Thinking Performance

Cutting-edge interdisciplinary scholarship

Performance Thinks

by Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca

What comes to mind when we say “thinking performance”? Mostly obviously perhaps it suggests something that “we” (thinkers) do to performance, and to some extent, on its behalf. That is, whether we consider ourselves Theatre and Performance studies researchers or philosophers of theatre or even ‘performance philosophers’, we might well conceive our role as being to ‘think performance’ – which, in turn, is often understood in terms of producing knowledge about performance as an object of study. And yet, we surely also know that performance thinks; that it has always thought for and by itself. “Thinking performance”, then, must itself be performed as a style of thought that is in a continuous process of rethinking itself insofar as it thinks alongside rather than about performance’s thinking.

The question of how to think alongside performance is at the core of the emerging field of performance philosophy. As myself and others have argued elsewhere, we need new ways of thinking about the relationship between philosophy and the arts, including theatre and performance: an alternative to the application paradigm wherein art is the object to which an extant model of philosophy is applied or functions as an illustration of pre-existing philosophical ideas. We need to move beyond the application of philosophy to theatre and attend to theatre and performance as already thinking in their own ways, philosophizing in their own ways that might, in turn, mutate or qualitatively extend existing definitions of philosophy and thought. A performance philosophy, rather than a philosophy of performance.

Of course, many philosophers have already said as much. Gilles Deleuze, for example, calls upon philosophy to seek out encounters with theatre amongst the other arts, which, through their very unrecognizability to extant philosophy force philosophy’s own becoming. Likewise Alain Badiou (2005) is fond of saying that “theatre thinks” and calls for an ‘inaesthetics’ as distinct from conventional philosophical aesthetics – as a mode of relation between art and philosophy wherein the latter does not claim to think for art, recognizes that art itself produces truths. But to what extent are they (and we) genuinely open to performance’s thinking in practice? How far do we do as we say in terms of dehierarchizing the relationships between ways of knowing, treating performance as an equal to philosophy and other forms of thought?

Historically, philosophy has tended to pride itself on its universal applicability: to understand itself a special type of thought (for instance, as a kind of ‘critical thinking’) that can be applied to any object whatever; to produce understandings of that object, but without changing its understanding of itself. Indeed, for some, the unlimited application of philosophy is a source of its disciplinary exceptionalism. However, for others, such as the contemporary French thinker François Laruelle (2012), this same characteristic (or assumed characteristic) is a source of critique. What Laruelle calls ‘philosophy’ is a transcendental gesture within thought in which it withdraws from the world in order to occupy a position of authority or power in relation to it. In contrast, Laruelle’s work aims to democratize or equalize the relationship that philosophy has to other forms of thought, including the arts. His project – which he calls “non-standard philosophy” or “non-philosophy” – is an attempt to perform a qualitative extension of the category of thought without any one kind of thinking positioning itself as its exemplary form that, therefore, is in a position to police the inclusion and exclusion, or relative status of other thoughts within the category. Whereas, philosophy has often assumed a special status for itself with respect to identifying and ordering other knowledges – a privileged power to distinguish between and hierarchize knowledges that demonstrates in itself the assumption of a hierarchical position - non-philosophy argues that ‘knowledges — including philosophy — must all become equal in the generic, while conserving their difference in disciplinary technique and materiality’ (Laruelle 2013: 104). In this respect, non-philosophy is not a homogenizing gesture. There is a specificity to the material operations of theatre and performance, for instance; but to render these equal to philosophy is precisely to refuse the latter the power to decide upon the nature and basis of disciplinary differences in advance.

In my current project, I draw from Laruelle to suggest that much of the recent work in both the analytic and continental philosophy of theatre continues to suffer from application. Non- or extra-theatrical assumptions are often both brought to bear upon and remain unchallenged by the philosopher’s encounter with theatre – particularly in the form of assumptions as to the nature of philosophy or the role or position of philosophy with respect to other forms of thought, such as theatre and performance.

For instance, whilst the analytic philosophy of theatre has developed its own extensive critique of the idea that a performance is necessarily a ‘performance of X’ (of an independent work, such as a play-text, and all the issues of hierarchy and determination that such a model has tended to imply in terms of the relationship between text and performance), it has arguably been remarkably uncritical of its own stance as a ‘philosophy of X’, paying limited attention to the forms of power and evaluation involved in the philosophical definition of the identity of theatre itself.

Anglo-American philosophy continues to assign itself a special kind of insight into theatre – in its most fundamental nature - which is often framed as distinct from or unavailable to either theatre practice itself or indeed other forms of theatre scholarship. Philosophy is understood to “illuminate” or “shed light” on theatre, to clarify and determine the concepts that are said to precede theatre practice and make it possible, in ways that tend to reinforce dichotomies between inquiry and action, thinking and doing, knowledge and experience. Such arguments stand in stark contrast to a foundational premise of the ‘practice as research’ initiative: that making performance can constitute a form of inquiry in its own right. And of course, long before the emergence of PaR or artistic research, theatre practice already included an interrogation of the conditions of its own appearance and the boundaries of its own identity, in different contexts. Theatre has always been a self-contesting identity. Practitioners have asked and provided responses to the question of what produces theatre as such, and what (if anything) makes something ‘theatre’ in a huge variety of ways. That is, an immanent self-questioning - undertaken in and as theatre itself - of the spatio-temporal, perceptual, relational and formal boundaries of where theatre might be seen to occur is what has driven and continues to drive many theatre practices.

For Laruelle, though, even so-called ‘philosophies of difference’ within the continental tradition tend to position their own particular definition of true philosophical thought (however affective or immanent) as a privileged explanation of the real. Laruelle suggests that both Deleuze and Badiou ultimately end up over-determining the nature of art’s thought from the point of view of their own philosophy, even whilst they characterise it as external to it. That is, insofar as Deleuze is willing to define the force of art in terms of affect (relative to philosophy’s concepts and science’s functions), he still performatively claims a privileged epistemological status for (his own) philosophy. Whilst Deleuze explicitly advocates for the ‘encounter’ with the arts as a source of new philosophical ideas, Laruelle suggests that he does so on an unequal basis – insofar as his own philosophy retains the privilege to define how art thinks (as affect, sensation, and so forth), and to use such definitions as the criteria for both the priority or demotion of particular non-philosophical ‘examples’. Likewise, from a Laruellian perspective, even Badiou’s seemingly egalitarian stance towards theatre as a form of thinking that conditions philosophy masks the way in which he retains for his own philosophy the supreme function of ‘the thought of thought’ and its highest example.

So what is the alternative paradigm? All too often, the philosophy of theatre seems to embark on its encounter with the field of theatre and performance sure in its knowledge of what it means to think – philosophically, theatrically, fundamentally – and authorizing its own privileged capacity to represent the nature of thought. Inspired but by no means authorized by Laruelle, an alternative, immanentist and pluralist approach might begin from the hypothetical stance: if performance is thinking, then what does that do to my understanding of thought? To say that performance is its ‘own’ kind of thinking is not to claim some fundamental distinction between this thought and philosophy’s – an identification that could only be made by presuming to know what makes philosophy what it is. Speaking in terms of performance’s own thought, is rather an attempt to clarify that this is not a call for performance to be included in any dominant definition of thought, to be recognized as measuring up to whatever counts as thought in a given situation, so much as a call for a genuine democratization of the category of thought itself, for performance to be treated as an equal participant in an ongoing mutation and multiplication of thought’s possibilities.


© SpringerLaura Cull Ó Maoilearca is Reader in Theatre & Performance and Director of the Centre for Performance Philosophy at the University of Surrey, UK.  She is also core convener of Performance Philosophy and joint series editor of the Performance Philosophy book series with Palgrave Macmillan.  Encounters in Performance Philosophy, co-edited with Alice Lagaay, is available now.

< Back to Thinking Performance Page