Saturday, April 28, 2007


Read the post from yesterday first ("Fundamentalist Postmodernist").

So back on that pomoxian loop, a guy named John pointed me to an article by generative anthropologist Raoul Eshleman (do you love that name or what?). He's a UCLA professor (go Bruins!) whose article appears in the online journal Anthopoetics. If you wade through the very academic language of the writing, you'll recognize some of the ideas I wrote about yesterday.

There are loads of articles on this topic in back issues of the journal and I discovered years ago in my googlizing that "performatism" as a term is originally taken from an architectural style found in Berlin. I spent a whole week once looking at performatist architecture on the Internet just to get a feel for what it looks like and feels like.

Summarizing with a hack saw, performatism moves us from parts to whole. Whereas postmodernism teaches us to stand back from the context, taking apart the pieces, examining them, exercising judgment or exposing the undersides, identifying ironies, missteps, power moves and error as though from a position outside/above/beyond the message (object), performance puts us in contact with a subject who is a complex whole, that is, a person whose meaning and message cannot be teased apart. "The medium is the messenger, and no longer the message: it is the extension of a paradoxical authorial subject pointing out his (or her) own materiality and fallibility."

Put another way, a performatist subject is aware of limitations yet acts anyway. A postmodernist may also be aware of limitations, but the approach to life is much more likely to be suspicious and ironic. The performatist is unhindered by those fallibilities (limits of knowledge, lack of appropriate skills or debilitating attributes) because he or she chooses to act because the act itself is identical in meaning with the person acting (the act is no longer a sign that creates or generates meaning - the meaning is in the act).

Let me unpack this further. When I was a "share my faith with anyone living and breathing" kind of evangelist, I was not acting in a performatist way. My evangelism was a sign of what I believed. It was an act based on my desire to coordinate my life with my beliefs. It was as much for the sake of my identity as an evangelist as it was driven by a real concern for the souls of the lost. I operated from a place of deliberate superiority as well.

When I met Jon, my aim was to be a missionary to Muslim Berbers because they were one of the most unreached people groups on earth. I was motivated by beliefs. I asked Jon why he wanted to be a missionary and he replied: "Because I love Morocco. I'd want to live there even if I wasn't a missionary. And Moroccans are some of the kindest people I know." That's might be a pretty good word picture of the difference between beliefism and performatism, from the way I see it.

Performatists are less self-conscious, more humble, sometimes even appear to be idiotic or simple-minded, yet surprisingly in control. They act on behalf of others, they decenter themselves, yet they find themselves in the vortex of real choices that require them to risk. The act and the person match. Beliefs are subordinated to the act.

Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison kept returning me to Eshelman's article. To me, DB's letters and papers reveal him as a kind of performatist. We see not a theologian's theology, but a man who happens to excel at theology, acting on what he believes while taking stock of the limitations of those beliefs and of himself. His deconstruction of the faith, himself, the German church and his countrymen does not stop him from acting. The message and messenger are identical - we cannot study his theology from a location outside the outcome of his life. In fact, his incomplete work Ethics could be seen as an attempt to rationalize the acts he knows he must perform!

Even those who might bristle at his conclusions about the faith can't dismiss him. They are left with a "binding impression of the man" not theology. We encounter Bonhoeffer, not Bonhoefferianism. Bonhoeffer is every bit as deliberate about risking his life on behalf of others as I was about sharing my faith, however, his acts require him to reconsider all that he says he believes because the act became more real, more important, than belief itself.

Another performatist in our midst (who makes my Hall of Fame) is Bono. What do we really know of his theology? We know he thinks the Bible talks a lot about the poor and that he credits Jesus with being the source of his activism. But it isn't how well he constructs or deconstructs the faith that has put him in the public spotlight. It's that his life speaks congruently with what he says he's about. Ever since his six weeks in Ethiopia, he has been haunted by the need to "save Africa." He admits the incongruity of a celebrity philanthropist... and acts anyway. We have this complex, irreducible whole in Bono: a rock star saint (the very antithesis to godliness by most definitions).

Another performatist: Mother Teresa. You do not have to be Catholic to grasp that her life became identical with her message. The underlying values that drove her are less important than how she lived. In fact, she resists deconstruction because we encounter this whole person whose meaning and message are so tied up together that we must admire her in spite of all the Protestant criticism we might level at her theology.

Yet another performatist: Dave Batstone (a friend of Jon's from college). He's a University of San Francisco professor of ethics. He began his life of ethics not writing about ethical dilemmas but "guarding Salvadoran pastors and literacy teachers from death squads." Jon told me that the strategy his team used against the death squads was to circle the potential victim with their own bodies. The circle would grow and the death squads could not shoot that many people and would have to relent. His work now deals with the international slave trade, based on responding to what he learned in an Indian restaurant he frequents.

The common denominator in these individuals may appear to be heroics. But I say not. What unites them is their willingness to act on what they know when they know it and then to draw on the resources of faith, culture, personality, financial well-being, celebrity, education, personal and political connections to follow through. It doesn't matter if their theology is "right." What matters is that the values that shaped them drive them to act (not in a beliefist way, but in a self-giving way). I've featured Christians because that's the world I run in. But certainly performatists come from every faith and non-faith tradition.

Eshelman notes that "In spite of very different religious sources... all performatistic authors share an identical cultural-theological perspective: namely that Godliness is everywhere where wholes are created by individual subjects.(9)

In other words, what draws us to performatists is both their mixed-bag personalities combined with the way they see "God" (I deliberately use that semantically loaded term, but take it to mean whatever it needs to mean to you) all around them in spite of all the screaming reasons not to! They invest the whole self into what they believe requires them to act and it moves us. But they do not act for us, for a belief system. They act because they must, then we spend time trying to figure out why.

My feeling at the end of grad school is this... that to get beyond the anxiety of not knowing enough, of potentially being trapped by a false theology or a mistaken notion of truth, it's more important to act on what I "know" when I know it (self-deprecatingly to be sure, aware of my limits and fallibility, the problems of my ego and fundamentalist tendencies, yet from an authentic place - not attempting heroics). I can even "know" today and "not know" tomorrow, and still act.

Perhaps the biggest change in my thinking has been the awareness that the subject acts subjectively, but does so self-consciously, and in spite of that knowledge. I came from a place where an objective standard of truth was intended to create my behaviors. Yet on this side of deconstruction and the endless search for meaning that eludes me, I see that the people whose lives I admire have less to do with what statement of faith they sign and more to do with how they live in spite of all those limits.


julieunplugged said...

P.S. I don't think all performatists are social justice advocates either. Two of the performatist films cited in the Eshelman study are "Run Lola Run" and "American Beauty." If you've seen either or both of these, you know pristine otherliness is not the central concern.

Rather, there is a subjective control that focuses on repeated attempts to transcend what drags us backward, in spite of not having a perfectly well-articulated worldview or belief structure.

Beauty and "godliness" are found in odd places and elevate the subject.

Kansas Bob said...

I think that this ...

"it's more important to act on what I "know" when I know it"

... is what I call living from the heart.

Julie, you have beautifully delineated this idea that I have been trying to get my head around for quite a while.

I think that so much of fundamentalism is based on living from our heads. Performatism seems to be living a life in which the head is subserviant to the heart.

I think I need to give this one a chance to 'sink in' and come back for another read.

Thanks, Bob

my15minutes said...

Thanks for the article. I like the subtleties you highlighted, that explain why I run from a fundamentalist and am drawn to a performatist! :-) I wish my life were more like the performatists you mention. That's what congruence would look like to me. And usually when you're around those kinds of folks (the performatists), they don't give you the feeling that they are judging your theology, your label, the tenets of your belief -- if anything, they are only looking to your actions to define who you are.

Ampersand said...

Well, this explains so much for me. While I identify so much with postmodernism, I have never had a great appreciation for deconstruction. Acting in spite of limitations is something that I know how to do. I'm all for a more instinctual type of living.

Ampersand said...

I came back to say that I really, really (really!) like this distinction, and your explanation of it:

Whereas postmodernism teaches us to stand back from the context, taking apart the pieces, examining them, exercising judgment or exposing the undersides, identifying ironies, missteps, power moves and error as though from a position outside/above/beyond the message (object), performance puts us in contact with a subject who is a complex whole, that is, a person whose meaning and message cannot be teased apart.

Meaning and message, two integral and inseperable aspects of the whole being.

Beliefs are subordinated to the act.

Yes! This is what I was trying to get at on my blog and in my comments to you there :).

Thanks so much for these last two posts, Julie!

julieunplugged said...

I should bring one correction to my own writing here. I don't mean to imply that postmodernism suggests objectivity, because one of its prominent features is subjectivity (the inclusion of the self in the deconstructing process - examining one's own culture, gender, education, background, history and so on when examining langauge, religion, politics and so on).

So postmodernism is inherently subjective. But one of the dynamics that I see as different in performatism versus postmodernism is that the deconstruction for a postmodernist can lead to a "standing apart from" (hence the labels of independent, or free thinker, or agnostic) whereas for the performatist, there can be an entering in in spite of.

There's so much more to say about all this and I certainly am missing nuances since I have not made postmodernism or generative anthropology my fields of study. What I think I'm getting at for myself is that there is a point at which I can risk again. There's a profound difference between attachment to a belief system as the truest, rightest, onliest to ward off uncertainty and doubt. It's entirely another to have confronted the doubts, to have followed them down the path, to have welcomed them into the living room and made them tea, and then to make a decision to *do* anyway, even if all the doubts persist or aren't fully resolved.

To me, that's what it means to be adult in the faith, or to operate from the heart (as Bob says).


Keren said...

Great post.

I realised that I had become paralysed by my doubts and it suddenly struck me that I might never find The Answers, and then I might look back on an unlived, unloving life and have deep regrets.

R. Michael said...



Regarding your point about was not really until I learned to embrace my doubts (not unlike hugging a porcupine, at least initially) that I began to act despite them. My doubts are still somewhat like relatives that I wish I didn't have but still "belong" to me in a sense...but living with them is better than hiding them in a closet and pretending they are not there.

Dave said...

Before this post, I was not aware of the performatist concept. It seems to me that at some point, all but the most relentless postmodernists have to let go of the deconstruction and then "do something" before endless paralysis sets in. Which is the problem that always seems to arise when postmodernism is pushed to its ultimate ends by people trying to argue against it. And it's a self-evident point. The question is, just how far do we push it?

I think the pomo thing became and becomes more necessary as the fundamentalist/rationalist grip gets tighter on minds and cultures. Deconstruction provides the way out of that trap. Performatism is the cue that says "we've dismantled enough to realize the substance of a thing, the agendas, the blindspots, etc., so let's get moving." Now we have a term to describe the other side of the pomo coin.

CoriCrawford said...


What you have written shows a great deal of thought and synthesis. I'm glad that movement from analysis to engagement is being championed on some front.

I'm curious -- it seems like you speak of your engagement in "sharing your faith" with a critical eye. I feel like you explained what went wrong in the process. From a performatist standpoint, when would it be right? What would be the conditions?