Dr Stephen Greer, Lecturer in Theatre Practices at the University of Glasgow, was a featured lecturer for the SGSAH 2016 Theories of Knowledge Lecture Series, speaking on Performance and Performativity. He was gracious enough to provide us with a blog of additional new insights that supplement and expand upon his lecture.
Thinking about gender as a performance can draw our attention to the choices we make in the daily, social presentation of our identities. We might imagine the gendered subject as a kind of actor who chooses the ‘costume’ of gender in the dressing room and then enters the public arena of the stage where that gender is performed for others. As such, the image of the actor on stage might prompt recognition of how gender is a social phenomenon, performed to and for others – even if, as Judith Butler points out, that ‘other’ is only imagined. Our gender is not something that ‘belongs’ exclusively to us (even though it defines us intimately) because its terms are always shared with others, and because its intelligibility as gender rests on social standards which existed before we were born and extend beyond the material reality of our individual bodies.
However, the metaphor of the gendered subject as an actor has some serious limitations for understanding performativity – not least that we might be lead to think that gender is only performance, and in the particular sense of actions or conduct that we choose for ourselves as already stable, composed subjects. One of the central claims of performativity is that the gendered subject is inseparable from the moment of performance – there is no ‘I’ which precedes the moment of enactment, only a subject who is composed in and through enactment. Furthermore, Butler makes clear that though we are able to ‘improvise’ our genders, we do so within a scene of constraints characterised by commonly held beliefs about what makes ‘real’ men and women, and by the oftentimes violent repercussions facing those who depart from binary standards for gender.
One of the things that performance might bring to an understanding of performativity is an understanding of this sense of precarity or exposure, and the ways in which it might make us accountable to one another. During my lecture for the Theories of Knowledge series, I briefly discussed a performance work by Glasgow-based artist Rosana Cade called Walking: Holding, an ‘experiential performance that involves one audience member at a time walking through the city holding hands with a range of different people on a carefully designed route’. During the work, the audience-participant encounters both their own self-image and – in my experience – the ways in which that image might shift and be transformed in proximity to other bodies in the public sphere.
Walking and holding hands with (variously) an older man, a young Asian woman and a very tall drag queen drew my attention to both my active choices – how I choose to present myself each day – and the parts of my social identity that are outside of my control – the ways in the public gesture of intimacy, hand-holding, might be read and understood by others in the moment of live encounter. It also helped me understand the unmarked quality of the norms which let me ‘pass’ as unremarkable on a day to day basis – my whiteness, my seeming able-bodiedness, my male-masculine presentation. As such, it called to mind the ways in which appearance in public spaces might have different consequences for different kinds of subjects, where ‘difference’ describes departure from a particular set of cultural norms.
In Undoing Gender, Butler describes gender and sexuality not in terms of possessions – something we securely have – but ‘rather as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of another’ (2004: 19). Performance can serve to draw attention to how such connections and responsibilities are distributed and sustained, the labour required to make them seem effortless and, most strikingly, how ‘being dispossessed’ is a condition of our existence which might make us responsible to one another. To make that claim is not to diminish the consequences or ignore the uneven distribution of social dispossession – to engage in a form of the rhetoric that ‘all lives matter’ – but to insist upon an ethics of mutual recognition in which ‘free choices’ of performance are bound up in the capacity of others to do the same.