Performative turn  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The performative turn is a paradigmatic shift in the humanities and social sciences that has affected such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, ethnography, history and the relatively young discipline of performance studies. Central to the performative turn is the concept of performance.


The performative turn

Previously used as a metaphor for theatricality, performance is now often employed as a heuristic principle to understand human behaviour. The assumption is that all human practices are 'performed', so that any action at whatever moment or location can be seen as a public presentation of the self. This methodological approach entered the social sciences and humanities in the 1990s but is rooted in the 1940s and 1950s. Underlying the performative turn was the need to conceptualize how human practices relate to their contexts in a way that went beyond the traditional sociological methods that did not problematize representation. Instead of focusing solely on given symbolic structures and texts, scholars stress the active, social construction of reality as well as the way that individual behaviour is determined by the context in which it occurs. Performance functions both as a metaphor and an analytical tool and thus provides a perspective for framing and analysing social and cultural phenomena.

What is performance?

Performance is a bodily practice that produces meaning. It is the presentation or 're-actualization' of symbolic systems through living bodies as well as lifeless mediating objects, such as architecture. In the academic field, as opposed to the domain of the performing arts, the concept of performance is generally used to highlight dynamic interactions between social actors or between a social actor and his or her immediate environment.

Performance is an equivocal concept and for the purpose of analysis it is useful to distinguish between two senses of 'performance'. In the more formal sense, performance refers to a framed event. Performance in this sense is an enactment out of convention and tradition. Founder of the discipline of performance studies Richard Schechner dubs this category 'is-performance'. In a weaker sense, performance refers to the informal scenarios of daily life, suggesting that everyday practices are 'performed'. Schechner called this the 'as-performance'. Generally the performative turn is concerned with the latter, although the two senses of performance should be seen as ends of a spectrum rather than distinct categories.



The origins of the performative turn can be traced back to two strands of theorizing about performance as a social category that surfaced in the 1940s and 1950s. The first strand is anthropological in origin and may be labelled the dramaturgical model. Kenneth Burke (1945) expounded a 'dramatistic approach' to analyse the motives underlying such phenomena as communicative actions and the history of philosophy. Anthropologist Victor Turner focussed on cultural expression in staged theatre and ritual. In his highly influential The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), Erving Goffman emphasized the link between social life and performance by stating that 'the theatre of performances is in public acts'. Within the performative turn, the dramaturgical model evolved from the classical concept of 'society as theatre' into a broader category that considers all culture as performance.

The second strand of theory concerns a development in the philosophy of language launched by John Austin in the 1950s. In How to do things with words he introduced the concept of the 'performative utterance', opposing the prevalent principle that sentences are always statements that can be either true or false. Instead he argued that 'to say something is to do something'. In the 1960s John Searle extended this concept to the broader field of speech act theory, where due attention is paid to the use and function of language. In the 1970s Searle engaged in polemics with postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida, about the determinability of context and the nature of authorial intentions in a performative text.


The performative turn is anchored in the broader cultural development of postmodernism. An influential current in modern thought, postmodernism is a radical reappraisal of the assumed certainty and objectivity of scientific efforts to represent and explain reality.
Postmodern scholars argue that society itself both defines and constructs reality through experience, representation and performance. From the 1970s onwards, the concept of performance was integrated into a variety of theories in the humanities and social sciences, such as phenomenology, critical theory (the Frankfurt school), semiotics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, deconstructionism and feminism. The conceptual shift became manifest in a methodology oriented towards culture as a dynamic phenomenon as well as in the focus on subjects of study that were neglected before, such as everyday life. For scholars, the concept of performance is a means to come to grips with human agency and to better understand the way social life is constructed.

See also

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