Jennifer Foster
Sept. 2000
Issues and Methods



Keyword: Performance

The word performance links to a motley collection of synonyms such as deed, feat, implementation, parole, efficiency, behavior, competence, and display. Dating to February of 1571, it occurred as the carrying out of a command and ha since moved through seemingly different genres of study and expression. The image of the stage performance, that given by actors, writers, musicians, dancers, and mimes for an audience stealthily invades the other usages. Even in such disparate fields as linguistics, a la Noam Chomsky, and mechanics the idea of an audience, of onlookers, creeps in. It has the unique property of designating not only behavior itself but, at times, the quality of behavior.

The marketing world employs the word to describe engines, computers, and even nutrition bars. Posters, billboards, and commercials - performances in and of themselves, taut their products as "high performance." Which is to say that the proposed engine, vehicle, or gadget runs well, executes its action at a higher, or higher, level. The competence, efficiency, and efficacy of the mechanism, the quality of its expressed action are the matters at hand. However, as is common with the word, several incarnations of performance come into play at once. A "high performance" vehicle not only runs well but looks good doing it. It impresses its beholders.

The performance given by actors is not necessarily simply, "the single occurrence of a repeatable and pre-existent text or score," but find definition in the existence of an audience. Julie Taymor, in a 1999 lecture at Emerson College, told of her experience witnessing an event in Indonesia. The A group of dancers, alone in the middle of the night, gave, not a rehearsal, but a polished dance. She later found that the performance was not for its own sake but offered to God. So the quality, the who and how many, of an audience is not necessarily important. We can perform for invisible, projected, and even imagined audiences.

Colloquially, the word incurs a strange unease. Similar to Platoís distrust of images as representing something that theyíre not, performance suggests exaggeration, acting, dramatics, and, at times, lying. Francis Bacon derided philosophical and religious systems as "idols of the theatre; because in [his] judgement all the received systems are but so many stage plays; representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion." So a plaintive teenager might hear from her mother, "Spare me the performance," as if the behavior were a display, a put-on. As an image is separate from that which it represents, so a performance is separated from that which is performed. If a widow performs her grief for a congregation she is not necessarily genuinely grieving. Performance designates both behavior itself and the quality of itís expression.

Performance touches every form of human behavior, in fact, they are often synonymous. Noam Chomsky later came to borrow the term to describe linguistic habits. He separated the idea of a speakerís competence or knowledge of a language from their performance or actual use of it. In other words, the performance of language is that which is displayed publicly through speech. In each incarnation, there are eyes to see an action embodied in movement, speech, function, and even writing.

With such a broad array of uses I wonder if, at some point, someone shone a spotlight on human affairs and made us aware of the often calculated and conscious quality of our actions. All of humanity, when viewed in the light and breadth of this keyword, seems to be putting on some sort of all-encompassing variety show. Vehicles and speakers, animals and Brooklynites under analysis, students and athletes seem bound together in a song and dance routine called, "Action and Embodiment." Erwin Goffman wrote, "All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isnít are not easy to specify." I wonder what is more important, discerning when we are performing or if there are ever times when we are not.