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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
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The unbound: performativity of bodies, spaces, things
A Response to Discussion Week 4: Sept. 29. Performance, performativity and ritual

Other responses of the week

Omur Harmansah Posted: October 25, 2006. Thursday: 10:30 pm.

“The body believes in what it plays at: it weeps if it mimes grief. It does not represent what it performs, it does not memorise the past, it enacts the past, bringing it to life"
Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice. Stanford University Press, 1991: 72-73.

I intend to unpack here my shamelessly bold assertion for the definition of performance in the light of our most recent readings. But perhaps I must start with alternate definitions. In an edited volume on performance studies, Henry Bial (2004: 57) introduces a sub-section called “What is performance” by identifying performance as “a tangible, bounded event that involves the presentation of rehearsed artistic actions” or “any activity that involves the presentation of rehearsed or pre-established sequences of words or actions”. I have a feeling that this relatively common definition of performance is hostile to cross-disciplinary dialogue and seems to be locked in the boundaries of modern theatrical performance. The definition assumes that all performances are discursive and that its significations are apriori to the acting. If we are to consider performance as a pervasive “central element of social and cultural life” (McKenzie 2005), then we do have to embrace a much broader conceptualization of performance outside the “performing arts”. Just as representation is no more a monopoly of art historians, performance has been unbound from its disciplinary imprisonments. McKenzie (2005) alternatively suggests that “performance entails the presentation or reactualization of symbolic systems through both living and mediated bodies”. Such epistemological shift in the theory of performance within social sciences and the humanities marks, as Jon P. Mitchell has articulately identified, a shift away from fixity of structures, systems, disciplines, and more towards processes, practices and fluidity. Performance is then a bodily practice in one way or another, individual or social, usually associated with signifying acts or meaning (1). Comparably, Ian Hodder would like to see performance as "an interpretation acted out for someone (including oneself). It is always, consciously or not, staged, and it is thus always theatrical." (Hodder 2006: 85)

My attempt to capture a glimpse of this elusive concept in this context is as such (an extended version here): "Discursive and non-discursive dispositional practices and transformative bodily acts of embodied subject(s) (and sometimes of objects/things/artifacts) in the social realm and the everyday, where representations, social significations are unbound and fluid, while material bodies continously come to presence as potent, inexorable, spatialized and spatializing entities." The cultural performances of the body in the social sphere, as it has become more and more clear in our discussions, can be both discursive, intentional, consciously oriented towards certain goals, and also nondiscursive, habitual in Connerton’s terms, those that constitute the habitus in Bourdieu’s terms, mundane and everyday, not necessarily political, ideological or goal-ridden, but as performed by the “cunning and silence of bodies” (Eugenides 2002: 27, see epigraph to my response: Representation and the body). It is intriguing to start talking about the body like Bourdieu does in the epigraph to this essay, the human body as “a knowing subject”.

Speaking of the everyday brings us conveniently to the performativity of things. Jon Mitchell presented a very articulate discussion of this matter, which I would like to return quite frequently this term, and in class we have discussed various ways in which material objects can be considered performing. The recent work on the social life/cultural biography of things puts emphasis on the individual life stories and agencies of objects in the social world (Appaduarai 1986, Gosden and Marshall 1999). I have suggested that in antiquity, the skillfully made artifacts gained a certain amount of potency and power through the withdrawal of the craftsman as the author and/or his/her elevation to the status of a mythical being, such as Daidalos. Jon Mitchell has written of masks as empowering objects in masked performances that transform both the wearer and the spectators. The inevitable and persistent collaboration of human subjects and material things in the social world allows us to speak of their performativity when considering everyday practices, and to argue about the fluidity of objecthood and subjecthood.

To be continued…


(1) The range of performative activities that Jon McKenzie (2005) lists is quite revealing: he includes “not only theater and dance but also such forms as sacred rituals and practices of everyday life, storytelling and public speaking, avant-garde performance art, popular entertainments, microconstructions of ethnicity, race, class, sex, and gender, world fairs and heritage festivals, nonverbal communication, play and sports, political demonstrations and electronic civil disobedience, sex shows and drag performance—potentially any instance of expressive behavior or cultural enactment.

Works cited:

Appadurai, Arjun; 1986. “Introduction: commodities and politics of value,” in The social life of things: commodities in cultural perspective. Arjun Appadurai (ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3-62.

Bial, Henry; 2004. The performance studies reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Gosden, Chris and Ywonne Marshall; 1999. “Cultural biography of objects,” World Archaeology 31: 169-178.

Hodder, Ian; 2006. “The spectacle of daily performance at Çatalhöyük,” in Archaeology of performance: theaters of power, community, and politics. Takeshi Inomata and Lawrenbce S. Cohen (eds.). Lanham: Altamira Press., 81-102.

McKenzie, Jon; 2005. “Performance studies,” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.