Performance and Performativity

Notes on “Performativity” by Richard Schechner, in Performance Studies: An Introduction.

The anthropology of performance has two main branches. One focuses on things that are performances: ritual; theater and dance; play. The other focuses on things that are like performances, or can be understood using performance as a metaphor. This can include virtually any aspect of culture, but has been especially profound in the study of race and gender.

In the lecture on structuralism and post-structuralism the emphasis was on discourses which constrain our freedom to imagine alternatives to the status quo. The result is that we are guided in a general direction or become more likely to take a certain course of action. Since deviation from the status quo is sanctioned by discipline and punishment, most members of a society take on characteristic shared behaviors.

The great post-structuralist sociologist Pierre Bourdieu likened it to a train which brings along its own tracks. Society coerces us to conform to standards of what is “normal” for our gender by structuring the way we talk about it and the way enact or perform appropriate behavior.

Illocutionary Force

The philosopher John Austin, in a lecture series collected as “How to Do Things with Words,” forwarded the notion of illocutionary force in natural language. This refers to our idioms of marriage, naming, betting, promising, and cursing which do not describe or represent action. They are actions. Whether or not our utterances count as performances depends on context. Hence, characters on stage may bet, but the actors themselves are not really betting.

marriage Is this a picture of people getting married, or a picture of actors pretending to get married?

Those who followed Austin critiqued this idea and built onto it. The critic Jacques Derrida said that the difference between a character’s speech on stage and an ordinary person speaking natural language is smaller than we think.

If I say this person on the street making a bet is real, and this person up on stage making a bet is fictional then we have composed a kind of binary opposition in the vein of Levi-Strauss. This is not that.

In fact, Derrida said, speech on stage is just a modification of natural speech. It cites (or references) natural speech. But all natural speech is at least a little bit citational. Hence, natural speech always has some “staged” quality to it.

kiss_family_guy_crowd_a_l In the TV show, Family Guy, the jokes are based on references to pop culture. Here the joke is “quoting” the rock band Kiss.

tumblr_lqikanGUdr1qme5li Sampling in hip-hop and electronic dance music is a citational practice based on putting old sounds in new contexts.

An inside joke is based on iteration and citationality too. Each time you tell the joke you’re referencing all the other times you told it. That’s why it keeps getting funnier.

The whole idea that the boundary between the real and the fake is something we can play with and manipulate has been the source of great creatively lately. The Truman Show, Borat, the Blair Witch Project, reality TV, and professional wrestling all seek to blur the distinctions between the real and the staged. “Blurring the boundaries” is one of the defining features of postmodernism.

All of this isn’t exactly new. People have been getting vicarious thrills off “real life” adventures and “based on a true story” since the advent of newspapers.

weather_channelOn the scene reporting makes the news into a “performance.” The boundary between entertainment and news is blurred.

political-message-not-found-550x364 John Stewart and Steven Colbert’s March to Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in 2010 wasn’t so much a political protest or social movement, it was citational of them. It was a parody (a mocking repetition) of an earlier march on Washington organized by Conservative media personality Glenn Beck.

drag queen
In the realm of gender studies drag queens make for an interesting example of the performance of gender. The documentary Paris is Burning is set in New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it examines drag balls where clubs of homosexual men known as “houses” gather to compete in a wide array of drag forms.

Drag performance makes reference to certain gender stereotypes of what men and women are supposed to look like in a way that brings the real and fictional into question. Why is it when women dresses and heels this is consider authentic, but for a man to do the same it is fake? In fact when a man dresses in a masculine way it is no less of a performance.


What postmodernism does, in part, is apply these ideas of “performativity” to all aspects of life. Performance is no longer confined to what’s on stage. When everyone has cameras on their cell phones with access to Facebook everything becomes a stage and the audience is everywhere.

The philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard argued that maintaining a hold on power and authority depends on effective management of these performances. You see this everywhere in American politics, which is obsessed with how things look and appear to others.

Richard Nixon with Pat Nixon    campaign '60 In order to be taken seriously as a political candidate you have to convince people that you can act like a leader. In some cases this is may be more important than actually leading.

According to Lyotard maintaining power means controlling the distinction between the truth and what appears to be true. If enough people believe a statement to be true, that’s as effective as it being actually true. Perhaps, moreso.

This relates to gender performance. In the example of the drag queens in Paris is Burning certain individuals (primarily young, small bodied men) can lay claim to “realness” and effective pass as the opposite gender in everyday life. Similarly individuals of mixed racial heritage may pass for one race or another depending on circumstances, the way they are dressed, the way they act and other performative cues.

What is the difference between acting like a woman and actually being a woman? For those drag queens that can pass for the other gender they are effectively the same concepts. In so doing they illustrate how when women act like women it is no less of a performance as when men act like women. Gender can be understood as a Foucaultian discourse. The ways in which we talk about gender are part and parcel of how people lay claim to social power, status, and coercion. In male dominated societies this is a fundamental component of patriarchy.

Postmodern is the name given to the general phenomenon of blurring the boundaries between things that used to appear distinct. Things that used to seem clear now seem fuzzy. The distinction between the original and the copy is one such example.

The critic Walter Benjamin observed that before photography existed there was a clear boundary demarcating “nature” as it existed in the real world and the way it was represented in landscape paintings. You could make a copy of a painting be they authorized or forgeries, but they would only ever be derivatives of the original.

With photography you make a negative from which a virtually endless number of prints could be produced and sold. But which print was the original? The same problem of originality can be found with digital copies of movies and music. The companies that sell them claim that their version is the original, but if you download a copy they’re virtually indistinguishable.

This shows us that the distinction between original and copy is arbitrary much as Saussure observed that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary. Benjamin argues that this is changing our view of what art is. It doesn’t make sense to think in terms of authenticity anymore. Only ideology allows us to make these distinctions, we cannot say they exist in objective reality outside of our ideology.

Madonna appropriated drag ball performance into her hit single Vogue (choreographed by Willie Ninja from Paris is Burning). She was a woman copying a gay man copying a woman.


The theory of simulation is most closely associated with Jean Baudrillard. You can see a copy of his most famous book Simulation and Simulacra early in the first movie in “The Matrix” series right before Neo meets the girl with the White Rabbit tattoo. Simulations are not exactly fakes or copies. They are more like Derrida’s notion of the citation or reference.

articial tree An artificial Christmas tree is a good example of a simulation. They are now just like real trees, they feel like real trees, you can even get them now that smell like real trees, but they’re “Even better than the real thing.” You never have to water them, nobody is allergic to them, and they won’t drop needles on your floor.

Baudrillard’s classic example of the simulation is Disney World. Epcot Center represents simulations of different countries around the world just like Disney World represents a simulation of a city. But Disney World is better than the real world. The whole thing is a carefully constructed artifice. Epcot is better than going to other countries because you can walk from one to another and everyone speaks English. And you don’t even have to leave America! Baudrillard went so far as to claim that Disney World is real, and that it’s the rest of American that is the simulation.

The coup de grace is Celebration, FL, which is a planned city Disney built to house its workers. Since it’s in Florida it’s pretty much subtropical all year long, so they bring in fake leaves in the fall and cover everyone’s yard with a dusting of fake snow for a White Christmas.

A simulation is not a hoax. The leaves signify fall, the snow signifies winter even if they both feel the same in Florida. In a simulation the appearance of something is its substance. It is not that Celebration is superficial and you can uncover what’s real beneath the surface. All that’s beneath the surface are more surfaces. It’s substantially superficial!

Another of Baudrillard’s classic examples is faking an illness. Someone who pretends to have an illness can actually come to present the symptoms they are pretending to have. With the power of mind over body you can actually make yourself sick. So then, what’s the difference between being ill and simulating it?

What’s the difference between being of a gender and acting like it? These are actually identical because gender is a performance.


About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
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