What Is Performatism?

Last update: 7 April 2019


Performatism is an epochal concept of post-postmodernism. I proposed it in 2000, first in a German-language article in the Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, then in an English translation in Anthropoetics. A book version, Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism, appeared in 2008. You can also find a brief practical introduction to interpreting performatist narrative in Blog Post No. 3, "The Performatist Challenge" as well as exemplary analyses in the Interpretations section.

     Performatism is an across-the-board cultural reaction to post­modern­ism that began sometime in the mid-1990s. It may best be described as an epochal development that replaces postmodern irony and skepticism with artistically mediated belief and the experience of transcendence. This does not mean that organized religion or esoteric belief systems are making a comeback.  What performatism does mean is that secular works of art, literature, film etc. are using formal means to force us to believe in and identify with positive values like love, beauty, reconciliation, and transcendence. This tension between believing in positive values and the not-quite-voluntary means used to transmit them give performatism its special feel.

     If you're interested in how the theory of performatism can be used to interpret literature, films, art, and architecture, take a look at one of the articles or books listed on this site in the Performatism Bibliography. The first chapter of my Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism also contains a more technical explanation of what I've outlined above (beware: semiotics!). A copy can be obtained by writing to me at my email address (raoul.eshelman@lmu.de). The Blog is devoted to more theoretical questions as well as to providing critiques of other theories of post-postmodernism. In the Downloads section you’ll find summaries of performatism in German, Albanian, Polish, and Ukrainian. Speakers of German may also want to refer to my book  Die Rückkehr des Glaubens (2016), which provides a non-scholarly description of performatism in that language.

     

Why is Performatism Called "Performatism"?       

Most other theories of contemporary cultural development take "modernism" and tack a prefix onto it. Thus you'll find coinages such as  hyper-, cosm-, meta-, digi-, and automodernism, as well as plain old post-postmodernism. Performatism doesn't follow this pattern, and there's a reason for it. Unlike the competing concepts, performatism is a historical or epochal concept. This means that performatism is considered a historical phase that can be conceptually separated not only from postmodernism, but also from modernism. The competing concepts noted above are for the most part posthistorical. This doesn't mean that they think nothing new ever happens, but it does mean that they think that what's happening now in culture is just an extension of something previous, which is in turn an extension of something even earlier (for more on this see the remarks below on "What Performatism Is Not"). The problem is this: if everything is just an extension of everything else, there's no urgent need to think about new concepts or change the theoretical assumptions rooted in postmodernism that are now being used to explain what comes after it. You can reflect more closely on the absurd conceptual and terminological problems posthistorical thinking causes by trying to think of 19th century literature as a fluid extension of romanticism. Realism would then become post-romanticism and decadence or early modernism post-post-romanticism. Very few people would think this is a workable solution for categorizing or naming 19th century literary development, but many appear to think it works wonderfully for the 20th and 21st century. I don't, and performatism is an attempt to return to a type of thinking that makes conceptual distinctions between different phases of historical development--just like we do with "romanticism," "realism," and "decadence" or other clearly differentiated historical terms.   

     A second question about performatism is what the "perform" in it means. "Performatism" sometimes causes confusion because people think it's a theory of performance relating to drama or social relationsit's not. Basically, when I worked out the basic idea I was faced with the choice of finding a name livelier than "post-postmodernism." I could have chosen some odd neologism"ostensivism" for example—but I felt it would be better to use a more familiar term. The reason I chose "performatism" goes back to the Latin root per formam, which means doing things through form. This suggests that narrative works of art are using formal means to create fictional conditions for experiencing love, belief, beauty, transcendence and similar positive states of social interaction. Of course it's not possible to convey the nature of an entire epoch in a single word, but I haven't been able to think of anything better (and neither, apparently, has anyone else!). At the moment, the name designating our cultural situation is still open, and it will probably remain so for quite a while.      


What Is the Difference between Performatism and Postmodernism? 

Many scholars think that postmodernism is still going on in a "corrected," "extended" or "intensified" form. I don't believe this to be true at all, since the central features of performatism can be shown to be diametrically opposed to those of postmodernism.  I can make the differences clearer by going through five main features of both:        


  1. The original postmodernist project of averting modernist totalitarianism and/or the totalizing devices that accompanied it is passé (unless maybe you live in North Korea). The main problem facing performatism isn't totalitarianism, but rather the aesthetic and ethical jadedness that has been produced by nearly four decades of ironic (postmodern) argumentation conducted in literary and artistic form. Performatism's basic goal is to choke off irony by forcing us to believe using literary or other aesthetic devices.   In performatist terms, we can only act in a positive way if we believe in something, and performatist literature and art help us--or rather force--us to do so. Aesthetically mediated belief, and not endlessly receding ironic skepticism, is the basis of the new epoch.  
  2. Performatism works by squelching postmodern irony. There are numerous ways of doing this and we have just begun to start describing them systematically. My main contribution to this project has been the idea of the "double frame." This means that performatist works offer us a unified object, person, or situation inside the work that we intuitively identify with, and then rigs the work as a whole so that we don't have any other choice but to accept this identification, even if the person or thing in question is rather dubious. One of my standard examples is the novel Life of Pi.  Pi, the hero, is an obvious liar, but the form of the book is set up in such a way that you wind up wanting to believe his long, beautiful, untrue story instead of the short, ugly, true one he also tells. Performatist narratives tend to trick or coerce us into a position of believing in something unified. This sort of coercion works through form (per formam), which is where performatism gets its name; it's not a theory of the performing arts. 
  3. Performatism revives both history and the feeling of experiencing events. Performatist narratives contain a narrative or thematic device that produces a surprising effect resulting in a change in the fictional world. These "surprises," which cause us to believe in something fictional or artistic, can be thought of as performances that also change our attitude towards the real world. If this change in real attitudes takes place (and the evidence is that it has--performatist works now excite us in a way that postmodern ones no longer do), we can rightly claim that (cultural) history has started again. Postmodernists, by contrast, believe that history has ended. As a result, they think that the new development is either nothing more than a second coming of modernism or an "intensification" of postmodernism. In both cases, they feel no need to acknowledge the existence of anything new or change anything in their conceptual approaches to it.    
  4. Performatism revives the subject by closing it off formally from the world of signs and discourse that in postmodernism determine subjectivity (this is why there are so many autistic characters, fools, naïfs and geniuses in performatist narratives). The performatist subject is not "authentic" but is formally "out of it." This allows him or her to resist outside influence and act autonomously, against the logic of prevailing discourse. The crucial element of such narratives is not the separation of the protagonist per se, but rather whether he or she can transcend that separation (usually by passing on some sort of value to another person or reaching some higher state of consciousness or development). Hence performatist narratives often involve positive or productive dyadic relationships between human beings that are unthinkable in postmodernism. Performatist subjects tend to communicate with others through intuition or mimesis, i.e. by causing others to imitate them spontaneously (something not requiring communication through discourse). Because human subjects in performatism are active, they however also necessarily infringe on the physical space of others. The result is a paradoxical situation that I call the "ethics of perpetration": how do we reconcile positive action (which necessarily means stepping on other people's toes) with good?
  5. Performatism has a paradoxical approach to reality that is unacceptable to or unthinkable in postmodernism: it creates artificial conditions in which we can experience all kinds of things that postmodernists think are metaphysical illusions, e.g. love, beauty, belief, reconciliation, and transcendence. Performatist works in a certain sense use a postmodern strategy (simulation) to artificially or aesthetically enable us to experience transcendence, love, belief etc. (Postmodernists think that this is simply a trick.) Performatism is most definitely not a  return to modernist authenticity, which involves a direct experience of some aspect of our lifeworld. In performatist works we are always aware that our feeling of love, belief, transcendence is mediated through form and manipulated (but we accept it whether we want to or not).