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Modernism/modernity 10.1 (2003) 200-202
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Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance. Jon McKenzie. New York: Routledge, 2001. Pp. x + 306. $75.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).
Everything about encountering Jon McKenzie's new book Perform or Else is designed to suggest its difference from the norm. An out of focus cloud of smoke trailing what turns out to be the Challenger spacecraft cuts across the book's cover, beside it the ominous computer printout of the rocket's countdown, T-3, T-2, T-1. The title rests on the page at an almost vertical slant, chartreuse and orange, and across the page, in a technology-driven variant of conventional spelling, the title appears again: "P40RM OR 3L5." On the back cover, the first six letters of the word "Challenger" are vertically embossed on a shiny, slick, wet-feeling surface that actually make the book uncomfortable to hold. Inside, the contents are printed in dot matrix style, the headers shoot off at odd angles, and the pages, toward the end, turn black, with white print [End Page 200] skewed on the page like some concrete poem gone awry. It's all very fascinating, and challenging, which are in fact McKenzie's first words of warning: "Perform or Else," he begins his introduction, "initiates a challenge . . ."—a challenge not to fail—but the real challenge of McKenzie's book may indeed lie precisely in its fascination with its own failure. The murky image on the front cover is, in fact, a photograph of the moment that the Challenger spacecraft exploded seventy-three seconds into its mission on 28 January 1986. The back cover is an image of the spacecraft as seen at the bottom of the Atlantic photographed during the recovery operation. Between these dark, framing images lies McKenzie's argument. It turns out that his own performance is itself a risk-filled flight into an increasingly free-style mode of associative thinking that verges on disaster. In fact, the disintegration of the page as a tool of communication at book's end suggests that McKenzie understands all too well that his argument has ultimately crashed and burned. But he gives us much to think about along the way.
McKenzie begins his book by identifying three kinds of performance at work in contemporary culture: organizational, technological, and cultural. A failure to perform results, respectively, in being fired, becoming obsolete, or being socially normalized (the idea being that cultural performance—think of performance art—defines itself as liminal or marginalized expression, and if the performance is assimilated into the mainstream it loses its critical power or position). Each of these brands of performances faces a different "challenge," a challenge of efficiency, effectiveness, or efficacy. The central argument of the book is that performance has replaced discipline (à la Foucault) as the paradigmatic formation of power and knowledge in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
While it is relatively easy to see how organizational and technological performance relate to one another—in the new economy, organizational performance is increasingly dependent on technological performance, as IBM's recent advertising campaign ("Are you ready for IBM?") dramatizes. But cultural performance, emerging as a transgressive and resistant activity designed to challenge social norms, seems the odd-man-out in McKenzie's scheme. Organizational and technological performance could even be said to be the primary object of cultural performance's transgression and resistance, as the purposefully ironic title of one of the leading performance art journals—High Performance—makes clear. But it is precisely McKenzie's task to develop openings between these apparently opposing models of performance. As he says, "the trajectories of these paradigms are unique, but they are nonetheless entwined" (131). Each, he says, "is dedicated to posing and reposing the question 'What is performance?'" and all three "valorize the testing and retesting of norms" (132). In other words, as opposed to a culture defined by disciplinary surveillance, in which "order" is achieved by a regulatory apparatus designed to maintain the status quo, a culture defined by performance constantly challenges—and here McKenzie's...