e-PAIVirtuosity and Performance Mastery issue, 2003/04

"Beyond the Archimedean Point"

3.9 microlectures on performance process (with
apologies to Matthew Goulish 1.)

Copyright © Jayne Richards, 2003

(No part of this text may be reproduced without the written permission of the author.)

Jayne Richards

This material was presented live at the Virtuosity and Performance Mastery symposium for postgraduate/research degree students and academic staff over two days by Performing Arts at Middlesex University on 31st May and 1st June 2003.

Lecture 1 -- The wrong kind of mastery.

In "The Age of the World Picture" (1938) and "Science and Reflection" (1954) Heidegger deconstructs the nature of representation (2). He notes that in declaring "cogito ergo sum" the modern subject constitutes herself as both subject and object. While the "I" doing the thinking is also the object of that "I's" thought, to Descartes this is also evidence of the mind's mastery over the body - a distinction of no small significance to performance. (3) Moreover, the rational subject, from her singular stance, also seeks mastery over that which remains beyond her. The schema in which she operates relies on a correspondence between subject and object generated not by visual means, as with the earlier Platonic model, but by mental representation. For the Cartesian knowing subject the world is represented conceptually, mathematically and lexically, rendering necessary a mode perception that separates "mind" from body, knowledge from action and theory from practice. From the Archimedean Point it is in these dualist terms that the objective world is scrutinised, defined, framed and categorised in ever-more precise ways.

However, Heidegger observes that if such a science of perceptual reality is the "theory of the real," (4) that is to say, the "real" is that which in modernist terms is measurable, whatever remains outside of the measurable casts a shadow. In the performance-specific conditions with which we are concerned, it is likely that the shadows cast by the inexplicable nature of virtuosity and performance mastery are very long indeed.

Writing in 1987, Mark Johnson observes how "this objectivist orientation is deeply rooted in Western philosophical and cultural tradition," (5) and, as a consequence, serves to promote notions of rational structure and "theory-neutral data." These roots circumvent the somatically engendered logics of the empirical body to focus instead on the rational constructs of language and number, which, Erikson (1995) observes, create a subject-object distinction implicit in "the very grammatical structures of Indo-European languages." (6). Representing the triumph of Cartesian accountability, such strategies rely on the subject's mastery of all she surveys. From Descartes to Derrida it is possible to note the effects of what Lyotard (1979) calls "binary thinking" on what Susan Melrose (2002) describes as "commonsensical registers" (7). This is evidenced in the ways in which textuality enlists hermeneutics, imposes perspectival frames and brackets both aesthetics and sensory engagement. Perhaps it is just such traditions of perception which lock out that which cannot be reduced to language. This is evidenced in an infrastructure which hierarchises the apparently substantial, measurable elements of "author and work" over process and virtuosity. Performance listings, publications catalogues and advertising all prioritise work and agency ("play" and "playwright") over "process" and "collaboration." In this sense, in our still largely representational, mainstream, performance practices, the text is often the measure by which mastery is judged.

Lecture 2 -- Are we "ontologically dirty"?

Placing ourselves, as Matthew Goulish does in "in the proximity of performance," (39 Microlectures, 2000) (8) how might we be positioned? Do we occupy, (as many performance critical scholars too numerous to mention, occupy), the singular viewing point of the spectator-critic theorizing performance in terms of what can be defined, concretised or identified by its shared features and generalities? And from this Archimedean Point, do we construct our critical frames from the largely spatial and substantialist perspectives of discursive practices inherited principally from the perceptual mechanisms of an outdated but persistent metaphysics? Are our formal, critical modes in which we break down performance into measurable, definable, controllable, digital moments simply the deadly gossamer of Alberti's veil (9) cast across the frame of what lies, objectified, before us?

Merriam-Webster traces the term performance to 15th century usage meaning "deed" or "feat," and "performer" to Old French, in which par (thoroughly) is coupled with fournir (to furnish) (10). In the transitive sense, the performer, therefore, is someone who "accomplishes," "fulfils," "achieves" and "executes" actions, placing emphasis on the nature of "doing" rather than "the thing done." Might we argue that contemporary performance is a complex system that defies attestable conventions, categories and codes and operates instead through its singular "laws," productive energies and activities? Beginning with the premise that while much recent performance-critical writing claims to recognise the processual nature of contemporary performance in conceptual terms, liberally referring to a recognisable degree of "hybridity," "liminality" and "chaosmos," the often rigidly objectivist stance such discourse otherwise adopts might be regarded as peculiarly anachronistic and out of kilter with the logics of the work it seeks to explore (11).

Rather than focusing on "sign-making" and "meaning-making" might we speculate instead on how processes operate in somatic rather than cognitive terms and are experienced rather than understood? This would mean disengaging the Cartesian hierarchy of idea over action and positioning performance as an "integrated series of connected developments" (12). Such patterned foldings, however, are identifiable not by their singular, semiological make-up but by their action and role within a continuum. In contrast to the down-breaking notions in semiology that Elam (1980) describes as hierarchised "systems and codes" (13) in which binary parings of "signifier" and "signified" can be typified and classified, the organising principles of performance processes can be seen as up-building and self-generating. From an arguably more contemporary perspective, cultural scientist Donna Haraway in Modest_Witness (1997) describes "sign interpreters" as "ontologically dirty" and "made up of provisionally articulated, temporally dispersed, and spatially networked actors and actants." She goes on to add that "in the most literal sense, connections and enrolments are what matter." (14).

Furthermore, assuming the value of critical speculation on performance as both a pursuit of knowledge and a creative enterprise, and accepting that discursive frames will both mediate and adjudicate results, it becomes necessary to confront the difficulties of imposing the working logics of dualist and structuralist systems inherent in language on the altogether different mechanisms of generation engaged by performance in an early twenty-first century context.

Lecture 3 -- The Expanded Field

In Religion and Nothingness (1982) (15) Japanese philosopher Keiji Nishitani sets out to criticise the Cartesian self-enclosure of the cognito in which the subject occupies the centre of her own world where objects exist which are substantial, stable, enduring and independent of her. Nishitani attempts to dismantle this by removing the frame to create an expanded field or śūnyatā, in which object and subject become part of a continuum in which their presence is only a phase not only removing the two-way traffic between subject and object but setting a static scene into motion.

Heidegger offers a similar schema but rather than removing the frame to unconceal the nihilism of "nothingness" so feared by Sartre (16), he positions the subject within it. Inside, nothing remains constant but is constituted by the random firing of activity and flux. Where Nisitani sets the subject adrift from culturally and historically disseminated notions centrality and fixity, Heidegger conflates the concrete and the metaphysical in order to state that "[a] boundary is not that at which something stops, as the Greeks recognised, a boundary is that from which something begins its presencing" (17). The boundary within Heidegger's account of existential phenomenology, marks out the site or opening where revelations might be unconcealed. Heidegger's spatial and no less theatrical metaphors make no distinction between subjective experience and the space in which it occurs. The world of the spectator is no longer separate from the world of the work she watches and as with Nishitani's expanded field, all experience comes as a result of encounter and with process over time. What is unconcealed is not predetermined or acknowledged conceptually but experienced in the moment of becoming.

In "The Origin of the work of Art" (1950) Heidegger shifts beyond questions of definition, measurement and being, to issues of origin, of "where" and "how" (18). Refusing to conceptualise art as "object" or probe its form, content, meaning or intention, Heidegger jettisons issues of judgement central to Western aesthetics since Kant. Shifting beyond end-orientated, instrumentalist logics Heidegger repositions art (and here we include performance) as a process. Dreyfus (1985) argues that Heidegger "holds open the possibility that there still exists in our micro-practices an undercurrent of pretechnological understanding of the meaning of being…involving nonobjectifying and nonsubjectifying ways of relating to nature, material objects and human beings" (19). Moreover, for Heidegger, the art work is not simply that which is unconcealed in the opening, instead, it changes the opening and all within it.

Lecture 4 -- Complex Systems

We can argue that in making claims towards postmodernity we are consequently inferring that such a divergence from modernity has been recognised cross-discursively in recent decades, and that seriality or pattern-making is evident in the virtual, process-led world of quantum physics, informatics and new-media. Attention remains, however, on the lasting affects of substantialism and its continued influence on perception, knowledge, language and understanding. The structures of language and the institutions of the everyday, reflect and reinforce ways in which "process and substance" are binarised - and therefore hierarchised, provoking speculation on ways in which "meaning" and "truth" are shaped relationally. Poststructuralism's anti-metaphysical "manifesto," in which such debates are embedded, remain pertinent to these inquiries.

If performance making is what Cilliers (1998) describes as a "complex system," that is, "not constituted merely by the sum of its components, but also by the intricate relationships between these components… 'cutting up' a system, destroys what it seeks to understand" (20). To understand performance, masterful or otherwise, we need to move beyond the Archimedean Point not simply to describe what is done from the multiple viewing points of the collaborators, but to learn to recognise its complex processes in the expanded field.


1. Matthew Goulish, 39 Microlectures in the Proximity of Performance, London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

2. Martin Heidegger, "Science and Reflection" and "The Age of the World Picture," in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, Translated by William Lovitt, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1954/1977), pp. 115-183.

3. Deborah Levitt, "Heidegger and the Theatre of Truth," Tympanum, Volume 1, 1998.

4. Op. cit. p. 163.

5. Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. x.

6. Jon Erikson, "The Fate of the Object: From Modern Object to Postmodern Sign in Art" in Performance and Poetry, Ohio: University of Michigan Press, 1995, p. 41.

7. Susan Melrose, "Entertaining Other Options…Restaging 'Theory' in the Age of Practice as Research," Inaugural Professorial Lecture, Middlesex University, January, 2002. Available at http://www.sfmelrose.u-net.com/.

8. Matthew Goulish, 39 Microlectures in the Proximity of Performance, London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

9. Leon Battisa Alberti's "veil" or "draftsman's net" used for perspective drawing. Described in De Pictura, c1436. See On Painting, trans John R Spencer, Newhaven: Yale University Press, 1956.

10. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition copyright © 2002 by Merriam-Webster, Inc. http://www.merriam-webstercollegiate.com/info/copyright.htm.

11. For example, Susan Broadhurst, Critical Acts: A Critical Overview of Contemporary Performance and Theory (Continuum, 1999); Patrice Pavis, Analyzing Performance: Theatre, Dance and Film (University of Michigan Press, 2003); William Demastes, Staging Consciousness: Theatre and the Materialisation of the Mind (Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 2002); Natalie Crohn-Schmitt, Actors and Onlookers: Theater and Twentieth-century Scientific Views of Nature (Evanston: Ilinois, Northwestern University Press, 1990).

12. Nicholas Rescher, Process Metaphysics: An Introduction to Process Philosophy, New York: State University of New York Press, 1996, p. 38.

13. Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, London and New York: Routledge, 1980, p.49.

14. Donna Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™, London and New York: Routledge, 1997, p. 127.

15. Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness, trans. Jan Van Bragt, Berkley: University of California Press, 1982, pp. 30-45.

16. Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barns, New York: Philosophical Library, 1956, chapter 1, section 4, pp. 254-302.

17. Martin Heidegger, "Building, Dwelling, Thinking," in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter, New York: Harper Perennial, 1990, p. 154.

18. Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art" in Basic Writings, revised and expanded edition, ed. David Farrell Krell, London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 139-212.

19. Hubert L. Drefus "Holism and Hermeneutics," in Robert Hollinger, ed., Hermeneutics and Praxis, Notre Dame, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1985, p. 244.

20. Paul Cilliers, Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex Systems, London and New York: Routledge, 1998, p. 2.

Jayne Richards is a PhD research student at Middlesex University, researching the "knowledge status" of professional devised performance practice.

Web design, background image of students performing at Rose Bruford College, 2000 and picture of Jane Richards copyright © John Robinson.

Page last updated 30th August 2004.