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Students: Chapter 5. Performativity

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Most theorists of performativity argue that all social realities are constructed. The construction of gender, race, and identity are three key examples. Social life as behaved is performed in the sense that every social activity can be understood as a showing of a doing. Other parts of social life are not behaved, or at least not obviously so, such as laws, architecture, written literature, and the like. However, even these aspects of social life can be best understood “as performance.”

What are the relationships between performativity, the performative, and performance proper – between what goes on at the Metropolitan Opera and what the poststructuralists posit? Performativity is the most inclusive category. Many performances are clearly marked and delimited, other performances are less clearly marked. Even apparent non performance – sitting in a chair, crossing the street, sleeping – can be analyzed as performance.

Classroom Activities


  1. Cross-dress and go out for a night on the town. Note how people react to you and how you feel about yourself. Is gender a social construction?
  2. Compose a piece of “performative writing” describing a personal experience. Randomly exchange these and then act them out. Were you imitating or simulating? What is the difference?
  3. Choose an example of performance art to re-perform. Research the performance, talk to the artist if possible, find a suitable venue, and use your research to help you rehearse the details as much as possible. After the re-performance, talk to your audience. If anyone witnessed the original, how was yours the same and how was it different?
  4. Create an online petition for a cause you care about. It can be a proposed ban on the use of plastic bags on campus, or a plea to stop a tuition hike. See how many signatures you get. Send your petition on to campus administrators. At the end of the term report on whether your petition had an effect or not.


  1. Cross-dress and go out for a night on the town. (See “Perform” #1 for chapter 5 above). Write about your experience.
  2. Compose a piece of “performative writing” describing a personal experience. Randomly exchange these and then act them out. Were you imitating or simulating? What is the difference?
  3. Watch Earthcam for at least two hours. Try to open cameras in different cities around the world. Have you witnessed “reality”? A reality different than what? How do webcams differ from reality television?
  4. Write a response to Baudrillard’s statement that “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and simulation”? (1983, Simulations, 23-25).
  5. Research the Frankfurt School. Write about whether you think the poststructuralists would be drawn to the philosophers and critical theorists of the Frankfurt School.
  6. Write an analysis of Adrian Piper’s Angry Art Card piece (see fig. 5.9). How does Piper expose race as a social construction in this piece?

Sample Discussion Questions


  1. The performative began as a theory about utterances. It has developed into something much broader than that. Do you think that this expansion of the term makes it unusable or useless ? Or do you feel that indeed much of postmodern life is lived performatively ?
  2. What are some of the political and social implications of conceiving race, gender, and identity formations as performatives ?
  3. Which reality television shows are most real? Why? How do you know the difference between the real and the fake?
  4. How does the concept of the “wiki”—that is, a public, self-editing website—relate to poststructuralism?
  5. Has the very notion of “protest” changed in the epoch of the internet? Do the ideas of poststructuralism as they are expressed by the structure of the internet enable or disable the potential for change?



Marina Abramović (1946-)

Serbian (Yugoslavian) performance artist whose work – both solo and in collaboration with the German artist Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) – has since the 1970s explored the mind-body relationship, the body in pain, the body on display, endurance, and the boundaries between “art” and “life.” Her works include: (with Ulay): Relation in Space (1976), Imponderabilia (1977), and Great Wall Walk (1989); solo: Rhythm series (1973–74), Balkan Baroque (1997), Artist Body – Public Body (1998), The House with the Ocean View (2003), Seven Easy Pieces (2005) in which Abramović reperformed some 1960s–70s works by Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Gina Pane, Joseph Beuys, and Valie Export, and The Artist Is Present (2010). 

Theodor Adorno (1903–69)

German philosopher concerned with the relationship between art and politics. Fleeing the Nazis, Adorno taught at Oxford, Princeton, and the University of California, Berkeley, before returning to Frankfurt in 1950 to join Horkheimer in restarting the Institute for Social Research. Adorno’s books include Prisms (1967), Dialectic of Enlightenment (with Max Horkheimer, 1972), The Philosophy of Modern Music (1973), and The Authoritarian Personality (1982).

Laurie Anderson (1947– )

American performance artist, composer, and filmmaker whose pieces are ironic, political, and hi-tech. Her 1981 single, O Superman, reached second place on British pop charts. In 2003–04, Anderson was named NASA’s “artist in residence” – to date, the one and only. Among her many performances, CDs, and publications: United States (1984), Strange Angels (1989), Moby Dick (1999), Life on a String (2001), and Live in New York (2002).

Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86)

French feminist, existentialist philosopher, and novelist. Her best-known non-fiction text is The Second Sex (1949, Eng. 1953), which called for an end to the myth of “the eternal feminine.” Other works include The Mandarins (1954, Eng. 1960) and Force of Circumstance (1963, Eng. 1965).

Walter Benjamin (1892–1940)

German Marxist essayist and intellectual who committed suicide on the border between France and Spain while fleeing from the Nazis. His very influential writings – including Illuminations (1968), Understanding Brecht (1973), and Reflections (1986) – were collected after his death.

Judith Butler (1956– )

American philosopher and queer theorist whose work has concentrated on developing a theory of gender performativity. Her books include Gender Trouble (1990), Bodies that Matter (1993), and Excitable Speech (1997).

Critical Art Ensemble

according to its website, the CAE is “a collective of five artists [. . .] dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics, and critical theory” (www.critical-art.net).

Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968)

Seminal French Dada artist. Among his many works are the painting Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), the construction The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (also known as the Large Glass) (1915–23), and his “readymades” – ordinary objects displayed as art. Duchamp’s most notorious readymade is Fountain (1917), a urinal. Duchamp lived for many years in New York, becoming an American citizen in 1955.

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969)

thirty-fourth president of the United States (1952–60) and Supreme Commander in Europe during World War II of the armies of the Western powers. As president, Eisenhower was what today would be called a “moderately conservative Republican.”

Eminem (1972– )

American rap artist, born Marshall Mathers. CDs/DVDs include Infinite (1996), The Real Slim Shady (2000), The Slim Shady Show (2001), Mosh or Die (2004), The Anger Management Tour (2005), and Ass Like That (2005).

Nikolai Evreinov (1879–1953)

Russian visionary theatre director who wanted to dissolve the boundaries separating the stage event from the audience. In 1920, Evreinov staged The Storming of the Winter Palace using 10,000 performers including units of the Red Army and the Baltic Fleet many of whom had taken part in the real event in 1917. None of Evreinov’s books have been translated into English. See Spencer Golub, Evreinov: The Theatre of Paradox and Transformation (1984).

Jean Genet (1910–86)

French playwright and novelist – formerly a thief and prostitute – whose works include The Maids (1948, Eng. 1954), Our Lady of Flowers (1948, Eng. 1949), The Thief ’s Journal (1949, Eng. 1959), The Balcony (1956, Eng. 1958), The Blacks (1958, Eng. 1960), and The Screens (1961, Eng. 1962).

Jean-Luc Godard (1930– )

French filmmaker who brought cinema verité techniques from the documentary realm into fiction films. Among Godard’s many works: A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), Une femme mariée (A Married Woman, 1964) Alphaville (1965), Nouvelle Vague (New Wave, 1990), Liberté et patrie (Liberty and Homeland, 2002), and Paris, je t’aime (Paris, I Love You, 2005).

Jürgen Habermas (1929– )

German philosopher who studied with Adorno and Horkheimer. Habermas headed the Institute for Social Research 1983–93. Habermas’s books include: Theory and Practice (1974), The Theory of Communicative Action (2 vols, 1984–87), The Future of Human Nature (2003), Philosophy in a Time of Terror (with Jacques Derrida and Giovanna Borradori, 2003).

Carol Hanisch (1942– )

American feminist and civil rights worker. In the 1960s and 1970s, Hanisch was a member of New York Radical Women and Gainesville (Florida) Women’s Liberation. Some of her early writings can be accessed through the Redstockings Women’s Liberation Archives for Action, www.afn.org/~redstock/ and in Feminist Revolution (Kathie Sarachild, ed., 1978). Her more recent essays are available in Frankly Feminist (1997).

Max Horkheimer (1895–1973)

German philosopher and critical theorist, director of the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt University. After leaving Germany in 1934, Horkheimer taught at Columbia University and the University of California. Returning to Germany in 1950, he not only worked with Adorno in restarting the Institute but also served as rector of Frankfurt University, 1951–53. Author of Eclipse of Reason (1947), Critical Theory: Selected Essays (1972), Dialectic of Enlightenment (with Theodor Adorno, 1972), and Between Philosophy and Social Science (1993).

Linda Hutcheon (1947– )

Canadian literary critic, cultural theorist, and Professor of English at the University of Toronto. Among her books: A Theory of Parody (1985), A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988), and The Politics of Postmodernism (2002).

Roman Jakobson (1896–1982)

Russian-born linguist. Author of Fundamentals of Language (1956), Studies in Verbal Art (1971), and Main Trends in the Science of Language (1973).

Fredric Jameson (1934– )

Marxist cultural critic and Professor of Comparative Literature at Duke University. Author of The Political Unconscious (1981), Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), and A Singular Modernity (2002).

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

German philosopher, author of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781/87), Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and Critique of Judgment (1790) as well as numerous other seminal philosophical works.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009)

French anthropologist, the doyen of structuralism. Among his many books are: The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949, Eng. 1969), Structural Anthropology (1958, Eng. 1963), The Savage Mind (1962, Eng. 1966), and The Raw and the Cooked (1964, Eng. 1969), and Look, Listen, Read (1997).

Émile Maximilien Paul Littré (1801–81)

French philologist best known for his dictionary of the French language, commonly called “the Littré.”

Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979)

German-born philosopher and a founding member of the Frankfurt School. Marcuse emigrated to America in 1934, taught at Columbia University, became a US citizen in 1940, and served during World War II as an intelligence analyst for the US Army. After the war he resumed teaching with his final post being at the University of California. A radical Freudian Marxist, Marcuse’s thought had a great impact on the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s. His books include: Eros and Civilization (1955), One Dimensional Man (1964), Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (1968), and Towards a Critical Theory of Society (2001).

Maysles brothers (David and Albert ) (1932–87 and 1926)

American filmmakers whose work comprises a broad range of subjects including What’s Happening: The Beatles in the USA (1964), Salesman (1968), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Abortion: Desperate Choices (1992, with Susan Froemke and Deborah Dickson). First the brothers and later Albert with other collaborators have documented the works of Christo and Jean-Claude from Christo’s Valley Curtain (1974) through Running Fence (1978) and Umbrellas (1995, with Henry Corra and Graham Weinbren) to The Gates (2007, with Antonio Ferrera and Matthew Prinzing).

Eddie Murphy (1961– )

American actor and comedian. Films include 48 Hours (1982), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Coming to America (1988), Shrek (2001, voice only), The Haunted Mansion (2003), and their sequels.

Donn Pennebaker (1925– )

American filmmaker whose works on electioneering and pop culture include Primary (1960), Don’t Look Back (1967), Monterey Pop (1967), The War Room (1993), and Elaine Stritch at Liberty (2004).

Adrian Piper (1948– )

conceptual artist and philosopher whose work in numerous media, including live performance, focuses on issues of race, racism, and racial stereotyping. Adrian Piper: A Retrospective (1999) is a comprehensive overview of her artworks. Many of Piper’s writings are published in the two-volume collection Out of Order, Out of Sight: Selected Writings in Meta-Art and Art Criticism 1967–1992 (1996). Among Piper’s artworks – live performances, videos, and installations – are Streetworks (1970), The Mythic Being (1975–76), My Calling Card #1 and #2 (1986–90), Cornered (1988), Self-Portrait 2000 (2001), and Shiva Dances (2004).

Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936)

Italian playwright and novelist who explored the ambiguous interface between the stage and ordinary life. His many plays include Right You Are (If You Think You Are) (1917), Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), and Henry IV (1922).

Jean-Pierre Rouch (1917–2004)

French filmmaker and anthropologist. Among his more than 100 films: Moi, un Noir (Me, a Black, 1959), Les Maîtres Foux (The Mad Masters, 1954), Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961), La Chasse au lion (The Lion Hunters, 1957–64), and Dionysus (1984).

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913)

Swiss linguist, whose posthumously published Course in General Linguistics (1916, Eng. 1959) lays the foundation of structural linguistics, as well as of structuralism more generally.

Carolee Schneemann (1939– )

American visual and performance artist. Works include Meat Joy (1964), Interior Scroll (1975), Vulva’s Morphia (1995). She is the author of More Than Meat Joy: Performance Works and Selected Writings (1997).

John R. Searle (1932– )

American philosopher who was a student of J. L. Austin at Oxford University in the 1950s. Searle developed Austin’s ideas in Speech Acts (1969) and Expression and Meaning (1979). His more recent work includes The Construction of Social Reality (1995), Mind, Language, and Society: Philosophy in the Real World (1998), Rationality in Action (2001), and Mind: A Brief Introduction (2004).

Annie Sprinkle (1954– )

born Ellen Steinberg, Sprinkle in her own words is a “prostitute/porn star turned performance artist/ sexologist [. . . who] has passionately researched and explored sexuality [. . .] in her own unique brand of sex films, photographic work, teaching workshops, and college lectures” (www.anniesprinkle.org/html/about/short_bio.html). Her books are Post-Porn Modernist (1998), Hardcore from the Heart (2001), and Spectacular Sex (2005).

Henry Morgan Stanley (1841–1904)

English travel writer and explorer who conducted a highly publicized (and successful) search through central Africa in 1870–71 to find fellow English explorer David Livingstone (1813–73).

Martha Wilson (1947– )

American performance artist and founder of Franklin Furnace, a leading New York performance art venue, from 1976 to 1990. After the Furnace lost its space, Wilson transmuted it into an internet site – www.franklinfurnace.org/ – offering live art on the web. Wilson’s own works include Breast Forms Permutated (1972), I Make Up the Image of My Perfection/I Make up the Image of My Deformity (1974), and Separated at Birth (2003).

Frederick Wiseman (1930– )

American filmmaker whose stark made-for-TV documentaries include Titicut Follies (1967), High School (1968), Hospital (1969), Juvenile Court (1973) – and on through a long list – to Domestic Violence (2001), Domestic Violence 2 (2002), and The Garden (2005).



From French Thought to Performance as Research