Tuesday, January 12, 2016

What's Performance? Part I

Just a few years ago, I learned that the word performance had been "incorporated" into the Portuguese language. For some time now, the word can be read in Brazilian newspapers, magazines, and books as well as be heard on TV, radio, the movies and the theater. It seems to me that the word desempenho (performance in Portuguese) is somehow considered démodé.
I then picked up my Aurélio Buarque de Hollanda Portuguese dictionary, opened it on the page that the word performance would supposedly be, and to my amazement and delight, there it was, squeezed between two other Portuguese words. My mouth hung open. It was true: the definition of the word is written right after an arrow in bold type (which I later found out that the arrow is used for listing foreign words in the dictionary), and read as follows: 1. Acting, especially in public. 2. Sports. the performance of an athlete (or of a race track horse) during his/her presentation. [See desempenho].
Minutes later, I opened my Le Robert De Poche French dictionary -- just for the sake of it, thinking that I would not find such an entry due to the well-known French attitude towards foreign words in their own language -- and performance was amazingly also there.
Next I picked up The American Heritage College Dictionary from my bookshelf, and read: 1. The act of performing or the state of being performed. 2. The act or style or performing a work or role before an audience. 3. The way in which someone or something functions. 4. A presentation before an audience. 5. Something performed; an accomplishment. 
I confess I was quite intrigued by the number 3: the way in which someone or something functions. I then inferred that -- and according to the dictionary -- performance could indiscriminately mean anything at all.
Performance seems to be such a broad "term" -- for the lack of a better word -- that it would be a quite difficult task for us to find a definitive definition. The use of the word itself has undoubtedly been evolving since "Performance's (the use of capital "P" here is mine) terminology and theoretical strategies we developed during the 1960s and 1970s in the social sciences" (Marving Carlson, Performance a critical introduction, New York, Routledge, 1996, p.13). Many ideas have taken place and shape in our Western culture since then. That somehow enable us to say that the word and its concept have changes and been used in  many a different way.

For example, in his text Performance, Henry Sayre writes, "an artistic performance is further defined by its status as the single occurrence of a repeatable and pre-existent text or score." It is, without a doubt, a way of trying to define what Performance is. However, after reading that definition, I kept asking myself, "Think of a magician or a clown performing in the street in front of an audience. Does he or she have a "pre-existent text"? Wouldn't he or she try to improvise his/her text before this very audience? For not having a text, would his/her presentation be called "performance"? Or would that presentation be considered too "loose" in order to be called "performance"?
Sayre's text ends with the following statement: "performance can be defined as an activity which generates transformations, as the reintegration of art with what is "outside" it, an "opening up of the "field." That certainly reads like a more precise definition of what performance really means today.
I surely do not know how many social transformations and changes, which have somehow shaped different societies, have taken place in the world. But it would certainly be an interesting topic to find out how many world languages and their dictionaries have made so far use of the English word... Performance

4 comments:

  1. Quite fascinating your take on the the history of the omnipresence of the term "performance" in most western languages and its semantic changes. I had a professor in college, a rather genius woman, who interpreted Don Quixote's first chapters as a performance. That is, him transforming himself, in order to change the world around him and, at the save time, the way the world perceives him.

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  2. Quite fascinating your take on the the history of the omnipresence of the term "performance" in most western languages and its semantic changes. I had a professor in college, a rather genius woman, who interpreted Don Quixote's first chapters as a performance. That is, him transforming himself, in order to change the world around him and, at the save time, the way the world perceives him.

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  3. I would love to have sat in one of her classes just to hear her idea about Quixote's writing as performance. Wonderful!

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