Search results for "performance "

The question of identity

Author: joe

Tuesday, 20 November, 2012 - 22:09

One of the concerns that arises in the analysis of the relationship between selfhood and computerised media is a focus on authenticity. There is a tension that arises between the various personae that people are able to adopt in any given situation and the centripetal force that unites them in some supposed inner core. The relative status of these different personae - the extent to which they have fidelity with respect to the "primary source" of the "inner core", or the extent to which they perhaps mislead other inter-actors as to the true nature of that "real person", or even threaten the supposed integrity of the authentic self, is instantiated in the very functionality and interface of the computer screen which permits the same "logged-in, authenticated user" to adopt pseudonymous guises in online environments that can be slipped in and out of, framed as they are by windows one can "cycle through".

The people that Turkle describes, who find in the windowed interface a serendipitous enactment of their sense of their plural selves might, as Zizek puts it, be enabled to "discover new aspects of 'me', a wealth of shifting identities, of masks without a 'real' person behind them". In the postmodern world of simulation, where we as subjects trust in the fantasies presented on the digital screen rather than become modernist masters of the inner workings of the device, (the technics), instead we should "endorse this 'dissemination' of the unique self into a multiplicity of competing agents, into a 'collective mind'" and appropriate the logic of the "'decentred' subject".

Zizek provides a number of analogies for thinking about the efficacy of the production or construction of the decentred self, albeit that it might involve an "immanent violence and arbitrariness" since it has no authentic hinterland to which it must pay some sort of deference. Capra's film "Meet John Doe" portrays a character who adopts a "fake identity" but learns to adopt the subject position that the role demands of its actor. The cultural landscape is awash with imaginative explorations of the consequences of identity play, and in many of those story experiments, the narrative is resolved only when the protagonist learns to accept the identity which was at first mere play or a reluctant contingency. In "Sommersby", the interloper who adopts the identity of Jack demonstrates the fullness of his sincerity by accepting the penalty of death that is its price. The transience of identity necessary for persons to "become someone else" has its corollary in the tradition of fictions in which disguised characters become the object of some lover's affection, only for those affections to switch target as the disguise is revealed or passed along: in Twelfth Knight, Olivia easily accepts Sebastian as a husband despite having fallen in love with his disguised sister Viola, suggesting that accepting someone for who they appear to be is a perfectly adequate strategy.

Such ways of thinking about the self are clearly in contrast to traditional conceptions in which an authentic, continuous self acts as a guarantor of identity. Odysseus' testing of Penelope by adopting a disguise is an early instance of the depiction of a "true" identity which should be immune to the vicissitudes of changing circumstance or outer appearance. Woolf's “Orlando” is another case where a distinct and unitary identity both survives and underpins a shifting collection of personae and genders, adopted in dramatic episodic shifts. The protagonist's picaresque adventures are intertwined with the trope of 'The Oak Tree', the work which Orlando eventually completes, and which acts both as the "spine of the earth" and as the embodiment of change as it "flowered and faded so often", as it had over many years, "put forth its leaves and shaken them to the ground".

Erving Goffman provides useful tools for thinking about the shifting personae that we adopt. Using a dramaturgical model as the context for understanding interpersonal interactions, Goffman suggests that in any given situation we are actors on stage, a context which entails the existence of an audience whose observation of us is a primary structuring factor in our self-awareness. While on such stages, we stick to particular scripts - those we have learned, through normal processes of socialisation, which are appropriate to the context.

Such performances, enacted under the consciousness of observation, occur where Goffman calls front ‘stage’ or ‘region’ – the situation in which ‘act out’ the appropriate sorts of behaviours that we know are expected of us. Distinct from the ‘front’ region is a corresponding ‘back’ region – where alternative modes of performance can occur. Note though that this ‘back-stage’ situation need not be thought of as the refuge of the true or authentic inner self which can express itself away from the gaze of the audience: the back region is rather ambiguous, since it is commonly co-habited by fellow-performers who are also part of our ‘team’, also ‘letting their hair down’; and it is also a place where habituation can result in back-stage scripts becoming every bit as socialised in our behaviour as the formulae we follow front-stage. The back can be though of as just another front.

This dramaturgical metaphor opens the way to anti-essentialist conceptions of selfhood: contrary to traditional notions of the dimensions of our identity that have been considered to be stable, material and inescapable - sexuality, gender, kinship, race – not to mention the tangible common sense that we ‘are who we are’ (‘I am that I am’) – there is no inner core as such, but a constantly evolving and self-monitoring sense of self whose coherence is the subject of constant vigilence – either of ourselves or of circumscribing institutional and social apparatuses and their many ‘techniques’. It is only in the light of such possibilities that Butler could articulate the trouble with gender, and suggest that discursive formations of selfhood are anterior to the traditional material considerations of physiology and instrumental knowledge practices.

Categories: identity, performance, authenticity, front, back, queer theory, Goffman, Turkle, Zizek, Butler, Foucault, selfhood,
Comments: 2

We are discovered

Author: joe

Wednesday, 01 December, 2010 - 22:06

- on being a puppet

Therein resides the paradox of the notion of the "performative," or speech act: in the very gesture of accomplishing an act by way of uttering words, I am deprived of authorship, the "big Other" (the symbolic institution) speaks through me. It is no wonder then, that there is something puppet-like about the persons whose professional function is essentially performative (judges, kings...): they are reduced to a living embodiment of the symbolic institution, i.e. their sole duty is to "dot the i's" mechanically, to confer on some content elaborated by others, the institutional cachet. The later Lacan is fully justified in reserving the term "act" for something much more suicidal and real than a speech act.
This mystery of the symbolic order is exemplified by the enigmatic status of what we call "politeness": when, upon meeting an acquaintance, I say "Glad to see you! How are you today?", it is clear to both of us that, in a way, I "do not mean it seriously" (if my partner suspects that I am really interested, he may even be unpleasantly surprised, as though I were aiming at something too intimate and of no concern to me - or, to paraphrase the old Freudian joke, "Why are you saying you're glad to see me, when you're really glad to see me!?"). However, it would nonetheless be wrong to designate my act as simply "hypocritical," since, in another way, I do mean it: the polite exchange does establish a kind of pact between the two of us; in the same sense as I do "sincerely" laugh through the canned laughter (the proof of it being the fact that I effectively do "feel relieved" afterwards).
The Interpassive Subject by Slavoj Zizek

I love Zizek's reversals. I like to call them Zizekian switcheroonies. "Is not your love for Zizek the very condition for your hatred of Zizek?" In this particular switcheroony, the speech act is turned on its head. It is not the speaker who makes the world such by the act of speaking, but the Other which expresses and enacts its will through the speaker - the subject supposed to believe.

Today I was discussing Wikileaks with students, and I was reminded of the interpassive subject, ("Is, however, the other side of this interactivity not interpassivity?"), who in their very participation in the digital realm become the means of the digital realm to "enjoy the show". Wikileaks now knows everything. Wikileaks has every document there is. Wikileaks is the panopticon, the subject supposed to know.

When rumours emerge that Wikileaks will publish the internal documents of a large bank, I half expect every bank immediately to surrender and publish everything, just as one of Arthur Conan Doyle's friends is supposed to have left the country and fled for good upon receiving a hoax message from the author, stating just "We are discovered. Flee now!"

My machine enjoys the show as I perform my part for it, my VCR enjoys watching my TV; we are puppets amongst the arguing objects that populate our environment, and Wikileaks will publish every thought I have ever had, so that you (and I) can realise what I feel.

Categories: Slavoj Zizek, interpassivity, subject, Wikileaks, speech, act, performance,
Comments: 0


Author: joe

Tuesday, 23 November, 2010 - 23:51

- on the absence of inner realities.

While we could retain the common-sense notion that fostered appearances can be discredited by a discrepant reality, - there is often no reason for claiming that the facts discrepant with the fostered impression are any more the real reality than is the fostered reality they have the power of embarrassing. A cynical view of everyday performances can be as one-sided as the one that is sponsored by the performer. For many sociological issues it may not even be necessary to decide which is the more real, the fostered impression or the one the performer attempts to prevent the audience from receiving. The crucial sociological consideration, for this report, at least, is merely that impressions fostered in everyday performances are subject to disruption. We will want to know what kind of impression of reality can shatter the fostered impression of reality, and what reality really is can be left to other students. We will want to ask, "What are the ways in which a given impression can be discredited?" and this is not quite the same as asking, "What are the ways in which the given impression is false?"
I would like, finally, to add that the matters which the audience leaves alone because of their awe of the performer are likely to be the matters about which he would feel shame were a disclosure to occur. As Riezler has suggested, we have, then, a basic social coin, with awe on one side and shame on the other. The audience senses secret mysteries and powers behind the performance, and the performer senses that his chief secrets are petty ones. As countless folk tales and initiation rites show, often the real secret behind the mystery is that there really is no mystery; the real problem is to prevent the audience from learning this too.
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman

Goffman's front and back regions and their associated performances are standard fare in the kinds of intro-to-cultural-studies units I've taught on, especially in relation to online participatory media, where it has been a popular way of understanding the liberating and playful 'face-work' that disembodied, pseudo-anonymous spaces afford. The front persona acts out roles based on scripts determined by the performative imperatives in play at any given moment - the particular stage being occupied, the nature of the audience present, the props and paraphernalia to hand, the superset of expectations and conventions which are mobilised by the narrative genre at work and the attendant sense of destination that such stories always demand. The 'front' persona is what we think it is - it is transparently a role, immediate in its ability or otherwise to convince us of its sincerity.

The back region is always more problematic. it is very tempting to ascribe to the 'back' region a hidden authenticity - the real actor behind the role, the performer behind the performance. If the front region is determined by the external pressures of peers, observers and the wider world, as well as the internal pressures exerted by self-consciousness and confidence, personal desires and aspirations, fears of failure and hopes of acceptance, then surely the back region is what is concealed by the performance: the inner drives and originating sources of such desires, fears and hopes - the real person behind the appearance. Common wisdom fears that excessive and injudicious self-exposure will reveal more of oneself than was intended or might be desirable or safe, precisely because areas of the back persona will escape through cracks in an out-of-control performance - corpsing.

I had gone along with this interpretation of Goffman's analysis, teaching undergraduates about the front persona and it's conformance to social norms, versus the back persona and its association with a more authentic, hidden self - until one of my colleagues demanded to know why I was so sure this back persona should necessarily be 'the real me', and even whether Goffman intended that we should understand it so. Why would I assume that 'back' were synonymous with 'real'? Go back to the text, the script.

The analysis of back regions focusses for the most part, (frustratingly for the essay-writing or lecture-planning skim-reader looking for a quote about online identities) on teams. The teams go front-stage together in their workplaces, sanatoria, suburbs and homes; they also go back-stage together where the anti-front actions play themselves out - informality, swearing, solidarity, irritability being a few of the symptoms Goffman lists. But back-stage is still stage: the actor has merely turned his back on one proscenium arch to face another audience. The back is just another front: the business of complying with scripts continues just the same. We may ask, where is the back region to this new front-that-was-back? Is there an end to the infinite regress, when the actor leaves and finds himself alone? Goffman himself notes the dilemma:

"it must be allowed that one can become so habituated to one's front region activity and front region character that it may be necessary to handle one's relaxation from it as a performance. One may feel obliged, when backstage, to act out of character in a familiar fashion and this can come to be more of a pose than the performance for which it was meant to provide a relaxation."

He seems to imply, here, that habit makes the back region a performance in itself, but I wonder if his aside - that the question of "what reality really is can be left to other students" - is not a hint that those other students might be chasing a hall of mirrors. The performances are - as the dramaturgical analogy implies - acts, and as such, they enact; they make real. Perhaps they do not reveal or conceal hidden depths, so much as they compensate for the absence of such essences, and in so doing produce what is now, newly real. There is no inner core which ever-withdraws from display and revelation. There is only a performer; there is no actor; and therefore - no gap.

Categories: Erving Goffman, dramaturgy, performance, identity, gap, front, back, persona,
Comments: 0

Milk teeth

Author: joe

Monday, 22 November, 2010 - 21:51

- on performing and pioneering

Truth on the stage is whatever we can believe in with sincerity, whether in ourselves or in our colleagues. Truth cannot be separated from belief, nor belief from truth. They cannot exist without each other, and without both of them it is impossible to live your part, or to create anything. Everything that happens on the stage must be convincing to the actor himself, to his associates and to the spectators. It must inspire belief in the possibility, in real life, of emotions analogous to those being experienced on the stage by the actor. Each and every moment must be saturated with a belief in the truthfulness of the emotion felt, and in the action carried out, by the actor.
If you only knew how important is the process of self-study! It should continue ceaselessly, without the actor even being aware of it, and it should test every step he takes. When you point out to him the palpable absurdity of some false action he has taken he is more than willing to cut it. But what can he do if his own feelings are not able to convince him? Who will guarantee that having rid himself of one lie, another will not immediately take its place? No the approach must be different. A grain of truth must be planted under the falsehood, eventually to supplant it, as a child's second set of teeth pushes out the first.
An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski

I'm fascinated by the practice of actors. Actors are imposters, strangers, aliens, pretending to be something they are not; but when they do it well, we say they 'inhabit' their roles - are 'at home', 'dwell' in the character, 'live in' the persona - vocabulary which implies something about belonging and home-beddedness. It's a strange and intense interplay between artifice and authenticity, with truth 'supplanting' falsehood.

I had a go for a few years in a community drama group, and without wishing to claim any kind of acting gift, I did experience that sort of simultaneity which consists of being myself and being someone else. I acted for about 8 years, and finally began to have the sensation of both being in control, and nevertheless 'in character' - self-watching as well as free-flowing, spontaneously contrived. To be 'saturated with a belief', and yet ever to feel it is not enough. It is a paradox, to be constantly creating the space which one then occupies.

I struggle to describe it. It is as though the outer edge of the performance is a bull-bar, an outstretched arm purposefully clearing an opening, into which the rest of the self can then expand. The new space is colonial - I settle there, feeling like a foreigner, imposing myself on the indigenous; but habitation makes the new world familiar, until eventually the land is mine. I am an occupier who has gone native. But have I expanded the empire of my self? When I pioneer this new territory, has my homeland grown? Or am I now an émigré, who has adandoned the old land for the new? Is my performance acquisitive or picaresque?

Categories: Constantin Stanislavski, acting, performance, self, territory, colonisation,
Comments: 0

Cracked actor

Author: joe

Thursday, 28 October, 2010 - 22:31

- on the pretence of being.

"... to the biologist the brain is not a thinking machine, it is an acting machine; it gets information and then does something about it" ... The cyberneticians then, conceived of the brain as an immediately embodied organ, intrinsically tied into bodily performances ... the cybernetic brain was not representational but performative ...
One might imagine the representational brain to be immediately available for inspection. Formal education largely amounts to acquiring, manipulating and being examined on representational knowledge. Such activities are very familiar to us. But the performative brain remains opaque and mysterious - who knows what a performative brain can do?
The Cybernetic Brain by Andrew Pickering

Performing, not representing; acting, not thinking; opaque and mysterious, not immediately available. The being of things like brains, rather than the inward reflections of them. Pushing open the productive (and mournful) gap between language and reality, between thought and world.

I'm intrigued by the strange mirrors in these dissections of world and image. The hard stuff of the world is real, while the thoughts and words which grope towards representing it are shadowlike and ghostly; and yet faced with the shortcomings of the image, the figures that offer themselves are synonyms for artifice and pretending. It's as though we are unable to even build a language that can cope with the thinging of things without them requiring some sort of author, blueprint or script.

What is it to act? To be someone with two identities, split - the visible, performed, conjured, and the hidden, original, obscured. The performed need not be put on like a mask, but is perhaps revealed, found, uncovered from within. Far from being dead behind the eyes, the actor is in fact more authentic, being skilled in calling forth the facets of self that fulfil the needs of the performance.

Categories: cybernetics, Andrew Pickering, knowledge, representation, performance, acting, pretence,
Comments: 0

stethoscope - fragment

Author: joe

Monday, 06 July, 2009 - 23:44

In discussion with Fran - we were going through a box of old and antiquated medical instruments he'd collected, objects of curiosity, memory and history - we noted how the stethoscope serves not only to provide a 'virtual world' as Jonathan Sterne puts it (an acoustical representation), but acts as a sort of 'distantiation device' - a prop which helps the doctor to adopt a role and enter into the performance in which the human body is objectified.

Placing a mediating device between two human beings facilitates the creation of a subject who manipulates an object. We parcel off the problem-of-the-body into an objectified, if not objective, realm which we believe is transcended by the physical theatre of the stethoscope itself, and the disembodied, privileged knowledge of the physician. We defer our formal discomfort by effacing our embodied being.

I imagine a time-lapse evolution depicting the history of the stethoscope: play it in reverse and the long looping cord shortens and hardens into a trumpet; the forceps-like earpieces exit the ear, fuse and widen into the mouth of a horn; the bell and diaphragm device contrived for human contact simplifies into a chest piece with a hole. Then, finally, the whole instrument disappears and the physicians ear falls onto the patient's chest in a tight human embrace.

Categories: stethoscope, technology, distantiation, present-at-hand, Martin Heidegger, Jonathan Sterne, embodiment, performance,
Comments: 1

Wounded research #2

Author: joe

Wednesday, 29 April, 2009 - 07:38

The scrawl on the paper is a residue of a thought, and the reading of it now no more retrieves that thought than water restores dried up remains to their original vitality. I'm looking at the few notes I wrote in the phenomenology / depth psychology masterclass, and wondering if the handwriting itself might give me a clue as to the quality and taste of the thoughts and reflections that provoked them. Still, in the distillery they might briefly miss the port that has left the barrel but soon enough they look ahead to the flavour of the whisky. One of the other participants asked me at the time if I was enjoying the class, and I replied that while it was wonderful to be able to dwell for a couple of days on the place of my self in my work, when it was over I'd still have to return to the pressures of the institution and objectify, alienate and commodify my work and pretend I'd somehow contributed value to a knowledge economy. Actually I didn't quite say that: but that's a fancy way of retrospectively reworking the meaning I think I remember trying to put into brief, friendly, conversational words.

"Objectivity as a performance" is the note on the paper. The discussion turned to the kind of knowledge you'd want a carer to have or use. A doctor needs to slip between different modes - from the caring, interpersonal, individual-focussed human being who talks to the patient about their unique embodied life; to the impersonal, efficient, distant expert who examines your intimate body without judgement. When you visit the doctor and ask him to check your prostrate, you don't want the subjective eye of the appreciative flaneur of the body to be cast over your rectum: you want what Robert refered to as 'the hand of knowledge' to be the hand that touches you; not the hands of aesthetics, culture, poetry. In this respect, the doctor's behaviour is a performance in the strong sense that Goffman would use the word. The embodied, co-presense of two human beings in a room, each of whom have a myriad techniques of the self with which to hold at arms length the blank face of the universe, must always find ways to mediate the event of their interaction: scripts and roles which they understand and which they have already frequently rehearsed. The doctor's role is a difficult one: as any stage actor knows, flicking the switch and moving from one role to another is challenging enough; that the doctor absolutely must play one role, 'dead behind the eyes', but absolutely must not play that way, must 'be there', for the other, only augments that difficulty.

But this legitimation of 'objective knowledge' comes with ambiguity for me: it neither affirms the naive realism that asserts the viability of objective truth, but neither does it deny it. The performance of objectivity by the doctor is comparable to the performance of objectivity by which the drama of science unfolds. Those engaged in the practices and pursuits of scientific knowledge are engaged in a continual enactment of the scripts and signs of objectivity, permitting the collective suspension of disbelief which we all assent to by participating in modern society, and which would crash around our ears should enough of us suddenly nudge our neighbours in the theatre and mention the fact that we're really just decorated monkeys with a knack for communal hallucinations. In either case - the one to one with the doctor, or the continual reproduction of the scientific-technological superstructure - we might ask to what extent is the performance of objectivity a historically contingent phenomenon, or to what extent is the appeal to universal truth a part of the furniture of the mind, or, indeed the furniture of the universe? Of course, we can imagine a world in which those of us in need of care can seek help from others without needing to negotiate our neuroses and thereby demand that our carers perform their schizophrenic roles, and instead meet us with the freedom to be holistic, whole-person healers. But one of the premises of this masterclass is a discipline of depth psychology which is grounded in an archetypal approach to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, itself a mode of understanding the architecture of the human mind as somehow fixed: the human psyche as a unity in diversity. It helps not at all to say that the structure of the human experience is contingent upon our evolutionary history, if as a species it is still an inescapable, eternal necessity.

Categories: subjectivity, objectivity, knowledge, phenomenology, depth psychology, masterclass, Robert Romanyshyn, science, performance, memory,
Comments: 1