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Big Love: Relationality, Ethics and the Art of Letting Go

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2010


This article considers the performance of non-violent relationality. Focusing on a production of Big Love, it explores how performance might enlighten an ethic of non-violent being with others, and non-violent being in the world. While many theoretical models of identity emphasize the unavoidable aggressivity of intersubjective relations, this article focuses on scenes in which the subject is let go from violence and retribution. ‘Letting go’ is the strategically utilitarian term deployed here to think about a performative act that loosens the point of attachment between the subject and symbolic law, while paving the way for relatively non-aggressive conditions of being to emerge.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 2010

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1 Quote from Bella's final judgment in Charles L. Mee's Big Love. Unpaginated document published online with collected works, available at (accessed 10 February 2009). All subsequent references are to this online publication.

2 Taken from Judith Butler's reading of Hegel's master–slave dialectic in Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 149.

3 Anderson, Patrick and Menon, Jisha, Violence Performed: Local Roots and Global Routes of Violence (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2009), p. 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 See, for example, McKenzie's, Jon critique of the efficacy model of performance in Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 30–2Google Scholar.

5 See Dolan's, JillUtopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and José Esteban Muñoz's ‘Cruising the Toilet: LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Radial Black Traditions and Queer Futurity’, in GLQ, 13, 2–3 (2007), pp. 353–67.

6 For an explication of the concept of l'avenir as ‘the democracy to come’ see, for example, Derrida's Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 64–5.

7 Read, Alan, Theatre, Intimacy and Engagement: The Last Human Venue (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2008), p. xiGoogle Scholar.

8 In Theatre, Intimacy and Engagement Read proposes a politics of performance ‘that is more modest and slower than the political theatre in whose courageous wake it retreats’ (p. xi). Although he does elaborate upon the concept, Read makes reference to the notion of weakness and weak performance throughout the book which resonates with my understanding of ‘letting go’. Further, my understanding of both ‘weakness’ and ‘letting go’ are inspired by Heidegger's writing on Gelassenheit, or ‘letting be’, as it has been translated and discussed by John Caputo. See Caputo, John, The Mystical Elements of Heidegger's Thought (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1978)Google Scholar.

9 Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, p. xiv.

10 Freud, Sigmund, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917), in Gay, Peter, ed. The Freud Reader (London: Vintage, 1995), pp. 584–9, here p. 584Google Scholar.

11 Butler, Gender Trouble (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 80–1.

12 This is the term Foucault gives to the ethical principle that leads people to cultivate and improve themselves. See Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, Vol. III: The Care of the Self (London and New York: Penguin, 1990; first published 1984), pp. 4367Google Scholar.

13 Edelman, Lee, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004), p. 75CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 In a play on the word symptôme or ‘symptom’, Lacan introduces the concept of the sinthome in his seminar of 1975–6, Le Sinthome. The meaning of the term changes in Lacan's work, although what is crucial is that it comes to designate a signifying formulation beyond analysis: it is what allows one to live by providing the essential organization of jouissance. The aim of the cure is to identify with the sinthome.

15 Edelman, Lee, ‘Compassion's Compulsion’, in Berlant, Lauren, ed., Compassion: The Cultural Politics of an Emotion (London and New York: Routledge), pp. 159–86, here p. 163Google Scholar.

16 Ibid., p. 171.

17 Ibid., p. 181.

18 Žižek, Slavoj, ‘Neighbors and Other Monsters’, in Santner, Eric L., Reinhard, Kenneth and Žižek, Slavoj, eds., The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (London and Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), pp. 134–90, here pp. 162–3Google Scholar.

19 Ibid., pp. 138–9.

20 Ibid., p. 183.

21 Butler, Undoing Gender, p. 149

22 Ibid., p. 250.

23 Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), p. xiiGoogle Scholar.

25 The notion of ‘mercy without religion’ hints towards Derrida's idea of ‘messianism without religion’ as elaborated in Specters of Marx, p. 59.

26 Portia speaking in The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1.

27 Berlant, Lauren, ‘Introduction: Compassion (and Withholding),’ in idem, ed., Compassion: The Cultural Politics of an Emotion (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 6Google Scholar.

28 Caputo, John, Demythologizing Heidegger (Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 1993), p. 64Google Scholar.

29 Klass, Dennis and Silverman, Phyllis, ‘Introduction: What's the Problem,’ in idem, eds., Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief (Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis, 1996), pp. 323, here p. 3Google Scholar.

30 Ahmed, Sara, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (London and New York, 2004), p. 160Google Scholar.

31 Ibid., p. 91.

32 Snediker, Michael, ‘Queer Optimism’, Postmodern Culture, 16, 3 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Unpaginated document read online at (accessed 25 June 2008), paragraph 6.

33 I refer to the subject of Gavin Butt's keynote address at Performance Studies International, Copenhagen 2008.