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The idea of performance has been seriously re-exmanined during the part decade thought the so-called 'performative turn' described in numerous theoretical discourses applied to visual art, as well as to theatre and dance. In particular, academic fields such as philosophy, sociology, linguistics and anthropology have revisited performance as a means of examine core issues of social science, shifting their focus from structuralist methods to the study of processes. Witnessing a hot-dog-eating contest suddenly became a form of anthropological experience, in which a social structure was created that would tell us something about the process of civilisation. Similarly, cocking came to be seen as a a performative ritual involving central elements in the creation of our society. Culture – in particular the connection between ritual practice, staged situations and the overall process of civilisation – is now viewed as performance. 

In his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, published in 1959, US-based sociologist Erving Goffman speaks of the process of socialisation – the process of establishing a social identity based on everyday acts and ways of social interaction shaped through the contact we have with our daily environment – as a form of performance. He employs the terms that are mainly related to the realm of theatre ('stage', 'audience', 'props', etc.) with the aim of articulating the concept of a theatre of life, on the stage of which we all perform our roles.

Around the time that Goffman was publishing his most influential texts, the British philosopher John L. Austin began to develop his now-famous 'speech-act theory'. It was during a radio talk show in 1956 that Austin first used the term 'performative'. He was initially describing a form of speech, the so-called 'performative utterance', in which the issuing of a performative is also the performance of an action. We therefore talk about performatives as words that do something rather than describe something. Familiar examples are the utterance 'I do' in the context of a marriage ceremony, and the bible line 'Let there be light: and there was light'. Austin's book How to Do Things with Words (1959) became a classic in the fields of linguistics and the philosophy of language, and it had a tremendous influence on social science in the following decades.

© Daniel Wu, all rights reserved