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Performance as Philosophy: Responding to the Problem of ‘Application’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 January 2012


This article begins from the premise that a ‘critical turning point’ has been reached in terms of the relationship between performance and philosophy. Theatre and performance scholars are becoming increasingly engaged in philosophical discourse and there are growing amounts of work that take philosophy – from the work of Plato to Heidegger and Deleuze – as their guiding methodology for performance analysis. However, this article argues that we need to go further in questioning how we use philosophy in relation to performance, and that theatre and performance scholarship should attempt to go beyond merely applying philosophical concepts to performance ‘examples’. One way to do this, the article suggests, is by questioning the very distinction between performance and philosophy, for instance by exploring the idea of performance as philosophy. The article concludes by drawing from the work of figures such as Allan Kaprow, Henri Bergson, François Laruelle and John Mullarkey to argue that philosophers and performance scholars alike might extend their conception of what counts as thinking to include not only activities like performance, but embodied experiences and material processes of all kinds.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 2012

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1 The notion of a ‘theory explosion’ has been taken up and discussed by a number of scholars in theatre and performance studies, such as Janelle Reinelt, Joseph Roach and Jon McKenzie, and indeed across the arts and humanities more broadly. In general, this refers to the translation, dissemination and subsequent influence of key structuralist and then post-structuralist texts (including those by Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault) on the study of the arts and humanities in anglophone universities, starting in the 1970s and 1980s. In their ‘General Introduction’ to the first edition of Critical Theory and Performance, editors Reinelt and Roach provide a very helpful account of the specific impact of the ‘theory explosion’ on theatre and performance studies: ‘There has been a theory explosion, and it has had important consequences for both theater studies and other humanities as well. First, it has enlarged the conception of performance in ways not envisaged in the traditional study of drama and therefore reduced some of the separation of specialities between theater history, theory/criticism, and theater practice . . . Second, the “new” theory has returned the humanities to philosophy . . . In fact, much of the “new theory” derives from the work of philosophers . . . Derrida's critique of metaphysics, Paul Ricoeur's phenomenology, J.L. Austin's speech/act theory, and Jean-François Lyotard's conception of the postmodern’. Reinelt, Janelle and Roach, Joseph, eds., Critical Theory and Performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), p. 4Google Scholar.

2 I would also like to suggest at this point that the term ‘philosophy’ might now be more conceptually useful or appropriate than the term ‘theory’. This is by no means to dismiss the value of the group of discourses that tend to be referred to as ‘theory’ or ‘critical theory’, particularly for the articulation of the relationship between performance and identity politics. However, the term ‘theory’ is still often opposed to or distinguished from ‘practice’ in a potentially problematic manner. It seems to allow us to forget that thinking, theorizing, analysing, criticizing and so forth are practices too; it seems to encourage the application of theories to practices, as if practices were not also already engaged in their own kinds of thinking, theorizing, analysing, criticizing and so forth.

3 In the Cinema books, Deleuze speaks of Alain Resnais's films as the invention of ‘a rare marriage between philosophy and cinema’. See Deleuze, Gilles in Mullarkey, John, Refractions of Reality: Philosophy and the Moving Image (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 79Google Scholar.

4 Saltz, David, ‘Why Performance Theory Needs Philosophy’, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 16, 1 (2001), pp. 149–54, here p. 154, emphasis as originalGoogle Scholar.

5 Colebrook, Claire, Gilles Deleuze (London and New York: Routledge, 2002) p. 46, emphasis as originalGoogle Scholar.

6 Martha Nussbaum, ‘Stages of Thought’, The New Republic (2008), available at

7 Frampton, Daniel, Filmosophy (New York: Wallflower Press, 2006), p. 9, emphasis as originalGoogle Scholar.

9 Lane, Richard J., ‘Introduction’, in idem, ed., Beckett and Philosophy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2002), pp. 18, here p. 2Google Scholar.

10 Kaprow, Allan, 7 Environments (Naples and Milan: Studio Morra and Fondazione Mudima, 1992), p. 25Google Scholar.

11 Stengers, Isabelle, Cosmopolitics, trans. Bononno, Robert (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p. 36, emphasis as originalGoogle Scholar.

12 Ibid., p. 59.

13 Bergson, Henri, The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics (New York: Citadel Press, 1992), p. 138Google Scholar.

14 Ibid., p. 137, emphasis added.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., p. 157.

17 Bergson, Henri, Creative Evolution, trans. Mitchell, Arthur (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1911), p. 10, emphasis as originalGoogle Scholar.

18 Kaprow, Allan in Leddy, Annette and Meyer-Hermann, Eva, eds., Allan Kaprow: Art as Life (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008), p. 46Google Scholar.

19 See Leddy and Meyer-Hermann, Allan Kaprow, p. 46.

20 Mullarkey, John, Refractions of Reality: Philosophy and the Moving Image (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. xviGoogle Scholar

21 Ibid., p. xvii.

22 Laruelle, François in Mullarkey, John, Refractions of Reality: Philosophy and the Moving Image (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. xiiiGoogle Scholar, my translation, emphasis added.

23 Mullarkey, Refractions of Reality, p. 207, emphasis as original.