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Performance and performativity

Photo of the stalls in a theatre

Performance theory originates from a variety of fields, but is most associated with the work of Victor Turner (1988) and Richard Schechner (1985). These two authors drew attention to the performative nature of societies around the world, how events and rituals as well as daily life were all governed by a code of performance. From ethnographic studies in different societies in different contexts, these authors highlighted how performances are central to human understanding. Within capitalist, western societies the importance of performance was revealed through studies of the highly-ritualised routine of court-rooms, as well as the elaborate performances displayed in courtship amongst American college students (see Goffman 1969). Performance theory suggests that every one of us puts on a performance in our society. Whether through the clothes we wear, the conversations we hold or the food we eat, all are a performance designed as a signal-system to ourselves and to others of our place within our social group (Goffman 1969: 28). Others such as Butler (1993) and Derrida (1990) have drawn attention to the way performances seek to reinforce and communicate our identities in society. 'When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be.' (Goffman 1969: 17)

Performance can entail observance to a rigid structure of operating but it can also be a means of resisting. Indeed, a significant part of performance and thereby performance studies has always been its peripheral nature. This is why theatre districts in medieval European cities can be found located on the outside of civil and religious boundaries. Governments, royalty and prominent individuals have frequently sought to ban theatres and plays because of their supposed capabilities of spreading and encouraging rebellion (see Odai 2000). Plato (1974: 435) favoured banning dramatists and performers in The Republic for just such reasons. 'Performance privileges threshold-crossing, shape-shifting and boundary-violating figures, such as shamans, tricksters and jokers, who value the carnivalesque over the monumental' (Conquergood 1995: 137-138). The concept of performance thereby enables an assessment of the ways in which individuals act and react in the world. It is a means of understanding how people situate themselves in the world, for themselves and for others. Performance studies provides an opportunity to examine how people act and react in society. This is also made possible by a related area of study which is termed 'performativity.' Butler's (1997: 8) work is especially significant for this area of study as she defines succinctly the concept of 'performativity', as a study of the discourse used in identity formation and law-making. Butler (1997: 23) has emphasised the ability of words and language to exploit, resist and assist individuals. The notion that words have an effect on our material, mental or physical condition may appear outlandish to some, but we often speak of how the words of others for example, 'hurt him' or 'helped her.' This is especially so when we refer to 'written laws.' Here words are given significance in our society as they define what is what is not allowed. 'The law' is attributed with particular qualities so it becomes an authoritative statement. This authority is derived from the power which is possessed by those distributing the law but also in its repeated appearance in society.

The words which are used to express ourselves in this manner are also means by which we enact ourselves. This refers to the work of Austen (1962: 16) who defined how stating objects should be considered in some circumstances to be akin to constituting those objects: what we say is what we do and who we are. Austen (1962) famously used, 'I name this ship', or, 'I now pronounce you man and wife', as examples of both authoritative statements and how words perform events. Consideration of performativity therefore involves investigating how words are used to describe and define. This is of the utmost importance in the consideration of the past, as in effect the words and the structure of our interpretations of the past assist in the 'performance' of the past to the public. These words create the past in a particular way for public consumption. Stating, 'this happened in the past', 'she did this', 'or he was that', in relation to historical contexts are highly contentious. This is certainly so when the use of the past and history is considered in contemporary struggles for identity and representation. The words that we use exclude and include, they form and shape and they are a means of performance for ourselves and for others. They state who we are and what we believe.


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