In this article, I will attempt to explain the principles of self-expression and creativity that lie behind the idea of ‘Performatist' (the one who practices), and ‘Performatism' (the act or practice of human performance). In doing so, we'll skirt the edges of philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. The aim of the content, therefore, is to offer a concept whereby readers may, through dedication, practice and repetition, become “The Performatist”, the creative agency in their own lives. Individual, but in sync with the rest of humanity rather than separate from it.
The Performatist: A Definition
The definition of a Performatist, as used here, refers to those who perfect the art of living and extends from the idea that Performativity is the effect of language and social norms on people, and by extension, the world. As Jillian R. Cavanaugh explains in her short essay Performativity in Oxford Bibliographies 1, the concept of performative language was first described by the philosopher John L. Austin who in his work titled “How To Do Things With Words”2 said that there was a difference between language that describes the world (constative language), and language that does something in the world (performative language). Teaching, for example, is considered a performative act. The Performatist is the one who, through autonomous motivation, becomes the conscious agent in their own experience.
Cavanaugh cites Judith Butler's adaptation of the concept of performatism to gender 3. Butler says performativity is the process whereby through performative speech, the subject, forms its gender. The words of parents and the broader social order have the power to create that which they describe i.e. male, female or otherwise. As Butler notes; “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; …identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions' that are said to be its results.”
Language Speaks Us
I would go further and suggest that words are merely an utterance, an expressive response to something more subtle; thought-form. Thought is inner language, movies, images, speech. This inner language, in fact, is itself the result of something ultimately inexplicable. In other words, there is something that gives rise to these forms of inner and outer language. As Lacan, and Freud 4 before him suggested, it is something we cannot grasp, identify, or know, however, it speaks nonetheless.
Properly speaking, the unconscious is the real psychic; its inner nature is just as unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is just as imperfectly reported to us through the data of consciousness as is the external world through the indications of our sensory organs.Sigmund Freud, Die Traumdeutung 1899
The Performatist In Everyday Human Performance
Sociologist Erving Goffman in his 1956 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life 5, suggested that one-to-one everyday human interaction was in its essence theatrical. Goffman believed that as an individual comes face to face with others, that individual always attempts to control or guide how they are perceived by the other. In parallel, the other person is trying to obtain information about the individual and form a view of them. As such, there is a mutual exchange, a theatrical performance between parties in everyday life. However, rather than being staged in a manipulative or phoney way, Goffman says the adoption of social roles is a natural occurrence in human behaviour. We do it unconsciously.
Now considering human performance in daily life, it appears to be the outcome, the behaviour, the physical effect of our thoughts and words on the world. Performance comes through in daily work, music, art, business, sport, film, TV, politics and so on, and is the effect of both our own inner conscious language, and the one external to us. Human behaviour of all kinds and across all domains represents the performativity of everyday life. The social narrative, parents, education, political discourse, and economic conditions, in large part, determine our behaviour.
We are perhaps the product of the language of an “otherness” into which we are born, as it is referred to in Lacanian psychoanalysis 6. According to humanist psychotherapist Erich Fromm, we are an expression of the dominant social character 7 over which we have little conscious choice.
The Performatist As A Self-Creative Being
Although I largely accept the validity of these concepts of how our world forms us, we also form it. We possess the ability to be creative agents in our own experience, however, the vast majority of us operate by default. We are, to a greater degree, operated upon and dictated to by society and culture. Others command us, in our thought and belief through marketing, advertising and propaganda. They command us too in our daily work, and by extension, our self-concept and ideas of personal value. We are not free, we are bound. Therefore, our greatest challenge is to command our own work and life.
The purpose of the content of this site is to encourage readers to operate on the world, to be autonomous, conscious creative agents, to be The Performatist in one's own life. Now that you are here and reading this, I encourage you to go deeper – subscribe to The Performatist newsletter.
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- Cavanaugh, Jillian R. (10 March 2015). “Performativity”. Anthropology. Retrieved 19 July 2020.
- Austin, J. L. (1975). How to do things with words (Vol. 88). Oxford university press.
- Butler, Judith (1990): Gender Trouble. ed. 2., Routledge, New York.
- Freud, S., & Strachey, J. (1996). The interpretation of dreams(p. 217). New York: Gramercy Books.
- Goffman, E. (2002). The presentation of self in everyday life. 1959. Garden City, NY, 259.
- Johnston, A., 2020. Jacques Lacan (Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy). [online] Plato.stanford.edu. Available at: <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lacan/> [Accessed 19 July 2020].
- Fromm, E. (1992). Beyond Freud. Lantern Books.