"Not lost but not yet found": accounting for decision-making process in expert/professional performance-disciplinary practices

This is the text from a presentation prepared for "Convivencia: A one-day symposium on existing and potential relationships between documentation and live art practices", held on Saturday the 3rd of February 2007 at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK.

Although Susan Melrose was unable to attend the Convivencia Symposium, her unproofed paper was distributed to symposium delegates. Therefore, this post documents a presentation that did not take place (an event none the less, although not as advertised). The following is an updated copy of her paper.


Certain curiosities emerge, I find, when we look back at the historical development of what has been called 'practice theory' (I myself prefer the terms 'practice-theoretical-practices', and 'mixed-mode meta-practices'): amongst these curiosities are not simply the insights already revealed in some late nineteenth and mid-to-later 20th Century enquiries into practice, but also the fact that many of these have been neglected in early 21st Century struggles 'in practice' in the contexts of the performing arts. Some of you will recall from Bourdieu, first published in French in 1972 (in English translation in 1977), his remark that the observation of practice, from a unreflective standpoint, constitutes practical activity as spectacle, leading researchers to "insist on trying to answer questions which are not and cannot be questions for practice".

Correspondingly, Bourdieu adds, a "theoretical disposition" is thereby brought to bear on practitioners' work, which disposition tends to "invite …a quasi-theoretical attitude" from practitioners. This attitude, in turn, and tellingly, "tacitly excludes reference to a whole range of tactical operations". According to Bourdieu, writing in the early 1970s, the form that the questioning (by sociologists?) of practitioners takes tends to elicit an ordered sequence of answers. That 'ordered sequence', then, "betrays" the questioner's own "non-practical" disposition, inviting the practitioner to adopt a "quasi-theoretical attitude". Clearly, for Bourdieu, a "quasi-theoretical attitude" in a practitioner is not a helpful matter.

Practice, on that basis, Bourdieu goes on, comes to assume the status of an "object of thought, predisposed to become an object of discourse and to be unfolded as a totality existing beyond its 'applications' and independently of the needs and interests of its users" (1977:106). Plainly some of the terms in Bourdieu's own writing (such as the negatively-defined "non-practical") are historically-specific, and attitudinally-complex, and they need to be reviewed; on the other hand, the notion that certain sorts of enquiry constitute practical activity as spectacle (see para 1 above) seems to me to have particular resonances in the context of enquiries into expert practices in the performing arts, where 'spectacle' is both literalised, in performance events, but may not, for all that, serve to identify the specificity of expert practices, for the practitioners involved in their production.


This presentation asks how attentive 'we'1 might need to be, in documentation produced in the performance research context, to a key distinction, widely overlooked in Performance Studies writing, between models of knowledge and models of intelligibility that are highly specific to expert spectating, and those that are quite particular to expert-practitioner decision-making processes. In the most simple of terms, the one tends to focus on performance as already-made, as event; whereas the other, while 'eventicity' is important, might usefully focus on the making, on decision-making processes, not least if it has 'new insights' in mind. I have argued elsewhere that this lack of distinction is institutionalised, in the university; that what is widely identified as 'Performance Studies', across the land, might be better understood as 'Expert Spectator Studies', misrecognised as such. By way of contrast, the clearly distinct expert practitioner decision-making processes and the models of intelligibility in play in these, admitted relatively recently to the research context of the university, are not actually lost (in documentation): to argue for loss would be to participate in the late 20thC Performance Studies (Lacanian) fascination with death and castration, to be found in various excellent writers, including Phelan and Heathfield. At the same time, however, certain aspects peculiar to expert practitioner decision-making processes – to which I refer today – are equally not yet found in writing/published documentation: instead, those disciplinary particularities and peculiarities are widely subject, in Performance Studies terms, to erasure. These aspects of expert practices are not simply 'difficult' where academic writing dominates; rather, their investigation has largely been omitted from Performance Studies enquiries. Highly indicative of these widespread and indeed naturalised 'institutional erasures', are what I have called the constitutive operations of expert or professional intuition, in performance-making processes. These tend to be erased whenever the operations of expert or professional intuition meet and catalyse the logics of expert production that apply in any performance-making context leading to a public event or showcase, for the simplest of reasons: expert spectators can (literally) see their outcome, but not how they were produced.

1. Words, words, words …

Given the density of my opening observations, above, I propose to proceed in point form, but I hope to do so without reproducing what Bourdieu has condemned as the "ordered sequence" of the -ologist ('socio-' or 'anthropo-' or 'psycho-'). That 'ordering' itself would seem, in Bourdieu writing in the early 1970s, to have 'betrayed' a "non-practical" disposition. (I would want to argue, by the way, some three decades later, that many of us here today are likely to be of ordered-practical disposition.) On the basis of this sort of oppositional undertaking, in Bourdieu, which opposed in the early 1970s a 'practical' and a 'non-practical' disposition, aligning these with different professional activities, I want to ask whether, despite evidence of his sympathy for 'practice', we might not need now to identify Bourdieu's writing as historically-specific, particularly in terms of what might be identified as the presuppositions, the ways of seeing and knowing, hence the models of intelligibility, that seem to have informed it. Irresistibly, it seems to me now, Bourdieu's own writing of the early 1970s objectified practices and practitioners, while equally failing to view the '-ologist' as a practitioner in turn, with a particular and generalising mode of productivity (academic writing) in mind. Objectification is irresistible: while some Performance Studies writers in the university claim that 'some of my best friends are artists', their own writing or documentation tends to be pursued from their own positions and times as expert spectator/educators.

It is not simply the banal fact that times have changed that concerns me here. Rather, I am concerned that theoretical writing, once stabilised through publication, tends to remain constant syntactically, in its formulations. What changes are the ways of seeing, knowing and doing, and the models of intelligibility that govern different users' engagement with and understanding of that writing. My observation here is similarly banal, until I point out the discipline-specific fact that writers, whatever their sympathies and attempts at self-positioning, tend, as such, to be un-like expert performance-makers, to such an extent as to render writing itself suspect, if, and precisely if, it is viewed from the perspective of (accounts of) expert decision-making in performance practices.

2. Like and un-like

Indicative of the (performance) 'writing problematic' I have rapidly sketched out above is what seems to be a commonsense formulation widely used in the everyday of the university. The commonsensical, others have argued, is the most difficult to counter 'politically'. Bourdieu himself, in his Outline of a Theory of Practice, used terms like "durably installed" disposition and attitude, which similarly signals the insidious, virus-like quality of the commonsensical. The formulation that best serves me here as illustration of the durably-installed commonsensical in the university and elseswhere is the widely-used expression 'theory and practice'. (You and I may already have articulated it here today.) It can seem, in certain contexts, to spring unbidden from my own lips, despite the fact that, in the contexts that concern me professionally, I know better. Certain models of intelligibility, dominant in the university even in this time of PaR, continue to prevail in the Performance Studies seminar, where that obstructive 'theory and practice' continues to be articulated, always locating 'practice' in the second and secondary slot, in relation to a 'theory' that takes first place, and all that accrues to firstness. I have indicated elsewhere, and I intend to do so again today, that there is an order and an ordering, of the most banal and insidious kind, in the formulation 'theory and practice', which defeats PaR undertakings before they are even begun. That for all that the received ordering is commonsensical, in the academic everyday, it is equally nonsensical, to the extent that the users of that formulation are unable to explain precisely what they mean by either noun ('practice' or 'theory'); they fail as a consequence to acknowledge the ancient and still powerful 'knowledge-political' implications of that ordering; and they refuse to acknowledge – even though we all know better – that whatever is understood by 'theory', in that formulation (it tends to stand-in for complex writing produced in a narrow range of registers), fails to achieve empirical fit with the specificities of expert performance-making as research, in the HEI context. The specificities of expert performance-making, their times and their places and the expertise upon which they depend, are unlike expert writing-production in that narrow range of academic registers, which does not mean, however, that expert performance-making might not itself be theoretical. Or, to put this the other way around: the practice of expert writing production, in a narrow range of academic registers, is unlike expert performance-making – even 'as research' – in the HEI context. Happily, expert performance-making laughs in the face of those who might still want to claim that it is 'structured like a language' – but that does not mean, when it is contested, that it does not know the place allowed to it in the university.

3. 'Re-' formulations

The required reformulation, if we are to begin to escape the constraints of the past, reproduced as common sense in the present, is 'theoretical practices', in general, and, in the case of expert performance-making and its documentation, 'mixed-mode expert and discipline-specific theoretical practices'2.

'Practice theory', an emergent discipline in the later decades of the 20thC, has tended to run from the ridiculous ('everything is practice'/'is practised') to the sublime: practices are self-elaborating, either through ongoing articulation or through dispersion (see C. Spinosa, in Shatzki et al (eds), The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, 2001), and this regardless of the declared intentions of practitioners/users. In the early 21stC, what's more, 'practice' has been appropriated as a complex trope, in academic writing, has thereby assumed the status of a 'turn'. Earlier 'turns' include the 'linguistic turn', the 'textual turn', and the 'ethnographic turn': in each instance, an apparently useful term, borrowed from one or another authoritative disciplinary discourse, is applied as metaphor to an area of enquiry which lacks its own authoritative disciplinary discourse. Its users declare its task to be that of illumination, whereas metaphors used in this way, in my experience, tend to serve as sticking-plaster, concealing irritating, painful or uncomfortable gaps in knowledge.

Speaking of 'practice theory', and with Bourdieu's attempts in the early 1970s and after, on behalf of a 'theory of practice', in mind, I want to suggest that when it comes to the quite specific and peculiar 'practice-centred' economies of expert performance-making, viewed from the context of research in the HE sector, that expert performance-making is itself a theoretical undertaking, a complex and peculiar mixed-mode metapractice. It does not need, on this basis, to be 'theorised' discursively by a spectator-other – which does not mean, for all that, that it does not need writing. To identify expert performance-making as a 'mixed-mode theoretical practice', likely to include writing but unlikely to 'fit' the orders of expert writing production in the university, requires of us that we spend a little time exploring what might be understood by the qualifier 'theoretical'. (On the latter subject, if we think back to early writing from Barthes, one of his mid-20thC suggestions was that some of us might attempt to develop a discipline-specific meta-language of production, in place of the widespread and un-self-reflexive 'languages of interpretation' preferred in the university.)

A number of expert writers – and here lies the irony – have attempted, in the closing decades of the 20thC, to point out that the first recorded (written!) 'theoretician' – or 'theor' – Solon (around 560BC), was himself an ambassadorial performer, as well as a writer. A major mode of his engagement was performance-practice-centred, event-specific, and expert. His expert task was to find the (live performance) means to conjure up, for a public audience, 'other worlds' in their curious particularities. 'Theoretical practices', in this sense, were 'processional', and can be understood (i.e. in terms of their intelligibility models) as having been embodied, oral, audio-visual in their modes of delivery, event-specific and time-sensitive; responsive and audience-orientated practices. Performative in nature, in the sense that to preserve the economy of their peculiar modes of articulation, they exploited, amongst other devices, the ancient rhetorical devices of hypotyposis, and may well have done so on the basis of a momentary sense of need and appropriateness. Hypotyposis involves a vivid sketch of otherness; in live performance it might well combine the gestural, 'faciality', vocal inflection, bodily emphasis, not to 'represent', but rather to effect a complex triggering in the onlooker and listener. It requires of the latter, and triggers in them, the necessary actions of taking up and expanding upon what was otherwise a highly economical but vivid (mixed-mode) sketch. Hypotyposis, in this performance context, might be either schematic (an outline plan of something other) or symbolic. In the case of performances expertly-made, hypotyposis is likely to operate in multi-dimensional and multi-schematic terms, where what it triggers, in spectators and listeners, is their capacity to bring a highly-particular and detailed sense of 'other worlds' in their considerable complexity. I would argue that the device is used in academic writing, as well as in performance art.

The 'expert-practice-theoretical', in this particular, ancient-historical account – which I suggest we need to reactivate in the present context – has access to and can reference (in kind and differently) the full range of available performance-making systems and their events; understands the histories of the different practices involved; is likely to cite performances past, but in the present tense and with a future in mind – that is, in order to cause others to bring a different set of effects/affects into play. In this sense she is a meta-practitioner: her practices are other-practice-reflexive, as well as innovative; and she is a praxiologist: she has access to, can call upon, and understands the modes of knowledge and models of intelligibility that apply, and she undertakes an innovative, critical intervention on that basis. She works with the logics and ordering of practice, from within practice, and in terms of the criteria that apply to effective practices (and practice-affects), and at the same time and in so doing, she makes decisions based on expert intuition, expert sensing, and a trusted, expert feeling – for what might work, and what might not. She works the interface, with considerable skill, between these, knowing full well that the one chosen will work through catalysis upon its other, sometimes with such rapidity of transformation that she forgets what was there in the first place.

4. Forgetting …

In a context in which writing was a curious and elite-specific practice, whereas the events of live performance and oral recall were the norm, the production of writing needs to be seen as no more than, and no less than, another mode of practice: it loses its primacy in/as 'theory', and some of its authority over its others. It might usefully, on this basis, serve to record in part at least, performances that have taken place, provided it can avoid interpretative apparatuses and the urge to 'explain'. Its preferred role should not be to substitute itself for the modes of practice it takes as its object, nor to seek to explain those performances and performance effects that are likely to have been experienced and felt in other times, and in other places. Its better task, in the hands of expert practitioners, is to attempt to provide terms and outlines specific to a production meta-discourse, likely to be largely diagrammatical, in which writing is called upon as one means to serve expert performance-making in its curious particularity.

In attempting to account for the making, rather than for its effects, and in abstaining from the attempt to identify effects in advance of their happening for others (the opposite is also true: many of us teach students, inappropriately, to try to identify (long-gone) causes on the basis of effects experienced, regardless of the fact that catalytic conversions have intervened between these two), writing has a particular but secondary role to play.

On the bases of this sort of observation, my suggestion is that to the end of documenting expert performance-making, 'we' attempt to establish (the terms for) production meta-practices, multi-modal and speculative in kind, from within the times and spaces of making, while asking of expert spectators, however interested and sympathetic their approaches might seem to be, to keep to their own times and places, leaving to the experts the epistemic task of a documentation caught in the act. Bourdieu's writing of the early 1970s is not without interest in that event: in pointing out that there are questions asked of practice/practitioners that are not questions for practice, he has served to trigger, in some of us, the attempt to ask (and not to answer) a highly particular question: what might be the appropriate questions for practice/practitioners to ask of itself/themselves?


1. This 'we' tends to default to the university, however inclusive some of us aspire to be.

2. I am wilfully insisting here on 'discipline-specific', in part because of the still fashionable aspiration, in the university, to a widely misunderstood 'interdisciplinarity'.

Page updated 13th April 2019.