notes on the vocabulary of performatism -raoul eshelman

Raoul Eshelman interviewed by M K Harikumar

Raoul Eshelman
Notes on the Vocabulary of Performatism

A person’s sensibility is unimportant to performatism. Sensibility assumes a special psychological state, a “mental or emotional responsiveness toward something” (American Heritage Dictionary). In performatism, this sort of psychological sensitivity is not needed because performatist literature, art, movies etc. use very crude formal means to force their audiences to believe in something. Performatist works are structured so that they affect everyone, not just a person with a special sensibility.


The existential outsider is a figure dating from the late 1940s and ’50s. This person has been so alienated by the traumatic events of WWII that he (or, of course, she) creates an authentic realm of his own that appears foreign and strange to everyone else—Camus’s enigmatic hero in the The Stranger is typical. The philosopher Emanuel Levinas, also writing in the 1950s, defines the individual as being “separated,” as not existing in a reciprocal relation with anyone else. In such a world everything is exterior to the individual; the only link between individuals is through discourse, which for Levinas is necessarily fractured and obscure. There is no way out of this existential dilemma: in a certain sense, everyone is an outsider. In performatism the individual is not only separated from other people but is usually also cut off from discourse too. And, unlike the existential outsider, the performatist hero actively tries to transcend the frame he is caught up in using as little discourse as possible. In the performance the hero moves per formam to reach some higher goal.


Discourse creates a web of endless immanence; performatism seeks to escape this immanence by creating closed-off inner spaces which it can then transcend with little or no use of discourse.


Beauty in performatism must be thought of as a construct rather than an essence. In principle, anything in the performatist world can be made beautiful if the conditions—the relations between the inner and outer frame—are right. Put another way, the main formal condition for all beauty is closure, or double framing.


Performatism creates identity, but this identity is paradoxical. Identity can only develop when it is separated or cut off from the discourse around it; without discourse, however, identity cannot develop socially and productively. Performatist works try to overcome this paradox by suggesting, and sometimes proving, that transcendent leaps are possible that produces a feeling of unity with others without discourse.
Performatism is not subversive in the literal sense of the word. Rather than undermining things from below it places things at the center of our attention. These things—they can be fictional characters, buildings, works of art etc.—can move us to change our attitudes. However, this is done by creating positive identification and not by stealth.


The psyche is not of crucial importance to performatism. Performatism, in fact, is anti-psychological. It works by framing, by creating enclosed free spaces in which individuals can develop inside of the discourse ebbing and flowing around them. That is why many performatist heroes and heroines are dense, stupid, or opaque. Their psychic abilities can be very limited, but they may nonetheless transcend their situation in a heroic or worthwhile way.


Performatism opens up interesting possibilities for feminism because it views human sexuality as being constructed. This means that the human body (whether male, female or hermaphrodite) can be framed in all possible ways; the important thing is that the body is the starting point for determining sexuality and not social roles (gender) belatedly imposed on it by society. In the so-called postfeminism of Judith Butler the body is a blank slate upon which an evil power matrix imposes heterosexuality. In performatism, the actual body determines sexuality, but sexuality can always be constructed to include features of otherness. Postfeminism portrays us as being caught in an evil, Gnostic universe; performatism reasserts the individuality of the body and its possibilities.


Polyphony is a popular term in postmodernism that suggests that individuals constitute themselves by implicitly answering or reacting to the voices of others. This symphonic plurality of voices can be confusing, but it also provides a potential for acting ethically, for heeding the needs and desires of others. This is the opposite of the situation in performatism, in which other voices have to be blocked off for the individual to establish any sense of identity and act on his or her own.
The role of performatism in multicultural society is not easy to imagine. One possible function is that it creates pockets within society in which individuals can develop for a time on their own. These individuals must somehow transcend their own separation, though, to form unities—and perhaps also communities—with others.

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