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Performing Viral Pandemics?

Started by aha. Last reply by aha May 11, 2020. 2 Replies

Hi.Hopefully all is well!The shorty is a suggestion to start an online conversation group to elaborate questions from theCovid-19 oriented period and Performance Philosophy?eg. Intra-Active Virome?…Continue

We all have the same dream?

Started by Egemen Kalyon Apr 2, 2020. 0 Replies

Hello, "We all have the same dream" is my project that aims to create an archive from the dreams of our era and reinterpret Jung's "collective unconscious" concepts with performance and performing…Continue

Circus and Its Others 2020, UC Davis CFP

Started by Ante Ursic Mar 15, 2020. 0 Replies

Circus and its Others 2020November 12-15University of California, DavisRevised Proposal Deadline: April 15, 2020Launched in 2014, the Circus and its Others research project explores the ways in which…Continue

Tags: critical, ethnic, queer, performance, animal

Blog Posts

"Further Evidence on the Meaning of Musical Performance" Working Paper

Posted by Phillip Cartwright on January 15, 2020 at 21:28 0 Comments

Karolina Nevoina and I are pleased to announce availability of our working paper, "Further Evidence on the Meaning of Musical Performance". Special thanks to Professor Aaron Williamon and the Royal College of Music, Centre for Performance Science.…


Division of Labor - Denis Beaubois

Posted by Gabrielle Senza on February 23, 2018 at 0:36 0 Comments

I just came across Denis Beaubois, an Australian multidisciplinary artist whose work, Currency - Division of Labor might be of interest to researchers here.

It is a series of video/performance works that use the division of labor model in capitalism as a structural tool for performance.

From his website:

The Division of labour work explores…




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Judith Butler: performativity and dramaturgy

Judith Butler: performativity and dramaturgy

Dr Jena A Zelezny (2010)


Judith Butler’s work is widely known and sometimes only known, for the theory outlined in ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’ (Theatre Journal 1988), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), and Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (1993). The aforementioned works have often been misinterpreted. For this reason, the following re-considers the value of Butler’s post-structuralism for both theorists and practitioners along with an understanding of the inherent difference between, that which constitutes a performative act, how language creates meaning and the theory of performativity in dramaturgy. In this sense this article constitutes a disambiguation of terms and on the other hand it is a clarification of how and why these terms and their meaning are an integral part of aesthetic production. Given that Butler has recently presented a key-note address to the Theatre, Performance and Philosophy conference at the Sorbonne and that, along with Rosi Braidotti, she spoke with the Russian activist/performers Pussy Riot in Oslo, there is reason to suppose that her work is of great interest and relevance to Theatre and Performance Studies.

         As the basis for an informed understanding of the theory of performativity, I will first briefly outline John Langshaw Austin’s work from the 1950s. This will be followed by a description of how Butler has both drawn from and made use of Austin, together with Jacques Derrida’s critique of Austin. I also explore how the theory of performativity is currently being treated by performance theorist Richard Schechner. In so doing I outline and describe the differences between, ‘performance’—and that which is performable or playable in aesthetic contexts—the ‘performative’, and ‘performativity.’ Acknowledgement of the distinction between the terms and their meaning is important so that I may clarify more precisely the significance of Butler’s theory of performativity in relation to conceptualisations of continuum and history in dramaturgy.

         Austin and Derrida

The theory of the performative utterance, and the performative act is attributed to the philosopher J. L. Austin and his work How to do things with words (1962). The book grew out of a series of lectures, given at Oxford, in each of the years 1952, 53 and 54. The whole was then revised for Harvard University in 1955. It was part of Austin’s project to establish the understanding that the primary use or purpose of language is not to make statements or formulate propositions; rather, he conceived language as a communication of meaning and intention, which has consequences and effects. Importantly, Austin argued that language is a mechanism through which persons collectively create a social reality.

In his analysis of language Austin differentiated between utterances that state something or describe an event that is either true or false—constatives—and utterances that, within the temporality of the utterance, actually do something. That is, in the speaking, the utterer participates in an act, which comes into being as a result of the speaking. Sentences such as ‘I name this ship the Rainbow Warrior’,  ‘I give and bequeath my watch to my sister’, and ‘I bet you a dollar it will rain tomorrow’, are examples of a type of speech act for which Austin coined the term, ‘performative’. Further, and as Butler notes:

Austin distinguishes illocutionary from perlocutionary speech acts: the former are speech acts that, in saying do what they say, and do it in the moment of the saying; the latter are speech acts that produce certain effects as their consequence; by saying something, a certain effect follows. The illocutionary speech act is itself the deed that it effects; the perlocutionary merely leads to certain effects that are not the same as the speech act itself.2

The significance of the illocutionary and the perlocutionary forms of the performative utterance and the performative act in the structuring and regulating of experience can be clearly seen in the common elements and effects of the marriage ceremony. This example is often cited, but I use it again here in order to emphasize the perlocutionary aspects and effects. The marriage ceremony, in effect, is a becoming of a legally binding social contract; as such it is a union formally legitimated by communities, the church and the state. In the utterances, ‘I do’ and ‘I now pronounce you’ the participants, that is, the two parties being married, their friends and their families, the officials designated to conduct the ceremony, and the officers charged with lodging and filing documents, become, in the act of participating, complicit in a declaration and an announcement to the wider community that two people have entered into a contract that can only be dissolved through another legal ceremony. Moreover, through participating in the ceremony, the participants are thereby entitled to the status and privilege attributed to the act of legitimation. Persons who are party to this particular contract cannot be, in a court of law, reportedly or allegedly married. They are either married or they are not married.

         This example schematically follows rules set down in what Austin describes as ‘the smooth and happy functioning of a performative.’3 The six rules, determined by Austin, relate to the conditions necessary for the successful follow through, inauguration or installation of the operation, or functioning of the performative; for instance, the procedures involved must include the speaking of specific words by the persons designated to utter them and must align with the designated circumstances. Further, all factors must be executed correctly and fully so that in the marriage ceremony, the parties to be married must be eligible to be married, the person conducting the ceremony must be qualified to do so and all parties must complete the ceremony according to conventions and in compliance with the law. Finally, the marriage performative then becomes a public ritual, a sequence of moments which, although not copied in any exact form, continue to be, as they have been, repeated or cited in time, space and place.

         To study the complexity of every single simple statement in a communication is for Austin an impossible task without knowledge of the related social context and the effects and consequences of the communication on others. The ‘uptake’ of the utterance is the condition upon which rests the hearer’s recognition of the speaker and the speaker’s success. Butler argues, on the other hand, that ‘not all utterances that have the proper form of the performative whether illocutionary or perlocutionary, actually work.’4 That is, not all performatives by default have the desired effect when the conditions and the ‘uptake’ are de-fused or confounded in some way. This point is important to the discussion of how Butler’s work aligns with dramaturgy and where de-fusion, in effect discontinuity, can be associated with the various forms taken by what Brecht described as Verfremdungseffekte.

In Austin’s schema, there is a classification for a ‘happy’ or ‘felicitous’ performative and a classification for an ‘unhappy’ or ‘infelicitous’ performative. ‘Happy’ performatives, to be complete, must have the desired consequences and effects as described above. As examples of ‘unhappy’ performatives, those that do not comply with the rules, Austin names cases where flaws in completion of conventions are apparent or where ‘abuses’ occur. The ‘unhappy’ performative act, then, is one that is wrongly executed, or is a misapplication of the act to inappropriate persons, or one that involves a hollow or insincere commitment to the operation of the act. ‘Unhappy’, discontinuous performatives are important to demonstrate in the context of theatre and, writing for performance. Although Austin considers that ‘all acts are subject to certain whole dimensions of unsatisfactoriness’, certain acts are void if they are said by an actor on the stage; said in a poem, or spoken in a soliloquy. I will return to this point.

         In choosing the word ‘performative’ Austin wanted to emphasize the binding nature of the speech act, that is, he wanted to differentiate between what could be called performance of the everyday; performance as carrying out a task, performability, and playability in a theatrical or aesthetic context. Although, in the ‘everyday’, an act can be described as performing or carrying out a task and in a theatrical or aesthetic context could be played in a way that would be interesting and entertaining, it is not a ‘performative’ in the Austinian sense nor is it a performative in the Butlerian sense. While an audience or set of spectators may perhaps be receptive to the carrying out of this task as a ‘performance’ this does not mean that the exchange, the communication between performer and audience, is ‘performative.’ For a task or act to be a ‘performative’, additional dynamics must be apparent. For instance: An old man enters a room where his daughter sits. He carries a potted plant. He places the potted plant on a table saying, ‘This is now yours, I grew it from seed. I’m leaving it to you.’ This speech act and physical action emphasizes the creation of a contractual reality where, for Austin, intention, act, effects and ‘uptake’ are involved. The example is not simply a description of the true or false dimensions of what happened, it is the recognition that something other than a description of an act has taken place. The account of the act is also something more than a record. The factor to note is the bringing into being, bringing forth of the action through acts that establishes the desired effect of the speaker’s intent. In this case the desired effect is a verbal contract between a man and his daughter whereby an object’s ownership is legally reassigned, bequeathed.

         Returning to performative utterances in aesthetic contexts, Austin considers that such acts, are not used during the course of the everyday flow of circumstances and that they are, therefore, subject to ‘etiolation’, or, a certain diminishing and weakening of strength. Austin suggests that there is also the problem of ‘uptake’ or belief and suggests that this type of language is ‘parasitic’, parasitic in the sense that it can be construed as mediated contrivance, or, piggy backing on everyday use. For Austin, in this case, the ‘performative’ has ‘misfired’, that is, it does not have the required consequences and effects.5

         I argue however, that in Brecht’s dramaturgy this type of contractual interaction can be considered a deliberate demonstration or display of a ‘performative’, Brecht’s aim being to show how meaning in events can be constituted, disrupted and/or made strange through language and physicality. This conception is made possible because demonstration and display—what Derrida might interpret as citation—are embedded in Brecht’s dramaturgy, not imposed upon it directorially. Despite Austin’s insistence on defusing the effect of ‘performative’ utterances in anything other than ‘everyday’ circumstances, both Brecht, albeit unknowingly, and Butler, exploit the ‘unhappy’ performative of Austin as a device or mechanism through which power can be shown to operate, be resisted, or be subverted.

         Derrida’s critique of Austin

Derrida’s critique of Austin’s performative action or gesture—what Brecht may have referred to as Gestus—is relevant in the context of discussing the explicit performative, wherein Austin introduces actions ‘which are non-linguistic but similar to performative utterances in that they are the performance of a conventional action.’6 Austin gives ‘bowing deeply before another’ as an example of this type of action. An act such as this could be construed variously as servitude, obeisance, or simply as looking closely at something on the floor. Austin contends that, for the non-linguistic performative action of obeisance to be clearly and unambiguously interpreted, in other words securing the ‘uptake’ of belief in the act, other actions must accompany the act, such as removing a hat or cap, placing a hand on the heart, or as Austin points out ‘very likely uttering some noise or word.’7 A phrase such as, ‘your humble servant sir,’ delivered during the sequence of actions described―bowing deeply before another―would clearly indicate an act of obeisance. Or would it?

         Austin would add here that the context for the sequence of utterances and actions, together with any series of sequences of utterances and actions of others present, would tend to confirm the appearance of the action as obeisance. That is, the ‘uptake’ would be secured or would not be secured by the context. If ‘uptake’ is secured, the act then becomes a collectively complicit experience of an act of obeisance. In other words, a process of creating an agreed meaning via the reading of a range of exchanged signifiers is enacted. The desired effect? A person has become servile through the experience of servility, and the experience of having their servility recognized as such by others. But how accurate is Austin’s structural proposition and does it merely confirm the appearance of efficacy in the action? Derrida’s critique of Austin in ‘Signature Event Context’ was first published as one of the essays in Marges de la Philosophie (1972). Of interest for Derrida is the exploration and exposure of the fault lines in Austin’s concept of a ‘total context.’ Derrida writes:

It seems to go without saying that the field of equivocality covered by the word ‘communication’ permits itself to be reduced massively by the limits of what is called a ‘context’, (and I announce again between parentheses that the issue will be in this communication, the problem of context, and of finding out about writing as concerns context in general).8

Derrida questions the veracity of using the term ‘context’ and defuses the meaning as a mechanism by which a communication can be contained or defined by asking if there is a ‘rigorous and scientific concept of the context?’ In asking this question it becomes apparent that there is actually no way of demonstrating that context is ‘absolutely determinable’.9 The question becomes important to how Austin reads the efficacy of ‘uptake’ in a performative act or utterance in, for instance, the ‘uptake’ in a process of abjection. As has already been mentioned, if, ‘uptake’ is not secured, that is, if the intention of the utterer has not been received with belief and there is no agreed meaning, then the utterance has lost its power. Butler has reconfigured this ‘unhappy’ performative as a site of resistance and possibility of agency. Refusal of the subject position—abject—is an example of how Brecht also interpreted and demonstrated resistance to power in his dramaturgy.

         Returning to the critique, Derrida maintains that the performative ‘always returns to an element of what Austin calls the total context. One of these essential elements, and not one among others, classically remains consciousness, the conscious presence of the intention of the speaking subject for the totality of his

locutionary act.’10 This, perhaps the most significant of Derrida’s observations for Austin’s theory, questions the fact that the intentionality of the utterer can be a knowable factor. If intentionality is not known this very fact exposes all performative acts to failure. Derrida goes on to ask: ‘What is a success when the possibility of failure continues to constitute its structure?’11 From what can be framed as aporia in Austin’s totalizing theory, the last question revolves around the possibility that the performative utterance may be cited. Importantly, I suggest that it is not entirely true to say that Austin forecloses citation through his notion of etiolation in aesthetic contexts, it is rather that the persuasive possibilities of citation are not fully explored. 

         Performativity - Butler

Butler’s theory of performativity, formed around the notion that there is no core identity, and that the naturalization and politicization of heterosexuality is an unnecessary fiction. The understanding that the subject is always involved in a process of acquiring gender—a process in which the subject is complicit yet not aware—follows from Simone de Beauvoir’s often cited assertion that ‘one is not born but becomes a woman.’12 The understanding that a identity is not biologically determined but is rather ‘an historical idea’, means, among other things, that the clinical determination of sex-difference need not, therefore, be a feature of language or thinking.13 It is also an important part of Butler’s process to examine why and how it became so necessary to make such distinctions and determinations. Although indebted to Foucault, and influenced by Monique Wittig and Beauvoir in particular, Butler states that:

I originally took my clue on how to read the performativity of gender from Jacques Derrida’s reading of Kafka’s “Before the Law.” There the one who waits for the law, sits before the door of the law, attributes a certain force to the law for which one waits. The anticipation of an authoritative disclosure of meaning is the means by which that authority is attributed and installed: the anticipation conjures its object.14

It is the waiting for permission, or, hoping for the supposed inevitability of justice, that lends authority to illusionary gatekeepers.

Butler’s interest in Austin’s performative can be said to rest in the perlocutionary aspects of speech, that is, the deferred or delayed effects and the persuasive qualities of speech. Those effects relate to the construction of history, the structure and the making of social systems and collective social reality. It is, however, important to distinguish between performative acts/utterances, and Butler’s theory of performativity. In the following section I will refer to aspects of this theory of performativity, the last of which identifies

A rethinking of performativity as cultural ritual, as the reiteration of cultural norms, as the habitus of the body in which structural and social dimensions of meaning are not finally separable.15

I discuss first, the intricate play of acts and utterances that are described in works such as Gender Trouble; second, the formulation of a relation between time and ritual in Excitable Speech; and finally, the sense of performativity given by Butler in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, where performativity is related to power and to hegemony. The purpose of this task is to enhance understanding of relational aspects of performativity.

1. Performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of the body, understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration.16

Is it possible to search in this description of constituent parts for a more detailed understanding of the relation between materiality and abstraction? Butler conceives the body as context, the body being a material that is, at once, a natural occurrence, and the condition for human existence. As seen from the discussion of Derrida and context, a context is ‘never absolutely determinable’ and further, ‘its determination is never certain or saturated.’17 Acts have consequences and effects for bodies: naming is but one example of the class of acts referred to. These acts as communications of meaning are transmitted within and between individuals, families, communities and indeed throughout social systems. Those acts of meaning, because they are constantly circulated, become repetitive, though not in any exact sense; simultaneously they also become generative. As such, acts come to be naturalised that is, they are so usual that they are also seen to be normal. Cultural norms are constructed and maintained in these conditions. A culturally sustained act or ritual is one that has been generated by the particularities of a time and place. That is, an act or ritualized chain of acts is adapted to suit the appearance of newness and originality, the appearance of newness and originality being the effect that is naturalized through any one body.

2. The illocutionary speech act performs its deed at the moment of the utterance, and yet to the extent that the moment is ritualized, it is never merely a single moment. The moment in ritual is a condensed historicity: it exceeds itself in past and future directions, an effect of prior and future invocations that constitute and escape the instance of utterance.18

In the theory of performativity and in the theory of construction and consolidation of normative conditions—conditions which also provide for the emergence of the normative—Butler tends to see temporality ‘as the kind of duration which resists spatializing metaphors.’19 Working in relation to the first quotation, that which occurs within the moment cannot be contained by the moment. The concept of time that Butler describes is reminiscent of a formulation of ‘the moment’ given by Nietzsche in ‘The Use and Abuse of History’ (1873). Nietzsche writes:

It is a matter for wonder: the moment that is here and gone, that was

nothing before and nothing after; returns like a spectre to trouble the quiet of a later moment.20

Butler has expanded and given more detail to Nietzsche’s insight by linking an

unquantifiable set of processes and acts that transmit meaning through a moment that is repeated and thus returns to haunt the future. The third aspect is taken from one of Butler’s two contributions to a book written in conjunction with Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek. The quotation below is from Butler’s first essay, ‘Restaging the Universal: Hegemony and the Limits of Formalism’.

3. Power is not stable or static, but is remade at various junctures within everyday life; it constitutes our tenuous sense of common sense, and is ensconced as the prevailing epistemes of a culture …The theory of performativity is not far from the theory of hegemony in this respect: both emphasize the way in which the social world is made – and new social possibilities emerge – at various levels of social action through a collaborative relation with power.21

Butler now brings the theory of performativity to a description of ‘the way in which the social world is made’, and engages with the ‘kinds of negotiations that political agency requires.’22 There is nothing mysterious or difficult in what is outlined given the precise nature of the first aspect of the theory of performativity. Furthermore, this essay has informed understanding of a non-synthesis in dialectic argument in relation to Modernist dramaturgy.

         In conclusion and by way of introducing the next section I will draw attention to Butler’s caution on the use of the terms ‘performance’ and ‘performativity’. It was thought that discontinuity in the perception of identity could be accomplished through the autonomous intention or politicized will of the individual. In 1999 Butler explained that:

My theory sometimes waffles between understanding performativity as linguistic and casting it as theatrical. I have come to think that the two are invariably related, chiasmically so, and that a reconsideration of the speech act as an instance of power invariably draws attention to both its theatrical and linguistic dimensions.23

Although Butler draws attention to the ‘theatrical’ dimension of the everyday there is also a clear statement that cautions the reader. ‘The reduction of performativity to performance would be a mistake.’24 Performativity has no objective—is not a thing—it is an understanding of continuous subjectivity, an understanding of the way in which a subject is produced and acts within and through various conditions, and degrees of coercion. This formulation clearly distinguishes Butler from say, Erving Goffman, whose notion of the ‘social actor’ entails the conscious choosing of setting, and props, as well as of a particular costume for a specific audience. Butler would perhaps problematize the formulation of agency in Goffman, noting that gender is not a form of self-constitution. Jonathan Bollen, drawing on the work of both Butler and Certeau, adeptly, albeit indirectly summarises the difference between Butler’s theory of performativity and Goffman’s concept of the ‘social actor’.

The act that embodied agents are inasmuch as they dramatically and

actively embody and, indeed, wear certain cultural significations, is clearly not one’s act alone. The act, that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene.25

Also of note in Bollen’s conception is the use of ‘embodied agents’ rather than the more common use of ‘subjects’, ‘performers’, and ‘social actors’.

           performance’, ‘performative’, and ‘performativity’ in aesthetic contexts

The purpose of the discussion that follows is to outline some of the ways in which the terms have been described in performance and theatre studies. The discussion is necessary for a number of reasons; the first of which is to track, unravel and thereby circumvent some confusions of meaning and conflation secondly I wish to draw attention to obfuscation of the relevance of Butler’s theory of performativity to dramaturgy. Finally, as a result of the misunderstanding, and the conflation of meanings I note how a recuperation of normative methodologies in scholarship and practice has been effected. Further, I submit that an impasse is created through this muddying of theory and recoil from questions that challenge accepted methodologies. The impact of any block, therefore, marks a foreclosure of possibility for the field of theatre and performance studies.

My argument in this study is grounded in the premise that Butler’s theory in relation to dramaturgy comprises a modality through which the particular agency of theatre can communicate the complex processes at work in the way meaning is created and communicated. Such a communication has the potential to be so much more than that which Brecht described as a culinary experience of consuming and enjoying and much more than a learning experience; it can be a refusal to submit to a history of effacement, or, what Butler has referred to as a ‘closure of the future, a future of horizons.’26

My task of unravelling will take form as a critique of Richard Schechner’s understanding of ‘performativity’ by first establishing when and how the term began to be used in his theory. Schechner’s work has been chosen as it is often included as a key text in the teaching of performance theory. It would not be contentious to argue that the theory of the ‘performative’ and the theory of ‘performativity’ have been carefully and precisely formulated by scholars since Austin. I will show that, in performance studies, this theory is sometimes misconstrued, and the terminology misused or ‘applied’ and posited inappropriately. I argue for the benefit of outlining the sense that one draws from in using the terms ‘performative’ and ‘performativity.’ I argue for the benefit of engaging fully in justification for different uses of the terms in aesthetic contexts. Moreover, I am in agreement with Butler’s contention that

there is no theory for performance studies … but only a set of implicit and explicit theoretical challenges that are posited by the field itself, and which have already enriched and revised the field of theory.27

         Richard Schechner - Performance Theory (2003)

This section explores a possible understanding of the terms ‘performative’ and ‘performativity’ in the influential work of Richard Schechner, who can claim to have established, along with others, the new field of Performance Studies in the academy. For this critique, I refer to the following publications: Essays on Performance Theory 1970-1976, ‘Magnitudes of Performance’ in The Anthropology of Experience (1986), Performance Theory (1988 reprinted in 1994), Performance Theory (expanded version 2003), and finally, Performance Studies (2002 updated in 2006). I also refer back to Austin’s distinction between the efficacy of language used in the ‘everyday’, and language used in an ‘aesthetic’ context together with Derrida’s critique of Austin.

         Schechner, Victor Turner and others created an academic discipline in the 1960s, which they located at New York University, and named Performance Studies apparently without reference to or knowledge of Austin’s work with words. The advent of Performance Studies, as a discipline seemed to signify a productive diversity, disunity or discontinuity in practice and discourse. J. Hillis Miller, in writing about Derrida’s theory of ‘performativity’, observes that:

If, Performance Studies was created in the 1960s, it precedes the work or the wide influence of Foucault, Derrida and Butler. It even precedes, I believe, any substantial academic influence of Austin’s speech act theory.28

Although Miller does not establish that Performance Studies was referring to ‘performativity’ in any way during or after the 1960s, I take up his caution ‘not to be misled by the multiple incompatible uses of the same word [words], its heterogeneity or pluri-significance, into seeing identities where there are essential differences.’29 This said, my concern in the discussion of Schechner’s work that follows, rests with the notion that the impossibility of representing ‘performativity’ in relation to performance studies, is indeed lost through the process Miller has described.

         From the content of Schechner’s Essays on Performance Theory 1970-1976 (1977), and a comparison between this and the expanded version, Performance Theory (2003), it is possible to determine when the terms ‘performative’ and ‘performativity’ were introduced into Schechner’s work and how the meaning is framed. A close examination of chapter notes finds that the 1977 collection of essays does not refer to any concept of the ‘performative’, or, ‘performativity’, let alone any concept that differs from, or is coincidental with Austin or Derrida. In comparing Essays on Performance Theory to the expanded Performance Theory, it can be seen that two new chapters were added and that two chapters from the original version have been deleted. Noted too is that some of the essays in both volumes date from as early as 1966. Schechner writes that the 2003 edition represents ‘the trajectory of my thinking about performance from 1966 to the present.’30 Of the new chapters, only ‘Magnitudes of Performance’, which Schechner began as a contribution to the World Conference on Ritual and Theatre (1982), contains a reference to the word ‘performativity’. A version of this conference paper appears in Turner’s & Bruner’s The Anthropology of Experience (1986), without the relevant section mentioning ‘performativity’. The chapter mentioning ‘performativity’ then, seems to date from a reprint of Performance Theory (1994). The reference appears in a section with the sub-heading ‘Performativity, Theatricality and Narrativity’. Under the sub-heading, Schechner writes:

Performativity – or, commonly, “performance” – is everywhere in life, from ordinary gestures to macrodramas. But theatricality and narrativity are more limited, if only slightly so … And although performativity permeates all seven magnitudes, [Brain event; microbit; bit; sign; scene; drama; macrodrama] it doesn’t work the other way round.31

Clearly there is, in this account, the positing of an equi-valence between

‘performativity’ and ‘performance’, an equivalence that does not attempt to maintain or value the important difference between the two terms. Schechner’s account is only slightly modified since 1994. Further, in the section titled ‘Performativity, Theatricality and Narrativity’, Schechner appears to relate his understanding of ‘performativity’ to a formulation of universality presented in the research of Paul Ekman during the 1970s and 80s.32

         In summary, with his reference to ‘performativity’ in Performance Theory, Schechner attempts to establish first, that there is a universal language of basic emotions; second, that this language consists of ‘nonverbal facial displays, vocal cries, body postures and movements’; third, that there is a ‘corresponding universal system in nerve and brain process, and that this system probably underlies what anthropologists have called ritual’; and finally, that culture-specific ‘kinemes’―bits of physical language likened to phonemes in speech―are ‘built on top of and out of the universal language of emotions.’ Schechner concludes from this that ‘performances take place all along the continuum from brain events to public events of great spatial and temporal magnitude.’33

         Whether this constitutes, for Schechner, a description of his equivalent performativity/performance, as a universal pseudo-scientific system, is left as an undeveloped premise. It seems that, while the ‘performative’—as in Austin—aspects of ritual are sometimes inadvertently described in Schechner’s Performance Theory, the significance of ritual to the process of ‘performativity’—as in Butler—has not been identified nor could it be if performativity and performance are thought to be synonymous.

         Schechner and Performance Studies (2006)

In Schechner’s more detailed account of ‘performativity’ in Performance Studies: an introduction (2006), the statement ‘Performativity is everywhere’ opens the discussion.34 In part, this is a reiteration of the previous premise in Performance Theory. Although the new account acknowledges that there is difference between ‘performance’, ‘performative’ and ‘performativity’, the differences outlined are limited by fundamental misconceptions, which do not acknowledge the value of a genealogical development. Hence in the opening paragraph:

‘Performative’ is both a noun and an adjective. The noun indicates a word or sentence that does something (I will explain shortly). The adjective inflects what it modifies with performance-like qualities, such as ‘performative writing’ (see Phelan box). ‘Performativity’ is an even broader term, covering a whole panoply of possibilities opened up by a world in which differences are collapsing, separating media from live events, originals from digital or biological clones, and performing on stage from performing in ordinary life. Increasingly social, political, economic, personal and artistic realities take on the qualities of performance. In this sense performativity is similar to what I called ‘as’ performance in Chapter 2.35

It would be an act of avoidance not to challenge the assumptions made in the above paragraph. As a statement of Schechner’s premise, apart from seeming to be based on recent short dictionary entries rather than on an engagement with ideas. With regard to the possibilities of ‘performativity’ Schechner posits a world in which ‘differences are collapsing, separating media from live events, originals from digital or biological clones, and performing on stage from performing in ordinary life.’ I counter this set of claims with the reminder that, as previously mentioned, Butler’s theory of ‘performativity’ is a description of the complex processes that assist an understanding of how the social world is made. It is not a description of processes that flatten-out, or, reduces difference to sameness. Clearly, the experience of real-time, ‘live’ performance is different from a mediated, filmed and edited version of that same performance event. A film is the product of a number of processes and ultimately represents the viewpoint of a director who is probably not the same person who directed, devised, wrote and/or performed in the same performance event.

         In reiteration of a previous point, although Butler draws attention to the ‘theatrical’ dimensions of the everyday there is also a clear statement that cautions the reader. ‘The reduction of performativity to performance would be a mistake.’ Schechner’s definitive paragraph is followed by an outline of the key thinking involved in the field of ‘critical theory’, linguistics and philosophy using a series of text boxes containing quotations. Schechner writes that ‘by 1972 when Derrida wrote “Signature, Event, Context”, Austin’s “performative” had been taken up by a number of thinkers – its use expanded exponentially.’36 He neglects to account for how ‘its use’ has been expanded, and by whom. Moreover, he dismisses Austin’s ideas with assertions such as, ‘Austin like Plato, distrusted the poets, fearing and denigrating their utterances, if not banning them outright.’37 This is a statement for which there is no evidence in Austin’s work and it must be noted that Austin did not use the term ‘performativity’ anywhere in his book.

            To conclude I claim that Schechner’s understanding does little to enhance understanding of significant differences between ‘performance’, ‘performative’ and ‘performativity’, differences that are important to the potential of their dramaturgical use if theatre aspires to be a communication of ideas. It is evident that even in the elaborated version of his chapter dedicated to ‘performativity’, the account is undermined by, among other factors, a failure to follow and to acknowledge the direction of Austin’s premise and to outline Derrida’s critique: a critique which focuses on exploring and exposing the fault lines in Austin’s concept of a total context, background conditions, the conscious present intent of the speaker, human agency, and lastly repetition and citationality. Derrida ‘recast’ Austin’s theory into a theory of implicit citationality and, as Shannon Jackson notes, Derrida argued that ‘no speech could pass itself off as autonomous given its saturation in a context of conventions, values, labels, and protocol that it is always already “citing”.38 It can also be argued—as Butler does—that no body can be conceived as autonomous given its saturation in a context of conventions, values, labels, and protocol that it is always already citing. This is not to say, however, that bodies have a unity of sameness, and that differences have been collapsed as Schechner claims.

            From this discussion, whatever the reasons may be and however the confusions may have come about, I contend that the muddled account given in the work of Schechner, lends weight to my argument for valuing meaning when referring to philosophy in performance theory. This, in turn, demands an explanation of both, the terms being used and how they have been derived. As such this article is not a modality supporting or re-establishing the impasse in scholarly writing and practice related to understandings of performativity in Theatre and Performance Studies.



1. The First Supper Symposium, Oslo, Norway, May 21 2014. ‘Pussy Riot meets Judith Butler and Rosi Braidotti.’

2.  Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, (New York: Routledge, 1997) 3.

3.  J. L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1962), 14.

4.  Butler, Excitable Speech, 16.

5.  Austin, 18-22.

6.  Austin, 69.

7.  Austin, 70.

8.  Jacques Derrida, ‘Signature Event Context’, in Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, trans. 1982), 310.

9.  Derrida, 310

10.  Derrida, 322.

11.  Ibid.

12.  Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1974), 295.

13.  Butler, ‘Gendering the body: Beauvoir’s Political Contribution’ in Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 254.

14.  Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, (London: Routledge, 1989) xiv.

15.  Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. (London: Verso, 2000) 29.

16.  Butler, Gender Trouble, xv.

17.  Derrida, 310.

18.  Butler, Excitable Speech, 3.

19.  Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. (New York: Routledge, 1993) 10.

20.  Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘The Use and Abuse of History’ (1877), quoted in Kevin Birth, ‘The Immanent Past: Culture and Psyche at the Juncture of Memory and History’ in Ethos (Vol 34.2 June 2006), 169.

21.  Butler, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, 14.

22.  Butler, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, 6.

23.  Butler, Gender Trouble, xxv.

24.  Butler, Bodies That Matter, 234.

25.  Jonathan Bollen, ‘What a Queen’s Gotta Do: queer performativity and the rhetorics of performance’ in Australasian Drama Studies (October, 1997), 112.

26.  Butler, ‘What shall we do without Exile’, 6th Annual Edward Said Memorial Lecture, Department of English and Comparative Literature, American University, Cairo, Egypt (7th., November, 2010).

27.  Butler, ‘If the commodity could speak’ in Schechner, ‘Concerning Theory for Performance Studies’, TDR (2009), 23.

28.  J. Hillis Miller, ‘Performativity as Performance/Performativity as Speech Act: Derrida’s Special Theory of Performativity’ in South Atlantic Quarterly, (2007) 221.

29.  Miller, Ibid., 226.

30.  Richard Schechner, Performance Theory (New York: Routledge, 2003), xv.

31.  Schechner, Performance Theory (New York: Routledge, 1994), 283 and (2003), 326.

32.  Paul Ekman, in Schechner Performance Theory (2003), 304-305. Also in Schechner Performance Theory, 2003, 261 and Schechner, Performance Theory 1977, 177 and Performance Theory, 2003, 261.

33.  Richard Schechner, Performance Theory (2003), 306.

34.  Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: an introduction (New York: Routledge, 2006), 123.

35.  Schechner, Performance Studies, 123.

36.  Schechner, Performance Studies, 125.

37.  ibid.

38.  Shannon Jackson, Professing performance: Theatre in the Academy from Philology to Performativity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 182.





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Comment by Jena A Zelezny on October 7, 2014 at 12:50

ps I very much appreciate your comments Anna and hope to have further discussions with you and others.  

Comment by Jena A Zelezny on October 7, 2014 at 12:45

I cannot agree with Jon McKenzie on this point.  Butler's work is for me transformative in its very existence and although there is an acknowledgement from Butler that forms of hegemony can be aligned to performativity, the processes of performativity cannot be said to have any comprehensible innate goal or agency, whereas hegemony does. Similarly where Schechner's theory falters is in its adherence to and insistence upon universality. In my first PhD thesis I identified an alignment between Brecht's dramaturgy and Butler's description of disruptive de-familiarization using the notion of a failed performative to achieve re-signification and/or trans-formed notions and foundations. 

I am not sure yet that the underlying (disparaging) assumptions between disciplines cannot be resolved, or at least acknowledged through exploration of chiasmic phenomenology (as Butler has suggested). 

Comment by Anna Street on October 7, 2014 at 9:37

Thank you for sharing this careful and insightful work! Indeed, the relation between philosophy and Performance Studies remains to be thoroughly explored. I learned a lot from this article.

Jon McKenzie suggests that one of the reasons PS has neglected Butler's work is because Schechner tends to emphasize the transformative or subversive nature of performance whereas for Butler, performativity is essentially a normative force which only begrudgingly allows for exceptions. This article leads me to ask the same question: What might be the underlying assumptions which could explain the mutual disparaging between the different disciplines?

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