What Is Performatism?
Last update: 28 October 2020
Performatism is an epochal concept of post-postmodernism. I proposed it in 2000, first in a German-language article in the Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, then in an English translation in Anthropoetics. A book version, Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism, appeared in 2008. You can also find a brief practical introduction to interpreting performatist narrative in Blog Post No. 3, "The Performatist Challenge" as well as exemplary analyses in the Interpretations section.
Performatism is an across-the-board cultural reaction to postmodernism that began sometime in the mid-1990s. It may best be described as an epochal development that replaces postmodern irony and skepticism with artistically mediated belief and the experience of transcendence. This does not mean that organized religion or esoteric belief systems are making a comeback. What performatism does mean is that secular works of art, literature, film etc. are using formal means to force us to believe in and identify with positive values like love, beauty, reconciliation, and transcendence. This tension between believing in positive values and the not-quite-voluntary means used to transmit them give performatism its special feel.
An excellent video introduction to performatism by Brendan Graham Dempsey can be viewed here:
If you want to watch a more detailed video introduction you can check out my own lecture at Parallax magazine (about 45 minutes).
If you're interested in how the theory of performatism can be used to interpret literature, films, art, and architecture, take a look at one of the articles or books listed on this site in the Performatism Bibliography. The first chapter of my Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism also contains a more technical explanation of what I've outlined above (beware: semiotics!). A copy can be obtained by writing to me at my email address (email@example.com). The Blog is devoted to more theoretical questions as well as to providing critiques of other theories of post-postmodernism. In the Downloads section you’ll find summaries of performatism in German, Albanian, Polish, and Ukrainian. Speakers of German may also want to refer to my book Die Rückkehr des Glaubens (2016), which provides a non-scholarly description of performatism in that language.
Why is Performatism Called "Performatism"?
Most other theories of contemporary cultural development take "modernism" and tack a prefix onto it. Thus you'll find coinages such as hyper-, cosm-, meta-, digi-, and automodernism, as well as plain old post-postmodernism. Performatism doesn't follow this pattern, and there's a reason for it. Unlike the competing concepts, performatism is a historical or epochal concept. This means that performatism is considered a historical phase that can be conceptually separated not only from postmodernism, but also from modernism. The competing concepts noted above are for the most part posthistorical. This doesn't mean that they think nothing new ever happens, but it does mean that they think that what's happening now in culture is just an extension of something previous, which is in turn an extension of something even earlier. The problem is this: if everything is just an extension of everything else, there's no urgent need to think about new concepts or change the theoretical assumptions rooted in postmodernism that are now being used to explain what comes after it.
You can reflect more closely on the absurd conceptual and terminological problems posthistorical thinking causes by trying to think of 19th century literature as a fluid extension of romanticism. Realism would then become post-romanticism and decadence or early modernism post-post-romanticism. Very few people would think this is a workable solution for categorizing or naming 19th century literary development, but many appear to think it works wonderfully for the 20th and 21st century. I don't, and performatism is an attempt to return to a type of thinking that makes conceptual distinctions between different phases of historical development--just like we do with "romanticism," "realism," and "decadence" or other clearly differentiated historical terms.
A second question about performatism is what the "perform" in it means. "Performatism" sometimes causes confusion because people think it's a theory of performance relating to drama or social relations—it's not. Basically, when I worked out the basic idea I was faced with the choice of finding a name livelier than "post-postmodernism." I could have chosen some odd neologism—"ostensivism" for example—but I felt it would be better to use a more familiar term. The reason I chose "performatism" is because it goes back to the Latin root per formam, which means doing things through form. This suggests that narrative works of art are using formal means to create fictional conditions for experiencing love, belief, beauty, transcendence and similar positive states of social interaction. Of course it's not possible to convey the nature of an entire epoch in a single word, but I haven't been able to think of anything better (and neither, apparently, has anyone else!). At the moment, the name designating our cultural situation is still open, and it will probably remain so for quite a while.
Finally, if you're looking for a way to explain Trump's tweets, Putin's politics, the bollocks of Brexit or the latest trend in global capitalism in terms of an all-encompassing theory of culture, you won't find it here. Performatism doesn't exclude discussions of these important issues, but it is focussed on analyzing works of art, literature, film, philosophy, and architecture in terms of how they develop within their own frames of reference. By putting the speculative discussion of how economics and politics interact with works of art on the back burner, we can arrive at a more precise appreciation of how culture itself is changing. For a more in-depth discussion of why this return to historical thinking is necessary, see Blog Post Nr. 1, "The Misery of Posthistoricism."
What Is the Difference between Performatism and Postmodernism?
Many critics think that postmodernism is still going on in a "corrected," "extended" or "intensified" form. I don't believe this to be true at all, since the central features of performatism can be shown to be diametrically opposed to those of postmodernism. I can make the differences clearer by going through five main features of both: