“Performance studies: An introduction” – Richard Schechner

Schechner, R. (2002). Performance studies: An introduction. London: Routledge. pp. 123 -168


Wide range of meanings. Often used loosely to indicate something that is “like a performance” (without it actually being one in the formal sense)

In performance studies: “performativity points to a variety of topics, among them the construction of social reality including gender and race, the restored behavior quality of performances, an the complex relationship of performance practice to performance theory.”

Key terms, theories, binaries (no longer oppositional), and artistic practices:

  • Austin’s performative
  • Searle’s speech acts
  • Reality TV and beyond
  • Postmodernism
  • Simulation
  • Postructuralism / deconstruction
  • Constructions of gender
  • Constructions of race
  • During, before, and after performance art

Austin’s performative

J. L. Austin – linguistic philosopher / “How to Do Things with Words” (1962) (lectures deliverd in Harvard in 1955 , posthumously edited and published)

“To say something is to do something”. In uttering certain sentences people perform acts. Promises, bets, curse, contracts, judgements do not describe or represent actions: they are actions.

The words usually need to be followed by actions e.g. exchanging rings after saying “I do”in a marriage. Question: does the need to have performative utterances backed up by actions point to a weakness or incompleteness in the performatives themselves?

In theorizing, Austin considers only utterances made in “real life”, for any performatives uttered in e.g. theatre were what he called “unhappy” or “infelicitous” i.e. uttered under flase circumstances.

Austin did not consider that “characters are real within their own domain and time”. “What happens on the stage has emotional and ideological consequences for both performers and spectators).

“The aesthetic reality in neither the same nor opposite of ordinary daily reality. It is its own realm, an intermediary, liminal, transitional”. Theatre are a “space where reactions could be actual while the actions that elicit this reactions are fictional”

Derrida and other poststructuralists developed Austin’s performative including aesthethic realities: he insisted that all utterances are infelicitous. Meaning cannot be permanently fixed: every utterance s a repetition, just as stage speech is the repetition of a script. “Signature, Event, Context” (1972)

Searle’s Speech acts

John, R. Searle, American philosopher who in th 1960s asserted that the basic unit of communication was the “speech act”.

Speech acts ——> basic or minimal units of linguistic communication ——> doings on at least 3 levels: (1) the uttering of sounds formed into words and sentences; (2) words and sentences that refer to thigs and events or predict; (3) words and sentences that state, question, command, promise, and so on.

“Searle argued that people constructed their realities largely by means of speech acts; and they communicated these realities to each other by means of speech acts.”

Searle, like Austin, separated “normal real world talk” from “parasitic forms of discourse such as fiction, play acting, etc.” They did not recognize that “art can be a model for rather than, or in addition to, being a mirror or escape from life.”

Some artists who explored the erosion of the real-fictional boundaries before 1960s: Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), Nikolai Evreinov (1879-1953), John Cage, Allan Kaprow

The interplay of realities has increasingly become a central theme in performance art, film and TV, the internet, experimental teatre, the visual arts and popular entertainment.

Reality TV and beyond

Truman Show, The Blair Witch Project – some of late 90s films that are fictions about dissolving the differences between the real and the fictional.

Reality TV – the thrill of the real / “that could be me!” factor / voyeurism / real within the frame and control of the network. / not improvised theatre nor real life either ——> reality duplicity

Webcam sites – play directly to the market, displaying and selling what is desired. What is desired is often precisely what is ordinarily repressed.

Erosion of the walls once separating “entertainment”, “news”, and “sports”. It’s all entertainment now – ironically, that’s where “reality” is located.

Does the presence of cameras change behavior or convert someone’s home from a “real-life” venue into a “theatre”? ——> sociological application of Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle where the observation affects the outcome.

Panopticon – first proposed as a means for guards to surveil prisons / “looking eye” is everywhre now ——-> viewing the output of these cameras – sometimes even broadcasting footage on TV or over the internet – convert ordinary or illicit actions into “performances for the camera”.

Disappearing line separating private from public


Performativity as understood by performance studies is closely related to postmodernism.

In postmodernism the “performance principle” is applied to all aspects of social and artistic life .

Power depends on the optimization of performance (business and technical senses)

Ability to embrace contradiction and ecleticism

Fredric Jameson (Marxist cultural critic and Professor of Comparative Literature at Duke University:

“Culturally, the precondition [of postmodernism] is to be found […] in the enormous social and psychological transformations in the 1960s.”

“As the word itself suggests, this break is most often related to notions of the waning or extinction of the hundred-year-old modern movement (or to its ideological or aesthetic reputation)”

“[The] fundamental feature of […] postmodernism [is] the effacement […] of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or comercial culture…”

Postmodernism means one thing to dancers, several other things to cultural critics and philosophers, and still something else to architects.

Attacks on the “master narratives” of modernism: the nation-state, natural law, rational logic, patriarchal authority, mandatory coherence, and beginning-middle-end stories.

“Recognizing, analyzing, and theorizing the convergence and collapse of clearly demarcated realities, hierarchies, and categories is at the heart of postmodernism. Such a convergence or collapse is a profound departure from traditional Western performance theory.”

“Representational art of all kinds is based on the assumption that “art”and “life” are not only separate but of different orders of reality: life is primary, art secondary. But developements in photography, film, and digital media overturned traditional theories. Questions arose concerning exactly what was an “original”- even if there could be such a thing as an original”.

Walter Benjamin – “the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”: if there was no original, there could be no “presence”, no “unique existence”, and no “aura” surrounding the artwork.

Reproduction threatens the “authority of the object”

Such desmystification of art – and by implication of all cultural products – created the possibility for a transfer of power from elites to the masses.

Means of digital reproduction: instead of “the “after” being a variation on the “before” – like but not identical – the after is identical to the before. / “Owned and controlled by a very few – the “military-industial complex combining with the scientific-technological elite.”


Concept that continues to evolve in the 21st century. It is neither pretense or imitation. It is the replication of itself as another. “That makes simulations perfect performatives”.

In the realm of the arts and the information technology, digital “copies”are not copies at all, but clones. “…”original” in a theoretically infinite series; or it is a “copy” in a theoretically infinite series. The decision of how to call it is a matter of ideology.

At the level of popular culture, simulation is closely related to “reality” television and “real life” internet sites.

Simulation is not the enactement of a fiction, nor it’s a hoax. It is possible to progress from pretending to acting to performing to simulating.

Jean Baudrillard – a person pretending to be sick knows she is not really sick, but someone simulating sickness actually produces the symptoms of the illness and in so doing “is” sick. Once the symptoms appear, there is no way to distinguish someone who is “sick” from someone who is sick. Phenomenologically, the distiction between real and simulated disappears. In such cases (as simulated illness) the imaginary causes the actual.

The above described is not so different from what shamans do: she simulates the illness so thoroughly that she gets sick herself – and then cures the patient and in so doing, cures herself. “The shaman – or any performer similarly self-convinced – performs with such intensity and conviction that she transcends the pretense that first characterizes her performance. One pretends, then acts, then simulates, then arrives back at real life.”

real life —–> pretending —–> acting on stage —–> simulating —–> real life

The question whether this second “real life” is or is not real life can be legal-ethical as much as philosophical.

Jean Baudrillard – “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real […].” 1983, Simulations, 23-25

The most effective and influential 21st century simulations take place at the level of corporate operations, military war games, and scientific experiments. Here simulations are replacing actual events because simulations are cheaper and more controllable than real life, prducing reliable information about real life or having known effects on real life.

Simulations are used across the whole range of scientific enquire: genetics, climatology, molecular biology, astronomy, medicine, earthquake prediction, etc.

Simulations of sex – “erotic” is permitted, “pornographic” not. Distinguishing the two is not easy. Sex in art is implied or simulated while sex in pornography at least pretends to be explicit.

Poststructuralism / deconstruction

Postmodernism and poststructuralism are the base for academic theories of performativity. Postmodernism is a practice in the visual arts, architecture, and performance art. Poststructuralism ia an academic response to postmodernism. Together they constitute practices and theories of performativity.

Today’s poststructuralists and postmodernists continue to be philosophically, politically, and aesthetically anti-authoritarian; subverting the established order of things.

The ideas of poststructuralism and the techniques of performativity – simulation especially – have been eagerly taken up by business, science, and the military, eager to enhance their control over knowledge; anxious to acquire more power.

Poststructuralism, a discourse in cultural, linguistic, and philosophical circles, began in France in the 1960s ——-> revolt against “structuralism” and in sympathy with the radical student movement that culminated in the strikes and insurrections of 1968.

Structuralism – closely associated with the “structural linguistics” of Ferdinand Saussure and Roman Jakobson. Led in the 60s and 70s by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Main program: the discovery of universal unconscious structures of language, mind and culture. “Binary oppositions” to map the dialectical tensions of a system.

Poststructuralists argued that “binary oppositons” reduced complex situations to over-simplified models. They opposed all notions of universals, originals, or firsts. To them, every act, every utterance, every idea, is a performative. They regard each phenomenon as part of an endless stream of repetitions with no “first voice” of ultimate authority. Insistence on process ——> everything is in flux

Derrida – “There’s nothing outside text” / The text in Derrida’s theory is all human culture. “Writing” comprises an all-inclusive array of cultural expressions and cultural practices. He means entire systems of “inscribed” power: laws, rituals, traditions, hierarchies, politics, economic relations, science, the military, an the arts. He views culturas as constructed set of relations, historically founded and always contested.

Authority —–> author – who writes performs authority

No “writing” is either first or final. Behind every writing there are other writings. To Derrida, cultures are palimpsests of oficial and counter-hegemonic graffiti. Every writing is a power strugle. History is not a story of “what happened” but an ongoing struggle to “write”, or claim ownership, over historical narratives.

différance – term coined by Jacques Derrida. Meaning “difference” + “deferral” – otherness plus a lack of fixed or decided meaning. It calls attention to the unstable, performative quality of writing.

“Aporia” (Derrida) – open spaces, absences, and contradictions ——> in every narrative ——> the past is full of holes.

The diffusion of poststructuralism

Spread beyond France from the 1980s

Most influential French poststructuralists: Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Giles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari. Not strictly poststructuralists: Jean Baudrillard, Guy Debord, Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Lacan.

Merged with theories of the performative conceived by Austin and elaboratedly by Judith Butler (American philosopher and queer theorist).

Many adherents of the poststructuralist approach were drawn to the “Frankfurt School” – group of thinkers including Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Jurgen Habermas. These Marxist critical theorists found allies in Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht. They developed a convergence of poststructuralist, Marxist and Freudian thought.

The above mentioned fed a wide range of theories and “studies” – gender, cultural, postcolonial, race, queer, and performance. What unites this diverse and sometimes self-contradictory collation is both an identification with the subaltern – the marginalized – the discriminated against and the desire to sabotage, even overthrow, the existing order of things. Core operation of poststructuralism: “decentering”, an attack on every kind of hegemony, authority, and fixed system – philosophical, sexual, political, artistic, economic, artistic.

“Poststructuralists challenge not so-called facts, but how knowledge itself is manufactured, performed, and written (in the Derridean sense). As a consequence, the term “performative” now includes everything from doable acts of the body, to imaging of all kinds (painterly, photographic, digital), and writing as such.”

Problems with poststructuralism

After the 1960s the poststructuralists returned to academia. “What had started as an effort to change society enden as an academic “tradition”. They continue to inform cultural studies and performance studies. Their activities are mostly confined to “discourse”.

universities ——> corporate manegement

The performative replaced performance. The internet is a global forum. People blog, petition and gather online rather than putting bodies in the street.

Constructions of gender

Is a person “woman”or “man”, “of color” or “white”, because genetics say so or because of social arrangements? What constitutes individual identity and social reality? Are these constructed or given? Anf if constructed, out of what?

Once one considers gender and race (and all other social realities) “performative”, it means these do not consist of naturally determined operations.

“Even “nature” is not natural, or prior, but a humanly constructed concept designed (consciously or unconsciously) to accomplish human ends.”

Simone de Beauvoir – “One is not born, but, rather becomes a woman.”

Judith Butler develops Simone’s assertion, arguing that gender is performative: one’s biological sex (“female” or “male”) is raw material shaped through practice into the socially constructed performnace that is gender (“woman”or “man”). “The postulation of a true gender identity would be revealed as a regulatory fiction.” 1988, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”

Of course the binaries are too simple. “Each individual from an early age learns to perform gender-specific vocal inflections, facial displays, gestures, walks, and erotic behavior as well as how to select, modify, and use scents, body shapes and adornments, clothing, and allother gender markings of a given society. These differ widely from period to period and culture to culture – indicating strongly that gender is constructed.”

According to Butler, there are “nuanced” and “individual ways” of playing one’s gender, but whatever these are, a person performs her or his gender in accordance with already inscribed performatives.

“Butler argues that gender as performed in contemporary Western societies enacts a normative heterosexuality that is a major tool for enforcing a patriarchal, phallocentric social order.”

To become gay is to enact a radical politics along the lines of “the personal is the political.”

heterosexual marriage/ family ——-> children ——> family as a vehicle for distributing wealth from one generation to another /

globalized markets ——> wealth moves by means other than inheritance —–> new kinds of families are imagined and performed

“Unorthodox gender performatives are not merely affronts to patriarchy; they challenge long-standing Western philosophical distinctions between appearence and reality.”

Constructions of race

Race is related to ethnicity, a human cultural feature. But the importance of race as a cultural category cannot be sustained byt its often claimed basis in “nature”.

Biologists and anthropologists agree that race has no basis in genetics or biology.

“Because race is a cultural construct, racial identifications change in reaction to culture-specific historical forces. With the number of multiracial and multicultural children going (e.g. USA), and the influx of millions of people from Latin America and Asia, the categories began to collapse.

Adrian Piper (conceptual artist and philosopher) – theorizes race both in her writings and in performance. Her performance art and installations focus on racism, racial stereotyping, and xenophobia. / “Cornered” (1988) / “Presenting herself in a manner that confounds stereotyping, Piper dissects what constitutes racial identity.

During, before and after performance art

Performance art – category of works that do not fit into theatre, dance, music, or visual art / “The term first appeared around 1970 to describe the ephemeral, time-based, and process-oriented work of conceptual (“body”) and feminist artists that was emerging at the time. It was also applied retrospectively to Happenings, Fluxus events, and other intermedia performances from the 1960s” – Robyn Brentano

In many solo performance art works the artist is both subject and object

One of the recurring themes is construction of identity

The emphasis is on the personal: “personal is political” (title of a 1969 essay by feminist Carol Hanisch, one of the instigators of the 1968 “bra-burning”) – Hanisch asserted that even the most personal situations, when fully understood and analyzed, show how society is organized in ways that disempower women.

Much feminist performance art of the 60s and 70s was personal, political and sexual ——> feminist movement operating politically beyond the domestic sphere: issues of sexuality, feelings and control over hteir bodies (enforcement of rape laws, abortion rights), etc

Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory go well together: only by recognizing that identity is constructed, not give, contested, not settled, historically and politically evolving, not fixed in “nature”, can personal art be regarded as political.

Carolee Schneemann – Interior Scroll (1975) – the scroll she pulled out of her vagina contained critics of a “structuralist filmmaker”

Performance art took place in venues not previously used for performance: roofs, beaches, swimming pools, galleries, street corners, etc.

Performance art evolved to some degree from painting, therefore, unlike theatre, dance and music, much performance art was and is the work of individual artists using their own selves – bodies, psyches, notebooks, experiences – as material.

“Performance art is part of a line of the avant-garde reaching back to the turn of the 20th century – symbolism, futurism, dada, surrealism and so on. The immediate source of performance art was a convergence of Happenings, postmodern dance, and pop art. Allan Kaprow coined the word “Happenings” to describe art events thar simply happened without picture frames, plots, or any marks of the orthodox visual arts, theatre, dance, or music.”

Allan Kaprow – Happenings / “Assemblage, Environments, and Happenings” (1966), 165-66:

  1. The line between art and life is fluid, even indistinct.
  2. The themes, materials, and actions of happenings are taken from anywhere but the arts.
  3. Happenings should be performed in several widely spaced locales.
  4. Time, which follows closely on spatial considerations should be variable and discontinuous.
  5. Happenings should be performed only once.
  6. Audiences should be eliminated entirely – everyone at a Happening participates in it.
  7. The composition/sequence of events is not rational or narrational, but based on associations among various parts; orby chance.

“In his own way, he [Kaprow] was laying the basis for “the personal is political.”Kaprow, like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, wanted to demystify art, debunk the establishment that controlled museums, and make arts that could be performed by anyone.”

Lauries Anderson, NEA Four (National Endowment for the Arts), Critical Art Ensemble, Annie Sprinkle

Postmodern dancers – rejected the codifications of ballet and modern dance. They favored “pedestrian”, or everyday movement. Dancers spoke of their own lives as they danced and got involved in political actions.

Sally Banes, “Terpsichore in Sneakers” (1980): formal qualities of dance might be enough reason for choreography / look at movement for its own sake / dance formulate or illustrate a theory of dance / to embody fifferent perspectives on space, time, or orientation to gravity / the breakdown of the distinction between art and life


Most theorists of performativity argue that all social realities are constructed. e.g. gender, race and identity.

In performativity, the “as if” consists of constructed social realities (gender, race, identity, etc)

Every social activity can be understood as a showing of a doing.

“Poststructuralist theories of performativity indicate that all aspects of social life can be best understood “as performance”.”

“Those who built on Austin’s ideas were soon discovering a wide range of “speech acts”and applying the theory of performativity to all areas of social life. Derrida’s insistence that all human codes and cultural expressions are “writing” is a powerful example of this kind of thinking.”

“Just as theorists found the performative in all areas of personal and social life, so performance artists broke free from orthodox venues and styles of performance.”

“Just as there are no theoretical limits to performativity, so there are no practical limits to performance art.”

“Even non-performance – sitting na chair, crossing the street, sleeping – can be made into a performance by framing this ordinary actions “as performance”. If I look at what happens on the street, or at the roling ocean, and see these “as performance”, then in that circumstance they are such.”