Notes on: Pelias R (1994) An Autobiographic Ethnography of Performance in Everyday Discourse. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Spring 1994 163--72

Dave Harris

[a piece composed of little fragments of isolated thoughts  --aphorisms?-- about performance. Highlights only]

How to describe the performative? 'Rule one: make sure the self is at the centre of the report. Role to: make sure the self is sufficiently in the background. Self-indulgence is not permitted. Being boring is even worse' (163). The performer should be 'rhetorical … An engaging persona, one who seduces readers into believing that they are in the company they wish to keep. The scholar aesthete is nothing more than and nothing less than a negotiation of personality, an actor who turns life into art'. Teaching could be a performance, although the audience is not always engaged. Actors in films sometimes have standings.

A sneeze evokes all sorts of other things — he chooses those that just begin with a and the list includes 'argument, authentication, apology, admiration, autobiography', because 'meaning is radically contingent' (164).

Performance invites apprehension and fear because the other can read the self. He has performance anxiety, stage fright, sometimes disguised with 'politically correct words: communication disadvantaged'

All sorts of people have attempted to turn their life into art, but is this 'more than a marketing strategy? Is it genuine incarnation? Is it the individual answer to theatrical spectacle?' (166).

Away from logical argument you can offer 'contingencies, random thoughts, tenuous connections, solipsistic references, feelings, personal impressions, selected notes, private confessions'. But there is an obligation to hold the interest of the audience engage, be witty and startling'.

[Then an aphorism] 'The post-modern mandate is the sophists' proof' [what].

It is always been difficult to describe what theatre and acting actually amount to, and there are clearly boundary cases. Perhaps the key is intent 'to create an event that will affect an audience'.

'The avant-garde exist on the margins… When we (or should I say, the bourgeois) understand, all is lost' (167)

[A couple of street performers and beggars are cited as possibly offering art, and there is a connection with 'the liturgical debate' about the proper substances to use for communication. He also engages in 'a shared public performance, a light comedy we stage periodically. All art is ideological' when he offered stories about his wife.

'This piece is about my performance in everyday interactions. Our interaction is a performance about alternatives to scholarly representation. Scholarship and fiction are more than related; they are incestuous cousins'. Sometimes storytellers wonder if they are the ones who are speaking.

He defends his paper on autobiographic ethnography to a sceptical colleague who asks why anyone should care about him as a subject. His reply is he is not just doing self-report but discussing 'modes of proof' (169). He lies to his kids about the value of their projects in school.

He thinks that reading mediates between two facts, interpretation mediates between two readings, understanding mediates between two interpretations, that truth mediates between two dialogues, and that presence mediates between two truths. Between two presences 'is performance' (170). He thinks of performance as on 'the continuum from simple action to staged action'. [Goffman then --no privilege given to critical performances like Butler on gender] At one level, all of my behaviour is performance' and it is inevitable. However things change when he is 'conscious that I'm being observed' and he comes under pressure to do the action right. This is increased by asking others to particularly focus, like when you take to the floor or establish a role for an audience. Things change if he suggests that he is doing art. He can tell stories, mimic others, mock and tease. Further on the continuum is the public presentation or the lecture, reading papers. 'These, too, are potentially aesthetic acts' at the end of the continuum is staged action 'typically considered theatre', taking place in designated spaces and framed theatrical events. This describes his sense of his own actions and 'it forgets, as I do in my everyday life, that I am bound by my culture and history' (170) [quite right].

It is difficult to escape gender, we all have biological drives, and there is also familiar gendered behaviour. Men dominate.  Men know they have to appear sensitive but basically do not develop real concern. They expect others to listen. We become aware of the gender of some speakers, including when we 'engage in the academic game'. He can look like 'an ass' (171) [all these different interpretations or different accounts of what has gone on].

At the end, we have to ask 'has the story been told?' We have to ask if it was worth telling, we have to see if 'the dandy's clothes are wrinkled' and we have to be prepared to try again. 'The greatest dishonesty is the illusion of disclosure'

In summary, he says 'this performance is an ethnographic account presented on behalf of myself in the hope of some understanding. To finalise stop with TS Eliot's line: "but I gotta use words when I talk to you"' (172).

[Pretty much like Goffman then overall, but with the intent to make these everyday banalities both academic and aesthetic]

Return to social theory page