"the curiosity of writing (or, who cares about performance mastery?)"

Frames from Tryst © ROH Collections

Susan Melrose acknowledges the support of the AHRC in the preparation of this article through its provision of a Small Grant in the Creative and Performing Arts in 2003-4.

This paper was first presented at PARIP 2003 on 11th September 2003.

The presentation draws on and acknowledges the centrality to its argument of Tryst, choreographed by Christoper Wheeldon, with dancers Darcy Bussell and Jonathan Cope (Royal Opera House), 2002, with music by James Macmillan 1990, performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.


What is the relationship between (expert, professional) academic writing and 'performance theory', and what might be the relationship of academic writing and performance theory to 'practice'?

It might seem, from commonsensical uses of the expression 'theory and practice' – used as though we might all already know what these two nouns actually stand for, if not the reasons for the one's preceding the other – that 'theory' either is writing, or is necessarily mediated by it. Certainly enough expert academic writers (some of whom actually do know better) use the noun "theory' as though what it stood for were writerly and written, to cause this understanding to be replicated throughout the land, in the university as well as in other sites.

Some few writers, however, have recently pointed out not only the processional, ambassadorial and performance-based understanding of theoros, but have noted in addition (from within writing) the historically-specific erasure of this rather different understanding. Others have signalled the historical bases for a division between aesthetics and semiotics, which rift produced not only a fundamental estrangement between these two (Osborne 2001: 21) and the further reinforcement of older divisions, but also the break between expert arts-practitioners, on the one hand, and on the other those trained in the university to 'semiologically rearticulate' what art-practices have already, and differently, undertaken. One of the curiosities of writing, from this perspective, is that while she can, in theory, make the most banal of everyday practices reveal its interest, she has relatively little to say about excellence in performance practice.

What has been the fate of the second noun, 'practice'? The second half of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence, largely in social-sciences contexts, of what has been called 'practice-theory'. Practice theory, taken up late in the century by 'professional philosophers' (Osborne 2001), has developed in the early years of the twenty-first century to include what have been called its own 'posthumanist challenges'. Indicatively, in 'Objectual Relations', K. Knorr Cetina approaches creative and constructive 'epistemic practices' in terms of a relational idiom linked to the researcher's own position within an 'interlocking structure or chain of wantings'. It is this interlocking chain of wantings which 'entails the possibility of a deep emotional investment in [research] objects' (2001:187). C. Spinosa, in the same collection, notes, in terms of an ethics of practice, that 'practices tend toward their own elaboration regardless of our explicit intentions' (Spinosa 2001). This presentation asks what might be the place of the master-practitioner and expert practice, in these different scenarios bringing together researcher, relational idiom, emotional investment, practice-autonomy and the artist's own 'interlocking chain of wantings'.

This presentation falls into three parts: the first asks twelve questions and shows one example of expert practice by signature practitioners and makes a few observations; the second asks how expert practices might be viewed in the context of applications to join a higher degree programme; and the third returns to expert practice and provides brief details of work in progress around the issue of epistemic practices ('knowledge practices').

The presentation is concerned, in addition, with the writing of Karin Knorr Cetina and Charles Spinosa, identified, in the context of what was called the "practice turn in contemporary theory" as "posthumanist", on the basis of the judgement that their approaches step outside of established social sciences’ ways of generalising practice.

1st segment from Tryst, © ROH Collections; choreography by Christoper Wheeldon; performers Darcy Bussell and Jonathan Cope (Royal Opera House), 2002; Music James Macmillan 1990, performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Direct link if video does not play: tryst-clip01.mp4


Question 1: Of those of us here who reached the age of intellectual consent in the 1970s, won the doctorate in the 1970s or 1980s, who have survived the turn of the 21stC and who now play a role in the determination of research criteria for practice as research, I want to ask whether we are suffering from bad faith when we assert the equivalence in quality between performance-making processes in the higher degree context, and the more conventional mastery of certain expert registers of writing. ("Mauvaise foi" or "bad faith", you will recall, was, for the existentialists, an "attitude which consists of hiding the truth from oneself".)

One of the manifestations of bad faith is the use of commonsensical formulations which carry conservative philosophemes, but slip easily off both the tongue and the word-processor. One such commonsensical formulation, which does all expert practices in this sort of institutional setup more harm than good, is the expression "theory and practice". The argument for parity of esteem between the practice of expert writing in highly specific technical and explanatory registers and the practice of arts-disciplinary performance-making processes, is undermined by a commonsensical formulation some of us use which such ease and certainty. Wording is not a natural act, however much it is naturalized and normalized. The expression "theory and practice" remains a nonsense in the changing higher degree context, as long as those who use it cannot identify exactly what they mean by these two loaded terms and the positions in which they put them. Some of us actually know better, but we continue to use them commonsensically even though we can provide a comprehensive bibliography and copious footnotes on the dangers of rampant logocentricity and the horrid demands of alphabetic literacy.

The uses of that banal formulation, by those of us who hold positions of authority within our institutions, produces within some of our discourse a constitutive ambiguity, which militates against the sorts of knowledge-political change in the university with regard to expert performance practices, which we also claim to want to bring about.

Bad faith has a history. Some of us here, myself included, suffer from a "durably installed" attitude with regard to the value of different sorts of practices in particular situations and contexts. One sort of practice, prioritised in the university, is writing-based and writing-productive and involves not simply the mastery of expert/technical and explanatory registers of writing, but of writing's project. A quite different mode of practice – different enough to have been othered by the university for a considerable period of its history – involves arts-disciplinary performance-making expertise, to criteria which operate in the wider arts-communities.

Let's celebrate that difference, noting however, as we do so, that a major reason for the very late admission of performance practices as research into the higher degree context has not been philosophical or even political, so much as a matter of mutual suspicion with regard to performance quality within the UK performing arts and performance studies community in the university. That mutual suspicion, which we tend to manifest in the bar after the show, rather than in open debate, has produced, across the country, a performance anxiety which I would describe as unproductive but widely reproduced. I have taken PARIP to be, in part, the legitimate heir of that performance anxiety.

Question 2 is linked: shouldn't "those of us who do know better", and who do have doctoral titles, come clean in places like this as to the bases for our own judgements of taste and value? Certain struggles – some internal to the organism in question – result from these "received wisdoms", when we are required to exercise professional judgement in the case of creative and performing arts practices in a higher degree context. I am going to admit, here and now, that as a university professional, a creature of the institution, my own interest lies in the admission of professional or expert performance practitioners, to the higher degree programme, who can provide clear evidence of their grasp of disciplinary mastery, in the context of the performance communities and professions.

Why focus on the professional, the expert and the disciplinary? The higher degree programme, let's not forget, is currently required to train researchers (by implication 'professional' and certainly 'institutional'), through recourse to researchers and educators, most of whom, of a certain generation, are in fact professional writers and teachers. My second question, in other words, flags up notions of the professional, of expert mastery, and of disciplinary mastery, relating these to the fields of practice of both the career academic and the arts practitioner. This second question and its concern with the professional, some of you will be aware, trespasses on the space set out by the 2001 RAE (1) which distinguished between creative, professional, and research imperatives in the institutional audit of research.

Question 3 is linked: why are so many of us in the university so reluctant to question the intricacies of the knowledge-orders within which our own evaluative apparatuses, if I may use that term, have been constituted? In my experience we tend to make judgements rapidly, often sensing or intuiting them, but let's not make the mistake of assuming that this rapidity of sensing and intuiting makes those responses anything other than knowledge-political.

Where the political and the philosophical are so ingrained as to inform sense, taste, attitude and intuition, habitus is revealed in sharpest relief and is the hardest to change, whatever the quality of the argument. Whatever some of us currently protest with regard to the admission of the performance-making practitioner and her practices into the higher degree programme, my sense remains that the frames of intelligibility and the mechanisms for judgement brought to bear, will tend to take expert-professional writing, in certain specific registers, as external measure, against which other practices are compared.

Despite the attempts of some of us, in the university, to argue for practitioner knowledges, and our claim, in the bar after the show, that "some of my best friends are practitioners", our writing will always be "about performance". (The preposition "about" signals not simply expert-spectator positioning with regard to others' performance practices, but equally the synoptic power of language.) Expert spectating as writing-productive controls "performance" after its event, regardless of writers' intention or their taste for nouns like "flow" and "slippage".

Question 4: how do we test the reach and degree of contagion, in departments across the land, of the post-Saussurean "textual turn"? The textual or textualising turn (2) sought to refashion "much art and criticism on the model of the text", with quite clear implications for those of us trained within what de Certeau (3) called the "scriptural economy" of the university. It is to the invasive power of the textual turn that Performance enquiry owes textualist metaphors like "writing the stage", "reading performance ", and the so-called "performance text".

The textualist trope slipped readily into performance studies and performing arts in the 1970s and after at that moment of high anxiety for the embryonic discipline, when some of us were concerned paradoxically both with establishing a discipline and with that interdisciplinarity which constituted one aspect of post-Saussurean expansion. Textualisation of performance practices seemed to lend an authority to performance, whereas in fact it lent its authority to those of us who would study performance, in the university, from the position of expert spectator.

The textualising engagement with art practices via a post-Saussurean cultural theoretical inheritance, Osborne (4) points out, tends to ignore the material specificities of the practice concerned as well as practitioner mastery. The textualisation of performance "cannot avoid some kind of ontologization of its semantic formalism", meaning that performance specificity is ceded to its illusory textual order. We make performance into 'text' by bringing textualist paradigms to the event and our perceptions of it. The indifference of the textualist strategy to the medium given allows it to seem to erase recognition of the formal, sensible qualities of different art practices, as well as their highly specific logics and metalanguages of production. The textual turn is a good friend of expert spectating, where it assumes the role of writing-productive apparatus, but no friend at all of expert practices or practitioners. It continues to hold sway in the university, however, wherever Performance Studies as institution markets certain sorts of popular interpretative apparatuses. In its robustness, the textual turn overwhelms many of those performance processes and experiences which characterise what Massumi and others (5) have described in terms of the ethics of affective eventhood, and what Schatzki (6) has identified as the teleoaffectivity of certain sorts of practice – that is, performance practices that target affective binding-in on behalf of spectators. (He defines practical intelligibility in terms of teleological and affective determinations (p.52).)

More generally, the linguistic theoretics informing the textual turn mean that it may have little to contribute to research as epistemic practice more generally, where that engagement is understood, in Knorr Cetina's terms (7), "as [entailing] a deep emotional investment in epistemic objects".What may be most important with regard to the textual turn is to acknowledge the historical circumstances of its emergence and to limit its application as an auto-reflexive discourse strategy, in place of its continuing sway over engagement with art practices. It belongs chiefly within what I have identified as closet Spectator Studies in the university.

Question 5: has anyone here considered some of the implications, for performance-making in the higher degree programme, of the later 20thC notion that there is no outside to performance? Where "everyone is a performer", and the aesthetics of making-do of the anonymous pedestrian in the street is championed, the quest for performer singularity, performance expertise and performance disciplines is sidelined. It is sidelined because of the ideological residue of a pedestrian poetics formulated at a particular time and context of emergence – i.e. the later 1970s. But the dehistoricized Beuysian cry "everyone an artist!", coupled with the notion of a democratised creativity, however accessible and resource-friendly this might seem to Performance Studies, brings with it its anti-disciplinary bias. It could lead to the logical possibility that absolutely any performance, without regard to disciplinarity or expertise, "should be" examinable in the higher degree context, provided it is framed and submitted together with its written commentary.

(Ironically, the pedestrian poetics admired in for example early 1990s Forced Entertainment, "worked", if indeed it did for you, on the basis of their evident performance mastery, within which a pedestrian poetics was thematized, but did not contaminate mastery of the logics of performance production.)

Question 6: was I dreaming recently when I thought I saw, one listless summer Tuesday, the words "talent" and "gifted" in the higher education advertisements in The Guardian? Both qualifiers were unspeakable, in the university, only a year or so ago. What happened?

Question 7: how many of us here continue to be suspicious of the term "institutional setup", as Brian Massumi uses it in his Parables for the Virtual (Duke University Press, 2002)? How many of us here continue to identify ourselves as anti-institutional, while doing so from within the institutions of the knowledge economy of the university? My question takes up some of the observations made by Jon McKenzie (8) with regard to the self-delusion of those, operating within the luxury of the university setup, who claim to use performance to subvert dominant structures; but I arrive at different conclusions.

McKenzie's declared aim is "to rehearse a general theory of performance", but his project is excluding. Now, I am not interested in a "general theory of [a generalised] performance" if that "performance theory" – by which he surely refers to writing in certain technical and explanatory registers – fails, as his does, to enquire into disciplinary mastery in professional practitioners.

His account of the power of performance as "virtual [and] unstable … its relations of force … actualized and stabilized … through the stratification of … embodied practices" (178) is rhapsodic but late 20thC, dehumanized and dehumanizing, depersonalised and depersonalizing; anonymized and anonymizing; and the "practices" which it prefers are seen from the position of the archaeologist searching for layers of sedimentation after human life is dead and gone. But let me be more particular: his call for and praise of "microagitation" is worded in, and wholly obedient to, the discipline and registers of expert writing; to the tradition and thematics of expert writing which emerged in the post-WWII climate of a devastated Europe, by which I mean a writing urging life but with its eyes filled with death. It is an eloquent but direct product of later 20thC disciplinary writing, obedient to the constraints of the clause, and it leaves the constraints and pleasures of practitioner disciplines out of its picture. It is not helpful to expert practitioners who are required to continue to make work in the higher degree context, and whose means of making work to disciplinary criteria have largely been marginalised in the university and pursued in specialist institutions set apart. It is self-deluding to the extent that it takes the knowledge conservative institutional setup of the university, and the knowledge-conservative force of writing, as its grounding, its disciplinary medium, and its target audience. (My own writing here does exactly the same.) There is a long history of bad faith in the 20thC.

2nd segment from Tryst © ROH Collections

Direct link if video does not play: tryst-clip02.mp4

Question 8: what are the implications, for the still self-avowedly 'anti-institutional' amongst us, of that recent rebranding exercise, performed by certain universities with a sharp eye on marketing, which has seen the emergence of departments of "creative and cultural industries"? What reading lists, from what post-WWII theoretical writers – whose writing might actually be informed by an intimate interest in the avant-garde – will they provide for the 21stC cultural industries worker?

Question 9: to what extent is "Performance Studies" in the university a mask for Spectator Studies? Spectator Studies in the university is a discipline that does not speak its name, but should, since it is the fastest growing and the most democratic discipline in the performing arts. Spectator Studies widens participation in that area of performance practices which has the best record in writing-production, the widest range of interpretative apparatuses, the apparently highest level of expertise (were we to leave out performance mastery, which many of us do). It is practised, in addition, at a safe and readily-resourced distance from expert performing arts practices and practitioners.

What's wrong with Spectator Studies? Absolutely nothing if we look at its popularity in terms of widening participation. Everything, if our concern is with the specificity of expert performing arts-making practices. There are a number of truisms about spectator studies which I tend to adumbrate in places like this:

i. the first is that spectators only see what they can see, and are constrained to infer the rest, which they are often trained to do badly;

ii. the second, consequent upon the first, is that spectators tend to confuse performance effects (to which they have access) with performance causes (to which they do not);

iii. the third – as many have pointed out – is that spectators tend to see product and not process;

iv. the fourth, consequent upon the third, is that spectators cannot see the different types and modes of specialist knowledge-input specific to professional performance-makers' engagement. Indicatively, they cannot see, in devised product, the use of intuition as a disciplinary tool, nor the role of contingency and accident in performance invention.

Spectator Studies prioritises representation over and above the formal, sensible, existential and compositional qualities of expert performance-making, thereby reproducing a divorce between semiology and aesthetics which, Osborne has pointed out, has a long history (which cultural studies tends to overlook). It prioritises semiological rearticulation and debate, in effectively limitless writing, in proprietry registers. Spectator Studies in the university does not speak its name, wherever it is better marketed as Performance Studies.

Question 10: to what extent are our current contradictions, uncertainties, performance anxieties and failures, here, consequent, quite logically, upon the constitutive ambiguities of our role and place in the university as major industry player in the knowledge economy?

The constitutive ambiguities articulated not in PARIP's mission statement but between that statement and the other practices it addresses or excludes, are reproduced wherever PARIP aims to be productive. Those ambiguities are reproduced, here in particular, to the extent that we fail to take into account matters epistemological – concerning, for example, the respective"knowledge status" of expert writing and expert registers of disciplinary arts practice.

In the case of the first, we need to enquire into the authority of expert writers; the time and place of certain theoretical formulations – given as symptom of those; the contexts of emergence of certain university-popular thematizations (including rallying cries and death rattles); the formal and sensible qualities of writing as disciplinary means of organisation of knowledge (as distinct from its representation); writing's modes of intercourse and reproductive powers; its perfomative force wherever authority is required to speak its name and cause certain actions to ensue; our liking or dislike of it, our ease or dis-ease within it; its structures and strictures; our taking it for granted, or not; its selectivity; its inclusions, erasures, and exclusions. Expert registers of disciplinary arts practices, by way of contrast, need not speak, nor write their name, to hit their creative targets.

Frames from Tryst © ROH Collections

Question 11: what's the difference between practice-desire, which has overtaken many disciplines in the later 20thC, and practice-drive? Some of us in Spectator Studies in the university catch practice-desire from hanging out with professional practitioners. Practice-drive, in contrast, is less easily caught, hence Osborne's term "existential pragmatics". It seems to be pressed out, rather than caught; to manifest itself, conventionally outside the university, wherever the need to make work coincides with the evaluative apparatuses of the wider arts-communities. Practice-desire tends to bring performance anxiety with it, and hides it with words.

Question 12: how should we view the Arts Council's agenda and the recently-emerging interest at the AHRB (9) in continuing professional development in the arts-practitioner? These approaches concern the training and – for the former at least – the ways in which arts practitioners tend to go on learning in the job. How might we enable some of them to formalise and further develop that learning? Do they need cultural studies crammers, collected from later 20thC critical-theoretical writers, whose writing by definition lacks the epistemological engagement I have called for?

The notion of professional development in the job, is surprisingly recent in some parts of the university, despite the publication of Schon's Reflective Practitioner (10) in the mid-1980s. Hence I was intrigued in 2000 to find the term "professional philosopher" in Peter Osborne's writing. It made me wonder, idly, where else than in the university a professional philosopher might be gainfully employed – but I realised immediately that my idle reflection ran against my argument as to the philosophical status of some expert arts-practices. I'll return to this question. In Osborne, the professional philosopher has, quite succinctly, authorised access to "the historically developed and institutionally structured space of philosophical positions and possibilities" (86). Is, in other words, institutionally-defined and authorised; has authorised access as well as a sense of appropriate possibilities. We similarly have, in PARIP, in Osborne's terms, authorized access to "the historically developed and institutionally structured space of [academic and writerly] positions and possibilities"; we need to gain access to "the historically developed and institutionally structured spaces of performance-disciplinary positions and possibilities". My question, to conclude PART 1, is whether the university can afford to gain that access, and to keep it. Why should institutions which have long been concerned with fostering professional creative practice accept to serve universities' current practice-desire ?

I want to return to "theory and practice", with which I began. We are actually concerned with the pursuit of diverse modes and registers of disciplinary practice, amongst which expert writing figures. From this perspective, in place of "theory and practice" we need the formulation "mixed-mode disciplinary practices", none of which is necessarily writing-based or mediated, but some of which may call upon discipline-specific metalanguages of production. In the higher degree context, the appropriate formulation is something like "institutionally authorised and enabled performing arts disciplinary or expert mixed-mode metapractices".

Mixed-mode metapractice interrogates complex practices through complex practices, some of which, in the framework I have set out, are professional and arts-disciplinary. Let's say so, even if none of this comes easily to those of us for whom a small part of ourselves will remain forever in the far-away land of the un-reconstructed 68-er and her friends.


At this point, I want to focus on the filmed account of one instance of live professional performing arts product, part of which you have seen in video form. It has been produced not just on the basis of the professional engagement of performers and choreographer, but of multiple other professional practitioners whose performance-production work tends to be invisible in the product unless and until its role is highlighted. I am going to argue that this piece demonstrates the interweaving of creative, professional and research imperatives, on the part of at least one participant. I am going to identify 'the work', on that basis, as a 'knowledge practice' (or "epistemic practice", in Knorr Cetina's terms) within a knowledge economy. I want to identify it, more generally, in terms of the "teleoaffective" investment and calculation of more than three of the practitioners involved. I am going to proceed to identify 'the work', in the case of at least one instance of professional investment in it, as driven by a 'philosophical imperative', and challenge everyone here to consider that professionals might frequently weave together performance material obtained on the basis of these different imperatives; I would add that what is then of interest is how this compositional acuity and manipulation is achieved, and finally, what sorts of philosophical and creative engagements are made possible when a complex work has also to engage with a professional imperative.

In referring to the teleoaffective arts-professional engagement, I want to draw attention to certain performance-disciplinary practices (and not others), whose formal, sensible, existential, compositional and relational qualities are such that by tapping inventively into them, a professional practitioner might seem to do more than she does, and more than she knows. This is a 'knowledge-complex' observation, which I want to relate quite explicitly to the notion of a 'core discipline' (I return to this question in greater detail in PART 3.) My sense is that, in the clips above, we find interpraxiological observations by the choreographer, many of which are enabled by the virtuoso status and potential of the dancers themselves.

3rd segment from Tryst © ROH Collections

Direct link if video does not play: tryst-clip03.mp4

Interpraxiological options draw on (disciplinary) practice to reflect on other instances of disciplinary practice, with no necessary engagement with language. Wheeldon readily draws on the core and its own performative potential, drawing our attention systematically to the specifics of bodily contact of particular types (including taking another performer's weight, the multi-dimensional schematics of physical vulnerability and strength), body-positioning and performer interaction. The swift weaving of these performance options seems to me to refer onlookers to the possibility of affective intensity, rather than to the thing itself – and in this sense the work performs its own metacommentary on the affective. That these are basic to the contemporary take on the discipline seems to me to mean that what we can see in these performance decisions is that all practitioners concerned can tap into the affective potential of the discipline, without necessarily entertaining that reference itself. They thus both know, and they participate in a 'not-knowing' enabled by that disciplinary mastery. Disciplinary mastery, in my argument, is teleoaffective in its calculation, since in the virtuoso performance, specifically, it calls up those intensities whose experience critical and cultural theoretical apparatuses have tended to prevent us from writing, over recent decades. It permits, in the most interesting of cases, an experience of what in another context might be viewed in terms of human intimacy, combined, in this particular instance, with concrete evidence of human strength plus the abstraction of potential vulnerablity. Let's say so, where it works its work. Wheeldon's work here seems to me to trigger this teleoaffective potential with some discretion, and lightly.

Where performance choices are so clear in their articulation, as well as cunning (this is a positive term in my lexicon), I am compelled to conclude that choreographer and performers are quoting the discipline's current teleoaffective potential (which has developed, in Europe and elsewhere, in terms of contemporary dance options, as well as in terms of late 20thC theories of self, subject or persona, in creative practice), which they both articulate and reflect upon from within the work. That work has, thus, an element of critical meta-commentary within it, without being reducible to that function. In a sense then, the work is marked by an interpraxiological engagement (it draws on and indeed points to the disciplinary options specific to the tradition of the Royal Ballet), by a degree of metapraxis (it uses professional mastery to interrogate professional mastery), and it provides new insights into the tradition and recent state of professional practice. What is vital to add here, however, is that it does so from within the core of the discipline and canon, and not in confrontation (11) with it.

4th segment from Tryst © ROH Collections

Direct link if video does not play: tryst-clip04.mp4

In its complexity, then, the work achieves its creative and professional targets; it explores the teleoaffectivity of the discipline; it uses professional practice to explore aspects of professional practice; it achieves a certain credibility in terms of British contemporary dance, and it expands the discipline. But at the same time, its practitioners might well refuse that sort of "semiological rearticulation" of its sensible, formal, existential and compositional specificity: its practitioners have had no need of that sort of verbalisation; indeed, it is because they can succeed in the one, that they have had no need of, and might even be slowed down by, the burden of verbalisation. I conclude from these sorts of observations that the performance produced, by its different professional practitioners, is constitutively nonidentical, in 'knowledge-practice terms', with the performance perceived.

I cannot avoid noting, with regard to the dominant discourses of Spectator Studies, that I have found that this work elicits certain sorts of responses from those trained in terms of the interpretative apparatuses specific to later 20thC critical orthodoxies. None of these stereotypical responses has assisted my attempt to answer simple questions, concerned – for example – with how onlookers identify (and indeed measure) professional expertise in performance making. I am persuaded that such professional expertise tends to seem to be sensed, by both practitioners and spectators, rather than calculated, at least where the spectators and practitioners involved are required to verbalise their perceptions. In this case, once again, professional mastery and production values signal a field of mastery of a complex 'knowledge-practice' which is othered by the dominant machinery of university 'knowledge politics'.

I want to ask you to do something quite specific, which is to imagine that this practice-fragment is attached to an application for admission to a higher degree programme from one of the practitioners involved. I need from you a swiftly written response to the applicant, indicating what else the candidate would need to provide for the work to be acceptable in terms of a higher degree research proposal. Your judgement of taste is irrelevant. How and where would you position this evidence of professional mastery, in terms of your own university's higher degree programme?


I want at this point to come back to bad faith as well as "performance anxiety". My starting point, in other words, is dis-ease, and how to control it, if not to cure it. I am not talking about a plague upon the houses of spectator studies but rather the need to take the MPhil and PhD at their word, where that word is "philosophy". Our present task is professionally-philosophical as well as "knowledge-political". I am going to insert a philosophical imperative into the set introduced into quality audit by the RAE, which distinguishes between professional, creative and research imperatives.

The philosophical imperative requires of us a number of engagements:

1. that we begin to look, in collaboration with performing arts professionals, at the parlous epistemological status of expert performance in higher degree terms,

2. that we begin to explore disciplinary practice in terms of teleoaffectivity, or its orientation to the experience of an event of affective intensity;

3. that we entertain the possibility that certain registers of expert arts-creative disciplinary practice (in Rabaté's account of what he persists in calling "theory" (12)), already "operat[e] to the power of speculation and interrogative auto-reflection";

4. that we entertain the possibility that what Osborne calls "philosophical form", is nonidentical with the literary genre which conventionally mediates it, and may, as a consequence, be articulated in performance-disciplinary practice without necessary recourse to writing or the writerly;

5. that where we explicitly train writing-professional researchers, we need to make that same engagement and provision on behalf of training expert mixed-mode professional practitioner-researchers.

How might we do that? I have a few suggestions coming, curiously enough, from the 'professional-philosophical' rather than the Performance Studies field. The first is that we identify "epistemic practices" or "knowledge practices" as our focus throughout, regardless of traditional modes of research practice. Let's entertain, here, the notion that professional arts-creative practitioners only survive, in the professional sphere, through the combination of a mastery and an inventiveness which alone marks their work out from that of others – and that this inventiveness is itself research-driven. Second, that we focus on the ways in which these can be usefully worded, in the 21stC higher degree framework. Third, that we select and include them on the basis that as epistemic practices (or what I have called disciplinary metapractices), they can be shown to "operate to the power of speculation and interrogative auto-reflection", while also aiming to meet creative and professional imperatives, where these are pertinent. Upon this sort of basis we might be able to begin to estimate the means, the extent and the quality of that speculation and interrogative auto-reflection, and the quality of the professional and creative engagement, if and wherever these are maintained as part of the research undertaking.

In my argument, as you have heard, I am claiming that some work of professional practitioners, performed to public audiences, already constitutes an ongoing enquiry "to the power of speculation and interrogative auto-reflection" (that brief account in Rabate of "theory"). That it already figures – in the hands of Wooster Group, or Robert Wilson, or Ariane Mnouchkine – as an instance of mixed-mode performance metapractice, while also meeting the creative, professional, philosophical and research imperatives. It would seem that some of us, in the writing-productive economy, have taken it upon ourselves, from the position of expert spectator, to attempt to rearticulate these enquiries as though the means of their taking place were unacceptable in higher degree research terms. This is even more the case where 'the work', as is the case for Wheeldon and Darcy Bussell, also includes artist signature and a particular knowledge-engagement in terms of disciplinary teleoaffectivity. It does not seem to me to mean, nonetheless, that we have valid bases, in PARIP, for preferring writing to mixed-mode arts-disciplinary metapractices – at least, if we are as good as our word. It also means, however, that we need, on behalf of some of our colleagues as well as our students, to pursue the appropriate meta-discursive commentary which will enable others, within the university, to grasp the complexity of the professional's creative mixed-mode meta-practice.

The "professional philosophical" writing of Karin Knorr Cetina and Charles Spinosa (13), both of whom were recently published in the context of the "practice turn in contemporary theory", is identified by their editors as "post-humanist", on the basis of the judgement that their approaches step outside established social sciences ways of generalising practice. Both writers locate their writing with reference to 20thC European philosophical and cultural studies tradition and participate in what I should want to call a millennial enquiry into theoretical writing which has dominated cultural and critical-analytical studies in the later 20thC. Each, curiously enough, draws on the work of Heidegger (14), whose writing was notably absent from certain fields of research in the French university sector in the late 1970s (despite Derrida's own systematic reading of the philosopher). We need to approach the former, as Derrida has recently advised, "without hermeneutic or philological piety" (15), considering instead what Heidegger's earlier 20thC reflections on technology might offer us at this particular historical conjuncture.

Knorr Cetina is explicitly concerned with what she calls "creative and constructive epistemic or objectual practices" and with "epistemic objects" and "objectual relations". Spinosa's work is concerned with the ways in which practice-mastery is developed from within ongoing practice, through its continuing and changing articulation. I want to draw in addition on the writing of Rabate (op cit), despite the fact that his The Future of Theory is unable to rid itself of the commonsensical assumption that "theory" is necessarily written (on the page or in the air).

What Rabate points out is that for Heidegger "technology precedes science, is more fundamental than science". The implication, for observations on mixed-mode metapractices is that "the inaugural [and ongoing] separation between episteme and techne … needs to be revised", if expert practices are to be newly admitted as such, into the mainstream knowledge economy. Rabate also draws attention to the processional, expert, performance-specific and performative aspects which come from one 'fold' of the etymology of the term theory, from which I am tempted to assert that "theory" was also a complex and professional, embodied performance practice until writing took over from that practice on the basis of writing's ability to transcend human materiality. But that is a longer story.

More importantly in our terms here, perhaps, is Spinosa's suggestion, from within a similarly Heideggerian framework – and this is a suggestion which seems to have been startling to philosophers but wholly obvious to art-disciplinary-practitioners – that it is through an engagement in disciplinary practice that practitioners "develop ways of dealing with the whole variety of things that the practice itself opens up to [them]" (199-212).

5th segment from Tryst © ROH Collections

Direct link if video does not play: tryst-clip05.mp4

Spinosa notes, as I have done, that a significant proportion of the major theoretical writers whose work resonated through Cultural and indeed Performance Studies in the final decades of the 20thC fails to provide insight into this notion of a disciplinary practice mastered through practice. Spinosa makes an indicative distinction, on the basis of this observation, between a Derridean "dispersive…elaboration" of practices, and a Heideggerian "articulative elaboration" of disciplinary practice. His paper suggests no more than that we might need both notions when our concern is with complex practices. The "dispersive" development depends upon a block to practice, causing the practitioner to experience the rupture of practice, and dissipating energies. In order to pursue this specifically "derridean" line, born of a generalised attack on the institutional, what is required is a solution imposed from outside the given practice. One of these modes of imposition entails the strategies of deconstruction familiar to many of us here.

Knorr Cetina approaches what she calls "non routine [research] problems" within the economies of "knowledge-centred practice". She takes as her starting point a "particular characterization of knowledge-centred practice", which, she argues, "can be traced back to Heidegger but … also finds support in scientists' self-understanding of their work". "At the core of this characterization" of epistemic practice, she writes, "lies the assumption that creative and constructive practice – the kind of practice that obtains when we confront non routine problems – is internally more differentiated than current conceptions of practice as skill or habitual task performance suggest". The notion that "practice" – a synoptic, reified term widely used in the late 20thC – is internally differentiated (to include discrete strategies and stages) seems to me to be vital if we are to move toward a research-useful theoretical account which is not explanatory of practice in representational terms, but rather of the compositional specificities of particular disciplinary practices. One such "compositional specificity" relates to the ways in which Complicité pursue particular stages of productive activities in a devising and rehearsal process – which they continue to develop thereafter. In this case we have not just a "mode of practice", but rather professional stages in a complex and differentiated practice, which includes what I have elsewhere called the logics of production, into which discoveries are drawn and then, progressively, assume (or fail to assume and are discarded) the status of performance material.

Talking about research practices more generally, Knorr Cetina describes something which all practitioners, in my experience at least, recognise: that is, "the intensity and pleasurability of objectual relations as experienced by experts", along with the "arousal of the processing capacities and sensitivities of the person [of the researcher]" (my emphasis). In order to stress the personal in the research professional, she borrows a particular 20thC trope, pointing to what she calls the "conjunction of the relational and libidinal dimensions" of creative-practice-centred research, which give it "a flavour and quality distinctively different from that of routines and habits", which are more traditionally the focus of practice theory.

Knorr Cetina suggests that when the disciplinary or professional practice "ceases to be habitual procedure", but includes non routine aspects as well as the desire to 'get somewhere', then "differentiated practice is held together by a particular type of relationship between [the] subject [or researcher] and [the] object (of research)". In her attempt to capture the "dynamic properties of [the research undertaking]", Knorr Cetina borrows the "relational idiom" from Lacanian psychoanalytic theory (16). That relational idiom would hold together complex "differentiated practice" in these "non-habitual" procedures, while also carrying "the reflexive and affective aspects of epistemic practice" (175-6).

Knorr Cetina's approach to affectivity – as central to the engagement of expert researchers in general – enables her to identify "an interlocking structure or chain of wantings" in the expert researcher. Those interlocking "wantings" drive research onwards, in that they "entail […] the possibility of a deep emotional investment in [research] objects" (187). In my experience, professional artists contributing to the HE context, tend to recognise this "emotional investment".

In Knorr Cetina, "epistemic objectual practices" are speculative practices, informed by a deep emotional investment in research objects. They "define the flow of [research] practice", punctuating it in two possible ways: first by a series of unfoldings, and secondly by opening a space, in an angular or lateral branching off, within which a further relational activity might occur.

For Knorr Cetina, epistemic objects are notable in that they are "defined by their lack of completeness of being", as well as by "their nonidentity with themselves". It is the discovery of that incompleteness, coupled with a "dissociative dynamic", which produces that "dynamism of research" that causes some of us to continue for years pursuing what might seem to the outsider to be "the same thing". Only incomplete knowledge objects, according to Knorr Cetina, pose further questions, causing researchers to "move forward with their work.".

Heidegger, Knorr Cetina notes, "analyzed our instrumental being-in-the world as a form of un- self-conscious but … goal-directed employment of equipment in its referential context". He "pointed out what happens when equipment becomes problematic … [At that point] we go from 'absorbed coping' to 'envisaging', 'deliberate coping' … [and] to the scientific stance of 'theoretical reflection' on the properties of entities … [by bringing] a theoretical attitude that entails a 'withholding' of practical reason" into play (180). Let's briefly review this account of internally differentiated practice from the perspective of expert/professional devised performance making: when a problem emerges (and it always does), a director/choreographer attempts first to deal with it through an absorbed coping which is likely to be silent but engaged; s/he then proceeds, from a position of greater detachment, to envisage possible solutions; and follows this stage by a deliberate coping which explicitly involves more practitioners in the problem-solving strategy. If the problem remains, and seems to resist, theoretical reflection on the properties involved follows, once again from a certain distance; this reflection tends not to involve all practitioners, who might well be implicated in the "properties of [performance] entities", but might well seek and involve the opinion of an assistant director. Here the "withholding of practical reason" enables the production of abstractions, wilder, speculative engagements and fantastical imaginings, which themselves provide relief from the exigencies of the practice-real, and enable the exploration of radical alternatives.

Knorr Cetina's account of epistemic practice, including the"withholding of practical reason" at a particular stage or stages in the process, seems to me to also provide remarkable insight into many of the delicate 'knowledge stages' of the PhD process and of research-writing more generally. My own writing is painful, and often driven by a sense of 'what comes next', rather than a pre-existing plan or a reasoned undertaking. It involves what I would call the operation of research-intuitions, which, where the researcher is professionally engaged, need to be identified as research-professional intuitive operations. I have noted elsewhere, with regard to intuitive research operations, Ulmer's suggestion (17) that the fleeting and fragile sense of sudden discovery, and recognition of its as sudden 'rightness', often accompanies these operations. This sensing is wild, as well as instrumental – hence constitutively ambiguous; it needs space and time, in the programming of professional performance-making, for these sorts of events to occur. Epistemic practices, in other words, are internally strongly differentiated.

This sort of approach enables us to suppose that epistemic practice is driven both by wanting, by sudden discovery, and by the certainty of incompleteness; we need in addition, to acknowledge that the thematization of earlier practice marks a necessary and temporary stage, within the economy of arts-practice, if the work itself is to attain the status of epistemic object. Hence Wooster Group or Forced Entertainment will revisit (verbally or through mixed-mode practices) 'something that worked' in an earlier production process, which they can thematize explicitly (as a means of practical reflection) in the new devising situation as a 'way in', to new discoveries.

The "epistemic object", for Tim Etchells or Christopher Wheeldon as researcher is not equivalent to the "presumed 'real' object in the sense of a referent". 'The show', in other words, is not the epistemic outcome, although it may well be both the creative and the professional outcome. The residual epistemic object is "un-like our everyday conception of [it]". The drive to make new work continues, precisely to the extent that the professional outcome is revealed to be non-identical with the practitioner's own desired object. What is specific to the epistemic object and practice, in this sense, is both its incompleteness, and its apparent "capacity to unfold indefinitely" within the parameters specific to the discipline (including for example durational performance).

Nonetheless, that epistemic object, in the (research) sphere of professional-practitioner engagement, is "always in the process of being materially defined"; its seems thus to "acquire new properties", to such an extent that it seems to be "never quite [itself]". "What we encounter in the research process", Knorr Cetina argues, "are representations or stand-ins for a more basic lack of object". In this capacity, the research object or epistemic object lacks "object-ivity", and is characterized by "nonidentity with itself" (181-182). The power of this (incompletely realised) epistemic object lies in what Knorr Cetina calls its "internal articulation", its "relational idiom", and in the pointers it seems to "provide to possible further explorations" (183). The epistemic or research object, in Wheeldon's Tryst, for example, or Wooster's To You the Birdie, or Forced Entertainment's Speak Bitterness – none of these public outcomes is itself the research object, which may be for example a practitioner enquiry into the relational dynamic between choreographer and performer – is "transient [and] internally complex"; it is liable to "extend a practical sequence at least through being unfoldable into equally complex sublinks". It is characterized firstly by "its underlying relational dynamic" and secondly by the potential it provides for the "lateral branching out of this practice". I am arguing that it is precisely in these sorts of terms that other expert practitioners also engage with others' creative practice.

The relational dynamic binds its researchers in "to a kind of practice that is dynamic, constructive (creative) and perhaps conflictual", as well as "directed at an empirical object mediated by representations". However, these representations, which might well be driven by wholly professional imperatives, "always in some aspects fail" or seem to be incomplete. The 'show itself' thereby misrepresents the (epistemic) thing it articulates. But at the same time, in its moment of formulation or presentation, it "also impl[ies] what is still missing…" (185). It seems thereby, in and of itself, to "structure desire and provide for the continuation and unfolding of object-oriented practice".

Knorr Cetina uses aspects of the Lacanian tradition in her attempt to "capture the volatility and unstoppability" of wanting as the energy-driving creative research practice. I want to add, to this agenda, the notion that what is specific to performance as professional and creative research practice is its dependence upon the performance-event as the site/time at which a certain 'pay-back' is publicly rehearsed, as a necessary stage in the research development. In Knorr Cetina's account, she attempts to identify, as basic to creative and constructive research, "whole series of moves and their underlying dynamic", amongst which the importance of the performance event can be understood. The "libidinal dimension…of knowledge activities", including expert devised practices pursued through to public staging, tends to be "ignored or denied", she notes, "when we conceive of science and expertise as cognitive endeavours".

Charles Spinosa's brief account of the difference between two contrasting sets of approaches to practices "that govern [their] intelligibility", is driven, he writes, by the need to "open consideration of general tendencies in the way practices work, and point out the ethical consequences of identifying such tendencies" (199). Spinosa suggests that practices "tend toward their own elaboration", once engaged, apparently without regard for users' explicit intentions, by opening up the field of "recognitions" which 'collocate' around them while in use. "As we deal with more and more conditions with more or less awareness", Spinosa writes, "the practice itself [in which we are engaged] will become more [developed] or elaborated" (200), leading to its mastery by particular users who have the appropriate potential.

He notes that there is little published on practice-development in a knowledge economy, but that the greatest interest can be found in the writings of Derrida and Heidegger. "Derrida claims", he advises, that "practices tend to disperse", that the development or elaboration of practices "generally involves the production of new ways of deploying [them]"; these new ways, in Derrida, are, importantly however, "discontinuous with established deployment" (my emphasis). They are discontinuous with established deployment to the extent that the Derridean project involves the deconstruction of established practices, including those constituting the (performance) canon. "Elaboration… then [ for Derrida is] dispersive or disseminating" of creative energies. The consequence of dispersion of creative energies, and the simultaneous need to avoid disarray and entropy, is the need to introduce an external imposition, an external force able to permit activity to continue in the short-term.

Heidegger, Spinosa adds, unlike Derrida, "argue[d] that [the development of practices] generally produces a better articulated core practice which we may think of, then, as having a stable (though not a fixed) nature." (201) "For Heidegger, then, [development of a core practice] is articulative" (my emphasis), rather than dispersive; to be pursued through development of the core practice, rather than as a consequence of its deconstruction followed as such by an external imposition, responding to one or another imperative. This articulative approach is required, if we have any concern whatsoever for an understanding of expert mastery in performing arts practices in the higher degree context.

Spinosa's interest in practice-mastery 'from within practice' seems to me to be of considerable interest to the present enquiry. He is concerned with those instances where approaches to habitual practice but also to 'radical' practice have proved an inadequate basis for understanding what determines practice choices. In the case that concerns me here, the performance companies concerned consistently derive performance decisions from determinations based on the improvisation developed where habitual practice provides a springboard for a branching-off.

Such a springboard and branching-off, far from undermining the core expertise of these professional companies, is explored, conditioned by the company signature, and re-embedded in the identified and goal-oriented project. The process seems to me to be particularly clear in the work of Théâatre de Complicité (18). The 'practice' of such companies, especially where they improvise as a disciplinary tool, is thus a mastered, practised-practice, which invokes but then readdresses the disciplinary conventional and habitual. It will retain it, or not, as decision-made, on the basis of its liability to be appropriated within the logics of practice and production with which that company's name is strongly associated. The operations of signature, in innovative creative practice pursued to professional standards and production values seem to me to depend absolutely on the notion of a pre-existing company- or practitioner-specific mastery of core practice. It is mastery alone of that core practice which enables endless unfoldings and branchings-out; that mastery alone allows the professional creative practitioner to innovate, as a condition of her or his professional identity; and to innovate, finally, because each production marks a particular stage in an ongoing, affectively-charged and practitioner-driven research quest.

The complete segment from Tryst © ROH Collections

Direct link if video does not play: tryst.mp4


1) The RAE or Research Assessment Exercise was undertaken every 5 years on behalf of UK higher education funding councils to evaluate the quality of research undertaken by British higher education institutions. It was replaced by the Research Excellence Framework in 2014.

2) Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: the Avant Garde at the End of the Century, MIT Press, 1996

3) M. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans S. Rendall, University of California Press, Berkley and London, 1984.

4) P. Osborne Philosophy in Cultural Studies, Routledge, London and New York, 2000

5) B. Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Duke University Press, 2002

6) T. Schatzki et al (eds), The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, Routledge 2001

7) K. Knorr Cetina, "Objectual Relations", in T. Schatzki et al (eds) The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, Routledge 2001

8) J. McKenzie, Perform or Else From Discipline to Performance, Routledge 2001

9) The AHRB (Arts and Humanities Research Board), formed in 1998 as a Charity supported by the Higher Education Funding Councils for England, Scotland and Wales became the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) in 2005 when it was was given a Royal Charter and moved alongside the other UK Research Councils sponsored by the Science and Innovation Group in Central Government. See The history of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

10) D. Schon, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, 1984

11) Plainly Wheeldon’s work here with Bussell and Cope maintains, rather than engaging with or enquiring into, certain gender stereotypes (in costuming, gender roles and relations between gendered bodies, and other choreographic choices). It does not lose my interest on that basis.

12) J-M. Rabaté, The Future of Theory, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford 2002

13) C. Spinosa, "Derridian dispersion and Heideggerian articulation: general tendencies in the practices that govern intelligibility", in T. Schatzki et al (eds) The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, Routledge 2001

14) Indicatively, M. Heidegger, "The Question Concerning Technology," in Martin Heidgger: Basic Writings, D.F.Krell (ed.) New York: Harper & Row, 1977

15) J. Derrida and A. Spire, Au-delà des apparences, Editions Le Bord de L'Eau: Bordeaux, 2002

16) Indicatively, J.Lacan, The Language of Self, New York, Dell, 1975

17) G. Ulmer, Heuretics: The Logic of Invention, Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London, 1994

18) See http://www.complicite.org/company.php [accessed April 2019]

Professional Choreography (Video material)


© ROH Collections

Dancers: Darcy Bussell and Jonathan Cope (Royal Opera House)

Choreography: Christopher Wheeldon

Music © James Macmillan 1990, performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Video production copyright © ARTE 2002

Broadcast on BBC4, 2003

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