Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Towards a Definition of "Performative"

Intro-the problem
The word "performative" is getting quite a workout these days, at least in the field of music and dance and art (don't know about theater yet, and probably "new media" is in on this trend, I bet). Yet, it really has no specific meaning, so one seems to be developing before our very eyes. This is an exciting time to be alive, to notice a possibly substantive re-definition of an existing word going on in our midst.

In all of the dicitionaries in which I've looked, "performative" means this:
per·for·ma·tive [per-fawr-muh-tiv]
–adjective Philosophy, Linguistics.
1. (of an expression or statement) performing an act by the very fact of being uttered, as with the expression “I promise,” that performs the act of promising.
2. a performative utterance.
(from Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/performative (accessed: March 04, 2008).

Yet this definition of the word is not the one that is meant by people who are using this word all over the place. Here are a couple of "performative" sightings and hearings by way of example:

  • "[I am concerned with] the performative aspect of sound...[I like to] take away the performance, then leave the sound." Chris Peck, at UIUC, March 2.

  • "She herself takes a perfomative stance in the making of her pictures." Seen in the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. This is from a wall quote by the exhibition curator of the photographs of JoAnn Verburg.

  • "[We're working on] the performative aspect of movement." Heard many times in Jan Erkert's dance classes.

Obviously these useages don't jive with the one given by the dictionaries. Chris Peck is not saying "Sound!" and sound then just "happens." The word has something to do with performance--performance quality, or the state of your being while performing for others? When I was reading the Walker Art Museum quote, I asked a museum tour guide what the word and the quote meant. This question really stumped her! "I dont really know," she replied. Then she took a stab at a definition: "Well, I know she didn't do this (she uses a heavy camera on a tripod), but it sounds like she was dancing around" while she took her photos.

So as I am just starting this blog post, I would like for everyone who sees a use of "performative" anywhere to send it to me via the comments on this post. That way, collectively, we can define his word for the rest of the world!