Sunday, August 16, 2015

Philosophy as Performance

Philosophy as performance may take the form of reading, interpreting, discussing, arguing about, and responding to philosophical ideas and texts. It may involve a single performer or multiple performers, and it may take place in a library, in a classroom, on a stage, behind a lectern, in a lecture hall, in a café, in a theater, beside a water fountain, in the midst of a crowd, on a park bench, or on a rooftop.
      Philosophy as performance may incorporate aspects of not only the performing arts, but also the visual arts and literary arts. Examples of performance philosophy include the public lectures and readings of the philosopher Alphonso Lingis, which have included a stage performance in which he read a philosophical text while dressed as a Geisha (in an art gallery in Kyoto, Japan, January 20, 1997).1 Another example of performance philosophy is the work of the artist and philosopher Adrian Piper, whose conceptual art projects have included “The Mythic Being” (1973), a photo and film documentation of a street performance in which she disguised herself as a man (donning an Afro wig, fake mustache, and sunglasses) and recited mantras such as “I am the locus of consciousness” as she  walked through crowds of onlookers.2
      To describe philosophy as performance is to describe a discipline whose potential to become a widely recognized art form may not yet have been fully realized. Performance philosophy may involve the use of multiple media, such as text, audio, video, background music, and background lighting. It may also involve the wearing of makeup, wigs, and costumes, the use of hand-held or stage props, the use of mobile stage platforms, the use of lighting and sound effects, and the use of special effects (such as optical and atmospheric effects) if they enhance and do not distract from the presentation of philosophical ideas and texts.
      More traditional performance philosophy may include public readings of philosophical texts, panel discussions of philosophical issues and problems, philosophical dialogues, philosophical debates, and public conversations, colloquia, and symposia concerning philosophical matters and subjects.
      Whenever a philosopher addresses an audience, teaches students, shares her work with colleagues, writes an essay, publishes a book, interprets the work of another philosopher, or answers the questions of an interviewer, she is in some way delivering a kind of performance, insofar as she is presenting herself, her ideas, and her work in a particular form or manner. She is in some way presenting, staging, framing, or displaying aspects of herself (such as her personal and professional habits, her conversational style, her writing style, her research methods, and her philosophical interests and concerns). Her performance of herself and of her ideas or work may be more or less spontaneous or deliberate, committed or uncommitted, self-conscious or unself-conscious, intentional or unintentional.
      The way in which a philosopher presents her ideas, thoughts, and impressions to a reading, listening, or viewing audience involves a kind of performance of those ideas, thoughts, and impressions in order to connect with, and engage, the audience. It also involves a kind of performance of herself in the role of philosopher, in order to gain the audience’s acceptance, attention, engagement, trust, and respect. It also involves a kind of performance on the part of the audience, insofar as it must interpret and determine how to respond to the philosopher’s ideas, thoughts, and impressions. Each of these three kinds of performance may be relatively felicitous or infelicitous, successful or unsuccessful, skillful or unskillful.
      Philosophy as performance may be planned, memorized, scripted, and rehearsed, or it may be unplanned, unmemorized, unscripted, and unrehearsed. It may be linear or non-linear, monologic or dialogic, interactive or non-interactive.
      To see philosophy as performance may be to see that philosophy must recognize its own performativity. The performativity of philosophy may arise from the kinds of social roles that philosophy performs, and from the kinds of social roles that philosophers play when they do philosophy. The act of doing philosophy may be both performative and constative in nature.
      Philosophy may theorize performance, and it may analyze the relation between performance and performativity. To explore philosophy as performance, we may need to explore not only the discursive and representational, but also the non-discursive and presentational modes of philosophical speech and language.
      Performativity may be defined as the state of being a performance. It may also be defined as the ability to perform an action, role, duty, purpose, or function. The degree to which something (such as an utterance, segment of discourse, mode of behavior, or mode of language) is a performance (or is performative) determines the degree of its performativity.
      Performativity may also be defined as the quality of being a performative utterance. A performative utterance is an utterance that does not describe or report anything, but that nevertheless performs some social role or function.3 Performative utterances include acts of apologizing, thanking, ordering, promising, welcoming, warning, admitting, approving, and disapproving. For example, the utterance, “Be careful” performs the role of an admonition, and the utterance “Excuse me” performs the role of a request for pardon.
      Performances may be live or recorded. While a recorded performance may look or sound the same each time it is repeated, a live performance may never look or sound the same each time it is repeated. Each time a philosopher presents a live performance of her work to an audience, she may be performing that work in a somewhat different manner, and each time an audience sees or listens to that work, it may be responding to it in a somewhat different manner.
      Performance and philosophy may be two sides of the same coin. Thus, we have on one side of the coin/and on the other side of the coin:

      Performance as Philosophy/Philosophy
      as performance
      The performer as philosopher/The
      philosopher as performer
      The philosophy of performance/The
      performance of philosophy
      The philosophy of art/The art of philosophy
      Art as philosophy/Philosophy as art
      The artist as philosopher/The philosopher as
      artist
      Conceptual art as philosophy/Philosophy as
      conceptual art
      The comedy of philosophy/The philosophy of
      comedy
      The tragedy of philosophy/The philosophy of
      tragedy
      Philosophy as jazz/Jazz as philosophy
      Philosophy as the blues/The blues as
      philosophy
      Poetry as philosophy/Philosophy as poetry.

      When we study performance as philosophy, we must ask ourselves: Is there a philosophy that produces the performance, or does the performance itself produce a philosophy? What makes a performance a work of art? What makes a performance philosophical?
      Other questions that must be considered include: Can a philosophical text, reading, or interpretation be considered a work of art? Can Plato and Aristotle be performed in some way that is analogous to the way in which Mozart and Shakespeare can be performed? Is Plato’s interpretation of Socrates in some way analogous to Bernstein’s interpretation of Mahler or Gould’s interpretation of Bach? Is philosophical interpretation in some way analogous to literary, musical, or dramatic interpretation?
      And still other questions that may need to be considered include: Is there a performance philosophy that is analogous to performance poetry? Can performance philosophy take the form of spoken word poetry? Is performance philosophy a philosophy of performance, or is it philosophy as performance? 
      Some adjectives that may be used to describe a performance, when it is praiseworthy, include “impressive,” “outstanding,” “remarkable,” “extraordinary,” “powerful,” “moving,” “amusing,” and “entertaining.” Some adjectives that may be used to describe a performance, when it is not so praiseworthy, include “average,” “mediocre,” “amateurish,” “overwrought,” “annoying,” “tedious,” “mechanical,” “stiff,” and “boring.” The kinds of adjectives that may be used to describe praiseworthy or unpraiseworthy performances indicate the kinds of performances that performers may want, or may not want, to give.
      There may be a philosophy of each of the performing arts, i.e. a philosophy of music, a philosophy of dance, a philosophy of drama, a philosophy of performance art, a philosophy of public speaking, and so on. However, all these philosophies may share a concern with such questions as: How should art be defined? How is art created? What makes art inspiring or uninspiring? What kinds of truth does art reveal? What kinds of meaning does art express? What kinds of response may art evoke in an audience?
      Conceptual art may be philosophical in its themes and content. Examples include Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs” (1965), Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms” (1984), and Barbara Kruger’s “Belief+Doubt” (2012). Performance art may also be philosophical in its themes and content. Examples include Pope.L’s “Tompkins Square Crawl” (1991), Maren Hassinger’s “Women’s Work” (2006), and Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present” (2010).


FOOTNOTES

1Clark Lunberry, “The Philosopher and the Geisha: Alphonso Lingis and the Multi-Mediated Performance of Philosophical Discourse," in Discourse, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Spring 2000), pp. 92-103.
2Robin Cembalest, “Adrian Piper Pulls Out of Black Performance-Art Show,” in ArtNews, Oct. 25, 2013, online at http://www.artnews.com/2013/10/25/piper-pulls-out-of-black-performance-art-show/.
 3J.L. Austin, How to do things with Words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962).






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