Cathlyn A. Harris

PS Issues & Methods

Prof. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

11 September, 2000


An Attempt At a Keyword Description


The concept of "performance" is intimately tied to the idea of expectation.

On a test or in a job review, one’s "performance" is a measure of how well, or how poorly, one managed to conform to or to fulfill the expectations/standards of an educational or professional institution.

In bed, one’s "performance" or evaluations of one’s performance is again a measurement of how well one’s sexual behavior achieved or arose to meet expectation.

In other realms, performance can be thought of as "a performance," where a community of viewers (Fish 1980) watches or participates in an activity that it has deemed or has qualified as a "performance." In this sense, "a performance" is tied to ideas of "culture," and can include such activities as sporting events, concerts, recitals, and plays. "A performance," in this sense, takes place in spaces and at times the audience/participants expects to be different from, or somehow separated from (albeit artificially) the spaces and times it perceives as being part of "real life" (Goffman 1974). Additionally, the audience attending "a performance" also expects that what they see or experience will again somehow be separate from, or not-as-"real"-as, the events they see, witness, and experience in "real life." The audience expects to see an interpretation; it does not expect to see the "real."

In "a performance," a performer presents material or occupies, in whatever capacity, the space and time designated to the performance, i.e. the performer "performs." In more traditional performances, and for more traditional audiences, the performer fulfills a number of "roles" for the audience/viewers/non-explicitly-performing-participants. The performer acts as an interpreter of a score/script/subject/text, and his/her interpretation is, in turn, interpreted by the audience (a community of readers reads another community’s reading, to use Fish’s terminology). The performer, as he/she performs, serves as the locus of the audience’s desire (or expectation), and often as its therapist (the idea of catharsis). In this traditional performance, a performer’s (or in this case, interpreter’s) interpretation of a score/script is often measured for quality against what the audience had expected to see presented during the specified space and time (Sayre 1990: 91-92).

However, in non-traditional kinds of performance (performances where the reliance on a predefined text or an adherence to author intent is not tantamount, or even central to the performance), especially in environments or "cultures" in which the expectation of what "a performance" is has a long history, the space and time of the performance is often used to challenge the audience’s expectations of, and understanding of, "a performance," "a performer," and its own role or place in "a performance." The purpose of this sort of performance is to make the expectations explicit, or to refuse to be bound by them. (Sayre 1990)

In the previous explanation of "a performance," a consciousness both on the part of the performer, and on the part of the audience, of the fact that a performance is "a performance" and not "real life," is taken for granted. But what of those instances in which either the performer or the audience is unaware that it is, in the first instance, "performing," and in the second instance, that it is "watching" "a performance"? I.e. what happens when the performative meets the real? Is this still performance? I am thinking here of several specific and diverse cases where either piece of the audience/performer dialectic is unconscious of its own performativity, or relationship to performativity. One such example is the concept of "passing," where one tries to present oneself in such a way that one’s "true self" or "true identity" eludes detection. Again, "passing" requires a previously existing codification of the "marker" that the "passer" is attempting to subvert, as well as an awareness of and an ability to "mimic" that code "well enough" ("meet expectation") to "pass" for the "real." The whole point of "passing" is to perform the "marker" with enough accuracy that those watching the "performance of the marker" are unaware that they are watching a performance (Bhabha 1984). Or what of the woman who, as a matter of course, slips on her pantyhose and does her makeup and hair each morning before leaving her home, unaware that she is "performing" or embodying a version of femininity (Butler 1988)?

Or what of circumstances in which "the real" stages itself as if it were "a performance" or part of the "not real," as in dictatorships or during times of oppressive regimes when the evidence of the seen is officially declared the unseeable? When documented facts are dismissed as never having happened? When performing a social role correctly suddenly becomes a matter of life or death? (Taylor 1996)

There is risk involved in performance. There is risk involved in constructing a system of representation in which the real is distinctly separate from the "not real," because the "reality" is that the real and the not-real coexist. There are consequences inherent in not performing "up to expectation," some of them economic, some of them emotional, some of them fatal.




Bhabha, Homi

1984 "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse." October, vol. 28, pp. 125-33.

Butler, Judith

1988 "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." Theatre Journal, vol.40, pp. 519-31.

Fish, Stanley

1980 Is There a Text in This Class? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Goffman, Erving

1974 Frame Analysis. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Sayre, Henry

1990 "Performance." Critical Terms for Literary Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, Diana

1996 Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina's Dirty War. Durham: Duke University Press.