This section offers thumbnail interpretations of performatist works of all kinds. The focus is on pointing out typical performatist devices rather than providing in-depth analyses.
Index of Interpretations
Last update: 31 July 2019
1. Good Will Hunting (Gus van Sant, USA 1997)
Good Will Hunting is a popular film about a troubled blue-collar genius named Will Hunting (Matt Damon) who finds direction in life after undergoing therapy with a no less troubled psychologist named Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). It’s an appealing, but not a great movie--it’s well acted, neatly plotted, and at times a bit predictable. However, its main premise is innovative and important for the transition to a post-postmodern, performatist notion of separated subjectivity.
What makes the movie interesting from a performatist perspective is its promotion of a genius as a main character as well as the way it develops dyadic bonding between the two main characters.
In performatism, geniuses are the flip side of fools. They are separated from conventional social discourse by virtue of a special gift of some kind (the fool is separated too but has no gift). Because of this geniuses appear as bearers of transcendence--transcendence being marked here as elsewhere in performatism by the formal impossibility of understanding characters in terms of prevailing social discourse. We don’t know why Will Hunting is able to solve incredibly difficult math problems in the twinkling of an eye, but it makes him radically different from everyone else, including merely brilliant mathematicians like his mentor Professor Lambeau. Will is also superior to everyone else using regular forms of discourse. He drives a whole slew of psychiatrists nuts by seeing through their analytical methods, he out-talks a Harvard history student at a bar in a discussion of Marxist theories of history, and he dissects the Robin Williams character’s psychological problems in the twinkling of an eye by analyzing a painting he’s done. Will bonds with his Irish pals both through Boston-flavored discourse (everyone seems to have had a brilliant dialect coach) and through tribal behavior (drinking, beating up members of other ethnic groups, and picking up girls).
The main structural problem afflicting separated bearers of transcendence (whether fools or geniuses) is their inability to form productive social relationships with other people. As my former pupil Zarifa Mamedova has pointed out in a German-language book on fools in Russian literature (see the Performatist Bibliography), this leads to two types of heroes or heroines. The first kind (like Will) is radically separated from discourse and the second kind (like Sean) is split between being separated from discourse and participating in it. The split hero needs the separated hero as a source of transcendent value or inspiration, and the separated hero needs the split hero as a mediator to convey his gift to other people or to society in general. To put this somewhat differently, a genius (at least ideally) doesn’t participate in mimetic behavior because he or she doesn’t need to imitate anyone. Likewise, a genius by definition can’t be imitated by anyone else. This impasse can only be solved when, paradoxically, either the genius successfully imitates someone or when someone is able to imitate the genius. Performatist genius narratives work by overcoming this “impossible” conundrum. The result is an performative event that has a transcendent edge to it--we have the feeling that the impossible has been achieved, even though this usually takes place in an everyday or ordinary way.
In Good Will Hunting this event occurs through the bonding that takes place between Will and Sean. Essentially, they form a dyad, which is the basic building block of social interaction and, if one follows the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, of culture in general. The dyad, in turn, is a dual unity that is at least partially separated from social discourse and that enables characters to transcend a negative situation of some kind. Indeed, all human relationships in the film are depicted as dyads. There are dyadic relationships between Will and his girlfriend Skylar, between Will and Professor Lambeau, between Sean and Professor Lambeau, and between Will and his friend Chuckie (plus two sidekicks). These relationships all take place in terms of conventional social discourse. For example, Professor Lambeau wants Will to make use of his potential in society, Skylar wants to be loved by Will and to study medicine, and Sean and Professor Lambeau have personal conflicts because of their diverging academic status (Lambeau is successful, Sean is not).
The crucial dyadic relationship, between Will and Sean, is however different than the others. Will is radically separated from society not only through his gift of genius but through his being abused as a child by a violent father (he imitates his father in an unproductive way by engaging in acts of random violence). Sean is also separated, but in a much milder way typical of “split” characters. He has withdrawn into himself after the death of his wife, and he has opted for a less successful career path, presumably because of serving in Vietnam and the disappointment experienced there. The neat plotting of the movie allows the two to hook up in a productive way that allows both to transcend their separation. Sean and Will are able to interact successfully only because they connect on a mimetic level and not on a discursive one: both are victims of paternal violence and both have experienced loss of a loved one (Sean’s wife has died, Will’s girlfriend has gone to California to study medicine). Sean’s ability to connect to Will on this level allows the genius Will, in a final act, to be “unoriginal” and imitate Sean’s act of material sacrifice for a loved one (Sean doesn’t go to a big Red Sox World Series game, Will gives up his job and drives to California). Also, Sean gets Will to realize that it is not his fault that he has been the victim of paternal violence. In this way, both manage to transcend their separated states. Will decides to “go see about a girl” in the way that Sean did (he quotes Sean, which is to say he is unoriginal) and Sean (like Will) leaves Boston to break out of his self-imposed isolation. The transcendent event doesn’t take place through discursive transactions but through mimetic, performative acts involving love on the one hand and violence on the other.
Performatist narratives are often resolved using an ostensive sign, which is to say a sign that establishes mutual, spontaneous understanding between two characters and resolves or defers a conflict of some kind. In Good Will Hunting this is achieved through the phrase “I had to go see about a girl” which Will quotes in his farewell note to Sean. The point is not whether he gets the girl (the movie doesn’t answer that question) but that he is now able to accept the healing gesture made by Sean, who is in turn going to imitate the healing gesture made by Will. Although the end of the movie is open (we don’t know what will happen to the two characters), it doesn’t dissolve in an endless regress of irony or depend on outside discourse for a resolution—Will and Sean have their own ostensive phrase which only they understand.
The litmus test for distinguishing a performatist work from a postmodern one is what I call double framing. The ostensive sign that Will and Sean share at the end makes up an inner frame that suggests unity and reconciliation. The question is: does the narrative structure of the film as a whole—the outside frame—confirm or undermine that suggested unity? There are numerous ways that narratives can do this. Some involve trickery (the classic example being American Beauty). Good Will Hunting works more straightforwardly: it simply piles on positive hints at the end of the movie—upbeat music, camera shots lingering on the smiling faces of Chuckie, Sean, and Will, and the like. While the ending of the movie is formally open, the main conflict between Sean and Will has been resolved by the end, and it's well nigh impossible to avoid that conclusion. While it's possible to take a critical or dismissive attitude toward that outcome, it's hard to deny in formal narrative terms: we have been forced to experience and believe in unity per formam—through the form of the movie's narrative.
There has been a lot of talk about the “return of authenticity” or the “return of modernism” after the end of postmodernism (see Blog entry Nr. 7). It’s important to point out that Will’s genius has nothing especially authentic about it in the modernist sense. Will isn’t privy to any essence or to any particularly deep understanding of the world. He is simply able to solve mathematical problems better than anyone else (mathematics being a closed system disconnected from the real world) and he is better at psychoanalytical, historical, and artistic discourse than anyone around him. His genius consists solely in his being better at discourse than anyone else and hence being impervious to discursive, i.e. postmodern, critiques of his behavior. It’s also worth noting that his victimary status doesn’t make him authentic (getting beaten up by his father does not provide him with any insight) and it doesn’t make him ethically superior to everyone else (the plot focuses on his overcoming victimization performatively rather than using it as an argument in ethical discourse). All in all, genius places him outside of a discursive field which for postmodernists or poststructuralists doesn't have any “outside”—thus marking the beginning of a new, performatist or post-postmodern approach to the world.
Good Will Hunting started a cycle of genius movies (A Beautiful Mind , The Imitation Game , The Theory of Everything , The Man Who Knew Infinity ) that I'll be returning to in future interpretations.
2. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, USA 2014)
The Imitation Game is another popular movie about a genius. Strictly speaking, it was independently produced, but it features two major stars, Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, and it uses many standard Hollywood devices (slick cinematography, a race against time, neatly defined, goal-oriented characters etc.). The movie treats the life of Alan Turing, who helped break the German Enigma code during WW II and developed a calculating machine that became the basis of modern computers. Turing was also persecuted for his homosexuality after the war and committed suicide as a result. The main innovation of the film is to link Turing’s logical genius with his homosexuality in an affirmative way. Rather than stressing his status as a victim, it suggests that his sexual otherness was something separated and whole and essential to his ingenuity. As in Good Will Hunting, the film uses genius to promote a specifically performatist kind of subjectivity that is—with one tragic exception—impervious to conventional discourse.
To do this, the movie often deviates markedly from historical truth—deviations that help make the performatist points in the film clearer. Turing, for example, is depicted as being a borderline autist—he separates peas and carrots on his plate as a schoolboy, he does not understand humor, he is socially very awkward, and he has no real friends (the real Turing was a bit eccentric, but was in fact quite sociable, had friends, and showed no symptoms of autism). Autism, however, is important because it denotes separation, which performatist culture treats as a positive quality: the autist is someone who seems to be entirely unto himself, who forms a discrete whole outside of conventional discourse. Also, because autism combines elements of the fool and the genius, it is ideally suited for conveying the problematic character of separated subjectivity, which has trouble bridging the gap between its own discrete position and the jumble of conventional discourse.
In disregard of historical fact, the movie also establishes Turing as a solitary genius by effectively eliminating the pioneering work of the Polish cryptographers who had already cracked the Enigma code in the 1930s using a different type of machine, which they called a bomba (feminine gender in Polish); the British, who continued the Polish project, called it a bombe. Apart from ignoring the Poles’ contribution, the movie also eliminates bombe with its feminine connotations. Instead, it has Turing name his machine “Christopher” after a school comrade with whom he was infatuated and who died at an early age. The name helps cement the bond between two types of otherness: the otherness of his homosexuality and the otherness of his brilliant invention—the invention that in fact defines our world today. The movie also takes liberties with Turing’s relationship with Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a fellow cryptographer with whom he was friendly in real life. In particular, it introduces several plot twists that highlight his role in promoting her emancipation. Here too, Turing’s unusual, separated behavior, which results out of a mix of mathematical brilliance and homosexuality, highlights his anticipation of our social norms as well as his laying the foundation of our entire digital age.
The movie also invents a spy plot that is meant to give a political edge to the homosexuality-must-remain-secret theme of the film. The main protagonist here is a high-level agent of the British spy organization MI6 named Menzies who is an ally of Turing in his (also made-up) struggle with his boss, Commander Denniston. After one of Turing’s co-workers guesses his homosexuality, Turing discovers that the co-worker is a Soviet spy. Unsure of whether to turn the spy in, Turing goes to Joan Clarke’s apartment, where he finds Menzies rifling through secret documents given to Clarke by Turing. When Turing reveals the name of the spy to Menzies to get Clarke out of military prison, where Menzies says she has been sent, Menzies tells him that MI6 has planted the spy there on purpose to convey important war information to the Soviets, whom Churchill doesn’t trust. Furthermore, Menzies reveals that Clarke isn’t in prison at all; he was lying. The moral seems to be that duplicity of this sort can be justified in practical terms (rather like not revealing one’s homosexuality). Also, when Turing’s team does break the code, Turing makes clear that they must keep it a secret even from the military: if the coded information was used to take out all German positions at once, the Germans would realize what is going on and change the Enigma settings entirely. Instead, the team works out statistically just how many counterstrikes they can undertake without tipping off the Germans. Code-breaking—like homosexuality—can only function if it is kept a secret.
Another important theme of the movie is violence. Being a genius, Turing does not react to violence mimetically, which is to say he does not return it tit for tat (as a genius he by definition does not imitate). Among other things, Turing’s schoolmates throw him underneath some floorboards and nail them shut over him, a colleague punches him when he tries to defend the machine, and he is bowled over when Commander Denniston and his men kick open the door of the hut where he is working. Apart from that, WW II, in which he does not participate physically, is raging around him. Turing replies however not by practicing Christian humility or pacificism. Instead, he insists on his own rationality, which develops the artificial intelligence that in turn leads to the war being shortened by almost two years (according to the movie). In somewhat more metaphorical terms, reason defeats violence not through pacificism, but by understanding what the violent other is planning to do and acting to prevent it. This is in keeping with the notion of an ethics of perpetration that I have developed elsewhere as well as with the critique of victimary thinking formulated by Eric Gans. Reason—at least in the movie—keeps us from being victims and empowers us to act in a right way to interdict evil. This can also be seen in the interrogation scene, where Turing reverses the usual roles and has the policeman play his “imitation game” suggesting that otherness (whether mechanical or sexual) can be accepted rationally. Turing’s Achilles heel of course remains his homosexuality, which is shunned as “perverse” by the then prevailing legal and medical discourses and criminalized. Even Turing’s prescient rationality cannot protect him against the brutal force of these conventions, and he perishes at a tragically early age.
The movie touches briefly on theological themes, but once more without any hint of higher powers at work. After they crack the code, someone in the team says wondrously that “they are more powerful than God.” However, Alan quickly makes clear to them that playing God involves making life-and-death decisions about how to use the decoded information. This is emphasized shortly thereafter when Alan refuses to use deciphered information to save the brother of one of his co-workers whose ship is about to be attacked by the Germans. Alan also lacks any visible Christological traits; his suicide is briefly noted in the epilogue, but there is no hint that it was intended to serve a higher purpose, and his own suffering is shown only briefly at the movie’s end.
Another important element of the movie is the friendly relationship between Turing and Joan Clarke (the normally ravishing Keira Knightley, made up to look as plain as possible). Here, too, the movie diverges somewhat from historical fact to emphasize that Turing does not let conventional notions of gender interfere with his search for top-notch cryptographers (the crossword-puzzle search depicted in the movie did take place, but it wasn’t the way Clarke was hired). Also, the film uses Clarke to demonstrate the radicality of Turing’s separation even from “normal” human emotions. At one point, Turing proposes to Clarke in order to placate her conventionally minded parents and let her continue her cryptography work. Somewhat later, he also tells her he is homosexual. Since she suspected this anyway it doesn’t really bother her: she says they could participate in an unconventional marriage where they both work and share thoughts. What keeps this Platonic relationship from working is that Clarke wants to know if Turing really cares for her. When he coldly says he doesn’t, she slaps him and calls him a “monster.” As a genius, Turing is so completely separated that he tolerates no relationship with another human, which would imply mediation of some sort, i.e. orientation towards what others think or desire. At the same time, the movie makes clear that he is not a “monster” and actually does care for Clarke: Turing reveals information to the MI6 agent Menzies to get her out of military prison (which as we then find out is a deception on Menzies’ part).
If Clarke is not really a split mediator like Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, then who is? The real mediator, as it turns out, is History itself. Turing is not only a mathematical genius who develops the artificial intelligence that defines our digitally run world, he is also a social genius in the sense that his indifference to gender conventions prefigures our own present-day morality, in which homosexuality and gender in general do not (or should not) make a difference in judging a person’s work. Discourse doesn’t invent Turing; Turing invents discourse, and, not just any old discourse, but our discourse. History doesn’t just prove him right; he also changes history in a fundamental way that postmodernism doesn’t think possible. The Turing character in The Imitation Game is in fact Foucault turned inside out. Foucault, whose thought is central to postmodernism and posthistoricism, famously suggested in The Order of Things that the human subject was coming to an end, or, more precisely, being replaced by a multitude of overlapping discourses that run on forever in discontinuous, haphazard ways. Although Foucault revised this notion somewhat after realizing it was too deterministic, it still informs almost all present-day academic writing on cultural history (see Blog posts 1 and 2). The Turing character demonstrates a contrary view: the human subject is not only very much alive, it can, in the form of genius, initiate epochal change. In this way he can be said to achieve transcendence by setting in motion, and remaining faithful to, a truth process much larger than himself (for more on this notion of transcendence see Alain Badiou’s Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil). This truth may be defined in terms of the film as insisting on homosexuality as something centered and substantial in its own right, rather than as a constantly shifting, mask-like expression of peripheral otherness that forms through resistance to dominant heterosexual discourse (the latter position being the performative--not performatist!-- notion of homosexuality propounded most notably by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble and other works).
Like all performatist works, The Imitation Game is marked by double framing, which means that a heavily authorial narrative structure (the outer frame) and inner frames or scenes from the film mutually confirm one another. This test for performatism is easy to conduct: if you find that the narrative structure of the work is ironically undermining inner frames in the film, you're going to have a postmodern work before you and not a performatist one.
The authorial hand is very much evident in the movie's narrative structure, which continually juxtaposes three time frames--the circumstances leading to Turing's arrest in the early 1950s, his work cracking the Enigma code during WW II, and Turing's homoerotic experiences with a schoolmate around 1928. There is also a scene showing Turing with Joan Clarke after he has been chemically castrated, and there are short texts at the end explaining the importance of Turing's work and detailing the results of England's law persecuting homosexuals. I think it is safe to say that the authorial hand does little or nothing to undercut, relativize, or render ironic Turing's actions and statements. Although there is a certain amount of dramatic irony inherent in the narrative presentation (we always know a bit more than Turing himself), Turing is nonetheless shown as someone who remains entirely consistent in the positions he takes. Indeed, the film does everything to show that his firm faith in both the power of artificial intelligence and the normality of homosexuality has come to prevail.
3. The Man Who Knew Infinity (Matthew Brown, UK 2015)
Since Romanticism (and indeed even before), genius has been defined as a gift that is bestowed upon an individual by God. The genius hence appears as a quasi-divine agent who is not subject to conventional rules of human behavior. Ideally, geniuses don't need to imitate other humans, i.e. engage in mimesis; they have a singular, inimitable ability to divine some previously unknown or inaccessible aspect of our reality. Their behavior is simultaneously off-putting and attractive for this very reason. The social paradox of genius is that we are supposed to ignore the conventions of our discourse and imitate individuals whose behavior is marked by transcendence, which is to say by behavior that is initially incomprehensible to us. This is also what makes genius appealing to performatist narratives. Geniuses are, by definition, clearly marked bearers of transcendence and are impervious to normal discursive influence. Plot development in such narratives occurs through a paradoxical transaction: to be of any value, incomprehensible transcendence has to be transmitted to non-geniuses and benefit them in some way. In turn, the non-geniuses accord social recognition to the beneficial character of the genius. This usually takes place through a mediator of some kind, and it usually involves the genius making concessions to standard social norms as well as non-geniuses accepting his or her peculiarities. However, performatist geniuses never dissolve in the endless regress of this discourse. They remain in some way outside of it and superior to it--something that is not possible in postmodernism.
The two movies previously treated downplay the divine or transcendent aspects of genius and stress its complex interaction with social, mimetically driven convention. In Good Will Hunting the conflicted genius has difficulty reconciling his gift with the norms of his blue-collar milieu but eventually manages to do so with the help of a mediator. In The Imitation Game the genius's tragic faithfulness to his own sexual unconventionality leads to his downfall, but also becomes part of his greater historical legacy.
In The Man Who Knew Infinity the theological aspect returns. The movie tells the true story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-taught Indian clerk who came to be recognized as one of the most brilliant of all modern-day mathematicians. The film recounts how Ramanujan sent some of his formulas to the noted English mathematician G.H. Hardy in Cambridge. Hardy quickly recognized Ramanujan's abilities and in 1914 arranged for him to come to England, where the two men (together with Hardy's colleague Littlewood) collaborated on groundbreaking mathematical research for the next five years. For his work Ramanujan was made a Fellow of Trinity College as well as of the Royal Society. Tragically, Ramanujan contracted tuberculosis and died shortly after his return to India in 1920.
As with the other movies treated above, The Man Who Knew Infinity makes its points using standard Hollywood devices. Ramanujan is played by Dev Patel (the star of another Indian genius film--Slumdog Millionaire) and Hardy by Jeremy Irons, who plays quintessential professorial types. The film also uses a conventional narrative arc to create suspense. Can Ramanujan do the impossible--find a formula to calculate the partitioning of all possible numbers? (He can.) The movie cross-cuts between lush reconstructions of Madras and Cambridge University as they might have looked in the 1910s, and there are two secondary plots: one involving Ramanujan's wife and mother and the other Bertrand Russell and the English political resistance to WWI.
The main plot of the movie centers around the relationship between Hardy, who is an atheist and a believer in mathematical rigor, and Ramanujan, who is a practicing Hindu who thinks intuitively and says that God (or, more precisely, a Hindu tutelary deity) shows him the formulas he brings forth. As in Good Will Hunting, what is crucial here is the dyadic unity that arises between the two positions. Hardy does indeed get Ramanujan to discipline himself to the point where his intuitive results can be formally proven to other mathematicians, and Ramanujan--without of course wanting to--gets Hardy to become a kind of polytheist. As Hardy notes at the end of the film, he does not believe in God, but he does believe in Ramanujan, who is the closest thing to Him that there is. Ramanujan, for his part, is able to reconcile his religious beliefs and practices with studying math in England. At one point, he wanders into a large commemorative hall in Cambridge containing statues of all its great scientists and touches the foot of Newton (an Indian custom indicating the utmost respect for someone). The visit there seems analogous to his previous visit to a temple in India where he ponders whether he should go to England at all. Ramanujan needs his brilliant formulas to be confirmed by scholarly discourse in order to confirm his own religious sense of selfhood. Scholarly discourse, for its part, has no choice but to ultimately accept his brilliant insights as soon as they have been properly proven.
As with all performatist genius narratives, this one is also embedded in various standardized discourses, without the genius however dissolving in them entirely. Most notable is the field of post-colonial relations, which involves the interactions of peripheral, colonized peoples with a colonial, hegemonic center. Academic post-colonial analyses--which are heavily steeped in poststructuralist theory and hence postmodernism--usually stress the irreducible otherness of colonized peoples as well as their victimary status and expose the hegemonic pretensions of the colonial center. The movie touches on these themes but leaves them pretty much in the background. There is an arrogant English colonial official in the Indian part of the movie, the stuffy Cambridge dons are skeptical of Ramanujan as an Indian, and Ramanujan is beaten up by some soldiers when the war breaks out, but this doesn't really hinder his work or keep him from being officially recognized as a major mathematician. Ramanujan's otherness is indeed presented, but in a fairly tame way: he is repeatedly shown praying to his family deity (albeit an historically incorrect one) and he is shown to be a strict vegetarian. The film also deliberately plays down or omits odd biographical facts peculiar to Indian culture. Ramanujan's wife is presented as a mature (and, needless to say, very attractive) young woman, whereas his real wife was 10 years old when they entered into an arranged marriage--a normal detail of Indian culture at the time that would have been complicated to explain onscreen to Western audiences. Similarly, the fact that Ramanujan was a Brahmin and would have been spiritually diminished by going abroad is hinted at in the movie but not made explicit.
Like The Imitation Game, The Man Who Knew Infinity has an ethical or political dimension that is introduced to heighten our identification with Hardy. Hardy, who is shown to be a pacifist opposed to WWI, evidently doesn't succumb to the spiral of mimetic rivalry that set off the war. This lack of participation in mimetic rivalry is also evident in his absolute lack of envy towards Ramanujan's genius, which he selflessly promotes. Mimetic rivalry does crop up on the Indian side, when Ramanujan's mother hides the daughter-in-law's letters to him in order to make him come back to India, but this is apparently meant to highlight his human or "normal" side--Ramanujan believes that his wife has forgotten him and suffers accordingly.
Another typical performatist theme is that of beauty, which in critical postmodern thinking is conceived solely in terms of outside power relations and never as a category in its own right. Ramanujan repeatedly stresses the beauty of the patterns he is uncovering through math (as well as their divine origin) and the movie's cinematography does everything it can to convey this abstract beauty in sensual terms using typical Hollywood devices (soft, warm light, soothing music, slow pans from formulas to Ramanujan's face and the like).
The Man Who Knew Infinity is devoted equally to depicting genius and its mediation, as represented by Hardy but also by his colleagues Littlewood and Bertrand Russell. As in most performatist narratives, these relationships are conceived of as productive dyads. Since Hardy lacks social skills, Littlewood seems to be there to provide comic relief (it is rumored at Cambridge that Hardy invented him to take the blame for his own mistakes), but also to confirm the correctness of Ramanujan's calculations. Russell, apart from being a staunch pacifist, plays the mathematical good cop to Hardy's bad one: whereas Hardy wants to discipline Ramanujan, Russell suggests continually that he should be "allowed to run free." A mixture of these two approaches eventually leads to success for Ramanujan.
All in all, The Man Who Knew Infinity can be said to be free of any narrative irony that would undercut the positive dyadic relationships recorded in the plot. Although the film does have a melancholic undertone (marked by Ramanujan's isolation from home and his untimely death), the movie presents the Hardy-Ramanujan pairing as a prefiguration of our globalized world in which people of very different origins can collaborate productively on things that are both beautiful and useful (Ramanujan's formulas, says the film, are now being used to research black holes in the universe). The movie, incidentally, doesn't "correct" postmodernism or "return" to modernism. Rather, it uses a story from the modernist era to show an idealized (but historically true) kind of relationship that is completely antithetical to postmodern or postcolonial scenarios of how hegemonic power relations work. For in The Man Who Knew Infinity the main narrative trope is the opposite of the postmodern paradigm: the figure from the colonial periphery is empowered not through sly resistance to the center (so-called mimicry), but by occupying the center and being recognized there as a genius--as a secular deity.
4. A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, USA 2001)
The portrayal of genius—of especially gifted, but often troubled artists or scientists—has the effect of supercharging the separated, opaque heroes and heroines that are peculiar to performatism. These protagonists are cut off in some way from normal discourse and form a whole, but inaccessible self that suggests the possibility of transcendence (we must remember that transcendence is not signaled by angels with flapping wings or by miraculous hocus-pocus, but by the formal fact of someone or something being inaccessible to our understanding). At the same time, this privileged isolation causes serious problems which the hero or heroine must overcome in some way. This, in turn, leads to tension between the separated character and his or her surrounding milieu. Here we usually find two other types of characters: those who act according to conventional norms of discourse and “split” characters who are able to mediate between the separated character and conventional behavior. Usually, the performatist hero also has to engage in dyadic bonding in such a way that his initial isolation is overcome. This overcoming of separation (which may also be incomplete) represents a second kind of transcendence that in some way passes on the inner values of the protagonist to another or others and allows the separated person to accept values from others without comprising his or her autonomy. If this “impossible” exchange mechanism is ironically reversed or collapses—if the endlessly receding, pluralistic, and amorphous values of the outside world prevail in the end, then we are still dealing with postmodernism.
In A Beautiful Mind we can observe this dynamic unfold around the mathematical genius John Nash, whose real-life struggle with schizophrenia is depicted in the film. As with the other biographical genius films treated above, the film takes considerable liberties with the actual details of Nash’s life—unlike The Imitation Game the movie leaves out an episode of homosexuality as well as the messier details of Nash’s marriage, divorce, and remarriage during his illness.
The movie Nash has all the standard attributes of genius: he is socially clumsy (he is too direct), he has trouble getting along with his peers (he is arrogant, very competitive and a poor loser), and he wants to do something “totally original” (which he eventually succeeds in doing). As in all genius films, we don’t understand too much about what his “totally original” achievement is. In this case, it has something to do with calculating the irregular patterns made by pigeons and with the dynamics of group behavior, which, if we are to believe the film, achieves the best results through a paradoxical kind of altruism. On top of this we find another classical attribute of genius—insanity. About midway through the film the narrative reveals that Nash has been imagining the existence of an extroverted roommate, a small girl in the roommate’s custody, and a square-jawed government agent who has enlisted his aid in tracking down a Soviet spy ring. The film depicts these projections as being enhanced by the paranoid political climate of the time which suspects Communist plots and agents under every bed. The hallucinated figures also correspond nicely to a pop psychoanalytical scheme: the hard-drinking, girl-chasing roommate evidently stands for the id, the government agent for the super-ego, and the little girl for the ego (Nash has to pull himself together in front of her to show he is a responsible person).
Anyone familiar with the by now well-known rules of postmodern culture will instantly suspect that schizophrenia is a marker of postmodernism (Fredric Jameson’s famous 1981 article on postmodernism, “Postmodernism and the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” literally equates postmodern subjectivity with a schizophrenic mindset). However, the movie turns the tables here: instead of being swept up in a frenzied rush of true and false signs, Nash is eventually able to distinguish true from false by sticking to his own kind of rationality, which doesn’t eliminate the hallucinations completely but simply chooses to ignore them. It’s not the flood of confusing signs that wins out, but individual rationality and willpower—things that postmodernism either ignores or actively seeks to undermine.
Although a genius, Nash is isolated and still needs a mediator, who in this case turns out to be his wife Alice. Although forthright and direct like Nash, she has the social skills that he doesn’t; at first they connect through sex. Nash, who ignores 1950s-style social norms, gets right to the point about what he wants, and she doesn’t seem to mind. The special nature of their relationship is however not marked so much by erotic cravings as by the divinely mediated totality of art. Viewing a painting by Chagall, Alice says that “God must be a painter—why else would we have so many colors?” Nash in turn gives Alice a prismatic glass crystal for her birthday that allows her to see “every possible color.” This totalized, sacral notion of beauty they share is, needless to say, about as un-postmodern as you can get. Totality in postmodernism is of the devil—its kissing cousin is political totalitarianism—and beauty and religion are always illusions masking some sort of darker struggle for power.
Another important quality marking Alice as a mediator is her ability to mirror Nash’s condition without getting caught up in it completely. When a family friend asks her how she is dealing with Nash’s insanity, Alice says she “forces herself to see the man she married” and “he becomes that man”—which is to say she uses mental projections of her own to cope with Nash’s own drastic retreat from reality.
The main point of the movie, though, is about how the genius Nash paradoxically comes to accept the ethics of friendship and the irrational logic of love which seem incompatible with his isolated brilliance. Nash is at first presented as being highly competitive and also contemptuous of his peers, especially a mathematician named Hansen who beats him at a game of go. After his first severe bout with schizophrenia Nash approaches Hansen, who is now head of the math department at Princeton and asks him for help as a friend. “We always have been friends” Hansen says, even though up to then much the opposite seems to have been the case. Hansen however agrees to help him and indeed proves very patient and supportive even though Nash continues to act in bizarre ways. Eventually, Nash finds a niche in the library to do his work and begins helping students with difficult math problems.
Finally, in his (entirely fictive) Nobel Prize speech, Nash says that the “greatest discovery of his life” has been that “it is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logical reasons can be found,” and, addressing the audience and his wife, says “I’m only here tonight because of you” and “you are all my reasons.” At the height of his public recognition, the genius gives up his privileged position entirely; his only rationality is that of love and he is only there because of others. This paradoxical, total renunciation of Nash's own genius highlights a sacral exchange mechanism that was brilliantly described first by the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss in his book The Gift and then later extended by the French philosopher and theologian Jean-Luc Marion in his article “The Reason of the Gift.” While it’s not possible to go into all the details here, Mauss and Marion suggest that it is possible to engage in quasi-sacral gift-giving transactions that are free of economic calculation (i.e. the poisonous notion that you’ll somehow get something back from the gift you’ve given). This return of the gift of genius through an act of total, self-abnegating humility by the genius himself is a good example of how this could work. Nash manages to transfer the altruism suggested by his mathematical equations into an act of public rhetoric to which the only answer can be universal acclaim (the audience stands in unison and applauds). As in the other performatist genius movies discussed here, this kind of “impossible” transaction is the most important part of this mini-genre: for the genius to truly be a genius he or she has to engage in a transaction with non-geniuses in which everyone wins.
5. The Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg, Germany (Herzog and de Meuron, 2010-16)
In my article "Performatism in Architecture" from the year 2001 I suggested 9 criteria for identifying performatist architecture:
Obviously, not all these qualities appear simultaneously, but even after more than fifteen years they still serve as a useful guide for describing contemporary architecture.
One very prominent building that has been built since then is the Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg, erected at great expense on an island in the old maritime warehouse district. The building seems to be new and striking, but it could nonetheless be said by a sceptic to contain both functional elements of modernism and playful, ironic elements of postmodernism. What, then, makes the structure performatist?
As I see it, the Philharmonic Hall brings together logical geometrical constructs and playful forms in an "impossible" way suggesting transcendence. It is this unifying transcendent gesture that keeps the building from simply turning into an ironic postmodern play with logic or marking the "return" of modernist functionality with some postmodern frippery. Put another way, the building doesn't merely "oscillate" between modernism and postmodernism (as metamodernism would have it) but creates a new, synthetic architectonic experience.
The Philharmonic Hall looks as if a theist creator had taken a gigantic cross section of the sea and heaved it onto land, with the brick foundation representing the sea floor and the blue glass upper part with its swinging, wave-like lines the sea itself. These mathematically calculated, but dynamic curved lines remind us of Leibniz's metaphysical explanation of his differential calculus: it works by reducing certain functional relations to zero, which in turn stands for God's infinite, all-encompassing rationality. This conjunction of rigorous logic and divinely calculated playfulness can also be seen on the glass facade, where a Cartesian grid interacts with matte surfaces and u-shaped windows to suggest dynamic movement and depth (at night this sense of depth is made even stronger through inner illumination). Typically performatist is also the way the architects have treated the building's volume, which seems to have been cut out in numerous places by an unseen, divine hand. All in all, the building is on an island, which highlights its architectonic singularity, and it towers over and dominates all other structures around it (indeed it is the highest building in Hamburg). The renovated brick foundation is in fact an old seaside warehouse, but if we take the total gesture of the building literally, then the warehouse has a new, unfathomable function on the depths of the sea floor. I've called this feature "transcendent functionalism" (see my article cited above); it means that we can recognize a function, but we can't place it in the immanent, rational world that we know.
If we go back to the performatist criteria listed in the beginning, it's safe to say that four of those have been met: theist creation (cutting out an enormous cube of sea and sea floor and placing it, immobile, on land); transparency (the building is given inner depth through illumination); kinesis (the wave lines on the roof suggest movement); and wholeness (the building, although visibly split into a top and bottom half, functions as a discrete, insular whole). Taken together as a total gesture, these qualities can be said to convey transcendent functionalism--a play with functions that are not readily conceivable in this world.
6. Alina Kisina's "Children of Vision"
A video discussion of Alina Kisina's photo exhibition "Children of Vision," exhibited in Kiev at the Mystetskyi Arsenal National Art and Culture Museum Complex in 2017 and at the Diffusion Festival in Cardiff in April 2019. For other works by Kisina see her website.
7. Get Out (Jordan Peele, USA 2017)
Get Out is a critically well received and popular movie about black-white relations in America that is part social satire and part horror film. I'll be using it here to show how the movie employs performatist double framing to help make its socially critical points.
The movie starts off as a seemingly modernized version of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the well-intentioned but awkward 1960s movie about a white girl bringing a more or less perfect black boyfriend (Sidney Poitier) home to her unsuspecting liberal parents. In Get Out, a black photographer named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is off with his upper-middle-class white girlfriend Rose to meet her parents for the first time in a secluded house in some New-Englandy-looking woods. On the way they talk to Chris's friend Rod, a TSA agent who represents a folksy black type--unlike Chris he speaks Black English, talks freely about sex and is suspicious of white people in general and of Rose's parents in particular.
When Chris and Rose arrive at the house a series of awkward situations begin to unfold that at first seem to be due to the parents' well-intended, but condescending attempts to come to terms with Chris's blackness. Also odd is the behavior of the two black servants, Georgina and Walter, who are strangely submissive and passive. Things become progressively weird when they are joined by Rose's alcoholic and aggressive brother Jeremy and later by a group of elderly, wealthy white people whose behavior is no less condescending and embarrassing than that of the parents. In between, the film drops plenty of hints that it is not a conventional social satire--a black man is mysteriously kidnapped in the first scene, there are numerous snippets of horror-film music suggesting soon-to-come terror, and there are some minor, but uncanny occurrences suggesting something is not quite right in the parents' suburban idyll. In particular, when Chris uses a flash on a passive black guest, the guest seems to break out of a trance and yells "Get out!" before he is led away.
Eventually it becomes clear to Chris, who constantly tries to avoid conflicts with his white hosts, that something fishy is going on. Most notably, he discovers that Rose has already had umpteen black boyfriends and that both the parents' social clumsiness and the daughter's solicitousness must be feigned. Shortly thereafter, the parents are revealed to be a hypnotist-neurosurgeon team that specializes in transforming black people into receptacles for elderly white people's brains. Rose, for her part, turns out not to be a sensitive, well-educated college girl but a homicidal, rifle-toting huntress clad in jodhpurs. Chris escapes impending zombiedom by killing everyone in self-defense (with some help from the black gardener Walter) and is rescued by Rod in a TSA vehicle.
Double Framing in Get Out
If we approach the movie in terms of scenic or frame analysis, we can easily identify an inner frame (1), which is marked by a magical (and malevolent) bio-social unity of white minds and black bodies. The bio-social unity of protagonists forms the core of most performatist narratives, although it need not be magical or evil, as is the case here. This evil inner unity is at first obscured by the intermediary frame (2), which consists of the numerous scenes in which blacks and whites get along in a mostly uncomfortable, but still socially acceptable way. Here as elsewhere in performatist narratives, intermediary frames "fill out" the plot with contextual references but do not devolve into an endless, undecidable regress of discursive relations, as is the case in postmodernism. Finally, the outer frame of the movie (3) corresponds to the clearly expressed authorial intent of the film's narrative resolution, which in this case allows Chris to escape, bond with Rod (whose suspicions of white people turn out to be well-founded), and transcend his entrapment in white society (4).
The overt message of the film seems to be that dyadic bonding between black people (psychological unity) should replace the appropriation of blacks by whites (magical unity). What is important in performatist terms is that one kind of unity is supplanted by another; in postmodernism any form of unity in itself is deconstructed or dissipates in the endless plurality of context. Also, the focus is not on a victimary Other being persecuted by a hegemonic center, which is typical of postmodernism, but rather on a victim defending himself and becoming an ethically justified perpetrator in the process (it should also be remembered that Rod, as a TSA agent, still embodies The Law). It should also be pointed out that the white attitude towards blacks displayed in the movie isn't classic racism (being repulsed by black people for sexual or hygienic reasons) but is mimetically motivated and positive: white people seek to appropriate black bodies because they are envious of them. This envy is based on a false and stereotypical premise, but it can ultimately be traced back to a desire to unite with the Other rather than to reject or expel it.
All in all, Get Out is effective social criticism and entertainment at the same time. It achieves this by presenting a unified, peculiarly black view of interracial relations using specifically performatist techniques that allow white viewers to identify vicariously with the agency and the emotional bonding displayed by positive black protagonists as well as to see how black people see how white people treat them. The real point of the movie--embodied by Chris--is that black people don't really want to be treated as Others by whites but are--whites emphasize the outsider status of African-Americans by clumsily appropriating their discourse and, at least in this movie, their very bodies. It also shows (using the standard devices of the horror movie) that beneath the seemingly friendly, but condescending discourse of the white protagonists lurks a more malevolent, mimetically motivated racism that has yet to be extirpated. And the narrative answer to this racism is not to produce more black otherness but to demonstrate a kind of black agency and black bonding with which white people can spontaneously identify.