Tomaž Toporišic: Traces of the Performative Turn

In his text, Tomaž Toporišic shows how several (theatre) artists explicitly play with characteristics of the so-called ‘performative turn’ (1960s). During this turn, the view was exposed that “all the world’s a stage, and the men and women are merely players”, as Shakespeare already wrote down in 1623 (As You Like It), thereby subordinating the textual to the performative. Most important in this view is the co-creating role of the spectator, as without the ‘agreement’/involvement  and presence of the spectator, the performance would not be performative at all. When one performs, or presents himself to a certain public, the ability to perform is determined by the ability of the performer to reach up to (“to repeat”) existing social values (see introduction), thereby creating a self-consciousness, on the part of both the performer and the spectator, about doing and re-doing (part 3). So to express performative utterances, there is not only a performer, but also a spectator, who both create self-awareness around the repetition of social values (which does not mean the performance has to be conventional and cannot challenge the ruling norms! – see part 3), in so doing updating social conventions. The believalibity of the performative utterance is thus in hands of the spectator, and is dependent on the interaction between spectator and performer, who then judges the performative value through his own framework, looking for confirmation, and thereby providing the necessary authority the performative needs in order to be regarded as such. 

In his paper, Toporišic both implicitly and explicitly points out how the above mentioned procceses are used in (modern) theatre performances, especially highlighting the wish artists seem to have to emphasize this performative character. Examples are the techniques (exessive repetition, sampling, quotations and misquotations etc) used by Elfride Jelinek and Thomas Bernhard (part 3) and the emphasis on identification in “We Are All Marlene Dietrich FOR” (part 4). Alltogether, Toporišic gives a clear overview how these artists play (or, as Toporišic himself states: “trace, re-enact and reappropriate”, part 5) with the notion of performativity.


“Performance thus creates a visible gap between signifier and signified” (see part 4). Although it is true, at least I think, that the performative utterance is dependent on social frameworks (which creates the gap), I doubt if there really is a visible gap as Toporišic proposes. There is a presence (sign) and an interpretation (signified), yet the two are hard to separate and are interconnected. Especially now, in a culture that could be said to rely heavily on performative utterances (such as the news, which creates our ‘reality’), I’d like to ask you whether and how the performative creates this gap on a conscious level.

Toporišic shows the development of the performative in theatrical settings. How could this notion of the performative be applied to our everyday lives, thereby referring to the theme of this week: body as medium? (For example, to pitch a very broad question, how does Obama’s presence – both live and mediatized – affect the behaviour of  ‘spectators’/voters and vice versa?)


~ by bernadetteschrandt on February 21, 2009.

11 Responses to “Tomaž Toporišic: Traces of the Performative Turn”

  1. re: gap between signifier and signified
    I interpreted that the “function” of the performance is precisely to dislodge the signifier from the signified, to break or at least revolt against the text, in order to “cause a change of their [audience] perception of reality, self and others.”
    The performative accomplishes this, in part, through self-reflexivity (or is it self-reflectivity? – there is a difference)

    your second question: we don’t apply 😉

  2. You think you don’t apply? Then what were you doing at the very moment you posted your comment? What were you doing performing your role as a teacher? How do you present yourself in different situations, say your Facebook account vs your own website? “Perform, or else” as MacKenzie says..

  3. There is also Ervin Goffman’s theory on the presentation of self in everyday life. His dramaturgical perspective refers to the fact that we all have a certain “personal face” that we expose in different social environments, a face that refers to the role each of us performs. Moreover, social interaction ( a series of performances, as it is the case here) is defined by our attempt to “manage impressions”, in order to create our “front region”, the one we let show every time we perform socially. So, at the end of the day, it all comes down to exposing the image you would like others to see. That applies not only to former o current presidents 🙂 For more details on self representation, you can also refer to the Johari window, a psychological tool created by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham.

  4. In what way are the terms ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ used here? From a Saussurian point of view, I would say that talking about a gap between them is rather non-sensical. Remember, these are the two arbitrarily linked aspects of a sign. There is of course the poststructuralist version of this…

  5. Not the “sginifying” Kessler means, though maybe useful to someone out there:
    The concept of “Signifyin(g),” as used by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in “The Signifying Monkey” (1988), and resembling Toporišic’s “tracing, re-enacting and reappropriating” might be illuminated by the following “toast” (“a narrative poem improvised in performance from a store of themes”) by someone called “Kid” as printed in Heath Anthology of Am. Literature,” called “The Signifying Monkey”:
    “Deep down the jungle so they say
    There’s a signifying motherfucker down the way.

    For up jumped the monkey in the tree one day and laughed,
    ’I guess I’ll start some shit.’
    Now the lion come through the jungle one peaceful day,
    When the signifying monkey stopped him and this what he started to say.
    He said, ‘Mr. Lion,’ he said, ‘A bad-assed motherfucker down your way.’
    He said, ‘Yeah! The way he talks about your folks is a certain shame.
    I even heard him curse when he mentioned your grandmother’s name.’”
    (After being signified a second time, the lion realizes the signifying and kills the “Signifying Monkey.”)

  6. Kessler’s remark about the model we are using reminded me about something I read in Copenhagen about games/simulations.

    The gap between signifier and signified can indeed be described as Peirce’s addition to the model of the interpretant (the idea the observer has about the object), which can change from person to person, leading to different interpretation. Game scholar Gonzalo Frasca. wrote that this still does not apply to games or simulations in general as they change while engaging with them. In order to understand this different appearances or qualities of the simulation, the observer needs an “interpretamen”, and this is the idea the observer has about the representamen (Frasca, “Videogames of the Oppressed: Videogames as a means for critical thinking and debate” 2001, p. 36-37).

    Back to performance, I think that this explains the observers judgement of the performance, whether it is judged to be real or not as pointed out by Bernadette: “The believalibity of the performative utterance is thus in hands of the spectator, and is dependent on the interaction between spectator and performer, who then judges the performative value through his own framework, looking for confirmation, and thereby providing the necessary authority the performative needs in order to be regarded as such.”

  7. Are we back to the question between form and content then? Or medium and message?

  8. Well, I most certainly hope we are not!. All these oppositions are placed at quite different levels. But while with the ones you name are it is the container/contained metaphor that is at the basis of the misunderstanding, this is not the case for signifier/signified.

  9. As I was reading Toporisic, the text made quite clear sense, yet after the question I came back to the text I would say that in this context signifier/signified take a somewhat different stance than Saussurian model. In the paragraph above the one quoted Toporosic talks about subversion and change of perspective and a few sentences above the one quoted he states that the ‘performative nature of a theatrical event produces a feeling of “uneasiness”’. I believe, this is what Toporosic emphasises in the text and it seems that Karin refers to it as dislodgement. Thereby the spectator of the performance finds oneself caught in a gap with this sense of uneasiness – between signifier and signified.

    Further on Toporisic he observes that ‘a new kind of unity of spectators and performers’ emerges (does he label it as ‘performativeness’?) and ‘the role of the spectators [is] changed from the expected role of a passive hermeneutic process of decoding the performer’s articulation to something much more active, entering into a praxis, in which meanings are not so much communicated as created, questioned and negotiated.’ In other words, it is the displacement of signs, signifiers and signifieds – we ought to go beyond simplified hermeneutics of ‘x signifies y’. It is questioning rather than answering. And no, we are not back to medium/message as it is no longer clear which is which.

  10. Lina’s remarks are very helpfull to understand the effect of uneasiness / as a result from non-automatic understanding. The signifier somehow cannot be identified in case of performance art. This can make a beholder think> reflecting on or critical towards what we see and how we look.
    But, if we take a look at Obama’s speeches and other political performances, we don’t want this uneasiness to happen. This gives us a sense of falseness. Maaike Bleeker wrote an essay on political peformances (“theatre of/or truth”) and, the quality of a real life performance and she mentions that ‘theatricality is what happens when a representation fails to convince its viewers’. She puts theatricality versus absorption, and relates it to our perception as ‘non-truthfull’. Allthough Obama is performing, is even making theatre, I see that people believe it is true; his performance is responding to our idea of truth and we are willing to see him as true.

  11. The case of The Yes Men Klaas mentioned elsewhere is relevant here as well. The Yes Men present something which is actually framed as a performance, but just like the case study Fischer-Lichte describes (Two Amerindians…), people perceive it as ‘real’.

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