Issue 2/2013 - Unruhe der Form

The Anthropology of Performing

Keti Chukhrov

Performing may be defined as a process of the unfolding of that which is performed. Among the issues often debated in philosophical and theoretical works treating performative practices is the question of whether a performative action (performing of a dramatic role or a piece of music) is an event in itself; whether such action is an event in the context of its actualization, or whether such practice resides in a subsidiary repetition of a „text, “ thus having no meaning of its own. Jacques Derrida, for example, understands performative actualization as the effect of an excited consciousness contaminated by idealized, metaphysical aspiration. Conversely, for Gilles Deleuze, a performative act, while preserving the genetic link to being and existence, goes beyond existence and turns out to be an event. We shall attempt to map these different attitudes to the anthropology of performative procedures in the works of Derrida and Deleuze in order to find out how the link to the event triggers theatricality.

The Silence of Différance1
In Of Grammatology, Derrida fiercely criticizes the privileging of the spoken voice, arguing that any statement is cryptic. Something unfolded hic et nunc cannot have the status of an event, since it is nothing but a supplement to the totality and permanence of différance and écriture, the written language. Consequently, all performative practices engaging voice in one way or another (above all theatrical and musical practices), become simply the illusion of an event. They cannot acquire a singularity of meaning other than what is already contained in écriture, since all enunciations are only complementary to différance. The statement is ineffable, and thus art or any of its expressions, whether theatrical, musical, or visual, should be about such ineffability.
If two means of expression – the graphic and the vocal – may be compared, there is nothing in the vocal sign that exceeds écriture. Voice is fictitious, because there is no voice beyond semiology, beyond language. Hence the time and situation of performing, its accidentality, and its unfolding do not represent any special temporality that differs in intensity from time in general. For Derrida, such a view not only contravenes the event in performative action, but casts doubt on the very possibility of an event.
The autobiographical film Derrida d’Ailleurs, directed by Safa Fati in 1998, features a good example of Derrida’s anti-performative attitude. The philosopher reflects upon the act of forgiveness. Although in asking for forgiveness one must pronounce the phrase itself, the decision to ask for forgiveness is more important than pronouncing the wording. In short, the decision is taken behind the stage, beyond its performative actuality. But how is the act of forgiveness communicated if it is not performed? Derrida’s answer is that there is no necessity in the mise-en-scène to ask for forgiveness. Even if any decision to ask for forgiveness was at all possible, for Derrida it may occur in the hesitant quasi-space of différance, the space that cannot be marked as present and actual. While addressing the theme of theatrical mise-en-scène, Derrida shows interest in what happens behind the curtain before the actors have begun to act, rather than in what might happen onstage. It is the short repose before the actors begin performing that constitutes Derrida’s artistic interest. Voice as proof of forgiveness does not, in any way, differ from a legally binding signature, seal, or written word. In this example Derrida claims that even if the choice could be made at all, the performative actualization is superfluous and redundant.
It is the performative accidentality, rejected by Derrida, which Deleuze defines in several works as „theatre“2 and which he regards as the means of unraveling the event. Theatricality emerges when all secrets are exposed, the choice is inevitable, and decisions turn out to be irreversible.
The Actor and the Event
In a passage in Difference and Repetition, Deleuze discusses the way in which the very specific temporality and accidentality of the performative act is generated. Repetition is traditionally interpreted as the reflection, the mimetic representation, of an existing reality, of being. Deleuze, however, introduces the idea of considering repetition and its performative nature as the extra-being that surpasses existence. In such extra-being both the genetic link to being (to something that may be repeated) and the value of the actualization of the performative act, the singular repetition of that particular thing, are equally important.

In the same passage Deleuze mentions Kant’s critical interpretation of the Cartesian cogito,3 namely, that the Cartesian shift from „I think“ to „I exist“ cannot be automatically accomplished in an instant. One cannot jump from „I think“ to „I am. “ This shift is only possible via the transcendental form of time. Moreover, the ego that thinks and the one that exists cannot be the same ego. The „I“ is split. Deleuze relies on this Kantian premise of the disjunction between thought and perception, in which the transcendental subject produces the synthetic statement („I think“) and the perception („I am“) is implemented by the passive empirical subject. But he thinks that Kant fills up this newly discovered split with a new form of synthetic identification in which the transcendental operation governs empiricism. In other words, the disjunction of perception and thought is sublated in Kant by establishing the power of the transcendental subject. Deleuze suggests rejecting this speculative subjectivity in favor of remaining in the split of „ego. “ This would make it possible to retain the disjunction between transcendentality and empiricism while combining both layers – transcendental synthesis and empirical dissipation. In this case, the time separating thought and perception would not turn into a speculative addition to the gap between „I think“ and „I exist. “ It is this time that Deleuze refers to as „empty“ time in which the performativity of the event might deploy and in which the paradoxical disjunctive connection of „the transcendental“ and „the empirical“ occur.
„The empty form of time, “ to which Deleuze refers is the time that follows and goes beyond narrative and content, the time which occurs itself beyond what occurs within it. Following Friedrich Hölderlin, Deleuze calls this time the order of rhythm, caesura, according to which time moves not in one direction but deploys unevenly from around a caesura.

It is this time that Shakespeare’s Hamlet defines as time „out of joint. “ (Deleuze often calls it Aeon). This is the time of performative accidentality. Hamlet confronts such empty time, since the content that constitutes his life has proven fictitious after his undergoing a metanoia.4. This metanoia makes him start acting, become an actor; and the actor who enacts Hamlet must perform the way in which this character (Hamlet) shifts to acting on the horizon of the event.
Deleuze refers to such empty time, in which the acting takes place and which unfolds unevenly around caesura, as the third repetition. The first repetition is a mechanical one, characteristic of chronological time and referring to the present. The second repetition is the synthesis of memory, „the synthesis of Eros and Mnemosyne, “ referring to the past. The third repetition Deleuze calls the repetition of death. It is beyond the principle of pleasure and is deployed and actualized in the aforementioned empty time or extra time. The third artistic repetition, or the „empty“ time of performing unfolds as the procedure of an Event, but is also an inevitable effect of the preceding event (the happened). In other words, the Event procedure unfolding as performing („Event“ capitalized) keeps the genetic and irreversible link to the event that actually occurred.
Nietzsche’s „Aesthetic Play“
One of the first attempts to question the role of sound, pitch, and repetition as parameters of performativity and theater is to be found in Nietzsche’s „Birth of Tragedy. “ As is commonly known, in this early work, Nietzsche maps the juxtaposition of the Hellenistic and pre-Socratic cultures, thus suggesting an apology in favor of Dionysian musicality as opposed to Apollonian order. However, as he discovers, the role of music is the third option, which he himself calls „aesthetic play, “ the term having originally been used by Kant and Schiller as later cited by Nietzsche in reference to Goethe. Nietzsche outlines his understanding of the function of „aesthetic play“ as follows: „The pathological discharge which Aristotle calls catharsis, and which leaves the philologists uncertain whether to count it amongst the moral or medical phenomena, is reminiscent of a curious premonition of Goethe’s. He says, ‚I have never succeeded in treating any tragic situation artistically without some lively pathological interest […] Could it be yet another merit of the ancients that even subjects of the most intense pathos were merely aesthetic play for them [...]?’. “5
For Nietzsche the term „aesthetic play“ is used to interpret tragedy against the theory of catharsis, against the purification and discharging of trauma. At the same time, „aesthetic play“ has little if anything to do with beauty in the Kantian sense. It should rather be understood as the paradoxical outgrowth in the proximity of the shocking event via musical tone and pitch, namely, the aesthetic component that pops up as the effect of the horrible story.
The common belief is that the tragic mode is formed in connection with shock as generated by an awful, unimaginable event that, in turn, gives rise to an exalted intonation. However, a close reading of „The Birth of Tragedy“ reveals that tragedy’s formative element is neither the horror itself nor the loftiness of pathos generated by the scale of the characters and stories, since this is amply represented in the myth and the epic. Of far greater significance for tragedy is the fact that it is above horror, above death and mourning. However, the plot does not predetermine this state of being „above. “ It is realized only in the mode of theater’s performativity – in the mode of performing this being „above“ – a state which can only be formed through the repetitive and performative power of the voice, the pitch, and the tone. So, despite the fact that at a first glance Nietzsche defines music through the chthonic origin (Ursprung) of tragedy, in the end he discovers another function of music, that of the performative consequence, the effect rather than the chthonic source of drama. Music makes it possible to overcome trauma and even the tragic narrative via the performative excess of its unfolding.
It is the performative accidentality that enables the protagonist to exceed the narrative by daring to act and addressing others by this act. It should be noted that the performative spirit is not just an external component added to the dramatic text as a post-textual staging. In genuinely theatrical works the performative element is almost always included in the dramatic text or even in the fabula of the tragedy; such as when the protagonist him or herself stages a theatrical act within the play. The contention that performative actualization is something external to the dramatic text and that the actor merely interprets authorial intention may be countered by arguing that the potentiality of performativity is not what the actor or performer adds to the text as interpreter because the very desire of performativity and enacted intonation is inscribed into the work by the author when initially conceived. Only pieces such as those are performative and theatrical. In other words, the very intonation of a performing does not simply depend on the actor’s interpretation, but is already conceived as performative behavior by an author within the „text. “ Thus, the author is the first „actor“ of his/her dramatic piece.
Such theater is an actor’s or performer’s theater, rather than a director’s. This notion is important for Nietzsche, for Deleuze, as well as for the theater of Artaud and Jerzy Grotowski.
Let us return to Hamlet once again. Whether Hamlet is truly insane, or stages insanity, he not only presents the plot of deceit and betrayal (as in his play – Mousetrap), but he cannot do anything but become an actor and performer simultaneously with the factual insanity, since he is so closely linked to the event that was to change everything irreversibly. Here, the artistic performative event evolves genetically from the existential event, being tied to it but exceeding it at the same time. Similarly, after being driven out of Regan’s house and finding himself in the midst of a storm, King Lear goes insane, but at the same time starts to perform his insanity, and already in this acting out, in this performing act, he stages the theatrical trial of his daughters. These acts of performing are excessive, they run beyond or counter to being, but are at the same time genetically connected with actual events.
Why Performative Procedure is not Performance
It is here, at the level of the performative act’s connection to the event, that the methodological and epistemological differentiation between performance (of contemporary art) and a performing act (as a procedure inherent to music and theater) can be made.

Performance art arises and unfolds almost ex nihilo. Despite the fact that it is a process, it also happens to be an exhibited „object. “ The external world and its events are reduced to the body or the concept of a performer. Performance is almost always marked by the conceptual and institutional self-reference of an artist in relation to the history of art and the artist’s position within it. Performance has no need to maintain the genetic link to any other event other than itself. In other words, while unfolding in time, performance nevertheless happens to be a conceptual art object. Moreover, the temporal type of performance differs from the temporality of a performative action. For example, performances by Bruce Nauman, Marina Abramović, or films by Andy Warhol may last many hours, but their conceptual components are perceived far more rapidly and are not coincident with their duration. (The latest reenactments of performances by Abramović confirm that a performance is an exhibit in spite of its duration.) Thus, the meaning of a performance in contrast to the performing act is articulated in another temporal dimension, which is different from the rhythm oriented time-span of theater and music. Another important trait of a performative act in contrast to performance is that it shifts away from the performer’s ego, instead residing in an attempt to become the other. This mode of becoming the other through performing is not so much a mimetic procedure as an ethical one.
As already mentioned, the ontological incentive to start acting is triggered by the event preceding the performing act. However, the link to the event here does not reside in the fact that a professional actor simply illustrates the plot in which this or that event happened. Important for the theatrical dimension is that often the play itself contains a point of rupture (it may be marked as metanoia), which manifests how and under what conditions the protagonist (Hamlet, Lear, Richard) stages a theatrical act within the play, acting within acting. Almost all of Shakespeare’s plays contain such episodes, which are theatrical plays within plays. But in addition, the real actor N not only represents the character’s metanoia, but actually reaches the state that not only manifests why Lear (for example) at this or that point of the plot launches theatrical acting as the effect of his metanoia, but also why this very actor N is in the process of performing somebody’s metanoia at all. It is here that Lear’s shift to acting within a play and the same shift in the acting of the actor N, – performing Lear – intersect. (And it is in this sense that one has to understand Deleuze’s statement about performing of the performing).
The dramatic piece, as well as encompassing the character’s metanoia inscribed in the story’s frame, also facilitates a questioning of the event and metanoia in the life of that very human being who performs this or that character, namely, the event in the life of actor N. This intersection of acting and life through the event’s climax – since an actor is always a human being but simultaneously a character – was central to Grotowski’s theatrical method. Consequently, the anthropology of performing is grounded not only on the artifice of constructing the role, but rather on the state of mind in which one has to repeat and perform the other.



[1] Derrida deliberately misspells the word différence to emphasize in it the endless process of differentiation: differance
[2] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, Athlone Press, London, 1990, pp. 127–134; Gilles Deleuze, „One less Manifesto. Theatre and its Critique, “ in: Timothy Murray (ed.), Mimesis, Masochism, and Mime. The Politics of Theatricality in Contemporary French Thought, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2000, pp. 239–256; Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, Continuum, London, New York, 2001.
[3] Gilles Deleuze, 2001, op. cit., p. 85, passage therein quoted from Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Macmillan, London, 1933, chapter „General Note on the Transition from Rational Psychology to the Cosmology, “ p. 382.
[4] Greek: change in the mode of thinking; repentance, transformation of consciousness. Cited from A.D. Weisman, Greek-Russian Dictionary, The Shichalin Cabinet, Moscow, 1991.
[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, „The Birth of Tragedy, “ in: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 105f.