Performing for ourselves

If this is a blog looking at performance in daily life, one of the biggest questions we need to tackle is the question: who the heck is the audience?

We don’t have a bunch of bodies sat captive in cheap velvet lined seats. We don’t even have people on the other side of televisions or computers (which leads me to ask… is anyone reading this?). Coming out of the backgrounds of theatre studies and the social sciences, most theorists of performance will argue for some kind of audience relationship as fundamental to the performance act… that it requires the performer and audience to be present at the same time in the same place. Erika Fischer-Lichte calls it bodily copresence, ritual studies insist that performance is a social act that provides a space for social discussion or reflection on social issues… issues that affect the group at large. Schechner doesn’t so much insist on it as assume it, even when talking about paratheatre, which does away with the audience entirely.

And honestly, they’re right to insist on an audience. As much as we describe performance when we talk about it, we are also actively defining it at the same time. We have to delimit the boundaries of what we talk about somewhere. And we all have that Supreme Court definition of porn for performance: “I know it when I see it.” (The US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously refused to explicitly define pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964). In what turned out to be a pretty solid strike against draconian moral censorship of ‘edgy’ films that could be censored under the text of a previous law, Stewart opened up the space for movies like Louis Malle’s The Lovers (the movie that prompted the case) or Midnight Cowboy (the only X-rated movie to win an Oscar) to exist in the US, where they might otherwise have been banned as pornography.)

This is something that Erika Fischer-Lichte looks at in The Routledge Introduction to Theatre and Performance Studies. In the introduction to the book, she addresses the fact that in the discipline of performance studies we are constantly confronted with the question: what is performance? And every time we try to answer it we are just drawing lines with words around what we recognize instinctively (2014 8-10).

So… this raises a question for me: if performance requires an audience, are we performing even when there aren’t other people around to witness? I think that this question cuts right to heart of what it means to be a human being: we are social creatures, and are always performing. Always. Even i we are alone. Have you ever caught yourself talking to yourself? I often do in funny voices… sometimes it’s to give different points of view different voices whilst I argue with myself. Sometimes it’s just to entertain myself. The reasons are never the important part. Or talking to animals? (At some point I’m going to write a post about that special kind of weird you experience when you talk to someone else’s dog, and then see that person talk to the dog in a totally different way.) Or even just those moments when we sort of step out of ourselves and watch our own behavior.

I’m going to draw out an important distinction here: when we watch our own behavior, it isn’t always watching a rehearsed performance. This is where this type of every-day performativity separates from aesthetic, ritual, or any kind of rehearsed performance. There isn’t a premeditated plan behind it. It might dovetail back in later, but for now let’s acknowledge that we aren’t all Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series or Guy Ritchie movies planning out each miniscule step of our own, and everyone else’s, days.

And yes, let’s also acknowledge that sometimes we run through actions without reflection in the moment. We can probably leave those out of our daily performances for now (but what happens when you remember back to them? In that moment is your memory performing for you? What happens when you start freaking out about what the other people might think of you after that moment? Is our imagination performing other people for us?).

This still leaves us a lot of time in which we do reflect on our own actions, even as we do them. This is also where I start venturing into academic territories where I’ve got only the weakest sense of what is going on—cognitive sciences, epistemology, philosophy, psychology. All the ones that look at the way the brain works, and specifically, the way that the brain creates the world around us. I won’t be able to debate specifics (and would be thrilled if anyone wanted to butt in and correct me here too). But I’m going to lay out where I’m coming from.

Take a moment and think to yourself. Think about anything you like.

Let’s look at that thought process that happened, and ask a couple of questions. One, did I think in words, or pictures, or sounds, or smells, or feelings, or sensations? Two, if I thought in anything but words, how was I able to engage with it?

From where I’m sitting here, if you answered anything other than words to the first question, the answer to the second question has to be words. Language. This is the trap that our minds sit in. Everything we experience is mediated through language. Whether it’s the language that we share with others, or the language that we share with ourselves, everything in our worlds we engage with only through language. I might feel pain, but the moment I move from that instantaneous sensation of OUCH to the expression “ouch,” the thought “pain,” and the decision to remove my hand from the flame, I’ve entered into language.

I’m not saying that there is no such thing as raw, pure, unmediated experience. There’s a very good chance that it does exist (where else would the ripples come from, but the pebble dropped in the pond?). What I am saying, is that once we begin to reflect on it, language, like a cognitive virus (this is a topic that Susan Harding explores in fundamentalist Christian groups and conversion experiences) inserts itself into the understructure of that reflection creating a mediating filter to that raw, pure experience.

In a funny kind of way, this means that there are always (at least) two of us. At least so long as we are engaged in thought and reflection. And so to answer the question I set out at the beginning of this post, “who the heck is the audience in our daily life performance?”… it’s us. We are our own audience. There might be others as well, but we are always our own audience. It might be that the actor is our instinct-driven, pre-language self that experiences the pain, and the audience is the self that understands pain and moves the hand. It might be sometimes too that the conscious self is performing and auditing at the same time. But consciousness brings with it performance, because of the ‘wedge’ that language drives between us and ourself.

The unreliability of language to accurately and consistently describe is pretty well demonstrated in criticism of William James Varieties of Religious Experience. Michel Mohr takes a good solid stab at the issue in Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism (Oxford University Press 2000). The “Criticism section” on the Religious Experience page of Wikipedia is built on Mohr’s reading of Steven Katz’s criticism (almost a third of the references point to him).

So for now, I’ll leave this here. I’m toying with the term “reflective performance” to talk about the performance that we see in ourselves. My next question building off of this, and also off of what I looked at in the post on GamerGate is: if we are a social species, and we expect (maybe even need?) performance from others to build society, how do we fill the performance gap created by the internet’s interruption of bodily copresence of our peers? Basically, if there is another brain in the audience, or we are audience to another brain, but those brains only connect through the series of tubes invented by dear old Al Gore, how do we compensate? And I think masks might come more into play in that post.