What Is Performance Philosophy?

Last weekend I attended a conference of philosophers, artists, and various people with ideas called “Performance Philosophy: Staging a New Field.” The aim was to mark out an area of concentration that could be distinguished from studies of performance arts, as well as from the focus on the performative within philosophy, but which would link the two and even take seriously the possibility that performance is a kind of philosophy, and philosophy is a kind of performance. As someone who works on the multiplicity of knowledge, and therefore non-discursive forms of knowing and thinking, this interests me, but really my connection to the topic goes further than that.

I’ve always thought the rise of theatre and philosophy around the same era in Ancient Greece was not coincidental – they are two sides of a coin, extroverted and introverted methods of human self-reflection. Life as a self-reflective creature is performative, and like the actor, we might accept a role, seek out a better one, sink our teeth into a part or ‘strut and fret the hour upon the stage’. The theatre mimics while philosophy wonders but both are triggered by and concerned with the duplicitous nature of the human experience, the ability to think one thing and do another (for instance), the separability of the mind.

As technology increases, the overlap is only more pervasive – documentaries, mockumentaries, reality television, and all forms of social media find new shades on the performative-introspective scale, and while the intended topic is obviously not always existential, it is a continuous undercurrent to any observation of life. The aesthetic has seemed like the modern world’s answer when faced with a search for meaning, but life itself as aesthetic brings us back full circle.

The conference included many points of view and approaches, and there was clearly interest from a range of different backgrounds. One plenary speaker warned against fusing philosophy and performance, suggesting that it is only in their distinction that we gain from the discussion.  Others presented as practitioners with philosophical interests – a musician exploring time theory, a dancer interested in the body as a cartographic machine, a map of history – and part of the purpose of the conference was to work out how broad the area is, and whether it is distinct from, or perhaps more a bringing together of, various other fields already undertaken. In any case, it was certainly a place full of ideas and discussion, which is the key component of a good conference, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

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13 Comments.

  1. It sounds like it could be interesting, but I think I’d need to know more about the core motivation, and what these folks think is productive about this approach.

    I tend to think philosophy is primarily concerned with coming up with ways of maximizing what we understand about the world while minimizing confusion. (To be a philosopher is to develop and maintain the skills to do that sort of thing.) Hence, I agree that you can have a philosophy that deals with non-discursive (non-propositional) knowledge, because non-propositional knowledge can still involve some kind of understanding. e.g., one surely understands how to ride a bike, even though the activity of riding a bike does not involve thinking about propositional contents.

    Also, like Searle, Austin, etc., I think it seems entirely absurd to say that philosophy and performance must keep a respectful distance from one another. It is true, and interesting, to point out that we do things with words. e.g., it is true, and interesting, that making marriage vows under the right conditions will alter the very properties that we ascribe to persons. One minute you’re not-married, the next you’re married, and the change is a function of the performance. I have heard from very few philosophers who deny that this sort of thing happens, and yet many of them carry on as if it didn’t matter.

    My training in analytic philosophy, and interest in embodied cognitive science, has forced me to admit that there is something interesting to be gained from somatic theories in philosophy. It strikes me as increasingly unlikely that (all other things equal) we can ever have a shared language without assuming we share the same world, and use the same somatic-mental processes in generating the experiences required to refer to things in that world. If we can’t share the same language, then we shall fall short of true mutual understanding, which angers the spirit of philosophy.

    That having been said… while most performances seem to require some tacit competence (hence, understanding), not all performances are about understanding. Suppose I utter the command “Pick up your shoes!”, and you comply. The point of my saying “Pick up your shoes”, and your hearing it, is not to provide you with a reason to pick up your shoes. The point is just to cause you to pick up your shoes, hook or by crook. Your performance is judged on the basis of the success of the stimulus in causally effecting a response. If I could get you to pick up your shoes just by pushing a button, I’d do that instead. But there doesn’t seem to be anything philosophical about either what I said or what you did. So this appears to be just one area where performance where philosophy is silent, and/or has been silenced, and has no place in performative philosophy in any substantial sense.

    But now suppose we assume that we don’t all share the same somatic-mental processes. In that case, perhaps the only way we could share a language is by assuming we live in the same world, and by having certain mental processes thrust upon us: e.g., by being forced to obey a common authority. In that case, the problematic aspect of authority (which we had rightly dispensed with in the last paragraph) would actually turn out to be essential to mutual understanding. Which is a horrifying conclusion for philosophers, potentially made all the more horrifying if it were to turn out to be true!

  2. “Performance Philosophy could be… the study of how philosophers and philosophical ideas have been staged in performance “

    Gilbert Ryle contended in the highly speculative ‘Plato’s Progress’ (which is reviewed sympathetically by the noted classical scholar Trevor Saunders here) that Plato’s dialogues were performed and written with the intention that they would be.

  3. The rise of Philosophy (or, rather, the public discussion and dissemination of Philosophy) and theater together should surprise no one. As social creatures it is impossible to have a common systemic social process in which all of the individual units function on the assumption of different understandings of what reality is. Philosophy is only able to insinuate such an understanding among individuals who already share a significant measure of intellectual trust. Theater, on the other hand, is a means of projecting an image of common reality, assumptions of the nature of societal structure, and the proper way to respond emotionally to the plight of human beings in extremes of their experience to vast audiences. Hence the mass entertainment media of Greece and Rome and the fact that it is to them, rather than the Hittites, the Western collective consciousness returns when we’re looking back on our roots.

    It is in this way, looking back to the development of both individual and mass reality and the contribution made to training senses and emotions to the reinforcement of that social structure, we should be studying Aesthetics, of which “Performance Philosophy” is a natural subset.

    As an aside, my experience as a visual artist convinces me that this “rise of theater” is actually the evangelistic exercise of something that had been happening in much more closed ways for tens of thousands of years. I’ve done many educational “chalk talks” in which art was used to carry and reinforce the narrative of a content-bearing performance. The cave art of Lascaux, Alta Mira, and even the vastly ancient art of the Chauvet Cave strike me as having all manner of potential power in carefully staged presentation and even in staged execution for people who likely never saw artificial realistic imagery in daily experience. These clearly cloistered presentations would have had a powerful unifying effect on their carefully chosen audiences.

  4. Well it was a very a interesting thought on Performance Philosophy. I think Philosophy should also be action oriented meaning that it should be used to make the world a better place. The problems in the world today is as a result of corrupt selfish politicians ruling the masses. They are sitting up there playing with people’s lives, while innocent people are devastated as a consequence of their incompetence. Check this site out called servenotrule.com, it is a very interesting and thoughtful site.

  5. I think Lee says something very very interesting here:

    As social creatures it is impossible to have a common systemic social process in which all of the individual units function on the assumption of different understandings of what reality is. Philosophy is only able to insinuate such an understanding among individuals who already share a significant measure of intellectual trust.

    I would complain, though, that the direction of causation might be reversed. Philosophy builds trust, in some important sense, by directing itself towards mutual understanding — even (or especially) when it only results in understanding mutual differences of opinion.

  6. BLS Nelson,

    Because it inherently falls to the highly pixelated, coarse communication process of language to deal with its explorations, and inherently eschews focusing on emotions Philosophy can build trust but only where a great deal of common ground on large areas of information processing already exist.

    You must be able to function fluently together in a common tongue with your co-explorer. You and the co-explorer must be able to agree on rules of engagement such that, as areas of psychological security are violated, the contest may continue until a mutual accord on the shape of a solution can be concluded. You must be able to mutually assess a weight to the content of arguments themselves, rather than bending to the status of the one delivering the argument. It DOES matter in this forum, for example, that some people are known to be professional philosophers and others, while thoughtful, are not. A level of trust and a reason to accord that trust both are inherent in the conversation. The trust of which we speak, then, is a form of office one must attain to give validity to certain sips of communications that must function in an ocean of social information.

    Dealing with that ocean of information is largely the province of emotions. Emotions do not necessarily require a common language, though for most situations they will foster engagement within groups sharing a common language. To take advantage of the capacity to share information across communication and trust barriers, though, emotions must be informed.

    One can preach “trust” all day long and it means nothing until the behavior has been modeled. This modeling, a form of simulation, is the basis of play in children. They see their elders functioning and they model that. Performance arts extend that social simulation into the realm of adult matters and more advanced concepts so that emotion can be modeled, shaped, to engage these issues in a manner that benefits common functioning in larger groups than emotions can organize (roughly 140 people in very ancient human groups).

  7. I would certainly like to agree with your first paragraph, so long as ‘information’ is taken in its widest sense. (Since I think you’re roughly saying something similar to what I was saying in the fourth paragraph of my first post above.) And I think I find much of what you say appealing, in spirit.

    I’m not sure, though, that we need to have prior agreement on rules of engagement in order to do philosophy. People (say, undergraduate students) start out approaching philosophy having learned all kinds of different “language-games”. But I think as we get on doing what we’re doing, we realize that some of these rules of engagement are far less productive than others. We do most credit to philosophy when we do whatever it takes to make the conversation more productive, rather than less; producing more (genuine) understanding rather than less. Presumably, we will eventually all arrive at broader agreement over what counts as the best rules of engagement.

    I do think that the assumption that we all share some bare minimum common ground is required to do philosophy in some productive way. I also think people have to treat each other as worthy of consideration. And I also agree that modelling of somebody or other is important for the learning process (for all of us).

    At the moment, I am agnostic about whether or not we need to model a narrow few authorities in order to facilitate philosophical progress. Hopefully we don’t — I’d prefer it if we found a way to get on with life autonomously without turning the society into Babel. But maybe we do need such narrow authorities. If, e.g., it turns out that we are all broadly dissimilar about our referring practices on a psychological level, then perhaps we need norms imposed upon us socially in order to have enough common ground to speak the same language.

  8. BLS, I do mean “information” in a very broad sense. When I speak of “emotion” handling relationships in small communal groups I am thinking of a process not dissimilar to what neurons do with each other chemically. An enormous amount of information (in bits) is being passed back and forth for which there is no conscious conceptual principle in even small talk. What is really being communicated has almost nothing to do with what is being said, though.
    There are barriers to entry in such communication, and you have to have crossed some of the barriers to have sufficient trust to do what we think of as deep philosophy. That means “mere” socialization also needs forms of advocacy the substance of which we take for granted, but shouldn’t.

  9. It seems to me that philosophical debates have whole systems of belief at stake, while personal arguments may only have behaviors or feelings at stake. In that sense, philosophers are doing ‘coarse-grained’ information sharing, focusing on inferences and conceptual schemes, while ordinary conversations involve ‘fine-grained’ information sharing, which includes implicatures, tendencies, habits, and so on.

    In contrast, you say that deep philosophy is actually a fine-grained activity, and that you have to be among the community of benighted souls before you can start doing it.

    I’m of two minds about this proposal.

    If you were right, then there would only seem to be two filters in the sieve of professional philosophy. The first filter (a purely disciplinary mechanism) forces the would-be philosopher to be in the trusted community, one way or another — e.g., one of the top schools. The second filter (enforced through blind peer review) forces one’s work to be fine-grained enough that it is palatable to reviewers, which means the articles need to be written in a way that is considered relevant to established works.

    The problem is that there are no guarantees that such works will approximate any credible standard of what makes for deep philosophy. So I would like to say that there is a third filter — namely, an item’s popularity as an item of philosophy (potentially measured through citation rates). To be caught in this filter, you need to publish something that is coarse-grained enough that it actually makes a difference to some big debate, and gains attention for it. And, at least at a glance, these tend to be less contentious as instances of “deep philosophy”.

  10. BLS,
    You’re drawing a distinction I’m not really making. The principle distinction I see is less between datum unit size in communication and more between that sort of information of which we are conscious and that of which we are not. An analogy for the Internet age might be the electronic protocols that must proceed smoothly in the background of our conversation for the conscious content to be communicated. Except, of course, we humans can’t simply plug in a mythological protocols program and suddenly be capable of subtle comprehension of each other’s philosophical finer points.

    My terribly dyslexic son taught himself how to read by watching Japanese anime with subtitles. That gave him the incentive to follow the story where so much content was in words. However, there is also a great deal of other information imbedded in such stories, such as differences in how the Japanese look at the world, the background of their spirituality, the residue of a rural culture on which their present urban culture is built, their attitudes toward authority, etc., that run in the background of these stories. He is also catching bits of these ‘protocols’ as he learns how to read.

  11. Ah, I see your meaning now. You’re distinguishing between the background, or common ground, and what is said.

    But as far as philosophy goes, I think I can still make the point. Earlier you claimed that “There are barriers to entry in such communication, and you have to have crossed some of the barriers to have sufficient trust to do what we think of as deep philosophy”. I don’t have reason to believe, with any confidence, that this is either a necessary or sufficient condition for doing deep philosophy. (Nietzsche and Heraclitus did not worry much about their credentials.) But I do think these barriers are a necessary condition for an idealized version of the philosophical education. The credentialization process is a useful one, it’s just not going to make sense of the lone wolves.

    I also don’t think the credentials are much of a sufficient condition, even in any idealized sense. Though it occurs to me on second reading that you weren’t suggesting it was, so I’ll leave that portion of my comments for the cutting room floor.

  12. BLS,
    I was using credentials as an example of a cultural formalism that aids in the establishment of internal trust. It makes perfect sense that philosophers will exert more effort to understand the argument of someone who bears the visible marks, the intellectual tattoos, if you will, of their common culture than they would to understand the arguments of someone who seems likely to be making points for which they may have to construct the whole framework of a thought environment just to grasp how an idea is (probably) ill-founded.

    But it should also be understood that culture is a process by which humans, as a species, self-segregate. The vast majority of cultures throughout the history of the species have been highly insular. Our instinct is to use the cues of language and culture as a way to separate “us” from “them”. Some few cultures, though, break this mold. Greek culture was one of these evangelistic unifying-culture-concept exporters. That required a form of mass communication that would help to align the thought processes of large groups of people around common themes.

    Subcultures derived from Greek culture have done very similar things. Christianity, which for a century developed virtually in parallel with post-Temple Judaism, separated itself from that other branch of the same essential religion by virtue of its capacity to subsume the elements of Pagan cultures and then use them as tools in telling its story. This included the wide use of traveling “miracle plays” intended to communicate Christian ideas to illiterate peasants throughout the range of the church. This contrasted strongly with Judaism’s insularity, which sought to maintain the purity and fidelity of the faith. Doing so also, however, made the Jewish community SEEM subversive and mysterious, like a kind of secret society.

    Many would say Philosophy has a similar problem.

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