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interview with Raoul Eshelman

Performatist works take
authoriality to an extreme
Prof. Dr. Raoul Eshelman

1] In performance level, how performatism differs from magical realism and fantasy

Performatism is about the possibility of experiencing transcendence aesthetically. It does not necessarily involve magical or fantastic themes. When it does, however, these themes are presented using the specific device I call double framing. This works by connecting the total logic of the work (the outer frame) with scenes within the work (inner frames) in such a way that we cannot help but believe something. A classic example is the movie American Beauty. In the outer frame, the dead hero, Lester Burnham, flies over his home town and says that his trivial life is beautiful. He also says that when we, too, are dead, we will come to share his point of view. His unbelievable statement about the beauty of life is however confirmed in several scenes or inner frames in the movie (most notably in the one with the famous plastic bag dancing in the wind). In the end, we have no choice but to believe the hero. The movie has a self-contained logic that we must either accept or reject as a whole.

Traditional works of fantasy and magical realism work differently. These works have a single instead of a double frame. They simply present us with unbelievable things that can easily dismiss as purely imaginary.

Magical realism is a genre typical of postmodernism. It involves overlapping levels of reality that leave us undecided about what is real and what is not. A work like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez works in this way. At the end of the novel we don’t know what to believe and what not to believe. A performatist work, by contrast, forces us to believe in something, to take a specific attitude of belief in spite of our skepticism.

2] How do you relate the total performance of a [fictional] world

to the reality of life?

A performatist work imposes itself as a whole on the reader or viewer. Its aim is to affect that person in a fundamental, total way. However, because the performatist work does this using force, it also provokes resistance on the part of the recipient. The performatist work intervenes in the reality of a person’s life. However, it has an ambivalent effect because that person is aware that something is being imposed on him or her. The performatist work can inspire, but also provoke resistance because it challenges us to believe. In this regard it is similar to the challenge posed to us by religious belief. The difference is that unlike religion, no binding social obligations are attached to performatist art. Our attitude of belief is an aesthetic, and not a practical, experience. This aesthetic experience can nonetheless still affect our real lives in positive ways.

3] Is life itself like performatism, and if so, why?
When the artistic devices used in performatism come to dominate art and culture almost entirely, then life itself will seem to be like performatism. This is an illusion that occurs in every epoch, though.

The performatist view of life is what philosophers call constructivist. It suggests that we understand reality by creating constructs that for a time may seem to overlap with that reality. In truth, our present constructs can always be replaced by future ones. However, this is not easy to do. The constructs that make up performatism are slowly replacing the ones that make up postmodernism. This process may take many years, and even decades.

4]How much should a writer/artist deviate from old stereotyped repetitions?
The idea that a radical break with tradition is a virtue in itself is typical of modernism. Modernism took innovation to the most radical extremes, but also exhausted the formal possibilities for creating new styles.

Postmodernism sees innovation ironically, as a mere variant of something old. It tries to confuse the old and the new as much as possible, to make the difference between them undecidable.

Performatism is like postmodernism in the sense that it does not try to create works of art that pretend to be completely new and original. This is why performatism is not a new style. Its innovation consists in making us assume a posture of belief within a double frame.

5} In perfomatism what is the role of the reader or viewer?
Because performatism is imposed on the reader/viewer, it acts upon him or her totally. The reader/viewer has no choice but to accept the work as a whole. However, he or she will as a rule still resist the work’s force. The performatist work motivates the reader/viewer to either believe or not to believe. He or she can either reject or accept the work as a whole. Performatism tries to make the reader take a positive attitude towards wholes of whatever kind.

.6} In this contemporary technological world, can a cultural product be an authorless thing, without past or future?
In ideal terms, yes. Performatist works of art and literature seek to force themselves on us as wholes and make us believe them. Ideally, we would be affected by the work’s performance and by nothing else. In the real world this can happen only for a very short time. All cultural products eventually become historical. They link up with the past and provide guidance for the future. Their authors appear as the personified agents of history and may even become more important to us than the works themselves.

7] In the present philosophy of literature, does memory have any value?
In performatism memory has a value if it refers back to an originary state that we must believe in. The psychoanalyst C.G. Jung’s theory of archetypes is similar to the performatist attitude towards memory. Jung thinks that we all share a common consciousness of archetypes that each person develops in his or her own way. A performatist work might force us to “recall” and believe in a certain archetype or originary situation. In The Life of Pi, for example, the hero recalls an originary situation, in this case a shipwreck in which he alone survived.

Postmodernism also emphasizes memory, but it treats it ironically, as something that never gets what it seeks to recall from the past. For postmodernism, there is always an unbridgeable gap between the way things were in the past and the way we remember them now. In remembering, we fall into a nostalgia that make it impossible to ever recover the past completely; past and present become hopelessly confused.

8] you said that metaphysical orientation is no longer on death and its proxies, but on fictionally framed states of transcendence... what is the essence of this transcendence or what is the aim of transcendence?

For performatism, transcendence has no particular essence or aim that we could establish beforehand. Or, to put this another way, its essence or aim is aesthetic and not religious. Performatist works allow us to become aware of and/or feel the possibility of transcendence within a work of art or literature. The actual content of this feeling of transcendence can range from an intense, almost religious feeling to a strongly felt experience of change. Performatism may make us feel as if we had a religious experience, but it is not the same as religion or a substitute for religion, because our belief is limited to the artistic performance.

9] Is the author returning?
The author isn’t returning, but authoriality is. The author in humanist thinking is a stable, reliable source of meaning to which we turn to understand a work of narrative fiction. Authoriality is a startling, discomforting effect within the fictional work. It arises when we are confronted by a narrator who imposes himself on us, who seems to know everything, who gives us little or no choice as to how to interpret the story. Performatist works take authoriality to an extreme. They can do this in two ways. They can confront us with first-person narrators who are omniscient or who are always right, or they can present us with simple or stupid characters who have authorial powers, i.e., turn out to be right in the end. Authoriality does not necessarily restore the feeling that there is a stable, reliable author behind the work. Rather, we have the feeling of being manipulated, of having rightness forced on us artificially by an author who is hidden and unknowable. The author (like a god) remains unknowable and may even appear threatening to us.

10]what do you mean by desexualisation in literature?
Postmodern literature and culture emphasize boundary transgression. Applied to sex, this means that sexual excess (obscenity) as well as mixing different kinds of sexual orientation (gender) have the most cultural significance. Performatist works of fiction emphasize the opposite. They place frames around people (of whatever sexual orientation) that tend to restrict their sexuality in some way. Such characters in turn tend to act in a chaste, rather than a promiscuous, way. This kind of chastity has a formal, rather than a moral quality, though. It is the result of a single performance within a double frame and not of following a universal moral code.

11] Are signs, semiotics outdated?
No. But we need to experience signs in terms of their unity with things. Performatism forces us to do this through double framing. The inner frame creates a unity between a thing and a sign. The outer frame confirms this unity again on a higher level. The work in effect becomes a gigantic sign which we must believe in. Our belief however is aesthetic and not practical; it is restricted to the work itself.

12] Is literature a discovery of one man?
If by this is meant that literary creation is first and foremost an individual act, I do not entirely agree. Individual imagination is of the greatest importance to make a work of literature successful and appealing. But individual creation is never entirely original or unique. Even the most brilliant artists and writers share devices, ideas, and styles with others. Concepts like “romanticism,” “postmodernism,” or “performatism” are needed to describe these shared qualities and make sense of them as a whole.

13] You says that language is a massive instrument to service the subject. Is the chain of signifiers an irrelevant distraction?
For performatism, discourse and chains of signifiers are outside distractions that must be shut out as much as possible. Only by cutting itself off from the flow of outside signs can the subject attain a feeling of wholeness and oneness. The problem is that a whole person largely cut off from signs cannot communicate well. Performatist plots are often centered around this paradox. In such a case, the performance would involve communicating successfully with someone else using as few signs and as little discourse as possible. In Life of Pi, for example, the hero invents his own signs to communicate with the tiger to keep from being eaten. At the same time, he also invents the beautiful story about inventing signs for the tiger. His beautiful story is almost certainly not true, but because he experienced these things entirely alone, we have no way of discrediting him completely. Performatism seems to say the attitude of believing is more important than the truth content of discourse itself.

14] In [performatist] writing, is there any relevance to subjectivity?

Performatist writing tries to create a free space in which subjectivity can develop. Because we are saturated with outside influences (discourse, signs etc.) this is very difficult. The subject is always dependent on something else that diminishes its subjectivity and tears it apart. A whole subject is however completely isolated. Performatism tries to create minimal conditions under which subjectivity could develop. However this is very difficult and not always assured of success.

R.E. (b. 1956) is presently Visiting Professor of Comparative Literature at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich and Director of the East European Honours Programme there. He received his Ph.D. in Slavic Literature from the University of Konstanz in 1988 and his Habilitation from the University of Hamburg in 1995. His most recent book is Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism (Aurora, Colorado 2007). He is married and has two children.

R eshelman links

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