What is performance?

a keyword search

[its queer equivalent]

in 1200 words or less

Can the key be found in the performance word itself?

The Webster’s Pocket Dictionary gives us the following two meanings for performance n:

1: act or process of performing; 2: public presentation

[perform vb being in turn defined as 1: adhere to the terms of; 2: carry out; 3: give a performance]

Yet, if we decide to dig deeper into the Meaning of performance, we may want to explore Raymond Williams’ Keywords. In his introduction, he warns us of the possible social complexities and

historical distortions that exist within language, and therefore in words themselves:

... it is a central aim of this book to show that some important social and historical processes occur within

language, in ways which indicate how integral the problems of meanings and of relationships really are. New kinds of relationship, but also new ways of seeing existing relationships, appear in language in a variety of ways: in the invention of new terms (capitalism); in the adaptation and alteration (indeed at times reversal) of older terms (society or individual); in extension (interest) or transfer(exploitation). But also, as these examples should remind us, such changes are not always either simple or final. (22)

The key may not be entirely found in the word itself, nor in its multiple and extendable meanings, but perhaps its essence can be revealed suddenly and momentarily - within the punctum 1 - affecting us in unexpected ways, in ways that are personal to our own history and our "being-in-the-world" 2. This ever fleeting perception is key to understanding the unattainability of performance. And, while on the subject of perception, let us note what Merleau-Ponty so eloquently noted in his writings:

It is impossible... to decompose a perception, to make it into a collection of sensations, because in it the whole is prior to the parts(STATES, 1987, 7)

The keyword search for performance might lead us nowhere and everywhere, to the point of sheer exhaustion, for it relies on nothing but itself, and that in itself, is ambiguous. For us to try and fix its meaning, or meanings, through words, is but a gesture, a performance of sorts. Patrice Pavis speaks of the limitations of verbalization or rewriting of an original performance:

This forced verbalization, this movement from the subconscious to the conscious, appropriates elements that would have been better off in the half-light, not of nonsense, but of that which cannot be represented or

verbalized. In being too anxious to do and say the right thing, one might say, semiologists deprive themselves of inexpressible pleasures... (Dictionary of the Theatre, 256)

There is nonetheless no rest for the restless, and we are caught in our attraction to this enigmatic word, caught in its rhyzome-like structure, and eventually seduced by its multi-track sensibility (see Performance Studies Department, Tisch School of the Arts, NYU). In its more general meanings, performance can often be found in the written word, from larger than life billboards advocating superior technological advancement, to small font text on sold out opera tickets. It can be heard in all neighbourhoods of New York, along Madison Avenue, in some high capacity multi-use stadium, or amongst artists in the threatened green public spaces of the much beloved East Village, to name just a few possibility of encounter with the overused term. The effervescence of the word

performance (beyond the mere ‘staged’ activity) in written or oral form, is often used to confer an energy, a sensational emergence that is extraordinary in its intrisic qualities - creating a spark that

is unquantifiable 3.


1 Punctum as in Barthes’ description of performance, how it affects us (the sting), bringing tension to a specific place, the recognition = the certainty of Being = Second Sight = being there and present = what the viewer adds (see Gregory Ulmer’s emergAncy).

2 being-in-the-world is a term developed by Thomas J. Csordas in an essay entitled Embodiment and Experience: the existential ground of culture and self. He explains it as follows: "a term from the phenomenological tradition that captures precisely the sense of existential immediacy .... This is an immediacy in a double sense: not a synchronic moment of the ethnographic present but a temporally/historically informed sensory presence and engagement; and not unmediated in the sense of a pre-cultural universalism but in the sense of the preobjective reservoir of meaning ...." (Csordas, p.10)

3 energy as per Patrice Pavis’s definition, a rather unscientific and unsemiological term... of use in conveying and idea of the phenomenon in question... One "feels" that it is this quality that makes all the difference and contributes to the whole aesthetic experience and the elaboration of meaning. (Dictionary of the Theatre, 258)

The immediacy of performance, of its impact, enables one to dwell in its instability of meanings - rejoicing in this new found freedom. Performance is an ever changing tool that can not be

prescribed a single, mechanical, and/or repetitive use, as it can build-up a rythm, a crescendo of sorts, releasing creative juices ("le moment de jouissance" and/or "la petite mort"). An explosion/implosion unlike any other, unlike any past events, for no moment is exactly the same as another. Judy Chicago attempts to illustrate the power of performance, in the context of performative art works at Womanhouse, as it "seemed to provide the most direct means of expressing anger.... One of the reasons performance proved to be so important... is that it provided a release for

debiliting, unexpressed anger, thereby opening up the whole range of emotions for creative work"(Chicago 1977, 125-126).

This constructive "mise-en-scene" gives performance a transformative character, that moves through us in original ways. We are vulnerable to its presence when it manifests itself, as it surprises us in the courage and vitality of its personae.

A transformative energy






To define this key term,

and to highlight each of its many facets

is but an unnerving task,

an exercise in performative writing,

one that should challenge writing itself,

moving beyond language.



ecstatic revelations

unsuspected highs

vulnerable bursts of emotions


Performance vs. performance. What is performance? a keyword search. its queer equivalent. in 1200 words or less.