marketers have models for gauging the performance of everything from the speed of computer chips to the absorbency of paper towels. Actors, athletes, and postal workers are evaluated according to institutionalized guidelines derived from pragmatic theories of performance.
Is this a case of mere semantic appropriation across fields, practices, and discourses, or, as Jon McKenzie asks in his far-reaching book, is there a singular or coherent meaning that captures all uses of performance? Furthermore, he asks, are there [End Page 505] reasons why performance has emerged as a theoretical construct, paradigm, even, in some cases, an epistemological trope over the past century? Can there—or should there—be a unified, transdisciplinary, transfield theory of performance? If so, what are its origins, boundaries, potential uses? McKenzie's response is yes to all of the above, and Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance is an audacious performance of a book that seeks nothing less than "to rehearse a general theory of performance" (4). In high-spirited prose that careens through both predictable and idiosyncratically selected texts and examples, McKenzie makes the case for rethinking performance as a concept and theory applicable far beyond theatre, performance, and cultural studies.
McKenzie argues that performance, a concept that always implies theory, is deeply woven into the discourses and practices of business, industry, management, engineering, and technology. However, regardless of the historical context or field there is no agreement on a fixed definition of performance. More crucially, wherever it appears, "performance challenges, it provokes contests, stakes a claim" (32). These challenges, for McKenzie, involve socio-cultural and epistemological "liminal-norms" (23, 49-53) and instigate "feedback loops" (90-92) in thought and behavior that alter approaches to existing theory, traditions, and institutional constraints. Performance, McKenzie asserts, is ultimately a transformative force that causes institutional, social, and intellectual shifts.
Perform or Else is organized into three sections. "Part 1: Performance Paradigms" surveys performance as a concept and object of research in twentieth century culture, science, and industry. McKenzie deftly reviews the field of Performance Studies and its history in key texts and academic centers, with insightful attention to how theatre (as metaphor and discipline) modulated into performance (as episteme and studies). He follows a similar trajectory when examining organizational and management cultures (in business and industry) from 1900 to the present. Similarly, he considers "Techno-Performance" in the contexts of computer engineering, product testing, and, importantly, missile design. Performance in all these areas propagates new paradigms and issues challenges for more "efficacy, efficiency, and effectiveness" (130). Thus, information processing and decision-making are rated in terms of efficiency of performance; technology entails effective performances; and the mantra "perform or else" becomes an exhortative value in the workplace.
In "Part II: The Age of Global Performance," McKenzie reflects on performance through a case study of the disastrous 1986 NASA Challenger shuttle flight, which heightened the stakes for a "perform—or else" challenge. This prompts close readings of texts by Heidegger and subsequent thinkers, including Marcuse, Lyotard, and Butler, where McKenzie extends the notions of challenge and performance through Heidegger's sense of technology as a "challenging forth" (156). By turns penetrating and ingenious, McKenzie reads each theorist as a link in his own argumentative chain. Since he is, above all, conscious of his rhetorical strategies and uses of "different theoretical set-ups" (171), he minimizes the objection that his project is too heterogeneric (in its sources and references) by positing that performance itself must be regarded as a recent "onto-historical...